Update from Washington, D.C. 06/21/2013
With the Fourth of July recess rapidly approaching, Congress has
been busy working to move several key pieces of legislation
before the break. Chief among these high-priority measures is a
comprehensive Senate immigration bill as well as a House farm
Also on the agenda the week of June 17 was House consideration of a highly controversial abortion measure (HR 1797), which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of a woman’s pregnancy. After a spirited floor debate, the House approved the bill on a mostly party-line vote.
The Senate continued its debate this week on a comprehensive immigration reform bill (S 744). Senators voted 54-43 to table an amendment by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) that would have required a $5 billion authorization for infrastructure improvements, more border agents, and the construction of additional border ports to create a fully secure border. After the vote against the Cornyn amendment, Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and John Hoeven (R-ND) released their own compromise border security amendment in hopes of winning over more GOP senators and attracting some Democratic lawmakers.
Across Capitol Hill, it is still unclear whether the House will consider its own comprehensive immigration reform measure or proceed with an incremental approach. Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has indicated his preference for moving several piecemeal measures, but he also has encouraged a group of bipartisan House lawmakers to continue working on a comprehensive bill.
For his part, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has indicated that he would not bring immigration legislation to the floor unless a majority of Republicans have pledged to support it.
On June 18, the Judiciary Committee voted 20-15, along party lines, to approve legislation (HR 2278) that would give local governments more authority over immigration enforcement. Democrats on the committee opposed the measure, arguing that it would criminalize millions of undocumented immigrants and would allow states to pass their own immigration laws. Immigration reform advocates in Congress are concerned that this would revive the conflict over strict state laws and could lead to racial profiling.
Notably, HR 2278 includes a provision that would shift jurisdiction of the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It also would reimburse local jurisdictions for the costs of housing undocumented criminals who are accused of certain crimes – and not only convicted of such offenses, as is allowed for under the current statute. Finally, the provision would authorize “such sums as may be necessary” for SCAAP in fiscal year 2014 and each subsequent year.
In other news, the Senate on June 10 approved its farm bill reauthorization, with the support of Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The legislation (S 954), which was approved by the Agriculture Committee on May 14, would reauthorize a broad range of agricultural and food assistance programs through 2018. Before final passage, the Senate agreed to an amendment that would help expand high-speed internet access to rural areas.
In a surprise development, the House was unable to approve its own farm bill rewrite (HR 1947), as lawmakers rejected the measure by a vote of 195-234. The level of cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) continued to be a sticking point throughout the debate. The House bill would reduce the program by $20.5 billion over the next ten years, as opposed to a $4 billion cut included in the Senate-passed bill. The final straw for many Democrats came after the House adopted an amendment allowing states to impose work requirements on SNAP recipients.
On the appropriations front, the House Appropriations Committee has cleared four of the 12 spending bills for the next fiscal year, which begins October 1. The full House has approved two fiscal year 2014 funding bills, Homeland Security and Military Construction-Veterans Affairs.
On June 19, a subcommittee panel approved a draft spending bill that would provide $44.1 billion in discretionary spending for the Department of Transportation, as well as the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The legislation provides $44.1 billion in discretionary spending – a reduction of $7.7 billion below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level and $13.9 billion below the president’s budget request. The proposed spending is approximately $4.4 billion below the post-sequestration level.
Among other things, the measure would fund the Federal Highway program at $41 billion, or the same level of funding authorized under MAP-21. This represents an increase of $557 million over the fiscal year 2013 level. The legislation also would provide a total of nearly $2 billion for the Federal Transit Administration, which is more than $329 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level.
In the area of housing and community development, the bill would cut a number of programs, including the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) formula program. Under the bill, CDBG would be funded at $1.6 billion, or a decrease of $1.3 billion in funding.
In a related development, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved June 20 on a party-line vote its spending allocations for fiscal year 2014. The panel set an overall spending limit of $1.058 trillion, which is $91 billion above the House allocation. Differences between the two chamber’s top-line figures will likely complicate final passage of a new fiscal year 2014 budget.