House Passes Aid Package; Rangel Defends Himself
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
It was an open and shut session of Congress today. The House easily passed two bills the Senate tossed its way last week. One would send more than half a billion dollars to bolster the U.S.-Mexico border, that now goes back to the Senate. The other is a $26 billion cash infusion to the states to keep teachers at work and the poor on Medicaid. That one was signed into law by the president today.
As NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, it was a burst of activity plus a surprise or two.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Members of Congress had already gone home for the August break when they were pulled back to Washington for this one-day session. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called them to the Capitol after the Senate passed the state aid bill late last week. But with the House floor open for business, there was nothing to stop New York Democrat Charlie Rangel from bringing up a point of personal privilege.
Representative CHARLIE RANGEL (Democrat, New York): I deserve and demand the right to be heard.
SEABROOK: Rangel has been charged with ethics violations after an investigation that lasted almost two years. He says he hasn't been given an adequate chance to defend himself, neither to the Ethics Committee nor to his constituents. And he's angry to see newspaper stories with unnamed Democrats saying he should resign.
Rep. RANGEL: I love my country. I love my Congress. I love the debates. I love the arguments. But youre not going to tell me to resign to make you feel comfortable.
SEABROOK: After this 32-minute defense, the House returned to its regularly scheduled programming, the $26 billion aid package to the states that the Senate passed late last week.
Depending on who you listened to, the bill was either a heroic swoop to save teachers' jobs and health care for the poor or a political gimmick for the Democrats. Texas Republican Joe Barton is in the latter camp.
Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): What this bill really is about is, in my opinion, some sort of panic attack on the Democratic leadership side that they see the election coming up, and they need to get more money to their special constituencies. And this is a bill that would do that.
SEABROOK: Earlier in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama, flanked by teachers in danger of losing their jobs, took on the Republican's argument.
President BARACK OBAMA: I heard the Republican leader of the House say the other day that this is a special interest bill. And I suppose if America's children and the safety of our communities are your special interest, then it is a special interest bill.
SEABROOK: And House Democrat Elijah Cummings, who represents a struggling district in inner-city Baltimore, said people are desperate.
Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS (Democrat, Maryland): This legislation will save more than 130,000 teacher jobs and reduce this deficit by $1.4 billion over the next 10 years. That's not a gimmick. Ensuring the education of our children and the safety of our communities is not a gimmick.
SEABROOK: Then Arizona Republican Jeff Flake cut through all the bickering with this simple message.
Representative JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona): Those who advocate for this legislation are forgetting one very, very important thing: We are broke.
SEABROOK: The dilemma isn't about the worthiness of funding teachers and health care, Flake suggested. It's about how much the Congress is going to put on the country's credit card and for how long. But if that's the argument, said California Democrat Henry Waxman, Republicans are being hypocritical. This bill was paid for with money cut from other government programs, said Waxman, while Republicans' proposals to extend expensive tax cuts are not.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): Let the American people know that we're trying to help kids get educated and make sure that those who are vulnerable get health care, while the Republicans are urging that we continue the tax cuts for people making more than $300,000 a year.
SEABROOK: In the end, the bill passed easily, by a vote of 247 to 161. All but two Republicans voted against it. It was a flash-session of Congress that brought all the arguments and partisanship of the midterm election campaigns onto the House floor. And as quickly as the session opened, it was adjourned.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
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