• WisPolitics

Friday, January 31, 2014

 3:13 PM 

Wis. delegation calls for 'wholesale' investigation of propane shortage

All ten members of Wisconsin's congressional delegation signed onto a letter sent to President Obama today calling for an investigation into the causes of, and solutions to, the ongoing propane shortage affecting the state.

"We fear that the continued constraints on Wisconsin's propane supply could lead to another crisis in the coming years," the letter reads. "Whether truck or pipeline deliveries are increased, it is critical to find a safe and dedicated supplier of propane into our state."

The lawmakers write that the review could potentially include the Federal Trade Commission and the departments of Transportation and Energy. They also echo calls for extending an DOT exemption for propane hauling, and for flexibility in the use of federal dollars for low-income energy assistance "during this unique time of hardship."

“Wisconsin’s rural areas are being particularly hard-hit by this crisis and we are taking all possible steps to resolve this shortage and identify the causes,” said U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood, in a joint statement with fellow U.S. Reps. Sean Duffy, R-Weston, and Ron Kind, D-La Crosse. “Wisconsinites depend on these services and we cannot tolerate systemic failures to continue.”

Thursday, January 30, 2014

 9:40 AM 

Johnson, Sessions criticize proposed reduction of Navy warship contract

U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., are expressing concerns over reports the federal government could cut back on a planned fleet of combat ships built in their states.

Shipyards in Wisconsin and Alabama are building the fleet, which was expected to include 52 ships. But national reports suggest the U.S. Defense Department is looking to cut that back to 32 amid concerns over how the ships have fared at sea.

"We are surprised and concerned that this action goes against the wishes of the Congress, the Navy Department leadership, and the validated warfighting requirements of the U.S. Navy and our combatant commanders," the pair said in a statement, adding they've conveyed their concerns to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

 2:04 PM 

Sensenbrenner, Wis. Dems oppose farm bill

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner was the lone Wisconsin Republican to oppose the farm bill, joining with the state's House Democrats in voting against the five-year measure.

The House passed the bill 251-166 this morning, with the state's other Republicans voting in favor.

U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Sherwood and the lone Wisconsin member serving on the Agriculture Committee, said in a statement that the compromise announced earlier this week was "far from perfect," but will "save taxpayers $23 billion" compared to the previous farm bill.

"The bill eliminates direct payments to farmers who were previously paid regardless of market conditions, and this bill repeals or consolidates nearly 100 additional programs," Ribble said. "The Farm Bill also tightens loopholes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program while targeting program benefits to those most in need."

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, praised the bill's provisions on direct payments, conservation programs and organic production, but said the measure is largely "protecting and maintaining the status quo."

He said the bill could lead to more subsidies -- particularly through setting high commodity prices and permitting subsidies for multiple farm managers -- and that "the major risk is still assumed by the American taxpayer."

"There are other areas of the farm bill we should be looking at first for cost savings," Kind said of the cuts in food stamps in a conference call just prior to the vote.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

 11:04 PM 

Wis. Republicans knock president's speech, Dems praise minimum wage, unemployment calls

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, knocked the president’s State of the Union address for lacking any new ideas, while Dem members of the state’s congressional delegation praised Barack Obama for his comments on the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits.

Ryan, the House Budget chair, was critical of Obama in an interview on Fox News for promising to take action on his own if he can’t reach a consensus with lawmakers. In an executive order announced prior to the speech, he raised the minimum wage to $10.10 for federal contract workers. Ryan said Obama’s tone suggested if Congress refuses to pass the laws that he wants, he’ll do it himself.

“That’s going around the Constitution,” Ryan said. “When he says these things and does these things, that in my mind is a violation of his oath.”’

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, praised the president for his call to raise the minimum wage.

“We need to reward the hard work of Wisconsinites so an honest day’s work pays more,” she said.

U.S. Reps. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, and Mark Pocan, D-Madison, also praised the speech and backed the president’s call for extending emergency federal unemployment benefits. Kind said the “American people expect us to work together and do whatever we can promote economic security and growth.”

Pocan added: “Until our economy works for every American, not just those at the top, we will not see widespread American prosperity.”

U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Weston, expressed disappointment the president did not call for building the Keystone XL pipeline, while U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, said Obama gave an ultimatum in his speech, “My way or the highway. I choose the highway.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac, said he agreed with the president that low-income workers need the means to support themselves. But rather than increase the minimum wage, a cost he said would be shouldered largely by businesses, Petri called for other options like looking at increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit.

“There are many in Congress -- on both sides of the aisle -- who want to help those who are working and living in poverty,” Petri said.

 5:34 PM 

Kind: Farm bill a 'missed opportunity'

Western Wisconsin Congressman Ron Kind said today he'll likely vote against a compromise farm bill when it comes up for a vote in the House, charging the measure has "too many missed opportunities of reforming these outdated subsidy programs."

Kind, D-La Crosse, said the agreement reached yesterday by leaders of the congressional agriculture committees continues sending disproportionate subsidy dollars to wealthy farmers and landowners. He singled out millions of dollars used to subsidize cotton farming in Brazil as particularly egregious.

"This is crazy," Kind said during a conference call with reporters. "These things are not being addressed or changed.

"Instead, they’re going after low income children or people with disabilities with cuts to the food stamps program," Kind said of the estimated $8 billion set to be cut from those benefits over the next decade.

Kind said that although the state's farmers need a new five-year federal farm bill, if delaying the bill would mean "we get it right, we should do that."

Monday, January 27, 2014

 1:30 PM 

Baldwin calls for moderating propane exports in light of shortage

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin today called on President Obama to curb propane exports in response to a shortage of the fuel affecting Midwestern states.

In a letter to the president, Baldwin, D-Madison, writes that regional shortages have reached critical levels and that prices have skyrocketed over the last month, putting "terrible pressure on families and businesses alike."

"While many factors have contributed to the severity of this shortage, the rate of propane exports more than doubled over the past year," Baldwin wrote. "In the past two months alone, exports have increased by more than 120,000 barrels per day."

She urged the president to use his authority under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 to "take action immediately to moderate exports to ensure American consumers have the fuel they need to keep warm through this winter."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

 9:59 PM 

Baldwin touts tech college grants

MILWAUKEE -- U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin today touted her newly proposed GREEN Act legislation as a way to boost updated skills training at tech colleges.

Nationally, about 3.4 million jobs are in the "green collar" job category, said Baldwin, adding her legislation would prepare students for what she says are better paying jobs in the fastest-growing area of the economy.

"It is increasing at a rate that is higher than other areas of manufacturing," she added. "It employs more people in the United States than the fossil fuel industry. Here in this state, it employs about twice as many people as in the biotech industry, just to give you a few little markers of where we are."

Baldwin said the "green energy" sector has grown twice as fast as the overall economy, and that green energy jobs pay about 13 percent higher than the national average.

But like other industries, Baldwin said, "There is a gap between the number of qualified people ready to enter these jobs ready to go and the number of jobs that are being created nationally."

Baldwin led a panel discussion and toured classrooms today at Milwaukee Area Technical College, five days after introducing her Grants for Renewable Energy Education for the Nation (GREEN) Act, to the U.S. Senate. The legislation would allow schools and college systems nationwide to compete for $100 million in annual grants.

Baldwin also stopped at three other Wisconsin technical colleges today: Lakeshore Technical College in Cleveland, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay and Mid-State Technical College in Wisconsin Rapids.

She said she foresees Wisconsin being in a strong position to compete for GREEN Act grants, because tech colleges here have "already taken a leadership role" in what Baldwin calls "renewable energy education."

- By Kay Nolan
For WisPolitics.com

Monday, January 20, 2014

 10:17 AM 

Petri exploring changes to Earned Income Tax Credit

U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac, said on Sunday's "UpFront with Mike Gousha" he's exploring changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit in order to put more money into the hands of low-wage workers without raising the minimum wage.

“We’re working with economists and others taking a real, hard look at seeing if we can’t make some improvements and modification and integrate the Earned Income Tax Credit with the minimum wage a little better.”

The credit, he said, takes the burden of paying higher wages off of a single employer and spreads it across the community. He pointed out that the credit increases by family size, while the minimum wage does not.

One change he suggested would be allowing for people to get the credit with each paycheck, instead of in one lump sum in their tax returns.

He warned that raising the minimum wage could cause some employers to increase automation and cut jobs.

“We don't want to price people out of the job market while we are trying to help them,” Petri said.

He acknowledged that a majority of voters support an increase in the minimum wage, saying they're concerned about seeing working people struggling to get by.

“But what we need to do is not just have a concern,” Petri said, “but hopefully our job as representatives is to try to think through how this really works and see if we can come up with things that will minimize the bad side effects.”

Friday, January 17, 2014

 9:27 AM 

Sensenbrenner offers 'modernized' Voting Rights Act

GOP U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner has joined with a pair of Dem lawmakers to introduce legislation upholding "the most vital principles" of the Voting Rights Act.

The proposal, offered by Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., responds to a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating the requirement that the federal government oversee electoral changes in states with a history of discrimination.

Sensenbrenner said the law must be fixed before the next election while satisfying both political and constitutional concerns.

"The modernized VRA is constitutional and bipartisan. It includes strong, nationwide anti-discrimination protections and continues to permit states to enact reasonable voter ID laws," Sensenbrenner said.

 8:22 AM 

Wis. senators divided on budget bill

Wisconsin's U.S. senators split on a $1 trillion budget deal that passed the Senate Thursday.

The bill, which funds the federal government through September, now heads to the president's desk for signature after passing the House earlier in the week.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, supported the measure yesterday, calling the vote "another step towards putting an end to Washington's drift from one crisis to the next."

"The bipartisan budget bill passed today with overwhelming support from both parties makes essential investments in economic growth at a time when far too many people in Wisconsin are looking for work," Baldwin said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Oshkosh, meanwhile, was one of 26 Republicans to oppose the bill.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

 6:33 PM 

Kind: Extending unemployment benefits 'the smart thing to do'

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind today called on House Republican leaders to pass an extension of unemployment benefits before lawmakers return to their districts next week, calling it "the smart thing to do for our economy right now."

"The job market is not recovered to the extent where those receiving benefits can get absorbed into the local economy again," Kind, D-La Crosse, said during a conference call organized by liberal group Americans United For Change.

Kind said Congress has never before cut off extended benefits at this stage of an economic recovery, and said the end of those benefits for some 24,000 Wisconsinites at the beginning of the year will make their job searches more difficult.

"It's the right thing to do to extend these benefits, and smart economically," Kind said.

He also said that bipartisan conversations in Senate are continuing even after that chamber fell short of the 60-vote threshold needed to advance extension proposals.

"That's how we're supposed to proceed around here," Kind said.

 4:33 PM 

Ryan, Duffy back spending bill

U.S. Reps. Paul Ryan and Sean Duffy were the lone Wisconsin Republicans to support a $1 trillion spending bill this afternoon.

Ryan, of Janesville, and Duffy, of Weston, joined with the Wisconsin delegation's three Democrats in support of the measure, which passed 359-67. The bill funds the government until October.

GOP U.S. Reps. Reid Ribble of Sherwood, Tom Petri of Fond du Lac and Jim Sensenbrenner of Menomonee Falls were among the dissenting votes, which included just two Dems.

 2:53 PM 

Baldwin opposes 'Fast Track'

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin today joined 11 fellow senators in signing a letter opposing the renewal of the Trade Promotion Authority for processing trade agreements.

Baldwin, D-Madison, said in a statement that the bill, dubbed "Fast Track," falls short of the need for improved oversight, enforcement of currency manipulation, and labor and environmental controls -- particularly as negotiations continue over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Baldwin said those deals alone would "encompass more than 60 percent of the global economy and more than half of U.S. trade."

"As the TPA that was enacted over a decade ago is inadequate for addressing the complex trade agreements of the 21st century, it is clear that renewal of TPA in a form that resembles that framework would be unacceptable," the letter, authored by U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., reads. "Instead, TPA must be replaced with a new trade agreement negotiation and approval process appropriate to 21st-century trade agreements and consistent with the constitutional role of Congress in trade."

 8:31 AM 

Baldwin, Johnson split on unemployment benefits votes

U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson split on a pair of votes to extend unemployment benefits.

The Senate voted 52-48 to reject a bill to extend the benefits through November while paying for it by extending sequester spending cuts into 2024. The second, which failed 55-45, would have extending the benefits three months without a plan to pay for it. Both needed 60 votes to pass.

Baldwin, D-Madison, supported both measures, while Johnson, R-Oshkosh, was opposed.

Monday, January 13, 2014

 9:28 AM 

Johnson defends lawsuit as effort to end presidential 'overreach'

U.S. Senator Ron Johnson says he has an obligation to put an end to presidential “overreach.”

The Oshkosh Republican told “UpFront with Mike Gousha” his lawsuit over congressional insurance subsidies isn’t frivolous, rejecting criticism from fellow conservative U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner.

“It is just an issue of fairness, and, secondly, it’s a constitutional issue,” Johnson said on the program, produced in conjunction with WisPolitics.com. “Does the president really have the authority to make changes to these laws unilaterally?”

Those who lose employer-provided health care must spend after-tax dollars to obtain insurance through the exchanges, according to Johnson. He said it’s unfair that members of Congress may receive tax-free employer subsidies when purchasing plans.

“We are getting heart-rending emails from our constituents,” Johnson said. “They’ve lost their policies; they’re losing access to doctors and treatments that have kept them alive.”

Johnson said he believes members of Congress will feel motivated to change elements of the Affordable Care Act if they’re required to experience the “full effects” of the healthcare law.

Johnson said Senate Republicans’ attempts to pass legislation to limit congressional health care subsidies were blocked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“That’s how Harry Reid is running the Senate,” Johnson said. “He’s basically telling the minority to sit down and shut up, so the Senate is utterly dysfunctional and hasn’t passed an appropriations bill in two years.”

See more from Johnson's appearance on the show here.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

 5:24 PM 

Wis. senators split on vote advancing unemployment benefits extension

U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson split today on a procedural vote that advanced legislation to extend federal unemployment benefits.

The cloture motion was approved 60-37, meaning a final vote could come later this week.

Baldwin, D-Madison, who has been pushing for the extension, supported the move to advance the bill, while Johnson, R-Oshkosh, was opposed.

About 23,700 Wisconsinites saw their benefits end when the extension expired last month. Baldwin called the legislation a "lifeline" for them as they look for work.

"Wisconsin's economy continues to lag behind other states and far too many hard-working people are still looking for a job," she said. "Now is not the time to make things harder for them by ending emergency unemployment assistance."

The bill faces an uncertain prospect in the House with GOP concerns over the $6.5 billion cost of the three-month extension.

Johnson said he voted no because the legislation contains no mechanism to pay for the extension. He said Dems pushed to increase spending in the budget deal reached last month and should be willing to put that money toward the extension if they truly believe in it.

"The unemployed need help," he said. "We need to concentrate on getting the economy growing, so they once again have jobs and do not need unemployment benefits."

Monday, January 6, 2014

 2:05 PM 

Johnson unveils lawsuit over Affordable Care Act subsidies

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson today announced a federal lawsuit over health insurance subsidies for congressional staffers under Obamacare, calling it "a basic issue of fairness."

"It's extremely important that members of Congress have the exact same experience as the other millions of Americans that are experiencing, to their detriment, the health care law," Johnson, R-Oshkosh, said during a press conference in the U.S. Capitol. "It's one of the ways it'll force action."

The complaint, filed by the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty against the Office of Personnel Management, alleges the agency's determination that staffers could continue to receive subsidies for insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act's exchanges violates the health care law.

"OPM has promulgated a rule in which it has decreed that the federal government, an entity with almost 3 million civilian employees, is actually a small employer for purposes of participation in the small business exchanges," WILL President Rick Esenberg said during the press conference.

The lawsuit was filed in the Green Bay office of the Eastern District of Wisconsin federal court, with the senator arguing he has standing to pursue the case and "the obligation to make this point, to overturn this rule." Johnson said he consulted the Senate Ethics Committee about the lawsuit and that he is allowed to fund the lawsuit through personal funds, his campaign account or a combination of the two.

"This doesn't just affect everybody in the country; this is not an abstract concern," said former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, a Wisconsin native who's serving as an adviser on the case. "This is a provision that specifically affects how Senator Johnson and his office get their health care."

In addition, Johnson rejected arguments -- including those from U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls -- that he said "dispute" claims that congressional staffers are receiving "special treatment" under the rule.

"Only members of Congress and their staff, when they lose their employer-sponsored care, will have the ability to have their employers make a tax-advantaged contribution to the health care plan," Johnson said. "That's the special treatment. That's completely unfair, completely unjust."

Sunday, January 5, 2014

 5:26 PM 

Sensenbrenner slams Johnson suit, Johnson 'puzzled' by criticism

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner today slammed U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s lawsuit challenging a move allowing congressional staffers to get a subsidy from the federal government to purchase health care through the Obamacare exchanges, calling it “an unfortunate political stunt.”

Johnson, R-Oshkosh, indicated last fall he was laying the groundwork to file the suit after the federal Office of Personnel Management decided to allow congressional staffers to continue receiving employer contributions for their health care. The Affordable Care Act requires members of Congress and their staffers to be covered under the law.

Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, said Johnson’s suit is “likely frivolous” and called the subsidy a “standard benefit.” He argued Congress would lose some of its best and most experienced aides if Johnson’s suit is successful. He said that would make it even more difficult to fight the president and his “older, more experienced staff.”

“Senator Johnson should spend his time legislating rather than litigating as our country is facing big problems that must be addressed by Congress – not the courts,” Sensenbrenner said. “All Republicans want to repeal Obamacare, but this politically motivated lawsuit only takes public attention away from how bad all of Obamacare really is and focuses it on a trivial issue.”

Johnson said he was “disappointed and puzzled” by Sensenbrenner’s comments because the lawmaker voted in favor of ending the perk for members of Congress and their staffs.

“By no means do I believe this issue is trivial, or my lawsuit to overturn this injustice is frivolous,” Johnson said. “This is an issue of basic fairness that I believe is worth fighting for.”

Friday, January 3, 2014

 5:28 PM 

Johnson plans to sue over congressional staffer coverage

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson plans to file suit Monday challenging a move to allow congressional staffers to get a health care insurance subsidy.

Johnson, R-Oshkosh, indicated last fall he was laying the groundwork to file the suit after the federal Office of Personnel Management decided to allow congressional staffers to continue receiving employer contributions for their health care. The August ruling followed concerns from lawmakers a drafting error in the health care law would punish their aides by requiring them to cover the full cost of their insurance.

Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, is representing Johnson and a staffer who will file the suit Monday in the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

Esenberg said today the OPM decision gives congressional staffers special treatment after lawmakers passed a law putting them in the individual exchange and not expressly allowing them to receiver an employer subsidy.

“It was a confidence-building measure,” Esenberg said of the requirement. “It was something they decided to do in order to get the thing passed and now they don’t want to abide by it. The law doesn’t allow that.”

Paul Clement, a partner at Bancroft PLLC and former U.S. solicitor general, will join Johnson and Esenberg on Monday in Milwaukee for a news conference to discuss the suit, according to an advisory from the senator’s office.

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