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Fiscal Deadlines Dominate Congressional Agenda


House Majority Leader Eric Cantor expects the House to take up a Republican version of the farm bill addressing the food stamp program.(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The deadlines have been clear for months. Yet Republicans and Democrats once again are locked in seemingly immutable positions over government spending and the debt ceiling, with a partial government shutdown potentially just weeks away.

The crisis over Syria and its chemical-weapons use remains unsettled. And there are plans this week for lawmakers to address other legislative issues, including House action on the food stamp portion of a five-year farm bill.


But a short-term funding agreement must emerge to keep the government operating beyond Sept. 30, and a debt-limit deal is needed by mid-October to avoid the risk of default. Even so, negotiations seem stuck until House Republicans resolve internal divisions over whether these deadlines should be used as leverage for repealing or delaying the Affordable Care Act.

Here's what else Congress is up to this week:

  • House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., says Republicans are set to complete their chamber's version of a five-year farm bill reauthorization, in a vote on a revised version that contains $40 billion in cuts over 10 years to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That's roughly twice what was proposed in a bill earlier this year, which was defeated in a floor vote. House passage will finally enable a two-chamber conference; the Senate's farm bill cuts the food stamp program by $4.5 billion over 10 years.
  • The Senate will return to the Energy Efficiency Act sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Debate on amendments came to a standstill last week after Sen. David Vitter, R-La., blocked his colleagues from proceeding with an amendment relating to the Affordable Care Act. Pending amendments include one finding the Keystone XL oil pipeline in the national interest and two others that curtail the Obama administration's climate-change regulations.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is hold a hearing Thursday on the president's nomination of Caroline Kennedy to become ambassador to Japan. In addition, the committee will consider the nominations of Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson to become assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and Greg Starr to become assistant secretary of State for Diplomatic Security—hot-button posts in the wake of the Benghazi attacks.
  • The Senate is to also consider two judicial nominees, Patricia E. Campbell-Smith and Elaine D. Kaplan, for the Court of Federal Claims. A roll-call vote is expected Monday evening.
  • Amid the vigorous resistance to Obamacare's implementation, Gary Cohen, who heads the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is to testify on Thursday about implementation and readiness before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has set a hearing for Tuesday on Obama's nominees for three appointments: Ronald Binz as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Elizabeth Robinson to be undersecretary of Energy, and Michael Connor to be deputy Interior secretary.

The House Rules Committee also is set to meet Tuesday to schedule debate and a vote later in the week on the GOP's "Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act." The bill allows for cutting red tape and reducing litigation to help revive logging in national forests and reduce wildfires. It also is dubbed as a way to help wean counties from federal funds given to communities hit by what has been a severe decline in timber receipts from national forestlands.


But some Democrats and environmental groups describe the bill as a "Trojan horse" to incent potentially damaging logging and grazing across vast swaths of public land, with limited public input and diminished environmental protections.


Looming Deadlines

Even some Republicans are nervous about their own party's internal turmoil and seemingly inflexible positioning over how to proceed with negotiations on a short-term spending vehicle to prevent a partial government shutdown on Oct. 1, and a debt-ceiling agreement.


House members are officially scheduled to be on recess next week. But already, Republican and Democratic leaders advised rank-and-file colleagues last week to prepare themselves to be in Washington through the end of the month, as talks between congressional Republicans and Democrats, as well as the White House, move toward what amounts to another self-created crisis that could reach a boiling point in coming days. Lawmakers have been deadlocked for months over federal spending levels, and the House and Senate have not agreed on any of the 12 spending bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. This logjam is marked by disagreements over continuation of the automatic, across-the-board spending reductions to domestic and military programs known as sequestration. That includes whether those sharp cuts should be replaced, and how to do that: with "smarter" cuts or new revenues, or some combination?

Meanwhile, Speaker John Boehner and Republicans demand that any increase of the nation's ability to borrow money must come with added spending cuts and reforms. However, the White House and Democrats adamantly refuse to negotiate on raising the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling--which is projected to be hit by Oct. 18--saying the nation must pay its bills.

Now, with just two weeks to go, any big bargain by that time to resolve all of these issues in one package before Oct. 1 is unlikely. Progress even on a short-term, carry-over spending bill known as a continuing resolution--to allow more time for such negotiations and to avert a government shutdown in two weeks--has sputtered.

The White House and congressional Democrats did open the door last week to some compromise by not ruling out that they might, through mid-December, accept keeping spending at the current sequester-cut levels temporarily. They emphasized that would not hold for any longer-range, omnibus spending package worked out for the rest of the year.

But House conservatives are refusing to go along, insisting to Boehner and other House GOP leaders that even such a short-term bill must be tied to language to actually either delay or defund Obamacare. And that's simply something both the White House and congressional Democrats say they will not accept--and that if a government shutdown results, it will be Republicans' fault.

Even some Republicans are getting nervous over whether their party will end up bearing more of the blame for any shutdown, as Boehner and his lieutenants appear stymied by some of their own members in legitimately negotiating and compromising with Democrats. Whether Boehner will ultimately have to work in conjunction with Democrats to override this internal GOP strife to secure enough votes to avoid a shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis--and whether he would even be willing to do so--remains to be seen.


Shifting Focus

The drumbeat of national security hearings has ebbed now that Congress has gotten a reprieve from having to vote on whether to authorize the use of force in Syria while Washington and the United Nations pursue diplomatic options to remove strongman Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is looking into other Middle East issues, including a Wednesday hearing into State Department accountability on last year's attacks on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens. State's undersecretary for management, Patrick Kennedy, will testify.

The following day, the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee will hear from State and USAID officials on Syria's refugee crisis.


Partisan Pyrotechnics

While the Senate will try again Monday to move forward on the bipartisan energy-efficiency legislation that got stuck last week amid fights over Obamacare, other energy and climate-change battles will rage this week off the House and Senate chamber floors.

On Tuesday, partisan fireworks might go off at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Obama's nominations of Binz as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Robinson to be undersecretary of Energy, and Connor to be deputy secretary of Interior.

Typically, the Energy Regulatory Commission is a low-key, under-the-radar affair. But Binz--a former chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission--has drawn outrage from the coal industry, Republicans, and The Wall Street Journal editorial board for helping to write a state law aimed at shutting down coal-fired power plants, and for his upfront philosophy of favoring renewable energy. As the opposition to Binz has increased, a group of environmental activists has hired a Washington PR firm, VennSquared Communications, to campaign for him as he heads into what looks like a tough and testy Senate confirmation process.

On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee holds what staffers say will be a comprehensive probe into the Obama administration's climate-change agenda. Clashes seem likely to erupt between Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky--a vocal skeptic of the science of climate change, who called the hearing--and the Obama administration's witnesses--Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

The House Rules Committee also has announced a hearing Tuesday to set debate and a vote this week on bipartisan legislation to streamline the permitting process for metals, such as silver, manganese, and tungsten. Those are used in everything from aircraft, medical devices, and renewable energy. Right now the United States is almost entirely dependent upon other countries for many of these kinds of metals.


Opening Enrollment

As some Republicans continue to focus on ways to stop Obamacare's core provisions from going into effect, open-enrollment in the health care program nears, kicking off in a mere two weeks from Tuesday.

Oct. 1 marks both the deadline for reaching some agreement to continue funding government and the opening of the online insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act. The beginning of open enrollment will make life more complicated for members who would change the health care law, although any issues with the launch, technical or otherwise, will provide fodder for their cause.

Meanwhile, the White House continues its push to raise awareness of the ACA, as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius spends the beginning of the week in Florida, a state that has vigorously resisted the law's implementation. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 7 million Americans will sign up for insurance on the exchanges in 2014.


Spotlight on Syria

Syria remains at the top of President Obama's agenda this week. But as part of his determination to keep a focus on the economy, on Wednesday morning he will address the quarterly meeting of the Business Roundtable at the group's Washington offices.

Michael Catalini, George E. Condon, Coral Davenport, Amy Harder, Catherine Hollander, and Sara Sorcher contributed contributed to this article.

This article appears in the September 16, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.

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