Congresspedia Review: This Week in Congress (June 20-27, 2008)

This week the Senate and House finally came to agreement with the White House on a bill funding the Iraq war through 2009 that also contains billions in new domestic spending and the House approved a Medicare pay fix for physicians. Several other issues have been pushed to after the July 4th recess after Senate Republicans threw some sand in the gears: a single senator stopped the housing and mortgage crisis legislation and another group stopped the renewal of the global AIDS package. In both cases the Republicans wanted votes or other participation on bills that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was trying to quickly push through. Still, the Senate did manage to confirm five nominations to the currently inactive Federal Election Commission.

After a month of votes on a series of amendments, the House and Senate each approved a supplemental spending bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The “emergency” nature of the legislation means it can bypass the normal appropriations process, and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate tried to tack some additional money for domestic initiatives onto the measure.

Those include a 13-week extension of unemployment insurance, Gulf Coast flood relief and a massive new program of veterans’ education benefits. Conservative Democrats in the House initially balked at the domestic spending because it was not paid for with offsets (tax increases) elsewhere. However, once Democrats struck a deal with the White House, Republicans in both chambers joined with the majority of Democrats to overwhelmingly approve the bill, which President Bush is expected to sign next week. Its $165 billion in war spending should support operations through the first several months of FY 2009.

The Federal Election Commission, which for months has lacked a quorum to take official action with just two members, is back to a full compliment of six this week. On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed five nominees to the board, which oversees campaign finance reporting. The nominations had been held up because Democrats in the Senate were blocking one nominee, Hans von Spokovsky, over allegations that he enabled voter suppression when he worked in the civil rights division of the Bush Department of Justice. Von Spokovsky withdrew his name from consideration last month and a replacement slate breezed through the confirmation process.

The new commissioners will have plenty to keep them occupied: regulations implementing new campaign finance laws have to be implemented, including disclosure on the ways lobbyists “bundle” campaign donations. In addition, the DNC has filed a complaint over Sen. John McCain’s acceptance-then-withdrawal from the public financing system during his presidential primary campaign.

The massive bill to address the housing and mortgage crisis has stalled in the Senate after Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) demanded a vote on his amendment containing a renewable energy tax package. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was trying to rush the legislation through without amendments and had to give up and schedule the bill to be taken up again after Congress' week long July 4th recess.

Republicans in the Senate also put the brakes on an extension of President Bush’s Global AIDS program, which funnels billions of dollars in relief to countries throughout the world. Democrats had upped the ante for the legislation, increasing total aid from $30 billion to $50 billion, and included money to improve drinking water access and expand health care worker training. The House approved the bill on April 2.

Seven GOP senators, including Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), have held up Senate efforts to pass the legislation. The delay will likely keep the bill off President Bush’s desk until July.