Congress looks beyond budget | Immigration reform, farm bill loom in 2014 - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Congress looks beyond budget | Immigration reform, farm bill loom in 2014

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Posted: Saturday, December 28, 2013 10:15 pm

After passing a budget for the first time in almost four years, Congress ended its 2013 session on a note of compromise after a year of bipartisan gridlock that at one point led to a partial shutdown of the federal government.

The budget deal, signed by President Barack Obama into law on Thursday, gives Washington a two-year spending plan after a year of fiscal crises, many created due to disagreements about spending between the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-led House of Representatives.

The deal represents the first two-year budget passed by a divided Congress since 1986.

Those fiscal crises dominated the first year in office for U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, but the South Texas Con gressman said the budget bill, which President Bar ack Obama has vowed to sign, could make way for Congress to tackle more issues in 2014, particularly concerning comprehensive immigration reform and the farm bill.

But for now, Vela said he is just happy to assure the country will avoid the threat of another shutdown for another two years.

“Given the toxic atmosphere over the last several years, it brings me satisfaction to know I took part in achieving a budget deal that will avoid another government shutdown,” Vela said via email.

Vela gave much of the credit for the budget agreement to Democrat Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, who brokered the deal, as well as party leaders that assured no amendments would be considered, resulting in an up-or-down vote that passed with a lot of bipartisan support in both chambers.

On Dec. 12, the House passed the measure 332-94, and the Senate passed it 64-36 on Dec. 18.

Vela said he’s hopeful the momentum from the bipartisan budget agreement could roll into the next session, allowing Congress to achieve similar consensus on the debt ceiling, water legislation and the farm bill.

Already Obama’s Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said that the nation’s borrowing limit must be raised by late February or early March to avoid default.

With Vela sitting on the committee charged with reaching consensus on the farm bill, he said he’s confident Congress can compromise after a year during which Republicans and Democrats differed greatly on what types of cuts should be made to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps.

“My gut feeling is we’re going to get a farm bill,” he said, noting that commodity issues have overtaken partisan issues with SNAP as the largest impediment to passing the bill, which has implications for both farmers and those receiving SNAP benefits.

Vela characterized the disputes as pitting corn and soybean interests in the Midwest against rice and cotton interests in the South.

But concerns over defaulting to the original farm bill — and skyrocketing milk prices — have been eased, Vela said, as the U.S. Agriculture Department has said milk prices will remain stable while Congress sorts out the bill.

And although Vela said in November that he was skeptical of Republicans’ intentions concerning comprehensive immigration reform during 2014 — an election year — he said the budget deal made him “a little bit more optimistic” about making reform a reality.

Still, factions within the Republican party, especially those who identify as tea party lawmakers, remain powerfully against any compromise that comes close to being amnesty, he said.

“There are certain factions in the Republican Party which insist on excessive border securty measures without any interest in making needed changes in our nation’s immigration policies,” he said. “Those factions remain an impediment to immigration reform.”

Spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, suggested that both immigration reform and the farm bill were potential topics that both parties could get behind next year, but said he still wasn’t sure whether the bipartisan agreement on the budget deal was a sign of things to come.

“I don’t know how to read into it in terms of what compromise opportunities lay ahead,” he said. “What I think it does do is clear the deck of some potentially contentious issues and give everyone space to do the normal legislating and governing.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

tjohnson@brownsvilleherald.com

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