WEEK ONE HUNDRED & FIFTY-THREE

December 18, 2011     A day after the Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation to extend a payroll tax cut for two months, House Republicans made clear that they would not support the measure:

  • On December 17th, Speaker John Boehner urged his members to support the legislation, but he made an apparent about-face on the 18th when he said that he and other House Republicans were opposed to the temporary extension, part of a $33 billion package of bills passed by the Senate on December 18th--In addition to extending the payroll tax cut for millions of U.S. workers, the legislation extends unemployment benefits and avoided cuts in payments to doctors who accept Medicare.

December 19, 2011

1.     The Supreme Court announced it will hear arguments over three days in late March to decide the constitutionality of President Obama's healthcare law:

  • The 5-1/2 hours of arguments are believed to be the most time devoted to a single case since the 1960s--the justices will focus on a single lawsuit that began in Florida; but Florida was later joined by 25 other Republican-led states to sue and assert that the entire law passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress should be struck down.

2.     The Obama administration decided last week to hand off to the states the decision over the medical benefits insurers must cover under the healthcare overhaul, avoiding a potentially brutal lobbying battle:

  • The ruling, coming less than a year before the presidential election, gives states the power to set coverage levels for the policies uninsured people will buy through regulated exchanges, starting in 2014--about 24 million people are projected to buy coverage through exchanges by 2019, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and premiums will average $5,800 for individuals and $15,200 for families in 2016.

December 20, 2011     A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that Americans are still broadly disapproving of President Obama's handling of the economy and jobs, but views of his overall performance have recovered among key groups, including independents, young adults, and seniors:

  • Obama's job-approval rating is at its highest level since March, excluding a temporary bump after the killing of Osama bin Laden, with 49 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving--at the same time, the public's opinion of Congressional Republicans has deteriorated.

December 21, 2011

1.     President Obama implored House Speaker John Boehner to get behind a two-month stopgap until a longer deal could be struck early next year, calling it the only real way out of a mess that is threatening the paychecks of 160 million workers:

  • Boehner remained insistent on a full-year extension of the existing payroll tax cut before January 1st, urging Obama to bring Senate Democrats back to Washington to talk to his chosen negotiators--barring any action by Congress, Social Security payroll taxes will go up almost $20 a week for workers making a $50,000 salary, and almost two million people would lose unemployment benefits as well.

2.     Economists warn that if Congress does not reach agreement on extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment insurance benefits that are set to expire at the end of this year, the U.S. economy will be at risk:

  • The policies that Congress is looking to extend would pump about $140 billion extra into the U.S. economy in 2012, increasing the amount of money Americans have to spend by that much--many forecasting firms estimate that not extending the tax policies would reduce growth by about 1-1.5%.

3.     The economy is ending 2011 on a roll:

  • The job market is healthier; Americans are spending on holiday gifts; a turnaround for the housing industry may be underway; gas is cheaper; factories are busier; and stocks are higher--as recently as this summer, scattered predictions for a second recession were made; instead, the economy has grown faster each quarter this year, and the last three months should be the best.

4.     Unemployment rates fell in 43 states in November, the largest number of states to report such declines in eight years:

  • According to the Labor Department, only three states reported higher unemployment rates in November, and four states showed no change--Nevada, for the 18th straight month, had the highest state unemployment rate at 13 percent, and North Dakota again enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate at 3.4 percent.

December 22, 2011     House Republicans gave into demands by President Obama, congressional Democrats, and fellow Republicans for a short-term renewal of payroll tax cuts for all workers, almost certainly sparing workers an average $20-a-week tax increase on January 1st:

  • The House and Senate plan to act on the two-month extension on December 23rd--the developments were a clear win for Obama, as the tax cut was the center of his three-month drive for jobs legislation  that seems to have contributed to an uptick in his poll numbers.

December 23, 2011

1.     Congress quickly and quietly approved a two-month extension of the Social Security payroll tax cut, ensuring that more than 160 million people will avoid a two percentage point payroll tax increase next year:

  • The congressional agreement also continues current payment rates for Medicare physicians which, otherwise, would have dropped by 27.4% starting January 1st, and retains up to 99 weeks of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed--President Obama signed the bill into law and praised Congress before heading to Hawaii for the Christmas-New Year's holiday, a trip originally planned to begin December 17th.

2.     The Justice Department blocked a new South Carolina law that would require voters to present photo identification, saying the law would disproportionately suppress turnout among eligible minority voters:

  • The move was the first time since 1994 that the department has exercised its powers under the Voting Rights Act to block a voter identification law--South Carolina now faces the choice of dropping the proposed change or asking a federal court in the District of Columbia to approve the law.
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