Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lame duck Congress 2010 comes to a close

In these final weeks of 2010, the lame duck session of the 111th Congress has been anything but lame. Finally running Congress like it's a race, Democrats are working at an accelerated pace to pass legislation before the clock and their majority in the House of Representatives ends. From defense spending bills to the extension of tax cuts and unemployment benefits, the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' to the approval of the nuclear arms reduction START Treaty, medical care and reimbursement for 9/11 responders to the DREAM Act, all this tireless and often thankless work on behalf of the American people is being done by Democrats and Independents in the House and Senate while Republicans cry about working during the holidays.

In an historic victory for civil rights, President Barack Obama today signed law repealing the discriminatory military policy known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' With the President's signature, the repeal, having passed the House on Tuesday and the Senate on Saturday, will finally allow openly gay men and women to enlist and serve in the United States armed forces.

The ending of DADT, comes at a critical time for President Obama who had pledged to repeal the nearly two-decade long policy during his campaign, but who in recent months has been taking enormous criticism from the liberal base of his party for failing to keep his other campaign promises, namely the ending of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans.

Last week, President Obama signed into law the controversial bipartisan compromise to temporarily extend the Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for the extension of benefits to the unemployed. In the end the president decided it was far more important to secure tax breaks for the middle class and unemployment benefits for nearly 2 million people than to continue fighting the Republicans over unaffordable tax cuts for the wealthy. Nevertheless, Democrats, liberals, and progressives considered this an capitulation to the enemy.

On Saturday, a pathway to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants known as the DREAM Act, failed to gather enough votes for approval in the Senate. The bill would have allowed undocumented children who had entered this country before the age of 15 and have earned a high school diploma or G.E.D. to be eligible for a green card after a 10-year waiting period and the completion of two years in college or in the military. Then to be eligible to apply for citizenship, they would have been required to wait another period of 6 years.

Not quite the 'amnesty' that many Republicans claim it to be, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act was originally introduced by Republican Senator from Utah Orrin Hatch in 2001 and supported in the past by numerous Republicans including Senator John McCain of Arizona, but was voted down in the current lame duck Senate by the majority of Republicans, including Senators Hatch and McCain, who have in recent years taken anti-immigration stances including supporting Arizona's anti-immigrant law SB 1070 that requires local law enforcement to ask people who 'look like they are undocumented' for citizenship papers.

Republicans have been determined to stall and block legislation these past two years and haven't let up in the lame duck session of Congress. Still, despite Republican obstruction, unprecedented threats of filibuster, and heated standoffs, President Obama and Democrats can claim major victories.

Today there is news that Senators have reached a deal on a bill that would provide $4.2 billion for the medical treatment and compensation of first responders on 9/11. The Zadroga bill, named after James Zadroga, a New York City Police Detective who died in 2006 of respiratory disease contracted from his exposure to toxins at Ground Zero, had been blocked repeatedly by Republicans in the Senate, but has now passed thanks in large part to Democratic Senators from New York Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Finally, the Senate today by a vote of 71 to 26 has ratified the START treaty. The ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed by President Obama and Russian President Medvedev last April to reduce nuclear warheads by 30 percent and secure loose nuclear material is being heralded as a foreign policy success for President Obama, but more importantly, a huge step at limiting weapons to terrorists and providing for national security.

With votes left on circuit court judges, last speeches to be made, and well wishes left to those retiring or otherwise not returning next month, this year's final hours of the 111th Congress comes to a close. On January 3, 2011, the new Congress will be sworn in. Led by John Boehner, Republicans will have the majority in the House of Representatives; while in the Senate, Mitch McConnell will continue to lead the Republicans as the minority party. If this frantic, hard-fought lame duck session of Congress was a hint at what's to come, then Democrats are just warming up for a fight next year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

For a Liberal, these are strange days indeed

It's not as if these days weren't predicted; expected, even. After the mid-term elections in November gave the Republicans a majority in the House and an even better bargaining position in the Senate this January, it was obvious that President Obama would have to compromise on his positions to insure that Republicans didn't hold up Congress and shut down government until they got their way. What wasn't so obvious was that Republicans were willing to hold the middle-class hostage until their demands for tax cuts for the wealthy were met.

Three weeks ago House Republicans blocked a bill that would have extended unemployment insurance benefits expiring at the end of November and since then they have blocked the bill each time it's been brought up for a vote. Their reason? The Republican party made it clear that they would block all legislation in the lame-duck session until the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, set to expire at the end of the year, were extended.

Last week, Republicans in the Senate were successful in also blocking a Democratic plan to extend the Bush tax cuts to the middle-class. The middle-class tax cuts had been passed by the Democrats in the House just a few days before, prompting Republican Rep. John Boehner to call the vote to extend tax cuts to the middle-class and not to the wealthiest of Americans, 'chicken crap.'

Republicans have not only made good on their promise in blocking the extension of tax cuts for the middle-class: essentially raising taxes on 98 percent of Americans next month and blocking the extension of unemployment benefits: leaving up to two million out-of-work people without help by the end of the year, Republicans have also succeeded in holding up other legislation including the new START treaty, the Dream Act, and the Defense Authorization bill which in addition to outlining military funding includes the effective repeal of the discriminatory policy known as 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'

Obviously, the Dream Act and the repeal of DADT are not causes championed by most Republicans. Even though these measures would strengthen our military and finally plant the flag declaring this country's claim to the moral high ground, most Republicans are sure to stand in the way of these bills passing because, frankly, most Republicans don't really seem to like gays or brown people. But that Republicans would decide to hold up the new START treaty, an agreement with Russia to reduce and control nuclear arms, in order to scare Democrats into voting for upper-class tax cuts should tell you right away that if the G.O.P. is willing to undermine national security for the sake of fattening rich people's wallets, they'll do just about anything.

Republican obstructionist and bullying tactics have forced President Obama to choose his battles. With time running out on the middle-class and the unemployed, the President has decided to negotiate with Rep. John Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell and propose a plan of extending unemployment benefits for thirteen months in exchange for twenty-four more months of Bush tax cuts, plus a two percent payroll tax reduction, plus an estate tax reduction, plus a tax exemption for inherited income up to $5 million dollars.       

In all, as most Democrats and the liberal and progressive base have pointed out in various ways including an eight and a half hour filibuster-esque speech by Vermont's Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, this deal between President Obama and the G.O.P. is not exactly a fair or reasonable trade.

The left objects to the plan's over-generous concessions for the wealthy and are angry with the President for breaking his pledge to eliminate tax cuts for the rich, while the right objects to the expense of unemployment benefits, but both the Democrats and the Republicans agree that the plan means a huge, unaffordable increase in the national debt.

The tax deal, estimated to cost $858 billion dollars, is $71 billion more than the heavily criticized 2009 stimulus and at a time when many in Washington had expected to roll up their sleeves and get to work at reducing the deficit, President Obama and Republican leaders are now urging Congress to pass this package under the threat that not passing it will further damage the fragile economy.

President Obama has put himself in the position of negotiator-in-chief between the two political parties: a place he believed he could work to bring red state and blue state America together. But after two years of extending his hand to the Republican party, it seems President Obama has yet to notice that Republicans, at the very least, want nothing to do with him; at most, are eager to smack his hand away and spit in his eye. Republicans consider him an obstacle: avoid if possible, go over if necessary, remove eventually. If President Obama has a strategy in play; that he believes it's best to keep his enemies closer, he's not letting on. If he is willing to fight the Republicans or big business or Wall Street, he isn't showing it. And because of this, President Obama stands to lose the faith and support of his base.

But when facing a hostage crisis, what would his base expect the president to do?

Yes, Republicans are better than Democrats at standing their ground even if Republican's ground will be proven in time to be on the wrong side of history and yes, their base loves them for it. Some may see President Obama's unfavorable compromise with Republicans as capitulation to the enemy and a sign of weakness, but it is important to remember that showing empathy is not cowardice. Choosing to save those in distress rather than fighting the bad guy does not make the good guy weak. And yes, it is possible that, rather than always fighting, compromise with the opposition can lead to cooperation. It may not be sweet and it may not be easy, but being the good guy rarely is. All you can do is stay tough and live to fight another day.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

House Democrats pass Middle-class tax cuts while Republicans cry fowl

I wrote in my last post how Republicans in Congress were making a mistake in favoring the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the 2 percent of Americans who make over $200,000 ($250,000 for families) instead of extending Unemployment Benefits. Now that Republicans have succeeded in blocking that extension, leaving 2 million Americans this holiday season without those benefits by the end of the year, they are free to again focus on their highest priority: giving more money to the wealthy.

After sitting down with Republican leaders in what was called the 'Slurpee Summit,' President Obama met House Minority Leader, John Boehner, and Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell in agreement that they must work to meet 'common ground.' President Obama addressed the media after the meeting promising to work with the Republicans, conceding that perhaps he hasn't been as forthcoming in efforts to reach out and work with them in the past.
That all sounds nice and consolatory for people at home, but is the President serious? Democrats will likely reach out to Republicans in the spirit of compromise, as they have done, but as for the direction and tone of the Republican party, you can expect business as usual. The Republicans have already proclaimed that they not willing to compromise on anything.

Less then a day after that meeting, where it was agreed that both parties would work together to seek 'common ground,' Republicans have dug in their heels and announced that they will block all legislation in the lame-duck session of Congress including the START Treaty, the Dream Act, and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Democratic leaders in the House carried through on their plan to hold a vote Thursday on extending just the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle-class. The measure is mostly a symbolic one; the bill passed the House, but will likely die in the Senate as Democrats do not have the sixty-vote supermajority, but Democrats want it to be on record that they support tax cuts for 98 percent of working Americans, while Republicans loyalty is to the very wealthy.

John Boehner, incoming Speaker of the House, called the Democrats plan for the vote a "chicken crap" political game. Attempting to spin the vote as a sign that Democrats are playing class warfare, Boehner and other Republicans are denying their part in the war on the middle-class. Still, the vote changes nothing. The debate over the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts is far from over. The 2001 tax cuts are set to expire at the end of the year unless Congress acts to extend all or part of them.

The White House is still in negotiations with the Republican leaders who are holding the middle-class tax cuts hostage, and many Democrats are asking themselves whether President Obama intends to abandon his pledge of ending the Bush tax cuts for the rich as a good faith gesture to the Republican party in hopes that Republicans will be more open to working on items in the lame-duck session including extending unemployment benefits.

Does President Obama somehow think he can score political brownie points by working with the party that openly seeks his failure and removal from office? Instead of standing up for his own base and staying committed to his campaign pledges, is the President willing to aid and abet the Republicans in their efforts to destroy the middle-class and hand this country over to millionaires and billionaires in exchange for John Boehner’s and Mitch McConnell’s word that they will be open to compromise in the future?

President Obama, sir, it’s not worth it. Their word is worthless.