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HOUSTON CHRONICLE: Texans find some faded clout in the 2015 Congress

This year's session included much for state delegation to brag about

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WASHINGTON, D.C., December 23, 2015 | comments
Texans find some faded clout in the 2015 Congress

This year's session included much for state delegation to brag about


Whether it was the best of times or the worst of times, the 2015 edition of Congress sent much of the Texas delegation home for the holidays feeling satisfied, if not quite merry.

Presidential candidate Ted Cruz accused the ruling GOP leadership of "playing Santa Claus to the lobbyists and K Street" for failing to trim spending, repeal President Barack Obama's health care law, or stopping the Iranian nuclear deal.

But the year's final $1.1 trillion spending bill for 2016 included some significant stocking stuffers for the Lone Star State.

One that will be felt immediately in the energy-centric port city of Houston is the lifting of the 40-year-old ban on oil exports. Another is the permanent extension of the state and local sales tax deduction, worth about $1 billion annually for Texas taxpayers.

But the session of Congress that ended Friday wasn't just about the bacon. It also saw a return of Texas political wallop not seen since the days of GOP Majority Leaders Tom Delay and Dick Armey.

Texans resurgent

Cruz, the state's junior U.S. senator, began the year as a Tea Party insurgent with few friends in Washington. He ended the year with even fewer friends in Washington, but in second place in the GOP presidential primary.

The state's senior U.S. senator, John Cornyn, wielded clout as the No. 2 on a GOP leadership team that boasted a series of legislative achievements, not the least of which was avoiding a much-feared government shutdown.

"Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, you have to enjoy the fact that the Senate has actually gotten back to work," he said.

And going into an election year where Republicans hope to burnish their credentials as tax cutters and fiscal hawks, the new point man heading the all-important tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee is U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of The Woodlands.

After winning that long-sought gavel in November, Brady assumed a leading role in a 10-year, $629 billion package of tax cuts aimed at business investors, as well as low-income workers who depend on enhanced child and earned income tax credits.

Brady, who won the Ways and Means post after Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan left the position to become House Speaker, declared it a major step toward his goal of a simpler and "flatter" tax code that would reduce rates.

"This bill serves as a path forward to pro-growth tax reform by ensuring that we will no longer have to spend months each year debating temporary tax extensions," he said.

Trade, roads and immigrants

Whether 2015 was a year of wisdom or foolishness, depends on the particular Texan in question.

Democrats largely got their way by blocking Republican efforts to gut Obama's health care program, defund Planned Parenthood, and overturn a White House order deferring the deportation of millions of immigrants living in the United States illegally.

A coalition of pro-business Democrats and Republicans also beat back a Tea Party-inspired effort to shutter the U.S. Export-Import Bank, a federal agency that helps American companies sell products overseas.

The bank has helped finance some $30 billion in exports by hundreds of Texas companies, ranging from oil giant Exxon-Mobil to crop dusting plane maker Air Tractor. Despite the state's leading role in international trade, a clutch of small government conservatives led by Dallas Republican Jeb Hensarling had called for the bank's abolition.

After a six-month impasse, a hard-fought deal to extend the bank's charter was finally tucked into a five-year, $305 billion transportation bill passed earlier this month to help maintain the nation's roads, bridges and public transit ways.

That in itself was hailed as a major accomplishment by GOP leaders, being the first long-term highway bill to get through Congress in a decade. But it didn't please everyone. Rather than raise the 18.4 cent-a-gallon federal gas tax to fund transportation - as favored by labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce - congressional Republicans opted instead for an ad hoc financing scheme that dips into Federal Reserve surpluses, airline passenger fees, and sales from the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Oil and climate change

Moving on, many Democrats outside Texas also were unhappy about lifting the crude oil export ban. But they agreed to it grudgingly to lock in other Democratic taxing and spending priorities - including tax subsidies for wind and solar energy.

It was clearly a win for Texas drillers who have fallen on hard times with low oil prices. But the prospect of large-scale U.S. oil exports brings few joyful tidings to Houston refineries that have benefited from a captive market for West Texas Intermediate - the benchmark for America's domestic crude oil.

Houston Democrat Gene Green voted to lift the ban, but insisted language that would allow a halt in case of a national emergency. "I know what's happening in the oil patch," Green said. "But I want some kind of way somebody's looking over their shoulder to make sure we're not someday going to end up exporting our crude oil and then re-importing what we exported in refined products."

While some energy analysts question the practical effect of lifting the ban in the midst of a global oil glut, Republicans hailed it as a signal victory in the year-end negotiations.

"It's like 100 Keystone pipelines," Ryan said Tuesday in a nationally syndicated radio interview. "The irony of this is we lifted the ban on crude oil exports the week after Obama goes to Paris and does this climate change accord. I think the irony is fairly sweet."

But for some conservatives, including seven Texas Republicans who voted against the final 2,000-page spending bill, Republicans gave up too much to end the oil export ban.

"It is not enough to offset the danger to our national security, which far outweighs anything else," said U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, a freshman Republican from Woodville.

Babin had rallied support to block a year-end spending deal - possibly at the cost of a government shutdown - unless it yanked funding from Obama's plan to bring in as many as 10,000 Syrian refuges next year.

Instead, the deal sent to the president's desk will increase funding for the refugee program, though Texas will likely see more of that money than anyone from Syria.

That's because much of $1.6 billion program is slated to beef up resources on the southern border to deal with another growing wave of children and families fleeing from Central America.

South of the border

The spending bill also earmarks $897 million to help Mexico and the "Northern Triangle" countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras combat gang violence and improve security to stem the flow of refugees.

That funding is the result of a bipartisan effort led by a pair of Texans: Laredo Democrat Henry Cuellar and Fort Worth Republican Kay Granger

"We continue to play defense on our goal line when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration," Cuellar said. "I've repeatedly said that to stop illegal immigration here at home, we must provide strategic investment abroad."

Texas also will see a large chunk of an additional $265 million to assist states and localities that incur costs for border security and incarcerating immigrants in the country illegally.

There was disappointment on both sides. But for the majority of the Texas delegation that backed the spending package, there was still much to brag about: increased defense spending; repeal of country-of-origin labeling requirements hated by Texas ranchers; strengthening visa requirements and background checks; new limits on the IRS; funding for police body cameras; even a provision reinforcing Mexico's 1944 treaty obligations to deliver water to South Texas.

"This bill has a lot to dislike and a lot to like," said Bryan Republican Bill Flores, chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee. "Unfortunately, this represents what happens in Washington when government is divided."

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