Update from Washington, D.C. 12/03/2010
Following a brief Thanksgiving recess, Congress returned to
Washington to face an uncertain lame-duck agenda. As the 111th
Congress comes to a close, it remains to be seen if lawmakers can
complete action on several major pieces of legislation, such as
the fiscal year 2011 appropriations, the expiring Bush-era tax
cuts, and an extension of unemployment benefits.
Other hot-button issues that Congress is grappling with during the waning days of the session include efforts to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the U.S. military, Senate ratification of the new START treaty with Russia, and finalizing the DREAM Act, which would benefit children of illegal immigrants.
Since the start of the fiscal year, October 1, the federal government has been operating under a continuing resolution (CR) set at fiscal year 2010 levels. The current CR (PL 111-242) is due to expire on December 3. In order to avoid a lapse in funding, the House passed December 2 another CR to maintain government operations through December 18, with the Senate clearing the measure the following day. The two-week extension would provide additional time for policy-makers to work on how to settle the fiscal year 2011 appropriations bills.
With the year quickly coming to a close, Democrats will have to make an eleventh-hour decision on how to advance the federal spending measures. Congress has yet to complete work on any of the 12 appropriations bills this year. Possible outcomes include a stopgap bill that would fund the federal government into next year or approve an all-encompassing omnibus spending measure.
For their part, Senate Democrats are working steadily toward passing an omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2011. Senate Appropriators Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI), along with Ranking Member Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), is drafting an omnibus spending package that would sustain discretionary spending at $1.1 trillion. However, passing an omnibus funding measure will be easier said than done, as the appropriators would need to gather 60 votes to advance the legislation.
On the other hand, Republican leaders are hoping to pass a short-term CR. The temporary funding extension would allow Republicans the opportunity to roll back spending to fiscal year 2008 levels when they take over the House next year.
On a related matter, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) offered a proposal that would establish a three-year ban on congressional earmarks. The earmark moratorium, which was initially attached to a food safety bill (S 510), revealed a deep divide within party caucuses over the issue. Although the amendment failed to garner enough support by a vote of 39-56, seven Democrats voted in favor of the ban while eight Republicans opposed the amendment. The mixed bag of proponents and opponents demonstrates that congressionally directed spending will likely be a divisive issue for the 112th Congress.
It should be noted that the incoming Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), and the next House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA), have promised to push for a ban on all earmarks when Republicans are in power next year.
In other news, President Obama met with Democratic and Republican leaders on November 30 to discuss extending the Bush-era tax cuts, which are scheduled to expire on December 31. The White House has made it clear to Congress that it wants to make the tax cuts permanent for individuals who earn less than $200,000, or $250,000 for married couples. Although the proposal would extend tax cuts for most Americans, the administration has faced opposition from Republicans and some moderate Democrats, who insist that the tax cuts for all income earners be extended.
Though no game-changing compromises emerged from the meeting, President Obama and the congressional leaders agreed to set up a group of negotiators to collaborate on a tax solution. Along with two administration officials, the group will consist of the current ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp (R-MI), Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), and Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who is also a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Moreover, House Democrats offered a proposal that would permanently extend the Bush tax cuts to individuals that make less than $200,000 and $250,000 for married couples. Among other items, the measure would also include education tax breaks, elimination of the “marriage penalty,” and expansion of the child tax credit. The GOP is likely to oppose the plan and with the political momentum in their favor, it is unclear if the measure will advance.
In other developments, Senator Max Baucus introduced the Unemployment Insurance Stabilization Act of 2010 (S 3981) on November 29. The bill would provide unemployment benefits through the end of 2011. The $56.4 billion bill, which does not contain offsets, will likely face strong opposition from Republicans and some moderate Democrats, charging that large price tag would further add to the growing budget deficit.
Extending an olive branch to Republicans, President Obama announced a proposal to freeze federal government employee salaries for two years to demonstrate his commitment to making significant fiscal policy changes in Washington. The plan would save over $60 billion over 10 years and affect about two million federal workers. The pay freeze would start January 2011 and run through December 2012. The proposal was welcomed by Republicans who have called for a freeze in federal government salaries and federal personnel hiring in the past.
In another key development, the House earlier this week adopted and sent to President Obama for his signature a one-year extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Included in a Senate vehicle (HR 4783) compensating American Indians and black farmers for past discriminatory claims, the TANF reauthorization did not include funding for the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund that helped create subsidized jobs under the Recovery Act. Extending the basic program through September 30, 2011, the measure also contains new state reporting requirements on how TANF funds are used. The reports are intended to help inform Congress on what changes may be needed as it considers a more in-depth review of TANF next year.
Additionally, the House cleared December 2 child nutrition legislation (S 3307) that provides for more poor children to receive free meals at school, raises the nutritional quality of school food programs, and reduces the amount of junk food and sugar-laden beverages sold in schools. With the Senate approving the bill last summer, the measure will now be sent to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue where President Obama is expected to sign the measure. The cost of the bill was offset by cuts to the food stamp program.
On another front, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget recently announced that under current funding legislation, counties can no longer receive their share of geothermal revenues established under the Energy Act of 2005.
The fiscal year 2010 Interior Appropriations bill (PL 111-88) eliminated the 25 percent counties share of geothermal revenues. This provision was repealed in the fiscal year 2010 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill (PL 111-212), restoring these much-needed funds to counties. However, because the current CR for fiscal year 2011 refers to the fiscal year 2010 Appropriations Act for Interior, Environment, and related Agencies – as opposed to the Emergency Supplemental – counties are once again facing the possibility of not receiving geothermal revenues.
CSAC’s Washington office is working with several key congressional offices to ensure that the geothermal funds continue to flow to California’s counties in fiscal year 2011.
Looking ahead, uncertainty looms over the remainder of the lame-duck session as lawmakers wrestle with a number of highly contentious issues. Senate Republicans have threatened to block any bills that come to the floor until the unfinished fiscal year 2011 appropriations bills and the expiring Bush-era tax cuts have been resolved. At press time, it is unclear how congressional leaders will proceed with either of those timely issues or any of the remaining bills that Democrats hope to complete before the start of the New Year.