McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies Advisory: This Week in Washington -- May 1, 2015
House passes budget deal and first approps bill
By a vote of 226 to 197, the House approved the budget that it negotiated with the Senate. The budget calls for dramatic spending cuts, balances the budget in 10 years, and includes so-called reconciliation language that would gut the Affordable Care Act.
The Senate is expected to follow suit next week and pass the budget deal. It's the first time in years that both chambers will have produced and passed a budget.
After the passage of the budget, the House took up the first of the appropriations bills - the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill.
The MilCon appropriations bill is usually one of the least divisive of the appropriations bills - but not this year. House leadership was forced to delay a vote on the bill after an amendment by Reps. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) - that would have removed what they say is a funding gimmick that allows lawmakers to break the budget caps. The amendment would have disrupted the delicate deal that had been struck with defense hawks over spending.
In the end, the MilCon appropriations bill passed by a 255 to 163 margin.
Democrats said the episode highlighted the challenges Republicans will face trying to pass partisan spending bills. Most Democrats have said they would only support spending bills that increase both military and domestic spending above the sequester levels.
Even if Republicans can pass spending bills in the House with only GOP votes, they will need the support of at least some Senate Democrats. Republicans control only 54 seats in the upper chamber and will need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles. And in the end Republicans will need the support of one very important Democrat - President Barack Obama - if they want to avoid a government shut down.
The latest on fast track
This week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to D.C. and spoke before a Joint Session of Congress. His visit comes as the political fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is heating up on Capitol Hill.
Specifically, the Obama administration is stepping up its efforts to lobby Democrats on the issue, dispatching Vice President Joe Biden to talk to his former colleagues.
In particular, Biden and the White House are pushing Democrats to approve so-called “fast track” trade authority that would only allow Congress to make an up or down vote on any final TPP – stripping Congress of its ability to amend the deal.
Ultimately, members say, the prospects of the fast-track bill—also known as Trade Promotion Authority—will be determined by House Democrats. The caucus has traditionally opposed such legislation, but Republicans have said they will need Democratic votes to move the bill. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has sent Cabinet secretaries and White House advisers to lobby and brief the caucus.
Much of that outreach has focused on the New Democrat Coalition, a 46-strong group of pro-business lawmakers. The group met with Sen. Ron Wyden, one of the Senate's TPA architects, on Wednesday. Its members then headed to the White House Thursday to hear Obama's pitch for the bill.
While members credit caucus leadership for being open-minded on TPA (neither Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi nor Whip Steny Hoyer have taken a position on the bill), outside groups have been more outspoken. Labor giant AFL-CIO has cut off campaign funding to focus on fighting the bill, and some progressive groups are seeking to line up primary challengers for TPA backers like Wyden.
In the wake of Baltimore: What can Congress do?
Every few months, members of Congress have been faced with searing images of peaceful protests that turn into violent demonstrations after a black man has died at the hands of police.
The latest episode arose after 25-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray died in police custody. Now, the city of Baltimore is in turmoil, streets are burning, the National Guard has been deployed, and the city is observing a curfew. The deaths of black men at the hands of police have been thrust into the national spotlight. From Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City, communities have lashed out against police brutality with an anger that has been simmering for years—if not decades.
At every turn in these situations, politicians urge peace, President Obama takes a stand, and Congress holds hearings. Then, outside of a task force, nothing happens.
But, the underlying causes of these riots, politicians say, need to be dealt with, even if it would take more political will than this Congress has shown a propensity for.
The root causes of these tragedies are so complicated, so widespread, and so ingrained in communities and police culture, that lawmakers across both political parties say expecting the federal government to legislate its way out of local community issues is a daunting task.
Getting a grasp on what they can do in the immediate future to combat tensions in communities between police and residents, however, appears to be the first challenge for Congress. After the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, there were calls for the expansion of body cameras, and in the Senate, the Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on the militarization of community law enforcement agencies.
But bold action to address those issues have not even been taken up on the floor of either chamber.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri says she hopes that change will come in small ways. During the hearing last Congress, McCaskill, a Democrat, was one of the leading senators who railed against the the country's ballooning 1033 program, a government grant that has provided local police with more than $5 billion worth of military-grade equipment the Defense Department once used on the ground in war zones, from Iraq to Afghanistan.
McCaskill's office says she is planning to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that would provide oversight to federal grant programs to local cops. But in a Republican-controlled Congress and with a crammed agenda in the Senate, it may be difficult to make room on the schedule for such legislation.
Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators, including Republican Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Gary Peters of Michigan, also introduced a bill that would create a National Criminal Justice Commission to examine the country's justice system, from courts to law enforcement.
But some senators say, in order to change the distrust between police and residents in Baltimore and elsewhere, Congress needs to take a broader approach to combating poverty.
The future for the SNAP program
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – better known as the food-stamp program – appears to have avoided coming under the scalpel of Congressional Republicans this year. However, the debate over the future of the program is far from over.
The House version of the budget proposed turning food stamps into a capped block grant controlled by the states, which would probably mean a budget cut, and varying eligibility standards and payments. The Senate budget did not include that idea, and the House leadership appears to have deferred to the Senate on entitlement reforms—although no formal announcement of the budget has been made.
Food stamps were the subject of intense partisan debate during the 2014 farm-bill process. Republican House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway already has begun what he calls a top-to-bottom review of the food-stamp program with no preconceived notions.
Last year, House Republicans insisted on splitting the SNAP program away from the farm bill, but they had to be put back together in order to get a final bill through the Senate and the House.
Advocates for the program fear that if food stamps are decoupled from the farm bill then the program will likely die – something opponents are hoping will happen.
Chairman Conaway has signaled that he doesn’t support splitting the two and Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski, the chairwoman Conaway picked to lead the House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee, has said she also has an open mind, but Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, the subcommittee's ranking member, has repeatedly said he still fears that House Republicans' first priority is to cut food-stamp spending.
Supporters and opponents are already eyeing 2018, the year the farm bill will need to be re-authorized.
Ex-Im on life support?
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday he still believes the Export-Import Bank of the United States should be phased out, but on the question of whether that will happen, his answer was less certain.
McCarthy notably became one of the first House GOP leaders to call for the loan institution to be phased out last year, and as a growing chorus of voices on the right take that position publicly, McCarthy told reporters Tuesday that he has not changed his mind.
The bank's fate has divided the GOP, with many fiscal conservatives calling for its demise but much of the business community—and many key Republican donors—eager for it to continue.
McCarthy said he will allow regular order to play out, even if that means reauthorizing the bank's charter. Fortunately for him, Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling has long opposed reauthorizing the bank, which subsidizes some companies who export their goods to certain countries. And McCarthy said that if the committee chooses not to take up a reauthorization, he will not go against their wishes.
He said if the bank's charter expires June 30, the current loans remain in place, but no new loans can be doled out. That, he said, would give the private sector time to step in and fill the void.
Transportation in Focus
Roads for Driver-Less Cars?
The House Transportation Committee hasn't figured out a long term way to make the Highway Trust Fund solvent, but that hasn't stopped them from some other long-term planning: for driver-less cars.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure panel is trying to forge a long-term transportation bill, which sets policy and funding for the nation's roads and transit agencies. Panel Chairman Bill Shuster said Tuesday that the measure will include a new section on technology aimed at addressing driver-less cars and other in-development forms of transportation.
Lawmakers face challenges in designing roads that can accommodate such vehicles, everything from broad planning to specifics, such as what road and paint materials the next-gen cars could "sense" as they operate.
Shuster said he's talking to representatives from technology companies and the House Energy and Commerce Committee about how to start accounting for the new technology in a transportation bill. Elsewhere, Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh is working on a three-year study of autonomous cars.
California 24th Congressional District: Laura Capps (D-CA), the daughter of retiring Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA), announced she will not run for her mother's seat, leaving Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal (D-CA) as the Democratic favorite for the seat.
North Carolina Senate: Polling shows former Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) would run close with GOP Sen. Richard Burr if she chose to mount a bid for the Tar Heel State’s other Senate seat.
Utah Senate: Vivant Inc. president Alex Dunn (R-UT) said Tuesday that he won’t primary Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT).
Louisiana: Democrats chances at taking the Governor’s mansion took a serious hit this week when New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D-LA) said he will not run for governor, saying the city of New Orleans has "a long way to go."
Mississippi: A new Mason-Dixon poll released on Tuesday gives Mississippi GOP Gov. Phil Bryant a huge lead over Democratic attorney Vicki Slater, 61 percent to 30 percent. Bryant has a staggering 72-percent approval rating, the poll shows.
North Carolina: A new Elon University poll out Tuesday shows North Carolina GOP Gov. Pat McCrory leading all-but-certain Democratic challenger Roy Cooper, 45 percent to 43 percent.
Bernie Sanders (I-VT): Senator Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president on Thursday and will hold a major campaign kickoff in Vermont in a few weeks.
Jeb Bush (R-FL): Former Governor Jeb Bush told donors Sunday that his PAC had raised more money in its first 100 days than any other Republican operation in modern history, according to several people in attendance. Bush did not say how much had been raised, but senior Republicans said they think his super PAC is on track to collect $100 million by the end of May.
A LOOK AHEAD
Is out of session
Monday, May 4
8:30 a.m. Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee – Hearing. Full committee field hearing on "Reducing the Federal Tax Burden for America's Small Businesses."
Tuesday, May 5
10:00 a.m. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee – Hearing. Full committee hearing on the federal government's role in wildfire management.
2:30 p.m. Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee - Hearing. Full committee hearing on the nomination of David Shulkin to be VA undersecretary for health; and LaVerne Council to be assistant VA secretary for information and technology.
2:30 p.m. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee – Hearing. Full committee hearing on the U.S. Grain Standards Act.
2:30 p.m. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – Hearing. Full committee hearing on "Continuing America's Leadership: Realizing the Promise of Precision Medicine for Patients."
Wednesday, May 6
9:30 a.m. Senate Judiciary Committee – Hearing. Full committee hearing on "Ensuring an Informed Citizenry: Examining the Administration's Efforts to Improve Open Government."
10:00 a.m. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee – Markup. Full committee markup to vote on the nominations of David Michael, Mickey Barnett, Stephen Crawford and James Miller, each to be a governor of the U.S. Postal Service; S.280, the "Federal Permitting Improvement Act of 2015"; the "Integrated Public Alert and Warning System Modernization Act of 2015"; S.750, the "Arizona Borderlands Protection and preservation Act"; S.282, the "Taxpayers Right-To-Know Act"; the "Truth in Settlements Act of 2015"; the "Presidential Transitions Improvement Act of 2015"; H.R.623, the "Social Media Working Group Act of 2015"; and postal facility naming bills: S.179 and S.994.
10:00 a.m. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee – Hearing. Full committee hearing on "Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: The Role of Consumer Information in College Choice."
WASHINGTON BY THE NUMBERS
10 – The number of years of back taxes that Apple may have to pay in Ireland if a European Commission investigation finds that the Irish government provided illegal subsidies to the tech giant.
557 – The number of days until the 2016 presidential election.
THEY SAID WHAT?
"Each time we topple a secular dictator, I think we wind up with chaos, and radical Islam seems to rise." -- Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), calling the ouster of Saddam Hussein a "mistake" (New York Times).
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