A Catch-All Package of Spending Bills Is Looking More Likely

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Cliff Owen/AP File Photo

The unfinished work of this Congress is piling up with no more than 20 scheduled legislative days before the annual August recess, and standoffs over economic issues and other matters are continuing to vex lawmakers as they return to session this week.

More time and focus is likely to be stolen from this important stretch run of a midterm election year by the revved-up divisiveness in recent days between President Obama and congressional Republicans.

The added tensions include Obama's claim that House inaction will prompt him to unilaterally enact changes to the country's immigration system, Speaker John Boehner's intention to sue over Obama's use of executive actions to get around congressional approval, and House Republican suggestions that they will not "rubber-stamp" the president's war-funding request.

Meanwhile, the administration and many congressional Democrats continue to warn that a crisis looms unless action is taken to prevent the Highway Trust Fund from going broke by the end of August, halting transportation projects at the height of construction season. But many Republicans and conservative groups dispute the level of seriousness.

Also this week, House and Senate conferees continue trying to resolve differences on a bill to reform the beleaguered Veterans Affairs Department. In addition, the two chambers remain out of sync on measures to renew dozens of expired tax provisions, and most of the appropriations bills needed to fund the government after Oct. 1 still need action.

Some lawmakers insist there is also an urgent need to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank before its charter expires Sept. 30. But many conservatives say they'd rather shut down, or significantly reform, the institution that provides loans and credit insurance to foreign buyers of U.S. products.

This is not to say lawmakers will be sitting idle when the Senate returns to session on Monday and the House on Tuesday.

The Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on a motion to end debate on the Bipartisan Sportsmen's Act of 2014 sponsored by Democrat Kay Hagan, who is in a heated race for reelection in North Carolina against Republican Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House. The bill includes measures that would give the Interior secretary authority to issue electronic duck stamps to the states as well as a provision allowing importation of legally hunted polar bears.

Also Monday, the Senate is to vote on the nomination of Cheryl Krause to be U.S. circuit judge.

The House is to take up a spate of bills Tuesday under suspension of the rules, including measures to set antiterrorism standards at chemical facilities and to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

On Wednesday the House is scheduled to vote on a bipartisan, bicameral Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

With Congress expected to adjourn for the midterms in early October, the weeks leading up to the August recess are likely to determine how much work will ultimately be put off by way of extenders, patches, or other temporary bills until a postelection lame-duck session. In other words, the forecast for the rest of July is extreme heat.

BUDGET and FINANCE

Approps Crawl

Expect more talk this week about the development of an omnibus appropriations bill or at least a continuing resolution to keep the government operating when fiscal 2015 begins Oct. 1, since it appears unlikely either chamber will finish all 12 annual spending bills by then, much less be able to reach bicameral agreement on them. Extensions of current funding levels for most agencies will likely be adopted until a longer-term approach can be found, probably in the lame-duck session.

Even if the House acts this week or next on two appropriations bills—Energy and Water, and Financial Services—it still has five other spending bills to bring to the floor.

The Senate, meanwhile, has yet to pass any of the annual spending bills. Majority Leader Harry Reid blocked off two weeks in July for floor consideration of the measures but the process stalled over amendments last month.

Before the July Fourth holiday, Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski said senators were taking a break from trying to unknot the partisan holdup but were not giving up. The Senate failed to reach an agreement over amendments on a three-in-one spending bill last month. That "minibus" would have funded Transportation, Housing and Urban Development; Commerce, Justice, Science; and Agriculture, as well as other agencies, including NASA.

On another issue, the House Rules Committee could meet this week to set floor procedures for a vote on a "Bonus Depreciation" bill, the latest in a series of that chamber's tax-extension measures.

DEFENSE and NATIONAL SECURITY

VA Talks

Lawmakers involved in the conference negotiations over Veterans Affairs reforms are still working to contain costs and have been consulting with the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Republicans have raised questions about the legitimacy of estimates that the legislation could cost as much as $50 billion a year.

No formal public meetings have been scheduled and the real negotiating is expected to take place largely behind the scenes.

Meantime, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee is continuing its probe of challenges facing the VA with a hearing Tuesday on whistle-blowers and another Thursday on veterans' access to mental health care.

The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee is working to schedule a confirmation hearing for Robert McDonald, the former corporate executive who is Obama's pick to be the next VA secretary. Chairman Bernie Sanders expects to receive McDonald's formal nomination from the White House this week and hopes to meet with nominee to discuss how he would lead the department.

Lawmakers also remain focused on monitoring the situation in Iraq. The Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday is to hold a closed-door hearing on the state of play in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also in the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee debates European energy security in a hearing Tuesday. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is to hold a hearing Wednesday on the challenges facing the U.S. along the southern border.

In the House, the Foreign Affairs Committee digs into human-rights issues in Southeast Asia in a hearing on Wednesday. The Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday will hold a hearing to examine whether new administration policies regarding more-open embassy construction and designs are putting Americans overseas in danger.

Read more on National Journal. 

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