Washington, D.C. Update 12/17/2010
As the 111th Congress winds down, weary lawmakers are gearing up
for a final showdown on a number of legislative priorities.
Democrats hope to complete action on several major pieces of
legislation, including the fiscal year 2011 appropriations and
other significant measures.
Perhaps the most heavily debated issue in Washington during the lame-duck session has been the expiring Bush-era tax cuts. An eleventh-hour deal was struck by the Obama administration and congressional negotiators that would extend the tax cuts for all income levels for two years, provide unemployment benefits for an additional 13 months, and reinstate a modified estate tax through 2012. The $857.8 billion bipartisan measure (HR 4853) was passed by the Senate on December 15 by an overwhelming 81-19 vote and successfully cleared the House on December 16 by a vote of 277-148.
Although the tax package was able to sail through the Senate, moving the measure through the House proved to be more of a challenge. Several lawmakers from both sides of the aisle would have liked a number of modifications made to the bill. Specifically, House Democrats sought to amend the estate tax provision that was approved by the Senate. House Democrats hoped to raise the rate and lower the estate value threshold. However, their attempts were unsuccessful as the Senate-passed tax rate was sustained at 35 percent for estates of $5 million and above. For their part, several Republicans argued that the cost of the package will add to the growing national deficit.
Nevertheless, Senate leaders made it clear to the House that changes to the tax bill would be unacceptable. Any revisions made to the Senate-passed tax bill would have significantly stalled the legislation from moving forward. With a looming December 31 expiration date, lawmakers were able to refrain from their usual political squabbling and prevent what would have been an upsurge in taxpayers’ withholding in January. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the legislation into law as early as December 17.
On the budget front, the current continuing resolution (CR) – which provides funding authority for the entire federal government – is slated to expire on December 18. With tomorrow’s deadline looming, and with the holidays right around the corner, lawmakers are under intense pressure to make a decision on how to move forward with the fiscal year 2011 budget.
For its part, the House recently approved a CR that runs through the end of the current fiscal year (September 30, 2011), and which would essentially freeze funding at fiscal year 2010 levels. Notably, the House measure includes language that would restore the 25 percent geothermal payments to counties. The Senate included the geothermal provision in the tax package mentioned above.
In the upper chamber, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) earlier this week unveiled a massive $1.3 trillion draft omnibus spending measure that included all 12 unfinished appropriations bills. Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) intended to bring the legislation to the Senate floor late yesterday, Reid was forced to abandon the bill after several Republicans who had signaled support for the measure backed away. GOP conservatives opposed the legislation because of its steep price tag, the limited time given to consider the measure, and the $8 billion in earmarks that were included in the bill.
Given the latest developments in the Senate, it appears likely that upper chamber will move to amend the House-passed full-year CR with the provisions of a short-term CR and then send the measure back to the House. While the specifics are currently under discussion, the Senate CR would reportedly last between 30 and 60 days, meaning members of the new 112th Congress will be charged with setting spending levels for the remainder of the 2011 budget year.
It should be noted that the late-breaking budget developments in the Senate leaves unanswered the question of whether Congress will approve language overturning the Supreme Court’s Carcieri v. Salazar decision. Although Appropriations Committee Chairman Inouye had agreed to drop so-called Carcieri “fix” language from the omnibus spending legislation, it is unclear whether the provision might make its way into the Senate version of the CR. The “fix” language, which would provide the Secretary of Interior with authority to take land into trust for all Indian tribes, is included in the House-passed CR.
CSAC strongly opposes congressional action overturning the Carcieri decision, which limits the secretary’s trust land acquisition authority to those tribes that were under federal jurisdiction at the time of the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, in the absence of comprehensive reforms in the Indian land into trust process.
In other news, on December 13 President Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (S 3307). The child nutrition measure will provide more access for poor children to receive free meals at school, raise the nutritional quality of school food programs, and reduce the amount of junk food and sugar-laden beverages sold in schools. The $4.5 billion bill was offset in part by a $2.2 billion cut to the food stamp program in 2014.
Also, a collective bargaining bill recently failed to advance in the Senate. The measure (S 3991), opposed by CSAC and the League fo California Cities, would have mandated state and local governments to enter into collective bargaining agreements with police officers, firefighters, and other public safety workers and would have placed California’s current collective bargaining process for such workers under the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
The legislation was unable to garner enough votes to defeat a Republican filibuster and, therefore, did not advance. Opponents of the legislation argued, among other things, that implementation of the measure would significantly overwhelm state and local governments because the mandate did not provide funding to localities.
The outlook for the remainder of the lame-duck session is unclear as lawmakers wrestle with a number of highly contentious issues. Currently, it is uncertain how congressional leaders will proceed with the remaining bills that Democrats hope to complete before the start of the new Congress, including 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.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) hopes to wrap up legislative work by December 18; however, with what appears to be a mountain of unfinished items, that goal seems out of reach. Senate Majority Leader Reid has indicated that lawmakers could be returning to Washington following the Christmas holiday to resume business until January 4, last official day of the 111th Congress.