Pressure Mounts Over VA, Prisoner Swap, and Highway Funding

 The House Armed Services Committee Wednesday will hold a hearing at which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is scheduled to appear. The House Armed Services Committee Wednesday will hold a hearing at which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is scheduled to appear. Defense Department

Congress heads into more turbulence this week with controversies over the Veterans Affairs Department, the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap, and a looming highway-funding crisis all coming to the fore.

Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders and Sen. John McCain are ironing out a plan to address delays in care at VA medical centers, and once they agree on the details their bill is expected to be hotlined toward a floor vote.

Both the Senate and House Armed Services committees will dig into the debate surrounding the Bergdahl release in exchange for five senior Taliban detainees. The Senate panel gets the first crack with a hearing Tuesday featuring testimony from Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work and several other Pentagon officials. The House committee follows suit on Wednesday with a hearing at which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is scheduled to appear.

Meanwhile, a House and Senate standoff seems imminent as leaders in each chamber push radically different plans for replenishing—at least for a few months—the nation's Highway Trust Fund. It is projected to go dry by early August at the height of the construction season, potentially halting thousands of infrastructure projects—and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden says "failure is not an option." But Senate Democrats are already dismissing the House GOP's plan that involves finding money by cutting back Postal Service deliveries on Saturdays. Members of Wyden's panel are to discuss their preferred short-term and longer-term options this week. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor counters that "a lot of misinformation" is circulating about the Postal Service idea.

Here's what else Congress is up to this week:

  • The House on Monday evening is to begin debating a list of amendments to its version of the fiscal 2015 Transportation/Housing and Urban Development funding bill, with a final vote on the bill possible by late Tuesday. A final vote is also expected later in the week on the House's Agriculture appropriations bill.
  • The House Foreign Affairs Committee is to hold a hearing Tuesday on challenges in confirming Iran's nuclear compliance, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a Thursday hearing on the implications of a nuclear deal with Iran.
  • The House is to vote this week on three more tax-credit extenders. Those items would make permanent small-business expensing at 2013 levels and would address two provisions in the tax code for S corporations.
  • The Senate on Monday will cast procedural votes for M. Hannah Lauck to be a U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Virginia; Leo Sorokin to be a U.S. district judge in Massachusetts; and Richard Franklin Boulware II to be a U.S. district judge in Nevada.
  • Two Senate committees are holding hearings Wednesday on the nomination of Shaun Donovan to be director of the Office of Management and Budget.
  • The Senate might take up a student-loan bill that forms a part of the Democratic caucus's election-year-themed agenda. The bill would allow college graduates with high outstanding student-loan rates to refinance at 3.86 percent, the level set for some government-backed loans in last summer's legislation. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's bill pays for the cost to the government by enacting a tax on millionaires.


House Leads

House Appropriations Committee leaders late last week still weren't sure how many amendments to the $52 billion Transportation/Housing and Urban Development funding bill might be taken up under the open floor rule. There could be dozens.

Passage of the bill is anticipated, though last year the 2014 version of the so-called THUD bill was pulled from the floor due to lack of support. Later in the week, the House is to take up the $20.9 billion Agriculture funding bill.

That will bring to five the number of annual spending bills finalized in the House, out of 12 that need to be completed for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. In addition, the House Appropriations Committee is expected to hold full markups of the Defense and Homeland Security appropriations bills on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Senate has yet to bring any of its versions of the 12 annual spending bills to the floor, and none are on the floor agenda this week. But appropriators there will continue their markups, taking up what could be the most divisive measure in the Labor/Health and Human Services bill this week. Majority Leader Harry Reid and Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski have set aside two weeks later this month and two weeks in July for floor consideration of the spending bills.

But with the summertime recesses ahead, there is reason to doubt that two-chamber agreements on all 12 bills can be reached before Oct. 1. Lawmakers may have to again adopt an omnibus or continuing resolution to keep some government agencies and programs funded until some later date, most likely in a lame-duck session after the Nov. 4 election.


More VA Scrutiny

The agreement announced last week between Sanders and McCain on VA reform would expand veterans' access to private doctors, community health care facilities, and Defense Department medical facilities.

It would seek to provide better accountability at the beleaguered Veterans Affairs Department by allowing for the immediate firing of senior managers, but as a check on that authority there would be an expedited appeals process. The deal also includes money for hiring new medical personnel, and would clear the VA to lease 26 new facilities to expand access to care.

Meanwhile, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee plans to keep pressure on the brewing scandal with a hearing Monday on VA access to health care and records falsification with officials from the VA inspector general's office, the Government Accountability Office, and the VA.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's planned Thursday hearing on the implications of a nuclear deal with Iran comes after a bipartisan group of senators had called for stricter sanctions against the Islamic Republic, which Reid ultimately blocked from consideration because of the White House's contrary view of the proposed measures.

On Monday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on border security. This comes as the immigration overhaul legislation that passed the Senate remains stalled in the House. Cantor did not include any mention of the bill in a memo Friday on the House's June agenda.

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