December 27th, 2012, by Abby Benson  

Week in Review, or Cliff Countdown

I hope you all had a great holiday and that you’re looking forward to ringing in 2013! Below is a brief update on fiscal cliff negotiations as we head into the final days of the year. Keep an eye out for my next regular update on Wednesday January 2nd.

When I left you last week, “fiscal cliff” negotiations appeared to be heating up with President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) actively negotiating and apparently only $200 billion dollars apart from making a final deal (check out this handy Washington Post chart for a quick look at the back and forth). Unfortunately, these negotiations fizzled out at the end of last week, when Speaker Boehner decided to bring a “Plan B” proposal to the House floor. This proposal would have extended tax rates for those making less than $1 million, but not included much on the spending cut side. When it came time for a vote on the proposal late Thursday night, Speaker Boehner called it off indicating that he didn’t have enough votes to pass the proposal since it didn’t include enough spending cuts to appease conservative members. Although this would have been a largely symbolic vote on a proposal that wouldn’t have passed the Senate, the decision to not hold the vote signaled the end of pre-holiday fiscal cliff negotiations. It also made clear that for any deal to pass the House, it will have to be bipartisan enough to garner both Democratic and Republican votes - a rare occurrence in these partisan times.

Adding to the intrigue of this end-of-year showdown, the Department of the Treasury sent a letter to Congress yesterday announcing that the country would hit the debt limit by December 31, 2012. While the letter indicated that the Treasury could pursue “extraordinary measures” to postpone the impact of reaching the limit, it also cited the looming fiscal cliff for some uncertainty, saying “Given the significant uncertainty that now exists with regard to unresolved tax and spending policies for 2013, it is not possible to predict the effective duration of these measures.”

In preparation for potentially “going over the cliff, ” the White House issued guidance last week to federal agencies on how to handle sequestration, the 8-10% spending cuts set to take place beginning in January 2013. This is significant as it signaled a decision on the White House’s part to publicly prepare for sequestration, which they have avoided doing in the past. Of note in the guidance is that the implementation of sequestration would not result in a government shutdown, but rather a gradual reduction in spending that would begin to be felt in the early months of 2013 if a solution is not identified after the New Year. Also of note, however, is a focus on preventing personnel actions, which could put non-personnel related funding (such as R&D funding) more at risk during implementation.

Now, with just a few days left before the end of the year, Speaker Boehner has reportedly called on the Senate to take action to avoid the “fiscal cliff” as its members make their way back to Washington to, among other things, vote on a supplemental appropriations package to aid Super Storm Sandy recovery. The President is also back in DC, and member of the House are on call to return to Washington as needed, if a deal can come together in the next few days.

Also of Note

Appropriations. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and the longest current serving member of Congress, passed away last week after an astonishing 50 years in the Senate. In the wake of his death, appropriations committee shuffling resulted in the announcement that Senator Mikulski (D-MD) would take his place at the helm of the committee. Mikulski, a long supporter of science, currently chairs the Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations subcommittee which oversees funding for NSF, NASA, NOAA, and NIST. It is unclear if she will continue to hold that subcommittee post when she takes the helm of the full committee in the next Congress.

Appointments. President Obama nominated Senator John Kerry (D-MA) to serve as the next Secretary of State, replacing current Secretary Hillary Clinton. Senator Kerry is current Chair of the Senate Foreign relations Committee, and his confirmation appears to be all but assured in the Senate.

President Obama announced his intention to appoint three new members to the National Science Board, which jointly with the Director of the NSF “recommend[s] and encourage[s] the pursuit of national policies for the promotion of research and education in science and engineering.” Among the three nominees is MIT Professor, Maria Zuber.

The White House announced the latest round of winners of the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the “highest honors bestowed by the United States Government upon scientists, engineers, and inventors.” Among the recipients are two MIT professors, Dr. Bob Langer and Dr. Penny Chisholm.

What’s on Deck

A few more days off….Happy New Year!


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