Lobbyists look beyond Iraq, to trade

With the House debating a troop surge and the Senate a continuing resolution - issues on which K Street is largely taking a pass - lobbyists' eyes and ears are turned toward either end of the Capitol, as they work to try to frame future floor debates in oversight committees.

Free trade is one area of particular focus as Democrats promise to look closely at administration-negotiated trade deals. So called fast-track trade authority, which requires that trade bills get an up or down vote with no amendments, will expire this summer.

Several groups that support fast track, also referred to as trade promotion authority, urged Congress to reauthorize TPA.

The executive director of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, Calman Cohen, wrote Congress yesterday: "Renewal of trade-negotiating authority is perhaps most important to ensure that the United States can continue its leadership role in the Doha Development Agenda negotiations." The Doha round of free-trade talks promises to open new markets for U.S. companies, but it so far has been difficult to find consensus among the countries negotiating the free-trade pact. 

The federal farm bill is also up for reauthorization, and lobbying groups continue to position themselves for the fight.

Sugar companies, which lost a tough fight when Congress passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement last session, have formed a new coalition to fight the further diminution of imported sugar tariffs (see story on page 10).

The debate over foreign investment also heats up this week. The Hill reported last week that House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) had told supporters that he wanted to move a bill to update rules governing the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) shortly after recess next week.

Frank's committee will hold a hearing today on new CFIUS rules.

Defense companies are gearing up for battle as well. As reported on page 12, General Electric and England's Rolls-Royce are looking to boost the president's budget request for a multi-billion-dollar engine program for the Joint Strike Fighter.

The companies were successful last year in a similar fight. But money could be even tighter this year.

The two companies have spent $1.5 billion to build a second engine to compete with one developed by a team headed by Pratt & Whitney, but need another $1.7 billion in total to finish the project.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill: A group of 100 parents of children afflicted with Duchenne muscular dystrophy plan to visit around 340 offices seeking more federal support for muscular dystrophy research.

Duchenne is a variety of muscular dystrophy that strikes children as young as 3. Most of those afflicted lose the ability to walk between the ages of 7 and 12. By the teenage years, the disease can weaken the heart and respiratory muscles.

Pat Furlong, who lost two sons, aged 17 and 15, to the disease, founded the Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy Project, the group sponsoring the two-day lobbying event.

She said parents are asking for the reauthorization of the MD Care Act. Originally passed in 2001, the measure provides for the creation of six centers of excellence for the study of muscular dystrophy.

The parents will be asking for continued support for the centers and more money for the National Institutes of Health.

The group also is asking for a specific $2.25 million earmark to create a registry of Duchenne muscular dystrophy cases to aid research efforts and help parents ensure their children are getting the best treatment.

Meanwhile, a group of school bus makers and state officials, the American School Bus Council, plans to have a state-of-the-art school bus on Capitol Hill for members and staff to examine.

There have been some calls for a new federal standard that would require bus makers to install seatbelts in all school buses. The council, a collection of bus makers and state officials, has resisted that call. It plans to announce new safety guidelines this week.

Also, groups are positioning themselves for a big tobacco battle. Legislation could be introduced this week that would give the government new powers to regulate tobacco.

The bill enjoys the support of the usual suspects: groups such as the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society. But also coming out in its support is Altria Group, parent of Philip Morris, which could pit them against their smaller competitors and lawmakers from tobacco states.