Outlook: Trump Delivers His State of the Union Address

House Democrats will convene a series of high-profile hearings this week on climate change and the president’s tax returns.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Feb. 3, 2019, 8 p.m.

One month into the new year, Congress will move on to business stalled by the longest shutdown in American history.

President Trump on Tuesday will deliver his belated State of the Union, which was delayed by the partial government shutdown that consumed most of January. Trump in the speech will urge Congress to adopt his agenda, which includes passage of a new North American trade deal, expansion of his authority to impose certain tariffs, funding for infrastructure investments, lower health care and drug costs, and ending U.S. involvement in foreign wars.

Looming over Trump’s speech is a Feb. 15 deadline to fund the Homeland Security Department or risk another partial shutdown next Friday. The clock is ticking as congressional appropriators—in contrast to Trump—remain optimistic they can strike a deal, with conference-committee members of both parties and chambers agreeing on the need for increased technology and manpower on the southern border.

The president has repeatedly called for a “wall” on the border with Mexico to address those concerns. But Democrats hold firm that they will not fund physical barriers, something Republicans say must be included. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been adamant on that point, and although rank-and-file Democratic moderates have expressed openness to an all-of-the-above border-security strategy in exchange for Democratic immigration priorities, Pelosi’s position is buoyed by progressives in her caucus.

Trump said last week he will wait until the Feb. 15 deadline before deciding whether to declare an emergency declaration in pursuit of funding for border security. He dismissed likely legal challenges, saying he would have "very strong legal standing."

The House, meanwhile, will vote this week on a bill to give child-care stipends to veterans being treated at Veterans Affairs Department hospitals.

Shortly after the Senate reconvenes on Monday, lawmakers will continue to take procedural votes on Middle East security legislation after a bipartisan coalition voted to advance Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's amendment with nonbinding language opposing an early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan. The bill also includes sanctions against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, aid to Jordan and Israel, and permission for state and local governments to target companies that boycott Israel.

The Senate will begin debate on a public-lands package that includes reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a priority for Western Republicans that faltered at the end of the last Congress with the objection of Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. The legislation, a result of bipartisan, bicameral negotiations, includes a long list of federal land transfers, as well as provisions to give sportsmen more access to federal lands and ease some gun restrictions.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will meet twice. On Tuesday, it will hold hearings for the nominations of Neomi Rao to the D.C. Circuit Court and two picks for the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. A Thursday vote is scheduled on William Barr's nomination to be attorney general.

Here’s what else is on tap this week:

DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY

Gen. Joseph Votel of Central Command testifies to the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday on the Pentagon’s 2020 budget. The following day, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies at the committee’s worldwide-threats hearing. Coats repeatedly contradicted Trump on national security intelligence during his last appearance, though Trump claimed Coats was “misquoted” after meeting with him and other intelligence officials in the Oval Office.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee holds its committee organizing meeting.

On Wednesday in the House, the Armed Services Committee hears testimony on the Pentagon’s counterterrorism strategy, and the Foreign Affairs Committee will gather academics to discuss U.S. policy in the Arabian Peninsula.

The U.S. formally notified Russia of its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on Saturday, kicking off a six-month window that one senior administration official said is Russia’s “last chance” to comply with the terms of the treaty. The U.S. will formally exit the treaty after the six-month period ends, although the Pentagon has already begun researching noncompliant technology.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

A set of high-profile hearings, a committee vote on a key Cabinet nomination, and the unveiling of a formal Green New Deal are combining to form the most consequential week in Capitol Hill environmental policy in nearly a decade.

The House Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees will hold climate-change hearings Wednesday. Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva will host North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker for the hearing’s first panel. The second panel will feature testimony from a climate scientist and a host of climate-change advocates.

Witnesses are not yet named for the Energy and Commerce hearing, but that will also focus on the damage climate change is causing to American communities and potential actionable policy. Those interested will have to prioritize, as both hearings are scheduled for 10 a.m.

On the Senate side, the Environment and Public Works Committee will conduct a vote Tuesday on the nomination of Andrew Wheeler, the current acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to permanently fill that role. A recent Politico report shows the EPA is not planning to enact a federal drinking-water standard for two toxic chemicals that have gained notoriety in recent years, PFOA and PFAS. Committee Republicans like Sen. Shelley Moore Capito have expressed concern about that move, but the nomination is still expected to advance to the Senate floor.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will also hold hearings Tuesday on the outlook this Congress for energy and minerals markets and Thursday on energy innovation. Despite the Trump administration sanctions on oil-rich Iran and Venezuela, global crude prices are still hovering just above $60 a barrel. Experts say increased U.S. production has helped to offset the fallout from sanctions and keep the oil market bearish.

Meanwhile, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey are poised to unveil a formal Green New Deal proposal this week. The broad parameters of a Green New Deal have shot to the forefront of public-policy debate this Congress, but so far lawmakers haven’t floated a nuts-and-bolts proposal.

HEALTH

The health care focus this week turns to primary care, preexisting conditions, and a lawsuit that threatens to knock down the Affordable Care Act.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on how primary care affects health care costs and outcomes. The House Education and Labor Committee on Wednesday will examine threats to workers with preexisting conditions.

At the same time, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee will be looking at the Texas v. U.S. lawsuit and its implications for people with preexisting conditions.

Last week was dominated by the issue of prescription-drug prices. Both the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the Senate Finance Committee held hearings on the subject, and the Health and Human Services Department announced its latest action to address high prices: nixing rebates that drug manufacturers provide to pharmacy benefit managers, Part D plans, and Medicaid managed-care organizations.

The rule proposes a new safe harbor for drug discounts directly to patients, but House Democrats are already throwing cold water on the idea. “The Trump administration’s rebate proposal puts the majority of Medicare beneficiaries at risk of higher premiums and total out-of-pocket costs, and puts the American taxpayer on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Experience tells us that merely trusting Big Pharma to lower its drug prices for consumers is not a solution; it’s a prescription for more of the same.”

TAXES

House Democrats will make their first move toward obtaining Trump’s tax returns this week with a Feb. 7 hearing examining the legal implications of Congress requesting presidential tax filings. Trump refused to release his returns during his campaign and throughout his term in the White House.

Progressive groups have pushed the new House majority to move quickly and obtain the returns. Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, however, has resisted those calls and is instead taking a more methodical approach, searching for solid legal footing for what would almost certain to be a lengthy court battle with the White House—a move many experts agree is sound strategy.

"It will be part of a carefully prepared and documented legal case,” Neal told reporters Jan. 24. “And it's not subject to just whim, the emotion of the moment. This has to be prepared in accordance with staff, House counsel, and an understanding that this is likely to become the basis of a long and arduous court case."

The hearing will take place in the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, helmed by Rep. John Lewis. The Washington Post reported Friday that Democrats have invited Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington; Steven Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center; Joseph Thorndike of Tax Analysts; and George Yin, a University of Virginia law professor who has written extensively on the legal issues that would be involved in any congressional attempt to obtain a president’s tax returns.

The statutory deadline for extending the debt ceiling will hit March 1, and while the Treasury Department can take so-called extraordinary measures to extend government payments into the summer, the issue may become yet another political pressure point on which lawmakers can dispute border-wall funding. Last week on CNN, Sen. Lindsey Graham brought up the idea that the president could push to add the debt-limit increase to any border-security package.

The markets—and credit-rating agencies—have not reacted well when Congress drags the debt ceiling into political debates, and McConnell has been reluctant to risk defaulting on U.S. debt in the past.

The drop-dead date for raising the debt ceiling is still unclear. Neal sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last week asking him when the White House plans to officially request that Congress raise the limit. Neal hasn’t scheduled a hearing on the issue yet.

There are no hearings scheduled in the Senate Finance Committee this week.

TECHNOLOGY

Net neutrality is back in a big way. House Democrats plan to make the issue a top-ticket tech item this Congress, and they’re kicking off that push Thursday with a hearing on the impact of the Federal Communication Commission's 2017 repeal of its net-neutrality rules.

“The FCC's repeal of these essential protections ... has been a disaster for consumers,” Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle said in a statement announcing the hearing. Doyle—who led the failed House effort to reverse the FCC’s rollback last year—told reporters he expects to eventually introduce legislation seeking to reinstate net-neutrality protections.

That could dovetail with a similar effort in the Senate. Markey introduced legislation preserving net-neutrality rules last Congress, and rumors are flying that he plans to do so again. While some senators in both parties have expressed an interest in legislating on net neutrality, the devil of any Democratic bill will be in the details.

Republicans are generally opposed to classifying internet service providers as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act, a designation they fear could be used to regulate ISPs like utilities. But many Democrats refuse to budge on legislation unless it specifically includes Title II regulation of ISPs.

Washington’s fascination with 5G next-generation wireless technology continues unabated this week. On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee will hold its first full hearing of the new Congress, and 5G is at the top of the agenda. Senators will hear from a full panel of industry representatives on new applications made possible by the technology, what infrastructure investments may be needed, and what it will take to “win” the international race to 5G.

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel will also be talking 5G on Wednesday when she appears at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on mitigating the cybersecurity risks to new 5G networks.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is holding its first public meeting in some time on Friday. After operating for nearly two years without a quorum, the full panel will meet to address the inherent tensions between countering terrorism and protecting privacy and civil liberties. The board will hear from both privacy experts and officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The PCLOB will also be on the Senate's radar Tuesday, when the Judiciary Committee meets to consider the nomination of two new members, Aditya Bamzai and Travis LeBlanc.

WHITE HOUSE

This week starts with the State of the Union and ends with the State of the President. On Tuesday, Trump will give his second State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress and the nation. On Friday, the 72-year-old will have his second physical examination as president.

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