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A closely divided Congress is starting work on a packed fall agenda, working against the backdrop of what is likely to be a dramatic presidential campaign. R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, plays a key role in shaping the Chamber’s legislative agenda, and advocating on behalf of business. Josten spoke with Legal Times reporter Carrie Levine last week about the group’s fall agenda and its potential impact on businesses. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
LT: What are the Chamber’s top priorities for the fall congressional session? Josten: Our priorities and what theirs are up there are frequently different. Ours are the energy legislation. That bill has passed both chambers; it’s going to be a challenge to reconcile. The [ State Children's Health Insurance Program] is an issue area of interest to us. We’d like to see it reauthorized. We have some concerns about some of the expansions that are proposed between the two chambers. .�.�. The House bill goes pretty far in terms of expanding eligibility. .�.�. When we get to the four pending free trade agreements — Peru, Panama, Colombia, South Korea — we, of course, favor enactment of all of them. It’s starting to sound to me like the only one that’s being teed up now is Peru. This whole private-equity-carried interest issue is an issue of concern to us. We run a coalition on it. Also, I think the safest way for me to couch it with you is, there’s the possibility of a climate change bill. It hasn’t been determined yet what would move to the floor, or how it would move to the floor. It’s out there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to make a run at it.
LT: That’s a pretty ambitious agenda for fall. Josten: My attitude is, we’ll be doing this up until Thanksgiving, and possibly a week or two after that. The main event this month is [Gen. David Petraeus reporting on Iraq], as you know, and the second is defense reauthorization, and the third is defense appropriations. .�.�. I fully plan on playing through up until Thanksgiving, and I can easily craft a scenario in my head where we’re doing this the first week or two of December.
LT: What is your biggest concern about the upcoming session? Josten: An omnibus [appropriations bill]. You come in and discover that at 2 a.m. last night, the respective leaders of both parties and both chambers and chairmen got together and cut a deal. I can’t influence anything. Game is over. There’s your deal. Omnibus is moving to the floor at 9 a.m. What do I do? This isn’t just a budgeting appropriations concern. Usually what you see begin to take place is tucking in amendments and legislation that could not possibly pass on their own. How many days is it going to take me to read through? How many thousands of pages is an omnibus going to be? They’re not going to leave an omnibus sitting out there. They never have. That’s a very likely scenario to me. I think the Democrats are going to be under some pressure to pass an appropriations bill before Sept. 30 just to avoid the so-called headline risk of not passing a bill.
LT: How has this Congress been so far for business and industry? Josten: Well, I don’t think it was a surprise that one of the first things out of the box was the Employee Free Choice Act, considering the relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party. But I think everybody knew it couldn’t possibly make it to the president’s desk. It wasn’t that much of a threat. The minute it had 234 co-sponsors in the House, you knew it would pass. You knew it would be filibustered in the Senate, you knew it couldn’t overcome a filibuster, and you knew if it did overcome a filibuster, the president would veto it. It was a fight you had to engage. It was, to me, teeing up what the unions really want to get in the next election, when they’re hoping to see an expanded Democratic majority and a president who would sign the legislation.
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