February 9, 2018

Congress approves budget bill with plenty for CT

Update: Both the Senate and the House approved the budget deal in early morning votes.

The U.S. Senate hit a snag Thursday as it moved to vote on a massive budget deal that would increase federal spending in Connecticut, providing big boosts for the state's defense industry and health care programs and even helping schools educate displaced students from Puerto Rico.

Expediting the vote required unanimous consent, but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who objected to the deal's increase in federal spending, held off a vote on the far-reaching budget deal that would stave off a government shutdown at midnight.

The Senate still hoped to vote on the agreement in the early hours of Friday, and was expected to approve it. But the White House late Thursday directed federal agencies to prepare for another shutdown of the federal government, the second in less than a month.

The House planned to vote shortly after the Senate, but approval in that chamber House was not assured. Conservative House Republicans opposed the deal's increase in federal spending.

Under the budget bill, existing spending limits would be raised by nearly $300 billion through 2019. Those caps were the result of an agreement between former President Obama and GOP congressional leaders in 2011.

Meanwhile, liberal Democrats fumed about the lack of protections for young immigrants known as "dreamers," who are at risk for deportation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., gave a record-breaking eight-hour speech on the House floor Wednesday demanding assurances that a bill to protect the dreamers would be debated in the House before the fiscal deal was agreed to.

On Thursday, a number of liberal and progressive groups, including Indivisible and MoveOn, pressured House Democrats to reject the deal since GOP leaders failed to give the assurances Pelosi sought.

None of the offices of Connecticut's five members to the U.S. House, all Democrats, responded to queries regarding the lawmakers' position on the budget deal.

The budget deal was crafted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y..

It would raise defense spending to $700 billion for 2018 and $716 billion for 2019, increasing the number of F-35s the Pentagon will buy this year to about 90 and boosting money for the new Columbia ballistic missile submarine and the Virginia-class attack sub, which are both built by Electric Boat. The budget deal also is expected to increase the number of Sikorsky made helicopters the military will buy this year and next.

"We're in business," said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, a member of the House Armed Services Committee whose district includes Electric Boat and Naval Submarine Base New London.

Dairy farmers in the state also would be helped by the bill's changes to the Margin Protection Program — a program that protects dairy farmers from sharp drops in the price of milk. The bill requires the Secretary of Agriculture to reopen the signup period for the program and offer farmers an opportunity to buy into it at more affordable rates.

The bill also would provide billions in new aid to the victims of last year's hurricanes, including millions of dollars to help schools educate students displaced by the storms. As of Feb. 2, Connecticut school districts had registered 1,846 new students from Puerto Rico, victims of Hurricane Maria.

Although it would fully fund the Pentagon for two years, extend authorization for the Children's Health Insurance Program until 2028 and replenish the federal grant program that helps the state's community health centers, the budget agreement would fund most of the rest of the federal government only until March 23. That is expected to give congressional appropriators enough time to negotiate the fine details of funding agencies for the remainder of 2018.

The tax bill also contains a number of tax "extenders," the name given to a number of tax breaks that were meant to be temporary but have been renewed by Congress for years. The extenders benefit racetracks, movie and television producers, craft breweries, rum makers, and biofuel producers, to name a few.

Also in the extenders package is five years of tax credits for U.S. companies investing in fuel cells — which is likely to be a boon to Connecticut's fuel cell industry — small wind, geothermal heat pumps, combined heat and power, and microturbines.

A new measure was added to the extenders package that would help Westport's Newman's Own Foundation, which gives 100 percent of the profits made from the Newman's Own food business to charity, but would have been hit with a 200 percent tax this year unless it divested or got the exception.

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