Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/30/09-Around the Table

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. A very multi-faceted day in politics, let's get to it.

THE WHITE HOUSE: The President held a key meeting today with his National Security team at the White House to discuss the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Joining the President at this key meeting were Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, Admiral Mike Mullen, Secretary of Defense Gates, some political advisers, and other national security staffers. No word yet on what they discussed in the meeting. As I said yesterday, I would guess that two camps are emerging. One camp, led by General McChrystal, General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen wants to escalate the war, send more troops, and expand operations to root out the Taliban along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. The other camp, led by Vice President Biden wants to change the mission to a counter terrorism effort against Al Qaeda. This would involve redeploying troops, but probably not adding any additional soldiers. It's a good sign that the President is taking his time to think this through. His decision will reveal a lot about his character and the path he will choose to take as President. Either strategy is politically risky. If he chooses to limit the mission, he will be accused by the right of retreating from the enemy in the War on Terror. If he sends more troops, he will alienate his base and many Democrats in Congress. More importantly, obviously, are the implications of his decision for the strategic interest of the American and Afghan people. I hope he continues to give this issue due deliberation.

Earlier today, the President held an event at the National Institutes of Health to announce $5 billion in stimulus grant money to biomedical research. This apparently is the largest ever government investment in such research. The President made a very interesting remark at the event. He noted that President Roosevelt was called a socialist when he first initiated NIH. This lends credence to my general philosophy that all of the best government programs were called socialist when they were first initiated. Hint, hint, Democratic legislators!

MARK UP: The Senate Finance committee held another day of hearings to mark up health care legislation. Chairman Baucus had hoped to get to payment amendments (provisions dealing with subsidies and revenue) today, but so far the committee is still stuck on coverage amendments. The committee is continuing its work as we speak. I would estimate that at this pace, they'll finish sometime after midnight on Saturday morning. This would actually be ok, because it would fit Senator Reid's timeline of bringing the bill to the floor the week of October 12th.

Part of the reason the mark up is taking so long is that Republicans insist on proposing politically-charged amendments that are mostly irrelevant and have no chance of passing. Today, the committee spent a couple of hours on a pair of amendments offered by Senator Hatch (R-UT) and Kyl (R-AZ) that would insert language making it certain that nothing in the bill would provide government funding for abortion. The bill already contains such language (unfortunately, in my view), but these two Senators still proposed the amendment version of "do you pinky swear????" Each amendment failed 9-14 with all Democrats and Senator Snowe (R-ME) voting no.

Two other important amendments were considered. The first was a very good amendment from Senator Nelson (D-FL) that would redirect tax reductions for business into a tax deduction to seniors who have large out-of-pocket medical expenses. The amendment passed 14-9, again with the support of all Democrats and Senator Snowe. Senator Grassley (R-IA) offered an amendment to get rid of proposed fees on insurance companies. He argued that the fees will be passed on to consumers. Chairman Baucus (D-MT) said that the fees are a good way to raise revenue to help pay for the bill, and if this fee wasn't imposed, more of the cost of the bill would be absorbed by middle-class families through tax on insurance plans and the like. I agree with Baucus on this one. The amendment failed on a 10-13 party-line vote.

We'll continue our comprehensive coverage as the mark up continues.

THE SENATE: Good news! The Senate voted to approve a stop-gap spending measure that extends government funding for another month. If they had failed to act, the government would have shut down at midnight tonight. Democrats attached this continuing resolution to the conference report accompanying the Legislative Appropriations bill. Republicans harped about how it was indefensible that the first appropriation bill to go to the White House would be the one funding Congress. They also raised two points of order, because the conference report violated a couple of Senate rules (one of them is that you can't include extraneous material in conference reports. Not only did Democrats include the continuing resolution, but they also added additional money for the bankrupt Postal Service.) Therefore, the Senate had to vote not only on the bill itself, but on two motions to waive points of order (these motions require 60 votes). Each of these motions were approved 61-37. All Democrats voted yes except for Senator Feingold (WI). All Republicans voted no, save for Senators Cochran (MS) and Voinovich (OH). The bill itself passed 62-38, with Senator Snowe crossing over. Ailing Senator Byrd came back to cast these votes after being hospitalized last week. Therefore, for one of the first times this year, 100 Senators actually voted on a bill!

The conference report will be signed into law tonight by the President before he heads to Copenhagen to push for the Olympics.

THE HOUSE: A very quiet day in the House again, as members considered various suspension bills. All of these bills were approved, except one expanding water recycling programs in the Bay Area. What do they have against us?? Democrats will have to bring up this bill again under regular order. Tomorrow, the House will vote on the Energy and Water Development appropriations bill conference report.

On a special note, a friend of the blog we'll call "The Insider" wrote a speech for a Democratic member on a bill recognizing Louisville Slugger. The Insider is quite a writer. You can watch Rep. Pallone deliver the Insider-written remarks here. It should be a couple of minutes into this video.

That's it for tonight. See you tomorrow!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/29/09-Public Option Setback

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Today was not a good day for advocates of the Public Option. Let's get to the day in politics. Please leave some comments.

FINANCE MARK UP: Today was the most important day yet in the Senate Finance committee. The committee voted on two amendments related to the public option, and the outcome makes all of us progressives dismayed and a bit angry. First, the details. All three committees of jurisdiction in the House have passed bills with public options. Two of those committees voted for a public option that reimburses providers based on Medicare rates. This is what's referred to as the "robust" public option, because it would give the government real bargaining power to force private companies to lower rates. It would also bring down the cost of reform by an estimated $80 billion, which in theory, should make it a no-brainer to fiscal conservatives. Rural Representatives are against the robust public option because they think it unfairly reimburses rural providers at low rates. The House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Senate HELP committee, passed public options that's rates were not tied to Medicare. Instead, rates are to be negotiated with individual providers. This is better than our current system, because it introduces some competition into the market, but it does not introduce enough competition to sufficiently bring down prices. Democrats on the Finance Committee tried both of these approaches. Senator Rockefeller (D-WV) proposed an amendment to include a public option tied to Medicare rates. If that amendment failed, as expected, Democrats would settle for a Schumer (D-NY) amendment that would be a so-called "level playing field" public option where rates would be negotiated with individual providers.

Democrats have a 13-10 advantage on the committee. Despite this advantage, the fact that a clear majority of Americans favor the public option, and the pleas of the Democratic base, both amendments failed. The Rockefeller amendment came up first. Rockefeller gave an impassioned defense of the public option, saying that it was the only way to check the power of private insurance companies. Republicans gave the expected response: the public option is a government takeover of health care that will lead to rationed care. Senator Conrad (D-ND) echoed his Republican cohorts by saying that Medicare reimbursement rates would bankrupt hospitals in his state (no evidence that would happen). The Rockefeller amendment failed by a vote of 8-15. Democrats Baucus (MT), Conrad (ND), Lincoln (AR), Nelson (FL) and Carper (DE) voted no. All Republicans, including moderate Senator Snowe (R-ME) voted against the amendment. This vote was discouraging, but not unexpected. Conrad had made these arguments before, Lincoln is in a tough reelection race next year, Nelson and Carper prefer a public option not tied to Medicare rates.

The next vote was far more discouraging. Schumer's (NY) amendment is a compromise of a compromise. Progressives, who won last year's election I might remind you, already conceded that we wouldn't get a single-payer system. We had basically conceded that we couldn't get a robust public option tied to Medicare rates, a la the Rockefeller amendment. Still, Democrats on the Finance committee could not muster the votes to include any sort of public option in the bill. On this vote, Carper (DE) and Nelson (FL) switched sides. Lincoln, worried about her political future, voted no. Baucus and Conrad, though, opposed the amendment for reasons that just totally confound me. In a true case of twisted logic, Baucus and Conrad opposed the amendment because they think the amendment would bring down the whole bill. In their view, any bill with a public option won't get 6o votes in the full Senate, so they shouldn't let it come out of the finance committee. If both Baucus and Conrad had switched their votes, the amendment would have passed in committee, and would have much brighter prospects on the Senate floor. These two Senators, in my view, are hiding their industry-influenced opposition to the public option behind the false notion that Democrats don't have the votes to pass a public option. Democrats now have 60 votes in the Senate. If Baucus and Conrad didn't act in such a way that made the public option seem "radically liberal," maybe these Democrats might actually vote like Democrats.

Here's The Big Pictures take:

Beyond what the public option would actually do, it's clearly THE symbol for how even Democrats will defy the good of the country, not to mention their own professed goals, and public opinion, purely in service to corporate backers and "what sounds good" ideology. I think that's what has people so angry about it - it just sums up progressives' frustration with the Democratic Party, corporate power, the way the media obscures the truth, how narrow corporate interest and ideological buzzwords stand in the way of what people really need.

This is a pretty dark day. Some of our worst fears coming true. At this point it was pretty expected but it is still very distressing. We can win elections by big margins and get 60 votes in the Senate and yet can't even do the most watered-down form of government health care, the compromise of a compromise of a compromise of a compromise.

Despite today's setback, the public option is not dead. Whatever comes out of the Finance committee will still have to be merged with the HELP committee bill. That bill then must be reconciled with the House bill. Also, there's still a chance that the Senate could adopt Senator Snowe's idea of including the public option as a fallback if the private companies don't make necessary changes. But, today was a sad reminder that even with a Democratic President, and large Democratic majorities in Congress, it is enormously difficult to enact meaningful change.

The committee continues it's work late into tonight and will continue in the morning. We'll bring you continuing coverage as more key amendments are considered tonight and tomorrow.

THE SENATE: As for the full Senate, it was a relatively quiet day. The Senate voted 99-0 (with only ailing Senator Byrd (WV) absent) to confirm Jeff Viken as a District Judge in South Dakota. Tomorrow, the Senate will vote on the Legislative Branch Appropriations conference report, which is also the legislative vehicle for the continuing resolution. In plain English, that means that if Senators vote yes, the government won't shut down when the fiscal year ends tomorrow night. Following that, Senators will resume consideration of the Defense Appropriations bill, which we talked about in this morning's Weekly Strike.

THE HOUSE: It was a quiet day in the House as well. Members voted on a few suspension bills, and a motion to instruct conferees on the Agriculture appropriations bill. I expect tomorrow to be an equally uneventful day on the House floor.

THE WHITE HOUSE: President Obama had a mostly uneventful day as well. He met this morning with NATO Secretary General Rogh Rasmussen to discuss NATO commitments in Afghanistan. Both Obama and Rasmussen said the meeting was productive, but neither elaborated on the details of the discussion. I would expect Obama to make some announcement in future plans for Afghanistan in the coming weeks, as lawmakers from both parties are growing skeptical about ongoing war efforts.

Before we go, we offer you a special treat today, I want to show you some comments Father Strike gave in response to my unenthusiastic reaction to Obama's trip to Copenhagen to push for the Chicago 2016 Olympics. Father Strike makes some compelling points here. The Big Pictures then chimes in (small black font) with an opposing view. As Bill O'Reilly might say, "you make the call."

FATHER STRIKE: I disagree about going to Copenhagen. You and I can do our jobs from home now and the President can do his from AF One. He loses only part of one work day. Why would it be ok for Tony Blair or Putin to go, or for leaders of Chicago's rivals for the 2016 slot to come to Copenhagen for that matter, but not for Obama. I know that there is a risk involved, that the trip is unsuccessful. However, it very well may be: the last two Olympics were in Europe and Asia and 2012 will be in London. I'd guess that our chief rival is Rio.

THE BIG PICTURE: I agree that this Obama Copenhagen trip is pretty ridiculous. In general he really needs to get back to focusing on JOBS here at home. It's always seductive for Presidents to want to focus on foreign policy because they have so much more uncompromised power, little checks and balances, compared to domestic policy, but that has been the ruin of many a President. Really needs to be touring the rust belt and Appalachia and Sun Belt suburbs, seeing what's going on, reassuring people, explaining what we're doing and why.

The Weekly Strike-9/29-10/4

Good morning and welcome to the Weekly Strike. Thanks for bearing with us this weekend during our absence. I hope you had a good weekend, and if you're anything like me, a good fast yesterday. On to the week in politics...

THE WHITE HOUSE: The White House is all international affairs all the time this week. Apparently, they are content enough with the progress on health care legislation that they feel they can afford to take a week off. Three subjects appear to be at the forefront of the President's mind this week: Iran, Afghanistan, and...the Olympics.

Today, the President will meet with NATO Secretary General Rogh Rasmussen (no relation to the Republican-leaning pollster). The subject will be Afghanistan. Obama is still weighing recommendations from General McChrystal to raise troop levels. Rasmussen has so far expressed some warranted skepticism about our future mission in Afghanistan, and whether our current path is sustainable. I expect the President to weigh Rasmussen's opinion against the diverse views of his closest advisers. Secretary of Defense Gates, Secretary of State Clinton and Vice President Biden will also be at today's meeting. According to unofficial reports, it seems like the big divide in the White House right now is between General McChrystal's desire to continue the current mission with more troops and Vice President Biden's desire to scale back military operations and focus on more limited counter-terrorism operations. Count me in the Biden camp.

The President later this week will travel to Copenhagen, where delegates of the International Olympic Committee are deciding where to hold the 2016 games. Obama will be lobbying hard for his hometown Chicago. Joining him there will be First Lady Michelle Obama, and adviser Valerie Jarrett. I'm not a big fan of Obama taking this trip. If Chicago is not chosen, there's a risk that his diplomatic acumen will be undermined. Plus, I think he has enough to worry about over here.

On Thursday, the U.S. and six other countries will hold multi-lateral talks with Iran. Iran has not exactly been in the diplomatic, touchy-feely mood lately. Last week, the U.S. discussed the discovery of a secret nuclear facility 100 miles away from Tehran. Over the weekend, Iran tested several short-range missiles. Apparently, Iran will refuse to discuss their nuclear ambitions. If they do not allow international inspectors, I expect the other countries to push for strict sanctions, which I think would be a good idea.

Hopefully the President will return to his domestic agenda next week. There is little time to waste.

THE SENATE: The Senate has a lot of unfinished business that it has to finish by tomorrow afternoon. If the Senate doesn't act, unemployment insurance will run out for millions of Americans, and the Federal government will shut down. I hate relying on the world's most deliberative body. I expect the Senate to take up the House-passed unemployment extension and continuing resolution by tomorrow afternoon. Even the Senate wouldn't be dumb enough not to get these measures to the President. The Senate will also move to consideration of appropriation bill number 7 out of 12 (that were supposed to be done by tomorrow), this one funding the Department of Defense. The bill funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (unlike in previous years, when Congress was forced to pass special funding bills for the wars). It also includes more earmarks than John McCain could complain about in a 3 hour speech. I expect it to pass relatively easily by week's end. The Senate will also vote today on a District Court judge nomination.

The real Senate action this week takes place on the committee level. Chairman Max Baucus leads his Finance committee into week 2 of consideration of his health reform plan. The committee will consider crucial amendments in the coming days. As early as today, the committee might vote on whether to include a public option in the bill. It looks like 2 or 3 Democrats (Conrad and Lincoln, maybe?) will join with Republicans in defeating the public option at the committee level. It will be interesting to see whether the committee adopts Senator Snowe's idea for a public option trigger. I also expect many other important amendments to come up this week, including those dealing with subsidy levels, the free-rider provision, and strengthening the Health Insurance Exchange. We will have full coverage of the committee's deliberations in the Daily Strike.

THE HOUSE: The House has a quiet week. Today and tomorrow, the House will consider a slew of suspension bills. On Thursday, the House will vote on the conference report for the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill. Assuming the Senate approves this conference report by the end of the week (not a safe assumption), this will be the 2nd of 12 appropriations bills that make it to the President's desk. It's possible that more of these bills will go through conference by the end of the week.

That's it for this week. Leave some comments! And stick with us this week as we give you comprehensive coverage of the world of politics!

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/25/09-Double Your Pleasure

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. We neglected to provide you with a substantive entry last night, and we apologize But have no fear, we will cover Thursday and Friday right now in one mega, double post. Enjoy, and leave some comments.

MARK UP: Day 3 and 4 of the markup of the Senate Finance Committee health care bill have come and gone, and we still haven't gotten to the most meaty amendments, like increased subsidies and the public option. The committee is scheduled to resume consideration next Tuesday with the goal of finishing work by Friday, October 2nd. I estimate that the committee has probably considered about a third of the 500 or so submitted amendments.

The most important amendment considered yesterday came from Bill Nelson of Florida. Chairman Baucus and President Obama had struck a deal with the Pharma industry, which basically stipulated that the Pharma industry would have to find $80 billion worth of savings and not go on TV to oppose health reform, in exchange for a promise that they wouldn't be stripped of any more of their massive profits. The deal didn't sit well with many Democrats, who think that the industry should have to pay more to contribute to the overall cost of health reform. Nelson's amendment would have increased fees for the Pharma industry, and redirected the money into closing the so-called "Donut Hole" gap in drug coverage for Medicare beneficiaries and for other purposes. The amendment, unfortunately failed. All Republicans, of course, voted no. Chairman Baucus did not want to renege on the deal he made, so he voted no. Senators Menendez (NJ) and Carper (DE) come from two states where drug companies are dominating industries, so they voted no as well. The amendment failed 10-13. Yet another reminder of how Washington can be beholden to big industry.

There were a couple of other important amendment victories. Also yesterday, the committee rejected an amendment by Senator Grassley (R-IA) that would have replaced some middle-class subsidies with money to Medicaid-eligible poor people to buy private insurance. I can't fathom why anyone would think this amendment was a good idea. Basically you're taking money away from people who don't qualify for a government program, and giving it to people who do. Grassley was trying to make the point that Medicaid is broken and inefficient, but he was trying to take money away from people who don't have access to any insurance at all! The amendment failed 10-13, with all Democrats except Maria Cantwell (WA) voting no, and all Republicans except Olympia Snowe (ME) voting yes. Cantwell, you disappoint me.

Today, the committee rejected an equally poor amendment from Senator Kyl. As the bill currently is written, any insurance plan wishing to join the health insurance exchange has to offer a minimum benefits package approved by the federal government. Kyl wanted to strike this language, because he thinks these rules would force the cost of insurance to go up. Why don't we just strike minimum wage laws because the price of labor would go up? Oh wait, Kyl would support that too. The amendment failed, thankfully, 9-14, with all Democrats and Snowe (R-ME) voting no. The amendment also gave us this funny moment.

I've been trying to find a place on the internet where I can see all of the amendments considered and voted upon in the mark up, but it doesn't seem to exist. Does anyone know where to find this information? We will bring you more coverage when the mark up resumes Tuesday.

OBAMA ON THE WORLD STAGE: The President's health care push has been sidelined this week by important meetings with world leaders. Yesterday, the President had diplomatic meetings on Pakistan in the morning, and then opened the G20 summit with a working dinner tonight. This morning, the President, along with French President Nikolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the U.S. has evidence that Iran has been building a secret nuclear site apparently designed to enrich uranium for military purposes. The U.S. apparently has known about this for quite some time, but waited until now to release the details. Obama chastised the facility, saying that the program was not being pursued as a "peaceful program" and is undermining Iran's standing in the International community. Brown and Sarkozy had similarly scathing reactions. This is obviously pretty disturbing news. The right-wing will use this revelation to argue that Obama showed weakness by saying he was willing to speak to Iran's leaders. I think the opposite is true. We offered a hand of cooperation to the Iranians, and they seem to have rejected it. This will increase pro-U.S. resolve in the international community.

The leaders of the G20 also talked about the global economic crisis and climate change. As was expected, no new major policies were announced, but the President described the meeting as a success.

THE SENATE: The Senate finally finished appropriation bill number 6 yesterday, the one funding the Department of Interior. The final vote was 77-21, with Democrat Evan Bayh (IN) joining 20 Republicans in opposition. Because the Senate has taken weeks to complete these appropriations bill, they will have to extend current funding for another month (see below). Republicans have held up the process by offering a ton of amendments and using various dilatory tactics. As a result, the Senate has yet to act on some very important House-passed legislation like education reform and food safety.

Prior to a vote on final passage, the Senate voted on several amendments. The first amendment, offered by Senator Clown was an homage to the Glenn Beck obsession with Obama's czars. Czars are policy makers that work in the White House as staffers. Someone started calling them czars and that seems to scare a lot of people. Vitter's amendment sought to guarantee that the "Climate Change Czar" is not enacting any policy changes in the Department of the Interior. The amendment was killed 57-41, with only maverick Democrats McCaskill (MO) and Nelson (NE) voting with the GOP. The Democrats killed two more amendments, one dealing with overall spending levels and one with maintenance backlogs at National Parks. The Senate will move to the Defense appropriations bill next Tuesday.

The Senate swore in its newest member today. Paul Kirk, former staffer for Ted Kennedy (MA), took the late Senator's seat after being appointed on an interim basis by Governor Deval Patrick. Massachusetts had to change its state law to provide for this appointment. The action was intensely partisan. The law had been changed in 2004 to prevent Mitt Romney from appointing John Kerry's successor should he have won the Presidency. But Democrats in Massachusetts have such large majorities in the state legislature that they can do whatever they want. Kirk gives Democrats 60 votes in the Senate again, pending the ability of 92-year-old Robert Byrd, who is very ill, to show up for votes. There goes one fewer excuse for us not getting health care reform done.

THE HOUSE: The House today voted on the conference report accompanying the Legislative Appropriations bill, which includes a continuing resolution that funds the government through November 1st (that's a lot of legislative lingo!). In plain English, the House is using a bill that funds Congress as a vehicle to pass a temporary extension of current funding levels until all 12 appropriation bills are approved (which could take awhile.) Democrats also attached $4 billion in temporary funding for the U.S. Post Office, which is essentially broke. Republicans objected to this procedural maneuvering, as they always do, but House Democrats were able to hold together to prevent a government shutdown. I assume that the Senate will approve this conference report by Wednesday, when the fiscal year ends. The vote on the conference report was 217-190. 5 Republicans voted yes, and 28 Democrats voted no. Interestingly enough, many liberal Democrats voted no because the bill forbids any funding from going to ACORN. To me, this is a pointless concession to the Republicans, because they're not gonna vote for the bill anyway.

Yesterday, the House passed a bill under suspension of the rules that extends limits to premiums under Medicare Part B in a budget neutral fashion. The bill passed by a 406-18 margin. The House moves next week to consideration of more appropriations bill conference reports.

That's it for today, and unfortunately, that's it until Tuesday. The Strike will be taking the LSAT's tomorrow and will be observing Yom Kippur on Monday. We will be back and better than ever for a Weekly Strike on Tuesday morning. Leave comments!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/24/09-Postponed...

Good evening. Mother Strike came into town tonight, so I don't have time to write an entry. Don't fear, however. We will give you a double entry tomorrow night that covers two busy days in the world in politics. See you then!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/23/09-Slogging Through

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. A very busy day in the world of politics, with the President in New York, and the Senate Finance committee hard at work. Let's get to it.

MARK UP: The mark up of the Senate Finance committee health care bill is coming along very slowly. The United States Senate is designed to move at a snail's pace, and today's committee action confirmed that reputation. The first part of the bill deals with delivery system reform, which was supposed to be the focus of today's amendments. Instead, the committee spent over an hour on a trivial procedural issue. Republican Senator Jim Bunning proposed an amendment that would prohibit the committee from passing the bill until they had full legislative language, and the bill was available for 72 hours. I hate when members of Congress disguise dilatory tactics behind good governance. The Finance Committee writes bills in "conceptualized" language, meaning basically, pure English instead of legislative mumbo jumbo. It takes at least 2 weeks to write out the actual legislative language, which no one would understand anyway. So basically, it would be a way to delay the legislation for another two weeks, as if it hadn't been delayed enough already. Senators debated for an hour whether this constituted good governance or useless drivel. Luckily, by a 12-11 vote, the committee confirmed that it was useless drivel. All Republicans voted yes, include Olympia Snowe (ME), the crucial swing vote on the committee. Democrat Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas voted yes as well. Did I mention that Bunning will not vote for the bill under any circumstances and that he fell asleep during the hearing yesterday?

At about 11, after close to 10 hours of hearing time, the committee finally got down to considering serious amendments. Err...amendments. The key vote of the day so far (the committee is scheduled to continue meeting after 8pm this evening) was on an amendment offered by Senator Hatch (R-UT). The bill, wisely, seeks to cut spending on the Medicare Advantage program, which gives taxpayer money to private companies to do what the government does more efficiently (aka providing quality health care to seniors.) Republicans, who have tried for years to gut Medicare, Medicaid, and every other entitlement program, love the Medicare Advantage program, because it gives loads of money to the insurance companies. Senator Hatch's amendment would block cuts to the program if hte cuts afect people's benefits. Democrats, rightly in my view, argued that people can receive the exact some care under regular Medicare at a much lower cost. The amendment failed by a vote of 14-9, with Senator Snowe joining all Democrats in voting no. The vote is significant because it maintains a main, and appropriate source of funding in the bill.

The next big amendment had very little to do with health care at all. The committee spent an hour debated the case of Humana Health. The insurance company receives government money through the Medicare Advantage program. When they saw that the program was targeted for cuts, they sent out letters to customers warning them about the cuts, which was a breach of their contract with the federal government. Baucus has started an investigation into the company. Republicans are complaining that this investigation violates freedom of speech (even though it was codified in a contract!!) Senator Kyl (R-AZ) proposed an amendment to basically protect Humana. Go figure. The amendment was defeated on party lines.

One amendment that was not considered today was a very important one from Senator Nelson (FL). This amendment would kill the agreement made between the White House and drug companies. It would require the drug companies to pay more to support the cost of the bill, and would redirect some of that money back into Medicare Advantage (I'd rather the money be relocated somewhere else, but I would still support the amendment). The amendment would lower the cost of the bill by about $50 billion without making cuts to any of the key affordability provisions. Baucus, one of the negotiators of the deal, has put off the vote until tomorrow. I expect it to pass narrowly.

The committee will now move to amendments dealing with cost and affordability. These will be some of the most crucial amendments the committee will consider. We will give you full details tomorrow. Because of the snail-like pace of the committee, they probably won't be able to finish the mark up by Friday. As a result, Senator Reid's (D-NV) plan to merge the bill with the HELP committee measure will have to be put off until October. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she could put a bill on the House floor in the next couple of weeks.

Yes, these delays are irritating. But after all the hubbub of the Summer, we are actually getting close to holding votes in both chambers on what will be, at the very least, pretty good health care bills. They key is to keep Democrats unified and resolved to get this done. Massachusetts just passed a law today allowing for the interim appointment of a replacement Senator for Ted Kennedy. When that nominee is sworn-in, the Democrats will have 60 votes in the Senate. There are some centrists who don't want to vote for this bill without Republican support, but they must be steamrolled by the leadership, plain and simple.

THE PRESIDENT'S DAY: President Obama today gave his first address to the U.N. General Assembly. The speech was signature Obama to a tee. He opened by highlighting his differences with the Bush administration. He pledged that the U.S. does not torture in any form. He reiterated his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Turning the tables though, as Obama always does, he told the U.N. that he will never apologize for protecting the country. This started the portion of his speech where he got tough with other world leaders. He said that it's time for other countries to not wait around for the U.S. to act. We will seek improved diplomatic relations, but we need a renewed support from the international community.

On specific issues, the President offered no surprises. He warned Iran and North Korea that their nuclear programs cannot be tolerated. He said, to muted applause, that the U.S. is getting serious about addressing climate change and financial regulation (do the rest of these countries understand that we have to deal with the United States Senate???). He also got a huge (well-deserved) applause for saying that the U.S. does not view Israeli settlement growth as legitimate.

It seems like the speech was a strong, well-delivered message of renewed optimism combined with a bit of tough love.

The President spent the rest of the day in a series of diplomatic meetings, including one with Russian President Demitri Medvedev.

THE HOUSE: Not much to report from either House of Congress tonight. The House passed one bill today under regular order. The bill would designate a portion of the Santa Cruz Valley in Arizona a national heritage area. The bill passed 281-142, with all no votes coming from Republicans. The Republicans did succeed in passing a motion to recommit that protects the rights of property owners in the area. That motion passed by a vote of 259-167, with all no votes coming from Democrats.

The House also passed several bills under suspension of the rules, including those extending various small business and and surface transportation programs.

Tomorrow, the House will vote on a continuing resolution that will keep the government running when the fiscal year ends a week from today. Still no word on when the House and Senate will agree to a compromise on any of the appropriations bills that have passed both chambers, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a conference report or two tomorrow.

THE SENATE: The Senate today continued its consideration of the Interior Appropriations bill. Only two record votes were taken today. The first was to table (kill) a Clown motion to recommit that instruct the appropriations committee to make significant cuts to the bill. The motion was tabled by a vote of 56-42. All Republicans voted no, as did Democrats Begich (AK) and Nelson (NE). Next was a motion to table a McCaskill (D-MO) amendment that would strike earmark funding for the "Save America's Treasure" program. It looks like McCaskill is channeling her inner John McCain with her earmark-hating amendments! Her amendment was killed by a vote of 72-26. Bayh (IN), Feingold (WI) and McCaskill (D-MO) were the only Democrats to support the amendment.

The Senate will hopefully finish this bill tomorrow. They need to take action on a House-passed extension of unemployment benefits and the continuing resolution by the middle of next week. I'll believe it when I see it.

That's it for tonight. Leave us more comments! We love to see them!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/22/09-Mark It Up

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. It was one of those rare days with big foreign policy news and domestic policy news. So we have no time to waste.

FINANCE MARK UP: I tried to follow the mark up on the Finance Committee health bill, but some of it was just too infuriating. Consideration of the long awaited bill began at 9am, and by the time the committee adjourned for caucus lunches at 12pm, they were still on opening statements. Chairman Baucus opened the ceremonies by calling his bill, with recent revisions called "the chairman's mark" an "historic" opportunity to enact health reform. He said the bill took Democratic and Republicans ideas and represents a framework that can get 60 votes in the Senate. Ranking member Grassley (R-IA), being the stubborn crank that he is, spent his opening statement decrying the Democratic leadership for setting "artificial" time lines and not being "bipartisan enough." Yeah I guess spending six months giving away the store wasn't enough for stubborn old Grassley.

The rest of the Senators on the Democratic side, with the exception of Baucus-twin Kent Conrad (ND) expressed muted praise for the bill and outlined changes they think need to be made before the bill is voted out of committee. Senator Rockefeller (D-WV) made the most exlicit calls for amendments. He wants the SCHIP program taken off the health insurance exchange (I agree, it should be an entitlement program, not part of a marketplace of insurance options), he wants subsidies increased even more than the modest increases Baucus has already added to the revised bill and he made a pitch for the public option, which looks increasingly unlikely to pass the Finance committee.

After opening statements, members got to ask Senate Finance staffers and members of the Congressional Budget Office questions about provisions and cost estimates. Not surprisingly, this round of questioning got somewhat heated. Senator Ensign, apparently taking time away from his extramarital problems, tried to press a staffer into saying that the proposed excise tax on expensive insurance plans could break President Obama's promise to allow everyone to keep their insurance if they like it. Chairman Baucus sternly reminded Ensign that employers routinely change insurance plans for their employees because of cost increases. Baucus then got testy with the CBO when they said that they hadn't finished scoring Baucus' modified bill. Baucus insisted that they hurry up so that the process can move forward. I think about a million liberals are sighing at the irony of Max Baucus telling anyone else to hurry up.

The panel is still meeting as we speak, though I have yet to find a list of proceedings (amendments considered and adopted). Hopefully I'll have a more complete list tomorrow. The Senate Finance committee website is not exactly state-of-the-art. The amendment consideration will continue in earnest tomorrow.

OBAMA'S DAY: President Obama had an extremely busy day in New York City dealing with international matters. The President started his day speaking at U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-Moon's summit on climate change. The President gave lip service to the urgency of climate change, and said that the situation requires urgent action. The President, of course, needs to taylor the message directly to the United States Senate, which has punted on the issue until at least the end of the year. This does not look good to the rest of the world.

The President turned next to the Middle East. He met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Following these meetings, the three men held a joint meeting. Obama even got a classic photo-op with the two leaders shaking hands! This worked political wonders for President Clinton when he got Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin to shake Yasser Arafat's hand in 1993. The President struck a note of urgency, saying, "Despite all the obstacles, despite all the history, despite all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward. We have to summon the will to break the deadlock that has trapped generations of Israelis and Palestinians in an endless cycle of conflict and suffering."Because of domestic challenges and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the President has not had enough time to focus on the Middle East conflict. He has, however, put pressure on the Israeli government to halt the building of new settlements in the West Bank. If this effort is successful, it will be a big step in moving towards a peaceful, two-state solution.

Next on the President's schedule was a private meeting with President Hu of China, a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, and a climate change summit dinner. Can you imagine doing all of that in one day?

Tomorrow, the President will give his much-awaited speech to the U.N. General Assembly. He also has various other meetings with world leaders.

THE HOUSE: The House voted on a slew of suspension bills today. The last of these bills was a measure to extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks for states whose unemployment is above 8.5%. That includes 27 states and the District of Columbia. If the House did not act, over 400,000 unemployed Americans would run out of benefits by the end of the month. Of course, no bill extending unemployment benefits would be complete without a politically-charged, blame game debate. Republicans used the bill as an opportunity to attack the stimulus, and Democrats used it to attack the Republicans for getting us into this mess in the first place. The bill passed 331-83, well surpassing the 2/3rds majority necessary to pass a bill under suspension of the rules. 66 Republicans and 17 Democrats voted against the bill. The 17 Democrats were almost all from the Blue Dog coalition. I can't believe 17 Democrats would vote against extending unemployment benefits for people hurt by the recession. Really disgusts me. The House will consider the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Act during a short session tomorrow.

THE SENATE: The Senate continued work on the Interior Appropriations bill, the 6th of 12 needed to pass before next Wednesday (see previous entries to find out why this won't actually happen.) The Senate voted on three amendments today. The first, proposed by Senator Feinstein (CA), expresses support for the Smithsonian Civil Rights history program. Pretty hard to oppose. It passed unanimously, 95-0. Amendment number 2 was your standard John McCain (R-AZ) amendment. It cut funding for a museum in Des Moines, IA because it is one of those evil Congressional earmarks. The amendment failed by a vote 0f 27-70, because people realize that museums are a very reasonable thing for the government to support. Senator Feingold (WI) joined 26 Republicans in supporting the amendment. Finally, the Senate voted to kill an amendment from Senator DeMint (R-SC) that would have eliminated a California water project. Do these fiscal conservatives ever have any idea what they're proposing to cut? Luckily, the amendment failed 36-61. All Democrats voted no, as did Republicans Alexander (TN), Collins (ME), Snowe (ME) and Voinovich (OH).

That's it for a long day today. Hopefully we'll know more about the Finance committee markup tomorrow.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/21/09-Calm Before the Storm

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Remember how I told you about all the stuff going on this week in politics? Turns out none of it happened today, so we'll make it a quick a entry and save our energy to cover the health care mark up and U.N. General Assembly.

BAUCUS: The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus (D-MT), has decided to change his version of the health care bill before hearings begin tomorrow. This seems to be a twofold effort:

1. It is an olive branch to wary Democrats to make them at least somewhat enthusiastic about the bill.

2. It saves time by incorporating some of the 584 proposed amendments already proposed.

Among the changes Baucus has made are increased subsidies to lower and middle-class individuals and decreased penalties to those who don't buy health insurance. These changes will cost about $28 billion. This money will come out of the projected surplus the bill will produce by 2019. Hopefully, this is just a jumping off point for further amendments that will make the bill more affordable for the middle-class. We will have full coverage of the hearings tomorrow, though in the tradition of the United States Senate, I wouldn't be shocked if tomorrow's hearing consisted only of opening statements.

OBAMA'S DAY, AWKWARD!!: The President spent the day in the Empire state, which made for some awkward moments. Over the weekend, White House staff indicated that the President put in a call to New York Governor David Paterson and asked him not to run for reelection next year. Paterson is about as popular as a root canal right now, and Obama is afraid (justifyably) that Paterson will be a drag on the rest of the Democratic ticket (including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand) in 2010. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is said to be mulling a run in the Democratic primary, and would absolutely crush Paterson and any possible Republican challenger (save possibly Pataki or Giuliani). Anyways, Paterson met President Obama's plane today as he landed in Albany, just days after Obama told him to leave the race. That must have been a pretty awkward meeting. Both Paterson and Cuomo were present as Obama gave remarks on the economy at Hudson Valley Community College. The President talked about government initiatives in education and energy that will lead to innovation and economic growth.

The President finished his day by doing a taping of Dave Letterman in New York City.

CONGRESS: No votes today in either chamber. The House and Senate return to legislative business tomorrow.

That's it for us tonight! Leave some comments for this entry or for our Weekly Strike!

The Weekly Strike-9/21-9/27

Good morning and welcome to the Weekly Strike where we preview the week in politics. Hope you all had a good weekend.

MARKUP: The big event this week is the scheduled markup for the Senate Finance Committee version of health care reform, drafted by the much maligned Max Baucus (D-MT). This is judgment time for him, and the rest of the Democrats on the committee. The bill right now is deeply flawed, as we outlined last week, but if Democrats stick together and pass a ton of amendments to make the bill better, we may, possibly, be able to forgive Baucus for setting the process back a few months and allowing the President to get politically battered. Members of the committee have submitted over 550 amendments to the bill, which may mean we'll be looking at a two week markup.

There are a few amendments that absolutely must pass to make this bill acceptable. Senator Wyden (OR) and Rockefeller (WV) have introduced, as far as I can see, the most key amendments. One of Wyden's amendment would expand subsidies to 400% of the poverty line. These subsidies had been cut to bring the overall price tag down. Without strong subsidies, some currently uninsured middle class families may be forced to buy health insurance without any government assistance. Another crucial Wyden amendment would allow people who get health care through an employer to join the health insurance exchange. In all of the other bills being considered, the exchange is available only for individuals and small businesses. Senator Rockefeller's key amendment would be to replace the state health exchanges with national exchanges, which would have a larger pool, and thus more bargaining power. Rockefeller is also proposing to strike the health insurance cooperatives in the bill and replace them with a public option, similar to the one in the HELP committee bill. A couple of other Democratic Senators have proposed similar amendments. Should the full public option not pass (and I have my doubts), Senator Snowe (R-ME) has proposed a so-called "trigger" amendment that would institute a public option should the private market prove insufficient.

Another absolutely crucial amendment, offered by Kerry (MA) and Schumer (NY) would do away with the so-called "free rider" provision (which we discussed last week) and replace it with an employer mandate. This would eliminate the perverse incentive for companies not to hire low-income workers who need federal subsidies. These are just a few of the amendments that would go a long way in making this bill acceptable. Read this list here, and you'll find out why Senator Rockefeller is the MVP of this whole amendment effort.

Democrats have a 13-10 edge on the committee, so in theory, all of these solid Democratic amendments should pass and we should get a pretty decent bill out of this committee by the end of next week. Unfortunately, theory and practice don't quite match up in this case. Among the Democrats on the committee are:

-Chairman Baucus, who probably has some pride in authorship of the bill (inexplicably) and won't want to change it.

-Kent Conrad (ND), who has been a major thorn in the Democrats side through this whole process

-Blanche Lincoln (AR) who faces a tough reelection fight next year in a very conservative state.

If we lose two of these three votes on the most important amendments, the bill will come out looking a lot like it does right now, namely not very good. I know that Lincoln and Conrad, for example, are pretty much against the public option (Conrad thinks it would doom the bill. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy!), so I don't have too much hope on that amendment. But on the other amendments, like increased subsidies, a national exchange, and eliminating the free rider provision, I think we'll be able to hold the line, especially if Olympia Snowe comes along (which I think is a very realistic possibility). Besides Snowe, I don't expect any Republican amendments to pass.

For those of you who care about health care reform, this is the point in the process that phone calls can REALLY make a difference. Contact the Senators on the Finance Committee, and tell them to support the above amendments.

THE WHITE HOUSE: President Obama has an extraordinarily busy week, and surprisingly, health care isn't on the plate at all. Today, the President makes a speech on the economy in Troy, NY, an old industrial town that's been battered by the loss of a manufacturing base. He then heads down to the city to do a taping of Dave Letterman. Tuesday marks the beginning of the U.N. General Assembly meeting, so the President is looking to get some face time with key world leaders. That day, he will speak with Chinese President Hu, he will hold a peace summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and will speak at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting. On Wednesday, the President will make his first address to the U.N. assembly. Keep an eye on reaction for some of the U.S.' adversaries, like Iran and Venezuela. On Thursday, the President heads to the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, where the leaders of the world's largest economies will discuss a variety of issues, including climate change and the economy. We'll see if any decisions are made by world leaders about additional international economic stimulus programs.

I expect the subject of Afghanistan to come up at both the U.N. and G20 meetings. This morning, the Washington Post obtained a leaked copy of the report from General McCrystal. He says that the situation in Afghanistan is looking increasingly perilous, and that more troops are needed to enhance the counter-insurgency effort. The White House has still not decided how it's going to proceed. This is a critical moment for President Obama. We've seen countless examples in history of Presidents who were afraid to go against the recommendations of military commanders (like Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam). The reaction from Republicans would be scathing and predictable. But we separate the military leadership from our civilian leadership for a reason. A President must make a determination as to what is best for the long-term interest of the United States. In my opinion, it would not be best to double down on a bad situation, get us entangled in another botched nation-building experiment. I hope the President can figure out a way for us to scale back our efforts there, while still focusing on rooting out terrorism along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

THE HOUSE: This week will be pretty quiet in Congress. Democrats are keeping the legislative schedule light so that members can have time to negotiate big ticket items like health care and financial regulation. The House will vote tomorrow and Wednesday on a series of suspension bills. On Thursday, the House will vote on a bill that failed to get the 2/3rds vote necessary to pass under suspension of the rules. This bill would designate a part of the Santa Cruz valley in Arizona as a National Heritage Site (seriously, this is what the House is working on?). The House will also take up a bill to extend unemployment insurance for an additional 13 weeks. I expect this extension to pass relatively easily, though Republicans will use the debate to hammer President Obama and the Democrats on the economy. Finally, the House will consider a bill to fund the government at current levels until Congress finishes all 12 of its annual appropriations bills. This is necessary because current funding expires at the end of the fiscal year, September 30th. So far, none of these bills have been sent to the President. Five bills have passed both chambers thus far, and it's possible that some conference reports on these bills may come up by the end of the week in both chambers.

THE SENATE: The Senate will continue work on its 6th appropriations bill, the one funding the Department of Interior. It looks like the Senate will vote on a few more amendments Tuesday and Wednesday, and will vote on final passage by Thursday. Because the Senate has taken so long with these appropriations bills (due to Republican delay tactics and Harry Reid's general incompetence), I wouldn't be shocked to see the Democrats package together the remaining bills in an omnibus spending bill. This big spending bills are not very politically attractive, because they carry huge price tags and have a lot of earmarks. But that's what happens when the Senate doesn't complete its work on time.

That's it for today. We'll see you tonight, and please leave your comments! Look for extensive updates on amendments adopted in the Senate Finance committee markup as the week continues.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/17/09-Serious Business and ACORN

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. It was an unusually busy day in Congress today, featuring two separate votes on community activist group ACORN! Let's get to it.

THE HOUSE: The House today passed a very important bill that would enact sweeping changes to our student loan system. Under the bill, government payments to private lenders would stop in 2010, and all loans would originate from the federal government. Ending these useless subsidies to private loan companies will save us about $87 billion over ten years. Under this bill, that money would be reinvested into:

-increased Pell and Perkins grants
-money for school construction
-grants to states for early childhood education programs
-paying down the deficit.

The bill also allocates some money for community colleges and historically black universities. This is a superb bill that would make historic investments in education at all levels, while actually saving us money! The only people who would oppose this would be those who are ideologically opposed to the government controlling anything, even if doing so would save money and help millions of people. In other words, 171 members of the House of Representatives. Only 6 Republicans supported the bill: Reps. Buchanan (FL), Cao (LA), Johnson (IL), Petri (WI), Platts (PA) and Ros-Lehtinen (FL). 4 Democrats opposed the bill: Reps. Boyd (FL), Herseth Sandlin (SD) (from the state that runs on the lending industry), Kanjorski (PA) and McMahon (NY). Boyd is your consummate Blue Dog, but I have no idea why Kanjorski and McMahon bolted on this bill. Even the most conservative Democrats, like Reps. Bright (AL) and Minnick (ID) voted for the bill. Who knows when the slow moving Senate will take up this important piece of legislation, but it will hopefully go to Obama's desk by the end of the year.

Prior to a vote on final passage, the House voted on 8 amendments. All three Republican amendments were defeated, including two really bad ones. An amendment by Rep. Foxx (R-Crazytown) would have taken money out of a initiative that helps community college students graduate. This amendment was defeated 126-301, with thankfully zero Democrats supporting it. The Republican substitute would have replaced the entire bill with one that would keep the current system in tact until more "research" was done to find viable alternatives in the private lending industry. This too failed by a vote of 165-265, with again, zero Democrats in support.

None of these important votes were in the news however, because they were overshadowed by the Republican motion to recommit. If you haven't already heard, the community activist group ACORN was caught in a Fox News sting giving tax advice to people pretending to be a pimp and a prostitute. ACORN workers in several offices not only offered these people advice on how to pay taxes, but also how to run a prostitution ring without getting in trouble. Now, ACORN has been a target by the right-wing for a long time for a number of reasons. One, it helps register poor (and primarily black) voters, which hurts the Republican party. Two, conservatives have tried to associate the group with former a former community organizer named Barack Obama. It's pretty clear that they've used the group as a bogey man to gin up fear and anger using racially-coded language. I really had a lot of sympathy for ACORN, and thought that they were being unfairly maligned by right-wing wackos. I have to say though, this behavior does not look good at all. Yes, the whole group is being blamed for the actions of a few employees, but that's the way it goes. Republicans have sensed an opportunity to make political hay out of this scandal, and they intend to push it as far as they can. The motion to recommit sought to remove all government funding for ACORN (about $15 million, which is not a lot of money in the context of the federal budget). The motion passed by a vote of 345-75, with 2 members voting "present." I'm pretty shocked that 75 members pushed back against this political firestorm, though all of them come from safely Democratic districts.

I just hope the student loan bill can get a little bit of press coverage after this ACORN obsession passes.

THE SENATE: The United States Senate finished a bill today! (Cue the cheer that you give when a baseball player who had made a brutal error makes a routine catch on a fly ball.) The Senate passed the 5th of 12 appropriations bills, this one funding the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. None of the appropriations bills have made it through a House-Senate conference yet, which means that we'll be forced to temporarily extend current government funding when the fiscal year ends October 1st.

As for today's bill, the final vote was 73-25. The only Democrats to vote no were Bayh (IN) and McCaskill (MO). Prior to final passage, the Senate rejected 4 Republican amendments. I won't go into details, because it's not worth dwelling over failed amendments. The dumbest amendment of the day award goes to Senator DeMint (R-SC). His amendment would eliminate funding for the John Murtha Airport in Pennsylvania. Murtha, of course, is a long-time Democratic member of Congress who happens to be one of the biggest earmark guys in the House. I guess he still has some friends, though. The amendment failed 43-53, with 51 Democrats and Republicans Bond (MO) and Voinovich (OH) voting no.

The Senate then moved on to the nomination of Gerald Lynch to be a Circuit Court Judge. This is the first Circuit Court nominee to be considered by the full Senate this year, due to various Republican delay tactics. Lynch was uncontroversial, though, and was even supported by the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Jeff Sessions (AL). Lynch was confirmed by a vote of 94-3, with Senators Coburn (OK), Inhofe (OK) and Bunning (KY) voting no.

The Senate's week then came to a very fitting end. Senators moved to consideration of the next appropriation bill, the one funding the Department of Interior. They voted on one amendment today, and guess what it was? An amendment banning ACORN from getting government funding! The Senate already voted to pass an identical amendment earlier this week, but the amendment's sponsor, Senator Johanns (R-NE), wanted to be sure that the ban applied to spending in this particular bill. Democrats offered to accept the amendment by voice vote so they wouldn't have to waste time with it, but Johanns objected. In other words, he is complete political hack who doesn't care about the substance of his own amendment, but rather wants to waste Senate time making a cheap political point. The amendment, as you can imagine, passed by a vote of 85-11. I can't wait to see how many ACORN votes we'll get next week!!

The Senate will take a well-deserved (!!!) 4 day weekend and will return to voting on Tuesday. On Monday, the markup will begin on Max Baucus' Senate Finance Health care bill. We will bring you full coverage.

THE WHITE HOUSE: The President made a big move today, killing a missile defense project in Eastern Europe. The shield, promoted heavily by the Bush administration, was built to stave off an attack from a nuclear-armed Iran. The program had angered the neighboring Poles and Czechs, and was also incredibly expensive. The United States already has two missile defense shields on our own continent. Republicans had a field day with this decision, using it as a way to push the timeless "Democrats are wusses" attack. Of course, Democrat-turned-Independent Joe Lieberman joined in the chorus of critics, calling the plan "dangerous." Surprise, surprise.

The President also gave a fiery speech to a crowd of students at the University of Maryland. He talked mostly about health reform, reiterating themes from last week's address to Congress. It was a good speech that made me wish I had skipped out on work this morning and gone to College Park.

That's it for today. We'll see you for a short entry tomorrow night before The Strike celebrates the High Holidays.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/16/09-De-Bauc-le

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. It was a very busy day in Washington, so let's get right to it.

BAUCUS BILL: Oh, boy. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) released the full version of his health care proposal today. This plan is mostly a major, major disappointment. Baucus spent three months seeking bipartisan support in the so-called "Gang of Six." He offered concession after concession, first giving away the public option in favor of co-ops, then he weakened the co-ops, then he cut subsidies so people could afford coverage. The result? Zero Republican support. And, of course, he has angered pretty much everyone in his own caucus, as well as the House Democratic leadership. Even President Obama, who has stood by Baucus, offered only tepid support for his plan. Already, Finance Committee Democrat Jay Rockefeller (WV) said that he can't support the bill in its current form. Let's run down some problems with the bill. Our main source here, as usual, is Ezra Klein.

1. As we mentioned yesterday, Baucus gutted subsidies for people who will not be able to buy insurance. This is one of the most popular parts of the bill, and would make it far more politically appealing to the middle class. The Baucus bill has reduced subsidies for those making over 300% of the poverty line. He did this to gain Republican support, which he now does not even have. The bill also does not do enough to lower costs for people who get sick (by setting hard caps on annual expenditure etc. Not only will 4 million currently uninsured Americans be forced to buy insurance with no assistance from the government, but they'll be increasingly bitter towards those at the lower end of the spectrum who are getting generous subsidies. This principle explains why Social Security is popular, and welfare is not.

2. The co-ops were supposed to be a more politically appealing version of the public option, but in the Baucus bill, they amount to pretty much nothing. The co-ops would exist at the state level, but states could ban together to increase purchasing power. The problem is that the co-ops are only allowed to contract with individuals and small businesses. They can't contract with large employers, and therefore wouldn't be able to compete with private insurers in the private market. If you work at a big business, or a large non-profit, in other words, the co-ops would be unavailable to you, and there would still be no competition with the private insurance companies. (They would, in fairness, have to abide by new consumer protection rules). They will also not be allowed to set national payment rates, like Medicare. They'll have to negotiate individually with each provider or hospital. Thus, not very effective competition for private insurance companies (just like Baucus wants it!).

3. I have to think that with all the criticism from policy wonks that the so-called "free rider" provision will not survive the legislative process, but for now, it is in the Baucus bill. Unlike the House bill and the Senate HELP committee bill, the Baucus bill contains no requirement that employers either provide health insurance to their employees or pay a fee. Instead, it has a penalty for employers who hire workers that would require subsidies. As Ezra points out, this would incentivize companies to NOT hire low income employees (hire the teenager instead of the working mother, maybe). In fact, the penalty increases if the employee needs subsidies for his/her whole family. I don't even know what the point of this penalty is. Maybe someone smarter than me can explain it, but right now it appears pretty nonsensical.

These are just a few of the problems that jump out to me at first glance. Here's The Big Picture's take:

Let's just throw out this Baucus plan - I will be furious if a single one of these changes meant to get Grassley and Enzi and Snowe make it into the final bill if they're not going to vote for it. Which is why you don't negotiate against yourself and make concessions without ensuring final support!!!! I find it hard to believe that Baucus is just a complete idiot, so I think at least part of this is that he wanted to water it down a ton to please his industry backers, but is saying that he did it to appease the GOP.

If I were Obama, I would highlight the exchanges and the subsidies as key improvements, which appeal to some basic conservative and liberal sensibilities that most people agree with - more competition, you should have choice, insurers competing to get your business; and health care is a right, government will help the hardworking middle class afford it. Talk a LOT more about those things.

As with the stimulus, a huge mistake by Obama in the marketing of how much this is going to cost. Should have been done by year. He should have set a much higher target. Most of all, he should have explained WHY we needed that money, that it's going to real people to help them afford health care. There's still time to make that point. But right now people are like "Why are we spending this money? I thought this was going to bring DOWN costs?" Totally incoherent messaging on this crucial front.

There are a few good things about this bill. For one, the Congressional Budget Office says that it will actually reduce the deficit by about $200 billion over ten years. Those are the best deficit numbers that any health plan has seen this year. Of course, the reason for this is that Baucus decreased subsidies and instituted an excise tax on expensive health plans that could potentially be passed on to consumers. Second, the Baucus plan does apparently have a strong, national insurance exchange. The House plan allows only companies with 20 or fewer employees to join the exchange, whereas the Baucus plan would allow companies with 50 or fewer employees to join. It will be much better to have more people join the exchange, so that risk can be pooled more effectively.

Even with cuts to subsidies and all the other bad stuff in the bill, it still would institute strong new insurance market reforms that would eliminate preexisting conditions and rescission. In other words, it's better than nothing. If we were down a vote at the last second and we had tried everything in our power to get this over the finish line, maybe we could accept the Baucus bill as a compromise. But by compromising the way Baucus did, we gained absolutely nothing. In fact, in all the time we've wasted waiting for Baucus to come up with a bipartisan plan, we've allowed opposition to harden on the right, and Obama's popularity to significantly drop.

So the bottom line is that Baucus has acted like a complete idiot. There's no way around it. But we can't let that deter us. There will be ample opportunity for Democrats to amend the bill in committee, and Ezra offers some decent suggestions. Then the bill has to be merged with the HELP bill, and eventually, the House bill. There's still time to get this right. But this much is clear: the Baucus debacle has proven once and for all that: a) Republicans can't be trusted, b) Democrats have to go it alone on health care and c) never make concessions to anyone without getting something in return. Stay tuned for the markup of the bill next week.

THE HOUSE: There was plenty of legislative action today apart from the release of the Baucus bill. The House passed a good bill that authorizes spending on research and development for advanced vehicles. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Peters (D-MI), provides money for the Department of Energy to develop "cutting-edge, commercially viable vehicle technology." Sounds good to me (and to the state of Michigan!). The bill passed easily by a vote of 312-114. 62 Republicans voted yes, and only one Democrat, Harry Teague of New Mexico, voted no. Prior to a vote on final passage, the House voted on a few amendments.

The most threatening amendment, offered by Texas Republican Ralph Hall, would have frozen funding for the program through 2013. Sort of defeats the purpose of the bill, doesn't it? The amendment lost 179-253. The House voted to accept some amendments, including one by Rep. Donnelly (D-IN) that would have included recreational vehicles as part of the new research, and one by Rep. Massa (D-NY) to allow for public-private research partnerships. Democrats successfully beat back a Republican motion t0 recommit that would have allowed money to be spent only if the deficit went below $500 billion. I expect to see a lot of amendments like this as Republicans try to hammer home those deficit talking points. The motion failed 180-245, with 14 deficit hawk Democrats voting yes, and 9 Republicans voting no.

The House then started its work on the comprehensive student loan/education bill. Votes on amendments and final passage on this important piece of legislation will come tomorrow. We'll tell you more about what's in the bill then.

THE SENATE: The Senate was supposed to finish the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development funding bill today. But it didn't quite get across the finish line (shocker!). They will have to vote for 5 more amendments and final passage tomorrow morning. Several amendments to the bill were considered today. Here's a rundown (most of these are unbelievably stupid, so enjoy the ride).

1. The first amendment, offered by Senator Coburn (R-OK) would eliminate the mandate on states that requires them to spend a certain amount of money on road-kill reduction and highway beautification. What a typical Coburn amendment. These are things that may sound silly, but they're actually very important. And these types of programs create good paying jobs! Luckily, the amendment failed 39-59. Democrats Bayh (IN), Feingold (WI), Klobuchar (MN), Lieberman (CT) and McCaskill voted yes, while Republicans Bond (MO), Cochran (MS), Collins (ME), Murkowski (AK), Shelby (AL), Snowe (ME) and Voinovich voted no.

2. The second amendment, also from Coburn, sought to eliminate funding for transportation museums. I love transportation museums. I take his amendments very personally sometimes. Luckily, the amendment failed 41-57. Democrats Bayh (IN), Conrad (ND), Feingold (WI), Kohl (WI), McCaskill (MO) and Udall (CO) voted yes. Republicans Alexander (TN), Bennett (UT), Bond (MO), Cochran (MS), Shelby (AL) and Wicker (MS) voted no. They must have some good transportation museums in Mississippi!

3. This next one really grinds my gears. We seem to get some sort of gun-related amendment on every bill these days, as Republican Senators try to do the NRA's bidding. They almost always pass too, because most Democrats are scared of losing those coveted 100% ratings from the NRA. Today, Senator Wicker (MS) offered an amendment to allow guns to be carried in carry-on baggage on Amtrak. I guess since it's carry-on baggage, it shouldn't pose a danger to passengers. But it still could potentially pose some safety hazards. The amendment passed by a vote of 68-30, with all no votes coming from Democrats.

4. Next was an amendment from the clown to "affirm the continuing existence of the community service requirements under section 12(c) of the United States Housing Act of 1937." No idea what that means, but it passed 73-25. All no votes from Democrats.

5. This one also is purely silly. Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) once had a museum named after him, but now he's upset that a tiny amount of money is being spent on signs that say "This construction was made possibly by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act." As Senator Boxer (D-CA) wisely pointed out, nobody made these complaints when Bush spent money on letters to taxpayers telling them about rebates! Those signs make me proud to be an American! Thankfully, the Gregg amendment, designed really to embarrass the President and Democrats, failed by a vote of 45-52. Democrats Gillibrand (NY), Klobuchar (MN), Lincoln (AR), Schumer (NY) and Shaheen (NH) voted yes. No Republicans voted no.

6. Finally, the Senate rejected an amendment from Senator Ensign (R-Extramarital affairs in Nevada) that would have significantly cut funding from the bill across the board. The amendment failed 33-64. Democrats Bayh (IN) and McCaskill (MO) voted yes, while Republicans Alexander (TN), Bond (MO), Cochran (MS), Collins (ME), Murkowski (AK), Shelby (AL), and Voinovich (OH) voted no.

That's it for a very busy day in politics. Please leave us some comments!!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/15/09-Reprimanded

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. A day when Obama speaks to the AFL-CIO will always beat a day when he speaks on Wall Street. Let's get to the day in politics.

THE HOUSE: We start today in the House, where members voted to officially reprimand Congressman Joe Wilson from yelling "you lie!" at President Obama during last week's joint address to Congress. I'm not defending Wilson, of course, but I think this vote was a pretty futile exercise. Wilson is simply going to be used as a martyr by the tea-partying wing of the Republican party. In fact, he already has won a whole host of new followers. It also gave the Republicans some free time on the House floor to talk about how Democrats were playing politics, how illegal immigrants will be covered in the bill, etc. However, I think a lot of the impetus for bringing up this resolution was that African Americans members see racism (as I do) in the harsh town hall-type rhetoric being hurled at the President. If they did not act, they would be implicitly sanctioning this sort of anger. Plus, Wilson could have ended the dispute if he had just apologized on the House floor (which he refused to do).

The vote was 240-179 in favor of reprimanding Wilson. 12 Democrats opposed the resolution. I was expecting this list to be made up of Blue Dogs, but actually, it was mostly liberal free-speech types. 7 Republicans voted yes. 5 members voted present. The lists are as follows:

Democrats voting no: Arcuri (NY), Delahunt (MA), Giffords (AZ), Hinchey (NY), Hodes (NH), Kucinich (OH), Maffei (NY), Massa (NY), McDermott (WA), Moore (WI), Taylor (MS), and Teague (NM).

Republicans voting yes: Cao (LA), Emerson (MO), Flake (AZ), Inglis (SC), Jones (NC), Petri (WI), and Rohrabacher (CA).

Voting present (all Democrats): Engel (NY), Foster (IL), Frank (MA), Shea-Porter (NH) and Skelton (MO).

10 members did not vote. The House also voted on several suspension bills today. They will move on to a vehicle research and development bill tomorrow.

THE SENATE: The Senate is slogging toward completion of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill, the 5th of 12 bills it needs to pass before September 30th (not gonna happen, as we've said). Today, the Senate voted to kill an amendment offered by Senator McCain (R-AZ) that would have eliminated all earmarks and directed the money to NextGen, a flight safety program. The program is important, but apparently it already had sufficient funding in the bill. Furthermore, I'm one to believe that letting lawmakers decide where to spend some government money isn't necessarily that much worse than letting the administration decide. The amendment was killed by a vote of 68-26, with 5 senators not voting. Republicans voting to kill included Alexander (TN), Bond (MO), Brownback (KS), Cochran (MS), Collins (ME), Gregg (NH), Inhofe (OK), Lugar (IN), McConnell (KY), Murkowski (AK), Roberts (KS), Sessions (AL), Shelby (AL), Voinovich (OH), and Wicker (MS). Democrats voting no were your anti-earmark All-Stars Bayh (IN), Feingold (WI) and McCaskill (MO). The Senate didn't take any votes after 3pm, because Majority Leader Reid wanted to let Senator Specter race him for a fundraiser with President Obama. I wouldn't be surprised or disappointed if that fact was used in an ad next year against Reid or Specter. The Senate is expected to finish the bill tomorrow.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The President today had a working class kind of day. He spoke at an AFL-CIO convention in the afternoon, where he reiterated his support for the Employee Free Choice Act and the Public Option. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between supporting something and being willing to go out and fight for it. The President also toured a GM plant and held the aforementioned fundraiser for Senator Specter. I'm not sure what he's up to tomorrow, but Thursday he will hold a health care rally at the University of Maryland. So tempting for The Strike to miss work!!

HEALTH CARE: The saga known as the Senate Finance Committee health care effort continues. Tomorrow, Senator Max Baucus will unveil his full proposal. After months of work with the bipartisan Gang of Six, and after numerous sellouts and concessions, doesn't appear to have any Republican support. Even Senator Snowe (R-ME), the only realistic possible vote, has expressed skepticism. The effort to win Republican support has made many Democrats, like Senator Rockefeller (WV) wary of the bill, at best. Rockefeller said today that he won't be able to support the bill without significant changes. My major beef with the bill is not that it doesn't contain a public option (though I'm not happy about that). The problem is that Baucus tried to arbitrarily bring the price tag of the bill down to $880 billion to attract Republican support. In doing so, he scaled back subsidies to help people afford health insurance. The bill would require individuals to obtain health insurance. Under the Baucus proposal, therefore, an estimated $4 million uninsured people would be forced to buy insurance without any help from the government. Talk about turning off the middle class for a generation! Let's hope they make some major changes in next week's committee markup.

That's it for today! Leave comments! See you tomorrow!

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/14/09-On Wall Street

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. The President was in the Big Apple today, and just after I leave! Let's get to the day in politics, and don't be bashful. Leave some comments!

WALL STREET SPEECH: The main event today was the President's speech on financial regulation on Wall Street. The speech came on the one year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The first part of the speech was about what the administration has already done. The President, as he does in almost every speech these days, talked about how the aggressive policies taken by the administration has brought the economy back from the brink. While saying that the economy has returned to normalcy, the President emphasized that normalcy cannot lead to complacency. In a sharply worded, but somewhat subdued speech, the President said that some on Wall Street haven't learned anything from last year's collapse, and are willing to take risks that put the nation's economy jeopardy. His exact words:

"We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses."

He used the speech as an avenue to push his financial reform plan, which we outlined this morning. Whatever the merits of the policy, I think the President is addressing the issue very poorly. Expanding on what I wrote this morning, it was particularly striking that he made the speech in front of a bunch of Wall Street investors, and he wasn't particularly angry or confrontational. After last year's bailout, there was a bevy of populist anger. Corporate America was seemingly thoroughly discredited. The President had an opportunity to harness that energy to promote an activist government, one that protects the people from the excesses of capitalism. Instead, the President is trying to make nice with the financial industry so that they are willing to cooperate with the administration's proposal. In doing so, he's making it easier for critics to build an association between the elites in the financial sector and the elites in the federal government. I think this is the biggest political impediment to the President's agenda right now.

The President's style is to solve problems by bringing together key stakeholders and finding common ground. It remains to be seen whether this strategy will yield good policy, but it is not good politics. I'll have more to say on this in the coming days.

CONGRESS: A quiet Monday, as usual in Congress. The House voted on a few suspension bills today. They'll get to serious legislative business on Wednesday (read the Weekly Strike for details). Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) gave his first speech on the House floor since calling the President a liar last week. He did not apologize. In fact, he used the speech to spew out some frivolous anti-health care talking points. Democratic leaders are expected to bring a resolution to the floor reprimanding Wilson for his outburst. I agree with D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who said that passing the resolution will simply turn Wilson into even more of a martyr. Wilson made himself look idiotic enough; there's no reason to give him any more attention.

The Senate took one vote today, an amendment to the Transportation, House and Urban Development Appropriations. The amendment offered by freshman Republican Mike Johanns sought to prohibit any funding in the bill from directly or indirectly going to GOP bogeyman group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). I think we've seen about 100 different versions of this amendment this year. Most Democrats don't want to stand up for ACORN though, and that's why these amendments will always pass. This particularly version passed 83-7, with only courageous Democrats Burris (IL), Casey (PA), Durbin (IL), Gillibrand (NY), Leahy (VT), Sanders (VT) and Whitehouse (RI) voting no. Work continues on this bill tomorrow.

And finally, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus says he will officially release his health care reform proposal on Wednesday. I'll believe it when I see it.

That's it for tonight. PLEASE leave some comments. See you tomorrow!

The Weekly Strike-9/14-9/20

Good morning and welcome to the Weekly Strike, where we preview a busy week in politics. Last week was a lot about spectacle: the President gave an impassioned address to a joint session of Congress, and a cadre of angry right-wing groups descended on Washington to protest...something. But this week, we'll be delving into some pretty deep policy issues.

THE WHITE HOUSE: The President is marking another grim anniversary today, the 1 year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which brought our country into a full blown economic crisis. After two rounds of bailouts and the economic stimulus, we seem to have stopped some of the bleeding, but we have yet to address the root causes of the crisis. The President will attempt to do that today during a major speech on Wall Street. He will lay out plans for a financial regulation overhaul that he hopes will add the necessary oversight to prevent something like this from ever happening again. In my opinion, he should have pushed for this overhaul much sooner. Supporting the bailout of these companies without forcing them to change their behavior is not only bad policy, but it has been politically poisonous. A lot of Americans seem to be associating the bailouts with other anti-recession programs, and it is no doubt hurting the President's standing with political populists on both the left and the right. So what exactly will this plan look like? The Washington Post offers a good summary:

"Key pieces include a new federal consumer agency to oversee financial products such as mortgages and credit cards, expanded authority for the Federal Reserve to monitor the economy for systemic risks, streamlining the system of banking regulation, and creating a mechanism that allows the government to take over and unwind large, failing financial institutions. "

As always, the devil is in the details, but many analysts I trust seem to think the plan would be a step in the right direction. Of course, it would have to get through Congress first, which at the moment, is looking to be quite a challenge. The Senate Banking Committee, led by vulnerable Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) has largely rejected a lot of the ideas put forth by the White House, especially ceding more power to the Federal Reserve. The overarching problem is that an army of banking and financial lobbyists, who have a stranglehold on lawmakers of both parties, will try to exert influence over members of Congress. Such is life in our broken system, and it will only get worse if the Supreme Court, as expected, undoes decades worth of campaign finance restrictions.

The President later has lunch with Bill Clinton in New York City. I'm willing to venture a guess that they'll talk about health care. Tomorrow, the President visits a GM plant in Ohio. The rest of his schedule this week remains unannounced, but I expect him to hold a couple of health care-related events. He held a boisterous rally this weekend in Minnesota that echoed some of his great campaign stops. He had some real emotion and passion in his voice, something that we don't often see anymore.

THE HOUSE: Congress, after a slow first week back from the August recess, kicks into full gear in the next few days. The House takes up suspension bills today and tomorrow, before moving on to two significant pieces of legislation. The first is a bill to authorize spending on research and development of advanced vehicles. The legislation is designed to promote cars that are fuel efficient and low emissions. It is sponsored by freshman Rep. Gary Peters of Michigan. I expect this solid bill to pass pretty easily, though it does authorize some spending, so most Republicans will probably vote no (except maybe the ones from Michigan).

The major piece of legislation to be considered is a comprehensive education bill. Considering it's breadth and importance, I'm surprised it hasn't been talked about more. The biggest new policy contained in the bill is to stop government payments to student loan companies, and instead have the government give out direct loans themselves. I cannot understate how good of an idea this is. Not only will the government offer loans on more favorable terms, but it also doesn't have the high overhead costs of private companies. The bill is projected to save the government about $100 billion over ten years. That's why the words "fiscal responsibility" are in the title. Nevertheless, expect knee-jerk opposition from Republicans, who are ideologically against the government doing anything. Some of the money saved in the bill will be given back to the treasury to help pay down the deficit, while the rest will be reinvested in early childhood education programs and school modernization projects. Good, good and good. Another major component of the bill is a plan to increase the maximum annual Pell Grant scholarship fund. The scholarship will now be indexed for inflation as well.

Another plus of this bill is that, since it saves the government money, it can be done using the reconciliation process. As we've explained before, this will allow it to come up in the Senate under expedited procedures that only require 50 votes for passage. This is key, because there are some centrist Democrats (like Ben Nelson of Nebraska) who want to dilute the bill because of the heavy influence of the student loan industry in their states.

I think we can be pretty much assured that the bill will pass the House in its current form, and will be sent to President Obama's desk one way or another by the end of the year. When it is, it will be a major legislative accomplishment.

THE SENATE: The deliberative body will dither away more time working on its 5th of 12 annual appropriations bills this week, the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill. The House has passed all 12 of its bills, and is waiting for the Senate to act by the end of the fiscal year on September 30th. House and Senate conferees are supposedly working to iron out differences on the bills that have passed both chambers. I still expect Congress won't be able to finish appropriations work by the end of the month, and they'll have to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running temporarily.

We'll also still be on the lookout for a health care bill to emerge out of the Senate Finance Committee. Chairman Max Baucus, who has an awful track record when it comes to meeting deadlines, says he will release the full bill tomorrow and hold hearings next week. We'll have to see about that. The finance committee bill will not include the Public Option.

That's it for now, see you tonight and leave some comments!

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/11/09-It's Been 8 Years

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. The healthcare debate took a brief pause today as the country marked the 8th anniversary of 9/11, but it seems like we all take less time to pause and remember these days, doesn't it?

SEPTEMBER 11: As Ezra Klein pointed out today, our country is becoming further and further removed from the events of 9/11. Last year's election was the first since 2000 that didn't center upon 9/11 or the War on Terrorism. And even with a very perilous situation in Afghanistan, most of the political debate now centers around domestic policy.

The President marked the anniversary today by giving a speech at the Pentagon, where 184 people died in the attacks. He was joined by Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen. Vice President Biden attended a memorial at Ground Zero in New York. But the ceremonies lacked the grandeur and political theater they did in previous years. President Bush's popularity always used to shoot up around 9/11 because he could show the country that he was firm in his resolve against terrorism, and on that day, people were susceptible to that message. I hate to write political obituaries, but I'm wondering if the era of 9/11 politics is coming to a close.

Even if it is, the war in Afghanistan certainly isn't. Today, Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-MI) said that he would be against sending more troops to Afghanistan even if, as expected, General McCrystal asks for reinforcements. Liberal House Democrats also say that they would not support sending more troops, especially without a definitive exit strategy. President Obama has made no decision yet about increasing troop levels. I'm sure he will be heavily pressured by the military brass, as every President is. But he needs to look out for the best interest of the country, not the conventional wisdom in the Pentagon. It's such a difficult pace to win a war, no matter how many troops we send. We'll keep an eye on this as the President makes his decision. It's not like the President will be able to devote that much time to Afghanistan. Even beyond the health care effort, he is extremely busy in the next couple of weeks, with the G20 summit, the UN meeting and Monday's speech on Wall Street, where he'll lay out the tenets of his financial regulation plan.

HEALTH CARE: Not that this should be news anymore, but Chairman Baucus (D-MT) says that he is just about ready to unveil his health care plan, possibly by Tuesday. He's been saying this for about 3 months now. Apparently, all that work with the bipartisan "Gang of Six" has been pretty pointless. Senator Grassley (R-IA) today said that he most likely won't support the bill. He thinks that President Obama hurt bipartisan efforts because he didn't abandon the public option. I won't say more except that I really, strongly dislike Chuck Grassley. This is a family blog, so I won't say what I really feel about this grumpy old partisan hack.

RIGHT-WING NUTTERY: Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she would not seek a legislative rebuke to Congressman Joe Wilson for yelling "You Lie" to the President at his address to a joint session of Congress. Apparently, after some convincing from Majority Whip James Clyburn, also from South Carolina, she will allow a vote on a resolution condemning Wilson's actions. Part of the reason they're doing this is because Wilson, despite pressure from his own party, has not apologized for his antics on the House floor. He has broken House rules (you're not allowed to call someone a liar), so he should have to pay a price. If they do actually vote on this next week, I'll be very interesting to see what the outcome is, and how many Republicans, if any, crossover.

Also, tomorrow conservative teabaggers will descend on DC for a protest as part of the "9/12 project." This project was started by Glenn Beck, ostensibly to bring our country back where it was the day after 9/11, but it's really just a way for crazy people to express anger at Obama and liberals. I'll be interested to see if these people get any significant media coverage.

That's it for tonight. I'm up to see The Big Picture in New York this weekend. See you Monday morning!