Congress Returns With No Plan to Avoid Shutdown

Both chambers likely will spend the week refusing to budge on DHS funding.

House Minority Leader John Boehner answers questions from reporters as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell looks on.
National Journal
Feb. 22, 2015, 3:05 p.m.

In these final days before the Homeland Security Department is due to shut down, two things are certain: One, the Senate will hold its fourth vote Monday to start debate on a DHS funding bill that also would scrap President Obama’s executive action to defer deportations for some 4 million undocumented immigrants. Two, the outcome will be the same as it has been the last three times: Democrats will vote “no,” and the impasse will remain.

Monday’s roll call will reiterate what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been saying for two weeks — the legislation is stuck in the Senate, and the chamber needs another bill from the House in order to move forward. House Republicans, for their part, seem perfectly willing to let the Senate’s stalemate continue, saying that Democrats will be blamed for the shutdown that would begin at 12:01 am Saturday.

What has changed during the lawmakers’ week-long recess is a potentially disruptive ruling by a Texas judge putting an injunction on the president’s latest executive actions on immigration. The White House has said it will appeal, but in the meantime, all activities preparing for the broad deferral programs have been halted. (A 2012 program for unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children is still functioning.)

In Congress, the court’s injunction has had the dual impact of adding fuel to Republicans’ argument that Obama overstepped his bounds while also giving them a chance to back off their efforts to stop the immigration actions themselves. If the courts can stop it, the argument goes, then maybe the Hill doesn’t have to.

A few cracks in the GOP façade have appeared: Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio visited Las Vegas on a book tour and said DHS should be funded regardless of what happens on Obama’s immigration orders, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The Florida Republican pointed out that the country can’t afford to let DHS shut down, and Obama will not sign any bill that eradicates his deferred deportation programs.

By that logic, there really is no choice but to give Obama what he wants, a clean funding bill that doesn’t mention his immigration actions. But nobody in the Republican party is saying that just yet.

The House is moving on to other issues as well. It is expected to vote this week on a controversial bill to rewrite the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. The legislation marks the Republicans’ opening bid in an effort to get an education bill to President Obama’s desk this year. As such, the measure is conservative and highly deferential to states, removing requirements in current law that Democrats say are needed to ensure that poor schools get the same resources as affluent ones. The vote will likely be along party lines.

DEFENSE

Lawmakers will continue to digest the administration’s request for military force to combat the terrorist threats in Iraq and Syria this week, with members on both sides of the aisle saying they want to support an authorization memo but aren’t completely happy with the draft presented by the White House. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said last week that the draft represents the beginning of an important conversation. “This is something that is going to take a long commitment by all of those in the free world to undermine what ISIS is doing,” he said.

Democrats, for their part, don’t want the authorization to be so open-ended that it will wind up justifying military actions years down the road, as the post-Sept. 11 authorization has been used for recent conflicts. The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on how the administration’s proposal will help the military defeat the terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.

TECHNOLOGY

The Federal Communications Commission will vote on expansive net neutrality regulations Thursday. The rules, requested by Obama, would classify Internet service in the same legal category as telephones and would ban providers from blocking websites or selectively slowing down traffic. Net neutrality advocates are expected to cheer the decision, which they say will preserve the free flow of information online. But Internet providers and Republicans fear it will burden the broadband industry with cumbersome utility regulation. A lawsuit on the rule is a certainty.

The FCC also is scheduled to vote Thursday on petitions to overturn laws in Tennessee and North Carolina restricting cities from building their own broadband networks. Democrats argue the move will allow cities to provide fast Internet service in areas overlooked by private providers, while Republicans see it as an attack on states’ rights.

Congressional Republicans are working on a legislative compromise to try to undo the FCC’s net neutrality regulations. Democrats have stated that they want to see the FCC’s order first. On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology will hold a hearing to discuss the consequences of the FCC’s ruling.

The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday to examine the Obama administration’s plan to give up control of the Internet’s name and address system. Republicans fear that without proper safeguards, the transition could allow Russia or China to seize new powers over the Internet.

HEALTH

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell will have a busy week on Capitol Hill. She is slated to testify Wednesday before the House Appropriations Committee’s health care subcommittee about HHS’ budget request for 2016. She is also scheduled to testify Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee.

It’s inevitable that the Affordable Care Act will rear its head in these appearances. The stated topic of the second hearing is the HHS budget, but Republicans also are expected to press Burwell on the administration’s plans (or lack thereof) for a Supreme Court ruling that could invalidate Obamacare’s insurance subsidies in most of the country.

Wednesday, the Ways and Means Committee’s health care panel holds a hearing on the solvency of the Disability Insurance Trust Fund. On Thursday, the Senate HELP Committee holds a hearing titled, “Medical and Public Health Preparedness and Response: Are We Ready for Future Threats?”

ENERGY

The Obama administration’s climate change and energy budget will be in the spotlight this week in several hearings on the White House’s fiscal 2016 proposal. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday and is sure to face questions about her agency’s plans to regulate carbon emissions from power plants and other air pollution regulations. The administration proposed bumping EPA’s budget up to $8.6 billion to pay for the massive climate plan, which Republicans have vowed to block.

House Republicans plan to put Obama’s budget request for the Department of Energy under the microscope at two hearings. On Wednesday, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is set to field questions about the budget from members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The House Appropriations Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies subcommittee delves into the department’s budget request Thursday.

WHITE HOUSE

Next week, expect the White House to ratchet up the pressure on Congress as it faces an end-of-the-month deadline on funding the Department of Homeland Security. To that end, the president will travel to Miami on Wednesday to conduct a town hall on immigration policy.

The highlight of President Obama’s week may be something not included on his official schedule. He is expected to veto the Keystone pipeline bill. But as of the weekend he had not yet received it from Congress. Expect it during the week, though.

On Monday, Obama will attend a meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington and later hold a credentialing ceremony for foreign ambassadors at the White House. On Tuesday, the president will welcome the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad, to the White House. After he returns from Miami, Obama, along with the first lady, will host a reception celebrating Black History Month on Thursday evening. On Friday, the president welcomes another foreign leader, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to the White House.

Sam Baker, Jason Plautz, Clare Foran, Sarah Mimms, Brendan Sasso, Dustin Volz, George E. Condon Jr. and James Oliphant contributed to this article.
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