Members Hope a Bustling Spring Yields Results

Posted April 9, 2009 at 2:46pm

Congress’ upcoming five-week session leading to Memorial Day is a crucial stretch for advancing some of the year’s most important bills. Success at the committee level in April and May is essential to getting these measures to the floor before the calendar runs short. The staff of CongressNow takes a look at six key policy areas.

War Spending


At Stake: $75.5 billion in war spending for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars
Players to Watch: House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.), Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.)
Next Action: Lawmakers will draft the bill in the coming weeks and try to send it to the president’s desk by Memorial Day.

A clash is brewing among senior members of the House Appropriations and Senate Armed Services committees over adding billions of dollars in weapons spending to what could be the last emergency supplemental bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Defense appropriators in recent years have used the emergency bills not only to cover war costs, but also to provide dollars for buying and developing weapons systems. Indeed, defense industry lobbyists have come to view the war bills as a second chance to get their projects funded if they are not covered in the annual defense spending bill.

But that appears to be changing. With the backing of Congressional Democrats, the Obama administration’s $75 billion war spending bill, released last week, is the last request for emergency war funds. Beginning next year, the war spending will be included in the annual Pentagon budget and will be counted against the deficit.

House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) already wants to pad the request with more money for weapons. He has said there could be tens of billions of dollars more in the war bill to allow two contractors to build an Air Force refueling tanker. He might also attach money for buying more F-22 fighters.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the soft-spoken but effective Senate Appropriations chairman, has a long history of delivering for weapons builders and would likely support a bid to attach more funds for tanks, planes and ships.

Opposition could emerge from senior members of the Senate Armed Services panel and could lead to fights on the Senate floor.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) are critics of putting non-war spending into the supplemental. They’re eager for a crackdown as they push for a broader overhaul of the Pentagon’s acquisition system.

The dispute needs to be resolved quickly: The Pentagon is telling lawmakers that without the war supplemental, it will run out of money for fighting the wars by Memorial Day.

— Eugene Mulero

Panama Trade Deal


At Stake: A free-trade deal between the U.S. and Panama
Players to Watch: Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.)
Next Action: The Obama administration and Congressional allies want to move the deal as soon as possible — perhaps as early as April.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the wheeling-and-dealing Ways and Means chairman, will see his legislative skills put to the test this spring in the debate over a free-trade deal between the U.S. and Panama.

Rangel and the Obama administration said they want to move the deal quickly, but it’s highly unlikely that they can meet a goal of passing it before the Summit of the Americas later this month. Congressional Democrats are seeking more labor protections and increased tax enforcement in the pact.

Still, free-trade deal supporters in Congress and in the business community view the Panama pact as a test of how the administration and Congress will handle future trade agreements. And Republicans have seized on the inaction to paint Democrats as hurting economic growth.

“Free trade provides new markets for American products and makes goods here at home more affordable for budget-conscious families,— Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, wrote in a recent letter to the administration. “During these tough times, it is more important than ever that we come together to keep all avenues for growth open to the American people and American businesses.—

Rangel is also feeling heat from within his own Caucus.

Last month, Rangel’s remark that he was “optimistic— that the deal would be done caught Democrats off guard. Rangel quickly issued a clarifying statement, saying the deal would only move if Panama agreed to labor protections and there is a crackdown on offshore tax evasion.

— Jay Heflin

Appropriations Bills


At Stake: More than $1 trillion in annual discretionary spending for federal agencies
Players to Watch: House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii)
Next Action: Appropriators are expected to begin marking up the annual spending bills in May.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) was a bulwark against former President George W. Bush’s spending plans in the previous Congress. Now he faces the opposite task in helping advance President Barack Obama’s budget this year.

Obey, along with the other Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, will take a far more aggressive tack to finishing all 12 spending bills this year. Last year, Democrats ultimately chose to shelve most of the spending bills rather than engage in veto battles with the lame-duck president.

Obey and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) plan to begin marking up bills as early as May or June, with the intention of getting all the bills passed through both chambers by the August recess. The chairmen are awaiting their topline spending caps from the Budget Committee, which will determine how much of an increase they’ll be able to spend.

Pushing the bills through in just three months is a Herculean task, especially considering the need to first pass a supplemental war spending bill. In addition, appropriators are still waiting on a detailed budget request from the White House, which isn’t expected until late April or early May.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Democratic appropriators will be not to overreach now that they control the White House and Congress.

Already, the Congressional Black Caucus and Progressive Caucus are calling for sharp reductions in defense spending to fund domestic priorities, such as education, housing and health care.

But the Senate could slow down any dramatic spending shifts with Republican support needed to advance any legislation.

— Vicki Needham

Renewable Energy


At Stake: The first-ever national renewable energy standards
Players to Watch: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and
ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)
Next Action: Lawmakers will consider adding the standards to comprehensive energy legislation due to be marked up by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee over the next month.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) faces an old challenge, but new opposition, as he tries to shepherd a national renewable electricity mandate into law.

The five-term Senate veteran, known for his low-key manner and deliberative legislative style, helped move renewable energy standards through the Senate three times during the administration of former President George W. Bush, only to see the efforts fall by the wayside or die in conference with the House.

Bush is gone, as is another critic of the standards — now-retired Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), whose opposition to the mandate ran so deep that Bingaman in 2007 bypassed his own committee and waited until the Senate floor to attempt to add it to an energy bill. It fell seven votes short of the 60 needed.

Despite a favorable political climate, Bingaman finds himself in familiar territory — negotiating with a Republican opponent and scrounging for support among skeptical Democrats. Bingaman is stretching out the markup of a comprehensive energy package over the course of a month as he attempts to court Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the top Republican on the committee, to back the renewable mandate and other disputed elements of the legislation.

His devotion to bipartisanship on the Energy panel is praised by Republicans but can be frustrating to Democratic colleagues.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earlier this month complained that the delay in passing a bill through the Energy panel had forced him to rethink the piecemeal approach that he favored for bringing energy and climate legislation to the floor. “It’s taking too long,— he said.

Bingaman is intent on passing his latest energy bill with the renewable energy standards intact, aides said. However, it’s unclear whether he can win enough votes from Energy panel Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by three on the committee. A backup plan would be adding the standard on the floor or in conference, assuming that the House backs the standard, as is expected.

Bingaman said he is working hard to address regional concerns over the plan. “We’ve been talking to all Members, both Republican and Democrats, to see if we can get an agreement,— he said in an interview earlier this month.

— Geof Koss

Health Care


At Stake: The scope of the overhaul of the nation’s health care system
Players to Watch: Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)
Next Action: Lawmakers will write health reform legislation in May and June.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) pulled no punches recently in suggesting Republicans have a record of making it difficult to pass health care legislation. He has even gone against some in his own party by calling for moving health reform legislation under filibuster-proof reconciliation rules.

Rockefeller, a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, is expected to play an influential role in writing any health care legislation in the 111th Congress. Indeed, Rockefeller may well emerge as the leading backer on the Finance Committee of a broader and more costly health care overhaul than would be preferred by moderate Democrats.

Rockefeller could find himself sparring with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is seeking consensus with Republicans — and the health care and insurance industries — in writing health reform legislation. Baucus is also on record as opposing reconciliation to move the bill through the Senate.

Rockefeller is likely to find himself more in tune with Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who may serve as a buffer between the West Virginian and Baucus.

An early test of Rockefeller’s legislative prowess could come in May and June as the legislation is being drafted. Rockefeller is expected to push hard to expand long-term care coverage within existing Medicare and Medicaid programs as part of the overhaul.

But Rockefeller has said he is unsure whether his colleagues, including Baucus, will include that provision. “I think the fear is the costs,— a Rockefeller aide said.

Baucus has said he backs expanding long-term care coverage options but has not yet endorsed adding it as part of Medicare or Medicaid.

Rockefeller’s aggressive push for a broader health care bill could prove to be a double-edged sword. While many observers laud him as a smart, experienced, hardworking Member who is able to gather votes, some conservatives are eager to paint him as a liberal who is less wiling to make deals than other Democrats.

— Stephen Langel

Financial Services


At Stake: Increased regulation of financial markets and institutions
Players to Watch: House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.)
Next Action: Frank is expected to bring regulatory reform legislation before his committee when Congress returns from recess.

House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has warned the financial industry that the “days of light touch regulation are over.—

Frank will have the chance to make good on that promise in the coming weeks as his panel writes legislation that would put an end to an era of deregulation. He’s expected to have strong backing from the Obama administration and from Democrats on his committee.

Frank’s real challenge won’t be winning support in the House. Rather, he’ll have to find a way to reach accommodation with the Senate, where aggressive oversight of financial markets has met resistance.

A possible ally for Frank could be Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who has also favored more regulation in recent months. Dodd has faced tough criticism over his past ties to financial firms and faces a potentially tough and costly re-election battle in 2010.

Frank has said political support for his agenda is “lower than it should be— and resistance from pro-market Republicans, who have been wary of appointing a “super regulator— to manage the marketplace, is expected. GOP Members run the risk of opposing regulation at a time when the public blames lax oversight for the ongoing financial crisis.

Frank expects harsh criticism come from financial services lobbyists, who acknowledge that the changes could mean the life or death of their industry. Not surprisingly, many on K Street are looking toward the Senate to, if not derail the legislation, at least lessen its effect on the financial sector.

— Charlene Carter