Policy

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By JACOB FISCHLER

Sen. James Lankford offered an amendment to the Republican tax bill in the Senate to eliminate tax breaks for professional sports stadium construction, matching a provision in the House bill.

The Oklahoma Republican’s Senate bill proposal would make sports stadiums ineligible for tax breaks given to private activity bondholders. Income on private activity bonds is tax-exempt if the project financed by the bonds has some public benefit. Lankford’s amendment would spell out that professional stadiums cannot be categorized as a public good and therefore the tax break couldn’t apply.

“Senator Lankford disagrees with using billions of federal taxpayer dollars for the subsidization of private stadiums when we have so many infrastructure needs in our country,” Lankford spokesman D.J. Jordan said in an email. “Everyone likes free federal money to build their expensive stadiums, but with $20 trillion in federal debt, this is waste that needs to be eliminated.”

Despite differences in legislative text between the Lankford amendment and the House bill, the effect would be the same: the tax break would be eliminated, said Tim Fisher, coordinator of legislative and federal affairs at the Council of Development Finance Agencies.

CDFA, which represents finance officers at state, local, non-profit and private entities, opposes the provision because bonds for stadiums can help spur economic growth, Fisher said.

“Stadium bonds are an important part of the development finance toolbox,” he said.

It was unclear Thursday afternoon if the amendment would be included in the Senate’s debate on the tax bill or during the vote on final passage.

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Updated 7:45 p.m. | Most of the focus has been on taxes, but the portion of the Senate reconciliation bill that would open up drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge needed to be revised, too.

Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the fixes that are being worked out for Byrd violations in her portion of the bill would be added to a substitute to be offered by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“We are finishing up the last of that and expect to have a curative amendment if you will as part of the process going forward,” she said.

Murkowski suggested that provisions of the bill violated the Byrd problem by either not having a budgetary impact or being extraneous in other ways.

“I can tell you that with anything when you’re working within the reconciliation you’ve got to have it so that you’re either raising revenue or the matters are not extraneous in any way,” Murkowski said in an interview. “So again if something is viewed to be outside of the revenue raising it’s, there is a flag and so you scrub it once, you scrub it twice, you go back three and four times, and that is the simple process that we’ve been going through.”

The legislation as it was reported out of committee directs the Interior secretary to lease within the Coastal Plain, or also known as the “1002 area,” using the regulations and management structure the department uses to lease oil and gas operations in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA), a separate region in northern Alaska .

That provision, however, would be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, which would fall under the Environment and Public Works Committee’s jurisdiction, according to a source familiar to the discussions.

According to several sources, Democrats pressed, and ultimately succeeded, in having the Parliamentarian strip that from the bill. Under the solution, the Interior Department would then have to go through a more lengthy process to establish the leasing process rules and regulations.

Decoding Reconciliation: Why the Senate Only Needs 50 Votes on Tax Bill

The language needed be adjusted in order for Republicans totry to pass the bill to overhaul the U.S. tax code under the budget reconciliation process, which allows legislation to advance with only a simple majority support.

“They have to have a curative strategy or it produces problems with the whole bill being in order. And that’s a problem,” North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis said earlier.

Among the rules and procedures named for former Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd that come into play during reconciliation bills is a requirement that only provisions from committees receiving reconciliation instructions in the budget resolution are included in the bill.

The Environment and Public Works Committee received no such instructions. Those instructions provided for only provisions belonging to the Energy and Natural Resources and Finance committees to be included.

Murkowski defended the bill as being tightly written to comply with the Byrd rule, but she said “if there’s one word that is viewed to be extraneous they say, ‘Well you’ve got to throw that out,’ and so you go back and forth with the parliamentarian.”

She also said every time the language in the bill is changed, she has to go back to the CBO to get a new score.

“You’re kind of adding, subtracting, adding, subtracting all throughout the way,” Murkowski said.

Paul M. Krawzak and Joe Williams contributed to this report.

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Legislation from the duo at the helm of the Senate health panel would do little to improve the number of uninsured individuals if the mandate created by the 2010 health law is repealed, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

A repeal of the mandate — which requires individuals to purchase insurance or pay a yearly fine — is currently included in the GOP bill to overhaul the U.S. tax code.

Some Republican senators, like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, have cited the legislation from Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the panel’s top Democrat, as a necessary measure should the mandate be repealed.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska also previously told Roll Call that Congress “absolutely must have the Alexander-Murray piece that is passed into law” if the mandate is repealed.

CBO previously estimated repealing the mandate would lead to an additional 13 million uninsured individuals over the next decade.

The nonpartisan budget office said passage of the Alexander-Murray measure would do little to change that if the mandate is also repealed.

“The agencies expect that the interactions among the provisions would be small; the effects on premiums and the number of people with health insurance coverage would be similar,” CBO wrote in a Wednesday letter to Murray.

GOP aides say the Alexander-Murray measure will likely be added to an upcoming bill to fund the government in some capacity in fiscal year 2018 in order to help persuade skeptical Republican members to vote for the tax bill.

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The nominee to lead the Health and Human Services Department, Alex M. Azar, told a Senate panel that his top priority would be addressing the high price of prescription drugs. But there was skepticism from both sides of the dais at Wednesday’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing that Azar, a former pharmaceutical company executive, would live up to that promise.

While it was mostly Democrats who took aim at Azar’s tenure working for and running the U.S. affiliate of Eli Lilly & Co., Sen. Rand Paul said he would also need to be convinced. The Kentucky Republican pressed Azar on whether he would work on a system to safely import lower-cost prescription drugs from places with comparable systems, like Canada and Europe.

When Azar dismissed that approach, pointing out that previous administrations of both parties had rejected the idea, Paul shot back: “They’ve been wrong and beholden to the drug companies.” Paul then threatened to withhold his support unless Azar came up with a proposal to make it work.

“We all have our doubts, because Big Pharma manipulates the system to keep prices high,” Paul said.

In his opening statement, Azar endorsed a drug price proposal that the Trump administration has already put forward: promoting competition from lower-cost generic drugs, closing regulatory loopholes that can extend drug company monopolies, and making sure that the companies are adequately compensated in overseas markets.

“Drug prices are too high. The president made this clear and so have I,” Azar told lawmakers. “I believe I can bring the skills and experience to the table that can help us address these issues while still encouraging discovery to make sure Americans have access to high quality care.”

Azar pointed to his time at HHS during the George W. Bush administration, when he spent four years as general counsel and two years as deputy secretary. He helped implement the Medicare prescription drug benefit, known as Part D. Under Part D, private pharmaceutical benefit managers negotiate with drug companies on prices. When asked about President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Medicare drug price negotiation, Azar said he would be interested in looking at whether the Part D model could be applied to the physician-administered drugs purchased by Medicare under Part B.

But Azar avoided straight answers about whether he would hold pharmaceutical company executives who exploit the system to account, and dodged questions from Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin about why Eli Lilly raised prices for its drugs year after year. When Azar pointed to problems with the broader system, Baldwin responded: “It starts with the manufacturers setting the list price.”

If confirmed, Azar said he would also focus on using Medicare’s size and power to help shift the health system from a fee-for-service model to one where patients pay based on health outcomes. He also pledged to address opioid abuse, calling for more conservative prescribing practices and an expansion of treatment services.

However, he would not say if the administration thought more money was needed to address the opioids issue and said he would need to examine what resources were already available. When asked whether essential health benefits required in health insurance marketplace plans should include substance use disorder treatment, he said that was best for states to decide.

In discussing coverage offered through the health care law exchanges, Azar said he wanted “all Americans to have access to affordable insurance that they desire.” But use of the word “access” and an emphasis on choice provided ammunition to Democrats who argued that the administration doesn’t care if people are insured.

Azar defended the administration’s actions related to coverage under the 2010 health care law. He said shortening the length of the open enrollment period, as the Trump administration did this year, would make it easier for health insurers to plan for the year ahead. He suggested that programs to help individuals navigate their insurance options weren’t working, and that it was the right decision for the administration to cut their funding.

“If something’s not working, why are we funding it?” Azar asked.

Azar is aligned with Republicans on some proposed changes to the health law, including a repeal of the mandate to buy health insurance. He also supported the administration’s decision to stop making cost-sharing payments to insurance companies who subsidize premiums for poorer individuals.

Following Trump’s endorsement of a bipartisan proposal to extend the cost-sharing subsidies and change state Medicaid waiver procedures, Azar also backed the approach. But he didn’t think the bill, from committee Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and ranking member Patty Murray of Washington, was a long-term fix.

“I don’t believe it is a long-term solution to problems that are just inherent in the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “I do think it’s an important stopgap to help along that way.”

He also defended the administration’s decision to allow exemptions for employers who don’t want to cover the cost of contraceptives for their employees because the employers say they have moral or religious objections. While Azar told Murray he would follow congressional intent, science and evidence, he said there should be a balance between women’s health needs and employers’ views. He argued that the change would only impact a small number of people.

Senators on the Finance Committee will also get a chance to question Azar, but a hearing has not yet been scheduled. That panel will ultimately vote on whether to send his nomination to the full Senate.

Azar appears to be a less controversial nominee than his predecessor, Tom Price, who resigned as HHS secretary in September after reports of his travel at excessive taxpayer expense. Azar’s connection to Eli Lilly, which ended earlier this year, doesn’t seem to be creating the same kind of headaches that Price had over his trades of health care industry stocks and financial connections to other health care entities.

Still, Azar’s answers about health insurance coverage and women’s health did not satisfy Democrats. At the outset of the hearing, Murray derided Azar as an “extreme, ideologically driven nominee to pick up right where former Secretary Price left off.”

After Wednesday’s hearing, it seemed like support for Azar’s nomination would break down along party lines, with the possible exception of Paul. Republicans are impressed with his background and think the fact that he led a pharmaceutical company makes him uniquely qualified to know what’s wrong with the American drug pricing system.

“Experience in health care to me is an obvious asset for someone called upon to lead the nation’s most important health care agency,” Alexander said.

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House Democrats, led by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, used some procedural creativity Thursday in filing a resolution to discharge a bill that could ultimately lead to a vote on the so-called DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act is a measure that Democrats and some Republicans want to pass as a legislative solution to President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that sheltered roughly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children from deportation.

The measure would provide certain conditions under which those covered by DACA can obtain permanent legal residential status and eventually even citizenship.

A discharge petition is a procedural tool under which members can try to bring a bill to the floor against leadership’s wishes. The tool is most often used by the minority party and it requires the signature of a majority of members to discharge a measure to the floor, so most discharge efforts are not successful.

The problem Democrats encountered in wanting to file a discharge petition on the DREAM Act is that House rules require a bill to have been introduced for 30 legislative days, or days in session, before a resolution to discharge can be filed.

The DREAM Act was introduced on July 26 — less than 30 legislative days ago as the House was in recess during August.

Democrats, however, found a loophole. House rules allow for substitution of a related bill on a discharge petition once it has ripened, which takes seven legislative days. Members cannot sign the petition until after the seven-day ripening period.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer’s staff identified a measure called the Today’s American Dream Act, which was introduced more than 30 legislative days ago, as a related bill that they could use to substitute the DREAM Act as a germane amendment, according to a Hoyer aide.

Democrats introduced a resolution Thursday night to discharge the Today’s American Dream Act and substitute it with the text of the DREAM Act.

“We are asking all Members of Congress who believe it is wrong to deport young people brought to this country as children to join us in this effort,” Hoyer and Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “In many cases, these DREAMers have known no other home than America. Common sense and compassion must now prevail.“

The discharge petition is likely to draw signatures from a large majority of Democrats — if not all.

The DREAM Act has two Republican co-sponsors, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, who might sign on as well.

Ros-Lehtinen is retiring, so she likely wouldn’t hesitate to buck her leadership on this matter, especially given her strong pro-immigration stance. Coffman has also shown a willingness to go against his party on this issue; he introduced a bill in January to halt deportation of DACA recipients for three years.

In this case, other Republicans who want to sign on may have some level of cover as President Donald Trump has reportedly expressed support for the DREAM Act, albeit not as a standalone measure.

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House GOP leaders are working on a tweak to the state and local income tax deduction to appease California members, Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry said Tuesday.

The bill the House passed before Thanksgiving would fully repeal the state and local income tax deduction and retain the property tax deduction with a $10,000 cap. Twelve members from the high-tax states of New York, New Jersey and California voted against the tax bill because of concerns over the so-called SALT deduction.

President Donald Trump offered Tuesday his support for including the House’s SALT provision in the Senate bill, according to Sen. Susan Collins.

“At least they’re making that positive moment,” McHenry said of the Senate. “We still have some tweaks to do to accommodate California, mainly.”

The North Carolina Republican confirmed those tweaks would be to the state and local income tax deduction. He did not offer further specifics. The House seeking to make further changes to SALT would be part of anticipated conference committee negotiations with the Senate.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said November 16 in the hours after the tax bill passed the House that he was working on something to get more California members to support the final measure but declined to say whether it was in relation to the state and local tax deduction.

Three California Republicans voted against the House tax overhaul: Reps. Darrell Issa, Tom McClintock and Dana Rohrabacher. Issa and Rohrabacher are both on Roll Call’s top ten list of the most vulnerable House incumbents.

SALT is just one of many differences in the House and Senate tax bills that could complicate negotiations between the two chambers over a final tax bill.

Some House Republicans on Tuesday expressed concern over an idea Senate Republicans are considering to add a “trigger” mechanism to their tax bill that would automatically increase taxes to prevent deficit increases if growth projections do not materialize.

Rep. Tom Cole initially called the idea “crazy” but then decided to change his description to “skeptical.”

“Senators are so easily offended these days,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “The reality is it could kick in at a really bad time for the economy. When you’re slowing down, you don’t want to be increasing taxes. ... This is an idea that dying a quick and quiet death would be a good thing.”

McHenry said it’s hard to judge the trigger idea without seeing text but said “generally it’s overly complicated and not in the interest of economic growth.”

“I want the Senate to pass a tax bill and we’re going to go to conference; we’re going to hammer out the details,” he added. “I like our plan better than their plan. And I think we’ve got a better approach.”

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said he has yet to make a judgment about the trigger proposal.

“We want to make sure under the umbrella this gets done but the trigger and other things — we have to be able to make a case that this still connects to being pro-growth,” the North Carolina Republican said. “And if it doesn’t then it would cause some pause.”

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