FARM AND FOOD PROGRAMS
The Senate in June and the House Agriculture Committee in July passed similar bills to set agriculture subsidy and conservation policy and spend almost $100 billion a year over the next five years for farm and nutrition programs. But the House Republican leadership has refused to bring the bill to the floor, fearing a rebellion from conservatives, who say it spends too much, particularly for the expanding food stamp program. Fearing backlash from constituents in rural communities about failure to act on a farm bill, the House on Thursday passed legislation to revive disaster relief programs for livestock producers hit by the widespread drought. ButSenate Democrats, saying that the House should be voting on a comprehensive farm bill instead of a stopgap disaster relief measure, declined to go along.
POSTAL SERVICE OVERHAUL
The U.S. Postal Service at midnight Wednesday defaulted on $5.5 billion in scheduled payments to the Treasury for future retiree health care benefits as it waits for Congress to come up with a plan to help it regain fiscal solvency. An additional $5.6 billion due in September is also likely to go unpaid. The mail agency has come up with its own plan to restore profitability by cutting Saturday delivery, closing smaller postal facilities and reducing retiree benefit responsibilities. A Senate bill passed in April took a less aggressive approach, providing an $11 billion cash infusion to help the independent agency avert a default while avoiding some of the cuts. The House remains stalled over its version and it appears unlikely that it will pass legislation this year. The House would set up a commission to determine facility closures, opposed by rural lawmakers whose constituents would be most affected by the cuts.
The Senate failed in a final attempt Thursday to pass legislation to protect the U.S. electrical grid, water supplies and other critical industries from cyberattack and electronic espionage. Both Republicans and Democrats said they are committed to approving a final bill when they return in September. But deep divisions between the two parties over the right approach to cybersecurity will make it difficult to forge a compromise. The principal stumbling block is what role the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies should play in protecting U.S. businesses from cyberattacks. Republicans argued the bill would have led to rules imposed by Washington that would only increase the private sector's costs without substantially reducing its risks. The White House has warned that failure to pass the bill leaves the country's essential businesses vulnerable to criminals, foreign governments and terrorists.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ACT
House Speaker John Boehner on Monday named lawmakers to negotiate with the Senate on a compromise bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act for five years, but progress on the bill remained elusive four months after the Senate reauthorized the act on a bipartisan vote. The 1994 act, created to prevent domestic abuse and protect its victims, expired last year. The House in May narrowly passed its own version, but the Obama White House threatened a presidential veto, saying it didn't go far enough to protect battered illegal immigrants, Native Americans or gays. The Democratic-led Senate did extend new protections to those minority groups and the legislation has become a point of reference as the two parties campaign for women's votes before the election.
Both the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee have approved bills to end Cold War restrictions and extend permanent normal trade relations to Russia. Normalizing trade with Russia is a top priority of U.S. business groups because on Aug. 22 Russia will enter the World Trade Organization and without congressional action, American exporters will not be able to take advantage of the lowering of tariffs and other trade barriers that will accompany WTO membership. Economists estimate that U.S. sales to Russia, now about $9 billion a year, could double within five years if trade is normalized. Congress left without taking up the legislation, although House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the House was prepared to consider the bill in September. To satisfy lawmakers concerned about Russia's human rights record, the trade bill has been linked to legislation that would punish Russian officials involved in human rights violations. But there is still resistance to improving relations with Russia at a time when the Moscow government is threatening U.S. missile defenses in Europe and aiding the Assad government in Syria.