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This Week in Congress: Senate Wrap-Up

August 3, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

The House of Representatives has already left Washington for their month-long August recess, but the Senate is in session for one more week. Before they leave for their recess on Friday, the Senate will hold a tough debate on the future of the cash for clunkers program, try to make some crucial progress on health care legislation, and confirm Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court.

Late last week, the cash for clunkers program, which provides rebates of up to $4,500 for people to trade in their old cars for new, more efficient ones, ran out of money. The program, with its initial appropriation of $1 billion, was expected to last four months. Instead it lasted less than a week.

Before the House left for their recess on Friday, they passed a bill by a vote of 316-109 to provide an additional $2 billion for the program. The Senate will take up that bill this week, but they are expected to hit a few roadblocks. Some senators, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein [D, CA] and Sen. Susan Collins [R, ME] have already said that they want the new funds to come with a stipulation that “the minimum fuel economy improvement for newly purchased vehicles be at least two miles per gallon higher than it is under the enacted Clunkers program.” “We will not support any bill that does not meet these goals,” Feinstein and Collins said. But if the Senate added that new requirement, the bill would have to go back to the House to be approved again before becoming law. That would mean waiting until September and require shutting down the program until then.

Futhermore, Republicans like Sen. John McCain [R, AZ] who opposed the initial funds for the bill have also vowed to oppose the additional funds. “Within a few weeks we will see that this process was abused by speculators and people who took advantage of what is basically a huge government subsidy of corporations that they already own,” McCain told Fox News on Friday.

On the health care front, the six centrist senators from the Senate Finance Committee that have been meeting behind-the-scenes for weeks to work out a bipartisan deal on a bill will continue to meet throughout the week. The committee’s Chairman, Sen. Max Baucus [D, MT], has already said that there will be no mark-up of the bill before the recess. Of the five committee’s in Congress with jurisdiction over health care legislation, the Finance Committee is the only one that hasn’t marked up their version of the bill yet.

They are also likely to be the one committee that won’t include a government run health insurance option on their bill. Instead the six centrists have just about reached agreement on plans for a private, non-profit health insurance co-op. Last Friday, Sen. John Rockefeller [D, WV], a member of the committee but not of the centrist negotiating team, came out firmly against the co-op plan. “I will be darned if I support or allow to move forward — to the extent that I can make a noise about it — something which sounds user-friendly,” Rockefeller said. “What I have to worry about is, are co-ops going to be effective taking on these gigantic insurance companies? And from everything I know from people who represent them, the answer is a flat ‘no.’" If other Democrats on the committee like Sen. Charles Schumer [D, NY], Sen. John Kerry [D, MA], Sen. Robert Menéndez [D, NJ], Sen. Debbie Ann Stabenow [D, MI] and Sen. Ron Wyden [D, OR] take the same position as Sen. Rockefeller, the centrists’ co-op plan may not have the votes to clear the committee.

President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, is expected to sail through her confirmation vote in the full Senate as easily as she did in the Judiciary Committee. The confirmation vote is planned as the Senate’s big finale before leaving for the August recess. On Friday, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, Sen. Lamar Alexander [R, TN], added his name to the list of Republicans that plan to vote for Obama’s nominee. “Even though Judge Sotomayor’s political and judicial philosophy may be different than mine, especially regarding Second Amendments rights, I will vote to confirm her because she is well qualified by experience, temperament, character and intellect to serve as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court,” Alexander said on the Senate floor. In the end, Sotomayor is expected to be confirmed with at least 70 votes.

Below are the bills that will be in play this week in the Senate, both in committees and on the floor:

  • H.R. 3200 – America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009
  • H.R. 3435 – Making supplemental appropriations for fiscal year 2009 for the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Program.
  • H.R. 2997 – Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010
  • S.1023 – Travel Promotion Act of 2009

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