Budget Talks, Confirmation Fights Will Dominate Congress This Week

US President Barack Obama, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke (R) and economist Janet Yellen (L) leave the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 9, 2013. Obama nominated Yellen to be Bernanke's successor. Yellen, 67, will be the first woman ever to lead the Fed, and is widely expected to sustain Bernanke's focus on supporting the US economy until joblessness can be brought down.
National Journal
Nov. 11, 2013, 4:26 p.m.

With the end of the year’s le­gis­lat­ive cal­en­dar in sight, the ma­jor fo­cus this week is on House and Sen­ate ne­go­ti­ations to forge a budget pack­age and a new farm bill, while un­cer­tainty per­col­ates over the status of tax-re­form ef­forts.

Sen­ate battles over Pres­id­ent Obama’s nom­in­ees will also con­tin­ue, as will the con­tro­ver­sies sur­round­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act, with the Re­pub­lic­an-led House set to vote on a Re­pub­lic­an bill dubbed the Keep Your Health Plan Act. Sev­er­al com­mit­tee hear­ings sched­uled this week will provide Re­pub­lic­ans with a for­um to con­tin­ue at­tack­ing the law.

Mean­while, the Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee has a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on Obama’s nom­in­a­tion of Jeh John­son to head the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment. And the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee will meet Thursday to con­sider Janet Yel­len’s nom­in­a­tion as the next chair of the U.S. Fed­er­al Re­serve, the na­tion’s cent­ral bank.

Likely to be con­firmed, Yel­len could ar­gu­ably be­come the most power­ful wo­man in Wash­ing­ton, hold­ing the post well after Obama has left of­fice.

Also in Con­gress this week:

  • The Sen­ate on Tues­day likely will take a pro­ced­ur­al vote on phar­ma­ceut­ic­al-com­pound­ing le­gis­la­tion, which has bi­par­tis­an sup­port but could be de­railed by an amend­ment offered by Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter, R-La., re­lated to the Af­ford­able Care Act.
  • The Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Thursday fo­cused on “Threats to the Home­land.” FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey, act­ing Home­land Se­cur­ity Sec­ret­ary Rand Beers, and Na­tion­al Coun­terter­ror­ism Cen­ter Dir­ect­or Mat­thew Olsen are sched­uled to testi­fy.
  • The Sen­ate Com­merce, Sci­ence, and Trans­port­a­tion Com­mit­tee is set to vote Tues­day on Obama’s nom­in­a­tion of Ter­rell Mc­Sweeny to be a com­mis­sion­er on the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion. The pan­el also will act on three oth­er nom­in­a­tions.
  • The House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on the rol­lout of the health care law. The hear­ing is already draw­ing con­tro­versy be­cause Chair­man Dar­rell Issa is­sued a sub­poena to top ad­min­is­tra­tion tech­no­logy of­fi­cial Todd Park re­quir­ing his ap­pear­ance.
  • The House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Wed­nes­day to ex­am­ine the nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an. The hear­ing will co­in­cide with the 100th day of Has­san Rouh­ani’s pres­id­ency in that coun­try.
  • Richard Cordray, head of the Con­sumer Fin­an­cial Pro­tec­tion Bur­eau, will de­liv­er his agency’s semi­an­nu­al re­port to the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee on Tues­day.
  • The House could name its con­fer­ees this week for up­com­ing ne­go­ti­ations over a fi­nal Wa­ter Re­sources and Re­form and De­vel­op­ment Reau­thor­iz­a­tion; the Sen­ate did so last week.
  • The House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Thursday on a one-year re­view of the status of Hur­ricane Sandy re­cov­ery ef­forts and fed­er­al agency per­form­ances.

The Sen­ate’s re­turn to ses­sion Tues­day will be marked by an­oth­er spar­ring match over Obama’s nom­in­a­tions. Re­pub­lic­ans are angling to block the nom­in­a­tion of Cor­ne­lia Pil­lard to sit on the D.C. Cir­cuit Court, which has some Demo­crats call­ing for a change to Sen­ate rules — again.

But there are likely not enough Demo­crat­ic votes to change the rules, ac­cord­ing to a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide.

If Re­pub­lic­ans do block Pil­lard’s nom­in­a­tion Tues­day, then it would be the third such block in two weeks. Last month, Re­pub­lic­ans blocked the nom­in­a­tions of Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to head the Fed­er­al Hous­ing Fin­ance Agency, and of Pa­tri­cia Mil­lett to the D.C. Cir­cuit.


Rev­en­ue Battle

The 29 mem­bers of the House and Sen­ate budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee will open their second pub­lic meet­ing on Wed­nes­day with a brief­ing by Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice Dir­ect­or Douglas Ele­men­d­orf on the na­tion’s eco­nom­ic out­look.

But it ap­pears the com­mit­tee’s work is already turn­ing in­to an ar­gu­ment over rais­ing some new tax rev­en­ue to re­place or soften an up­com­ing round of se­quester cuts — pre­cisely what the co­chair­man, Rep. Paul Ry­an, R-Wis., has warned should not hap­pen. The budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee must make re­com­mend­a­tions by Dec. 13 on how to keep the gov­ern­ment fun­ded bey­ond Jan. 15. An­oth­er $91 bil­lion in auto­mat­ic se­quester cuts are set to go in­to ef­fect in Janu­ary.

Com­mit­tee mem­bers from both sides of the polit­ic­al aisle have pub­licly voiced will­ing­ness to com­prom­ise. The pan­el’s oth­er co­chair, Sen. Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., wrote in an op-ed ap­pear­ing over the week­end in The Wash­ing­ton Post that she is “will­ing to meet Re­pub­lic­ans halfway and make some com­prom­ises when it comes to ad­di­tion­al spend­ing re­duc­tions,” but she also stressed she won’t agree to cuts that hurt seni­ors and fam­il­ies.

“Com­prom­ise, however, runs both ways,” wrote Mur­ray, who is chair of the Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee. “While we scour pro­grams to identi­fy sav­ings, Re­pub­lic­ans have to work with us to scour the bloated tax code and close loop­holes used by the wealth­i­est Amer­ic­ans and cor­por­a­tions to re­place the oth­er half of se­quest­ra­tion.”

In fact, as Na­tion­al Journ­al re­por­ted Fri­day, Demo­crat­ic mem­bers of the budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee have already draf­ted a memo list­ing “egre­gious tax loop­holes” they plan to raise pub­licly as early as this week’s meet­ing if Re­pub­lic­ans con­tin­ue to balk at con­sid­er­ing some new tax rev­en­ue to help soften se­quester cuts.

Those items on the list range from such well-tread sug­ges­tions as end­ing spe­cial de­duc­tions for cor­por­ate jet own­ers, to stop­ping sub­sidies for yachts or va­ca­tion homes, to “clos­ing a loop­hole that lets hedge-fund man­agers pay lower tax rates on their in­come than teach­ers and fire­fight­ers.”

But the in­dic­a­tion at the con­fer­ees’ first meet­ing from Ry­an (who is the House Budget chair­man) was that the bi­par­tis­an, bicam­er­al pan­el should in­stead find non-tax rev­en­ue and user fees to go along with oth­er spend­ing cuts if the in­ten­tion is to re­place or soften the se­quester.

It’s un­cer­tain how the com­mit­tee’s dis­cus­sions and dif­fer­ences over taxes will af­fect ef­forts that have been un­der­way this year in the House and Sen­ate on a pos­sible over­haul of the tax code. With the year wind­ing down, it is also un­cer­tain wheth­er any pro­posed re­write from either side of the Cap­it­ol will emerge soon, al­though a pub­lic un­veil­ing of those ef­forts in either one or both cham­bers had been widely ex­pec­ted be­fore Thanks­giv­ing.

What is known is that Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Max Baucus, D”‘Mont., sent out a no­tice to pan­el mem­bers late last week that they will have a “Sen­at­ors Only” meet­ing Thursday “to dis­cuss tax re­form.” And some con­gres­sion­al aides say House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dave Camp, R-Mich., is meet­ing with House GOP lead­ers this week on how and when to pro­ceed with any plan they might un­veil. How this might mesh with the budget con­fer­ence com­mit­tee’s activ­it­ies re­mains un­clear.

Work con­tin­ues by a sep­ar­ate House and Sen­ate con­fer­ence com­mit­tee on a deal to reau­thor­ize a mul­ti­year farm bill. Pro­gress is still sought on con­tro­ver­sial areas, such as the com­mod­ity title and what level to write food-stamp re­duc­tions over the next dec­ade, with the Sen­ate hav­ing pro­posed a $4 bil­lion cut and the House a much lar­ger $39 bil­lion in sav­ings.


As­sess­ing Threats

The Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee’s hear­ing Thursday fea­tur­ing testi­mony from Comey, Beers, and Olsen on “Threats to the Home­land” is go­ing to fo­cus on ter­ror­ism threats. But it also is go­ing to ad­dress cy­ber­threats, transna­tion­al or­gan­ized crime, homegrown vi­ol­ent ex­trem­ism, and lone-wolf of­fend­ers.

On Wed­nes­day, the same day John­son will ap­pear for his con­firm­a­tion hear­ing be­fore the Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee, the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee is to mark up a for­eign-aid trans­par­ency bill.

Mean­while, adding to the list of events fo­cus­ing on the health care law, the House Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on “Cy­ber Side-Ef­fects: How Se­cure Is the Per­son­al In­form­a­tion Entered In­to the Flawed Health­Care.gov?”


Con­firm­a­tion Con­tro­versy

Yel­len’s ap­pear­ance for her nom­in­a­tion hear­ing be­fore the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee is ex­pec­ted to lead to dis­cus­sions on a range of top­ics, from fin­an­cial reg­u­la­tion to how she plans to un­wind the Fed’s massive bal­ance sheet.

Yel­len, who has served as the Fed’s vice chair since 2010, is ex­pec­ted to eas­ily win con­firm­a­tion, al­though a hand­ful of sen­at­ors have said they will use her con­firm­a­tion as lever­age in oth­er con­gres­sion­al fights. As an aside, the House Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Sub­com­mit­tee on Mon­et­ary Policy and Trade will hold its own hear­ing Wed­nes­day on cent­ral bank­ing. The com­mit­tee is plan­ning to look at in­ter­na­tion­al mod­els for cent­ral banks. The pro­voc­at­ive title of the hear­ing: “What Is Cent­ral About Cent­ral Bank­ing?”

Mean­while, Cordray, head of the Con­sumer Fin­an­cial Pro­tec­tion Bur­eau, will de­liv­er his agency’s semi­an­nu­al re­port Tues­day to the Sen­ate Bank­ing Com­mit­tee. Al­though Re­pub­lic­ans op­posed the cre­ation of the bur­eau un­der the 2010 Dodd-Frank fin­an­cial-re­form law, the hear­ing is not ex­pec­ted to be par­tic­u­larly con­ten­tious. A pos­sible top­ic of dis­cus­sion will be rules to crack down on debt col­lect­ors, which the CFPB so­li­cited com­ment on last week.

The Joint Eco­nom­ic Com­mit­tee is to hear Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon from Jason Fur­man, chair of the White House Coun­cil of Eco­nom­ic Ad­visers, on the eco­nom­ic out­look. The latest data, out last week, showed an eco­nomy that ex­pan­ded by 2.8 per­cent in the third quarter and picked up 204,000 jobs in Oc­to­ber.

Cur­rent Fed­er­al Re­serve Board Chair­man Ben Bernanke is host­ing a town hall for teach­ers Wed­nes­day even­ing, his third such event.


ACA At­tacks

Wheth­er Vit­ter’s de­mand for a Sen­ate vote this week on his amend­ment to the Drug Qual­ity and Se­cur­ity Act will be per­mit­ted is un­cer­tain. The Louisi­ana Re­pub­lic­an’s amend­ment aims at end­ing an ex­emp­tion to con­gres­sion­al em­ploy­ees un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act.

A Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship aide said Vit­ter had been offered a vote on the amend­ment, but Demo­crats want him to re­frain from of­fer­ing the amend­ment on later bills. Vit­ter had not yet agreed to that con­di­tion, the aide said.

The po­ten­tial ac­tion on his amend­ment is just one of sev­er­al aren­as in which Re­pub­lic­ans in both cham­bers are con­tinu­ing their at­tacks on the Af­ford­able Care Act, both with floor ac­tion and in com­mit­tee events, in­clud­ing Issa’s House Over­sight Com­mit­tee hear­ing Wed­nes­day on the law’s troubled rol­lout, and wheth­er Health­Care.gov was de­signed with the best IT prac­tices in mind.

That hear­ing already has cre­ated con­tro­versy with the sub­poena­ing of Park — one of the lead­ing of­fi­cials in­volved in the gov­ern­ment web­site. An out­side group has even cre­ated its own site, LetToddWork.org, to ex­press dis­con­tent with Park be­ing called to testi­fy when he could be work­ing to fix the troubled Obama­care ex­change site.


Boost­ing Trans­par­ency

The fo­cus on the health care law will in­clude the House floor vote set for Fri­day on the Keep Your Health Plan Act, as le­gis­la­tion that would al­low in­sur­ance plans that ex­is­ted on the in­di­vidu­al mar­ket as of Jan. 1, 2013, to stay in ef­fect through 2014. The meas­ure was in­tro­duced by House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee Chair­man Fred Up­ton, R-Mich.

On Thursday, En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy is to ap­pear be­fore the House Sci­ence, Space, and Tech­no­logy Com­mit­tee on the top­ic of “Strength­en­ing Trans­par­ency and Ac­count­ab­il­ity” with­in EPA.

House Re­pub­lic­ans will also be hold­ing up a mag­ni­fy­ing glass to the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to cap green­house-gas emis­sions from sta­tion­ary sources with an over­sight hear­ing in the En­ergy and Power Sub­com­mit­tee on EPA’s new source per­form­ance stand­ards for fu­ture power plants on Thursday.

The hear­ing will ex­am­ine a draft of le­gis­la­tion in­tro­duced last month by sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Whit­field, R-Ky., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. The bill would re­peal EPA’s pro­posed reg­u­la­tions for new power plants and al­low Con­gress to de­term­ine when car­bon lim­its on ex­ist­ing plants would go in­to ef­fect.

This week, EPA is ex­pec­ted to re­lease the 2014 re­new­able-fuel stand­ard. A leaked draft earli­er this year showed scale-backs to corn eth­an­ol levels, which has troubled corn pro­du­cers and bio­fuels makers but en­cour­aged oth­ers who think the man­dates are too high. EPA has not con­firmed that the leaked ver­sion will match fi­nal fig­ures.


Party Fa­vor

The pres­id­ent is set to give a speech Wed­nes­day to the an­nu­al Tri­bal Na­tions Con­fer­ence. On Thursday, he is off to Phil­adelphia to raise money for Demo­crats be­fore re­turn­ing to town Fri­day with no sched­uled pub­lic events planned.

Michael Catalin, George E. Condon Jr., Clare Foran, Catherine Hollander, Sophie Novack and Alex Brown contributed to this article.
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