Much of the attention on Capitol Hill has been dominated by jockeying over taxes this week, but lawmakers are also considering two topics that will make a substantial impact on our area: defense jobs and Hurricane Sandy relief funding. David Hawkings, editor of the CQ Roll Call Daily Briefing, offers the latest on both scores.
There was talk this week about how to pay for disaster aid in the Northeast. How big an issue will that be for states looking for federal assistance?
"It's going to be a bigger and bigger issues the bigger the package gets. New York and New Jersey alone have signalled that they want something like $80 billion in Hurricane Sandy relief. That is an enormous amount of money, even by Washington standards. It's twice the budget of the Homeland Security Department, it's five times the budget of NASA. It's a huge amount of money, amounting to approximately 12 percent of all domestic spending on course for this year. So it's huge and the bigger it stays, and that's before Virginia, Maryland and Delaware have added their pieces, the more likely conservative Republicans are going to demand to do it over a long period of time and with what they call offsets."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill this week opposing mandatory job cuts for civilian and contract workers — which he called "draconian." What's going on there?
"He's actually going to get a vote on his amendment this morning... He is combating John McCain (R-Az.), who wants to set a firm, fixed limit on the size of the civilian and contract workforce. Ben Cardin, trying to protect something vital to the local economy, says that would result in some 36,000 lost jobs. He has the backing of labor unions, and I would predict a close vote in about 3 hours."
Senators are also debating expansion of autism coverage under health insurance for military families. What's at issue there?
"This was an amendment that was on the Senate floor yesterday and didn't get much notice, but it sort of perfectly encapsulates the budget debate that is going on in Washington. The issue is that Tri-Care, the health insurance program in the military, does not cover much in the way of children in the autism spectrum. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY) would propose spending just $50 million to cover that for one year. Budget hawks in the Senate say, 'Great idea, but we can't afford it. We can't just add new entitlements, new benefits that aren't paid for.' So she called for a vote yesterday and got almost half of the Republicans to vote with her, the amendment passed, and it got added to the Defense bill. So it's just another example that, if the issue sounds important enough, people are willing to break with their budgetary principles."
What does the trajectory for the defense bill look like moving forward?
"It looks like it will pass this afternoon. This will be the big issue for the week in the Senate this week. They will go home probably this evening after passing the defense bill. It has passed in each of the last 50 years. It's one of the last truly "must-pass" bills that Congress does ever year. The House passed its version of the bill long ago in May and they will have to negotiate. It's involved in the fiscal cliff too because they're $4 billion apart."