Maybe it’s the new House Speaker, or the impending holiday recess, or possibly even a new spirit of bipartisan cooperation in Washington. Whatever the reason, this past week saw sudden movement on two major pieces of legislation that had seemed hopelessly bottlenecked.
A six-year, $325 billion highway bill passed the House earlier this month, more than three months after a measure passed the Senate. Capuano is the only New England representative on the conference committee that is working out the differences – chief among them, the House version’s failure to provide funds for the final three years.
“It has taken far too long to get this legislation into conference,” Capuano said in a statement to me. “But we are close to finalizing it, which will give states some certainty in long-term planning.”
To give them a little more time, late last week President Barack Obama signed a two-week extension on the federal transportation fund, which will now expire on December 4th without passage of legislation.
Optimism seems high that the long-term bill will get done, and that’s a big change from just a couple of months ago. Whether that bill will be a good one is another question. The New York Times editorialized last week the “the legislation will not do nearly enough to improve aging bridges, fix highways or expand the capacity of mass transit and rail systems. Worse, it could make traveling on American roads and railways less safe.”
That safety concern refers in part to provisions preventing states from using federal funding for checkpoints to catch motorcyclists not wearing helmets. New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, representing the live-free-or-die ethos of her state, was a key supporter of that provision.
But overall dollars for infrastructure is the big issue. “I am hopeful we can come together to maximize the level of funding in the bill,” Capuano said in a statement to me. “However, given the current funding climate in Washington, I am focused on making sure that Massachusetts, at a minimum, maintains the level of funding available in previous authorizations.”
As for the eight-years-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the conference committee gave its blessing quickly to a back-room deal worked out between the House and Senate, which had passed entirely separate bills back in July.
The compromise bill, which must still be passed by the House and Senate, replaces No Child Left Behind, and pushes more authority out to the states.
Clark was among the near-unanimous members of the conference committee who voted in favor of the new ESEA bill.
That represents quite a turnaround from when the House version passed in July. Clark called that a “backward, mean-spirited education bill,” and accused the Republican majority of “turning its back on America’s children.”
The new compromise bill, while not making everybody happy, appears to have been designed to gain Democratic votes – such as Clark’s – on the theory that it would be easier to get the needed votes through them, than through hard-line conservatives who disapprove of any federal involvement in education.
Syrian refugees and others divide Democratic votes
Some Democrats, including Obama, criticized House Republicans for passing a bill last Thursday to suspend admission of Syrian refugees until additional screening assurances are met. But plenty of Democrats joined in on that vote, including several from eastern New England.
Stephen Lynch and Bill Keating of Massachusetts were among the 47 yes-voting Democrats. So were Ann Kuster of New Hampshire and Jim Langevin of Rhode Island.
Their votes helped bring the total to 289, creating a significant threat to override a threatened Presidential veto – although Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has vowed to block the bill.
That was not, however, the only vote that split the area’s Democrats last week.
Another came on a bill concerning auto loans, introduced by New Hampshire Republican Frank Guinta.
The bill, co-sponsored by Democrat Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, would roll back guidance issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2013. Automobile dealers argue that the CFPB went too far. Obama has threatened to veto the roll-back bill, saying last week that the guidance protects against racial discrimination in auto loan practices.
Most area Democrats sided with the President, and voted against Guinta’s bill. But New Hampshire Democrat Kuster voted yes, as did Keating and Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts.
Judge battle lands at Ayotte’s doorstep
Kelly Ayotte’s 2016 re-election has taken on a whole new tenor, now that it is less than a year away and Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan has announced her candidacy. That became apparent in the blow-up over a seemingly routine state judge nomination.
In early October, Hassan nominated Dorothy Graham to a seat on the New Hampshire Superior Court. Graham, from Manchester, had been recommended by a Judicial Selection Commission.
The trouble, it turned out, had started in mid-October, when partisan right-wing web site Washington Free Beacon charged Hassan with nominating someone with “a history of trying to get child rapists off on technicalities.” The story highlighted two cases from Graham’s 20-year career as a public defender.
That same day, the National Senate Republican Committee (NRSC) – which is heavily backing Ayotte against Hassan -- sent out a press release touting the Free Beacon story.
Take this as evidence that, with the sitting Governor and incumbent U.S. Senator running against each other in a nationally-watched race, almost anything that transpires in the Granite State will become a political football.
Social media picture of the week
Claire McCaskill of Missouri tweeted this photo of Elizabeth Warren taking her turn, with Susan Collins looking on, as all 20 women U.S. Senators enjoyed bowling night at the White House lanes Tuesday evening.