Outlook: After Kavanaugh, Senate Turns to Nominations, Infrastructure

The push for a new federal data-privacy framework ramps up this week, while President Trump is expected to make a major ethanol announcement in Iowa on Tuesday.

President Trump at a campaign rally Thursday in Rochester, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone
Oct. 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

After a rare Saturday session to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on a 50-48 vote, the Senate heads back to work Tuesday.

The Senate will vote that evening to advance a major water-infrastructure bill. After Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture on their nominations last week, the Senate may then vote this week to confirm Jeffrey Bossert Clark to be the assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, Eric S. Dreiband to be assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division and James N. Stewart to be an assistant secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

The House, meanwhile, is out of session until after Election Day.

Here’s what else is on tap this week:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on threats to the homeland. Homeland Security Department Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and National Counterterrorism Center Acting Director Russell Travers will testify before lawmakers. They’re expected to cover a range of issues including terrorism, border security, cyberattacks, and homegrown extremism, and update senators on how these threats have evolved since last year’s hearing on the topic.

That morning, the Senate Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support will hear from Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Stephen Wilson, and Government Accountability Office Director of Force Structure and Readiness Issues John Pendleton on Air Force readiness. Foreign Policy reported last week that President Trump is considering firing Wilson after the midterm elections because of her pushback on standing up a separate Space Force.

On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider the nomination of John Mark Pommersheim, a member of the Foreign Service, to be ambassador to Tajikistan. Pommersheim currently serves as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Astana, Kazakhstan.

And the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard will meet Thursday morning on fleet modernization and vessel acquisition. Rear Adm. Michael Haycock, assistant commandant for acquisition; Rear Adm. Michael Silah, director of NOAA’s office of marine and aviation operations, GAO’s Marie Mak and Ronald O’Rourke, a specialist in naval affairs at the Congressional Research Service, will testify before lawmakers.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

A drawn-out behind-the-scenes process to pass the America's Water Infrastructure Act will likely arrive at a turning point this week. Sen. John Barrasso told reporters last week that the legislation, an update to the Water Resources Development Act, will hit the floor in the coming days.

The bill signs off on a list of navigation, flood control, and storm-damage projects. House lawmakers passed the legislation by voice vote, a mechanism that reflects zero opposition, in September. The bill has widespread bipartisan support in the Senate, but Sen. Richard Burr has prevented expedited movement over his opposition to the expiration of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Meanwhile, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which Barrasso leads, is holding a hearing Wednesday on state efforts to conserve and manage wildlife. Barrasso has been pushing an overhaul to the Endangered Species Act that would devolve federal authority to the states.

And Trump is telegraphing a big ethanol announcement on Tuesday in Iowa. Some observers expect Trump to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to lift a ban on summer sales of gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol. That regulation has been at the heart of months-long White House-led negotiations aimed at reforming ethanol regulations.

HEALTH

With a short week on Capitol Hill, the agenda for health-related activities is rather light. But health care remains a key issue for the midterm elections in many states.

Take Minnesota, where health care has been a dominant talking point for candidates from both sides of the aisle. President Trump held a rally there Thursday, when he bashed Democratic candidate Dan Feehan because he “supports a total government takeover of health care which drives your costs right through the roof and the health care is lousy.” And he took a swipe at Democratic candidate Angie Craig, claiming she “also wants to take away your health care.”

While the Senate was locked in the turmoil over Kavanaugh, lawmakers managed to pass a large opioid package almost unanimously for the president’s signature. It includes a provision that lifts a prohibition on federal Medicaid dollars from covering substance-use disorders in residential-treatment settings.

“This legislation represents the work of eight committees in the House and five committees in the Senate who have worked together to reach consensus about how to help address the opioid crisis which is affecting virtually every American community,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander in a statement after its passage.

TAXES

With all the tax legislation likely done before the midterms, Capitol Hill is turning its eye toward the lame-duck session, where Congress could vote on a handful of tax measures.

Tax writers had hoped some of the work could have been attached to legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, since it had a tax title, but the Senate sent that bill to the White House last week without any extraneous tax provisions.

Despite Congress whittling down some provisions over the past few years, there are still a few temporary tax breaks, known as extenders, that will be up for a renewal. House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady said in late September that he hopes to cull more provisions from the annual extenders roster.

Lawmakers could also advance legislation correcting technical errors in last year’s tax-code overhaul, though it’s likely that Democrats will want concessions to secure their vote, setting up a late-year bargaining session.

The House passed a package of three bills, dubbed Tax Reform 2.0, before heading off to campaign. The centerpiece of the measures would make last year’s individual tax cuts permanent. The Senate, so far, has been reluctant to take up that part, but they could move the other two bills, tax breaks for retirement savings and startup formation, in the lame duck.

Also, the Senate still hasn’t passed its version of a bipartisan IRS administrative overhaul.

The Senate Finance Committee has no hearings scheduled this week.

TECHNOLOGY

The Senate push for a new federal data-privacy framework continues this week, with the Senate Commerce Committee set to hold its second hearing in two weeks on potential legislation. Lawmakers will hear from Andrea Jelinek, chair of the European Data Protection Board, and Alastair Mactaggart, the former chief proponent of an influential California ballot initiative on privacy, in an attempt to determine how closely federal rules should hew to the strict standards set by the European Union and California.

Mactaggart’s initiative was the primary impetus for California’s passage of an aggressive privacy law this summer, which in turn spurred an industry-driven effort on Capitol Hill to preempt the state’s new law. Laura Moy, the executive director at the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology, and Nuala O’Connor, the head of the Center for Democracy & Technology think tank, are also slated to testify.

Lawmakers are seeking answers following a report that Chinese intelligence services secretly attached microchips capable of facilitating espionage to motherboards manufactured in China and purchased by the Defense Department and top U.S. tech companies. The allegations, reported last week by Bloomberg Businessweek, sent shockwaves through the cybersecurity and business communities despite a strenuous denial by Apple, allegedly one of China’s major targets. On Friday, Sen. Gary Peters, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees, sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis requesting a congressional briefing on the claims made by the report.

The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs meets Thursday for a hearing on cryptocurrency and the blockchain ecosystem. Senators will hear testimony from Nouriel Roubini, a professor at New York University Stern School of Business, and Peter Van Valkenburgh, the director of research at Coin Center.

WHITE HOUSE

For Trump, this is a week of political rallies. On Tuesday, he’ll hold one in Council Bluffs, Iowa. On Wednesday, he’ll be in Erie, Pennsylvania. And on Friday, he’ll be in Ohio for a rally and stops in Cincinnati and Lebanon to boost the candidacy of Rep. Steve Chabot. He has no public events Thursday.

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