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Press Release

This Week on the Hill


Miguel Estrada

The new news on this story is that Bill Nelson, the junior Democratic senator from Florida, will break from his party and vote to end debate and to confirm Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit if and when a vote is scheduled. Essentially, the debate is stuck in a parliamentary quagmire. The Senate is technically debating the nomination; in actuality, the Democrats are filibustering.

Due to Senate rules, members can debate a nomination – or legislation – for as long as senators deem appropriate. The only way to end debate and schedule a vote is to invoke cloture, which takes 60 votes. For now, Democrats are in the driver’s seat, as Republicans are still five votes short of the necessary 60. Presently, four Democratic senators have stated that they will support a motion for cloture and will vote for the nominee: John Breaux (D-La.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Zell Miller (D-Ga.). Once the Republicans invoke cloture, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) will schedule an up or down majority vote, and in this case, Republicans easily have the 51 votes needed for confirmation.

Because the two sides have locked horns, backing down now is out of the question: Republicans lose respect if they fold; Democrats have nothing to lose. Already, Estrada is quietly making the rounds on the Hill, engaging in one-on-one lobbying sessions with fence sitting Democratic senators. Since the White House and Republicans are correct to steadfastly oppose giving Democrats Estrada’s opinions and memos from his days with the Solicitor General’s office in the Justice Department, it may just take more lobbying by Estrada to convince the necessary Democrats. (Note: every living solicitor general as recommended not releasing this information). It will also take serious grassroots pressure to change some opinions.

A perfect place to start is Louisiana. It seems that Sen. Mary Landrieu, who. as a reelection candidate in November, stated that she supported Estrada’s nomination, is now suffering from a bit of amnesia. During the campaign season, Sen. Landrieu ran a radio ad in English and Spanish (Louisiana has a large Honduran population and coincidentally Estrada is Honduran) that proclaimed that she supported the nominee. Here’s a brief line from the ad: “Mary Landrieu, also supported the candidacy of the Honduran Miguel Estrada for the Federal Court of Appeals.”

On February 13, Sen. Landrieu issued a press release that retracted the ad’s content because the ad supposedly misrepresented the senator’s position. The press release stated that the senator was actually neutral on the matter and that she, “…cannot at this time vote for him…and will support the filibuster.” Sure enough, the Honduran population of Louisiana is a bit angry.

New Taxes from Republicans?

Every year, presidential cabinet secretaries testify before congressional committees to lobby for funding for their respective departments. This Wednesday, February 25, Health and Human Services Department Secretary Tommy Thompson will sit before the House Budget committee and do what’s expected of him. One can easily imagine that he’ll answer or deflect questions and criticisms ranging from human cloning, Medicare and Medicaid reforms, and associated topics under the purview of his department with aplomb, all the while steadfastly staying on message. However, one question may throw a wrench in the process and Democrats (or maybe even concerned Republicans) will certainly ask it: what is the administration’s position on a proposed $2 federal excise tax increase on tobacco products?

Unbeknownst to many smoking taxpayers, the Interagency Committee on Smoking and Health (ICSH), commissioned by the HHS department, is recommending that President Bush support a $2 federal excise tax increase on tobacco products, which would bump up a smoker’s federal tobacco tax liability to $2.36 or five times the current levied amount. Though there has not been any response from the White House either way on this request (which makes for intrigue), you can bet Democrats will pounce on Thompson.

The issue is intriguing because administration officials have yet to publicly state their opinion on the ICSH’s suggestion. Maybe the administration, knowing that the tax proposal is dead on arrival in Congress, does not want to make a mountain out of a molehill.

I say that the tax would be dead on arrival because Republicans know how regressive tobacco taxes are, as they hit hardest those who make $30,000 or less – the income group with the majority of smokers. Republicans know that the average smoker buys a pack a day, costing them $131 per year in federal taxes, and if a $2 tax increase is adopted, that average Joe now pays $861 just in federal tobacco taxes. Finally, Republicans understand that raising taxes during tough economic times is serious faux pas. Surely they know, right?

Bringing Home the Bacon, or Just Dishing it Out

In last week’s weekly email, a number of us wrote on the issue of spending, specifically the $397.4 billion omnibus appropriations bill. Now that this pork-laden piece of legislation is public law, I think it’s appropriate to let the public know exactly what they are funding with their tax dollars.

The omnibus bill appropriated $800,000 to the Grammy Foundation’s “music and arts education programs.” Why does the federal government need to support a private foundation that receives contributions from individuals, corporations, and record companies? Because, “the educational benefits of musical education are clear and well documented…this is something that the federal government should spend money on…” says Rep. Steny Hoyer’s (D-Mary.) press secretary.

Sure a little Bach and Beethoven never hurt anyone, but dishing out $800,000 so that high schoolers can chill with Mary J. Blige and Yo Yo Ma on the taxpayer’s dime is a little much, don’t you think?