The Final Goal of the 113th Congress: Keep the Government Open

Architect of the Capitol

Lawmakers scrambling to conclude the 113th Congress face a daunting list of unfinished lame-duck business this week, chiefly overcoming strategic and policy-driven challenges to keep the government open beyond Thursday.

The House will vote this week on a massive appropriations bill, with Republican leaders likely to rely on Democratic votes, after struggling to compile a bill that would unify their conference and pass the Senate.

If the House passes its so-called CRomnibus—floor action is expected to occur by midweek—the Senate could take it up immediately, sending the measure to the president's desk before Thursday's deadline to fund the government.

But that will require an agreement between not only the two Senate leaders, but every member of the chamber. Democrats are concerned that lingering unease with the House Republican bill among conservative senators, most notably Sen. Ted Cruz, could force them to overcome a number of procedural hurdles before passing the bill.

The worst-case scenario: Cruz or another member objects to ending debate on the spending measure, meaning passage could take several days, pushing the funding bill past Thursday's deadline and into the weekend or perhaps the following week.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers is expected to unveil legislation Monday that will fund most of the government through September with the exception of the Department of Homeland Security, which will be funded only into February.

The short-term funding for DHS is meant to give Republicans an opportunity to obstruct President Obama's executive order that will grant work visas to millions of undocumented immigrants. But conservatives have been pressing leadership for immediate action choking off funding to implement the order. Absent that language, dozens of Republicans will defect on the bill.

Leadership "said we would fight this tooth and nail. I don't see this as tooth and nail," said Rep. Matt Salmon, who plans to vote against the bill. "The level of frustration with process right now is pretty significant. Our voters who sent us back here in a resounding way … expect us to be a little bit more forceful in our fight."

House leaders, however, say they are limited in their options and want to push the fight over the executive order into next year, when both chambers are controlled by Republicans. In order to pass the spending bill, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said she will supply the requisite votes from her caucus, so long as rest of the legislation is not objectionable.

"If the risk is to shut down government, we're just not going to be party to that," Pelosi said Friday. "If the bill is anything we can support, we will."

Left uncertain is the fate of scores of policy riders that appropriators have been negotiating. In the scope of the discussions was everything from a ban on federal funding for abortion to several Environmental Protection Agency regulations to whether the District of Columbia will be able to enact its ballot initiative legalizing marijuana.

Aside from the spending bill, lawmakers will be seeking to wrap up other important items, with a few more potential speed bumps looming.

After passing in the House last week, the National Defense Authorization Act is expected to see Senate action. That bill, which outlines broad policy and what the Defense Department can and cannot spend money on, faces potential fights on amendments and other attachments. Retiring Sen. Tom Coburn has said he will hold up the bill if extraneous public-lands provisions are left in, such as measures authorizing new National Park units, expanding wilderness areas, or creating new National Heritage Areas.

Meanwhile, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is hoping to attach a proposal to curb military sexual assaults, and other lawmakers, including Sen. Rand Paul, are hoping to bring up an Authorization for Use of Military Force proposal. Any changes to the bill would require it to be sent back to the House, and would complicate, if not kill, the compromise reached by leadership of the Armed Services committees.

Outgoing Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin has urged members to vote on the bill without amendments, and despite the potential hurdles the bill is expected to pass.

As of late last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling were closing in on a two-chamber compromise on renewing the terrorism risk-insurance program, which has been a point of contention for months. Initially enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the program is set to expire at the end of 2014, and pressure has mounted from a host of industry groups over maintaining the government's role as an insurer of last resort.

Heading into the weekend, the tentative compromise was to continue the insurance program for another six years and raise the threshold at which the federal cost-sharing for insurance kicks in to $200 million in damages from a terrorist strike.

Later in the week, the Senate is expected to also approve a tax-extenders package that was passed by the House last week.

The Senate also kicks off the week with a few additional confirmation votes on some of the president's nominees, as the upper chamber awaits instruction from the House on some of those other big-ticket items they'll need to pass before leaving Washington for the holidays.

More than 100 nominees are still awaiting Senate approval before Republicans take control of the Senate next year. Among them is the nominee to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sarah Saldaña, whose apparently easy nomination has been complicated by Obama's executive action on immigration. Given the new Republican opposition to her nomination, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could put Saldaña on the calendar this week to approve her nomination under a Democratic majority.

Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has a big week ahead of them, after a last-minute push by Paul and Democratic members of the committee forced the panel to take up an Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq and Syria.

The committee will hold a hearing on the matter early in the week, in which Republicans hope to hear from Secretary of State John Kerry, before voting on the AUMF midweek. Given the hectic floor schedule this week, it's possible, but unlikely, that the full Senate will consider the issue before the next Congress.

BUDGET and TAXES

Despite some Democratic angst on the tax-extension measure, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden and other Democrats who pushed for a longer extension now expect that the one-year measure adopted Wednesday in the House will pass easily.

The nearly $42 billion package would renew more than 50 tax breaks, many of which expired at the end of 2013, until just the end of this year. But doing so will allow businesses and individuals to use them in their upcoming tax returns for 2014 early next year.

The list of incentives is wide-ranging—from business breaks for research and development, wind production, and corporate expensing, to others like breaks for commuters and teachers and continuation of state and local sales taxes. It also renews some very narrowly tailored items that for years have been controversial—including breaks for NASCAR and other motor speedways, racehorse owners, and Puerto Rico rum production.

The one-year extension was put together after a broader deal being hashed out by Reid and Republicans, including House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, was scuttled amid a veto threat from the White House, which claimed that package was too tilted toward business and corporate interests over working-class taxpayers.

DEFENSE and NATIONAL SECURITY

The National Defense Authorization Act isn't the only defense-related topic on the agenda this week, as lawmakers plan to continue digging into the administration's strategy to combat the Islamic State. Sen. Robert Menendez, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, said that his committee will hold a hearing on an AUMF. The New Jersey Democrat has been vocal about his belief that lawmakers should debate the proposal, and suggested that the administration is being uncooperative.

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to testify Tuesday on an AUMF before the Foreign Relations Committee, with committee members expected to vote on a proposal this week. But the vote would likely be largely symbolic, with the full Senate not expected to take up the proposal before it leaves for the holiday recess. Republican leaders in both chambers have said that they want to wait until the next Congress to tackle the legislation, which sets the legal boundaries for U.S. military operations. And House Speaker John Boehner believes a draft of the proposal should first come from the White House.

A Foreign Relations subcommittee will also examine the humanitarian fallout from ISIS with officials from the State Department and and the U.S. Agency for International Development expected to testify. And on the House Side, Brett McGurk, deputy special presidential envoy for the coalition against ISIS, will brief members of the Foreign Affairs Committee on international efforts to counter the terrorist organization.

In other areas of foreign policy, members of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee will likely get the last word from this Congress on Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the United States is expected to end its combat mission later this month. Officials from the State Department and USAID are expected to testify, and lawmakers are likely to focus on the U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014 and Pakistan's role in helping to combat terrorism in the region.

The Taliban has seen a resurgence in parts of Afghanistan over the past year, and Rep. Steve Chabot said in a statement ahead of the hearing that the threat "is further exacerbated by its neighbor, Pakistan."

Meanwhile, time is running out for the effort to get veterans suicide-prevention legislation passed this year. An advocacy group, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, tried Thursday to keep up pressure on senators by delivering a petition to Reid. The group urged him to bring a bill, the Clay Hunt SAV Act, directly to the floor. But, while the House could vote on the bill Tuesday, it's unclear if, or when, the legislation would get a vote in the Senate.

Advocates had hoped the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee would take up the legislation, which was introduced last month, but with likely only one week left, members aren't currently scheduled to have a hearing.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will also try to push through another round of nominees before heading home for the holidays. Committee members will consider the nominations of Elissa Slotkin, to be assistant Defense secretary for international security affairs; Robert Scher, to be assistant Defense secretary for strategy, plans, and capabilities; David Berteau, to be assistant Defense secretary for logistics and materiel readiness; and Alissa Starzak, to be general counsel of the Department of the Army.

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