Syria Will Dominate Week, but There’s Plenty More to Do

Protestors holding up their red painted hands, stand behind Secretary of State John Kerry as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing to advance President Barack Obama's request for congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria, a response to last month's alleged sarin gas attack in the Syrian civil war.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Sept. 8, 2013, 8 a.m.

Con­sumed with the vote over wheth­er to at­tack Syr­ia, law­makers re­turn from their sum­mer re­cess Monday to a cap­it­al that will be dom­in­ated by the pending de­cision.

But that is hardly the only is­sue fa­cing Con­gress as it be­gins the fall ses­sion. Un­re­solved battles over gov­ern­ment spend­ing, the fed­er­al debt, farm policy, im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and health care im­ple­ment­a­tion also line the dock­et.

It’s a crowded agenda littered with con­tro­versy and some end-of-month dead­lines, most not­ably a Sept. 30 dead­line for Con­gress to pass a spend­ing bill to keep the gov­ern­ment from shut­ting down. Moreover, there are only eight more le­gis­lat­ive days sched­uled this month, and just 38 left this year.

For an un­pop­u­lar Con­gress that has dis­played little co­he­sion and pro­ductiv­ity, a sud­den and smooth trans­ition to a body cap­able of post­ing much-needed ac­com­plish­ments seems any­thing but as­sured.

Here’s some of what’s ahead for the House and Sen­ate this week:

  • Le­gis­lat­ive lead­ers were pre­par­ing to bring a short-term con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion to keep gov­ern­ment run­ning after Sept. 30 to the House floor as early as this week. But a vote could be delayed un­til next week be­cause of the fo­cus on Syr­ia. House GOP sources say the meas­ure would fund op­er­a­tions at post-se­quester an­nu­al levels of $988 bil­lion. Wheth­er spend­ing would be ex­ten­ded for one, two, or three months was still be­ing worked out.
  • A bill is likely to be con­sidered Tues­day by the House Rules Com­mit­tee for pos­sible floor ac­tion later in the week that would block the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment from provid­ing sub­sidies to health in­sur­ance ex­changes un­der the Af­ford­able Care Act un­less there is a sys­tem in place that veri­fies house­hold in­come and oth­er eli­gib­il­ity re­quire­ments.
  • The Sen­ate on Monday is set to vote on two ju­di­cial nom­in­ees — Valer­ie Cap­roni and Ver­non Bro­d­er­ick — to the U.S. Dis­trict Court for the South­ern Dis­trict of New York.

But Syr­ia will dom­in­ate the agenda. Pres­id­ent Obama is set to give a na­tion­al ad­dress Tues­day to ar­gue for in­ter­ven­tion, and Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, and Army Gen. Mar­tin De­mp­sey, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are set to ap­pear be­fore the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee to con­tin­ue their brief­ings to law­makers.

The Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to vote on its ver­sion of a use-of-force res­ol­u­tion Wed­nes­day — the 12th an­niversary of the 9/11 ter­ror at­tacks. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., ex­pects to file for clo­ture on Monday.

While it is still un­clear how the House will act on the Syr­ia ques­tion, at­ten­tion to the is­sue is likely to delay House ac­tion on a stand-alone Re­pub­lic­an bill to fund the food-stamp pro­gram, which GOP lead­ers say will bring $40 bil­lion in total sav­ings over the next 10 years.

De­vel­op­ments re­main flu­id sur­round­ing the meas­ure, which sources say in­cludes the $20.5 bil­lion in re­forms ori­gin­ally passed by the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee and an­oth­er $20 bil­lion in oth­er re­forms, such as a work re­quire­ment for able-bod­ied adults.

A vote on the bill — which was un­coupled from the farm bill earli­er this year — would pre­cede a two-cham­ber con­fer­ence to work out a fi­nal ver­sion. Delay­ing con­fer­ence ac­tion much longer could push law­makers up against the Sept. 30 ex­pir­a­tion of the cur­rent ex­ten­sion of the farm bill.

BUDGET AND AP­PRO­PRI­ATIONS

House GOP lead­ers hope to move their short-term con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion this week or next, in an ef­fort to keep the gov­ern­ment op­er­at­ing bey­ond Sept. 30 with a min­im­um of con­tro­versy. But this hinges on wheth­er some rank-and-file con­ser­vat­ives make good on their threats to use the meas­ure for a show­down to delay fund­ing for the Af­ford­able Care Act.

Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, and Ted Cruz of Texas — who are some of the staunchest op­pon­ents of Obama­care and have called on Con­gress to de­fund the law en­tirely — are sched­uled to speak at a Tues­day “Ex­empt Amer­ica From Obama­care Rally” on the Cap­it­ol’s West Lawn. Oth­er GOP law­makers, as well as the heads of sev­er­al con­ser­vat­ive groups, are also slot­ted to speak dur­ing the two-hour event.

The de­cision to set the fund­ing level for the House’s stop-gap bill at an an­nu­al level of $988 bil­lion would be a com­prom­ise with the Demo­crat­ic-led Sen­ate. The GOP-led House had called for a fisc­al 2014 budget of $967 bil­lion. The Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee has been writ­ing up its spend­ing bills to a topline level of $1.058 tril­lion for the fisc­al year, on the as­sump­tion se­quest­ra­tion would be re­pealed.

Mean­while, some­time around mid-Oc­to­ber, Con­gress and the White House must wrestle over rais­ing the debt ceil­ing through some yet-to-be-de­term­ined com­prom­ise. But they seem to be mak­ing little head­way. The White House and Sen­ate Demo­crats con­tin­ue to say they will not ne­go­ti­ate on the need for a clean debt-lim­it in­crease, and they em­phas­ize a need for the coun­try to pay its bills and avoid de­fault. House Speak­er John Boehner and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans say they will not raise the debt ceil­ing without what they view as real cuts in spend­ing.

DE­FENSE AND NA­TION­AL SE­CUR­ITY

Obama and top ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials are still try­ing to round up an in­ter­na­tion­al co­ali­tion to sup­port a lim­ited mil­it­ary strike to pun­ish Syr­i­an strong­man Bashar al-As­sad for us­ing chem­ic­al weapons against his own people.

Re­gard­less of wheth­er Obama wins or loses his up­hill fight this week for con­gres­sion­al back­ing, either out­come will raise the ques­tion: What comes next? And if mil­it­ary ac­tion pro­ceeds, some law­makers have already be­gun won­der­ing how much it will cost.

At a House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee hear­ing last week, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., asked, “Will ac­tion take a sup­ple­ment­al ap­pro­pri­ation?” Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry re­spon­ded only, “I will say that we will work with Con­gress on whatever cost that is.”

On Thursday, Navy Rear Adm. Richard Breck­en­ridge is sched­uled to testi­fy to the House Armed Ser­vices Sub­com­mit­tee on Seapower and Pro­jec­tion Forces on the top­ic of “Un­der­sea War­fare Cap­ab­il­it­ies and Chal­lenges.”

EN­ERGY

Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion Chair­wo­man Al­lis­on Mac­far­lane will face a grilling Tues­day be­fore the House En­ergy pan­el’s En­vir­on­ment and the Eco­nomy Sub­com­mit­tee, after a D.C. court’s Au­gust rul­ing that the NRC must put the Yucca Moun­tain nuc­le­ar-waste stor­age is­sue back on the table.

The rul­ing com­pels the com­mis­sion to com­plete its re­view of the En­ergy De­part­ment’s li­cense ap­plic­a­tion for the Yucca Moun­tain site. House Re­pub­lic­ans have been vo­cal about their de­sire to use Yucca as the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar-waste re­pos­it­ory, while a bi­par­tis­an Sen­ate plan seeks to find al­tern­at­ives to the long-dis­puted site. The sub­com­mit­tee, chaired by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., plans to ques­tion Mac­far­lane about the NRC’s com­pli­ance with the court de­cision.

Sen­ate con­sid­er­a­tion of the bi­par­tis­an en­ergy-ef­fi­ciency bill sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Port­man, R-Ohio, is ex­pec­ted to be pushed back due to de­bate on Syr­ia.

The bill, dubbed the En­ergy Sav­ings and In­dus­tri­al Com­pet­it­ive­ness Act of 2013, was ori­gin­ally slated to be con­sidered by the Sen­ate be­fore the Au­gust re­cess, but a vote on the le­gis­la­tion was delayed un­til Septem­ber. It was then tent­at­ively set to see floor time in the Sen­ate on Tues­day. But Sen­ate aides now say the bill will be con­sidered only after Con­gress has made a de­cision on Syr­ia.

HEALTH CARE

The new health in­sur­ance mar­ket­places cre­ated by Obama­care are set to open in just three short weeks. The sum­mer’s fights over the Af­ford­able Care Act may in­tensi­fy as the Oct. 1 open­ing of the on­line ex­changes ap­proaches. Those battles in­cluded the GOP at­tack­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s delay of the em­ploy­er man­date by one year; ques­tion­ing the se­cur­ity of the data it will be hand­ling as con­sumers pur­chase in­sur­ance; and rais­ing con­cerns about the cost of health in­sur­ance once the law is im­ple­men­ted. Demo­crats de­fend­ing the law ac­know­ledge there may be some glitches dur­ing its rol­lout this fall.

The House En­ergy and Com­merce’s Sub­com­mit­tee on Health plans to take an Af­ford­able Care Act “pulse check” Tues­day, fo­cused on “read­i­ness and im­ple­ment­a­tion is­sues” in the run-up to Oct. 1.

Oth­er things to watch for this fall, al­though not ne­ces­sar­ily this week: work to­ward a per­man­ent “doc fix” by chan­ging a flawed Medi­care phys­i­cian-pay­ment for­mula and tight­en­ing over­sight of phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pound­ing fa­cil­it­ies, which mix drugs. Le­gis­la­tion to ad­dress each had mo­mentum go­ing in­to the Au­gust re­cess; we’ll see what hap­pens now that Con­gress is back.

IM­MIG­RA­TION

Im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ad­voc­ates have de­clared the Au­gust re­cess a suc­cess­ful time for their cause, both be­cause of the num­ber of law­makers who ap­pear more open to cit­izen­ship for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants and be­cause of the re­l­at­ive quiet from groups that seek to lim­it even leg­al im­mig­ra­tion.

But the fall con­gres­sion­al sched­ule stands to put a kibosh on any mo­mentum these ad­voc­ates might claim. It’s hard to see a scen­ario in which Con­gress is able to deal with im­mig­ra­tion re­form be­fore Novem­ber. The is­sue takes a back­seat to a po­ten­tial mil­it­ary strike in Syr­ia, gov­ern­ment fund­ing that runs out at the end of Septem­ber, and a debt-ceil­ing fight set to oc­cupy much of Oc­to­ber. By Novem­ber, the cal­en­dar will have drif­ted dan­ger­ously close to the 2014 midterm elec­tions, when ma­jor le­gis­la­tion will be­come all but im­possible to pass.

Here’s where things stand: The Sen­ate bill re­mains just as much of a non­starter among House Re­pub­lic­ans as it was when the up­per cham­ber passed their bill in late June. The House has cleared five im­mig­ra­tion bills through com­mit­tees that deal with bor­der se­cur­ity, ag­ri­cul­tur­al work­ers, in­teri­or en­force­ment, E-Veri­fy, and high-skilled visas.

Only the bor­der-se­cur­ity bill that came out of the House Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee has had any Demo­crat­ic sup­port. A bi­par­tis­an group of sev­en law­makers has yet to re­lease a com­pre­hens­ive plan they have been work­ing on for years, yet they have little in­cent­ive to rush to re­lease their bill in the com­ing weeks when all it stands to gain is cri­ti­cism, rather than ac­tion.

WHITE HOUSE

Now back from his European travel, the pres­id­ent will de­vote this week al­most ex­clus­ively to Syr­ia. He has can­celed a planned trip to Cali­for­nia to stay in Wash­ing­ton and will ad­dress the na­tion Tues­day, in­tensi­fy­ing his pitch to Con­gress to give him au­thor­iz­a­tion to launch mil­it­ary strikes to pun­ish Syr­ia for its use of chem­ic­al weapons.

Alex Brown, Nancy Cook, George E. Con­don Jr., Clare For­an, Cath­er­ine Hol­lander, and Re­becca Ka­plan, and Sara Sorch­er con­trib­uted

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