With tensions over fiscal issues building, and the three-month suspension of the nation’s debt limit set to expire Sunday, lawmakers this week will be rehashing on the House floor their messaging war over repealing President Obama’s three-year-old health care law.
Thursday's vote on Rep. Michele Bachmann's bill to undo the Affordable Care Act will represent the 37th time the House has set out to repeal all or part of the law since 2011, though she and other Republicans know the Democratic-led Senate will not take up its measure.
Other congressional business expected this week:
- Senate floor votes on the nominations of Ernest Moniz for Energy secretary and Marilyn Tavenner to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Judicial nominations may come up as well.
- A markup by the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday of a new farm bill, the once-every-five-years legislation that sets food and farm policy. The House Agriculture Committee will consider its version on Wednesday. The Senate passed a bill last session, but the House did not take it up.
- Continued work by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and Thursday on its markup of an immigration bill, preparing the legislation for a full-blown floor debate in June.
- A roll-call cloture vote Tuesday in the Senate on the Water Resources Development Act, with passage perhaps later in the week.
- A House vote Friday on a GOP bill dubbed the SEC Regulatory Accountability Act. Republicans describe it as a measure to require the Securities and Exchange Commission to do a cost-benefit analysis on any rule-making.
As for the debt ceiling, the Treasury Department has said it can delay new borrowing until September or October by juggling the books, and the threat of default remains low for now.
Still, what was once a routine matter for Congress and the White House to agree upon—increasing the nation’s ability to borrow to pay its bills—has become a game of chicken to gain partisan leverage and extract concessions.
House Republicans also are expected to meet behind closed doors Tuesday, possibly to discuss their strategy regarding the debt ceiling, but there is little evidence that real bipartisan negotiations are under way.
As for the more-public GOP action to repeal the health care law, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., offered blithely, “It seems like a week doesn't go by that some version of it isn't there" on the floor.
In a statement Friday, Bachmann of Minnesota said the law "removes health care choices from women and their families and inserts government bureaucrats between them and their doctors." She added, “Three years after being signed into law, Obamacare is a train wreck that is deeply unpopular with the American people and it must be fully repealed." Her bill would do just that.
As Congress gets a reprieve from any imminent fiscal battles, there are two developing issues to watch over the next few months.
In the House, lawmakers must decide the fate of the online-sales-tax legislation that passed the Senate, 69-27, on May 6. Speaker John Boehner told Bloomberg Television that he "probably" won't support the bill; it would allow states to collect sales taxes from Internet retailers, even if those businesses have no physical presence in a given consumer's state.
House Republicans will also spend this week talking about the way they want to handle the debt-ceiling fight. Should they try to link raising the debt ceiling to a plan to do tax reform, or should they push for additional spending cuts?
Independent analysts now estimate that the Treasury Department's extraordinary measures will last through September or mid-October, which pushes the fight until the fall and gives the House GOP more time to strategize.
Use of Force
The big news on the defense beat is likely to come from Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the laws of armed conflict and the use of military force—in particular, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Obama administration is using the AUMF as justification to kill terrorists from al-Qaida and related groups even outside of traditional battlegrounds like Afghanistan, with drone strikes in places such as Yemen and Somalia, sparking debate over whether the legislative body should redefine the authorization for use of force—and how. The Defense Department's acting General Counsel Robert Taylor will testify alongside Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, deputy director for special operations/counterterrorism on the Joint Staff, and Brig. Gen. Richard Gross, legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On a second panel, a slew of professors and experts will give their opinions—including Harvard Law School's Jack Goldsmith, who led the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department in the George W. Bush years and wrestled with controversy over his memos on detainees.
The Senate this week may vote on the confirmation of Ernest Moniz, Obama’s nominee to head the Energy Department, if Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina lifts his hold on the nominee. Graham, who has said he likes Moniz personally, has blocked his nomination over an objection to a White House plan to consider putting a nuclear-fuel project in his state. Meanwhile, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee begins a series of hearings on the impact of the nation’s new boom in natural-gas production. On Thursday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee holds a hearing "Opportunities Lost: Constraints on Oil and Gas Production on Federal Lands and Waters."
The nomination of Gina McCarthy, Obama’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, may be in jeopardy after Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week boycotted a vote to bring her confirmation to the Senate floor. This week, Senate Democrats are scrambling to find a way, within parliamentary rules, to move McCarthy’s nomination through the panel, with or without Republican cooperation. Even then, though, she could face a Republican-led filibuster. But while Republicans and Democrats on the Environment panel are at bitter partisan odds over McCarthy, they did come together to advance the Water Resources Development Act, which is expected to pass the full Senate smoothly this week. In the House, EPA will come under scrutiny as the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday holds a hearing on the agency’s fiscal 2014 budget.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will continue its markup of an immigration bill Tuesday and Thursday, preparing the legislation for a full-blown floor debate in June. If the sessions go anything like last week's first meeting, they will last for most of the day as members consider hundreds of amendments. On tap for Tuesday is title relating to current work-visa programs—notably the H-1B temporary-worker program for high-skilled workers and the H-2B program for seasonal visas. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has several amendments pending to make it easier for employers to bring skilled foreign workers into the country. He will be key to the overall passage of the bill, and proponents are hoping to woo him into voting yes.
Still on tap is the most controversial part of the bill, the title that would give about 11 million undocumented immigrants legal status and a lengthy path to citizenship if they prove eligible. The concept is abhorrent to tea-party conservatives such as Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, who are on the committee. Cruz will offer an amendment to the bill denying citizenship benefits for anyone now in the country without papers, which will spark some cross talk but is almost certain to be voted down by the other members.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has set a goal of finishing the bill before Memorial Day, and thus far, the members have accommodated him by allowing the meetings to go forward without throwing up parliamentary hurdles. The bill is expected to pass the committee largely intact because four members of the "Gang of Eight" senators who crafted the immigration bill sit on the panel: Graham and Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The "gang" has pledged to fend off amendments that disrupt the carefully negotiated framework of the bill.
The House Judiciary Committee also will be taking up immigration this week, with back-to-back hearings on Thursday analyzing two smaller bills, one on agriculture workers and one on employment verification. The hearings are intended to begin the committee's "piecemeal" process of considering immigration, a procedure favored by chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va. Democrats are likely to protest both bills, which are sponsored by Republicans and feature none of the compromises forged among negotiators in both chambers.
The House is preparing to fend off the pending July 1 deadline when the interest rates for need-based student loans will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The House Education and the Workforce Committee will mark up legislation to shift new student loans from fixed rates to a market-based, floating rate based on the 10-year Treasury note. The measure will then move to the House floor the week before Memorial Day.
Last year, House leaders were scrambling to fix the interest-rate hike when it suddenly became a potent campaign issue, and they were only able to patch it for one year. Now, they want to proceed in a more rational direction, taking advantage of low interest rates to argue that all student loans—need-based or not—should be linked to markets. The Obama administration has put forth a similar proposal, but Democrats in the House are complaining that the Republican-sponsored student loan bill does not protect borrowers enough.
Obama faces a week heavy on foreign policy but, as he did last week, will try to end it with an emphasis on the domestic economy. That will come on a Friday visit to Baltimore, the second stop in his tour of places that are doing interesting things to boost economic growth. Before he can get there, though, he’ll be welcoming two crucial allied leaders to the White House. British Prime Minister David Cameron will be here on Monday and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits on Thursday. The talks with Erdogan are seen as key to the search for a unified response to the continuing violence in Syria. But other Middle East issues will be on the agenda, including Erdogan’s upcoming trip to Gaza. Also on Monday, the president will go to New York City to raise money for the Democratic National Committee.
Nancy Cook, Coral Davenport, Fawn Johnson, Sara Sorcher, and George E. Condon Jr. contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the May 13, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.