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After Weeks of Delay, Senate Small Biz Jobs Bill in Jeopardy

April 20, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate began debating legislation to reauthorize and extend the the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technical Transfer (STTR), two of the federal government’s largest research and development programs, on March 10. More than a month later, the Senate is still not finished with the bill. That’s slow even by Senate standards, especially considering that we’re in the middle of a jobs crisis and it’s about as close to a “jobs bill” as we’ve seen recently.

So what’s the problem?

Well, for one thing, the “gentleman’s agreement” between Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell [R, KY] has backfired on Reid. It made it possible for senators to load the bill up with hundreds of amendments, some germane, most not, and force votes on them. So far, the Senate has spent weeks debating and voting on amendments to eliminate unemployment insurance for billionaires, suspend EPA regulations of greenhouse gases, and consolidate duplicative government programs. None of this has anything to do with the R&D programs the bill is supposed to be about., but Reid agreed to allow any senator to file any amendment as part of the gentleman’s agreement in exchange for the Republicans not filibustering everything, so this is what has happened. And by the way, the Republicans filibustered this bill anyways, forcing a few days of delay and a cloture vote on beginning debate of the bill even though the cloture motion ended up being approved an overwhelming 84-12.

There’s also a legitimate policy issue that has popped up and is now threatening to make the whole amendment/cloture slog for naught. Sen. Olympia Snowe [R, ME] has submitted her Small Business Regulatory Freedom Act as an amendment and is trying to force a vote on it. It’s likely that Republicans and conservative Democrats could round up the 60 votes to pass it if it comes to a vote. The problem is that Reid is vehemently opposed to it and is threatening to pull the whole underlying bill from the floor if it is added. Politico reports:

Snowe, the ranking member of the Small Business Committee, said she had an agreement with the majority leader to have an equal number of amendments from each party included in the consideration of the legislation. When Reid came to the floor Thursday night to close out the business of this work period, he offered six Democratic amendments and four Republican ones.

Snowe objected, insisting that the Senate consider her amendment to require reviews of effects of new regulatory reform laws on small businesses.

Reid was having none of it.

“I’m terribly disappointed that the senator from Maine, a former chairman of this committee, recognizing the importance of this legislation, is going to cause this legislation to fail,” Reid said, noting that the Senate might not have time to revisit the bill that has been on the floor for four weeks.

“If that is what my friend wants on her legislative conscience, that’s fine.” Reid added. “Someone who understands this legislation as well as she does, it’s wrong to stand in the way of completing it.”

Snowe’s legislation would create new barriers for federal regulators by forcing them to conduct detailed and complex cost-benefit analyses of their proposed rules’ direct and indirect impact on small businesses. It would also set up a judicial review process for small businesses to challenge regulations and require agencies to periodically review existing rules and sunset any that do not pass a strict examination.

The regulatory policy experts at OMB Watch don’t think Snowe’s legislation is actually about helping small businesses:

While she is couching it as a bill to ease requirements on small businesses, the bill’s actual intent is to saddle agencies with so much extra analytical baggage that they can no longer set public health and welfare standards in a timely way. It would benefit big businesses more than small, particularly the dangerous minority of businesses always looking for new ways to skirt pollution standards, workplace safety standards, consumer protection laws, and a host of other protections.

Reid hasn’t outlined his objections to Snowe’s amendment, but it’s probably along the lines of what OMB Watch is saying. The debate will be continued on May 3 when the Senate comes back from recess. If Snowe objects to the Reid motion, it looks like the whole bill will be dead.

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