Outlook: Senate Takes Up Massive Spending Minibus

Lawmakers will vote on the $854 billion appropriations package for defense, labor, education, and health care.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol on Thursday. in Washington.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Alex Rogers
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Alex Rogers
Aug. 19, 2018, 8 p.m.

For some, August in Washington, D.C. is not the place to be.

Last week, 11 senators didn’t show up to vote. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hoping for better attendance this week, when the Senate will vote on a massive $854 billion spending bill funding the departments of Defense, Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. The legislation includes top Republican and Democratic priorities—a 2.6 percent pay raise for troops, billions of dollars for new ships and aircraft, and a boost to HHS, which funds health programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and the National Institutes of Health.

The measure will provide a path forward for much of the federal spending as President Trump threatens to shut down the government over funding to build a wall on the southern border.

In July, Trump tweeted, “I would be willing to 'shut down' government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall! Must get rid of Lottery, Catch & Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our Country!”

Here’s what else is on tap this week:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

Senators will put the spotlight on the dire state of U.S.-Russia relations this week, gathering Tuesday morning for hearings with top State, Treasury, and Homeland Security officials.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets to hear testimony from A. Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs; Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation; and Marshall Billingslea, assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing.

Meanwhile, the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on the Russia sanctions, focusing on their current effectiveness and potential for next steps. Acting Deputy Treasury Secretary Sigal Mandelker, who is concurrently serving as Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes; Homeland Security Undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate Christopher Krebs; and Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs Manisha Singh will appear before lawmakers.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee meets for a hearing on the nominations of Alan Shaffer to be deputy Defense undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, Veronica Daigle to be assistant Defense secretary for readiness and force management, E. Casey Wardynski to be assistant Army secretary for manpower and Reserve affairs, and Alex Beehler to be assistant Army secretary for energy, installations, and environment.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to consider a number of ambassador nominations.

Off the Hill, the National Defense Industrial Association holds an Army Science and Technology Symposium and Showcase on "Empowering a Soldier's Success” from Tuesday through Thursday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

The federal government will take a “smarter, more aggressive” approach to forest management in the wake of enormous wildfires, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said last week after his return from a brief tour with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of fire-ravaged areas in California. The key, according to the proposal, will be increasing the amount of logging and controlled burns on federal land.

The announcement came in the midst of criticism directed at the White House for its response to the wildfires and its top officials’ dismissiveness of the role of climate change. Zinke, in a radio interview with Breitbart News, blamed “environmental terrorist groups” for the scale of California’s wildfires, accusing them of preventing the government from managing forests. Later in the week, he told reporters that “temperatures are getting hotter” and that he "of course" accepted that climate change was part of the problem.

But as Trump said to Zinke during Thursday’s Cabinet meeting, “Ryan, you're saying it's not a global warming thing, it's a management situation."

This week, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works' Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure will hold a field hearing in Ellicott City, Maryland on Monday to discuss the federal government’s role in preventing floods.

On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will consider the energy efficiency of blockchain and the cybersecurity implications for the energy industry. On Wednesday, the subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests, and Mining holds a hearing on a number of bills.

HEALTH

The Trump administration's latest push against the devastating opioid crisis is a proposal to crackdown on U.S. production, cutting manufacturing quotas for six opioids by an average of 10 percent next year. “We’ve lost too many lives to the opioid epidemic, and families and communities suffer tragic consequences every day,” said Uttam Dhillon, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, on Thursday.

“This significant drop in prescriptions by doctors and DEA’s production quota adjustment will continue to reduce the amount of drugs available for illicit diversion and abuse while ensuring that patients will continue to have access to proper medicine,” Dhillon added.

Meanwhile, the president, during a meeting of his Cabinet at the White House the same day, called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to sue unnamed opioid makers. “I’d like to bring a federal lawsuit against those companies,” Trump said. The president told Sessions to look out for opioids coming into the U.S. from China and Mexico, which he accused of “sending their garbage and killing our people.”

This week, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs holds a Tuesday hearing to examine Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services efforts to fight Medicaid fraud and overpayments. CMS Administrator Seema Verma and Eugene Dodaro, comptroller general of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office, will testify before lawmakers.

On Tuesday, the National Brain Tumor Society holds a discussion with Sen. Chris Van Hollen on the Hill. And on Thursday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee gathers for a hearing entitled “Prioritizing Cures: Science and Stewardship at the National Institutes of Health,” with NIH Director Francis Collins testifying.

TAXES AND TRADE

The Trump administration is expected to move forward Thursday with a 25 percent tariff on $16 billion in Chinese goods, another escalation in the trade war with Beijing. This round will impact 279 import product lines, including electronics, plastics, and chemicals. It follows the first tranche of tariffs on $34 billion of imports from China that went into effect in July stemming from the Office of the United States Trade Representative’s investigation on Beijing’s intellectual-property and tech-transfer policies.

A Chinese delegation will come to D.C. later this month to meet with U.S. representations, led by the Treasury Department's Undersecretary for International Affairs David Malpass, as more tariffs loom. But first, beginning Monday, USTR is scheduled to hold six days of hearings over the next two weeks as it considers tariffs on an additional $200 billion worth of Chinese goods.

On the Hill, Trump’s pick to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Kathy Kraninger, is set for a vote in the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday. The committee will also be considering Kimberly Reed to be president of the Export-Import Bank, Elad Roisman to be a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Michael Bright to be president of the Government National Mortgage Association, Rae Oliver to be Inspector General of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Dino Falaschetti to be director of Treasury’s Office of Financial Research.

And the Senate Finance Committee meets Wednesday to consider the nomination of Michael Faulkender to be an assistant secretary of the Treasury.

TECHNOLOGY

On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee will mark up an updated version of the Secure Elections Act, a bill designed to strengthen the ability of states to protect themselves from cyberattacks on their election infrastructure. The legislation would require states to create and implement a response-and-communication plan before receiving any grants awarded under the bill. States would also need to implement election systems that utilize paper records for each vote cast in order to receive federal grants. Several states still rely on systems that record votes on a largely or entirely electronic basis, making it difficult to audit the vote in the event of suspected tampering.

Left out of the new bill is any mention of specific dollar amounts when it comes to federal grants for election cybersecurity. A previous version of the Secure Elections Act appropriated $386 million to the states. But Capitol Hill already granted states $380 million in election-security funds in March, and experts had anticipated that the $386 million would shrink significantly as the bill worked its way through Congress.

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism will hold a Tuesday hearing on cybersecurity threats to America’s critical infrastructure. National security officials have in recent months pointed to Russian attempts to embed malware in the computer systems running the North American electric grid, while others have warned that Chinese telecommunication companies may be using equipment built into in the nation’s communications infrastructure to conduct espionage activities.

The security of state election systems—designated as critical infrastructure by the Homeland Security Department in the wake of the 2016 election—is also a likely topic of discussion.

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is finally set to receive a permanent director. Kelvin Droegemeier, a former vice chair of the governing board of the U.S. National Science Foundation, will appear before the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday for his nomination hearing. OSTP is considered a vital player in emerging technology, and the organization is working to step up and coordinate federal efforts in artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources is anxious about blockchain’s drain on the electric grid. The full committee will discuss Tuesday the concerns raised by the massive amount of electricity used to “mine” bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies reliant on blockchain technology. Some lawmakers are worried that the practice is bad for the environment and will cause electricity prices to rise. The senators will also discuss the cybersecurity applications of blockchain, and whether the technology can improve the security of computing systems used to supply energy.

WHITE HOUSE

President Trump starts his week with an event Monday afternoon honoring federal immigration agents. The "Salute to the Heroes of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection" comes as the administration struggles to reunite hundreds of migrant children separated from their parents under the "zero-tolerance" immigration policy. On Wednesday, Trump will posthumously present the Medal of Honor to Air Force Technical Sgt. John A. Chapman. Chapman, 36 at the time of his death in a pitched battle with Taliban forces atop a mountain in Afghanistan, is the first airman to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. His widow and family will be at the ceremony.

On Friday, the president returns to Columbus, Ohio for the second time this month. He will be the featured speaker at the Ohio Republican Party State Dinner and will also attend a fundraiser for the Senate campaign of Rep. Jim Renacci.

Mackenzie Weinger, Brendan Bordelon and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
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