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NJ Daily

OUTLOOK

House Begins Healthcare Reconciliation Endgame Today

The House aims to have a vote on healthcare overhaul legislation this week, though leaders have acknowledged the vote could slip to the weekend. Having delayed his trip to Indonesia, President Obama will spend most of this week pushing healthcare reform. Today, he takes that message to Strongsville, Ohio, outside Cleveland. Aside from his meeting on Wednesday with Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, most of the week is open to give him time to meet with members of Congress.

The House will consider the overhaul bill the Senate passed in December and a reconciliation package that will carry changes to the upper chamber's measure, as well as student loan legislation.

 

The timeline starts today, with a Budget Committee markup of the reconciliation package. The Budget Committee is expected to rubber-stamp the measure and send it to the Rules Committee, where changes to the Senate bill and the student loan language will be inserted.

Democratic committee leaders said Friday that they want to finish the markup before midnight tonight in order to start the clock on the 48-hour layover provided under House conventions before the House Rules Committee can meet.

At the Budget Committee markup, Democrats and Republicans will be allowed 10 motions each to instruct the Rules Committee, but the motions are nonbinding and will likely be used to score political points. The Rules Committee is expected to meet Wednesday.

 

House leaders will have to work this week to convince skeptical rank-and-file members that the Senate will pass the reconciliation measure. The president will sign the Senate bill before the chamber takes up the reconciliation measure, a move that makes House members skittish, given the different ways the bill could stall or get tripped up in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee could take up a roughly $15 billion package of small-business and infrastructure incentives this week.

The panel's third markup of the 111th Congress would coincide with final passage in the Senate early this week of a $17.5 billion bill heavily focused on business and infrastructure investment. But aside from that measure, the Democrats' "jobs agenda" remains somewhat in limbo, as offsets continue to bedevil the party at both ends of the Capitol.

The Senate approved a $140 billion package of tax breaks, fiscal relief for states and benefits for laid-off workers last week, coupled with a grab bag of items such as farm disaster aid, higher Medicare payments to physicians and reauthorization of a law governing satellite television signals.

 

But that bill is likely to sit on the sidelines until the healthcare debate is resolved, as about $35 billion in offsets for the "extenders" included by the Senate are instead reserved for the health bill. The remaining $100 billion or so is classified as emergency spending and exempt from pay/go rules.

At the same time, there are separate packages of up to $100 billion in appropriations for infrastructure, aid to states and clean energy projects lying dormant in both chambers, stymied by disagreement on how to pay for them. Democrats in both chambers want to tap unspent bank bailout funds, or tax large financial institutions; Republicans would use unspent stimulus and other rescissions of government spending.

Even the smallish bill from acting Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin, which contains provisions popular on both sides of the aisle, such as elimination of capital gains tax on small-business stock sales, could run into flak given indications it might rely on curbing tax breaks for multinational companies to pay for it.

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Typically, such proposals have hit turbulence in the Senate, as has a House proposal to treat fund managers' profits as ordinary income rather than capital gains for tax purposes. House Democrats used that proposal to pay for their tax extender bill approved in December.

Meanwhile, Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley is not planning to let the $17.5 billion bill headed for a cloture vote tonight go quietly.

Although there is likely little he can do to slow the bill down, Grassley plans to make clear his opposition to more generous treatment of tax-credit bonds for school construction and renewable energy projects that he contends will line the pockets of Wall Street bankers with higher underwriting fees.

The House added the language because of what backers call the runaway success of a similar bond-financing program for infrastructure known as "Build America Bonds," which Grassley claims has already been a windfall to firms like Goldman Sachs.

In what could be interpreted as a veiled barb at the Iowa senator, Ways and Means chief tax counsel John Buckley took issue with critics of the program at a Washington conference last week. "There's nobody that I know who does not view the Build America Bonds program as an enormous success with the possible exception of one person," Buckley said at a conference of state treasurers, as quoted by the Bond Buyer.

* The Senate meets at 2 p.m. today for morning business and afterward resumes consideration of jobs legislation.

* The House meets today at 12:30 p.m. for morning hour and 2 p.m. to consider suspension bills. Votes will be postponed until 6:30 p.m.

APPROPRIATIONS

The House Appropriations Committee has a busy schedule, with nearly 40 hearings, including a closed meeting tonight of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel on CIA compartmented programs. National Clandestine Service Director Michael J. Sulick is slated to testify.

On Tuesday, the full panel hears from a coterie of White House officials: OMB Director Orszag, Treasury Secretary Geithner and Council of Economic Advisers Chairwoman Christina Romer. Other Cabinet officials and luminaries like Attorney General Holder, SEC Chairwoman Mary Schapiro and Central Command chief David Petraeus will fill out the schedule of the panel's subcommittees as they defend the administration's budget request.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has a lighter schedule, with three hearings this week including a meeting Wednesday of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee that will host Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

DEFENSE

Petraeus will spend a lot of time on Capitol Hill this week defending the Pentagon's FY10 wartime supplemental spending request and its FY11 budget proposal before the Armed Services committees.

Petraeus, whose area of command includes Iraq and Afghanistan, will testify Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee and Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee alongside other four-star officers.

He will meet behind closed doors Tuesday with the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and testify in public session Wednesday before the House Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee.

The Obama administration's budget proposal sent to Congress Feb. 1 includes a $33 billion supplemental to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the remainder of this fiscal year. For FY11, the administration has requested $708.2 billion in new defense spending, which includes $159.3 billion for the wars.

ENVIRONMENT

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., this week might offer Senate colleagues and key interest groups an outline for their climate and energy strategy.

The three are tentatively set to sit down again Wednesday with a large gathering of business and industry groups and industry officials, where officials at a meeting last week were told they would likely be given a narrative outline for a proposal.

If so, centrist senators who would be crucial to getting a filibuster-proof margin would be expected to be given a look at the outline early this week.

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman have been ramping up meetings in recent weeks to cut a deal. Last week Obama for the first time sat down with about a dozen senators to hear what they would need to support a bill putting a price on industrial carbon emissions, as well as ramping up domestic nuclear, oil and gas and other production.

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman have verbally laid out to colleagues and others the idea of implementing a cap-and-trade program on electric utilities early and then to phase in manufacturers, while levying a carbon tax on transportation fuels. But many details -- including how much lead time manufacturers would be given -- need to be worked out.

FINANCE

Senate Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd today will unveil his legislation to overhaul the nation's financial regulatory system, a partisan measure that nonetheless reflects many of the compromises that he worked through the past month with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. It will be much more centrist than a discussion draft Dodd issued in November.

With a short legislative clock, Dodd last week decided to move ahead with his bill even though Corker protested by noting the two were on "the 5-yard line." A markup is scheduled for next week.

Dodd is expected to water down a stand-alone Consumer Financial Protection Agency that would issue rules, conduct examinations, and enforce violations for home mortgages, credit cards and other products. The new bill is expected to place the agency in the Federal Reserve with rule-writing authority, but not expansive enforcement or examination powers.

The measure also is expected to curb the Fed's oversight powers and create a dissolution fund for at-risk companies whose collapse threatens financial markets. Corker and Dodd tentatively reached agreement on a $50 billion fund to cover costs for a takeover so taxpayer funds would not be at risk. The measure also would create a council to monitor systemic risk.

While Dodd releases his bill, House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank will explore some issues that are likely to come up in conference negotiations. His panel will hold a Wednesday hearing on the link between Fed bank supervision and its monetary policies duties. On Thursday, the Capital Markets Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the supervision of insurance holding companies.

HOMELAND SECURITY

A House panel plans a hearing this week to examine government failures associated with a multibillion-dollar program to build an elaborate web of sensors and radars along the nation's borders.

The SBInet program has been riddled with schedule delays, cost overruns and technological problems.

Indeed, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano told Senate appropriators last month that she would make no commitment that the program would continue beyond planned deployments over about 50 miles in Arizona.

"I don't want to spend good money after bad," she said.

The House Homeland Security Border Subcommittee will summon Homeland Security officials for a hearing Thursday to examine the future of the effort. SBInet Executive Director Mark Borkowski is expected to testify.

On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee plans a hearing to examine whether U.S. intelligence agencies have the authority needed to be effective.

The hearing will review steps the Obama administration initiated after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate a bomb on Northwest Flight 253 as it approached Detroit on Dec. 25. The incident exposed flaws in U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Also on Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee plans a hearing to review the Homeland Security Department's FY11 budget request for the Coast Guard.

The department is proposing to reduce Coast Guard funding by $75 million and Coast Guard personnel by nearly 800 positions, a move that has drawn bipartisan opposition in Congress. Appropriators are likely to seek a way to restore those proposed cuts.

POLITICS

Idaho, Iowa and Utah all have filing deadlines Friday.

Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett is likely to be the only senator in the three states facing a challenge in the primary. Tim Bridgewater, a business consultant, Cherilyn Eagar, a businesswoman, and Mike Lee, an attorney, are all in the mix against him.

In Iowa, Grassley has already filed and is not expected to face a serious primary challenge. But at least three Democrats, including frontrunner Roxanne Conlin, are expected to seek the nomination to challenge Grassley in November.

In Idaho, Republican Sen. Mike Crapo might end up without a challenger in both the primary and general elections. Republican Rep. Mike Simpson might not have a Democratic opponent, but state Rep. Russ Mathews is considering running against him in the primary. And several Republicans are lining up for a chance to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS

All roads lead to the FCC's public meeting room Tuesday morning, when the commission formally unveils its highly anticipated national broadband plan -- a comprehensive blueprint for dramatically expanding the deployment and use of high-speed Internet technology over the next decade.

While the agency already has disclosed many aspects of the plan, some details will be revealed Tuesday, including the specifics of its proposal for a free or very low-cost wireless broadband service. The commission's five regulators, three Democrats and two Republicans, are expected to issue a joint mission statement about the plan, which has a congressional deadline the next day. The agency has said it will rely heavily on industry investment to accomplish the plan's core goal of nationwide, affordable broadband connectivity by 2020.

TRANSPORTATION

After finishing consideration of jobs legislation, the Senate will look to turn back to a two-year FAA reauthorization bill, which had been gathering dust since last summer before being brought to the floor last week.

Senate Commerce Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller Thursday was able to limit the list of amendments that could be offered, potentially preventing the need to file cloture to limit debate.

This article appears in the March 20, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.

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