Must-pass bills falter in unpopular Congress as Dems blame Republicans

Failure to advance must-pass legislation has added to the Democrats’ problems when Congress is suffering from its lowest approval ratings in years.

Democrats claim they can blame Republican obstruction for the gridlock, but political experts and some Democratic allies say the majority party will also suffer because it controls Congress.

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To make matters worse, the stalled bills were expected to pass easily.

The gridlock problem came to a head when Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) held up a 30-day extension in unemployment benefits, filibustering what Democrats assumed would be a slam-dunk bill.

Senate Democrats are catching blame from low- and middle-income workers, one of the biggest constituencies, for letting the situation spin out of control and leaving an estimated 200,000 workers without benefits this week.

Democrats decried Bunning and the GOP in a flood of press releases Monday, but those feeling the pain may not make distinctions.

“I certainly think the majority leadership understands what a catastrophe this is. They overestimated the good will of the Senate as a whole,” said Jody Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for low- and middle-income workers.

“The calls and e-mails we’re already getting are turning rapidly to, ‘Democrats have a supermajority, why can’t they move this through?’ Workers are placing the blame on both sides of the aisle,” said Conti.

Democratic strategists say their candidates will blast the GOP for obstruction. “If Republicans are stopping something as basic as helping the unemployed, they’re going to take a hit on it,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster.

Anzalone said unemployment benefits are becoming more important to upper- middle-income and high-income workers, who make up the GOP base.

But he said gridlock would also hurt the party in control. “People are seeing that their lives are being played with because of party politics, and that’s bad for everyone,” he said.

Democrats had hoped to extend unemployment benefits early last month but were beset by unexpected problems, including two blizzards that paralyzed Washington, and a rebellion of Senate liberals against a jobs bill crafted by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Lawmakers postponed action until the final hour, giving them no maneuvering room when Bunning launched his surprise one-man filibuster.

Bunning’s roadblock also undid a freeze to a scheduled cut in doctors’ Medicare reimbursements. As a result, doctors around the nation are facing a whopping 21 percent cut in payments for Medicare patients, who can account for 30-50 percent of a doctor’s patient base.

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Doctors, whom Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) courted in his effort to pass healthcare reform legislation last year, reacted angrily.

“It is shocking that the Senate would abandon our most vulnerable patients, making them the collateral damage of their procedural games,” said American Medical Association President J. James Rohack, who did not draw any distinction between Democrats and Republicans.

“The Senate had more than a year to repeal the formula and ensure the security and stability of Medicare and TRICARE, but that opportunity has been squandered,” Rohack said. “This drastic cut will hurt our senior, disabled and military patients, as well as baby boomers who start entering the Medicare program next year.”

Ironically, the bill extending unemployment benefits and freezing the doctors’ payment cuts stalled immediately after Reid scored his biggest bipartisan legislative victory of the year: passage of a $15 billion jobs measure.

A source with the doctors’ trade association said that Congress last failed to act in time in 2006. But the then-administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services used his regulatory power to stop the cut until Congress could pass a fix.

“BUT, 21 percent cut is twice as big as any previous cut,” the AMA source wrote in an e-mail.

Senate inaction on the extenders bill also threatened to cause the loss of some satellite television services for an estimated 1.8 million viewers in rural parts of the country. The expiration of a licensing agreement could have deprived viewers of network television signals, waking people around the country to dysfunction on the Senate floor.

Service interruptions were averted when the chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees promised DirecTV and other providers that they would be held harmless for continuing transmissions without proper authorization.

“I’m sure they would be frustrated,” Andrew Reinsdorf, a lobbyist for DirecTV, said of the company’s customers.

Democrats have drawn criticism for failing to act on other legislative fixes that their allies thought would have been addressed last year.

Liberal advocacy groups are outraged the Democratic-controlled Congress allowed the estate tax to drop to zero because of legislation passed under President George W. Bush.

“The people who care about tax fairness are outraged that Congress failed to prevent this huge tax cut for millionaires that had not yet gone into effect before this year,” said Steve Wamhoff, legislative director of Citizens for Tax Justice.

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“It’s surprising and pretty outrageous that when the time comes for one of the most regressive of Bush taxes to come into effect, Congress fails to prevent it,” he said.

Congress has also frustrated business lobbyists and trade associations for allowing a slew of business-related tax incentives and credits to expire at the end of last year.

Steven Smith, a professor who specializes in congressional politics at Washington University in St. Louis, said Republicans are “playing with fire” by blocking something as non-controversial as extended unemployment benefits.

He said voters could end up blaming the GOP for paralyzing government assistance during a recession.

But he noted that it is difficult for Democrats to blame Republicans for the failures of government because they are in charge.

“The public is confused,” he said. “It hears complaints about obstructionism but can’t fully understand why the majority party can’t compromise enough to get on with the public’s business.”