Congress attempted to tackle a months worth of legislation last week in an effort to unclog the legislative constipation that has been occurring since Easter. While their intentions were admirable, the outcome was a complete failure.
The Senate spent all week debating and amending the $60 billionIraq/Afghanistan war supplemental appropriations bill, which passed late Thursday night by a vote of 67-28. This bill was requested by the president prior to Easter and was designated an emergency, thereby allowing Congress to pass the bill without having to find the funds to payits cost. The initial request by President Obama was $33 billion. The current total price tag is $60 billion,and once signed into law, this will be added onto our already skyrocketing national debt.
Efforts to pay for the bill were defeated mostly along party lines. Sen. Coburn, R-OK offered an amendment to reduce Congress own budget and to use unneeded federal property and uncommitted federal funds to pay for the $60 billionprice tag. This amendment was tabled (defeated) by a vote of 50-47. All Senate Republicanswho were present, except for Ohio Sen. Voinovich, voted to adopt the amendment. Even though the Senate ultimately passed this bill, the House never considered it before their week-long recess. Therefore, the Defense Department will go through the next couple of weeks without monies the secretary of defense has been asking Congress for over the last couple of months.
The House worked most of the week trying to find the votes to pass an extended jobless benefits bill with tax breaks and a new doctors Medicare reimbursement package. This bill passed the House of Representatives last December and at the time had a price tag of $31 billion. When the House first scheduled the bill for floor consideration early in the week, the price was $200 billion. This huge price is what lead to the internal struggles within the House leadership.
All House Republicans vowed to vote against the bill and enough House Democrats raised concerns that the leadership kept postponing the bill in an effort to find enough votes for a successful passage vote. This bill finally passed during an unusual Friday session by a mostly party-line vote of 215-204. House Republicans voted against the bill almost exclusively. The final cost was approximately $115 billion,with about $54 billionbeing offset or paid for by taxing investments and hedge-fund managers.
Despite the House action, the deadline for extending the unemployment benefits, tax breaks for teachers, and the renewal of more than 50 tax provisions will lapse because the Senate never considered the bill. As of Friday evening, Congress went onits week-long Memorial Day break. This marks the third time this year that Congress has let the unemployment benefits expire as a result of a congressional recess.
The legislation was also written to cancel the 21 percent pay cut due to kick in June 1 to doctors who see Medicare patients. The bill replaces the cut with a 2.2 percentpayment increase for the remainder of 2010 and a 1 percentpay hike for 2011, which has a price tag of $23 billion. Because the Senate failed to consider this bill, this doctors Medicare reimbursement cut of 21 percentwill go into effect June 1. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid services will tell contractors to hold their reimbursement claims for 10 days until Congress can get back to D.C. and pass the new reimbursement program. The unemployed will have to go without a benefits check until Congress returns.
While the House leadership was negotiating the new tax extender bill with the unemployment benefits and the like, the House chamber debated and ultimately passed the Department of Defense authorization bill. This bill authorizes all of the Defense department programs for the agency for the next year. One program that members of the House actually voted to cut was the 1993 Clinton Administration policy of dont ask, dont tell. This is the policy that prohibits gays from serving openly in the military.
Despite opposition to the policy repeal from the secretaries of our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, the House Democrats voted to strike the program. The Senate Armed Services Committee took the same action earlier in the week while they debated their department of defense authorization bill. This policy battle will resume when the Congress returns from recess. But first they must deal with all that they failed to do complete, from expired tax provisions, to unemployment benefits, to doctor reimbursements to funding the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan. Maybe over their Memorial Day recess, members of Congress will be inspired by their constituents to return to D.C. and find offsets and spending cuts enough to pay for these unfinished legislative initiatives. We can all dream, cant we? Stay tuned and happy Memorial Day.
Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, four-times-elected United States Senate Secretary for the Majority and Minority. She is the founder of GradeGov.com.