Outlook: Congress Returns With Little Clarity on Obamacare Repeal

The Fourth of July break didn’t seem to help Senate Republicans’ efforts to agree on a health bill.

Protesters wait for the arrival of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Hardin County Lincoln Day Dinner in Elizabethtown, Ky., on June 30.
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
July 9, 2017, 8 p.m.

The Senate returns to Washington this week with the gargantuan task of trying to pass a deeply unpopular bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the top legislative priority of the Trump administration and the central promise Republicans have made to their voters for seven years.

Going home for the Fourth of July break didn’t help the prospects of the bill, which may not receive a vote this week amid further red-on-red squabbles. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas conservative, wants to allow insurers to sell cheaper plans that don’t comply with the ACA’s regulations, while other Republicans are worried that will break their promise to continue to protect those with preexisting conditions. Sen. Rob Portman is fighting with Sen. Pat Toomey over how to set the growth rate for Medicaid spending. And some Republican senators object to the bill repealing a tax primarily on the affluent—a 3.8 percent tax on net investment income—which Democrats have cited to say that Republicans are cutting health care coverage for millions of poor people in order to pass a tax cut for the rich.

Meanwhile, usually reliable Republican votes like Sens. John Hoeven and Jerry Moran have come out against the current bill, deepening the challenge for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who can afford only two GOP defections. At least 10 of his Republican colleagues oppose the bill as written, and two of them—Sens. Rand Paul and Dean Heller—will be very difficult to get.

Besides the debates over policy, Republican senators have acknowledged a number of reasons why it’s been so hard for them to come together: They didn’t expect President Trump to win, and didn’t lay down the groundwork; health care is an emotionally fraught issue, and rolling back government programs can be politically unpopular; and McConnell has never had to pass a bill of this magnitude solely on the backs of conservative votes.

Amid the health talks, the Senate will consider a couple of low-level nominations on the floor this week. The House, meanwhile, will take up the National Defense Authorization Act, along with some controversial California water issues.

Republicans will resurrect a water bill sponsored by Rep. David Valadao and supported by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, both California Republicans, that passed the House last year but contained several items to which the Obama administration objected. Republicans hope their chances of passing those policies will be better this year with a Republican Senate and White House. The bill is seen as a win for farmers, but it has roiled environmentalists and Democrats because it would scale back the San Joaquin River restoration project, speed dam-feasibility studies, and allow water deliveries to Sacramento Valley farmers.

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set hold a hearing Wednesday morning on President Trump’s pick to head the FBI, former Justice Department official Christopher Wray. FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe assumed the role of acting director after the president fired James Comey in May.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will consider several nominees this week as well. Investment banker Richard Spencer, Trump’s selection for Navy secretary, is scheduled to appear before the panel on Tuesday. Trump’s original nominee, Philip Bilden, was forced to withdraw earlier this year after concerns arose about his financial ties. The Armed Services Committee will take up four more sub-Cabinet nominations for the Defense Department on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the Taylor Force Act, a bill Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced that would cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority until the organization stops making payments to convicted terrorists or their families. The legislation is named after an Army officer who was killed by a Palestinian in Israel last year.

And the Senate Intelligence Committee is set to have two closed briefings this week as it continues to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

As the Trump administration seeks to expand oil and gas development on federal lands, a House Natural Resources Committee subpanel will explore fossil-fuel opportunities on offshore areas. The Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee will hear testimony at a Wednesday hearing on how to maximize development from the Outer Continental Shelf, where energy development had been restricted under the Obama administration.

The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up its energy and water spending bill Wednesday, while the Interior subcommittee will vote on its bill for the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency later that day. Both bills are expected to cut spending on clean energy and climate change programs, but not as steeply as the cuts proposed by the Trump administration that were criticized by both parties.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will vote on several long-stalled nominations, including the appointments of Annie Caputo and David Wright to sit on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and of Susan Bodine to be assistant administrator of enforcement and compliance assurance at the Environmental Protection Agency. The Wednesday vote, which also includes brownfields legislation, comes after several aborted votes on the nominees.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on energy will hear testimony from the Energy Department and state regulators at a hearing Tuesday on legislation to protect the electric grid from energy disruptions.

HEALTH

As negotiations on Obamacare repeal continue, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Tuesday will be considering a slew of other health care bills, including legislation that would require the Veterans Affairs Department to provide organ transplants to veterans from a live donor regardless of whether the donor is eligible for VA health care; extend for another year the requirement that the VA provide nursing-home care for veterans with at least 70 percent service-connected disability ratings; and prohibit or suspend health care providers from providing non-VA services to veterans if they were removed from employment with the department because they violated a policy related to the delivery of safe and appropriate health care.

On Wednesday, the Senate Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee will review the 2018 budget request for the Indian Health Service.

Meanwhile, the House and Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will have a hearing on combating the opioid crisis. The health subcommittee will also hold a hearing examining communications from medical-product manufacturers.

TAXES

Congressional Republicans are eager to move on to their bread and butter: cutting taxes. But before they can advance legislation rewriting the tax code, they’ve got two big hurdles to surmount.

This week, Republican senators resume searching for a compromise on repealing Obamacare, which itself could have an impact on the scale and scope of any tax-reform legislation. At the same time, lawmakers are working to craft a budget resolution that’s expected to include instructions for advancing a tax-reform bill using reconciliation, a maneuver that would allow them to pass the bill in the Senate with a simple majority instead of a filibuster-proof 60 votes.

The tax writers themselves are busy hashing out significant differences over how the legislation would pay for the huge rate cuts proposed. There’s still no consensus on whether to keep the proposed border-adjustment tax―a levy on imports but not exports―or on whether to eliminate the deduction for interest expenses on debt. Both ideas have rankled some in the business community and several key Republicans.

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady has said his committee will hold two tax-reform hearings in July, though only one has been officially announced. The Tax Policy Subcommittee will hold a July 13 hearing on tax reform and its effect on small businesses.

The subcommittee hasn’t posted a witness list yet, but the National Federation of Independent Business, a D.C.-based group representing some 300,000 small businesses, has called for lower tax rates and repeal of the estate tax and alternative minimum tax.

TECHNOLOGY

Activists opposed to the Federal Communications Commission’s planned rollback of the framework governing its net-neutrality rules are planning an internet-wide “Day of Action” on Wednesday. Major internet companies—including Amazon, Reddit, Netflix, Mozilla, Google, and Facebook—plan to participate. Visitors to those sites on Wednesday should see fake alerts informing them that their access to the site has been blocked, slowed, or requires an upgrade. The fake alerts will include a way for users to send letters to the FCC and Congress urging them to maintain the utility-style classification and regulation of internet service providers.

The FCC is taking yet another shot at robocalls this week. The commission will meet Thursday to vote on a notice of inquiry that would investigate the feasibility of creating a comprehensive database of reassigned telephone numbers so businesses can avoid calling new consumers who have not consented to receiving robocalls. It will also seek comment on new methods to authenticate the identity of callers and prevent the practice of “spoofing,” in which robocallers pose as other numbers on a consumer’s caller ID.

The House Judiciary Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet Subcommittee will investigate the impact of “bad patents” on American businesses in a Thursday hearing. And Cruz continues his long-running examination of U.S. space policy, convening a Senate Commerce Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee hearing Thursday to discuss possible partnerships between the private space industry and the federal government in order to promote exploration and eventual settlement in outer space.

TRANSPORTATION

The House Appropriations Committee will begin work on its spending bill for the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments with a subcommittee markup Tuesday evening, offering a chance for members to begin to shape the expected infrastructure conversation. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will also discuss her proposed fiscal 2018 budget at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing Thursday.

WHITE HOUSE

President Trump is back in the country, but only for the first three days of this week. On Thursday, he returns to Europe to attend Friday’s Bastille Day parade in Paris, which includes a celebration of the 100th anniversary of American troops coming to the aid of the allies in World War I. Before he leaves, the president will work with Republican leaders in the Senate to try to rescue the lagging effort to pass a health care bill to replace Obamacare.

Brendan Bordelon, George E. Condon Jr., Erin Durkin, Daniel Newhauser, Jason Plautz, Adam Wollner and Casey Wooten contributed to this article.
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