Congress loads schedule with unfinished business

Source: George Cahlink, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Congress is barreling toward a frenetic finish this week that could see action on a genetically modified organisms bill in the Senate and House work on spending legislation before lawmakers leave for a seven-week summer break July 15.

The Senate will take four separate cloture votes tomorrow on the GMO legislation, the fiscal 2017 defense spending bill and two immigration measures. Sixty votes are necessary to move the bills toward final passage.

GOP leaders said last week before leaving for the brief Independence Day break that the immigration bills would come up before the GMO measure. It was not clear whether they have the 60 votes to move ahead.

The bipartisan GMO measure, which would put in place a federal system for labeling food made from bioengineered ingredients, should not have a problem getting cloture. And backers say they could likely pass the bill by the end of the week if it gets to the floor by tomorrow (see related story).

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), however, suggested that if either of the immigration measures came up, they could eat up all the chamber’s floor time before the break.

“I don’t see how in the world [Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)] can get to defense appropriations,” said Reid, referring to the last of the four measures that will get cloture votes.

The House, meanwhile, returns today and will consider legislation this week that aims to keep people on the terrorism watch list from buying guns. A similar proposal failed in the Senate two weeks ago.

Spending, defense

The move is the GOP’s response to a 26-hour Democratic protest on the House floor last month to force action on gun control.

House Republican leaders say they are weighing all options to prevent future protests and have not ruled out action against Democrats for staging it.

The floor “sit-in” over gun control delayed action on fiscal 2017 spending bills, including completion of the financial services spending bill, which would eliminate funding for some White House offices focused on climate change. The measure may return this week.

The House Rules Committee will accept amendments to the Interior Department and U.S. EPA spending bill. But GOP leaders say debate won’t happen until at least next week (see related story).

The Appropriations Committee is taking up legislation to fund the State Department and the Labor Department, including the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The House may also begin merging competing versions of the National Defense Authorization Act. The House version includes a rider to thwart administration management plans for the sage grouse (Greenwire, June 14).

Amid all the action, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is set to meet with House and Senate Republicans on Thursday.

Energy, Zika

Lawmakers have other unfinished priorities they would like to complete before they depart for the political conventions.

Negotiations over energy reform legislation may resume this week with both chambers back, but there are no signs yet that Senate Democrats are ready to formally go to conference.

The House in May agreed to appoint conferees to merge the competing House and Senate plans, while Senate Democrats have resisted, saying the two sides remain far apart.

A priority for both parties before recess is moving a $1.1 billion aid package, H.R. 2577, for combating the Zika virus.

While there’s bipartisan agreement on the overall Zika funding level, the parties have been split over whether the measure should include spending cuts to offset its cost.

Democrats have also protested the inclusion of several riders, including a provision to temporarily waive EPA permitting requirements for spraying mosquito pesticides.

Democrats blocked the House-backed measure from gaining cloture last week, but GOP leaders say they will try again this week to move ahead toward final passage.

“I hope in the interim that our friends across the aisle will search their soul, really their conscience, and they’ll have maybe a little twinge of regret,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) last week.

Senate Democrats, however, showed no signs of backing cloture on the bill. In a news conference late last week, they said they were open to negotiations but blasted the GOP for proposing a partisan measure without their input.

“They had to take a whack at the Clean Water Act to satisfy a few of the crazies over there,” said Reid, referring to the EPA pesticide waiver rider.

FAA, offshore drilling, miners

A proposed Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization could also emerge this week with the agency’s current operating authority due to expire July 15. As one of the few must-pass measures in this Congress, the bill could become a magnet for attaching other legislation.

Renewable energy advocates have been pressing to fix what they call an oversight in last year’s end-of-year omnibus spending and tax package, which extended the investment tax credit for solar for five years but not other qualifying sources.

Leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee, however, said they have drawn up an FAA extension running through 2017 that will not contain any tax provisions.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), meanwhile, will be looking for opportunities to get a Senate vote on a measure that would expand the sharing of offshore oil and gas revenues with coastal states and streamline environmental review of solar, wind and geothermal projects on public lands.

Cassidy announced on the Senate floor last week that McConnell (R-Ky.) had committed to a vote on the bill this year. The timing has yet to be set (E&E Daily, June 30).

Separately, coal state lawmakers are looking to the Senate Finance Committee for action on legislation to shore up a United Mine Workers of America retirement plan that is near collapse.