Congress Enters Fourth of July Homestretch

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) speaks to members of the press as he is on his way for a vote January 6, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Janet Yellen was confirmed by the Senate with a vote of 56 - 26 to become the first woman to head the Federal Reserve Board.
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Billy House
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Billy House
June 22, 2014, 9:50 a.m.

Lawmakers head toward their Independence Day recess at week’s end still in search of a solution to a looming highway funding crisis, dealing with growing tension over government spending bills due on Oct. 1 and debate over how this nation should address developments in Iraq.

House and Senate conferees will also be working this week on legislation to reduce veterans’ wait times for health care and stop a rash of preventable veterans’ deaths — facing pressure to hammer out compromise legislation and get a bill to the president’s desk.

The chairmen of the two Veterans Affairs’ committees, Republican Rep. Jeff Miller and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, met Thursday and conference committee staff were scheduled to meet Friday, but the conferees themselves are not due to meet for the first time until Tuesday.

Meanwhile, even though the calendar is flipping closer to the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, the Senate is likely to spend the week on nominations and possibly a bipartisan labor bill that cleared the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, as well as a bipartisan sportsmen’s bill.

This, after a three-in-one government appropriations bill for fiscal 2015 — cobbled together by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski and ranking member Richard Shelby — hit a brick wall last week.

That was the first effort in the Senate at bringing spending bills to the floor. But that package was unable to survive the meat grinder that the amendments process on the floor has become, casting further in doubt the ultimate path of the appropriations process this year.

The House has passed five of its versions of the 12 annual spending measures. But this week, Republicans who control the House will focus floor action on a handful of red-meat energy-related proposals, including one measure to expand offshore drilling and speed up development of drilling in Alaska.

A floor vote also is planned on reauthorization of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. But controversy is afoot, because Republicans say their measure does not just reauthorize the commission, but brings relief from what they complain have been its overly burdensome rules.

Lawmakers also are continuing to monitor and debate how President Obama should handle the situation in Iraq. And U.S. policy on Iraq could come up Wednesday, when the House Foreign Affairs Committee delves into the Afghanistan transition, which no policymaker wants to see become another Iraq.

Here’s what else lawmakers are to take up this week:

  • The lost e-mails sent or received by Lois Lerner, the former Internal Revenue Service official at the center of conflict over the agency’s treatment of conservative groups, is to be the focus of a night hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is to testify. The committee also has invited an official from the Office of the White House Counsel to testify during a second part of the hearing.
  • The Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday will mark up the nomination of Shaun Donovan to head the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Senators on Tuesday will vote on cloture on the nomination of Leon Rodriguez to be director of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
  • A bill to bar so-called secret science is to be taken up Tuesday by the House Science Committee. The bill requires the Environmental Protection Agency to publicize its data and studies.
  • Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., will join House and Senate leaders in a ceremony Tuesday in the Capitol rotunda to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During the ceremony, the leaders will also present a Congressional Gold Medal in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife.
  • The Senate on Monday will vote on Paul Byron to be district judge for the Middle District of Florida; Carlo Mendoza to be district judge for the Middle District of Florida; Beth Bloom to be district judge for the Southern District of Florida; and Geoffrey Crawford to be district judge for the District of Vermont. If cloture is invoked on any of those nominations, the Senate will vote on their confirmation on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday is to mark up a child-abduction bill along with the nominations of several key ambassadorships, including Egypt and Qatar.
  • The Senate may also consider a sportsmen’s bill from Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, which has the backing of a number of Republicans, including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The bill contains a number of provisions, including allowing for electronic issuance of federal duck stamps and reimportation of legally hunted polar bears.
  • The Workforce Investment Act, an authorization that expired in 2003, could also make it to the Senate floor this week. The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Tom Harkin and Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Lamar Alexander, updates legislation that provides vocational training. The bill includes a measure that gives states and local workforce agencies more control over their programs.

Meanwhile, both the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees are working to find a way to replenish the highway fund for at least another 9 to 12 months. But no solution is likely to be reached until Congress returns to Washington the second week of July.

The fund is expected to go broke at the end of September, which threatens to disrupt hundreds of highway-construction projects across the United States. Lawmakers will have to find at least $12 billion to keep the fund solvent. But action on that — and decisions on other bills facing looming deadlines, are stacking up. And time is running out this mid-term election year.

After returning to Washington in the second week of July, lawmakers will have just 28 scheduled legislative days left before the Nov. 4 elections. They plan to take the entire month of August off, half of September, and all but two days of October.

BUDGET AND FINANCE

Spending Countdown

On Tuesday, the Senate’s Homeland Security and Financial Services Appropriations subcommittees will mark up their spending bills.

But hoped-for progress last week on spending bills — action on the Senate’s three-in-one “mini-bus” of appropriations measures — seemed to fall apart late last week. An Appropriations Committee spokesman for the committee said it’s premature to classify work on the bills as dead.

Still, Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, a Republican on the committee, is the latest to say he thinks Congress will inevitably have to pass a continuing resolution to keep at least some areas of government funded at current levels into the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The cause for the pessimism sounded familiar. Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell clashed over how to move forward with amendments on the bill, which included funding measures for the departments of Commerce, Justice, Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, totaling about $126 billion.

That disagreement spilled out in the open late last week and centered on whether each of the amendments would be subject to a 51- or 60-vote threshold. In the past, McConnell had insisted that amendments face a 60-vote threshold, but this time he sought a 51-vote limit. The lower limit means senators could more easily add controversial measures to the spending bills under consideration, in turn making it likelier for GOP amendments to be added.

In what is now a familiar sight in the Senate, the argument devolved into each side blaming the other.

The clash over the amendments also comes despite a budget agreement hammered out late last year that covered fiscal 2014 and ‘15. While the Senate voted to agree on those top-line spending figures, moving appropriations on the floor has proven too much to ask for lawmakers.

Efforts in the Senate at putting an unemployment-insurance bill on the floor also are expected to continue.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

Spotlight on Drilling

The House Rules Committee on Tuesday has scheduled a hearing to set procedures for a floor vote later in the week on the “Lowering Gasoline Prices to Fuel an America That Works” Act.

That GOP measure would expand offshore drilling, reform the leasing process for onshore oil and gas projects, and speed up development of drilling in Alaska. Also on tap are bills to streamline the permitting process for cross-border pipelines, to expedite exports of liquefied natural gas, and on energy efficiency.

Conservative attacks on environmental regulations will continue as well.

That includes the Tuesday markup by the House Science Committee on a bill that would bar EPA from using “secret science” by requiring the agency to publicize its data and studies. Republican committee members, including committee Chairman Lamar Smith, have long criticized the administration for basing regulations on science that cannot be replicated, but EPA officials have said that some research and health studies are not able to be released because they contain confidential information or are not EPA’s property.

Also on Tuesday, the House Natural Resources Water and Power Subcommittee plans to drill down on EPA regulations aimed at clarifying the agency’s jurisdiction over streams and waterways. Environmentalists have defended the regulations as necessary to protect natural resources, while Republicans on Capitol Hill have largely painted the rule as a federal overreach with the potential to do economic harm.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Water and Power Subcommittee on Wednesday takes up legislation that would increase coordination between the Energy and Interior departments on energy and water-production projects.

HEALTH CARE

Abortion-Funding Battles

Abortion battles could spill out of the markups of two spending bills before the House Appropriations Committee this week. On Tuesday, the full committee is to mark up the fiscal State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, which maintains the ban on emergency abortion funding for Peace Corps volunteers and restrictions on foreign aid for family-planning groups.

The Senate Appropriations Committee already voted 19 to 11 to pass amendments that lift these restrictions, to be included in the 2015 State Department spending bill. The battle over these abortion-funding provisions is a familiar one in the appropriations process.

On Wednesday, House Appropriations will hold a full committee markup of the fiscal 2015 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill. The legislation maintains a prohibition on federal and local funds from being used for abortion, as well as prohibitions on federal funds from being used for medical marijuana and needle-exchange programs in the District. While the ban on federal funds for abortions extends across the country, other states can decide to use their own local dollars to fund abortions through state Medicaid programs.

Also Wednesday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will hold a hearing titled “Veteran Benefits Administration and Veterans Health Administration Interactions: Ordering and Conducting Medical Examinations.”

The hearing comes as both chambers are working to reconcile their respective bills to address delays in care at VA health facilities. The House and Senate easily passed similar bills that would allow veterans to seek VA-paid care from local providers if they faced long waits within the VA system, and would give the next VA secretary more authority to fire VA leaders for poor performance.

Both chambers announce conference members last week, to reach compromise legislation to send to the president.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will also hold a hearing Wednesday on eliminating fraud, abuse, and errors in the Medicare program. Witnesses have not yet been announced.

NATIONAL SECURITY

Protecting Veterans

House Veterans’ Affairs also holds a Monday hearing on the capacity of the VA health care system to care for veteran patients, and another one Wednesday on how different parts of the agency order and conduct medical examinations.

On Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee plans to hold a closed subcommittee hearing on nuclear deterrence policy. Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to look at the future of U.S. China policy.

TECHNOLOGY

Supreme Decision

The tech community is eagerly waiting for the Supreme Court’s decisions in American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo and two decisions on warrantless cell-phone searches.

Congress will scrutinize the proposed AT&T-DirecTV merger during back-to-back hearings in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law and the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights. AT&T President and CEO Randall Stephenson and DirecTV President and CEO Michael White will testify at both hearings.

The House Judiciary Courts, IP, and the Internet Subcommittee will hold its second hearing on updating music-licensing laws on Wednesday. Executives for Pandora and SiriusXM will face off with the heads of ASCAP and the Recording Industry Association of America.

WHITE HOUSE

Helping Working Families

On Monday, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are to participate in a Summit on Working Families at the Omni Hotel, with a focus on “creating a 21st century workplace that works for all Americans.”

On Tuesday, the president is to meet with American members of the President’s Cup golf team.

Obama is to have lunch Wednesday with Israeli President Shimon Peres and honor Sprint Cup racer Jimmie Johnson. On Thursday, he hits the road, travelling to Minneapolis for two days of events and a Democratic fundraiser on Thursday night. The president returns to the White House on Friday. 

Ben Geman, Jason Plautz, Michael Catalin, George E. Condon Jr., Stacy Kaper and Laura Ryan contributed to this article.
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