Morning Action: Obamacare Website Still Dysfunctional, Despite Promises Otherwise

OBAMACARE.  The Obamacare exchanges are still not ready for consumers, contrary to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’s promise in November that fixes to the website would allow for direct enrollment through private insurers in a matter of days:

Private health insurance exchanges still are not able to directly enroll consumers in subsidized health plans offered through Obamacare even though the government has said problems doing so should have been cleared up weeks ago.

Executives from three online health exchanges that contract with both insurance companies and government agencies to enroll consumers eligible for federal subsidies in marketplace plans say the process still isn’t ready to go and that more work remains.

This despite several promises from government officials that technical fixes have been made to allow for business to be conducted on those sites, which are alternatives to the troubled website and health exchanges sites run by states.

BUDGET.  The Senate is expected to vote to pass the Ryan-Murray budget deal Wednesday, after which appropriators will begin negotiations about how to divide up the billions of dollars of discretionary spending (sub. req’d):

The expected approval of the House-Senate budget agreement will start a new clock running for appropriators to reconcile differences between the chambers on the spending bills they will use to craft an omnibus aimed at funding the government through the last eight months of the 2014 fiscal year.

With the Senate set to vote on the budget deal (H J Res 59) Wednesday and passage expected, appropriators will get the green light to formally begin negotiations over the holiday recess by dividing up some $498.1 billion in domestic discretionary spending, setting what are called 302(b) allocations that provide the blueprint for government operations.

The budget agreement being considered by the Senate would cap federal discretionary spending for fiscal 2014 at $1.012 trillion and temporarily postpone the across-the-board cuts mandated under the 2011 deficit reduction law (PL 112-25), and $520.5 billion of that will go to defense.

FARM BILL.  Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) 5% says that a farm bill won’t come until January (sub. req’d):

Farm bill negotiators continue to work toward a framework for compromise legislation, but they do not plan to officially release the agreement until early January.

“We expect to get it wrapped up so we can get final scores. We have a couple of things we’re negotiating, but we’re close,” Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said Tuesday.

Stabenow, D-Mich., declined to identify areas where there is no agreement yet, as well as areas of agreement reached with the other three conferees. They are the Senate committee’s ranking Republican, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, as well as House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., and his committee’s ranking Democrat, Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota.

Stabenow said she did not plan to meet with her House counterparts Tuesday or Wednesday. The House members had volunteered to return from the House recess this week if necessary.

Details on the deal should be available just before the House and Senate return from their December recess, she said.

ENERGY TAXES.  Senate Finance Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) is expected to release a paper today outlining a series of changes to the nation’s energy taxes.  Politico Pro reports (sub. req’d):

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus is expected to release a paper today outlining a series of options for overhauling the nation’s energy taxes — ideas providing an outline of the sort of federal support renewable energy producers and consumers might anticipate out of Congress’s tax reform efforts. The paper will likely address a suite of renewable energy, alternative fuel and energy efficiency credits — most of which, like the production tax credit enjoyed by wind and other renewables, are slated to expire at the end of this year.

Details are unclear, but the oil industry doesn’t see many more tax incentives that Baucus could target for elimination or reduction in Wednesday’s draft. The Montana Democrat’s earlier discussion draft already targeted just about the full suite of the industry’s prized incentives by cutting back on accelerated depreciation tax breaks taken by all kinds of companies. That includes repealing the “last in, first out” accounting method; a deduction for intangible drilling costs; percentage depletion for oil and gas wells that major integrated oil companies don’t use but which smaller, independent companies do; amortization for geological and geophysical expenditures; and a deduction of the costs for injecting carbon dioxide and other “tertiary injectants” to enhance the recovery of oil and gas in certain older fields. “We’re not anticipating sort of a round two in what he releases tomorrow,” one oil industry official predicted to POLITICO. Indeed, about all that’s left is the use by oil and gas companies of a broader section 199 domestic manufacturing tax credit.

Baucus may end up focusing today’s discussion draft on either helping, modifying or hindering tax incentives for green energy and efficiency. One rumored possibility is that he may propose extending some efficiency incentives, while allowing others to come off the books. “You’ve got to placate multiple sides in this thing,” said Suzanne Watson, policy program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “We may need to help, if you will, in better communicating the value of certain [incentives].”

WIND PTC.  Nine senators have written to Sen. Baucus and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) 33% asking them to wind down the wind production tax credit (PTC):

On Tuesday, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), led a group of eight Republican senators in sending a letter to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), requesting that the committee desert attempts to renew the wind Production Tax Credit (PTC). 

The tax credit, given to wind power owners per kilowatt-hour of electricity that they produce, is set to expire at the end of this year.

“The extension gave the wind industry the multi-year certainty that it had requested, so now it is time to let this technology stand on its own,” the senators wrote in Tuesday’s letter.


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