Monday, September 21, 2009

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.

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