Health Care Reform, Unemployment Top Obama's Domestic Agenda

Finance Committee will vote this week on whether to pass Sen. Baucus' bill.

October 4, 2009, 12:09 PM

Oct. 4, 2009— -- As the debate over the economy and Afghanistan strategy heat up, the White House this week will attempt to move past President Obama's failed attempt to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago to more pressing things at home and abroad.

Despite the administration's $787 billion stimulus package and funding for banks and the auto industry, rising unemployment remains a thorny issue and one that experts say the administration needs to deal with quickly.

The White House insists that the economy is improving and that jobs are a lagging indicator, but experts say that's not enough to appease the thousands of Americans who have lost their jobs and can't find a job. In September, unemployment rose to 9.8 percent, the highest level since June 1983. The number of Americans who've been unemployed for more than six months jumped sharply to five million. In some states, such as Michigan and South Carolina, that figure is now in double digits and rising.

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle say this week they will work on extending unemployment benefits, and possibly even the housing credit.

"We're going to pass a bill this week, put it on the floor. I believe it will pass. It will extend unemployment benefits for four weeks for all states and another 12 or 13 weeks for all states above eight percent," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on ABC News' "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."

However, neither party members would commit to a second stimulus package. The president has not completely ruled out that idea, but lawmakers say it is unlikely.

"Don't know whether it would be [necessary]," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told CNN "State of the Union's" John King. "It could be moving forward with an energy bill, which I'm very excited about, and would actually, I think, allow this economy to take off, because it would draw, not federal funds, but private funds."

Boxer, along with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., unveiled a climate change bill last week that proposes significantly stronger cuts in greenhouse gas emissions than both what Obama and the House have called for. Critics say the bill would kill jobs and dent economic growth.

Republicans lashed out at the administration for passing the stimulus bill too hastily and pointed out that much of the money remains unspent.

"I think the stimulus so far has been unsuccessful in achieving the goals the president set out for it," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on "This Week." "I think there are things we need to do to help people who need help, like unemployment benefits and the like. But I think throwing more money at the problem and racking up more and more debt for children and grandchildren is not the answer."

Even some Democrats have expressed uncertainty about a possible second stimulus.

"It continues to go into the economic bloodstream and to keep things, which -- as unsatisfying as they are -- from being a whole lot worse," Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said on "Fox News Sunday." "But I wish it could have done more."

Other Democrats say they need to work on other fronts, such as job creation, before committing to a second stimulus.

"Before doing a second stimulus, let's see how the rest of the 60 percent works and try to deal with the pain of some people in terms of the job front ... and in certain targeted areas of the economy such as housing," Schumer said.

Administration officials say they are doling out the money slowly so it goes to projects that are most deserving. Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday the Obama administration aims to have obligated 60 percent of government spending by the end of the year.

In his radio address Saturday, Obama said his administration is doing what they can to accelerate employment.

"I'm working closely with my economic advisers to explore any and all additional options and measures that we might take to promote job creation," the president said.

Some experts say the president needs to step up action on the jobs front. Others say the president has to be careful about doing too much.

"I think the focus has got to be on trying to get the economy going, but you also have to be careful that in trying to do too much you can actually be counterproductive," former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan said on "This Week." "It is true, the last couple of weeks that some of the numbers that are coming in have been a little bit soft. But this is what a recovery looks like."

Greenspan said he expects the unemployment rate to surpass 10 percent and remain at that level for a while, but said he doesn't believe a second stimulus should be passed.

Health Care Debacle

Senators face a tough week ahead as the Finance Committee gets ready to vote on the bill proposed by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. Much to the chagrin of many of his Democratic colleagues, the legislation does not include the option for a government-run insurance plan. Baucus has said a bill containing a public option will not win the necessary 60 votes on the Senate floor, and so he voted against two amendments that wanted to introduce a government option.

The president has linked the creation of jobs to health care reform. Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats continue to spar over what should be included in the final bill.

"What's fundamental for me is a way to bend that cost curve and keep the insurance companies honest," Boxer said. "My vote will depend on the entire bill, and if there's no way to bend the cost curve and help people who have insurance in addition to those who don't, I'll vote no."

GOP leaders say they want to see more provisions in the health care bill for medical malpractice reform.

"We're for health care reform, but we're not for a government takeover of the health care system, which is going to do nothing but increase health care costs and basically cannibalize Medicare to the tune of $500 billion in order to pay for a new government entitlement program," Sen. Cornyn said.

Republican amendments calling for more stringent measures against federal funding for abortion were struck down by the Finance Committee on Thursday. Republicans also argue that making health care coverage necessary, which both House and Senate Democrats are proposing, entails an additional tax on American people.

"We've been putting things up in the committee, and the other party of 'no,' the Democrat Party, voted no on any every one of our amendments," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said. "The biggest tax of all, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would be the taxes imposed in the health care bill in the finance committee. As they pointed out, all of the taxes that are imposed, both on individuals directly, as well as on the providers of health care and the insurers of health care, are passed on to the employees who have it and to the people who buy the policies through premium increases."

But Democrats saying making coverage mandatory is a way for all Americans to pay their dues and to keep costs down.

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