Tensions Mount Over Spending Bills as Congress Nears July 4 Homestretch

Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com

Lawmakers head toward their Independence Day recess at week's end still in search of a solution to a looming highway funding crisis, dealing with growing tension over government spending bills due on Oct. 1and debate over how this nation should address developments in Iraq.

House and Senate conferees will also be working this week on legislation to reduce veterans' wait times for health care and stop a rash of preventable veterans' deaths—facing pressure to hammer out compromise legislation and get a bill to the president's desk.

The chairmen of the two Veterans Affairs' committees, Republican Rep. Jeff Miller and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, met Thursday and conference committee staff were scheduled to meet Friday, but the conferees themselves are not due to meet for the first time until Tuesday.

Meanwhile, even though the calendar is flipping closer to the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, the Senate is likely to spend the week on nominations and possibly a bipartisan labor bill that cleared the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, as well as a bipartisan sportsmen's bill.

This, after a three-in-one government appropriations bill for fiscal 2015—cobbled together by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski and ranking member Richard Shelby—hit a brick wall last week.

That was the first effort in the Senate at bringing spending bills to the floor. But that package was unable to survive the meat grinder that the amendments process on the floor has become, casting further in doubt the ultimate path of the appropriations process this year.

The House has passed five of its versions of the 12 annual spending measures. But this week, Republicans who control the House will focus floor action on a handful of red-meat energy-related proposals, including one measure to expand offshore drilling and speed up development of drilling in Alaska.

A floor vote also is planned on reauthorization of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. But controversy is afoot, because Republicans say their measure does not just reauthorize the commission, but brings relief from what they complain have been its overly burdensome rules.

Lawmakers also are continuing to monitor and debate how President Obama should handle the situation in Iraq. And U.S. policy on Iraq could come up Wednesday, when the House Foreign Affairs Committee delves into the Afghanistan transition, which no policymaker wants to see become another Iraq.

Here's what else lawmakers are to take up this week:

  • The lost e-mails sent or received by Lois Lerner, the former Internal Revenue Service official at the center of conflict over the agency's treatment of conservative groups, is to be the focus of a night hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is to testify. The committee also has invited an official from the Office of the White House Counsel to testify during a second part of the hearing.
  • The Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday will mark up the nomination of Shaun Donovan to head the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Senators on Tuesday will vote on cloture on the nomination of Leon Rodriguez to be director of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
  • A bill to bar so-called secret science is to be taken up Tuesday by the House Science Committee. The bill requires the Environmental Protection Agency to publicize its data and studies.
  • Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., will join House and Senate leaders in a ceremony Tuesday in the Capitol rotunda to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. During the ceremony, the leaders will also present a Congressional Gold Medal in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife.
  • The Senate on Monday will vote on Paul Byron to be district judge for the Middle District of Florida; Carlo Mendoza to be district judge for the Middle District of Florida; Beth Bloom to be district judge for the Southern District of Florida; and Geoffrey Crawford to be district judge for the District of Vermont. If cloture is invoked on any of those nominations, the Senate will vote on their confirmation on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday is to mark up a child-abduction bill along with the nominations of several key ambassadorships, including Egypt and Qatar.
  • The Senate may also consider a sportsmen's bill from Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, which has the backing of a number of Republicans, including Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The bill contains a number of provisions, including allowing for electronic issuance of federal duck stamps and reimportation of legally hunted polar bears.
  • The Workforce Investment Act, an authorization that expired in 2003, could also make it to the Senate floor this week. The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Tom Harkin and Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Lamar Alexander, updates legislation that provides vocational training. The bill includes a measure that gives states and local workforce agencies more control over their programs.

Meanwhile, both the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees are working to find a way to replenish the highway fund for at least another 9 to 12 months. But no solution is likely to be reached until Congress returns to Washington the second week of July.

The fund is expected to go broke at the end of September, which threatens to disrupt hundreds of highway-construction projects across the United States. Lawmakers will have to find at least $12 billion to keep the fund solvent. But action on that—and decisions on other bills facing looming deadlines, are stacking up. And time is running out this mid-term election year.

After returning to Washington in the second week of July, lawmakers will have just 28 scheduled legislative days left before the Nov. 4 elections. They plan to take the entire month of August off, half of September, and all but two days of October.

Read more about Congress' agenda this week on National Journal

(Image via Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com)

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