The House and Senate this week will take up several long-awaited legislative items, though they will do so amid the circus atmosphere surrounding the House GOP's buildup to a vote later this month on suing President Obama over his executive actions.
The public launch of the unusual effort begins Wednesday as the House Rules Committee hears testimony from legal experts about the merits of such litigation. Speaker John Boehner has signaled the House will be suing Obama specifically for delaying enforcement of the Affordable Care Act's employer mandate last year, on the grounds that doing so without congressional approval violated the Constitution.
Democrats are likening the hearing to a show trial, though both parties have chosen two legal witnesses to appear. Testifying for Republicans are attorneys Jonathan Turley and Elizabeth Price Foley, while Democrats have enlisted Walter Dellinger and Simon Lazarus.
Republicans say they ultimately plan to bring their resolution authorizing a lawsuit to the floor in the last week of July — right before members go on the August break.
Meanwhile, House Majority Leader-elect Kevin McCarthy says the chamber's appropriators will be scrutinizing Obama's request for $3.7 billion to deal with the humanitarian crisis on the U.S-Mexico border with the influx of illegal crossings — but he also said that any bill will not be brought to the floor for a vote this week.
On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is holding a hearing aimed at addressing the "root causes" of the rise in apprehensions at the border. But it also is not clear when a vote will come in the Senate on Obama's supplemental funding request. Republicans in both chambers have largely panned the request as tantamount to a "blank check."
House Republican leaders do expect a vote this week on the chamber's $10.8 billion version of a bill to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent before it runs out of money at the end of summer, potentially halting road, bridge, and mass-transit projects.
The Senate has not yet decided when it will take up its bipartisan version of such a bill, which was approved last week by the Finance Committee. Like the House bill, it would extend the fund through May and into a new Congress. It brings about the same amount of money to the fund as the House bill through some similar funding mechanisms, including budgeting maneuvers tied to pensions. But there are differences that would have to be resolved.
The Senate is expected this week to take up its Terrorism Risk Insurance Program Reauthorization Act, as the current act is set to expire Dec. 31. The bill extends the program, which partly covers the cost of damages from terrorism, until 2021. Senators have already drawn up a list of amendments, a sign that the bill is likely to pass, though even bipartisan issues have fallen apart on the floor.
McCarthy on Friday advised members that the House may also consider the chamber's version of the insurance program reauthorization, which has some differences from the Senate bill.
Also, the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case will continue to take much of the spotlight this week, with legislation to reverse the ruling expected to come up in both chambers. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Senate will take up the bill this week. The legislation would be likely to pass in the upper chamber, but not in the House, where a companion bill was introduced.
Here's some of what else Congress is doing this week:
BUDGET and FINANCE
Approps Slog Continues
The House plans to take up its version of a fiscal 2015 Financial Services and General Government spending bill. That would be the seventh of 12 annual spending bills passed in the House.
But in a discussion on the House floor Friday, McCarthy would not tell Minority Whip Steny Hoyer whether he expects all 12 bills to be completed by the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, saying only that "I will keep you informed."
Over in the Senate, appropriators will mark up the Defense spending bill on Tuesday, with a full committee markup on Thursday.
So far, however, the Senate has not passed any of the 12 spending bills. The process has succumbed to partisan wrangling over Senate procedure, specifically whether amendments should be subject to 60-vote or majority thresholds on the floor.
There is widening acceptance of the notion that the budget process will not be completed on time. Many lawmakers believe a number of the appropriations bills — if not all — will have to be wrapped up in some omnibus or continuing-resolution package that will provide ongoing funding for government agencies and programs into the new fiscal year — and until lawmakers return from the Nov. 4 elections.
Beyond appropriations bills, the House this week is to consider a package of five tax bills from the Ways and Means Committee that are depicted as measures to foster charitable giving.
The five bills that will be included are the Conservation Easement Incentive Act of 2013; a bill making a rule allowing certain tax-free distributions from individual retirement accounts for charitable purposes permanent; a bill to permanently extend and expand the charitable deduction for contributions of food inventory; the Charitable Giving Extension Act; and a bill modifying the tax rate for excise tax on investment income of private foundations.
DEFENSE and NATIONAL SECURITY
Eye on Iraq, VA
Monitoring the situation in Iraq also remains a high priority. The House Foreign Affairs Committee holds a hearing on the U.S. response to the terrorist advancement in Iraq on Tuesday, followed by an afternoon joint subcommittee hearing on the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Iraq and beyond.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate are still trying to hash out a compromise on legislation to reform the Veterans Affairs Department and stanch a streak of reported — and largely preventable — veteran deaths.
Lawmakers have been struggling to rein in costs associated with the legislation. But conference committee members got a boost from a revised Congressional Budget Office score that brought down the estimate of the House VA bill to $35 billion over 10 years, from at least $44 billion over five years.
The House and Senate are under pressure to reach a deal and complete the legislation before Congress adjourns for the August recess at the end of the month.
The state of VA health care comes under the spotlight with a hearing in the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
ENERGY and ENVIRONMENT
EPA Under Fire
With the Senate in on Monday but with no votes set, Reid has teed up the nominations of Norman Bay and Cheryl LaFleur to be members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for Tuesday.
Democrats have said they're confident they have the votes to move the nominations, but Bay in particular has sparked some opposition for his role in prosecuting companies for allegedly violating federal rules when he headed FERC's enforcement office.
A week after the full House cleared the spending bill for the Energy Department, the House Appropriations Committee is to take up the Interior and Environment spending bill, which comes equipped with plenty of anti-EPA riders.
Among the more controversial will be provisions blocking the Environmental Protection Agency's rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants and a clarification of the agency's Clean Water Act jurisdiction, both of which were also attached to the Energy spending bill. Democrats, meanwhile, are expected to try to restore some of the $717 million cut from EPA's budget and try to fend off some of the attacks on the president's climate plan.
EPA will continue to face hostile pushback from House conservatives on Tuesday during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee hearing to examine the agency's proposal to clarify its jurisdiction over streams and wetlands.
On the other side of the Capitol on Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will examine the president's proposed Forest Service budget for fiscal 2015 and whether it grants sufficient funding for wildfire prevention and readiness. Federal funds set aside to fight wildfires have been stretched thin in recent years as fires increase in number and severity. The president's budget request to Congress would allow the Forest Service to dip into disaster-relief funds to fight the costliest blazes.
A House Science subcommittee will tackle EPA's system for testing the human health risks of environmental contaminants on Wednesday. The Integrated Risk Information System program has taken flack for its backlog and lack of transparency, but EPA's Kenneth Olden, who oversees the National Center for Environmental Assessment, will defend reforms made to the IRIS process last year.
Revisiting Hobby Lobby
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday is to take on the issue of reproductive health this week, with a full committee hearing titled "The Women's Health Protection Act: Removing Barriers to Constitutionally Protected Reproductive Rights."
The Senate is also expected to take up a messaging bill aimed at rolling back the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case.
The Protect Women's Health From Corporate Interference Act, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Mark Udall of Colorado, who faces a challenging opponent in Rep. Cory Gardner, aims to prevent employers from refusing to cover health care, including contraception.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on problems with the Affordable Care Act's eligibility verification system on Wednesday. A report from the Health and Human Services Department's inspector general released at the end of last month found that the federal marketplace was unable to resolve 2.6 million of the 2.9 million inconsistencies as of the first quarter of 2014, because the eligibility system from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was not yet fully operational.
Energy and Commerce also has a hearing scheduled Wednesday to look into an incident at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labs last month, when up to 84 employees in Atlanta may have been exposed to anthrax after live samples were unknowingly sent from one CDC lab to others.
CDC released a report on the incident Friday, in which officials say that federal government labs in Atlanta improperly sent dangerous pathogens to other labs in five different incidents over the past 10 years. CDC Director Tom Frieden will testify at the hearing Wednesday.
Botnets and Copyrights
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday is to hold a hearing on cybercriminal networks known as "botnets."
Also on Tuesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property and the Internet is to hold a hearing examining royalties and termination rights on copyrighted material as part of a yearlong review of the copyright system.
Obama in NYC
Obama focuses again this week on familiar themes: touting economic improvements on his watch and raising campaign cash for Democrats.
On Monday he accepts the credentials of several ambassadors from other nations in the Oval Office. On Tuesday he makes a short trip to McLean, Va., for remarks on the economy.
After meetings Wednesday at the White House, he heads for New York City on Thursday for a Democratic National Committee roundtable and fundraiser.
A side visit to Delaware is likely to be added to Obama's Thursday schedule. He ends the week Friday with more meetings at the White House.