Congress has light load for State of the Union week
Congress has a fairly light legislative schedule this week as lawmakers prepare to receive President Obama's State of the Union and continue mulling what to do about healthcare legislation.
Democrats do not appear in any rush to decide how to proceed with a healthcare overhaul. They are likely to maintain that they need to take a breather to determine the best path forward and will be able to use cover from the State of the Union to turn more heavily toward a jobs agenda.
Many House Democrats favor slicing up the overhaul effort so they can work only on proposals that prove popular with the electorate and could gain bipartisan support in the Senate.
Last week, many rejected the idea of simply passing the Senate bill and making changes to it through the reconciliation process, though senators hoped House Democratic leaders could convince their Caucus otherwise.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., is working on a handful of bills that would include popular proposals like ending discrimination against pre-existing conditions, providing tax credits for coverage and allowing young adults to stay on their parents' insurance longer. He said he could begin rolling out the measures as early as this week and could have GOP support.
Any final decisions on how to proceed are unlikely in the next few days.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has indicated she did not want to hurry a decision and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., suggested Democrats take a month to think about a path forward.
Senate Democrats this week are looking to finish work on legislation that would boost the statutory debt limit by $1.9 trillion to $14.294 trillion.
They will first vote on a handful of amendments, including a proposal to create a deficit-reduction commission whose recommendations Congress would have to take up.
Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who sponsored the commission amendment with ranking member Judd Gregg, R-N.H., argues that a special process is needed to make decisions to cut spending and raise revenue that committees of jurisdiction have failed to make.
It is unclear if the amendment will win the 60 votes needed to pass. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and an array of progressive and conservative groups, would prefer the committees of jurisdiction take on the deficit in regular order.
Baucus has offered an amendment to protect Social Security from the commission. "Sens. Conrad and Gregg have painted a big, red target on Social Security and Medicare," Baucus said. "That's what this commission is all about. It's a big roll of the dice for Social Security and Medicare."
Conrad is working with Democratic leaders on a fallback plan under which President Obama would create a similar commission by executive order. Under a tentative agreement, House and Senate Democratic leaders would pledge to put the presidential panel's proposals to a vote. Without the pledge, the commission's recommendations would not have to be voted on by Congress.
Republicans are critical of the presidential commission, saying it would be toothless. "Without the statutory structure to guarantee an up-or-down vote, nothing can be accomplished," Gregg said.
The agreement is needed to ensure passage of the debt ceiling increase bill by bringing along about 14 Senate Democrats, led by Conrad, who have said they would oppose the boost unless Congress establishes a process to reduce the deficit.
As part of the tentative deal, the Senate would pass pay/go legislation to require that increases in mandatory spending and tax cuts would have to be offset. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is expected to offer the pay/go amendment.
Making pay/go a law has been a priority for House Democratic leaders, who pushed a pay/go bill through the House in July. That measure exempted four policy items: cutting middle class taxes; reducing the estate tax; patching the alternative minimum tax; and providing higher Medicare payments to physicians.
Conrad has opposed the House pay/go bill, taking exception to the exemptions, even though the Senate typically has not offset them in recent years.
The compromise under discussion would have the Senate pass a pay/go bill that limits the exemptions. The AMT and estate taxes exemptions would be limited to two years, and physicians' payments would be exempted for five years. But the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class would be exempted without a time limit.
Expected action on the debt ceiling comes as the CBO is scheduled to release its outlook for fiscal 2011.
Other possible amendments include a proposal from Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to seek cap discretionary spending to no more than a 2 percent increase a year for five years. Sessions said he plans to offer the proposal this week.
* The Senate meets Monday at 2 p.m. for morning business, then resumes consideration of debt ceiling legislation.
* The House is not in session Monday. The House meets Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. for morning hour and 2 p.m. for legislative business. Votes will be postponed until 6:30 p.m. On Wednesday the chamber meets at 10 a.m. for legislative business and will recess at 5 p.m. for a security sweep. At 8:35 p.m., the House will meet in a joint session with the Senate for the State of the Union. No votes are expected Thursday and Friday.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will meet behind closed doors on Wednesday for a Pentagon briefing on cybersecurity, an issue that is expected to take on increased importance in the Defense Department's fiscal 2011 budget request and the accompanying Quadrennial Defense Review of military requirements and capabilities.
A draft Pentagon budget document obtained by CongressDaily states the upcoming QDR will list operations in cyberspace as one of six missions critical to achieving U.S. strategic objectives. The security environment, according to the "pre-decisional" document, demands better capabilities designed to counter threats in cyberspace.
Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and James Miller, principal undersecretary of Defense for policy, are scheduled to brief the panel.
The success of efforts by Democratic leaders this year to get broad climate and energy legislation passed will largely hinge on whether they can convince moderates in both parties that it would create jobs.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold another in a series of hearings this week to try to further that argument.
Thursday's hearing stars Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and focuses on jobs that could be created through expanding the use of solar energy.
Democratic leaders have a tough climb toward reaching 60 votes for a bill similar to the one passed in the committee last year that calls for an economywide cap-and-trade program. It is unclear also how persuasive Thursday's hearing will be to the overall debate in a panel that -- other than Baucus -- does not have a strong representation of moderates in either party.
At the same time, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., are leading an effort to try to pass a resolution blocking EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. There is some fear this effort could undermine the attempt to pass broad climate legislation by this spring, as both Murkowski and Lincoln have cautioned that that timeline may be too quick to do a bill that has a deep impact on the economy.
Lawmakers will continue a series of hearings this week into government failures associated with an attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas, with an eye toward crafting legislation to improve counterterrorism programs.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee plans a hearing Tuesday to examine whether more reforms to intelligence agencies and operations are needed.
The hearing will feature testimony from former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and former New Jersey Republican Gov. Thomas Kean, who led the 9/11 Commission.
The House Homeland Security Committee plans a hearing Wednesday to examine the failed plot.
Also on Tuesday, former Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Jim Talent, R-Mo., will release a report card on the government's efforts to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
"The report card assesses U.S. government progress in such areas as the biological threat, nuclear weapons proliferation, government reform and citizen participation," according to an announcement.
Graham and Talent chair the congressionally chartered Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.
Buoyed by the victory last week of Sen.-elect Scott Brown, R-Mass., House Republicans will finish up the week with their members' issues retreat, Thursday through Saturday in Baltimore.
Obama has agreed to speak at the event on Friday, setting up a quirky circumstance of a Democratic president headlining a GOP conference with the theme of "Winning Back America."
Republicans say they chose Baltimore for their conference because it is a working-class city struggling with high unemployment. They say they will be working on solutions to fix what they describe as failed Democratic policies enacted over the last year.
Newly inaugurated Virginia GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, are expected to address lawmakers.
Tuesday is the filing deadline for House and Senate races in Kentucky, but the roster of candidates for the headline race to replace GOP Sen. Jim Bunning has been set for months.
Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo and state Attorney General Jack Conway are the top two contenders for the Democratic nomination, while Secretary of State Trey Grayson and eye surgeon Rand Paul are the big names on the GOP candidate list. No Bluegrass State House members are retiring but some might face primary challenges.
Saturday is the filing deadline in West Virginia, where there is no Senate race and all three House members are running for re-election.
Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts delivers a Wednesday morning keynote at the annual State of the Net conference that's certain to attract plenty of attention, given the company's pending merger with NBC Universal.
Also speaking that morning will be House Energy and Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher, D-Va., who heads one of the four congressional panels that will hold hearings on the deal. The event kicks off on Tuesday with a "pre-conference" featuring remarks by FCC regulators Michael Copps and Meredith Baker.
On Thursday, the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, headed by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., holds an oversight hearing on the Commerce Department's role in the $7.2 billion broadband stimulus program. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Larry Strickling, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, are scheduled to testify. The witnesses are expected to discuss changes that Commerce and the Agriculture Department have made to the program in response to congressional concerns about red tape.
Billy House, Megan Scully, Darren Goode, Chris Strohm, Erin McPike and David Hatch contributed to this report.