Federal Issues Update 11/8/2013
On October 30, House and Senate conferees began separate negotiations on a fiscal year 2014 spending plan and a farm bill reauthorization. The budget conference committee, led by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), was formed following the agreement to reopen the government and lift the debt ceiling. The panel has until December 13 to produce a fiscal year 2014 budget resolution.
During the committee’s opening session, Democrats and Republicans alike tempered expectations for any type of “grand bargain,” particularly given the failure of past working groups. Instead, members insisted that the committee strive for a smaller scale agreement that would include a discretionary funding limit for fiscal year 2014, as well as some relief from sequestration. The next formal meeting is set for November 13, but it is expected that much of the work will be done behind the scenes. Notably, if Congress fails to act before the end of the year, about $20 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts would take effect in January.
As with the budget conference committee, the inaugural Farm Bill proceedings began with a series of opening statements. For the most part, House and Senate negotiators are cautiously optimistic that they will be able to forge a compromise in the coming months that would reauthorize expiring agriculture and nutrition-related programs. Looking ahead, the level of cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as CalFresh, will continue to be a major sticking point in the committee’s deliberations. The House-passed bill (HR 2642) would reduce the program by approximately $39 billion, as opposed to a $4 billion cut included in the Senate-passed bill (S 954).
As bicameral negotiations get underway on the federal budget and the Farm Bill, Senate leaders this week appointed members to serve on a separate conference committee responsible for finalizing a water resources bill. Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who will lead the panel, selected Senators Max Baucus (D-MT), Tom Carper (D-DE), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to join her in the discussions. Representing Senate Republicans will be EPW Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA), along with Senators Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and John Barrasso (R-WY). House leaders have yet to announce their selections; however, supporters are optimistic that Congress will be able to approve a final bill by the end of the year.
In other developments, Congress continued to question the Obama administration’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act, particularly the issues surrounding the federal insurance exchange website HealthCare.gov. Consumers have experienced repeated problems with the site, including website crashes and long page delays. Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius acknowledged the problems, but also assured lawmakers that the website would be fixed in the coming weeks. According to her testimony, there is no need to shut down the website or delay the law.
Finally, the Senate approved legislation – the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (S 815) – this week that would ban workplace discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation or identity. The upper chamber approved the measure on November 7 by a vote of 64-32. Notably, this is the first time that either house of Congress has passed a bill including protections for transgender workers. However, despite the bipartisan vote, the House is unlikely to consider such legislation this Congress.