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The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Associated Press)

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Associated Press)

Washington Roundup: House rejects farm bill; Senators announce border security compromise

Last Modified: Thursday, June 20, 2013 2:19 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House has rejected a five year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill that would have cut $2 billion annually from food stamps and let states impose broad new work requirements on those who receive them.

Those cuts weren't deep enough for many Republicans who objected to the cost of the nearly $80 billion-a-year program, which has doubled in the past five years. The vote was 234-195 against the bill, with 62 Republicans voting against it, including Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette.

The bill also suffered from lack of Democratic support necessary for the traditionally bipartisan farm bill to pass. Only 24 Democrats voted in favor of the legislation after many said the food stamp cuts could remove as many as 2 million needy recipients from the rolls. The addition of the optional state work requirements by an amendment just before final passage turned away any remaining Democratic votes the bill's supporters may have had.

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said the work requirements, along with another vote that scuttled a proposed dairy overhaul, turned too many lawmakers against the measure.

"Our people didn't know this was coming," Peterson said after the vote.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said the same, telling reporters the vote "turned out to be a heavier lift even than I expected. "

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., voted for the bill, but Boehner supported the dairy amendment and Cantor supported the amendment that imposed the work requirements.

Lucas and Peterson had warned that adoption of those amendments could contribute to the bill's downfall.

Senators announce border security compromise

White House-backed immigration legislation gained momentum in the Senate on Thursday as lawmakers closed in on a bipartisan compromise to spend tens of billions of dollars stiffening border security without delaying legalization for millions living in the country unlawfully.

"Once the Senate adopts our amendment, I will be proud to vote for a bill that secures our border and respects our heritage as an immigrant nation," Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said in a statement. Additional GOP support was expected as a result of the package of changes that some backers dubbed a "border surge" and GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said "practically militarizes" the U.S. border with Mexico.

Republican Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee outlined details of the changes at midafternoon, although they said talks with Democrats on the precise details were not yet complete.

Under the plan, they said the U.S. Border Patrol would double in size with the addition of 20,000 new agents, 700 more miles of fencing would be completed and an additional dozen unarmed surveillance drones would be purchased. The plan also calls for installation of an array of high-tech devices to monitor the U.S. border with Mexico, to include fixed camera towers and mobile surveillance systems.

Under the emerging compromise, the government would grant legal status to immigrants living in the United States illegally at the same time the additional security was being put into place. Green cards, which signify permanent residency status, would be withheld until the security steps were complete.

In addition, immigrants would not be able to claim credit for Social Security taxes they paid while working without lawful status. Credits are used to determine the amount in Social Security benefits a worker receives after retirement.

Officials said the plan envisions doubling the size of the Border Patrol with 20,000 new agents, completing 700 miles of new fencing along the border with Mexico and purchasing new surveillance drones to track would-be illegal border crossers. The cost of the additional agents alone was put at $30 billion over a decade.

Under another change, neither the administration nor states would be permitted to grant welfare benefits for five years to immigrants currently living unlawfully in the United States.

There was no immediate reaction from the White House to terms hashed out by senators in both parties, although Democrats kept administration officials apprised of the talks.

The secretive negotiations continued as the Senate rejected an attempt by one Republican critic to delay legalization until any border security improvements were proven effective rather than merely deployed. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said his proposal was an attempt "to turn border security rhetoric into reality," but it was sidetracked on a vote of 54-43.

The agreement began to take shape over the past several days beginning with meetings involving Republicans who were uncommitted on the legislation but receptive to supporting it after changes were made. Eventually, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., both authors of the bill, joined the talks.

If agreed to, the changes could clear the way for a strong bipartisan vote within a few days to pass the measure that sits atop President Barack Obama's second-term domestic agenda.

The officials who described the emerging deal spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the private talks.

The developments came as Democrats who met with House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday quoted him as saying he expected the House to pass its own version of an immigration bill this summer and Congress to have a final compromise by year's end.

Boehner, R-Ohio, already has said the legislation that goes to the House in the next month or two will not include a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the United States illegally.

Earlier this week, the Congressional Budget Office jolted lawmakers with an estimate saying that as drafted, the legislation would fail to prevent a steady increase in the future in the number of residents living in the United States illegally.

The estimate appeared to give added credibility to Republicans who have been pressing Democrats to toughen the border security provisions already written into the bill.

Senate Democrats press ahead on spending bills

With efforts on a broader budget deal foundering, Senate Democrats moved ahead Thursday with spending bills that ignore a second year of spending cuts mandated under the 2011 budget and debt deal.

The Democratic-led appropriations panel added $91 billion to the spending "cap" called for under current law, setting out on a collision course with the GOP-dominated House, which has opted to stick within the spending limits mandated by Washington's inability to follow up the 2011 law with another deficit-reduction deal.

The Democratic cap equals what was called for in 2011 and is in line with the budget plan passed that passed the Senate in March, which calls for new taxes and spending cuts to replace the automatic cuts, known as sequestration.

At issue is the congressional appropriations process in which 12 individual bills set the day-to-day operating budgets of 15 Cabinet departments and other federal agencies. The bills make up a little more than one-third of the budget, with expensive benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security making up most of the rest.

The 12 bills represent Congress' most basic job but the appropriations process has broken down over the years and is showing signs of grinding to a complete halt this year. Congress is likely to resort yet again to a stopgap spending measure in September that keeps the government running but President Barack Obama has issued a blanket veto threat against the House GOP's spending measures, which reflect not just the sequestration-mandated cuts but transfers $28 billion from domestic programs in order to patch up the Pentagon's budget.

Republicans said that Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., should have stayed with the $967 billion cap that Congress is stuck with under sequestration and made the best of a bad situation. That figure is $17 billion below current levels. Mikulski instead opted for a $1.058 trillion cap, but since sequestration remains in place, the White House budget office would have to order another round of across-the-board to chop the bills back to the GOP-endorsed level.

"The majority's top-line number ignores the law and puts us on the path to another sequester," said top panel Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. "If enacted, a discretionary spending level of $1.058 trillion would trigger an automatic cut that is 65 percent larger than the 2013 sequester."

Democrats countered that the move by House Republicans to boost the Pentagon budget also violates limits under sequestration and that a House defense spending bill would, itself, trigger a sequester.

"While the House plan tries to avoid cuts to defense at the expense of infrastructure and education, they won't be able to protect the Pentagon without an agreement," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash. "$552 billion in defense spending would be sequestered back down to $498 billion-unless we can get a bipartisan deal."

There was more bipartisan agreement when the panel turned to spending bills funding the Veterans Affairs Department and a measure funding agriculture programs and Pentagon construction projects.

The $20.9 billion agriculture measure restores House GOP cuts to the popular overseas Food for Peace food aid program and the Womens Infants and Children program that delivers food aid to pregnant women and their babies.

30 US reps want to reign in BLM's horse budget

Thirty U.S. House members are urging new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reform the government's wild horse management program and its spiraling budget that they say has created an "untenable situation" for both the mustangs and U.S. taxpayers.

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee on public lands, wrote the letter Thursday appealing to Jewell as a "conservationist and outdoor enthusiast" to help bring long overdue changes at the Bureau of Land Management charged with protecting 37,000 wild horses and burros on federal lands in the West.

Florida Rep. C.W. Young, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, was the lone Republican co-signer. Western Democrats on the list include Nevada Rep. Dina Titus and Colorado Rep. Jared Polis, as well as several from California and Oregon.

Health insurance rebates decline this year

Those health insurance rebates that some consumers got last year will total much less for 2013, but the Obama administration says that's a good thing.

The Health and Human Services Department announced Thursday that employers and individual policyholders will receive $500 million in rebates this summer. It's half the $1.1 billion returned last year.

But Health and Human Services' Gary Cohen says the lower rebates mean insurance companies have learned to be more efficient, and consumers are saving up front.

President Barack Obama's health care law requires insurers to spend at least 80 cents of every premium dollar on medical care and quality improvement or refund the difference.

The administration said consumers saved $3.4 billion up front in 2012. Cohen acknowledged the rebate rule may not be the only reason.

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