Many Hurdles in the Race to Recess

Congress will try to deal with the border crisis, VA reform, and a host of other issues before adjourning for the summer on Thursday.

MISSION, TX - JULY 24: Central American immigrants await transportation to a U.S. Border Patrol processing center after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico into the Texas on July 24, 2014 near Mission, Texas. Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants, many of them families or unaccompanied minors, have crossed illegally into the United States this year and presented themselves to federal agents, causing a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Rio Grande Sector of the border has the heaviest traffic of illegal crossings of the entire U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
National Journal
Billy House Michael Catalini
July 27, 2014, 4:20 p.m.

With the start of their sum­mer re­cess later this week tan­tal­iz­ing law­makers, Con­gress has a crammed get­away agenda — from deal­ing with the bor­der crisis, to fi­nal­iz­ing a patch for the High­way Trust Fund, to su­ing Pres­id­ent Obama.

There also is op­tim­ism — but not ne­ces­sar­ily con­fid­ence — that a House and Sen­ate con­fer­ence agree­ment can fi­nally be reached on re­form­ing the em­battled Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment.

Both cham­bers have Thursday sched­uled as their fi­nal le­gis­lat­ive day be­fore the break, which will ex­tend through Au­gust and in­to early Septem­ber, provid­ing a key peri­od of cam­paign­ing in a midterm elec­tion year.

But neither the House nor the Sen­ate wants to face any back­lash for not first do­ing something to deal with the surge of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der.

Yet, with the clock tick­ing, the two cham­bers re­main on sep­ar­ate tracks re­gard­ing how to re­spond to Obama’s re­quest for $3.7 bil­lion in emer­gency fund­ing to deal with the prob­lems.

Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Bar­bara Mikul­ski of Mary­land has un­veiled a sup­ple­ment­al fund­ing bill total­ing $3.57 bil­lion that would give the pres­id­ent $1 bil­lion less than he sought to ad­dress the surge of some 60,000 chil­dren from Cent­ral Amer­ica across the south­ern bor­der. A floor vote could come this week.

Among House Re­pub­lic­ans, there ap­pear to be sig­ni­fic­ant hurdles to uni­fy­ing be­hind one ap­proach.

GOP lead­ers are ex­pec­ted on Monday to come up with a scaled-back plan that could provide less than $1 bil­lion for the crisis, geared to spe­cif­ic spend­ing like de­ploy­ing the Na­tion­al Guard to the bor­der and re­turn­ing chil­dren to their home coun­tries by plane.

But some con­ser­vat­ives might op­pose even this lower level of new spend­ing and force GOP lead­ers to turn to Demo­crats to get the meas­ure passed. It all rep­res­ents a first real le­gis­lat­ive test for Ma­jor­ity Lead­er-elect Kev­in Mc­Carthy and Ma­jor­ity Whip-elect Steve Scal­ise, who have to de­cide between mak­ing deals with Demo­crats or not passing a bill — and caus­ing con­sid­er­able em­bar­rass­ment for the new lead­er­ship team.

Against this already com­bust­ible back­drop, House Re­pub­lic­ans also have set a Rules Com­mit­tee hear­ing for Tues­day to es­tab­lish pro­ced­ures for a floor vote later in the week on a res­ol­u­tion au­thor­iz­ing Speak­er John Boehner to launch a law­suit against Obama over his ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions.

In the Sen­ate, Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell have reached an agree­ment that would provide for the House-passed high­way-fund patch to clear the floor. A vote is ex­pec­ted by mid­week, said a seni­or Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate aide.

The deal provides for votes on amend­ments from Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mike Lee of Utah, as well as from Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ron Wyden of Ore­gon. There will also be an­oth­er vote on an amend­ment from Demo­crat­ic Sen. Bar­bara Box­er of Cali­for­nia and Re­pub­lic­an Bob Cork­er of Ten­ness­ee.

Sen­ate aides ex­pect the House ver­sion of the bill will pass and make it to the pres­id­ent’s desk. The nearly $11 bil­lion bill shores up the trust fund through May and is paid for through a pro­cess known as pen­sion smooth­ing, which al­lows com­pan­ies to con­trib­ute less to pen­sion funds, thus in­creas­ing their tax bill. Out­side groups cri­ti­cize the pay-for as a gim­mick in part be­cause in the long run, smooth­ing ends up cost­ing the gov­ern­ment.

There will also be a clo­ture vote on the Bring Jobs Home Act, a polit­ic­al-mes­saging bill co­sponsored by Demo­crat­ic Sen. John Walsh of Montana, who faces pla­gi­ar­ism al­leg­a­tions after a New York Times art­icle showed he im­prop­erly used the work of oth­er au­thors in his mas­ter’s thes­is. The bill, which would give busi­nesses a 20 per­cent tax cred­it for bring­ing jobs in­to the U.S. and deny them a cred­it for leav­ing the coun­try, is not ex­pec­ted to get clo­ture, the Demo­crat­ic aide said.

On Tues­day, the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee is hold­ing a hear­ing on the status of the nuc­le­ar arms talks with Ir­an, with testi­mony from Un­der­sec­ret­ary of State for Polit­ic­al Af­fairs Wendy Sher­man and Treas­ury Un­der­sec­ret­ary for Ter­ror­ism and Fin­an­cial In­tel­li­gence Dav­id Co­hen. The com­mit­tee is also con­sid­er­ing the nom­in­a­tion of John Tefft to be am­bas­sad­or to Rus­sia. The hear­ing comes as U.S. re­la­tions with Vladi­mir Putin’s Rus­sia smolder after the down­ing of Malay­sia Air­lines Flight 17.

On Monday, the Sen­ate will vote on the nom­in­a­tions of Pamela Har­ris to be a judge on the 4th Cir­cuit; Joseph Mo­horovic to be com­mis­sion­er of the Con­sumer Product Safety Com­mis­sion; El­li­ot Kaye to be chair­man of the CPSC; and Bri­an McK­eon to be a prin­cip­al deputy De­fense un­der­sec­ret­ary.

Here’s what else Con­gress is plan­ning to do this week:

DE­FENSE

The state of le­gis­la­tion to re­form the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment in an at­tempt to stamp out pre­vent­able vet­er­an deaths ap­peared stalled after a lot of drama last week. But on Fri­day aides to the Sen­ate and House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs com­mit­tee chair­men — in­de­pend­ent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont and Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Jeff Miller of Flor­ida — said ne­go­ti­ations were back on track.

Miller said late last week that the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee would meet again Monday to dis­cuss a path for­ward and that he ex­pects to have a con­fer­ence re­port on the pres­id­ent’s desk be­fore Con­gress leaves town on Thursday.

Last week Sanders and Miller each proffered re­vi­sions to the VA le­gis­la­tion, which is in­ten­ded to re­duce wait times for health care, hold VA of­fi­cials more ac­count­able, and en­sure that vet­er­ans re­ceive timely ac­cess to care, even if it means go­ing out­side the VA.

But the two sides have been at log­ger­heads over how to treat a late-break­ing re­quest by the VA for $17.6 bil­lion in ad­di­tion­al funds and have struggled with how — and how much — to con­tain costs of the le­gis­la­tion.

On Thursday talks between the two law­makers had de­volved in­to a pub­lic piss­ing match, with Miller try­ing to hold his own con­fer­ence com­mit­tee meet­ing and Sanders tak­ing to the Sen­ate floor to in­sinu­ate that Miller’s ne­go­ti­at­ing tac­tics were less ma­ture than those of a sixth-grader. Late Thursday the two ap­par­ently had a “pro­duct­ive” con­ver­sa­tion and were sup­posedly re­com­mit­ted to try­ing to reach a com­prom­ise. But time is short.

The Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to eas­ily con­firm Robert Mc­Don­ald to be the next VA sec­ret­ary be­fore it ad­journs for re­cess.

Also this week the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee digs in­to the shoot­ing down of the Malay­si­an air­liner and the crisis in the Ukraine with a joint sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing Tues­day morn­ing, fol­lowed by an af­ter­noon hear­ing on Ir­an nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­ations.

The Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee also ex­plores Ir­an ne­go­ti­ations with a hear­ing Tues­day.

On Wed­nes­day the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee looks in­to se­cur­ity con­cerns in Afgh­anistan.

EN­ERGY

While the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency holds four pub­lic hear­ings on its rule to slash car­bon emis­sions from ex­ist­ing power plants, Re­pub­lic­ans are pre­par­ing their coun­ter­pro­gram­ming. The House En­ergy and Com­merce Sub­com­mit­tee on En­ergy and Power holds a Tues­day hear­ing on how the Clean Power Plan could af­fect the elec­tric grid, while the House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee will meet Wed­nes­day to talk about the plan in a hear­ing sub­titled “Fail­ure by Design.”

On the Sen­ate side, Mc­Con­nell has vowed to speak at EPA’s pub­lic hear­ing in Wash­ing­ton and will hold a press con­fer­ence on his testi­mony. Ex­pect oth­er con­gres­sion­al op­pon­ents and sup­port­ers of the rule to speak out as well.

Two Sen­ate com­mit­tees will tackle the costs and im­pacts of cli­mate change this week, start­ing with a Budget Com­mit­tee hear­ing on how ex­treme weath­er im­pacts the fed­er­al budget. Chair­man Patty Mur­ray of Wash­ing­ton has warned in the past that cli­mate change has led to rising emer­gency spend­ing.

Also Tues­day, the En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Clean Air and Nuc­le­ar Safety Sub­com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing on the threats of cli­mate change, in­clud­ing testi­mony from the com­mis­sion­er of Flor­ida’s Broward County.

And the Sen­ate Com­merce Oceans Sub­com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Tues­day fol­low­ing up on the Re­store Act, the bill passed to help the Gulf Coast re­cov­er from the 2010 Deep­wa­ter Ho­ri­zon oil spill. The hear­ing will in par­tic­u­lar look at how a trust fund es­tab­lished un­der the act is be­ing dis­trib­uted and used by states, which have said they would like the money to flow faster.

HEALTH CARE

The House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee will use the fi­nal week be­fore the re­cess to con­tin­ue hear­ings on the Af­ford­able Care Act. On Monday, the  Health Sub­com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing en­titled “Pro­tect­ing Amer­ic­ans from Il­leg­al Bail­outs and Plan Can­cel­la­tions Un­der the Pres­id­ent’s Health Care Law.” The hear­ing will ad­dress the ACA’s risk-cor­ridors pro­gram and the abil­ity of in­di­vidu­als to keep their group health plans, and will fea­ture wit­nesses from the Her­it­age Found­a­tion, Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, and Geor­getown Uni­versity.

On Thursday, En­ergy and Com­merce’s Over­sight and In­vest­ig­a­tions Sub­com­mit­tee will hear up­dates on the law’s im­ple­ment­a­tion from of­fi­cials from the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Medi­caid Ser­vices and the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice. GAO is ex­pec­ted to is­sue a new re­port the same day on the is­sues fa­cing Health­Care.gov at its launch last fall and the costs re­lated to re­pair­ing the site and build­ing the back end of the sys­tem.

The House is ex­pec­ted to vote this week on the res­ol­u­tion au­thor­iz­ing Boehner’s law­suit against Obama over delays to the ACA’s em­ploy­er man­date last year. The House Rules Com­mit­tee ap­proved the res­ol­u­tion on a 7-4 vote along party lines last week.

TECH­NO­LOGY

The Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on un­au­thor­ized third-party charges on con­sumers’ cell-phone bills. The Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion re­cently sued T-Mo­bile for fail­ing to stop the prac­tice, known as “cram­ming.”

Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat, will hold a press con­fer­ence Tues­day to re­lease a GAO re­port on data caps. Eshoo has warned that the caps, which are primar­ily used by cell-phone car­ri­ers but also in some cases wire­line In­ter­net pro­viders, could con­fuse con­sumers or be used an­ti­com­pet­it­ively.

The Sen­ate is ex­pec­ted to take a ma­jor step for­ward on re­form­ing the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s sur­veil­lance pro­grams. Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy is likely to in­tro­duce a beefed up ver­sion of the USA Free­dom Act early this week that has largely earned the back­ing of pri­vacy ad­voc­ates and the bless­ing of the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

A ver­sion of the Free­dom Act, which would end bulk col­lec­tion of do­mest­ic phone re­cords, passed the House in May, but not be­fore el­ev­enth-hour ne­go­ti­ations promp­ted some tech com­pan­ies and pri­vacy ad­voc­ates to drop their sup­port. The Sen­ate lan­guage be­ing passed around late last week in­cluded enough ad­di­tion­al pri­vacy and trans­par­ency safe­guards to sat­is­fy many of those stake­hold­ers. Aides said the bill may go straight to the floor for con­sid­er­a­tion, but a timetable is still in flux.

WHITE HOUSE

Obama will spend much of this week at the White House, leav­ing town only Tues­day even­ing and Wed­nes­day when he will go to Kan­sas City, Mo., to talk on the eco­nomy and raise money for the Demo­crats.

On Monday, he will speak to a sum­mit for Young Afric­an Lead­ers as part of the buildup to next week’s Afric­an Lead­ers sum­mit at the State De­part­ment.

On Thursday he will give a speech at the Hous­ing and Urb­an Af­fairs De­part­ment and host a White House event for the Spe­cial Olympics.

George E. Condon Jr., Dustin Volz, Brendan Sasso, Jason Plautz, Sophie Novack and Stacy Kaper contributed to this article.
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