Democrats Trip in Recess Rush

July Fourth Bragging Rights on Major Bills Are Imperiled by Senate Obstacles

Posted June 30, 2010 at 6:46pm

With the Senate failure of an unemployment benefits bill and the fate of a major financial reform bill in peril, Democrats appeared to be limping into the July Fourth recess with less to brag about than they had hoped.

Senate Democrats fell one vote short of the 60 needed to beat back a filibuster of an extension of unemployment benefits Wednesday night, but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) preserved his right to bring the measure up again later.

And although the House voted, 237-192, on Wednesday to adopt the financial reform measure approved by House-Senate conferees, that effort also could be for naught if Senate Democrats fail to secure the 60 votes needed to defeat a near-certain GOP-led filibuster of the measure.

Even though they supported the Senate version of the measure, centrist Republicans such as Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) were still holding out on endorsing the bill, despite a Democratic effort Tuesday evening to strip the bill of a controversial bank tax that had drawn the GOP’s ire.

One positive sign for Democrats, however, came from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who told reporters Wednesday that without the bank tax, she is “inclined to support” the conference report.

Even if Brown and Snowe eventually come on board, however, Democrats still need to make up for the loss of the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), whose death Monday put them one more vote in the hole.

Efforts to get Sen. Maria Cantwell to switch from “no” to “yes” hit a wall Wednesday, Democratic sources said. However, the Washington state Democrat did not rule out changing her position on the conference report. “I want to see the exact language,” she told reporters.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said Democratic leaders were still courting Cantwell and others. “I know we’re talking to her,” the Illinois Democrat said. “And we’re hoping that we have the votes. Changes have been made to accommodate a number of Republican concerns, and I think we’re getting closer.”

Durbin added that Banking Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) had been “frantically calling Members” as well.

Sources said Democratic leaders — resigned to the fact that there is no time this week to take up the conference report — want to give Cantwell some breathing room over the July Fourth recess and hope she will come aboard.

If she doesn’t, they may have to rely on the vote of Byrd’s eventual replacement, who could be named by Democratic West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin “soon,” according to Reid.

Senate Democrats were in a similar pickle when it came to the unemployment measure, with Brown withholding a key vote Democrats had sought.

Although Brown had voted for previous extensions of jobless benefits, his fellow Republicans have repeatedly prevented the majority from passing such an extension as part of a larger tax extenders bill. Reid had said before the vote Wednesday that he hoped Republicans such as Snowe, who urged him to bring up a stand-alone unemployment bill, would provide the votes he needed.

“We’ll have to wait and see what a couple of Republicans will do,” Reid said. “I would have 60 votes if Sen. Byrd were here.”

Democrats said Brown’s decision Wednesday afternoon to introduce his own unemployment bill portended that his vote was out of reach. His bill offset the cost of jobless benefits — a demand of most other Republicans and moderate Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) — while the Democratic unemployment extension measure does not. The Democrats’ bill also renews a tax credit for first-time homebuyers.

House Democrats also struggled this week to move a stand-alone, five-month extension of unemployment benefits. The stalled extenders bill in the Senate has prompted House Democrats to spin off portions of the measure to try to pass them separately.

But the members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition also want the jobless benefits to be offset. Their opposition helped scuttle an attempt Tuesday in the House to pass the unemployment bill under an expedited procedure that requires a two-thirds majority. Democrats were expected to easily muster the simple majority needed to pass the bill under regular order Thursday morning.

Attacks Over Wall Street Bill

Despite uncertainties over the Senate vote situation on financial reform, House Democrats and Republicans each were readying a messaging offensive tied to what was expected to be the chamber’s final vote on the issue Wednesday.

Democrats are eager to point to unified Republican opposition as evidence that the GOP is in league with big business, while Republicans want to cast the measure as the latest in a string of misguided attempts to meddle in the economy.

“This presents such a clear and defining choice that I think it will resonate with the voters,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said, adding that he was urging candidates to tout their vote for the conference report when they head home for the July Fourth recess.

The DCCC is planning a series of jabs at vulnerable Republicans in swing districts who oppose the measure. “Here we have our Republican Members of Congress giving Wall Street a green light for business as usual,” Van Hollen said.

Meanwhile, House Democrats were having a tougher time with spending measures. As with unemployment benefits, the pushback from moderate Democrats has created headaches for leaders trying to pass supplemental war spending legislation.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Democratic leaders were still counting noses to determine whether they could pass roughly $37 billion for military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq separately from a package of domestic spending items, including money for teachers.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said this week that Democratic leaders likely would offer liberals a separate vote on war funding so that they can register their opposition to continuing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. But first, Democratic leaders have to make sure they can persuade enough moderates in their Caucus to vote for the non-war items separately.

A backlash from Blue Dogs wary of anything that drives up the deficit forced Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) to significantly scale back — and find offsets for — a cash infusion to states to stem teacher layoffs. Obey, who originally proposed $23 billion, announced Wednesday that he’d slashed the teacher allocation to $10 billion and that it would be fully paid for.

“I think anything that will reduce cost would be more acceptable to the more moderate Democrats,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), a senior whip and member of the Appropriations Committee.

Further complicating matters for Democratic leaders, Republicans are considering voting “present” or taking a walk on the war money vote to protest the domestic spending.

A spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) was reluctant to tip the GOP’s hand Wednesday afternoon and said Republicans were still discussing their strategy.

Another potential complication is that Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a senior member of the Rules Committee, is still pushing to offer his proposal for a flexible timetable for Afghanistan troop withdrawal as an amendment to the war spending bill.

“I think we need to send a message to the White House that they need to rethink their strategy … and we need a plan for how we’re going to get out of there,” McGovern said.