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NJ Daily / OUTLOOK

Floor To Be Light As Talks Intensify Behind Closed Doors On Several Issues

April 21, 2008

The House and Senate floors are likely to be lightly tread this week as members negotiate behind the scenes to finish a farm bill conference and to plan their maneuvers for moving a war supplemental appropriations bill and mull possible trade-offs to move the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

The seemingly endless House-Senate conference on the farm bill is scheduled to resume Tuesday, with conferees looking to come to agreement on paying for a $10 billion increase in spending over 10 years and on whether the bill will include a package of agricultural tax breaks.

The negotiations are taking place under the constant threat that the 2002 farm bill will expire. With a one-month extension of the 2002 bill set to expire last Friday, Congress sent President Bush a one-week extension that he signed.

 

The extension expires Friday, but House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson said he expects to ask for another extension that would run until May 9.

The basic farm bill agreement between the House and the Senate is to increase spending by $10 billion over 10 years using offsets provided by the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee and shift about another $10 billion within the $597 billion baseline to make changes in farm bill priorities. In addition, the Senate bill included a $2.5 billion tax package.

The big issues in the bill are the offsets to pay for the increase and the tax package, although there will be issues such as stricter limits on subsidies to farmers that will only be settled by member votes in conference.

House members were worried that even though the scores for the Senate’s proposed tax breaks added up to only $2.5 billion, they were written to end after such short periods that there would be pressure to extend them, which would mean much higher costs over 10 years. Senators said many of the tax breaks were intended to be short term.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad said the conferees had to abide by scores written by CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation. “We can’t make up our own rules here. If we can’t use the official scorekeepers as the arbiters here I don’t know how we get anything done,” he said.

House Democratic leaders will continue to huddle this week on their strategy for the next war supplemental spending bill, which Majority Leader Hoyer said Thursday he hopes to bring to the floor the week of May 5.

Several options are under consideration, including combining $108 billion needed for the remainder of FY08 and $70 billion requested for the first several months of FY09 into one massive war spending measure.

Leaders have not decided whether to bypass a House Appropriations Committee markup and send the bill straight to the House floor for debate.

In addition, Democrats still are weighing how they will approach attaching domestic funding priorities to the war bill, including a second economic stimulus package. President Bush has said he will not accept a supplemental that contains non-war-related spending.

The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on a bill that aims to undo last year’s Supreme Court decision making it harder for employees to sue for pay discrimination. The bill passed the House last year.

Supporters of the bill are hoping to win over several moderate Republicans, which would get them close to the 60 votes needed to overcome GOP objections.

Several business groups will consider a vote for the bill a “key vote” against business, including the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Retail Federation.

The bill is important to unions, civil rights organizations, and womens’ groups, who will be watching the vote closely.

Scheduled for the day after the Pennsylvania presidential primary, the timing makes it easier for Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., to weigh in.

Even if supporters get all Democrats to vote for the bill and several GOP moderates, it is unlikely to become law this year, as President Bush has threatened to veto it.

“We know we’re not going to have a two-thirds majority,” said AFL-CIO legislative representative Cecelie Counts. “We hope this will become an election issue that Sen. [John] McCain [R-Ariz.] has to explain his position on.”

Democratic sources say their leaders remain unsure about how hard they should try to tie any future vote on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to Democratic priorities.

While some Democrats are pushing a compromise on Trade Adjustment Assistance with the administration, leadership and rank-and-file sources said that this alone would not be enough to ensure strong support for the deal from Democratic lawmakers.

Some Democrats have considered the idea of pushing the White House to deal on legislation expanding unemployment insurance in return for a floor vote on the Colombia pact.

But aides confirmed that calling for a deal on stalled Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation or an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program has been considered.

Nevertheless, leadership sources said that no decision has been made on what to push for or whether to reach out to the White House with a proposal.

In addition, there are concerns among proponents of the Colombia deal that tying it to anything job-related underscores the argument of the opposition that the pact is a domestic job killer.

“I love tying trade to TAA and unemployment insurance, which would imply job losses,” said a senior aide to one moderate Democratic lawmaker. “We always do that sort of thing. Republicans and Democrats ought to not pair these things up, because it just reinforces that thinking.”

The Senate meets today at 3 p.m. for morning business.

The House is not in session today. On Tuesday, the House meets at 12:30 p.m. for morning hour and 2 p.m. to consider suspension bills. Votes are postponed until 6:30 p.m. The House meets at 10 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday to consider small-business innovation legislation and Coast Guard reauthorization. On Friday, no recorded votes are expected.

APPROPRIATIONS

While the Capitol waits for a breakthrough on a budget resolution, Appropriations subcommittees will continue to sift through hearings this week.

The House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee has scheduled two hearings on the Section 8 low-income assistance housing program.

The first hearing on Wednesday morning will focus on challenges to the program and the second hearing Wednesday afternoon will explore the status of the program.

The Defense Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a hearing Thursday on biological countermeasures and threats.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Missile Defense Agency’s FY09 budget request.

Missile Defense Agency director Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III, will testify.

On Thursday, the Military Construction-V.A. Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Defense Department’s FY09 military construction budget request.

On Friday, the Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a hearing Friday in Philadelphia on the airspace redesign project and flight scheduling practices at Philadelphia International Airport.

Witnesses appearing before the panel will include FAA Acting Administrator Robert Sturgell, the Transportation Department’s general counsel D.J. Gribbin, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

BANKING

The House Financial Services Committee will mark up its housing stimulus package Wednesday. One measure would allow the Federal Housing Administration to refinance up to $300 billion in new guarantees for subprime loans at risk of default.

Lenders would first have to write down the value of the loan to make them more affordable to borrowers. The FHA would then provide insurance on the new loan for up to 85 percent of the home’s current value.

Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank is expected to attach a measure by Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., that would remove legal liability from the loan servicer who readjusts an at-risk mortgage.

The panel also will mark up another bill that would provide $15 billion in loans and grants to cities and states to purchase and rehabilitate foreclosed homes so they could be bought or rented to needy families.

Meanwhile, the Senate Banking Committee will hold a Tuesday hearing on the credit-rating industry, which has come under criticism for issuing strong guidance on mortgage-backed securities that were devalued when they were discovered to be comprised of many predatory loans.

The panel will hold a Thursday hearing on regulations pertaining to sovereign wealth funds, which are large investment funds owned by foreign countries.

DEFENSE

The House and Senate Armed Services committees have light hearing schedules this week as the two panels will work privately to craft versions of the FY09 defense authorization bill.

The Senate Armed Services Committee plans to hold subcommittee markups on the FY09 defense authorization bill April 29 and 30, followed by a full-committee markup slated for April 30 to May 2.

As has become customary on the Senate panel’s deliberations on the sweeping Pentagon policy bill, all the markups will occur behind closed doors.

According to a recent memo from House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton to panel members, he expects the bill to be on the floor the week of May 19. In anticipation of that, pre-markup meetings and markups for six subcommittees will occur May 6-8 and the full-committee mark is scheduled for May 14.

ENVIRONMENT

The Senate Finance Committee Thursday will look at potential tax issues related to the sale and distribution of carbon emission credits in global warming legislation.

The Senate will, during the first week of June, take up legislation mandating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through a market-based cap and trade system, where some credits will be auctioned and others given away.

CBO Director Peter Orszag, headlines a three-member witness list at Thursday’s hearing. The Finance Committee held a hearing in February on how a cap-and-trade bill would affect trade and international carbon markets.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a cap-and-trade measure sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va., in December. It would aim to lower U.S. greenhouse gas emissions about 70 percent by mid-century.

GOVERNMENT OPS

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday aimed at assessing the effectiveness of federally funded abstinence-only programs.

On Thursday, the committee is scheduled to review updated ozone standards issued last month by EPA. Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman has charged that the White House improperly intervened to weaken the standards. Waxman last week subpoenaed OMB for documents related to its role in the decision.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Information Policy Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing Wednesday on a bill introduced by three committee Democrats that would give the National Archives the power to set standards for how the White House stores e-mail and other records.

The president sets policy on record-keeping until his term ends. The bill also would require federal agencies to store e-mails electronically. Many agencies currently keep e-mails only on paper, an approach the committee and outside groups have said results in the loss of important records.

Meanwhile, the processes used by federal agencies responsible for the U.S. export control system will be subject of a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee hearing Thursday.

The hearing will examine the effectiveness of the structure of agencies involved in licensing controlled exports and the licensing process, according to the subcommittee.

The full Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday will consider the nomination of Nanci Langley as commissioner on the Postal Regulatory Commission.

HEALTH

The House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee plans Tuesday to hold a hearing on weaknesses in FDA’s foreign drug inspection program. FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach is scheduled to testify, as well as GAO Health Care Director Marcia Crosse and former FDA staff with expertise in imports.

Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee will hold dueling hearings Thursday on potential cracks in FDA’s ability to ensure the safety of products under its purview.

The Senate committee plans to look into food and drug safety and antibiotics in animal feed, a committee aide said. The drug angle will focus on the recent heparin scandal that killed 62 people and injured hundreds more. FDA determined the blood thinner’s active ingredient made in China was contaminated.

HELP Chairman Edward Kennedy has been working on legislation meant to close some of the cracks revealed through recent foreign and domestic food scares, but very little detail has escaped about what he is working on.

The House subcommittee’s Thursday hearing will focus on a recently released discussion draft overhauling FDA’s inspection authorities and tightening the agency’s ability to monitor food, drug, medical device and cosmetic safety through the supply chain. The full Energy and Commerce Committee’s Democratic leaders released that draft last week.

Thursday’s hearing will focus on the food and cosmetic provisions in the bill.

HOMELAND SECURITY

Two conferences dealing with homeland security issues will take place in Washington this week, one of which will include a focus on lobbying Congress on immigration matters and new driver’s license standards.

The National Conference of State Legislatures will hold its spring forum from Thursday to Saturday.

The group will lobby Congress on immigration-related policy and on new regulations from the Homeland Security Department for the so-called Real ID law, which requires them to eventually verify the identity and citizenship of residents before issuing them new secure driver’s licenses and identification documents.

The federal government has only provided a fraction of the estimated $4 billion that will be needed for states to come into compliance with the Real ID law.

The group will also release a new report on immigration-related bills introduced and enacted in state legislatures during 2008.

The 2008 GovSec, U.S. Law and Ready Conference will be held Wednesday and Thursday.

“Connecting more than 5,000 government security, law enforcement and emergency response professionals across all disciplines and jurisdictions, this year’s event will arm officials with the tools and information necessary to stop the next attack,” an announcement for the conference said.

The conference will feature a keynote speech from Julie Myers, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She will “discuss how local, state and federal law enforcement can work together to capture known and suspected terrorists before and after they enter the country,” the conference announcement said.

The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday with the Homeland Security Department’s acting deputy secretary, Paul Schneider, on improving the operations and accountability of the department.

The committee will hold a hearing Thursday to examine how the department’s intelligence and analysis division interacts with state and local officials.

JUDICIARY

The Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday will revisit a section of a 22-year-old surveillance law that, under a USA PATRIOT Act expansion, lets the FBI obtain private records about citizens’ communications without court approval as long as the data could advance a terrorism or espionage investigation. The hearing was rescheduled from April 16.

A 2007 Justice Department report and an update released last month showed widespread, flawed and possibly illegal use of the administrative subpoenas by federal investigators.

Former Justice Department counsel for intelligence policy James Baker will testify, alongside the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Gregory Nojeim and Michael Woods, a former FBI official.

On Thursday, the committee is scheduled to mark up a bill setting new guidelines for the government’s use of the state secrets privilege to block the public revelation of information that could harm national security.

At a February hearing on the topic, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy complained that the Bush administration has routinely used the common law doctrine to stymie litigation in government misconduct cases.

Meanwhile, the World Intellectual Property Day policy forum is slated for Thursday, hosted by the Institute for Policy Innovation.

Various legislative proposals for emboldening IP enforcement in the United States and abroad are pending in the House and Senate.

The IPI summit will feature Motion Picture Association of America CEO Dan Glickman; Recording Industry Association of America CEO Mitch Bainwol; Steve Largent, head of the wireless association CTIA; former Commerce Department undersecretary Robert Cresanti; and World Intellectual Property Organization adviser Lien Verbauwhede Koglin.

George Washington University Law School’s Creative and Innovative Economy Center will also commemorate World IP Day with a panel discussion tonight.

Acclaimed Indian filmmaker Bobby Bedi, whose country loses more than an estimated $4 billion per year to piracy, will discuss the impact of IP infringement.

Reps. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., and Robert Wexler, D-Fla., who co-chair the Congressional Caucus on Intellectual Property Promotion and Piracy Prevention, and Congressional Entertainment Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., are expected to attend.

POLITICS

While most of the attention has focused on the Democratic presidential fight between Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Tuesday’s primary elections in Pennsylvania also offer several congressional primary battles.

The 5th District has a crowded Republican primary to replace retiring Republican Rep. John Peterson. And in Democratic Rep. Chris Carney’s 10th District, there is an extremely competitive primary between Republicans Chris Hackett and Dan Meuser, both of whom have contributed large sums to their campaigns.

Tuesday brings a confusing special election in Mississippi’s 1st District to replace now-Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican.

Although several candidates have dropped out after not winning nominations for the general election race for a full term, all six of the original candidates will be listed without party identification.

The two candidates who are still active are Southaven Mayor Greg Davis, a Republican, and Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers, a Democrat.

A runoff, if necessary, is scheduled for May 3.

TELECOM

The Senate Commerce Committee will consider legislation Thursday that would roll back the FCC’s decision late last year easing the nation’s media ownership rules by permitting newspaper-broadcast combinations in major markets.

The panel will mark-up a “joint resolution” spearheaded by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., that would invalidate the rule change, approved by the agency’s three Republicans.

The committee will vote on a measure introduced by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that permits television broadcasters operating within 50 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border to continue transmitting analog signals for five years after the Feb. 17 switch to digital.

The bill is designed to ease confusion about the switchover for Spanish-speaking residents along the border, many of whom also watch analog broadcasts from Mexico.

The panel will hold a hearing Tuesday to examine the future of the Internet. Witnesses are expected to touch on the push for so-called network neutrality legislation, the emergence of new Web-based enterprises, as well as the need for greater bandwidth and capacity as more users come online.

National Cable and Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow, Stanford University professor and Internet expert Lawrence Lessig and several others will testify. The session follows FCC field hearings on this topic in Massachusetts and California.

On Wednesday, Senate Commerce will hold a hearing on “phantom” telephone traffic that travels across communications systems without identifying information needed to determine intercarrier compensation, which are fees that carriers pay to have calls completed on the networks of other telecom companies.

The Wireless Communications Association, whose members offer voice, video and data services, holds its annual convention Monday through Wednesday. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who is running for Senate, delivers a keynote today and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., a member of the House Energy and Commerce and Judiciary panels, speaks Wednesday.

This article appears in the April 26, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.

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