Happy Fourth of July!

Happy Fourth of July from the Office of Federal Relations.

Congress will be back on Monday from the District Work Period. Federal Relations will have a full report on what’s to come before the August Recess next week.


Federally Subsidized Student Loan Rates Double Today

Congress adjourned last week for the 4th of July recess without passing legislation to halt the rise of student loan interest rates. That means that today the interest rate on Federally Subsidized student loans doubles from 3.4% to 6.8%. The rate hike is expected to affect 7 million students and will add an average of $3,000 on a $23,000 loan over the 10-year repayment period.

Senate Passes Immigration Reform

A short time ago, the US Senate approved sweeping immigration legislation. By a vote of 68 to 32, the Senate approved and concluded a month-long debate of a measure which was nearly 1,200 pages. To note the historic significance of the vote, Vice President Biden presided over the vote and Senators voted from their desks, which is a rare procedural move to mark historic votes and special occasions. The Senate used the same formal procedure of voting from their desks to pass ObamaCare three years ago.


Senate may Vote on Immigration Bill Today

Although the vote is officially scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, some reports are claiming that Senators may try to move the legislation for a vote around 4pm today. Senator Reid announced that Senators will make the vote from their desks - a method usually reserved for votes on historic legislation.

Republicans in the House of Representatives have already indicated that they will not take up the Senate bill.

Student Loan Deal Unlikely

Today, Senate Leader Harry Reid admitted that a deal to keep student loan interest rates from doubling to 6.8% before July 1st is unlikely. Several Senators continue to work to produce a last minute deal, including Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) who has been working with Senator Angus King (I-ME), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, and several Republicans, for a student loan compromise.

It is unclear how much support Manchin-King proposal would have if brought to a vote.

Some Senators are now hinting of the possibility of a retroactive fix after the House and Senate come back from the July 4th Recess. However, it is unclear and unlikely that Congress will have the political will to do so.

Senate Confirms Pritzker

Today, the Senate confirmed Penny Pritzker as Secretary of Commerce by a vote of 97-1.

Pritzker, a member of the family that owns Hyatt Hotels, was the national finance chairwoman of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and the national co-chairwoman of his reelection campaign.

The Commerce Department is comprised of of 12 different agencies responsible for everything from weather forecasts to patent protection, including:

  • Economic Development Administration (EDA)
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

President Unveils Climate Change Agenda

President Barack Obama will unveil his climate change agenda during a speech around 2 p.m. Eastern this afternoon. The agenda is expected to combine both Executive Orders and a call to Congress to enact legislation.

The new climate initiative will impose deadlines for EPA to write rules throttling carbon dioxide emissions at U.S. power plants, part of a series of efforts that could hit the coal industry hard both at home and abroad - but also create jobs and spark the economy according to the administration. The plan features updated versions of the President’s first-term emphasis on tightening vehicle emissions standards, fostering the development of “clean coal” technology, and offering billions of dollars for green energy, as well as a renewed push to lead international climate talks. It will seek to push solar and wind energy on federal lands and subsidized housing, as well as encourage coal users to switch to natural gas. Again, it takes aim at the oil and gas industry tax breaks that Obama has unsuccessfully urged Congress to kill.

Last term, Congressional Republicans easily defeated the President’s proposal by arguing the proposed changes would increase taxes and costs on consumers.

The Office of Federal Relations is tracking this issue and will provide updates as available.



This Week in Congress

Congress will attempt to wrap up work on several outstanding issues this week before adjourning for the Independence Day Recess next week.

The July 1st deadline on Student-Loan rates is looming and the interest rate is set to rise in 7 days unless Congress is able to reach an agreement. As of now, there does not appear to be an agreed-upon path forward by both parties.

The Senate is working towards achieving bipartisan agreement on a comprehensive immigration bill and plans to vote on it by the end of the week. One of the last points of contention is the securing of the US-Mexico border. The bill’s sponsors are striving for 70 yes-votes on the bill – an ambitious task when several conservative Republicans have already indicated their intention to vote down the legislation.

The House is also working on a piece-meal immigration reform package and is set to mark up a high skilled visa bill this week that would increase the number of H-1B visas available.

The FY14 Agriculture Appropriations bill is up for a vote in the House this week. The bill allocates $19.5 billion in discretionary spending - $1.3 billion less than FY13 levels.

Fisher v. University of Texas Ruling

Today, the Supreme Court came out with its ruling on the case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin that lower courts did not apply a sufficiently high level of scrutiny to the University of Texas’s use of race in admissions decisions, sending the case back to one of those lower courts to be reconsidered.

In a 7-1 ruling, the court found that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit erred in not applying “strict scrutiny” to the policies of the University of Texas at Austin (UT). The Supreme Court left intact its precedent that diversity can be a compelling government interest.The case has been sent back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Writing the majority opinion was Justice Kennedy, who was joined by all of the conservative members of the court and Justice Sotomayer. Justice Ginsberg wrote the lone dissent. Justice Kagan recused herself because of her work on the case as Solicitor General.

The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white woman, who was rejected for admission by the UT. Fisher said that her rights were violated by UT’s consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. Fisher’s lawyers argued that UT need not consider race because it has found another way to assure diversity in the student body.

The decision said that “good faith” by the university would not be enough to justify the consideration of race. However, the decision does not offer an opinion on whether UT can produce sufficient evidence. Rather, it faults the appeals court for not reviewing that question using the high bar of “strict scrutiny” for the consideration of race.

It is likely that today’s ruling could mean that — after another round at the Fifth Circuit — the case could return to the Supreme Court.