Federal Relations

October 26, 2009

Update from Washington, DC

The House and Senate continue to negotiate a health care reform bill, which has left some open time for both chambers to consider FY10 appropriations bills.  The first order of business this week will be to extend the current continuing resolution (CR) for most federal agencies since the current CR expires on Saturday, October 31st.

FY10 Appropriations

Last week congressional leaders discussed including the extension into the conference report on the Interior-Environment appropriations bill, similar to how the original one-month CR was added in conference to Legislative Branch spending bill.  They decided against this path forward likely because the Interior bill may face controversy over unrelated provisions.  The CR extension is expected to go to December 15th, a little more than a week before Christmas.  To date, Congress has completed action on just four of the 12 spending bills for the fiscal year that began on October 1 (Agriculture, Energy & Water, Homeland Security, and Legislative Branch).  The UW has secured two earmarks in the Energy & Water bill.  The first is a $1 million mark for biofuels work and the second is $880,000 for accelerating research on tidal energy production.

The Interior-Environment appropriation bill is scheduled for House action this week if an agreement can be reached on one controversial provision related to EPA regulation of vessel emissions on the Great Lakes.  The UW College of the Environment stands to gain a $4 million earmark in that bill to conduct, compile, and disseminate research on how best to restore and protect the Puget Sound.

The House is also scheduled to consider a bill that would reauthorize Small Business Administration (SBA) programs that provide entrepreneurs with access to capital.  The legislation is a combination of eight bills that would extend some stimulus programs that allowed the SBA to increase loans, provide more capital to low-income areas and renewable-energy industries, and make loan guarantees to small health care firms purchasing health information technology.

The Senate may try to take up the Commerce-Justice-Science bill after pulling it from floor consideration last October 13th after Democrats failed to come up with enough votes to limit debate and amendments to the bill.  One amendment that is holding up progress would require the 2010 Census to include questions about citizenship and immigration status, which is opposed by the Obama Administration.

Meanwhile, the Senate will focus on the economy this week and try to finish a bill that would extend unemployment benefits.  The measure would provide an additional 14 weeks of benefits to unemployed individuals nationwide and would give six more weeks on top of that to states with a three-month average unemployment rate of at least 8.5 percent.  The Senate may also take up its FY10 Military Construction-VA appropriations bill.

Because the appropriations process has been slow this fall, mostly due to the health reform debate, Congress is now thinking that a year-end omnibus bill may be necessary to complete the remaining FY 10 appropriations bills.  Additionally, the remaining appropriations measures may be used to enact further legislation to help the unemployed and boost job creation.

Health Reform

Debate on health care reform is not expected to begin until next week at the earliest, as Democratic leaders in both chambers are still trying to finalize the legislation they intend to bring to the floor. The House hopes to release their renegotiated health reform measure this week so that they can vote on the package by November 6th.  It is possible, that the House will work through that weekend and into Monday and Tuesday before taking a small break for Veterans Day. 

Unveiling the bill would answer questions about the shape of the public option and clear the way for final decisions on how to raise revenue to pay for it.  While House liberals are looking for a public plan based on Medicare rates, House Leaders are leaving room for moderates’ preferred version after Senate Democrats indicated they were likely to include a public option in their overhaul.  Leaders still have a few thorny issues to resolve before they introduce a bill, such as questions about abortion services, insurance for immigrants, cost of medical devices, and hospital payments.

Meanwhile, the Senate continues to work on merging the two reform bills from the Senate Finance and HELP committees, and appears to be moving toward a stronger public option than currently included in the Senate Finance Committee bill.  Senate Democratic leaders have other issues to resolve, including whether the final bill would include an employer mandate; a long-term insurance program for those who become disabled; financing to make up for revenue lost by increasing the value of plans considered high cost that would be taxed under the bill; and how to make premiums more affordable since individual coverage will be required by law.

Energy and the Environment

The Senate Environment & Public Works Committee will hold three days of hearings this week on a revised draft of climate change legislation the panel is looking to mark up soon.  On Tuesday, the committee will hear from five administration officials – Energy Secretary Chu, Interior Secretary Salazar, Transportation Secretary LaHood, EPA Administrator Jackson, and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chairman Wellinghoff.

Last week, the House passed legislation that would lead to the creation of a federal research strategy for solar energy.  The bill (HR 3585) directs the Energy Department to establish a Solar Technology Roadmap Committee, which would develop a comprehensive federal solar research plan.  Bill supporters noted rapid growth in solar manufacturing by European nations and China in recent years.  The bill would authorize $350 million for the Energy Department in fiscal 2011, rising to $550 million in fiscal 2015, for a total of $2.25 billion over the five-year period.  Some members expressed concerns about the high cost of the bill even while supporting the underlying goals.   

The roadmap committee created by the bill would include at least 11 members appointed by the Energy secretary within four months of the bill’s enactment.  At least one-third of the members — but not more than half — would be required to come from the solar industry.  The bill also would require the appointment of a chairman from outside the federal government.  Within 18 months of enactment, the committee would be required to chart a course for research, development, and demonstration activities between the federal government and the private sector.  The Energy secretary would be directed to award merit-based grants for projects, with an emphasis on solar manufacturing research performed by industry-led consortia.

FY11 Appropriations

Today is the deadline for submitting proposals for the FY11 federal agenda.  Proposals will be reviewed and evaluated over the next several weeks.  In January 2010, the Office of Federal Relations will share the results of that work when we present our FY11 Federal Agenda.  If you have any questions about this process, please contact me or Jonathan Nurse.