Outlook: Defense Bill Dominates Short Week

With the House out, the Senate is expected to clear the annual Pentagon authorization bill as tax and health care negotiations continue.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
Sept. 17, 2017, 8 p.m.

With the House out of session and lawmakers still mulling hot-button issues like health care, immigration, and tax reform, the Senate is set to cross a must-pass item off its To-Do List this week: the annual defense spending bill.

The upper chamber is expected to overwhelmingly approve a $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2018 on Monday evening, after having voted to end debate on the bill by an 84-9 margin on Thursday. After several days of negotiations, senators could not come to an agreement to vote on some of the more controversial amendments that were proposed, including repealing sequestration, blocking President Trump’s transgender troop ban, prohibiting indefinite detention, and requiring new military base closures.

The only NDAA amendment to receive a floor vote was one offered by Republican Sen. Rand Paul that would have repealed the war authorizations Congress passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The Senate voted 61-36 against it. Meanwhile, GOP Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced their transgender troop amendment as a separate bill Friday. The chairman and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, Sens. John McCain and Jack Reed, also cosponsored the legislation.

Once the Senate approves its NDAA package, lawmakers will likely form a conference committee to hash out the differences between the two chambers’ versions. Both bills are more than $70 billion above the current defense-spending caps. The chamber will be in session only through Wednesday, as Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year—begins that evening.

Meanwhile, Congress must reauthorize some federal programs, including the Federal Aviation Administration and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, by an end-of-the-month deadline.

Here’s what else is on tap:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold confirmation hearings for two key Russia-related posts on Tuesday. First, former U.S. ambassador to China and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Trump’s pick to be the U.S. ambassador to Russia, will appear before the panel. Then the committee will consider Wess Mitchell, the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis and Trump’s nominee to be the assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Both were officially nominated nearly three months ago and are expected to sail through the committee as well as the full Senate.

Elsewhere, the Senate Armed Services Committee is set to hold a hearing Tuesday on “recent United States Navy incidents at sea.” In total, four Navy ships have been involved in accidents this year, two of which resulted in deaths. The most recent one came last month when the USS John McCain collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson, and John Pendleton, the director of Defense Force Structure and Readiness Issues at the Government Accountability Office, are all slated to testify before the panel.

And the Senate Intelligence Committee will meet for a closed hearing Tuesday as it continues its probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Outside of Washington, Sen. Bernie Sanders will deliver a speech on his “progressive foreign policy” vision at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will gather Tuesday morning to vote on several nominations, including Richard Glick and Kevin McIntyre to be members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; David Jonas to be Energy Department general counsel; Joseph Balash to be assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management; and Ryan Douglas Nelson to be Interior Department solicitor. The panel will then hold a hearing on “the vegetation management requirements for electricity assets located on federal lands.”

On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has a hearing on four nominees to be Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrators—Michael Dourson, Matthew Leopold, David Ross, and William Wehrum—and one Trump administration pick, Jeffery Baran, to serve on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

HEALTH

Everyone will be keeping an eye out for a potential agreement between Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee lawmakers on a bipartisan Affordable Care Act fix early this week. The committee wrapped up its series of hearings on ways to stabilize the marketplace last week.

Chairman Lamar Alexander outlined three main ideas for a possible agreement: temporary funding of the cost-sharing payments to help insurance companies cover low-income consumers’ out-of-pocket costs; allowing more people to purchase lower-premium, higher-deductible catastrophic plans; and providing states more flexibility through revised Affordable Care Act waivers.

“Our goal is to see if we can come to a consensus by early next week so we can hand Senator [Mitch] McConnell and Senator [Chuck] Schumer an agreement that Congress can pass by the end of the month that would help limit premium increases for 18 million Americans next year and begin to lower premiums after that, and to prevent insurers from leaving the markets where those 18 million Americans buy insurance,” Alexander said in opening statements Thursday.

Meanwhile, Sens. Bill Cassidy and Lindsey Graham will continue their push for the rest of the caucus to take up their proposal to repeal and replace Obamacare. Their idea would replace money going toward Medicaid expansion, tax credits, cost-sharing-reduction subsidies, and the Basic Health Program with block grants to the states. The allotments are slated through 2026.

But leadership appears unenthusiastic about the idea. “The only thing stopping us from having this idea debated on the floor of the United States Senate is lack of leadership,” complained Graham last week.

TAXES

The Senate Finance Committee is set to continue its series of tax-reform hearings this week when it meets on Tuesday to discuss business taxes. The panel met last week for a hearing on reforming the individual side of the code.

The latest hearing is likely to focus heavily on some of the most difficult tax questions still unanswered by the Big Six, a group of House, Senate, and administration officials who have been working months to hash out an outline for a reform bill. President Trump still touts his goal of getting the corporate rate down from 35 percent to 15 percent, even though many analysts and top GOP officials like House Speaker Paul Ryan say that target is too ambitious.

Aside from the corporate rate, the Big Six hasn’t publicly resolved major business-tax issues like whether to allow companies to immediately write off the full cost of certain capital investments, called full expensing, or whether to preserve the deduction for interest payments on loans. Full expensing could tack on an additional $2.2 trillion over a decade to the cost of any tax-reform bill, while nixing the interest deduction could raise $1.1 trillion for tax writers. Both proposals have powerful and well-funded groups lined up on either side of the issue.

Speaking at an event last week hosted by Politico, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that more details on those issues were coming soon in a document set to be released the week of Sept. 25. That outline, tax principals hope, will allow budget writers to craft the resolution needed to unlock reconciliation for tax reform, allowing them to bypass a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

The House Ways and Means Committee is set to take the lead in writing the tax legislation, but Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch poured cold water on the notion that Senate tax writers’ committee wouldn’t have a say in the talks. “This is a committee that’s going to weigh in,” Hatch told reporters after last week’s hearing. “These people are not going to sit back and not participate.”

Hatch added that the involvement could come in the form of additional meetings with House tax writers and the administration, even as the Ways and Means panel begins committee work on a tax-reform bill later this year.

TECHNOLOGY

The defense bill the Senate will vote on Monday includes a provision banning the use of products from Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Labs by any and all federal agencies. The provision, which was pushed for weeks by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, would codify an identical ban imposed by the Homeland Security Department last Wednesday. Lawmakers and intelligence officials have suggested for months that Kaspersky Labs is compromised by Russian intelligence, and that continued use of its cybersecurity and antivirus products by federal agencies would put American secrets at risk.

Silicon Valley representatives will have the unenviable job of arguing against a Senate bill entitled the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Tuesday. Sponsored by Republican Sen. Rob Portman and 26 additional lawmakers, the bill would allow state prosecutors and victims to seek penalties from online platforms that are determined to somehow facilitate sex trafficking. Such platforms could include review websites, social networks, online advertisers, and potentially even web-hosting companies and search engines. Abigail Slater, general counsel at the Internet Association, Silicon Valley’s voice in Washington, is expected to argue that internet platforms should not be held liable for content posted by their users, and that the bill would open up internet companies to a slew of damaging lawsuits. Yiota Souras, the senior vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is also slated to testify.

WHITE HOUSE

Trump’s week will be spent in New York and will be dominated by foreign policy and the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. On Monday, he will participate in discussions about U.N. reform and will meet with the leaders of Israel and France before having dinner with Latin American leaders. On Tuesday morning, he will address the U.N., have lunch with the secretary general, and meet with the emir of Qatar. On Wednesday, he will meet with several Middle Eastern leaders, including leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority. On Thursday, he will hold talks with the heads of Turkey, Afghanistan, and Ukraine before having lunch with the leaders of South Korea and Japan.

Alex Rogers, Erin Durkin, Casey Wooten, Brendan Bordelon and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
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