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
Michael Catalini and Billy House
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Michael Catalini Billy House
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.

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