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NJ Daily

Lawmakers Racing Farm Bill Deadline

Like field workers struggling to get the hay into the barn before a coming storm, House and Senate conferees are under pressure to finish their work on the new farm bill before the 2002 version expires Friday.

The massive package has been stalled for months over how to finance a $10 billion increase in spending and $2.5 billion in agricultural tax breaks that the Senate added to the bill. Conferees from both chambers exchanged offers last week and Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, who chairs the conference, has scheduled a conference for this afternoon.

 

While some participants and observers are optimistic about beating the deadline, the offers are far apart.

The House, meanwhile, is expected to take up legislation Thursday that would expand access to federal student loans in anticipation that the credit crunch and mortgage crisis might take a toll on the ability of lenders to help deal with the cost of college.

Although congressional farm leaders, Senate Majority Leader Reid and House Speaker Pelosi had earlier agreed to increase spending by $10 billion, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, with the support of House Republicans, last week proposed limiting the spending increase to $5.5 billion and leaving out the disaster aid program. Taking out the disaster money would not sit well with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus and Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, who have made the program a top priority.

 

Peterson’s offer left out tax breaks that had been added to the bill by the Senate Finance Committee. He contended that a bill containing those provisions would not pass.

Peterson said he is not opposed to disaster aid, but does not believe it should be part of a package that is subject to pay/go rules requiring cuts in other programs to provide the money.

House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel is not happy because the Senate removed his inclusion of money to provide tax breaks for farmers and an increase in food stamp benefits.

Baucus said the spending would be offset by extending the customs user fee program for $4.1 billion; ending the ability of physicians to refer patients to specialty hospitals they own, which would save $2.4 billion in Medicare outlays; and requiring brokers to report what customers initially paid for stocks in securities transactions, which would result in a $6 billion increase in tax receipts. Baucus said Friday he believes the Senate offsets would be “more popular with the White House and with the country” than the House offsets.

 

Baucus and Harkin said conferees have agreed to reduce a cut in crop insurance from $5.9 billion to $5.75 billion. Harkin said that while the Senate proposal does not include cuts in direct payments, he would not rule out a small cut in the final version of the bill.

Conferees have not resolved the issue of payment limitations.

While the farm package has been moving in fits and starts over a period of months, the college loan proposal is moving quickly. House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller proposed the bill just last week, following the introduction of a similar bill in the Senate by Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy of a similar bill.

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Miller’s measure has the backing of Education and Labor ranking member Howard (Buck) McKeon, who helped negotiate the bill before introduction and is the lead co-sponsor.

The bill would increase annual federal student loan limits by $2,000, gives recipients an additional six months to start making payments and would temporarily give struggling homeowners access to federal college loans.

Backers are waiting for CBO to score the bill so they can determine offsets to cover the cost, a spokeswoman for Miller said.

Opposition has sprung up from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the U.S. Student Association. “Higher loan limits are an open invitation to schools that abuse the student aid program,” they wrote in a letter to lawmakers last week.

The Senate meets today at 2 p.m. for morning business, then resumes consideration of the motion to proceed to the highway technical corrections bill.

The House meets today at 12:30 p.m. for morning hour and 2 p.m. for legislative business. On Tuesday, the House will meet at 10:30 a.m. for morning hour and noon for legislative business. On Wednesday, the House will meet at 10 a.m. for legislative business. On Thursday, the House will meet at 8:30 a.m. and recess immediately to allow for the Former Members Association annual meeting, and will reconvene at approximately 10 a.m. for legislative business after the meeting is concluded. On Friday, no votes are expected.

BANKING

The Senate Banking Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on Chairman Christopher Dodd’s proposal to allow the FHA to refinance up to $400 billion in new loan guarantees for borrowers who face an interest-rate reset on their mortgage that will make it unaffordable. The panel will also hold a Tuesday hearing on how the current credit crunch has hampered the availability of student loans.

The House Financial Services Capital Markets Subcommittee will hold a Tuesday hearing on legislation by Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., that would prohibit the investor from suing the servicer if it acts in the best interest of the overall pool while modifying a loan. Lawmakers contend the bill is necessary because major investors, such as hedge funds and big banks, have been unwilling to allow workouts so at-risk borrowers can be refinanced in the lower-cost loans.

On Wednesday, the Housing Subcommittee will hold a hearing on a bill by Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., that would dictate that the loan servicer has a duty to determine if the mortgage can be refashioned on reasonable terms before it enters into foreclosure. The measure is much stronger than the Castle bill, requiring more disclosure and counseling services and would prohibit a servicer from making a workout contingent on a borrower waiving their legal rights.

The Financial Institutions Subcommittee will hold a Thursday hearing on a bill by Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., bill that would curb some abusive credit-card practices, such as giving cardholders the right to cancel their cards and pay off their balance at their current interest rate if the interest rate increases. The hearing will feature consumers who have claimed they have been harmed by certain card practices as well as regulators.

DEFENSE

Discussions on the next wartime supplemental spending bill will likely continue behind closed doors in the House this week, but no action is expected on the measure.

Democratic leadership aides had said the House Appropriations Committee was aiming for a markup of the bill on Wednesday, but it appears the panel will not report the bill out of committee until later this month as lawmakers hash out strategy on the spending package.

House Majority Leader Hoyer said last week he hoped the supplemental, which would fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the remainder of the fiscal year, would come to the House floor the last week in April or the first week in May.

President Bush has told Congress not to load the $108 billion war request with other funding priorities or conditions for withdrawing troops, but Democratic leaders have made it clear they intend to ignore him. Frustrated with Congress’ slow pace on war spending, Pentagon leaders have warned for months that war accounts will run dry by July.

Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday with Defense Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Rice and Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen on efforts by both agencies to work better with allies and other U.S. government agencies.

The House Armed Services Committee also will continue preparing this week for a markup of the FY09 defense authorization bill.

According to a memo from Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton to panel members last week, 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.

EMPLOYMENT

The House Education and Labor Committee will mark up a bill Wednesday that would enhance disclosure requirements for 401(k) and other defined contribution plans. Education and Labor Chairman George Miller’s mark will make some changes to the bill that he introduced.

There is fairly broad agreement that employees should be aware of the investment fees involved in their plans, but the business community has balked at the bill’s requirement that administrators individually list every service fee assessed against an individual’s account.

ENERGY

A House Science subcommittee holds a hearing Tuesday on the Energy Department’s controversial restructuring of the FutureGen program, which aims to promote emission-free coal power.

Energy Secretary Bodman in January announced he was pulling the plug on a $1.8 billion project in Mattoon, Ill., much to the chagrin of Illinois lawmakers in both parties who have accused the department of blindsiding them.

The department plans to help finance an undetermined number of smaller coal plants that can also capture carbon emissions for storage underground because of cost overruns with the Mattoon project, Bodman said.

House Science Chairman Bart Gordon, noting that Congress has allocated $173 million for the program over five years, said at the time of Bodman’s announcement that “major initiatives should be not be launched or canceled on a whim.”

President Bush has asked for $156 million for the revamped program next year.

Undersecretary of Energy Bud Albright, a former staff director for then-Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton, is a veteran of congressional hearings but will likely get an earful from the three Illinois members on the Energy and Environment Subcommittee at Wednesday’s hearing.

Ten members of the Illinois delegation sent a letter to Bush Jan. 30 saying Bodman “misled us and the people of Illinois, creating false hope in a FutureGen project which he had no intention of funding or supporting.” One of the three subcommittee members from the delegation — Democratic Rep. Jerry Costello — signed on to that letter.

GOVERNMENT OPS

A bill taking aim at the e-mail preservation policies of the White House and federal agencies will be the subject of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

Expected to be introduced this week by Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman and Information Policy Subcommittee Chairman William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., the measure would update the Presidential Records Act, which leaves the president to manage records during his term. The bill would instead ask the National Archives to create standards for retaining records including e-mail and to report to Congress on the White House’s compliance.

The bill responds to concerns that the Bush White House, by relying on an inadequate records system, lost hundreds of days of e-mails and allowed some officials to improperly use mostly Republican National Committee rather than White House e-mail accounts. The RNC says it has destroyed many of those records.

The measure would require federal agencies to keep e-mails electronically. Under the Federal Records Act, agencies now may store e-mails electronically or on paper. Many use a “print and file” system and do not keep electronic copies.

Another House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee will hear Tuesday from OMB, the Justice Department and other administration officials about a controversial exemption in a proposed rule affecting government contractors. The so-called “mystery loophole” exempts companies working overseas and commercial contractors from a rule that would require government contractors to report fraud by their employees or subcontractors.

The committee has opened an investigation into how the loophole was inserted in the rule, though administration officials insist the change came during a routine drafting process and remains under review. The hearing will address a bill introduced by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., that eliminates the exemption.

Meanwhile, at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday, Commerce Department officials will be back in the hot seat over a botched plan to use handheld computers to collect information for the 2010 census.

In a move that enraged many lawmakers, the Census Bureau recently announced that due to potential problems related to using handheld devices, which have already cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, it will use paper questionnaires to follow up with citizens who do not respond to mailed inquiries.

Commerce Secretary Gutierrez, Census Bureau Director Steven Murdock and GAO officials are to appear before the panel, which is the third congressional committee to hold a hearing on the matter since Census changed its plans.

HEALTH

Senate leaders have floated the possibility of putting a genetic nondiscrimination bill on the floor this week after the Senate debates a highway technical corrections bill. The bill has passed the Senate several times, but it will require a cloture vote to pass again. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has not lifted his objection to the measure, and his aide said he would welcome the debate and the chance to offer amendments.

Coburn and 10 other Senate Republicans sent a letter to Reid last month outlining several objections to the bill, including its privacy protections and language on business necessity exemptions.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will prepare this week to mark up a bill that would place a moratorium on seven HHS Medicaid regulations until April 1. The Health Subcommittee approved the bill on a voice vote last week, and members are tinkering with some of the pay-fors in the $1.65 billion bill before moving it to full committee. Health Subcommittee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said he wants the committee to hold its markup this week.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee will mark up a series of bills on Tuesday to expand veterans’ health benefits to include substance abuse treatment, dental care, and mental health treatment for their families.

CBO Director Peter Orszag and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Acting Administrator Kerry Weems will be among the panelists at a Wednesday briefing on the uses and cost of medical technologies such as imaging. Orszag has said in the past that the boom in health care costs is largely attributable to the growing use of imaging as a diagnostic tool.

Waxman will hold a hearing Wednesday on preventing infections associated with hospital visits and medical procedures.

The committee’s Domestic Policy Subcommittee plans Thursday to examine how to achieve greater transparency in the meat industry after recalls.

In light of the largest beef recall in U.S. history in February, lawmakers have taken notice of the USDA’s inability to share the names of stores where recalled beef was received. USDA has drawn up regulations to allow the practice, but the documents have not been signed off on by OMB.

HOMELAND SECURITY

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee plans a hearing Tuesday to examine the challenges the government would face in the aftermath of a terrorist nuclear attack inside the United States.

“This is the third in a series of hearings examining the role of the federal government in preventing and responding to a terrorist nuclear attack within the United States,” the committee said in a statement. “The hearing will examine the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear attack and what will be needed to respond.”

The House Homeland Security Transportation Subcommittee will hold a hearing Tuesday to examine efforts being undertaken by the Homeland Security Department to secure all modes of transportation.

The House Homeland Security Border Subcommittee plans a hearing Wednesday to examine Homeland Security screening programs.

JUDICIARY

The House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee will take up the security letters topic on Tuesday. Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Jameel Jaffer and others are slated to testify.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Crime Subcommittee will receive an update from child protection experts on Wednesday on the magnitude of online sexual exploitation in the United States and deficiencies in local, state and national attempts to address the problem.

At the hearing, Flint Waters, the chief of Wyoming’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force, will demonstrate technology that lets law enforcers track down child predators. Software that Waters created, which has led to the identification of over 600,000 individuals trafficking illegal child pornography on the Internet, has gotten congressional attention in recent weeks.

House and Senate appropriators pressed Attorney General Mukasey at a pair of hearings to continue funding the effort until they are able to fully integrate it into the Justice Department’s existing Regional Information Sharing System. Some child safety advocates feared that Waters’ effort would be shut down in a matter of months without a contingency plan.

Other witnesses scheduled to testify include Michelle Collins of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; Delaware State Police Lieutenant Robert Moses; Eastern District of California U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott; and National Association to Protect Children Executive Director Grier Weeks.

Subcommittee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., introduced a bill last year that would build a nationwide network to improve Justice Department coordination of child exploitation cases and bolster the more than 50 Internet task forces around the country. The House passed a companion measure in October.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday will revisit a section of a 22-year-old surveillance law which, 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.

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.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said legislative action may be needed to remedy the situation despite statements from the Bush administration that greater precautions are being taken. 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.

POLITICS

Fundraising figures have been trickling in from a host of campaigns over the last two weeks since the close of books on March 31, but Tuesday is the deadline for campaigns to file their quarterly reports with the FEC.

The week is free of special elections and primaries ahead of Pennsylvania’s major primary the following Tuesday, but this Wednesday is the filing deadline for congressional candidates in Virginia.

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner may be alone in seeking the Democratic nomination for Senate, while his predecessor, Jim Gilmore, is currently leading the charge for the Republican nomination.

Further down the ballot, Democrats believe they have strong challengers in retiring Republican Rep. Tom Davis’ 11th District with former Rep. Leslie Byrne, and they are also hopeful about 2006 nominee Judy Feder, who hopes to oppose Republican Rep. Frank Wolf in the 10th District. The GOP is high on accountant Keith Fimian to replace Davis.

Although 5th District Republican Rep. Virgil Goode has held his seat with 59 percent of the vote or higher since his first election in 1996, Democrats think they could have a strong challenger in Tom Perriello.

TAXES

The looming filing deadline sets the stage for House consideration of a bill to ease the tax burden on the elderly and disabled for in-home care, as the Senate queues up a longer-term discussion on comprehensive tax reform across the Capitol.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus also as early as this week could unveil a roughly $50 billion package of popular tax-cut extensions, including the research and development credit and tax breaks to spur renewable energy production.

The exact mix of tax breaks and offsets required under pay/go were still in flux as of late last week, sources said, but Baucus wants to get the process started early because the pay/go battle could be fierce. Democratic leaders had to abandon a similar package last year because the two parties could not agree on offsets.

There is some sentiment among House lawmakers for using the budget reconciliation process to force a filibuster-proof bill through the Senate, but Senate Democrats have thus far expressed little appetite for that type of fight. Whether or not reconciliation is used will be decided by the FY09 budget resolution, which is still being negotiated.

The tax bill approved last week 23-17 by the House Ways and Means Committee is not entirely free of partisan overtones. The measure would repeal the IRS’ authority to use private debt-collectors, a priority of the National Treasury Employees Union as well as leading Democrats.

House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman John Lewis, D-Ga., and others argue tax-collection is a core government function that should not be farmed out to the private sector. The IRS and many Republicans argue in light of budget constraints, private debt-collection is more efficient and will lead to more revenues captured.

In fact, repeal of the IRS authority in the bill has a $578 million, 10-year cost attached to it. But that revenue loss would be more than made up by other provisions in the bill, such as an increased employment tax on wages of non-U.S. workers working for foreign subsidiaries of U.S. government contractors.

The provision exempting elderly and disabled individuals from having to pay employment taxes for government-provided in-home care would have a negligible revenue-impact, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. Other “good government” provisions in the bill include requiring the IRS to notify taxpayers if it suspects identity theft, and allowing the IRS to refer low-income taxpayers to clinics to help them prepare their returns.

Meanwhile, both House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel and Baucus have an eye toward next year, when a more detailed examination of the tax code and perhaps an overhaul can begin to be considered. To that end, on Tuesday Baucus is holding the first of a series of tax reform hearings, which will stretch into the summer and include additional roundtables, an aide said.

TELECOM

This should be a busy week on the communications front, with broadcasters gathering in Las Vegas for their annual conclave from today through Wednesday and all five FCC commissioners testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee on Tuesday.

The hearing will review the FCC’s plans to resell a critical slice of spectrum that failed to attract a winning bidder during a recent auction of airwaves to be vacated by broadcasters shifting to digital signals. In exchange for commercial use of the frequencies, the licensee would be required to construct a nationwide wireless, high-speed Internet system for emergency responders.

With 10 months to go before full-power broadcasters terminate their analog transmissions, the NAB convention will have a strong emphasis on the switch to digital, including plans by several media companies to market small, handheld DTV sets.

The Commerce Department will hold a news briefing today in Las Vegas on its coupon program aimed at helping analog-dependent viewers purchase converter boxes needed to keep older sets functioning after Feb. 17.

The Community Broadcasters Association, which has sparred with NTIA and several industry groups over the boxes, will have a presence at the convention. CBA represents the interests of low-power broadcasters that will continue to operate in analog after the transition but are increasingly worried their signals will be inaccessible to viewers.

The NAB will feature some unlikely speakers, including Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt, National Cable and Telecommunications Association CEO Kyle McSlarrow and Walter McCormick, head of the U.S. Telecom Association.

Meanwhile, the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association holds its annual legislative policy conference in Washington today through Wednesday, with Rep. Zack Space, D-Ohio, addressing the group on Tuesday.

This article appears in the April 19, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.

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