Congress Tries to Cram in Border Response, VA Reforms Before Summer Recess
Hurdles remain before legislators leave for the summer.
With the start of their summer recess later this week tantalizing lawmakers, Congress has a crammed getaway agenda—from dealing with the border crisis, to finalizing a patch for the Highway Trust Fund, to suing President Obama.
There also is optimism—but not necessarily confidence—that a House and Senate conference agreement can finally be reached on reforming the embattled Veterans Affairs Department.
Both chambers have Thursday scheduled as their final legislative day before the break, which will extend through August and into early September, providing a key period of campaigning in a midterm election year.
But neither the House nor the Senate wants to face any backlash for not first doing something to deal with the surge of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Yet, with the clock ticking, the two chambers remain on separate tracks regarding how to respond to Obama's request for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with the problems.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski of Maryland has unveiled a supplemental funding bill totaling $3.57 billion that would give the president $1 billion less than he sought to address the surge of some 60,000 children from Central America across the southern border. A floor vote could come this week.
Among House Republicans, there appear to be significant hurdles to unifying behind one approach.
GOP leaders are expected on Monday to come up with a scaled-back plan that could provide less than $1 billion for the crisis, geared to specific spending like deploying the National Guard to the border and returning children to their home countries by plane.
But some conservatives might oppose even this lower level of new spending and force GOP leaders to turn to Democrats to get the measure passed. It all represents a first real legislative test for Majority Leader-elect Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip-elect Steve Scalise, who have to decide between making deals with Democrats or not passing a bill—and causing considerable embarrassment for the new leadership team.
Against this already combustible backdrop, House Republicans also have set a Rules Committee hearing for Tuesday to establish procedures for a floor vote later in the week on a resolution authorizing Speaker John Boehner to launch a lawsuit against Obama over his executive actions.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have reached an agreement that would provide for the House-passed highway-fund patch to clear the floor. A vote is expected by midweek, said a senior Democratic Senate aide.
The deal provides for votes on amendments from Republican Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Mike Lee of Utah, as well as from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. There will also be another vote on an amendment from Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee.
Senate aides expect the House version of the bill will pass and make it to the president's desk. The nearly $11 billion bill shores up the trust fund through May and is paid for through a process known as pension smoothing, which allows companies to contribute less to pension funds, thus increasing their tax bill. Outside groups criticize the pay-for as a gimmick in part because in the long run, smoothing ends up costing the government.
There will also be a cloture vote on the Bring Jobs Home Act, a political-messaging bill cosponsored by Democratic Sen. John Walsh of Montana, who faces plagiarism allegations after a New York Times article showed he improperly used the work of other authors in his master's thesis. The bill, which would give businesses a 20 percent tax credit for bringing jobs into the U.S. and deny them a credit for leaving the country, is not expected to get cloture, the Democratic aide said.
On Tuesday, the Foreign Relations Committee is holding a hearing on the status of the nuclear arms talks with Iran, with testimony from Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen. The committee is also considering the nomination of John Tefft to be ambassador to Russia. The hearing comes as U.S. relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia smolder after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
On Monday, the Senate will vote on the nominations of Pamela Harris to be a judge on the 4th Circuit; Joseph Mohorovic to be commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission; Elliot Kaye to be chairman of the CPSC; and Brian McKeon to be a principal deputy Defense undersecretary.
Here's what else Congress is planning to do this week:
The state of legislation to reform the Veterans Affairs Department in an attempt to stamp out preventable veteran deaths appeared stalled after a lot of drama last week. But on Friday aides to the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs committee chairmen—independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida—said negotiations were back on track.
Miller said late last week that the conference committee would meet again Monday to discuss a path forward and that he expects to have a conference report on the president's desk before Congress leaves town on Thursday.
Last week Sanders and Miller each proffered revisions to the VA legislation, which is intended to reduce wait times for health care, hold VA officials more accountable, and ensure that veterans receive timely access to care, even if it means going outside the VA.
But the two sides have been at loggerheads over how to treat a late-breaking request by the VA for $17.6 billion in additional funds and have struggled with how—and how much—to contain costs of the legislation.
On Thursday talks between the two lawmakers had devolved into a public pissing match, with Miller trying to hold his own conference committee meeting and Sanders taking to the Senate floor to insinuate that Miller's negotiating tactics were less mature than those of a sixth-grader. Late Thursday the two apparently had a "productive" conversation and were supposedly recommitted to trying to reach a compromise. But time is short.
The Senate is expected to easily confirm Robert McDonald to be the next VA secretary before it adjourns for recess.
Also this week the House Foreign Affairs Committee digs into the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner and the crisis in the Ukraine with a joint subcommittee hearing Tuesday morning, followed by an afternoon hearing on Iran nuclear negotiations.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also explores Iran negotiations with a hearing Tuesday.
On Wednesday the House Armed Services Committee looks into security concerns in Afghanistan.
While the Environmental Protection Agency holds four public hearings on its rule to slash carbon emissions from existing power plants, Republicans are preparing their counterprogramming. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power holds a Tuesday hearing on how the Clean Power Plan could affect the electric grid, while the House Science Committee will meet Wednesday to talk about the plan in a hearing subtitled "Failure by Design."
On the Senate side, McConnell has vowed to speak at EPA's public hearing in Washington and will hold a press conference on his testimony. Expect other congressional opponents and supporters of the rule to speak out as well.
Two Senate committees will tackle the costs and impacts of climate change this week, starting with a Budget Committee hearing on how extreme weather impacts the federal budget. Chairman Patty Murray of Washington has warned in the past that climate change has led to rising emergency spending.
Also Tuesday, the Environment and Public Works Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the threats of climate change, including testimony from the commissioner of Florida's Broward County.
And the Senate Commerce Oceans Subcommittee will hold a hearing Tuesday following up on the Restore Act, the bill passed to help the Gulf Coast recover from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The hearing will in particular look at how a trust fund established under the act is being distributed and used by states, which have said they would like the money to flow faster.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will use the final week before the recess to continue hearings on the Affordable Care Act. On Monday, the Health Subcommittee will hold a hearing entitled "Protecting Americans from Illegal Bailouts and Plan Cancellations Under the President's Health Care Law." The hearing will address the ACA's risk-corridors program and the ability of individuals to keep their group health plans, and will feature witnesses from the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and Georgetown University.
On Thursday, Energy and Commerce's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will hear updates on the law's implementation from officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Government Accountability Office. GAO is expected to issue a new report the same day on the issues facing HealthCare.govat its launch last fall and the costs related to repairing the site and building the back end of the system.
The House is expected to vote this week on the resolution authorizing Boehner's lawsuit against Obama over delays to the ACA's employer mandate last year. The House Rules Committee approved the resolution on a 7-4 vote along party lines last week.
The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on unauthorized third-party charges on consumers' cell-phone bills. The Federal Trade Commission recently sued T-Mobile for failing to stop the practice, known as "cramming."
Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, will hold a press conference Tuesday to release a GAO report on data caps. Eshoo has warned that the caps, which are primarily used by cell-phone carriers but also in some cases wireline Internet providers, could confuse consumers or be used anticompetitively.
The Senate is expected to take a major step forward on reforming the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy is likely to introduce a beefed up version of the USA Freedom Act early this week that has largely earned the backing of privacy advocates and the blessing of the administration.
A version of the Freedom Act, which would end bulk collection of domestic phone records, passed the House in May, but not before eleventh-hour negotiations prompted some tech companies and privacy advocates to drop their support. The Senate language being passed around late last week included enough additional privacy and transparency safeguards to satisfy many of those stakeholders. Aides said the bill may go straight to the floor for consideration, but a timetable is still in flux.
Obama will spend much of this week at the White House, leaving town only Tuesday evening and Wednesday when he will go to Kansas City, Mo., to talk on the economy and raise money for the Democrats.
On Monday, he will speak to a summit for Young African Leaders as part of the buildup to next week's African Leaders summit at the State Department.
On Thursday he will give a speech at the Housing and Urban Affairs Department and host a White House event for the Special Olympics.
Stacy Kaper, Sophie Novack, Jason Plautz, Brendan Sasso, Dustin Volz, and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.
This article appears in the July 28, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.