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Rail Funding, Online Taxes a Few of the Issues on Congress’ Plate

Beyond the president’s ambitious agenda, Congress has no shortage of other issues to tackle in the 113th Congress.

Rail Reauthorization

The expiration of current law in September is likely to trigger a showdown over President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail initiative. While some House authorizers, including Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., support investment in high-speed rail, at least in the Northeast Corridor, other Republicans remain strongly opposed to the White House plan for a nationwide system of fast passenger trains.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has signaled that Obama will again propose funding in his fiscal 2014 budget, even though appropriators in both chambers provided nothing for the program in their fiscal 2013 spending bills.

The issue will pose an early test of Shuster’s ability to promote transportation infrastructure investment amid growing wariness in his own caucus.

Climate Change

Unlike the heated political fights that accompanied past efforts to reduce emissions through cap-and-trade bills, the climate debate is likely to unfold in a more piecemeal fashion.

An early focus will be on projects designed to reduce damage to infrastructure from the kinds of extreme weather that is expected to occur more frequently as global temperatures rise. Following Superstorm Sandy, the Senate approved billions of dollars in spending on storm adaptation as part of a relief package. The House could vote as early as this week on a similar plan.

Water Programs

Lawmakers writing legislation to authorize billions of dollars in new spending on ports, inland waterways and clean water infrastructure will face a new challenge in trying to put together a bill free of earmarks. Previous water bills have been collections of hundreds of projects sought by members of Congress. But self-imposed congressional earmark bans will force House and Senate authorizing committees to come up with new ways to dispense the money.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, drafted legislation in the waning days of the 112th Congress to establish standards the Army Corps of Engineers must follow in choosing which projects to fund. House authorizers are cool to that idea and have quietly asked leadership to consider modifying the earmark ban to avoid leaving spending decisions in the hands of the executive branch.

Afghan War

The Obama administration will determine the nature of the U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014 and the drawdown of U.S. troops. But lawmakers will want to put their stamp on the policy, with a vocal minority advocating a more substantial presence aligned against a growing number eager to end the U.S. role in the long-running conflict.

Congress will need to authorize and appropriate funds to support military and civilian activities in Afghanistan. The House and Senate will likely also provide Afghanistan with government and military aid.

Defense Authorization

A defense policy bill has been signed into law in each of the past 51 years. But in an increasingly polarized Congress, final passage of the bill has been delayed until the final days of each of the past two sessions.

The authorizing committees are typically an oasis of relative comity, and panel leaders have worked to maintain good relations in the interests of national security. But James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who replaced Arizona’s John McCain this year as ranking Republican on the Senate panel, has taken a more partisan approach to issues including the drawdown in Iraq, gays in the military and the Pentagon’s use of alternative fuels. Inhofe’s staff contends, however, that the senator prefers to continue the panel’s tendency toward consensus because that has strengthened the Senate’s positions in conference with House lawmakers.


Top members of Congress, business groups and national security experts agree that Congress needs to enact cybersecurity legislation to defend computer networks from attack and economic espionage after not agreeing on a bill last year. But lawmakers have not resolved their differences over whether the government should create security standards for the private sector or just take steps to facilitate threat information sharing between businesses and the government.

Farm Bill

Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees say finishing a five-year farm bill is their priority, but they face a more difficult budget situation this year with legislation carrying a multiyear price tag of several hundred billion dollars. The committees also face antipathy in the House and divisions among major commodity groups on changes to farm support programs.

Congress included a renewal and extension of selected farm programs in the fiscal cliff tax package (PL 112-240). There’s already speculation that lawmakers will extend the temporary authorization past its Sept. 30 expiration.

Violence Against Women Act

Top Democrats vow to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in the 113th Congress after renewal of the 1994 law — which funds programs to help domestic violence victims — became an unexpected partisan flashpoint in 2012. Last year, Senate Democrats sought to expand the law to include new protections for victims who are gay and lesbian, immigrants and American Indians, but House Republicans backed a narrower version that also included more oversight of the law’s many grant programs. A key question is whether Democrats insist on the broader language Republicans rejected last year.

Internet Sales Tax

Momentum has been building for legislation to allow cities and states to collect sales tax from Internet retailers. By overturning a 1992 Supreme Court decision that prevents state governments from taxing companies that don’t have a physical presence within their jurisdiction, Congress could help states generate an additional $23 billion in annual revenue, while also assisting brick-and-mortar retailers in fending off the challenge posed by online shopping. Leading proposals could advance, given the strong lobbying push from retail associations, governors and state legislators.

But the legislation faces opposition from representatives of states without sales taxes, and from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. Internet groups, including the Computer and Communications Industry Association, as well as eBay, oppose any Internet sales tax proposal that does not exempt the bulk of small online businesses.

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