Spending, Immigration, and Tax Fights Will Dominate Final Days of 113th Congress
A standoff over how or whether to defund President Obama's executive order lies ahead before lawmakers adjourn.
Lawmakers reconvene Monday for the final two weeks of the 113th Congress, with some Republicans clamoring to use the power of the purse to block President Obama's executive action on immigration and Democrats warning that such a strategy could lead to another government shutdown.
House and Senate appropriators this week will work to finalize details on a so-called omnibus measure tying together all 12 annual spending bills in a package lasting until next Sept. 30, the start of a new fiscal year. They face a Dec. 11 deadline for passage of such a measure, because that's when a temporary bill that has been keeping government funded and operating expires.
But smooth sailing in these final days of the postelection lame-duck session appears anything but certain, given Republicans' anger over Obama's announcement earlier this month that he will take action to shield up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.
There is a contentious push to pass at least some of the 12 spending bills through a separate, shorter continuing resolution lasting only until mid-February—dubbed a "CRomnibus" strategy. The idea is to leave open for the new Congress—in which Republicans will control both the Senate and the House—a chance to handcuff Obama's immigration plans.
That talk continues even as disagreement remains within the GOP over whether there any budgetary avenues are available for such congressional maneuvering. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky has said the primary agency for implementing Obama's executive order, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is almost entirely self-funded through fees it collects and cannot be defunded by lawmakers. But a Congressional Research Service report requested by Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions of Alabama suggests that Congress could still block such funding, although such an action might have to be executed on an authorization bill rather than an appropriations measure.
The House Homeland Security Committee is to meet Tuesday in a hearing focused on how administrative action could affect border security, with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson set to testify. Later in the day, the House Judiciary Committee is to hold a titled "President Obama's Executive Overreach on Immigration."
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has promised to introduce a bill authorizing the use of military force against the Islamic State. The legislation would also end the current authorization for military force in Iraq and would set an expiration date for the authorization covering military actions in Afghanistan of one year after the bill is signed by the president. It is unlikely that Congress will agree to such an authorization in the final days of a lame-duck session, but lawmakers still have to sign off on a funding request from the Pentagon to train and equip Syrian rebels.
Other unfinished business includes action on the National Defense Authorization Act. The House passed a version of the legislation earlier this year, but the Senate Armed Services Committee has yet to bring its bill, which must clear the upper chamber before the end of the year, to the floor.
Also heading into next week, the fate of dozens of expired or soon-to-expire tax breaks remains uncertain. The White House on Tuesday threatened a presidential veto on a roughly $450 billion, 10-year plan that aides to Majority Leader Harry Reid were devising with House Republicans. The administration and other congressional Democrats say the plan is too skewed toward making permanent corporate and other business provisions, without similarly addressing tax credits for the middle class and working families.
More certain will be action on the Senate floor regarding several nominations, as early as Monday night. Among those set to be included are Obama's picks for ambassadors to Hungary and Argentina, both of whom have made some embarrassing gaffes regarding the countries they would be living in.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on Tuesday to consider several nominees for assistant secretary positions at the Defense Department, just a week after Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his resignation.
The week's activities in Washington are to be punctuated with Saturday's Senate election runoff in Louisiana, pitting against each other Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Bill Cassidy; and two House races—including the contest for Cassidy's seat that features former Gov. and ex-convict Edwin Edwards and Garret Graves, a Republican who worked as an adviser to Gov. Bobby Jindal.
BUDGET and TAXES
Congressional appropriators are hoping to get their finalized omnibus spending package to top House and Senate leaders by the weekend, and then, next week, have the House take up the bill first, then the Senate.
But the calls from several House Republicans to scrap some or all of the omnibus in favor of a short-term continuing resolution are rocking the boat. Senate leaders and appropriators in both chambers have rejected the idea of using a shorter-term bill so the party can have the opportunity early next year to exact spending cuts in response to the president's executive action on immigration.
But it's unclear which voices will prevail when members return to Washington.
Some Republicans, as well as Democrats, question the idea of extending battles over the 2015 budget into early next year—when the new GOP-dominated Congress will also begin discussions in March on a fiscal 2016 spending plan.
Democrats, for their part, have been busy casting such a potential GOP maneuver as a recipe for a second government shutdown this session.
"House Democrats have fought against Republican attempts to shut down the government. Now, House Republicans are seeking to disguise their efforts, threatening our national security in order to undermine the president's clear legal authority," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a statement. "We will not be enablers to a Republican Government Shutdown, partial or otherwise."
The upcoming days also could present several other side issues tied to spending—even though the overall spending amounts are to be maintained so that spending for 2015 continues to conform to the total cap of $1.014 trillion set under the bipartisan agreement worked out by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan.
Those other issues run from congressional skepticism over the amount of Obama's $6.2 billion request to combat Ebola, to potential action to block the Washington D.C. City Council from spending money to implement a newly passed initiative allowing small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
Meanwhile, the clash between Obama and congressional negotiators on a tax-break extender package that has highlighted some ongoing tensions between the White House and Reid and his staff, as their party is about to lose control of the Senate in January. If the more than 50 tax breaks for businesses and individuals—most of which expired last year—are not renewed by Dec. 31, taxpayers will not be able to claim them for the 2014 tax year.
One potential option could be a bill to renew most of the items for one year retroactively. That would set up discussions over a longer-term approach next year, but Democrats may feel under the gun because those talks would be controlled by not only a Republican-controlled House, but also a GOP-held Senate.
DEFENSE and NATIONAL SECURITY
Leaders on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are still working out the details of a National Defense Authorization Act compromise bill.
The two sides are stuck over differences in military benefits in the two chambers' versions of the bill. Inthe House version, lawmakers rejected Pentagon-proposed cuts to housing benefits, as well as an increase in medical co-pays for troops. But the Senate committee's version, which never reached the floor for a vote, keeps the changes intact.
The informal negotiating group had hoped to release its NDAA before Thanksgiving, but the snag has kept an agreement out of reach. It's hardly the first time the bill—which authorizes appropriations and lays out broad policy priorities—has gone down to the wire. But Congress has managed to pass it for the past 53 years, and lawmakers have said they are hopeful it will get done.
In the fight against ISIS, it is unlikely that lawmakers will vote on a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force in the final days of the lame-duck session. But they do have to sign off on a funding request from the Pentagon to train and equip Syrian rebels. Congress included authorization for the Defense Department to start the program as part of the short-term spending bill passed earlier this year that expires on Dec. 11.
In addition, lawmakers still have to decide on the administration's request for an additional $5.6 billion to fight ISIS as part of its Overseas Contingency Operations budget.
The Senate is also expected to continue its end-of-the-year push to vote on a backlog of ambassador nominations. And the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be adding to that list on Tuesday. Senators will hold a hearing for Rahul Verma, nominated to be ambassador to India, and Peter Michael McKinley, nominated to be ambassador to Afghanistan.
And after a pair of hearings before the Thanksgiving recess on veterans suicide-prevention and mental health, legislation could be gaining traction. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, said in a statement that he would work to get a bill passed by the end of the year. But it's unclear when, or if, the committee—which hasn't had a markup hearing so far this year—would take up a bill.
Jordain Carney, Jason Plautz and Sophie Novack contributed to this article.