Thursday, November 15, 2007

Legislative Week in Review VIII

The House of Representatives voted 218-203 in favor of a $50 billion Iraq funding bill that would require that the U.S. initiate troop withdrawals within 30 days of its passage and agree to the goal of bringing home most soldiers and Marines by Dec. 15, 2008. It also requires that the president certify to Congress 15 days in advance that a unit being sent into combat is "fully mission capable" (though President Bush can waive that requirement) and that all government interrogators rely on the Army's field manual. The manual is based on Geneva Convention standards and was updated in 2006 to specifically prohibit the military from using aggressive interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding.

There was no real change in the vote margins since the last withdrawal bills, but Democratic leaders have stepped up their rhetoric. Both Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid say that they will not approve any funding bill without the timetable and Reid is threatening to force Republicans to actually filibuster the bill if they demand their usual 60-vote hurdle when it comes up again in January (as they did this week). Democrats are vowing not to be bullied, but we will see what happens early next year when the Pentagon's budget (which Congress approved and has been signed into law) can no longer be used to pay for the war.

The full House and the Senate Judiciary Commitee also voted for a version of the FISA update bill that does not include retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies. President Bush has said he will veto the bill without it. I say let him and then send him no bill if he doesn't relent, same with Iraq funding.

Harry Reid has said the Senate will hold "pro forma" sessions during the Thanksgiving recess, to prevent President Bush from recess appointing nominees such as his controversial surgeon general nominee, James Holsinger. Both the House and the Senate resume business the first week of December.

The House also voted for a bill that would tighten the nation’s mortgage regulations in response to the turmoil in the subprime lending market by bringing mortgage brokers — currently regulated on a state-by-state basis — under a nationwide licensing registry, establishing minimum standards for home loans and expanding certain limits on high-cost mortgages. It also would prohibit brokers from steering consumers to mortgages they are unlikely to be able to repay. It passed by a veto proof margin of 291-127. It now goes to the Senate, where a similar bill has been stalled for weeks. The House also passed other non-controversial bills that are listed here.

The House and Senate voted to re-authorize and expand to more children Head Start. Bush is expected to sign given the massive margins of passage in both chambers. The House Education and Labor Committee also approved, 44-0, a five-year reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that would boost student aid and help families compare the costs of different colleges. The bill is likely to go to the full House soon after the Thanksgiving break. The Senate passed its version by a 95-0 vote in July, and members in both chambers are eager to complete action on the measure.

Democrats are offering Bush a budget compromise in which they will split the difference between the amount of domestic spending Bush wants and what they want. Bush already vetoed a spending bill that includes increases for health, education and labor programs (many for the poor) and will veto the transportation-housing spending bill. There are not enough votes to override, so Harry Reid has said Democrats will "bundle" several of the spending bills together and the total would surpass Bush's request by $11 billion, half of the $22 billion more they had been seeking. In the meantime, Congress will approve more stopgap funding.

Lastly, consideration of the Senate version of the farm bill could be pushed beyond next year's elections after a cloture vote failed.

UPDATE: Before going on break, the Senate also, by voice vote, passed a 7-year extension of the government's post-9/11 terrorism risk insurance program which is a shorter time than the House version, a bill that would allow victims of online identity theft schemes to seek restitution from criminals, and a resolution urging an upcoming ASEAN summit to suspend Myanmar from the body.

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