Monthly Archives: March 2015

Weekly Legislative Report March 27, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Budget

The Senate voted 52-46 at 3:00 a.m. Friday morning to approve their FY16 budget resolution (S Con Res 11).

Only two Republicans voted against the budget: Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY).  Cruz announced this week he is running for president in 2016, and Paul is expected to do the same shortly.

The House voted 228 -199 to pass its version of the budget resolution Wednesday, which means that the two chambers will now have to form a conference committee to resolve their differences after the Easter recess.

The Senate spent about 15 hours considering amendments during the “vote-a-rama,” and Senators approved the resolution after rejecting bids on Thursday to scale up defense spending, an issue that has divided the GOP.  The resolution still contains a potential hurdle to providing for higher war funds – a point of order against spending more than $58 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which would require 60 votes to waive.

The budget blueprints now move toward conference committee negotiations.  If conferees can agreed on a bicameral reconciliation plan by the target date of April 15, Republicans can move to appropriations bills and tee up other legislation through the privileged reconciliation process.  The last time a House/Senate conferenced budget report was approved was in 2009.

Congress

Longtime Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced today that he will not seek reelection next year.  Reid is endorsing New York Senator Chuck Schumer to succeed him as the Senate Democrats’ next leader.

Energy/Environment

On March 26, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its second annual “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards for Light Duty Vehicles: Manufacturer’s Performance Report.”  The report notes that greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles manufactured by the U.S. automotive industry are currently lower than required under law.  This marks the second consecutive model year of the industry outperforming federal standards.

According to the report, the majority of manufacturers (representing more than 99 percent of sales) met both the 2012 and 2013 standards. The remaining manufacturers have several more years to come into compliance.

Over the next few years, the EPA is expected to evaluate proposed standards for the 2022-2025 model years and determine whether they deserve alteration, given the ability of manufacturers’ ability to meet the existing standards.

Finance

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which was created by the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, proposed new regulations on March 26 to rein in short-term payday loans.  These loans are often used by the working poor who run out of money between paychecks and rely on payday loans to make up the difference.

The loans can carry interest rates of 400 percent or more, driving borrowers into a cycle of debt.  The new rules would not eliminate payday loans, but would require lenders to verify borrowers’ incomes before approving the loan to ensure they have the means to repay it.  Payday lenders balked at the proposal, saying they welcome sensible regulations, but that this proposal may harm the individuals and families who rely on the loans to pay their bills.

Meanwhile, financial protection advocates argued the proposed rules do not go far enough.  Until now, payday lending had largely been regulated by the states.

Health Care

On Thursday by a vote of 392 – 37, the House passed HR 2, the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act; the legislation would permanently replace the Medicare physician sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula.

However, the Senate failed to consider the bill before adjourning for the 2 week recess.  Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) said the Senate will bring up the bill when the chamber returns and said, “I think there’s every reason to believe it’s going to pass the Senate by a very large majority.”  Last night, McConnell tried to “hotline” the bill, a procedure where a vote would be held under a limited time agreement; all 100 senators would have had to agree to holding the vote quickly, which was not achievable.

Senate Minority Leader Reid (D-NV) said he hopes Senators may be able to vote on a very limited number of amendments when the Senate considers the bill next month. Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL), said yesterday “Democrats will quickly fall in line as long as they receive votes on three amendments, including a four-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program instead of the House plan’s two years.”

As you know, the current SGR “fix” expires on March 31.  The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has said it can hold claims for about 2 weeks, which should put pressure on the Senate to act quickly when it returns on April 13.

Washington Outlook

The House and Senate have both adjourned for their spring recess.  The next Weekly Legislative Update will cover the week of April 13-17 when Congress returns.

 

Weekly Legislative Report March 19, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Budget

The House Budget Committee cleared the latest GOP fiscal framework on Thursday, after Republican leaders struggled to mediate between defense and fiscal hawks.  The committee passed the first budget from new Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) on a party-line vote, 22-13.

However, Republicans might not be done fiddling with their budget, which is likely to hit the House floor next week, as defense hawks continue to ensure that $20 billion in defense spending doesn’t require offsets elsewhere in the budget.

The Senate’s budget resolution could be amended in markup later today, but remaining differences between the two chambers’ plans beyond the defense issue will make eventual reconciliation even more challenging.

One major difference comes in the measures’ reconciliation instructions.  Reconciliation would provide Republicans with a prime opportunity to pursue their goal of dismantling the health care law (P.L. 111-148, P.L. 111-125).  To use those instructions, however, both chambers would need to pass and conference their resolutions and clear a conference report.

The Senate’s plan includes more moderate reconciliation instructions, asking just two committees to come up with at least $1 billion each in deficit reduction over a 10-year period, with the expectation that they would suggest repealing at least part of the health care law.

The more ambitious House issued reconciliation instructions to 13 authorizing committees, so cuts could be made to other programs beyond health care.  In addition, the Senate plan would not cut spending as aggressively as the House’s would.  The Senate envisions a $3 billion surplus in 2025, while the House plan projects surpluses of $13 billion in 2024 and $33 billion in 2025.

The Senate Budget Committee said it aims to reach a conference agreement with House Republicans by April 15, after lawmakers return from a two-week Easter recess.

Education

Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) spoke to the American Council for Education (ACE) conference on Tuesday, telling the group he is optimistic that a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (P.L. 110-315) will move quickly later this year.

The bill will be the Senate HELP Committee’s first order of business after it finishes rewriting the elementary and secondary education law commonly known as No Child Left Behind (P.L. 107-110).

HELP Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) will be very involved in the reauthorization, as will the president, who has worked well with Congress on higher education issues in the past, Alexander said.

The measure also would focus on simplifying the current federal financial aid application and simplifying information provided to students and their parents.  Other provisions in the bill may include reinstituting year-round Pell grants or requiring an independent review of how the Education Department issues guidance documents and calculates compliance costs for schools.

Alexander would like to get rid of the so-called “gainful employment” regulations the Obama administration has issued that require for-profit colleges to show their graduates have low student loan debt as compared to earnings.

ACE produced a report on overregulation of higher education which offered 59 specific recommendations for regulations that should be altered.  Alexander said Congress will include as many of those recommendations as possible.

Health Care

House Republicans expect a deal to permanently replace Medicare’s physician payment formula to be on the floor next week, although they said the final details of the package are still being worked out. 

That would leave the Senate with just a few days to move the package before a temporary payment patch (P.L. 113-93) averting cuts to doctors dictated by the sustainable growth rate formula, or SGR, expires March 31.

House Energy & Commerce, Health Subcommittee Chairman Joe Pitts (R-PA) said that about $70 billion of the roughly $200 billion package is paid for in the first 10 years, adding that structural changes to Medicare – including making wealthier seniors pay more and overhauling private Medigap plans that supplement Medicare coverage – will save more over the long-term.  The $130 billion that is not offset in the next decade will likely be addressed through spending cuts in the budget resolution.

Pitts confirmed that the bill includes cuts to health providers, a two-year extension of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP that maintains an elevated payment included in the health care law (P.L. 111-148, P.L. 111-152) and two years of various health extenders.

House Democrats are cautiously supportive of the emerging deal despite the expected inclusion of provisions that make wealthier seniors pay more for Medicare coverage and a shorter extension of funding for CHIP than many of the Democrats prefer.

Online Sales Tax

On March 10, 2015, Senators Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), along with seven other co-sponsors, introduced the Marketplace Fairness Act of 2015 (S. 698) or MFA into the 114th Congress.  Similar to previous versions MFA 2015 would allow states to require remote sellers to collect and remit sales and use taxes on sales to in-state customers under certain conditions.  The Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013 (S. 743) passed the Senate in May 2013, but failed to gain traction in the House of Representatives and died when the 113th Congress adjourned in December 2014.

This latest version includes language similar to the previous version, allowing states that are full members of the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA); or enact certain minimum simplification requirements outlined in the bill, to require certain remote sellers to collect and remit sales tax.  A small seller exception would exclude sellers with under $1 million in gross annual receipts from total remote sales in the U.S. in the preceding calendar year from being required to collect and remit.

The 2015 version, however, prohibits states from imposing collection and remittance requirements on remote sellers prior to one year after Marketplace Fairness is enacted, or during the retail busy season between October and December of the first calendar year that MFA is enacted.

Still, the latest bill remains vehemently opposed to by Senators from states that do not have sales taxes, as well as large online retailers such as eBay and overstock.com.  In the House, feelings over an online sales tax proposal are mixed.

House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) said he has no firm timetable for introducing his draft bill to require sales tax collections by remote vendors — based on rates in effect in the seller’s home state.  Under Goodlatte’s proposal, the buyer’s home state would receive sales tax revenue from a remote online transaction involving one of its residents, but only up to the rate charged by the seller’s home state.

Goodlatte said he and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) will hold back on moving his draft bill until there is an agreement among key groups, including the National Retail Federation, National Governors Association and National Conference of State Legislators.

Washington Outlook

On the horizon in the Senate, Democrats are warning that the Loretta Lynch nomination to be attorney general could be delayed indefinitely if it isn’t voted on this week.  Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the chamber won’t move on to the nomination until a human trafficking bill is resolved.

The Senate will continue consideration of the anti-human-trafficking measure (S. 178) today, which was blocked yesterday during a cloture vote by Democrats taking issue with an abortion provision.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is stuck in limbo awaiting new leadership, a status that adds uncertainty to long-term investigations, agency priorities and even national security threats, Todd Ruger reports.

Next week, the Senate has planned vote-a-rama on amendments to the budget bill before Congress takes off for a two-week recess.

Next week in the House, the Rules Committee will meet to set the parameters for floor consideration of a budget proposal, during which time it is expected to add language to boost the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.  Without that additional defense spending, many House Republicans said they wouldn’t support the budget on the chamber floor next week.

The House is also planning on taking up a doc fix bill after they vote on a budget resolution.

 

Weekly Legislative Report March 6, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

The House on Tuesday, March 3 voted 257-167 to pass a bill to fully fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through the end of FY15.

Many Republicans were angered over the bill, which does not include provisions to block President Obama’s November 2014 executive actions on immigration.  Conservative members wanted to use the bill to repeal the executive actions, but Democrats united against them and Republicans were unable to coalesce around an alternative strategy.  After a messy fight, several failed votes, and a one-week extension of DHS funding, a number of Republicans broke rank and joined with Democrats to pass the “clean” bill through an arcane legislative tactic.

The Senate passed the same bill last week on February 27.  President Obama signed the bill on March 4, accusing Congress of waiting “far too long” to fund critical homeland security operations.

Education

This week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies on the President’s FY16 budget request.

The proposal includes key investments to expand high-quality early learning programs; increase equity and opportunity for all students; support teachers and school leaders; and improve access, affordability, and student outcomes in college.  The Secretary’s testimony is available here.

In other Education news, House leaders postponed a floor vote on February 27th to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) H.R. 5.  Senate education leaders are continuing work on a bipartisan bill.

Energy/Environment

The Senate failed on Wednesday to override President Obama’s veto of legislation approving the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, falling five votes short of the two-thirds majority needed in a 62-37 vote.

It’s the first time Congress has voted on whether to override a veto from Obama and could be a sign of things to come, with Republicans in charge of the House and Senate.

Health Care

House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) spoke to the American Academy of Family Physicians on Monday about a “doc fix” bill, telling them a permeant fix remains elusive and another short-term fix will be required.

Ryan said there is disagreement over how to pay for a permanent repeal of Medicare’s physician payment formula and that Congress will have to buy time and pass another short-term bill to avert cuts of about 21 percent due to take effect April 1. 

Physician groups and other medical professionals have been pushing hard for Congress to permanently replace the formula (known as the sustainable growth rate or SGR) before a temporary payment patch (P.L. 113-93) expires at the end of March.

Although he is in support of a bipartisan, bicameral replacement policy, the $174.5 billion price tag remains a problem.  Ryan also said that other fiscal issues crowding the agenda, including the budget sequester, could lead to a broader fiscal policy discussion or another budget agreement that could serve as an opportunity to move forward on the SGR.

The House is expected to move legislation this year to repeal the health law’s tax on medical devices and Ryan thinks the Senate will take it up, however he is unsure whether President Barack Obama would veto such a bill.

Washington Outlook

Next week the House will be in recess.  Following the House recess, the House and Senate Budget Committees are expected to mark up their FY16 budget resolutions the week of March 16.  The resolutions will guide the development of the annual appropriations bills, which are limited by tight discretionary spending caps.

Following on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address, the Senate is expected to begin considering legislation introduced by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) that would impose new sanctions on Iran if international negotiators fail to reach a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program by June 30, 2015. 

The legislation would also require the administration to formally submit the text of any new nuclear agreement or extension of talks to Congress within five days.  While there are currently 49 co-sponsors of the bill, the White House opposes it.

 

Weekly Legislative Report Feb 27, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations

On February 27, the Senate approved on a “clean” version of the FY15 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations bill that does not include the House-passed illegal immigration amendments by a vote of 68-31.

The Senate then voted on the motion to proceed to separate legislation, S. 534, that blocks spending on implementation of the President’s immigration executive actions.  The vote to proceed netted 57 votes, three short of the number required to defeat opposition to taking up the measure.

Meanwhile, the House is expected to vote on a motion to conference with the Senate on resolving the differences between each chamber on H.R. 240, the FY15 DHS Appropriations bill, which supporters believe may offer an opportunity to resurrect the House-passed illegal immigration amendments.  Adding to the drama, House leadership hopes to pass H.J. Res. 35, a three-week Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the operations of DHS, before the end of the day.

Passage on both of these measures remains uncertain.  If the House is able to pass this CR, the Senate could then pass this measure to ensure the operations of the Department for another three weeks.

In the event of a government shutdown, Government Executive notes that in 2013, “about 86 percent of DHS employees reported to work despite the appropriations lapse.”  This includes TSA screeners, Customs and Border Protection officers, Coast Guard personnel, and Secret Service agents, among others.  The bulk of DHS management and headquarters administrative support activities would cease, however, including reportedly 80 percent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Education

House Republicans decided not to vote Friday on their proposed rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law, the Student Success Act (H.R. 5), after House leadership struggled to secure support for the bill and debate over Department of Homeland Security funding trumped education plans.  No Child Left Behind or NCLB expired in 2007.

The House passed a nearly identical bill in 2013, but was unhappy with the Common Core academic standards and concerned about federal government interference.  Conservatives have said they want to get more out of an education bill in the newly Republican-controlled Congress and House leadership has faced criticism from the far right because the GOP bill omits school vouchers, radical reductions to federal mandates and other tea party proposals.  A new vote has not been scheduled.

The current attempt at reauthorizing NCLB is the first big effort since it expired, but there is only a short window to rewrite it before the 2016 elections are fully underway and legislative work slows.  Senate lawmakers are working on their own version of No Child Left Behind in a bipartisan fashion, with hopes of heading to conference later this year.

Kline has been coordinating his approach with Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, but the Senate leader is on a very different track than Kline.  He is negotiating with committee Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray on a bipartisan bill that they hope can clear the chamber.  Alexander has insisted he’s optimistic about his chances of striking a deal with Murray and wants to get a bill in front of the committee by mid-March.

Energy/Environment

President Obama vetoed the Keystone XL Pipeline bill (S. 1) on Tuesday stating, “Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest.”

 

The bill followed House-passed legislation assuming all permits and authorities have been accomplished and authorizing the construction of the project intended to move Canadian Sand oil and shale oil extracted in the US West to refineries on the US Gulf Coast.

Washington Outlook

If the House can get their short-term FY15 DHS appropriations CR approved, they are expected to ignore the clean Senate bill that was passed today.  That would give Republicans three weeks to reconcile their differences on resisting Obama over his immigration action, which has been put temporarily on hold by a federal judge.

If current funding is not extended by Friday at midnight, spending authority will be cut off for the agency that secures U.S. borders, airports and coastal waters.  The agency would be forced to furlough about 30,000 employees, or about 15 percent of its workforce.

On the horizon for Congress is the review of the President’s FY16 budget request where several oversight hearings are scheduled to be held in the House and Senate.

The week of March 2-7 will feature newly-confirmed Secretary of Defense Dr. Ash Carter testifying before the Senate Committee on Armed Services on March 3; Secretaries Penny Pritzker and Anthony Foxx testifying before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation the same day; the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations will review the NIH Budget Request for FY16 also on March 3; the Senate Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment will review the Department of the Interior’s Budget Request for FY16 on March 4; an oversight hearing by the Senate Committee on Armed Services examining the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons funding request on March 4; and several House Committee on Appropriations’ hearings on the FDA, NASA, the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons, and the Department of Defense budgets.

On the House side, Representatives are expected to vote next week on legislation reauthorizing Amtrak funding and two bills to roll back Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

In the Senate they will likely debate and vote on the nomination of Loretta Lynch to serve as Attorney General.

Members on the House and Senate Budget Committees hope to adopt a joint budget resolution for FY16 before the end of March, the statutory deadline.  Both committees are on schedule to mark-up their resolutions in mid-March.