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Congress Dysfunction Not Limited to DHS03/01 11:27

   Lawmakers couldn't finish their work last year and it's showing now. The 
leftover business could prove even more divisive than the dispute over rolling 
back President Barack Obama's immigration policies on a bill providing money 
for the Department of Homeland Security.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress' dysfunction isn't limited to the struggle to 
keep a Cabinet department running without interruption.

   Lawmakers couldn't finish their work last year and it's showing now. The 
leftover business could prove even more divisive than the dispute over rolling 
back President Barack Obama's immigration policies on a bill providing money 
for the Department of Homeland Security.

   Stretches of brinkmanship are certain to consume much of the legislative 
calendar in 2015. One critical issue is whether to increase the nation's 
borrowing authority. That debate could have major repercussions for the 
recovering economy.

   The to-do list includes forestalling a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments 
to physicians, preventing a cutoff of highway and transit dollars in the middle 
of peak construction season this summer and renewing critical parts of the 
Patriot Act.

   There's also a debate among Republicans, the majority on Capitol Hill, about 
whether to renew the charter of the Export-Import Bank, which provides credit 
to purchasers of U.S. exports.

   "We haven't even started talking about either one, (Medicare payments) or 
highways," said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the powerful 
House Ways and Means Committee. "So that shows how procrastinated all this is."

   Approaching are deadlines for longer-term legislation set to expire, 
including the Children's Health Insurance Program.

   A look at Capitol Hill's leftover agenda and expiring laws that may be 
renewed, with an assessment of the degree of difficulty:

   ___

   MEDICARE FEES

   Doctors who participate in Medicare face a 21 percent cut in their payments 
at the end of March. Because of a flawed formula dating to 1997, Medicare 
doctors are threatened with big fee cuts almost every year. Congress has since 
stepped in 17 times to prevent the cuts but has failed to permanently fix the 
problem.

   Lawmakers hope to resolve the issue once and for all this year. In the 
meantime, they plan a temporary fix that would buy six months or so. Shouldn't 
be too difficult.

   ___

   HIGHWAY FUNDING

   Authority to spend money from the highway trust fund expires May 31, the end 
of a reprieve passed last fall. The uncertainty is slowing construction in some 
states. A long-term fix won't be ready by then, so the most likely solution is 
Congress will punt again. Even doing that requires coming up with billions of 
dollars to fix the short-term shortfall, which won't be easy.

   ___

   EXPORT-IMPORT BANK

   On June 30, temporary authority expires for the bank. Critics say it picks 
winners such as Boeing Co. and General Electric and that too little of its 
financing benefits small business. The bank has support from Democrats and 
establishment Republicans but increasingly is opposed by conservatives, who 
note that its subsidies for foreign purchasers of exports such as jumbo jets 
give foreign airlines advantages over U.S. carriers. This split clearly has the 
bank in danger of losing its charter. Very difficult.

   ___

   DEBT LIMIT

   The government's borrowing authority lapses on March 15. Filing-season tax 
surpluses and Treasury Department accounting maneuvers could delay the need for 
Congress to step in until August or later. Action is mandatory or else the 
government would default on its obligations.

   In 2011, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, used the debt limit as leverage 
to pry spending cuts from President Barack Obama. Since then, Obama has refused 
to negotiate. Last year, Boehner had to rely on Democratic votes to pass an 
extension. Raising the debt limit again will prove difficult, but it must be 
done.

   ____

   PATRIOT ACT

   Three controversial provisions expire June 1: authorizing the bulk 
collection of telephone records, obtaining surveillance warrants without naming 
the person being wiretapped, and allowing surveillance of foreigner suspected 
of terrorist activity but who are not affiliated with a terrorist organization. 
Both left and right oppose the provisions, but solid majorities are likely to 
back them amid the growing threat from the Islamic State group. Obama signed a 
four-year extension in 2011. Not too hard.

   ___

   CHILDREN'S HEALTH

   The Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides health coverage to 
millions of children in low-income families, expires Sept. 30. There's pressure 
to renew it well before then because state legislatures are drafting their 
budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1 in most places. A 
fight is unlikely because top Republicans such as GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, 
chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, 
chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, are proposing to tighten 
eligibility for the program, possibly taking away insurance from many children, 
and roll back a scheduled increase in federal matching funds to states. Tricky, 
but doable.


(KA)


 
 
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