Warren, Tax Cuts and Swapping Vacation Stories: The Senate’s Back in Session

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It’s been five weeks since anyone’s seen anyone and the Senate this afternoon felt a lot like College coming back after a break. Maybe not a summer break, but a long one – like Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanza. Senators, reporters and staff milled about chatting about their vacations, codels and campaigns. The Capitol Police, usually fastidious in their herding of us behind velvet ropes, seemed still caught by their August stupors and the crowds spilled out, uncommonly messy across the Senate corridors waiting for the Senators to emerge from the weekly tradition of policy lunches.

A few folks were still absent: Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski was nowhere to be found after losing her primary last month. And New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg, a Republican who’s retiring, also wasn’t around.

The topics du jour were Bush’s tax cuts and the possible interim appointment of Elizabeth Warren as head of the newly formed consumer protection bureau.

Most Dems that I spoke with, including Illinois’ Dick Durbin, South Dakota’s Bryon Dorgan and Tom Carper of Delaware, welcomed the idea of Warren’s appointment. Most Republicans, ranging from Alabama’s Richard Shelby to Maine’s Susan Collins, were outraged by the idea of circumventing the Senate to install such a controversial figure at the helm of the bureau at such a crucial time. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd spent much of the afternoon dialing back his comments earlier that Warren’s appointment could “gut this before it even gets off the ground.” Dodd told reporters coming out of a morning vote that Congress could defund the agency if provoked, though several publications later pointed out that the agency is actually funded by the Federal Reserve, not Congress. Emerging from the lunches, Dodd said he’d spoken to the White House and had been assured that “no decisions have been made.” He declined to further speculate about possible impacts of Warren’s interim appointment.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he planned to bring up extended Bush’s tax cuts for those that make $250,000 in the next few weeks. When asked if he has the votes, he said, “I hope so.” But it was clear that he doesn’t yet. Republicans seem unified in opposition unless the measure includes an extension of those for the wealthiest Americans. “I’m all in or all out,” said Senator George Voinovich, a retiring Ohio Republican and target swing vote for Dems. The problem is that at least four of Reid’s own caucus are wavering: North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson and Jim Webb of Virginia. Conrad and Nelson were much sought after but made themselves scarce today. Lieberman, when pressed, said that while he prefers that all of the tax cuts are extended, he wouldn’t hold those for the middle class hostage and he’d vote to end a filibuster, if not support the final bill. But Webb remained adamant in his opposition. “I’m talking to people,” he told reporters as he hurried away. “I still think the $250,000 level is too low, I’m asking that it be raised.”

Congress has a while to cogitate on the issue. Dems feel pretty happy with how the debate is being perceived and don’t mind keeping the topic front and center. The House will wait and see what can pass the Senate. Meanwhile, the Senate this week aims to finish a small business bill and next week will take up the Defense Reauthorization Act. Reid said he plans to add two controversial amendments to that measure: the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the DREAM Act. Which means, the Senate won’t be taking up Bush’s tax cuts for at least three weeks. Welcome back, Congress, lets see what proves to be more hostile: Washington or your home districts.