The House and Senate enter this week under pressure to hash out differences in their veterans' health care bills, even as lawmakers eye events in Iraq and House Republicans plan to pick a new majority leader in the wake of Eric Cantor's primary election defeat.
The efforts to forge a two-chamber deal on a Veterans Affairs Department reform bill and get it to President Obama for his signing will also come amid demands for progress on 12 spending measures due before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. It could all prove a tough juggling act, particularly for House Republicans distracted by internal upheaval.
But both chambers are intent on stopping the rash of reported—and preventable—veteran deaths. The Senate and House bills would similarly reduce wait times and hold the VA more accountable by expanding health care access beyond the VA medical centers and by making it easier to fire incompetent senior leaders.
There are differences to overcome, however, including a provision in the Senate bill that provides whatever emergency funding is necessary to carry out the reforms—without offsetting the spending under pay-as-you-go budget rules.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, has said it will be hard for him to sell that open-funding measure to his caucus.
Meanwhile, the House GOP leadership races for the No. 2 and possibly No. 3 posts under Speaker John Boehner will consume attention, with a "candidate forum" set on Wednesday morning at the Capitol for contenders. In that closed-door meeting, they will state their cases to fellow House Republicans. The voting by the 233 GOP House members will also occur behind closed doors on Thursday.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California appeared on track to rise from majority whip—the No. 3 leadership job—to succeed Cantor as majority leader. However, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho announced Friday he would be challenging McCarthy. Meanwhile, a three-way race to succeed McCarthy as whip—assuming he wins Cantor's post—was underway late last week between Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Peter Roskam of Illinois (the current chief deputy whip), and Marlin Stutzman of Indiana.
Here's some of what else Congress will be doing this week:
—General Motors CEO Mary Barra, and Anton Valukas, head of the company's internal ignition switch recall investigation, is to appear before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
—The Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl prisoner-exchange controversy remains in the spotlight, with the House Foreign Affairs Committee set to hold a joint subcommittee hearing Wednesday on its implications for national security and the fight against terrorism.
—On Wednesday, against the unfolding events in Iraq, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is to hold a hearing on the government's troop-transition policy in Afghanistan, including testimony from James Dobbins, the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whether the House or Senate intends to advance any resolution or other action this week pertaining specifically to Iraq was not certain.
—Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, Texas, is to go before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday for his confirmation hearing to become the Housing and Urban Development secretary.
—Spending bills for the upcoming fiscal year will make their Senate floor debut with votes as early as Tuesday. Majority Leader Harry Reid and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski have agreed on a package that combines three measures into one, known as a minibus—a miniature omnibus. The spending package is expected to include funding for Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, HUD, and Transportation.
—The House Rules Committee is to meet on Tuesday to set procedures for a floor vote later in the week on the 2015 Defense Appropriations bill. The measure would be the fifth of the 12 annual spending bills to be passed in that chamber. That same day, the committee is to also meet to provide language calling for a House-Senate conference on the veterans legislation.
—On Wednesday, the House Rules Committee is to meet to set up procedures for a floor vote on reauthorization of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and floor action could become controversial over efforts by Republicans to scale back what they say are its too-broad powers.
—On Monday, the Senate is to vote on Salvador Mendoza Jr. to be U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Washington; Staci Yandle to be U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Illinois; and Darrin Gayles to be U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Florida.
—On Tuesday, the Senate is to vote on the confirmation of Peter Kadzik to be an assistant attorney general.
In addition, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu of Louisiana has set votes for Wednesday on a contentious executive branch nominee—Norman Bay to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—as well as on legislation to fast-track construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
BUDGET and FINANCE
Push on Approps
The House Defense Appropriations bill to be taken up this week would provide $491 billion in discretionary funding for national security and other needs. House GOP leaders had pushed back action on the 2015 Agriculture Appropriations bill until at least the week of June 23 because of the conference leadership shuffle.
The minibus package to hit the Senate floor this week would provide nearly $126 billion for programs including Community Development Block Grants, nutrition, railroad and transportation infrastructure, and combatting gun violence.
The Transportation/HUD bill, the largest of the three bills under consideration, spends $54.4 billion, about $3 billion over what the president requested. The bill includes $18 billion for the Transportation Department and $36 billion for HUD. Last year's THUD bill, the only one to make it to the floor, was derailed over GOP fears that it would bust the Budget Control Act caps. This year, because of the Bipartisan Budget Act, those fears have been mostly neutralized.
The Commerce, Justice, Science bill allots $51.2 billion—$1 billion more than the president requested. It includes funding for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, as well as for NASA. The bill also includes $1.1 billion to address gun violence, members say, with portions of those funds going to the FBI to run instant background checks on purchases, for example.
The Agriculture bill includes $20.57 billion for agricultural research, the Food and Drug Administration, nutrition programs, and natural resources conservation. The bill includes $6.62 billion for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which is $93 million less than was allocated in fiscal 2014. Democrats stress that the program will accommodate the expected number of participants.
Unlike much of the legislation brought to the floor this year, which has been part of Democratic efforts to win reelection, these appropriations bills stand a better chance of passing. That's because the spending levels were set by the two-year budget deal agreed to by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray last year.
Most bills have foundered over partisan disagreements about the amendments process on the floor, with Reid blocking Republicans from offering their measures. Democrats counter that Republicans would offer non-germane amendments, or make them take votes on difficult political issues—like the medical device tax, for example.
Democrats are open to amendments on the appropriations bill, Democratic aides confirmed. What's less clear is whether the amendment process on the minibus will serve as a poison pill.
There are signs of trouble ahead, though not on this spate of bills. Mikulski canceled an expected markup of the Labor/Health and Human Services markup after Republicans let it be known they planned to push amendments targeting the Affordable Care Act. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the ranking Republican on the authorizing committee overseeing HHS, instead took the floor last week to publicly air his amendments.
Floor fights are looming over the Pentagon's plan to spike the A-10 Warthog attack plane, which has the backing of House appropriators but is opposed by Armed Services Committee members in both chambers. The defense authorization bill crafted by the two Armed Services panels would spare the plane.
Besides negotiating a final bill, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee is continuing its examination into problems with VA health care. It holds a hearing on non-VA health care solutions on Wednesday and another hearing reviewing how bonuses were awarded to senior leaders at the VA on Friday.
The efforts to pass a Commodity Futures Trading Commission reauthorization will be carried in the form of the Customer Protection and End User Relief Act, a bill authored by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas.
The last reauthorization of the CFTC occurred in 2008, before the height of the financial crisis and prior to the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act. Since then, Republicans like Cantor have complained that the CFTC has gained broad new authorities to supervise the futures and swaps markets.
And, as asserted in a recent Cantor memo to fellow House Republicans, "many of the CFTC's new rules have negatively impacted end-users, such as our farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, small businesses, and utilities, by making it more difficult and costly to manage risks associated with their businesses."
The Lucas bill is being depicted as "meaningful relief" from overly burdensome requirements from the CFTC.
ENERGY and ENVIRONMENT
President Obama nominated Bay to become the FERC chair, but conservative and moderate panel members say he lacks the requisite experience to steer the body. Instead, they want acting Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur to hold onto her seat.
Landrieu and Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski of Alaska are currently involved in negotiations with Senate leaders to confirm Bay as a commissioner but keep LaFleur as chair. A deal has not yet been reached.
Meanwhile, Landrieu's push for a vote to approve Keystone puts a vulnerable Democrat on the panel in a tough spot. Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado is facing a tough fight for reelection in the midterms and has worked to court the oil and gas industry as well as environmentalists. Last week, Udall said he plans to vote against the pipeline bill, but steered away from making a judgment call on the project. Instead, he said he does not think the issue should be injected with partisan politics.
The Obama administration has been choosing friendly audiences so far to discuss its plan to lower carbon emissions from existing power plants. But the reception won't be as rosy Thursday when the Environmental Protection Agency's acting air chief Janet McCabe defends the plan before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power. Chairman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and other committee Republicans have blasted the plan as too costly and an executive overreach that will make energy too expensive.
On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold another hearing on the need to act on climate change, but this time will be recruiting help from the right. Among the witnesses will be four former EPA administrators that served under Republican administrations: William Ruckelshaus, Lee Thomas, William Reilly, and Christine Todd Whitman.
The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission's June report to Congress. MedPAC is required to submit two reports to Congress each year, offering recommendations for reforming Medicare payment policy. The June report focuses on specific issues facing the federal program, and Wednesday's hearing will feature testimony from MedPAC's executive director, Mark E. Miller.
The Senate's $158 billion Labor/HHS bill—which includes some funding for Obamacare in 2015—was supposed to be marked up by now in the Appropriations Committee but Mikulski canceled a vote on the bill after Republicans indicated they would force a series of politically painful votes on vulnerable committee Democrats.
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, the bill's author, said it is now unlikely to be considered separately on the floor and will end up in a later omnibus package with other spending bills. Harkin denied that the "tough" Obamacare votes were the reason the markup was delayed.
After returning to Washington from California on Monday, Obama will take his message on the economy and jobs to Pittsburgh, traveling there on Tuesday for an event at Tech Shop in the high-tech hub of Bakery Square.
From Pittsburgh, he will travel to New York to raise money for the Democratic National Committee and participate in the DNC's LGBT Gala.
At the White House on Wednesday, the president will host the first-ever White House "Maker Faire" and meet with "students, entrepreneurs and everyday citizens who are using new tools and techniques to launch new businesses, learn vital skills in science, technology, engineering and math, and fuel the renaissance in American manufacturing."
On Thursday, he will award the Medal of Honor to former Marine Cpl. William "Kyle" Carpenter for his bravery while serving as a rifleman in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Obama will close out the week on Friday, meeting with Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand.
Michael Catalini, Stacy Kaper, Clare Foran, Jason Plautz, Sophie Novack, and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
This article appears in the June 16, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.