Obama and the GOP Congress Ponder What They Can Get Done This Year

Architect of the Capitol

This week will help de­term­ine wheth­er the White House and the GOP-led Con­gress can ac­com­plish any­thing big in 2016.

Pres­id­ent Obama will meet with Paul Ry­an on Tues­day for their first sit-down since Ry­an be­came House speak­er.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell will be there too (even though it’s not, the White House said, the long hoped-for “bour­bon sum­mit” between Obama and the Sen­ate lead­er from Ken­tucky).

The list of big-tick­et items ripe for le­gis­lat­ive co­oper­a­tion in 2016 is small, es­pe­cially as the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion draws closer.

Obama is push­ing Con­gress to ap­prove the sweep­ing Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade deal, but Mc­Con­nell has signaled that the pact won’t come to the floor un­til after Novem­ber’s elec­tions.

There’s a chance that Con­gress and the White House could thread the needle on a pack­age of ma­jor changes to the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem. Bi­par­tis­an bills to soften harsh man­dat­ory-min­im­um sen­ten­cing policies and aid pris­on­ers’ reentry in­to so­ci­ety are mov­ing through both cham­bers, but face big hurdles—and Mc­Con­nell hasn’t com­mit­ted to a floor de­bate.

There could be com­mon ground on en­ergy-policy le­gis­la­tion that’s on the Sen­ate floor this week, al­though that bill is at­tract­ing amend­ments that split the parties (more on that be­low).

But while Obama will huddle with top Re­pub­lic­ans on Tues­day, the House is also push­ing ahead with bills and votes that lay bare col­li­sions with the White House.

Here are a few things that will hap­pen on Cap­it­ol Hill while every­one di­gests the af­ter­math of Monday’s Iowa caucuses:

Re­pub­lic­ans will try to over­ride Obama’s veto of le­gis­la­tion that would dis­mantle Obama­care, a vote doomed to fail­ure that will non­ethe­less provide Re­pub­lic­ans an­oth­er op­por­tun­ity to polit­ic­ally at­tack the health care law.

The House will also vote on Ir­an sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion—the bill that re­flects GOP claims that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been dan­ger­ously ac­com­mod­at­ing to Ir­a­ni­an of­fi­cials.

But Demo­crats call the bill, which would make it much harder to waive sanc­tions, a trans­par­ent at­tempt to scuttle the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an. The White House has already said it would veto the bill if it ever reached Obama’s desk.

Look for mem­bers to be on time for this vote, which is a redo of an earli­er ef­fort. The House tried to vote on the meas­ure on Jan. 13. But Ry­an is a stick­ler for punc­tu­al­ity, and gaveled the 15-minute vote closed even though less than 300 mem­bers had showed up.

Back to crim­in­al-justice re­form for a mo­ment: Ad­voc­ates hope to build mo­mentum Monday, when GOP Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner and Demo­crat Bobby Scott host a dis­cus­sion with mem­bers of the Charles Colson Task Force on Fed­er­al Cor­rec­tions. That’s a con­gres­sion­ally cre­ated group that just re­leased a wide set of re­form pro­pos­als.

Sen. Mike Lee, a tea-party fa­vor­ite who has a emerged as a ma­jor force be­hind the bi­par­tis­an ef­fort, is slated to at­tend.


The Sen­ate is on the verge of mov­ing its first ma­jor piece of en­ergy le­gis­la­tion since the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion—as­sum­ing a lengthy amend­ment de­bate doesn’t sink the bill.

Two of the biggest pri­or­it­ies from both parties—lift­ing the crude-oil ex­port ban and ex­tend­ing tax cred­its for re­new­able en­ergy—got dealt with in the om­ni­bus pack­age, which has left this en­ergy bill to deal with nitty-gritty ma­ter­i­al on en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture, in­creas­ing ef­fi­ciency, and up­dat­ing the elec­tric­al grid. But mem­bers are hop­ing to use the open amend­ment pro­cess to deal with ma­jor en­ergy de­bates, even as spon­sors try to ward away any pois­on-pill amend­ments.

And that means that, like the de­bate on last year’s Key­stone XL bill (which was con­duc­ted un­der the threat of a veto), mem­bers have a lengthy list of amend­ments, cov­er­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s power-plant reg­u­la­tions, the re­new­able-fuel stand­ard, cli­mate change, and everything in between.

Demo­crats are put­ting their weight be­hind an amend­ment that would of­fer fed­er­al as­sist­ance to the cit­izens of Flint, Michigan as they deal with lead con­tam­in­a­tion in the city’s drink­ing wa­ter. Michigan Demo­crats Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow have a pro­pos­al that would of­fer up to $400 mil­lion in match­ing funds to ad­dress the crisis and force the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to no­ti­fy com­munit­ies of lead test­ing. Re­pub­lic­ans, however, haven’t got­ten be­hind the amend­ment and may balk at the ex­tra spend­ing, even while Demo­crats make the case that it should be con­sidered emer­gency fund­ing.

Re­pub­lic­an John Thune said he was con­cerned that al­low­ing the Flint amend­ment would open up the bill to oth­er sen­at­ors’ causes, and already, Cali­for­nia’s Bar­bara Box­er and Di­anne Fein­stein are hop­ing to ad­dress a ma­jor en­vir­on­ment­al prob­lem in their state. Their amend­ment would force the En­ergy De­part­ment to re­spond to the massive meth­ane leak in the Al­iso Canyon.

One thing that isn’t likely is an at­tempt to force Re­pub­lic­ans to state their stance on the real­ity of cli­mate change; Sen. Bri­an Schatz told re­port­ers last week that Demo­crats wer­en’t look­ing to re­play that stunt and would in­stead try to ad­vance the cli­mate de­bate.

On the Re­pub­lic­an side, mem­bers have amend­ments meant to cur­tail the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s en­ergy reg­u­la­tions, with lan­guage to undo sev­er­al ma­jor reg­u­la­tions and to lift some re­stric­tions on hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing. But such amend­ments could kill the bill’s Demo­crat­ic sup­port (it passed the En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee on an 18-4 vote) and lead to a veto threat, which the White House has so far avoided.

The Flint wa­ter crisis will be the fo­cus of a House Over­sight Com­mit­tee hear­ing Wed­nes­day, but the ab­sence of a wit­ness could over­shad­ow the en­tire hear­ing. Michigan Demo­crat­ic Rep. Brenda Lawrence has loudly com­plained that the com­mit­tee isn’t call­ing Gov. Rick Snyder to testi­fy, say­ing that his omis­sion will make the hear­ing less “thor­ough and mean­ing­ful.”

Re­pub­lic­ans on the House Sci­ence, Space, and Tech­no­logy com­mit­tee will call sev­er­al high-pro­file crit­ics of Pres­id­ent Obama’s cli­mate agenda, in­clud­ing rep­res­ent­at­ives from the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Her­it­age Found­a­tion, for a Tues­day hear­ing on the United Na­tions cli­mate deal.

The Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee is set to con­sider a con­tro­ver­sial In­teri­or De­part­ment pro­pos­al that would place lim­its on coal pro­du­cers op­er­at­ing near streams. The Wed­nes­day hear­ing will look at how the stream-pro­tec­tion rule would in­ter­act with the En­dangered Spe­cies Act and the Clean Wa­ter Act.


Add the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee to the ever-grow­ing list of pub­lic ant­ag­on­ists with Mar­tin Shkreli. The pan­el sub­poenaed the former CEO of Tur­ing Phar­ma­ceut­ic­als, known as “pharma bro,” to testi­fy at a hear­ing Thursday to re­view drug prices, but its re­quest was first met with the so­cial-me­dia sass that’s be­come ex­pec­ted of Shkreli.

On Jan. 20, Shkreli tweeted, “House busy whin­ing to health­care re­port­ers about me ap­pear­ing for their chit chat next week. Haven’t de­cided yet. Should I? @Rep­Cum­mings.” Less than an hour later, he tweeted a pic­ture of the sub­poena, writ­ing, “Found this let­ter. Looks im­port­ant.”

But his at­tend­ance doesn’t mean that law­makers—and oth­er vo­cal crit­ics of Shkreli’s de­cision to drastic­ally hike the price of a life-sav­ing drug—would get the show­down they’d like. He plans to re­main si­lent at the hear­ing if he is re­quired to at­tend, Re­u­ters re­por­ted.


The House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee’s Com­mu­nic­a­tions and Tech­no­logy Sub­com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing Tues­day morn­ing to ex­am­ine the status of First­Net, the planned na­tion­wide com­mu­nic­a­tions net­work for first re­spon­ders. The 9/11 Com­mis­sion Re­port con­cluded that com­mu­nic­a­tions fail­ures between fire­fight­ers and po­lice of­ficers hampered the re­sponse to the ter­ror at­tacks, but the high-speed data net­work pro­posed to ad­dress those prob­lems is still years away from com­ple­tion. The First­Net board re­leased its long-awaited re­quest for ap­plic­a­tions from tele­com com­pan­ies to build the net­work just a few weeks ago. 

The House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee will hold a clas­si­fied hear­ing Tues­day to dis­cuss the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act. Leaks from Ed­ward Snowden re­vealed that the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency has been us­ing Sec­tion 702 of FISA, which will be up for reau­thor­iz­a­tion next year, for a sweep­ing In­ter­net-sur­veil­lance pro­gram. Pri­vacy groups have been lob­by­ing Con­gress to re­strict the NSA’s powers un­der the law and sent a let­ter to the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee last week ex­press­ing dis­may that Tues­day’s hear­ing will be closed to the pub­lic. 


Obama’s long-awaited meet­ing with Ry­an and Mc­Con­nell will come Tues­day. On Wed­nes­day, in a clear ri­poste to the anti-Muslim rhet­or­ic in the Re­pub­lic­an cam­paign, Obama will travel to Bal­timore to vis­it the mosque at that city’s Is­lam­ic So­ci­ety. He will then make re­marks to mem­bers of Bal­timore’s Muslim com­munity. On Thursday, the pres­id­ent will speak at the Na­tion­al Pray­er Break­fast. Later that day, he will meet Colom­bi­an Pres­id­ent Juan Manuel San­tos at what the White House calls a “de­fin­ing mo­ment” in an ef­fort to strike a his­tor­ic peace agree­ment with the Re­volu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia (FARC) in­sur­gency.

Rachel RoubeinBrendan Sasso and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec