Hard-line ideology crashes into hard reality this week, as the House, Senate, and White House must arrive at a temporary funding deal in order to prevent a partial government shutdown a week from Tuesday.
Senate Democrats will unquestionably keep their promise to remove language to defund President Obama’s health care law, which is now tacked onto a House version of a bill to keep agencies operating beyond Sept. 30. Some Senate Republicans say they will kick up procedural dust, but how forcefully they do so is uncertain.
Then, as urgency builds, House members arrive back in Washington on Wednesday and must respond to whatever changes the Senate sends back.
Along the way, House Republicans also plan to launch a second salvo in their fiscal wars by unveiling and voting on their debt-ceiling bill. That will contain yet another requirement to defund the Affordable Care Act, and make other demands.
Meetings between Obama and congressional leaders amid these showdowns may be in the works, and lawmakers are braced to work into the weekend.
While that may be quite enough, Congress is poised to address other issues this week. Among them:
- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold confirmation hearings Tuesday on Tomasz Malinowski to be assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor, and Keith Harper to be the U.S. representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
- The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday has scheduled another hearing on reforming the U.S. Postal Service. The hearing comes as the service’s board of governors meets Tuesday and Wednesday, with a potential postal-rate increase on the agenda.
- The Senate Homeland Security Committee will consider on Wednesday the nominations of Carol Pope, Ernest Dubester, and Patrick Pizzella as members of the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
- The House could vote again on a bill to avert an impending shutdown of the federal helium reserve in early October. A version approved last week by the Senate differs slightly from one passed by the House in April.
- Ron Binz, Obama’s choice to head the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, may have a pivotal week in his nomination process, which is generating enough controversy to beg questions about his chances.
In addition, the House is expected to formally “marry” through a procedural vote what are now two separate pieces of legislation that make up its farm bill. One piece, passed this summer, addresses agriculture programs. The other, passed last week, covers nutrition policy, including a proposed $39 billion cut to food stamps over 10 years.
The Senate has said it would reject such a big reduction for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But before a complete bill can be sent over, and conferees from both chambers can be named to begin negotiations, a House vote on a “rule” merging its two bills into one must take place.
That rule, anticipated this week, can be attached to any measure, even if unrelated.
BUDGET AND FINANCE
Spotlight on Spending Bill
Questions will build through midweek on whether House conservatives who demanded the anti-Obamacare language in their version of a short-term spending bill will go along with it being stripped out of the Senate revision that is sent back. Whether House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will need — and if so, seek — Democratic votes in order to pass a final measure remains to be seen.
There also is the possibility that the fight over Obamacare may not be the only hurdle to negotiations over a final bill. As it is now written, the Republican version of the bill would continue spending beyond Sept. 30 through Dec. 15 at an annualized level of $986.3 billion, maintaining the sequester cuts. Democrats in the Senate have been writing their spending bills for the new fiscal year at $1.057 trillion, reflecting their desire for a repeal of the sequester, and they and House Democrats have indicated they might push for a top-line number somewhere in between.
Regardless, anti-Obamacare language will get at least one other shot, because House Republicans are also intending to attach it to their debt-ceiling bill, which could be voted on this week. That bill also will contain demands for spending cuts and a raft of other requirements, such as advancement of the Keystone XL pipeline and a rewrite of the nation’s tax code.
The nation’s $16.7 trillion borrowing limit will not require an extension until mid-October. And Democrats and Obama have said they will not negotiate over the need for the nation to pay its bills. But Republicans feel the possibility of default might offer them better leverage in making demands than would the potential for being blamed for a government shutdown.
DEFENSE AND NATIONAL SECURITY
Eyes on Iran
There is growing speculation that Obama might speak with Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani — with potentially game-changing results. Actively seeking a meeting with Obama, Rouhani told NBC News last week he has “sufficient political latitude” to negotiate, leading some experts to wonder if the countries can finally find a way for Iran to halt uranium enrichment and open up its facilities.
Of course, Syria’s chemical weapons will remain high on the agenda at the United Nations. Washington called on the Security Council to pass a binding resolution to ensure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad destroys his weapons; the agreement may call for punishment — possibly military action — if he fails to comply.
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
Binz Faces Uphill Battle
After last week’s grueling confirmation hearing for Ron Binz before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Obama’s pick to chair the obscure but powerful Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is facing one obstacle after another. This week could be pivotal.
Binz faces accusations that he prioritizes renewable energy over fossil fuels, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both voiced their opposition to his nomination last week. The only remaining wild card is Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. But even if Landrieu does eventually support Binz — which seems unlikely — he still faces at best a tie vote in the committee. While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., can technically still advance Binz’s nomination to the floor despite a tie or unfavorable report from the committee, Binz’s chances of eventual confirmation at that point are slim.
Meanwhile, after getting bogged down in fights over Obamacare and other extraneous amendments offered by Senate Republicans, a popular, bipartisan energy-efficiency bill was put on the back burner last week. It technically remains on the Senate’s schedule, but a Senate Democratic leadership aide says the chamber will not return to this debate until at least after the spending battle leading up to Oct. 1. Even then, nothing is certain, and it remains unlikely this bill will pass any time soon.
Also, following the Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement Friday of the first-ever national carbon regulations for power plants, expect Republicans and coal-state Democrats in Congress to push legislation aimed at limiting these rules. Such efforts are unlikely to succeed as long as Democrats control the upper chamber, but that won’t stop lawmakers from raising a ruckus anyway.
The Obamacare insurance marketplaces are scheduled to open in just eight short days. A Wall Street Journal report Friday about a pricing glitch on the exchanges raised concerns about their readiness, providing fresh fodder to the GOP lawmakers calling for a delay of the law. But Gary Cohen, who heads the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, assured members of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Thursday that the government is ready for the Oct. 1 launch, even if there are some glitches. Expect ever-louder cries from Republicans for the start date to be pushed off as it nears.
Obama’s visit to New York on Monday and Tuesday will include attending the opening of the United Nations General Assembly and addressing the Clinton Global Initiative on health care.
Back in Washington, on Friday he will host Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for discussions on civilian nuclear cooperation and the next steps in Afghanistan.
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The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has released its score of the House-passed American Health Care Act, which would replace Obamacare. According to the CBO, the bill would reduce the deficit by $119 billion by 2026, while leaving 14 million more Americans uninsured in 2018 than under current law, a number swelling to 23 million by 2026. Further, insurance premiums would balloon 20 percent in 2018 and five percent in 2019 before the waiver provision in the legislation would kick in. The provision allows states to apply for waivers and permit insurers to offer skimpier plans, which would likely entice younger and healthier individuals to buy health insurance while potentially pricing older and less healthy Americans out of insurance plans. House Republicans approved this bill in late April without waiting for the CBO score.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Wednesday during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing that President Donald Trump's budget is little more than recycling bin material. "The budget proposed by the president doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of passing," Graham said. Graham had previously opposed the budget over its nearly 30 percent cut to the budget of the State Department. The budget slashes spending on domestic priorities while increasing military spending.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday that he doesn't yet know the formula towards gaining passage of an Obamacare replacement in the Senate. "I don't know how we get to 50 (votes) at the moment. But that's the goal," McConnell said. The House passed an Obamacare replacement bill which has been widely seen as dead on arrival in the Senate, and McConnell has put together a working group of Republican Senators working towards creating health care legislation which could gain the support of at least 50 Senators.
"Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been cleared by U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts to oversee an investigation into possible collusion between then-candidate Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and Russia." Some had speculated that the White House would use "an ethics rule limiting government attorneys from investigating people their former law firm represented" to trip up Mueller's appointment. Jared Kushner is a client of Mueller's firm, WilmerHale. "Although Mueller has now been cleared by the Justice Department, the White House may still use his former law firm's connection to Manafort and Kushner to undermine the findings of his investigation, according to two sources close to the White House."