December 2, 2007 - Bend Bulletin Walden, Wyden, Smith Weigh In
Jan 16, 2008
Local issues In congress What are the chances for timber payments and kids’ insurance as the session winds down?
By Keith Chu / The Bulletin
December 2, 2007
WASHINGTON — With a huge slate of local and national issues still waiting to be resolved in the U.S. Congress, Oregon lawmakers offered mixed forecasts Thursday and Friday on the final few weeks before the House and Senate break for the year.
As Congress returns Monday from a two-week break for Thanksgiving, Oregon’s senators and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, disagreed about how much the two bodies are likely to get done before the first session ends. Sens. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, and Gordon Smith, a Republican, were generally upbeat about the prospects for advancing bills that would expand children’s health insurance and continue the county timber payments program, which funnels millions of dollars to Central Oregon governments each year.
But Walden was less optimistic that the program would see a quick renewal and said he’s seen no signs that the current budget stalemate between congressional Democrats and President Bush will be resolved before the holidays, meaning federal agencies will continue to operate at last year’s spending levels.
Walden, who represents Central, Eastern and parts of Southern Oregon, said a county timber payments bill has a few hurdles to clear before the program is extended — the biggest is that it still is unclear how Democrats will pay for the several billion dollar package.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democratic leaders are still looking for ways to extend the program but declined to talk more specifically about their efforts, according to press reports of her visit to Portland, where she examined efforts to upgrade medical record-keeping technology on Tuesday. Walden said she should have come to the state with a plan for continuing a program that is vital for many Oregon counties.
“I know we didn’t get it done on our side, but that’s no excuse for those in power today to not get it done,” Walden said. “You would think at this point they would have an answer and a plan. We’re running out of chances to figure out how to do it in time.”
Walden and Pelosi’s comments highlighted the fact that a bill that would extend the payments seems to have a tougher road ahead of it in the U.S. House than in the U.S. Senate, said Eric Schmidt, spokesman for the Association of Oregon Counties.
“I think her comments were more a reflection of the realism of the political situation right now regarding federal forest payments,” Schmidt said. “We certainly didn’t take it as a negative.”
Timber payments over time
The program was created to offset declining logging revenues in forested counties. It expired last year, before it gained a one-year renewal this spring. The House is now considering a four-year extension of the program, which would fully fund the $425 million program next year, then ramp down payments 10 percent per year over the following three years. The Senate version is similar but lasts five years.
Wyden and Smith were more optimistic about the Senate bill’s chances.
“I got a big majority when I proposed it in the Senate,” Wyden said, of a timber payments extension. “I got it in the ... energy bill, and I think there’s a good chance there’s going to be an energy bill” passed this year.
In each of the past two years, Crook County received $2.4 million, Deschutes County got $2.8 million and Jefferson County received $521,551 for their general funds from timber payments.
Wyden said it is plausible the children’s health insurance program would be passed before the Senate adjourns, probably on Dec. 21. That bill would provide insurance for children whose parents make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford to buy insurance. The Senate overwhelmingly approved a $35 billion increase to the program, but Bush vetoed the bill in October, and the House Democrats have not mustered enough votes to override the veto.
Smith was unavailable for an interview last week but issued a statement saying the stalemate on timber payments and health care can end if lawmakers work together.
“We can get things done if Republicans and Democrats find common ground,” the statement said. “The solutions are out there — there is a solution for our counties and ways to stop tax hikes and to improve health care for kids. Congress needs to quit the bickering and get the job done.”
But Walden, who has been closely involved in negotiations between House and Senate Republicans over the children’s health insurance bill, said there are still major disagreements between the two chambers that must be resolved before the bill moves forward, including the total cost and how to prevent adults from being covered under the program.
“I think eventually we can make a compromise,” but maybe not before the end of the year, Walden said. “There are still some pretty significant differences.”
Other bills of interest
Walden and Wyden each said there’s a chance that local bills, including one that would reauthorize the Deschutes River Conservancy, and two others to help the Tumalo and North Unit irrigation districts, could be passed in the end of the year rush.
“A lot of our sorts of bills, nobody objects to, it’s just a matter of getting them on the list,” Walden said. “Given the uncertainty of the schedule over the next few weeks, it is hard to predict.”
Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican, is holding up those bills in the Senate, over concerns about federal spending. No one knows how long Coburn will continue to hold up the bills, but Wyden said he hopes Coburn will find another way to object to spending overruns.
“I sure hope we can at least make it possible for a debate on the floor,” Wyden said.
Wyden said he also plans to introduce bills on thinning federal forestlands and making credit cards more consumer friendly. Smith plans to introduce a bill to cut taxes on imported shoes, which he says impact the poor disproportionately.
Bush signed a defense spending bill last week. What’s still unclear is how Congress will resolve the federal budget. Bush has signed just one of the 12 spending bills that would fund government services, even though the last budget expired at the end of September. Walden, not surprisingly, put the blame on House Democrats.
“They’ve done a lot of positioning this year. Now they need to govern,” Walden said. “They at some point have to stop blaming the president for everything.”
Keith Chu can be reached at 202-662-7456 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.