Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Big news about Congress

By Carol Gee

Update: Republican Senator Arlen Specter is switching to the Democratic party. With Senator Al Franken that makes 60!

Congress has taken rather swift action on President Barack Obama's 2010 budget proposal, according to an excellent recent story: "Deal pushes budget toward 100th-day goal," excerpted from The Hill, by Walter Alarkon (04/27/09). Senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) chaired the joint House-Senate committee, which was unable to reach agreement. Budget negotiators from the House and Senate were finally able to complete work on the resolution late Monday, which Democrats hope successful floor votes will approve the budget by President Obama's 100th day in office Wednesday.

Democrats agreed on the president's top priorities and included the possibility of using "fast-track budget reconciliation rules" for the healthcare and education reform elements. These rules require a simple majority for passage, rather than 60 votes. Eventually they resolved the final negotiating sticking point, the inclusion of the "pay-go" provision that requires all new spending be "paid for" with new revenues or cuts in other programs. Speculation is that this was a requirement of House Blue Dog Democrats and House leadership over Senate objections. Senator Conrad felt that the budget agreement was "a major accomplishment," however.

"We are meeting President Obama’s goals of reducing our dependence on foreign energy, striving for excellence in education, reforming our health care system, and providing middle-class tax relief – all while still cutting the deficit substantially," Conrad said.

To quote further from the article:

House and Senate Democrats reached a budget deal on Monday night that will allow both chambers to vote on budget resolutions this week.

. . . Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), the Blue Dog included in the budget talks, said that putting in "pay-go" rules would be "a good place to start dealing with the concerns of House members over the long-term fiscal health of the country. . . "The Senate is having a great deal of difficulty coming to grips with the fact that things have to be paid for," Boyd said.

. . . The budget resolution will reduce the deficit by more than two-thirds by 2014. The deficit in 2009, projected to be about $1.8 trillion and about 12 percent of gross domestic product, would be slightly more than $500 billion and 3 percent of GDP in 2014. . . The framework also seeks to extend the current policy on the estate tax, which affects the transfer of estates from wealthy landowners to family members. The tax, dubbed the "death tax" by its GOP opponents, was slated to return to the higher levels pre-2001 levels next year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that Democrats will work for a statutory "pay-go" restriction, that will probably be enacted as soon as the $3.5 trillion budget is approved. The plan, closely resembling the White House proposal, would enact President Obama's major priorities to reform healthcare, energy and education, reduce the deficit and cut income taxes for middle-class Americans.

The House plans a vote on Tuesday and the Senate on Wednesday. If the schedule holds, President Obama would be able to discuss it at a news conference scheduled for Wednesday evening. If not the vote will certainly be completed in the next few days. And the reconciliation provision will be included over very strenuous objections from Republicans and even objections from some centrist Democrats. Rep. Paul Ryan (R- Wis.) called the reconciliation bill to overhaul the healthcare system "an unprecedented power grab" by Democrats. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said it would be "like using the tactics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez."

Senator Kent Conrad does not believe Congress should resort to healthcare reconciliation, claiming the "rules could also lead to legislation that's less than comprehensive, since they require the elimination of any provisions that have little effect on government spending or revenue," and noting some Senate Republican support for health care reform. Budget reconciliation rules will not be used to pass climate change legislation, however because of objections by both Democrats and Republicans from energy-producing states.

Who were the winners? The House was able to insert reconciliation rules for use if needed, Blue Dogs in the House will get "pay-go," Liberal Democrats in the Senate stuck with the President's priorities, Senator Conrad exercised good leadership of the Joint committee, achieving a relatively civil discussion between Democrats and Republicans. We hope that the ultimate winners will be the American people. Congress is hearing their wishes emanating from the 2008 election.

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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