Monthly Archives: February 2015

Weekly Legislative Report Feb 13, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

This week, Senate Democrats continued to block Republican attempts to call up a $39.7 billion FY15 Homeland Security spending bill (H.R. 240).

House Republicans on Thursday again blocked a bid by Democrats to take up a “clean” version without the immigration riders attached.

The current Continuing Resolution (CR) funding DHS runs out on February 27.  Congress will be in recess to observe the President’s Day Holiday February 16-20, thereby leaving only five legislative days when they return to resolve the funding impasse.  Further complicating matters is a lawsuit filed by some two dozen states to block the President’s executive actions, with the case expected to be decided any day now.

Education

The House Education and Workforce Committee on Wednesday marked up and voted 21-16 to pass “The Student Success Act” (H.R. 5), a bill that would reauthorize the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which in its current form is called “No Child Left Behind.”

The bill would significantly scale back the role of the federal government in overseeing public education, give states more flexibility in designing accountability systems and consolidate dozens of federal education programs.  Block grant funding also would allow states to distribute federal money to districts and schools as they see fit.

The Committee brought up several amendments for debate, but in the end approved four.  They are as follows:

·       A proposal from Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK) that strengthens student and teacher data privacy provisions

·       A proposal from Dave Brat (R-VA) that tasks the Institute of Education Sciences with annually reporting how much money might be saved from the reduction in federal oversight

·       The Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) amendment would allow states to delay using the test scores of English language learner students for proficiency calculations for two years in math and three years in English (their scores now are counted after one year)

·       An amendment from Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) that requires states to report the academic achievement of military students

One of the main issues of contention is the debate over Title I funds and whether they should follow students between public schools.  Republicans and Democrats both see this as a civil rights and equity issue.  Republicans say making funds portable, which the bill would do, helps prevent students from being trapped in failing schools, but Democrats say it would divert much-needed federal funding from already cash-strapped school districts to wealthier ones.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee announced last week that they have begun work on their own bipartisan bill.

H.R. 5 is expected to move to the House floor in less than two weeks.

Taxes

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) and Finance Committee Ranking Member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) reintroduced the Internet Tax Freedom Forever Act on Tuesday along with 38 co-sponsors — 28 Republicans and 10 Democrats.

The bill would permanently ban Internet taxation, which has been extended nearly half a dozen times since first enacted in 1998.  The most recent came last year, when Congress rolled a one-year extension into the omnibus spending bill.

Last year lawmakers attempted to attach an online sales tax proposal to the bill, which stalled it.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) reintroduced similar legislation in the House last month.  No word yet on when this will be brought to a vote.

In other tax news, the House voted 272-142 on Friday to pass the second in a series of permanent tax extenders.

The bill (H.R. 636) bundles three tax-extender measures worth a combined $79.2 billion over 10 years, led by a $77.1 billion increase in the amount small businesses can deduct from their taxes for the cost of purchases.

The legislation also includes two other proposals that were included by House Rules.  One (H.R. 630) would extend deductions for charitable contributions and another (H.R. 629) would make permanent the shorter five-year recognition period for built-in gains for S corporations.  The House’s action Friday follows approval of package (H.R. 644) of tax credits for charitable giving Thursday.

The White House has threatened a veto of the measure, as it has for other permanent tax extenders, because there are no offsets.

Washington Outlook

The House and Senate will be in recess next week for the President’s Day holiday.  The next Weekly Legislative Update will cover the week of February 23-27.

Weekly Legislative Report Feb 6, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

Senate Democrats on Thursday blocked the FY15 Homeland Security spending measure (H.R. 240) that contains amendments designed to prevent DHS from implementing the President’s executive actions on immigration.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is seeking cloture on the last remaining appropriations bill that funds Homeland Security for the rest of the fiscal year.  McConnell came up 9 votes shy in a 51-48 vote on the motion to invoke cloture on the motion proceed to the bill.  He then filed a Motion to reconsider the vote.  The second vote to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to the bill fell short the 60 vote thresh hold with 53-47 but that vote set him up with a third cloture vote that again failed 52 to 47.  He is using a procedure of voting against his own motions so to allow him to bring the motion back to the floor.

While many are fearing another government shutdown, McConnell is still optimistic, saying yesterday on the Senate floor, “We’ll resolve this sometime in the next few weeks.”

Budget

On Monday President Obama released his $4.066 trillion FY16 budget request which is $268 billion, or 7 percent, over the current year.  The plan would use a combination of tax increases and changes to spending programs to pay for repealing the sequester and reducing cumulative deficits by $1.8 trillion over 10 years.

The President’s proposals are subject to Congressional approval and Republicans were critical of the President’s Budget with Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Cochran (R-MS) releasing a statement asserting that the request lacks “the fiscal discipline needed by a nation still recovering from a long economic downturn” – to see the full statement, click here.

The President’s proposal calls for spending above the levels established in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  Specifically, the increases would total $74 billion above sequester caps — raising defense spending by $38 billion, to $561 billion, and non-defense accounts by $37 billion, to $530 billion.  However, under current law, spending above the lower levels laid out by the BCA would trigger across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration.  The Ryan-Murray two-year budget deal, which was passed in 2013 and replaced BCA spending limits with higher amounts, expires at the end of this fiscal year, FY15.

The GOP-controlled Congress now begins the process of examining the President’s request through committee oversight hearings and starting the process of authorizing and appropriating funds for the Federal government for FY16.

Education

The leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) announced today that they would come to a bipartisan agreement on a draft rewrite of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law before bringing it to the panel.

HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA) said they are moving forward in overhauling the NCLB law (P.L. 107-110) and staff will begin working on the draft today.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee Republicans will mark up their version of the measure (H.R. 5) on Wednesday, February 11. 

Healthcare

This week the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicted that as a result of the expanded budget window, the cost of the latest plan for a permanent fix to Medicare’s physician payment formula would go up about $30.5 billion compared to a forecast released in November.

In the updated document, CBO estimated that proposed “doc fix” compromise legislation worked out last year among committees would cost $174.5 billion from FY15-FY25.  In November, the cost was predicted at $144 billion from FY15-FY24.

Doctors treating Medicare recipients would see their fees reduced by about 21 percent if Congress doesn’t act before the current law (P.L. 113-93) expires March 31. 

The Senate Finance Committee is unlikely to hold any hearings on replacing the formula before the March 31 deadline, therefore another short-term extension is the probable outcome.

In other Healthcare news, the House voted 239-186 this week to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), with only three Republicans voting with Democrats in opposition of the bill.  This was the first vote on legislation to repeal the health reform law with instructions to the committees of jurisdiction to develop a replacement, but the fourth time the House has voted to repeal ACA.  The legislation does not impose deadlines for development of an alternative.

Veterans Affairs

The Senate on Tuesday unanimously voted to clear the “Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act” (H.R. 203) for the president’s signature.

The mental health legislation would require annual external audits of the Veteran Affairs Department’s mental health and suicide prevention programs, promote collaboration between the VA and non-profit mental health organizations and create a pilot program to repay the educational loans of some psychiatrists who agree to serve in the Veterans Health Administration.  The bill is named for Clay Hunt, a Marine veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and committed suicide in 2011 at age 28.

The House passed the bill 403-0 on January 12 and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law.

Washington Outlook

House and Senate Republicans pledged on February 4 during a bi-cameral hearing to continue the fight against the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Waters of the U.S. rule by re-introducing legislation to block it.

Next week the House will once again take up Keystone XL Pipeline legislation (S.1).  After passing the bill in early January, the Senate stripped the bill of the House amendments and sent back to the House.  Even if the House approves the bill as-is, President Obama has promised to veto the legislation.

In the Senate, members are scheduled to consider the nomination of Michael Botticelli to be director of the National Drug Control Policy.  A confirmation vote on the nominee is set for Monday evening.

Senators will also resume consideration of the FY15 Homeland Security Spending bill.

Weekly Legislative Report Jan 30, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

Next week the Senate will take up and debate the FY15 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations Act.  Senate Democrats are expected to block action on the spending bill, hoping to force Republicans to strip out immigration riders and complete the last remaining FY15 appropriations bill.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) may be open to accepting a clean bill, saying the chamber’s Republicans would discuss among themselves “the best way to continue to challenge the president’s unconstitutional amnesty” should the Senate alter the House-passed bill.

A new obstacle to moving the House version is a fresh score from the Congressional Budget Office that estimates that the immigration-related provisions added to the bill would add a net $7.5 billion to the federal deficit over the next decade.  That price tag could give some Republicans an excuse to pull back their support.

Committee Membership

On Thursday Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced members for the 12 subcommittees that make up the Senate Committee on Appropriations.  All committee rosters can be found here.

Budget

The Obama Administration will release its FY16 budget on Monday, February 2.  The budget will reportedly eliminate the sequester next year by raising discretionary spending by $74 billion – increasing defense spending by $38 billion, to $561 billion, and non-defense accounts by $37 billion, to $530 billion.

The White House says it would pay for the seven percent increase by ending some tax loopholes and making unspecified spending cuts, although apparently President Obama will not seek entitlement reductions.  Republicans in both chambers say they would support an increase for defense spending, but many reject the idea of providing more money for domestic programs or closing tax breaks to pay for it.

Energy/Environment

The Senate on Thursday voted 62-36 to pass the Keystone XL bill (S. 1) with nine Democrats joining Republicans in voting to approve the $8 billion project, but five votes short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override a veto from President Obama.

The bill now heads to the House, where members will need to decide whether to pass the Senate bill as is or seek a conference committee, where a final version would be negotiated between the chambers.

While the House voted to build the pipeline earlier this year, the Senate added several amendments to the legislation during three weeks of work, the byproduct of McConnell’s promise to give individual members more input on the floor.

Obama has repeatedly said that he will likely veto the legislation if Congress sidesteps the federal review of the pipeline.  If he does veto the bill, it would be the third of his presidency.

The earliest the Keystone bill could reach Obama’s desk would be next week — just as the State Department receives final comments on the proposal to build the pipeline.

Agencies are required to send their recommendations about the pipeline to the State Department on February 2, bringing the six-yearlong review of the Canada-to-Texas project one step closer to completion.

It’s possible that the Keystone bill and Secretary of State John Kerry’s recommendation on whether the project is in the national interest could reach Obama simultaneously, potentially helping the president avoid a veto that would anger some centrist Democrats and labor unions.

Transportation

During a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said that the White House is working on changes to its previous $302 billion four-year transportation bill and plans to release a new draft “soon.”

The changes, however, won’t include an updated funding mechanism.  The funding mechanism in the current bill provides approximately $150 billion in one-time revenue from overhauling the tax treatment of overseas profits, and will remain the administration’s preferred option despite a funding gap of over $150 billion.  Officials have said, however, they would be open to other suggestions from Congress.

Foxx also said Congress might have more time than originally thought to inject more cash into the system.  The last extension of the Highway Trust Fund was expected to keep projects going until May but it appears the nearly $11 billion measure might last a few weeks longer.

Foxx also told the Committee that the budget request released Monday would include the following:

·        More money for the highway system to upgrade the 65 percent of the country’s roads that are in less than good condition. Foxx called it a “fix it first” system “with particular attention to investments in rural and tribal areas.”

·        Several provisions of the Grow America Act, an administration proposal to pump $302 billion into infrastructure programs over the next four years.

·        A dedicated grant program for freight transportation.

·        More money for transit.

·        Expanded credit programs making it easier for states and local governments to embark on public private partnerships.

·        A doubling of the controversial TIGER grants, which allow states to apply for funds for specific projects.

·        A new grant program specifically intended to relieve congestion.

·        A more streamlined permitting process to make it possible for projects to apply for state and federal permits at the same time.

·        Efforts to cut down on drunk driving and to increase funding for engineers to retrofit roads to make them safer.

Senators on the EPW Committee also discussed legislative proposals that are in the works to shore up the Highway Trust Fund.  EPW Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-CA) are working on a reauthorization for the highway program that expires in May.  The proposal would include more provisions to speed up the permitting process that can sometimes delay projects from getting started, but gave no timeline for its release.

Sen. Thomas Carper (D-DE) said bipartisan groups in both chambers were putting the finishing touches on a proposal to gradually raise the gas tax over four years and then to index it to inflation thereafter, which would bring in about $175 billion over 10 years.  Carper said he expects the bill to be released next month.  Boxer is also working on a bill with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would use repatriation of overseas profits to top up the Highway Trust Fund.

Washington Outlook

On Monday, the Senate is expected to continue the consideration of the “Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act” (H.R. 203) that would require annual evaluations of the Veterans Affairs Department’s mental health and suicide prevention programs.

Tuesday, the Senate plans to vote on a motion to limit debate on the motion to proceed to a bill (H.R. 240) that would provide appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security and bar the use of funds to implement the certain immigration policies.  If cloture is invoked, the Senate would immediately vote on the motion to proceed.

Next Monday, President Obama will release his FY16 budget.  The White House is also reportedly preparing to release a sweeping online privacy bill in February that could limit how companies like Google and Facebook handle consumer data.