There is just one small thing standing in the way of lawmakers and the beginning of the two-week spring recess: a $3.6 trillion budget for the federal government. So as tourists begin streaming into the capital region for a look at the cherry blossoms, members of the House and Senate will be voting to approve the FY10 budget resolution so they can go the opposite direction and hit the highways, railroads and airports for home.
The House and Senate will take up their budget resolutions this week as Democrats seek to lay the groundwork for healthcare reform and other elements of President Obama's agenda, as Republicans continue to make the case that the programs will hurt the struggling economy.
After some housekeeping suspension bills, final approval of a national service bill and consideration of legislation to curb bonuses of executives at financial institutions that receive federal bailout money, the House will turn to the budget resolution.
The House Budget Committee sent it to the floor last week on a 24-15 party-line vote.
House Republicans plan to have a substitute GOP budget proposal considered, according to House Minority Whip Cantor. His comments come after House Republicans came out with a budget outline, which was roundly criticized by Democrats for being short on substance.
Meanwhile, the Senate will begin debate today on the resolution, with a final vote expected late Thursday or on Friday. The Senate Budget Committee approved the resolution Thursday, 13-10, also a party-line vote.
Senate debate this week will culminate in the annual vote-a-rama. The term stems from a provision in the Congressional Budget Act that allows for an unlimited number of amendments to the resolution, as a way to protect the rights of the minority.
The typically chaotic series of votes tends to linger for days, with little time for review of amendments and only two minutes of debate on each one. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad recently held a hearing on the vote-a-rama to see if there was a way to improve the process.
Senate Budget ranking member Judd Gregg said Republicans intend to offer a slew of amendments to try to curb spending, some of which were defeated during the committee markup Thursday.
Gregg said Republicans will offer an amendment that would prevent the resolution from including reconciliation instructions if they are not in the Senate measure.
While the Senate resolution does not include reconciliation instructions, the House resolution does for healthcare reform and education legislation; reconciliation only requires majority support, which enables those employing it to avoid Senate filibusters.
Congressional Democrats last week have refused to rule out using reconciliation. Other differences include the level in FY10 non-discretionary defense spending. The House bill would provide for $532.6 billion. The Senate bill calls for $525 billion.
Both resolutions include deficit-neutral reserve funds for healthcare reform, energy and education -- three pillars of the Obama agenda -- leaving it up to the committees of jurisdiction to draft legislation on matters such as a cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, the House will likely easily pass legislation that would curb the bonuses of executives at financial institutions that received federal bailout money.
Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank's measure would empower the Treasury secretary to restrict bonuses paid to any employee even if the bonus was guaranteed by a contract prior to government intervention in the company.
The restriction would apply only to firms that received a cash infusion through the Troubled Asset Relief Program. It would not apply to private investors who participate in a Treasury program intended to buy up toxic assets that are restricting the ability of banks to loan money.
The Senate meets today at 11 a.m. for morning business then begins consideration of the budget resolution.
The House meets today at 12:30 p.m. for morning hour and 2 p.m. to consider suspension bills. Votes will be postponed until 6:30 p.m. The chamber meets at 10:30 a.m. for morning hour and noon for legislative business on Tuesday and at 10 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 9 a.m. on Friday.
Agriculture Secretary Vilsack this week will testify on Capitol Hill for the first time since his confirmation hearing, as the Senate Agriculture Committee holds confirmation hearings on four senior USDA nominees.
Vilsack will appear before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Tuesday. Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., is expected to grill Vilsack on the administration's plans to address obesity and food safety issues.
On Wednesday the Senate Agriculture Committee will consider four USDA nominees. They are Kathleen Merrigan, a onetime aide for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to be deputy secretary; James Miller, a former aide to Conrad and current chief of staff at the National Farmers Union, to be undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services; Dallas Tonsager, a member of the Farm Credit Administration board, to be undersecretary for rural development; and Joe Leonard Jr., former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, to be assistant secretary for civil rights.
As part of the effort to reauthorize child nutrition programs, the Senate Agriculture Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on food served in school snack bars, vending machines and a la carte lines in cafeterias.
Meanwhile, Vilsack, Interior Secretary Salazar and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., are all scheduled to speak at the 25x'25 Renewable Energy Summit being held Wednesday and Thursday.
The House Appropriations Committee will hold 17 hearings this week, with an array of administration officials and celebrities testifying on their budgets or favored causes. On Tuesday, for example, the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the arts. Scheduled to testify are a host of experts, including jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and singer Linda Ronstadt.
Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee will hold two hearings this week. On Wednesday, the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee will meet to discuss assistance to civilian casualties of war.
The Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee will meet Thursday to consider the role of the Federal Housing Administration in addressing the housing crisis. HUD Secretary Donovan is scheduled to testify.
The White House plans to send its supplemental spending request for the wars for the remainder of FY09 to Capitol Hill as early as this week, although the exact timing was uncertain as administration officials continued to finalize details.
The supplemental is expected to include $75.5 billion for the military and billions more for the State Department and other agencies. The details of the request have remained under tight wraps.
House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., has signaled he intends to add about $12 billion to the request. Part of that funding, he has said, would pay for rebidding the contract for a new fleet of Air Force refueling tankers, plus the aircraft development costs.
Murtha said last week he would like to use the supplemental to pay for another E-2D Advanced Hawkeye aircraft, the Navy's carrier-based early-warning system. The Pentagon sought three of those planes in its FY09 budget request, but Congress trimmed it to two.
Nonetheless, the request will likely require quick action on Capitol Hill. The military has said it needs the money by the Memorial Day recess to avoid disruption of its day-to-day operations.
Also this week, the Senate and House Armed Services committees will hold hearings Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, on the Obama administration's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which was announced Friday.
Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy, will testify before both panels.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week holds its first in a series of markups this spring on an energy package, concentrating Tuesday on four bills that have broad agreement.
This includes three bills Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman and ranking member Lisa Murkowski have introduced analyzing the impact of energy development and production on water resources; updating appliance efficiency standards, and increasing energy efficiency for manufacturers. The committee will also mark up a bipartisan draft energy research and development plan.
Several more markups will be scheduled after the spring recess and will deal with thornier issues, including a renewable electricity production mandate, nuclear energy and oil and gas production.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman -- who has set a deadline of getting a combined energy and climate change measure through his committee by Memorial Day -- is expected to release a committee discussion draft this week with Energy and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass.
The discussion draft might present options for a market-based greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade program -- such as how much to require businesses to purchase emission credits through an auction versus receiving credits for free. Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means members plan to meet this week to talk about how the two committees can start putting together complementary climate proposals.
Both chambers will take on the credit card industry this week by pushing legislation that would curb certain card practices that consumer activists have labeled abusive.
The Senate Banking Committee will mark up Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd's bill to prohibit banks from raising interest rates for any reason, limiting such action to specific instances such as expiration of a teaser rate or a default on the account.
It would limit penalty rates to six months if there are no other violations; prohibit penalty fees upon a payment mailing seven days prior to due date, and require that statements must be mailed out within 21 days of a due date.
It also would eliminate double-cycle billing, where an institution assesses interest on the entire amount charged during one month unless the bill was paid in full.
The same day, the House Financial Services Financial Institutions Subcommittee will mark up a similar bill sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. The Federal Reserve last year issued rules cracking down on some questionable practices, but consumer groups said it did not go far enough and were upset that they would not be implemented until July 2010.
The Maloney bill would implement such changes 90 days after enactment. The Financial Institutions Subcommittee also will hold a Thursday hearing on legislation that would curb certain practices over payday loans.
The flogging of American International Group continues this week, as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Thursday will take a look at the bailout bête noire two weeks after its executives were first summoned to testify before other House and Senate committees.
Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Edolphus Towns announced the hearing in the midst of the populist outrage over executive bonuses, and staffers originally indicated the panel would take a hard look at recipients' contracts and would ask CEO Edward Liddy to testify.
But, after many executives began returning bonus money and Liddy endured hours of grueling testimony before other House and Senate panels, aides say the committee's focus will shift to a more holistic look at the rise and fall of AIG as the poster child of the financial crisis, with former company boss Hank Greenberg taking the witness stand instead.
Committee staffers describe the hearing as the first in a series meant to investigate the insurance giant's demise through a wide angle lens rather than the issue-by-issue series of hearings conducted by the House Financial Services Committee.
But the approach might not sit well with all of Towns' colleagues. An irked Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., urged Towns last week to continue to press Liddy to testify, a plea echoed by Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa.
Meanwhile, top stimulus watchdog Earl Devaney makes his second Capitol Hill appearance Thursday when he testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, along with OMB Deputy Director Rob Nabors.
The hearing will center on administration efforts to minimize waste, fraud and abuse of stimulus dollars that are starting to enter the economy in local communities. Since his last appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Devaney been coordinating with members of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which met for the first time last week, and hunting for office space to house the board's growing staff.
Obama's pick for HHS Secretary, Kansas Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, will be on Capitol Hill this week to get questioned by members of two key Senate committees.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hear from Sebelius Tuesday, followed by the Finance Committee Thursday. Filling the HHS spot took longer than expected after Obama's first nominee, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., dropped out over controversies surrounding unpaid taxes and his close relationship with the healthcare industry after leaving federal service.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold three healthcare hearings this week. On Tuesday, the Health Subcommittee will examine public health in the context of overhauling the nation's healthcare system, and the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee will examine legislation that would prohibit brand-name pharmaceutical companies from paying generic drugmakers to delay selling their low-cost versions.
The Health Subcommittee will hold another hearing Thursday on a healthcare overhaul that examines ways to save money in the system and improve safety.
House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel will hold a hearing Wednesday on modernizing the healthcare delivery system, with a focus on care coordination and improving quality of care.
The House is expected to vote on legislation this week that would give FDA authority over the tobacco industry. As of presstime, negotiators were working out some jurisdictional issues that needed to be resolved before the bill could be put on the calendar. The House passed the bill last year, but the Senate, where it faces more of an uphill battle, has yet to take it up.
Meanwhile, consumer groups this week will call on Congress to make changes to a new law that reauthorized the Consumer Product Safety Commission and banned lead and chemical phthalates from children's toys.
Acting CPSC Chairwoman Nancy Nord has told Congress the law is unexpectedly broad and trying to enforce it has overwhelmed the agency's staff and endangered its mission.
The Alliance for Children's Product Safety will hold a rally at the Capitol on Wednesday to ask Congress to take another look at the bill. Some Democratic lawmakers have accused Nord of causing the problems and have called on Obama to appoint a new chairman for the agency.
Lawmakers this week will continue their examination of border security and immigration issues, including whether law enforcement and emergency response officials working along the Southwest border have proper technology and resources.
The House Homeland Security Emergency Communications Subcommittee has called a hearing Tuesday to "examine the unique challenges that federal, state, and local first responders face in border communities in light of the escalation of drug-cartel related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border," according to the committee.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans a field hearing today in El Paso, Texas, to hear from law enforcement officials working along the border and across from an epicenter of violence in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano will travel to the border on Wednesday and then head into Mexico to attend a conference on preventing arms trafficking.
On Thursday, the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing to examine the department's priorities on enforcing immigration laws. Lawmakers will be especially interested in what the department is doing to find and deport illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes.
Also Thursday, the House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee and Constitution Subcommittee will hold a joint hearing on the public safety and civil rights implications of having state and local law enforcement agencies enforce federal immigration laws.
Homeland Security Department-funded intelligence "fusion centers" will be the focus of a Wednesday hearing by the House Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee. Members will discuss the department inspector general's December report on the state-run facilities, as well as recently adopted operational baseline capabilities for fusion centers.
The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday resumes its markup of legislation that would overhaul the U.S. patent system. The panel began consideration of Leahy's measure Thursday but saved the tougher topics for later.
Proposals to address how damages are awarded in patent infringement lawsuits have been circulated among members, including language offered by Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to provide courts with clearer requirements on handling evidence of infringement and determining damages.
Meanwhile, the House Homeland Security Emerging Threats Subcommittee Tuesday will examine whether payment card industry data standards reduce cybercrime. The security requirements, created to reduce the number and size of data breaches, apply to all businesses that store, process, or transmit cardholder data.
Witnesses include Acting Assistant Attorney General Rita Glavin of the Justice Department's Criminal Division; Robert Russo, director of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards Council, and Visa's head of fraud control Joseph Majka.
Labor and business groups are still lobbying on the Employee Free Choice Act even though Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., effectively doomed the bill by announcing he would oppose it.
The Service Employees International Union will bring "The West Wing" actors Martin Sheen, Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff to the Capitol Tuesday to kick off the "Faces of the Employee Free Choice Act" campaign, aimed at drumming up grassroots support for the measure. Business leaders from around the country will be flying to Washington to be up on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, when they will meet with members to express their opposition to the legislation.
But the bill's future is uncertain. Specter's defection means Democrats don't have the 60 votes they need to overcome a Republican filibuster. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the bill's chief proponent in the Senate, said late last week he was "strategizing" with labor as to how to move forward.
Voters in New York's 20th District will decide Tuesday whether Democratic businessman Scott Murphy or Republican state Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco succeeds appointed Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Both campaigns have focused largely on the stimulus. Murphy has criticized Tedisco for his opposition to the package, while Tedisco has said Murphy would rubber stamp Democratic legislation.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $800,000 on the race, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee nearly $575,000, according to the latest FEC filings.
Presdient Obama got involved last week, officially endorsing Murphy. Vice President Biden also cut a radio ad for Murphy.
A House Ways and Means subcommittee Tuesday plans to explore options for cracking down on offshore tax avoidance and dealing with other nations' bank secrecy laws.
Select Revenue Measures Subcommittee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., is expecting to hear from the IRS about new measures they will take to collect a bigger share of the roughly $300 billion stashed offshore by wealthy individuals.
The recent case of UBS AG, which is sheltering as many as 52,000 U.S. accounts in Switzerland, has highlighted the problem and been the subject of hearings by the Senate Finance Committee and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent investigations panel.
"The United States and other countries simply can no longer afford to lose billions of dollars each year in potential revenue to these secrecy jurisdictions," Neal said in a statement announcing the hearing. Neal said the UBS case demonstrates problems with the IRS's "Qualified Intermediary" program, which is aimed at collecting taxes on U.S. source investment earnings funneled to foreign accounts.
Neal said he was working on his own bill to claw back some of that lost revenue, which in 2003 totaled as much as $293 billion. "I expect this hearing to be the start of a process that leads to bold and decisive action being taken to end opportunities for tax avoidance through foreign accounts," he said.
Ways and Means Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, has introduced his own bill to crack down on tax havens by requiring individuals or corporations located in the United States with offshore accounts to be taxed at domestic rates, among other provisions. That bill is identical to a bill introduced by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus has his own approach that is based on greater disclosure and reporting to the IRS on funds transfers to overseas accounts.
Meanwhile, IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman will testify before Neal's panel Tuesday, his first appearance since Thursday's announcement of a settlement initiative with owners of unreported offshore accounts.
Washington will be the center of activity for the cable television biz this week when the industry's annual convention returns to the nation's capital and its convention center after a 38-year hiatus.
The packed agenda features several marquee policymakers and executives, with Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., kicking off the event Tuesday night with a speech.
Senate Commerce ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, House Minority Whip Cantor and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman will appear Wednesday.
On Thursday, highlights include Disney CEO Bob Iger, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and House Energy and Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher, D-Va. National Cable and Telecommunications Association CEO Kyle McSlarrow conducts a question-and-answer session with acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps on Friday.
The National Association of Broadcasters holds its annual State Leadership Conference Tuesday at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, with Boucher delivering the keynote.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the House Judiciary Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee holds a hearing on jurisdictional issues regarding taxation of Internet-based telephone services. And Boucher's panel holds a Thursday hearing on the $7.2 billion in broadband funding available through the economic stimulus package.
This article appears in the April 4, 2009 edition of NJ Daily.