- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - Key lawmakers weighed legislation to permit a reduction of benefits for up to 1 million retirees at economically distressed multiemployer pension plans, officials said late Monday as Congress labored over a $1.1 trillion measure to keep the government operating past midnight Thursday.

The officials said the goal of the secretive pension talks was to preserve benefits as much as possible and avert bankruptcies at troubled plans that could in turn endanger the stability of the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

Few details of the proposed changes under discussion were available. Republicans and Democrats on the House Education and Workforce Committee issued a statement that said lawmakers “are still discussing the details about a possible legislative solution to the multiemployer pension crisis and remain hopeful Congress will act before the end of the year.”

Proposed changes have the support of many of the multiemployer pension plans in financial difficulty, but has drawn opposition from other, healthier entities.

The officials who provided further information did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to pre-empt a formal announcement. The PBGC website says multiemployer plans result from collective bargaining between a labor union and more than one company.

The issue was among numerous items affecting the final shape of the spending measure, one of a handful of must-pass items clogging the agenda for lawmakers eager to adjourn for the new year.

Others were bills to extend dozens of expiring tax breaks, authorize President Barack Obama’s policy of arming Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State forces and a Democratic drive to confirm as many administration nominees as possible before the Republicans take control of the Senate in January.

Legislation to continue preventing state or local governments from imposing a tax on Internet access also seems likely to make it to Obama’s desk.

There was relatively little controversy over spending levels themselves in what was shaping up as a classic year-end measure that rolled numerous unrelated issues into a single package. The $1.1 trillion in total spending adhered to spending caps approved in previous negotiations between Obama and House Republicans. It included more than $5 billion of the $6.2 billion the president requested to fight Ebola at home and overseas.

The money would be available to keep the government running through the Sept. 30, 2015, end of the fiscal year, except for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees border security programs. Even failure to complete work before Thursday at midnight would not lead to a government shutdown, since lawmakers were prepared to pass a stopgap bill for a day or two to make sure there was no interruption in federal services.

Unlike the rest of the government, enough funds were made available for the Homeland Security Department only until late winter. Republicans hope that will allow them to use their new leverage to force Obama to roll back his decision suspending the threat of deportation for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

Even before then, some conservatives sought to use the year-end funding measure to try and force a presidential retreat. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., complained the legislation “will allow the president to move money around to fund his executive amnesty program.” He said he hoped Congress would prevent it.

Business-friendly Republicans were largely united behind efforts to roll back government regulations affecting the trucking industry, financial sector, federally-funded school lunch program and more in what shaped up as something of a dress rehearsal for next year, when the GOP controls both houses of Congress.

Democratic officials said they had rejected several proposals to ease environmental regulations, and the fate of other attempts was unclear.

Among them was an attempt to ease a regulation by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association requiring truckers to take a 34-hour rest break at least once every seven days and that it span two periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. In a blog post, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the regulation had been upheld in court, and said efforts to overturn it “will put lives at risk.”

Supporters of a change in the new rule included Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as well as numerous lawmakers in both parties, and outside groups warned that the 2011 rule would result in more trucks in traffic when commuters and morning school buses were on the road.

Officials said Republicans also sought a suspension of new school lunch program requirements supported by first lady Michelle Obama that require more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while limiting sodium, sugar and fat. Some school nutrition directors have lobbied for a break, saying the rules have proven to be costly and restrictive.

Also on the table was an attempt to ease some of the requirements in legislation that regulated the financial industry in the wake of the economy’s near collapse. Republicans sought to include them as part of a bargain with Democrats seeking a renewal of legislation that requires the federal government to assume some of the insurance risk in losses arising from terrorism. Without a renewal, the terrorism reinsurance program will lapse at year’s end.


Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Joan Lowy contributed to this report.

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