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July 24, 2010

Tom Udall: Senate Leaders Wanted No Amendments to the Energy Bill

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I had a chance to talk briefly with Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) last night, and we discussed a variety of issues. Udall’s here at Netroots Nation today for a panel on his effort to change the Senate rules at the beginning of the next Congress, an initiative for which he is getting “a lot of support,” not just from members of the Senate Democratic caucus but from incoming candidates. Talk of changing the Senate rules is hanging over this conference, most recently from Speaker Pelosi, who basically could have summed up her hourlong remarks in the morning session by saying “the Senate sucks.”

But we talked about a host of other issues, which I’ll summarize a little bit here:

On the energy bill: Tom Udall criticized the energy bill introduced in the Senate, which doesn’t include either a carbon cap or a renewable energy standard, as very disappointing. He offered an interesting piece of information, that when Senate leaders announced the bill in the Democratic caucus, they wanted no amendments. The rationale was that the leadership wanted to pass the bill quickly, in the next two weeks, and not have it hanging out over the August recess, so that town hall participants can have the same kind of freak-out as they did over the health care bill last year. Now, this doesn’t make any sense, because at the same time, Udall said that the leadership promised a potential additional bill dealing with carbon pollution in September. So that assures that the question will hang out over the August recess. Udall and others strongly disagreed with the no amendment strategy, and is working to at least get a renewable energy standard, if not more, into the energy bill.

On Social Security and the deficit commission: Asked whether he would support any benefit cuts or raising of the retirement age (also a benefit cut) in Social Security, or privatization of the program, Udall seemed to reject the entire premise of the deficit commission that is working now to make recommendations. In the past when this kind of balanced bargain on deficit reduction was done, it always included some good and bad ideas, and people have to see if the good outweighs the bad, he said. “But we shouldn’t do the deficit now, we have a jobs crisis.” The deficit commission may try to trigger their changes a few years out to address this, but it’s unclear how long that would have to take. UPDATE: Udall’s office emails me to clarify that the Senator doesn’t think the timing is right for the deficit commission, not that he’s necessarily opposed to the idea.

On the Bush tax cuts: Kent Conrad raised some eyebrows this week, when he said that he would favor extending all of the Bush tax cuts, including those for the wealthiest Americans, which would cost roughly $700 billion dollars over the next decade. Asked about that approach, in the name of not dealing with deficit issues during the unemployment crisis, Udall said, “I don’t agree with that.” Neither does Tim Geithner or the White House, and Conrad should really get put on an island with this. He is the loudest deficit hawk in the United States Congress, except when it comes to tax cuts for the rich. That’s no different than the Republican platform, and Conrad has a couple Democratic allies on that, including Evan Bayh and Ben Nelson. The question is whether he has enough, and whether he’ll have input on writing the bill on tax policy.

On the estate tax. Udall became the first Senator I’ve heard to endorse letting the estate tax revert back to the Clinton-era levels by doing nothing on it. Right now, the estate tax, having been reduced since 2001, is repealed for one year, much to the delight of the Steinbrenner family. This was done by the Bush Administration to try and force a permanent repeal, while keeping the budget hit low by sunsetting the policy. Over the past year, Republicans and some Democrats have supported changing the levels of the estate tax, reducing them from the Clinton levels that would be current law. But Udall said “We shouldn’t do anything with the policy, just let it expire.” Reductions of the estate tax, which impacts a tiny sliver of super-rich families, would immediately blow a hole of at least $250 billion in the 10-year budget window, and more in the long-term, if the kinds of reductions that the likes of Max Baucus, Jon Kyl and Blanche Lincoln get adopted.

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