The Senate Democrats on the "Bunning Blockade"

Members of the Democratic caucus speak out on Senator Bunning's blockade of extension of unemployment benefits and COBRA health insurance. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont called it "immoral" while Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio said the GOP's actions were "unconscionable."

Today, in an editorial in Senator Bunning's home state of Kentucky the Lexington Herald-Leader described Senator Bunning's actions as "callous grandstanding."

As long as Republicans were in charge, Sen. Jim Bunning was OK with trading a surplus for a deficit. He voted to put two wars, tax cuts and a Medicare drug benefit on the nation's credit card.

Now that Republicans are no longer in charge, Bunning is drawing the line on deficit spending. He's doing it in a way that shows callous contempt for the more than one in 10 working Kentuckians whose jobs disappeared in the economic meltdown.

We've become accustomed to bizarre, egocentric behavior from Bunning. So it wasn't all that surprising when he single-handedly blocked an unemployment benefits extension for a million people, including 119,230 in Kentucky, whose benefits run out this year. About 14,000 Kentuckians will exhaust their benefits in two weeks without the extension.

Bunning's filibuster also denies newly laid-off workers help paying for health insurance. It halts road and bridge projects around the country by furloughing 2,000 federal transportation employees, stops reimbursements to state highway programs and cuts Medicare payments to doctors.

To those who know him, it's not surprising that Bunning answered a Democratic colleague's complaint with a crude profanity. Or that he joked about missing a basketball game while pushing some unemployed Kentuckians into homelessness or bankruptcy.

The Lexington Herald-Leader also chastised Trey Grayson and Rand Paul, the leading Republicans to succeed the retiring-at-the-end-of-term Bunning, for jumping on Senator Bunning's one-man band wagon of obstructionism.

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An Open Letter to the Good Folks at Firedoglake

To the good folks at Firedoglake,

Like you, I oppose this bill. I think that the Senate healthcare reform bill is a bad bill that enhances corporate power and I believe that when all is said and done any bill that does such should be opposed on principle.

Over the course of this debate, Firedoglake, with Dave, Marcy and Jane leading the way, has been a formidable force in the fight for a comprehensive healthcare package that actually tackles the root of the problem. It should be plain to all that spending 17 percent of GDP on healthcare is unsustainable especially when most other advanced industrial economies spend on average 10 percent of their GDP fully covering their populations while obtaining far better results. The gross inefficiencies in the US healthcare system, I think, are largely due to the near monopoly power that insurance industry and pharmaceutical industry enjoy. It should not be lost that these industries have spent nearly one billion dollars over the past two years to protect, maintain and expand that power. And unfortunately, they have largely succeeded in not just maintaining and extending their hold but in derailing any serious regulatory constraints over their practices. This bill does little to correct the gross inefficiencies inherent in our healthcare system. It may even further entrench them.

The fight against the encroachment of corporate power will, no doubt, go on. That our party has become a gross enabler of such perfidy and gross corruption is not just deeply troubling but disheartening. But I also know that the alternative that is the GOP is far worse. Their free market ideology coupled with their alliance with evangelical Christianity presents grave dangers to the general welfare and liberties of the country. While I, among others, question the wisdom of engaging in campaigns allied with Grover Norquist, that is your prerogative.

I am, however, increasingly troubled by the attacks emanating from Firedoglake particularly this latest round of attacks on those who have been at the forefront of the progressive movement. I am concerned that such tactics are ultimately more harmful than helpful. The recent attack by FDL Action on Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is an overzealous crusade. It is misguided and frankly incomprehensible. There is no question that his decision has been excruciatingly difficult. To suggest that he has "turned his back on us" and to question his "progressive" credentials is uncalled for. Let us allow that he is following the dictates of his conscience as we follow ours. It is one thing to prod, to engage and to reason with Senator Sanders but quite another to threaten him with the "loss of his seat."

Sign our letter to Bernie Sanders: If you want progressive votes in the future, you better cast one against the current bill now.

There is no reason to threaten a man who has spent a lifetime doing the hard work that is electoral politics and fighting the good fight against incredible odds. Let's recognize that his fight for the nation-wide expansion of Community Health Clinics is perhaps the most important advancement in this otherwise abysmal piece of legislation. I urge you to not to abandon your valiant efforts but rather to moderate the tone as well as to recognize that many important battles on issues vast and sundry remain ahead of us. Senator Sanders, no matter his vote on this measure, remains one of our greatest allies. He has not only fought for his constituents in Vermont but for the rights of all Americans. He should be accorded greater respect and afforded his rights of conscience inalienable.

Respectfully yours,

Charles Lemos
San Francisco, CA

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Bernie Sanders Opts Out (For Now)

Appearing on Fox Business News with Neil Cavuto, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said he's "struggling with this," but he is, as of now, inclined to vote against the healthcare bill as currently structured:

I'm struggling with this. As of this point, I'm not voting for the bill. ... I'm going to do my best to make this bill a better bill, a bill that I can vote for, but I've indicated both to the White House and the Democratic leadership that my vote is not secure at this point. And here is the reason. When the public option was withdrawn, because of Lieberman's action, what I worry about is how do you control escalating health care costs?

More at Think Progress:

While Senator Sanders becomes the first member on the liberal-progressive side of the Democratic caucus to signal his intentions to vote no however qualified, he did not say whether or not he would vote for cloture. It is only folks like Senator Lieberman and Senator Nelson who seek to hold the nation hostage and not permit an up or down vote.

Personally, I see this as a welcomed development. I'd rather have the leadership placate Bernie than appease Joe.

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Coburn's Obstruction Wins the Day in the Senate

Early today Senator Tom Coburn, a member of the Grand Obstructionist Party from Oklahoma, objected to a request to dispense with the reading of an amendment offered by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont proposing a single-payer system. Though normally a courtesy that is almost always granted to fellow senators, the petulant Tom Coburn forced the Senate clerk to read aloud a 767-page amendment to healthcare reform legislation, paralyzing action on the chamber floor as Democrats approach their self-imposed Christmas deadline. It would have taken at least eight hours to read the amendment.

Senator Sanders has now withdrawn his amendment. From The Hill:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Wednesday withdrew his single-payer healthcare amendment after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) initiated a procedural maneuver to shipwreck the measure.

Coburn earlier in the day forced the Senate clerk to read aloud Sanders's 767-page amendment to the Senate healthcare bill in an effort to halt the healthcare debate.

Sanders, a self-described "democratic socialist," spoke on the Senate floor to announce the withdrawal of the measure.

"The day will come, although I recognize it's not today, when the U.S. Congress will have to vote to stand up to ... all those who profit every single year off of human sickness," Sanders said. "That day will come."

Sanders's decision to withdraw the amendment will stop the reading and allow debate to continue.

The amendment would have extended Medicare coverage to all who wanted it.

Their obsession with free markets, that aren't free, will destroy this country. To protect the narrow interests and profane profits of the insurance industry, they are willing to condemn thousands to an early grave. Their lack of empathy for the rights of the poor and their disregard for the decline in American living standards under their rule is beyond comprehension. Here's their record:

When Clinton left office nearly 11.6 million children lived in poverty, according to the Census. When Bush left office that number had swelled to just under 14.1 million, an increase of more than 21 per cent.

The story is similar again for access to health care. When Clinton left office, the number of uninsured Americans stood at 38.4 million. By the time Bush left office that number had grown to just over 46.3 million, an increase of nearly 8 million or 20.6 per cent.

The trends look the same when examining shares of the population that are poor or uninsured, rather than the absolute numbers in those groups. When Clinton left office in 2000 13.7 per cent of Americans were uninsured; when Bush left that number stood at 15.4 per cent. (Under Bush, the share of Americans who received health insurance through their employer declined every year of his presidency-from 64.2 per cent in 2000 to 58.5 per cent in 2008.)

When Clinton left the number of Americans in poverty stood at 11.3 percent; when Bush left that had increased to 13.2 percent. The poverty rate for children jumped from 16.2 per cent when Clinton left office to 19 per cent when Bush stepped down.

It is probably pointless to note that the most effective healthcare programs in the United States are single payer systems. The best kept secret in the country is the healthcare provided by the Veterans Administration, a single payer system.  So extending a successful program that saves lives and cuts costs is a naturally an object of GOP disdain simply because it is government-run. Their love of free markets will kill us all.

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Senator Sanders Introduces a TBTF Bill

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the left-leaning Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, today introduced legislation that would give the government the power to identify and break up financial firms that are "too big to fail."

The story from Reuters:

An independent U.S. senator on Friday introduced a bill that would give the government the power to identify and break up financial firms that are "too big to fail," an idea that is catching on.

"If an institution is too big to fail, it is too big to exist," said Senator Bernie Sanders in a statement.

"We should break them up so they are no longer in a position to bring down the entire economy," he said.

Sanders is an independent outside the U.S. political mainstream. But he is not the only one looking at break-ups.

Representative Paul Kanjorski, the Democratic chairman of the capital markets subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives, is working on a break-up power amendment.

It would give a new government systemic risk council break-up power, with clearance from the president.

"It's the natural action of capital to grow and exceed. Now we're going to contain it," Kanjorski told CNBC television.

He said large banks oppose his amendment because it would threaten them. But, he said, mid-sized and smaller financial institutions would be helped by it because they would be better able to compete if mega-firms were downsized.

"When the people's money is being used to bail out these large companies ... We certainly have to have someone to tell them what to do in order to save them," he said.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank said earlier on CNBC that a bill he is working on, which Kanjorski wants to toughen, would let a systemic risk regulator "break up" risky financial firms.

The Obama Administration has proposed regulating large firms' risk-taking much more tightly to prevent them from failing, while setting up new protocols for managing failure if things go wrong. Senator Sander's approach, however, would be to prevent the firms from getting so big in the first place.

The legislation introduced by Senator Sanders would give Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner 90 days to list commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds and insurers that he deems too big to fail.

The bill defines that as "any entity that has grown so large that its failure would have a catastrophic effect on the stability of either the financial system or the United States economy without substantial government assistance."

A few quick thoughts. One, I think it important to separate investment banks from commercial banks. Two, exotic derivative products need to be regulated. At times it is difficult to tell the difference between Wall Street and the Vegas Strip. Three, don't allow commercial banks to grow via acquisition. Make them grow organically. That's part of the Canadian banking model and the Canadian banking model is worth studying closely. From an April 2009 Brookings Institution report:

In Canada, over-leveraging is discouraged. The ceiling on leverage ratios (assets to capital) for Canada's financial institutions is capped well below the U.S. norm (an average of 18:1 compared to over 25:1, respectively).

Second, the requirements for mortgage loans are relatively stringent. Down payments of at least 20 percent are ordinarily required, unless the bank obtains mortgage insurance through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The CMHC exerts a prudential influence over mortgage underwriting. Banks rely extensively on it for default insurance, which is conditioned on comparatively strict criteria for creditworthiness.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation transparently plays a role in circumscribing residential mortgage securitization. The great bulk of all lending in Canada takes place within the banking system itself, not through a largely unsupervised secondary market for bundles of loans and securities supposedly backed by other bundles of loans and securities--the "shadow banking system" - hedge funds and buy out firms - that has burgeoned in the United States.

Senator Sanders Unfiltered: Break 'Em Up!

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