Political Notebook

Democrats seek Medicaid extension

Representative Barney Frank led a Senate-House conference to merge competing financial bills. Representative Barney Frank led a Senate-House conference to merge competing financial bills. (Jonathan Ernst/ Reuters)
June 11, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Massachusetts delegation sent letters yesterday to House and Senate leaders urging them to support an extension of Medicaid funding that officials in Massachusetts and other states say is vital to prevent drastic cuts in services and increases in layoffs.

The letters were missing one notable signature: Scott Brown, the newly elected Republican senator, who opposes the proposal because it would add to the federal deficit.

The 11 Democrats in the delegation were adamant that the extension be approved, which would cost $24 billion.

“The extension will provide a vital lifeline that will protect health programs serving vulnerable residents, mitigate the need for state layoffs of teachers and public safety employees, and preserve the social safety net for individuals and families still struggling to recover from the ongoing recession,’’ the lawmakers wrote. “If the extension is not enacted in the coming weeks, states will begin to initiate drastic cuts, layoffs, and tax increases, which will endanger our national economic recovery.’’

Governor Deval Patrick and state lawmakers have been counting on the extension to fund about $800 million of next year’s budget. Patrick said he would cut 3.6 percent from nearly every line item unless the funding comes through.

“Without this federal funding, our state’s fiscal health will be in serious jeopardy,’’ said Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat.

The proposal would extend Medicaid reimbursements that had been helping states close budget gaps during the economic downturn. Those reimbursements expired this month, but the legislation would extend them for six months.

Brown said that he would support the proposal only if it did not add to the deficit. “The years of overspending and not making tough decisions are coming to the forefront,’’ Brown said. “I don’t feel it’s appropriate to saddle our kids and grandkids with debt.’’ -- MATT VISER

Congress moves to blend financial regulation bills
WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers began assembling a massive financial regulation bill yesterday, dividing sharply along partisan lines as Democrats vowed to fend off efforts to weaken its major provisions.

“This is a very strong bill and it is time we get it to the president’s desk for his signature,’’ Chris Dodd, Senate Banking Committee chairman, said, kicking off a meeting of lawmakers selected to blend House and Senate versions into one bill.

Such a House-Senate panel, called a conference committee, is a relatively rare occurrence in Congress. Though it is the textbook means of reconciling bills, congressional leaders in recent years generally have bypassed conferences and worked out legislative differences in private.

With Democrats aiming to wrap up their work before the end of the month, banks, retailers, and consumer groups all mustered a final lobbying thrust to influence the legislation.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, looked for quick completion of the bill, eager to have a House-Senate agreement in time for President Obama’s trip to Toronto later this month to meet with the Group of 20 nations. The world’s largest economies are working to coordinate their financial regulatory schemes.

Representative Barney Frank, the Newton Democrat who will chair the conference committee, promised efficiency.

“I will put forward one qualification for this job — my impatience,’’ he joked.

The bills would allow regulators to liquidate large, failing financial companies, create a new consumer protection entity to safeguard borrowers, and impose new regulations over complex securities previously traded in shadow markets. -- ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mass. delegation seeking to end gay blood donor ban
WASHINGTON — Massachusetts lawmakers are pushing the federal government to overturn a ban on blood donations from gay men, saying the policy adopted in the early days of the AIDS epidemic is outdated and discriminatory.

A federal advisory panel began hearings yesterday that will consider repealing the ban, the first time the longstanding policy has been reviewed under the Obama administration.

The lifetime ban was enacted in 1983 before AIDS was widely understood. Gay rights groups consider the ban unfair because it applies to all gay men regardless of their HIV status, while heterosexuals who engage in risky behavior, such as having sex with prostitutes or HIV-positive partners, are banned from giving blood only for a year.

The Red Cross, American Medical Association, and American Association of Blood Banks are also opposed to the ban. Donated blood is tested for HIV.

Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts; Representative Michael E. Capuano, Democrat of Somerville; and Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Newton — with 38 other lawmakers — signed a letter urging the government to discard the policy.

“This is blood that could save lives,’’ Kerry said in testimony on the first of two days of hearings by a panel at the Department of Health and Human Services. -- ALAN WIRZBICKI