The big events this week were the House, after two tries, approving an unemployment benefits extension Thursday, while Senate Republicans filibustered and blocked two bills: a an energy package that cut tax breaks for oil companies while encouraging more renewable energy alternatives and a reversal of scheduled cuts in Medicare services payments to doctors. President Bush also announced another nominee to the Federal Election Commission and three states held congressional primary elections.
After failing to reach a 2/3 majority required for “fast track” passage on Wednesday, House Democrats pushed an extension of unemployment benefits through with a simple majority vote on Thursday. Originally slated for inclusion in an Iraq War supplemental spending bill, the legislation includes an additional 13 weeks of benefits beyond the 26 already allowed. States with high rates of unemployment would be eligible for an additional 13 weeks.
As far back as January, Democratic leaders in the Senate wanted to expand jobless benefits and were lately looking to the Iraq supplemental funding package as the conduit, despite repeated veto threats from President Bush. Statistics released this week showed that the unemployment rate jumped .5 percent, the largest increase in 20 years, and Democratic leaders cited the worsening situation as the impetus behind the “fast track” option.
The physician Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act would reverse a projected 10-percent cut in payments given to doctors participating in Medicare, something senior activists fear will drive more doctors from the program. Republicans objecting to the bill's cost successfully blocked a full floor vote and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will now have to negotiate a compromise.
The Consumer-First Energy Act would have rolled back billions in dollars of tax breaks currently going to the oil and gas industry, instituted a “windfall” profits tax, and enacted subsidies for “green” energy development. Critics said the legislation would only make fuel costs increase faster, with many Republican senators arguing for more domestic oil production.
In a move that might end a long-running standoff over the Federal Election Commission, President Bush nominated Matthew S. Petersen to the FEC. The board, which oversees election finances for all federal elections, has lacked a quorum to act due to a lack of commissioners brought on by Senate Democrats refusing to permanently confirm several Bush recess appointments. Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department attorney, was one such nominee – Democrats had accused von Spakovsky of enabling voter suppression aimed at reducing votes for Democrats when he worked in the Department’s Civil Rights division. Petersen may be palatable enough to Democrats for them to confirm him and get the ball rolling on other nominations.