Budget, tax credits lead agendas of region’s lawmakers

By:  Jessica Holdman
Source: The Spokesman-Review

WASHINGTON – With just under a month left in 2011, the federal budget and tax breaks top Inland Northwest lawmakers’ year-end to-do lists.

Three of 12 appropriations bills are on President Barack Obama’s desk and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., remains optimistic the other nine will join them by year’s end.

“I think there is a desire in Congress to get this done,” McMorris Rodgers said. “We have a level set by the Budget Control Act. Now it’s about filling in the details to meet that.”

So far, the House has passed six appropriations bills and the Senate has passed four. The government would technically run out of money on Dec. 16 – when the current continuing spending resolution is set to expire – if Congress fails to pass the remaining appropriations bills or another continuing resolution.

The Idaho delegation is divided on the prospects for the remaining spending bills.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said there is no question that appropriations bills will be passed by the end of the year. Idaho senators are less certain it can happen by year’s end. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, thinks there is about a 50 percent chance an agreement will be reached and Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said he doubts it can be done at all.

“We need to spend less. We need to tax less. We need to borrow less,” said Risch, who added he is frustrated watching measures he supports die in a divided Congress.

Both Idaho senators have vowed to vote against any budgeting measures that would raise taxes or spending.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is pushing to retain Low Income Heating and Assistance Program money for Washington families during the appropriations process. The program, which helps needy Washington families pay for heating during winter months, is facing a budget cut at the same time legislators in southern states are trying to change formulas to divert more money to their states to help pay for summer cooling bills.

In addition to budget legislation, Washington lawmakers hope to extend several tax credits set to expire at the end of the year.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Cantwell and McMorris Rodgers want to pass legislation that would continue to allow Washington residents to deduct sales taxes from their federal income taxes.

McMorris Rodgers also wants to continue tax credits for hospitals in rural areas that she said would especially affect Washington and Idaho timber towns.

Legislators agree that tax credits should be extended but disagree on how to pay for them. For example, a one-year extension of payroll tax cuts supported by Murray was blocked by Senate Republicans Friday. Democrats wanted to increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for it while Republicans suggested a salary and hiring freeze for federal employees.

While the budget and tax credit extensions have been at the forefront of Congress’ agenda, several other issues have Inland Northwest lawmakers concerned.

McMorris Rodgers and Crapo want to extend a Medicare system informally known as “doc fix,” which is reintroduced annually to prevent a 27 percent reduction in doctors’ Medicare compensation payments.

“It is already nearly impossible to find a doctor while on Medicare because reimbursement is so much lower than actual cost. I am fearful it’s only going to make it that much harder,” McMorris Rodgers said of the possible expiration of doc fix.

She said agreements that had been reached by the supercommittee before it failed are being used as a plan to pay for doc fix.

Crapo said he also wants to fast-track the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act before the end of the year. That law, which expired in September, strengthens investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, such as rape or domestic abuse. It also funds victim-service programs.

He introduced reauthorization legislation Thursday and does not expect much opposition on the law’s reauthorization.