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What the 114th Congress did and didn’t do

Congress has wrapped up the 114th session, a tumultuous two years marked by the resignation of a House speaker, a fight over a Supreme Court vacancy, bipartisan bills on health care and education and inaction on immigration and criminal justice.

The new Congress will be sworn-in Jan. 3.

What Congress passed or approved

  • A hard-fought budget and debt agreement that provided two years of relief from unpopular automatic budget cuts and extended the government’s borrowing cap through next March.
  • The end of a 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports.
  • A rescue package for financially strapped Puerto Rico, creating an oversight board to supervise some debt restructuring and negotiate with creditors.
  • A sweeping biomedical bill that would help drug and medical device companies win swifter government approval of their products, boost disease research and drug-abuse spending and revamp federal mental health programs. It would also include money for preventing and treating abuse of addictive drugs like opioids.
  • The first overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act since it was approved in 1976.
  • A sweeping rewrite of education law, giving states more power to decide how to use the results of federally mandated math and reading tests in evaluating teachers and schools.
  • An aviation bill that attempts to close gaps in airport security and shorten screening lines.
  • An extension of a federal loan program that provides low-interest money to the neediest college students.
  • The USA Freedom Act, which extends some expiring surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act passed after the 9/11 attacks.
  • A bipartisan measure that recasts how Medicare reimburses doctors for treating over 50 million elderly people.
  • Legislation reviving the federal Export-Import Bank, a small federal agency that makes and guarantees loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods.
  • $1.1 billion to combat the threat of the Zika virus.
  • Defense legislation rebuffing President Barack Obama’s attempts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and blocking the Pentagon from starting a new round of military base closings.
  • Legislation authorizing hundreds of water projects, including measures to help Flint, Michigan, rid its water of poisonous lead, and to allow more of California’s limited water resources to flow to Central Valley farmers hurt by the state’s lengthy drought.
  • Expanded law enforcement tools to target sex traffickers.
  • Legislation that would tighten several security requirements of the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. without visas.
  • Cybersecurity legislation that would encourage companies to share cyber-threat information with the government.
  • A renewal of health care and disability payments to 9/11 first responders who worked in the toxic ruins of the World Trade Center.
  • A bill allowing families of Sept. 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts for its alleged backing of the attackers, enacted in Obama’s first veto override.
  • A permanent ban on state and local government Internet taxes.
  • A bill that boosts government suicide prevention efforts for military veterans.
  • Confirmation of Eric Fanning to be Army secretary, making him the first openly gay leader of a U.S. military service.
  • The election of a new House speaker, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

What Congress did not pass or approve

  • Confirmation of Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.
  • Confirmation of 51 federal judges nominated by Obama, including 44 district court nominees and seven appeals court nominees.
  • Gun control legislation.
  • Bills that would have halted federal payments to Planned Parenthood.
  • Comprehensive or incremental changes to immigration law.
  • $1 trillion worth of agency budget bills that will be kicked into next year, complicated by a familiar battle over the balance between Pentagon spending and domestic programs and a desire by Republicans to get a better deal next year from the Trump administration. Congress passed a four-month extension of current spending instead.
  • A bipartisan criminal justice bill that would have reduced some mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders and increased rehabilitation programs.
  • The first comprehensive energy bill in nearly a decade, which would speed exports of liquefied natural gas and create a new way to budget for wildfires.
  • War powers for Obama to fight Islamic State militants.
  • A bill forcing the president to allow construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada. Obama rejected the pipeline in 2015 after seven years of indecision.
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multinational trade agreement involving 11 other Pacific Rim countries. Congress did give the president Trade Promotion Authority, allowing Congress to ratify or reject trade agreements negotiated by the executive branch, but not change or filibuster them.
  • Child nutrition bills that would have scaled back the Obama administration’s standards for healthier school meals.

Spill in South Dakota shuts down Keystone pipeline

The Keystone pipeline will likely remain shut down for the rest of the week while officials investigate an apparent oil spill in southeastern South Dakota.

Oil covered a 300-square-foot area in a farm field ditch 4 miles from a Freeman-area pump station, about 40 miles southwest of Sioux Falls. It was discovered Saturday. TransCanada hasn’t released the amount of oil.

About 100 workers are investigating where the oil came from and removing the contaminated soil. No pipeline damage had been found as of midmorning Tuesday, company spokesman Mark Cooper said.

TransCanada also said it had found no significant environmental harm. State officials were monitoring the cleanup, and so far TransCanada has “taken the necessary steps,” said Brian Walsh, an environmental scientist with the South Dakota Department of Natural Resources.

The pipeline runs from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Illinois and Cushing, Oklahoma, passing through the eastern Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. It’s part of a pipeline system that also would have included the Keystone XL pipeline had President Barack Obama not rejected that project last November.

The Keystone pipeline can handle 550,000 barrels, or about 23 million gallons, daily. Cooper didn’t immediately know the status of the oil that normally would be flowing through the pipeline.

The shutdown will have a short-term impact in which less-heavy Canadian crude will be getting to the market, according to Sandy Fielden, director of energy analytics for RBN Energy LLC. While it might have a temporary impact on some market prices, drivers are unlikely to see an impact at the pump.

The Dakota Rural Action conservation group issued a statement saying it was “more than a little concerning” that TransCanada didn’t inform the public until Monday. Cooper said the company notified landowners and regulators immediately on Saturday, and waited until Monday to notify the public so it had more information available.

Study rebuts doubters: No stop, no slowdown of global warming

Global warming has not stopped or even slowed in the past 18 years, according to a new federal study that rebuts doubters who’ve claimed that that heating trends have paused.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration readjusted thousands of weather data points to account for different measuring techniques through the decades. Their calculations show that since 1998, the rate of warming is about the same as it has been since 1950: about two-tenths of a degree Fahrenheit a decade.

The so-called hiatus has been touted by non-scientists who reject mainstream climate science. Those claims have resonated; two years ago, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change felt the need to explain why the Earth was not heating up as expected, listing such reasons as volcanic eruptions, reduced solar radiation and the oceans absorbing more heat.

“The reality is that there is no hiatus,” said Tom Karl, director of the National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, North Carolina. He is the lead author of a study published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Science

One key to claims of a hiatus is the start date: 1998. That year there was a big temperature spike; some of the following years were not as hot, though even hotter years followed in 2005, 2010 and 2014, according to NOAA, NASA and temperature records kept in England and Japan. This year is on pace to break last year’s global heat record.

Scientists keep updating the way they measure Earth’s temperatures. This study focuses on the effects of the way ocean temperatures are taken. The old way, going back generations, is with ships. Sometimes people would dip a bucket in the way; other times they’d measure water that came into the engine. They also did it at various times of day.

The new way is on buoys at the same time of day. Karl said the buoy measurements are more accurate, but can’t be compared directly to the ship measurements for a trend without making adjustments, because that would be comparing apples and oranges. So to come up with a trend using comparable numbers, NOAA increases the buoy temperatures a bit.

A few years ago NOAA made similar adjustments to make land temperatures more comparable decade-to-decade. But that also caused some non-scientists who reject climate change to cry tampering.

Several outside scientists contacted by The Associated Press said the new and previous adjustments are sound. Kevin Trenberth, climate analysis chief at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said the new work was “good and careful analysis” but only confirms what most scientists already knew, that there was no such hiatus.

A few years ago, a group out of University of California Berkeley – funded in part by the Charles Koch Foundation, whose founder is a major funder of climate doubter groups and the tea party- took what was initially billed as a skeptical look at the previous NOAA data. But they pronounced the earlier adjustments legitimate. The same scientists now say the new NOAA adjustments are also proper.

“NOAA is confirming what we have been saying for some time that the `hiatus’ in global warming is spurious,” Berkeley team chief and physicist Richard Muller said in an email. Muller said global warming continues but in “many fits and spurts.”

John Christy of the University of Alabama Huntsville, one of the minority of scientists who dispute the magnitude of global warming, said the Karl paper “doesn’t make sense” because satellite data show little recent warming. “You must conclude the data were adjusted to get this result” of no warming pause, Christy wrote in an email. “Were the adjustments proper? I don’t know at this point.”

Others who reject warming, especially non-scientists, point to satellite records by Remote Sensing Systems that appear to show no change in temperature since 1998. Satellites measure a different part of Earth’s atmosphere than ground and ocean monitors that NOAA, NASA and others use.

Carl Mears, senior research scientist for RSS, said those rejecting climate change based on his work or any one dataset are wrong and “seek to deny the reality of human-induced climate change by grasping at straws.” Mears said the overall data consistently show long-term global warming and that it really hasn’t stopped recently. The NOAA adjustments make sense, he said.

Karl said NOAA didn’t adjust datasets in the Arctic, where it is warming even faster, because there is a lack of reliable long-term records to compare. Had NOAA made those adjustments, the recent warming trend would be slightly larger, he said.

On the Web …

Science: http://sciencemag.org

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov

2015: The in-between year

The two most influential dates in 2015 politics likely will prove to be Tuesdays — Nov. 4, 2014, and Nov. 8, 2016.

The first date, of course, is that of the 2014 midterm election, when the GOP captured its largest majority in nearly a century — 54 seats in the U.S. Senate, 246 seats in the U.S. House, 31 governorships and 68 state legislative chambers.

The second date, of course, is that of the next presidential election, certain to be a blockbuster for the nation’s major parties and, with political discontent deepening on the left and the right, possibly a whopper of an opportunity for a third-party or independent candidate.

The stakes in the next federal election and the results of the midterm will influence how politicians deal with — or don’t deal with — a range of issues from the U.S. Capitol to the state capitols over the next 12 months.

The Republican National Committee, in a “How We Did It” memo released after the midterm, declared an obvious victory and said the results revealed “a rejection of the policies and candidates supported by President Obama and Hillary Clinton” — note the reference to the Democrat’s most popular possible presidential candidate.

Exit polling and support for progressive ballot initiatives — binding and non-binding — disprove the conservative claims of a mandate from the midterm. Instead, the polls show the vote had less to do with party policy and were more about corporate investment in elections, dissatisfaction with the president’s leadership and concern for the economy.

Still, in 2015, look for conservatives at the state and federal levels to cite the midterm results as a mandate to weaken the federal Affordable Care Act, rollback or hold back immigration reform, punch loopholes in non-discrimination protections, advance anti-labor legislation and push anti-environmental proposals while downplaying or denying climate change.

And look for Democratic leaders to challenge the GOP while wrestling within the party over moderation versus liberalism — and waiting for their presidential candidate(s) to take the field.

A glance at some of the battles in the coming bridge year…

ENVIRONMENT: Expect Republicans, whose campaigns in 2014 were flush with cash from oil and gas interests, to attempt to fast-track exports of U.S. fossil fuels, roll back investments in renewable energy, halt creation of wilderness areas, open the Atlantic to oil and gas drilling, work to approve the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline and move to block the Environmental Protection Agency rule to reduce greenhouse emissions from power plants.

In early December, several hundred conservative lawmakers assembled in Washington, D.C., for a summit presented by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the right-wing national group of businesses and politicians dedicated to “limited government, free markets and federalism.” The purpose of the summit was to set policy and promote model bills for 2015 and 2016.

“Not a single item on ALEC’s agenda would reduce pollution or protect the environment,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “They only work to reduce safeguards and protect the polluters.”

ALEC’s agenda on the environment includes a push to eliminate the federal EPA and cut the federal environmental protection budget by 75 percent, a drive to weaken the Clean Air Act, a proposal to expand oil drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, a model bill to block state participation in the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, and a model measure that would require state-based science advisory boards to provide consensus on questions posed by legislators or the governor.

IMMIGRATION: The fight in 2015 will be over the president’s recent executive action to protect about 5 million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation. The New Year arrives with the administration facing lawsuits filed by Republican governors in 17 states, including Gov. Scott Walker, seeking to block Obama’s reforms.

“Because of our shared concerns, at my direction, Wisconsin joined with governors and attorneys general from 17 other states in a lawsuit to block the president’s unilateral action to change the law outside of the legislative process,” Walker said in a statement.

He added that the fight is about the rule of law, not immigration.

His critics, however, said the lawsuit is about immigration and political grandstanding.

“Gov. Walker signing onto this lawsuit to block executive action by the president on immigration reform, while disappointing, is not surprising,” said state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, D-Milwaukee. “This strikes me as another conservative bandwagon initiative that the governor is jumping on to improve his national credentials and profile amongst the far-right Republican base he will try to court as he runs for president.”

In Congress, Republicans are organizing to push back on the president’s reforms while possibly advancing narrow initiatives to expand visas for high-tech workers, establish a mandatory system for businesses to verify work eligibility and create an exit-visa registry.

JOBS: In early January, progressive politicians and labor leaders plan to gather in D.C. for a national summit on wages, an urgent meeting called by the AFL-CIO and featuring a keynote address by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who recently has softened her “no” on a run for the White House. The summit’s goal is to “lay claim to a bold progressive strategy as the new year begins,” said AFL-CIO president Trumka.

Warren said, “Hardworking people across the country deserve to earn fair and decent wages so they can build a better future for themselves and for their kids.” She added that the summit “will give us a chance to ramp up our efforts to grow opportunities for America’s working families and strengthen our middle class.”

While progressives will focus on initiatives to raise workers’ wages and safeguard organizing rights, conservatives will be pushing initiatives aimed at weakening unions and keeping wages low.

Within a month of the midterm election, Republicans in at least five states — Wisconsin, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Ohio and Missouri — announced plans to push so-called right-to-work bills in 2015.

In Wisconsin, the newly formed group Wisconsin Right to Work, led by an activist who is the state director for the corporate-right group Americans for Prosperity, will lobby for a bill that state Rep. Chris Kapenga intends to introduce.

Walker said during his re-election campaign that such legislation is not a priority, and he has since characterized the bill as a “distraction.” However, the governor has not said whether he would sign a right-to-work bill if one reached his desk.

Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said, “So-called ‘right-to-work’ (laws) mean fewer Wisconsin jobs, not more. Right-to-work is a policy that attacks Wisconsin workers, our wages, our safety on the job and our middle class. Right-to-work is nothing more than an attempt by corporate special interests to drive down wages and erode the middle class.”

HEALTH CARE: Americans still share more negative attitudes than positive feelings about the federal Affordable Care Act, specifically the health-care marketplace, where many are finding higher premiums than last year.

Some consumers also are finding that misleading or confusing information provided when the marketplace first opened led them to overestimate tax credits for the first year of premiums, which means they’re looking at paying back some money when they file their income tax returns in the spring or winter of 2015.

The credits are the focus of a case that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear in 2015. The question before the court: Does the Affordable Care Act only provide tax credits through state-run marketplaces — there are only 16 — and not the federal marketplace, which consumers are using in 34 states, including Wisconsin.

The dispute is over four words in the Affordable Care Act — “established by the State” — in reference to the credits applied to premiums purchased in a marketplace.

The case was brought by right-wing opponents of Obamacare and a ruling from the high court that only consumers using the state exchanges can take advantage of the tax credits could be catastrophic for the ACA. Many more Americans would find they can’t afford insurance that the law mandates they purchase.

EQUALITY: Consecutive legal victories, especially in the federal courts, have to some degree made politicians inconsequential in the fight over marriage equality. Governors and attorneys general, including Scott Walker and J.B. Van Hollen, sought to defend anti-gay constitutional amendments and laws against same-sex marriage in 2014, but they failed at nearly every turn.

In early January, Florida will become the next state to recognize same-sex marriage — unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes. Marriage equality advocates and foes aren’t expecting that to happen, but the high court is expected to take up same-sex marriage in 2015, with a once-and-for-all decision likely in late June. The justices could hear one or more of the cases from Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee or Kentucky or perhaps one of the cases still before an appeals court.

Green groups take aim at Maryland liquefied natural gas project

Leaders of more than a dozen green groups are calling on President Barack Obama to revisit proposals to expand U.S. exports of fracked and liquefied natural gas, which the environmentalists say would significantly undermine his administration’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

A letter signed by representatives from 16 national and regional groups urges Obama to ensure a comprehensive federal environmental impact review for one of the most controversial liquefied natural gas export proposals before his administration — the Cove Point facility proposed by Dominion Resources just outside of Washington, D.C., on the Chesapeake Bay.

“President Obama, exporting LNG is simply a bad idea in almost every way. We again implore you to shift course on this disastrous push to frack, liquefy, and export this climate-wrecking fossil fuel,” the letter states.

“As a first step, tell [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] to drop its shameful and unacceptably weak permitting process for Cove Point in Maryland. Demand a full Environmental Impact Statement for this massive $3.8 billion project just a short drive from your house. An EIS will put more facts on the table and, we believe, will persuade you and the nation that a pell-mell rush to export gas is a pell-mell rush to global climate ruin,” the letter continues.

Groups signing the letter included 350.org, CREDO, Food & Water Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Earthworks, all sponsors of a weekend rally in California that was the largest anti-fracking protest in the state’s history, as well as the Sierra Club, the Energy Action Coalition and Earthjustice.

National leaders Bill McKibben and Michael Brune joined a tele-press conference to release the letter.

“From Maryland to California, Americans are taking to the streets to say that climate leaders don’t frack,” said McKibben, co-founder and president of 350.org, the organization at the forefront of the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Emerging and credible analyses show that significant expansion of fracking and gas export infrastructure could cripple global efforts to solve climate change, which Secretary of State John Kerry recently called perhaps the “the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” In fact, the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of the LNG export process — including drilling, piping, compressing, liquefying, shipping, re-gasifying and burning — likely make it as harmful to the climate, or worse than, burning coal overseas.

Analysis shows the $3.8 billion Cove Point plan could alone trigger more lifecycle climate change pollution than all seven of Maryland’s existing coal-fired power plants combined.

“President Obama has told us many times that failure to address the climate crisis amounts to the betrayal of our children and future generations, so it would be contradictory for the president to allow the LNG export facility at Cove Point to start operating without a full environmental review,” said Brune. “We can’t cut climate pollution and simultaneously expand the use of dirty fossil fuels, and we must fully understand the consequences of liquefying fracked natural gas for export. Building new fossil fuel infrastructure keeps America tied to the past. We should be exporting clean energy innovation, not the dirty fuels of the 19th century.”

The Cove Point project has faced particularly fierce regional and local resistance in recent months, including a record-large environmental protest in downtown Baltimore in late February and a string of three civil disobedience protests over the past three weeks resulting in arrests across Maryland.

Cove Point would be the first export facility to open fracking operations across the Marcellus Shale to Asian export markets. It also would be built in an area in southern Maryland that is by far the most densely populated human community in the vicinity of any proposed gas export facility in the nation.

Despite calls from Maryland health, environmental and community leaders as well as Maryland’s attorney general for a full Environmental Impact Statement on Cove Point, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced last week that it would release a more limited and less participatory Environmental Assessment on May 15 of this year.

Women leaders from 50 nations holding climate change summit

Women leaders from more than 50 nations have come together in New York to address climate change and draft a Women’s Climate Action Agenda.

The group includes business leaders, former heads of state, scientists, government officials, indigenous leaders, activists, teachers and community organizers and the event is the first International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit.

The summit takes place Sept. 20-23.

Participants include:

• Christiana Figueres, executive secretary to UNFCCC;

• Marina Silva, former Brazilian minister of environment;

• Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland;

• Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams;

• Dr. Sylvia Earle, marine biologist;

• May Boeve, 350.org executive director;

• Dr. Vandana Shiva.

Leaders from Global Gender Climate Alliance, UN Women, Women’s Environment and Development Organization, 1 Million Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other grassroots organizations also are participating.

“We are bringing women leaders together at this crucial time in history because we know that women are uniquely positioned to implement the critical sustainability solutions needed to address the world’s pressing climate challenges,” said Osprey Orielle Lake, co-founder of the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit. “Nature will not wait while politicians debate. Women around the world are facing the impacts of a changing climate every day, and we are coming together to say ‘enough is enough’ and it is time for action that addresses the roots of this crisis and fosters just solutions.”

Summit delegates have gathered in advance of Climate Week and the United Nations General Assembly session, and as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prepares to release its much anticipated assessment report.

“Actions to date are simply not equivalent to the escalating urgency of the climate crisis. We are headed toward a 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F) rise in global temperature over the next decades that will create unprecedented havoc for our children, grandchildren and future generations. Women are no longer willing to stand by when so much is at stake,” said summit co-founder Sally Ranney.

She added, “We know what needs to be done, and mobilized women have the power to do it and to build a much stronger climate action movement. We are gathering in force in order to get climate solutions in place at the speed and scale necessary to make a significant difference.”