With their August recess only a month away, lawmakers return to Washington with a debate raging over immigration reform, student-loan interest rates still unsettled, and little sign of progress toward a budget deal.
House Republicans will hold a closed-door meeting on immigration Wednesday that could help chart a path after the Senate passed its sweeping immigration-reform bill last month.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other top House Republicans say they will not take up the Senate bill. Rather, Boehner said his conference would be listening to constituents over the July Fourth recess, and Wednesday's meeting is designed to take what they heard and "have a conversation on the way forward."
With differences still apparent on major issues like a path to citizenship, Boehner has refused to commit to the House taking up major immigration legislation—either in one bill or in pieces—prior to Congress's August break.
Congressional activity this week is also expected to include:
- A Senate vote on legislation to retroactively freeze the rate on new subsidized Stafford loans at 3.4 percent for another year; the rates doubled to 6.8 percent July 1. But Republicans oppose that, and a bill passed by the House requires a recalculation every year based on the market rates, capped at 8.5 percent.
- Vice President Joseph Biden is expected on Wednesday to swear in Sen.-elect Edward Markey, after last week's special election results are certified in Massachusetts. House Democrats will then pick a successor to Markey as the ranking member on the Committee on Natural Resources. Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Raul Grijalva of Arizona are vying for that post.
- A confirmation hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee for James Comey, the Republican nominated by President Obama to lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- Dual hearings Wednesday before the House and Senate Intelligence committees that will bring the Boston Marathon bombing back into the spotlight.
- An appearance Wednesday by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell before the House Small Business Committee on the topic of state strategies for small-business growth. Officials from Kansas, South Dakota, and Texas also will testify.
- A House vote on its fiscal 2014 Energy and Water Development bill. The bill totals $30.4 billion, $2.9 billion less than what was enacted in the bill for fiscal 2013 and $4.1 billion below Obama's request. The Rules Committee meets Tuesday to set floor action.
- A House vote on a controversial bill to fast-track the review process for mineral-mining permits, described by proponents as vital to end reliance on imports. Critics say the measure would undermine environmental checks by setting time limits for litigation and limiting injunctions. The Rules Committee will also set floor action Tuesday for this bill.
House Republicans may also take some action this week in response to Obama's decision to push back by one year the mandate in the Affordable Care Act for businesses with 50 or more employees to provide them health insurance. Boehner and other Republicans have responded by revving up calls to repeal or replace the law, but no floor action had been scheduled.
BUDGET AND FINANCE
So far, no plans have been announced in the House to take another stab at passing a five-year reauthorization of the nation's farm programs, after a version of the bill was voted down last month.
Though the House plans to vote this week on its Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies bill, it is growing increasingly unlikely that agreed-upon versions of this and most of the other appropriations bills will be passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by Sept. 30.
Meanwhile, though both chambers have passed budget documents, House Republican leaders are refusing to be drawn into a two-chamber conference to iron out the differences, something Democrats will be seeking to highlight further this week.
The House plan calls for eliminating the deficit in 10 years, but would require eventual repeal of the new health care law and other dramatic cuts to social programs. The Senate approach relies in part on additional taxes for deficit reduction, something Boehner and other Republicans oppose.
This stalemate continues as the clock ticks toward the August recess. The new fiscal year will begin just three weeks after lawmakers return to Washington on Sept. 9. Unless a breakthrough in the impasse occurs in the next few weeks, lawmakers will have to again resort to continuing resolutions to keep government running after Oct. 1.
Rebuking Obama's decision last month to unleash the Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down on greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will mark up legislation this week that reins in EPA's regulatory reach.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., would ban the agency from finalizing energy-related regulations—expected to cost more than $1 billion—if the Energy Department determines that the rule would cause "significant adverse effects to the economy." The EPA rules Obama announced last month would likely fall under that category, Cassidy said an interview last week.
Cassidy's bill, which will likely pass the GOP-controlled House, will probably not gain traction in the Democrat-controlled Senate, just like almost every other energy bill House Republicans have passed in the last three years. The House this week is also expected to pass an annual spending bill funding the Energy Department, although Congress is not likely to actually complete full appropriations bills this year.
Heading toward Wednesday's closed-door meeting, the playbook on immigration in the House is decidedly murky. To date, the House Judiciary Committee has passed four immigration-related bills—addressing local enforcement, farm workers, electronic verification, and high-skilled visas—but it hasn't addressed the thorny question of what to do with the nation's current undocumented population.
There are no bills in the works and no hearings scheduled to indicate the committee's next steps on that front.
Some House Republicans, including Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, seem at least willing to engage the idea that younger unauthorized immigrants who were brought here as children should be given a path to citizenship. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, has gone so far as to say the entire undocumented population should have some legal status, but he has stopped well short of saying they should become full-fledged citizens.
The bipartisan Group of Seven lawmakers are still circulating their comprehensive proposal in the House, but it isn't clear when they will release it or what will happen to it once they do.
Comey, who made a name for himself objecting to a warrantless surveillance program while in the George W. Bush Justice Department, is expected to face questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee about his stance on U.S. surveillance methods.
The issue has become particularly sensitive in light of the recent controversies at the National Security Agency.
Comey is also likely to be peppered with questions about the government's use of drones for domestic spying.
At the House and Senate hearings on the Boston Marathon bombings, lawmakers will try to extract lessons learned from the attack and search for solutions to better prevent future terrorist threats.
This article appears in the July 8, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.