Outlook: Congress Returns for Lame-Duck Session

Amid growing calls to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller, lawmakers barrel toward a funding battle over President Trump’s border wall. Newly elected members will also be on the Hill for orientation.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Nov. 11, 2018, 8 p.m.

Following weeks of campaigning, lawmakers head back to Capitol Hill to face a renewed push to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller and to gear up for a lame-duck showdown with President Trump over his promised wall on the Mexican border.

Although Congress passed a series of spending packages earlier this year, they didn’t wrap up funding for the Homeland Security Department and a handful of other government agencies. The Dec. 7 deadline is now fast approaching, and with it comes a potentially bruising fight over immigration and spending.

And another battle is brewing this week as Sens. Jeff Flake and Chris Coons push for a floor vote on legislation to protect Mueller in the wake of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s forced resignation, although Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insists the move isn’t needed.

The fresh urgency from lawmakers comes with the installment of Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’s chief of staff and a longtime Trump supporter, as acting attorney general. Whitaker—who has written opinion pieces questioning elements of the Russia investigation and who is also a friend and political ally to a witness—has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the special counsel probe, according to reports.

McConnell told reporters Friday the bipartisan legislation to shield Mueller from being fired is still not on the Senate agenda. “It’s not necessary,” McConnell said. “The Mueller investigation is not under threat.”

Flake, who is retiring in January, wrote Thursday on Twitter that when the Senate convenes this week he and Coons “will ask for unanimous consent to bring S.2644, the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, to a vote on the Senate floor. After the firing of The AG, it is more important than ever to protect the Special Counsel.”

Democrats in the House have also been pushing Speaker Paul Ryan to allow a similar bill to come up for a vote, but as of this week, no such vote has been scheduled. Instead, the chamber will vote on a bill to remove the gray wolf from the endangered-species list.

Meanwhile, newly elected members will flood the Hill for the first week of their orientation. They will be given primers on everything from using the House's electronic voting system, to managing their office budgets, to workplace rights and ethics.

Senators will also hold leadership elections Wednesday. Republicans will likely see a domino effect thanks to Majority Whip John Cornyn facing term limits as McConnell's No. 2. Sen. John Thune is expected to ascend to that position with Sen. John Barrasso replacing Thune as conference chairman. Sen. Roy Blunt will also move up to policy committee chair. The election for conference vice chairman between Sens. Joni Ernst and Deb Fischer appears to be the only contested election for a seat at the table. The Democrats' team will largely stay intact, with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Whip Dick Durbin heading a group that includes a number of prospective candidates for president in 2020.

And the Senate is scheduled to vote this week on the Coast Guard reauthorization bill and on Federal Reserve nominee Michelle Bowman, the Kansas state bank commissioner.

Here’s what else is on tap this week:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

Come January, expect oversight to dominate the national security agenda in the House. Democrats are set to put the spotlight on the Kremlin, U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the president’s plans for a Space Force, the nuclear-weapons build-up, defense-spending increases, and human rights issues. The likely next chairs of the House national security committees are Rep. Eliot Engel on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Adam Smith on Armed Services, and Rep. Adam Schiff on the Intelligence Committee.

This week, lawmakers will largely focus on cybersecurity and counterterrorism issues.

The House Foreign Affairs Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade Subcommittee meets Wednesday for a hearing on the State Department counterterrorism bureau’s resources and objectives, with counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales testifying before lawmakers. On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Armed Services Cybersecurity Subcommittee gathers to hear from industry representatives on the Defense Department’s cybersecurity acquisition policies, as well as private-sector practices.

And the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets Wednesday afternoon for a hearing on the nominees to serve as ambassadors to The Gambia and Benin.

On Thursday afternoon, the Senate Intelligence Committee meets for a closed briefing.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will kick off the confirmation process Thursday for a new addition to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Environmental groups continue to rail against the nomination of Bernard McNamee, a top policy official at the Energy Department, for his role in DOE plans to prop up financially struggling coal and nuclear plants, as well as his public remarks in favor of fossil fuels.

McNamee’s nomination has taken on heightened significance after former Chairman Kevin McIntyre stepped down last month due to health complications. That’s fueled speculation that the White House could eventually tap McNamee as chairman. The traditionally independent FERC, which oversees electricity markets, now has two Democrats and one Republican. Typically, three members of the party in the White House constitute a majority on the five-member panel.

Committee members will also hear testimony from Rita Baranwal, the nominee for assistant Energy secretary for nuclear energy, and Raymond David Vela, the nominee for director of the National Park Service.

Meanwhile, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on funding needs for wildlife conservation and management. Chairman John Barrasso is pushing legislation to give states more primacy in wildlife management under the Endangered Species Act.

Look for both chambers of Congress to begin laying the groundwork for a potential deal on Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department funding for fiscal year 2019. Appropriations for those agencies expire on Dec. 7 alongside the other parts of the federal government that were included in a September continuing resolution.

HEALTH

Congress is returning to a lame-duck session after many members ran intense midterm campaigns across the nation in which health care was a focal point. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has already named lowering the high costs of drugs as a legislative priority for the Democratic majority in the next Congress.

Marijuana advocates are cheering after a major roadblock to federal reform was removed from the House: Rep. Pete Sessions, who lost his seat to Democrat Colin Allred last Tuesday. As head of the Rules Committee, he blocked several measures from reaching the House floor, advocates say.

This week, much of the health policy activity will be in the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. On Wednesday, the Technology Modernization Subcommittee will have a hearing reviewing the Electronic Health Record Modernization Program. The Veterans Affairs Department launched the Office of Electronic Health Record Modernization in June to manage the department’s new electronic record system.

On Thursday, the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee will look at the VA’s oversight of contract disability examinations.

TAXES

Congress is entering the lame-duck session, and it’s unclear how much it will be able to accomplish amid a likely battle over government funding and President Trump’s border wall.

There is some talk of moving a package of tax extenders, temporary tax breaks that are renewed annually, in the final weeks of 2018, and the Senate could advance an Internal Revenue Service administrative overhaul passed by the House earlier this year. Lawmakers are also working on technical corrections to last year’s tax-code overhaul.

And then there’s Trump’s midterm promise of a 10 percent middle-class tax cut. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady issued a press release shortly after Trump’s announcement saying he was working with the White House on additional cuts after the election, assuming Republicans retained the House.

That didn’t happen, and it’s unlikely Democrats—particularly those in the Senate planning a 2020 presidential run—will want to hand Trump many legislative victories.

On Monday and Tuesday, the American Institute of CPAs is set to hold its national tax conference, where newly installed IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig is scheduled to hold one of his first public appearances, delivering a Tuesday morning address.

Rettig will have his hands full in 2019 implementing the new tax law and fielding oversight inquiries from the new House Democratic majority, not to mention calls to hand over Trump’s tax returns.

TECHNOLOGY

Congressional Republicans plan to hold their leadership elections this Wednesday, and the results in the Senate will have important implications for tech policy in the next Congress. Sen. John Thune, the powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is widely expected to secure the role of majority whip, which would require him to give up his chairmanship. Thune is respected by both industry representatives and policy experts for his attention to technology issues, and he has a reputation for shepherding complicated pieces of legislation out of committee. Sen. Roger Wicker, who now heads of the Communications, Technology, and Innovation Subcommittee, is expected to take the Commerce gavel once Thune moves up the chain of command.

Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are set to hold cybersecurity hearings on Wednesday. House lawmakers will hear from Chris Krebs and Jeanette Manfra, two top cybersecurity officials at the Department of Homeland Security, as well as from Defense Department cyber adviser Kenneth Rapuano, on efforts at coordinating cybersecurity policy between the two agencies. In the Senate, lawmakers will hear from several cybersecurity industry representatives regarding the Pentagon's cybersecurity acquisitions and practices.

The tech industry links up Tuesday with advocates working to combat the ongoing opioid epidemic. Representatives from Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the Internet Association—Silicon Valley’s lobbying arm in Washington—plan to convene an all-day meeting with representatives of the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and other health care professionals for a discussion on tech platforms’ role in the ongoing crisis. The tech companies have come under criticism in certain corners for failing to adequately address drug sales on their platforms, and some have floated the idea of revoking their liability protections when it comes to illegal drugs purchased online.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will hold a meeting Friday on managing future risks surrounding the U.S. electric grid, financial system, and other critical infrastructure. A who’s who of top federal cybersecurity officials are slated to speak, including Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen and top DHS cybersecurity officials including Krebs, Manfra, and Robert Kolasky. Karen Evans and David Lacquement, the respective heads of cybersecurity at the Energy and Treasury Departments, are also set to attend.

On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission kicks off a two-day hearing on algorithms, artificial intelligence, and predictive analytics. Policy experts and commission staff are expected to discuss consumer protection, competition, and ethical issues raised by the development and use of emerging technologies, and to consider whether policy changes at the agency level and beyond are required to address those concerns. The meeting is the latest in a series of hearings the FTC has held throughout the fall on antitrust and other policy questions with implications for the U.S. tech industry.

WHITE HOUSE

After weeks of heavy campaigning and a weekend trip to Paris, President Trump has a light schedule this week. On Tuesday, he will preside over the Diwali ceremonial lighting of the Diya, the oil lamp or candle used in the Hindu holiday, the Festival of Lights. On Thursday, he will travel to the Marine Barracks and will participate in the Supporting Veterans and Military Families Through Partnership Conference. On Friday, he will present the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor to a number of previously announced mix of athletes, politicians, singers and a major political donor.

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