Architect of the Capitol

Senate Heavy Lifting Begins With Education and Iran; Budget Framework Still Under Negotiation

Presidential hopeful Rand Paul could use high-profile education bill markup to make a political statement about the intrusion of government.

The most important legislative horse-trading this week will be happening in committee rooms, not on the House or Senate floor.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will begin debating a major education overhaul this week that might actually thread the needle on rewriting the controversial No Child Left Behind law. And the Foreign Relations Committee will vote on crucial Iran legislation, as lawmakers seek to carve out a role for Congress in ongoing nuclear talks without appearing—as the White House will argue—as if they only want to score political points.

Both committee votes represent some of the biggest substantive debates the Senate could take up all year. Both measures will need bipartisan support to get done, even as passions have run high on both the right and left.

The Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday afternoon will take up Chairman Bob Corker's measure to require congressional review of the administration's Iran nuclear agreement. Knowing that the measure will need bipartisan support if it is going to be taken seriously—and if it is going to eventually gain the 67 votes necessary to overcome a presidential veto—Corker has sought to strike a decidedly different tone than a recent Republican-only letter addressed to Iran's leaders that blatantly attempted to undermine an Iran nuclear agreement.

Despite White House resistance, the bill has the support of two panel Democrats—Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and outgoing ranking member Robert Menendez of New Jersey. New ranking member Ben Cardin of Maryland and senior panel member Barbara Boxer of California have pushed for additional changes, which could be debated in the form of amendments.

The education bill, meanwhile, will be taken up Tuesday by the HELP Committee. Presidential hopeful Rand Paul is on the panel, and he may want to use the high-profile markup to make a political statement about the intrusion of government. He has called for the total elimination of the Education Department and is a big supporter of school vouchers. Those positions that are far to the right of a compromise measure cooked up by the committee's top Republican and Democrat—Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray. How the committee responds to protests like that will be an early test of whether the carefully negotiated education package can hold.

The deal that Alexander and Murray have struck on education could be one of the only bills on the Republican agenda this year that President Obama would sign. (Fast track trade authority is the other measure in that category, but Senate talks in that area are stalling.) The education bill has features that both sides dislike, but it would accomplish something everyone wants—the hugely important feat of bringing the U.S. education code in sync with the times. Right now, states are subsisting on Education Department-granted waivers and other administrative work-arounds to the outdated law. Lawmakers from both parties have an incentive to pass a new education law now, if only to guard against what would happen administratively when the next president enters the White House.

The Senate floor schedule, meanwhile, is dominated with unfinished business. Republican leaders will try yet again to get past a 60-vote threshold on a noncontroversial human trafficking bill that has been gummed up by abortion-related language. It is unlikely Republicans will be able to convince Democrats to give in unless the GOP leaders agree to amend the bill. Waiting in the wings is President Obama's Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, who could finally get a confirmation vote this week. That vote would mark the end of a long wait that has become increasingly irksome to Democrats.

Early in the week, the Senate also will vote on the House-passed "doc fix" bill that would permanently replace the formula for reimbursing doctors who treat Medicare patients. The landmark deal between House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—which takes care of a long-simmering flaw in the Medicare reimbursement system—is expected to pass the Senate, even though deficit hawks are trying to figure out if they can still change the package to save money. Several Senate Democrats also aren't happy that the legislation only extends a children's health program for two years. They might make a last run at a four-year reauthorization.

The House is slated to take up a series of tax-related bills in recognition of the April 15 tax filing deadline day—among them, a bill to repeal the estate tax and several aimed at "restoring trust" in the Internal Revenue Service.

House and Senate leaders are still negotiating the final House/Senate budget framework, which will set the stage for a series of appropriations bills later this month.


Republican supporters of the Senate's Iran legislation believe they are close to the 67 votes they'll need to override a presidential veto, which is likely if it passes in its current form. But some of their Democratic allies have gotten cold feet in the past few weeks as the White House and outside Democratic groups have ramped up the pressure to oppose it. Sens. Christopher Coons and Mark Warner, who had been counted among the likely yes votes, now are indicating that they are undecided on the legislation. Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, will be a key vote to watch during the committee vote on Tuesday.

It's unclear when the Iran bill will hit the Senate floor, but this week appears unlikely. Once it does, it appears poised to pass. Ten Democrats, including Kaine and Menendez, have signed on as co-sponsors, giving Republicans more than the 60 votes they'll need to avoid a filibuster.

Read more about Congress' agenda this week on National Journal. 

Caitlin Owens, Clare Foran, Jason Plautz, Dustin Volz, George E. Condon Jr. and Eric Garcia contributed to this article.