Senate heads for exits, planning action on miners and GMOs

By George Cahlink, Hannah Hess | 06/30/2016 07:00 AM EDT

The Senate made an early exit for the Independence Day recess yesterday evening after passing a Puerto Rico debt bill and setting up action on genetically modified organisms but failing to strike a deal on Zika aid.

The Senate made an early exit for the Independence Day recess yesterday evening after passing a Puerto Rico debt bill and setting up action on genetically modified organisms but failing to strike a deal on Zika aid.

The Senate is now out until Wednesday, when the chamber will return for a frenetic stretch before leaving for a seven-week break on July 15. The House is back Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last night set up procedural votes next week for several bills, including the GMO measure and the fiscal 2017 defense spending bill. Each will need 60 votes to advance.


The bipartisan GMO bill, also backed by the administration, would put in place a federal system for labeling food made from bioengineered ingredients. The federal framework would pre-empt more stringent GMO rules set by the state of Vermont that kick in tomorrow.

It’s the second time the Senate takes up GMO legislation. A previous version that passed the Senate Agriculture Committee failed on a procedural vote in March.

The latest version creates mandatory disclosures — meeting a demand from Democrats — while giving companies flexibility on how they present the information, including through links to web sites. It would also ease requirements on smaller companies and exempt meat from animals fed genetically modified feed.

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is working with Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to gather support for the measure, said Tuesday that Vermont would exempt far more foods, such as dairy and maple products made in the state.

Roberts said he has been in regular discussion with House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) about collecting support in that chamber, where leaders have embraced only a voluntary measure.


Last night, as senators walked out, there were no signs of a deal to advance the House-backed plan to spend $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus and temporarily weaken pesticide rules.

Several Democratic senators yesterday reiterated their objections to the Republican Zika language, claiming the GOP crafted it without minority input to incorporate provisions that would limit birth control funding and waive U.S. EPA permits.

"Unfortunately many of our colleagues have chosen not to take this crisis seriously," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Republicans blasted Democrats for failing to advance the measure Tuesday. A sharply divided Senate voted 52-48 against invoking cloture on H.R. 2577, leaving it short of the 60 votes needed to move toward final passage.

GOP leaders maintain they will not change the bill before it returns to the floor. Another vote is expected when the Senate returns next week.

"I hope in the interim that our friends across the aisle will search their soul, maybe their conscience," Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said last night in calling for approval of the House-backed plan.

Stabenow, however, told reporters she was confident the Senate could approve Zika aid if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would embrace an earlier version of the bill that cleared the chamber 90-8 last month without any riders (E&ENews PM, May 12). She said lawmakers were negotiating behind the scenes.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) knocked House Republicans for advancing a bill that did not address what federal health disease experts have asked for, accusing them of "playing doctor."

"How many of you, if you contracted a communicable disease, would seek counsel or medical treatment at the House of Representatives? Not a lot of you, but yet that’s exactly what they are doing," she said.

Democratic leaders are planning to hold a press conference today to call on Republican leaders to cancel the recess and stay in Washington, D.C., to work.

Puerto Rico, miner benefits

Congress did cross a significant item of its to-do list last evening when the Senate sent Puerto Rico debt relief legislation to President Obama. The president is expected to sign it in short order.

The measure, backed 68-30, would help the U.S. territory to restructure its $72 billion debt. It would create a federal financial control board to oversee those efforts.

The legislation also aims to reduce costs by authorizing a revitalization coordinator to fast-track private energy and infrastructure projects, moving the island away from expensive oil imports.

The effort to pass Puerto Rico legislation, however, raised concerns from coal-state senators about moving legislation to address looming shortfalls in pension benefits for miners.

The lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to attach a miners’ fix to the debt bill but vowed to try adding it to other must-pass items, including a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization and spending measures.

"What we have said to leadership is we are not giving up," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), one of the coal-state lawmakers who opposed the Puerto Rico bill because it did not address miners’ pensions.

GOP leaders have said they want more hearings on legislation that would revise the federal formula used to guarantee miners pensions before they will consider it on the floor.

United Mine Workers of America retiree benefits receive interest collected from the abandoned coal mine reclamation fund. Pending legislation would allow them to get more.

Last night, West Virginia Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R) and Joe Manchin (D) said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) promised a vote on the miner benefits bill, which has languished for years.


FAA’s current short-term authorization expires on July 15. Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said he hopes to pass an extension that would run through the end of 2017. But said the measure would not include any tax riders, a move backers of FAA say would bog down the reauthorization.

Renewable energy advocates have been pressing to fix what they call an oversight in last year’s end-of-year omnibus spending and tax package, which extended the investment tax credit for solar for five years but not other qualifying sources.

Democrats hoped to use the FAA bill, since it already contains tax provisions that generate money to fund the agency, to extend the ITC to other sources. Thune’s opposition makes it a long shot at best.

Separately, the Senate confirmed Rebecca Dye, Daniel Maffei and Michael Khouri to the Federal Maritime Commission. It also passed the "Maritime Administration Authorization and Enhancement Act," S. 2829, from Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

Reporter Marc Heller contributed.