Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
December 19, 2014

6 Sleepers Lurking on the Hill’s To-Do List

The first Senate vote of the new year — Monday evening’s confirmation of Janet L. Yellen as the first Federal Reserve chairwoman in its hundred-year history — kicked off the second session of the 113th Congress with a genuinely meaningful bang.

And, as outlined in this space, there’s a solid chance lawmakers will achieve three of the year’s marquee goals before the coldest weeks of winter are over.

A $1 trillion spending package that begins repairing the broken appropriations process seems on course for completion next week. A deal that finds the bipartisan sweet spot for reductions in both food stamps and crop subsidies may follow in a matter of days. And prospects are brightening daily for a relatively drama-free increase in the Treasury’s borrowing authority — lasting until after the election — soon after the Winter Olympics are over.

But then what? Much of the talk at the moment is about revived Republican interest in changing immigration law. But it will be summer, after the bulk of tea party challenges to House GOP incumbents have played out, before leadership decides whether it’s politically safe pull the trigger on an agreement that would easily rank as 2014’s biggest.

After that, there’s a substantial drop in headline appeal. But there are a range of policy areas where Republicans and Democrats might plausibly strike narrow, and narrowly consequential, agreements before the midterm elections. These are half a dozen to watch:

Energy.  There’s still no consensus on offshore oil drilling or the worth of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but solid bipartisan majorities on both sides of the Hill are ready to vote for modest legislation to boost energy efficiency. Three years in the making, it would give small grants to states and cities that want to tighten building codes, provide incentives for manufacturers to reduce their carbon footprints and establish energy-savings guidelines for federal buildings.

The bill was poised to pass the Senate last fall, but was held captive by bickering over the GOP’s prerogatives to offer non-germane amendments and heightened partisan anxieties before the shutdown. Sponsors are now confident they have the filibuster-proof majority needed to overcome any such challenges and once the Senate acts, a companion bill is ready to springboard toward the House floor.

Water. If they can figure out how to live with their self-imposed ban on earmarks, House and Senate negotiators will be able to strike a deal soon on the first legislation in seven years authorizing new navigation, flood control and wetlands conservation projects — this time with a bigger pot of federal funding and speedier environmental and regulatory reviews.

The incentive for a deal is strong, because it would allow both parties to point during the campaign to a multibillion-dollar job creation package. The holdup is over the process for putting new projects on the Army Corps of Engineers’ to-do list. In the past, lawmakers essentially ran the selection process, but that runs afoul of the new prohibitions on parochial pork-barreling. The Senate bill would get members out of the process altogether, while the House bill would give Congress the power to reject each year’s list of new projects.

Crime. Prominent members of the congressional left and right, from Democratic Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia to GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, have been collaborating on sweeping legislation to reduce federal criminal penalties, partly by ending mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses.

There is growing sentiment that federal law has criminalized too many wrongs and that streamlining the system would have the added benefit of reducing spending on federal prisons. Though some leaders are wary of the “soft on crime” label in an election year, at a minimum a deal is likely on a bill to make it easier for some categories of inmates to win earlier releases.

Patents. Last month, 325 House members voted to make life more legally difficult for patent “trolls,” entities that purchase patents without any interest in making a product or providing a service — instead the aim is to file lawsuits alleging infringement of those patents by companies with deep pockets and incentives to settle quickly (often by paying licensing fees to the trolls).

Senators on the Judiciary Committee seem close to settling on an alternative with solid bipartisan backing, and the White House is signaling eagerness to help write a final compromise that allows the president to say he’s helped businesses combat frivolous litigation. The other side says Congress is moving too quickly and should wait at least until hearing from the Supreme Court, which has three cases about patent law on its docket for this term.

Sales taxes. It was the high court’s refusal last month to get involved in an issue — in this case, whether states may collect sales taxes on their residents’ Internet purchases from retailers in other states — that is adding pressure on Congress to come to a long-elusive agreement on a uniform rubric.

Urged on by revenue-starved state governments and bricks-and-mortar retailers, 69 senators voted last spring to require larger online vendors to collect all applicable local sales taxes and send the money where it belongs. So far, House GOP leaders have bottled up the measure, worried that supporting the bill would be portrayed as breaking the party’s no-new-taxes promises. That will change if retailers, both online and on Main Street, conclude it’s best to replace a patchwork of different rules that adds to their cost of doing business.

Medicare. April 1 is the next deadline for addressing one of the most nettlesome problems Congress has recently created for itself: The 1997 formula for increasingly steep cuts in payments to physicians for treating Medicare patients.

Tired of making an annual patch that eases or eliminates the cuts — the “doc fix” — senior members of both parties, along with the relevant house and Senate committees, have reached agreement that it’s time to eliminate the problem altogether. And their determination to do so has grown so acute that it’s very possible they’ll be willing to find reductions elsewhere in the Medicare program to offset the cost. Working in their favor: For a variety of reasons, the cost of abandoning the 17-year-old formula has itself gone down to a politically palatable $12 billion a year.

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