A witch's brew of political scares in Congress

From Afghanistan to health care to ethics, lawmakers head toward Halloween with distractions aplenty.
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Rep. Charles Rangel: His colleagues would prefer he resign

From Afghanistan to health care to ethics, lawmakers head toward Halloween with distractions aplenty.

Heading toward Halloween, with 2010 congressional elections still a full year away, collars are getting tight in Washington, D.C., as both Democrats and Republicans measure pending issues for their political portent.

With the economy still weak — although apparently headed for recovery in coming months — Republicans presently have hopes of gaining enough House of Representatives seats to regain majority control there. Their hopes are less grand in the Senate but the GOP would like to bring the Democratic majority down below the 60 needed to force a vote in that chamber.

Afghanistan: President Obama and his key national security/foreign policy advisors have been undertaking a much publicized reassessment of Afghanistan policy. Vice President Joe Biden, as previously reported, has been urging a more limited role for U.S. forces, with few if any additional troops on the ground and (presumably) negotiations with the Taliban. At the other end of the scale are those who want Obama to send an additional 40,000-60,000 troops now, although with a reorientation toward establishment of security in populated areas and general abandonment of isolated U.S. outposts which have led to American casualties.

Afghanistan, of course, cannot be separated from Pakistan, where the stakes are truly high. Afghanistan, if allowed to revert to Taliban rule, would be what it was before: namely, a safe haven for Al Qaida training and operations. But Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is strategically important. It cannot be allowed, in any circumstance, to fall to Islamic radicals.

In the Congress, Democrats increasingly are calling for a reduced U.S. role in Afghanistan, leading toward a pullout; Republicans still support the intervention. The same party lines apply in the electorate. As he considers the issue, Obama will carry the burden of the newly conferred Nobel Prize for peace. Mainly he has been embarrassed by the award. His nomination came right after his election; since then, he has done nothing notable as compared with previous honorees. One school of thought argues that the prize puts added pressure on him to reduce the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. Another says it makes it incumbent on him to prove his bona fides as a national security-oriented leader.

The outlook: When the reassessment ends, Obama is likely to please neither side in the argument. The odds presently favor a small but not significant increase in U.S. troop levels there, combined with behind-the-scenes negotiations aimed toward a later pullout. The effort's perceived success or failure, a year from now, without doubt will be a 2010 election issue.

Health care reform: Obama and Democratic congressional leaders were heartened last week when the Congressional Budget Office declared that the $800 billion Senate Finance Committee bill, scheduled to come to a committee vote today, would not add to future deficits — if promised Medicare cuts and selective tax increases are in fact implemented. The "if," of course, is enormous. Right now the program cuts and tax increases are nothing more than general promises. Many costs would be shifted off to the states as "unfunded mandates."

The Finance Committee bill probably is the only one of five presently in play — three from various House committees and another from the Senate Health Committee — which has a reasonable chance of enactment. Presuming that it clears committee today, it then will have to be melded with the other Senate bill — just as the three House bills will be melded into one — before coming to a floor vote. After that, final bills passed in both houses will go to a conference committee for consolidation before being sent to Obama for signature or veto. This will be a long and painful process. Even the pending Finance bill has become a mess, as members have pledged "yes" votes only after being assured their own states would get special exemptions from provisions of the legislation. Only one Republican committee member, Sen. Olympia Snowe, has declared herself willing to consider a yes vote.

This is one of those issues that has become symbolic for both parties. There is no malpractice reform in the legislation, thus alienating Republicans. A so-called "public option" — a public entity established to compete with private insurers — is contained in all pending Democratic bills but the Finance Committee version. It almost certainly will not be contained in final legislation, thus removing for most liberal Democrats the reason they favored health-care reform in the first place. Republicans and moderate Democrats are worried about the costs of whatever plan might finally emerge from conference committee. Truth be told, most legislators would prefer that the issue would just disappear. But all parties have come too far. And, for Obama, it is a litmus test of his first year in office. If, by Thanksgiving, consolidated bills have passed the House and Senate and are headed for conference, Obama can look forward to victory for something called "health-care reform." If Thanksgiving brings angry gridlock, then it is quite possible the enterprise may be entirely lost.

The outlook: Odds slightly favor passage of legislation, which Obama can sign, without either tort reform or a public option — but only if, by Thanksgiving, moderate legislators can be reassured that it is fully "paid for" with tax increases and spending cuts. We are miles away from that goal right now.

Rangel wrangling: New York Rep. Charles Rangel is in deep trouble over a range of matters having to do with undeclared income, special favors granted by groups under his jurisdiction, and false filings with the House. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Congressional Black Caucus, until now, have stood solidly behind Rangel. Yet his problems, taken together, probably loom as large as those which drove former Republican Rep. Tom DeLay from office.

I have known Rangel since his days as a New York state senator. He is a decorated hero of the Korean War. He was a co-founder of the Black Caucus. He has effectively represented his district and is popular with his colleagues. Yet most of them would agree that his alleged non-compliance with Internal Revenue Service rules, while a key Ways and Means Committee member, is just as unseemly as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's was. Geithner almost was not confirmed because of his IRS troubles. But he did escape. Black Caucus members argue that if white Wall Streeter Geithner got a pass then black grassroots legislator Rangel also should get one.

The outlook: His colleagues would prefer that Rangel resign, thus sparing everyone the ordeal of an Ethics Committee and, possibly, full U.S. House proceeding to examine the allegations that have surfaced thus far. Rangel and his Black Caucus colleagues are at this point holding fast. Other Democratic House members will hunker down and take the heat so long as this is the situation. But, with 2010 elections looming, they will not be inclined to give him indefinite support if his troubles drag on into the new year.

There are larger issues here, of course. What changes are in the national interest in Afghanistan policy? What version of health-care reform best serves the country? What ethical standards should public officials be expected to meet in order to continue their service?

All of these questions, however, are turning into short-term political issues. Their eventual outcomes may or may not be in the overall public interest.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.