Outlook - What's Happening With the Big Issues in CongressJune 15, 2009 - by Donny Shaw
There’s a lot happening on the Hill this week, and we’ll be covering it all and providing links to others who are covering it as best we can. With so much happening, I thought it would be useful to take a step back for a big-picture look at how Congress’ next few months are shaping up. Below is a quick update on where things stand with four of the biggest issues currently before Congress — health care reform, climate change, financial regulatory reform and immigration.
This is a huge week for health care reform on the Hill. Congress will hold its first hearing on proposed health care reform legislation on Wednesday in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP Committee). The bill they will be looking at, Sen. Ted Kennedy’s [D, MA] Affordable Health Choices Act, has not officially been introduced into Congress, but an incomplete draft version (.pdf) of it was made public last week. According to the draft, the bill would require all Americans to be insured, ban insurers from refusing to cover pre-existing conditions, and much more. In a press release issued as the draft was made public, Kennedy’s office explained the foundation of the bill: “If you like the coverage you have now, you keep it. But if you don’t have health insurance or don’t like the insurance you have, our bill will give you new, more affordable options.”
The draft version of the bill does not include a “public option,” a proposal, favored by President Obama and most Democrats, to create a government-run health insurance agency to compete side-by-side with private insurers. The HELP Committee has since indicated that a public option is still on the table and is currently under negotiation.
The Senate Finance Committee is expected to release a draft version of their alternative health care bill this week. The Finance Committee’s version is expected to be more appealing to Republicans and centrist Democrats on several fronts. It probably will not contain a public option and it will likely propose a new tax on employer-provider health benefits, an idea supported by Sen. John McCain [R, AZ] during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Last week, Senate Budget Chairman Sen. Kent Conrad [D, ND] floated a possible public-option compromise proposal, calling for a system of federally-chartered, non-profit health care co-ops to compete with the insurance companies. His proposal has gained support among a few key centrists in the Senate.
Related: President Obama today delivered a big speech, his longest so far, the American Medical Association House of Delegates, making his case for a health-care revamping and a new government-sponsored insurance plan.
The Waxman-Markley American Clean Energy and Security Act is taking a back seat this week to health care reform legislation, even though Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi [D, CA-8] has given committee leader a Jun 19 deadline to either mark-up their portion of the bill or forfeit jurisdiction over it. Last week, for example, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charles Rangel [D, NY-15] said, “we are doing every day three things — health care, health care, health care.” He is planning to skip a formal markup of the bill by his committee, as is Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Collin Peterson [D, MN-7].
That said, Speaker Pelosi is hoping to bring the bill to the House floor before the Independence Day recess even though several contentious issues need to be worked out beforehand, if only informally. The main sticking point among House Democrats right now is that Peterson and the Democrats on his committee want to have the Agriculture Department in charge of a proposed agricultural offsets program that farmers can use to meet the bill’s cap-and-trade emission reduction requirements, not the Environmental Protection Agency as it is currently written into the bill. If that is not changed, all 27 Democrats on the Agriculture Committee are threatening to vote against the overall bill.
According to Congress Daily ($), the centrist New Democrat Coalition is also pushing House leaders for some changes. Reps Waxman [D, CA-30] and Rep. Markey [D, MA-7] are meeting with Rep. Ron Klein [D, FL-22], who co-chairs the coalition’s energy task force, to discuss issues that his coalition wants to have addressed, including, Peterson says, “the need to add nuclear energy to a renewable electricity production mandate.”
Overall, the larger debate in the push for climate change legislation among Democrats remains the same. Progressives are pushing to pass as strong a bill as possible, even if it requires protracted wrangling and delay, while centrists, including a broad coalition of business and environmental groups – the U.S. Climate Action Partnership – are pushing to quickly pass a bill that makes more concessions to conservatives, which, they say, can be improved in the future if need be.
The Obama administration this week will release their proposals for overhauling the country’s financial regulatory system. Today, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House economic adviser Larry Summers previewed the administration’s proposals in a Washington Post op-ed and broke them down into five general areas:
- Raising capital and liquidity requirements so that big financial institutions can’t go belly up and bring down the rest of the system.
- New regulations and reporting requirements for less-traditional financial products, like asset-backed securities. This will include a requirement that the originator of these products retain some kind a financial interest in them when they are sold off to investors.
- “A stronger framework for consumer and investor protection across the board.” Maybe the proposed Financial Products Safety Commission? Maybe not.
- A resolution system allowing the government to temporarily take over failing financial companies that pose a systemic risk.
- The administration will “lead the effort to improve regulation and supervision around the world.”
Conspicuously absent from the outline is the administration’s reported preference for making the Federal Reserve the systemic-risk supercop in charge of deciding when an institution has become “too big to fail.” That idea, if it is indeed included in the administration’s proposal, [update: I misread the first time around] The administration’s proposal to make the Federal Reserve a systemic-risk supercop in charge of deciding when an institution has become “too big to fail” is expected to meet heavy resistance in Congress, where suspicion of the Fed’s response to the crisis have grown so large that a Republican bill to audit the Fed for the first time in 59 years has now gained co-sponsorship from a majority of the House.
We should be getting more details on all of this in the next few days. In the meantime, Memeorandum is tracking all the responses from the econo-blogosphere.
This is another pressing issuing that is being pushed back by health care reform. President Obama was supposed to meet with pro-immigrant groups and members of Congress on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of legislation to reform the U.S. immigration system, including a plan to put the estimated 12 millions immigrants currently in the U.S. illegally on a path to citizenship. However, the meeting has been canceled because the administration is bogged down with health care reform and pushing for final passage of a war-funding bill.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] sounded confident that immigration reform would happen soon. “It’s going to happen this session, but I want it this year, if at all possible,” he said. To that end, Congress is moving forward on a few fronts. Specifically, the Senate last week held a hearing on the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor same-sex partners, as they would spouses, for immigration visas and permanent residency status. Video from the hearing can be seen here.
Proposals like the Uniting American Families Act will likely be wrapped up with other immigration-related proposals into a comprehensive bill designed to strike a balance allowing it to get through the Senate. Angela Kelley, VP of the Center of American Progress, which has been working with the Democrats on immigration reform, says that Obama has been flirting with taking this on. “So far there’s been a serious flirtation but not a marriage proposal,” she said.