House Republican leaders enter this short legislative week saying they are confident the nation will not default on its debts, but a deal with Democrats to ensure that won't happen remains elusive.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor has announced a floor action schedule that includes the possibility of a vote on the debt ceiling by Wednesday.
GOP House members are still considering a number of preconditions for raising the debt ceiling, including a short-term extension of the current sustainable-growth-rate formula through which physicians are reimbursed under Medicare, as well as a restoration of military pension cuts that were included in the December budget agreement.
By Wednesday afternoon, however, House Democrats leave for Camrbidge, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, for their annual issues and policy retreat, where both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will make appearances. After that, House members aren't scheduled to return to session until Feb. 25.
Already, the Treasury Department has begun instituting the first of several "extraordinary measures" to stay under the current $17.2 trillion debt limit, and there is little certainty as to how long that approach can continue. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew late last week warned lawmakers in a letter that his department will all but completely exhaust its ability to pay its bills by Feb. 27.
Sen. Patty Murray and other Democrats insist they will not accede to any GOP demands in return for raising the debt limit, and they continue to press for an up-or-down vote on a clean bill.
Without some breakthrough, tensions could rise Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Budget Committee, chaired by Murray, at which Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf is scheduled to testify.
Here's what else is happening in Congress this week:
- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to move forward with a cloture vote Monday on the repeal of part of the budget legislation that cut military pensioners' cost-of-living adjustments.
- The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on the minimum wage, which Democrats have identified as a key election-year issue. Reid and Chairman Tom Harkin plan to move a minimum-wage bill later this year, likely after the debt-ceiling legislation, lawmakers say.
- The House Rules Committee on Monday will hold a hearing to set floor procedures for a vote later in the week on the Consumer Financial Protection and Soundness Improvement Act, containing what Republicans depict as reforms the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
- The House Science Committee's Environment Subcommittee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014, aimed at Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
- The Senate also could move forward with a measure to require the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to keep lands open to hunting and recreational fishing. It would also reauthorize a wetlands conservation measure and allow states to issue electronic duck stamps, among other provisions.
The Senate's planned cloture vote on veterans benefits Monday is expected to set off a debate over the fate of $6 billion in cuts included in the budget agreement that has caused a maelstrom with veterans organizations. The legislation from Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor, who faces a tough reelection race, would reverse the cuts without paying for them.
If the bill fails that test vote as expected—Republicans want the measure to contain an offset to address the cost—the Senate is likely to proceed to a broader package from Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders later in the week.
That bill reverses the cost-of-living adjustment reduction and expands access to other veterans benefits. But it too is expected to face challenges from Republicans, who oppose the bill's reliance on off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations funds.
BUDGET AND FINANCE
Focusing on Future
While the main focus now is on the debt ceiling, budget-related activities are also gearing up.
While the debt-cap debate may come up, the Senate Budget Committee hearing on Tuesday highlighted by Elmendorf's appearance is officially to be focused on the economic outlook for the next decade.
But he also is sure to be asked about CBO's report last week that the Affordable Care Act would reduce the labor force by the equivalent of 2 million workers by 2017.
In the House, the Budget Committee chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan is set to mark up two budget-process reform bills Tuesday. One is called the Budget and Accounting Transparency Act, and the other is the Biennial Budgeting and Enhanced Oversight Act.
Bitcoin Taxing Tips
Janet Yellen's first semiannual Humphrey-Hawkins testimony on monetary policy and the economy as Federal Reserve chair will happen on Tuesday and Thursday before the House Financial Services and Senate Banking committees, respectively. Lawmakers will likely focus on the Fed's plans to unwind its sprawling bond-buying program as well as its assessment of the economic outlook.
The arrest of Charles Shrem, a bitcoin entrepreneur and vocal advocate for the currency, last month shined a light on some of the regulatory and legal concerns with the increasingly well-known virtual currency.
On Tuesday, Benjamin Lawsky, the superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, and Jennifer Shasky Calvery, director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network at the Treasury Department, are scheduled to speak at a New America Foundation event on cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has called for the Internal Revenue Service to clarify its guidance when it comes to taxing bitcoin, and for regulators to ensure their rules keep up with the technology.
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing Tuesday on raising the minimum wage comes as Obama has expressed his support for a bill introduced by HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to raise the level to $10.10 over the coming years.
DEFENSE AND NATIONAL SECURITY
Combating Sexual Assault
Along with the Senate's debate on cuts to veterans benefits in the budget agreement, the upper chamber is also gearing up to return to the discussion about ways to combat military sexual assault.
It could hold votes as soon as this week on competing bills from Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
In the House, the Armed Services Committee plans to keep pressure on the Obama administration's security policy and defense posture in the Middle East with a hearing Tuesday with Defense and State Department officials.
Meanwhile, a House Homeland Security Committee subpanel holds a hearing on al-Qaida's expansion in Egypt and what security concerns that presents to the U.S.
The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday will hold a hearing on challenges facing acquisition reform at the Pentagon. Also on Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Committee holds a hearing on the challenges and future of the agency.
Battling Drug Shortages
The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee is to hold a hearing Monday on "Examining Drug Shortages and Recent Efforts to Address Them."
Lawmakers will hear testimony from Marcia Crosse, director of health care at the Government Accountability Office; and Douglas Throckmorton, deputy director of regulatory programs at the Food and Drug Administration.
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
Spotlighting Rail Safety
A Senate subcommittee will take up the issue of freight and passenger rail safety on Thursday, an event that's sure to spark discussion of recent crude-by-rail accidents.
According to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., federal regulators will be present at the hearing set to be convened by the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security Subcommittee. Rail, oil, and natural-gas industry stakeholders will also offer testimony.
Meanwhile, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Energy Subcommittee will hold a hearing Wednesday to examine lessons learned from efficiency and renewable-energy programs. Alternative energy may take a backseat on the committee soon, however, with oil and natural gas supporter Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., poised to take over the gavel from current committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., when he departs for the Senate Finance Committee Chairmanship.
The "Secret Science" bill to be considered by the environmental subcommittee of the House Science Committee at a hearing Tuesday is billed as prohibiting EPA from proposing regulations based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.
Foreign policy and foreign leaders dominate Obama's agenda this week. On Monday, he is giving a tour of Monticello to visiting French President Francois Hollande. Then he will host Hollande at a State Dinner on Tuesday night. On Friday, after speaking at the Democratic Issues Conference in Cambridge, Md., he flies to Fresno, Calif., where he will meet with King Abdullah of Jordan.
Michael Catalini, George E. Condon Jr., Clare Foran, Catherine Hollander, Stacy Kaper, Sara Mimms, and Sophie Novack contribute contributed to this article.
This article appears in the February 10, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.