Washington, D.C. Update 03/04/2011
After the President’s Day recess, Congress returned to Capitol
Hill the week of February 28 as Senate and House leaders focused
much of their attention on the fiscal year 2011 appropriations.
With the current stopgap spending law (PL 111-322) set to expire
on March 4, lawmakers scrambled to avert a government shutdown at
the end of the week.
Before grappling with substantive matters, however, the Senate continued its tradition of selecting a member of the august body to deliver George Washington’s farewell address, an event that dates back to 1888. Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia delivered February 28 the first president’s time-honored comments.
During the week-long recess, House Republican leadership introduced February 25 a draft bill that would keep the federal government operating for another two weeks, or until March 18. The GOP short-term funding measure, or continuing resolution (CR), would slice about $4 billion from the federal budget in the current fiscal year. Some of the proposed cuts have been targeted by President Obama in his fiscal year 2012 budget request.
As expected, the House cleared the spending measure (H J Res 44) on March 1 by a vote of 335 to 91, with the Senate following suit the next day. Shortly after Senate passage, the measure was rushed to the White House for the president’s signature.
After signing the short-term funding bill, President Obama called for congressional leaders from both parties to meet with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss how to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year. The initial meeting took place March 3 on Capitol Hill, but negotiators were short on details with regard to the high-level budget talks.
Prior to Congress approving the stopgap funding bill, the Obama administration announced March 1 that it would embrace a four or five-week CR that would double the House GOP’s two-week, $4 billion package. While the administration did not release any details on which programs would be on the chopping block in order to achieve $8 billion in savings, several Senate Democrats quickly declared their support for the administration’s proposal. Soon after the White House announcement, however, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) threw cold water on the suggestion, stating that Democrats should have expressed their concerns earlier in the process.
In the ongoing struggle to finalize a spending bill for this year, the House approved a longer-term CR (HR 1) on February 19 that would shave about $62 billion from current spending. HR 1, which would fund the government through September 30, is expected to receive a chilly reception from Senate Democrats. In contrast, the two-week CR that passed Congress this week does not contain some of the more controversial policy issues that were included in the longer-term package.
Of particular interest to counties, the House rejected an amendment to HR 1 sponsored by Democrat Marcy Kaptur of Ohio that would have slashed funding to the payment-in-lieu of taxes (PILT) program. Kaptur’s proposal would have sliced PILT payments by a whopping 75 percent.
In other spending developments, House and Senate appropriators kicked off what has become an annual rite on Capitol Hill - conducting hearings on the administration’s budget plan. Roughly 20 appropriations hearings were held this week on President Obama’s fiscal year 2012 spending request, with many more scheduled in the upcoming weeks. Among the hearings held the week of February 28 were those reviewing the Departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.
Although appropriations issues dominated the congressional agenda the week of February 28, the House passed March 1 a short-term extension (HR 662) that would continue current surface transportation programs at fiscal year 2010 funding levels to the end of the fiscal year (September 30). The Senate also approved the transportation extension bill before wrapping up its business for the week. President Obama is expected to sign the measure into law immediately.
The current surface transportation law, SAFETEA-LU, expired in September 2009 and has been operating under a series of short-term extensions ever since. In fact, this week’s action by Congress marks the seventh stopgap extension of the transportation law. The extension prevents programs from expiring on March 4, allowing lawmakers additional time to work on a long-term reauthorization.
In what seems like an endless attempt to produce a multi-year bill, transportation leaders in both the House and Senate are aiming to introduce long-term transportation legislative proposals this month, but that time-frame could easily slip into later in the spring.
In an effort to begin moving the process forward, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) held a joint hearing February 23 in Los Angeles with members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, including the chairman of the panel, John Mica (R-FL). Among those testifying at the committee hearing was Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, who also serves as the chairman of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Panelists addressed the need to improve and reform transportation programs and the importance to the economy of investing in infrastructure projects.
In other transportation news, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spend a good part of the week testifying on Capitol Hill, facing three Senate committees to defend the Obama administration’s six-year, $556 million surface transportation reauthorization proposal that was outlined in its fiscal year 2012 budget request.
Among other items, President Obama’s budget plan would consolidate 55 highway programs into five. Additionally, the president’s transportation initiative would merge rail spending within the Highway Trust Fund to create a Transportation Trust Fund (TTF). The proposed TTF would be comprised of four separate accounts (highways, transit, high-speed rail, and the National Infrastructure Bank). The new National Infrastructure Bank would finance large-scale public works projects.
The president’s transportation plan, however, does not provide for a funding mechanism to replace the gas tax. Secretary LaHood noted that the administration was leaving funding decisions up to Congress, which is likely to be one of the main sticking points as lawmakers deliberate on the SAFETEA-LU rewrite.