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.
BUDGET AND TAXES
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.
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.
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
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.
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.
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.
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"Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are working on legislation that would limit deportations" under President-elect Donald Trump. Leading the effort are Judiciary Committee members Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is also expected to sign on.
Donald Trump has selected retired Marine Gen. James 'Mad Dog' Mattis as his secretary of defense, according to The Washington Post. Mattis retired from active duty just four years ago, so Congress will have "to pass new legislation to bypass a federal law that states secretaries of defense must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years." The official announcement is likely to come next week.