Outlook: Contentious Debates on Guns, Immigration Await Congress

Lawmakers are back in town, but is there any chance for movement on these two divisive issues?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks during a news conference about gun legislation on Capitol Hill on Oct. 4, 2017.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Feb. 25, 2018, 8 p.m.

Congress returns this week to a fierce debate on two of the country’s most contentious issues: gun rights and immigration.

Spurred by the 17 deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Congress will again consider measures to restrict access to guns. But 19 of the 30 deadliest shootings in the U.S. since 1949 have occured in the past 10 years, according to CNN, and Congress has done little in that time to prevent tragedies, persuaded by defenders of the Second Amendment from changing gun laws.

After reports that the shooter was 19 years old and had legally purchased an AR-15, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she would introduce a bill to require all firearms purchases from gun dealers to be restricted to individuals who are at least 21 years old. “If you can’t buy a handgun or a bottle of beer, you shouldn’t be able to buy an AR-15,” she said in a statement.

This time, there is some evidence that some Republicans are willing to join her despite the opposition of the National Rifle Association. President Trump said he supports a minimum age of 21 on semi-automatic gun purchases. Sens. Marco Rubio, Pat Roberts, and Jeff Flake, who opposed the most recent significant bipartisan bill expanding background checks, have all come out in favor of raising the age for such rifles from 18 to 21.

Last week, Trump tweeted, “Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue - I hope!”

On immigration, Congress will likely blow past the president’s March 5 deadline to find a legislative solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, since federal courts have tied up the Trump administration’s decision to rescind it. Congress may instead try to pass an immigration bill shielding from deportation the 700,000 DACA recipients—young adults who illegally came into the country as children—as part of a massive spending bill. Congress has until March 23 to pass a government-funding bill or face a partial shutdown.

A few weeks ago, the president backed a bill to provide $25 billion for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, place strict limits on family-based immigration, end the diversity visa lottery, and provide DACA-eligible recipients a path to citizenship. But it failed in the Senate without even receiving 40 votes. Since then, three Republican senators—Rob Portman, John Thune, and Jerry Moran—have filed a much narrower bill that would provide the same boost in border security and provide legal protections for those enrolled in DACA.

House Republican leaders, meanwhile, are continuing to whip their hard-line immigration bill with hopes that it could be on the floor in the next few weeks. This week, however, will be a short one: The Rev. Billy Graham will be lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, so, as is custom, the House will not hold votes from Wednesday onward.

Here’s what else is on tap this week:


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to visit the Hill twice this week. Tillerson will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday about the State Department's budget request for fiscal 2019, which would slash funding by about 30 percent compared to 2017 levels.

On Monday evening, the House Intelligence Committee will mark up its fiscal 2019 budget letter. And on Tuesday, Michael Rogers, the NSA director and commander of the United States Cyber Command, will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the defense-authorization request for fiscal 2019 and the Future Years Defense Program.

Aside from the budget, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is set to consider the following nominations this week: Kevin Edward Moley to be assistant secretary of State for international organization affairs; Josephine Olsen to be director of the Peace Corps; Erik Bethel to be the U.S. alternate executive director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; Sean Cairncross to be CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation; Robert Pence to be the ambassador to Finland; and Judy Shelton to be the U.S. executive director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Meanwhile, Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, is scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday for a hearing on terrorism in Iran.

On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will meet to mark up the Department of Homeland Security Authorization Act and to vote on the nomination of Michael Atkinson to be inspector general of the intelligence community, a position in the Director of National Intelligence's office.

And the Senate Intelligence Committee is set to have two closed briefings this week.


Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao will head to the Senate on Thursday to help lawmakers suss out infrastructure legislation. The White House proposal floated two weeks ago largely landed with a thud on Capitol Hill. Republicans and Democrats alike called on the administration to offer a plan to generate more revenue to help fund new infrastructure projects.

White House officials said the proposed $200 billion in federal funds will be drawn from savings to other parts of the budget rather than new revenue, but Trump has privately expressed a willingness to raise the gas tax and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Friday that White House officials are considering it.

Trump, meanwhile, is expected to convene a meeting with lawmakers and administration officials early this week on ethanol policy, according to Reuters. Republicans representing oil-rich states such as Texas and Oklahoma are pushing for changes to the ethanol-blending mandate, arguing that compliance is a costly threat to refiners. A major refiner in Philadelphia recently went belly up and blamed the mandate.

On the House side of the Capitol, Energy and Commerce members will hold another hearing Tuesday on energy infrastructure. The committee has passed a number of bills to expand the country’s network of pipelines largely along partisan lines. The Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the global politics tied to U.S. liquefied natural-gas exports, while the House oversight committee will bring in Western governors to discuss federal consultation processes.


Senate Republicans who want to stabilize Obamacare premiums in the upcoming year may be looking at their last shot to pass legislation restoring cost-sharing-reduction payments and providing funds for reinsurance programs. Key champions of the proposals—Lamar Alexander and Susan Collins—have been eyeing the omnibus as a vehicle to carry both proposals.

Both sides of Congress will continue their look at the national opioid crisis. On Tuesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will have a hearing on the role of technology and data in preventing and treating addiction. The following day, the House Energy and Commerce Committee health subcommittee will consider legislative proposals to help battle the crisis, including a bill that aims to reduce the number of unused controlled substances by allowing hospice workers to dispose of these medications in patients’ homes.

The House Judiciary Committee antitrust subcommittee, meanwhile, will be addressing competition in the pharmaceutical-supply chain Tuesday. Specifically, the hearing will focus on the proposed merger between pharmacy giant CVS Health and Aetna.

The Senate health committee Wednesday will have an executive session on pieces of health care legislation, including one that reauthorizes animal-drug user fees.


Tax writers are coming back from recess with two big issues on their plate: figuring out how to fix technical errors and oversights in last year’s tax bill, and finding time to weed out obsolete tax extenders.

From agricultural co-ops to private equity funds, news reports about unintended consequences of the tax bill are pouring out—and for the most part, lawmakers are open to finding a solution. But with Congress needing 60 votes in the Senate to get some of the more substantive fixes through, the GOP will have to work with a Democratic minority that will likely want concessions, making for difficult dealmaking. Moreover, House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady and other tax writers will likely need to find a legislative vehicle to help advance the code fixes.

And after Brady shed more light two weeks ago on his committee’s plans for the future of tax extenders, onlookers are waiting for the chairman of the panel’s tax-policy subcommittee, Vern Buchanan, to announce a hearing on the issue. After that, industries benefiting from the controversial tax breaks would be able to defend their provisions to lawmakers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is holding its third annual Invest in America Summit on Tuesday. Mnuchin, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, and several state governors will focus on how international investment can help drive the U.S. economy. It’s likely that last year’s tax-code overhaul will be a central point in Mnuchin’s argument for attracting foreign capital stateside.

Tuesday will also host a meeting of the fiscal minds between two former Federal Reserve heads. Ben Bernanke will interview Janet Yellen at the Brookings Institution on her time at the Fed and her thoughts on the current economy. The event comes as Wall Street remains skittish over speculation that the new Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome Powell, will raise interest rates to pump the brakes on a white-hot economy. That’s contributed to recent volatility in the markets.

The House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee don’t have hearings scheduled this week.


The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Tuesday in what promises to be one of the most momentous digital-privacy cases in years.

The United States government is suing Microsoft for access to emails that it says are relevant to a drug-trafficking case. But Microsoft has stored the emails on servers based in Ireland, and argues that the Stored Communications Act places the digital material outside of the federal government’s jurisdiction. A federal-appeals court in New York agreed with that line of reasoning in 2016, and other American technology companies have since blocked federal agents from accessing data stored overseas.

If the Supreme Court overturns that decision, Microsoft and its backers argue that it could spark similar demands for data stored in the U.S. by other countries. Congress is grappling with whether, and how, to update the Stored Communications Act. But that debate is unlikely to be concluded by June, when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the question.

The House Rules Committee is taking another look Monday at a bill designed to crack down on online platforms that allegedly facilitate sex trafficking, after victims groups accused the House Judiciary Committee of watering down the legislation. The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act passed out of the committee in December, but did so only after certain changes were made to make the bill more palatable to technology companies worried about onerous liability requirements.

An amendment being considered by the Rules Committee on Monday would put the bill more closely in line with the Senate version, which is much tougher on online platforms and which passed the Senate Commerce Committee in November. Some tech groups, including startup-advocacy group Engine, have already come out in opposition to the amendment.

With net-neutrality repeal now officially in the federal register, it’s time for another net-neutrality “day of action.” The protest is set to take place Tuesday, with online platforms supportive of the now-defunct rules joining forces with Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill. This time, the effort will focus on securing “one more vote” for the passage of a Congressional Review Act resolution, spearheaded by Sen. Ed Markey, that would overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s decision in December to rescind net-neutrality rules put in place by the previous FCC.

Support for Markey’s CRA now stands at 50 votes, and Republican Sen. John Kennedy appears to be on the fence about whether to also back the measure. Markey, along with other Democratic lawmakers and supportive groups, will hold a press conference outside the Capitol on Tuesday morning. The CRA only needs a simple majority to pass, but would still have to work its way through the House and be signed by the president to overturn the FCC’s repeal.

The Senate Commerce Committee is slated to vote Wednesday on the nominations of four commissioners for the Federal Trade Commission. Joseph Simons, Noah Phillips, Christine Wilson, and Rohit Chopra all appeared at a joint nomination hearing before the Senate panel this month.

Meanwhile, the impending deployment of 5G wireless technology will also be in the spotlight Wednesday. House Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden and Sen. Gary Peters will speak at an Axios event Wednesday morning on how 5G will impact America’s transportation infrastructure. Peters and Walden are strong proponents of driverless-car technology, and 5G wireless could be used to allow the autonomous vehicles to communicate with one another while on the road.

FCC commissioner Brendan Carr will also speak that morning at a Consumer Technology Association event on 5G technology. Carr, the newest Republican at the FCC, has been given broad authority to craft the commission’s 5G wireless policy by Chairman Ajit Pai.

And the Federal Trade Commission will hold its third PrivacyCon on Wednesday. The all-day event will feature a series of panels with top privacy and cybersecurity researchers, academics, and representatives from consumer-privacy groups, industry and government.

The Armed Services Committees in both the House and the Senate will be assessing the fiscal impact of the U.S. military’s cyberoperations, including the newly created Cyber Command. Lawmakers will investigate the budget needed in fiscal 2019 to maintain the Pentagon’s operations in cyberspace. The Senate panel is set to meet Tuesday, while the House committee will meet on Wednesday.

And a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology will meet Tuesday for a hearing on incidents of sexual harassment and misconduct in scientific fields.


President Trump opens the week meeting with governors at the White House to discuss school safety and health care. The governors are in town to attend the winter meeting of the National Governors Association. On Tuesday, he will meet with Republican members of the House. On Thursday, he will attend a meeting on the opioid crisis. On Friday, the president will attend the funeral of the Rev. Billy Graham before going to his Florida resort of Mar-a-lago to headline a fundraiser for the Republican National Committee and his 2020 reelection campaign. He then returns to Washington on Saturday to attend his first Gridiron Dinner.

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