Fiscal Deadlines Dominate Congressional Agenda

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., left, accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, speaks about the Boston Marathon explosions during a news conference of House Republican Leadership on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 16, 2013. 
National Journal
Billy House
Sept. 15, 2013, 8:30 a.m.

The dead­lines have been clear for months. Yet Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats once again are locked in seem­ingly im­mut­able po­s­i­tions over gov­ern­ment spend­ing and the debt ceil­ing, with a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down po­ten­tially just weeks away.

The crisis over Syr­ia and its chem­ic­al-weapons use re­mains un­settled. And there are plans this week for law­makers to ad­dress oth­er le­gis­lat­ive is­sues, in­clud­ing House ac­tion on the food stamp por­tion of a five-year farm bill.

But a short-term fund­ing agree­ment must emerge to keep the gov­ern­ment op­er­at­ing bey­ond Sept. 30, and a debt-lim­it deal is needed by mid-Oc­to­ber to avoid the risk of de­fault. Even so, ne­go­ti­ations seem stuck un­til House Re­pub­lic­ans re­solve in­tern­al di­vi­sions over wheth­er these dead­lines should be used as lever­age for re­peal­ing or delay­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Here’s what else Con­gress is up to this week:

  • House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., says Re­pub­lic­ans are set to com­plete their cham­ber’s ver­sion of a five-year farm bill reau­thor­iz­a­tion, in a vote on a re­vised ver­sion that con­tains $40 bil­lion in cuts over 10 years to the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram. That’s roughly twice what was pro­posed in a bill earli­er this year, which was de­feated in a floor vote. House pas­sage will fi­nally en­able a two-cham­ber con­fer­ence; the Sen­ate’s farm bill cuts the food stamp pro­gram by $4.5 bil­lion over 10 years.
  • The Sen­ate will re­turn to the En­ergy Ef­fi­ciency Act sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Port­man, R-Ohio. De­bate on amend­ments came to a stand­still last week after Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter, R-La., blocked his col­leagues from pro­ceed­ing with an amend­ment re­lat­ing to the Af­ford­able Care Act. Pending amend­ments in­clude one find­ing the Key­stone XL oil pipeline in the na­tion­al in­terest and two oth­ers that cur­tail the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cli­mate-change reg­u­la­tions.
  • The Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee is hold a hear­ing Thursday on the pres­id­ent’s nom­in­a­tion of Car­oline Kennedy to be­come am­bas­sad­or to Ja­pan. In ad­di­tion, the com­mit­tee will con­sider the nom­in­a­tions of Am­bas­sad­or to Egypt Anne Pat­ter­son to be­come as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of State for Near East­ern Af­fairs and Greg Starr to be­come as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of State for Dip­lo­mat­ic Se­cur­ity — hot-but­ton posts in the wake of the Benghazi at­tacks.
  • The Sen­ate is to also con­sider two ju­di­cial nom­in­ees, Pa­tri­cia E. Camp­bell-Smith and Elaine D. Ka­plan, for the Court of Fed­er­al Claims. A roll-call vote is ex­pec­ted Monday even­ing.
  • Amid the vig­or­ous res­ist­ance to Obama­care’s im­ple­ment­a­tion, Gary Co­hen, who heads the Cen­ter for Con­sumer In­form­a­tion and In­sur­ance Over­sight at the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Medi­caid Ser­vices, is to testi­fy on Thursday about im­ple­ment­a­tion and read­i­ness be­fore a House En­ergy and Com­merce sub­com­mit­tee.
  • The Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee has set a hear­ing for Tues­day on Obama’s nom­in­ees for three ap­point­ments: Ron­ald Binz as chair­man of the Fed­er­al En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion, Eliza­beth Robin­son to be un­der­sec­ret­ary of En­ergy, and Mi­chael Con­nor to be deputy In­teri­or sec­ret­ary.

The House Rules Com­mit­tee also is set to meet Tues­day to sched­ule de­bate and a vote later in the week on the GOP’s “Restor­ing Healthy Forests for Healthy Com­munit­ies Act.” The bill al­lows for cut­ting red tape and re­du­cing lit­ig­a­tion to help re­vive log­ging in na­tion­al forests and re­duce wild­fires. It also is dubbed as a way to help wean counties from fed­er­al funds giv­en to com­munit­ies hit by what has been a severe de­cline in tim­ber re­ceipts from na­tion­al forest­lands.

But some Demo­crats and en­vir­on­ment­al groups de­scribe the bill as a “Tro­jan horse” to in­cent po­ten­tially dam­aging log­ging and graz­ing across vast swaths of pub­lic land, with lim­ited pub­lic in­put and di­min­ished en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tions.


Loom­ing Dead­lines

Even some Re­pub­lic­ans are nervous about their own party’s in­tern­al tur­moil and seem­ingly in­flex­ible po­s­i­tion­ing over how to pro­ceed with ne­go­ti­ations on a short-term spend­ing vehicle to pre­vent a par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down on Oct. 1, and a debt-ceil­ing agree­ment.

House mem­bers are of­fi­cially sched­uled to be on re­cess next week. But already, Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic lead­ers ad­vised rank-and-file col­leagues last week to pre­pare them­selves to be in Wash­ing­ton through the end of the month, as talks between con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats, as well as the White House, move to­ward what amounts to an­oth­er self-cre­ated crisis that could reach a boil­ing point in com­ing days. Law­makers have been dead­locked for months over fed­er­al spend­ing levels, and the House and Sen­ate have not agreed on any of the 12 spend­ing bills for the fisc­al year that be­gins Oct. 1. This lo­g­jam is marked by dis­agree­ments over con­tinu­ation of the auto­mat­ic, across-the-board spend­ing re­duc­tions to do­mest­ic and mil­it­ary pro­grams known as se­quest­ra­tion. That in­cludes wheth­er those sharp cuts should be re­placed, and how to do that: with “smarter” cuts or new rev­en­ues, or some com­bin­a­tion?

Mean­while, Speak­er John Boehner and Re­pub­lic­ans de­mand that any in­crease of the na­tion’s abil­ity to bor­row money must come with ad­ded spend­ing cuts and re­forms. However, the White House and Demo­crats adam­antly re­fuse to ne­go­ti­ate on rais­ing the $16.7 tril­lion debt ceil­ing—which is pro­jec­ted to be hit by Oct. 18—say­ing the na­tion must pay its bills.

Now, with just two weeks to go, any big bar­gain by that time to re­solve all of these is­sues in one pack­age be­fore Oct. 1 is un­likely. Pro­gress even on a short-term, carry-over spend­ing bill known as a con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion—to al­low more time for such ne­go­ti­ations and to avert a gov­ern­ment shut­down in two weeks—has sputtered.

The White House and con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats did open the door last week to some com­prom­ise by not rul­ing out that they might, through mid-Decem­ber, ac­cept keep­ing spend­ing at the cur­rent se­quester-cut levels tem­por­ar­ily. They em­phas­ized that would not hold for any longer-range, om­ni­bus spend­ing pack­age worked out for the rest of the year.

But House con­ser­vat­ives are re­fus­ing to go along, in­sist­ing to Boehner and oth­er House GOP lead­ers that even such a short-term bill must be tied to lan­guage to ac­tu­ally either delay or de­fund Obama­care. And that’s simply something both the White House and con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats say they will not ac­cept—and that if a gov­ern­ment shut­down res­ults, it will be Re­pub­lic­ans’ fault.

Even some Re­pub­lic­ans are get­ting nervous over wheth­er their party will end up bear­ing more of the blame for any shut­down, as Boehner and his lieu­ten­ants ap­pear sty­mied by some of their own mem­bers in le­git­im­ately ne­go­ti­at­ing and com­prom­ising with Demo­crats. Wheth­er Boehner will ul­ti­mately have to work in con­junc­tion with Demo­crats to over­ride this in­tern­al GOP strife to se­cure enough votes to avoid a shut­down and debt-ceil­ing crisis—and wheth­er he would even be will­ing to do so—re­mains to be seen.


Shift­ing Fo­cus

The drum­beat of na­tion­al se­cur­ity hear­ings has ebbed now that Con­gress has got­ten a re­prieve from hav­ing to vote on wheth­er to au­thor­ize the use of force in Syr­ia while Wash­ing­ton and the United Na­tions pur­sue dip­lo­mat­ic op­tions to re­move strong­man Bashar al-As­sad’s chem­ic­al weapons.

The House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee is look­ing in­to oth­er Middle East is­sues, in­clud­ing a Wed­nes­day hear­ing in­to State De­part­ment ac­count­ab­il­ity on last year’s at­tacks on the dip­lo­mat­ic com­pound in Benghazi that killed Am­bas­sad­or Chris Stevens. State’s un­der­sec­ret­ary for man­age­ment, Patrick Kennedy, will testi­fy.

The fol­low­ing day, the Middle East and North Africa Sub­com­mit­tee will hear from State and USAID of­fi­cials on Syr­ia’s refugee crisis.


Par­tis­an Pyro­tech­nics

While the Sen­ate will try again Monday to move for­ward on the bi­par­tis­an en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency le­gis­la­tion that got stuck last week amid fights over Obama­care, oth­er en­ergy and cli­mate-change battles will rage this week off the House and Sen­ate cham­ber floors.

On Tues­day, par­tis­an fire­works might go off at the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee hear­ing on Obama’s nom­in­a­tions of Binz as chair­man of the Fed­er­al En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion, Robin­son to be un­der­sec­ret­ary of En­ergy, and Con­nor to be deputy sec­ret­ary of In­teri­or.

Typ­ic­ally, the En­ergy Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion is a low-key, un­der-the-radar af­fair. But Binz—a former chair­man of the Col­or­ado Pub­lic Util­it­ies Com­mis­sion—has drawn out­rage from the coal in­dustry, Re­pub­lic­ans, and The Wall Street Journ­al ed­it­or­i­al board for help­ing to write a state law aimed at shut­ting down coal-fired power plants, and for his up­front philo­sophy of fa­vor­ing re­new­able en­ergy. As the op­pos­i­tion to Binz has in­creased, a group of en­vir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists has hired a Wash­ing­ton PR firm, VennSquared Com­mu­nic­a­tions, to cam­paign for him as he heads in­to what looks like a tough and testy Sen­ate con­firm­a­tion pro­cess.

On Wed­nes­day, the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee holds what staffers say will be a com­pre­hens­ive probe in­to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cli­mate-change agenda. Clashes seem likely to erupt between Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Ed Whit­field of Ken­tucky—a vo­cal skep­tic of the sci­ence of cli­mate change, who called the hear­ing—and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s wit­nesses—En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency chief Gina Mc­Carthy and En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz.

The House Rules Com­mit­tee also has an­nounced a hear­ing Tues­day to set de­bate and a vote this week on bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion to stream­line the per­mit­ting pro­cess for metals, such as sil­ver, man­ganese, and tung­sten. Those are used in everything from air­craft, med­ic­al devices, and re­new­able en­ergy. Right now the United States is al­most en­tirely de­pend­ent upon oth­er coun­tries for many of these kinds of metals.


Open­ing En­roll­ment

As some Re­pub­lic­ans con­tin­ue to fo­cus on ways to stop Obama­care’s core pro­vi­sions from go­ing in­to ef­fect, open-en­roll­ment in the health care pro­gram nears, kick­ing off in a mere two weeks from Tues­day.

Oct. 1 marks both the dead­line for reach­ing some agree­ment to con­tin­ue fund­ing gov­ern­ment and the open­ing of the on­line in­sur­ance mar­ket­places un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act. The be­gin­ning of open en­roll­ment will make life more com­plic­ated for mem­bers who would change the health care law, al­though any is­sues with the launch, tech­nic­al or oth­er­wise, will provide fod­der for their cause.

Mean­while, the White House con­tin­ues its push to raise aware­ness of the ACA, as Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us spends the be­gin­ning of the week in Flor­ida, a state that has vig­or­ously res­isted the law’s im­ple­ment­a­tion. The non­par­tis­an Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice has es­tim­ated that 7 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans will sign up for in­sur­ance on the ex­changes in 2014.


Spot­light on Syr­ia

Syr­ia re­mains at the top of Pres­id­ent Obama’s agenda this week. But as part of his de­term­in­a­tion to keep a fo­cus on the eco­nomy, on Wed­nes­day morn­ing he will ad­dress the quarterly meet­ing of the Busi­ness Roundtable at the group’s Wash­ing­ton of­fices.

Sara Sorcher, Catherine Hollander, Amy Harder, Coral Davenport, George E. Condon and Michael Catalin contributed to this article.
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