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New Mexico delegation’s goals in 2016 Congress

a00_delegationSomething unusual happened on Capitol Hill in 2015: The U.S. Congress actually started to do its job.

Of course, Democrats and Republicans still found plenty to dither about, from abortion to immigration to gun control. But there were no government shutdowns or imminent threats of fiscal cliffs, and important legislation started to move.

In November, the House and Senate agreed on a five-year transportation bill that President Barack Obama signed into law. In December, Congress overwhelmingly approved a major rewrite of the widely disliked No Child Left Behind education bill, which Obama also signed. The two chambers followed up with a $1 trillion governmentwide spending bill broadly supported by Republicans and Democrats. Congress then sent Obama tax relief legislation that included wish-list items for both parties.

The second session of the 114th Congress begins Monday, so I asked all five members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation about their legislative priorities under this new – if still shaky – banner of bipartisanship. It’s a presidential election year, so productive policy debates are sure to take a back seat to political posturing by summer. But here’s some of what our delegation hopes to accomplish this year:

  • Democratic Sen. Tom Udall wields the most important committee assignment, with his powerful perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Udall’s office tells me he’s aiming to bring home as much bacon as possible for New Mexico’s national laboratories, military bases and communities. The senator is also looking forward to House-Senate negotiations on his chemical safety reform bill, which cleared the Senate last month and would dramatically update a 40-year-old law. Those negotiations are likely to begin this month. Udall says he’ll also keep pushing legislation that would force Sandia and Los Alamos national labs to work harder at spinning technology into the private marketplace to create jobs.
  • Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has pushed the scandalized Department of Veterans Affairs hard for reforms, said she’ll keep up the pressure. The New Mexico Democrat is asking Congress to establish an independent ombudsman who can evaluate complaints about bad VA care. Lujan Grisham also wants her colleagues to pass legislation establishing a national service organization whose participants would help seniors and the disabled remain at home and living independently. Another 2016 priority of the Albuquerque lawmaker’s: requiring more local business contracts in the Sandia National Laboratories management agreement, which expires in April 2017.
  • Rep. Steve Pearce, the delegation’s only Republican, will soon introduce a bill calling for an independent investigation of the Gold King Mine spill, which polluted the Animas and San Juan rivers last summer. Pearce also wants to continue the Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Pearce also plans to push legislation that would remove the restrictive “wilderness” designation on federal land study areas to spur economic development.
  • Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, plans to focus on his Energy and Natural Resources Committee assignment in 2016. He’s backing legislation to treat the nation’s largest fires – roughly 1 percent of annual fires – as natural disasters, and fund firefighting efforts from a disaster account similar to the one that pays for hurricane and other natural disaster relief efforts. Heinrich is also excited to see his Sportsmen’s Act, which cleared the committee last fall and would open more public lands to recreation, debated on the Senate floor this year. Heinrich’s office tells me he’ll also push for expanded hours at the Santa Teresa Port of Entry as part of a strategy to boost economic development opportunities with Mexico.
  • Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will probably be the busiest member of the delegation as he barnstorms the country trying to help win back House seats from Republicans, while still trying to keep an eye on New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District. As a co-chairman of the bipartisan Tech Transfer Caucus on Capitol Hill, Luján is pushing legislation to make it easier for private companies to access cutting-edge technologies generated by the national laboratories. He’s also pushing a bill to expand compensation for those exposed to radiation while working in uranium mines or living downwind from atomic weapons tests. In addition, the northern New Mexico congressman plans to introduce a bill that would give acequias and land grants in New Mexico access to some federal lands for traditional practices.

If you support some of these priorities, let your representatives know. And if you don’t – or if you have some good ideas of your own – let them know that, as well. After all, they work for you.

UpFront is a daily front page news and opinion column. To reach Journal reporter Michael Coleman at his Washington, D.C., office, email him at mcoleman@abqjournal.com.

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