Friday, July 31, 2009
Yes (all Democrats):
Waxman (CA), Dingell (MI), Markey (MA), Pallone (NJ), Gordon (TN), Rush (IL), Eshoo (CA), Engel (NY), G. Green (TX), DeGette (CO), Capps (CA), Doyle (PA), Harman (CA), Schakowski (IL), Gonzalez (TX), Inslee (WA), Baldwin (WI), Weiner (NY), Butterfield (NC), Hill (IN), Matsui (CA), Christensen (Virgin Islands), Castor (FL), Sarbanes (MD), C. Murphy (CT), Space (OH), McNerney (CA), Sutton (OH), Braley (IA), and Welch (VT).
Democrats: Boucher (VA), Stupak (MI), Matheson (UT), Melancon (LA) and Barrow (GA).
Republicans: Barton (TX), Hall (TX), Upton (MI), Stearns (FL), Deal (GA), Whitfield (KY), Shimkus (IL), Shaddegg (AZ), Blunt (MO), Buyer (IN), Radanovich (CA), Pitts (PA), Bono Mack (CA), Walden (OR), Terry (NE), Rogers (MI), Myrick (NC), Sullivan (OK), T. Murphy (PA), Burgess (TX), Blackburn (TN), Gingrey (GA) and Scalise (LA).
The bill has now passed all committees of jurisdiction. Once all versions are combined into a single bill, there will be a vote on the floor sometime in September.
HEALTH CARE: The House adjourned today for the month of August, but some members are still holding off on their "well-deserved" 5 week vacation and are clinging to the House office buildings. That's because the Energy and Commerce committee is still meeting as we speak to finish up their mark-up of health reform legislation. They are in the process of considering hundreds of amendments from both parties. Chairman Waxman has said that he thinks the committee can complete its work tonight and report the bill to the full House. Last night, Waxman struck a deal between liberals and conservatives in his caucus to restore some of the subsidy money that was previously cut. Because of these concessions, the bill is expected to clear the House Energy and Commerce committee this evening on a close vote. One possible amendment to look for tonight would be from Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) that would scrap the entire bill in favor of a single-payer system. The amendment will fail, but it will allow liberals a chance to vote their conscience. Chairman Waxman has said that he expects a vote on a single-payer proposal to be considered in the full House as well. We will update you tomorrow on what happens tonight in the committee.
Over in the Senate, Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (MT) is finally drawing a semi-line in the sand for his bipartisan Gang of 6 negotiations. He has given them a deadline of September 15th to agree on a compromise, and at that point, he will proceed to a mark-up no matter what. I hope he's willing to bypass the Republicans.
THE HOUSE: The full House had a productive final day of the session. If you recall about a month ago, Congress, as part of a war funding bill, approved a program called Cash for Clunkers. As part of this program, if you turned in an old gas guzzling car, you would get a $4500 credit to get a new fuel efficent car. The program began last week and was enormously successful. So successful, in fact, that it ran out of money in one week. The program was supposed to expire in October. Accordingly, the House rushed a measure to the floor to fund an additional $2 billion in the program. The funding comes from money already authorized from the stimulus. Democrats brought the bill to the floor under expedited procedures requiring a 2/3rds majority. Luckily, the bill passed by a vote of 316-109. 77 Republicans joined all but 14 Democrats in voting yes. 2 Republicans voted "present." The Senate will most likely take up the bill early next week.
The House also considered a bill that would set new rules on executive compensation. Under the legislation, shareholders would hold a non-binding vote on compensation packages. It wouldn't have a tangible effect, but it would be bad public relations for a company that gives lavish CEO bonuses. Republicans objected to the bill as an excessive government intrusion into private business. What a shocker. I wish the bill was stronger and made the shareholder votes binding. Better yet, how about letting the low level workers vote on compensation packages?? Anyways, I still would have voted for the bill. It passed by a vote of 237-185. 2 Republicans voted yes, while 16 Democrats voted no. The two brave Republicans were Reps. Duncan (TN) and T. Murphy (PA). Prior to a vote on final passage, the House rejected two separate Republican alternatives by votes of 179-244 and 178-244 respectively. A version of the bill will be considered in the Senate in the fall.
ODDS AND ENDS: It was mostly a quiet day for the President. His senior advisor David Axelrod went to talk to House Democrats about health care messaging (a talk they desperately need). Also, the President gave a quick speech on the economy, in which he highlighted the decent GDP numbers.
On a sadder note, Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) announced that he has prostate cancer. He said that they caught it early enough that he should make a full recovery.
That's it for tonight, see you tomorrow!
Thursday, July 30, 2009
HEALTH CARE: Not too much news on the health care front today. In the House, the Energy and Commerce restarted its markup of reform legislation today, after yesterday's deal between Chairman Henry Waxman (CA) and the Blue Dog Democrats. The committee appears to be on track to finish consideration of the bill by tomorrow afternoon, when the House is scheduled to adjourn for the month of August. After yesterday's deal, liberal Democrats began voicing their extreme displeasure with the compromise. At an event today, the Congressional Progressive Caucus said that the changes to the bill are "unacceptable" and that the will be withholding their 50 or so votes. I tend to think that this is a pretty idle threat. I'm not happy with the changes either, but they are not bad enough to throw the whole effort into jeopardy. Speaker Pelosi made clear that the agreement is only designed to break a logjam in the Energy and Commerce Committee. The version will be combined with the Ways and Means and Education and Labor committee bills before it comes to the House floor.
I guess we are seeing the pitfalls of having such a large and diverse majority. It's hard to get members to agree on something, especially when they're facing enormous pressure from special interest groups.
Over in the Senate, things seemed to take a step backwards. Republicans negotiators who are part of the 6 person "gang" now say that they are not close to reaching a deal. Mike Enzi (R-WY) has said that he wants the whole process to slow down. Both he and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) want assurances from President Obama, Majority Leader Reid and Speaker Pelosi that they won't make changes to what a group of six Senators who represent like .1% of the country, and none of whom have won elections since 2006. I think it is just about time for the Chairman Baucus of the Finance Committee to come to his senses, realize that these Republicans have no interest in getting anything done, and ditch them permanently. If Baucus doesn't heed this advice, the Democratic leadership should start going over his head. As a result of this delay, it looks unlikely that the Senate Finance Committee will be able to report a bill by next Friday, the beginning of their recess.
President Obama had no health care related events today. He met with the Prime Minister of the Philippines this afternoon, and will meet with Professor Skip Gates and the police officer who arrested him tonight for beers at the White House. Obama's closest advisor, David Axelrod, will be talking to House and Senate Democrats tomorrow about messaging they should use as they go back to their districts for the August recess.
THE HOUSE: We saw lots of action in Congress today. Let's start in the House, where members considered the annual Defense Appropriations Bill, always a boondoggle for earmark opponents. The bill has a large $660 billion price tag, because for the first time, it factors in costs for the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill passed easily, by a vote of 400-30, with 23 of the no votes coming from anti-war Democrats. The biggest administration victory in this bill came on an amendment offered by the chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, John Murtha (D-PA). The amendment struck funding in the bill for the wasteful F-22 fighter jet program. A similar amendment passed the Senate last week. The administration has pushed to cut the program, citing it as an example of unnecessary defense procurement. The vote on the amendment was 269-165. 243 Democrats voted yes, as did 26 Republicans. All of the Republican spending hawks, like Reps. Paul (TX) and Flake (AZ) stayed true to form and voted for the amendment. Every other one of the 12 amendments that were voted on failed. Most of them were offered by Rep. Flake to cut earmarks from the bill.
The Republicans offered a motion to recommit that would have cut funding for the Presidential helicopter (cuts that Presidnet Obama supports) and would have used that money to buy F-22's. Basically, it was a way of undoing the Murtha amendment. I hope that the cut the funds for the President's helicopter fleet when this bill goes to conference with the Senate. The motion failed by a vote of 169-261. The House has no finished all 12 appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2010. They Senate has so far only completed 3.
Next, the House moved on to the Food Safety bill, which we talked about in yesterday's entry. The Democrats failed to get the 2/3rds vote necessary under expedited procedures, so they brought the bill up under regular order. The bill expands the authority of the FDA to oversee food safety, in light of recent instances of food borne illnesses. The bill is rather significant, it is the first food safety bill that has passed Congress since 1938, shockingly. The bill passed by a comfortable 283-142 margin. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate, and will be considered after the recess.
The House will spend its last day in session on a bill setting new rules for executive compensation. We'll talk more about the bill in tomorrow's entry.
THE SENATE: The Senate was once again, shockingly, productive today. The upper chamber took up a House-passed bill that extends funding for a variety of programs that were set to expire over the next month, including highway funds and unemployment compensation. The bill passed by a vote of 79-17, with all no votes coming from Republicans.
Prior to a vote on final passage, the Senate took up a number of politically-motivated Republican amendments. The underlying bill would transfer money from the general treasury fund to make these programs temporarily solvent. Thus, the bill would not add to the deficit. Republicans thought it would be clever if they could instead use the stimulus money to pay for this extension. The Senate rejected two separate amendments in this vain. The first, from Senator Clown (R-LA) would have used the stimulus money to pay for the highway funds. The amendment failed 42-55, with the support of every Republican Senator Nelson (D-NE). The second, from Senator Cheaty McAffairson (R-NV), would have transferred stimulus money to pay for the unemployment insurance extension. That amendment failed by a vote of 41-56. All Republicans voted yes, except for Senator Collins (ME). Senators Nelson (NE) and Lincoln (AR) were the only two Democrats to vote yes. Finally, the Senate voted on an amendment from Senator Bond (MO) to repeal a provision of the SAFETEA-U Act. I have to say I have no idea what that is, but the amendment failed 34-63.
The Senate is done voting for the week. They consider the Agriculture Appropriations Bill next week before taking up the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor.
That's it for tonight! See you tomorrow!
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
HEALTH CARE: The big news of the day is that the House leadership and the Blue Dog Democrats have reached a deal on a health reform compromise. As part of the deal, 4 out of the 7 Blue Dog Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee will vote to send the bill to the floor, which ensures, in theory, that the bill will clear the committee. Another stipulation of the deal is that the full House will not consider the bill until after the August recess. This will surely intensify the grassroots battle between opponents and proponents of reform. President Obama and Congressional Democrats will need to kick it in to gear. Democratic members in particular better not cower in the face of Republican attacks. I fear that the misinformation will take hold, constituents will whine about "socialized medicine" at town hall meetings, and reticent Democrats will come back in September opposed to the bill. We CANNOT let this happen. Time to get the Obama organizing army activated!
So what did we have to give up to get the agreement of four people who probably know next to nothing about health policy? The terms of the deal are as follows:
-The compromise cuts the cost of the bill by about $100 billion to a total of $900 billion.
-The bill still will contain the public option, but states would have the ability to set-up health insurance coops.
-Small businesses that make under $500,000 will not have to pay a fee for not providing health insurance to their employees. The exemption was raised from $250,000.
-Doctors would be able to negotiate their payment rates with the government under the public plan.
The concessions are unfortunate, and they will make the bill worse. As the Big Picture noted, it's so typical that they are arbitrarily cutting money in the bill for no reason. I also think the negotiation of payment rates could severely undermine cost reduction. But we didn't have to give up THAT much. We still have a public option, an employer mandate, and the tax surcharge on the wealthy.
The Energy and Commerce committee was supposed to resume its markup this evening, but has postponed it until tomorrow morning so that Democratic members have time to review the changes. A leader of the progressive caucus, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (CA) said that the deal looks to her to be unacceptable. I don't think that liberal Democrats will risk giving up momentum by not supporting this compromise. I sure hope not. This is in no means the final step in the process, and we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Over in the Senate, word is that the bipartisan coalition of Finance Committee Senators is close to coming to agreement on a watered-down bill. A Congressional Budget Office estimate said that the bill would only cost $900 billion and would be fully paid for. It would cover 95% of Americans, which is less than the House version. The plan would notably exclude the public option. We'll give you more details when we know more.
The President continued his public outreach on health reform today during two separate town-hall meetings in the mid-Atlantic region. In a morning event in Raleigh, NC, the President took a welcomed harsh tone against his Republican critics. He reminded critics that Republicans were the ones who built up the record deficits that they're constantly carping about. He noted that the GOP passed Medicare Part D without paying for it, so they have no business talking about fiscal responsibility. He said that the GOP needs to "stop scaring everybody." I like to see the President come out swinging against his critics!
This afternoon in Bristol, VA, the President charged his critics with "misinformation" and said that we must overcome these "fear tactics." He assured a questioner that he would not mess with Medicare, and that seniors would never be forced to get rid of the insurance they already have. He also tested out his new message, that health insurance reform will make a big difference to those who already have insurance. He talked about new rules that will prevent insurance companies from charging exorbitant out-of-pocket expenses, and a new ban on lifetime caps on coverage. I hope Obama continues to answer the all-important "what's in it for me?" He better do this every single day during the August recess.
THE HOUSE: The House tried to take care of some lingering business today, and did so with mixed success. Democrats brought a substantial food safety bill to the floor under expedited procedures that require a 2/3rds majority vote. The bill, in response to recent food-borne illness epidemics, will increase the authority of the FDA to oversee food safety. The bill looked on the fast track to passage, with even arch-conservative Joe Barton, ranking member of the Energy and Commerce committee, coming out in support. Because the bill was relatively uncontroversial, Democrats didn't want to spend several hours considering it under normal procedure. The plan backfired, as the bill came 6 votes short of the necessary majority. The final vote was 280 to 150. 127 Republicans opposed the bill. Inexplicably, 23 Democrats voted against the food safety bill, including many liberals. I have no idea why they would vote against a food safety bill! The bill will be brought again tomorrow under regular order.
The House also passed a bill that extends various federal programs that were set to expire over the August recess, including highway funding and unemployment insurance. The Senate is expected to agree to the measure before it adjourns on August 7th. The bill passed the House by a vote of 363-68.
Along with the food safety bill, the House will finish consideration tomorrow of the Defense Appropriations bill. There will be several votes on Republican amendments before final passage.
THE SENATE: The Senate actually got some work done today for once! The upper chamber was on the verge of passing its 3rd of 12 appropriations bills, the Department of Energy and Water Development bill. The vote on final passage is schedule for later this evening. We'll give you the tally tomorrow. The Senate voted on several amendments to the bill:
-The first amendment, from Senator Alexander (TN) was designed basically to severely restrict TARP money from going to automobile companies. This of course, had nothing to do with the underlying bill, but Senators voted on it anyway. The amendment failed 38-59, far short of the 60 votes it needed to pass procedural hurdles. The only Democrat to support the amendment was Senator Klobuchar (MN), usually a reliable liberal. Senator Lugar (IN) was the only Republican voted no.
-The second was an amendment from Senator Coburn (R-OK). It would have cut money for the administrative division of the Department of Energy. The amendment failed by a vote of 35-62. The anti-earmark Democratic quartet of Bayh (IN), Feingold (WI), McCaskill (MO) and Nelson (NE) voted for the amendment with 31 Republicans. Republicans Alexander (TN), Bond (MO), Brownback (KS), Cochran (MS), Collins (ME), Murkowski (AK), Roberts (KS), Shelby (AL) and Voinovich (OH) voted no.
-Next, an amendment from the sponsor of the bill, Senator Dorgan (D-ND), which would make certain requirements for contracts coming out of the Department of Energy. It passed by a vote of 79-18. The only Democrat to vote no was McCaskill (MO).
-Finally, the Senate rejected another Coburn amendment that would prohibit the Department of Energy to enter into no-bid contracts. The amendment failed 26-71. Democrats Carper (DE), Feingold (WI) and McCaskill (MO) voted yes.
When the Senate finishes consideration of the bill, it will move on to the Agriculture Appropriations bill.
That's it for a busy day. See you tomorrow!
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
HEALTH CARE: Apparently it's official. House Democrats have informed their Republican counterparts that there will be no vote on a health care bill before Friday, the beginning of the month-long August recess. Blue Dog Democrats on the Energy and Commerce have not yet agreed to move the bill out of that committee. At this point it would be impossible for the committee to report the bill, and members to vote on the floor in the next few days, let alone the next week. The new goal is to have the bill voted on by the Energy and Commerce committee by Friday. I'm not even sure that deadline can be met. Chairman Henry Waxman has submitted an offer to the Blue Dogs, which he says fulfill all 10 of their "objectives" to improve the bill. The Blue Dogs are mulling over the proposal, and will wait to accept or deny it until they get a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.
Meanwhile in the Senate, still nothing from the elusive "Gang of 6" bipartisan Senators. Word came out late yesterday that they were close to an agreement on a watered-down bill that does not have an employer mandate or a public option. Instead, it would have an employer-operated co-op to compete with private insurance plans. They plan on financing the bill, I believe, partially by ending the tax exemption on the most expensive health insurance plans.
Meanwhile, President Obama continued his public advocacy for reform today during a tele-townhall at the AARP. The event was pretty subdued. For one, the questions were mostly softballs. Someone actually asked if "I will still be denied coverage if I have a pre-existing condition." Not that it's not a good question, but Obama thrives when he's challenged a bit and is forced to take on his critics. The President twice affirmed his commitment to the public option, and also reminded seniors that we heard the same arguments in 1965 when Medicare passed as we're hearing today.
These delays are bad news, obviously. But possibly Obama can use these setbacks as an opportunity. He will have Washington to himself in August, and he can use that chance to make a more convincing case directly to the American people. For this to be successful, he needs to activate his army of grassroots volunteers and he needs his lieutenants in Congress fighting on the ground.
I worry though, that something more troubling might be going on. Maybe it was the Washington Post article today that quoted some guy in South Carolina who said, "keep the government away from my Medicare!" Maybe it was Dana Milbank's piece in the Post that talked about how Barack Obama has become too "normal" of a President. He has lost the intrigue and power of his "hope and change" message. Maybe it was Gallup showing the President's approval rating reach a new low (54%). The Big Picture captured what's going on in a disturbing, yet apt hypothesis in today's Big Picture Corner:
a) people are starting to forget about Bush, specifically that the economic crisis and recession happened on his watch, due to his philosophy - and that was never made clear enough in the first place
The silver lining is maybe this will convince Obama to take a bolder, fresher approach, more in line with how he "broke the mold" in his previous successful campaigns than how he more has more fit the mold so far in D.C. on a lot of big things. Hopefully he'll do some soul-searching, talk to Axelrod and Michelle, and get back to the anti-status quo, anti-establishment passionate movement leader who was able to defeat Hillary. Something I forgot to mention as a cause for the current troubles is how they've handled his core of supporters, and people hungry for Hope, Change, Idealism - need to do more to get those people inspired, more national service programs, more of a sense of a historic movement.
THE SENATE: There was one piece of good news today. The Senate Judciary Committee approved Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination by a vote of 13-6. All Democrats on the committee (Leahy-VT, Kohl-WI, Feinstein-CA, Feingold-WI, Schumer-NY, Durbin-IL, Cardin-MD, Whitehouse-RI, Klobuchar-MN, Kaufman-DE, Specter-PA and Franken-MN) voted yes. The only Republican to vote yes, as expected, was South Carolina's Lindsay Graham. The other Republicans (Sessions-AL, Hatch-UT, Grassley-IA, Kyl-AZ, Cornyn-TX and Coburn-OK) voted no. The nomination will come to the full Senate next week. I'm sticking to my prediction that she'll pass with 65-70 votes and take her seat when the court returns in September.
The Senate also began consideration of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill this evening. The first vote was on an amendment by Senator McCain (R-AZ) to ban unauthorized spending (earmarks) in the bill. I expect he'll offer this amendment to every appropriations measure. The amendment failed by a vote of 25-72. Three anti-earmark Democrats (Bayh-IN, Feingold-WI and McCaskill-MO) joined 22 Republicans in voting yes. I expect more amendments to be voted upon tomorrow. The Senate has a lot of other business to take care of before it leaves town on August 7th, so I hope they can finish this bill by Thursday. Later this week, I expect the House to send the Senate a bill full of " temporary extenders," which will be extensions of funding for various federal programs that are set to expire in the next month, including the highway fund.
THE HOUSE: Another day, another House session full of GOP floor games. Today, the Republicans abused their ability to give unlimited one minute speeches on Tuesdays by sending almost every single one of their members to the floor to make speeches for over four hours. Democrats were prepared for this stunt, and had sent out an army of their own members to keep the debate balanced. But after about 2 hours, no Democrats were left on the floor, so Republicans trashed health care and the stimulus unabated for two hours. Democrats need to anticipate these better in advance, so that they can have an army of members disputing the Republicans' more ludicrous claims.
As for actual business, the House spent the day on suspension bills. They are still in session as we speak. Among the bills voted on today was one reauthorizing funding for sea otters and sea turtles (cue the Republican mockery), one extending small business tax provisions, and one increasing funding for veterans home health.
The House moves on to the Defense Appropriations bill tomorrow, which will be the last of the 12 annual appropriations bills that the House will consider.
That's it for tonight. Hopefully we can bring you some better news tomorrow.
Monday, July 27, 2009
OBAMA: The President had a relatively quiet day as he prepared to hit the campaign trail tomorrow for health care reform. This morning he joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at a strategic and economic summit with leaders from China. The meeting is an extension of talks that began during the latter years of the Bush administration under former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. President Obama stressed cooperation between the two countries, saying that the two superpowers share responsibility for progress in the 21st century, and must cooperate on issues ranging from the economy, climate change and nuclear proliferation.
The leader of the 200 person Chinese delegation, state councilor Dai Bingguo noted that though the countries are separated by vastly different cultures, ideologies and social systems, the economic crisis has shown just how interdependent we are in the global community. This meeting may not yield any tangible agreements, but it's a good way of improving diplomatic relations with a country that, like it or not, we will be heavily dependent on as we recover from this economic crisis.
The rest of the President's day was pretty nondescript. He held a meeting with the head of FIFA, the world soccer federation, to discuss a possible 2018 World Cup bid. The President also met with the Detroit Shock, WNBA champions.
HEALTH CARE: No actual news on health care today, though we did hear from the Associated Press that the Senate Finance Committee is getting closer to a bipartisan proposal. Apparently, it's even more watered down than I expected. Not only does the plan not have a public option, but it does not contain an employer mandate. My hope is that if they come up with something, it will help restart momentum for reform, and will make reticent House Democrats think that they won't be taking a tough vote in vain. We will need to make sure that the public option and employer mandate are included in the final bill that comes out of the House-Senate conference.
Meanwhile, as President Obama gets back on the road to promote health reform. it's becoming increasingly clear that he needs to change his strategic approach. Yes, we've been blaming Democrats/industry/media, but another factor we're beginning to consider is, maybe this plan just isn't that popular, and maybe that's rooted in Obama's basic message just not being that popular. Our favorite blogger Ezra Klein wrote a thoughtful post today saying that the President is mistaken to abandon the moral case for health reform. It's a lot harder for average people to be taken with talk about bending "cost-curves." The Big Picture and I engaged in a little dialogue about this today.
The Big Picture:
This is a crucial post by Ezra, once again pessimistic, but getting to the crux of the issue. The argument Obama would make is that you're not going to get the 80% who have insurance to rally around everyone else, unfortunately. But it's true that, if you look at what Obama has been primarily saying, it's we're going to bend the cost curve, and if you like what you have, you can keep it. Those are the two main things. Well, why would somebody who's not political really be very supportive of that? No moral argument, no appeal to conscience, but also no improvement for them. And as Ezra says it's easily disprovable with specious and not-so-specious arguments that a) it's not really bending the cost curve, b) actually you may lose what you have, and c) you can't both bend the cost curve AND let everyone have what they have now in an unsustainable system. We may have lost touch with that basic objection because we're so in the game, and forgot to step back and see how your average workaday person sees this.This is both heartening and disturbing. It's disturbing for the obvious reason that he's staking his Presidency on a plan that he thinks he can sell, but maybe the way he's selling it is fundamentally flawed. But the silver lining is that there's hope that if he changes the emphasis of this plan - toward more conscience "we're all in it together, people are being ruined without health care coverage, how can this happen," especially to fire up the base, AND this is specifically how this plan will improve your life, for the people in the middle - than it will surge in popularity and political viability.
That's it for today, we will see you tomorrow!
HEALTH CARE: This will be another crucial week for the prospects of health reform. With Majority Leader Reid declaring that the Senate won't take up a bill by the August recess, all eyes are on the House, and the Senate Finance Committee. House Democrats, led by Speaker Pelosi, still think that they can get a bill passed on the floor by the recess, even if they have to stay in session for a few extra days. The hold-up continues to be the Energy and Commerce committee, one of the three committees with jurisdiction over the bill. The 7 Blue Dog Democrats who have held the bill hostage are back at the negotiating table with the Democratic leadership. If Pelosi and chairman Henry Waxman can reach a deal with these power-hungry holdouts by Tuesday (no easy task), I think we will see a bill on the floor late this week or over the weekend. If not, we'll be on hold in both chambers until Labor Day.
Only God knows what the Blue Dogs want in a compromise, besides media exposure. The key concession to the Blue Dogs, a Medicare advisory board that would set reimbursement rates, was determined by the Congressional Budget Office to produce only minimal savings over the next 10 years. Blue Dogs are ostensibly concerned about cost, so this might be a setback for negotiations. On the other hand, Blue Dogs are against all other cost-cutting measures, so I'm at a loss for what we need to do to get them on board. There's always the "nuclear" option of bypassing the Energy and Commerce committee and bringing the bill directly to the floor, but the 52 member Blue Dog caucus would get so angry that they'd probably vote against the bill. You know, because this entire fight is about them.
Let's hope a deal can be reached this week so I don't have to keep lobbing insults at the grandstanding, self-absorbed Blue Dog caucus.
Speaking of insults, I can't think of any that would do justice to the Senate Finance committee. Chairman Max Baucus keeps telling us that they'll "be ready when they're ready," but it has been several weeks, and they still have not come up with any bipartisan compromise. Releasing the Finance Committee bill is important. It's like to be a moderate alternative to the bill that passed the Senate HELP committee, and it may spur nervous House Democrats to vote yes on their version of the bill knowing that a more politically marketable bill is emerging in the Senate. Of course, a moderate bill will be worse policy-wise, but that's apparently not the main concern of many Congressional Democrats. We will have comprehensive reports on the health care front as the week progresses.
THE WHITE HOUSE: President Obama is doing his part to sell health care reform this week. The President holds a tele-town hall at the AARP in Washington tomorrow, where he will make his case for reform to the senior citizen community. On Wednesday, Obama will hold separate events in Raleigh, NC and Bristol, VA to talk health care. The Big Picture will be writing today on how the President has to change his strategy in his efforts to promote the bill.
The President has a very busy schedule today. He starts the day at a summit with Chinese leaders in Washington. The meeting is being billed as a "strategic and economic dialogue" to improve relations between the two countries. Obama will be joined by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The President also holds an event with the head of FIFA, the soccer federation, to discuss the U.S's bid for the World Cup, and he welcomes the WNBA Detroit Shock to the White House.
THE HOUSE: The House schedule is subject to change depending on what happens with the health care reform bill, but here's what we know so far. The House starts today and tomorrow with a slew of suspension bills. A couple of them are actually very important. There are a few bills dealing with veterans health care, and one very important bill addressing food safety. The Food Safety Enhancement Act would strengthen federal efforts relating to the safety of commercially distributed food, and also would broaden the FDA's authority to regulate food products. I bet you won't see one news story about this bill, but if enacted, it will have a significant impact in preventing some of the food-borne illness crises we've seen in recent years.
On Wednesday, the House takes up the last of 12 appropriations bills, the one funding the Department of Defense. This bill seems pretty bad to me at first glance. Unlike the Senate, the House bill contains funding for the costly F-22 fighter jet program. It also, I believe, does not contain funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, meaning that we'd have to pass more of those vaunted, budget-busting supplemental spending bills. It's pretty difficult to vote against funding the Department of Defense, so I expect the bill to pass easily. The Rules committee hasn't yet released a list of acceptable amendments, but I hope it allows one to strip the F-22 funding from the bill.
On Thursday, the House takes up a very important measure dealing with executive pay at corporate and financial institutions. The bill would require that shareholders vote on executive compensation, and that the vote be reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The problem with the bill is that the vote will be non-binding. Executive boards could ignore their shareholders entirely, and give themselves a lavish amount of money. Hopefully, though, a vote by the shareholders on executive compensation would cause bad publicity for companies that are hoarding money at the top.
Prior to week's end, we may see some conference reports or Senate bills come before the House in advance of the recess. We'll keep you posted.
THE SENATE: Now that the health care bill is off the table for the next two weeks, the Senate can move on to other business. They'll start today with consideration of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill, which has already passed the House. This is only the 3rd appropriations bill the Senate has taken up so far. They'll have to get a move on if they want the 12 bills signed into law by the end of the fiscal year on September 30th. After that, Majority Leader Reid hopes to move several bills by the time the Senate leaves town on August 7th. Most notably, we should expect a vote on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor either late this week or next week. The Judiciary committee, after a week's delay, will vote on her nomination tomorrow. I expect her to be confirmed with at least 13 of the committee's 19 members voting yes. So far, no Democrats have come out in opposition to her nomination, and one committee Republican, Lindsay Graham (SC), has offered his support. She should be confirmed with somewhere between 65-75 votes on the Senate floor. The Senate also will try to take up a House-passed safety net package that will increase the Federal Housing Authority's mortgage limit as well as states' borrowing authority for unemployment insurance. We also may see a bill extending highway funding for 18 months (funding under the Surface Transportation Act is running dry), and a previously blocked measure designed to increase tourism, a priority of Majority Leader Reid, who represents tourist haven Las Vegas.
That's it for now. Leave us your comments, and see you tonight!
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Friday, July 24, 2009
I don't want to get too morbid here. I'm still confident that we can get health care reform done this year, but what I've seen in the past week deeply worries me. There seems to be, as President Obama explained, a Washington inertia that is slowing this process down, leaving enough time for proponents of the status quo to "go for the kill." There are clearly people more interested in money and power than delivering for the American people. It makes me lose confident not only in this particular effort, but in the ability of our political system to produce needed change. If we can't get this done, how are we ever going to tackle the rest of our country's problems.
UPDATE: After I wrote the first part of this entry, Waxman and the Blue Dogs came out of a closed door meeting to say that negotiations are back on, and that they retract much of what they said earlier in the day. This doesn't mean that they've agreed on any substantive changes, but we're better off than we were when this entry began. I guess things can change every hour...
CONGRESS: Even as all of this health care wrangling has been going on, Congress has been working on continuing legislative business. When we left off yesterday, the House was finishing up its 10th of 12 appropriations bills, this one funding the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. The bill passed last night by a vote of 256-158. 16 Republicans voted yes and 10 Democrats voted. Read yesterday's entry for more on the substance of the bill.
Today, the House passed its 11th appropriations bill, the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education bill. This bill is usually the most contentious, because it contains a lot of social programs Democrats cherish and Republicans have tried to abolish. This year's bill increases funding slightly above last year's level, though many programs got extra funding in the stimulus bill. Significant increases were approved for mental health care, substance abuse programs, and early childhood education. The bill passed by a final vote of 264-153. 20 Republicans voted yes, and 5 Democrats voted no. Prior to final passage, 5 Republican amendments were rejected. The House will finish up its appropriations bills next week when it votes on the one for the Department of Defense.
THE SENATE: The Senate finally finished the Defense Authorization bill last night, which sets policy and spending levels for the Pentagon. It also contains an unrelated provision changing hate crimes laws to include sexual orientation. The vote on final passage was 87-7. 5 conservative Republicans, Barrasso (WY), Coburn (OK), DeMint (SC), Enzi (WY) and Vitter (LA), opposed the bill because of spending and the hate crimes provision. Democrat Russ Feingold (WI) and Independent Socialist Bernie Sanders (VT) voted against the bill because of moral objections to the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate will move next week to its 3rd appropriations bill (they're way behind the House) funding the Department of Energy and Water Development.
OBAMA: News out of the White House today focused on two subjects. One, a sideshow stemming from an off-the-cuff remark Obama made at his press conference on Wednesday, and the other a substantive policy announcement. Guess which one got more media coverage?
President Obama made a special guest appearance at the White House Daily Briefing to discuss his comments on the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates. Obama walked back his comments a bit, saying that he believed the police officers to be professionals, and that he simply meant that both sides could have handled the situation better. He once again acknowledged the racial tensions present in the case, but wondered why there has been such a hubbub in the media. I hope this announcement puts the issue to rest before Republicans use this as a race-baiting political issue.
On matters on substance, the President announced a new program to give out competitive grants to high-performing schools under what he calls the "Race to the Top" program. States will get some of the $4.5 billion allocated in the stimulus based on whether they do away with barriers to charter schools and institute merit pay policies that reward good teachers.
That's it for tonight. Leave us some comments and see you Monday!
Thursday, July 23, 2009
PRESIDENT OBAMA: The President is doing his best to sell his health care proposal publicly to various degrees of success. Last night, the President gave a press conference at the White House, and seemed off at times. His opening statement was strong, but his answers to questions were often long and wonky, getting into the muddy details of what reform might look like, instead of driving home the message that the status quo is unacceptable. In fact, the main news story that came out of last night's event was the President coming to the defense of his friend, Harvard professor Henry Lewis Gates Jr. Obama said that the police in Cambridge acted "stupidly," a comment that gave Republicans ammunition to use some race-based politicking. The President didn't express the passion or urgency of reform well enough to help the American people understand what's in the plan for them. This is not to say that the event was a failure. The President, as always, came off as smart, committed and informed, which is good for a public who wants leaders who know what they're talking about. I just don't think the President did as much as he could to move the debate.
President Obama, was, however, at the top of his game today at a town hall meeting in Cleveland. The President attacked his usual targets passionately, like his Republican critics and insurance companies, but also made a more forceful appeal for reform. He just seemed to have more energy. I specifically liked his response to a question from a high school student. The student asked what young people could do to help the reform effort, and Obama told him that they should not only call their member of Congress, but that they should make the pitch as personal as possible, to counter the noise and falsehood coming from talk radio. The President also discussed the hurdles in Congress (which we'll get to below) by saying that it's ok not to have a bill pass the Senate by the August recess, as long as Senators "keep working" and finish the bill by the end of the year.
PROSPECTS IN CONGRESS: Actually getting work done seems pretty difficult in the Senate these days, and I'm not referring to the fact that they've been working on the same bill for almost two weeks. Today, Majority Leader Reid announced that the Senate will not vote on a health care bill by the August recess. The exact date that the bill passes doesn't matter all that much policy-wise (the bill wouldn't come fully into effect for several years), but the loss of momentum really emboldens those who want to see the bill fail. The leader of Conservatives for Patients Rights, the insufferable Rick Scott, said that the Senate's postponement spells the end of the public option. I don't think that's accurate, but the more the issue gets demagogued in the media, the more difficult it will be to pass something strong. The reason for the postponement is the inability of the Senate Finance committee, and its chairman Max Baucus (MT) to finish their version of the bill. Baucus and his "bipartisan" work group has been saying that they're close to a deal for awhile, but we still don't have anything. The new goal, according to Reid, is to simply get a bill passed in the Finance committee before the recess. I don't know what Baucus and his counterpart Republican Chuck Grassley have been doing, but it's inexcusable that they haven't come down from their ivory towers and given us something we can work with.
Over in the House, prospects for passage before the August recess seem to me to be about 50/50 at this point. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi again today insisted that she had the votes to pass the bill on the floor, even though members of the Blue Dog coalition insist that they have the votes to bring down the bill. The Energy and Commerce committee was forced to cancel its hearings again today, as its chairman Henry Waxman met with the Blue Dogs to try and work out a deal. In fact, Waxman and the Blue Dogs spent over three hours in Speaker Pelosi's office with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. I haven't yet heard if anything substantive has come out of that meeting, but they apparently have left the room without a deal. Earlier in the day, Democrats reportedly had a heated exchange in a closed caucus meeting about health reform. The leadership told the members, apparently, that if health care fails, their political futures will be in jeopardy. I couldn't agree more.
This is such a difficult fight. We're dealing with such a complicated issue, an issue that is easy to demagogue, and we're depending on recalcitrant, self-serving, often-nihilistic lawmakers. And that's just in our own party. We need to try and stay optimistic. We should all call the offices of these Blue Dogs everyday and remind them that their country is counting on them.
THE SENATE: The Senate today continued its seemingly never ending consideration of the Defense Authorization Bill. The body voted on one amendment today offered by Indiana Senator Evan Bayh (IN), which would have provided additional development of F-35 fighter aircraft. I don't know much about this plane, but it seems like it's just as unnecessary in our current wars as the F-22. The amendment was defeated 59-38, on another amendment that didn't conform to party lines. 14 out of 40 Republicans supported the amendment, along with 24 out of 60 Democrats. The Senate accepted by voice vote an alternative from Senator Lieberman (CT) that would allow production of the planes only after studies of its effectiveness. The Senate will presumably vote to cut off debate on this bill either late tonight or tomorrow, and will finally vote on final passage tomorrow or possibly Saturday. The Senate has two weeks left in its session, and since it won't be taking up the health bill, I expect it to take up some appropriations measures, the Sotomayor nomination, and other items.
THE HOUSE: The House spent the day on appropriation bill number 10, the one funding the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. The bill makes historic investment in infrastructure projects, though the dollar amount falls significantly short of the President's request. The best part of the bill, as far as I can see, is a $1.8 billion new investment in light rail and commuter rail. I also like historic investments in public housing. The House voted on some 16 amendments to the bill, all offered by Republicans, and all failing. A lot of the amendments, as usual, sought to strike specific earmarks from the bill. Right now, Republicans are forcing the clerk to read the full motion to recommit, in an apparent protest over something or other. They are becoming experts at being brats. Because of this, I won't know the the final vote results of the bill until later tonight. I will post them tomorrow.
See you then!
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
HEALTH CARE: The story of health reform today was inaction. Even though Blue Dog Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee won a key concession from chairman Henry Waxman, they are apparently still holding out on supporting the bill. Blue Dogs are apparently not satisfied that there will be an independent commission determining Medicare payments. They still have ten other "demands." Therefore, the committee markup has been delayed indefinitely. Speaker Pelosi claims that she has enough votes to get the House version passed on the floor, but she needs to find one Blue Dog who can help get the bill out of committee. The House has one week left after this before its month-long August recess, and would need a few days the whip support for the bill before it comes to the floor. Also, we'll inevitably hear calls from self-proclaimed government reformers who want members to "read the bill." Speaker Pelosi has suggested that the House may stay in session until a bill is passed.
Over in the Senate side, we still don't have anything from the Senate Finance committee. Chairman Baucus has said that he's getting towards a bipartisan compromise proposal, but as each day passes, we hear nothing from him, or his Republican ranking member Charles Grassley. Before the bill can come to the floor of the Senate, it will have to be merged with the HELP committee bill, and it will have to most likely withstand numerous procedural delays by minority Republicans. Also, with two weeks left in the Senate session, they still have a lot of other work to do, including a debate and vote on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (IL) said today that the Senate will not be able to pass a health care bill by the August recess, defying the call from President Obama.
On the one hand, I don't want Democratic members to take tough votes on underdeveloped bills and get hammered at home during the August recess. On the other hand, the more the bill is delayed, the more we play into the Republican strategy of slowing down the Congressional sausage-making before "going for the kill." We need to do SOMETHING by the August recess to prove to the American people that this isn't Clinton '94. A good bill from the Senate Finance committee probably isn't enough. I think the best chance for President Obama is to win passage in the House. He will probably have to make compromises with Blue Dog Democrats to get it done, but it's worth it to start building some momentum.
Right now, it sort of seems like Obama vs. the world, doesn't it? All we hear from the Democratic party in Congress is lots of internal bickering, deal-making and bluster. Where are the Congressional Democrats who are willing to put their careers on the line for health reform? How can we be losing a message war to a party that wants the country and the health plan to fail? Obama can't be using all this political capital on his own. Other Democrats need to step up more forcefully and advocate publicly for the bill. Stop talking about how frustrated you are with the deadline. Stop talking about how you're not getting enough direction from the White House. Stop saying that you don't like to be pushed or rushed. Your country is counting on you.
THE SENATE: The United States, in a surprising vote, has for once beaten the NRA! The Senate, as we've talked about, is in a protracted debate on a Defense Authorization Bill. Apparently, this bill is good for attaching unrelated policy riders. One of those riders was offered as an amendment by Senator John Thune (R-SD). This amendment would loosen restrictions on concealed firearms that cross state lines. Big city mayors were universally opposed to the bill, because it could allow easier transport of guns. Democrats from rural and Midwestern states can never resist these gun amendments, because they don't want to lose the coveted 100% rating from the NRA. Knowing that they couldn't defeat the amendment outright, liberal Democrats decided to filibuster the amendment and thus subject it to a 60 vote threshold. The amendment failed by two votes, 58-39. Ironically, it was two Republicans who ultimately caused the bill's demise (though if they had voted yes, Democrats probably could have pried away a couple more Senators to sustain the filibuster). Senators Lugar (IN) and Voinovich (OH) bucked their party and voted against the amendment. 20 Democrats voted for it: Baucus (MT), Bayh (IN), Begich (AK), Bennet (CO), Casey (PA), Conrad (ND), Dorgan (ND), Feingold (WI), Hagan (NC), Johnson (SD), Landrieu (LA), Lincoln (AR), Nelson (NE), Pryor (AR), Reid (NV), Tester (MT), Udall (CO), Udall (NM), Warner (VA) and Webb (VA).
The Senate voted on two additional amendments this afternoon, ones that actually had to do with defense. The Senate was debating two North Korea-related amendments. The Republican version, authored by Sam Brownback (KS), would have returned the "state sponsor of terror" label to North Korea. The Democratic version would require an assessment before assigning that label. I don't know why we put so much meaning on these phrases, though I guess it triggers various policies into action (like sanctions). The Brownback amendment failed by a vote of 43-54, and the Kerry amendment passed 66-31. Why did 12 Senators vote for both versions? I couldn't tell you. Other amendments were adopted by unanimous consent. Presumably the Senate will vote on additional amendments tomorrow, with the goal of finally passing this bill by the end of the week.
THE HOUSE: The House Democratic leadership threw a bone to the Blue Dogs today by bringing up a bill that would institute statutory PAYGO requirements. That means that by law, all new spending or tax cuts must be offset by equal spending cuts or tax hikes. The provision is currently a rule of the House, but it is not a Federal statute. The rule can be waived for emergencies (almost anything can be designated as an emergency) and for "certain economic recovery programs." As you can see, there will be many ways to get by these requirements if need be, but I can understand why conservative Democrats wanted to show their constituents that they are fiscally responsible. I am neither for nor against this bill, because it depends entirely on what spending or tax provisions we're adding, and which ones we're subtracting. If we need to offset spending on social programs by raising taxes on the rich, I'm all for it. If we need to cut spending because we gave tax breaks to the rich, then I'm against it.
The bill passed by a strong vote of 265-166. 24 Republicans voted yes, while 13 Democrats (all liberals who don't want to be constrained in their spending) voted no. The Republicans offered two alternatives to the bill. The first, offered by Rep. Ryan (WI) would set caps on discretionary spending from Fiscal Years 2010-2014. It's not a good idea to arbitrarily cut government programs indiscriminately. Luckily, the alternative failed 169-259, with 5 Democrats voting yes and 12 Republicans voting no. Republicans also proposed a package of stricter rules, which Democrats objected to because they were based on statistics from January (the economy has gotten worse since then.) That amendment, offered as a motion to recommit, failed 196-234, with 19 Democrats joining all Republicans in voting yes.
The House moves on to two more appropriations bills (numbers 10 and 11) tomorrow before adjourning for the week.
That's it for tonight. We'll keep you up-to-date with any health care news, and we'll give you full analysis of the press conference.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
HEALTH CARE: I would characterize the day in health reform as a series of baby steps. The President, as promised, kept up public pressure on members of Congress today in a speech at the White House. He derided health care opponents of their strategies of "delay and defeat" and said that Congress must get past the political games on behalf of the American people. He didn't reference anyone by name, but it was a clear response to a speech yesterday from RNC chairman Michael Steele, and a memo from Republican strategist Bill Kristol, each of which called for Republicans to do whatever they can to stop reform. It seems like President Obama is adopting a new strategy of isolating ideological Republicans in an effort to shore up support among Democrats. Not a bad idea if you ask me.
The President met this afternoon with Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce committee to discuss health care. The committee is continuing its markup of the bill, which is scheduled to end tomorrow. I suspect it will go on for a few more days. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer seemed to suggest today that Democrats may not meet the President's deadline of getting a bill done by the August break. That could have been a way of pressuring Energy and Commerce Democrats to get their work done by the end of the week, so that the bill can come before the full House next week, the last week of the session. The meeting was particularly important because of the number of conservative Blue Dog Democrats on the committee. One of their leaders, Mike Ross of Arkansas, has said the Blue Dogs have enough votes to kill the bill unless they can make significant changes. That, apparently, was what they talked about at the White House. The chairman of the committee, Henry Waxman, and Ross both said that the meeting went well, though neither mentioned any breakthrough that would allow the bill to pass the committee. I'm still hoping that the Blue Dogs use their leverage to make positive changes to the bill, instead of grandstanding to demonstrate how much power they have. If for nothing else, they have the most to lose politically from a failed health care effort.
We also learned late today that Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus is close to announcing a bipartisan deal to pay for health care reform. I'm not sure what the cost savings measures are, so I can't evaluate it yet. I'm curious what we had to give up to make ranking Republican Chuck Grassley happy.
The President once again takes his case to the people tomorrow night during a prime time press conference. We of course, will have full coverage.
THE SENATE: The Senate gave President Obama a very important victory today. By a vote of 58-40, the Senate voted to strip out funding for unnecessary F-22 fighter jets. The amendment, sponsored by Democrat Carl Levin (MI) and Republican John McCain (AZ), was attached to the Defense Authorization Bill. Just last week, it seemed like the amendment was likely to fail, considering that many Senators wanted to protect manufacturers of the planes in their home states. President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates made a pretty serious behind the scenes push, and it paid off big time. The victory is more symbolic than substantive. The House has yet to pass its version of the bill, and it's very possible that it could include F22 funding, which would force some difficult conference negotiations. For that matter, the Senate still needs to pass the underlying bill, which will most likely happen at the end of the week. Still, it shows that Senators are capable of putting aside parochial interests and fighting the military industrial complex. At least once. The final vote on the bill did not conform to the party line. 43 Democrats and 15 Republicans supported the amendment, while 15 Democrats and 25 Republicans voted no. You don't see arch conservatives like Jon Kyl (AZ) and Jim DeMint (SC) siding with liberals like socialist Bernie Sanders (VT) very often. It's pretty clear which states manufacture these plans. Both California Senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer both voted against the amendment, even though they are not exactly military nuts. New Mexico Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall voted against the bill, even though they're reliable liberals. The full (and interesting) vote tally is here.
The Senate also voted for a Lieberman (?-CT) amendment to increase the size of the military in each of the next three fiscal years. The amendment passed 93-1.
The next big amendment vote will come tomorrow. South Dakota Republican John Thune has proposed an unrelated amendment to loosen gun control restrictions across the country. Democrats from midwestern states always vote pro-gun because they don't want to lose their politically gold 100% rating from the NRA. A cadre of liberal Senators have vowed to filibuster the amendment, so it looks like it will be subject to a 60 vote threshold. Majority Leader Reid supports the amendment, as he seeks to please his libertarian constituents in Nevada.
In other Senate news, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, as expected will not be voted on until next Tuesday. Under Senate Judiciary Committee rules, Republicans have the right to delay the vote one week, and they have chosen to use that right. It's still pretty much assured that Sotomayor will clear the full Senate by the August recess (which begins August 7th).
THE HOUSE: House Republicans devoid of any actual power, have thought up childish ways to use arcane parliamentary rules to disrupt the people's business. Today's edition was particularly egregious. The House typically starts its day by allowing members to make 1 minute speeches on any topic that they would like. On Tuesdays, there are typically no restrictions on these speeches, though typically only a handful of members on each side will make use of the privilege. Today, Republicans took the floor for two and a half hours to give one minute speeches attacking Democrats on the stimulus package, cap-and-trade, and health care reform. Republicans were partially complaining about not being involved enough in the process, but mostly they were repeating the talking point about how Democrats haven't fulfilled their promise to create jobs. Ignoring the fact that Republicans act like children, and it's obnoxious, they are taking extreme liberty with the facts. Not only are we cleaning up a mess that they created, not only was the stimulus package too small because we had to appease moderates in THEIR party, not only are they looking to benefit politically from the country's failure...but as the great Steny Hoyer pointed out in a fantastic fiery floor speech, more jobs were lost during the final months of the Bush administration than during the first months of the Obama administration. Watch Hoyer's speech for its entertainment value (it's not yet on YouTube), but otherwise, there's no point in giving these Republicans more attention than they deserve.
These antics prevented the House from getting to it's business until later this afternoon. They are still working on suspension bills as we speak. They will vote on these bills tonight, and will take up more substantive legislation tomorrow. We will have full details in tomorrow night's entry.
That's it for us today, see you tomorrow!
Monday, July 20, 2009
HEALTH CARE: The battle of the hour waged on today, as President Obama continued to speak out forcefully in favor of health reform. After meeting with a group of insurers in the morning, Obama made a strong statement and used a bit of positive polarization. The President cited comments by Republican Senator Jim DeMint, who said that if they can bring down health care, it will be a "Waterloo" moment for the President. The President used DeMint's rhetoric as an example of what he's up against: people who want him to fail for their own political benefit. The President reminded the American people that it's not about Barack Obama. It's about the American people. It may sound cheesy, but it's important to remind voters of the motivations of the opposition.
DeMint isn't alone in his ill-informed, politically motivated opposition. There are two types of opponents that Obama must confront. First, there are the intellectual conservatives who know that the Democratic party will have lasting majorities if health care succeeds. Today Bill Kristol, the man who helped derail the Clinton health plan with a memo instructing Republican leaders not to compromise, wrote another memo calling for the Republicans to "go for the kill" against Obama's health plan.
Then, there are people who are just stupid and nihilistic. I really don't want to be calling people names, but it's hard to argue that some of these people just have no idea what they're talking about. Take Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee. He gave a speech today at the National Press Club slamming Obama's health plan. Once he was forced to stray from his talking points during Q & A, he revealed a startling lack of knowledge about the basic details of health reform. He didn't seem to know what an individual mandate is, even though it's a major tenet of current health reform plans. He said Obama's plan amounted to "socialism" and when confronted about the success of Medicare and Social Security, which were called "socialist" in their time, Steele said that the jury is still out on those programs. He even admitted at the end of the event that "he doesn't do policy."
I then listened to some of the House Energy and Commerce committee markup on the health care bill, and was astonished at how ignorant members of Congress were. Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon tried to argue that the incentive structures in the bill were skewed, because small business owners would rather pay a 2% (of total profit) fee for NOT providing health insurance than pay 12% to provide health insurance. I can't believe how stupid that argument is. For one, right now businesses are punished ZERO percent, so they have absolutely no incentive to provide health care. Also, in the process of arguing that we should do nothing, he admits that businesses currently pay too much to provide health insurance to their workers.
None of these people have a lot of power, but they are able to frame the terms of the debate. Their ideas are picked up by the mainstream media as the "reasonable" opposition to Obama's health plan. As Fox anchor Shepard Smith might say, "sometimes, it just gets scary."
Nothing of substance really happened today on the health care front. The Energy and Commerce committee continued its markup, and is still on scheduled to vote on the bill Wednesday. No word from the Senate Finance committee about their proposal.
CONGRESS: As usual, it was a quiet Monday in Congress. The Senate continued consideration of the Defense Authorization Bill. The big amendment we were looking for, the one that will strip funding from the costly F-22 fighter jet program, will come tomorrow afternoon. The only amendment vote that occurred today was from Senator Sessions (R-AL). The amendment prohibits assault or battery of a United States Service Member on account of his or her service in the military. In other words, it extends hate crime protection to our soldiers. Pretty hard to resist politically. It passed by 92-0.
The House went through suspension bills today, and will do so tomorrow. Real legislative business resumes on Wednesday.
That's it for tonight, see you tomorrow!
THE WHITE HOUSE/HEALTH CARE: The President is going all out this week in his goal to get the House and Senate to pass versions of health care legislation by the August recess. He has two weeks left in the House of Representatives, and three weeks in the Senate. He is not wasting time. Today, he holds a meeting with health care providers and gives a statement on the urgency of health reform. Later this week, he will hold a prime time press conference to make his case directly to the American people. The President's task this week is twofold. He needs to keep up public pressure on Congress by going over their heads directly to the American people. He needs to stress, every day, the urgency of reform, and emphasize the progress that's been made and how we can't turn back now. He also needs to keep up intense private pressure on wary members of Congress, especially poll-reading Democrats who are reading today's Washington Post and see Obama's ratings on health care declining (the media, as The Big Picture noted, DELIGHTS in these poll declines. They make a great story. Notice how they are on every major news website this morning). I'm particularly encouraged that the administration is speaking with members of the moderate Blue Dog caucus in the House to discuss adding an amendment to the House bill that would allow an independent commission to set Medicare reimbursement rates. Blue Dogs have complained that the bill doesn't do enough to contain costs. They were emboldened by a CBO report on Friday that showed that the bill would add to the deficit by about $200 billion. I think the Blue Dogs' natural instinct (they are dogs after all) is to see a bill's price tag and want to narrow the scope. Of course, the way to truly reduce costs is to institute reforms in Medicare reimbursement rates, comparative effectiveness and the like. I hope the Blue Dogs use their leverage to improve instead of torpedo the bill.
The test of the Blue Dog's priorities comes this week, as the House Energy and Commerce continues a marathon mark-up of the bill, scheduled to end Wednesday. About 7 Blue Dog Democrats on the committee are threatening to withhold their votes on the bill unless changes are made. Combined with certain no votes from all committee Republicans, this would be enough to stop the bill from coming to the floor. Democrats have already won passage of the bill in the Ways and Means and Education and Labor committees. It now falls to one of the great Congressional deal-makers of all time, chairman Henry Waxman, who navigate the rough waters of the Energy and Commerce committee.
The other major health care milestone worth following this week is the Senate Finance's long awaited bipartisan compromise bill. This could be released any day now. I'm interested to see how the Senate Finance committee would pay for the bill. The administration and Senate leaders have pretty much ruled out ending the tax-exemption for employer health benefits, and the relatively moderate committee is unlikely to pursue tax hikes on the rich like the House bill. If the committee can find enough savings within the system that aren't destructive to health care (like meaningful delivery system reform), it would probably represent the easiest political path for financing the comprehensive bill.
For now, the House is on track to consider the bill on the floor next week. That debate will be contentious, and highly entertaining. If the Finance committee can get its act together, and the leadership can combine the Finance and HELP bills, the Senate would take up the bill on the week of August 3rd.
President Obama may wish he could devote all of his time to health care, but he will be distracted by other White House events. Today, the President has meetings with leaders from the Mormon church, astronauts from Apollo 11, and winners of a national math competition. Quite a mix. Later this week, the President meets at the White House with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The two will discuss the current security situation in Iraq, now that the U.S. has removed combat troops from the major cities.
THE HOUSE: The House continues it's busy schedule as it inches toward the August recess. After dealing with suspension bills today and tomorrow, the House will consider a trio of important legislation. First, the House will consider a bill to reinstitute statutory "Pay-as-you-go" rules. This is a pet cause of fiscal conservative Democrats, and their ally Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. The bill require that any new spending or tax cut be offset with equal cuts on spending or equal tax revenue. Technically, House rules require this to happen now, but making the rule statutory would make enforcement easier. This seems to be a bit of political grandstanding by House Democrats, who want to show that they care about ballooning deficits. I expect the bill to pass easily. Republicans will probably say that this bill is a Trojan horse that will make it easier for the House to raise taxes. I wouldn't argue against that.
Next, the House takes up appropriations bills number 10 and 11 out of 12. First, the House will take up a bill to fund the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies. Next, it's a measure funding the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. After this week, the House will be down to one appropriations bill, the defense bill. I expect these measures to pass relatively easily. It seems like Republicans have given up their delay tactics on appropriations bills. Their protest against not being able to offer unlimited amendments didn't quite resonate with the American people.
THE SENATE: The Senate continues consideration this week of the Defense Authorization bill, which sets policy guidelines and spending levels for Fiscal Year 2010. The Senate will vote on a few marginally related amendments today from Republican Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL). I haven't been able to find what exactly the amendments are, but they relate to the death penalty, service members, and the Attorney General. As you recall, last Thursday the Senate approved an amendment to the defense bill that changes the definition of hate crimes to include sexual orientation. Some of the Sessions amendment have to do with that portion of the bill. The Senate will vote on two more amendments today. One of them would strike funding for costly and unnecessary F-22 fighter jets. The amendment is strongly supported by the Obama administration and a diverse group of Senators ranging from liberal Michigan Democrat Carl Levin (the main sponsor) to Republican John McCain. There will certainly be bipartisan opposition to the bill from Senators who represent states that manufacture these planes. I'm not quite sure whether the amendment will pass. It will be awfully close, but I would bet that it gets narrowly defeated by Senators looking out for their parochial interests.
We'll keep you fully updated on all developments as the week progresses. Please leave us some comments!