Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Daily Strike-12/16/09-Closing Up Shop

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. The House ducked out of town today so that Speaker Pelosi could jet off to Copenhagen. Let's get to the day in politics.

HEALTH CARE: We knew it was inevitable. We knew it was coming. But it doesn't make it any less annoying. Today the Republicans brought out their parliamentary dilatory tactics to bring the health care debate to a halt. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had proposed an amendment that would replace the entire bill with a single-payer system. The amendment was obviously for show, but Sanders only intended for it to be a short chance for him to make a case for single-payer medicine. Republican Senator Tom Coburn, the master of obstruction, forced the clerk to read the entire 700 page amendment, as is his right as a single Senator. The clerk made it through about two hours and had only read 150 or so pages, so Sanders decided to withdraw his amendment (which cuts off the reading, in the theory of the parliamentarian at least). As a result, Sanders was prevented from offering his amendment. More importantly, the Republicans have indicated that they will do anything to delay this bill as long as possible. Unfortunately, they have a lot of opportunities to do so.

To accommodate the changes Majority Leader Reid has made to appease moderates, the Democrats have crafted a "manager's amendment" that will incorporate the revisions. This manager's amendment will probably be pretty long, and any Republican can request that it be read in full on the Senate floor. The Democrats will need 60 votes to close debate on this manager's amendment. And remember in 8th grade when you learned about how only the House can originate bills raising revenue? As a result of this constitutional provision, the Senate has to make the health care bill a substitute amendment to an unrelated House-passed measure. The substitute amendment will need 60 votes, and will be subject to the long and arduous cloture process. It took can be read in full at the request of any Senator, and it is 2,000 pages. Once the substitute amendment is approved, the underlying bill will be subject to the 60 vote threshold and the 60 hour cloture process. In other words, Republicans have the power to drag this thing out a pretty long time, even if the Democrats cobble together 60 votes.

The strategy is clear: the longer and uglier this debate gets, the less popular health care becomes. The Republicans know that, and they are using it to their advantage. The Democrats need to play hardball and force the Republicans to follow through on these obstruction threats, even if it means that the Senate is in session on Christmas day.

The Senate took one vote today, to kill a Hutchison (TX) amendment that would delay the taxes in the bill from kicking in until the full benefits have been given out. This amendment would keep the bill from being deficit neutral, so Democrats lined up in opposition. The amendment was killed 56-41, with all Republicans voting no (supporting the amendment). Democrats Bayh (IN) and Nelson (NE) voted with the GOP, as they have frequently during the health care debate.

Tomorrow, the Senate takes a break from health care to consider the Defense Appropriations bill, which we'll talk about below.

THE HOUSE: So what DIDN'T the House do today? The 2009 session of the House of Representatives has officially ended, and the House was able to take care of some important year-end business in time for members to jet out of town. The House really a productive year, and it's important that we recognize that the source of stagnation has been the United States Senate and its cadre of centrist Democrats During the Christmas break, I will write an entry about what we could have accomplished if we had a unicameral legislature. But for now, I will go through what the House did today.

The House passed three key bills today. The first was the Defense Appropriations bill. Democrats used this must-pass funding bill as a vehicle for other must-pass pieces of legislation that would die a slow Senate death in regular order. Among the provisions of the bill are extensions of various tax credits and safety net programs, as well as a temporary extension of certain provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act. Democrats wanted to tack on even more to this bill, like an increase in the debt ceiling and a jobs measure, but it was clear that such measures couldn't get 60 votes in the Senate, even if they were attached to a troop-funding bill.

The bill passed by a vote of 395-34, with 23 Democrats and 11 Republicans voting no. The Democrats' opposition was due to the fact that some of these funds will be used for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The measure is currently on the Senate floor, where it is expected to pass in the next couple of days, depending on whether the GOP employs more delay tactics.

Next on the agenda was the toughest vote for wary Democrats. The United States has reached its so-called debt ceiling, meaning that if Congress did not authorize us to go into more debt, we would default on our loans. This debt limit has to be raised pretty frequently, and it is a great political opportunity for the party out of power to rag on the majority about "running up the debt." Republicans, of course, were thrilled to have that opportunity. Democrats wanted to increase the debt limit by $1.8 trillion, which would have sufficed through next year. But when it was clear that such an increase wouldn't pass the Senate, the leadership settled on a raise of $ 200 billion that will last until February (at which points members will be forced to take yet another difficult vote on raising the debt ceiling again!). The bill passed by a margin of 218-214, with all Republicans and 39 Democrats voting no. Some Democratic members have clearly read polls that show Americans increasingly worried about the deficit and the national debt, so I can understand them not wanting to raise the debt ceiling. I personally think, as I've said before, that when people say they're worried about the deficit, they're more expressing a general discontent with the economy and the jobs picture.

If the next vote was any indication of whether centrist and vulnerable Democrats understand the economic angst of the American public, then these members are utterly clueless. The Democratic leadership brought a bill to the floor today that would have transferred about $159 billion in leftover TARP money for a robust jobs bill. The bill contained provisions that extended safety-net programs like unemployment insurance and COBRA health insurance. It gave money to state and local governments to help offset staggering state budget deficits that are causing teachers, firefighters and policemen to be laid off. It also invested over $70 billion in infrastructure projects that will create good jobs in construction and manufacturing. In other words, this was a bill to transfer money from Wall Street to Main Street. The bill passed by a narrow margin of 217-212.

This bill would have a measurable effect on millions of Americans (though it should have been bigger). Thus, I'm extremely disturbed that 38 Democrats joined every single Republican in opposing this bill. Do these Democrats take literally polls that say that people would rather reduce the deficit than create jobs? I'm one to believe that people don't really know what the deficit is, what causes it, and what the consequences are. The deficit is such a nebulous concept. People hear the word "deficit" and it sort of conjures up the feeling that the economy is bad, and that we're spending more money than we're taking in, which is a bad thing. I guarantee you that if we increased the deficit and it brought down unemployment by 5 percentage points, people would stop caring about the deficit. I wish these 38 Democrats knew better than to take polls literally, and voted for reasons other than short-term political expediency. The list of guilty Democrats is as follows (commence booing): Adler (NJ), Arcuri (NY), Bean (IL), Boren (OK), Boyd (FL), Bright (AL), Childers (MS), Connolly (VA), Donnelly (IN), Driehaus (OH), Edwards (TX), Ellsworth (IN), Foster (IL), Griffith (AL), Herseth Sandlin (SD), Hill (IN), Himes (CT), Hodes (NH), Kind (WI), Kirkpatrick (AZ), Kosmas (FL), Kratovil (MD), Markey (CO), Matheson (UT), Melancon (LA), Minnick (ID), Mitchell (AZ), Murphy (PA), Nye (VA), Peters (MI), Peterson (MN), Pomeroy (ND), Quigley (IL), Schrader (OR), Smith (WA), Space (OH), Taylor (MS) and Teague (NM).

And just because we want to leave on a postive note, here are vulnerable/swing-state Democrats who took a tough yes vote: Boccieri (OH), Carney (PA), Giffords (AZ), Grayson (FL), Owens (NY), Perriello (VA) and Shuler (NC).

That's it for tonight. No more updates on the House until the New Year! We'll keep you posted on the Senate health care battle and we'll fill you in on Obama's happenings tomorrow night.

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