With Thanksgiving break starting in just four days, this week will set the table for what is likely to be a contentious year-end, as the Senate takes up the National Defense Authorization Act and anxiety builds over the slow pace of budget talks.
The Senate Banking Committee could also vote this week on Janet Yellen to be the next chair of the Federal Reserve Board, and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee might vote Wednesday on President Obama’s nomination of Jeh Johnson to head the Homeland Security Department.
The Senate on Monday is expected to pass a bill tightening rules on compounded pharmaceuticals, sending the measure to the White House for Obama’s signature.
With just four scheduled legislative days this month in the House and eight days scheduled in December, the focus may turn to a range of other items that need to be dealt with by the end of 2013, including extending unemployment insurance, addressing the rate formula that’s used to reimburse physicians under Medicare, and a few other Medicare and tax extenders.
Here’s some of what Congress will be doing this week:
- The Senate Foreign Relations panel’s Subcommittee on East Asia meets Tuesday morning to discuss Typhoon Haiyan. Nearly 5,000 people in the Philippines were killed in the storm, according to the United Nations.
- The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday and Thursday on intelligence oversight. Expect Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, NSA Director Keith Alexander, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole to testify.
- The House is set to take up votes on three bills this week aimed at domestic energy production. The legislation will address protections for states’ rights, activity on federal lands, and natural-gas-pipeline permitting. The House Rules Committee has set a hearing for Tuesday to set floor procedures on the pipeline bill.
- The Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on Sarah Raskin to be deputy Treasury secretary and Rhonda Schmidtlein to be a member of the U.S. International Trade Commission.
The pharmaceutical bill expected to pass in the Senate on Monday, known as the Drug Quality and Security Act, would increase federal oversight of large compounding pharmacies, which mix and package drugs.
The bill itself may not have generated controversy, but it was held up for more than a week by Sen. David Vitter, R-La. Vitter wanted the Senate to vote on an unrelated proposal to require congressional offices to disclose which staffers are allowed to keep their federal health benefits using a loophole in the Affordable Care Act rules.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused, and Vitter refused to budge. The Senate lost a week of floor time before the chamber voted 97-1 to advance the measure. The House passed the legislation in September.
The only thing standing in the way of passage of the compounding bill is yet another of the president’s nominations for the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. The Senate is poised to vote on whether to proceed to Robert Leon Wilkins’s nomination. But that requires a 60-vote threshold, and Republicans have already said they will not agree to any more nominees for the D.C. District Court.
BUDGET AND TAXES
Friday marks the deadline that was floated by chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations committees for when they hope the budget conference committee can come up with top-line budget figures — at least through fiscal 2014.
The conference committee, led by its cochairs — Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — has an informal deadline of Dec. 13 to produce its recommendations to the full House and Senate on a spending plan or strategy with an existing funding mechanism for government set to expire Jan. 15. But the appropriators say they will need direction before then from the committee in the form of at least a top-line spending number — before the end of the year — in order to begin the process of writing spending bills.
In a press conference this week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed those calls for the committee to come to some sort of agreement ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. With the House departing Thursday and the Senate leaving Nov. 27, that puts the likely deadline for a deal at this week. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t. There’s no good reason that we shouldn’t,” she said Thursday of a pre-Thanksgiving deal.
Senate and House Appropriations Chairs Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Harold Rogers, R-Ky., left open the possibility of extending their deadline until Dec. 2.
But neither date seems likely, as the conference committee members continue to spar over whether to include the closure of some tax loopholes — a Democratic priority — into a final deal. Republicans would rather put off those discussions and include them in a tax-reform plan being pursued in the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus is slated to meet with members Tuesday, potentially to put out a draft of the panel’s tax-reform plan. But with the House unlikely to move forward with a plan this year, the Senate may hold off as well. House Ways and Means Committee members, meanwhile, say it is unlikely that they will release any information on their tax-reform plan before Thanksgiving.
DEFENSE AND NATIONAL SECURITY
Bill Becomes Battleground
The National Defense Authorization Act routinely makes its way into law every year. But because it is viewed as one of the few guaranteed-to-pass bills, it has become a target for a host of contentious issues. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., is trying to get the bill over the finish line with as few controversial amendments as possible.
Levin is coaxing the Senate Banking Committee to lay out a course on Iran sanctions to take the heat off that issue on the defense bill. Whether he will be successful remains to be seen. In addition to sanctions, members are eyeing the defense bill as a possible battleground for a host of other high-profile issues.
Among them is the concern about the range of the National Security Agency’s surveillance, which Levin is also trying to fend off.
One fight that is sure to come up is the question of how to combat military sexual assaults. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., plans to offer her amendment, which would take the decision of whether to prosecute out of the chain of command. She is hoping to find a path to 60 votes. Levin is also anticipating a debate over the Guantanamo Bay. Lawmakers were hoping to finish the bill before Thanksgiving, but that is looking increasingly unlikely.
Fed Confirmation Hearing
Following the possible vote by the Senate Banking Committee this week on Yellen to be the next Fed chair, she is expected to clear any procedural hurdles and be confirmed by the Senate, although several senators have vowed to put a hold on her nomination to force votes on other issues.
But current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke isn’t done yet; his term runs through January. On Tuesday evening, Bernanke will speak at the National Economists Club Annual Dinner at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on communication and monetary policy. During his tenure, the central bank has developed a number of new communications strategies in an effort to more clearly articulate its goals and strategies; last week, Yellen made clear during her nomination hearing that she would continue with those efforts.
Finally, the Fed on Wednesday will release minutes from its latest meeting. The central bank kept its policy steady then, but the minutes are always studied for clues as to what the policy-setting committee members are likely to do next — in this case, at its meeting scheduled for Dec. 17-18, Bernanke’s last as chairman. A stronger-than-expected October jobs report has raised expectations the central bank could consider tapering its $85 billion-a-month bond-buying purchases.
Also expected to grab attention will be a joint hearing held by two Senate Banking subcommittees Tuesday afternoon on virtual currency, with bitcoins expected to feature prominently. The witnesses include Jennifer Shasky Calvery, director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, and Anthony Gallippi, the cofounder and CEO of BitPay.
Finally, the Banking Committee will continue its focus on housing finance reform and will hold a hearing on transferring credit risk on Tuesday morning.
Data-wise, the biggest reports out next week are on inflation, which has been muted: The consumer price index will be released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Wednesday, followed by the producer price index on Thursday.
Focus on Fixes
Attention will continue this week on the troubles surrounding the rollout of Obamacare, and various insurance cancellation “fixes.”
In addition, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold another hearing Tuesday on HealthCare.gov, in which the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee ill look into the security of the exchange website.
Energy’s Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing next Wednesday titled “Examining Public Health Legislation to Help Local Communities.”
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
On Thursday, the House Natural Resources panel’s Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation holds a hearing to consider legislation introduced by Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., requiring the federal government to pay states back for money spent to reopen parks and monuments during the shutdown.
One of the bills would refund $465,000 in donations made by Arizona businesses and others to reopen the Grand Canyon National Park for five days during the government shutdown.
National parks became a symbol of the deep partisan divide during the shutdown, with both Democrats and Republicans attempting to assign blame to the other party for denying visitors access to the parks.
House Republicans also are expected to call a vote on a bill from Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, that would curtail Interior Department regulations on hydraulic fracturing. The bill would exempt states that have their own standards from federal rules. Another bill would limit the department to 60 days to reject onshore drilling permits before they are considered automatically approved; that plan is sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.
Close to Home
Obama is expected to stay close to the White House this week, with no out-of-town trips scheduled.
On Tuesday, he will speak at the annual meeting of The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council.
On Wednesday, he will present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 individuals at a ceremony that will draw to the White House a varied group. Those attending include former President Clinton; baseball legend Ernie Banks; TV magnate Oprah Winfrey; former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee; country singer Loretta Lynn; former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.; and former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith. On Friday, the president meets with King Mohammed VI of Morocco.
Michael Catalini, George E. Condon Jr., Clare Foran, Catherine Hollander, Fawn Johnson, and Stacy Kaper contributed