A Momentous Week, Driven Mostly by a Ticking Clock
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A Momentous Week, Driven Mostly by a Ticking Clock

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

At the beginning of last week, Washington was obsessed with speculation over whether the Supreme Court would overturn Obama’s signature health care reform legislation; whether federal highway projects would grind to a halt; and whether interest rates would double on federal loans made to seven million college students because of yet another round of congressional gridlock.

Many also wondered whether angry House Republicans would make good on a threat to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt for refusing to turn over Justice Department documents.  The issue:  the failed gun trafficking operation in Arizona called Fast and Furious that led to a 2010 shootout, which killed a U.S. border agent.

As the clock ticked down, Washington and the rest of the country finally got the answers:

* A conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice who worried about the consequences of overturning a Democratic president’s historic health care reform law found a novel way to keep the law largely intact. John G. Roberts joined the court’s liberal wing to preserve the heart of the Affordable Care Act by agreeing that the requirement for nearly all Americans to obtain health insurance is permissible under Congress’s taxing authority. His decision may have broad implications for Commerce Clause, which Roberts denied as the mechanism for implementation.

*  An epic legislative logjam over enacting new transportation funding legislation, a measure to block the doubling of the interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans, and the reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program through 2017 suddenly and dramatically broke – and by Friday, the House and Senate rammed through a  massive $127 billion bill covering all those bases.
* Finally, the House let off steam on Thursday by voting 255 to 67 to hold Holder in contempt of Congress and to open a legal battle that could test presidential and lawmakers’ constitutional powers. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the unprecedented vote a “heinous” and politically inspired act; the administration later said it would ignore the action.

In an era of poisonous partisanship and high-stakes political gamesmanship, members of Congress, the Obama administration, and inside-the-Beltway power brokers typically operate on the edge, staking out seemingly irreconcilable positions and warning of dire consequences if their side doesn’t prevail. Usually it takes the pressure of the clock or calendar to force cooler heads to step in and prevail. 

RELATED: The Gutless Mandate Means Taxes Will Fund the ACA 

Last summer, Washington was transfixed by a test of wills between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, over raising the debt ceiling that nearly triggered the first default on U.S. debt in history. At the last moment, the two sides cut a deal to extend the Treasury’s borrowing authority and impose long-term savings, much to the relief of markets and investors.

Last week’s crucial votes were much the same – with momentous decisions coming together as time ran out on the Supreme Court and Congress.  

“The three major things that happened are strangely not related, except by time,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential and political scholar with the Brookings Institution. “Even when legislators hate each other, certain pieces of legislation have to be passed.”

Two of last week’s three big events were of historic proportion: The high court ruling settled the law on landmark health care legislation, which eventually could extend coverage to 34 million currently uninsured Americans. The ruling was good news for the nation’s uninsured and marked a big victory for the Obama administration after two years of controversy. But it also energized the Republican base and its leaders, who have vowed to beat Obama in November and then “repeal and replace” the law next year.

Meanwhile, the contempt citation of Holder marked the first time in American history that Congress imposed the sanction on a sitting member of a president’s cabinet. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House committee investigating Fast and Furious, said the vote was necessary to hold the attorney general accountable for what he described as “lies and a cover-up” exclusively within his jurisdiction. Holder dismissed the vote as a political stunt, and the Justice Department told House leaders that Holder’s decision to withhold certain documents from Congress is not a crime and he will not be prosecuted for contempt of Congress.


As for the last-minute flurry of legislative action on transportation, student loans and flood insurance, lawmakers were probably as motivated by exhaustion and the sheer desire to flee Washington for the July 4th recess as make peace with their political enemies. Nonetheless, there was a lot of talk about a revival of bipartisanship. And Republicans used the agreement as an opening to challenge Obama’s long-standing assertion that he has been thwarted by a do-nothing Congress.

The $127 billion package passed the House 373 to 52 and later cleared the Senate 74 to 19. White House press secretary Jay Carney said later Obama was pleased with the bill and would sign it.

Last week’s action came a day before the deadline for federal highway and transportation funding authority to run out. Without action, lawmakers heading home for the recess would have been blamed for a potentially disastrous shutdown of the nation’s highway, bridge and other infrastructure projects at the height of the construction season.

House Republicans dropped their demands to add a provision approving construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, as well as relaxation of proposed restrictions on coal ash produced by power plants. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and other GOP leaders claim construction of the pipeline would create thousands of jobs and blamed the president for standing in its way.

In return, the Democrats abandoned their push for $1.4 billion for conservation and agreed to grant states more leeway in how they use funds once mandated for landscaping, bike improvements and pedestrian walkway. Congress last approved a long-term highway bill in 2005 and has extended funding at that level nine times since the measure expired almost three years ago. 

The transportation legislation extends federal highway, rail and transit programs for 27 months, authorizing $120 billion in spending, financed by the existing 18.4 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and the 24.4 cents-a-gallon diesel tax, as well as about $19 billion in transfers from the Treasury. That was a retreat for many House conservatives, who had vowed to scale back or cut those taxes and shift responsibility to the states, according to The New York Times.

Neither party was completely satisfied with the bill, and critics said there were many missed opportunities for savings or needed initiatives. “The legislative process is not always pretty,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., in announcing her support. “It’s not a bill to be proud of,” added Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who also voted for it.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., agreed it wasn’t the bill he wanted, either, but said it would achieve a great deal by reducing federal government intrusiveness and giving states more discretion in use of funds. “I think everybody realized that … if we hadn’t acted, thousands of transportation projects would come to a halt and [there would be] the potential for millions of people being laid off, as opposed to the opposite,” Mica said before the final vote.

The White House and congressional Republicans also overcame months of conflict over ways to finance a measure to avert the doubling of student loan interest rates, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Senate leaders smoothed out the differences to keep the interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans at 3.4 percent for another year.

Under the final agreement, about $5 billion of the measure’s $6 billion cost would come from Democratic pension-related proposals, including a change in how companies compute the money they must set aside to fund their pensions. The change would make their contributions more consistent year to year and in effect lower them — which business desires — and result in fewer corporate tax deductions for those payments.

In addition, fees that companies pay to have their pensions insured by the quasi-government Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. would rise to reflect increases in inflation. The remaining funds would come from a GOP plan to limit federal subsidies for Stafford loans for undergraduates to six years. Currently, the government charges no interest while students are in school, even if it takes them longer than six years to graduate.