Congressional leaders enter this week confident they can complete work on a bipartisan spending bill to fund government through the end of the fiscal year. But that’s the only piece of legislation that seems certain to advance.
There is less certainty about the timeframe for passing a farm bill, though leaders continue to insist they would like to wrap up conference negotiations by the end of January. And the Senate is set to pick up where it left off on legislation to extend unemployment insurance, with Majority Leader Harry Reid poised to bring measures to the floor without Republican support.
Even on the spending bill, there is some bet-hedging. The House as early as Monday plans to take up a short-term spending measure to enable government to keep operating through midnight Saturday — beyond Wednesday’s formal deadline for a spending bill to be locked in place.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says this strategy is simply a process to give the Senate added days to “finish their business” on the bill, which he seemed sure the House will pass early in the week.
The omnibus spending package contains what would normally be 12 separate annual funding bills, and will reflect an annualized spending level of $1.1 trillion for fiscal 2014. It will carry the government through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
Here’s what else Congress is facing this week:
- House Republicans will continue to focus on Obamacare this week, voting on a bill that would require reports on enrollment data and website traffic for HealthCare.gov, including a weekly state-by-state breakdown of unique visitors.
- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan will each deliver speeches on how to promote social mobility at a summit held at the Brookings Institution on Monday.
- The political battle over President Obama’s climate agenda will be front-and-center at a Senate hearing Thursday. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy will testify before the Environment and Public Works Committee.
- The Senate is set on Monday to take up the nomination of Robert Wilkins as a judge for the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia. Wilkins’s nomination, along with two others, were among those Republicans sought to block before Reid changed Senate rules to streamline the process for his Democratic majority.
- Lawmakers will dig this week into China’s high-profile maritime disputes, and consider several national security nominations.
Outside Congress, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Monday in a matter involving the president’s recess appointment power. The case, National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, is an appeal of a lower federal court ruling that Obama’s appointment of three members to the board was unconstitutional.
In addition, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is expected to make news in what is expected to be his final public appearance as the head of the Fed on Thursday. And on Friday, Obama is to give a speech outlining the results of the administration’s review of national security surveillance policy.
BUDGET AND UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE
Omnibus Rolls Forward
Appropriators entering this weekend were wrapping up their negotiations over the 12-part omnibus spending bill — which will fund the government through the remainder of fiscal 2014 — with a vote in the House on the package expected as early as Tuesday.
However, appropriators must complete their work in order to prevent a government shutdown by Wednesday, when the current funding mechanism expires, leaving little time for the Senate to take up the measure. Anticipating a mid-week vote in the House, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., filed a three-day continuing resolution on Friday to buy more time for Senate passage after Wednesday, allowing it to keep government funded through Saturday.
The House is expected to take up the CR on its noncontroversial suspension calendar Monday, with members and aides anticipating that it will easily pass both chambers. Then members will have to contend with the omnibus.
Though disagreements remain on both sides of the aisle over a few key issues, Rogers said that 10 of the 12 bills are largely finished that will make up the final omnibus, which would reflect an annualized spending level of $1.1 trillion. Rogers said he is confident that all 12 bills will make it into the final legislation, without the need for a CR for any of the programs. “It will be 12 bills,” Rogers said Friday.
Rogers said that he expects to release the final legislation Sunday night or Monday, setting up a House vote Tuesday or Wednesday. The measure is expected to pass easily.
“There’ll be some people that think it’s too much spending from $967 [billion, the level in the House-passed budget last year] and there’ll be some people that think, no, there’s too many cuts,” Republican Rep. Tom Cole, who heads the Legislative Branch Subcommittee, said Friday. “But I think at the end of the day, there will be a majority of the majority on our side and there will be a majority of the minority on their side.”
The omnibus will then head to the Senate, where, thanks to the CR, they will have until midnight Saturday to pass it.
On the unemployment amendment expected to be taken up in a procedural vote by the Senate on Monday, the measure pays for itself by extending the sequester for a year and by incorporating part of a proposal from Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio that cuts off Americans who get unemployment and disability benefits.
It’s a bit of legislative jujitsu, because Republicans have signaled they’ll block it. Reid would then likely argue that he gave the GOP what it wanted — an offset — but they still rebuffed him. Republicans are not amused. It’s their right, they say, to have their amendments voted on, and Reid is shutting them out. Sen. John McCain of Arizona has even likened Reid to a dictator.
Meanwhile, Republicans who control the House are making no promises, pointing instead to the delays in the Senate. “We are watching what the Senate is doing,” said Cantor on Friday, noting what he called “some difficulty” over the measure there.
On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee will host a closed-door briefing on Defense Department counterterrorism operations with Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence; Michael Lumpkin, the assistant secretary of Defense for special operations; and Lt. Gen. William Mayville Jr., the director for operations with the Joint Staff.
Also on Tuesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee holds a joint hearing with the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee on China’s maritime disputes.
On Thursday, SASC holds a hearing on the nomination of Madelyn Creedon to be principal deputy administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration. It also will hear testimony from Brad Carson to be undersecretary of the Army and William LaPlante Jr. to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, HASC’s personnel subcommittee hosts a hearing Thursday on future recruiting challenges in the fiscally constrained environment.
There’s lots of economic action this week, which will be heavy on the Fedspeak as a number of central bank officials are scheduled to make public appearances. Key data include inflation measurements released on Wednesday and Thursday, and the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey and Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment gauge Friday.
On Thursday, Bernanke is scheduled to speak about the challenges facing central banks — something he’s quite familiar with after eight turbulent years as Fed chief — at an event launching the Brookings Institution’s new Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy. San Francisco Fed President John Williams and a number of former central bank officials will also speak at the event.
On Tuesday, a House Financial Services subcommittee will hold a hearing on the impact of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s qualified mortgage rule on homeowners, part of the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires lenders to make a good-faith determination of whether consumers can repay their loans. The QM rule went into effect Friday.
The next day, the full Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing on the Volcker Rule’s impact on job creators. Financial regulators last month finalized the controversial provision of Dodd-Frank that would ban banks from making speculative bets on their own accounts, and committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling and member Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., introduced legislation last week to amend it.
The Joint Economic Committee will pick up on a major theme for Democrats in 2014 when it holds a hearing on income inequality on Thursday. Robert Reich, the former Labor secretary, is among the witnesses testifying. President Obama is expected to make the country’s rising wealth disparity a theme in his State of the Union address at the end of the month.
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
House conservatives will rail against the administration’s efforts to impose air-pollution controls on power plants next week when the House Energy and Power Subcommittee takes up legislation introduced by Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
The legislation, which was formally introduced by the bipartisan pair in both chambers of Congress this week, would do away with the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed mandate of carbon capture and storage technology for existing power plants. It would also allow Congress to determine when forthcoming EPA regulations to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants would take effect.
Subcommittee members will vote on the bill on Tuesday, after offering opening statements on Monday.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer said she’s forming a new Climate Action Task Force, and members of the new group plan to hold a press conference on Tuesday.
House and Senate conferees continue to negotiate final details of a farm-bill reauthorization. But they now appear to be moving forward with an assumption it is likely to reduce food-stamp benefits, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, by about $8.7 billion over 10 years.
That is more than twice the $4 billion in cuts initially proposed in a Senate version of the bill, but significantly lower than the almost $40 billion proposed cut contained in a House-passed version. There still remains friction within the conference over how that issue — which had been seen as the most contentious in the bill — is being resolved.
However, a bigger obstacle to a final deal might now be the fight over whether to continue a program to bolster the price of milk for dairy farmers, when prices drop. House Speaker John Boehner is among those who have long backhandedly called this “a Soviet-style” program, and he reiterated last week that he would not allow it to be part of a final bill. But lawmakers from big milk-producing states want it to remain.
Hopes persist that a final conference agreement can be reached by this month, but how that process will play out is uncertain. Whether unresolved issues within the conference will be voted on by way of amendments in an open, public hearing is also among the issues under dispute.
For a conference report to become law, it must have the signatures of a majority of the conferees from each chamber. Then both houses must approve it, generally by a up-or-down vote.
House Republicans will also continue to focus on the Affordable Care Act with two hearings on the security of HealthCare.gov scheduled for Thursday.
The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of Energy and Commerce will again hear testimony from Gary Cohen, deputy administrator and director of the federal government’s Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight on the implementation of the health care law.
Cohen last appeared before the committee on Sept. 19, a few weeks before the Oct. 1 launch of the exchanges. At the 9:30 a.m. hearing, titled “2014: Seeking PPACA Answers,” members will question Cohen on why he did not foresee or reveal problems with the website during his first testimony in September.
The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will also hear testimony regarding the security of the Obamacare website, in a hearing titled “HealthCare.gov: Consequences of Stolen Identity” at 9 a.m.
ACA enrollment data for December is also expected to be released this week. The numbers are sure to be the highest yet, as states saw enrollment surge ahead of the Dec. 23 enrollment deadline for coverage beginning Jan. 1.
Sketches of Spain
Obama will continue the buildup to his Jan. 28 State of the Union address this week with a mix of foreign policy and domestic policy.
Along with his speech Friday outlining the results of the administration’s review of national security surveillance policy, he will host Spanish President Mariano Rajoy Brey on Monday for a discussion of NATO and transatlantic trade issues.
On Tuesday, he will hold his first Cabinet meeting of the new year. On Wednesday, he hits the road, taking his economic message to the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area.
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As the Russia investigation heats up, "the role of Marc E. Kasowitz, the president’s longtime New York lawyer, will be significantly reduced. Mr. Trump liked Mr. Kasowitz’s blunt, aggressive style, but he was not a natural fit in the delicate, politically charged criminal investigation. The veteran Washington defense lawyer John Dowd will take the lead in representing Mr. Trump for the Russia inquiry."
President Trump's attorneys are "actively compiling a list of Mueller’s alleged potential conflicts of interest, which they say could serve as a way to stymie his work." They plan to argued that Mueller is going outside the scope of his investigation, in inquiring into Trump's finances. They're also playing small ball, highlighting "donations to Democrats by some of" Mueller's team, and "an allegation that Mueller and Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia had a dispute over membership fees when Mueller resigned as a member in 2011." Trump is said to be incensed that Mueller may see his tax returns, and has been asking about his power to pardon his family members.
In addition to ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, Robert Mueller's team is also "examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his associates, according to a person familiar with the probe. FBI investigators and others are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008, the person said. The investigation also has absorbed a money-laundering probe begun by federal prosecutors in New York into Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort."
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team is "is examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his associates", including "Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008."
"A Senate bill to gut Obamacare would increase the number of uninsured people by 32 million and double premiums on Obamacare's exchanges by 2026, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The analysis is of a bill that passed Congress in 2015 that would repeal Obamacare's taxes and some of the mandates. Republicans intend to leave Obamacare in place for two years while a replacement is crafted and implemented."