Your Monday Morning Tea: The 114th Congress Comes to a Close. Shutdown averted - What was passed and what was not?

Credits:  The Florida Times Union via The Associated Press


"When you look at the world today,

What is your point of view?"…


Congress wrapped up the 114th session early Saturday, a tumultuous two years marked by the resignation of a House speaker, a fight over a Supreme Court vacancy, bipartisan bills on health care and education and inaction on immigration and criminal justice. The new Congress will be sworn-in Jan. 3.

What Congress passed or approved:

— A hard-fought budget and debt agreement that provided two years of relief from unpopular automatic budget cuts and extended the government's borrowing cap through next March.

— The end of a 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports.
— A rescue package for financially strapped Puerto Rico, creating an oversight board to supervise some debt restructuring and negotiate with creditors.
— A sweeping biomedical bill that would help drug and medical device companies win swifter government approval of their products, boost disease research and drug-abuse spending and revamp federal mental health programs. It would also include money for preventing and treating abuse of addictive drugs like opioids.
— The first overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act since it was approved in 1976.
— A sweeping rewrite of education law, giving states more power to decide how to use the results of federally mandated math and reading tests in evaluating teachers and schools.
— An aviation bill that attempts to close gaps in airport security and shorten screening lines.
— Five-year, $305-billion highway legislation to address the nation's aging and congested transportation systems.
— An extension of a federal loan program that provides low-interest money to the neediest college students.
The USA Freedom Act, which extends some expiring surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act passed after the 9/11 attacks.
— A bipartisan measure that recasts how Medicare reimburses doctors for treating over 50 million elderly people.
— Legislation reviving the federal Export-Import Bank, a small federal agency that makes and guarantees loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods.
— $1.1 billion to combat the threat of the Zika virus.
— Defense legislation rebuffing President Barack Obama's attempts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and blocking the Pentagon from starting a new round of military base closings.
Food labeling legislation that will require most food packages to indicate whether they contain genetically modified ingredients.
Legislation authorizing hundreds of water projects, including measures to help Flint, Michigan, rid its water of poisonous lead, and to allow more of California's limited water resources to flow to Central Valley farmers hurt by the state's lengthy drought.
— Expanded law enforcement tools to target sex traffickers.
Legislation that would tighten several security requirements of the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. without visas.
—Cybersecurity legislation that would encourage companies to share cyber-threat information with the government.
— A renewal of health care and disability payments to 9/11 first responders who worked in the toxic ruins of the World Trade Center.
— A bill allowing families of Sept. 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts for its alleged backing of the attackers, enacted in Obama's first veto override.
— A permanent ban on state and local government Internet taxes.
— A bill that boosts government suicide prevention efforts for military veterans.
— Confirmation of Eric Fanning to be Army secretary, making him the first openly gay leader of a U.S. military service.
— The election of a new House speaker, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

What Congress did not pass or approve:

Confirmation of Obama's pick for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.
— Confirmation of 51 federal judges nominated by Obama, including 44 district court nominees and seven appeals court nominees.
Gun control legislation.
Bills that would have halted federal payments to Planned Parenthood, after secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing tissue donations fueled an uproar among congressional Republicans and abortion opponents.
Comprehensive or incremental changes to immigration law.
— $1 trillion worth of agency budget bills that will be kicked into next year, complicated by a familiar battle over the balance between Pentagon spending and domestic programs and a desire by Republicans to get a better deal next year from the Trump administration. Congress passed a four-month extension of current spending instead.
A bipartisan criminal justice bill that would have reduced some mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders and increased rehabilitation programs.
— The first comprehensive energy bill in nearly a decade, which would speed exports of liquefied natural gas and create a new way to budget for wildfires.
War powers for Obama to fight Islamic State militants.
— A bill forcing the president to allow construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada. Obama rejected the pipeline in 2015 after seven years of indecision.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade agreement involving 11 other Pacific Rim countries. Congress did give the president Trade Promotion Authority, allowing Congress to ratify or reject trade agreements negotiated by the executive branch, but not change or filibuster them.
Child nutrition bills that would have scaled back the Obama administration's standards for healthier school meals.

Additional Reporting

From the Associated Press – Printed in The Times Union – 12/11/2016

As 114th Congress limped to a close, uncertainty is ahead

AP Congressional Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The 114th Congress has limped to a close, two years of partisan acrimony punctuated by the occasional burst of bipartisan deal-making in the waning days of Barack Obama's presidency.

Ahead is uncertainty, as the GOP prepares to assume monopoly control over Washington for the first time in a decade come January, with Congress' relationship with an untested new president yet to be determined.

Thus far, congressional Republicans have been highly deferential to President-elect Donald Trump, even when his pronouncements fly in the face of long-held GOP goals like free trade and limited government. The question hanging over the next Congress will be whether Trump prevails on issues like his call for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and steep tariffs to prevent outsourcing - or whether congressional Republicans steer him in a direction more in line with traditional GOP beliefs.

"We see the fact that we were given this opportunity to have unified government as a way to get this country back on track," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in his final news conference before the House adjourned for the year. "And that includes getting our nation's finances back on track."

When lawmakers return to Washington on Jan. 3 and the 115th Congress gets under way, the Senate will immediately begin taking the steps necessary to pass a repeal of Obama's health care law. Republicans hope to present Trump with legislation to sign not long after his inauguration Jan 20.

Yet six years after Obama's health care overhaul became law, Republicans still do not know exactly what they'll replace it with, and disagree over how much time they should allow themselves to put a replacement into place.

Cooperation from Senate Democrats would probably be needed for the replacement, but Democrats say they won't be lending their support. That leaves the outcome of Republicans' push to repeal "Obamacare" unpredictable, and political risks high for the GOP. Republicans often accuse Democrats of overreaching by jamming laws through on party-line votes and say Democrats lost congressional majorities in the past as a result. Yet now Republicans must avoid committing the same mistakes themselves.

"We'll be moving in a different direction as a country, and I think we'd be wise to show some humility and move deliberately and make sure we don't make our changes, that we don't go too far too fast," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "That's always the temptation after a big win and we saw what happened when President Obama did that, and made a lot of mistakes. We don't want to make mistakes."

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., wrote in a joint opinion piece Friday for National Review that voters have given Republicans a "historic opportunity."

"They gave us the House, the Senate, a majority of governor's seats, and the White House," Lee and Walker wrote. "Now we must honor the trust they have put in us." They added: "Congress and the Trump administration can't afford to fumble the repeal of Obamacare."

Before leaving Washington for the final time this year, Republicans boasted of their achievements over the past two years. Ryan reeled off a list including a new bipartisan bill to spend billions financing medical research; ending the ban on exporting crude oil; new sanctions on Iran and North Korea; and a long-term highway bill. He also cited a bipartisan education rewrite; a long-sought overhaul of Medicare's payment systems to doctors; a rescue package for Puerto Rico; money to attack the Zika virus; new food labeling requirements; and more.

"Bipartisanship is not rare," Ryan insisted, "it is just rarely noted."

Left unsaid was how much was undone by a Congress that froze out Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, let a major 12-nation Asia trade deal languish, and took no action to address immigration, among other issues. Fractures within the GOP forced House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to resign, avoiding a conservative effort to oust him. A reluctant Ryan eventually sought the job.

Adjournment in the early morning Saturday - the Senate finally wrapped up at 6:39 a.m. EST - came only after one last partisan squabble, this one over health benefits for retired coal miners. With a group of miners watching from the gallery and a government shutdown threatening at midnight, the Senate finally voted to pass a short-term government funding bill that will keep the lights on in federal agencies and departments through April.

By that time, the nation will have seen the new president and GOP Congress tried and tested together. And 2018 midterms will already be looming, with potential to bring change to Washington once again.

Shutdown averted, Senate backs stop-gap spending bill

Associated Press

Printed in the Times Union on 12/11/2016

WASHINGTON (AP) -- With less than hour to spare, the Senate late Friday backed legislation averting a government shutdown as coal-state Democrats retreated on long-term health care benefits for retired miners and promised a renewed fight for the working class next year.

The 63-36 vote sent the stop-gap spending bill to President Barack Obama, who signed the measure early Saturday morning. The Senate also passed and sent the president a $10 billion water bill with money to respond to lead-tainted drinking water in Michigan and drought in California. The vote was 78-21.

The votes came hours after Democrats dropped threats to block the spending measure in hopes of using the shutdown deadline to try to win a one-year respite for 16,500 miners facing the loss of health care benefits at year's end. Instead, the legislation provides benefits at a cost of $45 million for four months.

Democrats invoked President-elect Donald Trump's promises to coal country as they pressed to continue the benefits. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a potential member of the Trump Cabinet, led the fight of coal-state Democrats.

But House Republicans were unrelenting and had already vacated the Capitol for a three-week holiday, forcing Democrats to concede. Manchin acknowledged Friday night that he did not have the votes to block the bill, but said "the fight will continue" next year.

"I'm born into a family of coal miners. If I'm not going to stand up for them, who is?" he asked reporters.

Manchin was meeting with Trump on Monday.

The fight gave Democrats, who suffered devastating election losses a month ago at the hands of working-class voters, a chance to cast themselves and not the GOP as the champions of the common man. Manchin was joined by other coal-state Democrats who face re-election in 2018 in states Trump won last month, including Pennsylvania and Ohio.

"We're just getting warmed up," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., vowing a fight next year. "These miners and their families kept their promise, put their lives at risk. ... It's not too difficult for a senator or House member to keep a promise."

The dispute over health benefits and a separate fight over controversial legislation to shift more of California's scarce water resources to inland farmers were the final battles of a two-year session marked by constant quarreling. It was capped by a burst of productivity on legislation to authorize hundreds of water projects, repair Flint, Michigan's lead-tainted water system, and keep the government running through April.

Congress will take a break before reconvening on Jan. 3 to get a swift start on repealing key elements of the Affordable Care Act and confirming Trump's Cabinet.

The underlying funding bill would keep the government running through April 28 to buy time for the incoming Trump administration and Congress to wrap up more than $1 trillion in unfinished agency budget work. It also provides war funding, disaster aid for Louisiana and other states, and an expedited process for considering Trump's nominee for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis.

The trucking lobby won permanent relief from recent Transportation Department rules mandating more rest and overnight breaks for long-haul drivers. The White House and Main Street Republicans were denied in a bid to revive the Export-Import Bank's ability to approve export financing deals exceeding $10 million.

The miners' issue had history: 70 years ago, President Harry S. Truman guaranteed retired miners a lifetime of health and pension benefits to avert a strike.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the four-month extension was better than nothing. McConnell himself represents thousands of miners in the struggling coal industry and said he tried to get a longer solution in talks with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

"Would I have preferred that provision to be more generous? Of course I would have," the Republican said in a speech on the Senate floor.

The House had left town on Thursday, creating a dynamic in which the Senate had little choice but to adopt the stopgap measure. Both the funding measure and a water projects bill passed there by sweeping bipartisan votes.

Democratic opponents of the popular water projects bill, led by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., assailed provisions to divert more water to corporate farmers. The bill also authorizes long-delayed funding of $170 million to help Flint, Michigan, to fix its lead-tainted water system.

Democrats griped that GOP negotiators on the water bill dumped a permanent "Buy America" provision requiring U.S.-produced steel be used in water projects. But that effort lost steam Friday.

The spending bill also would provide $7 million to reimburse the New York Police Department for the cost of security around Trump Tower in Manhattan, far less than the $35 million the city requested.

Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this story.

"But in this Congress, accountability is just a catch phrase, usually directed elsewhere. Demands to personal responsibility or corporate accountability abound, but rarely congressional accountability or fiscal responsibility".

Melissa Bean

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