Updated: July 17, 2012
FDA User Fees – Final Passage - Vote Agreed to (92-4, 4 Not Voting) - The Senate last week cleared a compromise version of FDA user fee legislation, paving the way for President Obama’s signature. The five-year reauthorization measure allows the FDA to charge the industries it oversees a fee to finance the approval process for medical devices and prescription drugs. The bill will also create new fee programs for generic drugs and generic biologic drugs. Final passage in the Senate followed about a month of negotiations after each chamber passed slightly differing bills in late May. As with everything coming through the Senate these days, a cloture vote was needed before voting on the underlying bill.
Highway/Flood Insurance/Student Loan Package – Adoption of Conference Report - Vote Agreed to (74-19, 1 Present, 6 Not Voting) - After months of speculation about whether any of the highway, flood insurance, or student loan bills would become law this year, all three cleared the Senate as a single package last week. The final agreement combined a 27-month reauthorization of highway, transit and transportation safety programs; a one-year extension of lowered interest rates on federally-subsidized Stafford loans; and a five-year reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The surface transportation component featured by far the most drama of the three provisions, as the fight surrounding it lasted far longer, dating back to last year. More importantly (at least outside the Beltway) infrastructure spending will provide a much-needed shot in the arm for the construction industry and hopefully the broader economy. The bill makes several major changes to existing transportation law, including streamlining project approval, drastically reducing the number of federal programs through consolidation, and giving states more spending flexibility on certain types of projects. The NFIP measure is designed to bring the program back into solvency following years of indebtedness. Payouts resulting from the devastating Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2005-6 had left the program roughly $18 billion in debt. The new law will raise premiums overall and cover more homeowners. The combined measures would be paid for largely by two changes to pension law. The first would change the formula by which employers contribute to their employees’ defined benefit plans. The second would increase employer premiums on insurance provided by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal entity that insures private sector defined benefit pension plans. A third offset would shorten the amount of time students are eligible for an in-school interest subsidy on their loans.
Motion to Proceed; Disapproval Resolution – EPA Regulations - Vote Rejected (46-53, 1 Not Voting) - The latest in Republicans' war on the EPA’s "war on coal" came last Wednesday with an attempt to halt rules intended to strengthen limits on emissions of mercury and other toxins by coal- and oil-fired utilities, among other sources. Led by James Inhofe, R-Okla., most Republicans argue that the EPA has overstepped its authority and is endangering both the livelihood of coal-dependent regions and even the reliability of the electricity grid. Five Democrats and five Republicans each voted with the other side. The president had threatened a veto of this measure. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, and Mark Pryor, D-Ark. are reportedly working on a bill that would len gthen the compliance timeline of the new rules rather than stopping them outright.
Farm Bill – Final Passage - Vote Passed (64-35, 1 Not Voting) - Following a binge of amendment votes (41 in all) over three days of debate, the Senate passed its version of a five-year agriculture and nutrition policy bill. After coming to agreement Monday on which amendments would be given floor time, the “vote-a-rama” began in earnest Tuesday, culminating in a Thursday afternoon vote on final passage (the same agreement required 60 votes for the bill to pass). At the heart of the sprawling, $969 billion bill is an overhaul of the farm safety net. Direct and countercyclical payments are out, their critics having successfully argued that they manipulated markets and were unnecessary at a time of sky-high commodity prices. Bill sponsors Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., opted for a lighter touch, creating two new crop insurance policies and a subsidy program meant to backstop traditional insurance. These changes have sparked regional disagreements, with Midwest and Great Plains senators supporting the changes and those from the South vehemently opposed. Southerners have been insisting that a program maintaining target prices is necessary to protect their rice and peanut growers, who are less subject to yield volatility and so less dependent on traditional insurance. It is expected that the House bill will have the types of provisions the Southerners are asking for. Two amendments would make changes long sought after by crop insurance critics. The first, from Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. would force policyholders to abide by the same conservation requirements that are currently tied to crop subsidies. The other, offered by Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and Tom Coburn, R-Okla. would raise subsidized premiums for farmers with AGI above $750,000/year, pending a USDA study. Another major plank of the underlying bill is a roughly $4.5 billion reduction in food stamps. The program has come under fire from Republicans for its rapid expansion in recent years and the bill has specific provisions banning lottery winners from eligibility and stopping automatic enrollment of persons receiving heating assistance. The ball is now in the House's court, and a markup is scheduled for July 11. President Obama has previously backed the Senate bill, though he called for more cuts than the upper chamber could stomach.
Cloture – Flood Insurance Reauthorization - Vote Agreed to (96-2, 2 Not Voting) - The last piece of business for the Senate last week was a successful cloture vote on the motion to proceed to a multi-year reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The program has been in the red since having to make huge payouts for Hurricanes Rita, Katrina and Wilma and negotiations have been going on for months on a path forward that would bring NFIP to a position of long-term fiscal health. At this point there appears to be a tentative agreement, but at least one outstanding bone of contention concerns whether properties protected by levees and other flood-control structures should be required to buy insurance. (The House's long-term bill, HR 5740, does n ot have this requirement.) The current extension expires July 31. If coverage is allowed to lapse, homeowners in flood-prone areas will be unable to buy insurance or renew policies.
Motion to Table; Farm Bill – Sugar Price Supports Repeal - Vote Agreed to (50-46, 4 Not Voting) - Last week saw the Senate struggling to come to agreement on which amendments it would consider to the five-year reauthorization of agriculture and nutrition programs. The first such amendment - offered by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on behalf of Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. – would phase out the federal price support program for sugar producers by 2015. Detractors of the program argue that it artificially inflates prices for consumers and end-users, such as confectioners. The program’s backers argue that it actually shields both of these groups from violent swings in market prices by providing a supportive environment for domestic sugar production. The a ctual vote taken, however, was not on the amendment itself but on a motion to table. The motion passed, thus killing the amendment.
Motion to Table; Farm Bill – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Elimination - Vote Agreed to (65-33, 2 Not Voting) - The second amendment brought up for consideration concerned federal nutrition assistance, known by its acronym SNAP. Republicans have raised the alarm that spending under this program has ballooned in recent years and have sought to cut benefits. Democrats have countered that the program is actually functioning as it was designed to do, with more people coming on the rolls because of a weak economy. A “sequester-replacement” bill (H.R. 5652) passed last month in the House mostly along party lines would cut $34 billion from SNAP in the next 10 years as part of an effort to avoid Pentagon cuts. This Senate amendment, again of fered by Reid (this time on behalf of Rand Paul, R-Ky.), would do House Republicans one better by ending SNAP as it currently exists and in its place creating a block grant program that would send a fixed amount of money to the states each year for the overall purpose of nutrition assistance, but with far fewer strings attached than there are currently. The actual vote was once again on a motion to table rather than the amendment itself.
Wage Discrimination - Vote Rejected (52-47, 1 Not Voting) - The Senate failed to invoke cloture last week on a motion to proceed to a bill that would provide additional legal recourse to individuals who experience gender-based wage discrimination. Among other provisions, the bill would have allowed employees to sue for punitive damages (as opposed to just back pay) and would increase penalties against employers who engage in wage discrimination based on gender. The measure would also make it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers for talking about their wages with each other. Republicans decried the bill as unnecessary and a boon to trial lawyers, while Democrats continued to hammer their election-year theme of the GOP being out of touch with women. The President expressed strong support for the bill.
Farm Bill - Vote Agreed to (90-8, 2 Not Voting) - After much talk about a revolt among Southern senators, the Senate easily invoked cloture on a motion to proceed to its version of the multi-year reauthorization of farm and nutrition programs. Ultimately the only senators voting against cloture were Republican fiscal hawks who will likely vote against the bill anyway. Nonetheless, battle lines have been drawn between the Agriculture committee’s top two members, Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. and Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and about a dozen Southern senators. Stabenow and Roberts have drawn up a bill that eliminates about $5 billion in annual direct payments to farmers and replaces it with a "shallow loss" program that would replace revenue losses o f 11 to 21 percent below a five-year average. Southern senators object that this program would be of little help to their farmers, whose rice, peanut and cotton crops are less subject to natural disaster than wheat and corn but more subject to price fluctuation. Southerners are demanding some form of guaranteed price protection. Another battle will center around funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Both the Senate and House Agriculture committees have proposed SNAP cuts, with much larger cuts expected to come out of the House. Democrats in both houses are opposed to these cuts. The House has yet to mark up its version of the bill, and there is some question over whether it will happen later in the summer or not at all. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Ranking Democratic on House Ag, has expressed confidence the measure will come to the floor, but a "summer agenda" memo distributed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. made no mention of it. President Obama has backed the Senate bill.
FDA User Fee Reauthorization - Vote Passed (96-1, 3 Not Voting) - After extensive wrangling between the parties about which amendments would be allowed a floor vote, the Senate last week passed a bill to reauthorize Food and Drug Administration user fees for five years. The FDA relies on the fees, levied primarily on the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, to fund reviews of those same industries’ products. Two new user fee programs, for generic and generic biologic drugs, would be created under the bill. The bill would also permanently reauthorize programs to encourage the development of drugs for pediatric patients. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., was the lone “no” vote. He felt the bill did not do enough to lower the cost of prescription drugs (An amendment introduced by John McCain, R-Ariz., to allow importation of prescription drugs from Canada, failed 43-54, Senate Roll Call #108). The House will debate its version of the reauthorization this week. President Obama has endorsed the Senate bill. The current authorization expires September 30, and leaders of both parties have prioritized getting this item to the president well ahead of time.
Student Loan Interest Rates – Republican Substitute - Vote Rejected (34-62, 1 Present, 3 Not Voting) - Part of the deal for bringing the FDA user fee bill to the floor was allowing a vote on the GOP version of legislation to prevent student loan interest rates from doubling. Republicans offered a substitute amendment to a bill that Majority Leader Harry Reid had brought to the floor earlier this month. Closely mirroring bills already passed in the House and introduced previously by the Senate GOP (H.R.4628, S.2366), the substitute would pay for maintaining current interest rates by eliminating a preventive health fund created by the 2010 health care overhaul. An agreement between Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell required 60 votes for passage.
Student Loan Interest Rates – Democratic Version - Vote Rejected (51-43, 1 Present, 5 Not Voting) - Immediately after rejecting the Republican substitute, the Senate moved on to rejecting the Democrats’ version. The Democrats would pay for their bill by eliminating a tax preference for certain shareholders of S Corporations. This is the second time S.2343 was voted on but the first time the bill itself was considered; on May 8 the Republicans successfully filibustered a motion to proceed (Senate Roll Call Number 89). With the House having passed its version, it is up to the Senate to pass a bill that could at least be the basis of some sort of compromise. Rates are set to go up on July 1.
Paul Budget Resolution - Vote Rejected (16-83, 1 Not Voting) - This budget resolution from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would set new FY 2013 budget authority at $3.084 trillion. According to the Senator, his resolution would balance the budget in five years and cut the national deficit by $2 trillion over ten years. It introduces means-testing requirements to Social Security and raises the retirement age to 70 by 2032. It would also means-test Medicare and raise the age of eligibility to 70 over a 20-year window. Senior citizens would be permitted to enroll in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan used by congressional Members and staff. The resolution would set a flat tax rate of 17 percent for all individuals and businesses and eliminate all credits and deductions e xcept the child credit and mortgage interest deduction.
Lee Budget Resolution - Vote Rejected (17-82, 1 Not Voting) - The budget resolution from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would set new FY 2013 budget authority at $3.269 trillion. It purports to balance the budget by 2017 through myriad changes to entitlements and the tax code as well as reducing spending to 17.8 percent of GDP over ten years. It would establish a single 25% tax rate for individuals and businesses while eliminating the payroll, estate, and any investment taxes. Social Security would be means-tested and the retirement age would rise to 68. Medicare participants would be able to enroll in a “premium-support” or voucher program. Total Medicare spending would be capped at the level of the Consumer Price Index plus one percent. Medicaid would become a bl ock grant program.
Agency Confirmation - Vote Confirmed (70-24, 6 Not Voting) - The Senate voted to confirm the nomination of Jeremy C. Stein of Massachusetts to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.
Agency Confirmation - Vote Confirmed (74-21, 5 Not Voting) - The Senate voted to confirm the nomination of Jerome H. Powell of Maryland to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.
Export-Import Bank Reauthorization - Vote Passed (78-20, 2 Not Voting) - This bill would extend the charter of the Export-Import Bank of the United States through FY 2014. It would allow the bank’s lending limit to rise incrementally to $140 billion (from $100 billion currently). Following House passage last week, the Senate cleared this bill for the president’s signature, narrowly avoiding the May 31 expiration of the bank’s charter. Passage followed several failed amendment votes, among them a vote to terminate the bank within one year.
“Obama” Budget Resolution - Vote Rejected (0-99, 1 Not Voting) - The Senate unanimously rejected this budget resolution, which was the GOP’s interpretation of President Obama’s FY 13 budget proposal. It would set new FY 2013 budget authority at $2.982 trillion. This marks the second time Senate Republicans have introduced what they call the president’s budget for a floor vote, and the second time the proposal has failed to garner a single “yea” vote. This was the first of five budget resolutions the Senate voted on last week, each one a “messaging” vote since both chambers have already set spending levels for their respective FY 13 appropriations bills.
Ryan Budget Resolution - Vote Rejected (41-58, 1 Not Voting) - In another reprisal of last year’s budget theater, the House-passed budget drafted by Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., failed in a party-line Senate vote. The resolution would set new FY 2013 budget authority at $2.794 trillion. As happened last year, all Democrats voted “nay” along with Independents Bernard Sanders (Vt.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.). All Republicans voted “yay” with the exceptions of Sens. Scott P. Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine).
Toomey Budget Resolution - Vote Rejected (42-57, 1 Not Voting) - This budget resolution introduced by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. would set new FY 2013 budget authority at $2.843 trillion. It purports to create a balanced budget within eight years, in part by reducing spending to about 18.3 percent of GDP. It would also create a two-thirds supermajority requirement for votes to exceed discretionary spending levels set forth in the resolution and a three-fifths supermajority to make any advance appropriation unless the latter are for a handful of accounts at the Veterans Affairs Administration.
Judicial Confirmation - Vote Confirmed (91-3, 6 Not Voting) - The Senate confirmed the nomination of Jacqueline H. Nguyen of California to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Cloture Motion: Student Loan Interest Rates - Vote Rejected (52-45, 1 Present, 2 Not Voting) - This bill would extend the current 3.4 percent interest rate on federally-subsidized Stafford loans to undergraduate students for one year. This extension would be paid for by eliminating a tax preference for certain shareholders of S-Corporations. The Senate failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to invoke cloture, and thereby end debate, on the motion to proceed to the bill. It is possible the Senate will hold another cloture vote on this bill. The House passed a competing version (H.R.4628) on April 27.
21st Century Postal Service Act of 2012 - Vote Passed (62-37, 1 Not Voting) - The Senate passed its U.S. Postal Service overhaul bill. The bill seeks to trim the workforce by about 100,000 employees through attrition and delays efforts to eliminate Saturday delivery and close some post offices. The House has yet to pass its version of the bill. The postmaster estimates the agency needs to trim $22 billion in operating costs to remain in business.
Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011 - Vote Passed (68-31, 1 Not Voting) - The Senate voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act for another five years. The 1994 law gives federal law enforcement agencies tools to combat crime against women. The reauthorization adds provisions relating to Native American and immigrant women, and sexual orientation. The House is likely to pass a bill similar to the current authorization.
Cloture Motion; Paying a Fair Share Act of 2012 - Vote Rejected (51-45, 4 Not Voting) - The Senate failed to reach the sixty vote threshold needed to move forward on this bill to raise tax rates on taxpayers earning more than $1 million.
21st Century Postal Service Act of 2011 - Vote Rejected (51-46, 3 Not Voting) - This postal overhaul bill did not receive the necessary 60 votes to proceed to debate. The bill would allow the Postal Service to recoup around $11 billion in overpayments to a retirement account and use that money to provide financial incentives to about 100,000 employees to retire, as well as delay the plan to end Saturday delivery for two years.
Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act - Vote Rejected (51-47, 2 Not Voting) - This legislation would repeal some tax breaks for large oil and gas companies and use the revenue generated by these tax repeals to pay for an extension of renewable-energy tax credits and incentives. The bill did not receive the necessary 60 votes to end debate and is unlikely to be considered again.
Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act - Vote Passed (73-26, 1 Not Voting) - This bill would ease reporting and regulatory requirements for small businesses trying to raise capital in order to take the company public. The House passed the bill on March 8, 2012. The Senate adopted an amendment to the bill which will require the House to vote again. It is expected the House will pass the bill this week and send the bill to the president.
Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act - Vote Passed (74-22, 4 Not Voting) - The Senate passed this $109 billion bill that would fund transportation programs and projects for the next two years. It is unclear at this time whether the House will pass a two or five year bill.
Keystone XL Pipeline - Vote Rejected (56-42, 2 Not Voting) - During the debate over the transportation bill, the Senate rejected this amendment that would have allowed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to proceed without presidential approval. Sixty votes were needed to adopt the amendment.
Motion to Table Blunt Amendment - Vote Agreed to (51-48, 1 Not Voting) - The Senate rejected an amendment to the surface transportation bill that would have allowed employers to exclude certain health services from its insurance plans based on religious grounds.
Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act - Vote Agreed to (60-36, 4 Not Voting) -The Senate gave final approval to the agreement to extend the Social Security payroll tax rate cut, which was reduced from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent last year, through the end of 2012. The bill also extends certain unemployment benefits and Medicare physician payment rates through the end of the year. The president is expected to sign the bill into law.
FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act - Vote Agreed to (75-20, 5 Not Voting) - The Senate gave final approval to this conference report authorizing $15.9 billion per year through the 2015 fiscal year for the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA has been operating under a series of short-term extensions since the 2008 fiscal year. The president is expected to sign the measure.
STOCK Act - Vote Passed (96-3, 1 Not Voting) - This Senate bill would strengthen rules prohibiting lawmakers, Capitol Hill staff and some executive branch officials from using confidential information to buy or sell stocks. The House is expected to take up the bill this week.
Debt limit disapproval - Vote Rejected (44-52, 4 Not Voting) - The Senate rejected this House resolution to block a $1.2 trillion increase in the $15.2 trillion debt ceiling. The increase automatically took effect on January 27, 2012.
Branch Homepage - Public Policy Issues to Watch