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Nation’s new sheriff means priority shift

March 1, 2007 By    

As the old saying goes, there’s a new sheriff in town. It’s no surprise that the Democratic leaders are promoting policies that were not Republican priorities.

Lisa Bontempo Washington Bureau
Lisa Bontempo Washington Bureau

Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), for example, is planning to reintroduce his bill requiring employers with 15 or more workers to provide employees with seven days of annual paid sick leave for full-time workers and to pro-rate leave benefits for part-time workers. No surprise here.

Kennedy has worked on this issue for years and has drawn the ire of Republicans who believe the measure penalizes small business. Now in his position as chairman of the Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he is able to force action on the measure.

But watch closely. This committee also has jurisdiction over the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers with 50 or more employees to give employees 12 weeks of annual unpaid leave for medical leave or child adoption. Look for committee member and close colleague Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) to try to expand the act to cover businesses with 25 or more employees during committee action on Kennedy’s sick leave measure.

An earlier column identified House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) as one of the powerful chairmen to watch this Congress. His strong legislative skills and hammering of regulatory agencies are legendary. When Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) requested her House committee chairmen present legislation for polluting industry sectors to cap greenhouse gas emissions by this summer, Dingell’s committee would have had traditional jurisdiction on this issue.

But Dingell, who has represented the Detroit area for several decades, does not always see eye to eye with Democrats’ views on clean air legislation. After reaching an agreement with Dingell and Henry Waxman (D-CA) also of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Pelosi is one step closer to creating a new, select committee on global warming and energy independence.

Clean air advocate Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) is expected to head up the committee. He is also a strong supporter of increasing corporate average fuel economy standards for vehicles.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) may have lost some friends in the labor unions now that the House has passed its bill raising the minimum wage and offering tax cuts to business. As leader of the House bill, he had vowed that no other measures would be attached to the minimum wage. Unions were hoping Democratic leaders would push a “clean” wage bill without any tax breaks.

Now, Republicans can support a wage increase with a final bill that will likely contain tax breaks since both the House and Senate have passed bills with different levels of tax cuts.

Although the wage bill is a Democratic priority, difficulties are arising as the House and Senate move to form a conference committee to iron out their differences.

The House-passed measure includes $1.3 billion in business tax cuts, though House Republicans were prevented from offering amendments to expand the cuts. Senate Republicans want to be certain tax provisions from their $8 billion measure remain (including an extension of small business expensing relief and a renewal of the work opportunity tax credit), before they will proceed to a conference. Ways and Means Chairman Rangel may support a one-year extension of the expensing provisions, but there has been little indication he will support other Senate provisions.

The ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Jim McCrery (R-LA), has said he is concerned that “tax relief for some is going to be paired with a tax increase on others.” These include small business interests who are urging the Senate to adopt the larger package of tax breaks. The Chamber of Commerce opposes some of the offsets intended to pay for the tax breaks, such as a cap on deductions for deferred compensation for business executives and deductions related to lawsuits.

So the new sheriff in Washington does not have free reign. Democrats hold a 51–49 edge in the Senate, but Senators Jim Jeffords (I-VT) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) are independents who caucus with Democrats. That makes their edge precarious at best.

Senate rules also give the minority great power to stall or stop legislation, which puts Senate Republicans in a strong position to demand that their provisions be implemented if Democrats want a minimum wage bill.

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