Crises Crowd Congress’s Already-Cluttered Week

Lawmakers race to finish VA reform and the highway fund bill as Ukraine, Gaza, and the border divert attention.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) answers questions from reporters following the weekly policy lunch of the Democratic caucus November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. Reid spoke on recent efforts by Senate Republicans to filibuster judicial nominees appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama.  
National Journal
Billy House Michael Catalini
July 20, 2014, 5:20 p.m.

Law­makers will wrestle this week with re­sponses to the on­go­ing bor­der crisis and es­cal­a­tion of Ukraine ten­sions fol­low­ing the down­ing of a Malay­si­an com­mer­cial air­liner, while also try­ing to com­plete time-sens­it­ive le­gis­lat­ive mat­ters be­fore a con­gres­sion­al re­cess that is less than two weeks away.

The House and Sen­ate are far from agree­ment on Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­quest for $3.7 bil­lion to ad­dress the tens of thou­sands of chil­dren flow­ing from Cent­ral Amer­ica to the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der.

But House Re­pub­lic­ans say they could con­sider their own bor­der strategy this week — one that would provide less than half the fund­ing Obama seeks. Sen­ate ap­pro­pri­at­ors, too, are draft­ing a re­sponse to Obama’s sup­ple­ment­al fund­ing re­quest, which Demo­crats hope to un­veil this com­ing week­end, ac­cord­ing to a Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate aide.

Fur­ther com­plic­at­ing bi­par­tis­an ne­go­ti­ations in this midterm elec­tion year is that law­makers in both cham­bers want to at­tach polit­ic­ally com­bust­ible im­mig­ra­tion-policy changes to the fund­ing plan. Against this back­drop, the pres­id­ents of El Sal­vador, Guatem­ala, and Hon­dur­as are sched­uled to vis­it the White House on Fri­day to dis­cuss the crisis with Obama and Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden.

Mean­while, in the wake of the tragedy in Ukraine, some in Con­gress are call­ing on Obama and U.S. al­lies to as­sess what new steps should be taken to halt what they see as Rus­sia’s ef­forts to fo­ment un­rest. Le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion is pos­sible.

“Rus­sia’s culp­ab­il­ity “¦ may be­come clear­er in time, but it is already clear enough,” said Re­pub­lic­an Sen. John Mc­Cain, a mem­ber of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee. “As a res­ult, the United States should be­gin im­pos­ing ad­di­tion­al con­sequences on Rus­sia.”

While Ukraine and the bor­der crisis will com­mand cen­ter stage — and law­makers also will be watch­ing de­vel­op­ments in Is­rael’s ground op­er­a­tion in­to Ga­za — Con­gress has oth­er im­port­ant work to fin­ish with no more than nine le­gis­lat­ive days un­til their sched­uled month­long break.

For one, the House and Sen­ate are still try­ing to break a lo­g­jam over con­cerns about the cost of re­form­ing the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment. The aim is to get a bill to the pres­id­ent be­fore re­cess, but the pro­cess is slow.

The Sen­ate also hopes to provide fi­nal pas­sage of a House-passed bill to re­plen­ish the High­way Trust Fund be­fore later this sum­mer when it is pro­jec­ted to run out of money, but there’s al­ways a chance par­tis­an squab­bling could pre­vent law­makers from send­ing the le­gis­la­tion to the pres­id­ent’s desk in time.

That bill, which the White House sup­ports, trans­fers al­most $10 bil­lion from the gov­ern­ment’s gen­er­al fund, fin­anced by what con­ser­vat­ive out­side groups clas­si­fy as gim­micks, in­clud­ing an ex­ten­sion of cus­toms fees as well as so-called pen­sion smooth­ing. The bill would run through May. And few law­makers are happy that it is not a longer-term solu­tion.

Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id will al­low amend­ments to the le­gis­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to a seni­or Demo­crat­ic aide. If that oc­curs, and the Sen­ate passes a mod­i­fied ver­sion of the bill, there would be little time for a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee to settle their dif­fer­ences be­fore ship­ping the bill to the pres­id­ent.

None of this activ­ity, however, is ex­pec­ted to de­rail le­gis­lat­ive pro­gress on the planned House Re­pub­lic­an law­suit against Obama re­gard­ing his ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions. The Rules Com­mit­tee plans to fi­nal­ize lan­guage au­thor­iz­ing the leg­al ac­tion that could be brought to the floor for a vote next week.

A draft says: “The Speak­er of the House may ini­ti­ate civil ac­tions in fed­er­al court on be­half of the House seek­ing de­clar­at­ory or in­junct­ive re­lief” against the na­tion’s chief ex­ec­ut­ive for fail­ing to act “in a man­ner con­sist­ent with that of­fi­cial’s du­ties un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion and laws of the United States.”

In an­oth­er mat­ter, the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee, led by Rep. Dar­rell Issa of Cali­for­nia, has offered White House Polit­ic­al Strategy and Out­reach Dir­ect­or Dav­id Si­mas a second chance to testi­fy and avoid a con­sti­tu­tion­al clash over sub­poe­aned testi­mony by ap­pear­ing be­fore the pan­el on Fri­day. The White House has said Si­mas will not com­ply with a com­mit­tee sub­poena.

Here’s what else Con­gress will be do­ing this week:

BUDGET and FIN­ANCE

House Re­pub­lic­ans, led by Ap­pro­pri­ations Chair­man Har­old Ro­gers of Ken­tucky, say they ex­pect to un­veil their own fund­ing pro­pos­al to deal with the bor­der crisis this week, even as some in the Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence don’t want to spend any ad­di­tion­al money out­side of the reg­u­lar budget pro­cess.

Ro­gers has said the GOP plan will in­clude some spend­ing off­sets, though he has not de­tailed them — and that the pack­age would fund bor­der activ­it­ies through the end of the year.

In the Sen­ate, Ap­pro­pri­ations Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Mikul­ski of Mary­land lent her sup­port to the pres­id­ent’s re­quest in a floor speech last week, but Re­id earli­er sug­ges­ted the Sen­ate might al­ter the amount of the pres­id­ent’s $3.7 bil­lion re­quest. Wheth­er the spend­ing bill will go through com­mit­tee or straight to the floor re­mains un­clear.

While Sen­ate and House ap­pro­pri­at­ors are wrest­ling with Obama’s emer­gency spend­ing re­quest to deal with the bor­der crisis, the reg­u­lar ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess re­mains stalled on the Sen­ate floor.

Last week, the Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee ap­proved the an­nu­al de­fense spend­ing bill, but Re­id and Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell have failed to un­knot a dis­pute over amend­ments.

Over in the House, sev­en of the 12 an­nu­al spend­ing bills due by the Oct. 1 start of the new fisc­al year to keep gov­ern­ment agen­cies op­er­at­ing have been com­pleted. But five re­main un­fin­ished. And the pro­spect of law­makers be­ing able to com­plete two-cham­ber ver­sions of all 12 an­nu­al bills is now seen as re­mote.

That leaves ex­ten­sions of cur­rent fund­ing levels for most agen­cies likely be ad­op­ted un­til a longer-term ap­proach can be found after the Nov. 4 elec­tion, in a lame-duck ses­sion. That de­cision likely will not come, however, un­til Septem­ber.

The House this week also will take up sev­er­al bills and tax cred­its in­ten­ded to sim­pli­fy stu­dent-loan pro­cesses and help stu­dents and fam­il­ies to bet­ter man­age those loans as well as save for col­lege ex­penses.

DE­FENSE and NA­TION­AL SE­CUR­ITY

Law­makers are grow­ing weary about the im­passe on the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs re­form bill and are blam­ing each oth­er. Re­id has said that if the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee drags on too much longer the House should just ac­cept the Sen­ate bill and be done with it.

Mean­while the Sen­ate Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee moves for­ward in a bid to re­place top VA lead­er­ship, with a con­firm­a­tion hear­ing Tues­day for Robert Mc­Don­ald to be the next sec­ret­ary. In a sign that Mc­Don­ald faces little if any op­pos­i­tion a hand­ful of Re­pub­lic­ans have already pledged to en­dorse the former Proc­tor & Gamble CEO’s nom­in­a­tion.

Also this week, the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee holds a hear­ing Thursday on what act­ing VA Sec­ret­ary Sloan Gib­son needs to do to re­store trust in the agency.

Fig­ur­ing out how to re­spond to threats from Rus­sia and China and in­stabil­ity in Ir­aq are also on the agenda.

On Wed­nes­day, a House Armed Ser­vices sub­com­mit­tee ex­am­ines how to mod­ern­ize the Na­tion­al Mis­sile De­fense Act to pro­tect against fu­ture threats from Rus­sia and China.

The House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee holds a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on the U.S. re­sponse to the ter­ror­ist march in Ir­aq. And on Thursday the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee digs in­to U.S. policy op­tions in Ir­aq.

EN­ERGY and EN­VIR­ON­MENT

En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency Ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy will make her first Sen­ate ap­pear­ance to de­fend the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s crack­down on car­bon pol­lu­tion from ex­ist­ing power plants Wed­nes­day when she test­i­fies be­fore the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee.

Rank­ing mem­ber Dav­id Vit­ter, R-La., has been a vo­cal crit­ic of the rule, as have the oth­er com­mit­tee Re­pub­lic­ans. But Demo­crats have held it up as an ex­ample of the White House’s work to ad­dress cli­mate change. It’s the first Sen­ate hear­ing on the ex­ist­ing power-plant rule, which the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee ex­amined last month.

On Thursday, the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee is to con­sider the nom­in­a­tion of Eliza­beth Sher­wood-Ran­dall, a White House ad­viser on nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, to take the deputy sec­ret­ary spot at the En­ergy De­part­ment. Sher­wood-Ran­dall, cur­rently the White House co­ordin­at­or for de­fense policy, would re­place Daniel Pone­man in the deputy spot.

Also on Wed­nes­day, House En­ergy and Com­merce will hold a hear­ing on mod­ern­iz­ing state and fed­er­al co­oper­a­tion on en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tion.

The hear­ing — which will fea­ture state en­vir­on­ment­al of­fi­cials — is fol­low­ing up on a pre­vi­ous com­mit­tee re­view of the role of states and fed­er­al agen­cies in en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tion and is meant to ex­am­ine ways the two levels can align to ad­dress policy goals with few­er re­sources.

HEALTH

The House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee is to hold a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on pre­vent­ing ab­use and fraud in the Af­ford­able Care Act’s premi­um sub­sidies.

The sub­sidies have been a fo­cus of con­cern by some law­makers re­cently. A re­cent re­port found that mil­lions of sub­sidy re­cip­i­ents have in­form­a­tion on their in­sur­ance ap­plic­a­tions that do not match gov­ern­ment re­cords; the gov­ern­ment is work­ing to re­solve the dis­crep­an­cies, but many re­main.

Ways and Means will hold an­oth­er hear­ing the fol­low­ing day, on the fu­ture of Medi­care Ad­vant­age plans. The hear­ing will spe­cific­ally fo­cus on the health care law’s im­pact on the pro­gram.

Demo­crat­ic Reps. Hank John­son and G.K. But­ter­field will hold a news con­fer­ence with mem­bers of health care ad­vocacy groups to an­nounce the newly cre­ated State Medi­caid Ex­pan­sion Caucus. Both law­makers rep­res­ent states — Geor­gia and North Car­o­lina, re­spect­ively — that are not cur­rently par­ti­cip­at­ing in Medi­caid ex­pan­sion un­der the health care law.

WHITE HOUSE

As he deals with the crisis-man­aging of the Malay­sia Air­lines tragedy and Is­rael’s in­cur­sion in­to Ga­za, Obama’s sched­ule this week also in­cludes travel.

First, the pres­id­ent on Monday is to award a Medal of Hon­or to Ry­an M. Pitts, a former Army staff ser­geant, for con­spicu­ous hero­ism dur­ing com­bat op­er­a­tions in Afgh­anistan in 2008.

Then on Tues­day, he is to preside over a genu­ine Wash­ing­ton rar­ity: a White House sign­ing ce­re­mony for le­gis­la­tion passed with over­whelm­ing bi­par­tis­an con­gres­sion­al sup­port. That bill, the Work­force In­nov­a­tion and Op­por­tun­ity Act, is in­ten­ded to stream­line and im­prove job-train­ing pro­grams.

Af­ter­ward, Obama heads to the West Coast for the usu­al mix of fun­drais­ing events and of­fi­cial activ­it­ies. He be­gins his three-day swing at a Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee fun­draiser in Seattle be­fore fly­ing to San Fran­cisco.

On Wed­nes­day, there’s a San Fran­cisco fun­draiser for the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. Later in the day Obama will fly to Los Angeles, where he is to at­tend an­oth­er DNC fun­draiser, then oth­er events Thursday in the Los Angeles area. He plans to close the week with meet­ings at the White House on Fri­day.

Stacy Kaper, Sophie Novack, Tom DeFrank and Jason Plautz contributed to this article.
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