Senate avoids nuclear option
This week, Senate Democrats and a group of Senate Republicans reached a deal that would avoid Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) using the so-called “nuclear option” to change the rules regarding the use of the filibuster as it relates to cabinet appointments.
Reid had charged Republicans with abusing the filibuster to hold up several of President Obama’s cabinet picks – a charge Republicans once leveled at Democrats when President George W. Bush was in the White House. Reid said last week that he had the 51 votes necessary to change the filibuster rules as it related to cabinet appointments.
The nuclear option was avoided after a group of Senate Republicans, led by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), struck a deal with Senate Democrats, led by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), to allow the President’s appointments to move forward for up or down votes in exchange for President Obama agreeing to withdraw the nominations of two members to the National Labor Relations Board.
The deal, which preserves the right of the minority party in the Senate, was hailed as a victory for the institution but was seen by many as a political loser for Republicans.
The deal covered just President Obama’s cabinet appointments and did not deal with the issue of his appointments to the federal bench that are currently being blocked by Republicans in the Senate.
House votes to delay Obamacare
After the Obama administration announced plans to waive the penalties as they related to the employer mandate portions of the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare), House Republicans made it clear they would seize the opportunity to take another legislative whack at the President’s signature piece of legislation.
This week, the House did just that, first voting 264-161, with 35 Democrats joining all but one Republican in voting, to essentially approve the President’s move to delay by one year the employer mandate portions of Obamacare. The House then went further, by a vote of 251-174, this time 25 Democrats joined all but one Republican in voting, to also delay by one year the individual mandate components of the healthcare law.
The number of Democrats voting with Republicans was somewhat surprising given that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was whipping her conference to oppose both pieces of legislation.
Despite calls by Senate Republicans for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to schedule a similar vote, the House votes – while politically potent – are dead on arrival in the Senate.
House prepares to move education reform
This week, the House of Representatives began consideration of a massive overhaul to the President George W. Bush era No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education legislation. The Republican re-write of NCLB is being called the Student Success Act, and is setting off what could be a divisive fight over the role of the federal government in public education.
The Republican legislation would strike several key components of NCLB, including the requirement that teachers be evaluated based on student outcomes, and also repeal provisions requiring states to maintain minimum education funding levels and provisions aimed at the education of students with disabilities and minority groups.
Another controversial component of the legislation would prevent the Department of Education from incentivizing states to adopt the Common Core State Standards. The standards were created by state leaders and define what skills students should master at each grade level. The Education Department has given states incentives to adopt the standards, which has led Republicans to call them a de facto national curriculum.
The Republican legislation is opposed by civil rights groups and also by the Chamber of Commerce. While it is expected to pass in the House, the Senate is unlikely to pass legislation that contains many of the most conservative and controversial provisions.
Senate strikes deal over student loan rates
This week, in another bit of Senate bipartisanship – a rare occurrence in DC these days – a deal was struck over student loan rates. The House has previously passed legislation that would keep student loan rates from skyrocketing and would tie rates to the 10-year Treasury Note (a move supported by President Obama). The legislation had stalled in the Senate, however, after opposition from progressive Democrats.
The gridlock over student loan rates was finally broken this week as a group of Senate Democrats and Republicans brokered compromise legislation similar to the House legislation. The legislation will retroactively reduce interest rates on student loans that had doubled in recent months. It is expected that the Senate will consider – and likely pass – the compromise legislation next week.
For loans this fall, undergraduate students would pay an overall interest rate of 3.86 percent, which is 2.05 percent above the June 1, 10-year Treasury Note. Graduate students will pay 5.41 percent on loans this fall, which is 3.6 percent over the Treasury Note rate.
As the economy improves, the rate on the 10-year Treasury Note will also rise, resulting in an increase in student loan rates. Those rates will be 8.25 percent for undergraduates and 9.5 percent for graduates.
It is estimated that the tying of student loan rates to the 10-year Treasury Note will raise $715 million over the next 10 years, which will be used for reducing deficits.
As a result of the bipartisan deal to avoid the nuclear option in the Senate, several of President Obama’s cabinet appointments, which had previously been held up in the Senate, moved forward.
The Senate confirmed Richard Cordray by a 66-34 vote Tuesday to serve as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Secretary of Labor nominee Tom Perez by a vote of 54 to 46. Perez failed to receive the vote of a single GOP Senator even though six Republicans voted to invoke cloture and allow Perez an up or down vote.
Also on Thursday, the Senate confirmed Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency by a vote of 60 to 40. One Democrat, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, joined most Republicans in opposing the confirmation.
2016: Because it's never too soon
A look ahead:
Washington by the numbers
22 - The number of House Democrats who voted to delay the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate.
45 - The number of days the new and improved Twinkies are purported to stay fresh. The original version had a shelf life of 26 days.
“The Senate has finally approved comprehensive immigration reform, leaving it up to the House to push it through, which is basically like asking your cat to take care of your goldfish while you're away.” – Comedy Central’s John Oliver
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