Capitol Hillbillies

Health care reform headed for vote

President Barack Obama’s plan to remake the nation’s health care system is about to take its biggest step yet toward becoming reality.

The pivotal Senate Finance Committee was poised to approve sweeping legislation Tuesday requiring nearly all Americans to purchase insurance and ushering in a host of other changes to the nation’s $2.5 trillion medical system.

Much work would lie ahead before a bill could arrive on Obama’s desk, but action by the Finance Committee would mark a significant advance, capping numerous delays as Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., held marathon negotiating sessions — ultimately unsuccessful — aimed at producing a bipartisan bill.

Democrats scramble for damage control

Insurance companies aren’t playing nice any more. Their dire message that health care legislation will drive up premiums for people who already have coverage comes as a warning shot at a crucial point in the debate, and threatens President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

Democrats and their allies scrambled on Monday to knock down a new industry-funded study forecasting that Senate legislation, over time, will add thousands of dollars to the cost of a typical policy. “Distorted and flawed,” said White House spokeswoman Linda Douglass. “Fundamentally dishonest,” said AARP’s senior policy strategist, John Rother. “A hatchet job,” said a spokesman for Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

Congress set to conceal prisoner abuse photos

Congress is set to allow the Pentagon to keep new pictures of foreign detainees abused by their U.S. captors from the public, a move intended to end a legal fight over the photographs’ release that has reached the Supreme Court.

Federal courts have so far rejected the government’s arguments against the release of 21 color photographs showing prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq being abused by Americans.

The Obama administration believes giving the imminent grant of authority over the release of such pictures to the defense secretary would short-circuit a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act.

Don’t expect any GOP votes for health care reform

The House is inching closer to voting on a comprehensive health-care bill, even as the chamber appears so divided that the measure may not attract a single Republican supporter.

The final vote, likely in late October, is impossible to predict, but lawmakers and aides from both parties said this week that there is a strong chance the GOP will be unanimous in its opposition. Such a result would mark the second time — the first came on the economic stimulus package in February — that the entire House minority rejected one of President Obama’s top domestic initiatives.

“We’re still hoping that some of them will come on board, but we see no sign of it,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a member of the Democratic leadership.

Senate approves unemployment benefit extension

Senate Democrats said Thursday they have reached a deal to extend unemployment insurance benefits to the nearly 2 million jobless workers across the country who are in danger of running out of assistance by the end of the year.

The agreement would give an additional 14 weeks of benefits to jobless workers in all 50 states. Workers in states with an unemployment rate at 8.5 percent or above would receive six weeks on top of that.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tried to bring the measure to a quick vote on the Senate floor, but Republicans objected, saying they needed more time to study the proposal and its costs and possibly offer amendments.

Frank says gay rights marches aren’t the answer

Rep. Barney Frank, the first openly gay member of Congress, says he’d rather see gay rights supporters lobbying their elected officials than marching in Washington this weekend, calling the demonstration “a waste of time at best.”

Frank , in an interview with The Associated Press, said he considers such demonstrations to be “an emotional release” that does little to pressure Congress.

“The only thing they’re going to be putting pressure on is the grass,” the Massachusetts Democrat said Friday.

Thousands of gay men and women are expected to gather for Sunday’s National Equality March.

Senate panel approves Patriot Act renewal

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill Thursday that would renew portions of the USA Patriot Act in an effort to address administration concerns about protecting terrorism investigations.

But several Democrats and civil liberties advocates said the legislation would do little to strengthen privacy protections. And some Republicans said the bill, despite amendments worked out with the administration, would still unduly burden investigators.

By a vote of 11 to 8, the committee sent to the Senate floor a measure that would extend until 2013 three surveillance provisions set to expire Dec. 31. They would allow investigators to use roving wiretaps to monitor suspects who may switch cellphone numbers, to obtain business records of national security targets, and to track “lone wolves” who may be acting alone on behalf of foreign powers or terrorist groups.

Democrats get good news about health care bill

Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief after a positive cost report on health care overhaul gave them a chance to rally around a Senate plan that significantly expands coverage while trimming the federal deficit.

The Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday that the latest version of the Senate Finance Committee proposal would expand coverage to 94 percent of all eligible Americans at a 10-year cost of $829 billion.

The budget umpires added that the legislation would reduce federal deficits by $81 billion over a decade and could lead to continued reductions in federal red ink in the years beyond.

Pelosi, Reid at war over Afghanistan

The eye roll said it all.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emerged from the White House Tuesday with broad, bicameral smiles — until Reid put his arm around Pelosi to announce that “everyone” would support “whatever” Afghanistan policy the president produces.

The lazy, lax work schedule of Congress

Like most Americans, members of the House are expected to report promptly — no excuses — when summoned by their bosses for the start of another workweek. One difference: For lawmakers, starting time doesn’t come until about 6:30 Tuesday evening.

After taking control of the House in 2006 — and again when President Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 — Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) boasted that lawmakers would work four or five days a week to bring change to America.

But midway through Obama’s first year in office, Hoyer’s House has settled into a more leisurely routine. Members usually arrive for the first vote of the week as the sun sets on Tuesdays, and they’re usually headed back home before it goes down again on Thursdays.