Monday, July 20, 2009

The Weekly Strike-7/20-7/26

Good morning and welcome to the Weekly Strike. Happy 40th Anniversary of the moon landing. It's health care all day everyday this week. Let's get to it.

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!

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