House, Senate weigh bills that are going nowhere

AP News
Posted: Sep 11, 2014 3:51 PM
House, Senate weigh bills that are going nowhere

WASHINGTON (AP) — House and Senate leaders, usually proud sorts, staged showdown votes in their chambers Thursday on measures that are going nowhere. And in the logic that prevails during the weeks before crucial congressional elections, they want everyone to know about that futility.

The Republican-run House approved a bill allowing insurers to continue selling medical coverage to workers that President Barack Obama's health care law considers substandard. Well before the vote, the measure was known to be dead on arrival in the Democratic-led Senate — and for good measure faced a promised Obama veto.

The Senate killed a Democratic-written constitutional amendment clamping limits on campaign spending and contributions by special interests, wealthy individuals and the candidates themselves. Republicans scuttled the measure, as everyone knew they would, and it had no chance of even being considered in the House.

Senators were also considering another Democratic bill pressuring companies to pay women as much as their male colleagues. Republicans are expected to derail it next week, when an abbreviated pre-election session of Congress is due to end.

Campaign finance restrictions, health insurance coverage and women's pay are serious issues, and both sides' measures represent policies each would like to enact if it had enough votes to do so. But with November's elections speeding ever closer, legislation that is doomed to fail is also a vivid way for each party to whip up contributors and voters.

Both parties have used that tactic for many years, but each side cries foul when their opponents resort to it.

"Let's take Senate Democrats' focus off saving the jobs of Democrat politicians and start focusing on the needs of the American people instead," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The Democratic measures are "designed to help working families across this country," the No. 2 Senate Democratic leader, Richard Durbin of Illinois, said in a brief interview. "I think the working families of Kentucky would appreciate it if their senator would vote for them."

McConnell and Durbin both face re-election in November.

The health insurance bill passed the House 247-167, with all but 25 Democrats voting against it.

Democrats opposing the measure argued it would let insurers keep selling inferior policies that charge higher premiums for women, older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions — which Obama's health care law forbids. But Republicans said the vote showed Democrats were willing to abandon Obama's pledge that people who liked their coverage could keep it — and wasted no time translating that into a campaign pitch.

"Keep your plan, change your member of Congress," the National Republican Congressional Committee blared atop its website and in emails sent to the districts of Democrats who voted against the health insurance bill. The committee is the campaign arm of House Republicans.

For their part, Democrats did the same with measures that were running aground in the Senate.

That included the bill narrowing legal loopholes in the 1963 law that made it illegal to pay women less than men for comparable jobs. Republicans say that bill would hurt employers by threatening lawsuits if they did things like pay less in exchange for flexible hours.

"This is just one example of the very real differences between our opponents and us," Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., battling for re-election, emailed in a fundraising appeal Wednesday that contrasted his support for the women's pay bill with GOP opposition. "The Koch brothers and Mitch McConnell are spending a boatload of money to take me down and implement their reckless agendas."

Charles and David Koch are wealthy conservatives whose donations to groups targeting Democratic candidates have prompted Democrats to repeatedly accuse them of trying to buy elections.

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Democrats made plentiful references to the Koch brothers during Senate debate on the constitutional amendment curbing election spending. In a party-line vote, senators voted 54-42 Thursday to keep the measure alive — short of the 60 votes needed to overcome GOP blocking tactics.

The amendment would let Congress and the states "set reasonable limits" on campaign spending and contributions. Outside groups have spent $189 million on congressional campaigns since January 2013, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which studies political spending. To this point in the 2010 campaign, the last year there was no presidential election, such groups spent $57 million.

The amendment also would let legislators bar election spending by corporations. Businesses and their employees have contributed $577 million to Republican candidates and committees since 2013 and $405 million to Democratic ones, according to the center.

Democrats say the amendment is needed to reverse recent Supreme Court decisions equating campaign spending with free speech.

The court's rulings skew elections in favor of the side that can spend the most money, Democrats say. Republicans counter that curbing such spending would stifle free speech — that is, the right of big spenders to use their funds to support candidates of their choice.

Congress was still in town largely so leaders can write legislation preventing an Oct. 1 federal shutdown and financing the government into December, when Congress will return to work.

Complicating that effort, leaders are trying to round up support for including language authorizing Obama to train and equip Syrian rebels fighting militants from the Islamic State group. Those extremists have overrun portions of Syria and Iraq and beheaded two American journalists.