With millions of Americans set to commemorate Memorial Day weekend, the House is wrapping itself in military affairs this week, acting on legislation to boost accountability at the embattled Veterans Affairs Department and taking up the annual National Defense Authorization Act.
In the Senate, the Armed Services Committee is expected to work on its own defense authorization bill, while the full chamber could resurrect efforts to take up the Finance Committee's $84 billion tax-extenders bill and vote on President Obama's nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be Health and Human Services secretary.
House action on the Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act comes after word Friday that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki had accepted the resignation of his undersecretary for health, Dr. Robert Petzel, in connection with the growing scandal over health care at VA hospitals. The bill would make it easier to fire or demote senior officials, and it remains unclear how many more resignations or removals may take place in the department.
Further increasing congressional focus on the VA's troubles, Republicans in Washington selected Sen. John McCain—one of the nation's most recognized veterans and a former prisoner of war—to deliver the official Republican address Saturday.
"We must do better tomorrow—much better," he said. "So that on some future Memorial Day, as we celebrate the beginning of summer and the comforts of life in a safe and successful country, we need not bow our heads in shame, but only in gratitude for the sacrifice made to keep it so."
On the National Defense Authorization Act, which will set defense spending for fiscal 2015, as many as 250 proposed amendments were expected to be filed with the House Rules Committee by Monday's 10 a.m. deadline. The committee has set a hearing Tuesday on amendments, some of which seek to address hot-button issues like military sexual assaults, immigration reform, and National Security Agency wiretapping.
Here's what else is going on in Congress this week:
- The House Rules Committee will hold a hearing Monday to set procedures for a floor vote on the fiscal 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill, which funds the Justice Department, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and related agencies.
- The Senate is expected this week to vote on the nomination of Stanley Fischer to be vice chairman of the Federal Reserve.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will take up the nomination of Norman Bay to head up the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Tuesday.
- The House Finance Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will hear testimony Wednesday from Consumer Financial Protection Bureau officials subpoenaed as part of the subcommittee's ongoing investigation into allegations of discrimination and retaliation at the bureau.
- The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday titled "Boko Haram: The Growing Threat to Schoolgirls, Nigeria, and Beyond."
- The House is set to take up several bills on the noncontroversial suspension calendar this week in an effort to combat human trafficking.
- The House also plans to vote on resolutions to award the Congressional Gold Medal to several military outfits, including World War II's "Doolittle Tokyo Raiders," the Civil Air Patrol, the 65th Infantry Regiment "Borinqueneers," and the American Fighter Aces. Action on resolutions similarly honoring golfer Jack Nicklaus and Shimon Peres, as well as recognition for the World War II art experts known as the Monument Men, also are planned.
BUDGET AND TAXES
Spotlight on Spending
The Republican-led House's plan to take floor action this week on its Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill would mark that chamber's completion of the third of a total of 12 annual spending bills, which are due by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.
The CJS spending bill contains $51.2 billion in discretionary funding, about $398 million below the fiscal 2014 enacted level. The House has previously passed two other appropriations bills, tied to military construction and legislative-branch appropriations.
The Senate Appropriations Committee will begin marking up bills this week. The markups get underway Tuesday in the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Agriculture subcommittees.
The passage of the two-year Bipartisan Budget Act, which sets top-line spending figures, saps much of the drama from the appropriations process. Still, that hasn't stopped some Republicans from raising red flags about Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray's budget figures, which are $19 billion above what House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan submitted.
While action on individual bills has gotten underway, legislative aides and lawmakers say privately they doubt that all of the 12 appropriations measures will be done as stand-alone items in this midterm-election year.
The upcoming summer and fall legislative calendars include frequent and lengthy breaks for lawmakers from Washington, and more-contentious bills lie ahead.
Senators left Washington last week deadlocked over allowing amendments to the Finance Committee's $84 billion tax-extenders package. Officially, Republicans voted to end further debate. But Majority Leader Harry Reid entered a motion to reconsider, and aides say he may do just that when the Senate returns this week.
Votes aren't scheduled when senators get back to town Monday afternoon, leaving time for Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon and ranking member Orrin Hatch of Utah to work out an agreement on germane amendments. If such agreement happens, then another vote on the package, which has general, bipartisan support among senators, could take place.
Disagreement over process scuttled the bill Thursday, when Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to set a system in which members on both sides offered alternating amendments. Reid blocked it.
Focus on Force
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee reexamines the future of the authorization for use of military force in the post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan war era with a hearing Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the future of the A-10 Warthog attack plane, which the Pentagon wants to retire, is among the issues to be taken up by the Senate Armed Services Committee when it begins action on the defense authorization with subcommittee markups Tuesday and a closed-door full committee markup Wednesday.
Some lawmakers are expected to take steps to save the plane, which the Pentagon wants to retire.
In what could be an especially feisty hearing this week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is to testify Tuesday before the House Energy and Commerce Telecom Subcommittee.
His appearance will come less than a week after his agency voted to move forward with new net-neutrality regulations.
Republicans on the Energy Committee have issued a statement saying they look forward to a "spirited discussion" with Wheeler over his "misguided vision of a heavily regulated Internet."
The Senate Energy Committee's consideration of Norman Bay's nomination to head FERC comes as nominees to the commission have historically been relatively uncontroversial. But that changed last fall when Obama's last pick to oversee the agency—former state utility regulator Ron Binz—went down in flames.
Coal-state lawmakers on the Senate panel voiced concern that Binz would give preference to clean energy over coal and other fossil fuels. Amid vocal opposition, Binz withdrew his nomination.
It's unclear whether Bay—the current head of the agency's office of enforcement—will suffer a similar fate. But he is sure to face the same scrutiny.
The panel will also weigh in on the renomination of acting FERC Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur to remain on the commission.
The House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday will continue its series of hearings about the labor shortage in the energy sector by looking at opportunities in the manufacturing sector.
Also Tuesday, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee will join in that discussion with a hearing on opportunities for veterans in the energy sector, an issue that's gained traction with lawmakers and private companies.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday is set to examine progress made on the 2011 Pipeline Safety Act, which gave the Transportation Department more authority to review pipelines and research ways to reduce leaks.
The possibility that the Senate will take up Burwell's nomination to become Health and Human Services secretary comes after the Finance Committee held a hearing last week, in which she received support from senators on both sides of the aisle.
Meanwhile, the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Energy Police, Health Care, and Entitlements is to hold a hearing Tuesday on Medicare mismanagement and government efforts to recapture misspent funds.
In announcing the hearing last week, the committee says that Medicare is the largest purchaser of health care in the country, but that approximately $50 billion of the total $604 billion spent in 2013 was lost on improper payments.
The subcommittee is to hear testimony from Shantanu Agrawal, deputy administrator and the director of the Center for Program Integrity at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; Kathleen King, director of health care at the Government Accountability Office; and Brian Ritchie, assistant inspector general for audit services at the Health and Human Services Department's Office of Inspector General.
Agrawal and King appeared recently before the House Ways and Means Committee on the same subject, where policymakers aired their frustrations with persistent reports of waste, abuse, and fraud in the Medicare program.
The hearing also follows a report this week from ProPublica that some doctors are billing Medicare top dollar to see patients who should not qualify for an advanced visit classification. That report suggests that only 4 percent of visits qualify, and that thousands of doctors are billing Medicare for top dollar 90 percent of the time.
Obama has a relatively quiet week scheduled, with an overnight trip to his hometown being his only time away from the White House.
On Monday, he is to have lunch with the military leadership and combatant commanders; he will then raise money for the House's Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
On Wednesday, he will accept credentials from foreign ambassadors new to Washington; he also will meet the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. On Thursday, Obama will travel to Chicago to raise money for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, before returning to Washington on Friday.
Michael Catalini, George E. Condon Jr., Clare Foran, Stacy Kaper, Jason Plautz, Clara Ritger, and Brendan Sasso contributed to this article.
This article appears in the May 19, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.