Congress enters this week without a bipartisan agreement on how to address the debt ceiling, with the Obama administration telling lawmakers they should take steps to raise the nation’s borrowing cap before Friday.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew says “extraordinary measures” can be taken by the department to prevent default, but he also expects these measures to be exhausted later in the month. In an appearance at the Bipartisan Policy Center on Monday, Lew will again urge lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling as soon as possible .
Yet House Republicans, who gathered at their annual private retreat late last week, continued to hedge on what, if any, concessions they might ask in return for their support on an increase in the $17 trillion borrowing limit.
How much leverage the GOP holds with Democrats and President Obama, who will not negotiate over paying the country’s debts, remains to be seen. Speaker John Boehner says House Republicans won’t approve a debt-ceiling increase without concessions, but Boehner has also said defaulting on the nation’s debt is “the wrong thing,” indicating a showdown is unlikely.
In the Senate, Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray is leading the no-negotiation chorus for Democrats, and no decision about whether the Senate will take up the debt-ceiling issue before the House has been made, Democratic aides said.
The question is likely to come up at a closed-door retreat for Senate Democrats at Nationals Park on Wednesday, where lawmakers will hear from Obama and Bill Clinton.
Senate Republicans are also retreating Wednesday, heading to the Library of Congress to chart their own course over the debt limit. Senators are in close contact with their House colleagues and are aiming to mount a united front against Majority Leader Harry Reid and the White House, lawmakers say.
Also on the agenda this week:
- The Senate is expected to vote on the farm bill, starting with a procedural measure Monday and moving to final passage later this week. The House passed the bill last week.
- Janet Yellen will be officially sworn in as Federal Reserve chief on Monday morning.
- The Senate Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the nomination of Vivek Murthy to be the next surgeon general.
- The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the state of al-Qaida. The House Foreign Affairs Committee will conduct a hearing Wednesday on al-Qaida’s resurgence in Iraq.
- The House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee will hold a hearing Wednesday featuring IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. The hearing will address a number of issues related to the IRS, including the agency’s responsibilities under the Affordable Care Act.
- The House Rules Committee will hold a hearing Monday to set floor rules for a vote this week on the “Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act of 2013,” which also would allow for importation of polar-bear trophies from Canada, if proven that the kill occurred before May 15, 2008.
- The Rules Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday to set procedures on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act.
BUDGET AND FINANCE
Lew last week met behind closed doors with Senate Democrats to discuss the debt-ceiling deadline. Just days earlier, he had written to lawmakers saying action to raise the nation’s borrowing limit should be taken “before February 7 to ensure the orderly financing of the government,” or at the latest by the end of February.
Senate aides said Lew was maintaining that posture last week.
Democrats have been warning Republicans that they will not negotiate spending cuts in exchange for increasing the limit — and Republicans have been complaining about the no-bargaining position taken by congressional Democrats and President Obama.
Still, House Republican leaders appear to be abandoning any notion of a tense election-year standoff, or the possibility of letting the country go into default.
But exactly what they might demand in exchange had not been decided by Republicans late last week, as some conservatives complain they’re working now with scant leverage.
Some options discussed include trying to again attach measures tied to the Affordable Care Act, or some instructions regarding tax reform, or even tying it to the Keystone XL pipeline. But no definitive strategy appeared decided as of late last week.
“I think the debt-limit discussions are preliminary at this point,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., at the GOP retreat.
Fighting for Veterans
The Senate is looking to take steps to unwind the $6 billion reduction in veterans’ cost-of-living benefits that was included in last year’s budget deal.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin is hoping to mark up a bill in his panel from Sens. Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan as soon as this week that would undo the cuts without offsetting them, with an eye toward figuring out a pay-for on the Senate floor. Meanwhile, a bill is pending in the Senate from Veterans Affairs’ Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders that would restore the COLA reduction and expand health care and education benefits to veterans, which the Senate could move to at any time. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on negotiations with Iran, featuring the State Department’s Wendy Sherman and Treasury Department’s David Cohen.
First up on Yellen’s plate? Overseeing the Fed’s exit from its bond-buying program; bringing down the unemployment rate; keeping an eye out for deflation as well as bubbles; and communicating as clearly as possible to jittery markets. No big deal.
The Congressional Budget Office will release its latest budget and economic outlook, spanning 2014 to 2024, on Tuesday. CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf will testify on the new forecast before the House Budget Committee on Wednesday morning.
There will be back-to-back hearings on safeguarding consumers’ financial data, an issue that has been in the headlines since a major breach of credit cards used by Target customers during the holiday season was made public. The first hearing will be held Monday by a Senate Banking subcommittee; the second on Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. John Mulligan, the chief financial officer of the Target Corp., is scheduled to testify at the latter.
Over at the House Financial Services Committee, members will discuss how to modernize insurance regulation on Tuesday. On Wednesday, they will turn to the annual report from the Office of Financial Research, which was created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act to better monitor financial threats to the United States. They’ll also hold a separate hearing Wednesday on the impact of the Volcker Rule — a Dodd-Frank ban on banks making speculative bets with their own money — on job creators.
On Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee will convene banking regulators for a hearing on oversight of financial stability and data security. Participants will include officials and agency heads from the Fed, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, as well as the Treasury Department.
Capping off the week will be the jobs report for January, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics at 8:30 a.m. Friday. The last reading — a dismal 74,000 jobs added in December — surprised economists. This week, look for revisions to that number. Economists are expecting a stronger report this month, with consensus expectations for payroll growth at 180,000, according to a research note by Capital Economics.
IRS Commissioner Koskinen’s hearing before the Oversight Subcommittee — in addressing the agency’s responsibilities under the Affordable Care Act — will include income and data certification related to the tax credits available to low-income individuals on the insurance exchanges.
Meanwhile, Murthy would be the first Indian-American surgeon general if he is approved. He is the cofounder and president of Doctors for America, a Washington-based group of 16,000 medical students and physicians that advocates for the Affordable Care Act and its principles of giving Americans access to more affordable quality health care. Murthy is also a physician and instructor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at the Harvard Medical School.
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
West Virginia Water
The Senate Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife is scheduled to hold an oversight hearing with West Virginia state officials and environmental advocates on Tuesday to look at the effectiveness of health and environmental safeguards that protect drinking-water supplies.
The hearing will focus on an event that unfolded earlier this month in West Virginia when a chemical spill led to a ban on drinking water in certain parts of the state. The issue remains in the spotlight following reports that the leaked chemical may now be breaking down into formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
The House Rules Committee is set to hold a hearing Wednesday to set floor-vote procedures on a bill that would enable Escambia County, Fla., to convey some property that was part of Santa Rosa Island National Monument to the county.
Close to Home
Obama will spend the first four days of the week in town, where he’ll meet with Democratic lawmakers and push themes from his State of the Union address.
On Tuesday, he will talk about his program to connect more schools to high-speed Internet and will host the House Democratic Caucus for a roundtable and discussion of issues in the evening. On Wednesday, he will speak at the Senate Democratic Issues Conference. On Thursday, he will speak at the National Prayer breakfast and meet with the president of Haiti.