Barbara Boxer: Champion in the Senate Against the Afghanistan War

If you've ever spent quality time trying to move an agenda through Congress, you know that moving an agenda isn't just about lobbying individual Members. You need a "champion" for your issue. The champion introduces your bill. The champion recruits other offices to sign up. The champion introduces an amendment that carries the same idea as the bill and lobbies other Members to vote for it. The champion circulates letters to other offices. The champion raises the profile of your issue in the media.

When Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold lost his bid for re-election, advocates working to end the war in Afghanistan lost their champion in the Senate. It was Feingold's office that introduced the bill, introduced the amendment, circulated the letter, led the lobbying of other offices, led the charge in the media.

Now California Senator Barbara Boxer has re-introduced Feingold's bill requiring the President to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan - a timetable with an end date. So far, Senators Dick Durbin, Tom Harkin, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Sherrod Brown have signed on as co-sponsors of Senator Boxer's bill.


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Americans with Disabilities Act anniversary thread

The Americans with Disabilities Act became U.S. law 20 years ago this week. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the law's key author and sponsor, keynoted an anniversary celebration in Iowa City yesterday. He called for further action, in particular personal attendant services for those who need them. But there's no question that the ADA improved the lives of millions of Americans. As Harkin told the Cedar Rapids Gazette a few days ago,

“Before the ADA, life was very different for folks in Iowa and across the country,” Harkin said. “Discrimination was both commonplace and accepted.”

After 20 years with ADA, “we recognize that people with disabilities — like all people — have unique abilities, talents and aptitudes,” he said, “and America is better, fairer and richer when we make full use of those gifts.”

However, Harkin sees the need to do more to help people with disabilities live outside of institutions and to help them gain employment.

I remember when Congress was debating this law, and some Republicans warned that new regulations on businesses would wreck the economy and spark endless lawsuits. However, President George H. W. Bush's administration ultimately decided not to go to war against this bill, and compromise language exempting small businesses from some requirements satisfied most Congressional Republicans. The final version of the ADA passed the Senate on a 91 to 6 vote in July 1990. Most Republicans joined all the Democrats present in voting yes.

Bipartisan support for ADA continued when Harkin worked with Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah to "preserve the intent of the ADA after several court rulings weakened its standards." The ADA amendments act of 2008 passed by voice vote in the House and unanimous consent in the Senate. Last week a Senate resolution recognizing the ADA's 20th anniversary and celebrating "the advance of freedom and the opening of opportunity" this law made possible passed by a 100 to 0 vote. That indicates how far out of the mainstream Rand Paul is; the Republican Senate candidate from Kentucky believes the ADA goes too far and is unfair to business owners.

Harkin became an advocate for people with disabilities in part because his brother Frank was deaf. Probably most Americans have at least one friend or relative who has directly benefited from the ADA. The accessibility guidelines for curbs, doors and entrances have allowed my wheelchair-bound friend to take her son to the park, to preschool or to a coffee shop. Before the ADA, a mother in her situation would have been unable to enjoy those things.

This thread is for any comments about the ADA or continuing barriers faced by people with disabilities.

Long-term unemployed pay the price for Senate dysfunction

As long-term unemployment continues to rise, unemployment benefits for many Americans will run out tonight because the U.S. Senate failed to pass a bill extending the benefits late last week. An estimated 1.2 million Americans stand to lose unemployment benefits during the month of March if Congress does not act. For reasons I don't understand, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid left the benefits extension out of the jobs bill approved by the Senate on February 24.

The following day, the House of Representatives approved a separate bill containing a one-month extension of unemployment benefits, federal subsidies for people on COBRA health insurance plans, current Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors, and a few other programs. Democrats tried to bring this bill up for a Senate vote right away, but retiring Republican Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky repeatedly objected to motions for unanimous consent. Democrats promised to keep filing motions until Bunning broke down, but instead they adjourned near midnight on Thursday night.

Democrats have been slamming Bunning in public statements and e-mail blasts. Here's an example from Senator Tom Harkin's office on Friday:

“We need to act quickly to extend the safety net and make sure laid-off workers have access to unemployment benefits through the end of the year, at least,” said Harkin. “It is heartbreaking to see political games being played with the lives of hardworking people who are struggling to find a job, particularly when there has been strong bipartisan support in the past to extend unemployment benefits and other vital safety net programs.

“Unfortunately this is emblematic of the larger issue plaguing the Senate today: abuse of Senate procedure. We saw it in November as well. While Senate Republicans play games, families are sitting around their kitchen tables wondering how they will make ends meet.

“I intend to do everything in my power to fight this and hope other Senators will join me in this effort.”

[...] In November, Senate Republicans used a similar delay tactic to filibuster a motion to proceed to a bill to extend unemployment compensation. After delaying and grinding Senate business to a halt for nearly a month, the bill passed 97-1.

Bunning's behavior is inexcusable, and he even had the gall to complain about missing a college basketball game while staying on the Senate floor to block this bill.

At the same time, it is pathetic that Democrats adjourned instead of standing and fighting Senate Republicans all weekend long. Apparently one or two other Republicans showed up Thursday night to back up Bunning, but so what? Democrats should have refused to leave until the unemployment benefits bill passed. At the Congress Matters blog, David Waldman explained other ways Democrats could have handled Bunning's procedural roadblock. Chris Bowers looked at the big picture here:

Democrats are in charge, and they are going to get blamed for this. Democratic attempts to blame this on Senate procedure will ring utterly hollow. Not only do people not understand, or care about, those rules, but it simply sounds wimpy and pathetic for the people running the United States Government to throw their hands up in the air and say "our procedural rules prevented us from doing anything to solve this huge problem. Sorry."

Democrats did not have to adjourn. They could have kept fighting Bunning. Further, they all agreed to the rules under which the Senate operates, and most of them are still defending those rules. Blaming Senate procedure is not going to extend anyone's unemployment or COBRA benefits, and its not going to win many hearts around the country.

Sure, Jim Bunning is currently the biggest asshole in the country right now. However, if you think that procedure is a problem, then start working to change the procedure. If you think that unemployment benefits need to be extended, then don't adjourn for the weekend when those benefits are slated to run out.

Sometime this week, or perhaps later in March, Senate Democrats will break the Republican obstruction. But when that happens, "state governments will still have to deal with the extra administrative costs of shutting down and restarting the extended benefits programs."

Some Republicans, like Representative Steve King, are philosophically opposed to extending unemployment benefits, but they fail to acknowledge that extending unemployment benefits has tremendous "bang for the buck." The Iowa Fiscal Partnership recently calculated that that the unemployment benefits extension contained in last year's federal stimulus bill "produced $501.7 million increased economic activity and $112.1 million in income in 2009, while creating or saving 3,727 jobs" in Iowa alone.

Previewing next year's campaign messages on health care

Assuming the House and the Senate pass whatever health insurance bill comes out of the conference committee, Republicans and Democrats are likely to highlight the reform during next year's campaigns. Recent polls have shown that most Americans don't expect action by this Congress to improve the quality of their own health care or reduce its cost. Complicating matters for Democrats, key provisions of the bill won't take effect until 2013 or 2014, giving Republicans plenty of time to exploit fears about the so-called "government takeover" of health care.

After the jump, Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Senator Chuck Grassley preview messages we'll hear from GOP candidates across the country, while Senator Tom Harkin summarizes some "immediate benefits" of the health insurance reform.

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Harkin looking for allies to change filibuster rules

Senator Tom Harkin's commitment to end the abuse of the filibuster hasn't waned just because Democrats managed to find 60 votes to pass health insurance reform. Harkin discussed the current dysfunction in the Senate with Ezra Klein:

In the past, we've always had one or two or three senators who would try to block something. The most famous was Jesse Helms. He could tie people up in a conniption. But the thing is, when he went too far, his leader, Bob Dole, wouldn't put up with it. Neither would Trent Lott. And later on, even Bill Frist. You allow him to do so much, and after awhile, you say, that's enough.

Now we have more of the Jesse Helms. The Vitters and DeMint and Coburn, and maybe throw in Inhofe and a couple other newcomers, and they now run the minority. You don't have a minority leader putting them in check, saying we have to work together. Dole would never put up with what's going on over there. Neither would Trent Lott. We've had 101 objections from Republicans to proceeding. [...]

You're supposed to filibuster something that is a deep seated issue. But in September, we had an extension on unemployment insurance. We had a filibuster that lasted over three weeks. They held up everything. And in the end, the vote was 97 to one. Filibusters are no longer used to debate something, but to stop everything. [...]

The idea is to give some time for extended debate but eventually allow a majority to work its will. I do believe there's some reason to have extended debate. If a group of senators filibusters a bill, you want to take their worries seriously. Make sure you're not missing something. My proposal will do that. It says that on the first vote, you need 60. Then you have to wait two days, and on the third day, you need 57 votes. And then you need to wait two days, and on the third day, it's 54 votes. And then you'd wait another two days, and on the third day, it would be 51 votes.

Harkin told Klein he will start looking for co-sponsors for this measure next month. Freshman Senator Jeff Merkley presumably will be an ally, as he has advocated reform of Senate procedures. Unfortuantely, Harkin is likely to run up against stiff resistance, and not only from Republicans. The de facto supermajority requirement for conducting Senate business empowers corporate hacks like Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh, who caucus with Democrats but don't support most of the progressive agenda.

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