WASHINGTON -- With Congress about to adjourn this weekend, lobbyists have launched a last-minute drive for legislation designed to deter the federal government from imposing unfunded mandates on states and localities.
Their push comes as the House Government Operations Committee approved legislation Wednesday that is very similar to a bill that the Senate Government Affairs Committee adopted in June but never sent to the Senate floor.
Now that the House has acted, however, the lobbyists hope to convince both the House and Senate to approve their separate bills and have both chambers enact a final measure before Congress adjourns for the year.
"We're urgently trying to get a meeting" with House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., to get the bill on the legislative calendar before Congress adjourns, said Larry Jones, lead lobbyist on unfunded mandates for the National Association of Counties.
"I think it's one that could pass if it gets on the schedule" because it has bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, Jones said.
There are problems in the Senate, however, because six senators have put a hold on the bill in an attempt to attach unrelated amendments. Lobbyists hope to get the senators to drop their holds and accept the House version.
The House committee bill would require the Congressional Budget Office to analyze legislation to determine the cost to the states of complying with the measure. If the CBO determines that the compliance costs are more than $50 million annually, the committee that drafted the legislation must find a way to pay for it.
If funding isn't authorized at the committee level, a separate vote on whether to impose the mandate could be demanded when a bill is considered by the full House and Senate. State and local organizations believe that requirement could give the measure some teeth because it would force lawmakers to go on record as having voted to pass on an unfunded mandate to state and local governments.
The only major difference between the House and Senate committee versions lies in a requirement in the Senate version that the CBO also analyze the cost to the private sector of complying with federal statutes.
Democrats on the House panel rejected that amendment outright, calling it an unreasonable burden on the budget office, not to mention that the office said it would need an extra $8 million annually to carry out the studies.
House and Senate leaders are only begrudgingly supporting the mandate measures at the urging of state and local groups as well as more junior members of Congress, Jones of the counties group said.
"This [bill] is not something we're convinced the leadership supports," but the measure has the "enthusiastic support" of House Government Operations Committee chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. William Clinger, R-Pa., he said. The question is "whether they can convince Foley" to take the bill to the floor, he said.
While the legislation originally had bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, about six Democratic senators have come out against the bill and have placed legislative holds against it until they can address certain issues.
A clean bill would be preferable because if one senator adds legislation to the bill, "it would open a Pandora's box for others who are trying to get legislation through" Congress on what might be the last measure to pass this year, Jones said.
Jones said the best scenario would be House passage first. then the Senate could just approve the House version and avoid a conference. The versions are so similar, "the members should be amenable to the House version," he said.
"We're not going to stop working on this until [Congress] adjourns, but we're fighting a less than 50-50 chance," he said.