Friday, July 24, 2009

The Daily Strike-7/24/09-Why I'm Worried

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. This will be my last entry until Monday morning, though expect some good pinch-hitting this weekend from The Big Picture. Also, it has been awhile since we've gotten comments. We would very much appreciate your feedback.

HEALTH CARE: When Democrats were in the political wilderness in 2005, we could only dream about the seemingly unthinkable success we were about to see. What if, in four years, we could have a huge majority in the House, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and a liberal President? That way, there would be no way to stop our fight for universal health care! I think that crossed the minds of many of us on November 4th. There was so much work to be done in this country, and finally we had leaders, we thought, who were up to the challenge of tackling these problems. Finally, we could break the political curse of health care reform that has stymied numerous Presidents in the past half-century. As Obama took office, and his first few months progressed, we saw signs that maybe the skies were clearing. Insurance companies and hospitals were on board. The Senate Finance Committee had all sorts of interesting ideas on how to transform our health care system. We even stuck in reconciliation instructions to make sure that health care reform wouldn't be held up by Republican obstruction.

Now, I have just read articles saying that health care negotiations with centrist Democrats have fallen apart. Democratic members are calling their own leaders "liars." The Senate Finance committee is mired in...who knows? We haven't heard a word from them in weeks. The prospect of getting health care bills passed in either House before the August recess is even dimmer than it was yesterday.

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.

So, let me tell you the events of the day that are making me particularly anxious. As you know, the last committee that must approve the health care bill in the House before it goes to the floor is the Energy and Commerce committee. The chairman, Henry Waxman (CA), has been trying to work out a deal with 7 conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who say they have the votes to defeat the bill in committee barring significant changes. Waxman and the Blue Dogs hadn't agreed on anything as of this morning. Around midday, an article appeared on the New York Times website quoting Waxman as saying that they had reached a "breakthrough" in negotiations. Waxman would be willing to have an independent board address disparities in Medicare reimbursement rates, something long sought after by Blue Dogs who come from rural areas. The problem was, apparently, that Waxman didn't come up with this deal in concert with the Blue Dogs. He came up with it with his own party leadership, and presented it to the Blue Dogs. On an obvious high from having so much power, the Blue Dogs basically threw the idea back in Waxman's face, and said no deal. The Blue Dogs were apparently still angry that Waxman threatened to bypass the committee and bring the bill straight to the floor if the Blue Dogs didn't fall in line. Moments after the meeting with Waxman, Blue Dog Mike Ross (AR) came out and said that talks had collapsed. Then, Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana accused Waxman and the leadership of lying to him during negotiations and working in bad faith. Waxman responded by saying that he won't let the Blue Dogs allow the Republicans to take control of the committee.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders have no idea how to handle this, and are apparently divided about whether to bring the bill to the floor next week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems inclined to bypass the committee and hold a vote before the August recess. Majority Leader Hoyer, a Blue Dog ally, is pretty adamantly opposed and would rather have the House go on recess. As we speak, the leadership is meeting with all of the Democrats on the Energy and Commerce committee to try and resuscitate the bill.

The process is in so much turmoil that even yours truly doesn't quite know what to think. On the one hand, I can't believe the selfishness of the Blue Dog. So Charlie Melancon thinks he's been lied to. This isn't about you Charlie!!! How many Americans will continue to suffer because a Louisiana Congressman had his feelings hurt? I also think it's increasingly clear that the Blue Dogs don't quite know what they want policy-wise. They just know they want power in negotiations. It's really disgusting.

On the other hand, I think it would be a mistake to bring the bill straight to the floor, even if the leadership thinks it has the votes to pass it. The Blue Dogs would inevitably hold a hissy fit, and could remove themselves from future negotiations on health reform. Republicans and good government types would moan about how the process has been abused, and the exact momentum passage is supposed to bring may be completely reversed.

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!

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