House Faces Off on Farm Bill, Late-Term Abortions

Billy House

While the Senate continues its floor focus on amendments to its immigration-reform bill, the House this week is set for contentious action on its version of a five-year farm bill and on another measure that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Just the scheduling for a vote of the House’s $940 billion Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 represents a legislative step beyond last year, when the Senate passed its version of a farm bill but Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders refused to bring a measure to the floor.

Although this updated edition has Boehner’s blessing, finding 218 votes for passage might still prove adventurous. One wrinkle is that the $20.5 billion in cuts in food stamps over 10 years is drawing anger not only from liberals who see that as too much but also from some conservatives who see it as too little. Even if unaltered, differences with the Senate’s $955 billion version—which would eliminate more than $4 billion in food-stamp funding, for instance—would have to be resolved in a final bill.

Other congressional activity this week will include:

A Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday to consider President Obama’s nomination of Dan Tangherlini to head the General Services Administration. Tangherlini has been acting GSA administrator since shortly after 2012 revelations of wasteful spending at the agency.

House Judiciary Committee markup of enforcement legislation to give states and cities the right to punish immigration-law violators, as well as a bill to reform the agricultural guest-worker program. Democrats vehemently oppose the enforcement measure and consider it a slap in the face to bipartisan negotiations on a broader bill.

A House Financial Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing Tuesday, described as a review of spending by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

A Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday on price transparency and high costs in health care, which it has titled “High Prices, Low Transparency: The Bitter Pill of Health Care Costs.”

The Rules Committee has scheduled a hearing for Monday evening to set the floor procedures for both the farm bill and the late-term-abortion measure sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. A final vote is expected by Thursday on the farm bill, given there are no votes scheduled on Friday. And a vote on the abortion bill is expected as early as Tuesday, said Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., on Friday.

Democrats have seized on the proposed ban on abortions more than 20 weeks into pregnancy to cast the GOP as continuing its “war on women” by taking another step to erode access to abortion. And even some Republicans are suggesting it is ill-timed politically and has no chance of passage in the Senate, while also serving as a distraction from other work that Congress should be doing, such as helping the economy and lowering unemployment.

But Franks and other supporters of his Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act have been pointing to details of the infant deaths that led to the murder convictions of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell last month as underscoring the need for the legislation and even giving it momentum.

Boehner said during his news conference Thursday that jobs remain the No. 1 concern of the House Republican Conference, but that in light of the details of the Gosnell case, he believes action on the Franks bill is appropriate. Republicans have picked Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., to manage the floor action on the bill.


Tax Overhaul

Congress is taking a breather over the next few weeks from major fiscal battles, as it focuses on crafting immigration legislation that can pass both houses and as it tries to prevent student-loan rates from rising this summer.

Still, this has not stopped the chairmen of the two tax-writing committees from trying to keep up the momentum for tax reform. The duo plan to travel around the country in the coming weeks to talk to business groups and individuals about what they want from an overhaul of the tax code, said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor on Friday.

Baucus and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, also plan to hold a series of bipartisan lunches with lawmakers this summer to talk about key elements of overhauling the tax code. This is part of their ongoing push for such legislation, ahead of Baucus’s retirement in 2014 and Camp’s last term as chairman of Ways and Means.


Budget Battles

On Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on the fiscal 2014 budget request related to the Joint Strike Fighter Program. Witnesses are to include Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations; Gen. Mark Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff; Gen. John Paxton Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps; and Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, JSF program executive officer.


Loan Countdown

The House Education and the Workforce Committee will mark up a bill to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on Wednesday. The bill is slated to be on the House floor in July, according to committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn. The legislation would dramatically reduce the federal role in public schools by sketching out broad requirements on teacher evaluations reporting on student achievements. It is likely to face opposition from Democrats who think such proposals would hurt children in low-performing states such as Mississippi.

The scuffle over student-loan interest rates will heighten as the July 1 deadline nears when rates for new need-based Stafford loans will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. House Democrats are collecting colleagues’ signatures on a petition to force a vote on a proposal to stave off the rate hike for two years. They are unlikely to get the 218 signatures they need to force that vote.

The House has already passed a Republican bill to base the interest rates for all student loans on the market—which would raise rates for need-based loans by about 1 percent and lower rates for unsubsidized loans by about 2 percent. The Senate has been unable to pass a Democrat-sponsored proposal to hold the need-based 3.4 rate for two years or a Republican bill similar to the House bill. Kline, who sponsored the House proposal, said Sunday on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers that he is not willing to bargain with Senate lawmakers until they pass their own bill. That could be difficult, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid already has a heavy lift getting the immigration bill done by month’s end.


Price Transparency

National Journal’s Margot Sanger-Katz will moderate a panel Wednesday on “Health Care Solutions Washington Can Learn From” that will feature Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., as well as health executives and policy experts. The 1:30 p.m. discussion is part of National Journal’s daylong “Back in Business” forum on innovation around the country.

On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing on price transparency and high cost in health care. The latter received a lot of attention after a recent article by Time magazine’s Steven Brill, who will be among those testifying. Newly released hospital price data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services revealed a wide variation in the charges of common procedures among hospitals in the same area and brought price-transparency issues into focus this spring. Additional witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing include Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change; Suzanne Delbanco, executive director of the Catalyst for Payment Reform; and Giovanni Colella, CEO of Castlight Health, which helps companies shop for health care plans.

Finally, Enroll America, the 501(c)(3) organization that is aiming to get uninsured Americans to enroll in health coverage under “Obamacare,” is stepping up its push in advance of the Oct. 1 launch of the new health exchanges with a “Get Covered America” campaign that launches Saturday.


Amendment Mania

The Senate will proceed with week two of its three-week journey toward passing a major immigration overhaul. Reid has put forth his oft-used threat to keep members in over the weekend if they can’t speed up their votes on amendments. As it stands, the Senate has voted on just one amendment, handily defeating a proposal by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to halt any legalization of illegal immigrants until border-security benchmarks are met.

Other amendments to watch include proposals to prevent newly legalized immigrants from collecting the Earned Income Tax Credit, clarifying that English language proficiency is a requirement for citizenship, and adding five years to the 10-year wait for newly legalized immigrants to get subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. A proposal from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to halt all citizenship eligibility, but not legalization, until border “triggers” are met will probably be one of the last to receive a vote. Democrats hate it, but Republican sponsors hope it will bring skeptical colleagues to a “yes” vote on final passage.


Helium Shortage

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee marks up legislation Thursday that would prevent a nationwide shortage of helium. While known most for blowing up balloons, helium is vital to products in the space, medical, and manufacturing industries.

Absent congressional action, current law would terminate the federal helium program in October, essentially cutting off for private use a federally run helium mine that runs from Texas to Kansas. The legislation the committee marks up Thursday would phase out the reserve over several years instead of cutting it off abruptly in October, which a 1996 law dictates.

Helium is one of the few issues that rise above partisanship. The House already passed such a bill by 394-1 (the lone no vote came from Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.). The full Senate is expected to take swift action as well. Given its overwhelming popularity, the bill could likely be approved by unanimous consent, meaning it wouldn’t require a roll call vote or debate on the floor.


European Tour

Even while keeping an eye on the immigration debate from afar, Obama will devote most of this week to foreign travel and foreign policy. The beginning of the week finds him in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the annual G-8 summit with allied leaders and President Vladimir Putin of Russia. From there, he goes to Germany for a highly anticipated speech at the Brandenburg Gate.

George E. Condon Jr., Nancy Cook, Jerry Hagstrom, Amy Harder, Catherine Hollander, and Fawn Johnson contributed