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What's Happening With the Big Issues in Congress (7/6/09)

July 6, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

Today begins what is probably the most important month in Congress and the Obama Administration’s work on reforming the health care system and addressing the issue of climate change. On August 7, Congress will leave for a month-long recess. Between now and then, they hope to pass bills for both of those issues in both chambers, confirm Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and finalize work on a number of appropriations bills that are necessary to keep the government up and running. Below is a quick update on where things stand with four of the biggest issues currently before Congress — health care, climate change, financial regulatory reform and immigration.

Health Care

The House, with their strong Democratic majority, is in a good spot to pass their version of a health care bill before they leave for the month-long summer recess on August 15. But the Senate, which, with the addition of Al Franken, has exactly as many Democrats as the number of votes that are needed to pass a bill outside of the budget process, is still trying to resolves some big differences that are threatening to keep the Democrats divided.

The biggest issue is still whether or not the government should set up and manage a new health care service, similar to Medicare, to compete on a level playing field with the private insurers. On Sunday, Sen. Charles Schumer [D, NY] came out with a strong prediction that any health care bill that comes out of Congress will contain a so called public option. “Make no mistake about it, the president is for this strongly. There will be a public option in the final bill,” Schumer said on one of the Sunday morning talk shows. Schumer sits on the Senate Finance Committee, which is the only committee in Congress with jurisdiction over the bill that has not thrown its support behind a public option. As he noted on Sunday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, the full House of Representatives and the Obama Administration all support a public option.

The public option plan got a boost last week from a new report showing that its inclusion makes health care reform legislation cheaper and more effective. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a non-partisan entity in charge of attaching budget number to proposed bills in Congress, released a report showing that the HELP Committee’s bill that includes a public option would cost considerably less than what had originally been reported. The CBO’s new report estimated that the bill would cost about $600 billion over ten years. A previous estimate, which was based on an incomplete bill that, for one, did not contain a public option, estimated the bill to cost $1.1 trillion. Furthermore, the new report estimates that the bill will cover 97 percent of the population, a significant improvement over that last estimate.

Despite the good news from the CBO, Roll Call is reporting that the Democrats’ health care timeline may be slipping. Besides logistical concerns with the Senate’s busy floor schedule of must-pass legislation and confirmations, Democrats face the tenuous task of combining the Finance Committee’s more conservative bill with the HELP Committee’s more progressives one. “The goal is to complete the tricky merger of the HELP and Finance Committee bills, with the floor fracas over a final bill put off until after Labor Day,” the article notes. Other challenges Democrats will face include the usual dilatory tactics from Republicans and the possibility of defections from labor unions and the left if the final Senate bill does not contain a robust enough public option or if it would levy a tax on companies that don’t provide insurance for their employees as a way to pay for reform.

Climate Change

Now that the Waxman-Markely climate change bill has passed the House (with just one vote to spare), all eyes are on the Senate, where prospects appear dimmer than they ever did in the House. Jim Tankersley for the L.A. Times reports:

President Obama’s landmark energy and global warming bill squeaked through the House only after the White House made dozens of concessions to coal, manufacturing and other interests.

Now, as the battle moves to the Senate, Obama faces demands for even more concessions – including pressure to open the nation’s coastlines to offshore oil and gas drilling.

The Senate also will take up a series of controversial issues that were glossed over or omitted from the House legislation. Among them: giving the government sweeping powers to approve thousands of miles of new transmission lines to carry electric power to coastal cities from wind turbines in the upper Midwest and solar power generators in the Southwest, regardless of local objections.

On the other hand, political stats expert Nate Silver has run an analysis that suggests the Senate already has the votes to pass the bill. His analysis is based on research on the House’s vote, looking at things like lobbying contributions, per-capita emissions, lawmakers’ ideology, district unemployment rate and poverty level. When applied to the Senate, Silver’s model finds 53 senators who are likely to vote in favor of a cap-and-trade bill (including Maine Republicans Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins), and somewhere between 62 and 66 who are possible “yeses” depending on specific details of the bill that have yet to be worked out. That means that there are about 15 key senators that negotiations over the bill will be focused around with the goal of attaining support from at least half of them.

The actual negotiations will be more dynamic than Silver’s analysis suggests. For example, Silver’s analysis puts Sen. Bernard Sanders [I, VT] at 99.92 % certain to vote for the bill, but if the bill moves too far to the right – say, by weakening the cap-and-trade program and adding lots of offshore drilling – it’s not hard to imagine Sanders voting “no.” We saw this happen in the House with liberal Representatives like Rep. Dennis Kucinich [D, OH-10] and Rep. Peter DeFazio [D, OR-4] voting with Republicans and conservative Democrats against the bill.

The Senate will be building their climate change legislation from the ground up. On Tuesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will testify before the Environment and Public Works Committee. Later in the week, the Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing looking at International Trade Considerations involved in the legislation and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing entitled, “Industrial Competitiveness Under Climate Policies: Lessons from Europe.”

Financial Regulation

There is not a whole lot going on on the financial regulations front this week besides a few committee hearings in the House. Most notably, on Friday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner will be back in front of the House FInancial Services Committee to talk about his plan to regulate the over-the-couter derivatives market. You can read more about Geithner’s OTC derivatives plan via Bloomberg.

On Thursday, the same committee will hear from Fed Vice Chairman Donald Kohn and a handful of economists on “balancing the independence of the Federal Reserve in monetary policy with systemic risk regulation.” The Obama Administration’s plan to put the Fed in charge of regulating systemic risks in financial markets has emerged as the major stumbling block to getting the broader regulatory overhaul through Congress.

On Wednesday the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection will look at what is probably the most popular part of Obama’s regulatory overhaul proposal in a hearing entitled, “The Proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency: Implications For Consumers And The FTC.”


On June 19, President Obama stood up before the Esperanza National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast and Conference and promised to do everything he can to get immigration reform done. “I’m committed to passing comprehensive immigration reform as President of the United States” he said. On June 25, at a bipartisan meeting with members of Congress, he reiterated his commitment. “The President wants a comprehensive reform done this year or, at the latest, at the beginning of next year,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner [D, NY-9], who was at the meeting.

But, in Congress, immigration reform is taking a back seat to climate change and health care, and probably also to reforming financial regulations. Sen. Charles Schumer [D, NY] is working on writing an immigration bill, which, at the current pace of things, likely won’t be brought to the Senate for a debate until 2010. Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote recently in the Washington Post about the prospects from immigration reform this year:

The calendar: “Right now” might not be soon enough. The conventional wisdom is that the longer Obama waits, the harder it will be to pass any immigration reform legislation. One immigration activist I spoke with even had a deadline in mind: March 2010. Congress has to discuss the bill this fall, he said, and pass it no later than next spring. His thinking – and that of many others – is that the 2010 midterm elections might cut into the Democratic majority in Congress, and then the chance for immigration reform could slip away.

The flaw with such reasoning is that it assumes Republicans are the main obstacle to reform, and that, conversely, Democrats must be the main facilitators. Yet Republicans are under a lot of pressure from business groups to fix the immigration system so companies can more easily hire workers. As for Democrats, they were the ones carrying the ball in 2007, the last time Congress fumbled the chance at reform. […]

Guest workers: In 2007, Democrats were caught in a tough spot between trying to please Hispanic voters who wanted immigration reform and unions willing to kill the deal if they couldn’t manage to remove the language on guest workers. This time, Democrats have figured a way out. They’re prepared to simply steer clear of the whole issue of guest workers and propose legislation that focuses only on enhanced border enforcement and a pathway to legalization.

This was the take from a speech that Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York – the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration – gave last month at an event sponsored by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. Schumer is going to write the immigration bill. And in laying out what he considered to be key elements, he omitted any reference to guest workers.

Yet if guest workers are off the menu, don’t expect Republicans to sit down at the table. Even immigration moderates such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have drawn a line in the sand and assured the White House that if guest workers aren’t part of the final bill, they won’t support it.
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