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Lame duck intel

MHGS learned this week that Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, met privately in the Senate and are committed to producing an omnibus in the lame duck session. The current continuing resolution, which funds the government at current levels, runs out on Dec. 11th. This date wasn’t arrived at accidentally. By choosing Dec. 11th, Congress has a full month of work in the lame duck. Such an extended lame duck session will also be beneficial on a vote relating to combatting the ISIS terrorist threat and completion of the Defense bill.

Sources say that the most likely scenario is for a minibus of the national security related bills (Defense, Homeland, Mil Con, etc) and then a broader omnibus continuing resolution for the remaining appropriations bills.

HHS says new healthcare website will work

Federal health officials say they have reconfigured and rebuilt the enrollment website for the Affordable Care Act to avoid a repeat of last year's disastrous launch. did not work at all for nearly half of the first open-enrollment window, and it was also saddled with cumbersome processes that made it difficult to use even when it was available. Officials say that when open enrollment begins this November, a new and improved website will be up.

HHS officials previewed the new site for reporters on Wednesday. The highlights include:

  • Among its many problems, the old didn't like it when people hit the "back" button on their browsers. It would take them all the way back to the beginning of the process. The new version will let you hit your "back" button.
  • The online application has been whittled down from 78 screens to just 16. Consumers will only have to enter their basic personal information once; the old system made them type in the same information several times.
  • About 70 percent of new customers should be able to use the new, streamlined application. People with complicated situations—for example, households where different family members are eligible for different programs—will be diverted back to the old, longer application.
  • Andy Slavitt, the principal deputy administrator of the agency handling most of the Affordable Care Act implementation, said the main priority throughout the entire rebuilding process was to begin end-to-end testing on Oct. 7. They met that goal; the fourth phase of testing began Tuesday. That's a big turnaround from last year, when the site wasn't fully tested until the last minute—and it failed.
  • It might have been possible, Slavitt said, to make the new, simpler site work for 75 percent of new customers, instead of 70 percent. But that extra time for development would have come at the expense of time for testing, "not a trade I'm willing to make," he said.
  • About 20,000 people have made it through the new system. It was initially opened up to about 1 percent of customers who were able to buy insurance outside of open enrollment, and has since expanded to 100 percent. Officials have used those experiences to test the system's performance on a more limited scale.
  • Officials wouldn't say how many people they expect the site to be able to handle at one time. Heavy volume overwhelmed the old They said they want the new site to be able to handle "significantly more" than the old one, but wouldn't set a firm target until more testing has been completed.

When open enrollment begins on Nov. 15, the biggest challenge may not be the process for new customers, but rather for existing enrollees who want to renew their plans or shop around for a better deal.

The HHS officials didn't offer many details about the reenrollment process, which is bound by inherent contradictions: HHS has set up an auto-renewal process, which makes sense; obviously, HHS wants to make it easy for people to keep their coverage. But auto-renewal will in many cases cause customers' out-of-pocket expenses to rise, often significantly and sometimes unexpectedly. People will usually get a better deal if they reenter the system and shop around.

Click here to view the Washington Business Brief video, "Intel on the Lame Duck and Who Will Control the Senate?"

IRS warns congress over tax extenders

The Internal Revenue Service is warning Congress that decisions over renewing tax provisions that expired at the end of 2013 must be made by late November, or next year's tax-filing season could be seriously disrupted.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, in a letter to Capitol Hill this week, said if debate on the so-called tax-extenders package "persists into December or later, [it] could force the IRS to postpone the opening of the 2015 filing season and delay the processing of tax refunds for millions of taxpayers."

Koskinen sent the letter Monday to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), who quickly pressed for bipartisan action in the lame-duck session scheduled to begin the week after the elections.

At issue are dozens of personal, business, and family tax provisions, most of which expired in January for the 2014 tax year, including deductions for mortgage interest premiums, state and local sales taxes, some higher-education expenses, and charitable donations.

Both the House and Senate tax-writing committees have taken some action, but their approaches this year have been different, adding to uncertainty over renewal.

The Senate Finance Committee in April approved an $85 billion measure that would extend 53 of 55 expired provisions for two years, or through 2015. But the bill stalled on the floor in a fight over amendments to the measure.

On the House side, retiring Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) had high hopes at the start of the session for a comprehensive rewrite of the tax code. But his proposals went nowhere and he has since pursued a "policy-by-policy" review of the extender provisions rather than wholesale renewal.

In all, the GOP-led House has passed more than a dozen permanent extensions of extenders, most tied to business concerns. Among them is one that would make permanent and change the research and development tax credit.

If a broader tax-extension package is to be taken up in the lame-duck, as many lawmakers predict will be done, then the two chambers would have to agree on whether those costs would have to be offset, and if so, how to pay for them.

By not acting Supreme Court expands same-sex marriage

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to review seven same-sex marriage appeals, allowing same-sex marriages to go ahead in five states and putting off a potential landmark case on marriage at the Court.

After lower courts struck down same-sex marriage bans in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin, the decisions were appealed to the Supreme Court. By refusing to hear the appeals, the Supreme Court allowed the lower courts' decisions to stand, immediately ending obstacles to same-sex marriage in those five states.

Other states in the same Appeals Court circuits as the lower courts that struck down the bans will be affected as well: The path is clear for Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming to move forward with same-sex marriages.

The decision makes same-sex marriage legal in 30 states and the District of Columbia.

Transportation in focus

New Ebola Screening for High Risk Airports

At five U.S. airports there will be an extra level of screening aimed at preventing the spread of Ebola in the United States. Roughly 150 travelers per day from the Ebola-stricken areas of western Africa will have their temperatures checked using no-touch thermometers at airports in New York, DC, Newark, Atlanta and Chicago. These airports represent more than 90 percent of planes arriving from western Africa.

Ebola has already killed at least 3,800 in Africa and now one person here in the United States.

Officials warned that the new screening system was no guarantee to prevent a person infected with the Ebola virus from entering the U.S. Additionally, officials said that they expect quite a few false positives in their screening since a fever can be a sign of any number of conditions, like the flu, and isn’t particular to Ebola.

Ebola isn't contagious until symptoms begin, and it spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients.

In a teleconference with mayors and local officials, President Obama said the new screening measure was “really just belt and suspenders” to support protections already in place.

This new measure may not be the last aimed at combatting the deadly virus. Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, would not rule out future measures.


Political bits            


California 52nd Congressional District: Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio (R-CA) was accused of sexual harassment by a former campaign staffer. DeMaio called the claim 'an outrageous lie.' He also said San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman told him in August that the man's allegations were fully investigated and determined to be unfounded.

Massachusetts 6th Congressional District: A Garin-Hart-Yang (D) survey conducted for House Majority PAC shows Marine Corps veteran Seth Moulton (D-MA) leading former state Sen. Richard Tisei (R-MA) by 10 points, 43 to 33 percent, with businessman Chris Stockwell (I-MA) taking 11 percent, while 13 percent were undecided.

Virginia 10th Congressional District: State Del. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), running to replace Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), did not disclose while working on bills in the state legislature relating to unions that she was being paid by the Workforce Fairness Institute, which advocates on the same issues. Comstock also failed to list the group as a client when she filed to run for Congress. Legal experts say Comstock's lack of disclosure does not clearly break any rules, but falls into an ethical gray area.


Alaska Senate: According to a new Fox News poll, challenger Dan Sullivan (R-AK) leads Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), 44 to 40 percent. Also released this week was a a new CNN/ORC International poll showing Sullivan leading Begich, 50 to 44 percent.

Arkansas Senate: The Fox News poll shows Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) leading Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), 46 to 39 percent.

Colorado Senate: The Fox News poll shows Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO) leading Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), 43 to 37 percent.

Kansas: Two polls show incumbent Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) bouncing back against his challenger Greg Orman (I-KS). A Fox News poll shows Roberts leading businessman Greg Orman, 44 to 39 percent, while a CNN/ORC poll found a tied race, with Roberts nominally ahead, 49 to 48 percent.

Kentucky Senate: The Fox News poll shows Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leading Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY), 45 to 41 percent.

New Hampshire Senate: According to a new WMUR-TV Granite poll, State Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) leads former U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-NH), 47 to 41 percent.

North Carolina Senate: A new Suffolk University/USA Today poll shows Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) leading Thom Tillis (R-NC), 47 to 45 percent, with Libertarian Party nominee Sean Haugh taking 4 percent.


Arkansas Governor: The Fox News poll shows former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) leading former Rep. Mike Ross (D-AR), 46 to 37 percent.

Colorado Governor: The Fox News poll shows Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-CO) tied at 42 percent.

Kansas Governor: The Fox News poll shows Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS) leading state House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-KS), 46 to 40 percent, while the CNN/ORC poll shows Brownback and Davis tied at 49 percent.

A look ahead

The House and Senate are in recess next week.

Washington by the numbers

12 - Number of couples who have donated to every Clinton campaign and charity since 1992, for a total of $7,985,410.

$1.95 billion - Purchase price of the Waldorf-Astoria, for which China's Anbang Insurance Group plans a full restoration.

They said what?                        

“I wish President Obama had watched The Incredibles, because then he’d know that when everybody’s special, nobody is.” -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (Bloomberg)

Washington humor

"In a new interview, Mitt Romney referred to Hillary Clinton as an 'enabler' of the president's foreign policy. Which would be a big deal if that wasn't the definition of being secretary of state." – Jimmy Fallon



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