Friday Capitol Letter

Friday Capitol Letter

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In the House….Over a decade after its initial introduction, the Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equality Act–which requires more generous coverage for the 113 million Americans suffering from mental illness and addiction–won passage in a 268-148 vote. Though the vote is a substantial victory for Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who suffers from bipolar disorder and was the bill’s chief sponsor, resolving differences with the less stringent Senate-passed legislation, backed by business and insurance groups (as well as Kennedy’s father), remains still another battle. (President Bush opposes the House-passed bill.) Meanwhile, the House skirmish over an independent ethics office continued, as amendments to Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.)’s proposal failed to placate Democratic or Republican concerns about the agency, and Speaker Pelosi again pulled a scheduled floor vote to decide its creation.

In the Senate…After four days’ emotional debate (in which the mother of two boys poisoned by toys containing lead testified), members joined the House in an overwhelming vote to overhaul the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The Senate bill increases the commission’s funding, bans lead from children’s toys, allows manufacturers to be sued for up to $20 million and creates a public consumer database for logging faulty products. The White House objects to the creation of such a database, but with this week’s 78-21 vote, overhaul legislation has passed both chambers by veto-proof margins.

In another development this week–and a possible signal that the impasse over confirmations is lifting–the Senate confirmed Mark Filip as deputy attorney general. The decision to award a $40-billion Air Force contract to the European parent of Airbus (and not Boeing, which has held similar contracts for the past 50 years) touched off controversy, with House lawmakers threatening to quash the contract unless the Pentagon explained its rationale. As the House GOP continued to heckle Democrats for their pro-pork proclivities, Speaker Pelosi declared she wouldn’t stand for the assault–which Democrats call hypocritical–any longer. Since the Democrats took the Congressional reins, they’ve imposed a one-year earmark ban, reduced earmarks by 43 percent and created new earmark disclosure rules. “My patience is running out on earmarks,” she told reporters waspishly. “We’ll have them or we won’t have them. We won’t spend a lot of time talking about them.”

Meanwhile, Senate and House Budget Committees backed a $3-trillion budget blueprint, which ratifies Bush’s proposed 7% increase in Pentagon funding, but allows the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to expire. Both blueprints–passed in a party-line vote–would additionally award greater-than-inflation increases to domestic programs, a proposal that Bush swiftly responded to by threatening to veto future spending bills.

Also this week, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution that classifies any Bush attempt to forge a long-term military and diplomatic agreement with the Iraqi government as a treaty, and accordingly in need of Congressional approval. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) demanded an investigation into how a multi-billion dollar loophole that exempts companies working on U.S. government projects overseas from reporting contract abuse was slipped into DOJ-proposed rules last May.

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