Monthly Archives: November 2013

Weekly Legislative Report Nov 15, 2013

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Congressional Calendar for 133th 2nd session – click here

Appropriations/ Budget

Congressional budget negotiators, led by Budget Committee Chair’s Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), met for the second time on Wednesday to work out a federal budget for the rest of the fiscal year.  The committee is taking small steps to find budgets savings, but will need to do more if they hope to come to an agreement and submit a report before their deadline on December 13, to reach a deal before the January 15th expiration of the current CR.  The outcomes of these negotiations are crucial to avoiding another government shutdown and preventing debt default threats.

One of the main points of contention between Republicans and Democrats is how to replace the sequester, which is set to reduce agency budgets by about $109 billion a year through 2021.  Some Republicans would rather let the automatic spending cuts kick in than have to create revenues by increasing taxes.

An obvious target for spending cuts are Medicare and Medicaid, which have huge expenditures, but Democrats say they will take steps to reduce federal health benefits only if Republicans agree to close a few of the hundreds of loopholes that litter the tax code, reducing federal revenue by more than $1 trillion a year.

One of the panel’s negotiators, Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), asked the committee’s witness Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf to itemize overlapping proposals to save money from each of the budgets prepared earlier this year by Ryan, Murray and President Obama.  Members are hopeful that Elmendorf can find some savings there. 

Murray and Ryan have yet to announce the conference committee’s next public meeting, however, most of the activity surrounding the conference committee is taking place behind closed doors.

Miscellaneous

The House Natural Resources Committee voted 19-15 on a bill that would prohibit the Interior Department from updating a George W. Bush administration rule on discharging excess spoil and coal mine waste in mountain streams until the department completes a five-year review of state-level alternatives.  Backers said the Obama administration had not provided enough evidence for the revisions and developing the new rule would distract from understanding the implementation of the 2008 standard.

Under the bill (H.R. 2824), states would be required to submit buffer zone plans within two years, a timeline that Democrats said would lead to a seven-year delay of tighter coal waste regulations if combined with the five-year assessment mandated under the legislation.  Opponents argued that the proposed revisions were necessary to protect mountaintop mining communities from increasing health problems.

Also on Thursday, the panel approved 19-14 a measure (H.R. 3189) that would prohibit the Agriculture and Interior departments from requiring water rights to be forfeited as part of any federal land-use permit.  The bill stems from U.S. Forest Service dealings with ski resorts in which the agency has asked the resorts to turn over water rights as a way to prevent the rights from subsequently being sold and potentially used improperly.  Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) has introduced companion legislation (S. 1630) in the Senate.

Democrats said the matter already is being addressed internally by the forest service, and they labeled the bill an attempt to rein in land-use requirements on all federal property.  Before advancing the bill, the panel adopted an amendment from Scott Tipton (R-CO) that would define a water right as any legally recognized surface, groundwater or storage use.

A third bill backed by the committee would direct the Interior Department to begin salvage work for any downed timber from the Rim Fire that destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres in California’s Sierra Nevada this summer.  The bill, which the panel approved by voice vote, would waive National Environmental Policy Act (P.L. 91-190) and other environmental requirements for the salvage work, and any resulting timber sales would not be subject to administrative or judicial review.  Republicans said the bill (H.R. 3188) would help prevent future forest fires and boost forest health by removing timber that could host damaging insects.

Transportation

The House on Thursday cleared a bill that would direct the Federal Aviation Administration to overhaul its safety certification standards for small airplanes.

Members agreed by unanimous consent to accept a Senate amendment to the bill (H.R. 1848) that originally passed the House in a 411-0 vote in July.  Senators last month agreed by unanimous consent to amend the bill to substitute the text of another small-airplane bill (S. 1072).  It now goes to President Barack Obama for his approval.

The measure would require the FAA to meet objectives outlined by a committee tasked with reviewing the agency’s safety standards for small planes.  The rules would have to be finalized by December 15, 2015.  The original House version of the bill would have required the rules to be finalized by December 31, 2015.

The bill would require the FAA to employ standards that “improve safety,” simplify airworthiness certification standards and reduce regulatory costs.  It also would direct the FAA to create standards that allow safety objectives to be met by different plane designs and technology, as well as by retrofitting older aircraft.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the Senate will consider the nomination of Robert L. Wilkins to be a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday.  Given the GOP opposition to filling seats on the court, it is not likely to receive the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture.  The Senate will then move to vote on a motion to limit debate on a bill (H.R. 3204) that would clarify the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of compounding pharmacies and establish a national system for tracing drugs through the distribution chain.  Under an agreement reached Thursday, if cloture is invoked on the pharmacy bill, the Senate would immediately vote on passage of the bill, without having to wait for post-cloture debate time to expire.

The pharmacy bill would establish a category of “outsourcing facilities” under which pharmacies conducting large-scale compounding of sterile drugs could opt to be categorized for federal oversight.  Senators are pushing for its passage to prevent incidents like an outbreak of fungal meningitis that occurred last year, which was caused by a contaminated injectable steroid that left 64 dead and 750 ill.  Under the bill, the FDA would conduct risk-based inspections of such facilities.  Detailed labeling of the compounded drugs and collection of fees to pay for the oversight would be required.  The legislation also would move toward a national electronic system for unit-level tracking of prescription drugs through the distribution chain, which would be deployed over 10 years.

If the pharmacy bill is passed, the Senate would then vote on a motion to limit debate on the motion to proceed to the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill (S. 1197).  Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is hoping to finish work on the defense policy bill before Thanksgiving. 

The defense bill would authorize $625.1 billion for discretionary defense spending, including $526 billion for Defense Department base spending and $80.7 billion for overseas contingency operations.  It is expected to cause heated debated, particularly around provisions that provide flexibility for the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and require the review of decisions not to prosecute sexual assault cases.

Senator David Vitter (R-LA) has been pursuing a vote on a proposal that would require disclosure of lawmakers’ decisions regarding designating staff as official for purposes of enrollment in insurance exchanges created under the 2010 health care law (P.L. 111-148, P.L. 111-152) that has been delaying action on legislation.  On Thursday, Vitter again attempted to set up votes for his proposal as an amendment to either the compounding pharmacy or defense authorization measures.  Vitter said some members of Congress are classifying large parts of their office staff as “unofficial” so they can get around the health care law. 

Weekly Legislative Report Nov 8, 2013

J.R. Reskovac

Sarah Strup

 

 

 

Appropriations/ Budget

 

The House-Senate budget conferees will meet officially for the second time next Wednesday.  The meeting will offer conferees an opportunity to see how close they might be to common ground with little more than four weeks left until a December 13 deadline for the committee to produce a budget agreement.

 

Lawmakers say if an agreement can be reached, it most likely would be a one- or two-year government funding deal that includes some sort of sequester relief.  In addition to ongoing conversations between House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA), other lawmakers on the committee have been talking during informal meetings and phone conversations this week.  With the House in recess, Ryan has been in Wisconsin and is not expected to return to Washington until November 12.  During the opening meeting of the conference October 30, conferees expressed a desire to work toward a small-scale agreement that would set discretionary spending levels for the fiscal year that began October 1, and provide some relief from sequester-driven spending cuts that would hit in mid-January.

 

Democratic members of the budget conference committee have also been brainstorming ideas that could potentially win over Republicans.  The newest idea being discussed is the reduction of spending through modifying the tax code.

 

The strategy is to focus on special exemptions, loopholes and breaks in the tax code that is collectively known as tax expenditures.  For Democrats, the provisions are a potential path toward what they call a “balanced” approach, mixing tax revenue and alternative budget reductions, to offset scheduled cuts under sequestration while not addressing the tax rates that GOP members say are untouchable.  This will be difficult because GOP conferees would have a tough time transferring their calls for spending cuts into attention to tax expenditures, even if tax experts say the provisions are spending in another form.

 

Miscellaneous

 

The Senate on Wednesday passed by unanimous consent a measure (S. 287) that would make homeless veterans and their family members eligible for certain benefits.  Specifically it would expand the definition of a homeless veteran to include a veteran or veteran’s family member fleeing domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or other life-threatening conditions in their homes.

 

As amended, by Bernard Sanders (I-VT) the bill would extend the Veterans Affairs Department’s ability to provide referral and counseling services until September 30, 2017, and treatment programs for seriously mentally ill and homeless veterans until December 31, 2014.  It also removed provisions for other grant program extensions, which were enacted earlier this year (P.L. 113-37).  The legal service partnerships authorized in the bill.

 

On Thursday, the Senate voted 64-32 to approve the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in a historic advance for the gay rights cause.   The legislation would create federal workplace protections for gay and transgender people by banning employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

 

House Speaker John Boehner indicated this week he would not bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

 

Water Resources

On Tuesday, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee leaders named conferees for negotiations with the House on a water resources authorization.

 

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) appointed Democrats Max Baucus of Montana, Thomas Carper of Delaware, Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.  Senate EPW Committee Ranking Republican David Vitter of Louisiana selected fellow committee Republican’s James Inhofe of Oklahoma and John Barrasso of Wyoming.

 

Once the House names its conferees, the two groups can start making plans to work out the differences between the Senate’s water projects bill (S. 601), which passed 83-14 in May, and the House version (H.R. 3080), which passed 417-3 last month.  Still, challenges remain over how to select Army Corps of Engineers projects that will be authorized for funding without breaking the earmark ban in the House.  Supporters hope to wrap up a conference report and get a final bill to President Barack Obama’s desk this year.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, both chambers will be out on Monday in observance of Veterans Day and will return on Tuesday for legislative business.

 

In the Senate, the chamber will consider the nomination of Cornelia “Nina” Pillard to be a judge for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.  If cloture is not invoked, the Senate will immediately vote on a cloture motion on the motion to proceed to a bill (H.R. 3204) that would expand the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of compounding pharmacies and institute a system of tracing drugs through the supply chain.

 

Republicans have already blocked the votes of several other judge nominations, so Democrats are expected to have an easier time limiting debate on the compounding pharmacy measure.  The bill would establish a new category of “outsourcing facilities” under which pharmacies conducting large-scale compounding of sterile drugs could opt to be categorized for federal oversight.  It also would establish a national system for unit-level tracking of prescription drugs through the supply chain.

 

Senator David Vitter (R-LA) has also mentioned that he is planning to seek a vote on a proposal to publicly disclose the decisions members of Congress make about which of their staff will enroll in health care exchanges established under the 2010 health care law (P.L. 111-148, P.L. 111-152).  Vitter described his proposal, which he has also filed as a stand-alone measure (S. 1629), as an issue of transparency.

 

Vitter is seeking a vote on his proposal either on the compounding pharmacy measure or a defense authorization bill (S. 1197) that is expected to come to the floor the week of November 18.

 

Reid is also looking to bring up a proposal (S. 460) to raise the national minimum wage sometime this month.  Bill sponsor Tom Harkin (D-IA) and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, predicted it would be difficult for Democrats to get enough Republican support to limit debate, which could last for several days as both sides try to offer amendments.  The measure would raise the hourly minimum wage of $7.25 to $10.10 over two years, with inflation adjustments after that.  Supporters are hoping to build on the success of some states, such as New Jersey, to raise the minimum wage.

 

Meanwhile, Republicans are considering an alternative proposal (S. 1188) by Susan Collins (R-ME) that would to raise the workweek standard for full-time workers to qualify for the employer mandate under the health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) from 30 hours to 40 hours per week.

 

Senior Democratic aides said Reid could ask for a consent agreement to take up the minimum wage bill, possibly after the Senate deals with the compounding pharmacy measure.  Harkin said that he was not planning to move the bill through his committee, and that it likely would go directly to the floor.

 

On the House side, members will vote next week on a bill that would allow people to keep their health insurance plan if they like it.  The Keep Your Health Plan Act (H.R. 3350) was introduced by House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) on Wednesday.

 

The legislation authorizes insurance companies to keep offering plans that they have said need to be canceled because of the Affordable Care Act’s new insurance standards.  Since early October, companies have sent out millions of notices to enrollees saying their plans will be canceled, and in many cases, replaced by more expensive plans.  That vote is scheduled for next Friday.

 

 

Weekly Legislative Report Nov 1, 2013

 

 

J.R. Reskovac

Sarah Strup

 

 

 

Appropriations/Budget

 

House and Senate members of the budget conference committee met formally for the first time on Wednesday to discuss reconciling their budget resolutions adopted earlier this year (H Con Res 25, S Con Res 8) and reporting back to both chambers by December 13.

 

Committee members reiterated their hope to reach an agreement on spending, but also displayed major differences on how to approach issues like taxes and entitlement reform.  Currently, the FY14 House budget resolution set discretionary spending at $967 billion and the Senate budget resolution set $1.058 trillion as the top-line number.  In addition, without any changes to the sequester, about $20 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts would kick in on January 15th.

 

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has ruled out any type of tax increases, while Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) said that in addition to making budget cuts, Republicans will need to look at closing wasteful tax loopholes and special-interest subsidies in order to increase revenue.  Murray also said that at the very least, she hopes the conference should “find a way to come together around replacing sequestration and setting a budget level for at least the short term.”

 

The budget conference is scheduled to meet again on November 13 to further discuss possibilities for reconciling the differences between the House and Senate bills.

 

Water Resources

 

On Wednesday, the Senate agreed by unanimous consent to take up the House-passed version of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), insert a substitute amendment consisting of the text of the Senate bill, and to request a conference.

The bills would authorize navigation, flood control and wetland restoration projects. Both passed with bipartisan support in their respective chambers, but challenges remain over how to select Army Corps of Engineers projects that will be authorized for funding without breaking the earmark moratorium.

The Senate bill (S. 601), which passed in May, would authorize about $5.7 billion in water projects through 2018, and would establish criteria the corps would need to follow when selecting the projects.  The House bill (H.R. 3080) which passed October 23, would authorize 23 projects at about $3.1 billion over five years.  The corps would then submit project recommendations for Congress to approve in the future, allowing Congress to keep the power to choose projects.

 

Members are hoping to reconcile differences and pass a final WRRDA bill before the end of the year.

Washington Outlook

Next Monday the Senate will begin consideration of a motion to limit debate on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or ENDA (S. 815), which Majority Leader Harry Reid filed Thursday.  The bill would ban employers from firing, refusing to hire, or discriminating against those employed or seeking employment, on the basis of their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

The chamber will then move to begin consideration of two district judge nominees: Gregory Howard Woods for the Southern District of New York and Debra Brown for the Northern District of Mississippi and will vote on whether to confirm the nominees, followed by the vote on whether to invoke cloture on ENDA.

 

Though Senate supporters are optimistic the ENDA measure will pass in their chamber, chances it will move in the Republican-controlled House are slim.  A House companion measure (H.R. 1755) has only five Republican co-sponsors.

 

Also on the Senate agenda in coming weeks are measures that would authorize Defense Department programs and make compounding drugs safer.

 

The compounded drugs measure (H.R. 3204), which passed the House on September 28, is expected to receive wide support.  The bill comes after last year’s outbreak of fungal meningitis was linked to a contaminated compounded drug packaged and marketed by a New England compounding pharmacy that killed 51 people and sickened over 700.  It would expand the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of compounding pharmacies, and create a national system of tracing drugs throughout the supply chain.

 

Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) said the FY14 defense authorization bill (S. 1197) would be dealt with the week of November 18.  The bill has several controversial issues that need to be addressed including efforts to strip out language in the bill that some Republicans say would make it easier to transfer detainees out of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.  Syria, sexual assault, contracting and many other issues also are expected to be debated during consideration of the sweeping policy bill.

 

Reid is hoping both will pass before the Thanksgiving break.

 

The House will be in recess next week.  When they return the week after Veterans Day, House members plan on staying away from any contentious measures.  In order to prevent incumbent Republicans from losing their seats, House GOP leaders are hoping to protect their members by avoiding any controversial legislation.

 

Despite House Democrats and the Administration’s push to bring up comprehensive immigration reform legislation, House leaders are not expected to bring any immigration bills to the floor for the remainder of the year.  Another bill that is likely to be put on hold until next year is the Marketplace Fairness Act – an online sales tax measure that gives states the authority to collect sales tax from online purchase even if the retailer does not have a physical presence in the state.  Despite passing the Senate in May, it has recently received pushback from conservative anti-tax groups that say the bill will be a burden on small businesses.

 

Yesterday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) released their schedule for 2014.  The calendar may be accessed here.