Congress Is Running Out of Time

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 1: A Capitol Hill Police officer passes by the Ohio Clock which shows the time has just passed midnight on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol October 1, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The U.S. government was officially shut down after the Senate and the House of the Representatives failed to come to an agreement to pass a federal spending bill to keep the government running.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Dec. 1, 2013, 6:37 a.m.

The House re­turns to ses­sion on Monday with just sev­en more days on the le­gis­lat­ive sched­ule this year and time run­ning out on a budget deal, a farm-bill reau­thor­iz­a­tion, and a long list of oth­er items re­quir­ing ac­tion by year’s end.

Ma­jor un­re­solved top­ics in­clude how to fund gov­ern­ment bey­ond Jan. 15, how far re­forms to Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance should go, and wheth­er to ex­tend emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance for 1.3 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans.

Des­pite the crunch, floor activ­ity in the cham­ber is lim­ited, and the Re­pub­lic­an fo­cus on the Af­ford­able Care Act in com­mit­tees won’t be dis­rup­ted. A vote on a bill to rein in ab­us­ive pat­ent-lit­ig­a­tion and an­oth­er to ad­dress reg­u­la­tion on small private-equity funds are among the only roll-call votes an­ti­cip­ated.

With the Sen­ate not re­turn­ing to ses­sion un­til Dec. 9 and the House in­tend­ing to com­plete work for the year by Dec. 13, here is some of what law­makers will be up to this week:

  • The House Rules Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Tues­day to set the floor pro­ced­ures for votes later in the week on the pat­ent-re­form bill and the Small Busi­ness Cap­it­al Ac­cess and Job Pre­ser­va­tion Act.

  • Sen­ate and House farm-bill con­fer­ees, al­though the Sen­ate is not in ses­sion this week, have been told that they may be summoned to Wash­ing­ton for an open con­fer­ence meet­ing Wed­nes­day as pro­spects for a deal ap­pear troubled.

  • The House En­ergy and Com­merce Health Sub­com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on the Medi­care Ad­vant­age pro­gram and what its be­ne­fi­ciar­ies should ex­pect un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act. The ACA cut more than $300 bil­lion from Medi­care Ad­vant­age, af­fect­ing roughly one-quarter of all Medi­care be­ne­fi­ciar­ies.

  • House En­ergy and Com­merce’s En­ergy and Power Sub­com­mit­tee will con­vene a hear­ing Thursday to ex­am­ine the role of the Fed­er­al En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion and wheth­er or not the agency has kept pace with the re­cent surge in do­mest­ic oil and nat­ur­al-gas pro­duc­tion.

  • The House Small Busi­ness Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on the defin­i­tion of “em­ploy­ee” for small busi­nesses un­der the health care law, and how that im­pacts the re­quire­ments to of­fer health in­sur­ance.

  • Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee Chair­man Tim John­son, D-S.D., wants to be briefed by Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry on the de­tails of the ac­cord struck with Ir­an, which would pause its nuc­le­ar-en­rich­ment pro­gram and provide some sanc­tions re­lief, be­fore mak­ing any de­cisions on com­mit­tee ac­tion. It is un­clear when this might oc­cur.

Ne­go­ti­ations be­hind the scenes on a budget deal are also likely to con­tin­ue, though with le­gis­lat­ive time run­ning out be­fore its Dec. 13 dead­line, the budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee is widely ex­pec­ted to em­brace le­gis­la­tion that would main­tain cur­rent fund­ing levels and delay the mat­ter sev­er­al more weeks.

Mean­while, the clock is tick­ing on the list of items that are up for re­new­al by the end of the year.

For in­stance, there are ques­tions on how law­makers will pro­ceed with the rate for­mula that’s used to re­im­burse phys­i­cians un­der Medi­care, the so-called “doc fix” that is of­fi­cially known as the Medi­care Sus­tain­able Growth Rate. And then there are lit­er­ally dozens of ex­tenders set to ex­pire, ran­ging from spe­cial tax write-offs for NAS­CAR and oth­er racetracks, to fed­er­al rum re­bates to Pu­erto Rico and the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands, to breaks for Hol­ly­wood movie and TV pro­du­cers, min­ing com­pan­ies, rail­roads, and oth­er spe­cial in­terests.

While some can be ad­dressed ret­ro­act­ively early next year, do­ing so would lead to un­cer­tainty for those im­pacted.


Loom­ing Dead­line

The Dec. 13 dead­line looms for the budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee led by Rep. Paul Ry­an, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., to come up with its re­com­mend­a­tion to Con­gress on how to keep gov­ern­ment run­ning past Jan. 15. That’s the date when a cur­rent fund­ing mech­an­ism ex­pires.

Rising spec­u­la­tion is that the con­fer­ees will be un­able to reach agree­ment on re­com­mend­a­tions for any broad, long-term deal on spend­ing and rev­en­ues for the rest of fisc­al 2014 — much less through fisc­al 2015, as some law­makers have been hop­ing for. And with the House still sched­uled to end its work in Wash­ing­ton for 2013 at the end of next week — and the Sen­ate not even in ses­sion this week — an­oth­er short-term, con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion is seen as the likely res­ult.

House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, and oth­er top law­makers have in­sisted they re­main hope­ful that the ne­go­ti­at­ors can come to some broad­er agree­ment by their dead­line. But Boehner also said that if the con­fer­ees do not reach a deal by then, “the House will be pre­pared to move a CR.”

Boehner has not spe­cified the length of time such a new tem­por­ary spend­ing pack­age would cov­er or wheth­er it might con­tain so-called “se­quester re­lief” — more fund­ing to soften the sched­uled cuts and in­form­a­tion on where that money might come from. No de­cision has been made on wheth­er the House would act on such a bill be­fore leav­ing for the year, or after it re­con­venes Jan. 7.

House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­man Hal Ro­gers, R-Ky., has said he is among those hold­ing out hope for a longer-term deal. But he also has said that if a short-term CR of 90 days or so is needed, he would hope that it could pre­vent the second round of se­quester cuts from kick­ing in. He has not out­lined how that might be done.

But un­less that cur­rent law un­der the 2011 Budget Con­trol Act is changed, the sched­uled across-the-board cuts to mil­it­ary and do­mest­ic pro­grams will deep­en, to $109 bil­lion from $85 bil­lion, as fed­er­al dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing over­all will be re­duced from a level of $988 bil­lion to $967 bil­lion. The De­fense De­part­ment would ab­sorb $20 bil­lion more in fisc­al 2014 cuts than in fisc­al 2013.

Some in the House GOP prefer to pass a short-term CR pri­or to leav­ing Wash­ing­ton on Dec. 13. There is a view that act­ing pree­mpt­ively could in­ocu­late them from blame over the Christ­mas break for a loom­ing gov­ern­ment shut­down. But do­ing so in a way that does noth­ing to avoid lock­ing in the second round of se­quester cuts is likely to bring about its own share of cri­ti­cism.

Mean­while, a spokes­wo­man for House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dave Camp, R-Mich., says he is fi­nal­iz­ing tax-re­form le­gis­la­tion and has not ruled out pos­sibly un­veil­ing such a bill and ac­tion on it by the end of the year. But giv­en the short time left in 2013, and on­go­ing am­bi­val­ence or out­right op­pos­i­tion from top lead­ers and oth­ers in his party, early next year is widely viewed as a more likely time­frame in which Camp might move for­ward.


De­cision Time

The fi­nal jobs re­port of 2013 will be re­leased on Fri­day, two weeks be­fore the Fed­er­al Re­serve’s policy-set­ting com­mit­tee makes a key de­cision on wheth­er it should be­gin to ease off of its $85 bil­lion-a-month bond-buy­ing pro­gram. A strong re­port will raise ex­pect­a­tions that the Fed will be­gin to taper its as­set pur­chases; a weak one will di­min­ish them.

A second read­ing of third-quarter gross do­mest­ic product will be re­leased on Thursday morn­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the first es­tim­ate, the eco­nomy grew by 2.8 per­cent dur­ing that time.


Battle Over Re­new­able-Fuel Stand­ard

On Wed­nes­day, the full House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee is to mark up eight bills, in­clud­ing one that would dir­ect the Treas­ury De­part­ment to re­im­burse states that used state funds to op­er­ate na­tion­al parks dur­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment shut­down.

The sub­com­mit­tee on En­ergy and Min­er­al Re­sources will hold a hear­ing Thursday on two bills, in­clud­ing one re­quir­ing the In­teri­or sec­ret­ary to de­vel­op a mul­tipur­pose sur­vey or map of fed­er­al real prop­erty, identi­fy­ing in­ac­cur­ate, du­plic­ate, and out-of-date in­vent­or­ies.

The House En­ergy and Com­merce En­ergy and Power Sub­com­mit­tee will put a fed­er­al reg­u­lat­or un­der the mi­cro­scope on Thursday dur­ing its hear­ing on the Fed­er­al En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion, look­ing in­to wheth­er the agency has kept pace with the re­cent surge in do­mest­ic oil and nat­ur­al-gas pro­duc­tion.

Also on Thursday, bio­fuels back­ers and oil and gas in­dustry stake­hold­ers square off in the fight over the re­new­able-fuel stand­ard when the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency con­venes a pub­lic hear­ing on the hotly con­tested 2014 stand­ard, which the agency re­leased in draft form in mid-Novem­ber.

A num­ber of law­makers have pro­posed changes to the man­date, in­clud­ing Reps. Bob Good­latte, R-Va., and Peter Welch, D-Vt., but Cap­it­ol Hill ac­tion ap­pears to have stalled, with EPA tak­ing an act­ive role in al­ter­ing the RFS by pro­pos­ing to lower the man­date for the first time in 2014, to the dis­may of the bio­fuels in­dustry.


Fo­cus on ‘Doc Fix’

The House En­ergy and Com­merce Health Sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing Wed­nes­day on the top­ic of the Medi­care Ad­vant­age pro­gram is just one of the ven­ues where the spot­light will con­tin­ue to shine on the Af­ford­able Care Act this week.

The health care law cut more than $300 bil­lion from Medi­care Ad­vant­age, af­fect­ing roughly one-quarter of all Medi­care be­ne­fi­ciar­ies. The com­mit­tee says it is ex­plor­ing and eval­u­at­ing what hap­pens to the seni­ors who will shift out of the pro­gram as the ACA takes full ef­fect next year.

There also is build­ing fo­cus on what Con­gress will do re­gard­ing the so-called “doc fix” or SGR for­mula used for phys­i­cian re­im­burse­ment un­der Medi­care. Un­less Con­gress acts by Jan. 1 in some man­ner, Medi­care phys­i­cian pay­ments will be cut by about 24.4 per­cent.

Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mitree Chair­man Max Baucus, D-Mont., has an­nounced that his pan­el will con­sider le­gis­la­tion Dec. 12 to re­peal the rate for­mula, and his le­gis­la­tion will be dis­trib­uted at least 48 hours be­fore the start of that meet­ing. However, there re­main sig­ni­fic­ant hurdles to any ma­jor over­haul of the for­mula — and how to pay for it.

Also this week, Glob­al Health Care and the Robert Wood John­son Found­a­tion will hold the Na­tion­al Sum­mit on Health Care Price, Cost, and Qual­ity Trans­par­ency on Monday through Wed­nes­day. Key­note speak­ers in­clude Steven Brill, au­thor of the Time magazine art­icle “Bit­ter Pill: Why Med­ic­al Bills Are Killing Us”; George Halvor­son, chair­man of Kais­er Per­man­ente; Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, pres­id­ent and chief ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer of the Robert Wood John­son Found­a­tion; and Uwe Re­in­hardt, James Madis­on pro­fess­or of polit­ic­al eco­nomy at Prin­ceton Uni­versity.

Mean­while, a group of med­ic­al and leg­al pro­fes­sion­als will meet Monday to dis­cuss the is­sue of med­ic­al prac­tices and med­ic­al eth­ics in­volved in the treat­ment of Guantanamo Bay de­tain­ees.

A group of Bo­ston Uni­versity pro­fess­ors and the Con­sti­tu­tion Pro­ject have said that phys­i­cians placed mil­it­ary mis­sion above med­ic­al eth­ics when re­spond­ing to or­ders in Guantanamo, a re­quest that the U.S. mil­it­ary should not make.

The con­fer­ence seeks to re­view new in­form­a­tion about cur­rent treat­ment of de­tain­ees and de­vel­op re­com­mend­a­tions for what the med­ic­al com­munity can do go­ing for­ward, with the hope that pro­fes­sion­al med­ic­al as­so­ci­ations can em­power phys­i­cians to say no to or­ders that vi­ol­ate med­ic­al eth­ic­al stand­ards. The con­fer­ence be­gins at 8 a.m. at the Na­tion­al Academy of Sci­ences.


Scru­tin­iz­ing Sur­veil­lance

Most of this ac­tion will take place be­hind the scenes next week. The House is grap­pling with its ap­proach to the de­bate on the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance and the Sen­ate, still in re­cess, is try­ing to work out a deal to re­vive the stalled de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill and fig­ure out wheth­er to pur­sue ad­di­tion­al Ir­an sanc­tions.

In the House, the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee is fo­cused on bring­ing the an­nu­al in­tel­li­gence au­thor­iz­a­tion to the floor be­fore the rap­idly ap­proach­ing end of the year and is an­ti­cip­at­ing that the House will sep­ar­ately take up a bill ad­dress­ing the NSA at the same time.

The In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee NSA bill from Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Cal­if., Frank Lo­Bi­ondo, R-N.J., and com­mit­tee Chair­man Mike Ro­gers, R-Mich., would largely pro­tect the NSA’s abil­ity to col­lect the phone and In­ter­net data of mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans. But the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee wants to put its mark on the de­bate, and Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner, R-Wis., is push­ing for a vote on his bill that would clamp down on the NSA’s sweep­ing power.

Mean­while, the de­tails of the in­tel­li­gence au­thor­iz­a­tion bill, which es­tab­lishes na­tion­al se­cur­ity pro­grams, is largely kept secret, but the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee has re­vealed the bill adds an in­crease of $75 mil­lion to ad­dress in­sider threats and provides full fund­ing of the Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence’s in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy mod­ern­iz­a­tion ini­ti­at­ive.

In the Sen­ate, mean­while, Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee lead­ers Sen. Carl Lev­in, D-Mich., and James In­hofe, R-Okla., are still try­ing to work out a deal to com­plete work on the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill this year.

The bill has been en­acted for the past 51 years, but it hit a wall last week with a fight over amend­ments, driv­en in part over a push to con­sider ad­di­tion­al Ir­an sanc­tions. Des­pite the in­ter­im deal with Ir­an on its nuc­le­ar pro­gram an­nounced last week, a group of sen­at­ors is work­ing to im­pose ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions to hold Ir­an ac­count­able in case it cheats or when the six-month ne­go­ti­ation win­dow has shut.


Eco­nom­ic Up­date

Pres­id­ent Obama will speak about the eco­nomy on Wed­nes­day at an event held by the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, 1901 Mis­sis­sippi Ave., SE, in Wash­ing­ton.

Alex Brown, Michael Catalin, George E. Condon Jr., Clare Foran, Jerry Hagstrom, Stacy Kaper and Clara Ritger contributed to this article.
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