WASHINGTON -- After Congress recessed for Thanksgiving with urgent unfinished business that included facilitating income tax refunds and providing veterans benefits, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid left on an eight-day government-financed trip through Latin America.
Reid was scheduled to leave the Sunday after Thanksgiving and return the following Sunday. His itinerary included Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Paraguay. His staff told this column Reid made the trip because of "stagnant" U.S. policy in Latin America under the Bush administration.
Although congressional recesses supposedly are "home work periods" enabling lawmakers to deal with constituents, many travel abroad on "codels" (congressional delegations). Reid's office described his post-Thanksgiving codel as "bipartisan." He is accompanied by Republican Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Crapo of Idaho, plus Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
NO LOBBYISTS WANTED
When a prominent Washington lobbyist expressed a desire last week to attend Sen. Barack Obama's next fundraiser, he was politely told: "Thanks, but no thanks."
The lobbyist had been impressed by Democratic presidential aspirant Obama's moving speech to the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines. But he was informed registered lobbyists are not welcome at the senator's events, even if no financial contribution is involved.
Obama's campaign to finish ahead of front-running Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses depends on showing he is removed from the corruption of Washington, as she is not.
Senate Republican reformers left Washington for their Thanksgiving recess furious with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for allowing the Defense Department appropriations bill to pass by voice vote this month without challenging any of its earmarks -- including one helping re-elect Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana.
Landrieu is one of the rare Democratic senators seriously challenged in a difficult 2008 for Republicans. Her earmark would reduce an estimated $3 billion to $4 billion shortfall in post-Hurricane Katrina housing rebuilding. The Road Home program needs money because it defied the Bush administration and offered huge federal wind damage payouts for homeowners holding federal insurance that was intended to cover only flooding.
Anti-earmark Republicans say the Road Home is really Landrieu's "Road to Re-election." They wanted to kill it by using the parliamentary procedure that had been employed to separate veterans funding from a pork-laden appropriations bill.
Two of the House members whose constituents are most affected by the runaway alternative minimum tax (AMT) are members of the Democratic leadership: Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Both are from Maryland, representing in part the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C.
The AMT, originally intended to catch millionaires who do not pay taxes, now hits middle-income earners because it was not indexed for inflation. According to a recent staff report of the House Ways and Means Committee, 107,990 tax returns in Van Hollen's district and 102,221 in Hoyer's are affected by AMT.
Congress recessed for Thanksgiving without fixing the problem in time to permit the Internal Revenue Service to make timely tax refunds. The House districts most heavily impacted by AMT are represented by 91 Democrats and 93 Republicans. The four hardest-hit districts are in New Jersey.
DOLES RAISING DOUGH
Sen. John Ensign, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) who is losing the funding battle to his Democratic counterparts, is turning for help to a Washington power couple: Robert and Elizabeth Dole.
The NRSC is asking $28,500 a ticket to attend a Dec. 13 evening reception at the Washington residence of the Doles. Former Sen. Bob Dole has been a nominee for both president and vice president. Sen. Elizabeth Dole is Ensign's predecessor at the NRSC.
Lobbyists who mainly give to Republicans are hedging their bets for 2008 or even increasing what they give Democrats because they expect an increased Senate Democratic majority.