Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) told reporters on Thursday that the agriculture cuts included in the Democratic sequester alternative would save money and remedy a farm bill extension that left important programs with little or no funding.
The agriculture proposal would produce a net savings of $27.5 billion over 10 years by ending yearly fixed direct payments made to farmers and land owners based on the past production history of cropland. If passed, the Agriculture Department would not have to put meat inspectors on unpaid leave for up to 15 days because of sequestration.
Stabenow also said $3.5 billion would be used to restore mandatory funding for several agriculture disaster assistance programs retroactively to 2012 and for 2013 as well as to fund renewable energy, rural small businesses, new and beginning farmers, specialty crops, organic farming and other so-called orphan programs. A partial extension of the 2008 farm law (P.L. 110-246) Congress passed in January left the future of the farm bill programs in doubt.
House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, criticized the proposal, saying it would reduce available funding for writing a farm bill by $31 billion. Lucas has also said that no changes should be made to the commitment set out in the farm bill extension to provide direct payments in October, the start of fiscal 2014.
The overall sequester package faces Republican objections because it proposes tax increases on wealthy individuals and ending business tax breaks.
Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) released a $110 billion plan that would replace the sequester with higher taxes on the wealthy, tax revenue from oil derived from tar sands and spending reductions in agriculture subsidies and defense.
The blueprint would avert about $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that are scheduled to begin hitting federal agency budgets on March 1. The additional $25 billion in the Democratic plan would replace additional reductions under sequester through December. Half the replacement savings would come from the tax increases and half from future spending, including $27.5 billion in reductions in defense spending over the next eight years and $27.5 billion from eliminating direct subsidy payments to farmers.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said Thursday he was open to developing a sequester replacement measure within coming days if Reid can move the measure he is developing in the Senate. However, Boehner also insisted that any measure to replace the sequester also would have to include a plan to balance the budget within 10 years.
Friday, House Armed Services Committee chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) rejected the proposal from Senate Democrats, saying he would support no further cuts to defense.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, introduced a separate sequester replacement measure in the House, one he said is “consistent with the Senate proposal” but would bring some $120 billion in savings.
Reid said he plans to put the measure on the floor the week of February 25, and a Republican alternative package will also be offered.
The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 14-11 on Wednesday to endorse the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) to be Defense secretary. The party-line vote followed a week of elevated threats from GOP lawmakers opposed to the nomination.
Over the weekend, James Inhofe (R-OK) threatened to push for a 60-vote threshold for the floor vote on Hagel, while Lindsey Graham (R-SC) suggested he would place a hold on Hagel’s nomination until the Obama administration releases more information about last year’s fatal attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya.
Amid accusations of a GOP filibuster, Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a vote on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Defense secretary, but senators appeared poised to clear the nomination after the Presidents Day recess, barring any unexpected revelations.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana said he expects the panel to vote on Jacob Lew’s confirmation as Treasury secretary after Congress returns from next week’s recess. Lew, currently White House chief of staff, underwent questioning at his confirmation hearing before the panel on Wednesday.
Tuesday, the Senate endorsed 78-22 a five-year renewal (S. 47) of the Violence Against Women Act, which combats domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. The vote came a day after senators rejected, 31-59, a proposal by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to strike controversial language that would give tribal courts more authority over non-tribal domestic violence offenders. The measure now heads to the House, where lawmakers are working to come to a consensus on tribal provisions.
Yesterday, a bipartisan group of 53 Senators and Representatives introduced a bill that would allow states to collect sales tax from online retailers.
This bill would resolve the differences between the different versions that were introduced in the House and Senate last Congress, exempting online retailers with less than $1 million in annual sales.
The Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013 would give states the option to require the collection of sales and use taxes already owed under State law by out-of-state businesses, rather than rely on consumers to remit those taxes to the States, which is the current system of tax collection that they are limited to.
“This bill does not tell the states they have to do it; it just enables them to do it,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) said at a press conference announcing the bill. “How many more small brick-and-mortar obituaries do we have to see before we recognize that we have a problem?”
One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), said he asked Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, to “make this a priority.”
Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said she intends to mark up legislation authorizing flood control, navigation and environmental-restoration projects next month.
Boxer will need to work with the EPW panel’s top Republican, David Vitter of Louisiana on the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) reauthorization if she hopes to win bipartisan support. It has been almost six years since the last authorization (P.L. 110-114) became law in 2007.
The committee released a short draft bill in November, and Boxer said last month she intends to include language, similar to that in a House bill (H.R. 335), that would require all user fees collected for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be spent on port maintenance, dredging and expansion projects.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) has said his committee is also working on a water bill, though he has yet to lay out a timeline.
Today, the House adjourned for a week long recess. Rather than come back for several pro forma sessions designed to prevent recess appointments, the chamber will stay closed the entire time, preventing Democratic protests about the need for the House to work on pending fiscal battles. The move to officially adjourn comes in the wake of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decision that threw the constitutionality of recess appointments into question.
Democrats accused the majority party of leaving when there is important work on the table, including dealing with the sequester deadline of March 1 and passing the Violence Against Women Act.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) agreed to allow the adjournment resolution to pass by unanimous consent, adding bipartisan cover to an action that is frequently the target of political attacks from the minority party.
Both the House and Senate will not be in session next week due to the President’s Day recess. The next Weekly Legislative Update will cover the week of February 25-March 1.