Pipeline Politics Dominate Pre-Thanksgiving Action in Congress
Storm clouds brew over spending bill to keep government open, promised immigration action.
With Congress's turkey-week break just days away, the Senate enters this second week of a lame-duck session set to decide on bringing the Keystone XL pipeline closer to reality. Meanwhile, storm clouds brew in both chambers over a spending bill and President Obama's promised action to protect immigrants from deportation.
After the House passed a measure authorizing completion of the Keystone XL pipeline on Friday with 31 Democrats and all but one Republican signing on, the Senate will take up the legislation Tuesday. Some drama exists over whether it will pass.
The Senate may also vote as soon as Tuesday on a bill to curtail the government's most controversial domestic-surveillance program. Majority Leader Harry Reid unexpectedly filed cloture last week on the USA Freedom Act, a bill sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy that would effectively end the National Security Agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone metadata.
The rest of this pre-Thanksgiving week's floor activity includes House action on three GOP messaging bills tied to the Environmental Protection Agency, including one to address so-called secret science by blocking regulations unless data is made public. There's also a Senate vote on a House-revised version of a child care and development block-grant bill, and action is expected on executive and judicial nominations.
Lawmakers in both chambers will also continue to focus on ISIS, as they grapple over a potential new Authorization for Use of Military Force and the administration's request for an additional $5.6 billion in war funds. Congress also will hold a series of hearings this week on the Ebola outbreak that continues to ravage West Africa.
And Republicans will continue to angle over a response to Obama's anticipated unilateral action on immigration. Potential strategies include everything from filing a separate lawsuit over the president's authority to prevent deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants to attaching language to a must-pass spending bill due by Dec. 11 that would block such executive action.
In the House, simmering internal tensions within the Democratic Caucus also are to come to a head on Tuesday and Wednesday, in closed-door voting for party leaders. Neither Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi nor any of her top lieutenants are being directly challenged—despite the party's Election Day drubbing at the polls.
But a race for one ranking-member seat on a committee—to succeed retiring Rep. Henry Waxman on the Energy and Commerce Committee—has erupted into sort of a proxy race to gauge the extent of Pelosi's continued influence. That race pits Rep. Anna Eshoo, the choice of fellow Californian Pelosi, against Rep. Frank Pallone, who boasts committee seniority and the backing of Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. Both claim confidence they will win support from a majority of their fellow House democrats.
Meanwhile, for Keystone to pass in the Senate, proponents will need to attract 15 Democrats to their side (all 45 Senate Republicans have pledged to support the measure). And they appear to be close. The 14 Democrats have indicated that they will support the Keystone bill. And Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is leading her conference's efforts to pass the measure, said Thursday that she was sure they would have the votes.
If the bill does not pass on Tuesday, the new Republican majority expects to take it up early next year, when far fewer Democratic crossovers will be needed and passage appears likely.
Along with other action on a House-revised version of the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, which the upper chamber approved earlier this year, the rest of the week will be dominated by executive and judicial nominations. Those are to include the nominations of Leslie Abrams and Eleanor Ross for judgeships in Georgia, who were selected as part of a deal with Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia alongside controversial nominees Michael Boggs and Mark Cohen.
Focus on ISIS
On Wednesday, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hear from a handful of outside experts, including former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, on where U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria should be headed.
The committee's Senate counterpart—the Foreign Relations Committee—is also planning to hold a hearing on the fight against ISIS Wednesday. Sen. Robert Menendez, the committee's chairman, has said that his panel will work on an AUMF.
But whether or not a bill will ever make it to a final vote is unclear. The administration has said that it wants the proposal to come from Congress. House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, said that he wants the legislation to come from the White House.
Also on the foreign policy front, Iran is back in the spotlight as the Nov. 24 deadline for an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 over its nuclear program draws closer. Lawmakers on two Foreign Affairs subcommittees are looking into what a potential deal could mean for international security, and if the United States is potentially negotiating a bad deal.
But it's increasingly unclear if a deal can be reached by the self-imposed deadline. Officials have expressed doubt and floated that an additional extension of the talks is possible. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters Wednesday in Jordan that "the question now is whether Iran will make the choices required to close the final gaps and provide assurances that they can't develop and won't develop a nuclear weapon."
And lawmakers on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee will continue its months-long investigation into the scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs Department. Members will look into the department's long-standing IT problems, and if they are tied to how long veterans wait for an appointment or if they make it easier to manipulate data.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on on-the-ground efforts to combat the Ebola epidemic, with officials from aid organizations including Doctors Without Borders, Africare, and International Medical Corps testifying.
Later the same day, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is to hold a hearing on the U.S. response to the outbreak, with testimony from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden; Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary for Preparedness and Response Nicole Lurie; and acting Deputy Surgeon General Boris Lushniak. The same committee is to hold a hearing Wednesday on "medical product development" in the wake of the Ebola crisis; witnesses have not yet been announced.
Also Wednesday, Congress will focus on Obamacare enrollment, following the start of the second open-enrollment period Saturday. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on HealthCare.gov, with the White House's former Chief Technology Officer Todd Park testifying. Lawmakers plan to question Park on the "debacle" of the website, which was largely dysfunctional at the start of open enrollment last year, but officials are confident it will work far more smoothly this time around.
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