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Rail Funding, Online Taxes a Few of the Issues on Congress' Plate

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
While some House authorizers — including Shuster, left, the Transportation and Infrastructure panel chairman — support investment in high-speed rail, other Republicans remain strongly opposed to the White House plan for a nationwide system of fast passenger trains.

Beyond the president’s ambitious agenda, Congress has no shortage of other issues to tackle in the 113th Congress.

Rail Reauthorization

The expiration of current law in September is likely to trigger a showdown over President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail initiative. While some House authorizers, including Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., support investment in high-speed rail, at least in the Northeast Corridor, other Republicans remain strongly opposed to the White House plan for a nationwide system of fast passenger trains.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has signaled that Obama will again propose funding in his fiscal 2014 budget, even though appropriators in both chambers provided nothing for the program in their fiscal 2013 spending bills.

The issue will pose an early test of Shuster’s ability to promote transportation infrastructure investment amid growing wariness in his own caucus.

Climate Change

Unlike the heated political fights that accompanied past efforts to reduce emissions through cap-and-trade bills, the climate debate is likely to unfold in a more piecemeal fashion.

An early focus will be on projects designed to reduce damage to infrastructure from the kinds of extreme weather that is expected to occur more frequently as global temperatures rise. Following Superstorm Sandy, the Senate approved billions of dollars in spending on storm adaptation as part of a relief package. The House could vote as early as this week on a similar plan.

Water Programs

Lawmakers writing legislation to authorize billions of dollars in new spending on ports, inland waterways and clean water infrastructure will face a new challenge in trying to put together a bill free of earmarks. Previous water bills have been collections of hundreds of projects sought by members of Congress. But self-imposed congressional earmark bans will force House and Senate authorizing committees to come up with new ways to dispense the money.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, drafted legislation in the waning days of the 112th Congress to establish standards the Army Corps of Engineers must follow in choosing which projects to fund. House authorizers are cool to that idea and have quietly asked leadership to consider modifying the earmark ban to avoid leaving spending decisions in the hands of the executive branch.

Afghan War

The Obama administration will determine the nature of the U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014 and the drawdown of U.S. troops. But lawmakers will want to put their stamp on the policy, with a vocal minority advocating a more substantial presence aligned against a growing number eager to end the U.S. role in the long-running conflict.

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