This Week in Washington -- September 18, 2015
Government shutdown looms large
Since the last government shutdown, Republican leadership in both chambers has done a good job of making it clear that another shutdown isn't an option. While leadership still doesn't want another shutdown, they may be powerless to prevent it.
House Republicans emerged from an hour-long meeting Wednesday evening no closer to a decision about how to fund the government at month’s end while addressing conservative's desires to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Indeed, with just a couple of legislative days left to go before a shutdown, it is unclear where GOP leaders will find the consensus necessary to avoid it.
In order to avoid a shutdown, leadership has floated the idea of using the budget reconciliation process as a way to defund Planned Parenthood. Some pro-life conservatives are on board, but others— including members of the House Freedom Caucus—are insisting that the continuing resolution strip funding from Planned Parenthood. Such a move would guarantee a veto from President Obama and result in another government shutdown.
Although the House will vote on a freestanding bill that does so this week, the hardline members think both that bill and reconciliation are dead-ends. They think that the only strategy to force President Obama to sign a bill rescinding Planned Parenthood’s funding would be to tie it to a must-pass spending bill.
The desire to strip money from Planned Parenthood comes after an activist group released several undercover videos they claim shows representatives from the group discussing the sale of fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood claims the video misrepresents what is a legal practice of donating the tissue for research.
Budget caps may be increased
Democrats have long been pushing to raise the budget caps. This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) acknowledged that it is likely that Senate Republicans will have to concede on this issue.
“We are inevitably going to end up in negotiations that will crack the Budget Control Act once again,” McConnell said during a press conference on Wednesday. “Now let me just say this about the Budget Control Act. Before we started revisiting it, it actually did a pretty good job. We reduced government spending for two years in a row for the first time since the Korean War. … But there’s a lot of pressure in Congress to spend more; the administration certainly wants to spend more.”
While McConnell expressed disappointment that the caps would have to be raised, he conceded that practically it is all but guaranteed that they will have to negotiate with Democrats to break the current budget cap levels.
Democrats blocked several spending measures earlier this year, telling Republicans that they would not pass any new funding bills unless the majority agreed to turn back sequestration cuts on nondefense programs. Additionally, President Obama has threatened to veto any new spending bills that allow sequestration cuts to go through as planned.
Fiscal conservatives are not happy about the prospects of raising the spending caps and they say that they can avoid doing so by simply passing another continuing resolution. Senator McConnell, however, has made it clear he prefers that the Senate go through the regular appropriations process— and that will require compromise.
McConnell’s announcement is a coup for Democrats who have been blocking spending bills for months to force the leader to sit down at the table with them and hash out a sequestration-relief plan for both defense and nondefense spending.
With sequestration caps threatening defense spending as well, some Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham and John McCain, have already begun talks with Democratic members to find a compromise. But it is much less clear how the House will react to funding bills that raise spending caps for nondefense programs and whether there are enough votes in that chamber to pass such legislation.
John Stewart joins push for 9/11 responders legislation
Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart has a new gig after leaving his successful Comedy Central show - advocate. He was in DC this week urging Congress to renew healthcare benefits for 9/11 responders.
Healthcare benefits for 9/11 responders are prepared to expire at the end of next month. Stewart, joined by hundreds of first-responders, rallied on Capitol Hill demanding that Congress pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act.
The bill, which provides compensation and health care benefits to 9/11 first-responders, includes the World Trade Center Health Program, which pays for health care for first-responders and will expire on September 30, though the fund can be drawn from for an additional year. It also includes the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which provides additional funds to victims and expires in October 2016.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised this week to extend the program, while the exact details of how remain unclear.
The bill almost died in 2010 and was initially voted down in the House, amid Republican concerns over the cost of the bill and that it was, at the time, permanent. Gillibrand and others helped to negotiate a deal with Sens. Tom Coburn, now retired, and Michael Enzi, to shorten its authorization to six years, a deal that passed the Senate unanimously.
Supporters now hope to push Congress to make both programs permanent, citing additional research linking diseases to toxins found at the 9/11 site and similar funds set up for coal-miners and former nuclear workers. More than 4,100 first-responders and survivors have contracted cancer related to 9/11, according to the Centers for Disease Control, while more than 33,000 have at least one related illness or injury.
So far, the bill has 151 co-sponsors in the House, including 33 Republicans, and 37 sponsors in the Senate, including six Republican members.
Government audit slams healthcare.gov
A new government audit released this week slammed the public agency charged with overseeing the $600 million in contracts to build the healthcare.gov website. The audit says the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversaw the building of the site, inadequately trained employees, kept sloppy records, and failed to detect delays and problems in the construction of the site.
CMS hired private contracts to build the sprawling website – a critical component of President Obama’s signature Affordable Healthcare Act – and the report says that problems with the site began long before the eventual botched rollout.
The audit was particularly critical of a lack of training for the contractors hired by CMS and an overall lack of adequate oversight. The audit said that CMS's shortcomings resulted in cost overruns that cost the American taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CMS, said that changes had already been made to avoid mistakes like this in the future.
Republicans jockey for position
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) has been able to beat back challenges to his speakership in the past, but the latest challenge is considered serious enough that would-be replacements for Boehner have quietly begun reaching out to their fellow members.
On Thursday, a Politico story reported Republicans were testing the waters on a leadership run, though lawmakers and aides were quick to refute that charge.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) all issued statements supportive of Speaker Boehner.
While Republican leaders are saying all of the right things in public, privately there is talk that Republicans are jockeying for position in the event that Boehner doesn't survive this latest challenge.
According to a report in Roll Call, Scalise, Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) - who unsuccessfully ran for Conference Chair in 2012, and Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) - a former chief deputy whip, were making calls to members about how leadership might shakeout post-Boehner. Spokesman for all three members denied that their bosses were making calls.
While there may be smoke, it is unclear if there is fire— or how much fire. While talk of replacing Boehner is taking place, so far even the uber-conservative House Freedom Caucus haven't formally endorsed any effort to actually make the talk a reality.
While it is unclear how successful this challenge will be, most members do expect that Boehner will face a motion to vacate the chair-- likely soon after the House votes on a continuing resolution that does not defund Planned Parenthood.
While others speculate about Boehner's fate, the Speaker himself has made it clear how confident he is that he will survive this challenge. When asked how confident he was that he will have the votes to defeat a motion to vacate the chair, Boehner replied with one word-- "very."
Republicans push for EPA to show scientific basis for actions
There is a new front in the Republican's war against what they see as executive overreach by President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): the science.
This spring, the House passed Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) “Secret Science Reform Act,” which would require all EPA regulations to be based on publicly available data or studies that can be replicated. A Senate committee has approved a companion bill, although it has not made it to the floor, and the White House has promised a veto should it reach the president’s desk.
It’s part of a suite of bills that go after the scientific backing for the administration’s regulatory agenda. The Science Committee has also moved a bill reforming the makeup and role of the Scientific Advisory Boards that EPA relies on to back up its regulations. And a separate bill from the Judiciary Committee that passed the House would crack down on and tighten requirements for cost-benefit analyses and open up more public-comment opportunities.
Supporters say this is just common sense: regulations should be based on publicly available data, and independent scientists should be able to form their own analyses. They point out that even President Obama himself called for more scientific transparency early in his first term.
Democrats and supporters of the president's environmental agency say there is a much different agenda at work here that doesn't have anything to do with science. They say this is little more than a thinly veiled effort to undermine EPA's efforts.
The EPA has said that it’s simply impossible to turn over some of the data the Science Committee wants without disclosing confidential personal information. Attempts to get raw data from universities and other institutions, then strip it of any information that could identify individual patients, has proved time-consuming and costly.
A Congressional Budget Office report said that under Smith’s bill, EPA could end up paying between $10,000 and $30,000 for each study and, absent a funding increase, the measure would likely halve the number of studies EPA can rely on.
Opponents of the bill say that the end result could be that the scientific process would become subject to judicial review with courts, rather than the scientific community determining standards.
The transparency approach is also finding its way to other environmental rules. For example, in recent Congresses, there have been various bills requiring Endangered Species Act listings to be backed up by public science. And Republicans have increasingly questioned the EPA’s cost-benefit analyses for regulations, accusing the agency of relying on bunk calculations that underestimate how expensive their rules will be.
The latest on the Iran deal
Republicans might have lost the fight over the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran, but that's not stopping the GOP from trying to make lemonade out of lemons.
This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) got Democrats on the record opposing an amendment that would allow sanctions relief to Iran under the nuclear agreement only if the country releases four American hostages and formally recognizes Israel as an independent state. The vote failed 53 to-45, well short of the 60 votes needed to proceed.
Two of the Democrats who oppose the broader Iran nuclear pact—Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ)—took to the floor before the vote, charging that McConnell’s amendment was a political ploy.
McConnell and Iran deal opponents also took one last swing at the deal with a vote on Thursday that - again - fell short of the 60 vote threshold needed to proceed.
With no more Senate votes this week, this last failed vote ensured that Congress will not pass a resolution of disapproval within the legislatively required window.
In order to block implementation of sanctions relief in the deal, both chambers of Congress would have needed to pass a resolution of disapproval and override a presidential veto by midnight on Thursday night. That didn't happen.
The House, where Republicans also have a majority, never voted on a resolution of disapproval, opting to pass three symbolic Iran-related measures that would not have affected the nuclear deal.
Transportation in Focus
Lawmakers say they won't need extra time
Last week, the Department of Transportation (DOT) said that current highway funding could last well into 2016— longer than first anticipated. Key House Republicans working on a long-term transportation bill say they won't need the extra time to get legislation passed.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), a key member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the announcement by DOT was "misleading." Pointing out that if Congress doesn't act, funding for highway projects could start to slow as early as December.
Not only are Republicans leery of this new funding date, but members of both parties in both chambers have no interest in pushing a highway debate into next year - in the midst of what will likely be a brutal presidential campaign.
While House Republicans say they don't want or need the extra time to get a deal done, significant hurdles still remain.
The current deadline for extending the highway program is October 29 and if the House is unable to finalize a deal on an international tax plan— the House GOP's preferred funding source— and on specific highway policy, then the House may be forced to accept a Senate bill that was passed this summer that is a six-year extension that only includes funding for three years.
Currently, the House Transportation Committee has no timeline for considering a long-term extension and House tax-writers are also struggling to pull together legislation that would change the tax treatment of overseas corporate profits. These dual challenges make it harder to imagine the House meeting its October 29 deadline.
Additionally, Senate Republican leaders have been deeply skeptical about the idea of using so-called "repatriation" of overseas corporate profits to fund the transportation bill. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), while skeptical, insists he is keeping an open mind about a House bill.
Minnesota 2nd Congressional District: Mary Pawlenty (R-MN), the wife of former Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), said no to a run for Congress this week.
New Hampshire 1st Congressional District: Rep. Frank Guinta (R-NH) appears to be running for re-election, despite mounting ethical problems – the embattled congressman held a fundraiser this week.
New York 19th Congressional District: Former state assemblyman and gubernatorial candidate John Faso (R-NY) announced his bid for retiring Rep. Chris Gibson’s (R-NY) seat on Tuesday.
Colorado: Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler (R-CO) says he will make a decision on whether to run for U.S. Senate at the beginning of October.
Delaware: Rep. John Carney (D-DE) announced Wednesday that he will run for governor of Delaware in 2016, taking the baton from the late Beau Biden, the state’s former attorney general and son of the vice president who intended to run for governor before he passed away earlier this year after a battle with brain cancer.
Rick Perry (R-TX): Former Governor Rick Perry became the first casualty of the 2016 GOP field when he pulled the plug on his presidential bid amid lagging poll numbers and fundraising challenges.
Bernie Sanders (I-VT): Senator Bernie Sanders continues to draw large crowds. He drew 12,000 to a speech at Liberty University and 9,000 to a speech in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC.
Scott Walker (R-WI): Governor Scott Walker admitted this week that he has pinned his hopes to a victory in the Iowa caucuses. The one time front-runner has seen his poll numbers slide significantly over the last few months.
Donald Trump (R-NY): Businessman Donald Trump continues to lead the GOP field in national polling as well as polls in critical early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
A LOOK AHEAD
The House has no hearings scheduled for next week.
Tuesday, September 22
9:30 AM: Armed Services, SH-216 - Hearing to examine U.S. Middle East policy.
9:30 AM: Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, SD-342 - Hearing to examine improving VA accountability, focusing on examining first-hand accounts of Department of Veterans Affairs whistleblowers.
10:00 AM: Foreign Relations, SD-419 - Hearings to examine the nomination of Susan Coppedge Amato, of Georgia, to be the Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, with the rank of Ambassador at Large, Department of State.
10:00 AM: Judiciary, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, SD-226 - Hearings to examine consolidation in the health insurance industry and its impact on consumers.
Wednesday, September 23
11:00 AM: Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, SD-342 - Hearings to examine the use of agency regulatory guidance.
WASHINGTON BY THE NUMBERS
13 – That's how many questions the moderators asked Donald Trump directly during the debate, the most of any candidate. Mike Huckabee and Scott Walker tied for the least with just three each.
$50,000 – That’s the amount actor Daniel Craig, who plays James Bond, gave to a super PAC supporting Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
“Well, first of all, Rand Paul shouldn't even be on this stage. He's number 11, he's got 1 percent in the polls, and how he got up here, there's far too many people anyway.” – Donald Trump’s answer, in part, to the question of whether or not he has the temperament to be president during the CNN GOP presidential debate.
“You know, it's interesting to me, Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly and what Mr. Bush said. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” – Carly Fiorina, at the CNN GOP presidential debate, in response to a question about comments Donald Trump made about her face in a Rolling Stone interview.
“The fact is that we don't want to hear about your careers, back and forth and volleying back and forth about who did well and who did poorly. You're both successful people. Congratulations. You know who's not successful? The middle class in this country who's getting plowed over by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Let's start talking about those issues tonight and stop this childish back-and-forth between the two of you.” – Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) weighing in on a back-and-forth between Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina on Wednesday night.