Congress Enters Fourth of July Homestretch

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WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) speaks to members of the press as he is on his way for a vote January 6, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Janet Yellen was confirmed by the Senate with a vote of 56 - 26 to become the first woman to head the Federal Reserve Board.
National Journal
Billy House
June 22, 2014, 9:50 a.m.

Law­makers head to­ward their In­de­pend­ence Day re­cess at week’s end still in search of a solu­tion to a loom­ing high­way fund­ing crisis, deal­ing with grow­ing ten­sion over gov­ern­ment spend­ing bills due on Oct. 1 and de­bate over how this na­tion should ad­dress de­vel­op­ments in Ir­aq.

House and Sen­ate con­fer­ees will also be work­ing this week on le­gis­la­tion to re­duce vet­er­ans’ wait times for health care and stop a rash of pre­vent­able vet­er­ans’ deaths — fa­cing pres­sure to ham­mer out com­prom­ise le­gis­la­tion and get a bill to the pres­id­ent’s desk.

The chair­men of the two Vet­er­ans Af­fairs’ com­mit­tees, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Jeff Miller and in­de­pend­ent Sen. Bernie Sanders, met Thursday and con­fer­ence com­mit­tee staff were sched­uled to meet Fri­day, but the con­fer­ees them­selves are not due to meet for the first time un­til Tues­day.

Mean­while, even though the cal­en­dar is flip­ping closer to the Oct. 1 start of the new fisc­al year, the Sen­ate is likely to spend the week on nom­in­a­tions and pos­sibly a bi­par­tis­an labor bill that cleared the Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee, as well as a bi­par­tis­an sports­men’s bill.

This, after a three-in-one gov­ern­ment ap­pro­pri­ations bill for fisc­al 2015 — cobbled to­geth­er by Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Mikul­ski and rank­ing mem­ber Richard Shelby — hit a brick wall last week.

That was the first ef­fort in the Sen­ate at bring­ing spend­ing bills to the floor. But that pack­age was un­able to sur­vive the meat grinder that the amend­ments pro­cess on the floor has be­come, cast­ing fur­ther in doubt the ul­ti­mate path of the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess this year.

The House has passed five of its ver­sions of the 12 an­nu­al spend­ing meas­ures. But this week, Re­pub­lic­ans who con­trol the House will fo­cus floor ac­tion on a hand­ful of red-meat en­ergy-re­lated pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing one meas­ure to ex­pand off­shore drilling and speed up de­vel­op­ment of drilling in Alaska.

A floor vote also is planned on reau­thor­iz­a­tion of the Com­mod­it­ies Fu­tures Trad­ing Com­mis­sion. But con­tro­versy is afoot, be­cause Re­pub­lic­ans say their meas­ure does not just reau­thor­ize the com­mis­sion, but brings re­lief from what they com­plain have been its overly bur­den­some rules.

Law­makers also are con­tinu­ing to mon­it­or and de­bate how Pres­id­ent Obama should handle the situ­ation in Ir­aq. And U.S. policy on Ir­aq could come up Wed­nes­day, when the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee delves in­to the Afgh­anistan trans­ition, which no poli­cy­maker wants to see be­come an­oth­er Ir­aq.

Here’s what else law­makers are to take up this week:

  • The lost e-mails sent or re­ceived by Lois Lern­er, the former In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice of­fi­cial at the cen­ter of con­flict over the agency’s treat­ment of con­ser­vat­ive groups, is to be the fo­cus of a night hear­ing of the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee. IRS Com­mis­sion­er John Koskin­en is to testi­fy. The com­mit­tee also has in­vited an of­fi­cial from the Of­fice of the White House Coun­sel to testi­fy dur­ing a second part of the hear­ing.
  • The Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day will mark up the nom­in­a­tion of Shaun Donovan to head the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget.
  • Sen­at­ors on Tues­day will vote on clo­ture on the nom­in­a­tion of Le­on Rodrig­uez to be dir­ect­or of Cit­izen­ship and Im­mig­ra­tion Ser­vices.
  • A bill to bar so-called secret sci­ence is to be taken up Tues­day by the House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee. The bill re­quires the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency to pub­li­cize its data and stud­ies.
  • Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus Chair Mar­cia Fudge, D-Ohio, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., will join House and Sen­ate lead­ers in a ce­re­mony Tues­day in the Cap­it­ol ro­tunda to mark the 50th an­niversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dur­ing the ce­re­mony, the lead­ers will also present a Con­gres­sion­al Gold Medal in hon­or of the Rev. Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. and his wife.
  • The Sen­ate on Monday will vote on Paul Byron to be dis­trict judge for the Middle Dis­trict of Flor­ida; Carlo Men­d­oza to be dis­trict judge for the Middle Dis­trict of Flor­ida; Beth Bloom to be dis­trict judge for the South­ern Dis­trict of Flor­ida; and Geof­frey Craw­ford to be dis­trict judge for the Dis­trict of Ver­mont. If clo­ture is in­voked on any of those nom­in­a­tions, the Sen­ate will vote on their con­firm­a­tion on Tues­day.
  • The Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee on Tues­day is to mark up a child-ab­duc­tion bill along with the nom­in­a­tions of sev­er­al key am­bas­sad­or­ships, in­clud­ing Egypt and Qatar.
  • The Sen­ate may also con­sider a sports­men’s bill from Sen. Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina, which has the back­ing of a num­ber of Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The bill con­tains a num­ber of pro­vi­sions, in­clud­ing al­low­ing for elec­tron­ic is­su­ance of fed­er­al duck stamps and re­im­port­a­tion of leg­ally hunted po­lar bears.
  • The Work­force In­vest­ment Act, an au­thor­iz­a­tion that ex­pired in 2003, could also make it to the Sen­ate floor this week. The bill, sponsored by Demo­crat­ic Sens. Patty Mur­ray and Tom Har­kin and Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Johnny Isak­son and Lamar Al­ex­an­der, up­dates le­gis­la­tion that provides vo­ca­tion­al train­ing. The bill in­cludes a meas­ure that gives states and loc­al work­force agen­cies more con­trol over their pro­grams.

Mean­while, both the House Ways and Means and Sen­ate Fin­ance com­mit­tees are work­ing to find a way to re­plen­ish the high­way fund for at least an­oth­er 9 to 12 months. But no solu­tion is likely to be reached un­til Con­gress re­turns to Wash­ing­ton the second week of Ju­ly.

The fund is ex­pec­ted to go broke at the end of Septem­ber, which threatens to dis­rupt hun­dreds of high­way-con­struc­tion pro­jects across the United States. Law­makers will have to find at least $12 bil­lion to keep the fund solvent. But ac­tion on that — and de­cisions on oth­er bills fa­cing loom­ing dead­lines, are stack­ing up. And time is run­ning out this mid-term elec­tion year.

After re­turn­ing to Wash­ing­ton in the second week of Ju­ly, law­makers will have just 28 sched­uled le­gis­lat­ive days left be­fore the Nov. 4 elec­tions. They plan to take the en­tire month of Au­gust off, half of Septem­ber, and all but two days of Oc­to­ber.

BUDGET AND FIN­ANCE

Spend­ing Count­down

On Tues­day, the Sen­ate’s Home­land Se­cur­ity and Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Ap­pro­pri­ations sub­com­mit­tees will mark up their spend­ing bills.

But hoped-for pro­gress last week on spend­ing bills — ac­tion on the Sen­ate’s three-in-one “mini-bus” of ap­pro­pri­ations meas­ures — seemed to fall apart late last week. An Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee spokes­man for the com­mit­tee said it’s pre­ma­ture to clas­si­fy work on the bills as dead.

Still, Sen. John Booz­man of Arkan­sas, a Re­pub­lic­an on the com­mit­tee, is the latest to say he thinks Con­gress will in­ev­it­ably have to pass a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to keep at least some areas of gov­ern­ment fun­ded at cur­rent levels in­to the new fisc­al year that be­gins Oct. 1.

The cause for the pess­im­ism soun­ded fa­mil­i­ar. Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell clashed over how to move for­ward with amend­ments on the bill, which in­cluded fund­ing meas­ures for the de­part­ments of Com­merce, Justice, Ag­ri­cul­ture, Trans­port­a­tion, and Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment, total­ing about $126 bil­lion.

That dis­agree­ment spilled out in the open late last week and centered on wheth­er each of the amend­ments would be sub­ject to a 51- or 60-vote threshold. In the past, Mc­Con­nell had in­sisted that amend­ments face a 60-vote threshold, but this time he sought a 51-vote lim­it. The lower lim­it means sen­at­ors could more eas­ily add con­tro­ver­sial meas­ures to the spend­ing bills un­der con­sid­er­a­tion, in turn mak­ing it like­li­er for GOP amend­ments to be ad­ded.

In what is now a fa­mil­i­ar sight in the Sen­ate, the ar­gu­ment de­volved in­to each side blam­ing the oth­er.

The clash over the amend­ments also comes des­pite a budget agree­ment hammered out late last year that covered fisc­al 2014 and ‘15. While the Sen­ate voted to agree on those top-line spend­ing fig­ures, mov­ing ap­pro­pri­ations on the floor has proven too much to ask for law­makers.

Ef­forts in the Sen­ate at put­ting an un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance bill on the floor also are ex­pec­ted to con­tin­ue.

EN­ERGY AND EN­VIR­ON­MENT

Spot­light on Drilling

The House Rules Com­mit­tee on Tues­day has sched­uled a hear­ing to set pro­ced­ures for a floor vote later in the week on the “Lower­ing Gas­ol­ine Prices to Fuel an Amer­ica That Works” Act.

That GOP meas­ure would ex­pand off­shore drilling, re­form the leas­ing pro­cess for on­shore oil and gas pro­jects, and speed up de­vel­op­ment of drilling in Alaska. Also on tap are bills to stream­line the per­mit­ting pro­cess for cross-bor­der pipelines, to ex­ped­ite ex­ports of li­que­fied nat­ur­al gas, and on en­ergy ef­fi­ciency.

Con­ser­vat­ive at­tacks on en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions will con­tin­ue as well.

That in­cludes the Tues­day markup by the House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee on a bill that would bar EPA from us­ing “secret sci­ence” by re­quir­ing the agency to pub­li­cize its data and stud­ies. Re­pub­lic­an com­mit­tee mem­bers, in­clud­ing com­mit­tee Chair­man Lamar Smith, have long cri­ti­cized the ad­min­is­tra­tion for basing reg­u­la­tions on sci­ence that can­not be rep­lic­ated, but EPA of­fi­cials have said that some re­search and health stud­ies are not able to be re­leased be­cause they con­tain con­fid­en­tial in­form­a­tion or are not EPA’s prop­erty.

Also on Tues­day, the House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Wa­ter and Power Sub­com­mit­tee plans to drill down on EPA reg­u­la­tions aimed at cla­ri­fy­ing the agency’s jur­is­dic­tion over streams and wa­ter­ways. En­vir­on­ment­al­ists have de­fen­ded the reg­u­la­tions as ne­ces­sary to pro­tect nat­ur­al re­sources, while Re­pub­lic­ans on Cap­it­ol Hill have largely painted the rule as a fed­er­al over­reach with the po­ten­tial to do eco­nom­ic harm.

On the oth­er side of the Cap­it­ol, the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Wa­ter and Power Sub­com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day takes up le­gis­la­tion that would in­crease co­ordin­a­tion between the En­ergy and In­teri­or de­part­ments on en­ergy and wa­ter-pro­duc­tion pro­jects.

HEALTH CARE

Abor­tion-Fund­ing Battles

Abor­tion battles could spill out of the markups of two spend­ing bills be­fore the House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee this week. On Tues­day, the full com­mit­tee is to mark up the fisc­al State and For­eign Op­er­a­tions Ap­pro­pri­ations Bill, which main­tains the ban on emer­gency abor­tion fund­ing for Peace Corps vo­lun­teers and re­stric­tions on for­eign aid for fam­ily-plan­ning groups.

The Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee already voted 19 to 11 to pass amend­ments that lift these re­stric­tions, to be in­cluded in the 2015 State De­part­ment spend­ing bill. The battle over these abor­tion-fund­ing pro­vi­sions is a fa­mil­i­ar one in the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess.

On Wed­nes­day, House Ap­pro­pri­ations will hold a full com­mit­tee markup of the fisc­al 2015 Fin­an­cial Ser­vices and Gen­er­al Gov­ern­ment Ap­pro­pri­ations Bill. The le­gis­la­tion main­tains a pro­hib­i­tion on fed­er­al and loc­al funds from be­ing used for abor­tion, as well as pro­hib­i­tions on fed­er­al funds from be­ing used for med­ic­al marijuana and needle-ex­change pro­grams in the Dis­trict. While the ban on fed­er­al funds for abor­tions ex­tends across the coun­try, oth­er states can de­cide to use their own loc­al dol­lars to fund abor­tions through state Medi­caid pro­grams.

Also Wed­nes­day, the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing titled “Vet­er­an Be­ne­fits Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Vet­er­ans Health Ad­min­is­tra­tion In­ter­ac­tions: Or­der­ing and Con­duct­ing Med­ic­al Ex­am­in­a­tions.”

The hear­ing comes as both cham­bers are work­ing to re­con­cile their re­spect­ive bills to ad­dress delays in care at VA health fa­cil­it­ies. The House and Sen­ate eas­ily passed sim­il­ar bills that would al­low vet­er­ans to seek VA-paid care from loc­al pro­viders if they faced long waits with­in the VA sys­tem, and would give the next VA sec­ret­ary more au­thor­ity to fire VA lead­ers for poor per­form­ance.

Both cham­bers an­nounce con­fer­ence mem­bers last week, to reach com­prom­ise le­gis­la­tion to send to the pres­id­ent.

The House En­ergy and Com­merce Sub­com­mit­tee on Over­sight and In­vest­ig­a­tions will also hold a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on elim­in­at­ing fraud, ab­use, and er­rors in the Medi­care pro­gram. Wit­nesses have not yet been an­nounced.

NA­TION­AL SE­CUR­ITY

Pro­tect­ing Vet­er­ans

House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs also holds a Monday hear­ing on the ca­pa­city of the VA health care sys­tem to care for vet­er­an pa­tients, and an­oth­er one Wed­nes­day on how dif­fer­ent parts of the agency or­der and con­duct med­ic­al ex­am­in­a­tions.

On Wed­nes­day, the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee plans to hold a closed sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing on nuc­le­ar de­terrence policy. Mean­while, the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee plans to look at the fu­ture of U.S. China policy.

TECH­NO­LOGY

Su­preme De­cision

The tech com­munity is eagerly wait­ing for the Su­preme Court’s de­cisions in Amer­ic­an Broad­cast­ing Com­pan­ies v. Aereo and two de­cisions on war­rant­less cell-phone searches.

Con­gress will scru­tin­ize the pro­posed AT&T-Dir­ecTV mer­ger dur­ing back-to-back hear­ings in the House Ju­di­ciary Sub­com­mit­tee on Reg­u­lat­ory Re­form, Com­mer­cial and An­ti­trust Law and the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Sub­com­mit­tee on An­ti­trust, Com­pet­i­tion Policy, and Con­sumer Rights. AT&T Pres­id­ent and CEO Ran­dall Steph­en­son and Dir­ecTV Pres­id­ent and CEO Mi­chael White will testi­fy at both hear­ings.

The House Ju­di­ciary Courts, IP, and the In­ter­net Sub­com­mit­tee will hold its second hear­ing on up­dat­ing mu­sic-li­cens­ing laws on Wed­nes­day. Ex­ec­ut­ives for Pan­dora and Siri­usXM will face off with the heads of AS­CAP and the Re­cord­ing In­dustry As­so­ci­ation of Amer­ica.

WHITE HOUSE

Help­ing Work­ing Fam­il­ies

On Monday, Obama and Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden are to par­ti­cip­ate in a Sum­mit on Work­ing Fam­il­ies at the Omni Hotel, with a fo­cus on “cre­at­ing a 21st cen­tury work­place that works for all Amer­ic­ans.”

On Tues­day, the pres­id­ent is to meet with Amer­ic­an mem­bers of the Pres­id­ent’s Cup golf team.

Obama is to have lunch Wed­nes­day with Is­raeli Pres­id­ent Shi­mon Peres and hon­or Sprint Cup racer Jim­mie John­son. On Thursday, he hits the road, trav­el­ling to Min­neapol­is for two days of events and a Demo­crat­ic fun­draiser on Thursday night. The pres­id­ent re­turns to the White House on Fri­day. 

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