The Senate is out on recess, but the House returns to session Tuesday for the start of what could be a bellwether week to gauge the political tone in Washington for the rest of the year.
Much of the attention is already shifting to focus on the formal start of negotiations in the joint House-Senate budget conference. And the action will pick up in committees and on the floor as well.
A vote could come as early as Thursday on the first Water Resources Development Act since 2007, a sweeping bill to authorize funding for improvements to ports, waterways, and projects tied to flood protection, drinking water, dams, and environmental restoration.
Also on this week's agenda:
- The Energy and Commerce Committee plans to hold a full committee hearing Thursday regarding the rocky first few weeks of the Affordable Care Act implementation.
- The Homeland Security Committee is set for a full committee markup on six bills, including a "Transportation Security Acquisition Reform Act" and a "Homeland Security Cybersecurity Boots-on-the-Ground Act."
- The House Intelligence Committee has set a hearing for Thursday to look into National Security Agency programs.
- The Small Business Investigations, Oversight, and Regulations Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing Thursday on the "Regulatory Landscape: Burdens on Small Financial Institutions."
- The Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee will hold a hearing Wednesday on "An Independent Assessment of the Navy's 30-year Shipbuilding Plan."
- Another Armed Services subcommittee, Tactical Air and Land Forces, is holding a hearing Wednesday on the impacts of the continuing resolution and sequestration on defense acquisition and modernization.
The future of the across-the-board sequestration cuts is expected to be a primary focus of the upcoming budget talks.
BUDGET and FINANCE
Last week's deal to extend the debt ceiling through Feb. 7 also restarted funding for government agencies, but only through Jan. 15. However, it also called for a bipartisan, bicameral budget conference to get to work on finding compromise on a longer-term spending plan, at least one to last through the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.
The new panel's assignment is a tough one, given the wide differences in the budgets passed separately by the two chambers. Those extend not just to the respective levels of proposed spending, but to the treatment of entitlement programs, the future of the sequester cuts, and the prospect for taxes or other new revenues.
The conferees are due to issue a report on or around Dec. 13. They will be led by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., along with House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who did not even vote in favor of the deal that sets this all in motion. This week, as the Senate is out, staffs are preparing for next week's not-yet-scheduled first official meetings, and conferees are talking by phone, if not in person.
For now, questions abound over relatively simple matters like whether their deliberations will be public—or even perhaps televised. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is among those already calling for live coverage.
"If that table is closed down, if you are excluded from that, if there isn't live coverage," said Pelosi last week, "then it is hard to see how a product can come out of it that we can present to our members to say it was an honest debate.
"And you know what is contingent upon it, of course, is reopening government in January and lifting the debt ceiling in February," she said.
Spotlight on NSA
As the Obama administration's online and phone surveillance programs continue to get scrutiny with new revelations—including that the agency is collecting hundreds of millions of online contacts and "buddies" from instant messaging services—the House Intelligence Committee is holding a hearing on Thursday to look into National Security Agency activities.
Separately, as the recent deal to alleviate the government shutdown and lift the debt ceiling did not remove sequestration, a House Armed Services subcommittee is holding a hearing on the impacts of a continuing resolution and sequestration on defense acquisition and modernization.
Defense and military officials from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force will be testifying on Wednesday.
ENERGY and ENVIRONMENT
Water Resources Reform
Bipartisanship is showing its green roots in Congress in some ways, as the House will vote this week on a relatively easy lift—the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.
It's not an eye-popper like, say, a potential debt default, but it is important to business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It is a bipartisan bill to rework the manner in which water, dam, and port-infrastructure projects are processed through the Army Corps of Engineers.
The floor debate will likely focus on environmental issues. The National Wildlife Federation claims it "guts the nation's bedrock environmental laws."
The Senate has already passed its water resources bill, at a price tag the Congressional Budget Office has scored at about $12.5 billion in spending over the next 10 years that needs $135 million in offsets. CBO had not yet scored the House bill as of Friday.
But House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., has sought to point out that while, in his view, the House bill authorizes about $8 billion in projects and $2 billion in modifications, the bill should also be credited for deauthorizing about $12 billion in projects. He also underscores that it has no earmarks.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., says she looks forward to a conference committee to work out the differences between the two chambers' versions of the legislation.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a full committee hearing on Thursday regarding the rocky first few weeks of the Affordable Care Act's implementation. Committee leaders have sent letters to the administration and to IT contractors regarding the technical problems, and have requested that the administration release enrollment figures. Thus far, administration officials do not plan to testify, and committee leaders sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius urging her to reconsider.
The Partnership for Safe Medicines will hold its annual Interchange Conference on Thursday to address prescription-drug safety and counterfeit medicines. In related news, numerous public-health and advocacy organizations have sent letters pressing the Senate to hurry to pass the bipartisan Drug Quality and Security Act on drug compounding and distribution security that passed with bipartisan support in the House a few weeks ago. A Senate vote is expected after next week.
The Food and Drug Adminsitration will hold meetings of the Cellular, Tissue, and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee on Tuesday and Wednesday, and of the Antiviral Drugs Advisory Committee Thursday and Friday, to review new drug applications. The agency will hold its third annual FDA Health Professional Organizations conference Thursday to further its public-health mission.
Back to Business
The president moves off a shutdown-inspired, crisis-dominated schedule this week to something closer to normal. That means a health care event on Monday, a foreign visitor on Wednesday and an out-of-town fundraiser on Friday. The foreign visitor is Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The fundraiser, for the Democratic House campaign committee, is in New York.
Clare Foran, Fawn Johnson, Sophie Novack, Sara Sorcher, and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
This article appears in the October 21, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.