News from Washington, D.C. 07/09/2010
The Senate postponed floor votes the first two days of July to
honor the late Democratic Senator Robert C. Byrd of West
Virginia. Senator Byrd, who was the longest serving member of
Congress in history, passed away at age 92 on June 28. During his
tenure, Senator Byrd held numerous positions of power in the
Senate, including majority leader, minority leader, majority
whip, and Democratic Conference secretary.
As of this writing, it is uncertain who will take over Senator Byrd’s seat. West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin III (D) has yet to announce a target date for appointing a successor to serve the remaining two years of Senator Byrd’s term. This leaves Democrats with one less vote on a number of contentious legislative items, such as financial overhaul legislation and any climate change/energy initiative.
Although Senate leaders postponed floor action, the confirmation hearing for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan continued through the rest of the week. Leftover items will be deferred to the week of July 12, following the Fourth of July recess. Upon their return to Washington, Congress will have approximately four weeks to wrap up its legislative business before the August recess, which is scheduled to begin the week of August 9.
On the fiscal year 2011 appropriations front, Congress has been off to slow start this session as neither the House nor the Senate has passed any of the 12 spending measures. With Congress unlikely to approve a budget resolution for the upcoming year, House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-SC) is expected to release soon a “budget enforcement bill” that would impose a discretionary spending cap for next year.
In an effort to jump start the appropriations process, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-WI) scheduled the week of June 28 several subcommittee markups, including the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), Transportation, and Agriculture appropriations bills.
The CJS Appropriations Subcommittee approved a draft fiscal year 2011 spending bill that would provide $60.5 billion in discretionary spending. The bill total is slightly below the budget request and nearly $3.9 billion below the current fiscal year.
Included in the draft bill is $330 million for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP). The proposed SCAAP funding is the same amount appropriated this year and the spending level President Obama recommended in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2011.
The measure also includes $6.8 billion for the Bureau of Prisons and continues a multi-year program to alleviate critical shortages in corrections staffing. For state and local law enforcement activities, the bill provides a total of almost $4 billion, an increase of $250 million above the 2010 level.
House Democrats recently unveiled a package of domestic spending priorities that they would like to attach to the $37.1 billion fiscal year 2010 emergency supplemental appropriations bill (HR 4899) that would provide funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The package includes $10 billion to prevent teacher layoffs, money to beef up U.S.-Mexico border security, and funding to assist efforts in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
It is expected that House Democratic leaders will hold two votes on the supplemental measure – one vote for the domestic spending package and another for the war funding. A July 4 deadline has been set by the Pentagon in order for overseas military operations to go uninterrupted.
In other news, House and Senate negotiators reached a landmark agreement that would overhaul the nation’s financial regulatory system. HR 4173 would, among other items, create a new government council that would monitor, identify and resolve risks to the nation’s economy posed by large financial institutions. The bill would also create an independent consumer protection agency that would enforce consumer protection laws as well as banking and credit unions regulations.
On a party-line vote, the House adopted June 30 the financial reform package, while the Senate is expected to approve the measure after the Independence Day recess. However, as with many of the legislative items on the Senate’s radar screen, the financial overhaul bill may be delayed until someone is appointed to take over Senator Byrd’s seat and Democrats have enough votes to override a potential Republican filibuster.
On June 29, President Obama held a bipartisan meeting at the White House to discuss climate change with lawmakers, urging them to approve legislation that would limit greenhouse gases and put a price on carbon emissions. About two dozen senators attended the meeting, hopeful that a compromise could be reached on climate change and energy legislation. However, despite the president’s efforts to develop a consensus, no deals were struck.
If a broad climate change package (S. 1733), which is sponsored by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), cannot garner enough support, lawmakers may advance a competing energy measure sponsored by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). The Bingaman bill (S. 1462) would establish a renewable energy credit trading program and an energy efficiency credit trading program, mandate an increase in the percentage of electricity generated by renewable sources, and expand oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the Bingaman bill does not put any restrictions on carbon emissions, members who support such provisions would be allowed to offer amendments to the bill.
Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has signaled that he wants to take up an energy bill next month. Although with the recent passing of Senator Byrd and limited time in July, the Senate faces a steep mountain to climb if they want to pass energy legislation prior to the August recess.
In other developments, the Senate failed to adopt a scaled-down version of a jobs and tax extenders bill (HR 4213) that would have extended the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) for Medicaid benefits and foster care payments for an additional six months, through June 30, 2011. The bill, which fell three votes short of the necessary 60, trimmed the FMAP boost by one-third, from $24 billion to $16 billion. The same measure also contains a $2.5 billion extension through fiscal year 2011 for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Fund (TANF-ECF). California’s counties have led the nation in creating 20,000 jobs under the Fund.
Most of the bill was offset with cuts and revenues, with the exception of a provision to extend unemployment insurance benefits. After the vote on HR 4213, Democrats blocked Republican efforts to move a one-month unemployment benefits extension that would be fully paid for by tapping into unused economic stimulus funds.
FMAP and TANF-ECF remain in legislative limbo until after the Senate returns from its one-week Fourth of July break.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, a bill (HR 5618) that would provide for an extension of unemployment benefits failed to garner enough votes to pass the House the week of June 28. The final tally fell short of receiving the required two-thirds majority by a vote of 261-155. Republicans and a handful of moderate Democrats argued that the hefty $33.9 billion price tag would add to the growing national deficit because the cost of the bill was not offset.
It should be noted that House leadership may employ a different strategy and take the bill to the Rules Committee. If approved, the measure could be considered on the House floor and pass with a simple majority vote. However, even if that strategy proved to be successful for proponents of the extension, the Senate outlook for passage of the measure is uncertain.