Congress After Dark, Where No One Can See What’s Going On

What’s happening in Congress right now?

David Rogers at Politico:

Senate Democrats abruptly pulled down an omnibus spending bill after senior Republicans – caught with their hands in the cookie jar — deserted the measure in an effort to square themselves with tea party activists and conservatives in the party.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the announcement and signaled he would substitute a short-term spending resolution for the much more detailed year-long $1.1 trillion plus measure which many in the GOP had been quietly rooting for just weeks ago.

With Washington facing a funding cutoff Saturday night, the result is a genuine fiscal crisis — at once serious and rich in political farce.

Democrats have only themselves to blame for failing to pass any of the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund the day-to-day operations of the government. At the same time, Republicans contributed mightily to this failure and are going through their own culture war — torn between the Senate’s old-bull pork-barrel ways and the more temperate fiscal gospel of their new tea party allies.

The Senate passed its version of the tax deal by a wide margin this week, but in the House, the plan appears to be in jeopardy.  Democratic leadership had to pull the rule governing the debate on the bill after liberals in their caucus revolted and threatened to send it to a defeat.  One Democrat called it a “speed bump,” but as of yet the road to passage has not opened:

A final House vote on President Obama’s tax proposal could be delayed after Democratic leaders were forced to pull a procedural measure off the House floor Thursday.

The House was set to vote on the rule governing debate on the broad tax bill, but the measure was withdrawn at the last minute when leaders realized it was likely to be rejected. Liberals opposed to the deal Obama struck with Republicans were upset that the procedure approved by the House Rules Committee on Wednesday did not allow them a clean opportunity to vote on the legislation the Senate passed on Wednesday. A final vote on the tax deal had been planned for Thursday evening.

“We’re just trying to work out some kinks,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a floor manager for the tax bill, told reporters. He characterized the decision to pull the procedural measure off the floor as “a bump” and said he did not think the House would have to delay a final vote past Thursday. Yet he said it was unclear what the next move was and said Democratic leaders were huddling over how to proceed.

Ironically, this resulted from an attempt to “deem-and-pass” the tax deal.  The rule would have allowed an amendment for the sake of altering the estate-tax portion of the deal Barack Obama cut with the GOP; had it then passed, the House would have deemed the rest of the deal to have passed as well and sent the amendment to the Senate. If not, then the House would have held a clean vote on the Senate bill.

Jay Newton-Small at Swampland at Time:

House progressives just nearly brought down the Bush tax cuts bill over lingering anger at the compromise President Obama worked out with Senate Republicans. Democratic leaders had hoped that an amendment built into the package changing the estate tax provisions would sway enough liberals to vote to proceed to the bill and for the legislation on final passage. But the leaders were forced to yank the rule — which outlines the debate and procedure to pass the bill — off the floor when it became clear it was going to fail. Progressives are demanding a clean vote up or down on the original package — unamended — so they can register their opposition.

Overall, the nearly $900 billion bill extends all of the Bush tax cuts by two years, provides a fix for the Alternative Minimum tax, extends renewable energy tax credits passed in the stimulus and extends unemployment insurance to millions of Americans. It also ups the estate tax level from 55% of estates worth $1 million to 35% of estates worth $5 million or more. House Dems want to see that rate lowered to 45% on estates worth $3.5 million or more. If the amendment to lower the rate succeeds in the House, it will ping-pong the bill back to the Senate where the changes could bring it down.

Rep, Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who is managing the bill on the floor, told reporters that the problem was “just a bump,” and leadership sources say they still expect final passage of the bill today after they add an amendment to the rule. Meanwhile, a caucus meeting has just been called for 3:45pm, so this could be a late night for the House.

Now that Scott Brown and Olympia Snowe have come out for the stand-alone bill in the Senate to repeal don’t ask don’t tell, there’s no longer any doubt as to whether there are the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to get this done. The only issue, Harry Reid tells us, is this: Will there be enough time to vote on repeal before the end of the lame duck session?

As a matter of fact, there is a simple way that Reid can make the time necessary to ensure this gets done, aides involved in the discussions tell me. Reid needs to schedule a debate and vote on DADT repeal beginning as soon as this weekend, once the issue over government funding is resolved. Reid can do this before New START is resolved, or at least while it’s getting resolved.

On MSNBC just now, Joe Lieberman called on Reid to fast-track DADT repeal in this fashion. “I believe instead of going back to the START treaty, we should go to the independent stand-alone repeal of don’t ask don’t tell Saturday night,” Lieberman said. “We can get it done by Monday, maybe Tuesday at the latest, and then go back to the START treaty.”

Here’s why this is the way to go, as spelled out by an aide involved in the discussions. If Reid waits until New START is done before holding the vote on DADT, Senators could start going home once the treaty is resolved, dooming DADT repeal. But this scenario would be averted if Reid slips in the DADT vote before START. By contrast, if the DADT repeal debate and vote are done first, no Senator will leave Washington before START is resolved. So doing DADT repeal first doesn’t imperil START.

What’s more, if worst comes to worst, START could be resolved early next year. DADT repeal, meanwhile, can’t be resolved next year, because by then the votes simply may not be there in the Senate to pass it. The votes, however, are there right now, and GOP moderates have signaled that it’s time.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

The debate over New START officially began on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, as Democrats and Republicans staked out seemingly irreconcilable positions as the Christmas holiday approaches.

A vote to move to debate on the treaty Wednesday passed 66 to 32, indicating that there is not enough Republican opposition to stop the process from moving forward. Democrat Evan Bayh (D-IN) missed the vote but is expected to support the treaty. The vote is giving treaty supporters confidence in the chances of ratification, but there are to be many more twists and turns before that can happen.

Nine Republicans voted to begin the debate: Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), George Voinovich (R-OH), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Scott Brown (R-MA), and Bob Bennett (R-UT).

Following the vote, leading Senate Democrats and Republicans held dueling press conferences on Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon in what has turned into a high-stakes game of legislative chicken. Only three GOP senators have publicly announced their support for New START, and nobody knows for sure if there are 6 additional Senate Republicans who will buck their own party’s leadership to support the agreement when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) calls the vote, probably before Christmas day.

One large looming question is whether the White House will insist on holding the vote if it hasn’t secured assurances of the 67 “yes” votes needed for ratification when the clock runs out on the lame duck session.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), in a press conference today, said that Vice President Joseph Biden told him he’d rather take the risk that the treaty is defeated this year than take the risk of delaying consideration until the new Congress is seated in January.

Acknowledging that it’s the White House’s decision whether to call the vote and risk defeat, Kerry said that Biden told him personally that the outlook in the next Congress is worse than the outlook now.

“We’d rather lose [the vote on New START] now with the crowd that’s done the work on rather than go back and start from scratch [next session],” Kerry said that Biden told him.

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