Pressure Mounts Over VA, Prisoner Swap, and Highway Funding

No shortage of controversies as Congress picks up the pace.

Chairman Bernie Sanders (D-VT) speaks to U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki during the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing that is focusing on wait times veterans face to get medical care May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. The American Legion called Monday for the resignation of Shinseki amid reports by former and current VA employees that up to 40 patients may have died because of delayed treatment at an agency hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Billy House
June 8, 2014, 6:30 a.m.

Con­gress heads in­to more tur­bu­lence this week with con­tro­ver­sies over the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment, the Bowe Ber­g­dahl pris­on­er swap, and a loom­ing high­way-fund­ing crisis all com­ing to the fore.

Sen­ate Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bernie Sanders and Sen. John Mc­Cain are iron­ing out a plan to ad­dress delays in care at VA med­ic­al cen­ters, and once they agree on the de­tails their bill is ex­pec­ted to be hot­lined to­ward a floor vote.

Both the Sen­ate and House Armed Ser­vices com­mit­tees will dig in­to the de­bate sur­round­ing the Ber­g­dahl re­lease in ex­change for five seni­or Taliban de­tain­ees. The Sen­ate pan­el gets the first crack with a hear­ing Tues­day fea­tur­ing testi­mony from Deputy De­fense Sec­ret­ary Robert Work and sev­er­al oth­er Pentagon of­fi­cials. The House com­mit­tee fol­lows suit on Wed­nes­day with a hear­ing at which De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel is sched­uled to ap­pear.

Mean­while, a House and Sen­ate stan­doff seems im­min­ent as lead­ers in each cham­ber push rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent plans for re­plen­ish­ing — at least for a few months — the na­tion’s High­way Trust Fund. It is pro­jec­ted to go dry by early Au­gust at the height of the con­struc­tion sea­son, po­ten­tially halt­ing thou­sands of in­fra­struc­ture pro­jects — and hun­dreds of thou­sands of jobs.

Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ron Wyden says “fail­ure is not an op­tion.” But Sen­ate Demo­crats are already dis­miss­ing the House GOP’s plan that in­volves find­ing money by cut­ting back Postal Ser­vice de­liv­er­ies on Sat­urdays. Mem­bers of Wyden’s pan­el are to dis­cuss their pre­ferred short-term and longer-term op­tions this week. House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor coun­ters that “a lot of mis­in­form­a­tion” is cir­cu­lat­ing about the Postal Ser­vice idea.

Here’s what else Con­gress is up to this week:

— The House on Monday even­ing is to be­gin de­bat­ing a list of amend­ments to its ver­sion of the fisc­al 2015 Trans­port­a­tion/Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment fund­ing bill, with a fi­nal vote on the bill pos­sible by late Tues­day. A fi­nal vote is also ex­pec­ted later in the week on the House’s Ag­ri­cul­ture ap­pro­pri­ations bill.

— The House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee is to hold a hear­ing Tues­day on chal­lenges in con­firm­ing Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar com­pli­ance, and the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee holds a Thursday hear­ing on the im­plic­a­tions of a nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an.

— The House is to vote this week on three more tax-cred­it ex­tenders. Those items would make per­man­ent small-busi­ness ex­pens­ing at 2013 levels and would ad­dress two pro­vi­sions in the tax code for S cor­por­a­tions.

— The Sen­ate on Monday will cast pro­ced­ur­al votes for M. Han­nah Lauck to be a U.S. dis­trict judge for the East­ern Dis­trict of Vir­gin­ia; Leo Sor­okin to be a U.S. dis­trict judge in Mas­sachu­setts; and Richard Frank­lin Boul­ware II to be a U.S. dis­trict judge in Nevada.

— Two Sen­ate com­mit­tees are hold­ing hear­ings Wed­nes­day on the nom­in­a­tion of Shaun Donovan to be dir­ect­or of the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget.

— The Sen­ate might take up a stu­dent-loan bill that forms a part of the Demo­crat­ic caucus’s elec­tion-year-themed agenda. The bill would al­low col­lege gradu­ates with high out­stand­ing stu­dent-loan rates to re­fin­ance at 3.86 per­cent, the level set for some gov­ern­ment-backed loans in last sum­mer’s le­gis­la­tion. Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren’s bill pays for the cost to the gov­ern­ment by en­act­ing a tax on mil­lion­aires.


House Leads

House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee lead­ers late last week still wer­en’t sure how many amend­ments to the $52 bil­lion Trans­port­a­tion/Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment fund­ing bill might be taken up un­der the open floor rule. There could be dozens.

Pas­sage of the bill is an­ti­cip­ated, though last year the 2014 ver­sion of the so-called THUD bill was pulled from the floor due to lack of sup­port. Later in the week, the House is to take up the $20.9 bil­lion Ag­ri­cul­ture fund­ing bill.

That will bring to five the num­ber of an­nu­al spend­ing bills fi­nal­ized in the House, out of 12 that need to be com­pleted for the fisc­al year that be­gins Oct. 1. In ad­di­tion, the House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee is ex­pec­ted to hold full markups of the De­fense and Home­land Se­cur­ity ap­pro­pri­ations bills on Tues­day and Wed­nes­day.

The Sen­ate has yet to bring any of its ver­sions of the 12 an­nu­al spend­ing bills to the floor, and none are on the floor agenda this week. But ap­pro­pri­at­ors there will con­tin­ue their markups, tak­ing up what could be the most di­vis­ive meas­ure in the Labor/Health and Hu­man Ser­vices bill this week. Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Mikul­ski have set aside two weeks later this month and two weeks in Ju­ly for floor con­sid­er­a­tion of the spend­ing bills.

But with the sum­mer­time re­cesses ahead, there is reas­on to doubt that two-cham­ber agree­ments on all 12 bills can be reached be­fore Oct. 1. Law­makers may have to again ad­opt an om­ni­bus or con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to keep some gov­ern­ment agen­cies and pro­grams fun­ded un­til some later date, most likely in a lame-duck ses­sion after the Nov. 4 elec­tion.


More VA Scru­tiny

The agree­ment an­nounced last week between Sanders and Mc­Cain on VA re­form would ex­pand vet­er­ans’ ac­cess to private doc­tors, com­munity health care fa­cil­it­ies, and De­fense De­part­ment med­ic­al fa­cil­it­ies.

It would seek to provide bet­ter ac­count­ab­il­ity at the be­lea­guered Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment by al­low­ing for the im­me­di­ate fir­ing of seni­or man­agers, but as a check on that au­thor­ity there would be an ex­ped­ited ap­peals pro­cess. The deal also in­cludes money for hir­ing new med­ic­al per­son­nel, and would clear the VA to lease 26 new fa­cil­it­ies to ex­pand ac­cess to care.

Mean­while, the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee plans to keep pres­sure on the brew­ing scan­dal with a hear­ing Monday on VA ac­cess to health care and re­cords falsi­fic­a­tion with of­fi­cials from the VA in­spect­or gen­er­al’s of­fice, the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice, and the VA.

The Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee’s planned Thursday hear­ing on the im­plic­a­tions of a nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an comes after a bi­par­tis­an group of sen­at­ors had called for stricter sanc­tions against the Is­lam­ic Re­pub­lic, which Re­id ul­ti­mately blocked from con­sid­er­a­tion be­cause of the White House’s con­trary view of the pro­posed meas­ures.

On Monday, the Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing on bor­der se­cur­ity. This comes as the im­mig­ra­tion over­haul le­gis­la­tion that passed the Sen­ate re­mains stalled in the House. Can­tor did not in­clude any men­tion of the bill in a memo Fri­day on the House’s June agenda.


Cli­mate De­bate “¦ Maybe

Demo­crat­ic cli­mate hawks in the Sen­ate are hop­ing this week to square off against con­ser­vat­ives in a battle of words over glob­al warm­ing, but they may not get their wish.

Five mem­bers of the Sen­ate Cli­mate Ac­tion Task Force — in­clud­ing co­ali­tion lead­ers Sens. Shel­don White­house of Rhode Is­land and Bar­bara Box­er of Cali­for­nia — plan to hold the floor Monday even­ing to talk about the need for ac­tion on cli­mate change.

The Demo­crats sent an in­vit­a­tion to all 45 Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans ask­ing them to join in the de­bate. But so far, none of them have made a firm com­mit­ment to take the task force mem­bers up on the of­fer, ac­cord­ing to a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide.

On Tues­day, the House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee will be­gin work in mark­ing up its spend­ing bill for en­ergy and wa­ter pro­grams. Pre­vi­ous it­er­a­tions have in­cluded cuts to Pres­id­ent Obama’s clean-en­ergy pro­grams that made them non­starters for Demo­crats.

Bob Per­ciasepe, deputy ad­min­is­trat­or of the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, is set to de­fend the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s changes to its Clean Wa­ter Act jur­is­dic­tion Wed­nes­day be­fore the House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee. The com­mit­tee will also hear from ag­ri­cul­ture in­terests, util­it­ies, and clean-wa­ter groups about the im­pact of the pro­posed ex­pan­sion of what bod­ies of wa­ter EPA can reg­u­late.


ACA Is­sues

Newly con­firmed Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Sylvia Math­ews Bur­well is to be sworn in Monday, ac­cord­ing to an HHS aide.

The former Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget dir­ect­or was ap­proved by the Sen­ate Thursday on a 78-17 vote, with 24 Re­pub­lic­ans sup­port­ing her nom­in­a­tion. Her con­firm­a­tion was an un­usu­ally smooth pro­cess, with most Re­pub­lic­ans de­clin­ing to turn the vote in­to a fight over the health care law.

The House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee is set to hold a hear­ing Tues­day on “the gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to veri­fy in­come and in­sur­ance in­form­a­tion, en­sure ac­cur­acy of premi­um tax cred­its, and the likely ef­fect of these chal­lenges on the 2015 tax-fil­ing sea­son.”

The hear­ing ac­com­pan­ies le­gis­la­tion in­tro­duced by Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Di­ane Black of Ten­ness­ee last week called the No Sub­sidies Without Veri­fic­a­tion Act of 2014. Both come in re­sponse to re­ports of dis­crep­an­cies in about 2 mil­lion ap­plic­a­tions, which could im­pact cov­er­age and sub­sidy pay­ments if the gov­ern­ment does not re­solve the in­con­sist­en­cies.

The House En­ergy and Com­merce Health Sub­com­mit­tee will hold its second hear­ing on “21st Cen­tury Cures,” an ini­ti­at­ive through which mem­bers hope to find out what Con­gress can do to ad­vance re­search on med­ic­al treat­ments and cures.

The sub­com­mit­tee will meet again Thursday for a hear­ing called “The Pres­id­ent’s Health Care Law Does Not Equal Health Care Ac­cess.” Few de­tails have been re­leased, but Re­pub­lic­ans plan to ar­gue that Af­ford­able Care Act re­quire­ments lim­it ac­cess to doc­tors and pre­scrip­tion drugs.


TV Time

The House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mu­nic­a­tions and Tech­no­logy Sub­com­mit­tee will ex­am­ine me­dia own­er­ship reg­u­la­tions at a hear­ing Wed­nes­day. Re­pub­lic­ans have cri­ti­cized new Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion rules that bar one TV sta­tion from selling ad­vert­ising for an­oth­er sta­tion.


Wel­come to Can­non­ball

Obama is back from his European trip but will be on the road most of this week with two com­mence­ment ad­dresses, some polit­ic­al fun­drais­ing, and a vis­it to an In­di­an re­ser­va­tion.

The pres­id­ent on Monday will be at the White House for an event hon­or­ing work­ing fath­ers. On Wed­nes­day, he will speak at gradu­ation ce­re­mon­ies for Worcester Tech­nic­al High School and will have a fun­draiser for the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee in We­st­on, Mass.

On Fri­day, he heads to Can­non­ball, N.D., to vis­it the Stand­ing Rock Sioux Re­ser­va­tion. From there, he goes to Cali­for­nia where on Sat­urday he will at­tend a Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee event in La­guna Beach and be the com­mence­ment speak­er at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Irvine). He is to spend Sat­urday night and Sunday in Palm Springs.

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