Partisan contrasts are always stark on Capitol Hill, but rarely more so than they will be this week.
President Obama unveils next year’s budget proposal Monday, so congressional Republicans and Democrats will use it as a vehicle to tout their own very different ideas about the state of the nation’s economy.
In one corner are the Republicans, for whom the message is fiscal discipline and freedom from regulation, and Public Enemy No. 1 is the Affordable Care Act. The House is expected to hold yet another vote to repeal the health care law this week, its fourth such vote since the statute was enacted. The chamber has also voted more than 60 times to dismantle the law in other ways. And the GOP-controlled Senate will attack on a different front, trying to undo Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
The fight against Obamacare illustrates the GOP’s broader vision of the fiscal health of the nation. Republicans blame the ACA for weakening the U.S. economy by placing devastating burdens on businesses and narrowing the market for health insurance plans. Last week, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota warned about “the pain millions of Americans will be feeling this tax season” when they owe taxes on subsidies or must pay a penalty for not having insurance.
This week’s repeal vote is largely a symbolic gesture that will allow new House members who haven’t yet had the chance to vote in opposition to (or support of) the health care law. The debate will allow tea-party favorites like Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas to make their case that a truly conservative caucus must use all the weapons in its arsenal to eviscerate the health care law.
The House and Senate Budget Committees will hold hearings on the budget outlook this week. Republicans are sure to use those sessions to emphasize the need for spending discipline, a direct rebuttal to Obama’s call in his budget to increase federal spending by 7 percent next year.
In the other corner are the Democrats, who say the GOP attacks on Obamacare are destabilizing to middle-class families, just as their threats to reduce Medicare and Social Security destabilize older Americans. And Senate Budget Committee ranking member Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is already pushing back against the GOP’s lectures about curbing spending. “We hear a lot of talk about how we need to reduce spending to grow the economy, but that doesn’t quite make sense. Spending isn’t just the right way to grow the economy. In fact, it is the only way to grow the economy,” Sanders said in a lengthy floor speech Thursday.
If Sanders has anything bad to say about Obama’s proposal to increase spending, it will be that more is needed. “My guess is that what I’ll be saying is that the president is moving in the right direction. Whether he’s going as far as he should remains to be seen,” he told National Journal.
In the Senate, lawmakers are tackling the more immediate problem of the imminent end of the Department of Homeland Security’s funding, which runs out at the end of the month. Senate GOP leaders will hold a vote Tuesday to bring a House-passed DHS spending bill to the floor. Democrats are united in their opposition because the measure includes language that would put a halt to Obama’s deferred-deportation program for some 4 million undocumented immigrants. That fight over immigration is misplaced, they contend, when national security is at stake.
Obama is bolstering this argument, using the budget release as an opportunity to poke at Republicans for putting the agency’s funding at risk. For the first time Monday, he will release his budget at the Department of Homeland Security, as a way of illustrating the need to keep vital government operations resourced.
Senate Republicans have been mum about their strategy after Tuesday’s vote, which requires 60 votes and will almost certainly fail. Senate GOP leaders have acknowledged that they want the immigration fight to continue in a different context than DHS funding. But first, they need to demonstrate to House conservatives that a bill stopping Obama’s actions can’t pass in the upper chamber.
One indication that Senate Republicans are willing to talk about immigration in other forums is a hearing slated for Wednesday in the Senate Homeland Security Committee about the logistical implications of Obama’s deferred-deportation program. That hearing will examine questions about the program: Will people given deferrals be given Social Security cards, for example? How will eligibility for the program be determined? What impact will the deferrals have on the border?
Ashton Carter, Obama’s choice to succeed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee in a confirmation hearing Wednesday. Republicans will likely use the hearing to voice their concerns about Obama’s military policy, particularly his strategy to combat Islamic State militants. Despite that, Carter, formally the deputy secretary, is expected to have a smooth path to confirmation.
The committee also will dig in to the final report from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which was released last week. It includes recommendations on changing current pay and retirement structure for troops. Lawmakers have balked at major changes to military pay and pension, particularly if they didn’t grandfather in current troops. But Armed Services Chairman John McCain said in a statement Friday that the recommendations “deserve thorough review and thoughtful consideration.”
Cuba policy will remain on the forefront, as lawmakers spell out their views on how the United States should deal with its oppressive neighbor. Last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation to erase the United States travel embargo to Cuba, a proposal that will see opposition from Sen. Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with many Republicans. That committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the impact of the administration’s decision to renew ties with Cuba. The hearing will be presided over by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential 2016 contender and another outspoken critic of Obama’s decision.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold its own hearing Wednesday on Cuba.
The Senate will vote Monday on the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which overwhelmingly passed the House earlier this month. The chamber was unable to pass it last year because of the protests of Sen. Tom Coburn, who retired at the end of the session. This time around, it is widely expected to pass.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell will testify before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday to discuss the Obama administration’s budget request for the department in 2016, including funding for ACA implementation.
The House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the U.S. public-health response to the flu. This has been a particularly rough flu season, with the vaccine only about 23 percent effective.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to unveil new net-neutrality regulations that would classify Internet service as a utility. Congressional Republicans are scrambling to preempt FCC action with their own net-neutrality bill. The FCC isn’t scheduled to vote on the rules until Feb. 26, but Wheeler will have to share his proposal with the four other commissioners by this Thursday.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte is expected to reintroduce his patent-litigation reform bill, the Innovation Act, later this week. The omnibus bill aimed at curbing so-called “patent troll” lawsuits passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support last Congress before getting stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee last spring. The bill is expected to be a close mirror image of the previous incarnation.
The dust has settled on debate over the Keystone XL pipeline following the Senate’s passage of a bill last week to approve the oil-sands pipeline. But that doesn’t mean the fight to approve the project is over. The House must now decide whether to pass the Senate’s version of the bill, which comes attached with a slate of amendments, including a measure affirming that climate change is real and not a hoax. If the House does not pass the Senate bill, delegates from both chambers must proceed to a conference committee to iron out their legislative differences. President Obama has promised to veto the legislation regardless of what happens.
On another energy front, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma will take his first crack at Obama administration energy rules from his perch in the Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday. The committee will hold a joint hearing with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on a Clean Water Act expansion. The two panels will examine the proposed “Waters of the United States” rule, which Republicans have argued would radically expand the administration’s jurisdiction and overstep its traditional authority.
Obama won’t have to spend all week dealing with budget issues. On Monday, the president will celebrate the championships of the Los Angeles Kings in the National Hockey League and the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. On Wednesday evening, Obama will host a reception for new members of Congress. At Thursday’s annual Prayer Breakfast, he is expected to be joined by the Dalai Lama. It will be the first joint public appearance by the two leaders, although they have met in private before.