Outlook: The Senate's Back

Lawmakers will take up judicial nominations and spending bills once they return to the Hill on Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined at left by Sen. John Barrasso, arrives to speak with reporters on July 31.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
Aug. 12, 2018, 8 p.m.

The Senate returns from a brief recess Wednesday to consider more judicial nominations and appropriations bills as part of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's strategy to reshape the judicial branch with conservatives, pass much of the Senate's spending legislation by Labor Day and keep vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection away from the campaign trail.

The Senate will vote Wednesday evening to advance the nomination of Marvin Quattlebaum, Jr. to be a judge for the Fourth Circuit Court. This week, lawmakers will also take up a spending bill for the departments of Defense, Labor, and Health and Human Services, legislation that has something in it for everybody.

Meanwhile, Democrats will continue to push for more documents related to the Brett Kavanaugh nomination for the Supreme Court, as the Senate Judiciary Committee releases thousands of pages from his years as a White House counsel under President George W. Bush. Republicans say that Kavanaugh, a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for a dozen years, has a long judicial record for senators to probe, but Democrats have argued that they also need to see documents that Kavanaugh handled for three years during the Bush administration in his role as staff secretary.

Here’s what else is on tap this week:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

President Trump on Monday will sign the annual National Defense Authorization Act at Fort Drum in upstate New York. Senators sent the $717 billion defense-policy bill, named after Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, to the president at the start of August with a vote of 87-10. Later this week, the Senate will take up the defense-appropriations measure.

On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee will markup the bipartisan Secure Elections Act. The election-security legislation aims to help states prepare their infrastructure for possible interference and to encourage better communication between local and federal officials. And the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Investigations Subcommittee meets Thursday morning for a hearing on "Oversight of Efforts to Protect Unaccompanied Alien Children from Human Trafficking and Abuse."

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

On Monday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue will travel to Redding, California to meet with firefighters and local officials about the devastating Carr Fire. Zinke wrote an op-ed in USA Today last week on California’s wildfires, laying some of the blame on “radical environmentalists.”

“Radical environmentalists would have you believe forest management means clear cutting forests and national parks. But their rhetoric could not be further from the truth. They make outdated and unscientific arguments, void of facts, because they cannot defend the merits of their policy preferences year after year as our forests and homes burn to the ground,” he wrote.

On Wednesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on National Parks meets in the afternoon on nearly 20 pending bills, with National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith testifying. The following day, the full committee will meet in the morning to consider William Cooper to be general counsel at the Energy Department and Lane Genatowski to be director of the department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

Also Thursday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee gathers for a hearing examining water-quality-certification issues, specifically implementation of Clean Water Act Section 401 and the Water Quality Certification Improvement Act of 2018.

HEALTH

August may be a slow month for Congress, but the Trump administration is pushing ahead in its work to lower drug prices. The Health and Human Services Department announced last week it would rescind a policy that “discouraged Medicare Advantage plans from using tools that are widely used in private-insurance plans to negotiate lower prices from pharmaceutical companies.”

The change would allow Medicare Advantage plans to use step therapy to curb drug costs for physician-administered drugs. This would require enrollees to try cost-effective drugs first.

However, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said the change could lead to challenges for cancer patients. “In some instances, utilization-management tools like step therapy can create an extra hurdle for cancer patients to go through before getting the appropriate drug they need to treat their cancer,” said ACS CAN President Chris Hansen in a statement. “Some patients may be required to try multiple therapies before they can access the one that was prescribed by their doctor.”

This week, the focus will be on an appropriations bill that includes funding for HHS. Lawmakers are expected to begin considering the measure, which was advanced 30-1 out of the appropriations committee in June. It includes a $2 billion increase to the National Institutes of Health, a $145 million increase to fighting the opioid crisis, and a $195 million increase for mental-health treatment and prevention.

TAXES AND TRADE

Senators return this week to a marked escalation in Trump’s trade war after the president said he would double steel and aluminum tariffs on Turkey in a Friday tweet.

Trump threatened to increase steel tariffs to 50 percent and aluminium tariffs to 20 percent, launching an economic crisis in Turkey. The announcement plunged the Turkish lira by as much as 20 percent Friday and caused President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to employ Turkish citizens to exchange dollars or gold for the national currency, The New York Times reported.

The president’s row with Turkey, a fellow NATO member, in part stems from the country’s imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor, on espionage charges. U.S. lawmakers recently voted to delay shipment of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey after the country purchased a Russian-made air-defense system.

The move could drive Erdogan further toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been seeking further economic and military ties to the country. Erdogan and Putin spoke Friday on economic, trade, and security issues in a telephone call following Turkey’s market turmoil, CNBC reported.

Whether this is a one-off escalation of the president’s already-controversial steel and aluminium tariffs or the first of many increases is unclear. Lawmakers will likely press the White House this week for clarification on its plan going forward. Some senators, including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, have already struck out against the steel and aluminium tariffs because they are imposed under a national security provision in U.S. trade law, something some lawmakers say is legally dubious. Trump’s move could again spark calls from Corker and others for legislation to limit the president’s tariff-making authority.

Though the Senate Finance Committee approved President Trump’s nomination of Charles Rettig to head the IRS in July, he hasn’t gotten a vote in full chamber. With all the August work in the Senate on judicial nominations and appropriations bills, the tax world is left wondering if there is room for a vote on an IRS commissioner as well.

TECHNOLOGY

All four commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission will descend on Capitol Hill on Thursday for an oversight hearing held by the Senate Commerce Committee. In a statement, Chairman John Thune previewed several lines of inquiry, including questions about the FCC’s efforts to free up additional wireless spectrum, combat robocalls, and increase rural broadband coverage.

The ongoing fallout over the now-scuttled merger between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media is also likely to factor. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai earned President Trump’s ire for his decision to send the merger to an administrative hearing last month, and lawmakers may press the chairman and other commissioners on the FCC’s independence from the Trump administration.

WHITE HOUSE

President Trump returns to Washington from the vacation that he refused to call a vacation, but not before he does a little fundraising for an embattled Republican incumbent member of the House. On Monday, he will go to Fort Drum, home of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, in upstate New York to sign the National Defense Authorization Act. From Fort Drum, he will fly to Utica to try to help Rep. Claudia Tenney, a first-term Republican. Tenney is being out-raised by Democratic challenger Anthony Brindisi, something that the president’s attendance at a private fundraiser is supposed to remedy. Her district, New York’s 22nd, is rated by The Cook Political Report as a Republican Toss-Up. From Utica, the president will go to Washington, ending his brief vacation at his New Jersey golf resort.

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