Capitol Briefing comes to an end
All good things must come to an end, and so Capitol Briefing will no longer be updated as a standalone blog. From now on, the Washington Post's congressional coverage will appear on the 44 blog or in regular news stories, which can always be found on the Politics section front. Thanks to everyone who has read this blog since its inception in 2007.
After breach, House plans new cybersecurity training
By Paul Kane
House leaders have asked the chamber's security officials to implement a new cybersecurity training regimen for aides and take additional measures to protect sensitive information from potential hackers.
Daniel P. Beard, the House's chief administrative officer, finished a six-week review, prompted by The Washington Post's disclosure of the ethics committee's secretive deliberations, by recommending several technology security updates. He offered a list of recommendations that focused mostly on making staff aware of the security risks on the Internet.
"Changes in security policies will make it clear that all sensitive House information will remain on House equipment at all times, it will be encrypted when stored on mobile devices and must not be transmitted on any public access system," Beard wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Pelosi and Boehner released Beard's recommendations Tuesday and asked him to begin implementing them as soon as possible.
Beard's review was prompted by an October breach of the House ethics committee, after a junior staffer took home with her a sensitive computer file that included a document that named every congressman the panel was investigating and included updates on most of the nearly three dozen investigations.
House Democrats push new comprehensive immigration bill
By Ben Pershing
A broad cross-section of House Democrats unveiled a new comprehensive immigration reform bill Tuesday, laying down an early marker for what they hope will be a major 2010 debate.
More than 80 co-sponsors have already signed on to the legislation, which is authored by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and titled the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, or "CIR ASAP" for short. The bill includes provisions strengthening border security, creating a streamlined employment verification system, altering the visa program to promote the reunification of families and establishing a commission to recommend changes to the current system of H-1B and H-2B visas for skilled workers.
The measure, a summary of which is available here (PDF), also contains an "earned legalization program" for current undocumented workers, giving them the chance to get legal status if they pay a $500 fine, pass a criminal background check and show that they have made valuable contributions to American society "through employment, education, military service or other volunteer/community service."
Gutierrez and several members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as well as the Congressional Black Caucus and other groups jammed into an overstuffed, sweltering House committee room Tuesday to release the bill and demand action.
Standing before a cadre of activists chanting "Si, se puede," and a group of children wearing shirts that said "future voter," Gutierrez said that years of hard work and negotiations on the issue had brought them "to this bill and to this meeting, which marks the final push toward comprehensive immigration reform."
Gutierrez added that the bill was "pro-family, pro-jobs and pro security ... and the time to pass it into law is right now."Continue reading this post »
Prospects for GOP support of Senate health care bill are dwindling
By Shailagh Murray
As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid works to unite his 60-member Democratic caucus in support for health-care reform, his prospects for Republican converts appear to be dwindling.
Just two GOP senators are considered gettable by Reid and White House officials, as Democrats race to wrap up action on the bill before Christmas. But on Tuesday morning, one of those lawmakers -- Sen. Susan Collins of Maine -- signaled she would likely vote with her party against the legislation.
"I don't see voting for the current bill that is on the floor even with the improvements that have been made," Collins told reporters.
Collins has conferred with Democrats and White House officials on possible changes to the bill, and last week offered an amendment with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), an uncommitted member of the Democratic caucus -- to strengthen provisions in the bill related to the quality standards for doctors and hospitals.
But Collins said she was "very leery" of the nearly $500 billion in Medicare cuts in the bill and about the burden it could impose on small businesses. "The bill is getting better, but it's still too deeply flawed for me to support it," Collins said.
Democrats are more hopeful about their chances with Sen. Olympia Snowe, Collins' homestate colleague, but Snowe told reporters Tuesday morning that she is alarmed by Reid's Christmas timetable. "It's going to be difficult," Snowe told reporters, to adequately review the bill in such a short time period.
And yet Democrats already have given Snowe a head start, by briefing her in one-on-one sessions on the latest version of the bill, which has yet to be made public as it awaits an official cost analysis from the Congressional Budget Office. The new draft includes a number of small-business provisions that Snowe had sought.
"It's not truly understandable what the deadline of Christmas is all about. It's not logical," Snowe said. Although Democrats are eager to wrap up health care before the 2010 election cycle begins in earnest, Snowe said, "A political deadline doesn't make good policy." She added, "You can't say it's historic, you can't say it's never been done before in the history of this country, and then say we've got to put it on this ambitious, unrealistic time table. It's only been on the floor for two weeks."
On the other hand, Lieberman -- one of the handful of Democratic caucus members who has not yet endorsed the legislation -- appeared to be warming to the $848 billion package. Reid has now met Lieberman's demands of dropping the public option and the Medicare buy-in proposal that liberals had sought as a consolation prize, once the public option was pushed off the table.
"We've got a great health insurance reform bill here. And the danger was that some of my colleagues, I think, were just trying to load it up with too much. And what happens then is that you run the risk of losing everything," Lieberman told reporters Tuesday morning. "So I think what's beginning to emerge -- though I know some people are not happy about it -- is really a historic achievement, health care reform such as we've not seen in this country for decades."
Hoyer sketches out Congressional pre-Christmas crunch
By Ben Pershing
UPDATE 2:48 PM: At a press conference to unveil their job-creation package, House Democratic leaders said they planned (House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said it was his "hope") to complete all their remaining work for the year Wednesday. That would mean passing the defense spending bill, a debt limit increase, a short-term continuing resolution and a jobs package all in one day. Several lawmakers, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are scheduled to leave for the climate change talks in Copenhagen as soon as the House ends its session.
ORIGINAL ITEM: With the remaining days of 2009 ticking away, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) on Tuesday laid out Democrats' strategy for finishing their work on key legislation and getting out of town.
House leaders hope that their chamber will be able to adjourn by the end of this week, and before then, they plan to bring forward and pass four separate pieces of legislation: a $626 billion defense appropriations bill with a host of other measures attached to it; a continuing resolution to keep the Pentagon funded through Dec. 23 or 24, enough time for the Senate to complete its work; a standalone increase in the federal debt ceiling, likely high enough to get the Treasury Department through February; and a job-creation bill.
That quartet of measures has come together in recent days as the product of marathon discussions between the House and Senate, mostly centered on what the latter chamber can realistically accomplish given its procedural rules and its current focus on health care. The Senate is not expected to take up the jobs package this year, but it is likely to approve the other three measures the House plans to deliver this week.
The debt limit has been the biggest sticking point. Negotiations are ongoing on the possibility of a mammoth debt limit increase -- a $1.8 trillion boost that would cover all of 2010 -- but Hoyer made clear he expects a smaller increase to become law, as there is almost no time left to convince members to support a larger package.Continue reading this post »
House Democrats scrap long-term increase in debt ceiling, jobs package
By Paul Kane
House Democratic leaders, bowing to opposition from their party's deficit hawks, have decided to move the final must-pass piece of legislation of the year without a long-term increase to the national debt and a large boost in infrastructure funding that was considered a jobs bill.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Monday evening that the proposal floated last week to increase the debt limit by more than $1.8 trillion had been discarded in favor of a more politically acceptable plan to give the Treasury a two-month extension on its current limit of $12.1 trillion, which it is expected to hit by New Year's Eve. The plan calls for raising the cap by $300 billion to $12.4 trillion, according to a source familiar with the decision.
"We're working towards a short-term debt extension," Hoyer told reporters as he emerged from an hour-plus meeting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office.
Conservative House Democrats had been demanding, in exchange for their votes to support a large debt limit increase, a law that would force new spending on government programs to be offset by other cuts in federal spending or increases in taxes or fees. Senate Democrats who are concerned about deficits, led by Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-S.D.), had been seeking the creation of a powerful new commission that would be able to force reductions in spending.
Aside from the Senate's health-care debate, the final legislative wrangling of the year is over the annual funding bill for the Defense Department, which is slated to receive $626 billion for fiscal 2010, and what other measures to attach to that bill. The debt limit increase had become one of the most controversial, as Republicans have been criticizing Democrats all year for being the party of big government spending as the annual deficit topped $1.4 trillion for 2009.
Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Rules Committee, said she expects her panel to soon consider two pieces of legislation, one being the defense measure with some pieces that have garnered broad agreement among Democrats on both ends of the Capitol. Sources familiar with those talks suggested that this package would include the defense bill, a one-year extension of the estate tax at current levels, a two-month extension of the debt limit and an extension of unemployment benefits.
Senate clears $447B omnibus measure
Updated 4:20 p.m.
By Ben Pershing
The Senate approved a $447 billion omnibus bill Sunday, clearing a package of six appropriations bills for President Obama's signature.
The measure, which passed the House last week, was approved by the Senate, 57 to 35. The vote was mostly along party lines -- three Republicans voted for the bill, and three Democrats voted against it.
The package contains funding for dozens of federal agencies and the District of Columbia. Including spending on mandatory programs like Medicare and Social Security, the bill's price tag totals $1.1 trillion. The measure also carries thousands of earmarks and double-digit spending increases for many programs, prompting Republicans to attack Democrats' priorities.
"If you reallly want to reduce wasteful spending, vote against this bill," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said just before the vote Sunday, complaining that the package had been thrown together with precious little scrutiny or transparency.
But Democrats said Republicans were largely to blame for slowing the appropriations process, and they praised the omnibus for injecting much-needed funding for key programs into a struggling economy.
"It represents the priorities of our nation," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of the package. "It invests in students, veterans, and law enforcement, just to name a few."
Passage of the measure was a foregone conclusions after Democrats successfully ended a filibuster of it Saturday, voting 60-34 to end debate after holding the tally open to accommodate ailing Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), an observant Jew who walked from his Georgetown synagogue to cast his vote.
Obama is expected to sign the measure, and when he does, several longstanding restraints on how the District can spend federal money will be removed. The measure ends restrictions -- promulgated by Republicans but unpopular among local leaders -- that banned needle-exchange programs, medical marijuana use and local government-funded abortion.
The D.C. budget is included in the bill that funds the Treasury department. The omnibus measure encompasses that and five other measures: The Transportation-HUD bill; the Commerce-Justice-State bill; the Labor-HHS-Education bill; the military construction-Veterans Affairs bill; and the State-foreign operations bill.
The omnibus includes legislation sought by auto dealers that establishes an arbitration process allowing dealerships that have been targeted for closure by General Motors or Chrysler to appeal the decision. The package contains more than $4 billion in aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and controversial language allowing Amtrak passengers to carry firearms in their checked baggage. The measure also provides a pay increase averaging 2 percent for federal workers.
Only one appropriations measure -- the defense bill -- is still awaiting action, and Democrats plan to use it as a vehicle to carry other must-pass legislation, likely including an increase in the federal debt ceiling, a job-creation bill and other key legislative items. The House is expected to clear that package this week, while the Senate's schedule will depend on how quickly the chamber finishes its debate on health-care reform.
Report: in Senate plan, insufficient funding for those with preexisting conditions
By David S. Hilzenrath
If you have a preexisting medical condition, you could still have insurance problems under the health-care reform proposals taking shape in Congress.
It was already clear that, under the Senate bill, insurers would not be prohibited from using your health status against you until 2014. In the meantime, they could continue to deny you coverage or charge you higher premiums.
Now comes word that a program the Senate would create to provide relief until 2014 could run out of money as early as 2011.
That's the assessment of Richard S. Foster, chief actuary at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, in a Dec. 10 report.
The White House disagrees, but if Foster's analysis is correct, "Congress would either have to pony up more money ... or risk the wrath of those who signed up for the program only to have it pulled out from under them," said Timothy Stoltzfus Jost, a professor at Washington and Lee University who specializes in health-care law.
Senate clears way for passage of spending bill
By Paul Kane
In a surprisingly suspenseful vote Saturday, the Senate cleared a key parliamentary hurdle on a massive spending bill for almost half the federal government, which will provide tens of billions of dollars in increased funding for a host of federal agencies and the District of Columbia.
On a 60-to-34 vote, the Senate agreed to close off debate on the must-pass omnibus spending bill for agencies such as the Justice and State departments. First, however, Democrats held open the 15-minute vote for an additional 50 minutes so 92-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) could be wheeled in and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) could walk the 3 1/2 miles from his Georgetown synagogue on a cold winter morning.
Byrd has been ailing most of this year and votes only on important matters, and Lieberman, an orthodox Jew who honors the Sabbath by refusing to drive, rarely works Saturdays unless it is absolutely necessary. The duo cast the deciding votes to end the Republican filibuster.
"Shabbat shalom," Lieberman said to photographers as he entered the Capitol an hour after the roll call began. His topcoat still on, Lieberman wore an orange scarf and held his hat in hand as cast the 60th vote for the $446.8 billion spending bill. The senator attended morning services for the second day of Hanukkah, then walked to the Capitol, an aide said.
A final vote on the measure is scheduled for Sunday afternoon. With House passage of the measure earlier this week, President Obama has indicated he will sign the bill. All but three Senate Republicans opposed the measure, citing what they consider to be wasteful spending on domestic agencies in a time of war. Three Democrats -- Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Russ Feingold (Wisc.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) -- joined the Republicans in supporting a filibuster of the bill.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the No. 2 GOP leader, called for "a more responsible way" of handling the annual spending bills that are approved by the House and Senate appropriations committees, which handle a dozen different pieces of legislation each year for the federal government. Only five have been completed and signed into law, so this bill bundles together six of the appropriations bills into one massive measure, in what has become an annual legislative adventure.
Kyl said such a major bill becomes impossible to oppose, given that a widespread federal government shutdown would ensue. "If you can't get it passed on its own merits, then bundle it up with a whole bunch of other stuff," he said during the floor debate.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democratic leader, argued that the bill was filled with honorable spending increases in areas that the Bush administration ignored for most of this decade, citing in particular a $5.3 billion boost in funds for veterans' programs.
"These men and women need our help. This package of bills provides that help," Durbin said.
The legislation boosts spending for federal agencies almost 10 percent, on average.
Republicans have tried to tie the increased spending on federal programs to other areas of government expansion, including the financial bailouts and the proposed health-care overhaul, as the annual deficit has topped $1.4 trillion for 2009. Next week, the House will consider another critical spending measure, a $626 billion funding bill for the Pentagon -- traditionally a bipartisan vote -- that is quickly becoming a legislative Christmas tree with other must-pass ornaments attached to it.
Democrats expect to add an increase in the national debt limit to more than $13 trillion, as well as $70 billion in funds for a jobs package focused heavily on infrastructure programs, and extensions of normal federal highway construction programs and the Patriot Act. Republicans, who have traditionally supported all military funding bills, are considering opposing the omnibus defense bill because of the possible add-ons.
"We're going to see how they put the package together," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned after the Saturday morning vote.
Weekend sessions, once rare, have become increasingly common this fall and winter for the House and Senate, with the health-care debate consuming the legislative calendar and leaving little time to consider other key items. Aside from Thanksgiving weekend, the Senate has now worked three straight weekends. The usual decorum of suits and ties gave way Saturday to a flurry of casual attire, including Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) appearing on the floor wearing blue jeans.
House likely to add jobs bill to defense spending legislation
By Ben Pershing
House Democrats are increasingly likely to move a jobs bill next week, firming up the details of a package that would cost roughly $70 billion and include spending for infrastructure projects and benefits for the poor and unemployed.
The jobs package would move as an attachment to the defense appropriations bill, which will also serve as the vehicle for other unpassed legislation. Talks are underway between the House, Senate and White House to attach a federal debt limit increase of at least $1.8 trillion to the measure. The exact combination of add-ons is not yet clear, but the inclusion of a jobs component is becoming more certain, according to lawmakers and aides.
"We're very determined to have a targeted jobs program as part of this bill," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the party leadership. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also said Friday that there would be a jobs measure, but did not provide many specifics.Continue reading this post »