ON THE HILL … With the automatic, across-the-board cuts to discretionary and defense spending scheduled to hit in less than a month, there is a stepped up focus on how to avert the $85 billion in cuts from taking place on March 1. Senate Democrats are planning to release next week a short-term sequester replacement bill that combines alternative spending cuts and new tax revenue to replace the cuts that are scheduled to take place. While the details of the measure are still being worked out, reports are that it will provide a short-term replacement for the cuts, and may be up for floor consideration the week of Feb. 25, just before the automatic cuts start hitting budgets at federal agencies. It is expected that the measure will be “close to evenly divided” between spending cuts and tax hikes. For their part, Republicans are holding firm, for now, on no new taxes to avoid the sequester.
Democratic staff of the House Appropriations Committee this week released statements from federal agencies that paint a grim picture of what would happen if the spending cuts begin March 1. Among the likely results of the $85 billion reduction of fiscal 2013 spending, according to the report, are disrupted medical research, temporary shutdowns of food processing plants, longer waits at airports, reduced security at embassies, reductions in border programs that will cut into commerce and trade. In the preliminary report issued Thursday, the Democrats stressed reductions in services already in place as a result of budget cutting since Republicans gained control of the House in 2011. Discretionary spending has been cut by more than $40 billion since then, the report says, with an impact the Democrats said has reverberated around the country. A more detailed report on the impact of the spending cuts is expected to be released by House Democrats next week. The Senate Appropriations Committee has scheduled a hearing next week on the effects of the spending cuts.
After an election focused heavily on jobs, the House is expected to move quickly on a long-stalled overhaul of federal job-training programs. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both the House and Senate agree that the 1998 Workforce Investment Act, which expired in 2003, needs updating. Committees in both chambers began work on the legislation during the last Congress but bills did not make it to the floor in either the House or Senate. Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee are expected to introduce a bill to overhaul job-training programs in the coming weeks that will largely mirror the measure they pushed through the panel on a party-line vote last year, according to a committee spokeswoman. That bill proposed consolidating 27 job-training programs into one large block grant to the states and would have allowed governors to merge additional programs if they had a “responsible” plan to do so. It would have required states to adopt a common set of performance measures to judge the success of all programs. And it would have required that two-thirds of the members of each local workforce board be employers, to help ensure that job training meets the needs of businesses. Committee Democrats opposed the GOP bill and will likely do so again. Democrats argued that consolidating programs into a block grant would shift money away from underserved populations that some of the training efforts were set up to help.
In the Senate, there is some hope that a bipartisan approach may produce a job training bill both parties can agree on. Senators. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) are reported to be negotiating behind the scenes on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The earlier Senate proposal put in place a national job-training system and eliminated the state-by-state programs that currently exist. It also created an “innovation fund” to spur states to form partnerships with business and education groups to train workers for the jobs in greatest demand. The measure, on which a committee markup was postponed at least three times, was never formally introduced in the last Congress. The overarching goal, a Senate staffer said, is to orient the entire workforce-training system around regional economic development and to give businesses a better stake in the system with more targeted outcomes while helping employees obtain skills for a career, not just the next job.
The Senate is expected to pass a domestic violence law rewrite next week without a clear endgame on tribal court provisions, a central sticking point in negotiations with the House. On Thursday, the Senate rejected a GOP alternative to the bipartisan bill (S 47) that would renew and update the 1994 law known as the Violence Against Women Act. The GOP alternative defeated Thursday would have stripped language to give American Indian tribal courts more authority over non-tribal perpetrators of domestic violence on tribal land. Senators will vote early next week on a half-dozen amendments and final passage of the five-year renewal of the law, which combats domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. The House and Senate passed competing reauthorization measures last year after the domestic violence law lapsed in 2011. But a bicameral compromise never materialized because lawmakers were unable to overcome House objections to language that would have paid for an increase in U visas. Senators agreed to drop that provision this time.
The week ahead …President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address on Tuesday, February 12 in the evening. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is scheduled to give the Republican response.
On Wednesday, February 13 at 10:30 a.m., the Senate Budget Committee will hold a hearing on “The impact of budget decisions on families and communities.”