March 10, 2011 | View Archive
Federal Budget — Funding the Government Two Weeks at a Time
The federal government continues to operate under temporary funding for the current fiscal year as Congress has not been able to come to terms with dueling budget proposals. This week the Senate considered two competing approaches to fund federal activities for the remainder of FY11, neither of which was approved.
Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) brought to the Senate floor H.R. 1, the House-passed budget bill which sought to cut up to $57 billion from last year's spending levels. As expected, the bill did not receive the required 60 votes and failed 44-56. In a lackluster demonstration of one-upmanship, Reid then brought to the floor the Democrat version of the bill which would have shaved $4.7 billion and level-funded most government programs. It too failed, 42-58, noticeably garnering fewer votes than H.R. 1.
So, what's next? In all likelihood, another temporary continuing resolution will be needed in order to avoid a shutdown on March 18. House Republicans have indicated some willingness to continue on this path if the CR further chips away at the deficit. The real game may shift to the debate surrounding the debt ceiling. CBO now estimates that the current debt limit will be reached at some point in April. While several House conservatives are drawing a line in the sand by stating that they will not approve an increase to the debt ceiling, Speaker Boehner (R-OH) does appear to be gaining support for allowing an increase if coupled with significant cuts. Some key Senate Democrats are beginning to voice approval with this approach.
Secretary Duncan Discusses Department of Education Budget and Policies
On Wednesday, Secretary Arne Duncan testified before the House Education & the Workforce Committee regarding the Department of Education's FY12 Budget. Much of the discussion addressed K-12 issues but Secretary Duncan defended many of the key Higher Education issues.
While Chairman John Kline opposes the Administration's increased funding of Pell Grants, Secretary Duncan noted the negative impact for students if Pell Grants are reduced. Throughout the hearing, several Members expressed supporting Pell Grants, including Ranking Member George Miller, Tierney, Loebsack, and Hirono.
Additionally, Congressman Hinojosa expressed his strong support regarding Minority-Serving Institutions and asked for an update on the outcome and timeline for upcoming HSI grants. Secretary Duncan stated that the Department would like to increase funding over time for MSI's and increase the diversity of teachers in schools. However, the Secretary did not orally commit to any timelines regarding the grant monies authorized in the previous Congress.
"Doc Fix" Projections Released for 2012
Health and Human Services has informed the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission that, pending a budgetary fix by Congress, the 2012 level of physician reimbursements under the sustainable growth rate will be reduced by 29.5 percent. HHS estimates that the price tag to avoid the cuts will be $330 billion.
Patent Reform Approved by the Senate
On March 8, the Senate passed S. 23, the America Invents Act of 2011, on a vote of 95-5. The overwhelming stamp of approval was the result of a six-year effort to reform U.S. patent law. Through the efforts of AAU and APLU, among others, the higher education community negotiated several provisions to ensure changes to the patent approval process would allow universities to pursue and protect our intellectual property.
In addition to provisions that harmonize U.S. law with international standards and adding provisions that will improve patent quality and reduce patent litigation costs, the bill provides much needed resources for the Patent and Trademark Office by allowing PTO to set fees (subject to Congressional and Patent Public Advisory Committee oversight) and prevent diversion of those fees to other, non-PTO uses. This provision is seen as vital to providing PTO with the resources they need to expedite strong patent approvals.
Efforts now shift to the House where the Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Lamar Smith, is in the process of drafting their own version. Some of the expected differences between the House and Senate positions were addressed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy this week, and certain House interests were included in the final Senate bill. One of the biggest remaining hurdles is how damages are assessed when multiple patents appear to be at issue. The higher education community, led by the AAU Task Force on Patent Reform, will continue to work with Chairman Smith on this and other matters of concern.
Republicans Still Battling Berwick Nomination
On March 3, 42 Senate Republicans called on President Obama to withdraw Donald Berwick as his nominee to serve as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
In a letter organized by Republican Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Enzi — the ranking members, respectively, on the Finance Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — the Senators argue for replacing Berwick with a nominee who has the "confidence" of the American people. Both Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Senator John Cornyn signed the letter.
This week, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus admitted that "the votes aren't there" to move the Berwick nomination. Senate Finance Committee staff have indicated that confirmation hearings will not be scheduled and they are considering "next steps."
Since his nomination last spring, Republicans have been critical of Berwick, due in part to his previous stances that have been seen by some as supporting the rationing of health care. Berwick was appointed as CMS Administrator during the congressional recess last July. The appointment expired on December 31, 2010. President Obama renominated Berwick in January.
HHS Announces State Healthcare Waiver Procedures
In an effort to allay governors' growing concerns that the costs of Medicaid eligibility mandates in the Affordable Care Act are untenable, HHS Secretary Sebelius this week announced proposed procedures for states to seek waivers from certain provisions of the healthcare reform law.Leaving many of the details to a pending Institute of Medicine review, HHS is proposing that states be allowed to seek waivers from insurance exchange and individual mandate requirements. In order to qualify for a waiver, a state would first need to enact legislation codifying health overhaul plans that satisfy HHS review. The state could then offer "alternative essential benefits packages" to its citizens. The IOM study will recommend which components of healthcare provision qualify as "essential."
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