Monday June 03, 2013 | 10:56 AM

WASHINGTON – Congress is back in session this week, fresh off lawmakers’ Memorial Day recess. Here’s a quick run-down of a few items on Capitol Hill that might be of interest to Mainers or that involve folks from the Pine Tree State:

New ships for BIW

Workers at Bath Iron Works are expected to get some good news this week when the Navy announces multi-year contracts for up to 10 new destroyers. Exactly how good that news will be, however, depends on how many ships are awarded to BIW and how many go to the rival shipyard in Mississippi.

BIW, which is one of Maine’s largest private employers, already has several contracts to build DDG-51 destroyers, each of which typically costs in excess of $1 billion. The contracts for 10 additional destroyers – expected to be announced by Tuesday – would run through Fiscal Year 2017.

The multi-year contracts will likely be divided between BIW, which is owned by General Dynamics, and Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss. BIW has built 36 of the 66 DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers purchased by the Navy since 1985 while Ingalls has built 30, according to statistics from the Congressional Research Service.

Of course, the new destroyers will also be welcome news to all of the contractors in Maine and elsewhere in New England who work with BIW. Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King said last month that the Navy planned to announce the new contracts by June 4.

Sex assault vote and hearing

Tuesday will be a big day for those working to improve the military’s track record when it comes to sexual assaults.

The House is expected to vote that day on a bill sponsored by Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, that would relax the evidentiary requirements for veterans to qualify for disability benefits for mental health problems related to a sexual assault. If the bill passes – and it is expected to – it would be a significant policy victory for sexual assault survivors and advocacy groups that say the Department of Veteran’s Affairs current policies make it difficult for many veterans to qualify for benefits.

The House was supposed to vote several weeks ago on the bill, which Pingree named after Maine resident and sexual assault survivor Ruth Moore. But the vote was postponed. Pingree’s office said it has now been rescheduled for Tuesday.

Much of the media attention on Tuesday will likely be focused on the Senate Armed Services Committee, however, where top brass from every branch of the military will answer questions on their plans to address the serious issue of sexual assaults within the ranks. All told, 20 witnesses have been called to testify before the committee.

The hearing comes amid unprecedented, sustained focus in Washington on military sexual assaults following numerous high-profile cases and a Pentagon report estimating that the number of service members who had been the victims of unwanted sexual contact had increased sharply in two years.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is considering a host of bills on the issue. Maine Sen. Angus King as well as New Hampshire Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen serve on Armed Services. Maine Sen. Susan Collins has been heavily involved in the development of several of the bills under consideration.

Farm bill vote

The Senate is expected to vote this week on a new five-year farm bill that encompasses everything from crop insurance policies to funding for food stamp programs. Following are a few aspects of the farm bill important to Maine:

  • Programs aimed at helping farmer’s markets, including helping markets acquire electronic readers to process food stamp payment cards.
  • Proposed $4.1 billion in cuts to the food stamps program, formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Roughly 19 percent of Maine’s population received food stamp benefits in 2012. The pending House farm bill, meanwhile, would cut $20.5 billion from the food stamp program.
  • Changes to the support system for dairy farms that would offer farmers voluntary “margin insurance” to help cover losses when costs exceed payments for milk. In return, however, participating farmers would have to agree to reduce production or sales in times when there is a glut of milk on the market. Although not a major milk-producing state, Maine has about 300 dairy farms responsible for about a half-billion dollars in annual economic activity and that preserve open space, especially in the more populous southern region.

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About the Author

Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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