The House. Convened at 10 and will pass a measure keeping the government operating, generally at last fiscal year’s spending levels, through Saturday, Dec. 18. The move assures the lame duck will keep going at least until a week before Christmas.
The day’s other top-shelf bill would revamp federal child nutrition programs, boosting subsidies to schools that offer healthier menus and giving the Agriculture Department some new power to regulate what’s offered in campus vending machines as well as cafeterias. To partly offset the cost, the bill would end, five months ahead of schedule in 2013, the better food-stamp benefits created in last year’s economic stimulus law. Many Democrats don't like that offset, but the administration is pushing the House to clear the bill. The Senate passed it this summer without even a roll call vote.
Democratic leaders are debating whether to take up the Rangel censure today or tomorrow.
The Senate. Convened at 9:30 with Reid announcing plans to try to cut off filibusters on three bills by the end of the week. Most controversial is the latest version of the so-called DREAM Act, which would put thousands of young illegal immigrants on a path to legal status. Another would give medical benefits to people sickened after helping clean up the Pentagon and ground zero after Sept. 11. The third would give collective bargaining rights to police and firefighters in right-to-work states.
The White House. Obama is preparing to make a speech to mark World AIDS Day this afternoon after hosting D.C. Mayor-elect Vince Gray for lunch in the West Wing. Among the hot topics in federal-city relations: congressional voting rights and the new Homeland Security Department headquarters planned for the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital campus in Southeast.
Gibbs, on the morning shows to talk up the virtues of yesterday’s congressional summit, declared the president optimistic about a deal on taxes and predicted the Senate would ratify the Russian nuclear weapons treaty this month.
New Hope for a Spending Package. The 15-day stopgap bill, or CR, buys Democrats the maximum time they can take to decide how to wrap up the appropriations process before they lose unfettered control. And yesterday’s Senate test vote on earmarks suggests the party still has some hope of teaming up with enough Republicans to enact a comprehensive bill — and not just a simple CR through next September. That’s what the GOP leadership wants, because that would put them in an easier position to roll back discretionary domestic spending totals, maybe even to 2008 levels, after they take over the House and gain strength in the Senate next year.
The hope for an omnibus spending package surged when only 39 senators backed a three-year prohibition against pet projects while a solid 56 voted against the idea, signaling they would be the senators most eager to see their earmarks survive this fall. And eight of them were Republicans: Jim Inhofe and Dick Lugar along with appropriators Bob Bennett, Thad Cochran, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Dick Shelby and George Voinovich. (And another pair of venerable earmarking appropriators, Democrat Barbara Mikulski and Republican Kit Bond, were among those missing.)
The bipartisan alliances that can form on spending are one of the many reasons McConnell and Reid have something in common these days — trying to corral the most independent-minded in their caucuses, especially the dozen senators who won’t be around next year.
Leading by Example. One of those senatorial retirees, Republican Judd Gregg, was the first member of the Obama fiscal commission to announce he will vote for the panel’s sweeping deficit reduction package, which was unveiled this morning. “Lawmakers in Washington are elected to make the decisions necessary to keep our country safe from harm and on solid economic footing,” said Gregg, who’s one of the most prominent members of his party being recruited to go downtown and become a lobbyist or advocate. “Inaction on our debt crisis is not an option at this point,” he said.
A final vote on the plan has been put off until Friday in order to give chairmen Erskine Boles and Alan Simpson more time for their longshot bid to woo 14 of the 18 members, the minimum needed to formally submit recommendations to Congress.
The commission called for deep spending cuts, an increase in the retirement age and an overhaul of the tax code in order to take nearly $3.9 trillion cumulatively out of federal deficits through 2020, reduce the deficit to 2.3 percent of the GDP by 2015 and cut the nation’s debt to 60 percent of GDP by 2023.
Let’s Appoint a Committee! The decision to create the special negotiating group on taxes sounds like a sign both the administration and Hill Republicans really want a deal this month. And that’s how both sides are spinning it today, when the first meeting got under way among Tim Geithner, Jack Lew, Max Baucus, Jon Kyl, Dave Camp and Chris Van Hollen. But there’s still every reason to believe all the bargaining behind those closed doors, and all the partisan posturing in public, will lead nowhere but to the long-understood default setting — an extension, until after the 2012 election, of the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone.
Yes, House Democrats are likely to flex their shrinking muscles with a vote this week to allow taxes to increase on income above $200,000. But that’s just a symbolic prelude. Both congressional Democratic negotiators are inclined to cut deals that appeal to the party’s centrists, while neither Kyl nor Camp has the slightest interest in abandoning the rich in the tax cut debate. (Orrin Hatch, the incoming top Republican on Senate Finance, might have been.)
But the tax talkers are not limited to talking only about taxes, and the fact that Obama has put two of his top people in the room means he’s committed to winning something in return for giving in to the GOP on the lower rates — the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” for example, or the arms control treaty or maybe even Reid’s immigration bill. All 42 Senate Republicans signaled as much today, in a letter vowing to block any lame-duck legislation until they get their way on taxes (but hinting they’d be open to deal elsewhere if they do get their way).
A Lost Lame-Duck Issue. Democrats have all but officially abandoned an item they originally labeled a “must do” in the lame duck: An extension of the jobless benefits that lapsed last night. With each month’s extension costing upwards of $4 billion, Republicans refused to go along unless there were some offsetting spending cuts, and their opposition in the Senate proved fatal. In the next there weeks, aid to 1.4 million of the unemployed will be cut off, the Labor Department estimates.
Gavels and Seats. House Republicans are sounding less and less interested in one of the defining issues of their last revolution back in 1994. Adherence to term limits — especially for committee chairmen — was once a defining principle of the caucus. But it didn’t seem to be yesterday, when the GOP Steering Committee heard from all the lawmakers in contested races to win gavels. That could give a boost to otherwise term-limited Joe Barton, who’s still a longshot to chair Energy and Commerce because of his troubled relationship with Boehner, and Jerry Lewis, who’s a contender for Appropriations mainly because neither of his rivals (Hal Rogers and Jack Kingston) is viewed as any more of a fiscal hawk.
House Democratic leaders, for their part, have something even more fundamental to worry about : How to make as many of their troops happy as possible after a midterm trouncing that effectively took away many of the seats they used to get to fill on the committees.
— David Hawkings, editor
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