Memorial Day Will Focus Congress on Military Affairs

The House will take up a VA bill while both chambers chew on the National Defense Authorization Act.

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 08: Exterior view of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on May 8, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Department of Veteran Affairs has come under fire after reports of the deaths of 40 patients forced to wait for medical care at the Phoenix VA hopsital.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
May 18, 2014, 5:53 a.m.

With mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans set to com­mem­or­ate Me­mori­al Day week­end, the House is wrap­ping it­self in mil­it­ary af­fairs this week, act­ing on le­gis­la­tion to boost ac­count­ab­il­ity at the em­battled Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment and tak­ing up the an­nu­al Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act.

In the Sen­ate, the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee is ex­pec­ted to work on its own de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill, while the full cham­ber could re­sur­rect ef­forts to take up the Fin­ance Com­mit­tee’s $84 bil­lion tax-ex­tenders bill and vote on Pres­id­ent Obama’s nom­in­a­tion of Sylvia Math­ews Bur­well to be Health and Hu­man Ser­vices sec­ret­ary.

House ac­tion on the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Man­age­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Act comes after word Fri­day that VA Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki had ac­cep­ted the resig­na­tion of his un­der­sec­ret­ary for health, Dr. Robert Pet­zel, in con­nec­tion with the grow­ing scan­dal over health care at VA hos­pit­als. The bill would make it easi­er to fire or de­mote seni­or of­fi­cials, and it re­mains un­clear how many more resig­na­tions or re­movals may take place in the de­part­ment.

Fur­ther in­creas­ing con­gres­sion­al fo­cus on the VA’s troubles, Re­pub­lic­ans in Wash­ing­ton se­lec­ted Sen. John Mc­Cain — one of the na­tion’s most re­cog­nized vet­er­ans and a former pris­on­er of war — to de­liv­er the of­fi­cial Re­pub­lic­an ad­dress Sat­urday.

“We must do bet­ter to­mor­row — much bet­ter,” he said. “So that on some fu­ture Me­mori­al Day, as we cel­eb­rate the be­gin­ning of sum­mer and the com­forts of life in a safe and suc­cess­ful coun­try, we need not bow our heads in shame, but only in grat­it­ude for the sac­ri­fice made to keep it so.”

On the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act, which will set de­fense spend­ing for fisc­al 2015, as many as 250 pro­posed amend­ments were ex­pec­ted to be filed with the House Rules Com­mit­tee by Monday’s 10 a.m. dead­line. The com­mit­tee has set a hear­ing Tues­day on amend­ments, some of which seek to ad­dress hot-but­ton is­sues like mil­it­ary sexu­al as­saults, im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency wiretap­ping.

Here’s what else is go­ing on in Con­gress this week:

  • The House Rules Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Monday to set pro­ced­ures for a floor vote on the fisc­al 2015 Com­merce, Justice, and Sci­ence ap­pro­pri­ations bill, which funds the Justice De­part­ment, NASA, the Na­tion­al Sci­ence Found­a­tion, and re­lated agen­cies.
  • The Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted this week to vote on the nom­in­a­tion of Stan­ley Fisc­her to be vice chair­man of the Fed­er­al Re­serve.
  • The Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee will take up the nom­in­a­tion of Nor­man Bay to head up the Fed­er­al En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion on Tues­day.
  • The House Fin­ance Over­sight and In­vest­ig­a­tions Sub­com­mit­tee will hear testi­mony Wed­nes­day from Con­sumer Fin­an­cial Pro­tec­tion Bur­eau of­fi­cials sub­poenaed as part of the sub­com­mit­tee’s on­go­ing in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to al­leg­a­tions of dis­crim­in­a­tion and re­tali­ation at the bur­eau.
  • The House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Wed­nes­day titled “Boko Haram: The Grow­ing Threat to School­girls, Ni­ger­ia, and Bey­ond.”
  • The House is set to take up sev­er­al bills on the non­con­tro­ver­sial sus­pen­sion cal­en­dar this week in an ef­fort to com­bat hu­man traf­fick­ing.
  • The House also plans to vote on res­ol­u­tions to award the Con­gres­sion­al Gold Medal to sev­er­al mil­it­ary out­fits, in­clud­ing World War II’s “Doolittle Tokyo Raid­ers,” the Civil Air Patrol, the 65th In­fantry Re­gi­ment “Borin­quen­eers,” and the Amer­ic­an Fight­er Aces. Ac­tion on res­ol­u­tions sim­il­arly hon­or­ing golfer Jack Nick­laus and Shi­mon Peres, as well as re­cog­ni­tion for the World War II art ex­perts known as the Monu­ment Men, also are planned.


Spot­light on Spend­ing

The Re­pub­lic­an-led House’s plan to take floor ac­tion this week on its Com­merce, Justice, and Sci­ence ap­pro­pri­ations bill would mark that cham­ber’s com­ple­tion of the third of a total of 12 an­nu­al spend­ing bills, which are due by the Oct. 1 start of the fisc­al year.

The CJS spend­ing bill con­tains $51.2 bil­lion in dis­cre­tion­ary fund­ing, about $398 mil­lion be­low the fisc­al 2014 en­acted level. The House has pre­vi­ously passed two oth­er ap­pro­pri­ations bills, tied to mil­it­ary con­struc­tion and le­gis­lat­ive-branch ap­pro­pri­ations.

The Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee will be­gin mark­ing up bills this week. The markups get un­der­way Tues­day in the Mil­it­ary Con­struc­tion and Vet­er­ans Af­fairs and Ag­ri­cul­ture sub­com­mit­tees.

The pas­sage of the two-year Bi­par­tis­an Budget Act, which sets top-line spend­ing fig­ures, saps much of the drama from the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess. Still, that hasn’t stopped some Re­pub­lic­ans from rais­ing red flags about Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray’s budget fig­ures, which are $19 bil­lion above what House Budget Chair­man Paul Ry­an sub­mit­ted.

While ac­tion on in­di­vidu­al bills has got­ten un­der­way, le­gis­lat­ive aides and law­makers say privately they doubt that all of the 12 ap­pro­pri­ations meas­ures will be done as stand-alone items in this midterm-elec­tion year.

The up­com­ing sum­mer and fall le­gis­lat­ive cal­en­dars in­clude fre­quent and lengthy breaks for law­makers from Wash­ing­ton, and more-con­ten­tious bills lie ahead.

Sen­at­ors left Wash­ing­ton last week dead­locked over al­low­ing amend­ments to the Fin­ance Com­mit­tee’s $84 bil­lion tax-ex­tenders pack­age. Of­fi­cially, Re­pub­lic­ans voted to end fur­ther de­bate. But Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id entered a mo­tion to re­con­sider, and aides say he may do just that when the Sen­ate re­turns this week.

Votes aren’t sched­uled when sen­at­ors get back to town Monday af­ter­noon, leav­ing time for Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ron Wyden of Ore­gon and rank­ing mem­ber Or­rin Hatch of Utah to work out an agree­ment on ger­mane amend­ments. If such agree­ment hap­pens, then an­oth­er vote on the pack­age, which has gen­er­al, bi­par­tis­an sup­port among sen­at­ors, could take place.

Dis­agree­ment over pro­cess scuttled the bill Thursday, when Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell sought to set a sys­tem in which mem­bers on both sides offered al­tern­at­ing amend­ments. Re­id blocked it.


Fo­cus on Force

The Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee reex­am­ines the fu­ture of the au­thor­iz­a­tion for use of mil­it­ary force in the post-Ir­aq and post-Afgh­anistan war era with a hear­ing Wed­nes­day.

Mean­while, the fu­ture of the A-10 Warthog at­tack plane, which the Pentagon wants to re­tire, is among the is­sues to be taken up by the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee when it be­gins ac­tion on the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion with sub­com­mit­tee markups Tues­day and a closed-door full com­mit­tee markup Wed­nes­day.

Some law­makers are ex­pec­ted to take steps to save the plane, which the Pentagon wants to re­tire.


Net-Neut­ral­ity Show­down

In what could be an es­pe­cially feisty hear­ing this week, Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion Chair­man Tom Wheel­er is to testi­fy Tues­day be­fore the House En­ergy and Com­merce Tele­com Sub­com­mit­tee.

His ap­pear­ance will come less than a week after his agency voted to move for­ward with new net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions.

Re­pub­lic­ans on the En­ergy Com­mit­tee have is­sued a state­ment say­ing they look for­ward to a “spir­ited dis­cus­sion” with Wheel­er over his “mis­guided vis­ion of a heav­ily reg­u­lated In­ter­net.”


FERC Scru­tiny

The Sen­ate En­ergy Com­mit­tee’s con­sid­er­a­tion of Nor­man Bay’s nom­in­a­tion to head FERC comes as nom­in­ees to the com­mis­sion have his­tor­ic­ally been re­l­at­ively un­con­tro­ver­sial. But that changed last fall when Obama’s last pick to over­see the agency — former state util­ity reg­u­lat­or Ron Binz — went down in flames.

Coal-state law­makers on the Sen­ate pan­el voiced con­cern that Binz would give pref­er­ence to clean en­ergy over coal and oth­er fossil fuels. Amid vo­cal op­pos­i­tion, Binz with­drew his nom­in­a­tion.

It’s un­clear wheth­er Bay — the cur­rent head of the agency’s of­fice of en­force­ment — will suf­fer a sim­il­ar fate. But he is sure to face the same scru­tiny.

The pan­el will also weigh in on the re­nom­in­a­tion of act­ing FERC Chair­wo­man Cheryl LaFleur to re­main on the com­mis­sion.

The House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee on Tues­day will con­tin­ue its series of hear­ings about the labor short­age in the en­ergy sec­tor by look­ing at op­por­tun­it­ies in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor.

Also Tues­day, the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee will join in that dis­cus­sion with a hear­ing on op­por­tun­it­ies for vet­er­ans in the en­ergy sec­tor, an is­sue that’s gained trac­tion with law­makers and private com­pan­ies.

The House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee on Tues­day is set to ex­am­ine pro­gress made on the 2011 Pipeline Safety Act, which gave the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment more au­thor­ity to re­view pipelines and re­search ways to re­duce leaks.


Re­cap­tur­ing Funds

The pos­sib­il­ity that the Sen­ate will take up Bur­well’s nom­in­a­tion to be­come Health and Hu­man Ser­vices sec­ret­ary comes after the Fin­ance Com­mit­tee held a hear­ing last week, in which she re­ceived sup­port from sen­at­ors on both sides of the aisle.

Mean­while, the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Sub­com­mit­tee on En­ergy Po­lice, Health Care, and En­ti­tle­ments is to hold a hear­ing Tues­day on Medi­care mis­man­age­ment and gov­ern­ment ef­forts to re­cap­ture mis­spent funds.

In an­noun­cing the hear­ing last week, the com­mit­tee says that Medi­care is the largest pur­chaser of health care in the coun­try, but that ap­prox­im­ately $50 bil­lion of the total $604 bil­lion spent in 2013 was lost on im­prop­er pay­ments.

The sub­com­mit­tee is to hear testi­mony from Shant­anu Agraw­al, deputy ad­min­is­trat­or and the dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for Pro­gram In­teg­rity at the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Medi­caid Ser­vices; Kath­leen King, dir­ect­or of health care at the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice; and Bri­an Ritch­ie, as­sist­ant in­spect­or gen­er­al for audit ser­vices at the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment’s Of­fice of In­spect­or Gen­er­al.

Agraw­al and King ap­peared re­cently be­fore the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee on the same sub­ject, where poli­cy­makers aired their frus­tra­tions with per­sist­ent re­ports of waste, ab­use, and fraud in the Medi­care pro­gram.

The hear­ing also fol­lows a re­port this week from ProP­ub­lica that some doc­tors are billing Medi­care top dol­lar to see pa­tients who should not qual­i­fy for an ad­vanced vis­it clas­si­fic­a­tion. That re­port sug­gests that only 4 per­cent of vis­its qual­i­fy, and that thou­sands of doc­tors are billing Medi­care for top dol­lar 90 per­cent of the time.


Windy City

Obama has a re­l­at­ively quiet week sched­uled, with an overnight trip to his ho­met­own be­ing his only time away from the White House.

On Monday, he is to have lunch with the mil­it­ary lead­er­ship and com­batant com­mand­ers; he will then raise money for the House’s Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

On Wed­nes­day, he will ac­cept cre­den­tials from for­eign am­bas­sad­ors new to Wash­ing­ton; he also will meet the Su­per Bowl cham­pi­on Seattle Seahawks. On Thursday, Obama will travel to Chica­go to raise money for the Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, be­fore re­turn­ing to Wash­ing­ton on Fri­day.

Michael Catalini, George E. Condon Jr., Clare Foran, Stacy Kaper, Jason Plautz, Clara Ritger and Brendan Sasso contributed to this article.
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