It’s Crunch Time for Congress

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (L) listens to Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) (R) during a Conference on the FY2014 Budget Resolution meeting November 13, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf briefed the conferees on CBO's budget and economic outlook. 
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Dec. 8, 2013, 7:20 a.m.

With the House sched­uled to ad­journ for the year on Fri­day, both cham­bers will try to ad­dress a bevy of un­fin­ished busi­ness this week, in­clud­ing the budget, a de­fense bill, and le­gis­la­tion to fund food stamps and farm pro­grams.

All eyes will be on Rep. Paul Ry­an and Sen. Patty Mur­ray, as the budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee is set to an­nounce wheth­er a deal has been struck. While there were signs of op­tim­ism last week, lead­ers in both parties were also dis­cuss­ing backup plans in case the com­mit­tee fails.

Ry­an says he ex­pects the frame­work of any deal to be giv­en to both parties by Tues­day, which would be a bell­weth­er mo­ment. Without a deal, House Re­pub­lic­ans lead­ers will come un­der pres­sure to pass a short-term spend­ing meas­ure be­fore law­makers leave town for the hol­i­days. It is un­clear how such a meas­ure will play in the Sen­ate.

Without a budget deal or a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion, the threat of a gov­ern­ment shut­down looms when the cur­rent CR ex­pires Jan. 15.

Mean­while, as many as 1.3 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans would be without long-term un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance at the end of the year if the House and Sen­ate do not vote by then to ex­tend those be­ne­fits.

There’s also lit­er­ally dozens of oth­er types of ex­tenders set to ex­pire, in­clud­ing pro­vi­sions re­lated to char­it­able de­duc­tions, en­ergy, com­munity as­sist­ance, and dis­aster re­lief. Some of these mat­ters could be ad­dressed ret­ro­act­ively early next year, al­though do­ing so would lead to un­cer­tainty.

Sched­ules can be changed, but Speak­er John Boehner has said the House in­tends to stick to its plan to ad­journ for the year at the end of this week. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id has not yet re­leased the up­per cham­ber’s sched­ule, but aides ex­pect the Sen­ate’s last day of the year to be Dec. 20.

In a week ex­pec­ted to be jammed with activ­ity, here are the high­lights:

  • Re­id is ex­pec­ted to take his new, post-nuc­le­ar op­tion caucus for a spin, as the Sen­ate votes as soon as Monday on Pa­tri­cia Mil­lett’s nom­in­a­tion to be a judge on the D.C. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals. The Sen­ate may also act on two oth­er D.C. Court nom­in­a­tions, as well as Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., who was tapped to head the Fed­er­al Hous­ing Fin­ance Agency.
  • On Tues­day, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry is sched­uled to testi­fy be­fore the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee amid con­gres­sion­al skep­ti­cism over the in­ter­im nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an. He is ex­pec­ted to ex­plain why the ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves eas­ing sanc­tions is prudent.
  • Nearby, the Su­preme Court on Tues­day will hear or­al ar­gu­ments in a show­down over a ma­jor piece of the White House air-qual­ity agenda. The justices are re­view­ing a 2012 Ap­peals Court de­cision that struck down the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s cross-state air-pol­lu­tion rule.
  • Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Max Baucus, D-Mont., is set to un­veil le­gis­la­tion to deal with the Sus­tain­able Growth Rate for­mula used to re­im­burse doc­tors un­der Medi­care, also known as the “doc fix.” His bill could come as early as Tues­day and will be con­sidered by the com­mit­tee on Thursday.
  • Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us is set to testi­fy Wed­nes­day on the im­ple­ment­a­tion of the Af­ford­able Care Act be­fore the House En­ergy and Com­merce’s Health Sub­com­mit­tee.
  • The Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee is to hold a hear­ing Tues­day to con­sider the nom­in­a­tion of John An­drew Koskin­en to head the In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice.
  • Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Jac­ob Lew Lew will ap­pear be­fore the House Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day for his an­nu­al testi­mony on the in­ter­na­tion­al fin­an­cial sys­tem.


Fi­nal Days

The 29-mem­ber House and Sen­ate budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee enters its fi­nal week of ne­go­ti­ations be­fore its re­com­mend­a­tions are due to Con­gress on Fri­day.

Co­chairs Ry­an and Mur­ray are clos­ing in on a nar­row deal in the range of $1 tril­lion (the mid­way point between the House Re­pub­lic­an budget top-line of $967 bil­lion and the Sen­ate Demo­crats’ $1.058 tril­lion) that could be an­nounced early this week.

Ry­an told caucus mem­bers last week that he is op­tim­ist­ic a deal can be reached, but that if he and Mur­ray haven’t come to an ac­cord by Tues­day, he is un­likely to get one at all.

Boehner has said that if no deal is forged this week, he is pre­pared to move a short-term con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to avoid an­oth­er gov­ern­ment shut­down Jan. 15.

Many House Re­pub­lic­ans are push­ing for a CR vote on Fri­day, as­sur­ing that they can go home for the hol­i­days that af­ter­noon without the pres­sure of an­oth­er fisc­al crisis when they re­turn Jan. 7. But GOP lead­ers are un­de­cided about when they would bring such a stop-gap al­tern­at­ive to the floor — if at all — hop­ing to give Mur­ray and Ry­an more time to work out the de­tails of a fi­nal deal.

With the House slated to leave for the hol­i­days on Fri­day, Demo­crats are hard at work on com­ing up with a re­place­ment plan for se­quest­ra­tion, as well as an ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­ne­fits, which are set to ex­pire Dec. 28.

If there is no budget deal this week, or the un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance ex­ten­sion is left out of that agree­ment, House Demo­crats say they are pre­pared to push sep­ar­ate le­gis­la­tion. But there would be little time left in the House cal­en­dar for con­sid­er­a­tion.


Selling an Ir­an Deal

The ad­min­is­tra­tion is bring­ing in its big guns to try to sell its in­ter­im nuc­le­ar agree­ment with Ir­an on Cap­it­ol Hill this week. Mean­while, Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee lead­ers and the lead­er­ship are try­ing to strike a deal on the stalled de­fense bill.

In an­ti­cip­a­tion of Kerry’s ap­pear­ance be­fore the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, Chair­man Ed Royce, R-Cal­if., has said he is skep­tic­al about the agree­ment and wants to hear an ex­plan­a­tion from Kerry about why the ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­vinced eas­ing sanc­tions is prudent.

On Thursday, Wendy Sher­man, the un­der­sec­ret­ary of State for polit­ic­al af­fairs, and Dav­id Co­hen, the un­der­sec­ret­ary of Treas­ury for ter­ror­ism and fin­an­cial in­tel­li­gences, are slated to dis­cuss the Ir­an agree­ment in a hear­ing be­fore the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee.

On the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill, the Sen­ate re­turns from a two-week re­cess try­ing to break a lo­g­jam that crippled the bill be­fore Thanks­giv­ing. With no agree­ment on amend­ments, House and Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee lead­ers have worked to put to­geth­er a slimmed-down ver­sion of the de­fense bill.

One strategy un­der con­sid­er­a­tion would be to pass the re­vised bill in the House and then send it to the Sen­ate, but it’s un­clear wheth­er Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans will agree to a plan that does not al­low amend­ments.

Re­pub­lic­ans had com­plained that Re­id had closed off the amend­ment pro­cess on the bill last month — and that was be­fore Re­id changed the Sen­ate’s fili­buster rules for nom­in­ees. So the Sen­ate might well have to al­low some amend­ments in or­der to pass the bill in the cham­ber.

That would com­plic­ate the path to pas­sage this year.

With the House sched­uled to ad­journ for the year at the end of next week, it is un­clear wheth­er lead­ers can reach an agree­ment and get a fi­nal bill through both cham­bers be­fore they ad­journ.

Mean­while, the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill has passed for 51 years in a row. If it doesn’t reach the fin­ish line be­fore the end of the year, lead­ers would likely try to re­sus­cit­ate it in Janu­ary.


Vol­ck­er Rule Vote

The big news this week will be votes on the long-awaited “Vol­ck­er Rule,” a pro­vi­sion of the 2010 Dodd-Frank fin­an­cial re­form law that would ban banks from mak­ing spec­u­lat­ive trades with their own money.

At least four of the five reg­u­lat­ors writ­ing the rule are ex­pec­ted to vote Tues­day. Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Lew has said Wall Street should be pre­pared for a “tough” fi­nal ver­sion of the rule.

Also this week, Ben Bernanke’s re­place­ment at the helm of the Fed­er­al Re­serve could be con­firmed by a Sen­ate vote. The nom­in­a­tion of Janet Yel­len, who is cur­rently the Fed’s vice chair, passed out of the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee with a 14-8 vote last month and is ex­pec­ted to eas­ily re­ceive the 51 votes ne­ces­sary for fi­nal ap­prov­al. Sen­ate lead­er­ship is ex­pec­ted to bring a vote to the floor be­fore re­cess be­gins Dec. 20.

The Fin­an­cial Sta­bil­ity Over­sight Coun­cil, a group of gov­ern­ment reg­u­lat­ors, will meet in open ses­sion Monday af­ter­noon. Cy­ber­se­cur­ity and fin­an­cial-mar­ket de­vel­op­ments are on the agenda.

And on Tues­day, the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee will hold an­oth­er in its series of hear­ings on hous­ing fin­ance re­form, with wit­nesses from the Fed­er­al Hous­ing Fin­ance Agency, Fred­die Mac, Fan­nie Mae, and the Mort­gage Guar­anty In­sur­ance Corp.


De­bat­ing the Doc Fix

Last week, House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dave Camp floated the pos­sib­il­ity of a three-month meas­ure to main­tain the cur­rent SGR for­mula, al­low­ing Con­gress to de­bate a longer-term fix.

Now Baucus and his Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee are set to un­veil and con­sider “doc fix” le­gis­la­tion by Thursday. Con­gress has very lim­ited time to pass a long over­due fix to the much-ma­ligned SGR, which would cut phys­i­cians’ pay by 20 per­cent be­gin­ning Jan. 1.

There had been op­tim­ism that a per­man­ent fix may get done this year, be­cause CBO’s pro­jec­ted cost was be­low es­tim­ates made in pre­vi­ous years. However, with time run­ning out, an of­fi­cial in the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee said a per­man­ent fix is un­likely to hap­pen this year.

Se­beli­us’s sched­uled testi­mony on Wed­nes­day be­fore the House En­ergy and Com­merce’s Health Sub­com­mit­tee comes after she last test­i­fied be­fore the full com­mit­tee Oct. 30. The func­tion­al­ity of Health­ has im­proved sig­ni­fic­antly since that date, and more in­di­vidu­als en­rolled in cov­er­age through the fed­er­al ex­change site in the first two days of Decem­ber than in the full month of Oc­to­ber.


Fo­cus on RFS

On Wed­nes­day, the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing on the re­new­able-fuel stand­ard, which re­quires in­creas­ing amounts of eth­an­ol and oth­er bio­fuels in the U.S. mo­tor-fuel sup­ply.

EPA re­cently scaled back the man­date, hand­ing a win to oil re­finers that call the pro­gram in­creas­ingly un­work­able. The com­mit­tee will hear from seni­or EPA and En­ergy De­part­ment of­fi­cials, as well as sup­port­ers and crit­ics of the bio­fuels man­date.

The joint hear­ing, to be held by the House sub­com­mit­tees on En­ergy and Power, and En­vir­on­ment and the Eco­nomy, in­to nuc­le­ar-waste stor­age will ex­am­ine how the Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion is re­spond­ing to a court dir­ect­ive to pro­ceed with con­sid­er­a­tion of the En­ergy De­part­ment’s ap­plic­a­tion to use Yucca Moun­tain as a nuc­le­ar waste re­pos­it­ory.

Pan­el mem­bers will also con­sider a bill sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry that would di­vert au­thor­ity with­in the NRC away from Chair­man Al­lis­on Mac­far­lane, who is ex­pec­ted to testi­fy at the hear­ing.

On the oth­er side of Cap­it­ol Hill Thursday, the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee will vote on a slate of ex­ec­ut­ive branch nom­in­ees to fill the key En­ergy and In­teri­or De­part­ment posts.


Hon­or­ing Man­dela

Pres­id­ent Obama and the first lady will par­ti­cip­ate in me­mori­al events for Nel­son Man­dela this week in South Africa.

Ben Geman, Michael Catalin, Clare Foran, Catherine Hollander, Stacy Kaper, Sarah Mimms and Sophie Novack contributed to this article.
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