United States News Digest
GOP Loses Spending Bill Vote
The Republicans suffered a defeat on Nov. 17, when the House rejected, by a vote of 209 to 224, the fiscal 2006 appropriations bill funding the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. The bill, as passed by the Senate, included $8 billion in emergency spending to prepare for a possible avian flu epidemic, but that money was stripped out in conference with the House on the insistence of conservative Republicans who opposed any such spending unless it were offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. Congressman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who oversees the Labor/Health and Human Services spending bill, told the House that the avian flu provision is such a big ticket item that, "There's no way to offset $7 billion or $8 billion." The bill included $63.4 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services, almost $1 billion less than last year. According to Democrats, the bill cuts education and rural health-care programs, as well as funding for heating assistance for low-income families. Twenty-two Republicans, including many moderates who have caused the GOP leadership fits on the budget reconciliation bill, joined with all the Democrats (except one who did not vote) to defeat the bill.
The bill had been denounced earlier by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa), Regula's counterpart in the Senate, who said, "Every item on our tentative conference budget is [funded] under last year['s], under this year['s]. This is not right as we approach the problems of America."
Vote on Defense Spending Bill Delayed
The vote on the Defense Appropriations bill is being delayed until December, and is expected to be the last spending bill to be voted on in 2005, according to CQ Daily.
Although the House and Senate versions were completed in October, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill) has yet to appoint any members to the Conference Committee to reconcile the two versions. CQ Daily suggests that Hastert wants to hold back this bill, to use it as a vehicle in which to insert a provision for an additional 1% across-the-board cut in all non-defense programs.
It may also be that the reason for holding back the bill is that the Senate version contains the anti-torture provision (which passed 90-9), which has the potential to lead to a real war between the White House and Senate Republicans, since the White House has said it will veto any defense spending bill containing the anti-torture provision, while the Senate is determined to pass it.
As a result of Hastert's apparent support for torture, defense operations will need to be funded by a continuing resolutionfunding at the current leveluntil legislation might be passed. The Pentagon has already complained in a letter to Congress that such funding has "increasingly stressed" its operations.
White House Will Veto Pension Bill
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao emphasized, in an MSNBC-TV interview Nov. 18, that President Bush intends to veto the "pension reform" bill passed Nov. 16 by the Senate 97-2, unless the Republican leadership blocks it in the House. The bill, S-1783, sponsored by Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, was the least draconian of the various versions of the original White House "reform"; but all these versions would, according to CBO analyses, increase the rate at which companies are abandoning their pension plans.
This bill would give underfunded companies seven years to catch up to 100% funding of their plansmuch too long, according to Chao. It would increase the premiums the companies pay the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) from $19 to $30/worker/year. Senators Stabenow and Levin both Democrats of Michigan voted no because of additional penalty premiums and faster "catch-up contributions" required of companies with low credit ratings. The Senate bill allows only airlines 20 years to catch up on their funding; and allows pilots, who must retire at 60, to collect full pensions at that age.
Of note, the bill contains a key bankruptcy rule change, brought over from the House Ways and Means Committee, which imposes a "fine" of $1,250/worker/year on any company which tries to emerge from bankruptcy having dumped its pension plan. In the Delphi case, for example, this "fine," paid to the PBGC, would be $30 million a year, or about one-third of Delphi's currently scheduled annual pension contributions (which it has suspended).
Texas DA Subpoenas DeLay PAC Records
On Nov. 16, Travis County (Texas) District Attorney Ronnie Earle subpoenaed bank records of Americans for a Republican Majority PAC (ARMPAC), the national political action committee founded by former House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) which gave $75,000 to start Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC), the Texas PAC which is at the center of the DeLay indictment. Earle is also seeking records showing that ARMPAC gave money to the Missouri Republican Party, and the Rely on Your Own Beliefs Fund. The latter is a fund connected to Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, DeLay's successor as House Majority Leader, and a key operative of DeLay's "K Street Project." The DA also subpoenaed campaign finance records concerning donations by Austin businessman David Harman to 2002 Texas candidates; the Texas 2002 legislative campaign was the occasion of the events charged in the DeLay indictment.
First Indictments Handed Down in Iraq Reconstruction
An expatriate American businessman has been arrested for paying at least $630,000 in kickbacks to U.S. occupation authorities to win reconstruction contracts in Iraq, and more charges are expected. According to an affidavit made public Nov. 16, Philip H. Bloom, a U.S. citizen who's lived in Romania for many years, conspired with Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and U.S. military officials to win millions of dollars in contracts in Al-Hillah and Karbala, cities 50-60 miles south of Baghdad; in some cases, Bloom's companies performed no work, according to the affidavit. The indictment was developed from audits by the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart W. Bowen, Jr. Bloom was arrested recently at Newark Airport in New Jersey, made a brief appearance in Federal court, and remains in Federal custody. Prosecutors at Bloom's hearing did not detail the charges against him, but the magistrate said they involve money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the government.
Levin, Graham Work Out Compromise on Detainee Rights
Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Carl Levin (D-Mich) worked out a compromise on an amendment to define the rights of Guantanamo detainees to seek recourse in U.S. courts. The Senate passed a Graham-sponsored version on Nov. 10, which denied the detainees habeas corpus or any access to the courts. The compromise allows detainees convicted by a military tribunal access to a U.S. Federal Appeals Court, and then to the Supreme Courtautomatically if the sentence is greater than 10 years, and at the court's discretion otherwise. The amendment was passed in the Senate on Nov. 15, as the Graham-Levin-Kyl Amendment.
More important than the exact wording is the insistence by the Senate that they have the constitutional authority to determine policy toward the Gitmo detaineesa standpoint that Vice President Dick Cheney has ferociously opposed. The new detainee amendment and the McCain anti-torture amendment together represent the Senate declaration of constitutional authority against the Cheney imperial White House doctrine. All the amendments will now be fought out at the level of the House-Senate conference.
John Edwards: I Was Wrong To Vote for Iraq War
The 2004 Democratic nominee for Vice President John Edwards wrote a commentary in the Washington Post Nov. 13 on mistakes in the conduct of Bush's Iraq war, in which he stated: "It was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002. I take responsibility for that mistake. It has been hard to say these words because those who didn't make a mistakethe men and women of our armed forces and their familieshave performed heroically and paid a dear price."
"The argument for going to war with Iraq was based on intelligence that we now know was inaccurate," Edwards wrote. "The information the American people were hearing from the Presidentand that I was being given by our intelligence communitywasn't the whole story. Had I known this at the time, I never would have voted for this war. George Bush won't accept responsibility for his mistakes. Along with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, he has made horrible mistakes at almost every step: failed diplomacy; not giving our forces the equipment they need; not having a plan for peace."
Edwards' proposals for Iraq include: "Remove the image of an imperialist America from the landscape of Iraq. American contractors who have taken unfair advantage of the turmoil in Iraq need to leave Iraq. If that means Halliburton subsidiary KBR, then KBR should go."
Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa) also said last week on Fox News, "I would never have voted yes if I knew what I know today."