World hot spots wait for the vote

A number of interested parties awaited the House’s version of the war supplemental yesterday. Among them was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, a country far removed from the troubles of Iraq and Afghanistan but with troubles nevertheless.

Johnson Sirleaf and Liberia’s lobbyist, K. Riva Levinson, have warned lawmakers of the need for a quick infusion of cash to improve the country’s security and police forces, hence the need to work outside the normal, and time-consuming, appropriations process.

“Action from the 110th Congress can make the difference in whether Liberia succeeds or fails,” a status report Levinson has passed around on Capitol Hill stated.

Johnson Sirleaf met with a number of congressional leaders last month as she lobbied for money in the supplemental. Among the people she spoke to were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Liberia, which was founded by former American slaves, is asking for $195 million. That is in addition to development money the country’s government is seeking through the normal appropriations process.

The $195 million is a multi-year figure, however, and something less than that is expected to be included in the supplemental. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) has led the effort on Capitol Hill to get the money attached.

One congressional source said the draft bill included $40 million for Liberia, including $35 million to retrain former civil war combatants into a national security force. The remainder would train a security detail for Johnson Sirleaf. The source had not seen the chairman’s mark, however.

House appropriators are expected to mark up the supplemental Thursday, and lobbyists in a number of areas are working to plus-up the administration’s request or add programs the White House ignored.

Farmers are seeking billions in disaster relief payments.

House defense appropriators also are looking to increase procurement money for a variety of defense programs.

The total administration request is $103.6 billion, with more than $90 million to pay for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, weapons procurement, and pay and training for military reserves.
The rest is for things like combating avian flu and providing food aid to countries like Sudan, Chad and Afghanistan.

The supplemental also is likely to include a measure business interests feel strongly about: a minimum wage measure Democrats have been unable to pass on its own, along with around $1.8 billion tax credits, partially offset to lower the bill to $1.3 billion, targeted at small businesses.

The House and Senate are about $7 billion apart in terms of the business tax breaks. House leaders are skeptical of how the Senate pays for its higher number: The House Ways & Means Committee is taking the unusual move this week of holding a hearing to examine the Senate’s proposed offsets.

Elsewhere, lobbyists continue to shuttle between budget, finance and spending committees to try to get their clients money. But pay-go rules — which require tax cuts or spending increases are offset elsewhere in the budget — are frustrating those efforts, a number have reported.

Witold Skwierczynski, who represents the Social Security workers union, said he hopes Democrats boost the administration’s request for the Social Security Administration by nearly $1 billion, which would take the total appropriation to more than $10 billion.

More money is needed to pay for a growing backlog of disability cases, which Social Security workers review. The administration staff has been cut back 8,500 staff in the past three years, even as the work the administration has increased to handle changes in Medicare program, for instance, Skwierczynski said.

Democrats, he added, have given him more access than Republicans did when they ran things to make his case. It may not make much difference in the end.

Social Security workers are competing in a budget with No Child Left Behind, AIDS research and cancer funding — “tough competition,” Skwierczynski said.

“There is an understanding about the plight of the Social Security Administration, but there are a lot of competing interests and a lot of pent up demand,” he said.

Pressure was so intense, Democratic staff from Senate Finance and House Ways & Means committees called in interest groups for a meeting last month to warn them they wouldn’t get everything they wanted in the budget.

“There is fierce competition to be included in the budget,” one appropriations and tax lobbyist said.

Drug lobbyists, meanwhile, are watching the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which on Wednesday will take up a bill that reauthorizes the system by which pharmaceutical companies are charged user fees to pay the Food and Drug Administration to review new drugs.

Drug-makers are trying to mitigate the expense of new drug safety rules Democrats like Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and some Republicans likely will add to the user-fee reauthorization bill.

On the floor in the House, members will take up a series of measures authored by Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to increase government transparency, an early theme for the Democratic majority.

The measures include requiring the disclosure of presidential library donors while the president is in office. Now donors are released voluntarily.

Another bill would provide more protection to whistleblowers.

A third seeks to make the process of requesting government documents through the Freedom of Information Act more efficient.

Watchdogs say the FOIA process is cumbersome and ineffective, and that agencies don’t follow the law.

“FOIA is less and less effective and less and less relevant for anyone trying to find out about government,” said Rick Blum of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, which supports the Waxman measure.

The bill, likely to be voted on Thursday, would create an ombudsman position to handle FOIA complaints. It would also create a tracking system so people who have requested government documents could get a better idea how their request was being handled, like they can if they use FedEx.