Tales from the Trail

The First Draft: Block that metaphor

PEOPLE-JACKSON/Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett may no longer be with us, but Congress is still hanging around. Good thing, too, as they’ve got plenty of work to do.

The House of Representatives is poised to vote today on one of the most significant environmental bills in history. It could be a nail-biter as Democratic leaders are still scrambling to ensure they have enough votes to pass the measure, which aims to wean industry off of carbon-emitting fuels blamed for global warming.

After that it has to clear the Senate, where Republicans will have an easier time derailing it if they so desire.

They’re still plugging away on healthcare reform. Senators say they’re closer to agreement on a $1 trillion bill that would extend coverage to nearly everyone without adding to huge budget deficits.

On top of that, President Obama wants Congress to tackle immigration and overhaul financial regulation by the end of the year. He also hopes to get Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court by September.

The First Draft: After the Crash

USA-TRAINS/Investigators say it likely will be weeks before they determine the cause of the deadly Washington subway crash.But the accident, which killed nine and wounded 75 during the Monday afternoon rush hour, has once again highlighted the need to update America’s aging infrastructure.Federal investigators warned Washington’s Metro system to replace or upgrade its older cars after a 2004 accident, but the transportation agency said it couldn’t afford to retire the 30-year-old cars for another decade.Now they’ve changed their tune.”I think it is urgent, and let’s do it as quickly as humanly possible,” Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty said on ABC’s “Today Show.” “It’s not a small sum of money, but lives are more important than finances.”It will likely cost $1 billion to replace the 290 subway cars that have been in operation since Metro first opened in 1976.Metro has a hard enough time simply keeping the trains running as it must secure funding from three states — Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia — with all the legislative headaches that entails.Can the federal government help?Public concerns about government spending are on the rise after a $787 economic stimulus bill and pricey bailouts of banks and automakers.Congress aims to take up a $450 billion bill to finance long-term transportation spending this summer, but the Obama administration is urging an 18-month delay to allow legislators to focus on healthcare and climate change.Some in the House of Representatives worry that could delay needed upgrades.That’s not something nervous commuters want to hear.Photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (Rescue workers at the scene of the June 22 crash in Washington)For more Reuters political news, click here.

The First Draft: Trying again on healthcare

USA-HEALTHCARE/OBAMASenate Democrats will take up healthcare again today after a tough week.

Republican opposition is building after independent auditors estimated their initial efforts could cost more and cover fewer than initially hoped, reducing the chance of winning the bipartisan support that could ensure that any reforms will last.

Republican Sen. John McCain gave Reuters a grim prognosis last Friday and said the next few days will determine whether the effort succeeds or fails.

But Democratic Sen. Max Baucus still thinks he can get a bipartisan bill to President Obama by the end of the year.

Specter: Republican Sr becomes Democrat Jr

SENATE/CLINTON/GATES

A week after switching parties, former Republican-turned-Democratic U.S. Senator Arlen Specter has suffered the political equivalent of a kick in the pants.

The action — stripping him of Senate seniority — isn’t expected to change the outcome of any pending legislation. But it puts Specter on notice he must earn his Democratic stripes.

The figurative boot in the butt was administered on late Tuesday by Senate Democrats, who have been irritated by many of Specter’s initial moves as a member of their party.

First draft: Paybacks

USA/Things are looking up on Wall Street. What will Washington have to say?

Goldman Sachs, coming off a strong earnings report, may try to pay back its $5 billion government loan early, so it can get out from under mandated salary caps. This move could reduce the cost of the financial bailout but also rekindle public anger about Wall Street greed. Look for a response from the Obama administration today.

Outside of Wall Street, the real economy continues to crumble. Retail sales unexpectedly fell in March as motor vehicle and electronic purchases declined, and prices paid to farmers and manufacturers posted their strongest yearly decline since 1950 as energy prices slipped, according to government figures released early Tuesday.

Obama speaks about the economy at Georgetown University at 11:30.

Congress is out of town this week, but that won’t stop a prominent congressional watchdog from releasing its report on wasteful spending.   Citizens Against Government Waste unveils its annual “pig book” at 10:00.

Disappointed Americans see increased bickering in Congress

Following the election of Barack Obama as president last year, many Americans figured Democrats and Republicans in Congress would start working together more to solve the nation’s problems.
 
Yet less than three months into Obama’s presidency, they have concluded that lawmakers are actually bickering more than usual.
          
That’s the findings of a new poll released on Wednesday by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
    
The survey, conducted March 31 to April 6 of 1,506 adults, also found that the public has more confidence in Obama’s handling of the economy than they do in either Democratic or Republican congressional leaders.
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Seventy percent of respondents said they have a “great deal/fair amount” of confidence that Obama will do the “right thing” on the economy.
    
By contrast, 55 percent said they have such confidence in Democratic congressional leaders and just 38 percent said they have that level of confidence in Republicans leaders.
    
Republicans opposed Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan and his $3.5 trillion budget plan, both of which won passage thanks to the president’s fellow Democrats who control Congress.
 
In January, shortly before Obama took office, 50 percent of respondents in a Pew poll said they expected Democrats and Republicans to work together more while just 39 percent said they expected them to bicker more.
    
But the new poll found just 25 percent said they believe lawmakers are working together more. Fifty-three percent said Democrats and Republicans seem to be bickering and opposing each other more than usual.

Photo credit: Reuters/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool (Obama addresses joint session of Congress on February 24, 2009)

Democrats, Republicans claim gains in “Obama referendum”

pointDemocrats and Republicans each claim bragging rights in a U.S. congressional race billed as a referendum on President Barack Obama.
 
But political analysts said the special election to fill a vacant seat from New York in the House of Representatives was so close — and yet to be decided — no one has much cause to celebrate.
 
“It’s basically a tie. It’s like kissing your sister,” said Charlie Cook of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional and presidential races.
 
As of Wednesday, a day after the election, Democrat Scott Murphy, a venture capitalist, held a lead of fewer than 70 votes over Republican New York Assemblyman Jim Tedisco.
 
The race likely will be decided by absentee ballots.
 
“Regardless the final outcome, the fact that we closed a 21-point margin (in the polls) in eight weeks is a testament to the fact that the economic message that Scott Murphy carried resonated with voters and his message was support the president’s economic recovery plan,” said Congressman Chris Van Hollen, head of the House Democratic campaign committee.
 
Republicans said the congressional district, though long Republican, went Democrat in recent years, including last November when Obama won it by 3 percentage points.
 
“Jim Tedisco has closed the gap in a district that has come to exemplify Democratic dominance,” said Pete Sessions, chairman of the House Republican campaign committee.
 
“That is a testament to the strength of Jim’s campaign and the effectiveness of the Republican message of fiscal responsibility and accountability,” Sessions said.
 
Nathan Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said, “Both sides have reasons to be happy, but also reason to be a little disappointed.”
 
The seat has been open since January, when New York Governor David Paterson appointed Kirsten Gillibrand to the U.S. Senate.

Click here for more Reuters coverage.

Photo credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts (Obama points after signing the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, March 30 )

“I don’t want to screw up”, says Obama’s Iraq envoy

KOREA-NORTH/KIMSeasoned U.S. diplomat Chris Hill showed some jitters on Wednesday over being nominated as next U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

“I just don’t want to screw it up,” said Hill, in fairly undiplomatic language at a confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

As new U.S. ambassador, Hill would oversee the drawdown of U.S. troops.

Hill has faced some opposition as next U.S. ambassador to Iraq but he had a fairly smooth hearing on Wednesday.

The First Draft: what about the pork?

So the Democratic-controlled Congress finally sent President Barack Obama a $410 billion bill to fund the government through the rest of the year. But it’s full of “earmarks” — billions of dollars earmarked for lawmakers’ pet projects.ROMANIA/

Obama has repeatedly criticized Congress for including the so called “earmarks” or pork in various legislation but he is expected to sign the spending bill. However, he also plans to make a speech criticizing the whole process of earmarks.

Question is — does he speak out against the pork then sign the bill? Or sign the bill then criticize it? Obama is due to speak about “earmark reform” at 11:20 EDT/1520 GMT.

Mod Squad infiltrates U.S. Senate budget fight

Their mission is to handcuff some of the money President Barack Obama seeks in his budget request to Congress … deficit-spending that they fear will prey on future generations.

They are the “Mod Squad,” a group of about 15 Senate Democrats, some of them freshmen, whose tentative name reflects their moderate political leanings and is borrowed from a 1960s television drama.

USA-STIMULUS/“The purpose is not to be adversarial to the White House,” ringleader Ben Nelson of Nebraska told reporters on Thursday. Yes, it’s the very same Nelson who helped broker the compromise on the $787 billion economic stimulus bill.