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Recess Is Close, But Tough Votes Closer

Even with the Memorial Day recess so close, this might be a long week for Congress.

Money matters will take center stage on Capitol Hill as the Senate is expected to take up a war supplemental spending package and a conference committee is expected to meet to hash out the FY09 budget resolution. Conferees and leaders are hoping to approve the budget before lawmakers leave town for the Memorial Day recess.


Also awaiting House floor action is a multibillion-dollar tax extenders bill and possibly the start of debate on the FY09 defense authorization bill. And if all goes just right, both chambers might even schedule override votes after an expected presidential veto of the farm bill.

The Senate is expected to begin work early on a war package approved last week by the House, but will consider, as substitute amendments, a supplemental package approved last week by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In the House, Democratic leaders devised a strategy to vote three separate times on three separate parts, or amendments, of the package, including $162.5 billion, the first amendment, which would fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of the fiscal year and part of FY09.


But the funding amendment failed to pass because a majority of Democrats who oppose the war voted against it and most Republicans voted "present" to protest that the bill was written by Democratic leaders without being considered by the House Appropriations Committee and could not be amended on the House floor.

The House approved the other two amendments of the package, which included war policy language in one and an increase in veterans' education benefits and other domestic policy provisions in the other.

The package approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee totals $193 billion and is made up of three amendments, largely mirroring the House's. The first would prove $168.9 billion for military operations, including $66 billion for FY09.

The second contains war policy provisions, such as language mandating rest times for the troops equal to their deployments and compelling the Iraqi government to pay for any nonemergency reconstruction project over $2 million.


The third amendment contains funding for domestic programs, including a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits and an expansion of veterans' education assistance for veterans who served since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

For the floor, the Senate will receive from the House the two amendments that passed last week, then consider the Senate Appropriations Committee package as substitute amendments.

The first House amendment includes the domestic spending, State Department funding, unemployment insurance extension and GI Bill provisions.

The second House amendment will consist of the Iraq policy language.

When the Senate takes up the first House amendment, a substitute amendment will be offered, which will consist of the Senate Appropriations Committee's domestic, State Department, unemployment and GI Bill provisions. The Senate will consider this until the chamber gets 60 votes to move forward.

Once the 60-vote threshold is reached on the first amendment, the Senate will take up the second House amendment, which contains the war policy provisions.

At that time, the Senate will offer a substitute amendment, which will consist of the Senate Appropriations Committee's companion Iraq policy amendment and the panel's war funding amendment. Democrats will need to get 60 votes to concur on this procedure.

As the Senate works its will on a war funding bill, conferees will meet to tee up a compromise budget for possible congressional approval before week's end.

Budget conferees hope to wrap up their business Tuesday and consider the conference report on the House floor Wednesday and the Senate Thursday.

The House this week will take up a $57 billion tax bill extending and expanding a range of incentives dealing with renewable energy production, conservation, and individual and business tax breaks.

House Democrats have given the energy portions, totaling $19.6 billion, top billing as they head into the Memorial Day recess -- hoping to give voters a reason to think they are doing something about soaring gas prices.

That includes renewal and expansion of production and investment credits for wind power, solar, geothermal, biomass, hydro and other alternative energy sources.

It also includes a $1.1 billion provision similar to those proposed in President Bush's recent budgets but which Congress has failed to enact, which would restructure New York Liberty Zone incentives created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to help rebuild the economy of lower Manhattan.

Local officials want to use the tax credits to build a rail link to John F. Kennedy International Airport, and some Republicans have panned the proposal as an "earmark" despite its inclusion in Bush's budgets.

The measure does not include a one-year fix for the alternative minimum tax, because that would cost $62 billion and Democrats have not identified the appropriate offsets.

House Ways and Means Republicans last week tried to add the AMT patch to prevent inflation from making 21 million more taxpayers vulnerable to it, but were defeated on a party-line vote. Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel pledged action later this year, but Republicans are determined to make Democrats sweat over the issue as a months-long dispute last year led to delayed refunds once Congress finally patched the AMT -- without offsets.

House Republicans will have little ability on the floor to affect the outcome. But when the measure reaches the more free-wheeling Senate, Democrats will not be able to avoid dealing with the AMT.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus is aware of that and included an AMT fix in his version of the tax extender bill. However, if the Senate passes a bill with an AMT fix that is not offset, another months-long impasse with the House is possible because the Blue Dog Coalition is demanding the measure adhere to pay/go rules.

Sources on both sides of the aisle said they thought a compromise was possible that could include offsets at least for the non-AMT portions, which enjoy broad support. Other than the energy and conservation provisions, the House bill would renew a host of expired provisions for individuals, such as deductions for state and local general sales taxes and for qualified tuition expenses, at a $5.4 billion 10-year cost.

Renewing expired business tax breaks, such as the research and development credit and 15-year recovery period for improvements to leased commercial properties and restaurants, total a more generous $16 billion. The Ways and Means Committee added extensions of tax breaks that do not expire until the end of this year for multinational corporations' overseas financing activities and for investments in organizations that promote economic development projects that do not expire until the end of this year. Those total nearly $6 billion.

Other tax measures in the bill, totaling about $10 billion, include a new standard deduction for property taxes for nonitemizers, a lowered income threshold to qualify for the child tax credit, and aid to hurricane-affected areas of the Gulf Coast. Included within that sum is a $1.6 billion provision enabling attorneys to deduct expenses incurred in the course of a contingency case, when payment is dependent on a favorable settlement. Republicans argue the provision is a sop to the trial lawyers' lobby and was included in the bill without prior hearings.

As one of its last orders of business before leaving for Memorial Day, the House is expected this week to debate the FY09 defense authorization bill.

The typically bipartisan measure, which sets Pentagon policy and prescribes funding levels, is not expected to generate the same type of debate and controversy as the war supplemental bill the House dispensed with last week.

But it might provoke some floor fights between Republicans and Democrats over funding for at least two Pentagon programs, the Army's Future Combat Systems and missile defense efforts.

When the bill heads to the floor, Republicans might once again try to overturn a $200 million cut to the Pentagon's $3.6 billion request for the program.

During the House Armed Services Committee's markup last week of the authorization bill, Republicans tried and failed to reverse the cut, which they say could hamper the program at a critical time for the effort.

Democrats on the panel said they poured the money into accounts for National Guard and Reserve equipment, which they deemed a more pressing need.

Republicans might try to fight a $372 million cut to the Pentagon's $712 million request for a missile defense site in Europe. As with FCS, their efforts to fully fund the program will likely be met with stiff resistance from the majority party.

Echoing concerns aired by Defense Secretary Gates, Republican lawmakers have argued repeatedly that a failure to back the Bush administration's full request for the site would signal to European allies lackluster congressional support for the program at a critical point in efforts to base missile defenses on the continent.

The Senate meets today at 2 p.m. for morning business.

The House meets today at 10:30 a.m. for morning hour and noon for legislative business. No recorded votes are expected.


The farm bill that passed by overwhelming margins in the House and the Senate last week seems to be set for one final ride.

Although the bill passed the House 318-106 and the Senate on a vote of 81-15, Bush's aides have said the president will veto the bill.

Congressional leaders of both parties praised the bill for increasing food stamp benefit levels, providing more money for conservation and cellulosic ethanol programs and extending and improving commodity programs. Administration officials faulted the bill for high spending levels, too little reform of commodity payment limits on subsidies to wealthy farmers and the inclusion of earmarks and tax breaks.

House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson said last week he expects the farm bill to be sent to the White House Tuesday. Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said he expects Bush to veto the bill shortly after Congress sends it to him.

Peterson and Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin have said they expect to hold an override vote before Congress leaves for the Memorial Day recess.

Administration officials say Bush will conduct a nationwide campaign to try to convince members of Congress to sustain his veto. National Farmers Union President Tom Buis, who organized a coalition of more than 500 farm, nutrition and conservation groups to lobby for the bill, said his group will be poised to lobby for the override.

American Farm Bureau Federation lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher said it is possible that some House members who voted for the bill will not vote for the override, but said she was not worried about losing the vote.


The Senate Banking Committee is slated Tuesday to mark up its measure that would provide new oversight to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with language that would use the two's assets to fund a proposal to insure up to $300 billion in new mortgages for financially troubled borrowers.

Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd and ranking member Richard Shelby continued to work on the measure all last week, delaying and finally scuttling a markup as they neared a deal on the bill that would give a new regulator powers to limit the two's portfolios and capital reserves.

Shelby wants to ensure that a proposal for the Federal Housing Administration to guarantee up to $300 billion in new mortgages is paid for by assets of the two government-chartered companies. A deal on the bill could result in passage of an overall package that would also reform the FHA's mortgage insurance program and provide housing-related tax breaks.

The House Financial Services Committee will hold a Thursday hearing on the effect of increasing loan limits for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the FHA.

Under the economic stimulus bill that passed in January, the GSEs' loan limits were increased from up to $417,000 to $730,000 in some high-cost areas.

The FHA limits rose to the same level from $362,000. But the increase will only extend through the end of the year. Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank has proposed in legislation to permanently extend the increases, but Shelby wants a lower amount and both pending Senate FHA and GSE bills would only set the limit at $550,000.

The Financial Services Oversight Subcommittee will hold a Wednesday hearing on legislation that would limit the use of credit scores in setting insurance rates, especially for auto policies. Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Melvin Watt, D-N.C., says his bill is necessary because minorities are unfairly paying higher auto policy rates, regardless of their driving record, because they tend to have lower credit scores.

The industry argues that credit scoring is a useful underwriting tool that predicts the probability of a loss on an auto or homeowner policy, allowing lower premiums to be passed on to those with less risk.


Tuesday is the deadline for party committees to file their April fundraising reports, and most eyes will turn to the cash-on-hand figures for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee, which both spent heavily on special elections in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Both special elections were in May, so the full effect of the spending might not be seen until next month's numbers come out.

Meanwhile, the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday will consider three FEC nominees -- Cynthia Bauerly, Caroline Hunter and Donald McGahn - whose prospects for confirmation might have greatly improved when Hans von Spakovsky withdrew from consideration Friday.

Von Spakovsky's nomination had been blocked by Senate Democrats who objected to his work at the Justice Department overseeing voting rights issues. But Senate Minority Leader McConnell refused to let other FEC nominations advance without him.

That produced a deadlock that has deprived the FEC of a working quorum to conduct business.

Von Spakovsky's withdrawal could break that stalemate and a spokesman for Rules Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said Friday it would help expedite approval of the other nominations.

Senate Majority Leader Reid agreed, saying Bush's acceptance of von Spakovsky's withdrawal will pave the way for the other nominees to be confirmed.

McGahn is a former National Republican Congressional Committee lawyer, while Hunter is an Election Assistance Commission member and Bauerly is an aide for Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.


Across the Capitol, the Senate Armed Services Committee will meet Thursday to consider the nominations of Gen. David Petraeus to be commander of U.S. Central Command and Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno to become commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee plans to meet Tuesday with Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen to discuss the Pentagon's FY09 budget request.


The two parties continue their dance on energy issues before the Memorial Day recess -- the start of the summer driving season when gas prices typically peak.

Senate Democrats had considered trying to bring up a package that repeals $17 billion in tax incentives for oil and gas companies; makes gasoline price gouging a federal crime; targets offshore crude oil market speculation, and allows the United States to sue OPEC for manipulating oil prices.

Republicans have enough votes to block the plan's passage and the proposal faces a likely veto threat.

The chances of the package being debated are slight, particularly in light of the hectic floor schedule.

The House Judiciary Antitrust Task Force will hold a gas price hearing on Thursday featuring testimony from OPEC Secretary General Abdalla Salem El-Badri.

The House is expected to vote this week on a bill from Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wis., that is an update on the so-called NOPEC plan in the Senate Democratic package and approved by a veto-proof margin by the House last year. The White House threatened to veto the NOPEC bill last year.

On Wednesday, House Republicans will unveil an energy package that seeks to increase domestic oil, natural gas, wind, hydro and other production; build more nuclear plants; quicken the establishment of petroleum refineries, and offer tax breaks for more efficient homes, cars and businesses.

Congress might send Bush a plan both houses approved last week -- also by veto-proof margins -- that would suspend the filling of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the rest of the year.

It might not be necessary as the Energy Department Friday announced that starting in July it would not sign contracts for the rest of this year for up to 13 million barrels of crude oil to the reserve.

This reverses the department's plan this year to continue the goal of doubling the reserve's capacity. Bush had argued that suspending the filling of roughly 70,000 barrels daily in the reserve is not large enough to affect oil and gas prices, an argument that most Republicans shared until recently.

Energy Secretary Bodman will defend the Bush administration's energy policies before the House Global Warming Committee Thursday. Global Warming Chairman Edward Markey is one of the biggest critics of the administration's environmental and energy policies.


Democrats are loading defense measures in both chambers with provisions to reign in government contractors in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Senate appropriators last week included in the supplemental measures to bar contractors from using overseas shell companies to dodge taxes and to ensure U.S. security contractors abroad are covered by U.S. law.

Also included in the bill were provisions to make overbilling war contracts a federal crime and to extend the statute of limitations for prosecuting contracting fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The House Armed Services Committee last week included similar provisions in the FY09 defense authorization bill. Other contracting oversight provisions will likely be offered as amendments to both measures when they reach the floor.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee plans a hearing Tuesday on EPA ozone standards, even as committee Democrats continue sparring with EPA and OMB over access to documents on the standards.

Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman last month subpoenaed OMB for its communications with the White House and EPA over the regulation, which was issued in March.

Waxman, who wants to know if the White House improperly overruled EPA, subpoenaed EPA material on May 5. Despite delivery to the committee of thousands of documents, OMB has refused to turn over about 1,900 pages of communications and the EPA about 30 pages, Waxman said in letters sent Friday.

"The committee's subpoena was directed to you and you will be in defiance of the subpoena if you appear at the hearing without the documents," Waxman wrote to EPA Administrator Johnson and to Susan Dudley, head of OMB's office of information and regulatory affairs, both of whom are to testify.

Waxman's committee also has a hearing Thursday on "Accountability Lapses on Multiple Fronts in Iraq." The hearing is expected to focus on a December 2007 Defense Department Inspector General report on mismanagement of U.S. funds used for construction by Iraqi security forces, included millions of dollars allocated for buildings that were never constructed.


Senate Finance Committee leaders continue to hash out a Medicare package to delay a 10 percent physician pay cut set to take effect July 1.

Some health groups are scrambling to attach their issues to the must-pass bill, while others are hoping lawmakers won't seek offsets for the bill's possibly $18 billion price tag from their specialties. The bill has to be through both chambers by June 16 to avoid administrative costs.

More than 20 members of Congress or their staffs will address independent pharmacists today through Wednesday as part of the National Community Pharmacists Association's annual legislative conference.

The group wants lawmakers to require pharmacy benefit managers to reimburse them for Medicare prescription drug claims in 14 days and to delay for one year a cut in Medicaid reimbursement for generic drugs.

The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee plans Wednesday to review two bills regarding breast cancer. One measure would create a grant program spearheaded by the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences for entities that study correlations between breast cancer and the environment.

The other bill would require health insurers to cover inpatient and outpatient treatments related to breast cancer and radiation therapy. It would put limits on insurers' ability to restrict hospital stays after breast cancer-related surgeries.


The House Homeland Security Committee will resume hearings this week, including one to examine the hot-button issue of securing the nation's borders.

The Border Subcommittee plans a hearing Thursday to explore recent developments aimed at improving border security and legislative proposals to crack down on illegal activity along the border.

The hearing will feature testimony from Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., who has put forward a security and enforcement bill. The bill would authorize the Homeland Security Department to hire 8,000 more Border Patrol agents by 2012 and to use more technology and fencing along the border, and would also provide the department additional resources to enforce immigration laws inside the Untied States.

The hearing is part of a strategy that House Democratic leaders developed to prevent a discharge petition on Shuler's bill from getting enough signatures to force a vote on the House floor.

On Wednesday, the Emerging Threats Subcommittee will hold a hearing to examine how vulnerable the nation's power plants are to cyber attacks and how they would respond to such an attack.

Also Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will meet to vote on the confirmation of Paul Schneider to be Homeland Security's deputy secretary.


The Senate Appropriations Committee resurrected a long-standing dispute over the nation's immigration laws by attaching amendments to the panel's war supplemental spending bill, which the committee passed last week.

As the full Senate considers the spending bill this week, senators are likely to battle over the amendments, which deal with visas for temporary migrant workers.

Some interest groups that oppose the amendments, such as NumbersUSA, are mobilizing public campaigns in an effort to defeat the measures.

An amendment from Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, would grant temporary immigration status to 1.3 million experienced farm and agriculture workers for up to five years.

The workers would not be guaranteed a green card or a path to become citizens, Feinstein said.

"Agriculture needs a consistent workforce," Feinstein said. "Without it, they can't plant, they can't prune, they can't pick and they can't pack. And the time has come for Congress to step up to the plate."

According to Craig, the program would be for workers who can prove agricultural employment for at least 150 days or show they earned at least $7,000 working in U.S. agriculture during the past 48 months.

Workers would have to pay $250, plus processing fees, and would be required to work at least 100 days a year in agriculture over the next five years.

The amendment calls for the program to expire after five years.

As under current law, the H-2A program would not be capped, but it would only admit foreign agricultural workers if they were matched to jobs U.S. workers had refused to do or were unavailable to perform, according to Craig.

Another amendment, backed by Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., exempts temporary, nonagricultural seasonal workers who were employed in the United States during the last three years from being counted against the cap on H-2B visas.

It would exempt returning seasonal workers from the national cap of 66,000 H-2B visas.

"Companies in Maryland and around the country are unable to get the H-2B visas, and workers, that they need and depend on," Mikulski said. "Small and seasonal businesses are counting on us, and we are letting them down."


House and Senate leaders will attempt to negotiate a final deal to change the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act this week, but their success is far from guaranteed.

For weeks, House Majority Leader Hoyer has said he hoped to strike a compromise on FISA legislation before the recess. But he has faced major obstacles in bridging a divide in his Caucus.

Liberal lawmakers want greater controls on how the government conducts electronic surveillance and they do not support giving blanket retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the Bush administration conduct electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens without warrants.

Moderate and conservative Democrats, including some Blue Dogs, have expressed support for a Senate-passed FISA bill, which would essentially dismiss about 40 lawsuits against the telecommunications companies.

Some Blue Dogs threatened to support a discharge petition that would force a House vote on the Senate bill if Hoyer cannot strike a compromise by the end of this week.

Senate Republicans, led by Senate Intelligence ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond, sent Hoyer proposed compromise FISA language last week. The language would allow the secret FISA court to determine if the telecoms should be granted immunity.

Speaking last week, Hoyer said the idea of having the FISA court determine immunity "is certainly one that is on the table" but indicated that House Democrats want to ensure that the administration is held accountable for its actions.

Faced with the uncertainty of reaching a deal, Hoyer suggested that a compromise might not be reached until Aug. 1.

"I don't think there is a deadline," he said. "If we could get it done next week, I would be happy, but the discussions are still ongoing."


Kentucky, Oregon and Arkansas hold primaries this week, with Democratic Senate primaries in Kentucky and Oregon headlining the action, along with a nasty Republican House primary in Oregon to choose a nominee for retiring Democratic Rep. Darlene Hooley's seat.

In the Bluegrass State, businessman Greg Fischer will try to defeat twice-failed gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lunsford in a six-way primary for the chance to take on McConnell.

Fischer filed first, but Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear helped draft Lunsford into the race after several other prominent Democrats decided not to run. McConnell has begun running ads to boost his campaign.

In Oregon, state House Speaker Jeff Merkley, the choice of national Democrats, will finally be tested against upstart attorney Steve Novick, who has parlayed his short stature and disabilities into plentiful media and a slew of endorsements.

The race came down to them after Democratic Reps. Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer passed on running, and so either Merkley or Novick will get the chance to run against GOP Sen. Gordon Smith in a race Democrats consider a potential pickup.

Oregon's 5th District GOP primary took a dramatic turn when former state Rep. Kevin Mannix accused businessman Mike Erickson of paying a girlfriend to have an abortion.

The winner is likely to face Democratic state Sen. Kurt Schrader or former gubernatorial aide Steve Marks, the two leading candidates in a five-way primary, to replace Hooley.

In Kentucky's 2nd District, the field was cleared for Republican state Sen. Brett Guthrie in the race to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Ron Lewis, but state Sen. David Boswell and Daviess County Judge/Executive Reid Haire will battle it out for the Democratic nomination.

Former Republican Rep. Anne Northup is competing in a four-way primary in the 3rd District to set up a rematch with freshman Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, who defeated her two years ago, 51-48 percent.

Yarmuth is unopposed for renomination, but Northup has to get past businessman Chris Thieneman and lesser-known candidates Corley Everett and Bob DeVore.

Northup waged an unsuccessful gubernatorial primary campaign against the embattled former governor, former Rep. Ernie Fletcher, before he lost to Beshear last fall.

Arkansas voters also will go to the polls, but there are no contested primaries for either the Senate or the state's four House seats.


Executives from a handful of American high-tech behemoths are expected to defend their business practices in foreign countries that have poor human rights records at a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Judiciary Human Rights Subcommittee.

Cisco Systems General Counsel Mark Chandler, Yahoo Deputy General Counsel Michael Samway, and Google Deputy General Counsel Nicole Wong are scheduled to testify alongside Human Rights Watch's Arvind Ganesan and the Global Internet Freedom Consortium's Shiyu Zhou.

The hearing might evoke a sense of déjà vu for the companies, who received tongue-lashings by members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

That panel held a hearing titled "The Internet in China: A Tool for Freedom or Suppression?" in February 2006 and the late Foreign Affairs Chairman Tom Lantos, D-Calif., invited Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and General Counsel Michael Callahan for a follow-up throttling in November.

Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., has introduced a bill that would ban U.S. technology firms from cooperating with regimes that restrict free speech on the Internet, but the bill does not have a Senate counterpart.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a member of the Human Rights Subcommittee, told CongressDaily recently that he was reviewing the proposal and believes introducing a similar bill is "a possibility."

Brownback and Smith attended a May 1 rally where they urged China to uphold its commitment to improve the country's human rights regime in the months leading up to the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, Internet innovators will discuss how the Web, social media and related technologies are changing the nonprofit, advocacy and political arenas at a Wednesday event at the National Press Club.

Panelists include Chris Kelly, the chief privacy officer for popular social networking site Facebook; Rock the Vote Executive Director Heather Smith; Republican online strategist Patrick Ruffini; Democratic online strategist Nicco Mele, and Vinay Bhagat, founder of Convio, which provides Internet solutions for online advocacy and fundraising.

Tucker Eskew, former deputy assistant to the president, will moderate the discussion, which is expected to cover past presidential campaigns and the way online communications and campaigns are converging.


Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus has called a hearing Thursday to examine trade enforcement issues, with China expected to be a major focus.

One topic is expected to be a bill he introduced with Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that would slap countervailing duties on products imported from nonmarket economies that have effectively subsidized their exports, either through currency manipulation or other means.

Their bill would allow Congress to force the White House to abide by International Trade Commission decisions on granting import relief to U.S. companies. The panel has moved a bill to deal more directly with China's currency practices, but that measure has bogged down in a jurisdictional dispute with the Senate Banking Committee.

In a report last week, the Treasury Department failed to cite China as a currency manipulator, arguing the yuan has appreciated slightly this year. Baucus said in a statement last week "there remains a need for Congress to pass robust legislation addressing currency issues with China" and other countries with misaligned currency.

It wasn't just Democrats who were puzzled by the Treasury report. "It's becoming obvious to me that [Treasury] Secretary Paulson is so concerned about not offending the Chinese government that he will say nearly anything, even if it conflicts with his duty to fairly evaluate the facts under a law passed by Congress," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., a Finance panel member. "This report is not worth the paper it's printed on."

Baucus wants to move soon on his trade enforcement bill, and House Ways and Means Democrats are readying their version for introduction, boosting the chances for action this year.

Democrats like Stabenow are urging trade enforcement to be used as a bargaining chip with the White House in exchange for movement on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which has languished since House Democratic leaders in April sidelined a vote on it.

Baucus' first priority is enacting a package of trade adjustment assistance measures that would expand jobless aid to workers in sectors other than manufacturing and those displaced for reasons other than free trade deals the United States has inked, such as a flood of cheaper imports from places like China.

The House passed its version last year, but the White House threatened to veto it, arguing it was too broad and costly. Now, the White House is directly involved in TAA negotiations with Baucus and Senate Finance ranking member Charles Grassley because they realize that will be their only chance to get a vote this year on Colombia.

This article appears in the May 24, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.

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