The 5 Backroom Deals To Watch As Congress Rushes To Wrap Up 2015

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The beauty – or horror, depending on your perspective – of a big, convoluted omnibus is that its sheer complexity allows for the inclusion of provisions that might be politically difficult or unpopular as standalone measures. The must-pass nature of an omnibus means the pressure is on lawmakers to agree to a compromise they may otherwise have rejected.

In addition to the budget agreement due this week, lawmakers are also hashing out a package of what’s known on the Hill as “tax extenders” – the annual reauthorization of various tax breaks – providing an additional opportunity for bargaining.

Behind the scenes, leadership is engaged in some high-stakes horse trading to settle on final deals to wrap up this year’s legislative business.

What are the trade-offs to look for? Here’s a rundown:

Campaign Finance: Upping the limits on spending by the party committees

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants to bring back party power in politics and he is looking at doing it through the omnibus. In an era when Tea Party insurgencies have threatened establishment campaigns and the status quo in the Senate, McConnell is attempting to do away with spending limits for the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee, as well as their congressional offshoots like the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Democrats and the House Freedom Caucus, however, are ready to put up a fight.

According to a report by NPR, right now campaign committees are blocked from spending more than $50,000 in coordination with an individual candidate in a House race and $3 million in a Senate election. Those caps have empowered outside groups to take on establishment-picked candidates with some success.

The backlash against the rider to remove spending limits has been bipartisan, with conservatives arguing in a letter that “the McConnell rider provides preferential treatment to the Washington establishment, and subordinates the voices of those who contribute to other multi-candidate organizations” and Democrats saying in a separate letter the change would “greatly increase the power of a select group of wealthy donors.”

There is one thing, however, Republicans and Democrats agree on, and that is McConnell’s plan to include a provision in the omnibus that requires Senate candidates–just like House and presidential ones– to file their campaign finance reports electronically.

Wall Street reform: Republicans are in a position to roll back financial regulations

Measures targeting financial regulations in the last major omnibus bill – last December’s “CRomnibus” – became a public flashpoint with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) failed revolt against them. They’re likely to come up again, with Republicans holding even more of the bargaining power now that they control both chambers.

Consumer advocates fear a number of seemingly minor proposals with major Wall Street implications could find their way into the budget bill. One concern is a possible provision derailing the Department of Labor’s plans to close loopholes related to fiduciary duty in the financial industry. Currently certain financial advisors can be compensated by the investment funds to which they direct their clients, and those advisors do not have to declare the conflict of interest. The administration’s attempt to bring more transparency to the exchange could be thwarted by omnibus language that would block or further delay the implementation of the rule.

There is also talk of rolling back some of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, including an attempt to reorganize the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is currently run by a single director. If it was restructured like a commission, as has been proposed, advocates fear it will be subjected to the sort of partisan battles that have crippled agencies like the Federal Election Commission. Wall Street reformers will also be watching for language that would scale back the Financial Stability Oversight Council’s ability to monitor to risk the financial institutions that are not banks (insurance companies, asset managers, etc.) pose to the economy. Finally, there is a fight underway about the size threshold at which the Federal Reserve should impose additional layers of oversight on certain banks.

If the White House and Dems want to protect the fiduciary rule change, they will likely have to give on one or more of the measures geared at rolling back Dodd-Frank.

Visa Waivers: It could get tougher for Europeans to visit the U.S.

Democrats have vowed to keep any language to restrict Syrian refugees out of the omnibus, but there is plenty of consensus to reform the visa waiver program that allows citizens from nearly 40 countries to travel freely to the U.S.

Since the Paris terrorist attacks revealed many of the assailants held EU passports that would have allowed them to easily travel to the U.S., the White House, Republicans and Democrats have been looking for ways to bolster security with respect to Europeans coming to the United States. Thursday, House Republicans and Democrats settled on language to tighten visa-waiver travel and vowed to fast track the bill on the House floor. The bill could be a stand alone, but negotiations in the Senate also could place it in the omnibus. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has said she would prefer to keep the deal out of the must-pass spending bill for fear it may force her Democratic members to pick and choose between their priorities if they are opposed to other provisions in the omnibus.

But including the reform may be the best way to take pressure off of Republican leaders who are getting an earful from constituents and members hungry to take action after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

Beef: It’s Mystery Meat For Dinner

Momentum is growing in Congress to repeal the Country of Origin Labeling requirements that force food sellers to tag meat with the country it came from. Advocates against COOL had already been fighting to roll back the provision that was included in the 2008 farm bill, but a new World Trade Organization ruling that declared the implementation of COOL had cost Mexico and Canada more than a billion dollars has turned up the momentum to repeal it and do it through the upcoming omnibus.

The WTO announced Monday that Mexico and Canada could begin imposing tariffs on the U.S. in retaliation. Repealing COOL may be one of the only ways Congress could quickly avoid those tariffs, House Agricultural Committee Chairman Michael Conaway has said. Repealing the program has bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, where members voted 300 to 131 to gut the program over the summer. However, some Democrats in the Senate have fought to preserve the voluntary rule. The WTO ruling may make it very hard for senators to fight to keep COOL alive.

“Depending on the omnibus, we could have Chinese chicken within the year on shelves and no one will know where it came from,” says Jess Peterson, a lobbyist for the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, which supports COOL.

But COOL is not the only labeling issue on the table. Lawmakers are also looking at tucking a provision into the omnibus that blocks states that have passed genetically modified food labeling bills from being able to implement their legislation. Rep. Kate Webb (R-VT) penned an op-ed Monday in The Hill newspaper trying to bring light to the issue and arguing that states’ rights shouldn’t be gutted in a massive federal spending bill in the final moments of a negotiation.

Ending The Oil Export Ban: Dems play their hand to allow the export of U.S. oil

As Politico reported, lifting the ban on U.S. crude oil exports has been gaining steam in recent months and is now a major bargaining chip in the current budget discussions. The rub? Some conservatives fear GOP leaders will give Democrats too much in exchange for lifting the four-decades-old prohibition, making negotiations more complicated than navigating the usual fault lines in energy politics.

While it was once feared that lifting the ban would hike gas prices, the price at the pump has gotten so low and the economic cost in terms of drilling jobs lost so high that the politics now seem to favor lifting the ban, according to Politico.

Making the case easier for lawmakers on the left is that environmentalists just scored a big win by halting the Keystone pipeline. However, Democrats aren’t about to give in on lifting the ban without wrangling for their own priorities — such as more conservation funding, subsidies for renewable energy, and reauthorizing child tax credits (in the separate tax extender package) geared at low-income families.

Some Republicans and their allies are now pushing back that Democrats are asking for too much. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), a GOP leader, called Dems “greedy” while a lobbyist for the Koch brothers urged opposition to lifting the ban if it came in exchange for renewing wind and solar tax credits.

While environmentalists won’t be happy if the ban is lifted, the key thing to watch for is what Republicans are willing to give up in return. A trade-off that secures Democrats low-income tax credits or subsidies for renewable energy will be a tough sell for some conservatives who otherwise support making U.S. oil companies more competitive in the global market.

TPM illustration by Christine Frapech. Images via AP and Shutterstock.

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Notable Replies

  1. Avatar for bd2999 bd2999 says:

    I am sure others will disagree but really the most troubling are the campaign finance one and the wall street regulations. The visa thing is fine given Europe is the likely place for some radicalized person to come from given the ease of travel.

    The oil export thing is troubling from a climate change point of view and also in terms of US gas prices, but it depends on what the Dems get for it. I feel that I would use something like that, or something the GOP really wants, and use it as leverage for something like the climate talks.

  2. Avatar for condew condew says:

    I’ve never understood how congress can pass laws to prohibit labeling. It would seem a freedom of speech issue. I don’t mind beef from Canada, not too happy about beef from Mexico, but chicken from China? Hasn’t China poisoned enough people? Importing food from China is like repealing all FDA food regulations, and if the Chinese chickens aren’t labeled, they get to sell tainted chicken with impunity – people will get sick, and they won’t know who to blame.

  3. Why an Omnibus bill anyway. It’s a frickin’ loser that is guaranteed to give away, in one quick fell swoop, laws and regulations that were hard fought for for years. And it gives cover to the ridiculous agenda of the Republicans that grind away at wrecking the world, piece by piece.
    Are the ®s afraid of clean water and air and food that isn’t a roll of the dice every time that you dare to eat it?

    I say, scrap the omnibus crap and fight each battle one by one. In that format, we win against Wall Street, Chinese Chicken and polluting pipelines.

    Giving away our previous wins to gain new ones just means that we will give them away later to supposedly win something else then. This is a negative circle of doom.

  4. That it is. And it’s the corporations that own that speech.

    As you can tell, I am very against rolling back the COOL provisions because it is essential that people know where their food comes from. Look, I’m not resurrecting the whole “yellow peril” thing but it’s a fact that countries like China have very lax standards for food production and safety. I was pissed as hell when I heard that a Chinese company had purchased Smithfield Farms. I am also EXTREMELY against non-labeling of GMO foods. My feeling is if some Americans don’t care that their food is a GMO product, good for them. Let them have it. I wouldn’t touch it with a 10 ft. pole.

  5. Avatar for darcy darcy says:

    “My feeling is if some Americans don’t care that their food is a GMO product, good for them. Let them have it. I wouldn’t touch it with a 10 ft. pole.”

    Once again, labeling. You don’t know unless the label says “GMO free.” Companies like Monsanto do not have to label foods with GMO’s. Kinda creepy, modifying an organism and then growing it with chemicals.

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