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March 31, 2010 - by Eric Naing

Even with Congress out of town, lawmakers still manages to make a lot of noise - particularly about President Obama's offshore drilling plans. Anyway, here's today's afternoon digest of articles and blog posts from around the web:

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Boehner Bashes Obama's Drilling Plan

March 31, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

This is how you know for sure that the Republican strategy in Congress is to simply oppose anything Obama does. Following this morning's announcement that Obama is proposing opening up a huge amount of off-shore oil reserves to drilling for the first time ever, Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner's [R, OH-8] first response was, essentially, "no."

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When financial reform negotiations broke down a couple weeks ago, Sen. Bob Corker [R, TN] (pictured at right) was the one to stand up and say that a bipartisan bill was still possible. Last week, when the Republicans refused to participate in the mark-up of the bill, Corker called it "a very large strategic mistake," adding that financial reform "is an issue that almost every American wants to see passed." But today he announced that he "absolutely cannot support" the bil.

Senate Democrats, as we know, need to pick off at least one Republican, in addition to holding their own party together, to overcome an inevitable Republican filibuster. They have basically three options -- find a Republican other than Corker who may be willing to vote for the bill, negotiate down some of the provisions to a point that Republicans can support it, or call the Republicans' bluff and just bring the bill to a vote.

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Congress Links

March 30, 2010 - by Eric Naing

Congress may be in recess, but that doesn't mean there isn't anything interesting to read about politics. For your afternoon political fix, check out today's edition of Congress Links.

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Shortly after the health care bill was signed into law last week, it became clear that someone, either the Democrats in Congress or President Obama, had messed up. Obama had been saying publicly that the bill would immediately ban insurance companies from denying children with pre-existing conditions from buying new insurance plans. But what the bill actually did was ban insurers from denying certain services for children with pre-existing conditions who are already insured.

To fix the situation, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she would issuing regulations that would apply Obama's interpretation over the letter of the law, but it was unclear whether insurers would follow regulations that go beyond what had been passed by Congress and signed into law. Today, the health insurers announced that they will voluntarily go beyond the letter of the law and immediately stop denying children with pre-existing conditions from getting new insurance plans.

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One More War Supplemental, Please

March 29, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

A huge chunk of the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been done outside of the regular congressional appropriations process through "supplemental" spending bills, which don't count on the budget and mask the actual impact the wars are having on the deficit.

This is something Obama vowed to change on the campaign trail. "As President, Obama will […] end the abuse of the supplemental budgets, where much of the money has been lost, by creating system of oversight for war funds as stringent as in the regular budget," a campaign document (.pdf) on defense spending stated.

But, last Thursday, the Administration was back in front of Congress asking for another supplemental for the Afghanistan surge, his second since becoming President.

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Last April, Sen. Jay Rockefeller [D, WV], the Chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, introduced the Cybersecurity Act of 2009 to his committee. The goal of the bill was to develop a public-private plan for strengthening national security in the case of internet-based attacks. But it stalled almost immediately because of a controversial provision that would have give the President unilateral authority to declare a cybersecurity emergency and then shut down or limit access to parts of the internet without any oversight or explanation.

A couple weeks ago, Sen. Rockefeller partnered with Sen. Olympia Snowe [R, ME] to introduce a major revision to the bill that, among other things, made changes the emergency "kill switch" provision. The revision was adopted by the committee last Thursday and the bill was approved. It's now ready for consideration by the full Senate, but it's not clear that the revision would actually prevent the President from gaining basically the same powers that would have been given to him in the original bill.

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No Deal on Extending Unemployment Benefits

March 26, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

As the House was wrapping up health care reform last night, the Senate was engaged in a face-off over extending the filing deadline for unemployment benefits, which is currently set to happen on April 5th.

The sticking point: Democrats want to pass a one-month extension of the deadline, which will cost about $10 billion, without any plan to pay for it. Republicans, lead by Sen. Tom Coburn [R, OK], want to extend the deadline and pay for the it with unused money form the stimulus bill.

Coburn is objecting to a unanimous consent agreement on quick passage of the Democrats' bill that was approved by the House last week (H.R.4851). Besides the unemployment deadline, the bill would temporarily extend a slew of other expiring programs -- COBRA health benefits for the unemployed, the national flood insurance program, funding for furloughed highway workers, and a delay in a scheduled 21% cut in Medicare payments to doctors.

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The Week In Review

March 26, 2010 - by Eric Naing

That's all, folks. Health care reform is finally, truly over. With the House's passage of the reconciliation fix (H.R.4872) to the health care bill (H.R.3590), the complete Democratic health care reform plan has finally made its way through Congress. The year-long debate has been wild but this week's climax may have been the most thrilling. Relive all the excitement by checking what we've been up to this week at OpenCongress.

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Now that Democrats have put the finishing touches on health care reform, they can get back to the truly important work of Congress: bickering with Republicans over Obama appointees. With a two-week Easter recess looming, players in both parties are wondering whether President Obama will use that time to pluck the pro-labor Craig Becker out of Senate confirmation Purgatory and appoint him to the National Labor Relations Board.

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More than a year after Congress began their health care reform effort, it officially came to an end today as the Senate and House both gave final votes of approval to the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010. The bill amends the bigger health care reform bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, that President Obama signed into law earlier this week.

The Senate voted first this afternoon, passing the reconciliation bill on a 56-43 vote, with Sen. Ben Nelson [D, NE], Sen. Blanche Lincoln [D, AR] and Sen. Mark Pry or [D, AR] crossing the aisle to vote with all Republicans agains it. The House followed suit later in the evening, voting 220-207 to agree to the bill and a few insignificant changes that were made to it in the Senate.

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Congress Links

March 25, 2010 - by Eric Naing

This could be it for health care. The Senate this morning voted 56-43 to pass the reconciliation fix to the health care bill (H.R.4872). Because of a minor adjustment made to the bill, it will now go back to the House for one more vote which is expected later tonight. After that, the messy, wonky, year-long journey health care has taken through Congress will basically be at an end. With health care wrapping up, stay tuned to OpenCongress for financial reform, immigration reform and probably more on health care reform. Also stay tuned for today's edition of Congress Links.

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Not Much of a Mandate

March 25, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Ezra Klein reminds us of a provision in the health care bill dating back to the Senate Finance Committee's work in October that is important, but largely forgotten. If you don't abide with the bill's requirement starting in 2014 that you have acceptable health coverage, you are supposed to pay a fine to the government. But, under the new bill, those who fail to get insurance and fail to pay the fine will pretty much get off scott free.

And what happens if you don't buy insurance and you don't pay the penalty? Well, not much. The law specifically says that no criminal action or liens can be imposed on people who don't pay the fine. If this actually leads to a world in which large numbers of people don't buy insurance and tell the IRS to stuff it, you could see that change. But for now, the penalties are low and the enforcement is non-existent.

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Public Option Still Dead... At Least For Now

March 25, 2010 - by Eric Naing

Some liberals have been pushing Democrats to include a public option in the reconciliation bill for health care (H.R.4872). The party's response: a public option can't be included because doing so would complicate things by forcing the House to re-vote on the updated version of the bill. So what's going to happen now that the House has to re-vote on the bill anyway?

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The Senate stayed in session late into the night on Wednesday, voting over and over to reject dilatory Republican amendments to the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act and moving closer to a final vote on passage. The bill proposes a number of "fixes" to the new health care law, like increasing subsidies for helping people buy insurance and lowering tax penalties on those who don't, and includes unrelated legislation to reform the student loan industry. A full summary of the reconciliation bill can be read here.

By the time the Senate adjourned at 2:50 a.m. ET on Thursday morning, they had rejected 29 Republican amendments to the bill on everything from repealing the new health care bill to undoing Washington D.C.'s gay marriage law. But as it turns out, the situation the Democrats were working all night on Wednesday to avoid, having to send the bill back to the House for another vote, is unavoidable. This AP is reporting that the GOP has succesfully altered the bill by finding violations in the bill under the Byrd Rule.

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