Capitol Hillbillies

Senate Republicans take a hike on torture probe

Senate Republicans on Friday pulled out of a bipartisan investigation into controversial “war on terror” detentions and interrogations, including tactics widely condemned as torture.

The move by the opposition party dealt a sharp blow to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s efforts to find out exactly what methods were used when and whether they paid off — without prosecuting witnesses or agents thought to have committed abuses.

Senator Kit Bond, the panel’s top Republican, blamed Attorney General Eric Holder’s investigation into alleged CIA abuse of detainees, which he said made it impossible for current or former CIA officials to work with the committee.

Republicans bash Democrats over health care bill

Republicans say Democrats have ignored the public’s concerns in drafting new health care legislation under debate in the Senate Finance Committee.

Democrats are giving the public anything but an “open, honest and bipartisan debate,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said in the GOP’s weekly radio and Internet address.

The Finance Committee is the last of five congressional committees to take up health care legislation, which tops President Barack Obama’s domestic agenda.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., negotiated with top Republicans on the panel for weeks before talks broke down. Baucus’ bill leaves out a primary demand of many Democrats — that reform include a government insurance option — and it has a lower price tag than other Democratic proposals.

Congressional aide gets probation for theft

A former executive assistant to California Rep. Loretta Sanchez was sentenced Friday to three years probation for stealing office funds to get herself pizza, groceries, airline tickets and an authorized bonus.

Caroline Valdez, a 28-year-old engaged mother from Arlington, Va., could have faced up to six months in prison for forging the Democratic congresswoman’s signature to get $6,000 in bonus salary in 2006 and using Sanchez’s House credit card for the personal expenses. But prosecutors supported Valdez’s request for probation, agreeing that she has accepted responsibility by pleading guilty and repaying what she stole.

Kirk named as interim replacement for Kennedy

Massachusetts on Thursday named a Democratic replacement to fill the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat, giving President Barack Obama a vital extra vote in his health care reform battle.

Governor Deval Patrick named Paul Kirk, 71, as an interim replacement to Kennedy, whose death last month left the Senate one vote short of a critical 60 votes needed to block any Republican efforts to stall debate on a health care bill.

The additional Senate vote is more needed than ever, as Obama fights to push health reform through a skeptical US Congress.

“This appointment is a profound honor,” said Kirk, making clear that his appointment was only temporary until new elections could be held.

House votes to block Medicare rate hike

With no Social Security cost-of-living increase expected in January, House Democrats want to cancel all of next year’s premium increases for Medicare Part B recipients.

Most seniors won’t face a Medicare premium increase anyway, but Democrats say those few who would should be shielded. A vote on a bill to stop the Part B increases was scheduled for Thursday.

With no Social Security cost-of-living allowance, the vast majority of Medicare recipients already are exempt from premium increases for Part B, which provides coverage for doctor’s visits. However, a small group of seniors would face increases. The standard premium is projected to go from $96.40 a month this year to $104.20 a month in 2010. Some could face premiums high as $120 a month, according to House Democrats.

Senate Dems nix public look at health care bill

Senate Finance Committee Democrats have rejected a GOP amendment that would have required a health overhaul bill to be available online for 72 hours before the committee votes.

Republicans argued that transparency is an Obama administration goal. They also noted that their constituents are demanding that they read bills before voting.

Democrats said it was a delay tactic that could have postponed a vote for weeks.

The Democrats noted that unlike other committees, the Finance Committee works off conceptual language that describes policies — instead of legislative language that ultimately becomes law, and which the GOP amendment would have required.

Democrats accepted an alternate amendment to make conceptual language available online before a vote.

House votes to extend unemployment benefits

With no end in sight to the country’s job market woes, the House has agreed to give the jobless in a majority of states another 13 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits.

The bill, which passed the House 331-83 , approves the extra three months of benefits for those jobless living in 27 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, with unemployment rates topping 8.5 percent. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate. The longtime unemployed in states with lower levels of joblessness would not get the extension.

Sen. Robert Byrd injured in fall at home

Robert Byrd, the longest serving senator in history, has been taken to a hospital after a fall at home in the Washington suburbs.

Spokesman Jesse Jacobs says the 91-year-old West Virginia Democrat apparently stood up too fast and fell and that his caregiver called an ambulance “out of an abundance of caution.” He said that Byrd is being examined but that at this point there is no indication that he will be admitted.

Byrd has been in frail health in recent years and was hospitalized in May and June with dangerous infections. But he returned to the Senate in July to vote and earlier this month gave his first floor speech in months, where he talked about the passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Work starts on revising health care bill

Senators challenging the latest proposed health care overhaul already have won concessions that include reducing a penalty for Americans who don’t buy insurance, and hundreds of other changes are up for debate as a powerful committee takes up President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

The Senate Finance Committee — the last of five panels to have a say before the full Senate debates legislation — will consider a 10-year, nearly $900 billion plan Tuesday by Chairman Max Baucus. The Montana Democrat has spent months striving for bipartisan common ground. Senators have filed 564 amendments, some of which would make major changes to his carefully crafted framework.

Congress defers action on road, air bills

The Democratic-led Congress’ determination to do something about health care this year has slowed legislation affecting the safety of almost every traveler in America.

Barring some miracle, lawmakers acknowledge they don’t have the time or the political capital to act on new bills bringing major improvements and more money to those overworked, underfunded infrastructure systems. The House is expected on Wednesday to simply extend existing surface and air transportation programs through the end of the year.

The reauthorization of surface transportation and Federal Aviation Administration programs faces roadblocks even without the time-consuming dominance of the health care debate. But both transportation priorities have been directly affected by the health care battle.