Health-care debate delayed action on other big issues

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

For Congress, December procrastination could turn into Valentine's Day blues.

While Democratic leaders want to push health-care legislation through quickly and spend the rest of the year looking for ways to boost the economy, the start of 2010 will, in fact, center on finishing last year's work. In December, running out of time in the midst of the health-care debate and divided on other issues, congressional Democrats passed a series of temporary extensions to major legislation, many of which will expire by the end of February.

The most important will be extending the federal debt limit. On Christmas Eve, after approving the health-care legislation, the Senate approved a temporary increase in the debt ceiling to $12.4 trillion, a agreement reached after party leaders abandoned an effort to pass a larger bill because of reluctance from a bipartisan group of fiscally conservative senators. This week, lawmakers will debate an increase of more than $1 trillion to the limit, enough to back spending through November's midterm elections.

Congress must also determine in its first several weeks this year whether it will continue the extended unemployment benefits that were included in last year's stimulus bill, as well as whether it will renew parts of the USA Patriot Act, the 2001 anti-terrorism measure.

And then there is the contentious issue of the estate tax. The tax rate was 45 percent last year for estates valued at more than $3.5 million, but the rate is currently zero because Congress couldn't agree on what the tax should be in the future. The lawmakers will have to resolve the fate of the tax.

'Held hostage' on jobs

Eager to show voters they were trying to fix the economy, the House in December rushed through a "jobs bill," a package of more than $150 billion that included billions for states to prevent layoffs of government employees and to start highway and other construction projects.

Now, some House members are fuming -- not only has the Senate not passed its version of the bill, it has not even unveiled legislation.

"We are held hostage by the Senate on the jobs program -- they need to hurry," said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), one of the leaders of the "Jobs Now" caucus, a bipartisan group of more than 120 House members.

Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who is crafting the Senate's version of the legislation, declined to comment on Rush's criticism. Senate Democrats have spent several months in internal debate on various job-creation ideas, but they are not expected to try to push through legislation until after the health-care bill is approved.

A repeal appeal

In 2009, congressional Republicans' moves often followed a familiar pattern: Party activists, conservative bloggers or Fox News highlighted an issue, and one of the more conservative GOP lawmakers, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), championed it. More than often, the party's leadership adopted the cause, as with the party's moves last fall to deny funding to the liberal voter-registration group ACORN. Party leaders may face a complicated choice in the next few weeks on a new push from the conservative movement: repealing the health-care legislation -- that is, if it passes.

The conservative anti-tax Club for Growth is calling for GOP candidates and lawmakers to sign a pledge to "repeal any federal health care takeover passed in 2010." The effort, which includes a Web site at, has already drawn the signatures of a number of conservative lawmakers, mostly notably Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has been closely allied with the grass-roots "tea party" movement.

The push could put GOP leaders in a quandary. Democrats are eagerly touting the GOP repeal movement, arguing it would put Republican candidates running in 2010 against some of the popular provisions of the bill, such as its ban on insurance companies denying coverage to people who already have illnesses.

So far, even as the repeal effort has gained the support of 19 GOP members of Congress and dozens of Republicans planning to challenge Democratic incumbents, party leaders have been noncommittal.

Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said Cantor was still trying to block the health-care bill from passing in the first place and declined to say whether he would back the repeal push.

Terrorism hearings

The two parties could resume their sparring this week over who is to blame for allowing a Nigerian with suspected ties to terrorism to board an international flight headed for Detroit on Christmas Day. Four Senate committees plan hearings to discuss how the government should prevent anything like the attempted Christmas Day bombing from happening again, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair are among those who will testify.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company