Congressional Digest: Big Votes, Debate on Budget, Speaker and Energy

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The state’s congressional delegation this week faced a series of issues from debating a two-year budget agreement approved this week as well as House members picking a new Speaker of the House.

The following is a breakdown of the week that was in the nation’s capital.

The Senate voted 63-35 early Friday to approve a budget bill that had supporters and opponents making their case for the bill. U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark. and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., voted no on the bill, which now heads to President Obama for his signature.

Cotton said the bill failed to meet needed reforms and objectives.

“Arkansans are tired of the ‘spend now, fix later’ mentality that’s become so common in Washington. They’re ready for a different approach. Rest assured, I will keep working to restrain spending and to find long-term solutions for Arkansans,” Cotton said.

Under the agreement, the deal suspends until March 2017 the debt ceiling, which is the borrowing limit the federal government was expected to reach next week. Defense and domestic programs would see an $80 billion increase over the next two years, with $8 billion also going to Medicare premium fixes.

However, an anti-deficit organization, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said the bill increases spending by nearly $150 billion with about $80 billion offset.

In a statement early Friday, Obama countered that the bill does meet objectives.

“This agreement will strengthen the middle class by investing in education, job training, and basic research. It will keep us safe by investing in our national security. It protects our seniors by avoiding harmful cuts to Medicare and Social Security. It is paid for in a responsible, balanced way – in part with a measure to ensure that partnerships like hedge funds pay what they owe in taxes just like everybody else. It locks in two years of funding and should help break the cycle of shutdowns and manufactured crises that have harmed our economy,” Obama said.

The House voted Wednesday 266-167 to approve the bill. U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, French Hill, R-Little Rock and Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, voted no while U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers voted yes.

All four members of the state’s House delegation voted Thursday to pick Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., to serve as Speaker of the House. Ryan, who served as House Budget Committee chairman before becoming Ways and Means Committee chairman, is the youngest House speaker since after the Civil War.

Each of the lawmakers said Ryan has the experience to change a somewhat divided House.

“Ever since Speaker Boehner’s resignation announcement, I’ve argued that true change must be predicated on reform of the House legislative process. More than anything else, that’s what a new Speaker must be concerned with, bringing back a functioning House of Representatives. Ryan pledged reform of the House rules and process, and afterwards he secured our party’s nomination. He has the opportunity now to make good on his word, and I look forward to working with our new Speaker to end the current govern-by-crisis model and to return the House of Representatives back to a truer reflection of the will of the American people,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, testified Wednesday to a House subcommittee on a bill that supporters say will protect private property rights involving energy projects. The Assuring Private Property Rights Over Vast Areas to Land, or APPROVAL Act, was discussed by the House Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans.

The discussion over the bill has centered around the Clean Line Energy project through Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Supporters have said the project will provide clean and cheaper energy to customers, while opponents have said the project infringes on private property rights. During the hearing, Boozman said the bill would help streamline a sometimes complicated process.

“The APPROVAL Act will reinforce and build grassroots support for renewable energy. States and local communities must know their voices will be heard in the transmission siting process – and that a transparent process will be followed. When communities have this assurance, they can get behind the renewable projects that our country needs. Unfortunately, due to the current structure of Section 1222, support for such projects has been set-back in Arkansas by a sense that a federal agency may force a transmission project for which there is no clear demand or demonstrated need,” Boozman said as part of his testimony.

Womack, in his testimony, said the bill would provide states and local communities to have a voice in the process.

“Initially, [Clean Line Energy] was denied a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity to exist as a utility in the state of Arkansas by the Public Utility Commission, because the project was determined not to be in the best interest of Arkansans. As a result, DOE is in the process of considering a new type of partnership, potentially usurping the state’s role, ignoring the lack of necessity for transmission in the region, and setting a dangerous precedent for the future of federal authority… [The APPROVAL Act] makes a small adjustment to the approval proceedings for interstate transmission projects which will then allow governors and state public service commissions to have a say in the process prior to DOE exercising any federal eminent domain power,” Womack said.

Westerman, who serves on the committee, agreed.

“The right to private property is fundamental to a free society. Unfortunately, the federal government continues to show little respect for this important personal liberty. I strongly support the APPROVAL Act because it safeguards landowners from the threat of having their property taken through eminent domain. This bill provides flexibility and empowers our states by ensuring they have the final say on eminent domain. I was pleased to see the Natural Resources Committee debate the APPROVAL Act and look forward to its passage.”