Senate moves on despite health impasse

What was expected to be a frantic two weeks on the Senate floor has turned into a humdrum march into the August recess, with Democrats hoping to take up several needed but decidedly unglamorous bills.
 
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he will take up the Energy and Water appropriations bill on Monday. While the legislation will create little buzz compared to healthcare reform, lawmakers with millions in project funding at stake will watch it closely. Democrats can expect a slew of amendments from conservatives such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) calling various projects into question.
 
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Reid had intended for the Senate to pass healthcare reform by the August recess but shelved that plan last week because of an impasse within the Finance Committee. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) continues to negotiate with a few Republicans in hopes of reaching a bipartisan deal.
 
Democratic leaders now hope Baucus will unveil legislation in the next two weeks that can then be merged over the August break with a bill passed by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  
 
Reid also plans to vote on Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, an event not expected to generate much drama. Republican leaders have assured Sotomayor an up-or-down vote and at least five Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Judiciary panel, have pledged to support the nominee.
 
The Judiciary Committee is expected to pass Sotomayor out of committee on Tuesday and a floor vote is expected the first week of August.
 
The Senate is also expected to take up a House package that would increase the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) mortgage insurance limit as well as states’ borrowing authority for unemployment insurance programs.
 
Democrats say the FHA is on the verge of running out of funds to insure mortgages, putting the slow revival of the housing market at risk given that FHA insures about 30 percent of mortgages. The package up for consideration would increase the mutual mortgage insurance fund commitment limit from $315 billion to $400 billion.
 
Reid will also take up legislation to maintain funding for the surface transportation act, which is projected to run out of money in August. Administration officials estimate they need between $5 billion and $7 billion to keep the highway program solvent until September.
 
The Senate plans to authorize just under $30 billion to extend the transportation authorization by another 18 months, setting up a fracas with House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.). Oberstar has floated giving the administration a smaller amount and passing a $500 billion transportation bill by the end of the year. Three Senate committees with jurisdiction, however — the Environment and Public Works, Banking and Commerce panels — have opted for an 18-month extension.
 
“We have to make sure we take action so the highway fund doesn't go dry,” Reid said Thursday evening.
 
Reid also hopes to bring back to the floor a tourism bill intended to revive Nevada’s suffering hospitality industry. Republicans infuriated Reid when they blocked the relatively non-controversial bill in June. Nevada’s unemployment rate has hovered at 12 percent, a record high, according to the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. 

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