Action in Congress on Wednesday:
The White House continued to lobby unhappy Democrats to support a compromise President Barack Obama worked out with congressional Republicans that would maintain George W. Bush-era tax cuts to all income levels for two years while extending unemployment benefits to the longtime unemployed. Senate Republicans say the tax cut issue must be dealt with before they'll consider other pending legislation in the lame-duck session. Obama is trying to persuade fellow Democrats that he got the best deal possible and that it will help jump-start the economy. Vice President Joe Biden met Wednesday afternoon with House Democrats, who have voiced strong opposition to extending tax cuts to wealthier taxpayers.
House Democrats muscled through legislation that would freeze the budgets of most Cabinet departments and fund the war in Afghanistan for another year. The bill would cap the agencies' annual operating budgets at the $1.2 trillion approved for the recently finished budget year — a $46 billion cut of more than 3 percent from Obama's request. It includes $159 billion to prosecute the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq next year. The 423-page measure, opposed by Republicans, conservative Democrats and some anti-war lawmakers, narrowly passed by a 212-206 vote. The budget-freeze bill wraps a dozen unfinished spending bills into a single measure.
Republicans in the House and Senate succeeded in blocking a measure supported by the White House and Democrats that would have given a one-time check of $250 to seniors who are facing a second straight year in 2011 without a Social Security cost-of-living increase. Democrats argued that the consumer price formula that determines COLAs is unfair to seniors facing higher medical and housing costs, but Republicans said the $14 billion price tag for the payment to some 58 million Social Security beneficiaries was too high a cost in an age of mounting federal deficits.
The Senate convicted U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous of Louisiana on four articles of impeachment, making him just the eighth federal judge in history to be removed by Congress. House prosecutors laid out a damaging case against Porteous, 63, a New Orleans native who was a state judge before winning appointment to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1994. The prosecutors said gambling and drinking problems led him to begin accepting cash and other favors from attorneys and bail bondsmen with business before his court. He also was accused of lying to Congress during his judicial confirmation and filing for bankruptcy under a false name. The Senate voted unanimously to convict on the first article involving cash from attorneys, and with strong majorities on the other three. They also approved a motion barring him from holding future federal office.
The House passed the so-called Dream Act to give foreign-born youngsters brought to the U.S. illegally a shot at legal status. The victory was expected to be fleeting, however, because Senate Democrats appeared unable to muster the 60 votes needed to advance it past opposition by Republicans and a handful of their own members. The legislation was aimed at hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before the age of 16, who have been in the U.S. for five years and who have graduated from high school or gained an equivalency degree. They would have a chance to gain legal status if they joined the military or attended college.
The Senate approved by voice vote a measure to avoid a steep cut in Medicare pay for doctors by shifting money from President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law. Without the legislation, doctors would see a 25 percent cut in Medicare payments as of Jan. 1, a reduction that many doctors have said will force them to stop seeing Medicare patients. The $19 billion to pay doctors at current rates for another year will come mostly from tightening the rules on tax credits in the health care law that make premiums more affordable.
The House rejected a bill that would have adopted sweeping changes to rules about mine safety. The legislation was prompted by the explosion in April that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners. Republicans, who led the opposition, said the bill was too punitive and premature because investigators are still looking into the accident.
Legislation to grant police officers, firefighters and other public safety workers the right to collectively bargain over wages, hours and working conditions failed to advance in the Senate. Facing GOP opposition, the bill fell five votes short of the 60 needed to proceed to floor debate.
Sweeping legislation that aims to make food safer in the wake of E. coli and salmonella outbreaks in peanuts, eggs and produce passed the House. The bill, which would give the government broad new powers to increase inspections of food processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted food, goes to the Senate as part of a giant year-end budget bill. The food safety measure passed the Senate easily last week, but it stalled after House Democrats said it contained fees that are considered tax provisions. Under the Constitution, such legislation should have originated in the House.