Monday, March 20, 2006

Flying Under The Senate Radar Last Week

They may not be votes on a Supreme Court nominee, a major piece of legislation or a resolution to censure the president, but here’s some things you may have missed from the U.S. Senate last week:

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) rose to talk about the Homeland Security Education Act, which he first proposed in December 2001 (in the 107th Congress) and has been trying to get seriously considered every since. According to Durbin, the bill “…encourages initiatives to increase the number of Americans trained in science, technology, engineering, math, and foreign languages.”

“Our security and economic future depends on the next generation of workers and their ability not just to keep up, but to innovate,” said Durbin on the Senate floor Thursday. “Science and technology are the engines of economic growth. We must invest in our students and our educational system by providing the training and resources needed in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and foreign languages.”

Durbin cited the following statistics from the Nation Science Board showing that China, India, South Korea, and Japan are educating a higher proportion of their people in technology, science, and math.
  • 59 percent of undergraduates in China and 66 percent of Japanese undergraduates received a degree in science and engineering. Only 32 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded in the United States were in science and engineering.
  • In 2004, China and India graduated over 600,000 and 350,000 engineers, respectively. The United States graduated about 70,000 engineers in 2004.
Durbin’s legislation would provide many educational incentives, including $5,000 scholarships to undergraduate students who obtain science and engineering degrees.

It’ll be interesting the see how this flies in a short-sighted GOP Senate that just last October voted down a bill sponsored by Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to raise the Pell grant by a measly $200.

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Patrick Leahy (D-VT) pointed out that, for all the Republican whining about Democrats obstructing Bush judicial appointments, the Senate has confirmed 234 nominees since January 2001, including two Supreme Court Justices and 43 circuit court judges. While it shows how easy a road the White House has had with its appointments, it’s kind of scary to consider how many Bush-appointed judges we now have, isn’t it?

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In addition to his well-publicized resolution to censure Bush on his illegal domestic spying program, Russ Feingold (D-WI) took to the Senate floor to discuss a growing terrorism base in Southeast Asia that continues to fester while we fight a pointless war in Iraq.
“I have spoken on the floor several times about the administration's ill-conceived, poorly executed, and self-defeating strategy in Iraq. Today, I intend to talk about how the war in Iraq is having a far-reaching and negative impact on our ability to conduct an effective fight against international terrorism. I saw this firsthand during a recent visit to Thailand and Indonesia, two valuable partners in the fight against terrorism in a strategically critical and often underappreciated region. I visited these two countries to gain a detailed understanding of the radical Jihadist networks that are proliferating throughout the region and of what it will take to effectively confront this threat.

“I bring back from the trip both good news and bad news. The good news is that we have a significant opportunity in Thailand, Indonesia, and in Southeast Asia in general, to get our counterterrorism strategy right. It is not too late to stem the relationship between international terrorist networks and local extremist organizations. Nor is it too late to tackle the root causes of extremism in the region.

"Unfortunately, there is bad news. Unless we develop a truly comprehensive, global strategy to counter terrorist threats, we will miss the opportunity to gain the upper hand in the fight against terrorism in Southeast Asia at what couldn't be a more critical time. And changing our misguided policies in Iraq must be a central element of this strategy.”
Brains, guts and common sense… This guy Feingold is starting to sound more and more like an excellent presidential candidate.

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Here’s Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) talking about Bush’s National Security Agency eavesdropping program.
“The truth is that we don't know what is going on under this program. And we have an obligation to find out and a committee set up to do just that. Senator Rockefeller has been correct from the beginning to call for a full and thorough Intelligence Committee investigation. I couldn't agree more with my colleague from West Virginia and was deeply disappointed his March 7 motion calling for a full committee investigation failed along party lines.

“But politics and protecting the President seem to be the order of the day. I am told one of the committee Republicans went so far as to say that some of the committee Democrats ‘believe the gravest threat we face is not Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but rather the president of the United States.’ That is totally uncalled for; it is ridiculous.”
Let’s hope Biden follows up on that indignation by supporting Feingold’s call for a censure against Bush.

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Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced legislation to limit campaign fundraising for incumbent Senators. Specifically, the Senate Campaign Reform Act of 2006 would change Senate rules to limit Senators and their staffs to fundraising for reelection only in the eighteen months before the date of the next general election.

“Our proposal aims to not just treat the symptoms of scandal and corruption; it aims to cure the overall disease wrought by money in politics and lets senators return to spending the majority of the people’s time on the people's business,” said Wyden. “Today in the Senate, after an election is held the first Tuesday in November, people sleep in on Wednesday, and then the fundraising chase starts all over again on Thursday. Under this proposal Senators will go from raising campaign money all six years of their six year term down to eighteen months. Shorter campaigns will result in less partisanship, less scandal, and more good government.”

Wyden pointed out that this would be a viable option to the lengthy and laborious process of enacting an amendment to the Constitution. It’s a good idea and it will be interesting to see how the GOP responds to a proposal that could significantly neuter their fulltime, corporate fundraising efforts.

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John Kerry introduced S. 2449, a bill to reduce the age for receipt of military retired pay for nonregular service from 60 years of age to 55 years of age.

“If you join the active duty Army at age 18 and serve 20 years on active duty, retiring at age 38, you are immediately eligible to receive retirement pay. If you join the National Guard or Reserves, you may retire after 20 years, but you must wait until age 60 to begin collecting retirement pay” said Kerry, pointing out that a 38-year-old veteran of the Guard and Reserves must wait 22 years to see any of their retirement pay.

But, as Kerry points out, National Guard and Reserves have been fully engaged in the Iraq war and, as of last week, nearly 120,000 reservists were mobilized in the war. Sadly, 600 members of the Guard and Reserves have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Said Kerry on the Senate floor: “We can never fully express our Nation's gratitude for their service and sacrifice, but we can try to make benefits and compensation more worthy of the commitment and service shown by America's citizen soldiers.”

The bill has been referred to the Committee on Armed Services for consideration.

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New legislation of note introduced:
  • S. 1184. "An act to waive the passport fees for a relative of a deceased member of the Armed Forces proceeding abroad to visit the grave of such member or to attend a funeral or memorial service for such member."
  • S. 2426. A bill to facilitate the protection of minors using the Internet from material that is harmful to minors.
  • S. 2446. A bill to promote the national security and stability of the economy of the United States by reducing the dependence of the United States on oil through the use of alternative fuels and new technology.
  • S. 2451. A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to expand certain tax benefits related to Hurricane Katrina and to Hurricane Rita.
  • S. 2453. A bill to establish procedures for the review of electronic surveillance programs.
  • S. 2455. A bill to provide in statute for the conduct of electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists for the purposes of protecting the American people, the Nation, and its interests from terrorist attack while ensuring that the civil liberties of United States citizens are safeguarded.
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The Senate passed S. Res. 404 to designate March 26th, 2006 as “National Support the Troops Day.” The Senate is officially adjourned until March 27 and one wonders how long it will be before the GOP leadership shoots down any Democratic legislation that would actually help the military or Veterans in the weeks after our “Support the Troops Day” celebration.

Until then…