The Senate this week could achieve a legislative milestone on gay rights if it passes a major civil-rights bill that would bar employers from discriminating against gays, lesbians, and transsexuals in the workplace.
The GOP-led House, away from Washington on a one-week recess, is unlikely to take up the Employment Non-Discrimination Act when it returns. But Senate passage would represent a major step forward for the legislation that has been in the works for two decades — and could give President Obama political cover to institute nondiscrimination rules for federal contractors.
Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is set to return to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to provide an update on the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act's insurance exchanges, this time before the Senate Finance Committee.
Some other highlights this week:
- After convening Monday afternoon, the Senate will move to vote on the nominations of Gregory Woods to be a U.S. District judge for the Southern District of New York and Debra Brown to be a district judge for the Northern District of Mississippi.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday holds a subcommittee hearing on methane emissions from oil- and gas-drilling operations.
- Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., will likely put forward legislation this week to eliminate the corn-ethanol mandate in the renewable-fuel standard.
- The Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday holds a hearing on housing-finance reform. The hearing comes after Senate Democrats could not secure the needed votes to advance the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
- The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday will hear from senior military leaders on the impact of sequestration on defense.
The Senate is expected to vote on the motion to proceed on the Non-Discrimination Act on Monday after dispatching with the judicial nominations of Woods and Brown.
Some polls suggest that most Americans already think the concept of barring employers from discriminating against gays, lesbians, and transsexuals in the workplace is already written into law. Indeed, the House passed a similar bill in 2007 that died in the Senate. The principle difference between the House bill and the current Senate bill is that the Senate bill covers transgender individuals, a controversial omission in the 2007 bill.
Advocates have downplayed the gay-rights theme of the legislation, talking instead about the minimal impact it would have on businesses, many of which already have nondiscrimination policies in place. Some Senate Republicans complain that the legislation would invite more lawsuits. But several prominent Republicans are on board, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Orrin Hatch of Utah. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, says he is leaning toward supporting it.
Passage of the bill became more assured last week when three Democratic holdouts — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Bill Nelson of Florida — signed onto the legislation. With the addition of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., they are within one or two votes of passing the 60-vote margin. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he is comfortable that it will pass.
BUDGET and ECONOMY
Seeking Common Ground
Following last week's inaugural meeting, the bipartisan, bicameral budget conference committee has not scheduled another get-together as a group until Nov. 13. But members and staffs are planning to continue this week to work behind the scenes to find some common ground between Senate Democrats and House Republicans on spending, perhaps revenues, and how to address the automatic budget cuts under the sequester.
The 29-member panel cochaired by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray has until Dec. 13 to produce recommendations for the full House and Senate on how to keep funding the government after Jan. 15, when the current stop-gap measure expires.
Most of the work of House and Senate conferences — as is also the case with a farm-bill conference simultaneously underway — typically gets done in private discussions between the two principals, the House and Senate chairs, sometimes along with the ranking members and staff.
At the opening meeting last week of the budget conference, Ryan warned that if it becomes a fight over taxes, "we're not going to get anywhere."
Meanwhile, Murray, who is the Senate Budget Committee chairwoman, urged Republicans at the initial hearing to help "scour the bloated tax code" to close loopholes and special-interest subsidies. There have been published reports that Obama is indicating that he may not insist on raising taxes as part of a deal to replace some of the sequester cuts.
Budget experts have predicted to National Journal that the conference will wind up with a minor agreement on something far less substantive than "tax reform" that could include indexing Social Security benefits to the so-called chained consumer price index.
Murray told NJ that leading up to the next full conference meeting Nov. 13, "we'll be working, trying to figure out how we can move forward on this."
"Obviously we all need to get it done fairly quickly. The time is very short," Murray said, regarding the goal of making progress well before the committee's Dec. 13 end date, stressing time was of the essence.
The struggles over Mel Watt's confirmation also are likely to continue drawing focus. After the failure last week of Senate Democrats to get enough votes to advance Watt's nomination, Reid pledged on Thursday to have the Senate reconsider Watt's nomination "in the very near future."
On Friday — and a week late — the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release the closely watched October jobs report. The delay is due to last month's partial government shutdown, which temporarily suspended the agency's regularly scheduled data collection and analysis, and is expected to push up the unemployment rate. The BLS report will come one day after the Bureau of Economic Analysis releases its first estimate of third-quarter GDP.
Wrapping up the week, outgoing Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke will participate in a panel discussion on Friday afternoon about the financial crisis at a conference hosted by the International Monetary Fund in D.C. One of the other panelists is Lawrence Summers, who withdrew his name from consideration to replace Bernanke at the Fed earlier this fall.
DEFENSE and NATIONAL SECURITY
As the conference committee works to forge a budget deal, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hear Thursday from Chief of Naval Operations Jon Greenert, Marine Corps Commandant James Amos, Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh, and Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno on the impact of sequestration.
Expect a lot of doom and gloom, but it's not likely to move the needle. Toward the end of the week, Iran talks in Geneva will resume with world powers to resolve the decade-long dispute over its nuclear program.
Meanwhile, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., plans to start trying to lay the groundwork to lobby for her bill that would take the decision of whether to prosecute sexual assaults in the military out of the chain of command. She has her eye on offering her bill as an amendment to the defense authorization bill, which Senate leaders are hoping to take up before Thanksgiving, and she plans to hold a Wednesday press conference on the issue.
Push for Enrollment Numbers
Sebelius's testimony is set for Wednesday before the Senate Finance Committee, and it will almost certainly add fuel for more headlines regarding the HealthCare.gov website problems and the news of millions of policy cancellations.
On Friday, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., wrote to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner requesting that CMS make all information regarding enrollment in the Obamacare exchanges immediately available.
That move came after reports were aired that the Obama administration does have daily enrollment figures — which Camp depicted as a contradiction to testimony that Tavenner provided the committee last week when she stated that enrollment numbers would not be available until mid-November. Camp's letter demands that each day's enrollment data be available no later than 5 p.m. the following business day "beginning immediately."
ENERGY and ENVIRONMENT
Spotlight on Methane
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's subcommittee hearing on methane emissions from oil- and gas-drilling operations comes at a time when methane has largely flown under the radar as Obama doubles down on limits for carbon pollution under the climate-action plan.
The hearing will shift the spotlight, however briefly, from carbon to methane as the panel examines the potential environmental effects of the greenhouse gas. Testimony is expected by an Environmental Protection Agency official from the Office of Air and Radiation, as well as representatives of the oil and gas industry and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Feinstein's and Coburn's plan to put forward legislation next week to eliminate the corn-ethanol mandate in the renewable-fuel standard comes as EPA is still preparing its mandated biofuel levels for next year. Many in Congress have urged the agency to drop ethanol production below the 14 billion-gallon level set to go into effect.
On the Road
President Obama has a mixed schedule this week, ranging from a speech on the economy and honoring wounded troops to saluting sports champions and raising money for his party. On Monday, the president gets to welcome his hometown Chicago Blackhawks to the White House to recognize their Stanley Cup championship. After that, he will talk to supporters at Organizing for Action. On Tuesday, he goes to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to visit with troops who were wounded in action. He also will visit one of his favorite charities, the Fisher House, a program that helps out military families during treatment. On Wednesday, Obama is off to Dallas for Democratic fundraising. Thursday, he is back at the White House, but Friday he hits the road again, going to New Orleans to talk about the importance of increasing exports to create more jobs. From New Orleans, he flies to Miami for more fundraising.