May 5, 2014
The Senate may be heading for some tense moments this week as a proposal to approve the Keystone XL pipeline comes to the foreground and confirmation hearings begin for President Obama’s nominee to be the next Health and Human Services secretary.
Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Obama’s nominee to replace outgoing HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, will appear Thursday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
The House, meanwhile, will hit friction of its own over a vote on whether to call upon Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special counsel to investigate the scandal at the Internal Revenue Service.
The House Rules Committee will lay out procedures Tuesday for a separate vote later in the week on a resolution to declare former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena, a move her lawyer has said would be “un-American.”
Majority Leader Eric Cantor says the vote to request special counsel stems from the Justice Department’s inaction on a referral by the Ways and Means Committee for criminal action against Lerner. But Rep. Sander Levin, the top Democrat on Ways and Means, described the move as part of the “GOP’s wild attempt from the get-go to tar the administration.”
Both votes have been set for Friday, and are scheduled under a floor procedure usually reserved for noncontroversial matters that requires approval by two-thirds of voting members for passage.
Here are some of the other items Congress will address this week:
But it’s the Keystone XL pipeline that is likely to take center stage in the Senate as lawmakers prepare to debate the bipartisan energy-efficiency bill.
The Keystone bill is significant in part because it has become such a hot election-year issue. Republicans and many conservative Democrats view the legislation as a job creator and cast the administration’s delay of the pipeline as political. Meanwhile, many liberal Democrats oppose it on environmental grounds.
Backers of the current bill, which calls for approval of the pipeline, say they have 56 sponsors and are working behind the scenes to find the four additional lawmakers they’ll need to get it to the floor. The bill has the backing of the GOP conference as well as Democrats facing election in conservative states, including Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Sponsored by Sens. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, and Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, the bill would essentially rebuke the White House, which recently decided to delay the pipeline indefinitely.
Burwell Round 1
Burwell, in addition to her appearance set for Thursday before the Senate HELP Committee, is to have a second confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee that is not yet scheduled.
Her confirmation was initially expected to be a difficult process, given the politicized nature of the HHS secretary position following the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act exchanges.
But a number of Republican senators have expressed their approval of Burwell’s nomination, and their support plus new Senate rules that require only a simple majority for confirmation mean her appointment is looking increasingly assured.
On Wednesday, current HHS officials will appear before the Senate Appropriations Committee to discuss the president’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal for the department. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, along with representatives from the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are to testify.
Authorization Revs Up
The House Armed Services Committee’s consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act, which started in subcommittee last week, marks the first steps toward the Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 budget.
Among the key issues are decisions about the Pentagon’s proposed cuts to personnel benefits and plans to cut or retire certain weapons systems and platforms such as the A-10 attack aircraft and U-2 spy planes.
At the subcommittee level, the panel rejected most of the Defense Department’s proposed cuts in personnel benefits, including reductions in health care, housing, and commissary subsidies.
But Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the committee’s ranking member, has argued that some serious defense spending cuts are necessary. He is pushing colleagues to accept some of the weapons-systems cuts, arguing the military won’t be equipped for future threats if it is prevented from modernizing.
“The worst thing [lawmakers] can do is protect program after program after program … because the first thing to go in that scenario is readiness,” Smith said in a speech last week.
The Senate Armed Services Committee is working on assembling its version of the defense authorization bill behind the scenes; the goal is to make it public later this month. The committee plans to examine military compensation issues at a hearing Tuesday with Pentagon top brass.
Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees continue their scrutiny of the destabilization of Ukraine with the Senate panel holding a hearing on countering Russian intervention Tuesday and the House panel examining the depth of the crisis Thursday.
Read more on National Journal.
Clare Foran, Sophie Novack, Stacy Kaper, and Dustin Volz contributed to this report.
May 5, 2014