Friday, December 4, 2009

The Daily Strike-12/4/09-Green Shoots

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. We've made it through a pretty hectic week in politics. We're marching on with two of our three December pillars today: jobs and health care. Let's get to it.

JOBS: We received relatively good news on the jobs situation today. In November, the economy only shed 11,000 jobs, the fewest amount of jobs lost since the recession began in December 2007. We're still losing jobs, and the unemployment rate is now 10.0% (down from 10.2%). So we can't consider this great news. But it does potentially give the President a bit of breathing room while he plots out a legislative strategy for a jobs bill. Pretty soon, we're going to have to make the case that we haven't just stopped the bleeding, but that we're actually creating jobs. Beyond that, we need to make a stronger push to fundamentally change the structure of our economy. This is an issue close to the heart of The Big Picture, so I'll let him explain:

There is a huge debate about this being a structural vs. a cyclical downturn. What's particularly frustrating is that back in the spring I felt that THAT was the serious debate, and I and Robert Reich and others were criticizing even the seemingly effective countercyclical measures like the stimulus, because they were just dealing with the cyclical downturn, just trying to get us back to the 2007 situation. Then Obama talked more of the New Foundation, we thought, alright, he's really going to move on to structural transformation. But then in the past 6 months there's been NO talk of structural transformation, and in fact even the countercyclical measures are proving very inadequate, and the White House doesn't even seem to care about that! So now the debate is whether we should even be doing ANY countercylical measures, and the left-wing position is doing a bare minimum of them, not even enough to be fully effective but enough to stop the bleeding. Truly effective countercyclical measures like jobs programs are way off in left field. And what should be right in the center - how to STRUCTURALLY transform the economy - is out on the moon. What an awful transition - it would be somewhat understandable if the countercyclical stuff had worked, maybe less urgency to make big changes, but it's just insane when actually unemployment has risen greatly and there's such a political threat to the Democrats form the jobs picture. And this shift in the debate really can't be blamed on the Senate or even the media - certainly they're not doing enough, but it really comes back to the White House and the investment banking buddies of Summers, Geithner, and Emanuel and all their friends at GoldMINE Sachs.

Obama's performance over the past few months doesn't give me any positive feelings about his goals, especially when it comes to the structure of the economy. And I mean real goals, not "it would be great if everyone had great jobs!" but "the goal of my Presidency is to achieve these concrete steps which will make a New Foundation". I'm willing to tolerate various strategies to achieve those concrete steps, but I'm increasingly concerned that these steps don't have to do with that, just have to with propping up the economy enough to get re-elected and to keep those campaign contributions from Wall Street coming (and not have them unleash their attack guns on him).

HEALTH CARE: The Senate voted today on 4 additional amendments, even as the Democratic leadership is still pushing compromises on what seem like the two outstanding obstacles to 60 votes: abortion and the public option. Democratic Senator Ben Nelson (NE) is threatening to filibuster the bill if there aren't abortion restrictions similar to the Stupak amendment in the House. Senator Lieberman (CT) will filibuster the bill if there is any form of public option in the bill. Since the Democrats have zero votes to spare, they'll either have to kowtow to these Senators' demands, or look elsewhere. It seems like the new strategy will be to not include the abortion langauge (thus losing Nelson's vote) and compromise on a public option that can win the support of at either Lieberman (unlikely) or Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Negotiations will continue over the weekend, as the Senate will stay in for rare Saturday and Sunday sessions to vote on amendments.

As for today's amendment votes, here's the rundown:

1. The first amendment was offered by Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) and was designed to counter charges that money would be taken out of the social security trust fund. The amendment expressed the sense of the Senate that no money would be taken out of the social security surplus, or the surplus created through the CLASS Act (more on this below), a program that provides long-term health insurance to seniors and the disabled. The amendment passed by a vote of 98-0.

2. The Republican approach to the CLASS Act was to try to eliminate it altogether. The late Ted Kennedy proposed the CLASS Act, in which "workers would pay a modest monthly premium during their careers into the voluntary program. If they become disabled, they would get a cash benefit of at least $50 a day. That can help pay for a home care attendant, for supplies and equipment, to make home improvements such as new bathroom railings, or defray nursing home costs." (Associated Press, I was too lazy to paraphrase this). The House passed a version of this act, and it is strongly supported by President Obama. Republicans, led by Senator Thune (SD) wanted to eliminate this program, because they say it creates an unaffordable entitlement program. The amendment needed 60 votes to pass under a previous agreement, and it luckily only got 51. All Republicans supported the amendment, as did Democrats Baucus (MT), Bayh (IN), Carper (DE), Conrad (ND), Landrieu (LA), Lieberman (CT), Lincoln (AR), McCaskill (MO), Nelson (FL), Udall (CO), Warner (VA) and Webb (VA). In other words, it was Democrats who don't support a self-funding program to protect the elderly and disabled, but will happily shell out millions in estate tax cuts and war funding.

3. The next two amendments dealt with the Medicare Advantage program. This Republican initiative pays out taxpayer money to private companies to do pretty much what regular Medicare does, but at a much higher cost. Republicans argued that Medicare advantage plans are important because they cover more than traditional Medicare plans. This is a duplicative program that can be sacrificed in the name of providing health care to millions of uninsured Americans. Anyways, the Democrats first proposed an amendment to ensure that there is no reduction or elimination of any benefits guaranteed by law to participants in Medicare Advantage plans. The amendment passed 97-1, with the only no vote coming from Senator Coburn (R-OK).

4. The final amendment, proposed by Senator Hatch (R-UT), would eliminate all cuts to Medicare advantage in the bill, thus doing away with a key funding source. The amendment needed 60 votes to pass. It failed by a vote of 41-57. All Republicans supported the amendment, as did Democrats Nelson (NE) and Webb (VA).

We will out of commission this weekend, so we may get a bit behind on running down the GOP amendments. But we'll catch up on Monday's Weekly Strike. Have a great weekend!

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