Capitol Hillbillies

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.

House moves to extend unemployment benefits

Despite predictions the Great Recession is running out of steam, the House is taking up emergency legislation this week to help the millions of Americans who see no immediate end to their economic miseries.

A bill offered by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and expected to pass easily would provide 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefits for more than 300,000 jobless people who live in states with unemployment rates of at least 8.5 percent and who are scheduled to run out of benefits by the end of September.

The 13-week extension would supplement the 26 weeks of benefits most states offer and the federally funded extensions of up to 53 weeks that Congress approved in legislation last year and in the stimulus bill enacted last February.

Pelosi: Hate could fuel increase in violence

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says hate-filled rhetoric over President Barack Obama’s health care reform proposals could fuel a dangerous increase in violence.

Pelosi told reporters that the tone of the debate over health care is “frightening” and reminds her of the angry, hate-filed rhetoric over gay rights that emerged in San Francisco in the 1970s and led to the the murders of city Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

Pelosi said those spewing the hate rhetoric will be responsible for any “incitement” they results from the tone of the debate.

Senators target Bush’s abuses

A group of US Senators unveiled legislation Thursday aiming to strip telecommunications firms that took part in a hugely controversial Bush-era spying program of immunity from lawsuits.

The bill aims to “fix problems with surveillance laws that threaten the rights and liberties of American citizens” without crippling the government’s ability to track suspected terrorists, the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

The legislation would affect the way the US government can search Americans’ personal records, conduct wiretapping, and otherwise collect and use information on US citizens.