Lawmakers return to the Capitol this week determined to take steps to aid Ukraine and punish Russia, but they first must resolve differences between approaches introduced in the House and those preferred by Senate Democrats and the administration.
Reforms to the International Monetary Fund sought by the Senate and President Obama are among notable hang-ups. House GOP leaders and conservatives oppose the changes, and the IMF proposals were left out of a House bill unveiled on Friday.
Also on tap this week is a flurry of appearances before the House and Senate Appropriations committees regarding agency and department budget requests for fiscal 2015.
Obama will spend most of the week overseas, including a meeting set for Thursday in Vatican City with Pope Francis to discuss poverty and income inequality.
Here’s some other congressional action expected this week:
- With negotiations stalled on a bipartisan bill to find a long-term or permanent approach to paying Medicare physicians, congressional negotiators will move toward another short-term “doc fix” of nine months to a year. They must act by March 31 to avert an automatic cut to those payments.
- Secretary of State John Kerry is to testify Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the national security and foreign policy priorities in the president’s budget proposal.
- The Foreign Relations Committee also holds a hearing on Syria on Wednesday.
- Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew will not only be appearing Tuesday before the House Appropriations Committee, he also is set to appear on Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee on the state of the international financial system.
- The House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday will hold the first in a planned series of hearings on the $17 trillion national debt. This hearing is to examine the debt’s impact on jobs, economic growth, and the ability of the nation to fund entitlement programs and discretionary spending.
- Advocates of exporting natural gas will ramp up their efforts, ready to make their case before Congress that surging U.S. gas production should open the door for exports that help Europe ease reliance on Russian energy. On Tuesday the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will have a hearing on the topic. A day later the House Foreign Affairs Committee will have a hearing on the “Geopolitical Potential of the U.S. Energy Boom.”
The House’s exclusion of IMF reforms contained in a Ukraine aid bill approved earlier this month by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sets up a clash between the two chambers. For instance, the Senate bill backs an administration call to shift $63 billion from an IMF crisis account to its general fund.
Republicans who oppose that, including House Speaker John Boehner, say such a move really has nothing to do with the Ukraine crisis. They note that Obama and Democrats have been pushing the move for some time and that the president included it in his budget proposal for fiscal 2015.
In hearings before the Approrpiations panels, scheduled witnesses include Treasury’s Lew, FBI Director James Comey, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, among others.
Questions have persisted about whether House Republicans led by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan will follow Senate Democrats and not pass a fiscal 2015 budget plan. On Friday, however, Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a memo that action will be taken on a spending plan, along with three budget-process reform bills.
There has been speculation that a GOP budget could have difficulty passing in the House, and whether Republicans should — or even have to — produce a budget as they head toward November’s elections.
If such a budget adhered to spending caps put in place by the two-year, $1.1 trillion budget deal passed in December — which Ryan helped create — passage could be difficult. Sixty-two House Republicans voted against that measure, meaning a similar spending plan would require Democratic support for passage. That could be a tough task if Republicans turn their budget into a messaging vehicle for cuts to social or some other programs, especially if it also includes added military spending.
But in his memo Friday, Cantor said: “While the president’s budget blows past the spending limit previously agreed to, the House Republican budget “¦ will adhere to the agreed upon spending limits and balance in 10 years.”
The congressional timetable sets April 15 as the deadline for completing action on the annual budget resolution for the new fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
Scoping the Pentagon
The House and Senate Armed Services committees start digging into the annual defense authorization for 2015 with a series of hearings dissecting different pieces of the Pentagon’s budget proposal.
On Tuesday, HASC reviews the Army’s defense authorization budget request, while the Military Personnel Subcommittee examines personnel programs in the afternoon and the Strategic Forces Subcommittee looks at missile-defense programs. Meanwhile the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a hearing on the U.S. Pacific Command and Korea.
On Wednesday in the House, the Strategic Forces Subcommittee holds a hearing on an interim report on nuclear security, and the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee holds a hearing on the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force programs.
In the Senate, the Personnel Subcommittee holds a hearing on personnel programs. Also on Wednesday the SASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee holds a hearing on nuclear and environmental budget security.
On Thursday, HASC’s Readiness Subcommittee holds a hearing on how operation and maintenance will work without Overseas Contingency Operations funds. The SASC holds a hearing on the posture of the Navy.
Coal and Carbon
Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota will attempt to strike a difficult balance on Monday with the introduction of legislation to promote coal while at the same time tamping down on its carbon footprint. The senator promises that her legislation will ensure that coal remains a viable part of the U.S. energy mix while also giving a boost to clean coal technology.
The president’s proposed budget for EPA will get lots of attention in dueling hearings in both the House and the Senate.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will go over the agency’s proposed budget for fiscal 2015 in a hearing set for Wednesday. The following day, the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee is to hold a hearing on its own. EPA’s McCarthy is set to testify at the House subcommittee hearing.
High Court Hearing
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is to hear opening arguments in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
The owners of both companies argue that it is a violation of their religious liberty to force them to cover certain forms of contraception for their employees. The Court convenes at 10 a.m. for 90 minutes of arguments.
Also on Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee will hear from the public and outside witnesses about the fiscal 2015 budget request for the Health and Human Services Department. Representatives of numerous children’s organizations are expected be on hand.
Obama is to spend the entire week overseas, visiting four countries on two continents and meeting with more than 50 world leaders before returning to Washington next weekend.
He will spend Monday and Tuesday at the Hague, attending the Nuclear Security Summit and an emergency meeting of the G-7 allies to discuss developments in Ukraine. Tuesday night and Wednesday will see him in Brussels for a commemoration of World War I and a U.S.-E.U. summit.
Then it’s off to Rome and Vatican City for the president’s first meeting with Pope Francis and a session with the new Italian prime minister on Thursday. From there, he goes on the final leg of the trip: Saudi Arabia for meetings with the Saudi king on Friday before returning to Washington on Saturday.
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"Saudi Arabia said Saturday that Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist who disappeared more than two weeks ago, had died after an argument and fistfight with unidentified men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Eighteen men have been arrested and are being investigated in the case, Saudi state-run media reported without identifying any of them. State media also reported that Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy director of Saudi intelligence, and other high-ranking intelligence officials had been dismissed."
"Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is scrutinizing how a collection of activists and pundits intersected with WikiLeaks, the website that U.S. officials say was the primary conduit for publishing materials stolen by Russia, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Mueller’s team has recently questioned witnesses about the activities of longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone, including his contacts with WikiLeaks, and has obtained telephone records, according to the people familiar with the matter."
"Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to issue findings on core aspects of his Russia probe soon after the November midterm elections ... Specifically, Mueller is close to rendering judgment on two of the most explosive aspects of his inquiry: whether there were clear incidents of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, and whether the president took any actions that constitute obstruction of justice." Mueller has faced pressure to wrap up the investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, said an official, who would receive the results of the investigation and have "some discretion in deciding what is relayed to Congress and what is publicly released," if he remains at his post.
"The Justice Department on Friday charged a Russian woman for her alleged role in a conspiracy to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case prosecutors have brought against a foreign national for interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of 'Project Lakhta,' a foreign influence operation they said was designed 'to sow discord in the U.S. political system' by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and the National Football League national-anthem protests."