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Appropriators in Senate optimistic

The two senators who shepherded the lone appropriations bill to reach the Senate floor last year are showing flashes of optimism about the process this year.

Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME) saw their Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (THUD) bill blocked last year over GOP fears of busting the Budget Control Act caps. This year, though, lawmakers have a sunnier outlook.

"I suspect that this year will be easier because we have a budget and we've written the bill to the budget level," Collins said.

That sentiment is consistent with plans made by Democratic leaders and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), with aides confirming that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) intends to consider some of the bills on the floor during the last two weeks in June and two weeks in July ahead of the August recess.

However, despite the two-year budget deal, which set the overall spending levels that bind appropriators, there are some signs of mistrust on both sides of the aisle. Privately, some Democrats worry that once the bills reach the floor Republicans will seek policy riders that amount to poison pills.

For their part, Senate Republicans are abiding by the budget deal. Appropriators have unanimously moved the Agriculture and Veterans Affairs appropriations bills to the floor, for instance.

But Republicans have criticized Senate Democrats for $19 billion in budget outlay requests beyond what House Republicans have sought. Democrats dispute this, saying their budget authority figure matches House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's figure.

Meanwhile, the House has already passed three appropriations bills, and aides say leadership will put the THUD bill on the floor when lawmakers return next week.

The Senate has yet to pass an appropriations bill on the floor.

EPA issues new greenhouse gas emissions rule

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new proposed rules regarding the greenhouse gas emissions from existing electric utility generating plants. The proposed rules seek to cut power-plant carbon emissions by 30 percent from their 2005 levels by 2030.

The EPA relies on authority to regulate greenhouse gasses from existing electric utility generating plants granted under the Clean Air Act.

The proposed emission guidelines provide states with the ability to collaborate and demonstrate emission reduction on a multi-state basis. EPA estimates that about 12 to 19 percent of all coal-fired capacity is projected to be uneconomic to maintain and expected to be shut down.

EPA also projects coal production for use by the power sector, a large component of total coal production, will decline by roughly 25 to 27 percent in 2020 from base case levels. The use of coal by the power sector will decrease roughly 30 to 32 percent by 2030. 

Click here to view the Washington Business Brief video, Elections, Appropriations and Scandals

Compromise reached on VA bill

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) reached a deal Thursday on legislation aimed at reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs and improving veterans' access to healthcare.

The compromise legislation will allow veterans to see private doctors outside of the VA system if they are experiencing long wait times or they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

The legislation also makes it easier to fire VA officials who fail to do their job, as well as provides $500 million in funds to hire additional VA doctors and nurses.

If the Sanders-McCain bill passes the Senate, it would also still have to go through the House, which last week approved its own legislation, the VA Management Accountability Act, that focused on making it easier to fire VA executives for misconduct. 

Senators seek to revive unemployment extension

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) and Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) have resumed negotiations to create new legislation that would extend the benefits for the more than 2 million Americans who have been out of work for at least six months.

The Senate passed a bill in April that would have extended the benefits through May and provided retroactive checks to those who had stopped receiving payments since the program expired on Dec. 28. But that legislation expired on May 31 with no action in the House, putting the onus on senators who favor the program to try again.

Reed and Heller have been working together on a new solution for at least two weeks and hope to extend the program through at least the end of this year.

But the two senators face a number of constraints that are hampering their negotiations. Because the benefits disappeared more than five months ago and they'll have to find some way to pay for every penny of the new bill, they warn that granting retroactive benefits to millions may not be possible this time around.

Another concern is continued opposition from House Speaker John Boehner, who has said over and over since mid-December that the chamber will not take up an unemployment-insurance bill unless it includes a separate provision that addresses job creation.

For the time being, Heller and Reed appear to be working on their own and neither could speculate on a time frame for when they might introduce a new Senate package.

Senate confirms new HHS head

On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the new Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Burwell previously served in the Obama administration as the White House's budget director.

Burwell, who was confirmed by a wide bipartisan vote of 78 to 17, succeeds former Secretary Kathleen Sebelius who resigned earlier this year.

Sebelius was frequently a lightning rod for criticism during her time at the helm of HHS - particularly during the roll out of the Affordable Care Act.

Transportation in focus

Senators look for solutions to Highway Trust Fund shortfall

A key Senate committee on Wednesday began privately devising a plan for keeping the nation's Highway Trust Fund from going broke this summer, even as House Republican leaders continue to press the idea of cutting Saturday deliveries by the U.S. Postal Service as a way to find more money for transportation projects.

A consensus seemed to be emerging, though, that Congress won't be able to develop and pass a long-term solution to the problem before the highway fund runs out of money, so a short-term fix is most likely to be found as members rush toward the midterm elections wanting to avoid a nationwide economic disaster.

The Senate Finance Committee is considering about 10 options for rescuing the fund, which faces a possible zero balance at the height of the construction season in July or August. But the House GOP's proposal for Postal Service cutbacks is not among the ideas being seriously considered, said Finance members from both parties as they emerged from a closed-door meeting called by Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Rather, several new or increased user fees are on the list of possibilities. The leading proposal, as described by several senators, is a new fee that would be paid by oil wholesalers. Few other details, including whether that would replace an existing gasoline tax, were provided.

House Republican leaders have already rejected most fee or tax increases, such as raising fuel taxes or tolls.

What is definitely not being considered in the Senate is what House Republicans are now pushing—taking money from the Postal Service by allowing it to cut Saturday mail service.

Finance Committee members on both sides of the aisle said Wednesday they were pessimistic that any long-term solution to the highway-fund crisis can get through Congress by late July, when money for hundreds of thousands of road and bridge projects is projected to run out.

"I suppose the best we can do is a short-term" funding extension, said Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-UT).

That was echoed by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) who said he wants a "full and robust" long-term funding solution, but getting one probably won't be possible until after the elections, in a lame-duck session.

Nelson also joined the chorus of Democratic senators who are poking fun at the House GOP's Postal Service plan. Nelson labeled the idea "ridiculous" and Wyden called it a "a real head-scratcher."

But Wyden said "his sense" is that he, Hatch, and other members of his committee will be able to reach some other bipartisan "preferred solution" by next week. "The goal is to be able to get a bill out of committee" before lawmakers break for the July 4 recess, he said.

Senior House Republican aides on Wednesday confirmed that the proposal to stop most Saturday mail deliveries except for such things as packages, medicine, and priority or express mail is likely to be included as a provision in a multiyear transportation bill to be taken up by the House.

Washington Post hammers Congress over Highway Trust Fund

The Washington Post’s editorial board released an opinion piece this week on the current situation in Congress regarding the Highway Trust Fund. The Post’s op-ed board didn’t mince any words:

The federal Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of money this summer. Without a fix, federally backed transportation projects all over the country — not just highways — would be in danger of severe disruption or cancellation. That translates into high costs now to stop and restart projects once funding comes through, higher costs in the future as contractors build the risk of funding holdups into their prices, downward pressure on construction jobs and unnecessary delay for anyone who uses the infrastructure. Failing to shore up the fund in time would be plain legislative malfeasance.

But, to date, Washington’s moves to fix the funding problem haven’t been far from that low distinction. The smart and obvious way to fund federal transportation policy is to create a steady, long-term funding source to finance multi-year projects, one that relies on fees from users — such as a higher gas tax or a vehicle-miles tax. It is both efficient and fair to require drivers to pay according to the amount they exploit and degrade the roads. This discourages overuse rather than subsidizing big-time road users. Congress set up just such a system when it established the gasoline tax and dedicated its revenue to the Highway Trust Fund. But lawmakers haven’t raised the gas tax since 1993, preferring instead budgetary gimmickry and short-term patches to fill holes in the fund.

Political bits


Alabama 6th Congressional District: State Rep. Paul Demarco (R-AL) and Alabama Policy Institute co-founder Gary Palmer (R-AL) were the top two finishers in the GOP primary and will face each other in a June 24 runoff. Demarco finished with 33 percent of the vote and Palmer finished with 20 percent.

California 7th Congressional District: Former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose (R-CA) and Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA) were the top two finishers in Tuesday’s open primary, meaning they will square off in November. Bera finished with 47 percent, Ose 27 percent, and Igor Birman (R-CA) finished third with 17 percent.

California 33rd Congressional District: Wendy Greuel (D-CA) conceded on Wednesday, allowing Elan Carr (R-CA) and state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-CA) to officially advance to the general election. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Carr was in first place with 22 percent of the vote, followed by Lieu at 19 percent and Greuel at 17 percent.

Iowa 1st Congressional District: State Rep. Pat Murphy (D-IA) won the Democratic primary with 37 percent of the vote and will face businessman Ron Blum (R-IA) in November.

Iowa 3rd Congressional District: The Republican nomination for the 3rd C.D. will be decided by convention after none of the six candidates reached the 35 percent threshold to secure the nomination by primary.

Mississippi 4th Congressional District: Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) held off former Rep. Gene Taylor (R-MS) by a margin of 51 percent to 43 percent.

New Jersey 3rd Congressional District: Former Randolph Township Mayor Tom McArthur (R-NJ) defeated perennial candidate and Tea Party favorite Steve Lonegan (R-NJ) by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent. McArthur will now face attorney Aimee Belgrad (D-NJ) in this competitive district.

West Virginia 2nd Congressional District: Alex Mooney (R-WV) has a 10-point lead over Nick Casey (D-WV), according to an internal poll conducted by the Tarrance Group on behalf of Mooney and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Mooney leads Casey, 39 percent to 29 percent among 400 likely voters.            


Iowa: State Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) won the GOP nod on Tuesday capturing 56 percent of the vote followed by radio talk show host Sam Clovis.

Mississippi: State Senator Chris McDaniel (R-MS) and incumbent Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) are headed to a run-off in their contentious primary. After voting on Tuesday, McDaniel finished with 49.5 percent to Cochran’s 48.9 percent. Since neither candidate reached 50 percent, the two will face off in a June 24 runoff.

South Dakota: Former Governor Mike Rounds (R-SD) won the Republican primary with 56 percent of the vote and will now face former Senate aide Rick Weiland (D-SD) in the general election.


Colorado: The Democratic Governors Association's independent-expenditure arm in Colorado, Protect Colorado Values, is up with a six-figure statewide ad-buy going after Tom Tancredo (R-CO) for being “too conservative.” The ad appears aimed at helping Tancredo in the GOP primary since Democrats see him as the weaker general election candidate.

Pennsylvania: A new poll shows incumbent Governor Tom Corbett (R-PA) trailing his Democratic opponent businessman Tom Wolf (D-PA) by 20 points. Wolf leads 53 percent to 33 percent.

Rhode Island: A new WRPI/Providence Journal poll shows former Providence Mayor Angel Tavares (D-RI) leading the pack for the Democratic nomination with 33 percent. Tavares is followed by State Treasurer Gina Raimondo (D-RI) with 29 percent and former Department of Education official Clay Pell in third with 12 percent.

A look ahead


Tuesday, June 10 – The House Budget Committee will hold a hearing, "A Progress Report on the War on Poverty: Reforming Federal Aid," at 10 a.m. in 210 Cannon.

Tuesday, June 10 – The House Judiciary Committee's Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet Subcommittee will hold a hearing on Music Licensing Under Title 17 Part One, at 10:00 a.m. in 2141 Rayburn.

Wednesday, June 11 – The House Energy and Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology Subcommittee will hold a hearing on Media Ownership in the 21st Century, at 10:30 a.m. in 2123 Rayburn.


Wednesday, June 11 – The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on "Indian Education Series: Examining Higher Education for American Indian Students, at 2:30 p.m. in 628 Dirksen.

Washington by the numbers

30 - Days notice the White House is supposed to give Congress before releasing prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

30 percent - Reduction in carbon emissions from existing power plants required under a landmark EPA proposal.

They said what?

"I'm not really in favor of a runoff, but if it brings millions of dollars into the state, that's good for Mississippi. If groups spend money on TV stations and ads that generate revenue for those stations and the surrounding areas.… Who knows, maybe the money will help them hire another person or two." -- Mississippi Senate candidate Thomas Carey, who received 1.6 percent of the vote, just enough to force a runoff between Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel (National Journal)

Washington humor

"A woman got a DUI while driving a car that belongs to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. So, I'm starting to think maybe it's the car that has the problem." –Jimmy Fallon




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