What’s Left on the Senate’s To Do List

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), shown talking last week to reporters, on Sunday outlined several concerns about a deal reached by Iran and six other governments to address the Middle Eastern nation's disputed nuclear activities.
National Journal
Billy House
Dec. 15, 2013, 7:10 a.m.

The year-end spot­light will shine on the Sen­ate this week as it con­siders fi­nal pas­sage of the two-year budget deal, as well as con­firm­a­tion votes on Janet Yel­len to head the Fed­er­al Re­serve Board and Jeh John­son to lead the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment.

Oth­er items already passed by the House will also reach the Sen­ate floor, such as an an­nu­al policy bill for the Pentagon and le­gis­la­tion to ex­tend the ex­ist­ing farm bill through Janu­ary to al­low for con­tin­ued ne­go­ti­ations on a new, long-term ver­sion.

With the House already gone for the year, it is left to the Sen­ate to ap­prove the budget deal worked out by Rep. Paul Ry­an and Sen. Patty Mur­ray and that was passed by the House last week.

Head­ing in­to this week, some Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans have raised re­ser­va­tions about how the budget deal ex­ceeds pre­vi­ously set budget caps and how it would also re­duce some mil­it­ary pen­sion be­ne­fits, while lib­er­als worry about the ex­clu­sion of un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance from the le­gis­la­tion.

Yet sen­at­ors ac­know­ledge that without this deal, little else could pass and no one wants to take the blame for tank­ing a meas­ure that will avoid an­oth­er gov­ern­ment shut­down come Jan. 15. So, ex­pect the deal to get clo­ture, Re­pub­lic­ans say, and then to pass.

Over­all, the spend­ing blue­print calls for fund­ing gov­ern­ment at an­nu­al­ized levels slightly more than $1 tril­lion through Oct. 1, 2015. It also would spare mil­it­ary and so­cial pro­grams of $63 bil­lion in auto­mat­ic “se­quester” cuts, while al­lot­ting an­oth­er $23 bil­lion for de­fi­cit re­duc­tion — without rais­ing taxes.

The Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to vote on clo­ture Tues­day and the fi­nal vote could come Wed­nes­day.

Here are the oth­er ma­jor items be­fore the Sen­ate this week:

  • A vote is an­ti­cip­ated Monday on John­son’s nom­in­a­tion. Last week, Re­pub­lic­ans pro­tested the rules change that took away their power to block nom­in­a­tions, cost­ing the Sen­ate a great deal of floor time. But Re­pub­lic­ans ap­pear to have reached an agree­ment with Demo­crats head­ing in­to this week that would avoid ad­di­tion­al hang-ups.
  • On Wed­nes­day, the Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to take up the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act, which the House passed last week. A stick­ing point, though, has been amend­ments, with Re­pub­lic­an law­makers brist­ling that Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id closed the pro­cess.
  • The Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee has set a hear­ing Tues­day on the is­sue of pred­at­ory pat­ent-lit­ig­a­tion prac­tices.
  • A vote on Yel­len’s con­firm­a­tion is set later in the week, which will make her the first wo­man to head the Fed.

The tim­ing of the an­ti­cip­ated vote on Yel­len’s nom­in­a­tion comes as the fi­nal Fed meet­ing of 2013 takes place Tues­day and Wed­nes­day.

With the re­cent pickup in the eco­nom­ic data, eco­nom­ists are di­vided over wheth­er the Fed will be­gin to taper its $85 bil­lion monthly bond-buy­ing pro­gram this month or wait un­til next year. The mar­ket-mov­ing de­cision will be re­leased Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, fol­lowed by a press con­fer­ence with out­go­ing Fed­er­al Re­serve Chair­man Ben Bernanke.

Ana­lysts say they ex­pect Yel­len to speak fol­low­ing the Fed meet­ing along­side Bernanke on Wed­nes­day, if she is con­firmed by then.


Tight Sched­ule

Sen­ate Demo­crats will need five Re­pub­lic­ans to join them in in­vok­ing clo­ture on the budget bill be­fore they can vote for fi­nal pas­sage — and they’re ex­pec­ted to get them. Sens. John Mc­Cain and Jeff Flake of Ari­zona, as well as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said Fri­day that they would vote for clo­ture, and Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship has in­dic­ated to their Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­parts that they will have the votes.

Once clo­ture is in­voked, the vote for fi­nal pas­sage could come as soon as Tues­day af­ter­noon or Wed­nes­day.

Giv­en the bill’s pro­spects for pas­sage, ap­pro­pri­at­ors in both cham­bers are con­tinu­ing their work to put to­geth­er an om­ni­bus spend­ing bill for the re­mainder of fisc­al 2014 at the $1.012 tril­lion top-line out­lined in the budget agree­ment. The om­ni­bus will need to pass be­fore Jan. 15, or Con­gress will be forced to con­tend with an­oth­er con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion or gov­ern­ment shut­down.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip Dick Durbin, a mem­ber of the Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee, said Thursday that he was con­fid­ent that ap­pro­pri­at­ors will fin­ish their work in time. “There’s a lot to do. But they’re good people, and they want to get it done. We’re back the 6th; the House is back the 7th of Janu­ary. We have one week to fin­ish the deal and be able to make the Janu­ary 15 dead­line,” he said.


Avert­ing Amend­ments

Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in, D-Mich., and rank­ing mem­ber James In­hofe, R-Okla., say they are con­fid­ent they can per­suade enough of their col­leagues to ap­prove the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act without amend­ments.

But sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans have raised ob­jec­tions to that pro­cess, in­clud­ing Sens. Tom Coburn of Ok­lahoma, and Rand Paul of Ken­tucky. Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., has said he wants as­sur­ances the Sen­ate will take up Ir­an sanc­tions at a date cer­tain be­fore he sup­ports the bill.

The House passed the de­fense bill Thursday be­fore ad­journ­ing for the year on Fri­day, leav­ing the Sen­ate with a take-it-or-leave-it op­tion. There is much pres­sure to pass the bill, which en­joys a 51-year run­ning streak and au­thor­izes $552.1 bil­lion in spend­ing for na­tion­al de­fense, in­clud­ing pay in­creases and hard­ship com­pens­a­tion for armed-ser­vices mem­bers.

On Ir­an, a bi­par­tis­an group of sen­at­ors has been work­ing on le­gis­la­tion meant to en­sure that Ir­an dis­mantles any nuc­le­ar-weapons cap­ab­il­it­ies, in­clud­ing sanc­tions and oth­er meas­ures de­fin­ing what a fi­nal pact should en­tail. But it is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly less likely they will roll out ad­di­tion­al le­gis­la­tion be­fore the Sen­ate ad­journs. Either way, the Sen­ate is not ex­pec­ted to act on the is­sue be­fore the end of the year.


Meas­ur­ing In­fla­tion

New in­fla­tion data will be re­leased Tues­day and a third read­ing of third-quarter gross do­mest­ic product Fri­day.

On Monday, the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion will host an event on sys­tem­ic risk in the as­set-man­age­ment in­dustry; Richard Bern­er, the head of the Of­fice of Fin­an­cial Re­search, will speak about a re­port his of­fice is­sued as guid­ance for the Fin­an­cial Sta­bil­ity Over­sight Coun­cil on the in­dustry. As­set man­agers have pushed back against the OFR’s find­ings, which could pave the way for them to be clas­si­fied as “sys­tem­ic­ally im­port­ant” and thus sub­ject to tough­er reg­u­la­tion un­der the 2010 Dodd-Frank fin­an­cial-re­form law.

White House Coun­cil of Eco­nom­ic Ad­visers Chair­man Jason Fur­man will speak about eco­nom­ic poli­cy­mak­ing in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion at a Tues­day event hos­ted by the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions in New York City.

The Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee will hold a Wed­nes­day hear­ing on So­cial Se­cur­ity, defined be­ne­fits, and private re­tire­ment ac­counts.

Fi­nally, U.S.-European Uni­on trade talks over the Transat­lantic Trade and In­vest­ment Part­ner­ship are sched­uled to re­sume in Wash­ing­ton this week.


Roster of Nom­in­ees

Two Sen­ate pan­els will con­sider a raft of high-level ex­ec­ut­ive-branch nom­in­ees Tues­day.

The Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee will hear from nom­in­ees such as Rhea Suh, who is Pres­id­ent Obama’s choice to be­come the In­teri­or De­part­ment’s sssist­ant sec­ret­ary for fish and wild­life and parks, and Vic­tor­ia Wassmer, the nom­in­ee to be the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s chief fin­an­cial of­ficer.

The En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee will con­sider nom­in­ees for key posts at the In­teri­or and En­ergy de­part­ments, in­clud­ing Neil Kornze as dir­ect­or of In­teri­or’s Bur­eau of Land Man­age­ment and Marc Kast­ner as dir­ect­or of DOE’s Of­fice of Sci­ence.


Hol­i­day in Hawaii

In sharp con­trast to the last few years when Obama’s Christ­mas va­ca­tion plans were up in the air un­til the last minute be­cause of fisc­al-cliff and oth­er budget dead­lines, the pres­id­ent plans a quiet week at the White House.

No late-night crisis meet­ings are on the sched­ule — just a planned de­par­ture Fri­day for the an­nu­al fam­ily jour­ney to the pres­id­ent’s birth­place of Hawaii.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story in­cor­rectly stated that Pres­id­ent Obama would not have to sign the budget agree­ment for it to be­come law.

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