With the end of the year's legislative calendar in sight, the major focus this week is on House and Senate negotiations to forge a budget package and a new farm bill, while uncertainty percolates over the status of tax-reform efforts.
Senate battles over President Obama's nominees will also continue, as will the controversies surrounding the Affordable Care Act, with the Republican-led House set to vote on a Republican bill dubbed the Keep Your Health Plan Act. Several committee hearings scheduled this week will provide Republicans with a forum to continue attacking the law.
Meanwhile, the Senate Homeland Security Committee has a hearing Wednesday on Obama's nomination of Jeh Johnson to head the Homeland Security Department. And the Senate Banking Committee will meet Thursday to consider Janet Yellen's nomination as the next chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the nation's central bank.
Likely to be confirmed, Yellen could arguably become the most powerful woman in Washington, holding the post well after Obama has left office.
Also in Congress this week:
- The Senate on Tuesday likely will take a procedural vote on pharmaceutical-compounding legislation, which has bipartisan support but could be derailed by an amendment offered by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., related to the Affordable Care Act.
- The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Thursday focused on "Threats to the Homeland." FBI Director James Comey, acting Homeland Security Secretary Rand Beers, and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen are scheduled to testify.
- The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is set to vote Tuesday on Obama's nomination of Terrell McSweeny to be a commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission. The panel also will act on three other nominations.
- The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the rollout of the health care law. The hearing is already drawing controversy because Chairman Darrell Issa issued a subpoena to top administration technology official Todd Park requiring his appearance.
- The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday to examine the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The hearing will coincide with the 100th day of Hassan Rouhani's presidency in that country.
- Richard Cordray, head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will deliver his agency's semiannual report to the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday.
- The House could name its conferees this week for upcoming negotiations over a final Water Resources and Reform and Development Reauthorization; the Senate did so last week.
- The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on a one-year review of the status of Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts and federal agency performances.
The Senate's return to session Tuesday will be marked by another sparring match over Obama's nominations. Republicans are angling to block the nomination of Cornelia Pillard to sit on the D.C. Circuit Court, which has some Democrats calling for a change to Senate rules — again.
But there are likely not enough Democratic votes to change the rules, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide.
If Republicans do block Pillard's nomination Tuesday, then it would be the third such block in two weeks. Last month, Republicans blocked the nominations of Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and of Patricia Millett to the D.C. Circuit.
BUDGET AND TAXES
The 29 members of the House and Senate budget conference committee will open their second public meeting on Wednesday with a briefing by Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elemendorf on the nation's economic outlook.
But it appears the committee's work is already turning into an argument over raising some new tax revenue to replace or soften an upcoming round of sequester cuts — precisely what the cochairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has warned should not happen. The budget conference committee must make recommendations by Dec. 13 on how to keep the government funded beyond Jan. 15. Another $91 billion in automatic sequester cuts are set to go into effect in January.
Committee members from both sides of the political aisle have publicly voiced willingness to compromise. The panel's other cochair, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wrote in an op-ed appearing over the weekend in The Washington Post that she is "willing to meet Republicans halfway and make some compromises when it comes to additional spending reductions," but she also stressed she won't agree to cuts that hurt seniors and families.
"Compromise, however, runs both ways," wrote Murray, who is chair of the Senate Budget Committee. "While we scour programs to identify savings, Republicans have to work with us to scour the bloated tax code and close loopholes used by the wealthiest Americans and corporations to replace the other half of sequestration."
In fact, as National Journal reported Friday, Democratic members of the budget conference committee have already drafted a memo listing "egregious tax loopholes" they plan to raise publicly as early as this week's meeting if Republicans continue to balk at considering some new tax revenue to help soften sequester cuts.
Those items on the list range from such well-tread suggestions as ending special deductions for corporate jet owners, to stopping subsidies for yachts or vacation homes, to "closing a loophole that lets hedge-fund managers pay lower tax rates on their income than teachers and firefighters."
But the indication at the conferees' first meeting from Ryan (who is the House Budget chairman) was that the bipartisan, bicameral panel should instead find non-tax revenue and user fees to go along with other spending cuts if the intention is to replace or soften the sequester.
It's uncertain how the committee's discussions and differences over taxes will affect efforts that have been underway this year in the House and Senate on a possible overhaul of the tax code. With the year winding down, it is also uncertain whether any proposed rewrite from either side of the Capitol will emerge soon, although a public unveiling of those efforts in either one or both chambers had been widely expected before Thanksgiving.
What is known is that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D"‘Mont., sent out a notice to panel members late last week that they will have a "Senators Only" meeting Thursday "to discuss tax reform." And some congressional aides say House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., is meeting with House GOP leaders this week on how and when to proceed with any plan they might unveil. How this might mesh with the budget conference committee's activities remains unclear.
Work continues by a separate House and Senate conference committee on a deal to reauthorize a multiyear farm bill. Progress is still sought on controversial areas, such as the commodity title and what level to write food-stamp reductions over the next decade, with the Senate having proposed a $4 billion cut and the House a much larger $39 billion in savings.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee's hearing Thursday featuring testimony from Comey, Beers, and Olsen on "Threats to the Homeland" is going to focus on terrorism threats. But it also is going to address cyberthreats, transnational organized crime, homegrown violent extremism, and lone-wolf offenders.
On Wednesday, the same day Johnson will appear for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is to mark up a foreign-aid transparency bill.
Meanwhile, adding to the list of events focusing on the health care law, the House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on "Cyber Side-Effects: How Secure Is the Personal Information Entered Into the Flawed HealthCare.gov?"
Yellen's appearance for her nomination hearing before the Senate Banking Committee is expected to lead to discussions on a range of topics, from financial regulation to how she plans to unwind the Fed's massive balance sheet.
Yellen, who has served as the Fed's vice chair since 2010, is expected to easily win confirmation, although a handful of senators have said they will use her confirmation as leverage in other congressional fights. As an aside, the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Monetary Policy and Trade will hold its own hearing Wednesday on central banking. The committee is planning to look at international models for central banks. The provocative title of the hearing: "What Is Central About Central Banking?"
Meanwhile, Cordray, head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will deliver his agency's semiannual report Tuesday to the Senate Banking Committee. Although Republicans opposed the creation of the bureau under the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform law, the hearing is not expected to be particularly contentious. A possible topic of discussion will be rules to crack down on debt collectors, which the CFPB solicited comment on last week.
The Joint Economic Committee is to hear Wednesday afternoon from Jason Furman, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, on the economic outlook. The latest data, out last week, showed an economy that expanded by 2.8 percent in the third quarter and picked up 204,000 jobs in October.
Current Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke is hosting a town hall for teachers Wednesday evening, his third such event.
Whether Vitter's demand for a Senate vote this week on his amendment to the Drug Quality and Security Act will be permitted is uncertain. The Louisiana Republican's amendment aims at ending an exemption to congressional employees under the Affordable Care Act.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said Vitter had been offered a vote on the amendment, but Democrats want him to refrain from offering the amendment on later bills. Vitter had not yet agreed to that condition, the aide said.
The potential action on his amendment is just one of several arenas in which Republicans in both chambers are continuing their attacks on the Affordable Care Act, both with floor action and in committee events, including Issa's House Oversight Committee hearing Wednesday on the law's troubled rollout, and whether HealthCare.gov was designed with the best IT practices in mind.
That hearing already has created controversy with the subpoenaing of Park — one of the leading officials involved in the government website. An outside group has even created its own site, LetToddWork.org, to express discontent with Park being called to testify when he could be working to fix the troubled Obamacare exchange site.
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
The focus on the health care law will include the House floor vote set for Friday on the Keep Your Health Plan Act, as legislation that would allow insurance plans that existed on the individual market as of Jan. 1, 2013, to stay in effect through 2014. The measure was introduced by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich.
On Thursday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy is to appear before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on the topic of "Strengthening Transparency and Accountability" within EPA.
House Republicans will also be holding up a magnifying glass to the administration's efforts to cap greenhouse-gas emissions from stationary sources with an oversight hearing in the Energy and Power Subcommittee on EPA's new source performance standards for future power plants on Thursday.
The hearing will examine a draft of legislation introduced last month by subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. The bill would repeal EPA's proposed regulations for new power plants and allow Congress to determine when carbon limits on existing plants would go into effect.
This week, EPA is expected to release the 2014 renewable-fuel standard. A leaked draft earlier this year showed scale-backs to corn ethanol levels, which has troubled corn producers and biofuels makers but encouraged others who think the mandates are too high. EPA has not confirmed that the leaked version will match final figures.
The president is set to give a speech Wednesday to the annual Tribal Nations Conference. On Thursday, he is off to Philadelphia to raise money for Democrats before returning to town Friday with no scheduled public events planned.