Other factors, not voters, could determine control of Congress

Sen. Patty Murray: One of the seats in play (AP)

The nation may be waiting well beyond Election Day this year to find out who won control of Congress.

It’s a troubling ballot-box scenario that has hundreds of lawyers from both parties preparing for battles that could drag on days, weeks or even months past the Nov. 3 day-after.

Some states don’t count substantial amounts of votes until after Election Day. Others require mail-in ballots to be postmarked — not received — by Nov. 2, leaving the tally until well afterward. And with polls showing many Republican and Democratic candidates in tight contests, there’s plenty of opportunity for confusion, challenges and recounts that could delay the results and ultimately tip the balance of power on Capitol Hill.

A muddled outcome could give rise to yet another kind of election uncertainty. If Republicans emerge from the balloting just short of a Senate majority, their leaders would almost certainly try to prod centrist lawmakers — like Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson or Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman — to switch and hand them control.

Nelson’s staff insists he plans to stay a Democrat.

It’s also not entirely clear how a write-in victory by Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska would affect control of the Senate. Republican leaders have abandoned her since her primary loss, so they can’t necessarily count on her should she win re-election.

Recent history and this year’s political landscape suggest there could be at least one Senate race left up in the air, and as many as a half-dozen or more House races, according to lawyers who specialize in elections and analysts who study them.

Nobody on either side quite knows what will go wrong — but most are pretty sure something will.

“The rule of thumb is that if you think a recount is going to happen in a race, it doesn’t, and so what both sides are doing is doing the background work, figuring out what the state law is, getting their computers and background information in place and identifying people who can go in if there’s a problem,” said Ben Ginsberg, a central figure in the 2000 presidential recount as counsel to George W. Bush‘s campaign.

“No state thinks it has a problem … until there’s a close race, and you have to open the hood and peer inside.”

Alaska has the potential for what one expert called “the perfect storm” of election confusion. It’s home to a competitive three-way Senate race in which incumbent Republican Murkowski is running as a write-in candidate against the GOP nominee, tea partier Joe Miller, and Democrat Scott McAdams.

It’s also a state that allows absentee ballots to be postmarked right up until Election Day — and where the mail system can be slow — meaning about one-third of votes won’t be counted until later. Add in a law that lets officials read ballots according to the “voter intent” — meaning that an incorrectly marked ballot could still be counted if the voter’s intent was clear — and it could be a recipe for election disaster.

“Alaska has the real potential for a meltdown,” said Paul Gronke, a Reed College professor who studies elections. “If it’s close and the Senate’s close, wow — then I’m thinking we all better be booking our trips to Anchorage.”

The current Senate balance of power is 59-41 in the Democrats’ favor, counting the two independents who generally line up with them. With 37 seats in play, a dozen races are close and Republicans need to gain 10 to take control of the chamber. In the House, all 435 seats are on the ballot, and 75 or more are competitive. The GOP needs to gain 40 to win the majority.

“Both parties have brigades of lawyers on standby for possible close races in either the House or the Senate campaigns, and they will start flying out usually the early morning after the election,” said attorney Jan Baran, a former counsel for the Republican National Committee.

In the state of Washington, where Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is in a close contest with GOP businessman Dino Rossi, there’s great potential for a prolonged vote count. The vast majority of votes there — 85 to 90 percent — are cast by mail, and are required only to be postmarked by Election Day. That means hundreds of thousands might not be counted until two or three weeks later.

Rossi is no stranger to drawn-out vote counts. He lost a 2004 bid to Gov. Chris Gregoire by 133 votes out of 2.8 million cast after a lengthy tally, two recounts and a court challenge. Results weren’t final for seven months.

“We know it’s agonizing for the campaigns, and we know it’s agonizing for the media, but these aren’t just ballots that we’re sitting on and holding and waiting to count, it’s actually ballots that have to be verified for accountability and accuracy,” said Dean Logan, the chief election official in Los Angeles County, who held the same job in King County, Wash., the state’s largest, during the Gregoire-Rossi dispute.

If a race remains up in the air the day after the polls close, legions of official observers and lawyers from each party descend, and the snapshots that emerge from the vote-counting process can be misleading — sometimes showing the eventual loser ahead simply because a new batch of votes has just been opened.

Seven other states — Arkansas, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Dakota and Utah — also allow ballots to be postmarked by Election Day, according to a tally assembled by Gronke and his Portland, Ore.-based team, who track early voting and election law changes. Those states feature more than a dozen competitive House races and two for the Senate.

Even in states where the ballots have to be received by Election Day, a substantial number aren’t counted until later — because of the added time it takes to process mailed-in votes, provisional ballots given to voters whose names don’t appear on the registration rolls, or write-ins.

In California, for example, officials tell the media and candidates to expect that the last count they see on election night will probably be about 80 percent of the votes cast, Logan said. That’s usually enough to project a winner — but not in the tightest of contests.

And then there’s the possibility of changing sides after the results are final.

A decade ago, Democrats persuaded Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont to leave the GOP and vote with them, transforming an evenly divided Senate into one where Democrats had a one-seat majority. That was in May 2001, more than six months after voters went to the polls.

On the other hand, some changes will occur especially quickly this year. Barring unforeseen disputes, winners of special Senate elections in Illinois, Delaware and West Virginia and House races in New York and Indiana are expected to take their seats — and cast their first votes in Congress — within weeks of Election Day. They’ll be sworn in for a “lame duck” session to wrap up the year’s business before the new Congress convenes Jan. 3.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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House to vote on unemployment benefits extension

Jobs fair in San Diego (AFP)

A House vote Thursday is expected to send President Barack Obama a long-sought measure to resume unemployment payments to millions of people whose benefits have lapsed.

Obama is set to sign the bill as soon as Congress can ship it to him. The Senate broke through months of stalemate in passing the measure Wednesday by a 59-39 vote. The House planned to vote around midday Thursday.

Some 2.5 million people who been out of work for six months or more and have seen their jobless benefits lapse would receive back payments within a few weeks.

Obama promised to sign the measure quickly once the House acts and denounced the “weeks of parliamentary roadblocks by a partisan minority” that had stalled approval in the Senate.

“Americans who are working day and night to get back on their feet and support their families in these tough economic times deserve more than obstruction and partisan game-playing,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday night.

Under best-case scenarios, unemployed people who have been denied jobless benefits because of the partisan Senate standoff can expect retroactive payments as early as next week in some states.

At issue are jobless payments averaging $309 a week for almost 5 million people whose 26 weeks of state benefits have run out. Those people are enrolled in a federally financed program providing up to 73 additional weeks of unemployment benefits.

About half of those eligible have had their benefits cut off since funding expired June 2. They are eligible for lump-sum retroactive payments that are typically delivered directly to their bank accounts or credited to state-issued debit cards.

In states like Pennsylvania and New York, the back payments should go out next week, officials said. In others, like Nevada and North Carolina, it may take a few weeks for all of those eligible to receive benefits.

Democrats have become more aggressive in attacking the GOP for opposing the measure, which has been stripped down so that it’s essentially limited to a $34 billion, six-month renewal of unemployment insurance for the chronically jobless.

Republicans say they support the benefits extension but insist any benefits be financed by cuts to programs elsewhere in the $3.7 trillion federal budget. Maine GOP moderates Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins were the only Republicans to support the bill Wednesday.

Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was the only Democrat to break with his party to oppose the bill.

Democrats tout the economy-boosting effect of unemployment checks since most beneficiaries spend them immediately, and they say paying for them with cuts to other programs dilutes the stimulative effect.

“Extending unemployment insurance isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also the smart thing to do for our economy,” said Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Economists say the measure will probably have a modest beneficial effect on the economy. It represents less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the size of the $14.6 trillion economy, and is far smaller than last year’s $862 billion stimulus legislation.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Brown, Snowe back financial reform bill

Sen. Scott Brown (AP)

Sens. Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown pushed sweeping financial legislation to the edge of final passage Monday, both announcing they intend to support the regulatory overhaul despite initial misgivings.

Snowe of Maine and Brown of Massachusetts join Susan Collins of Maine as three crucial Republican votes for the legislation.

“While not perfect, the legislation takes necessary steps to implement meaningful regulatory reforms, create strong consumer protections and restore confidence in the American financial system,” Snowe said in a statement Monday evening.

In breaking with the rest of the Republican Party, the three lawmakers appeared to give Democratic leaders the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles facing the legislation.

Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the legislation would be wrapped up this week.

“We will finish our work on this bill this week to ensure that these critical protections and accountability for Wall Street are in place as soon as possible.” Reid said in a statement.

He commended the three Republicans.

“Despite the difficult political climate, these Republicans have joined Democrats to support these common-sense protections for consumers, investors and financial institutions that will help prevent another financial crisis,” Reid said.

Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska kept the vote count in limbo Monday, saying he remained undecided on the legislation. Nelson voted for an earlier Senate version of the bill.

“We’ve got some concerns that some of the banks in Nebraska have raised,” Nelson said Monday. “We also have some banks in Nebraska saying vote for it. We’re trying to balance out the concerns that have been raised. There’s a certain amount of uncertainty. You don’t have regulations written. You don’t know who’s going to be the head of the consumer protection bureau.”

A fourth Republican who voted for the Senate version in May, Charles Grassley of Iowa, has indicated he has reservations as well.

The legislation attempts to rein in banks, police previously unregulated markets and provide a new array of consumer protections. It aims to avoid a recurrence of the 2008 financial crisis that helped drive the country into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Without Nelson, Democrats would have to wait for West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who is a Democrat, to fill the vacancy created by the death of Sen. Robert Byrd. Manchin said Monday that he would fill the vacancy as early as Friday and no later than Sunday.

Manchin’s appointment would be expected to vote for the legislation.

Like Snowe, Brown won concessions in the bill and said Monday that the legislation “is a better bill than it was when this whole process started.”

“While it isn’t perfect, I expect to support the bill when it comes up for a vote,” he said in a statement. “It includes safeguards to help prevent another financial meltdown, ensures that consumers are protected and it is paid for without new taxes.”

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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GOP kills unemployment aid extension

Frank Wallace, out of work since May 2009: No help from GOP (AP)

Republicans on Thursday defeated Democrats’ showcase election-year jobs bill, including an extension of weekly unemployment benefits for millions of people out of work more than six months.

The 57-41 vote fell three votes short of the 60 required to crack a GOP filibuster, delivering a major blow to President Barack Obama and Democrats facing big losses of House and Senate seats in the fall election.

The rejected bill would also have provided $16 billion in new aid to states, preserving the jobs of thousands of state and local government workers and providing what White House officials called an insurance policy against a double-dip recession. It also included dozens of tax breaks sought by business lobbyists, and tax increases on domestically produced oil and on investment fund managers.

The demise of the bill means that unemployment benefits will phase out for more than 200,000 people a week. Governors who had been counting on federal aid will now have to consider a fresh round of budget cuts, tax hikes and layoffs of state workers.

“This is a bill that would remedy serious challenges that American families face as a result of this Great Recession,” said Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chief author of the bill. “This is a bill that works to build a stronger economy. This is a bill to put Americans back to work.”

The bill has been sharply pared back after weeks of negotiations with GOP moderates Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine. The most recent version, unveiled Wednesday night, contained new cuts to food stamps and pared back the state aid provision to allow Democrats to claim the measure was fully paid for except for the unemployment insurance extension.

That didn’t move Republicans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“It adds new taxes and over $30 billion to an already staggering $13 trillion dollar national debt,” said McConnell.

Only one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted with Republicans. Another, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, did not vote.

After the Senate vote, the House passed by a 417-1 vote a measure to reverse a 21 percent federal fee cut imposed last week on doctors providing care to seniors on Medicare. That measure was one of the most important contained in the now-dead catchall bill, but was broken out and passed separately by the Senate last week.

The House’s move would send the stand-alone Medicare fee fix to Obama for his signature.

Democrats hope that political pressure from voters outraged about the cutoff of jobless benefits averaging $300 a week and from business groups seeking renewal of longstanding tax breaks might eventually revive the bill.

The latest version of the measure contains a variety of provisions sought by lawmakers in both parties, anchored by the jobless aid and dozens of tax cuts sought by the business groups. The latest draft would add $33 billion to the deficit — down from the $80 billion deficit impact of the measure when it came to the floor two weeks ago.

The catchall measure also includes farm disaster aid, $1 billion for a youth summer jobs initiative and an extension of a bond program that subsidizes interest costs for state and local infrastructure projects. It would levy a new tax on investment fund managers but extend tax breaks such as lucrative credits that help businesses finance research and develop new products, and a sales tax deduction that mainly helps people in states without income taxes.

The death of the measure would mean that more than 200,000 people a week would lose their jobless benefits because they would be unable to reapply for additional tiers of benefits enacted since 2008. People seeking the popular homebuyer tax credit would be denied a paperwork extension approved by the Senate last week. And state and local governments would lose subsidies on bonds they issue to finance infrastructure projects.

It also includes $4.6 billion to settle a long-running class-action lawsuit brought by black farmers against the Agriculture Department for discrimination and another by American Indians involving the government’s management and accounting of more than 300,000 trust accounts.

By the end of this week, more than 1.2 million people will have lost their jobless benefits since a temporary extension expired at the beginning of the month, according to Labor Department estimates.

Thirty states had been counting on federal support to help balance their budgets for the fiscal year beginning next week since a $24 billion version had earlier passed both House and Senate. Without the money, governors warn they’ll have to lay off tens of thousands of workers.

Crestfallen Democrats tried in vain to win support from moderate Republicans Snowe, Collins and Scott Brown of Massachusetts. They voted in March to defeat a filibuster.

“The debt is out of control,” Brown said. “Since I did that last time, the debt’s at over $13 trillion and rising.”

The bill has long been considered a must-pass measure, but the political sands have shifted since it first passed in March. That vote came in the wake of a political scalding for Republicans after Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., blocked a short-term extension of jobless aid.

In the interim, however, the debt crisis in Europe and growing anxiety on deficits and debt among voters has turned Republicans against the legislation, even though it’s been cut considerably since passage of a March version that would have added about $100 billion to the debt.

Most of the measure — except for a six-month extension of jobless benefits for people who have been out of work for more than six months — is financed with offsetting tax increases or spending cuts. Congress has always approved additional unemployment benefits as a deficit-financed emergency measure.

Democratic leaders said they bent over backwards to accommodate demands by Republicans for a smaller measure. Among the cuts revealed Wednesday was a more than $10 billion cut from last year’s stimulus bill, mostly buy paring back food stamp benefits by about $11 a month per beneficiary.

“They asked to have it reduced, we did it,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “They asked to have it paid for, we did it.”

Just before the vote, Snowe said she opposed the measure because of new taxes on small businesses. She said Democrats had gone back on an offer to delete a tax provision aimed at small businesses that shelter income as dividends exempt from payroll taxes.

Snowe said the measure was drafted too broadly and would have ensnared businesses that aren’t abusing the system.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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Dems ramp up pressure on Wall Street

Democrats planned to keep up the pressure on Republicans after an expected setback put the brakes on Senate consideration of financial regulations.

But their task got slightly more complicated by the defection — at least for now — of one Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Nelson voted with Republicans on Monday to deny Democrats the 60 votes they needed to advance the legislation to a floor debate. Democrats were expected to try again Tuesday, and yet again the day after if necessary.

In a statement, Nelson, a conservative Nebraska Democrat, said his vote reflected concerns about the bill raised by Nebraska businessmen. Before the vote, Nelson huddled with Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd to discuss a regulatory item of interest to one Nebraska businessman in particular — billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

The legislation would require derivatives — previously unregulated exotic securities — to be traded in open exchanges and cleared through a third party that would guarantee the contracts. An agreement Monday between Dodd and Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., would exempt existing derivatives from the clearing requirements.

Lincoln’s proposal also would have exempted existing derivatives contracts from margin requirements, or collateral. Dodd succeeded in eliminating the collateral exception. That would potentially add significant costs to companies with derivatives portfolios, such as Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

“I was prepared to grandfather existing derivatives that have not been cleared, but I can’t say you can’t have margin requirements,” said Dodd, D-Conn., explaining his discussion with Nelson.

In his statement, Nelson asserted that “no one should view my vote today as an indication that I won’t support the bill currently being negotiated by the Banking Committee.”

At the end, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid switched his vote to “no,” too — a maneuver that will enable him to call for a new tally as early as Tuesday. If that failed, Reid, D-Nev., envisioned another vote Wednesday.

A Tuesday vote would come on the same day a Senate investigative subcommittee planned to draw attention to a Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit alleging fraud by the giant investment house Goldman Sachs. Scheduled witnesses include Goldman chairman and chief executive Lloyd Blankfein and Fabrice Tourre, the Goldman Sachs trader at the center of the SEC charges.

Democrats believe public pressure and the scent of a Wall Street scandal have given them the upper hand. Republicans themselves have taken up the Democrats’ Wall Street-bashing rhetoric and have voiced hope that a bill will ultimately pass.

“All of us want to deliver a reform that will tighten the screws on Wall Street,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “But we’re not going to be rushed on another massive bill based on the assurances of our friends on the other side.”

Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Banking Committee, again expressed optimism that he and Dodd could strike a deal over remaining differences. “Most Republicans want a bill, but they want a substantive bill,” said Shelby, R-Ala.

But while Dodd continued to meet with Shelby, Reid’s plan to continue testing Republican resolve illustrated the Democrats’ lack of patience for more negotiations.

“We will not tolerate efforts to slow-walk this process or water down this reform,” Reid said.

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