WASHINGTON, March 23, 2013 – The Senate narrowly approved a fiscal year 2014 budget resolution (S.Con.Res. 8) early this morning on a largely partisan 50-49 vote, representing the first time in four years the chamber has approved a budget.
The legislation, which seeks to reduce the deficit by more than $4 trillion in 10 years, contains several agriculture-related provisions and seeks to provide a long-term spending guideline for the USDA.
Senators who are up for re-election in 2014 in states that voted for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney voted “no” on the resolution, including Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Max Baucus, D-Mont., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Mark Pryor, D- Ark.. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. was not present for the vote.
The budget resolution is non-binding and, as a result, none of the passed amendments to the resolution will change any existing laws. However, the votes provided an opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans to score symbolic political victories and potentially use the votes in upcoming campaigns.
The agriculture-related amendments were in relation to the estate tax, genetically engineered fish, the Keystone pipeline project, wildfire suppression and carbon pollution.
The Senate approved an amendment, with an 80-19 vote, that would repeal or reduce the estate tax, but “only if done in a fiscally responsible way.”
The amendment, offered by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., would require an offset to any reduction in the tax.
“If we were to repeal the estate tax without any offset, that would add $600 billion to our debt,” Warner said. “I believe that the estate tax is actually a meaningful part of our tax code and we have put in place appropriate exemptions.”
Right after that vote, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., offered an amendment, which failed on a 46-53 vote, which would establish a deficit-neutral reserve fund to eliminate the estate tax.
“There are lots of reasons to support elimination of this destructive and inefficient tax but for me, the issue comes down to being able to tell the farmers and ranchers that I represent that I’m doing everything I can to make sure that they can pass on their family farm to the next generation without a double tax imposed from Washington,” Thune said.
The Senate approved, by voice vote, an amendment that would allow Senate committees to use funding for reports about the labeling of genetically engineered fish.
“This deals with labeling genetically engineered fish proposed for human consumption,” Begich said. “The FDA is reviewing this action not as a food but as a drug and I can see why because of all the chemicals added to this fake fish.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, lent her support to the amendment.
“If you’re going to be serving your family a good quality product, I want to know that it’s good and that it’s quality,” Murkowski said. “Allow us to label it.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation has lodged its opposition to the amendment.
“We support the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) longstanding food labeling policy that requires food labeling information to be science-based and accurate, not misleading, fraudulent, or deceptive and, therefore, oppose any legislative effort that would undermine FDA’s labeling requirements for foods derived from modern biotechnology,” AFBF said in a statement.
The Senate rejected an amendment, with a 33-66 vote, that would establish a deficit-neutral reserve fund relating to protecting the interests of the United States in making a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The 1,700-mile project would run from Canada to Texas.
Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., offered the amendment to ensure that the appropriate Senate committees would be able use funding to conduct more research into the project.
“My amendment simply ensures important issues will be addressed such as how much oil will stay here versus how much will be exported and, therefore, will we suffer from higher energy prices,” Boxer said.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., spoke in opposition to the bill.
“It’s an effort to prevent construction of the most studied pipeline project in the history of the United States,” Hoeven said. “The studies that are asked for in this amendment have been done.”
Immediately after the Senate rejected that amendment, it turned to an amendment from Hoeven to ensure that the appropriate Senate committees would be able to use funding for promoting investment and job growth through the construction of the pipeline. The Senate approved Hoeven’s amendment with a 62-37 vote.
“The amendment puts the Senate on record in support of the Keystone pipeline project,” Hoeven said. “Every state on the route has approved the project.”
The Senate approved, by voice vote, an amendment that aims to authorize $100 million for fighting wildfires and modernizing the air tanker fleet.
The amendment, offered by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., seeks to ensure the U.S. Forest Service is prepared to fight wildfires, especially during the ongoing drought and continued threat of bark beetle.
“Wildfire threatens entire communities in Colorado and across the West,” Udall said. “We need to reduce the federal budget deficit, but not investing in firefighting efforts and mitigation will levy an unacceptably steep and entirely avoidable cost upon Colorado and the West.”
The amendment would require the Senate Appropriations Committee to prioritize this suppression funding and reduce spending on “lower priority items” in FY 2014.
The Senate also held two votes in relation to carbon pollution.
The Senate rejected an amendment, with a 41-58 vote, that aimed to establish a deficit-neutral reserve fund to ensure that all revenue from a carbon pollution fee is returned to U.S. taxpayers either through federal deficit reduction, reduced federal tax rates, cost savings, or other direct benefit.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., offered the amendment.
“We can ignore obvious facts, we can ignore the essentially unanimous science, our generals and commerce, we can ignore the insurance industry, but we ignore carbon pollution at our peril and subsidized it long enough,” Whitehouse said before the vote. “This amendment will allow us to put a price on carbon and protect the American people.”
The Senate refused to allow Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to get a vote on an amendment that would create a point of order against legislation that would create a federal tax or fee on carbon emissions. Blunt’s motion to waive a budget point failed on a 53-46. He needed 60 votes because it dealt with the Congressional Budget Act.
The underlying bill calls for $1 trillion in additional tax revenues, $100 billion in new infrastructure and jobs spending and modest cuts to health care programs.
Republicans strongly oppose the bill, mainly because of proposed tax increases and “runaway” spending.
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