Outlook: Congress Stares Down Lengthy To-Do List

Uncertainty abounds as lawmakers must confront a host of deadlines punted from 2017.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Jan. 7, 2018, 8 p.m.

Congress will return in full this week faced with many of the same deadlines it put off at the end of 2017—and similar uncertainty about how to deal with the underlying issues.

With only two weeks before the programs expire, Congress will likely approve a short-term punt on government spending, domestic spying, and flood insurance while seeking a bigger deal. Everything after that remains uncertain, as leaders will have to navigate the varied concerns of defense hawks, those seeking spending cuts to domestic programs, civil libertarians concerned with warrantless surveillance sweeping up Americans’ communications, and members looking to protect roughly 800,000 vulnerable undocumented immigrants.

That larger deal must include a yet-to-be-reached bipartisan agreement on defense and domestic spending caps, while most likely also satisfying parties concerned with a lapsing children's health insurance program and the status of undocumented immigrants who came to the country illegally when they were young. Before the break, leaders also promised a debate on the expiring portion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows warrantless surveillance.

The Senate will vote next week to confirm even more judges, as part of a broad attempt by the Trump administration to leave a lasting legacy tilting the courts in a more conservative direction. On Monday evening, it will vote on William Campbell Jr. to be a district judge in Tennessee.

Here’s what else is on tap:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

Starting Jan. 11, President Trump will face the next round of deadlines to preserve the Iran nuclear agreement. Last October, Trump refused to certify Iran's compliance but did not pull out of the deal altogether, instead urging Congress to toughen it. Lawmakers have yet to produce legislation, but Sens. Bob Corker and Ben Cardin, the chairman and ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, met with Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, on Thursday to discuss the matter.

Cardin told National Journal Thursday that he doesn't feel any pressure to send a bill to the president's desk before the next round of certification and sanctions-waiver deadlines, which take place between Jan. 11 and 17.

"First, I believe the president has all the power he needs. Second, there's really no deadline. The president can act at any time under this agreement," Cardin said. "If there's something we can do that's helpful that doesn't violate the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and is acceptable to our European colleagues, then I'm fine."

The House Armed Services Committee has a hearing scheduled Wednesday for an update on the Defense Department's "Financial Improvement and Audit Remediation" plan from Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist. The House Foreign Affairs Committee will also hold a hearing on using sanctions and financial pressure as national security tools.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield is set to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday on U.S. policy in Syria. And the Senate Intelligence Committee will meet for two closed briefings this week as it continues its Russia investigation.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

The Senate environment committee is pushing forward its infrastructure agenda this week, hosting a hearing Wednesday on water-infrastructure needs. Trump administration officials are expected to float an infrastructure package in the coming weeks, but lawmakers are struggling to devise a plan to pay for infrastructure spending. Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso flatly rejects a substantial increase in the gas tax, which groups such as the American Trucking Association are urging.

Meanwhile, the full chamber will continue to brainstorm a disaster-relief package for areas of the country hit by hurricanes and wildfires. An aide with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says it’s unlikely Democrats will sign off on another stopgap funding measure without a deal on the constellation of unresolved legislative policy, including disaster relief.

On the House side of the Capitol, Energy and Commerce lawmakers will kick off a series of hearings aimed at reauthorizing the Energy Department. Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette will testify at the Tuesday hearing alongside a wide range of department officials and private-sector experts. Rep. Joe Barton, a former chairman of the committee, is tasked with developing legislation to overhaul the department’s priorities.

The Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on legislation to create “the first tribally managed national monument.”

HEALTH

Both the House and Senate are back this week with several unresolved health care issues on tap: funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicare extenders, Obamacare taxes, and possible funding to fight the opioid epidemic. Added to that list now is Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s move to rescind the Obama-era policy that largely suspended enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized pot.

The Senate Finance Committee will tackle a key vacancy on Tuesday by considering the nomination of Alex Azar to be the next Health and Human Services secretary. Azar has both government and private-sector experience, as the former HHS deputy secretary under President George W. Bush and as a top executive at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold its third hearing to address the opioid crisis. In December, Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray sent a letter to governors and state insurance commissioners asking for their specific recommendations on how the federal government can be helpful for states during this crisis.

TAXES

Now that both the House and Senate are back in session this week, lawmakers will return to work on tax issues left over from last year’s jam-packed legislative schedule. Two top issues are the package of tax extenders—temporary tax breaks periodically renewed by Congress—that the Senate Finance Committee unveiled in December and the series of bills to delay taxes related to the Affordable Care Act.

With Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch announcing he won’t seek reelection at the end of 2018, jockeying for the panel’s top spot is set to begin. The chairmanship is one of the most coveted in the Senate, but lawmakers weren’t willing to announce their ambitions just yet.

“Ask me next December,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, the second-most-senior Republican on the committee, said last week when asked if he’d like the Finance gavel.

Another complicating factor is that most of the senior Republican members already chair high-profile committees. Grassley helms Judiciary, Sen. Mike Crapo leads the Banking Committee, and Sen. Pat Roberts is chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

The Senate is also set to begin work on legislation reworking parts of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the post-recession bill that imposed new regulations on financial institutions. Among other changes, the bill would raise the asset threshold at which a bank is considered a “systemically important financial institution,” a point at which additional regulations kick in.

White House economic adviser Gary Cohn told Bloomberg TV Friday that the bill would “hopefully” see floor time in January and pass within the next few months. “We are making enormous progress on a bipartisan basis on bank deregulation,” Cohn said.

The Senate Banking Committee approved the bill last December with the support of several Democrats, and the measure has 10 moderate Democratic cosponsors. House conservatives, however, have criticized the bill because it leaves the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau intact.

TECHNOLOGY

The Consumer Technology Association’s annual trade show, CES, kicks off in Las Vegas on Sunday, and some of D.C.’s top tech regulators will be in attendance. Maureen Ohlhausen, the acting Republican chair of the Federal Trade Commission, and Terrell McSweeny, currently the only other FTC commissioner, are both slated to speak. So will four of the five members of the Federal Communications Commission, including Republicans Brendan Carr and Michael O’Rielly and Democrats Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel.

Conspicuously absent will be FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who on Thursday abruptly canceled a scheduled CES appearance over unspecified death threats. Pai and his family received multiple death threats during the run-up to the FCC’s vote to rescind the commission's net-neutrality rules in December.

WHITE HOUSE

Trump starts the week out of town, giving a speech in Nashville to the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation before going to Atlanta to watch Alabama and Georgia play for the college football national championship. Back in Washington on Tuesday, he is scheduled to meet with bipartisan members of Congress to discuss immigration. On Wednesday, he will hold his first Cabinet meeting of the new year before meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg. On Friday, he will go to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for his first physical exam as president. He will then travel to Florida.

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