Basil Tilmon of GalleryWatch in Washington, D.C. prepares informative and sometimes enertaining updates of the comings and goings in the Washington legislative world. Here are exerpts from his update for the week ending December 14:
The omnibus appropriations bill is still in limbo as both the House and Senate on Thursday passed a third continuing resolution to keep the government funded until Dec. 21. The House took advantage of this free time and decided to take today off. Appropriators will work over the weekend on a new plan for an omnibus package, which could hit the House floor as soon as Monday.
The Senate continued to add and subtract pieces of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act puzzle in such a fashion that floor debate on the legislation could end up becoming one big jigsaw. For weeks, debate centered around two versions of legislation approved by the Intelligence and Judiciary committees (S. 2248) and the sticking point for some Democrats has become whether to grant retroactive legal immunity to telecom companies. Fourteen Democrats this week asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to allow the Judiciary version (without telecom immunity) to serve as the base text of the bill. However, Reid seemed to have other plans, introducing two separate measures of his own (S. 2440 and S. 2441).
Lurking in the shadows all this time is a substitute measure (S. 2402) offered by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) that would transplant, with few exceptions, the legal indemnity from telecom firms to the federal government. Yet, after delaying consideration for a week, the Judiciary Committee on Thursday easily rejected the measure by a vote of 5 to 13. CongressNow reported that the combination of rushing the bill and questions over its constitutionality led to its defeat. However, Specter said he would reintroduce the bill on the floor as an amendment.
Upon returning from the November recess, Reid initially planned for the Senate to consider FISA reauthorization this month. With so little time left before the Senate adjourns and other major issues still unresolved, debate is expected to continue into January.
The State Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization – now merely an effort to extend the program into next year due to two presidential vetoes – is now coupled with another time-sensitive item: stopping Medicare physician reimbursement cuts. On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) proposed a new approach for next week. The new Hoyer proposal appears to be a non-starter, however, as it pays for Medicare reimbursement cuts by cutting Medicare Advantage, a move the president opposes. It also extends SCHIP but includes provisions about coverage of children whose families make more than 250 percent of the poverty line, a change that the White House also opposes. Frustration in the House over Medicare reimbursement negotiations has many looking to the Senate. The Senate is looking at a pared down version that accommodates the White House.
The farm bill (H.R. 2419) debate and amendments continued all week. The Senate voted 78-12 to invoke cloture on the bill late Thursday setting up a final vote as early as today. Here is a status of health-related amendments:
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) – 3639, nutrition standards for food in schools.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) – 3821, school food nutrition.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) – 3673, Healthy Mothers and Healthy Babies Rural Access to Care Act. (Failed.)
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) – 3539, meat inspection. (Passed by unanimous consent.)
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) – 3845, providing further instructions for the bipartisan food safety commission in the bill. (Passed, included as an amendment to 3539.)
Foreign Policy and Trade
U.S. trade officials take a victory lap on China, but will Congress be satisfied?
All week the best and the brightest of the Bush administration’s trade officials haggled with their Chinese counterparts at the third meeting of the Strategic Economic Dialogue. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson laid out in his opening remarks that the goals were for the U.S. and China “to increase our understanding, expand our cooperation and broaden our partnership.” From the results achieved, Paulson’s phraseology could be easily translated into “improving trade relations.” Discussions quickly produced agreements. According to joint fact sheet released by the Treasury Department, the parties reached memorandums of understanding in eight areas related to the safety of Chinese exports:
Food and feed: Memorandum of agreement between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), signed on Dec. 11, 2007.
Drugs and medical products: Agreement between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and China’s State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), signed on Dec. 11, 2007.
Environmentally compliant exports/imports: Memorandum of understanding signed between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and China’s AQSIQ.
Food safety: The U.S. Department of Agriculture and China’s AQSIQ agree to upgrade their food safety memorandum of cooperation to a ministerial-level.
Alcohol and tobacco products: Memorandum of understanding between the U.S. Department of the Treasury and China’s AQSIQ, signed on Dec. 11, 2007.
Additional areas of agreement include toys, fireworks, lighters and electrical products; motor vehicle safety; and pesticides tolerance and trade.
In addition, agreements were also brokered on banking reform, energy, environment and bilateral investment. Paulson said he was pleased with the outcome, declaring the talks “substantive, robust and engaging exchanges on a range of issues important to both our nations.”
Energy and Environment
The energy bill (H.R. 6) with a new substitute amendment with revised tax provisions for oil and gas companies failed to achieve cloture in the Senate on Thursday morning. This was not a complete surprise as the White House issued a veto threat on the new amendment moments before the vote. The bill came back to the Senate floor later in the day on Thursday without the tax provisions and passed by a vote of 86-8. Renewable electricity standards were taken out of the bill earlier this week, while renewable fuel standards were included. The House will deal with the bill in expedited fashion on Monday evening.
Also on the Senate floor, the farm bill (H.R. 2419) debate and amendments continued all week. The Senate voted 78-12 to invoke cloture on the bill late Thursday setting up a final vote as early as today. Here is a status of amendments related to energy and environment issues:
Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) – 3614, Biofuels for Energy Security and Transportation Act. (CongressNow article.)
Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) – 3616, cellulosic biofuels.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) – 3569, commercial fishing.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) – 3822, LIHEAP.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) – 3736, bioenergy crop transition.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) – 3826, LIHEAP. (amending 3822)
One Senator tried to find a way to give DOD a little more breathing room at the expense of his peers. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) suggested Defense Secretary Robert Gates make use of his transfer authority to use spending slated for earmarks in the fiscal 2008 Defense Appropriations Act (P.L. 110-116) for the war in Iraq. Joining with Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), DeMint first broached the idea to Gates in a letter after the bill became law. This week, DeMint released a CRS memo concluding total spending on earmarks ($5 billion) could cover Army operations for an additional three weeks.
Most lawmakers are unlikely to play along if the Pentagon touches their earmarks. Members this week have already raised several concerns over DOD. Senators were troubledstatus of the Air Force privatization projects. Reports of the Pentagon scaling back its purchase of MRAPs for the Marine Corps could spur more inquiries. over rumors of halting procurement of the F-22A Raptor.