Democrats Face Rough Road Before Recess

Final Week Before Memorial Day Features Agenda Crowded With Measures That May Be Hard to Pass

Posted May 21, 2010 at 5:37pm

Facing a pre-Memorial Day legislative pileup, Democratic leaders have zeroed in on a sweeping tax extenders bill as the most likely candidate to pass both chambers this week.

But they face an uphill battle on that bill, which they have dubbed the centerpiece of their election-year jobs agenda, and a second major haul if they attempt to pass a supplemental war funding bill that also includes money for earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Democrats are still holding out hope that they can move forward this week on the supplemental, but prospects are dimming.

“As in a week from now?,” Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said late last week when asked about the prospects for House action on the supplemental before the recess. “Let’s wait and see.”

The House has had an agenda largely devoid of major legislation since Easter, but Members will have their hands full this week. In addition to the extenders bill — which Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has billed as a major initiative to create jobs — the chamber is also slated to take up the annual authorization bill for the Pentagon. That may open the door to heated debates over the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the president’s Afghanistan troop buildup. Both are issues that deeply divide the Democratic Caucus.

House leaders are poised to launch consideration early in the week of a bill that would revive a variety of tax breaks and extend through the end of the year unemployment insurance and health insurance subsidies for the jobless. The sweeping legislation, which Democrats unveiled late last week — well behind schedule — would also avert a scheduled cut in Medicare reimbursements to doctors and provide a six-month extension of increased federal matching aid to states for Medicaid.

In an effort to reassure fiscally conservative Blue Dogs wary of voting for big-ticket spending items, particularly as the midterm elections draw closer, House Democratic leaders encouraged Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin (D-Mich.) to strike a deal with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) before taking up the measure. The move was designed to signal to skittish Democrats that the legislation would not — as so many other bills have this session — pass the House only to get hung up in the Senate, leaving vulnerable House Democrats who supported it out to dry.

But Democrats face an even more daunting path for their agenda in the Senate because Republicans can use the chamber’s rules to slow work on a bill to a near standstill. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) secured an agreement Thursday to begin work on the supplemental, but that’s about as far as bipartisanship has gone so far.

Republicans appear, at least at this point, united in opposing the tax extenders package largely because it includes a $150 billion Medicaid payment provision that isn’t paid for. Republicans believe “that it’s $150 billion just being added to the debt out of a $200 billion bill, and that is just unacceptable,” Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune said Thursday.

“It will be a painful process trying to get it through the Senate,” the South Dakota Republican added.

The stakes are high for the extenders package because Senate Democrats do not plan to try to pass a short-term extension to unemployment insurance benefits if the larger extenders bill gets bogged down — despite the fact that those benefits will run out at the end of the month.

Although Democrats have in the past pushed through a series of one-month extensions while they worked on the larger bill, this time around they are unlikely to do so, aides said, and neither Reid nor Baucus have put together a short-term extension as a stopgap measure.

GOP leadership is not planning a filibuster of the war bill, but Sen. Tom Coburn — one of the chamber’s toughest deficit hawks — has already warned he won’t make passing the bill easy unless Democrats agree to pay for it. The Oklahoma Republican last week signaled he would offer a series of amendments to the bill to pay for the war and rejected the notion that funding for an 8-year-old war can be classified as an emergency.

John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, reiterated his boss’s complaints Friday and said he has not taken a filibuster off the table.

“The supplemental bill isn’t for the troops — it’s for the politicians who don’t want to make hard choices. It’s absurd that we’re in our ninth year of calling war spending an ‘unforeseen’ emergency because politicians don’t have the courage to say no to parochial interests who want a slice of the defense pie,” Hart said, adding that Coburn is “keeping his procedural options open.”

The House almost certainly will not move to the supplemental unless the measure makes it out of the Senate this week. If it does, House Democratic leaders will have to find a way to heal divisions within their Caucus between moderates pushing to constrain spending and progressives who support Haiti relief money and other provisions in the supplemental but vehemently oppose the war funding.

“We should not be tying the Afghan war money to money for teachers and money for humanitarian relief in Haiti and other things that are important in that bill,” Rep. Jim McGovern said. “We need two separate votes. … I don’t want to vote for the war funding. I think we’re making a mistake.”

The Massachusetts Democrat said he and other progressives still plan to push for a vote on “an exit strategy” from Afghanistan. “There are a lot of Members who want to send a signal to the president that we’re not comfortable with this Afghanistan policy,” he said.

McGovern predicted the House would not get to the measure until after Memorial Day.

“We’re waiting for the Senate to act on the supplemental before we do, so it’s going to be after Memorial Day, most likely,” McGovern said.