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A long list of priorities for CT delegation, but not a lot of time

Naomi Ford, 23, and Sarah Medeiros, 24, work on land in Columbia, Connecticut. They are both first-generation farmers in their families.
Yehyun Kim
CT Mirror
Naomi Ford, 23, and Sarah Medeiros, 24, work on land in Columbia, Connecticut. They are both first-generation farmers in their families.

When Congress returns to Washington next week, lawmakers will need to immediately tackle funding the government ahead of two deadlines to avoid a shutdown.

The must-pass spending bills, plus the delay of President Joe Biden’s national security aid package, will leave little time for other legislation at least in the first couple of months of the year.

But Connecticut’s congressional delegation has a long list of priorities that it hopes to accomplish as it faces the realities of a divided Congress and a shorter legislative calendar with next year’s presidential election.

“The major obstacle is simply legislative time on the floor and the scheduling of votes on all of these other very, very important measures,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said.

“The simple nuts and bolts schedule issues are very much on all of our minds right now,” he added. “Then I see a window shortly after that initial crush of must-do items.”

Regardless, Connecticut’s members have their eyes on a number of legislative and investigative priorities.

The renewal of the Farm Bill, which authorizes funding for nutrition and agricultural programs, is another must-pass measure expiring in September. The most recent version was extended by Congress after major delays to negotiate a new one in 2023.

They also hope to see more movement on children’s online safety legislation, a college athlete bill of rights and gun safety measures like safe storage and bans on ghost guns, though they acknowledge the hurdles facing some of these measures.

And they want to make progress on congressional investigations, especially related to the Coast Guard, which is under fire for covering up a yearslong investigation and report looking into sexual harassment and assault at its academy in New London.

Funding fights in the new year

Before they can get to any of that, Congress must either pass all appropriations bills to fund government agencies through September or approve another short-term funding measure, known as a continuing resolution, if compromise fails.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, will play a key role as the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee in trying to negotiate the 12 spending bills ahead of the first deadline on Jan. 19 and then again on Feb. 2.

If they do not reach a deal or pass a bill to keep government funding at existing levels, there will be a partial shutdown, since funding for four departments expires by the first deadline. The remaining eight would then be at risk by the February deadline.

The national security supplemental with aid for Ukraine, Israel, border security and humanitarian efforts in Gaza is also likely to get early treatment in the new year. Republican demands for conditioning Ukraine aid on stricter immigration policy stalled the package, prompting bipartisan Senate talks to see if the parties could strike a deal.

As the Democrats’ lead negotiator, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has been engaged in talks with a small negotiating group for weeks. Before the holiday recess, he said they were getting much closer to a deal, but the group still needed more time to reach an agreement. Senate leaders said members will tackle the issue “early in the new year.”

Murphy and others involved in the talks have largely kept the details of negotiations private, and it is unclear what remains in play.

But Republicans have reportedly pushed for changes to asylum policy — increasing the “credible fear” standard — and parole authority that allows the administration to temporarily allow some migrants into the U.S.

“We are closer than we’ve ever been before to an agreement. We need to get this right. There’s a reason why Congress hasn’t passed major immigration or border reform in 40 years,” Murphy said before lawmakers headed home in late December.

But even if they strike a deal over the next couple of weeks, passage is not guaranteed with opposition in both parties.

Democrats, particularly Latino senators who have not been at the main negotiating table, worry about giving concessions that could limit legal immigration without getting measures like protections for those who were illegally brought to the U.S. when they were children and covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Republicans, meanwhile, want Congress to go even farther with some who say they will not accept a deal that does not include more restrictions on immigration.

But the supplemental is key for Connecticut because of the additional $3.4 billion it would provide to the submarine industrial base. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and others are hoping for that extra boost of funding, especially after Congress approved a pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

One of the biggest components of AUKUS will be Australia’s purchase of at least three nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines that are produced at Electric Boat. But the sale is not planned until the early 2030s.

Despite the time crunch, the Connecticut delegation hopes to get as many of its priorities as possible through, even during a presidential election year when Congress tends to steer away from more controversial legislation and has a lighter schedule to leave time for campaigning.

Negotiating a new Farm Bill

While the Farm Bill has traditionally garnered bipartisan support, negotiations for a new version were behind schedule and funding started to lapse in the fall. Congress decided to extend the 2018 legislation to give lawmakers more time to enact a new one. They will need to play catch up in 2024 to get a bill prepared before next fall.

The Farm Bill, which is renegotiated every five years, mainly consists of nutrition programs — like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps — with the rest going toward agriculture and conservation.

Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, wants to see the expansion of eligibility for SNAP benefits. She is the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee’s Nutrition, Foreign Agriculture, and Horticulture subcommittee, and a former recipient of food stamps.

The Thrifty Food Plan determines the costs for a family of four to eat a healthy diet and sets the amount of nutrition assistance given to those in need. Hayes said she wants a reevaluation of the plan included in the legislation given that families using SNAP are struggling to afford healthy foods because of high costs.

SNAP benefits will likely be at the center of debate when lawmakers are hashing out the Farm Bill. Republicans pushed for increasing the age limit for full SNAP eligibility, which ultimately made it into the deal to raise the debt ceiling in May.

Outside of the nutrition component of the bill, Hayes and others in the delegation want rural broadband prioritized, as well as higher funding for popular conservation programs used in the state and around the country.

Access to land — and preserving it to remain as farmland — are among the biggest challenges facing farmers, ranchers and forest owners in Connecticut, especially with a competitive real estate market in the Northeast and less viable farmland in smaller states. Federal lawmakers in the state are looking for more assistance with closing costs, down payments and subsidized interest rates.

“Connecticut, and New England, routinely see less benefit from [U.S. Department of Agriculture] programs than other parts of the country,” Hayes wrote in a letter earlier this year about her Farm Bill priorities. “The 2023 Farm Bill should serve all parts of the nation equally, and smaller states like Connecticut should not see fewer opportunities for federal assistance.”

Will KOSA get a floor vote in 2024?

Members are also hoping for more movement on tech legislation, which has gained bipartisan support in Congress but has so far stalled.

After passing through committee for the second straight session, Blumenthal is still waiting on a Senate vote for his Kids Online Safety Act along with co-author Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. They feel optimistic about getting a vote in 2024 with the support of leadership, though there is no guaranteed timeline, and they are still working through possible changes to the bill.

The bill would allow children and parents to disable addictive features, enable privacy settings and opt out of algorithmic recommendations on websites. It also establishes a “duty of care” for sites used by young individuals “to act in the best interests of a minor” when it comes to certain mental health disorders, physical violence, online bullying and sexual exploitation. State attorneys general could enforce this by bringing civil lawsuits against tech companies that violate it.

Nearly half of the Senate has signed onto the bill, with co-sponsors evenly divided among both parties, but there is still no companion legislation, as House members want broader online protections that also cover adults. Blumenthal said he hopes a vote in the Senate would jumpstart efforts in the House.

The Kids Online Safety Act has elicited strong reactions from both sides. While they all agree Congress needs to act to protect children online, civil liberties, digital privacy and LGBTQ+ rights groups worry about the unintended consequences of the legislation.

Critics have major concerns surrounding the duty of care section and the discretion it gives to state attorneys general. They are especially worried about those elected officials trying to censor content that they deem as inappropriate but that certain communities view as informative and important services.

The authors sought to clarify that section, but Blumenthal said earlier this year KOSA would not be altered in a way that changes the “fundamental, substantive thrust of the bill.” Some critics, however, want the duty of care component taken out.

“KOSA would also incentivize Big Tech platforms to engage in even more intrusive data collection, which disproportionately puts trans kids and their families at risk as more and more states move to strip us of our rights and criminalize our kids’ health care, education, and very existence,” reads a letter organized by Fight for the Future on behalf of a group of parents with transgender and gender expansive children. “We need to hold these companies accountable and regulate them, not cut our kids off from resources that can help them thrive.”

Blumenthal pushed back on the assertion that the bill would censor content, arguing that it is focused on product design. But he said it is “very likely” they will make further adjustments to the bill to alleviate more concerns.

When asked about the fears specifically of the LGBTQ+ community, Blumenthal said he is trying to ensure that attorneys general would not be able to abuse the legislation for political purposes.

“There’s no way that I would support a bill that in any way inhibits or impedes transgender rights or LGBTQ rights or any rights of minorities,” said Blumenthal, who served as Connecticut’s attorney general for two decades. “I am personally dedicated to making sure we have safeguards in the legislation that would prevent that kind of abuse. I recognize and understand the fears that have been raised, and we’re trying to meet the concerns and questions in the legislation.”

Funding and oversight for Coast Guard

The Connecticut delegation is also focused on the Coast Guard — reauthorizing its funding but also conducting investigations after the service failed to disclose reports that showed a pattern of sexual misconduct, bullying and discrimination in the service and at its academy.

Since it is not included in the annual defense policy bill, Congress needs to set new funding levels for the Coast Guard next year. The service is governed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, while other military branches are overseen by the Pentagon.

But the Coast Guard has also come under fire this year for failing to disclose “Operation Fouled Anchor,” a yearslong investigation into dozens of substantiated sexual assault claims at the Coast Guard Academy between 1988 and 2006, and why many of them were not properly handled. The investigation wrapped up after a few years but remained hidden until a CNN report over the summer.

Commandant Linda Fagan apologized for the Coast Guard’s inaction and failure to disclose when appearing before a congressional committee in July. She released a 90-day internal review addressing the culture problems within the service and its academy as well as reforms that will be implemented. But federal lawmakers and some of the witnesses believe the accountability needs to go much further.

As chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Blumenthal and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., opened an inquiry into Fouled Anchor and recently held a hearing featuring four past and present female cadets who were sexually harassed or assaulted while attending the academy.

They are asking Fagan to send all documents and records related to Fouled Anchor to the subcommittee by Jan. 19. If the request is not met by then, the lawmakers said they will consider subpoenas to compel the information.

Blumenthal also plans to hold another hearing with testimony from Coast Guard leadership and would “highly anticipate” that Fagan appears. He is also planning to request appearances from those who were “responsible for the cover up.”

Along with congressional investigations, members want to implement some legislative solutions like a safe-to-report policy that covers the Coast Guard Academy. Such a policy would offer protections to cadets who want to report instances of assault but fear consequences associated with minor infractions they may have committed at the same time like underage drinking or curfew violations.

In its internal review, the Coast Guard said it would enact such a policy, but Courtney wants to codify it by passing such a provision in federal law.

“That hearing reinforced the need to get this done,” Courtney said.

‘Time is not on our side’

Members remain skeptical about getting much done in 2024, given the slow pace in Washington and hardening gridlock.

Still, Connecticut lawmakers have a number of other personal and regional interests.

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, has once again reintroduced his Social Security legislation to increase benefits by 2% for the first time in 52 years and bolster the program’s solvency by requiring higher earners to contribute more to payroll taxes.

And Murphy is looking to build support for his bill to establish a White House office that would have a coordinated response across the federal government in trying to combat loneliness and social isolation in the U.S.

“I’ve got some personal priorities — like trying to tackle the growing crisis of American disconnection and isolation — but mainly I will just stay working on the kitchen table issues that matter to my neighbors in Connecticut,” Murphy said, noting issues like higher costs of living, safety and the quality of education.

The delegation is also focused on implementing money that has come from past federal legislation.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said he is focused on infrastructure money for Connecticut and his district that came from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in 2021. His district, which borders New York, includes of a lot of commuters reliant on public transportation and working roads and bridges.

Connecticut was recently granted nearly $2 billion in federal funding to repair bridges and update aging infrastructure that serve major rail lines along Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor and other regional train services.

“Until you actually start putting those resources to work, it’s just an abstraction for people,” Himes said. “Sometimes the government moves at the speed of government, and a swift kick in the pants can accelerate projects.”

“Time is not on our side here. With every week that goes by, people are going to get crazier approaching the election,” he added. “Time is not our friend.”

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.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

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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