Outlook: Shutdown Drags On

The Senate will consider legislation on Syria sanctions and Middle East policy, while House Democrats plan to start passing individual spending bills as the partial shutdown continues.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Jan. 6, 2019, 8 p.m.

As a partial shutdown continues to roil Washington, the newly elected Democratic House of Representatives and the Senate, newly bolstered with Republican recruits, are set to kick off the first full week of the 116th Congress.

The House’s passage last week of funding for government agencies, including a continuing resolution for the Homeland Security Department, is dead on arrival in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t bring up any funding bills as long as President Trump threatens to veto them for lack of funding for a “wall” along the southern border with Mexico.

“At the moment, things don’t look good as far as reaching a resolution,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby said.

Meanwhile, the Senate will vote Tuesday whether to advance legislation imposing sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in response to the country’s ongoing civil war. The bipartisan Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act, with support from senior Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also allocates more resources to Middle East allies and preempts state and local laws to make it easier to boycott supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

The House will resume continuation of its rules package, voting on a portion of the measure that would allow Speaker Nancy Pelosi to intervene in the Texas court case seeking to undermine the Affordable Care Act or any other legal challenges to the law. Democrats also plan to start passing individual spending bills this week, starting with the appropriations bill that covers the Treasury Department and the IRS.

Here’s what else is on tap this week:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

Former Boeing executive and deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is now serving as acting Defense secretary, following James Mattis’s resignation. The current comptroller, David Norquist, will assume Shanahan’s duties as deputy secretary in the meantime.

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, which led to Mattis’s departure, is also likely to remain in the spotlight. The surprise announcement caught U.S. foreign policy officials off-guard, most notably the special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, who resigned in protest. The timeline for the full withdrawal remains unclear, however, and this weekend the White House suggested it may depend on certain conditions. National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem that Trump will not withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria unless American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected. Trump also said Sunday that "we won't be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone," a departure from his December claim that the U.S. had "defeated ISIS" in Syria and that troops would be "coming back now."

This week, Sen. Marco Rubio is spearheading an effort to impose sanctions on the Syrian government, the Central Bank of Syria, and other entities. The legislation is backed by the Foreign Relations Committee’s new chair, Sen. James Risch, and McConnell has scheduled an initial vote to take up the measure on Tuesday. While the legislation does not directly address Trump’s decision to withdraw, this gives senators an opportunity to debate U.S. policy in the region.

Elsewhere in the Senate, the Armed Services Committee is due for a major reshuffling. Sens. Kevin Cramer, Martha McSally, Rick Scott, Marsha Blackburn, and Josh Hawley will join the committee, replacing Sens. Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse, Tim Scott, and Jon Kyl. Sens. Cruz and Mitt Romney will join the Foreign Relations Committee.

Newly empowered House Democrats are set to clash with the Trump administration over foreign policy and the military budget. Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel has vowed to investigate all aspects of Trump’s foreign policy, including his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Trump Organization’s conflicts of interest abroad, Saudi Arabia, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s handling of the State Department.

House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith, meanwhile, has called for cuts to the Pentagon’s budget for 2020, which has not yet been released. Although he initially called for the budget to be cut, Trump appears to now back a record-breaking $750 billion request.

And Pompeo embarks Tuesday on a weeklong Middle East tour of Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

Furloughed staff at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department are hoping for a deal on Capitol Hill that restores federal funding and delivers paychecks. Thousands of employees at those agencies have now been out of work for more than two weeks, and the logjam over funding for a border wall shows no immediate signs of abating.

The newly minted House majority passed two bills Thursday to enact new funding levels for Interior, EPA, and other agencies that shut down in December, while keeping current funding intact for DHS. The legislation would give the Interior Department $13.2 billion, at least $2.5 billion above the president’s fiscal 2019 budget. House Democrats voted to give the EPA $8.8 billion, a similar bump from the FY19 budget.

The new funding levels closely resemble those passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee, but McConnell has vowed to prevent a vote.

More traditional legislative activity for energy and environment policy is so far unclear. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone announced last week that the panel’s first hearing would focus on the environmental and economic impacts of climate change. A date is not yet set.

Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute is unveiling its 2019 State of American Energy Report Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington. U.S. crude-oil and natural-gas production continue to rise, and coal is steadily losing market share.

HEALTH

A new Congress means new committee assignments, and freshman Republican Sens. Romney and Mike Braun will be joining the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

On the House side, a Democratic rules package was approved on Thursday that includes language allowing Speaker Nancy Pelosi to intervene in a Texas case in which a judge knocked down the Affordable Care Act. The speaker announced on Friday that the House has filed a motion with the district court to intervene as a party in the lawsuit. The case is being appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pallone also announced an Energy and Commerce hearing to examine the affect of the district judge’s decision to strike down the health law.

The partial government shutdown, which began Dec. 22, has left the funding of the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Indian Health Service in limbo.

“We know the shutdown imposes hardships on our workforce,” tweeted FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on Thursday. “We're taking steps to try and mitigate personal impacts wherever we can. I'm grateful for the continued contributions of employees who are working through the shutdown, as well as the commitment of those who are furloughed.”

TAXES & TRADE

House Democrats have said they want to see Trump’s tax returns, but they’re biding their time.

New Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal hasn’t yet moved to request the president’s tax filings from the Treasury Department, which he can do unilaterally. Making them public would require a committee vote. The request could lead to a court battle between House Democrats and the administration.

Neal told reporters Thursday that staff are working on the issue, but there isn’t a timeline to request the returns. He has previously said he first wants to craft a solid case for demanding the returns, a move backed by some experts.

In the meantime, Democrats are proposing a legislative approach to make presidential candidates release their tax returns. Democrats released their first piece of legislation in this Congress, H.R. 1, Friday. The bill is a grab bag of political-transparency, campaign finance, and voting-law overhauls, including a requirement that presidential candidates—as well as sitting presidents—disclose their filings.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden introduced legislation Thursday that would require candidates disclose tax returns as well.

Neither of those bills is likely to be signed by the president, but they signal that Trump’s tax returns remain an important part of the Democratic agenda.

There are no hearings scheduled in the House or Senate tax-writing committees.

On trade, representatives from the U.S. and China are set to hold talks in Beijing on Jan. 7-8 in an effort to end the ongoing trade war. Negotiators have until March 2 to arrive at a deal before tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports increase from 10 percent to 25 percent.

TECHNOLOGY

Tech policy in Washington has largely ground to a halt as the federal shutdown drags into another week. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Brendan Carr were both slated to attend CES, the massive consumer-electronics expo being held this week in Las Vegas. But both officials have canceled their attendance, citing the shutdown.

The Federal Trade Commission remains shuttered, its investigation into Facebook’s alleged violation of a 2012 consent decree on indefinite hold. Even Congress is giving tech the cold shoulder; the first three Energy and Commerce hearings teased last week by Pallone will be on climate change, health care, and immigration, not his purported priorities of data privacy, net neutrality, and broadband expansion.

But keep an eye out on some action related to election cybersecurity in the Senate, where companion legislation to the House Democrats’ massive election-reform and anti-corruption package could be released. That bill includes greater funding for states to upgrade their voting-security systems and requires federal agencies—including the White House—to build or expand their election-cybersecurity plans. On Friday, Rep. John Sarbanes, the architect of H.R. 1, told reporters that Sen. Tom Udall “has put together what you would view as the companion package.” A spokesman for Udall told National Journal that companion legislation can be expected “in the coming weeks.”

WHITE HOUSE

The partial government shutdown has President Trump's schedule for the week less settled than is normal. He is expected to follow the pattern he set last week of calling impromptu meetings with congressional leaders and seizing opportunities to appear publicly and make his case.

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