Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kay Bailey Cheerleader speaks in Dallas

This comes from a story from my newspaper editor’s day job. Four southern Dallas County cities, all covered by my suburban weekly newspaper group, have a join umbrella chamber of commerce. That chamber holds a quarterly luncheon with a keynote speaker. Today, it was Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison,

I had a few minutes of media time with her after her luncheon speech. I didn’t extremely grill her, given the situation, but I did ask questions on some things she said on major topics, and I otherwise “backgrounded” other statements she made.

Iraq, taxes, immigration and health care — U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison hit all the primary political notes in her Best Southwest Chamber of Commerce speech Nov. 29.

Senatorial harmony
“The atmosphere in Washington is not so good right now and I don’t like that. There are beginning to be deep divisions in so many areas,” she said.

She referred to the process of filibustering in the Senate as one concern, specifically citing a largely-Democratic threat of filibuster blocking attempts to open a portion of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Under Senate rules, 60 of 100 Senators, not a bare majority of 51, are required to end debate on a bill in the Senate, unless the bill has already been brought to the floor on a unanimous consent device. Speaking against cloture, the ending of debate, is a filibuster. It has been used at times in the past, but now — especially among Republicans — the mere threat of a filibuster, by an advance announcement of intent to vote against cloture, has slowed the progress of many bills in the Senate.

Hutchison later addressed filibustering and filibustering threats by both parties in the Senate.

“It’s so important for us to do away with the toxic atmosphere; everything seems to be a political issue,” she said, mentioning she had been in the minority party in the Senate in the past, as well as the current Senate, and had not seen things hit this level before.
“I would very much like to see us move forward. It’s not a healthy atmosphere where everything takes 60 votes.

“But I can’t give you the right formula, because we’ve tried a lot.”

More below the fold.

Hutchison then talked about taxes in general and the estate tax in particular. The estate tax, a federal tax, with a standard deduction as in federal income taxes, is the tax the government assesses on an estate when it is inherited from a parent or other deceased person. Because of the nature of when the tax is assessed, Hutchison and other Republicans have taken to calling it the “death tax” in recent years.

She mentioned 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, sought by President George W. Bush and passed by Congress, as a factor in economic growth earlier this decade. She said that worries about how the current, Democratically-controlled, Congress would change various tax rates, were hurting the economy, and if passed, would hurt small business. She mentioned the estate tax as part of this and indicated she wanted its deduction raised.

Under the current law, the federal estate tax deduction is supposed to rise to $3.5 million by 2009, then the estate tax disappears entirely — but for just one year — in 2010. It would then reappear in 2011, with its 2001 deduction level of $1 million.

Hutchison later said she did not have an exact dollar amount in mind for the increase, but did say, due to a Democratic Senate filibuster threat, she was not, at this time, trying to get the estate tax eliminated.

A more likely scenario than permanently eliminating the estate tax deduction would be making permanent the 2009 deduction of $3.5 million, even though two of America’s richest people, investor Warren Buffett and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, are on record as against raising the deduction too high, let alone repealing it.

On how the estate tax affects farms, and the ever-shrinking number of traditional family farms, current law allows farmers to leave up to $4 million per couple in nominal farm assets to their heirs without the heirs having to pay any estate taxes. With provisions that let farms be valued at less than full market value, some farmers can pass farms whose actual value is almost $6 million without the heirs paying estate taxes.

Hutchison then moved to energy issues, including the ANWR filibuster threat she mentioned earlier.

“The energy issue is not looking very good,” she said.

She called for America to become more self-sufficient in oil, pointing out the fact that America now imports 60 percent of its oil. She added that many people may be unaware that Venezuela, led by socialist President Hugo Chavez, who has been in the news recently for actions that got him called a “lunatic” by Hutchison, is a bigger importer of oil to the U.S. than any of the Arab oil states of the Persian Gulf.

For alternative energy sources, she said America needed more ethanol, but needed to look at other sources besides corn, which she said simply will not be able to meet a mandated major increase in alternative fuels that Congress is considering. The current standard of 7.5 billion gallons per year, met largely by ethanol and biodiesel, could be raised as high as 30 billion gallons a year.

Hutchison said the country simply couldn’t get that much more ethanol out of corn without eliminating corn as a food source. She called for increasing efforts into getting ethanol from cellulosic sources, such as wood, leaves, weeds and other plant “waste.”
But, Hutchison also called for more domestic oil drilling.

She decried potential Democratic tax changes she said would eliminate tax relief for companies building oil refineries, including one in Port Arthur.

She also called for an end to Democrats blocking oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which she noted was about as big as the state of South Carolina. She said the area that would be the focus of exploratory oil drilling was only about the size of Love Field, the Dallas airport.

As for environmental issues, she said the refuge didn’t have a single tree.

Specifically, the 1002 Area within the refuge that the Bush Administration wants to open for oil drilling is about 8 percent the size of the whole refuge, at 1.5 million acres. Environmentally, though it doesn’t have any trees, it is the heart of summer calving grounds for the 128,000 strong Porcupine Caribou herd. And, while a majority of Alaskans are on record as favoring drilling there, American Indians on the south side of the refuge remain opposed; Inuit on the north side are of mixed views.

Environmentalists also say that at maximum production, it would probably meet just 2 percent of American oil demand. Government estimates of oil reserves in the area increased greatly from the administration of President Bill Clinton to President Bush.
After the luncheon, Hutchinson was asked what her stance was on energy conservation issues, most notably, a bill currently in Congress to raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, the average gas mileage for all its makes of automobiles each car manufacturer must meet, from its current 27.5mpg for cars to 35mpg by 2020. Light trucks have a current standard of 20.7mpg; some versions of the CAFÉ standards bill would make them meet the same standard as cars. Currently, cars and trucks combined, sold in 2004, had a fuel economy average of 24.6mpg.

Hutchison said she was in favor of looking at CAFE standards in general, but did not want to adopt any specific standard that would hurt American automakers.

She next tackled illegal immigration, and politely signaled her differences with President Bush’s recent series of raids on employers, such as meat-packing plants.

“We have many jobs that need to be filled that aren’t being filled by Americans,” she said. “We need a guest worker program.

“I’m annoyed when we say, ‘We need to crack down on employees who hire illegals.’ We can’t lay that burden on our employers.”

Iraq/national security
The final topic on her agenda was Iraq and national security issues.

“Terrorists are trying to take away our freedom and our diversity more than anybody ever did before,” she said.

Without naming any senators or party affiliations, she then said she was concerned by what she called an attitude of “cutting and running” on Iraq.

Hutchison was later asked if she was worried about the Iraq government not appearing to step up its efforts at better governance, and how she would respond to other people who had the same concerns.

“I worry about that myself,” she said. “I think we need to bring in the surrounding Arab countries (for regional talks on Iraq’s future and stability), and that has not yet happened. There have been some regional summits, but I think the Arab states need to do more.”

As for the current Iraqi government, led by Nouri al-Maliki, she said, “We can’t dictate who the Iraq leaders are.”

On other national security issues, she said she liked what she called the change in European attitude by new French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She decried the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and member states for not getting involved in Iraq, even though non-U.S. NATO countries immediately got involved in Afghanistan and now supply the majority of troops there.

Endnote: It was a pretty partisan speech, especially given her opening cries for a more bipartisan Congress. (That said, Hutchison isn’t John Cornyn, who is a right-wing hack.) She has the right answers on some things, definitely on not relying on corn-based ethanol, and is trying to find some sort of middle on illegal immigration. She also clearly conflated Iraq and Afghanistan on trying to guilt-trip NATO about not being in Iraq, showing she’s still drinking a full share of winger Kool-Aid on Iraq. On Iraq, I could have asked half a dozen questions, but there wasn’t time, and given the nature of the engagement, didn’t want to harsh up too much on the questioning.

And, she’s supposed to be a more sensible, more moderate conservative than many GOPers. Other than on reproductive choice, you look at her, look for moderate, and just have to shake your head, because it ain’t there, except in style compared to an attack dog like Cornyn.