In a year already marked by partisan antagonism, the next few days could be particularly combative on Capitol Hill.
A showdown is shaping up in the Senate, with Majority Leader Harry Reid threatening to change filibuster rules unless Republicans relent and allow votes on President Obama's nominees. A verdict on the so-called "nuclear option," which would allow approval by a simple majority, could come as early as Tuesday.
Appearing Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Reid said "the changes we are making are very, very minimal," describing the rules change as not applying to judicial nominations.
"What we're doing is saying 'look American people, shouldn't President Obama have somebody working for him that he wants?'" Reid said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appearing later on the same program, said, "It's breaking the rules of the Senate in order to change the rules of the Senate."
Meanwhile, House GOP leaders will push a series of messaging bills to delay two key mandates in the Affordable Care Act, in an effort to force Democrats in that chamber to make tough votes.
Also in the "unsettled" column are agreements on the farm bill, immigration reform, and efforts to lower interest rates on student loans—to say nothing of a budget deal, which is still elusive, with just 21 legislative work days scheduled before the Oct. 1 start of a new fiscal year.
Other action in Congress this week may include:
- A meeting Wednesday of the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which may recommend a successor to Sen.-elect Edward Markey of Massachusetts as ranking member on the Committee on Natural Resources. Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Raul Grijalva of Arizona are battling for that post.
- The swearing-in of Markey on Tuesday by Vice President Joe Biden to the seat previously held by Secretary of State John Kerry.
- A hearing planned for Tuesday by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., on his bill to beef up security at all U.S. embassies, and another hearing set for Thursday in the House Foreign Affairs Committee related to the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi.
- A House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Thursday to take another look at the IRS controversy. Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has dubbed the hearing, "The IRS's Systematic Delay and Scrutiny of Tea Party Applications."
- A possible House vote on a $512.5 billion Defense Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014.
- A possible House vote to renew and revise the No Child Left Behind law.
The main congressional event this week will likely be the showdown over executive nominations and Republican delay tactics.
The Senate is set to convene on Monday at the suggestion of Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., for a rare meeting in the Old Senate Chamber. The goal, for Republicans at least, is to avert a dramatic rules change that would make executive-branch nominations subject to a simple-majority vote.
Without some resolution, the issue could come to a head on Tuesday, as the Senate considers a procedural vote on the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If Republicans move to block Cordray's confirmation, Reid said he is prepared to go "nuclear."
Details of how that would work procedurally were uncertain as of late last week, but Republicans were enraged. McConnell called it a "sad day" in the Senate and said Reid could go down in history as the "worst majority leader ever."
Reid, D-Nev., has filed cloture on seven nominations, including those of Thomas Perez as Labor secretary; Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency; three National Labor Relations Board nominees; and the president's appointee to head the Export-Import Bank.
BUDGET, TAXES, and FINANCE
The House Oversight hearing Thursday is to focus on the relationship between IRS officials in Cincinnati and Washington and how it was determined that applications for tax-exempt status by tea-party groups would be subject to extra scrutiny, said Issa.
"Washington and Cincinnati IRS officials have told committee investigators that they understood tea-party applications were being isolated from other cases and subjected to extra scrutiny to ensure fair, efficient, and consistent treatment," Issa said in announcing Thursday's hearing. "While President Obama has already dismissed the head of the IRS in the wake of this scandal, this hearing will examine why decisions to elevate cases to more senior levels of the IRS led to unjust delays and unfair treatment of tea-party applications."
Issa said witnesses from the IRS "will be asked to explain why, even as dozens of applications for progressive groups were being approved, orders from senior levels within the IRS resulted in inappropriate and disparate treatment for tea-party applications."
Whether a floor vote will take place this week on the House Republicans' $512.5 billion Defense Appropriations bill for FY14—as Cantor said was possible—or later this month, there is likely to be some testy floor back-and-forth. Appropriations ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., has said, "Considered in a vacuum, this is a good bill." But she and other Democrats are hitting Republicans for ignoring the next scheduled round of sequester cuts, as Lowey says, "when it suits their purposes—for veterans, homeland security, and today, for defense." Democrats say they won't sit by while funding for social programs in other appropriations bills are slashed even more, as a result.
There also is talk that Republicans may be considering limiting or preventing controversial amendments to the bill, such as those regarding the National Security Agency.
The Senate Armed Services Committee this week will be getting a closed-door briefing on the situation in Syria—and the major threats facing Navy forces.
The Syria briefing from Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld and Defense Undersecretary for Policy James Miller on Tuesday is closed. There also will be another briefing Wednesday delivered by top Navy officials.
On Thursday, the panel will consider the nominations of Gen. Martin Dempsey to be reappointed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Winnefeld's reappointment as vice chairman.
If the House this week does take up a bill to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind education law, it would be the first time the House has voted on a K-12 bill since 2001, when the groundbreaking standards-setting law was passed.
But it isn't without its critics. The House Education and the Workforce Committee passed the new Republican bill on a party-line vote. Democrats on the committee hate the bill, saying it would dismantle most of the federal protections now in place for disadvantaged students.
But Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., has repeatedly praised the legislation for returning much of the control over schools where he thinks it belongs—in the states and school districts. It would eliminate the problematic student achievement benchmarks that No Child Left Behind put in place, but it would retain the requirement that schools disaggregate the data on student progress so that learning problems among minorities and poorer kids won't be masked by their white or richer classmates.
More than anything, Kline and his GOP colleagues want to get rid of the current situation in which the Education Department is approving waivers on the benchmarks for individual states because Congress hasn't reworked the law. "Continuing to allow short-term fixes and temporary waivers to take the place of a better law is inexcusable," he said when the bill passed his committee.
If the House doesn't take up the bill this week, it could easily move to the floor next week or the week after.
ENERGY and ENVIRONMENT
The potential Senate fireworks over executive nominations—and their impact on McCarthy as Obama's choice to head of the Environmental Protection Agency—won't be the only congressional action related to the environment this week.
EPA's pending rules controlling greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants will likely come up in a hearing on climate science Thursday held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
While Republicans asked Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to focus on the agency's greenhouse-gas regulations, Boxer has said the first hearing will focus only on the science and no administration officials are slated to testify. That probably won't stop Republicans from criticizing Obama's plans to regulate carbon anyway.
Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is marking up legislation this week sponsored by Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., which is the de facto GOP response to EPA's climate rules. The bill would ban EPA from finalizing energy-related regulations that would be expected to cost more than $1 billion if the Energy Department determines the rule would cause "significant adverse effects on the economy." Opening statements will be on Tuesday, with most of the action, including an expected party-line vote to approve the bill, happening Wednesday.
It's unclear whether the full House will vote on the bill before the August recess, but whenever it does get a vote, it will likely pass but get little if any traction in the upper chamber, like most energy bills.
The fallout from the Obama administration's July 2 decision to delay for one year the requirement under Obamacare for businesses with 50 or more employees to provide health coverage for workers will continue to dominate the conversation in the lower chamber this week.
The House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce health subcommittees will hold separate hearings on the White House's decision. And the House Rules Committee has set a hearing for Tuesday to consider floor procedures on the two bills to delay the employer and individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans are trying to capitalize even more on the administration's decision last week to delay the employer mandate. Democrats could be put in the awkward political position of appearing to favor businesses over individuals or, if they don't vote to delay the employer mandate, of breaking with the White House's latest decision. But delaying the individual mandate could also cause insurance premiums to rise, making Republicans' key criticism of the law—that it will make health insurance too expensive—more likely to come true.
As the discussion takes place, expect lots of rhetoric from the GOP about the unfairness of delaying the insurance mandate for businesses but not individuals, and questions about whether the administration had the legal right to delay implementation of the law for one year. Expect Democrats to respond that the two mandates are unrelated, that the law is complicated and the administration is trying to take the time it needs to get it right, and that the new health insurance marketplaces that individuals will use to shop for insurance will be ready for their Oct. 1 debut.
"The administration declared last week that they would delay the enforcement of the mandate on businesses for a year," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said on Thursday, "but not the mandate on working families and individuals. We will respond next week to correct this injustice."
But Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., gave a hint of what the Democratic response will be, saying "Certain reporting by businesses that could be perceived as onerous, that reporting requirement was delayed," she said, in part to review how it could work better. "It was not a delay of the mandate for the businesses, and there shouldn't be a delay of the mandate for individuals."
Meanwhile, the administration and groups like Organizing for Action and Enroll America will continue efforts to spread the word about the law as the marketplaces' open-enrollment period this fall approaches.
Last fall's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi that took the lives of Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans will be back in the news this week as a result of hearings planned on both sides of the Capitol.
Menendez's hearing Tuesday focuses on his bill to beef up security at all U.S. embassies in line with recommendations made by the Accountability Review Board on Benghazi.
A key provision, according to Menendez, would grant authority to the State Department to award contracts on a "best value" basis, rather than to the lowest bidder, if it would mean better security measures were in place.
Witnesses scheduled for Tuesday's hearing are Gregory Starr, the State Department's acting assistant secretary for diplomatic security, and Bill Miller, deputy assistant secretary of State for high-threat posts.
Not to be outdone on Benghazi, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold its own hearing Thursday on State Department accountability in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Libya. The star witness is scheduled to be Raymond Maxwell, a former diplomat who claims he was made a scapegoat for the tragedy by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Maxwell was deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs from August 2011 until he was placed on administrative leave in December—one of four State Department officials who were disciplined following an internal investigation of the incident. Maxwell claims he had no role in security decisions in Benghazi and does not know why he was ordered to vacate his post.
Also scheduled to testify at the House hearing Thursday are Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, and a representative of the American Foreign Service Association.
Obama will stick close to the White House this week, keeping him available if needed to push immigration reform.
On Monday, he will host former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush to honor the former president's Point of Light program. The occasion is the awarding of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light. The only other events on Obama's schedule for the week are an ambassadorial credentialing ceremony on Thursday and a reception for the diplomatic corps on Friday.
Michael Catalini, George E. Condon Jr., Nancy Cook, Coral Davenport, Amy Harder, Fawn Johnson, and Sara Sorcher contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the July 15, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.