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Md. groups closely watching new Congress, political landscape

As Congress opens its session on Tuesday, several Maryland interests — including chicken farmers, environmentalists and federal employees — will be watching for signs of how the new political landscape on Capitol Hill will affect issues they say are critical to the state's economy.

With Republicans in control of both the House and Senate for the first time in nearly a decade, Washington is bracing for more battles over health care, immigration and government spending. But there are indications that agreements might be possible on overhauling the nation's tax code, funding for infrastructure and finalizing trade agreements with Asia and Europe.

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All of those issues could have implications for Maryland.

Meat and poultry groups, including those that represent the Eastern Shore's poultry industry, are hoping trade agreements include stronger enforcement mechanisms to limit overseas markets from blocking imports. Federal employee unions want lawmakers to increase — or at least not cut —compensation for their members. Environmentalists worry about the potential rollback of regulations and funding.

"As was shown in the 1990s, there are areas like trade, tax reform, and support for biomedical research that Republicans and Democrats can jointly support," said Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, referring to deals between Democratic President Bill Clinton and the GOP-led Congress at the time.

But Harris said President Barack Obama has jeopardized the possibility of finding common ground with what he called his "unconstitutional executive overreaching" on immigration and other issues.

Obama and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell have signaled a willingness to work together on trade, including deals pending with Asia and Europe. Free trade agreements are often more popular among Republicans than Democrats, who worry they lead to a loss of U.S. jobs.

"Global trade is extremely important to the future of manufacturing," said Michael Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute, a nonprofit association that represents Maryland manufacturers. "Manufacturing in Maryland benefits greatly by doors of opportunity that get opened for us to sell our products overseas."

Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said the group would like to see a trade agreement pending with Pacific Rim countries to loosen Canada's restrictions on poultry imports, for instance. And the group has long raised concerns about safety standards it believes other countries sometimes impose as a form or protectionism.

Other groups are waiting to see if previous GOP proposals will remain priorities now that the party is in control of Congress.

Federal employee unions, which have been on defense for several years, are concerned about compensation for their members. Leaders of two unions said Monday they will seek more substantial pay increases than the 1 percent raise most workers are scheduled to begin receiving this month.

Maryland is home to some 300,000 federal workers, one of the highest concentrations in the nation. In an effort to cut spending and reduce budget deficits, Washington froze pay for most of those workers for three years and increased the contributions newly hired employees make to retirement plans.

"Federal employees are losing buying power," said William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. "That's important for the federal employees themselves but it's also important for the local economies where these people live and work and shop."

Dougan said the unions are in a "wait and see" position as they assess whether Republicans revive previous proposals to limit compensation.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, acknowledged that "federal employees have had a difficult few years" and said her union expects 2015 to "present continuing challenges." But she said her group and others would work with the new Congress to find areas of possible agreement.

"We will continue to push for strengthening the federal workforce and ensuring agencies have the resources they need to accomplish their missions," Kelley said in a statement.

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Republicans have also indicated they are considering a rollback of Environmental Protection Agency regulations, including a rule to extend federal oversight of intermittent or seasonal streams — some of which flow into the Chesapeake.

That has given pause to environmentalists but has been applauded by agriculture groups.

"We are apprehensive about the new Congress," said Tom Zolper, a spokesman with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"The federal government has agreed to be a partner with state and local governments to clean up the Chesapeake Bay," he said. "We have a blueprint to do the job. But we need continued federal help, especially funding for critical programs to upgrade sewage plants, to reduce pollution from farms and other efforts."

Republicans will have 54 members in the Senate this year. There are 44 Democrats and two independents who caucus with them.

While McConnell has indicated potential areas of agreement with the White House, Republicans also hope to move quickly on priorities intended to draw a distinction with the Obama administration. The House and Senate both are set to take up legislation this week to expedite approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Among the issues Congress is due to address this year is transportation funding. A short-term fix to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent runs out at the end of the May. Lawmakers have wrestled for years with the question of how to deal with the fund's shortfall without raising the gasoline tax, its primary source of funding.

The outcome of that debate will be important not only for Maryland's highways, but also for its newest member of Congress. Rep. John Delaney, a Montgomery County Democrat, has proposed funding transportation and other infrastructure projects through new taxing mechanisms on overseas holdings.

The idea has been endorsed by members of both parties.

"Rebuilding America should be at the top of our economic agenda this Congress," Delaney said in a statement. "I believe we're very close to a bipartisan deal … because our inadequate infrastructure and uncompetitive tax code are dragging down economic growth and both parties understand that."

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