October 2, 2009
In this issue:
Currently in Washington
Congressional activity this week follows the same paradigm that has persisted through much of the fall session. Both the House and Senate remain focused on passing spending bills for the upcoming fiscal year, while the relevant committees in both chambers continue debate over health care overall legislation. The House has passed all 12 appropriations bills, while in the Senate 6 bills have yet to be voted on (Defense, Commerce/Justice/Science, Military/VA, State/Foreign Ops, Financial Services, Labor/HHS/Education). This week the Senate will first consider the FY10 Defense spending bill, while conference negotiations continue on the Legislative Branch spending bill (and attached CR), the Agriculture spending bill, and the Energy & Water spending bill. Other conferences are possible before the end of the week.
A key difference between the House and Senate versions of each appropriations bill rests with earmarks directed to private, for-profit entities. House appropriators have added provisions to their bills that require earmarks directed to private, for-profit recipients to undergo a competitive bidding process. The Senate did not include a similar requirement, and under an agreement reached last week, FY10 House earmarks will be competitively bid, while Senate earmarks will not; and earmarks included in both versions will undergo competitive bidding in future years.
On health care, supporters of a “public option” approach to health care reform received a setback this week when the Senate Finance Committee failed to adopt an amendment offered by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY). The Schumer amendment was considered the more moderate of two amendments to be introduced in committee to addend the Baucus mark to include a public option. The amendment was voted down by a vote of 13-10, with Democrats Max Baucus (D-MT), Kent Conrad (D-ND), and Blanche Lincoln (D-AK) all voting against the measure. The second amendment, offered by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), was defeated 8-15. The timetable for when a bill might be moved to the floor remains uncertain. The Finance committee has finished its review each of the 500+ amendments that have been introduced and now the bill will now wait for the Congressional Budget Office to evaluate the bill and its cost before a final vote next week. If passed, the bill will then be merged with the version produced by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee before going to the Senate floor. House leaders have announced that they are hoping to produce a single bill crafted from the work of three committees by the end of the week as well.
[Back to Top]
Completing work on the FY2010 spending bills has become a major focus of both chambers in recent weeks. The Senate must complete its work on the 6 remaining bills yet to be voted on in its chamber, and both the House and Senate appropriators must reconcile differences between their versions of each bill during conference negotiations. The $4.6 billion Legislative Branch appropriations bill was the first measure to reconciled by House and Senate negotiators. The relatively uncontroversial bill was used as a vehicle for a continuing resolution that will fund federal government programs at FY09 levels for an additional 30 days.
The continuing resolution passed the House last Friday 217-190 and has since been approved in the Senate as well. While most programs will be funded at FY09 levels under the CR, the measure does provide a boost in funding for the Veterans Health Administration and the Census Bureau. The CR also includes a provision barring funds for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), includes language to cover a budget shortfall at the Postal Service, and extends authorization for surface and aviation transportation programs.
House and Senate appropriators have met in conference negotiations this week to reconcile differences between competing versions of the Agriculture, Energy & Water, and Homeland Security appropriations bills.
Disputes over funding for a border fence and the construction of a biodefense facility remain major points of disagreement within the Homeland Security bill. An amendment in the Senate, added by Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), would require the department to build 700 miles of reinforced double-layered physical fencing along the Southwest U.S. border by December 21, 2010. The department and some lawmakers have called the provision unnecessary and prohibitively expensive. The second major issue concerns the funding to build the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. The House version denies a $36.3 million request to construct the facility until a separate risk assessment of the site is completely by an evaluator not associated with the Department of Homeland Security. On the other hand, the Senate version provides funding for the bill, pending a safety assessment and report from within the department.
Appropriators have suggested that consideration of the FY10 Agriculture appropriations bill will be relatively brief. However, one item of contention concerns foreign ownership of biofuels plants. Conferees are expected to introduce amendments to remove language requiring a majority ownership of the plants by U.S. citizens—a step to increase foreign investment in the industry. The House has already passed a motion to instruct conferees to post the final compromise online for 3 days before it comes to the floor for a vote.
After a conference for the Energy and Water bill was scheduled for Tuesday and postponed for undisclosed reasons, conferees eventual did meet Wednesday afternoon to finish negotiations. The $33.5 billion Energy and Water bill has been approved by the House on Thursday 308-114. The final bill includes funding for 3 Energy Innovation Hubs (Fuels from Sunlight, Energy Efficient Building Design, and Nuclear Energy Modeling and Simulation) at $22 million each. No funding was provided for the RE-ENERGYSE program.
The Senate Thursday also approved the $32.1 billion FY10 Interior-Environment Appropriations bill 77-21 after defeating five Republican amendments, including a proposal that would prohibit funding for so-called White House czars. The "czar" amendment, introduced by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins, was defeated after Majority Whip Durbin raised a point of order against the proposal for breaking Senate rules by changing policy in an appropriations bill. Under the amendment, no funds would have been provided for the White House policy coordinators unless the President allows them to appear before congressional panels and that they submit biannual reports to committees with jurisdiction over their policy issues. The interior appropriations bill also included an increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), boosting the NEA budget for the next year by $10 million to $126.5 million and also boosting the NEH budget by $5 million.
This week the Senate is considering the $636 billion Defense Appropriations bill. The Senate will consider either the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill or the Military Construction measure once it completes the Defense bill.
[Back to Top]
This week the Senate Finance Committee continues its markup of health care overhaul legislation. Finance Health Subcommittee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, (D-WV), and Sen. Charles Schumer, (D-NY), offered amendments to include a public option in Finance Chairman Max Baucus' mark. Both amendments failed in committee. In lieu of a public plan, Baucus' mark includes a system of healthcare coverage modeled on customer-owned-and-operated cooperatives that would compete with private insurers. Schumer and Rockefeller contend the final healthcare overhaul package signed by President Obama will include a public option. Every other House and Senate version of a health care package includes a provision for a public options. Sen. John Kerry, (D-MA), has introduced another contentious issue, proposing an amendment to include an employer mandate in Baucus' mark. This mandate would require employers to cover at least 60 percent of employees' healthcare costs or pay a $750 annual fine per full-time employee and a $375 annual fine per part-time employee. Baucus' mark includes a "free-rider" provision that requires employers that do not offer health insurance to contribute to the cost of federal subsidies for their employees to purchase coverage through the exchange.
Another amendment was shot down on Thursday that would allow low-income Medicare beneficiaries access to prescription drug discounts under Medicaid. The move would raise $106 billion to help close a gap in prescription drug coverage under Medicare but would disturb an $80 billion deal the White House and Baucus cut with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Republicans have offered a number of amendments attempting to hinder cuts in Baucus' mark to extra benefits about 10 million seniors receive by enrolling in private insurer-operated Medicare Advantage plans. The Finance Committee released new scores that estimates the cost of the measure at $900 billion, rather than the Congressional Budget Office’s previous estimate of $774 billion. The committee has already considered 230 of the 564 amendments that were originally introduced by committee members. While the timeline of these negotiations remains tenuous at best, it is possible the Senate Finance Committee would conclude its consideration of these amendments by the end of the week and vote on the measure as early as next week.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday that they have found $200 billion in cuts to their version of a health care overhaul package, bringing the price tag down under $900 billion. No specific timetable has been announced for when House leaders will bring their version of an overhaul package to the floor for votes.
[Back to Top]
Last Tuesday the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing on Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness. The hearing, led by Chairman Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME), focused mainly on biological threats and the nation’s preparedness for a potential biological WMD attack. Proposed legislation on the issue is being considered based on recommendations from a recent report (title: World at Risk) issued by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, led by former Senator Bob Graham. The report provides 13 recommendations and 49 action items, many of which are designed to enhance biosecurity measures in U.S. laboratories. Recommendations include: revising the Select Agent Program to designate the most dangerous (and mostly likely to be weaponized) subset of pathogens as “Tier I” agents and to subject them to higher security requirements, consolidating congressional and agency oversight of the Select Agent Program, the development of a national communications response plan for a WMD attack, the establishment of an international biosecurity commission, and the recruitment of additional security professionals with adequate scientific and language skills to combat WMD threats.
In addition, the hearing reviewed a recent report issued by the Government Accountability Office on current BSL-4 laboratory perimeter security measures. The report reviewed all 5 of the nation’s BSL-4 laboratories and reported on what steps had been taken in the past two years to improve perimeter physical security of each location. The labs were evaluated on the basis of 15 key security controls, including items such as active intrusion detection, roving armed guard patrols, vehicle screening, and blast stand-off areas between the lab and perimeter barriers. The report was also critical of lax oversight and enforcement of security requirements by the Center for Disease Control.
[Back to Top]
Student Loan Reform
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) will likely consider very soon a companion bill to the House of Representatives’ Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, H.R. 3221, which passed the House last week by a vote of 253 to 172. The House legislation would implement much of President Obama’s student loan proposal, most notably ending the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) in favor of 100% participation in the Direct Lending (DL) program in order to realize savings that can be used to bolster the Pell Grant program. The House bill was set on a course that would allow for it to be considered as part of a budget reconciliation process or the normal legislative process. Reconciliation instructions require the House and Senate education committees to report reconciliation bills by Oct. 15. If the deadline is missed, leaders will have to utilize the normal legislative process.
Although the legislation has traveled a relatively smooth path in the House, the outcome in the Senate is less certain. Some members with FFELP lenders in their states have balked at the Administration’s plan and are exploring alternatives. However, HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, (D-IA), has called the bill the single largest investment in higher education in history, and said that it will make college dramatically more affordable by investing billions of dollars in additional student aid, at no cost to taxpayers. The Senate version will need to be passed and reconciled with the House version before the President can sign it into law.
[Back to Top]
State Department Exchange Visitors Program
The U.S. Department of State announced in the Federal Register proposed regulatory changes in its Exchange Visitor Program, which effects foreign faculty, researchers, and students. The proposed rules, which are open to public comment through November 23, 2009, amend Subpart A, General Provisions, of the J exchange visitor regulations. The Department of State is proposing to amend the General Provisions, which have not been revised in whole in over 15 years, despite modifications of many of the category-specific regulations and changes in technology. The proposed regulations encompass technical changes to the General Provisions and address public diplomacy and foreign policy concerns, including the Department's ability to monitor Program sponsors and to ensure the safety and well-being of foreign nationals who come to the United States as Program participants. The amendment of this section incorporates changes made to the regulations since the last update in 1993.
This rule also proposes new requirements regarding applications for designation and redesignation, a change in the required amount of health insurance coverage, the identification of an Employer Identification Number (EIN) and Dun & Bradstreet numbers by sponsors and third party entities, the collection of employment authorization information and validation of the SEVIS record on an exchange visitor's accompanying spouse and dependents, criminal background checks on all Responsible Officers and Alternate Responsible Officers, and the implementation of management audits across all categories under the Private Sector Programs Division of the Office of Designation. The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) currently in place is being redesigned. The redesign, SEVIS II, has no immediate impact on this proposed rule. Prior to the implementation of SEVIS II the Department of Homeland Security will introduce any new requirements or procedures to the public through a proposed rule with a comment period.
[Back to Top]
Science & Technology
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins (R-ME) is preparing cybersecurity legislation that would give the Homeland Security Department, and not a "White House czar", primary authority to protect federal civilian and private computer networks from attacks. Her measure will add to an increasingly jumbled landscape of cybersecurity legislation and stakes out a different approach from a bill introduced this year by Senate Commerce Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, a former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, and Collins' Republican colleague from Maine, Sen. Olympia Snowe. Additionally, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT)plans to introduce a cybersecurity bill, although Collins and Lieberman, who often co-sponsor security legislation, are likely to work out a compromise. The Lieberman bill would counter the Rockefeller-Snowe measure by codifying and strengthening cybersecurity responsibilities of the Homeland Security Department. Rockefeller and Snowe want to create a White House office and national cybersecurity adviser to lead efforts to defend against assaults on the nation's public and private computer networks. Under Collins’ bill, the Defense Department and National Security Agency would be responsible for protecting defense networks. Collins’ bill also would call on the federal government to help private companies adopt best practices, particularly through its purchasing power.
Also this week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that she will hire as many as 1,000 cybersecurity experts over the next three years to help protect the nation’s computer networks. The move signals the first major step the department has taken since a wave of cyberattacks shut down several government web sites in July.
[Back to Top]
Last week the House approved another short-term extension of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The measure extends the programs through Oct. 31, while House and Senate negotiators continue to work on legislation to reauthorize the programs. House-passed and Senate-passed reauthorization bills differ on whether to increase the percentage of their budgets that major federal research agencies must devote to the SBIR program. The Senate-passed bill includes a provision to increase the allocation for the SBIR program from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent of any federal agency budget that provides more than $100 million for research, including the National Institutes of Health. The House bill does not increase the SBIR set-aside. Originally scheduled to expire July 31, Congress approved a two-month extension of the program on July 29.
[Back to Top]
Climate Change Legislation
A draft cap-and-trade bill was introduced in the Senate Wednesday by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The Senate version of the climate change legislation would mandate a 20 percent reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2020 and is higher than the 17 percent target in the House-passed bill. Republican lawmakers have already hinted at their intent to add language to the bill to bolster provisions for nuclear energy. The draft bill leaves key areas of the bill undetermined, such as whether emission credits will be allocated for free or through an auction, and how a carbon-market would be overseen. Hearings on the bill are likely to continue in late October, followed by a markup of the bill. It is unclear if the Senate will meet the goal of bringing a package to the floor before U.S. negotiators attend the international climate talks in Denmark in December.
[Back to Top]
News & Highlights
[Back to Top]
Recently introduced legislation
For a listing of recent legislation sponsored by members of the Texas delegation, visit the Recent Legislation page of our Web Site.
To view Roll Call votes recently passed legislation, click here: (House, Senate)
[Back to Top]