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Congress Looks To Wrap Overdue Business

As Congress reaches the middle point of what is likely to be its longest work period this year, both chambers are looking to finish the long-overdue farm bill conference and continue working toward a budget resolution as the appropriations season begins to loom.

In addition to those big-ticket items, Senate Majority Leader Reid today will bring to the floor a plan to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system after the Commerce and Finance panels announced a long-awaited deal Friday.


The deal — reached after months of impasse between the two committees — would raise about $260 million for FAA’s plan to transform the air traffic control system from a ground-based to a satellite-based system.

It does so in part by raising the tax on general aviation 65 percent, from 21.8 cents per gallon to 36 cents per gallon.

While the general aviation tax increase was included in an earlier Finance-approved bill in September, the deal between the two committees drops a Finance-approved increase in the international departure ticket tax, which would have risen from $15.10 to $16.50.


The deal also eliminates a Commerce-approved $25 per flight surcharge that general aviation groups had staunchly opposed but is the type of user fee supported by FAA and the airlines.

The vote today to limit debate on the motion to proceed to the FAA reauthorization bill appears likely to pass.

Senate aides in both parties said the cloture vote is not expected to be controversial.

“We’re hoping that the cloture vote is noncontroversial,” a spokesman for Commerce Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said. A spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader McConnell said, “We don’t anticipate any objections but we haven’t seen the final text yet.”


Rockefeller and Finance Chairman Max Baucus stepped up negotiations this month after Reid signaled he wanted to bring the bill up on the floor.

Rockefeller said last week before Friday’s deal was announced that he would drop the proposed $25 fee if there was another way to produce the $400 million annually he estimates that fee would garner.

The House passed an FAA reauthorization bill in September that also does not include the Bush administration’s proposed elimination of the 7.5 percent tax on domestic passenger tickets with a new commercial user fee.

The Senate debate would come as aviation delays and safety have become prominent issues in recent weeks amid scandals involving lax FAA oversight of maintenance problems at Southwest and other airlines.

Lawmakers might use the FAA bill to tack on amendments or otherwise wax poetic about overhauling how the agency oversees airline maintenance and safety; reducing congestion and delays and ensuring passenger rights when they occur, and the recent merger proposal by Delta and Northwest.

Meanwhile, although there has been speculation for weeks about it, House and Senate negotiators are nearing an agreement on the FY09 budget resolution, which sets a discretionary spending target for the Appropriations committees, according to Democratic sources.

Negotiations on the budget appeared to have turned a corner, in part, due to a meeting last week between House Budget Chairman John Spratt and Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad and leaders of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

The Blue Dogs seemed to have backed away from insisting that the final budget include reconciliation protection to offset the $70 billion cost of patching the alternative minimum tax so that additional tax payers do not become ensnared.

The AMT is not indexed for inflation and affects more taxpayers every year unless lawmakers pass a patch. Reconciliation is a procedure to get around the Senate’s 60-vote cloture hurdle.

The budget writers said that they have offered the Blue Dogs other options for paying for an AMT patch, including raising a point of order against a resolution that does not offset the tax fix. The Blue Dogs are expected to huddle and consider the options Tuesday evening.

Blue Dog insistence on reconciliation for the AMT had posed a problem in the Senate, where the budget resolution, which did not include AMT reconciliation language, passed on a tight 51-44 vote.

The winning margin included the votes of two Republicans who have since said that they would not support a budget with reconciliation instructions.

House and Senate farm bill conferees are expected to meet in formal, public sessions this week to finish the bill after a smaller group of farm leaders achieved key agreements last week.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, who chairs the conference, said Friday he hopes to present a package to farm bill conferees in a formal conference today. The conference is expected to last for several days.

An extension of the 2002 farm bill expires Friday, but Harkin and House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson have said they will have to ask for another week’s extension to bring the conference report to the floors of their respective chambers. Some analysts have predicted the bill will not be finished until shortly before the Memorial Day recess.

Last week, negotiators reached two key agreements.

Baucus and Finance ranking member Charles Grassley, and House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel and ranking member Jim McCrery Thursday reached agreement on the bill’s biggest hurdle: a financing package to pay for $10 billion in increased spending under the bill.

After the White House said it would veto a bill if it were paid for with increased government revenue from stricter stockbroker reporting of stock basis when stocks are sold, the financial conferees agreed to use government income from an extension of customs user fees after the current expiration date of December 2014.

CBO and OMB classify those revenues as negative outlays rather than tax revenue because the money reduces government expenditures.

Conrad said White House officials had assured him privately that they would not object to customs user fees as an offset.

The bill will also contain a reduced version of a tax package that the Senate included in its farm bill. House Speaker Pelosi and Rangel initially rejected the tax package, but agreed to one under which current agricultural tax breaks will be reduced to pay for a new set of tax breaks.

The Senate insisted on including measures to speed up depreciation of race horses and timber tax credits valued at $361 million, but at the insistence of Pelosi and Rangel the Agriculture committees agreed to an equal increase in domestic and international food aid programs, with the money coming from cuts elsewhere in the farm bill.

On Friday, Agriculture committee leaders reached agreement on the main elements of the farm bill section of the conference agreement.

Conrad said the new five-year bill would raise the target prices and loan rate for northern crops beginning in 2010, raise the sugar loan rate three-quarters of one cent and include a sugar-to-ethanol program.

It also provides an additional $4 billion for conservation programs, including $1.1 billion for the Conservation Security Program, a priority of Harkin, and $10.361 billion for domestic and international food aid programs.

For offsets, negotiators cut the $5.2 billion per year direct payments program by 2 percent per year for four years, but they will preserve the full payments in the fifth year to preserve the baseline for future years. The bill also includes the new disaster aid program that Conrad and Baucus have championed, but cut $250 million from the planned $4 billion funding.

The negotiators also took $685 million from Section 32, a tariff account set aside for agriculture, and planned to use $510 million for the nutrition increase and $170 million to deal with the salmon industry disaster on the West Coast.

Meanwhile, the House is expected this week to pass a genetic nondiscrimination bill that sailed through the Senate last Thursday, 95-0. The House passed a similar bill last year, but the Senate version has the support of House sponsors Reps. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Judy Biggert, R-Ill. Aides say the bill might pass on a voice vote.

President Bush has indicated in the past that he would sign a genetics bill that would make it illegal for insurers or employers to discriminate against people based on their genetic makeup. The measure has been languishing in Congress for over a decade.

In addition to suspension bills, the House is also slated to consider legislation regarding combustible dust and fire prevention.

And House Majority Leader Hoyer said last week in his colloquy with Minority Whip Blunt that the House might need to vote on another short-term extension for the higher education bill to give conferees more time to hash out a final agreement.

n The Senate meets today at 2 p.m. for morning business and afterward resumes consideration of the motion to proceed to the FAA reauthorization bill.

n The House is not in session today. On Tuesday, the House meets at 12:30 p.m. for morning hour and 2 p.m. for legislative business. The chamber meets at 10 a.m. for legislative business Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, no votes are expected.


Appropriators will continue to examine FY09 spending requests this week.

In the Senate, Wednesday will be a busy day as the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee examines the Energy Department’s nuclear nonproliferation efforts, the Defense Subcommittee takes a look at the National Reconnaissance Office’s space programs, the Financial Services panel looks at the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Legislative Branch Subcommittee pores over the budget for the Architect of the Capitol, Capitol Police and the Library of Congress.

On Thursday, the Transportation-HUD and the Military Construction-VA subcommittees hold a joint hearing Thursday that will explore veterans’ housing issues.

In the House, appropriators have scheduled two hearings for Wednesday. The Defense Subcommittee will meet to consider defense outsourcing, and the Financial Services Subcommittee will consider District of Columbia funding issues.


The House Financial Services Committee Wednesday will finish its markup of legislation that would allow the Federal Housing Administration to refinance up to $300 billion in new guarantees for subprime loans at risk of default.

The panel began debate on the bill last week. The measure will be part of the housing-stimulus package that will be on the House floor the week of May 5.


House Democratic leaders will continue closed-door negotiations this week on their strategy for bringing the next war supplemental spending bill to the floor.

During several meetings last week, Democrats were unable to coalesce around a definitive plan for the supplemental, which might include about $180 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the remainder of FY08 and the beginning of FY09, as well as billions more for domestic spending.

There is no shortage of items members might seek to add to the package, but House Appropriations Chairman David Obey has argued against a massive amount for domestic funding.

Democratic leaders have decided to limit domestic funding to stave off opposition from the White House and congressional Republicans.

Still, the White House has threatened to veto any supplemental with non-war-related spending.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee will mark up its version of the FY09 defense authorization bill behind closed doors this week, in the hopes of sending the massive Pentagon policy bill to the floor in late May.

Six subcommittee markups are planned for Tuesday and Wednesday, with the full committee expected to consider the Pentagon policy bill from Wednesday afternoon until Friday.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Levin has signaled that he will not shy away from attaching controversial provisions to his bill that might trigger a presidential veto.

Last week, Levin told reporters he hopes to include hate crimes language to the defense bill either during the committee’s markup or as an amendment offered during floor debate.

Levin lost a battle with the House last year over efforts to attach language to the defense bill extending the definition of hate crimes to include sexual orientation and providing federal assistance to state and local authorities investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. House lawmakers fear the language would sink the final bill in the House or provoke an insurmountable veto.

Levin also has said he might push for troop-withdrawal language and a provision prohibiting U.S. dollars for Iraq reconstruction efforts, although he might reserve debate on those high-profile provisions until floor consideration.

Meanwhile, the committee’s markup will focus heavily on funding levels for the military’s high-priced weapons systems, including ships, fighter aircraft and the Army’s Future Combat Systems program.

Armed Services Airland Subcommittee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said last week he continues to support the Army’s $160 billion modernization effort. The Senate panel has long pushed for full funding for the ambitious program, setting up an annual battle with their House counterparts, who are skeptical about the program.


Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former education secretary, will join other lawmakers, Education Secretary Spellings and other Cabinet members, as well as corporate leaders Tuesday at a summit on U.S. science and math education and economic competitiveness.

In 2005 the National Academies’ “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report warned that the United States risks losing its position in the global economy unless it were to take aggressive steps to foster both basic research and stronger math and science achievement by its students. The summit, hosted by the National Academies with support from the National Math and Science Initiative, will assess the last two years’ progress since the report’s release.


The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds an oversight hearing Tuesday on EPA policies regulating toxic chemicals.

The hearing will in part focus on criticism Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer has raised about EPA revisions to the Integrated Risk Information System announced April 10 that would give the Defense Department and other federal agencies the right to help determine which chemicals are assessed and how they are assessed.

These assessments are used by federal, state and international agencies to regulate drinking water, toxic waste cleanups, air pollution, chemicals in food and consumer products and other standards.

Boxer said the changes were “devastating,” and would “put politics before science by letting the White House and federal polluters derail EPA’s scientific assessment of toxic chemicals.” GAO has been working on a study Boxer requested on the issue.

Boxer is not expected to talk about any legislation in the works on the issue at the hearing, her spokeswoman said.

Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe will conversely talk about changes EPA has made in recent years that he commends for increasing and improving available information on chemicals used in commerce, an aide said.

The two panels of witnesses include James Gulliford, EPA’s assistant administrator for pesticides, prevention and toxic substances; and John Stephenson, GAO’s director of natural resources and environment.


The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on Defense Department acquisition. The hearing will focus on over-budget weapons programs. In another defense-related hearing, the Oversight and Government Reform panel Wednesday will hold its third in a series of hearings on oversight of missile defense.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Federal Workforce Subcommittee has set a hearing Tuesday on ways to adjust benefits for federal workers to improve recruiting and employee retention. Subcommittee members have suggested the federal government, the country’s biggest employer, has fallen behind the private sector in crafting compensation to find and keep talent.


The House Energy and Commerce Committee plans this week to examine the heparin scandal as well as hear testimony on legislation meant to help avoid another drug-related crisis and on other issues related to FDA’s ability to police imports.

The panel’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will delve into the heparin scandal Tuesday.

The blood thinner’s active ingredient — made in China — was tainted and has been linked to at least 81 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

FDA said last week that contaminated heparin has turned up in 13 countries, most recently Spain and Sweden.

Only Germany and the United States have seen spikes in serious side effects associated with the drug, most likely because physicians in those countries more commonly use larger doses all at once, according to the agency.

FDA has come under fire because it never inspected the Chinese manufacturing plant where the active ingredient was made prior to the deaths.

Agency officials argue an inspection would not have detected the contaminant, and they had to create more sophisticated analytical tools than those used in routine inspections to identify it.

In response to the heparin deaths and recent crises involving imported food from China and other countries, House Energy and Commerce Democrats proposed a discussion draft of legislation to beef up FDA’s inspection efforts and give the agency more powers to oversee drugs, food, medical devices and cosmetics.

The Health Subcommittee plans to review the drug and device provisions in the draft on Thursday. The subcommittee will explore, among other things, product-tracking proposals that would assist FDA in monitoring and tracing drugs and devices through the supply chain.

Consumer Product Safety Commission Acting Chairwoman Nancy Nord and CPSC Commissioner Thomas Moore are scheduled to appear before the Senate Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday.

The subcommittee is chaired by Majority Whip Durbin, who was instrumental in Senate passage earlier this year of legislation overhauling the agency and boosting its resources. CPSC requested $80 million for FY09, $17 million more than it requested last year and a match to Congress’ FY08 appropriation.

Meanwhile, the American Heart Association’s officers will be in town today and Tuesday to lobby for a 6.5 percent increase in National Institutes of Health funding for FY09. AHA wants the extra NIH money to promote research on cardiovascular ailments.


A major hearing is planned in the Senate Tuesday to examine programs pushed by the Bush administration establishing border security requirements and state mandates for driver licenses.

The hearing will be held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee to examine if the federal government is prepared to implement the so-called Real ID law and the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

Under the Real ID program, the Homeland Security Department will require states to begin, by December 2009, to verify the identity and citizenship of residents before issuing them new, secure identification documents.

The federal government will not accept driver licenses and identification cards from states that are not in compliance with the law, meaning that residents from those states would not be allowed to use those documents to board airplanes or enter federal buildings. The law fully goes into effect in December 2017.

A handful of states have passed laws prohibiting them from complying with the law. Homeland Security narrowly averted a showdown starting this May with some states by granting them time extensions to comply.

The time extension was given to states that assert they will not comply.

Homeland Security estimates it will cost states about $4 billion to come into compliance with the law over 10 years — a figure state governors counter is too low. Homeland Security contends that states can use up to 20 percent of their state homeland security grant funds to meet the mandate, but state officials and many lawmakers say that funding is needed for other purposes.

Some lawmakers have said they want to repeal the Real ID law.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will require U.S. citizens and other travelers coming into the United States by land and sea from countries in the Western Hemisphere to present secure identification documents, such as passports, beginning in June 2009.

A law enacted last year prevented Homeland Security from implementing WHTI until that time. Lawmakers said they were happy the department did not try to skirt the law.

Many lawmakers are worried the new rules could lead to confusion and create major problems for tourism and trade. They noted that major passport application backlogs occurred last year when the department implemented WHTI for air travelers, causing the Homeland Security and State departments to back off on implementing the rule for about six months.

The State Department is expected to soon begin issuing new passport-like cards that can be used to comply with WHTI. Lawmakers, however, remain skeptical of State’s ability to meet demand for the cards.

Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff and Transportation Security Administration Administrator Kip Hawley today will unveil a new airport security checkpoint at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The checkpoint is expected to calm the process of screening passengers, making it easier for security officials to detect threats.

On Wednesday, Chertoff will join Dorit Beinisch, president of the Supreme Court of Israel, at a discussion at the conservative Heritage Foundation. The panel is expected to discuss civil rights and the war on terror.


The House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee will hold a hearing Wednesday on visa backlogs.

Earlier this month, the panel held a hearing on legislation to exempt foreign workers who have held low-skilled H-2B visas from a numerical cap. The Homeland Security Department stopped issuing those visas in January.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced early this month that it had received enough petitions within 24 hours to meet the congressional cap of 65,000 H-1B visas — those for highly skilled foreign workers — available for next year.


The House Judiciary Committee will mark up legislation Wednesday that would make minor changes to the landmark 2005 bankruptcy law.

The law made it more difficult for consumers to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which allows remaining debt to be canceled after all assets have been liquidated.

The bill would exempt service members called up to active duty from a new, stricter means test under the law.


Another Southern showdown is set for Saturday, when Democratic state Rep. Don Cazayoux takes on Republican former state Rep. Woody Jenkins in Louisiana’s 6th District to replace former Republican Rep. Richard Baker.

Democrats believe Cazayoux can pick up the seat, and have pointed to ads that both the National Republican Congressional Committee and outside groups like Freedom’s Watch have aired to suggest that Republicans are nervous about a loss.

President Bush carried the district with 59 percent of the vote in 2004.

There is also a special election between Republican state Sen. Steve Scalise and Democrat Gilda Reed in the state’s 1st District to replace Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. Republicans are widely expected to hold the seat.

Two Southern states face congressional filing deadlines Friday: Georgia and Florida.

Democrats already have several candidates raising big bucks in a handful of targeted Republican districts in the southern part of the state, particularly in the Miami-area districts of GOP Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart.

Republicans are eyeing the seat held by freshman Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney, who won the seat of disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley.

In Georgia, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss is up for re-election, and although the seat is on the Democratic Party’s radar and has a crowded primary field for the party, the race is not yet considered competitive.

Also this week, Republican businessman Martin Ozinga, who Democrats expect will be able to put his own money into the race, is likely to become the party’s nominee in Illinois’ 11th District race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Jerry Weller.

Republican county chairmen will meet Wednesday to make Ozinga’s candidacy official, as New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann took himself out of contention even after winning the GOP primary.

Ozinga will be set in the fall to face Democratic state Sen. Debbie Halvorson, who made the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s first slate of candidates in its Red to Blue program.


The House Ways and Means Select Revenue Subcommittee is holding a hearing Thursday to examine education tax incentives. In announcing the hearing, the panel said it wants to explore the myriad overlapping education incentives and whether taxpayers were utilizing them effectively, as well as whether they can be simplified.

Select Revenue Subcommittee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., said he wants to focus on benefits provided for post-secondary education, including Coverdell education savings accounts, Section 529 savings accounts, education savings bonds and penalty-free withdrawals from individual retirement accounts.

Other tax incentives also exist for education expenses, including deductions for tuition and fees, and student loans.

“With more than 10 million families claiming tax benefits to help finance higher education each year, Congress must ensure that these benefits work as intended,” Neal said in a statement.


With the FCC mired in negotiations over the future of the universal service fund, the Free State Foundation think tank holds a panel discussion today that could help sort out where the agency stands.

The fund lowers telecom and Internet fees in rural and low-income areas for citizens, libraries, schools and hospitals.

Speakers will include FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate; Colin Crowell, a top aide for House Energy and Commerce Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Neil Fried, senior Republican counsel for the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Also featured will be executives with Alltel, AT&T, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies and Qwest Communications.

On Tuesday, the E9-1-1 Institute holds a briefing about prototypes for the next generation of 9-1-1 emergency services. Officials with the Transportation Department and Booz Allen Hamilton will deliver remarks.


Trade Representative Schwab today will speak to the Korea Free Trade Agreement Business Coalition at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The United States and South Korea earlier this month agreed to reopen the Korean market to U.S. beef, a development the administration and several business interests view as clearing the way for President Bush to submit the trade agreement to Congress. But some critics, including prominent Democrats, say South Korea must continue to open its markets for automobiles, appliances and specialty crops for the deal to go through.

The Senate Finance Committee is holding a hearing Tuesday on trade oversight, with the heads of Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the International Trade Commission and the office of the U.S. Trade Representative’s general counsel.

The hearing is likely to focus on proper collection of antidumping and countervailing duties, which GAO last week found has been lacking in some areas.

Other matters likely to come before the committee include a CBP rulemaking that would increase tariffs on apparel and other importers, which is favored by some unions and domestic manufacturers but overwhelmingly opposed by the business community and a number of lawmakers.


Transportation Secretary Peters speaks this morning on transportation infrastructure at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution.

Peters is expected to talk about infrastructure challenges and national, state and local solutions involving new technology and increasing investments.

Peters will answer questions from the audience following her speech, which will also be followed by a panel discussion featuring five Brookings experts.

The event is part of the Brookings’ Opportunity 08 program, which is intended to help presidential candidates and the public examine top domestic and foreign policy issues.

This article appears in the May 3, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.

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