While the House and Senate remain focused on funding the government and addressing the debt ceiling, this week’s action in Congress won’t be limited to fiscal fights.
The health insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are set to open for enrollment Tuesday, which is sure to prompt a wave of messaging from lawmakers in both parties.
In addition, two committees will hold hearings tied to a case in which a former Environmental Protection Agency official pretended to work for the CIA for the last 13 years and improperly billed the government for more than $880,000.
Here a glimpse of what Congress will be up to this week:
- The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will examine government clearances and background checks on Tuesday in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting.
- The House Rules Committee may adopt a rule that would limit the amendment process in floor action on a bill dubbed the Swaps Regulatory Improvement Act. The measure would open up new exemptions that critics complain would allow banks to maintain publicly funded backing for almost all of their derivatives activity.
- The Rules Committee may also adopt procedures for floor action on a Republican bill known as the Retail Investor Protection Act. The bill would prohibit the secretary of Labor from regulating certain investment advisers until the Securities and Exchange Commission sets standards of conduct for brokers and securities dealers. Critics say the act is misnamed because it would cause regulatory delays.
- The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Thursday to examine the “growing threat” of al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-affiliated group, in the wake of the shopping-mall attack in Kenya.
In a set of hearings that are sure to draw attention, two committees, one on each side of the Capitol, will probe how former EPA official John Beale was able to pretend to work for the CIA.
Beale, who was a senior policy adviser at EPA, pleaded guilty Friday to charges brought by the Justice Department for stealing the money over more than 10 years, according to court documents released by Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Beale was first hired in the 1980s.
Senate Environment and Public Works will hear testimony Monday from the EPA Inspector General’s office, and on Tuesday the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hear from Beale himself, along with four other officials from EPA, including Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe.
BUDGET AND FINANCE
Debt Ceiling Looms
The fight over keeping government funded isn’t the only fiscally related battle. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew last Wednesday urged Congress to raise the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt cap “no later than Oct. 17.” He warned that the nation’s borrowing authority would be exhausted by then.
President Obama and congressional Democrats have said they will not negotiate over the need to allow the country to keep borrowing to pay its bills. But House Republicans are intent on attaching some strings, perhaps including a demand to delay the individual-mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act.
The exact House GOP strategy was unsettled late last week, as some conservatives remained reluctant to go along with any debt-ceiling hike at all. An early version of a proposed bill from GOP leaders would have simply suspended the cap through next year — rather than lift it by a specific dollar increase. But that proposal hit the skids when House conservatives pressed for more-exact details of its spending cuts and savings.
According to those conservatives, the leaders’ bill would lead to $1 trillion more in borrowing, and the savings and spending cuts did not come close to offsetting that. The conservatives have emphasized that they agreed in January to postpone the debt-ceiling debate until the fall only on the promise that any fiscal policies enacted would put the federal budget on the path to 10-year balance. They were also holding tight to Speaker John Boehner’s promises that any hike in the debt ceiling would have to be matched “dollar-for-dollar” in cuts or reforms. But they said that it was not certain the proposed leaders’ bill circulated last week did either.
Along with the Obamacare provision, Republican leaders have said their debt-ceiling bill may include language to force the Obama administration to move forward with the Keystone XL oil pipeline, cut back various government regulations, means-test for Medicare, reform medical-malpractice law, and other items.
DEFENSE AND NATIONAL SECURITY
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s examination on Tuesday of government clearances and background checks in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting will feature as witnesses the Office of Management and Budget’s Joseph Jordan, an administrator of the office of federal procurement policy, as well as Elaine Kaplan of the Office of Personnel Management. In addition, testimony will come from Frank Montoya, national counterintelligence executive at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Separately, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to take up legislation Tuesday to strengthen and extend authorities under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR. The bipartisan bill from Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., would continue requirements to conduct multiagency audits of the program, study its costs per patient, and cap U.S. participation.
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
The Keystone XL pipeline isn’t called out by name in a new bill the House Energy and Commerce Committee will consider on Wednesday, but you can expect a good deal of debate about the controversial project at the hearing anyway.
The bill, titled the North American Energy Infrastructure Act, removes the presidential authority currently required to approve cross-border energy projects like Keystone XL, which as proposed would send more than 700,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. This bill is written prospectively, so it would not apply to pending applications like Keystone, according to a spokeswoman for the committee.
The bill would also remove the Energy Department from the regulatory review process for exporting natural gas to Canada and Mexico, two countries that the U.S. has free-trade agreements with. Right now, the law heavily favors DOE approval of such projects, but it nonetheless still requires the review to occur. This bill would remove the need to go through the process at all. The full review process at DOE would still be required for countries with which the U.S. doesn’t have free-trade agreements.
Meanwhile, expect developments in the surprisingly controversial saga of Obama’s pick to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The White House is reportedly considering other candidates, but for now the official nominee remains Ron Binz, former chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Binz has drawn the ire of conservative groups and The Wall Street Journal editorial board for past comments and positions allegedly promoting renewable energy over fossil fuels.
It’s here! It’s here! Obamacare’s big day is Tuesday, when the health reform law’s online insurance marketplaces open. Will attempts to buy coverage online be a catastrophe? A resounding success? You’ll hear about it either way. The opening of the exchanges will also provide a closer look at the always politically contentious premium prices under the law.
Also on the Affordable Care Act front, National Journal on Thursday will host a countdown to Jan. 1, the day the new mandate to buy insurance under the law actually goes into effect. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Reps. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., will speak about the law’s impact alongside a number of health policy experts and industry representatives at the Ronald Reagan Building.
Last week, leaders from the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committees released bipartisan legislation that would impose new oversight over the so-called compounding pharmacies that custom-mix medication, one of which was responsible for a recent meningitis outbreak that killed more than 60 people. The bill would also impose more rigorous tracking of prescription drugs as they travel through the nation’s supply chain. Swift floor action was anticipated in both the House and Senate. If it passes, the legislation would represent a rare moment of bipartisanship amid the fervor over Obamacare.
Mission to Asia
President Obama’s week will be dominated by wrestling with Congress over fiscal issues and by the implementation of Obamacare. He also is set to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And he plans to leave at the end of the week on a four-nation Asian trip.
George E. Condon Jr., Amy Harder, Catherine Hollander, Stacy Kaper, and Sara Sorcher contributed