Tag Archives: on the hill

On the Hill: WIA Reauthorization

After years of failed attempts, key lawmakers in the House and Senate announced this week a bipartisan deal to pass a reformed Workforce Investment Act (WIA) which governs more than $3 billion in federal job-training programs. Both the House and Senate are expected to consider the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act when they return from recess in June. The deal announced Wednesday reforms WIA’s nearly 50 programs overseen by nine federal agencies by eliminating 15 programs, increasing the ability of local boards to use on-the-job training, incumbent worker training, and customized training. While the deal’s language generally sticks to the intent of the original law passed in 1998, it does eliminate some regulations and makes it easier for students at community colleges to enter directly into training programs. The bipartisan proposal also directs the Department of Labor to study gender imbalances and pay inequity in more technical job fields, and improve data collection for standardized reporting on common employment metrics such as median earnings, credentials earned, measurable skill gains and employer engagement. Finally, the new legislation would set authorized funding levels for each of the next five years, a shift from how the current WIA law works. This change could help preserve funding for the job-training program in future budget battles.

Key Senate lawmakers continued efforts to forge a bipartisan agreement for Congress to extend unemployment insurance benefits which expired last December. Senate Democrats have been exploring the possibility of whether a full-year extension of the benefits, in combination with a number of measures aimed at spurring economic growth, could secure passage in Congress. Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray of Washington said she and other party leaders would continue to press for action on a long-term extension of jobless aid but that they had decided not to attach the five-month extension to the just announced bipartisan workforce investment law. Still, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said he believed job training legislation could help build momentum for expanded jobless aid by making clear that unemployed workers will receive better training in the future.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved on a 16-14 party line vote, the top-line spending levels presented by Chair Mikulski (D-MD), known as 302(b) allocations, for the 12 annual appropriations bills.  The 302(b) allocations adhere to the overall $1.014 trillion discretionary top line codified as part of the December budget deal, as well as separate defense and nondefense spending caps of $521.3 billion and $492.4 billion.  The Senate allocations differ most sharply from the figures House appropriators approved earlier this month for the Defense and Transportation-HUD spending titles, with the Senate panel setting aside $1.4 billion less and $2.4 billion more for the respective measures.  Senate appropriators also set aside $1.1 billion more for the Labor-HHS-Education account than their House counterparts, matching the currently enacted spending levels at $156.8 billion.

Finally, appropriators in both the House and Senate also took up Agriculture spending this week, with nutrition policy at the fore of the debate. On Tuesday the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee passed its agriculture spending bill, totaling $20.58 billion in discretionary funding. The bill provides $6.623 billion for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, a level consistent with full anticipated program participation.

The House will be in session starting Wednesday of next week following the Memorial Day holiday. The Senate will be in recess all of next week, returning Monday, June 2nd.


On the Hill: Labor-HHS-Ed Appropriations, Hearing for New HHS Head, and Pushing for UI Renewal

Congress was in session this week. Appropriations work dominated the House while the Senate held the first of two confirmation hearings for President Obama’s nominee, Sylvia Matthews Burwell, to replace Kathleen Sibelius as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

With the House Appropriations Committee steadily working its way through the various 2015 appropriations bills, spending allocations by House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rodgers (R-KY) were revealed this week for the proposed Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations package. Rodger’s proposal would cut about $1 billion from the level of funding for non-defense spending that was enacted under the fiscal 2014 omnibus. It is being suggested that the relatively small cut to what is always a highly contentious Labor-HHS-Education spending package shows that the House chairman hopes to pass spending bills that have a chance of being reconciled with the Democratic-led Senate. That marks a dramatic shift in tone from the rival allocations House and Senate appropriators set for the Labor-HHS title last year, which were more than $42 billion apart. Although committee members will vote on top-line spending levels for the annual spending bills, it is still unclear which specific programs under those titles are likely to see increases or face cuts. Labor-HHS-Education is sure to attract amendments from House Republicans looking to undermine the 2010 health care law and the Department of Labor. Democrats will likely argue the allocation for the bill remains too low.

President Barack Obama’s pick to succeed Kathleen Sibelius at the helm of HHS, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, drew bipartisan praise at her first Senate confirmation hearing Thursday morning, with key Republicans reserving their criticism for the health care law rather than the nominee. Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee said Ms. Burwell was “eminently qualified” to lead the sprawling agency. The Department of Health and Human Services provides insurance to more than 100 million people through Medicare and Medicaid, regulates food and drug products that account for roughly one-fourth of consumer spending, and sponsors biomedical research that has saved or extended millions of lives. The Senate Finance committee will also hold a separate hearing on Ms. Burwell’s nomination, the timing of which has yet to be announced. Ms. Burwell currently serves as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, an Executive branch post she was confirmed for with a 96-0 vote in the Senate in April 2013. The path to confirmation this time around is not so clear, with Republicans hoping to gain control of the Senate in the midterm November elections seeing Ms. Burwell’s confirmation hearings as a forum to investigate and criticize the Affordable Care Act.

Finally, the ongoing battle over extending unemployment-insurance benefits continued this week, with House Democrats attempting to ratchet up pressure on House Republican leadership to take up a compromise five month extension packaged passed by the Senate in mid-April. The legislation remains in limbo, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) apparently waiting for the White House to make a new offer that includes various Republican priorities before he will act. The President has not made such an offer, standing firm behind the Senate-passed measure. But time is running out, as Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Dean Heller (R-NV), will have to draft a new bill in June if no action is taken on their Senate bill.  For his part, Sen. Heller said he may try to attach the unemployment extension to an $85 billion package of corporate tax breaks planned to be brought to the floor next week. The extenders bill is considered a must-pass measure. The legislation resurrecting more than 60 expired corporate tax breaks has bipartisan support and could represent one of the best chances for the unemployment bill to make it to the President’s desk.

The House will be in recess next week, returning on Monday, May 19th. The Senate will be in session next week.


On the Hill: Senate Passes UI Extension and Obstructs Paycheck Fairness

After months of back and forth, this week the Senate finally finished its work on unemployment aid, passing a five month extension of emergency unemployment benefits on Monday. Six Republicans joined the full Democratic conference to support the deal, which allows for retroactive benefits from late December when benefits first expired, and continues through May 31. Leadership in the House remains unenthusiastic about bill, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) citing repeated concerns about the workability of the measure and calling for an agreement on Republican priorities such as a proposal to streamline job training programs.  Senator Dean Heller (R-NV), the chief GOP co-sponsor of the jobless aid measure, has been taking the lead in trying to work out deal to clear the way for House floor action on the Senate bill. Heller said he was trying to set up meetings with Speaker Boehner and other senior Republicans. The House did not take up the measure before adjourning for the two week Easter recess on Thursday, but conversations will likely continue behind the scenes to determine if a package that would be acceptable for the House leadership to take up can be crafted. Senate Democrats remain steadfast in their support for a clean extension of the aid.

Meanwhile, the House spent much of its attention this week on consideration of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) 2015 budget. The House voted 219-205 in favor of the blueprint on Thursday, which would balance the budget in a decade by cutting spending by roughly $5 trillion. Before that vote, the House rejected 163-261 an alternative offered by the Budget panel’s top Democrat, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, which relies largely on tax increases to achieve more modest deficit reduction. Democrats oppose the Ryan budget because of its cuts to domestic spending, its repeal of the health care overhaul and its tax cuts that they say would benefit the wealthy. Indeed, the Ryan plan makes drastic cuts to federal spending over the coming decade while overhauling numerous federal programs including Medicaid, Social Security, and several welfare programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps. Ryan’s proposal lacks the force of law and is sure to be ignored by the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) is not writing a budget.

Finally, despite a heavy push from top Democrats, this week the Senate failed to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which aims to address the national gender wage gap. Current estimates maintain that women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn based on a comparison of the annual earnings of women working full-time jobs over the course of a year and the earnings of men working the same amount of time. The Senate measure fell six votes short of the 60 necessary to clear a procedural hurdle on Wednesday. Had it passed, the bill would have made it illegal for employers to retaliate against a worker who inquires about or discloses his or her wages or the wages of another employee in a complaint or investigation. It also would make employers liable to civil actions. Lastly, the bill would have required the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to collect pay information from employers. In keeping with the spirit of the Paycheck Fairness Act, President Obama signed two Executive Orders on pay equity this week. The first would prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss their salaries with one another. The other is a presidential memorandum ordering new rules for contractors to file data with the federal government showing how they compensate employees, including by sex and race.
Both the House and Senate will be in recess for the coming two weeks. They will return to Washington and be in session on April 28th.


On the Hill: The House Budget

Congress was in session this week with much fanfare surrounding the release and committee consideration of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) fiscal 2015 budget blueprint. The plan is largely symbolic, as Congress already set spending levels for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 in the January budget agreement. Ryan’s blueprint has no chance of being taken up by the Senate but largely reflects the Republican party’s platform for how they would govern should they take back control of the Senate after this year’s election  and the White House in 2016. The plan makes drastic cuts to federal spending over the coming decade, and overhauls key federal programs.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) in a forthcoming report estimates that some 69 percent of the cuts would come from programs that serve people of limited means.  These disproportionate cuts — which likely account for at least $3.3 trillion of the budget’s $4.8 trillion in non-defense cuts over the next decade — contrast sharply with the budget’s rhetoric about helping the poor and promoting opportunity.  Of its many proposals, the plan would repeal the Affordable Care Act, and change Medicaid into a block grant program. It also calls for dramatic changes to several welfare programs, including a proposed $125 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps. It also recommends turning SNAP into a state-run block grant program, and calls for an expansion of SNAP work and job training requirements to receive aid from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program. Democrats have raised strong objections to many proposals in Ryan’s plan, which tracks closely to many of his previous budget blueprints.  The budget was approved on a 22-16 voted by the Budget Committee on April 2nd,  after debating for nearly 10 hours Wednesday. Republicans defeated 24 Democratic amendments aimed at restoring funding for domestic programs and endorsing immigration, minimum wage and unemployment insurance proposals.  The bill will be on the House floor next week.

The Senate made progress this week on a bipartisan five-month extension of jobless aid, voting 61-35 to invoke cloture and move forward on the measure Thursday and clearing the path for passage on Monday. It remains unclear whether the House of Representatives will take up the bill, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and many in his caucus continuing to portray the extension as unworkable after a three-month break in such benefits. While that is the dominant view among the House GOP conference, seven Republicans did send a letter to Speaker Boehner this week urging him to bring something to the floor. For some Republicans, the Senate measure presents an enticing vehicle for several stalled proposals to cut taxes, curb regulations and undo mandates under the health care overhaul. If House leadership decides to attach such provisions, they will have to weigh how far they can go in pushing Democrats to accept the package before they invite criticism that they are obstructing the bill. Democrats made clear Thursday they would press for quick House floor action on the Senate package, without changes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)said he had no plans to open talks with House Republicans to tweak the package.

Backers of an increase in the minimum wage continued to step up the pressure this week, appealing to business leaders to offer their employees a pay boost even if Congress fails to enact legislation to do so. The timing for Senate consideration of a proposal by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 also appears to be in flux, with action now likely in late April or May. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada signaled his desire to take up Harkin’s proposal, but was weighing whether to delay a cloture vote on the motion to proceed to the Harkin bill until after the two-week April recess. A delay in floor action on Harkin’s bill would give more time for negotiations on potential compromise plans, which are being discussed behind the scenes among other lawmakers.

Both the House and Senate will be in session next week.


On the Hill: UI Extension and Minimum Wage Compromise?

The Senate easily cleared a 60-vote threshold on Thursday to advance a bipartisan extension of emergency unemployment insurance benefits.  With backing from Republicans, the Senate voted 65-34 to end a filibuster against bringing the bill up for debate. It’ll still face the likelihood of another filibuster before final passage, expected next week. Ten Republicans voted with Democrats to advance the bill: Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Dean Heller of Nevada, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania.  The vote comes 89 days after benefits expired late last year, and since then over two million Americans have been cut off from this critical assistance. House Republican leaders, unfortunately, remain steadfast in their opposition to the Senate bill.

Senate Democrats continue to map out their legislative agenda for the coming months. In early April, they will likely focus on raising the minimum wage and on ensuring equal pay for women. Both measures will likely fall short of the necessary voters but backers hope to draw attention to their importance. Another measure that’s seen as a compliment to efforts to raise the minimum wage is a proposal to increase the maximum Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers to about $1,400 from $487 currently, and was introduced this week by Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington. In keeping with provisions included in the Obama administration’s 2015 budget proposal, Murray’s “21st Century Worker Tax Cut Act” would lower the childless worker eligibility age for the credit from 25 to 21. Murray’s plan would also create a new tax deduction for low-to-middle income families with two incomes and at least one child, allowing a 20 percent deduction on the secondary earner’s income. This would also help increase EITC benefits by reducing earned income for purposes of calculating the credit.

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) said on Thursday that she hopes to seize momentum from a bipartisan Senate accord on jobless aid to press for a similar compromise on a more modest increase in the minimum wage. The push for a possible bipartisan minimum wage alternative comes as both parties hunkered down on opposite sides of a proposal (S. 1737) sponsored by Tom Harkin of Iowa to raise the hourly minimum wage by $7.25 to $10.10 in three steps over two years.

Both the House and Senate will be in session next week.


On the Hill: UI, CCDBG, and PFA

A bipartisan group of senators announced yesterday a compromise to extend emergency jobless aid. The issue of paying for an extension of unemployment benefits had stalled several attempts at renewing the aid since it expired in late December. The proposed plan will extend benefits for five months, including retroactive payments to the unemployed Americans who saw their benefits expire since the end of 2013. The deal, struck by a group led by Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Republican Dean Heller of Nevada, would be offset by so-called “pension smoothing” provisions from the 2012 highway bill that were due to expire, and by extending customs user fees through 2024. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had said earlier that he expected any agreement to come to the floor immediately after the Senate returns from recess the week of March 24. The extension of expanded jobless aid continues to be opposed by some Republicans who contend it does not include sufficient requirements to streamline job training programs and encourage workers to find and take new jobs. Though the Senate deal announced Thursday has tentative bipartisan support, its prospects in the Republican controlled House of Representatives remain uncertain.

The Senate also made progress this week with federal Child Care Block Grant legislation, passing the measure by a 97-1 vote on Thursday. The measure would reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which has not been reauthorized since 1996. The program directs about $2.4 billion in discretionary funds and $2.9 billion in mandatory funds in the current fiscal year to the states to help low-income families pay for child care. The measure requires a report from the Health and Human Services and Education departments on how to streamline federal early childhood education programs. Senators adopted by voice vote several amendments, including one from Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) that would require child care providers’ training to include early language and literacy development, and another from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), that would allow funds under the bill to be used to connect child care staff with federal and state financial aid or other resources for training.

Finally, in their broader push to cast a spotlight on income inequality, Senate Democrats plan to link their efforts to raise the federal minimum wage with legislation aimed at ensuring equal pay for women. Leaders in the Senate are planning for floor action in early April on a proposal to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 over two years, with the plan showcasing the impact of the minimum wage on women. Supporters of the wage hike emphasize studies showing that well over 50 percent of minimum wage jobs are held by women and that a raise in minimum wage would help reduce the disparity in salaries paid to men and women. In addition to the minimum wage bill, other Senators are pushing for floor consideration of the Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation that would expand legal options for resolving complaints of salary bias.

Both the House and Senate will be in recess next week, returning on Monday, March 24.


On the Hill: SNAP and #RenewUI

This week Congress finally passed the long-stalled $956 billion farm bill. The Senate voted 68-32 to advance the bill, following a House passage last week. The bill includes $8 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next decade. About 1.7 million people in 850,000 households spread across 15 states are expected to lose an average of $90 per month in benefits due to new restrictions on how certain states use a “heat and eat” provision in SNAP.  The cuts to SNAP are much less than the original $40 billion in cuts sought by the original House Republican bill, or other originally proposed language that would reduce access to the SNAP program. President Obama is expected to sign the measure into law on Friday at Michigan State University.

This week also saw another failed attempt to extend unemployment insurance benefits in the Senate, with the latest proposal by Senator Jack Reed (R-RI) failing a senate procedural motion by just one vote on Thursday. Senator Reed’s proposal included a three-month extension of jobless benefits using an offset to allow for flexibility for companies to reduce corporate pension fund contributions. Approximately 1.7 million American without work have lost their benefits since the federal program expired in late December. In a largely party-line vote, Democrats came a single vote shy of the 60-vote hurdle to break a filibuster by Republicans, who complained that the latest proposal did not have a proper offsetting spending cut to lessen the impact on the federal deficit. Four Republicans – Sens. Kelly Ayotte (NH), Susan Collins (ME), Dean Heller (NV) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) – supported the proposal. With all 55 members of the Democratic caucus voting in support, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) needed just one more Republican vote to advance the bill into the formal debate. For procedural reasons, once the fate was certain, Reid voted with Republicans, making it a final 58-to-40 roll call. Even if the Senate can reach a bipartisan deal on unemployment insurance, a prospect that seems less likely after Thursday’s vote, the House GOP majority has not shown interest in taking up the legislation.

Though gridlock persists in Congress, individual members remain determined to make progress on their priority issues. Retiring Senate HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, for example, has no plans of slowing down during his last year in Congress, though some stalled education legislation may stay stuck despite his ambitious agenda. Chairman Harkin’s top priorities for the remainder of the year include increasing the federal minimum wage and updating the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). Harkin wants to move WIA in large part because the Senate version of the bill includes changes that would help get more young people with disabilities out of sheltered workshops and into jobs and internships. Also on Harkin’s education agenda: completing hearings on the Higher Education Act and readying a bill by the summer, moving his pre-K bill forward, and getting a Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill on the Senate floor one last time.

Both the House and Senate will be in session next week.


On the Hill: Congress Finally Passes a Budget

After years of governing under temporary funding mechanisms known as continuing resolutions, this week Congress finally managed to pass a complete omnibus appropriations package that fully funds the federal government through September. The package includes all of the 12 annual appropriations bills and directs federal spending based on the top line-spending number determined in the budget deal struck by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) in December. The House backed the measure 359-67 on Wednesday, less than 48 hours after Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD), and her House counterpart, Harold Rogers (R-KY), unveiled it. The Senate followed with a 72-26 vote Thursday evening to endorse the $1.1 trillion omnibus, sending the measure to the president’s desk. The 1,582-page bill establishes discretionary spending at $1.012 trillion and provides $98 billion for defense and disaster relief.

Contentious policy riders including those related to funding for the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reform overhaul, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations of greenhouse gases were excluded from the omnibus. The package does, however, fund priorities across federal agencies at levels predating the automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that took effect in 2013.  The bill for Labor, Health and Human Services Education and Related Agencies, for example, included $2.6 billion for job training through WIA Training and Employment Formula Grant program, a $121 million boost from the funding that the program would have received under the sequester.  Early childhood education programs saw big funding increases under the measure as well. Head Start, which provides early childhood education to children from low-income and homeless families, received $8.6 billion in funds, an increase of $612 million over enacted fiscal 2013 levels. The increase will restore some 57,000 slots in the program that were cut due to sequestration, and give grantees a 1.3 percent-cost-of-living increase. On another track, the Agriculture-related funding measure includes $6.7 billion for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), providing some 87,000 more mothers and children with nutrition assistance benefits.

With Congress having completed the budget and appropriations process until September, focus now turns toward unresolved issues and other pressing legislative business. For many Democrats, passing an extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits remains a top priority. Senate Democratic leaders are vowing to force more votes on a clean three-month extension of jobless aid, while key Republicans in both chambers are trying to build support for alternative unemployment insurance measures that are paid for in-full by other offsets. In the absence of a deal, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said there would be another cloture vote on a short-term extension without offsets sponsored by Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the week of Jan. 27, after lawmakers return from recess.

Both the House and Senate will be in recess next week, following the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday.  Both chambers will be back in session on Jan. 27.


On the Hill: A Budget Deal that Leaves the Long-Term Unemployed in the Cold

With this week marking the last in 2013 when both chambers of Congress were in session, a 2-year bipartisan budget deal finally emerged after weeks of negotiations between Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). The House passed the agreement 332-94 on Thursday evening, sending the deal to the Senate where it will likely pass but with debate on the deal extending well into next week.  The final vote on the measure is expected to take place on Wednesday, December 18th.  Despite strong opposition from some Senate Republicans who have said they would try to slow down consideration of the bill, none have indicated that they would actually block the budget package or offer their own alternative.

The deal itself raises top-line spending for fiscal 2014 to $1.012 trillion and eliminates $63 billion in sequestration cuts over the next two years. The legislation does not raise taxes, but increases revenues by increasing new federal worker pension contributions, raising air passenger travel fees, and decreasing cost of living adjustments for retired military personnel. It also raises premiums that companies pay the federal government to guarantee retirement benefits.  Also included in the bill is a three-month extension of the “doc fix” to prevent cuts in Medicare payments to doctors on January 1st. Though some outside conservative groups decried the agreement for its raising of federal spending at all, the deal leaves much of the sequester intact and would amount to $23 billion in deficit reduction over the next decade.

Once the deal is cleared and signed into law, appropriators who oversee domestic spending in Congress will face sharply different tasks in putting together final bills. House appropriators will likely be adding money to appropriations bills written earlier to the chamber’s austere top line of $967 billion. The Senate will have to trim spending back from the $1.058 trillion cap that Senate Democrats had used in their budget.  House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) and his Senate counterpart Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD) have laid the groundwork for new spending bills so they can begin figuring out how to allocate funds based on the new $1.012 trillion top line in the House-Senate compromise plan. Rogers and Mikulski have maintained that they would like to fold all 12 of the annual appropriations bills into a final spending package for fiscal 2014, but if they are unable to find consensus on one or more of the measures they will have to move continuing resolutions to maintain funding for those programs. Appropriators have the authority to determine what the top line CR level would be at the committee level, as in whether that number would reflect post-sequester spending, or any other level that doesn’t break the caps set in the budget agreement. They could also choose to fund programs at the full fiscal 2014 top line set under the budget agreement of $1.012 trillion, giving accounts an across-the-board increase or more individualized funding boosts. How the various spending bills are crafted in each chamber will reflect political realities; the House already has completed work on four of the 12 annual appropriations bills for fiscal 2014 under the $967 billion top line, but all had defense-related components and are considered politically easier to complete. Senate appropriators, meanwhile, are acknowledging that tough choices lie ahead on how to pare down their domestic appropriations bills by a total of $46 billion in order to meet the new caps established by the budget agreement.

Much to the dismay of many Democrats, the budget deal does not include an extension of the longer term unemployment insurance benefits, which expire December 28th. After that date, the maximum length of time that states can offer jobless benefits will drop to 26 weeks or less. That means that starting at the end of the year, some 1.3 million people who have been getting benefits for longer than 26 weeks (or less, in some states) will get cut off immediately. Then over the course of 2014, other unemployed workers will fall out of the program once they hit the 26 week cutoff. The Center for Budget Policy and Priorities estimates that all told, 4.9 million fewer people will get unemployment aid than if an extension were passed. Democratic leadership in the House and Senate have vowed to take up a one-year extension of the emergency unemployment program when Congress returns in January. An extension along those lines would cost roughly $25.1 billion, and benefits would be rewarded retroactively to workers who immediately lose compensation as of December 28th. Republicans seem unlikely to support such an extension without it being paid for.

The House is in recess for the remainder of 2013 starting Friday, December 13. The Senate is in session for today and likely for at least some of next week to hold a vote on the budget deal and to wrap up consideration of several judicial nominations.


On the Hill: A Potential Budget Deal

With House of Representatives in session this week and the Senate still in recess, leaders of the Budget Conference Committee appeared to be closing in on a modest deal in time for Congress to consider before adjourning for the holiday recess on December 13. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) are nearing an agreement that would raise fiscal 2014 spending to about $1 trillion from what under the sequester would be $967 billion. The increase would be evenly divided between defense and domestic spending, raising defense spending to $515 billion and domestic to $486 billion. That would represent a $3 billion drop in defense spending from the current level temporarily continued from the last fiscal year, but would be $17 billion above the fiscal 2014 sequester level of $498 billion. Ryan and Murray also have been discussing extending that general framework to cover fiscal 2015 beginning next Oct. 1, though both leaders still face the difficult task of selling the deal to their respective parties. Although it would fall far short of a long-sought “grand bargain” to raise taxes and rein in entitlement spending, such an agreement would at the very least give lawmakers and the U.S. economy a temporary reprieve from three straight years of fiscal crises.

News of the potential agreement has drawn outcry from both liberals and conservatives. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), for example, urged conferees to be cautious in making any changes to the federal employee retirement programs, a potential area of savings in the talks that was included in the House Budget resolution. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) also announced on Thursday that House Democrats would not support a budget deal that does not extend emergency unemployment benefits, which are set to lapse on December 28 for about 1.3 million people. Senator Murray has pushed to include an extension of unemployment benefits in the agreement, but Ryan has resisted on the basis that it is too expensive. Congress will likely have to deal with the matter separately, a prospect that Minority Leader Pelosi later acknowledged would be acceptable so long as the extension happens. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) did not rule out the possibility of a deal to extend unemployment insurance, so long as Democrats find an acceptable way to pay for it.

Once the details are finalized, Budget Committee leadership likely will use regular legislation, rather than a budget resolution, for any agreement to allow a plan to move more quickly through Congress with one vote in each chamber instead of two. Because the kind of agreement being described is sure to draw opposition, minimizing the number of votes would increase chances of passage. Going straight to a bill also would save time, eliminating the need to win approval from the 29-member conference committee, which has been largely left out of the private talks taking place between Ryan and Murray. The House Rules Committee announced it was prepared to post legislation implementing an agreement on its web site Monday if a deal is reached. The committee would likely pass a rule for the bill Tuesday, paving the way for a House vote on the plan Wednesday.

Odds would favor passage if the Ryan-Murray plan is endorsed by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). It remains unclear how many House Republican votes Ryan could secure for a deal including spending levels above those under the sequester, as some sources maintain that there will be a significant bloc from the GOP Conference who will oppose any deal the Senate can agree to. Appropriators could move forward with the agreed-on top-line numbers without full congressional approval of the Murray-Ryan proposal and spend the four weeks between an announcement and the Jan. 15 government shutdown deadline to put together an ominbus spending package. But they would have to do so under the assumption that enough House Republicans would join House Democrats to pass the spending measure.

Conferees working towards an agreement on a 2013 farm bill have acknowledged that with both chambers set to adjourn for the holidays on December 13, a deal is unlikely to pass until January. Leaders from both sides remain optimistic about reaching a deal by then, announcing that they have made “progress” on some issues, though without divulging any specifics. A major sticking point between the two sides remains the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, with the House bill cutting an estimated $40 billion from the program, while the Senate bill would cut $4 billion over 10 years.  Any cuts in spending on SNAP would come on top of the $45.2 billion hit that went into effect on November 1 when the additional funding for the program in the 2009 stimulus expired.  According to the Agriculture Department, that change resulted in a family of four receiving $36 less a month in SNAP benefits.

Meanwhile, the Department of Labor’s monthly employment report released Friday was better than anticipated, with the U.S. economy adding 203,000 jobs in November. The nation’s unemployment rate dropped to 7 percent, its lowest level in five years.

Both the House and Senate will be in session next week with tentative consideration of a budget deal the main legislative focus.