Weekly ‘On the Hill’ Update

ON THE HILL… Led by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (R, IL), almost two dozen Democrats in the House endorsed legislation this week to raise the federal minimum wage immediately from $7.25 to $10 per hour, the first such increase in three years.  But, no Democratic leaders have endorsed the measure, and the silence coming from their offices this week has highlighted the potential political difficulty in raising the minimum wage — a move that’s anathema to the powerful business lobby — amid sluggish economic times.

A House panel on Thursday advanced Republican-backed legislation to reauthorize and consolidate current federal job training programs included in the Workforce Investment Act, despite sharp Democratic criticism that the changes would divert funding from underserved populations.  In a daylong markup, the Education and the Workforce Committee approved the bill 23-15. The measure (HR 4297) would consolidate 27 programs into one large jobs training block grant.

House-Senate conference negotiations to renew the Violence Against Women Act remains stalled due to a technical problem in the Senate bill (S. 1925), which includes a revenue increase that sparked a constitutional challenge by the House.  (Under the constitution, all revenue provisions must originate in the House.)  The House and the Senate have passed competing versions of a five-year re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, a 1994 law that funds programs to support victims of domestic violence.

Republican senators on Tuesday rebuffed an effort to end debate on a motion to proceed to consider the Paycheck Fairness Act that would increase penalties against employers who discriminate based on an employee’s gender. The Senate voted 52-47, short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture and proceed to the measure (S 3220), which would add remedies and additional tools to enforce an existing law against gender-based pay discrimination.

House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R, MI) is working on a plan to avoid what now commonly is being referred to as the “fiscal cliff” (this is a reference to the wave of U.S. tax hikes and automatic spending cuts that will go into effect on January 1, 2013 unless Congress takes action) by extending for a full year or more the Bush-era tax cuts and other tax and budget measures set to expire in January. This latest effort envisions a full-year extension, creating more time for broader tax and spending changes GOP lawmakers want to enact. The plan to extend current policies does not include delaying $109 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that are set to hit in January as a result of a special congressional committee’s inability to agree on a deficit reduction plan last year. The House passed a bill (HR 5652) last month that would turn off the portion of the sequester that would cut discretionary spending by $98 billion and replace it with hundreds of billions of dollars of cuts in mandatory programs. Senate Democratic leaders oppose that bill because it depends entirely on spending cuts, most of them in domestic social programs, and does not include a tax increase.

The Congressional Budget Office warned Tuesday that Congress needs to make tough choices to avoid a serious impact on the economy that would result if lawmakers extend current tax cuts and spending policies and prevent the automatic spending cuts set to take place next year. In its annual long-term budget outlook, the independent agency said the federal debt would rise sharply if current policies are extended, resulting in a 4 percent lower gross national product in 2027 and a 13 percent lower GNP in 2037. Under what the agency calls its alternative scenario, which includes the assumption that various expiring tax cuts are extended and the automatic spending cuts set to hit next year are canceled, the agency said debt held by the public, currently estimated at 73 percent of GDP, would expand to 90 percent of GDP in 2022, 109 percent in 2026 and almost 200 percent in 2037.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R, AL) said Wednesday that a spending outline written by Senate Democrats may break the debt limit agreement the parties struck last year, turning up the heat in a dispute that’s simmered even as the parties have moved toward funding federal programs for the next year. The Alabama Republican, the ranking member on the Budget Committee, charged that Chairman Kent Conrad (D, ND) filed inflated spending levels, and he warned in a letter to Conrad that if the limits are not revised he would “consider other options to attempt their correction.” Republicans say the higher outlay limits allow for $14 billion more in spending next year than agreed to by the parties.  The disputed spending limits are being used now by the Appropriations to set spending levels for fiscal year 2013.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R, VA) said this week that serious legislating is all but done until after the election.   In his remarks, Mr. Cantor all but predicted 2012 substantively over. “The Senate isn’t passing spending bills and is not talking about working to blunt the automatic defense cuts. The two sides remain too far apart on taxes and entitlements. The rest of the year will likely be about sending signal[s] that we’ve actually gotten with the reality here, that we have huge problems to deal with,” Mr. Cantor said.

The week ahead… The House will be in recess for the week. The Senate will turn in earnest to the five-year farm policy bill. Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Thursday that staff would work through the weekend to attempt to reduce the number of amendments in order to the $969 billion bill (S 3240), trying to convince senators to withdraw amendments with similar intent.  The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor-HHS-Education will meet on Tuesday to consider its fiscal year 2013 spending bill.

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