Hill Agenda This Week: Keep Government Open and Arm Syrian Rebels

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This was supposed to be easier.

Come back to Washington from August recess and pass a temporary spending bill to keep government from shutting down on Oct. 1, then return home to campaign ahead of the midterm elections. That was all Congress wanted to do in September.

Instead, lawmakers eager to go home at the end of this week for the pre-Election Day stretch run must first deal with President Obama's request for authority to arm Syrian rebels. And they will also play host this week to the president of Ukraine, who will be addressing Congress on Thursday, amid the ongoing incursion of Russian forces into his country's territory.

All politics may be local, but foreign policy is now taking center stage.

There is broad—though not unanimous—support in the House and Senate for Obama's plan to aid Syrian rebels combating Islamic State militants. But whether lawmakers will include the provision he seeks in the must-pass spending bill, or take some other legislative route, remains unclear.

House Republicans began weighing the request last week, and many prefer to leave the Syria language out of the spending bill, known as a continuing resolution. The gravity of the situation necessitates it be debated separately and voted on as a matter of conscience, some Republicans say.

But a standalone bill that will focus entirely on war authority is the last thing some Democrats fighting for their majority want to weigh in on, or have on their campaign resumes. "Plan A" is to pass the CR and the war-training authority in one measure, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. "Plan B" would be a separate vote.

Combining the war vote with the CR leaves Democrats on the campaign trail some rhetorical wiggle room, the aide said. They can argue their vote was needed to keep the government open, including some money to fight a cruel and dangerous enemy, the thinking goes. But political opponents could wield an entirely separate vote to their own advantage, the aide said.

Meanwhile, the administration will not be just a bystander in this debate.

A handful of top administration officials are headed to Capitol Hill this week to explain—and defend—the plan to take on ISIS.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are to appear Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss what threat the terrorist organization poses. Hagel is also expected to travel across the Hill Thursday to the House Armed Services Committee to defend the administration's proposal to defeat ISIS. Its chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, wants to embed special operations forces with Sunni tribes in Iraq.

"There is no way around it, American boots will be standing on sand," McKeon said during an American Enterprise Institute speech Thursday. "Americans will be shot at, and they will be shooting back. There is simply no other way to do this."

Secretary of State John Kerry—who drew attention this week for saying the U.S.'s ISIS plan is a "very significant counterterrorism operation," not a war—will also make back-to-back appearances on the Hill. The secretary is set to talk about the administration's response to ISIS with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday afternoon. He will meet with its House counterpart, the Foreign Affairs Committee, on Thursday.

On the domestic front, FBI Director James Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will appear before the House Homeland Security Committee Wednesday to discuss threats to the homeland. ISIS will likely dominate that hearing, with lawmakers concerned that members of the terrorist organization could come to the United States to carry out an attack. Committee members are also expected to ask about al-Qaida branches in Yemen and Somalia, as well as the threat posed by homegrown terrorists.

Even before much of this, House Republicans expect to hold a Rules Committee hearing Monday on the procedural way forward on the Syria authority language and the CR—whether they are the same legislative vehicle or not—and a vote or votes could come as early as Wednesday.

But a wrap-up of the House's activities won't occur before Thursday, when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is expected to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress. The speech comes as the White House, along with the European Union, released a new set of financial, energy, and defense sanctions against Russia.

The Senate could then leave town, having passed the CR and the Syria language by Thursday, said a senior Democratic aide.

Still, there is some tension even among Democrats about granting the president the authority he seeks. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut called on Congress to vote on an authorization for the use of military force to confront ISIS—a broader legislative action that goes beyond what the White House is seeking.

"There is no viable excuse for Congress to abdicate its constitutional responsibility to authorize war," Murphy said.

It's also unclear how Senate Republicans would vote on the measure or measures and whether they might slow down the process.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky signaled there would be no drama over the measure funding the government, but Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said last week he favors using any means—including the CR—to prevent Obama from issuing an executive order granting illegal immigrants legal status. (The White House has put that off until after the election.)

And some Republicans object to the president's approach to ISIS as well. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, suggested he has problems with the president's request.

"I believe the president is exercising poor judgment by not explicitly seeking an authorization from Congress where consensus can be reached around a substantive plan of action and support can be built for an operation that he has described will take several years," Corker said last week.

However the military language is handled, Congress is expected to include in the CR a temporary reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank this week, as well as an extension of moratorium on Internet taxes. As introduced last week in the House, the CR would fund government through Dec. 11, and also carry these and other extensions.

The bank's renewal in the bill would run until June 2015. That is not what House conservatives who want the bank shut down prefer, nor is it the years-long renewal that many Democrats want.

But both sides appear ready to accept a nine-month extension. If House Republicans stick to such a short extension for the bank in a spending bill that also includes Syria language, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander Levin said of House Democrats, "We'll probably have to take it."

There are a few other items to address this week, as well, including some campaign-messaging maneuverings in the form of legislation.

For instance, the House will revive several previously passed bills on energy issues in a messaging bid to send what Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called a "single, common-sense energy plan" to the Senate. So, too, will the House pick up its messaging on jobs, including action on the Jobs for America Act.

Among the legislation will be bills to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, expedite exports of liquefied natural gas, lower barriers for hydraulic fracturing, and streamline offshore drilling. It's unlikely the bills would have much of a chance in the Senate on their second go-round.

On Monday, the Senate will vote once again on a key piece of the Democratic election-year agenda. Democrats expect Republicans to block the Paycheck Fairness Act.

The Senate will also vote Monday on the nominations of Jeffrey Baran and Stephen Burns to be members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Here's what else Congress will be doing:

DEFENSE and NATIONAL SECURITY

Lawmakers will continue to focus on the embattled Veterans Affairs Department. Members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee will dig into a final report from the VA Office of Inspector General on the scandal surrounding the department's medical facility in Phoenix.

Lawmakers are sure to ask Richard Griffin, the acting inspector general, about allegations that his office allowed the VA to influence the findings of the report, including that inspectors could not "conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths" of roughly 40 veterans. VA Secretary Robert McDonald will also testify at the hearing.

WHITE HOUSE

President Obama will travel south this week before returning to Washington to host Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko in a highly anticipated visit.

Obama will begin by awarding the Medal of Honor to two Vietnam veterans in a Mondayceremony at the White House and then will raise money for Democratic candidates at an event in D.C. that evening. 

Tuesday will see the president flying to Atlanta to be briefed at the CDC on the Ebola outbreak in Africa. On Wednesday, he'll tour the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., before returning to Washington to join members of Congress at the annual summer picnic at the White House.

On Thursday, Obama will host Poroshenko at the White House, where the two leaders will discuss efforts to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the face-off with Russia in eastern Ukraine. And on Friday, the president will participate in the Democratic National Committee's Women's Leadership Forum in Washington.

Read more on National Journal

Sophie Novak, Jordain Carey, Jason Plautz, Ben Geman, and Brendan Sasso contributed to this article.

(Image via mj007 / Shutterstock.com)

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