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Federal spending bill could include some Connecticut priorities, but not all

FILE - President Joe Biden meets with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., about gun control outside the Oval Office of the White House, June 7, 2022, in Washington. Murphy has been the Senate’s leading advocate for stronger gun control since the massacre of 20 children at a school in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. “There has been a thirst from voters, especially swing voters, young voters, parents, to hear candidates talk about gun violence, and I think Democrats are finally sort of catching up with where the public has been,” said Murphy. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Evan Vucci
Talking about gun control, President Joe Biden meets with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., outside the Oval Office of the White House on June 7, 2022, in Washington.

Connecticut lawmakers are eyeing the end-of-the-year bill package to fund the federal government as the best vehicle for getting their top legislative priorities passed before the start of 2023, when Democrats will lose some of their governing power in Congress.

A key priority for Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., appears the most likely to make it into the final bill, though negotiations are ongoing and the process is still fluid. Murphy has been part of a bipartisan effort to amend the Electoral Count Act to try to prevent a repeat of the Jan. 6 attack when Congress certifies the results of the next presidential election.

But legislation championed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., look more uncertain about making it into the year-end omnibus bill. DeLauro is heavily pushing for a renewal of the expanded federal child tax credit that helped lift millions of children out of poverty last year. Blumenthal, meanwhile, wants to see momentum on a bipartisan bill he is leading to protect children on social media platforms.

The lawmakers are hoping to cram these bills in before the end of the year to increase their chances of becoming law. When the new session of Congress begins on Jan. 3, Democrats will slightly expand their majority in the Senate but will lose control of the House to a narrow GOP majority.

Congress is in the midst of finalizing negotiations on the omnibus appropriations package to fund the government through the rest of fiscal year 2023. Negotiators have yet to release the specific numbers and provisions in the bill as well as the text. They have less than a week to get a larger bill done and set new funding levels for agencies before the money dries up and lawmakers break for the holiday recess. Otherwise, they need to pass another short-term bill.

In the last few weeks of 2022, members of Connecticut’s delegation have made some progress shepherding through stand-alone bills. Congress advanced the Help Find the Missing Act, also known as Billy’s Law, which improves databases and coordination between local, state and federal entities to help solve missing persons cases.

The bill was named for Janice Smolinski’s son Billy after she faced challenges trying to navigate the missing persons reporting process when he went missing in Waterbury in 2004. Murphy first introduced the bill in 2009 when he represented Connecticut’s 5th District.

More than a decade later, Congress passed Billy’s Law — championed by Murphy and Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, in the House — with vast bipartisan support. It now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature.

But the remainder of the delegation’s legislative goals are still in flux as members navigate a tenuous and contentious process to fund the government and do some last-minute cramming into a must-pass bill.

Electoral Count Act reforms on track to appear in omnibus

Murphy is part of a bipartisan group of senators who crafted compromise legislation to reform the century-old Electoral Count Act to prevent future interference during the certification of electoral votes before a joint session of Congress.

The Electoral Count Reform Act of 2022 seeks to make it more difficult to challenge electors by raising the threshold to object, establishes an “expedited judicial review” to deal with candidate legal challenges and clarifies the vice president’s role as ceremonial in overseeing the certification process. It currently takes only one member in each chamber to raise an objection.

The House has its own version, but it does not have the same bipartisan support and momentum as the Senate bill, which has garnered enough Republican support to advance it in the upper chamber and clear a filibuster. It even secured the endorsement of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., which could grease the skids for more GOP support.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that he feels “very optimistic” that the election reform bill will be part of the omnibus and that it has the support of most leaders in both parties.

While the bill has been in the works for months, supporters of the bill expected that it would get pushed off until the lame-duck session after the November elections. Murphy said he was concerned that Congress would not wrap up its work on the Electoral Count Act but that it now looks promising it will make it into the funding package.

“I think it’s essential to cutting down the chances of the wrong president being put in the White House in 2025. It’s a capstone on a pretty incredibly productive year,” Murphy said in an interview on Thursday. “I was nervous that we weren’t going to get ECA across the finish line. I’m glad that it looks as if it’s on a path to be part of the budget.”

Fierce debate over renewing the expanded federal child tax credit

A major piece of a federal pandemic relief package was the expansion of the federal child tax credit — a priority for DeLauro, who has championed the issue for years.

Democrats passed an expansion in 2021, but it expired at the end of last year, and efforts to revive it have been challenging amid Republican resistance. Up until then, the enhanced rebate gave families $3,600 per child under age 6 and $3,000 per child between 6 and 18.

Those who qualified for the full amount were married couples filing jointly who made less than $150,000 or someone who is a single filer on their taxes and earned under $75,000. The income ceiling became higher for those eligible for a partial rebate: married couples filing jointly with an annual income under $400,000 or a single filer making less than $200,000.

DeLauro and other Democrats are calling for another extension to provide families with financial stability and to be able to afford things like food, rent and child care. But if one makes it into the bill, it could be in a different form or modified from the 2021 enhancement.

As chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, DeLauro plays a critical role in the crafting and negotiating of the omnibus bill to fund the government and what provisions make it into the final package. She said she will not support a business tax break sought by Republicans unless they also allow for renewing the enhanced child tax credit.

“It would appear that our Republican colleagues don’t see the value of a child tax credit, but we’re continuing,” DeLauro said in a Tuesday interview. “As far as I’m concerned, there will be no tax breaks, cuts, bonuses or what have you for the richest corporations — many of whom do not pay taxes. There cannot be any tax cuts for these corporations without a tax cut for children.”

Schumer on Tuesday said Democrats “feel very strongly that the child tax credit should be there as long as there’s some corporate tax breaks” but that Republicans are not in agreement.

While the monthly payments for the expanded child tax credit were not extended into 2022, Connecticut had its own state rebate available. More than 70% of eligible households claimed the $250-per-child tax credit before the July 31 deadline.

The expansion at the federal level was credited for helping to lift more children out of poverty. According to theCenter on Budget and Policy Priorities, the tax credit lowered the child poverty rate to 5.2%. In Connecticut, 583,000 children qualified for getting the payments early in December 2021, according to the U.S. Treasury.

The current federal tax credit is $2,000 for a child under 17, though it is not fully available to all families because they either made too little income or they were out of work. And the number of those not receiving the full amount disproportionately affects families of color.

In Connecticut, an estimated 145,000 children under 17 did not receive the full amount of the current tax credit, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Of that total, almost 48% of those children in the state are Latino, 15% of them live in rural areas and 21% reside in metro areas.

Will updates to the Kids Online Safety Act appease critics?

Blumenthal has partnered with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., to help protect children’s well-being and safety while using social media. The pair have been meeting with parents who lost their children and have attributed their deaths to the harm caused by these platforms.

The bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act aims to put in place stricter settings on social media by giving children and parents the ability to disable addictive features, enable privacy settings and opt out of algorithmic recommendations. It also requires social media companies to conduct an annual independent audit to analyze the risks to minors and see if they are working to reduce it.

The bill has attracted support from lawmakers in both parties, and Blumenthal has been working with leadership for weeks to get it inserted into the omnibus. As children face a growing mental health crisis, those questioning Big Tech are hoping to put some guardrails on tech companies and limit minors’ exposure to content that can lead to eating disorders, self-harm or substance abuse.

But a number of organizations are skeptical of the approach and are pushing back. Nearly 90 LGBTQ rights and civil rights groups wrote a letter last month saying that while the bill has “laudable goals,” they believe it could have “unintended consequences” when it comes to content filtering and limited access to information for vulnerable children in abusive situations and LGBTQ youth.

The letter warned that those regulating content could “over-moderate” like attorneys general “seeking to make political points about what kind of information is appropriate for young people.” And they believe it would ultimately increase data collection of minors.

To quell critics’ concerns, Blumenthal and Blackburn said they made updates to the legislation, saying in a joint statement this week that “there is no reason for the bill not to move ahead.” The updated text of the bill clarified the “duty of care” section, stipulating that companies “shall act in the best interests” of known minors using their site and that they need to “take reasonable measures in its design and operation of products and services to prevent and mitigate” harm.

Hundreds of advocacy groups sent a letter urging the need for swift passage this year.

“The lack of transparency into the inner workings, policies and measured impacts of these platforms must be addressed now,” the letter reads. “The enormity of the youth mental health crisis needs to be addressed as the very real harms of social media are impacting our children today.”

It is unclear if the groups raising concerns are satisfied with the new language of the bill. But Blumenthal said they are making progress on negotiations about getting it into the final package.

“We’re going to make every effort to address as many of their concerns as we can, and hopefully that will enable us to include it in the omnibus,” Blumenthal said in a Thursday interview. “I’ve talked to the leadership about it. I’ve talked to members on both the House and Senate side, so it’s a work in progress.”

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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