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NJ Daily / OUTLOOK

Heated, Partisan Week Awaits Members

July 28, 2008

Senate Democratic leaders will take another shot as early as Tuesday to pick up the 60 votes to move a renewable energy and tax "extender" bill, this time beefed-up with Midwest flood relief, mental health parity legislation and other sweeteners.

Sources on and off Capitol Hill said Democrats might get more support than the last time they tried to move the massive tax bill, which failed by seven votes on June 17.

But 60 is still considered a tall order, and some Republicans like Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Michael Enzi appeared angry that Democrats included provisions such as mental health parity. Enzi called that an effort to buy votes and that he was not having it.

 

First, though, Senate Majority Leader Reid will try to move a package of bills that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has blocked by not allowing them to pass by unanimous consent. Reid filed a cloture motion Saturday and scheduled a vote for 4 p.m. today.

Aides said Reid would order the sergeant at arms to round up absent senators if Republicans try to stay away from the floor to prevent a quorum.

Most of the bills are non-controversial and would pass easily if Coburn lifted his objection. Coburn is protesting the inability to offer amendments and complaining that some of the bills amount to wasteful spending.

On the tax front, Democrats have not resolved the fundamental question of offsetting expiring tax provisions. Despite the inclusion of relatively noncontroversial offsets, Republicans are mostly set in their contention that existing tax policy continuations should not have to be offset.

"There are many reasons for senators of both parties to withhold support from this 'take-it-or-leave-it' proposal from the Senate Democratic Leadership," Finance ranking member Charles Grassley said Friday.

House Democrats have said they won't even bring a tax extender bill to the floor if it is not offset and Senate Democrats say they have compromised by including alternative minimum tax and disaster aid provisions without offsets.

In fact, 55 percent of the $126 billion package would not be offset. And although conventional wisdom holds that House Democrats will agree to drop offsets for the AMT fix, the Blue Dog Coalition could make that a lengthy and difficult process.

The House will take up the FY09 Military Construction-VA appropriations bill on Wednesday, the same day the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee is scheduled to mark up its bill.

Democratic leaders have said they do not intend to complete work on all 12 annual appropriations bills and hope to enact a continuing resolution in September that would fund the government until a new president and Congress take office next year.

Senior Democratic sources said the decision to move the Mil-Con measure is part of the balance leadership is trying to strike between acting on spending bills before the election and hoping that FY09 funding matters will ultimately be settled with a friendlier administration.

Democrats are betting GOP procedural gambits will be kept in check by the prospect of explaining to voters why Republicans held up defense funding.

"The thinking is Republicans will most likely vote for a bill that supports our veterans and are less likely to play games," a senior Democratic aide said.

Senior GOP sources stressed they have not settled on a floor strategy, but energy amendments are a possibility.

In addition, Republican appropriators are frustrated that Democratic leaders are requiring amendments to be pre-filed, which might prompt the rank and file to complicate matters.

"That is not the way the Appropriations Committee is run," said a top GOP aide. "It has a lot of members frustrated and has ramifications if they want to participate in such a way that we are on the bill for five days."

As for the Defense appropriations bill, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., last week said "we think we have a bill put together, but there are still some little things we are working on."

The subcommittee had been scheduled to consider the bill July 16, with the full committee to follow in short order.

Those plans were scuttled because House leaders could not guarantee floor time before the August recess, which would give lobbyists weeks to scour the bill and find ways to tweak the measure, according to appropriators and defense sources.

Murtha said that would not be an issue this time because the bill would only be considered by the subcommittee, which is closed to the press and public.

"You won't see [the bill] until it goes to full committee," Murtha said.

Republican leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees Friday lashed out at Democratic leaders for not following regular order.

"This is not only an irresponsible way to run government, but will have a catastrophic effect on federal programs and the people they serve across the country," House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis said.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran agreed. "What a disservice to the American people," he said.

House Democrats plan to close out their summer energy agenda with a bill curbing excessive oil market speculation, with House Speaker Pelosi unlikely to bring up another energy bill before sending lawmakers home for the August recess, a Democratic leadership aide said.

The House Agriculture Committee last week approved a bill giving the Commodity Futures Trading Commission powers to address concerns about speculation in the energy and agricultural commodity markets. The bill -- as with other items in Pelosi's summer energy agenda -- is expected to come up under suspension of House rules, again denying Republicans a chance to offer an amendment expanding areas for oil and gas drilling they are confident they have majority support for.

The House speculation bill tightens regulation of foreign boards of trade offering futures contracts in the United States and requires detailed reporting from index traders, mandates the CFTC to set trading limits to avoid excessive speculation and requires position limits on agricultural and energy contracts.

A Senate speculation bill remains mired in a partisan dispute over how many amendments should be offered. A revision of the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program is also hung up in the Senate.

In a vote Saturday, the Senate fell 10 votes short of forcing a final vote on that measure, leaving lawmakers no closer to ending the standoff before the August recess.

Most of the House energy bills have not received the two-thirds support to pass on the suspension calendar, including a bill that fell short last Thursday that would have taken oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to the retail market.

That bill and other proposals might get lumped into packages to be unveiled this week by oil-patch Democrats and a separate coalition led by Reps. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, and John Peterson, R-Pa.

Abercrombie and Peterson have touted their coalition as a way to break through the party leaders on gas prices. "Neither leadership reached out to the other side to do an energy bill, so we did," Peterson said. Both that group and a similar Senate coalition are prepping packages for September.

Perhaps ominously, House Minority Leader Boehner wrote his fellow Republicans Friday to say that an adjournment resolution Democrats will bring to the floor this week before the recess "will become one of the most important votes we cast this year" if a vote is not held on a Republican energy package introduced last week.

The House will vote on a bill to increase penalties for pay discrimination and allow victims to sue employers for compensatory and punitive damages.

The measure prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who share salary information with each other and require employers to prove that pay disparities are due to factors that are related to the employee's job.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who sponsored the bill, said DeLauro expected the bill to reach the floor Thursday.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, is scheduled to address the House Democratic Caucus Tuesday afternoon.

There have been complaints from some lawmakers that the campaign has not been coordinating enough with House members. The meeting follows a briefing to Democratic lawmakers last week from Obama campaign manager David Plouffe in which he stressed the campaign's national focus and intent to help down-ballot candidates.

The House meets today at 11 a.m. for a pro forma session. On Tuesday, the House meets at 10:30 a.m. for morning hour and noon to consider suspension bills. Votes will be postponed until 6:30 p.m. The chamber meets at 10 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 9 a.m. Friday.

The Senate convenes at 3 p.m. today to consider Majority Leader Reid's package of bills that have been blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. A cloture vote is scheduled for 4 p.m.

DEFENSE

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin will continue to work on a unanimous consent agreement to limit debate on the FY09 defense authorization bill, which he hopes will make it a viable candidate for floor consideration for the Senate in September.

The UC, which Levin said has the support of Majority Leader Reid, would limit amendments to those germane to his committee's version of the bill or the House-passed authorization bill or that fall directly under his panel's jurisdiction.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the former Armed Services Committee chairman, is discussing the prospects for the UC with Republicans, but Senate Minority Leader McConnell has not signed on, Levin said Friday morning.

Levin is intent on getting a final bill to President Bush before the election. To do so, he said staffers might negotiate informally to resolve some of the differences between the House and Senate bills during the recess.

Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee will hold a hearing Thursday on the Navy's destroyer acquisition programs.

The hearing was planned long before the Navy decided last week to end its DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyer program after production is complete on the first two ships. Instead, the Navy wants to buy nine more-affordable DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers between FY09 and FY15.

Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Gene Taylor, D-Miss., has favored ending the DDG-1000 program after the two lead ships roll off production lines, citing costs.

Witnesses include Allison Stiller, the Navy's deputy assistant secretary for ship programs, and Vice Adm. Barry McCullough, deputy chief of naval operations for integration of resources and capabilities.

FINANCE

The Senate Banking Committee will hold a Tuesday hearing on the state of insurance regulation and oversight.

The life insurance and property-and-casualty sectors are regulated at the state level, though some carriers are pushing legislation to give them the choice to be regulated at the federal level to cut costs and streamline paperwork.

The proposal is opposed by state insurance commissioners, smaller mutual companies and the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. They argue that consumers would suffer under such a move.

The House Financial Services Oversight Subcommittee will hold a Tuesday hearing on the use of credit scores on consumers. Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Melvin Watt, D-N.C., has sponsored legislation that would curtail insurers from using credit scores to help set premiums, alleging that such use unfairly targets minorities. The hearing will address the use of credit scores in applying for credit cards and mortgages.

The Financial Services Committee will mark up legislation Wednesday that would require ratings agencies to treat scoring for municipal bonds the same way as those offered by corporations.

Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank and other lawmakers complain that credit-ratings agencies have engaged in dual ratings system, where municipal bonds often receive lower ratings than corporate bonds with the same or higher risk of default.

They note there have been more than 14,000 issuances of general-obligation bonds by local governments since 1970 without a default.

The issue has taken on more resonance as the bond insurance for sellers has skyrocketed following the collapse of the subprime lending market.

GOVERNMENT OPS

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has scheduled a hearing Wednesday on "deficient electrical systems at U.S. facilities in Iraq." The committee in March began probing the electrocution of at least 13 Americans in Iraq after a constituent of Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., was electrocuted while showering.

The panel and the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, which held a recent hearing on the topic, have largely blamed shoddy work by contractor KBR for the problem. KBR says none of the deaths have been linked to its work.

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman this month released a Defense Contract Management Agency report that warned in February 2007 that poor electrical work, often by KBR subcontractors, had caused 283 fires in five months and posed a danger to troops.

Waxman released e-mails from after the deaths were publicized in which a Defense Contract Management Agency employee warned the agency, the Army and KBR about possible liability.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday is expected to confirm James Williams as administrator of the General Services Administration. The panel is also to mark up several bills, including a measure to reduce improper payments to contractors and grantees by federal agencies.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Management Subcommittee has a hearing Thursday on information technology planning by the federal government. The hearing will examine frequent delays and budget increases on IT projects.

HEALTH

House Democratic leaders might bring legislation to the floor this week to grant FDA authority over tobacco products.

Leaders were leaning toward putting the measure on the suspension calendar Wednesday, according to a senior Democratic aide. Failing that, they might bring the bill back up Thursday under a rule, the aide added.

The bill was caught up for months in a jurisdictional spat between the committee that approved the measure, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the House Ways and Means and House Natural Resources committees.

Ways and Means leaders took issue with an offset meant to make up for lost tobacco tax revenue.

The offset now would come from a bill modifying enrollment in a federal employee savings plan, known as the Thrift Savings Plan, said a spokeswoman for Waxman, the bill's lead sponsor.

Waxman introduced the Thrift Savings Plan bill earlier this month and it passed out of his committee by voice vote shortly thereafter.

The Natural Resources Committee had concerns about regulation of tobacco sales by Indian tribes. A committee aide confirmed Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall met with House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell and resolved the dispute.

The bill gives FDA the power to regulate tobacco labeling as well as advertising, outlaws most flavored cigarettes besides menthol, requires the agency to approve new tobacco products and mandates that FDA create tobacco standards, though the measure leaves to Congress to ban tobacco products or reduce nicotine levels to zero.

The legislation has bipartisan support, but whether the House will have the two-thirds majority needed to pass the measure under suspension is unclear.

The administration is likely to veto the bill.

HHS Secretary Leavitt wrote House Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton last week that the administration opposes the bill because it will overextend the FDA and give the public the misconception tobacco is safe.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved a similar bill last summer proposed by the panel's chairman, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., but the full Senate has not considered the measure.

Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Edwin Foulke will address his agency's $8.7 million fine of Imperial Sugar Co. at a Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions subcommittee hearing Tuesday. Graham H. Graham, Imperial Sugar's vice president for operations, will also testify.

OSHA opened an investigation after an explosion at the company's Georgia refinery killed 13 workers in February and released the findings Friday.

It found that the company allowed large amounts of sugar dust to build up on company machinery, and that company officials knew about the dust and did nothing.

The fines were levied against the Georgia refinery and an Imperial refinery in Gramercy, La., where investigators found safety problems weeks after the February explosion. The House passed a bill earlier this year requiring OSHA to issue emergency rules regulating combustible dust.

Two House committees plan this week to examine the recent salmonella outbreak that sickened nearly 1,300 people since April and might have contributed to two deaths. FDA originally linked the outbreak to tomatoes, but now believes Mexican jalapenos are to blame.

On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a hearing with testimony from Stephen Sundlof, FDA's food center director. The House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will hold a hearing Thursday to examine the outbreak, including the toll it took on the wrongly accused tomato industry.

Meanwhile, House conferees deliberating a final version of the bill reauthorizing the Consumer Product Safety Commission met three times last week and were hoping to send a proposal to the Senate shortly, said a spokeswoman for Dingell.

Members in both chambers had hoped to bring the bill to the floor before the August recess, but space in the legislative calendar is rapidly diminishing.

The two chambers still have to consider a possible ban on phthalates in children's toys; safety standards for all-terrain vehicles; mandatory standards for toys; whistle-blower protection and whether state law can pre-empt federal statute.

HOMELAND SECURITY

House and Senate lawmakers plan to cram a handful of homeland security oversight activities onto their agenda before leaving town for the recess.

The Senate Commerce Committee plans to mark up a bill Thursday to stop smugglers from using submersible or semi-submersible water vessels to sneak contraband into the United States.

The Coast Guard has identified the use of such vessels as a growing threat.

"Too many unregistered ships bring illegal drugs to our shores and our neighborhoods," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who sponsored the bill.

The bill would criminalize the operations of the vessels, which U.S. agencies believe are responsible for one-third of all maritime cocaine shipments between the Americas, Lautenberg said.

On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Disaster Recovery Subcommittee plans a hearing to assess FEMA's strategy for housing large numbers of disaster victims.

Disaster Recovery Subcommittee Chairman Mary Landrieu, D-La., said last week FEMA's plan has "significant shortcomings."

An analysis by her office found that FEMA wants to defer responsibility for developing housing plans to a new entity, and that FEMA has not yet developed a reliable alternative for housing large numbers of disaster victims.

FEMA missed an initial congressional deadline to submit its housing strategy to Congress by July 2007, and several subsequent self-imposed deadlines. The strategy was finally delivered last week.

"On six important problems Congress identified after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA offers no solutions and instead recommends the creation of a new entity to do the job FEMA was directed to do," Landrieu said.

The Disaster Recovery Subcommittee plans to hold a joint hearing Thursday with the House Homeland Security Emergency Communications Subcommittee to ensure FEMA distributes donated goods to disaster victims.

The hearing was scheduled for last week but was postponed. It comes in response to reports last month that the agency discarded about $85 million in goods meant for victims of 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

HOUSE LEADERSHIP

House Speaker Pelosi will be busy with the media today, with live interviews scheduled for NBC's "Today Show" and ABC's "The View." She will also tape an interview for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

On Wednesday, she'll be signing copies of her new book, "Know Your Power: A Message to America's Daughters," at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.

JUDICIARY

The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday will examine fair music royalty rates and rules across distribution platforms in the modern age.

The committee will hear from Geffen Records Head of Operations Jeffrey Harleston; Pandora Music CEO Joe Kennedy; recording artist Matt Nathanson; singer-songwriter John Ondrasik of the band Five for Fighting, and John Simson, executive director of digital royalty collector SoundExchange.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., will preside.

Feinstein introduced a bill early in the 110th Congress requiring satellite, cable and Internet broadcasters to pay fair market value for the performance of digital music and mandate the use of piracy prevention technologies.

Her bill hit a sour note with watchdog groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which called it "a backdoor assault" on consumers' right to record off the radio.

Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have offered a proposal they believe would set reasonable royalties for Webcasters to pay musicians and record labels.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy has also introduced a bill that would eliminate a long-standing exemption granted to AM and FM radio stations that allows them to broadcast music without paying certain fees.

House Judiciary Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property Subcommittee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., sponsored a companion bill in his chamber. Resolutions opposing the Leahy and Berman bills have attracted more than 200 cosponsors in the House and a dozen in the Senate.

POLITICS

A bill to require that electronic voting systems used in federal elections produce independent voter-verified records of each ballot will be the subject of a Senate Rules Committee hearing Wednesday.

The measure, introduced by Rules Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein and ranking member Robert Bennett looks unlikely to be marked up before the Senate recesses.

TAXES

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Investigations Subcommittee is set Tuesday to hold a hearing on payroll tax abuse by businesses.

The panel says it will consider policies "used to collect unpaid payroll taxes, and whether some businesses are engaged in abusive or potentially criminal activities with regard to the payment of payroll taxes."

It will also release a GAO report that says businesses owe billions in unpaid tax debts.

TELECOM

The FCC will hold back-to-back field events in New York this week. On Tuesday in Harlem, the agency will conduct a hearing on access to capital for minority investors in media properties, to be followed by a networking session.

CNBC Financial Anchor Erin Burnett will serve as moderator, Rainbow PUSH Coalition Chairman Martin L. King will make introductory remarks and executives with several investment firms will participate.

On Wednesday in Brooklyn, the commission will hold a field hearing on the planned re-auction of the so-called "D block" emergency spectrum band that first responders hope to utilize for a nationwide broadband network.

The agency failed to attract a minimum bid for the frequencies when it tried to auction them earlier this year.

In Washington on Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing to examine deceptive ads and hidden fees related to prepaid calling cards and will consider legislation addressing the issue.

At its Friday public meeting, the FCC plans to adopt an enforcement action against Comcast for violating its principles governing an openly accessible Internet.

TRADE

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus has abandoned plans to mark up Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation before the August recess, citing the demands of Republicans to move the Colombia Free Trade Agreement simultaneously.

In a statement Friday, Baucus said he was unable to move forward as planned this week despite being "on the cusp of an excellent agreement for America's workers" that doubles re-training funds and expands coverage to as many as 100 million service-sector workers. "[T]he resistance of some senators to consideration of TAA absent a guarantee of action on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement is preventing the process from moving forward," Baucus said. "I have said all year that TAA is my No. 1 trade priority, and that TAA must be renewed and expanded for the sake of America's workers before Congress acts on further free trade pacts."

In April, Pelosi blocked a vote on the Colombia deal over concerns about that country's human rights record and continued violence against labor officials. She also said continued fears about the economy and the impact of trade agreements meant additional economic aid measures must first be approved.

It will be September at the earliest before another stimulus bill can be considered, but some pro-Colombia FTA backers argue it is possible to work out a deal in a lame-duck session.

"I believe that the Colombia FTA should be considered, and should pass, but on its own merits and in its own time," said Baucus. "I do not believe that the Colombia FTA can pass Congress unless our duty on TAA is done."

This article appears in the August 2, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.

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