Legislators took three key votes on Wednesday that will help pave the way for passage of some of President Barack Obama and the Democrats’ lame-duck priorities.
In the House of Representatives, congressional members voted on a stand-alone provision to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In May the House passed a repeal of the Clinton-era ban on gays and lesbians openly serving in the military when it was attached to the lower chamber’s version of the 2011 defense authorization bill.
At that time the measure passed 234-194 with five Republicans voting in favor of it and 26 Democrats voting against it. As a stand-alone measure, it got a few more Republican votes and passed with a 250-175 vote – this time 15 Republicans voted for the bill while 15 Democrats voted against it. Supporters of repeal have said the House voting on the repeal through a stand-alone bill would improve the chances of it also passing in the Senate.
“It’s time to end a policy of official discrimination that has cost America the service of some 13,500 men and women who wore our uniform with honor,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said on Wednesday. “It’s time to stop throwing away their service – their willingness to die for our country – because of who they are.”
“The ball is now in the Senate’s court and I urge our senators of both parties to pass this bill and finally dismantle ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ once and for all,” Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the bill’s co-sponsor along with Hoyer, said.
The Senate has twice failed to gain enough votes to even begin debate on the defense bill because the repeal provision was included. After Democrats failed to get enough votes last week to begin debate, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced a stand-alone bill to repeal the ban in the Senate – although a vote is not expected to come any sooner than sometime next week. While it is unknown if the measure would pass the Senate, a few Republicans have come out in support of repeal, which has given supporters and Democrats confidence they have enough votes for it to pass.
“We are very quickly running out of days in this Congress,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday night when discussing his hope to bring the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal bill up for a vote. “The time for week-long negotiations on amendments and requests for days of debate is over. Republican senators who favor repealing this discriminatory policy need to join with us now.”
Lieberman and Collins also called for a quick vote on the measure saying in a statement they released Wednesday “we are out of excuses.”
Bipartisanship also emerged in the Senate when Republicans and Democrats voted to move forward to debate the nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Both parties also joined together in passing the Bush tax cut deal President Obama worked out with the Republicans.
A motion to proceed to debate was approved 66-32, with only a simple majority needed to pass it. Nine Republicans joined all 57 Democrats in support of beginning debate. Whether or not the New START Treaty actually will get ratified though is still unclear because 67 senators are required for ratification and most Senate Republicans oppose it being done during the lame-duck session.
After the vote, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina said he would require both the New START Treaty and the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill to be read aloud in their entirety. Reid, though, reached a deal with DeMint where he agreed to drop his threat to force a full floor reading of START in exchange to postpone debate on the treaty until Thursday.
Reid said Wednesday morning senators would work through the weekend to pass the New START Treaty and the spending bill.
“We’ll see how things go with this treaty, but it’s clear – I have spoken on many occasions with the Republican leader – we’re going to be in session this Sunday,” Reid said. “There is work to do.”
The Senate also voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to send the Bush tax cut deal to the House. Senators voted 81-19 in favor of the $858 billion tax relief and benefits package with 13 Democrats, five Republicans and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, voting against it.
“Middle class families need a boost in this economy, and that is exactly what this plan gives them,” Reid said in a statement after the vote. “It is not perfect, but it will create 2 million jobs, cut taxes for middle class families and small businesses, and ensure that Americans who are still looking for work will continue to have the safety net they rely on to make ends meet.”
Like the House voting on a standalone measure of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” to give momentum for passage in the Senate, the Senate’s vote on the tax package was expected to give it momentum for passage in the House. Most House Democrats are still opposed to the tax cut deal though. While they agree with most of the provisions their biggest objection to it comes because of the inclusion of the estate tax provision, which they say has nothing to do with stimulating the economy and would add $23 billion to the deficit while benefiting just 6,600 American families.
The House will vote on Thursday to either keep the estate tax provision like it is, and like what the Senate voted in favor of, at 35 percent for individuals with estates worth more than $5 million, or change the provision so it would renew the 2009 tax at 45 percent for individuals with estates worth more than $3.5 million.
If the change passes, the bill would go back to the Senate where Republicans have suggested they would then oppose the deal. If the change fails, the House would then vote on the package as it is. If it passes in its current form – like it is expected to do – it would then be sent to President Obama to sign into law.
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