In one of their final weeks of work ahead of the August recess, House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a deal to continue funding the nation’s transit infrastructure projects by addressing a coming shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. The House-passed deal is expected to be quickly taken up and cleared by the Senate in coming days.
Unfortunately the measure — a 10-month patch shoring up the fund through May 2015 with $11 billion — may have also dealt a fatal blow to lawmakers hoping to reinstate federal unemployment insurance benefits, as the “pay-for” for the extending funding for the highway trust fund came from the same mechanism (so called “pension smoothing”) that lawmakers had suggested could be used a “pay for” for extending jobless aid. The development makes chances increasingly slim that a renewal of emergency unemployment insurance will get a vote in the Senate before the midterm election, as Sens. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV) must now find a new way to pay for their five-month extension of unemployment insurance — the longest time frame lawmakers could find money to pay for in a manner that centrist Republicans would accept. Senate Republicans rejected unpaid-for extensions earlier this year, eventually passing a $10 billion, five-month bill in April that the House never took up. After that bill’s timeline ran out, Heller and Reed introduced a new five-month extension that — unlike previous efforts — did not include retroactive benefits. But now without a “pay-for”, that bill, if Reed and Heller were somehow able to secure another vote, would likely fall short of needed support. Senator Heller has insisted that, despite the setbacks, he and Sen. Reed will try to determine if there’s a new unemployment insurance proposal that could pass this year.
On Wednesday Senate Democrats fell short in their efforts to pass legislation responding to the recent Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision, a 5-4 ruling which said closely-held companies do not have to comply with the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act if the owners have religious objections. The bill, which would have negated the Supreme Court’s ruling by eliminating the religious exemption, fell three votes short of the 60-vote threshold to end debate. Republicans Susan Collins (ME), Mark Kirk (IL) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) voted with the Democrats in favor of the bill. Senate Majority leader Harry vowed to bring the legislation up again for another vote, and Democrats were quick to note that Sen. Brian Schatz (HI) was not present for the vote, meaning that if a re-vote is taken they will only need to convince two more Republicans to support the measure for it to be considered on a simple majority vote.
With just a handful of days left in session before the August recess and campaign season entering full swing. Still, both parties have emphasized in recent days new economic priorities aimed at wooing support from middle-class voters. The Democratic agenda has been retooled in recent weeks to focus more on middle-class workers and families and less on closing the gap between low-income families and the middle class, with House Democrats’ agenda resembling aspects of the Senate Democrats’ “fair shot” agenda. Among several items on the list, the Democratic agenda includes familiar proposals such as raising the minimum wage, incentives for manufacturing, easier terms for student loan repayment and new pay equity guarantees for women workers.
Both the House and Senate will be in session next week, with the Senate in on Monday and the House resuming legislative work on Tuesday, July 22nd.