CHN: Attempt to Lower Tight Budget Caps Fails

The Budget Control Act of 2011 (PL 112-025) set 10-year budget caps for discretionary programs that will cut spending by nearly $1 trillion.  An amendment by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) to the transportation reauthorization bill (S. 1813) would have lowered the FY 2013 cap by $11 billion as a means of paying for transportation projects.  The amendment failed mostly along party lines with all Democrats except Senators Mark Begich (D-AK) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) voting no.  The discretionary spending cap divides funding for next year into defense ($546 B) and non-defense ($501 B) categories.  Had the amendment passed cuts would most likely have further targeted non-defense programs vital to low-income and vulnerable people.  These lack the clout exerted by pro-military lobbyists and many in Congress who are predicting doomsday scenarios if further cuts to Pentagon programs occur.  The money would have been used to offset the cost of the transportation bill whose primary source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund, along with other excise taxes, is the 18.4 cent per gallon gas tax, additional funds are needed to cover the transportation bill’s costs.  The gas tax rate has not been increased since 1993.  Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-MT) had identified other funding sources to pay for the bill, although apparently not ones that Senator Corker supported.  After his amendment to reduce the cap failed, Senator Corker then offered another which would require an across-the-board cut in transportation spending  if the there are not sufficient funds in the Trust Fund.  That amendment was rejected by voice vote.
S. 1813 was a magnet for controversial amendments unrelated to the bill.  An amendment offered by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO)) would have given employers or plan sponsors under the Affordable Care Act the flexibility to limit health care coverage for medical procedures based on their religious beliefs or moral misgivings. The vote to kill the Blunt Amendment passed 51-49 with Senator Snowe (R-ME) joining Democrats in opposition to the amendment and Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Ben Nelson (R-NE) voting with Republicans who supported it. An array of environmental amendments to the bill were rejected including one to approve construction of the Alaskan Keystone XL pipeline stretching from Canada to Texas, and others that would have weaken Environmental Protection Agency rules, extended tax credits for alternative energy sources, and expanded oil and gas drilling. Amendments that passed included one by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-C) that expresses the sense of the Senate that environmental reviews should be completed in a timely manner.  The Senate also adopted an amendment sponsored by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to keep toll roads leased by states to private operators from receiving federal highway funding.

On March 4 the Senate passed the 2-year $109 billion surface transportation bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (S. 1813), by a vote of 74-22 with 22 Republicans joining all Democrats in supporting the bill.  S. 1813 maintains funding for most programs at current levels adjusted for inflation. According to Democratic leaders, the bill sustains 1.9 million jobs and creates up to an additional 1 million jobs.

Attention now moves back to the House where earlier Speaker Boehner was forced to scuttle a 5-year $260 billion transportation bill (H.R. 7) over concerns about the cost and substance of the bill. A bi-partisan group of members from urban and suburban districts objected to eliminating funding for mass transit in the bill.  The House may now take the Senate bill to the floor and add amendments or it may try to restart H.R. 7.  Time is running out. If a surface transportation reauthorization bill is not signed into law by March 31, a short-term extension of the programs will be necessary to keep funding flowing to projects that have already started.

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