Long-Sought Budget Deal May Arrive Next Week

Long-Sought Budget Deal May Arrive Next Week

House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray are nearing a limited deal that would raise fiscal 2014 spending to about $1 trillion divided evenly between defense and nondefense accounts. The pair plans to brief party leaders and other lawmakers today and draft legislation that could go before Congress next week. While the agreement could provide a top-line discretionary cap for appropriators in fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015, it may prove to be a tough sell to conservatives and liberals in both chambers. On a scheduling note, the next Morning Briefing will appear on Dec. 9.

Today in the House: The chamber debates and is expected to pass a bill (HR 3309) that would impose new rules governing patent infringement lawsuits. The White House supports the measure. Meets at 9 a.m.

Today in the Senate: The chamber is in recess, returning on Dec. 9.

Today at the White House: President Barack Obama tapes an appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” and in the evening hosts two Hanukkah receptions.

BUDGET DEAL IN THE WORKS: By opting to nail down a budget plan in the form of legislation instead of a conference agreement, Ryan and Murray would avoid having to win approval from the 29-member conference committee that has been largely excluded from their private talks. The process would also save time by allowing Congress to pass the entire package with a single vote in each chamber, minimizing opportunities for opponents to alter the package.

One plan under discussion would raise the $967 billion overall discretionary spending level under the sequester by $34 billion to $1.001 trillion in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The increase would be evenly divided between defense and domestic spending, raising defense spending to $515 billion and domestic to $486 billion. That would represent a $3 billion drop in defense spending from the current level temporarily continued from the last fiscal year. But it would be $17 billion above the fiscal 2014 sequester level of $498 billion.

The deal is designed to alienate as few Republican and Democratic lawmakers as possible. However, it’s sure to antagonize conservative lawmakers and outside groups, who object to raising revenue through user fee increases and believe that potential cuts to mandatory programs under discussion are insufficient.

Ryan and Murray have talked about extending the framework to cover fiscal 2015, which begins next Oct. 1. That would represent a significant breakthrough after several years of stalemate on budget issues, and it would allow lawmakers to turn to other matters such as a potential tax overhaul.

CQ reporter Paul M. Krawzak and Daniel Newhauser will be staking out the meetings and gauging early response from House Republican leaders, whose approval will be needed to bring any agreement to the floor.

SENATE MAY VOTE ON SIX NOMINEES: After lowering the threshold for advancing executive branch and judicial nominations, Senate Democrats want to confirm six of Obama’s prominent nominees before adjourning for the holidays, a prospect that could keep the chamber in session through Dec. 20.

The Senate is already scheduled to confirm Patricia Ann Millett to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit when lawmakers return on Monday. After that, lawmakers could revisit the nomination of Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Once he is confirmed, the Senate would face up to 30 hours of post-cloture debate time on two other nominees to the D.C. Circuit, Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and Robert L. Wilkins.

As CQ reporter Humberto Sanchez writes, easing the filibuster rule so it only takes a simple majority to advance a nomination won’t dramatically shorten the time it takes to get people confirmed. Republicans angry about the way Democrats modified Senate procedure are not expected to yield back any debate time when cloture is invoked on nominations.

We’re assessing how the selections of Janet L. Yellen to head the Federal Reserve and Jeh Johnson to lead the Homeland Security Department will fare in the still polarized environment. While no final decisions have been made on scheduling, Democrats may well seek to keep the Senate in session rather than push votes on both into the new year.

NO PARTY LINES ON PATENT BILL: Conservative and free-market advocacy groups are split over the merits of the patent litigation bill due to be taken up in the House today and the way it would raise legal standards for patent holders in an effort to discourage frivolous lawsuits.

Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity and six other groups endorsed the effort by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., in a letter to House lawmakers Wednesday, saying it would reduce the cost of defending against spurious patent claims. Ten other conservative groups urged lawmakers to reject the legislation earlier this week on the grounds it could harm some legitimate patent holders.

House Republican leaders are continuing to push the measure with the help of Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a former Judiciary chairman who played a central role in writing a 2011 patent law update (PL 112-29), and Ryan Triplette, a Republican lobbyist with the Franklin Square Group.

Democrats also are divided. While ranking Judiciary member John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and four other Democrats voted against the bill in committee and have urged its defeat, all of the panel’s other Democrats supported the measure and many members of the party are expected to back it.

CQ reporter John Gramlich will be watching the lobbying leading up the vote and assessing the bill’s fate in the Senate, where Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, are promoting a more limited plan (S 1720).

PROGRESS REPORTED IN FARM TALKS: Negotiators trying to reconcile House and Senate versions of a farm bill appear increasingly confident they can resolve key sticking points in the coming days and draft the final bill over the Christmas recess so it will be ready for floor action in January.

That scenario would likely require a short-term extension of the 2008 farm law (PL 110-246) to prevent a 1948 law from taking effect and triggering spikes in dairy subsidies and, eventually, higher retail milk prices. Agriculture groups used the threat of a “dairy cliff” last year to push Congress to extend the 2008 law.

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and her House counterpart, Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., reported “great progress” after meeting face to face on Wednesday but declined to say how they would resolve major differences in the bills. The House measure (HR 2642) would cut nutrition aid by about $39 billion over 10 years through major changes in eligibility standards, utility deductions, work requirements for unemployed adults and state authority to extend food benefits. The Senate bill (S 954) calls for about $4 billion in cuts over the same period.

CQ reporters Philip Brasher and Ellyn Ferguson are monitoring whether the conferees land on the same page, and how interest groups try to influence the outcome. The American Farm Bureau Federation is urging agriculture interests to back off and let the conferees work, a possible reference to a threat made last week by corn and soybean groups to oppose the final bill over a dispute over commodity price guarantees.

CRASH BOOSTS SAFETY MANDATE: Details emerging from the federal investigation into this week’s deadly crash of a Metro North commuter train in the Bronx, N.Y., will make it harder for railroads to push back a congressionally mandated 2015 deadline to install technology to prevent high-speed derailments.

The 2008 railroad reauthorization (PL 110-432) required a positive train control system on about 60,000 miles of track to detect if trains are moving too fast or about to collide and stop or slow them even if an operator isn’t paying attention.

Preliminary findings suggest the Metro North engineer was sleeping or distracted when the New York-bound train traveling 82 miles an hour hit a curve designed to handle speeds of 30 miles per hour.

Railroads have been pushing for a three- to five-year reprieve from the requirement, saying it could cost about $14 billion to upgrade necessary infrastructure.

In the wake of the crash, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., began pushing a plan that would allow commuter rail systems to tap a $35 billion direct loan and loan guarantee program for PTC and related improvements.

CQ reporter Nathan Hurst is assessing whether the bid to expand sources of funding will weaken industry arguments for a deadline delay. We’re also following Federal Communications Commission environmental and regulatory reviews of necessary track-side antennae, which industry backers complain has gone slowly.

CQ’s editors and reporters value your feedback on our news coverage and welcome your questions and comments on the stories we’re covering.

— Adriel Bettelheim, Morning Briefing editor, adrielbettelheim@cqrollcall.com, on Twitter @abettel

, , ,