Monthly Archives: September 2015

Weekly Legislative Report Sept 25, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations/Budget

The Senate on Thursday voted 47-52 to block a temporary funding measure opposed by the White House that would have cut funding for Planned Parenthood, but then set up a vote next week on a “clean” bill.

After the failed vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) teed up the new measure, which contains almost all the same funding, but omits the Planned Parenthood language.  A vote to cut off debate on the measure is expected to occur at 5:30 p.m. on Monday.

The legislative vehicle for temporarily funding the government until also changed from H J Res 61 to H.R. 719, which has passed both the House and Senate in differing forms, cutting down on the number of procedural steps needed to pass it as a CR.  The continuing resolution will provide funding until December 11.

In the House, most are predicting the GOP members that are not in the Freedom Caucus to team up with Democrats to clear the clean CR, therefore House and Senate leaders appear to be on track to pass a shutdown-averting, 10-week government funding method next week.

Congressional Affairs

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced today he will resign at the end of October, capping a four-and-half-year reign in which he repeatedly clashed with many disruptive far right conservatives in his own party.

Many lawmakers are predicting House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as the favorite to succeed Boehner as Speaker.

The biggest news of the week was of course, Pope Francis’s Washington visit and speech to a joint meeting of Congress.  The Pope touched on a wide array of political topics from domestic policies, to immigration, environmental issues and international affairs.

Foreign Affairs

The White House will host Chinese President Xi Jinping at a state dinner tonight.  This afternoon, the Senate will host Xi for a meeting with leadership from both the House and Senate and members of the Foreign Relations Committee, among others.

Cyber security is likely among the top issues that will be discussed during the Chinese president’s visit.  On Thursday, Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told reporters she does not expect a cyber agreement to be reached during the visit and said if cyber theft issues are not resolved soon, “I think it’s going to cause major misunderstanding within the two nations.”

Washington Outlook

While the threat of a government shutdown next week appears to be diminishing after this morning’s announcement that Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) will step down as speaker next month, what happens later this fall is unclear.  Another funding cliff is possible, with the expiration date of the short-term CR potentially coinciding with the debt ceiling fight and the expiration of tax breaks.

Current government funding (PL 113-235) expires Wednesday night.

Outside of the CR, there are also plans in the works for the House GOP conference to use separate reconciliation legislation to permanently defund Planned Parenthood.

Markups of a reconciliation bill in the House committees of jurisdiction are expected to begin next week.  Meanwhile, leaders are also planning a vote on a separate bill (H.R. 3495) next week that would allow states to exclude providers that perform abortions, such as Planned Parenthood, from Medicaid contracts.

Boehner’s resignation announcement also brings up the question whether he uses, or can use, his final weeks to push through legislation over the objections of a faction of his party, as he appears willing to do with the CR.  Within limits, he could use his final weeks to spare his successor some headaches by getting legislation done now.

No longer worried about the speakership, he could for example probably find the votes to push through an ambitious highway bill — the Senate has already passed one (H.R. 22) — before the current authorization expires on October 29.  He could also push through reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, defying conservatives who blocked renewal at the end of June.

Weekly Legislative Report Sept 18, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations/Budget

With five legislative days remaining in the fiscal year where both the House and Senate are in session, the path forward on FY16 appropriations is still unclear.  With the House out of session three days next week, it was thought that leaders would unveil a continuing resolution this week, but Republicans have reportedly made no decisions on an appropriations strategy that also takes into account conservative demands to defund Planned Parenthood.

On Wednesday Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he has begun negotiations with the House about a short-term continuing resolution that would stretch until a yet-undetermined date, buying time for leadership and the White House to hold talks about a longer-term spending measure.  McConnell gave no indication about just how long a CR might fund the government, but Labor HHS Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) said a CR would likely span until “sometime around the end of November or early December.”

On Thursday, the House quietly granted itself a method for speeding consideration of legislation after the papal visit next week, presumably for a must-pass stopgap spending bill.  The chamber approved 237-187 an amendment to a rule (H Res 420) that waives the requirement that two-thirds of lawmakers vote to allow the House Rules Committee to bring a report to the floor the same day it is advanced out of the panel.  The maneuver, known as “martial law,” gives Republican leaders a faster track for kicking off consideration of legislation such as a continuing resolution on September 24 or 25.

Much of the focus over a potential shutdown has been on the House, where conservative members are contending with leadership over tying a shutdown to defunding Planned Parenthood.  In recent days, House Republicans have considered a host of options for moving forward, including voting on standalone defunding legislation and using a fast-track reconciliation bill to target Planned Parenthood’s mandatory funding streams.  Since a reconciliation bill can be taken up in the Senate without the customary 60-vote requirement, meaning it can be passed with a simple majority and without Democratic votes, the measure could be passed by Republican majorities in the House and Senate and sent to President Obama.  In this scenario the defunding provision would be added to a larger plan to repeal portions of the 2010 health care law, including the requirement that individuals purchase health insurance or pay a penalty if they do not.  Under one scenario, the House and Senate could pass the reconciliation bill and send it to the President before Congress’ mid-October recess.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said Thursday that “reconciliation is a distinct possibility” as a way of dealing with Planned Parenthood.  House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, however, expressed doubts about whether budget reconciliation can be used to defund Planned Parenthood.  His comments are significant because Energy and Commerce is one of three committees in the House that would be tasked with writing reconciliation legislation that likely would focus on repealing parts of the 2010 health care law.  In addition, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she believes her caucus has the votes to sustain a veto from Obama in the event a reconciliation bill with Planned Parenthood defunding language reached his desk.

With the House plans unclear, the Senate is laying the groundwork for a potential end.  The Senate will vote on Tuesday on the motion to proceed to legislation to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy (H.R. 36), which is expected to fail.  If the House is struggling to pass its own funding bill denying money to Planned Parenthood, the Senate would then likely schedule a procedural vote on a CR that cuts funding for the group.  Assuming that maneuver is blocked, the Senate would then proceed to a “clean” CR that includes funding for Planned Parenthood believing that such a bill would draw Democratic support and pass.  Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said it remained unclear whether the House or Senate would vote first on the CR with language to defund Planned Parenthood saying that discussions between the two chambers are fluid and ongoing.

Education

Last weekend, the White House published data on the cost, graduation rates and median earnings of former students from thousands of colleges (see here) and the Department of Education (DOE) announced it would release the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in October, instead of January, and allow families to use the prior year’s tax filing to complete it.  The changes will go into effect for the 2016-17 school year.

In its announcement, White House officials said the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, whose member institutions serve 90 percent of undergraduates, expects hundreds of colleges and universities to adjust their financial aid processes to align with the change before the 2017-18 academic year.  The change would allow schools to spend less double checking income data from early applicants because it will have come from the IRS, DOE Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee are considering a similar idea as they look to further simplify the FAFSA through the Higher Education Act reauthorization, which leaders are hoping to present to the panel this fall.

Foreign Policy

After losing a cloture vote by two votes last week Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) brought the resolution of disapproval regarding the Iran nuclear deal, H.J.Res.61, back to the floor but, again, could not muster the 60 votes needed to continue the debate.

Washington Outlook

Four events dominated the Washington agenda this week: 1) Federal Reserve policy makers’ September meeting on whether to raise the benchmark U.S. interest rate for the first time since June 2006; 2) the second GOP Presidential debate on Wednesday; 3) negotiations on how to keep the government from shutting down on October 1 over Planned Parenthood funding; and 4) throwaway votes on disapproving the Iran deal (the White House and Congressional Democrats have already locked-in the votes needed to put the deal into effect) with House Republicans considering a lawsuit against Obama over Iran.

As detailed in the appropriations section above, House leadership is hoping to appease the Freedom Caucus, the group advocating for a government shutdown if any federal discretionary money is spent on Planned Parenthood, with votes on two bills next week.  One of the bills defunds Planned Parenthood for one year unless the organizations and its affiliates stop providing abortions, and the other is the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, but it is unlikely either piece of legislation will placate these conservatives. 

Although several scenarios are floating around, the House will likely vote next week on a short term CR that defunds Planned Parenthood in a symbolic gesture since the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is presiding over a joint Congress on September 24th.  Although the next steps are still unclear, as always we will keep you apprised of relevant events.

Weekly Legislative Report Sept 11, 2015

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup

Appropriations/Budget

With only about a week’s worth of legislative days remaining in the fiscal year on the House side, the most likely scenario to fund the government before it expires at the end of the month will be a last-minute continuing resolution (CR).

Before House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) can begin CR negotiations with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), he has to have enough support among his members for a plan Pelosi and her caucus can back.  Boehner has reportedly started conversations this week with GOP leaders about a short-term extension to fund the federal government and avert a shutdown while they work on a larger budget deal.

House Republican leaders know their most conservative members will most likely insist that the chamber vote this year on legislation that would cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.  It remains an open question whether the conservative Freedom Caucus will demand that vote on a continuing resolution later this month or as part of any longer-term budget package that moves in the coming months.

We expect both chambers in coming weeks to pass a “clean” CR, meaning one that mostly holds government funding at current levels.  However later this year, more moderate Republicans and defense hawks will face a decision to side with Freedom Caucus members and force Boehner to include Planned Parenthood defunding language in a short-term CR and/or a year-end spending bill, or push for a budget package that would achieve their primary goal of increasing defense spending, but exclude any Planned Parenthood riders.

Foreign Policy

The House today voted 162-269 rejecting a resolution to approve the Iran nuclear deal (H.R. 3461).  While most Democrats voted to approve the international nuclear bargain, 25 voted against it, creating a wedge that Republicans hope to use to their advantage in the 2016 elections.  Every Republican voted against the resolution except one libertarian member who voted “present.”

While the failure of the resolution will not prevent the nuclear pact from taking effect, the vote serves as a rebuke of Obama, who has staked his foreign policy legacy on defusing the Iranian threat through diplomacy.

Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (P.L. 114-17) enacted in May, Congress has until September 17 to review the deal and vote on a resolution of disapproval.  While further action beyond the three measures is unclear, the House Rules Committee approved a rule for floor consideration of a standalone resolution of disapproval (HJ Res 64), leaving House leaders with the option to bring the measure up next week.

Yesterday in the Senate, Democrats blocked a resolution (HJ Res 61) disapproving the Iran deal, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has scheduled another vote on the disapproval resolution when the chamber returns next week.  The outcome, however, is unlikely to change, with 42 Democrats preventing a resolution from passing.

Transportation

Thursday, the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology approved two transportation research bills that are intended to become part of a multi-year highway and transit bill.

The first bill, sponsored by Subcommittee Chair Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), is a research and development authorization bill for the Department of Transportation.  The bill has not yet been introduced, but staff has said they expect it to be introduced next week.  The measure would direct specific research and planning activities to emphasize a multi-modal, non-duplicative, and transparent approach to transportation research.

The second bill (H.R. 2886) is sponsored by Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) and would direct the Transportation secretary to establish a research initiative related to automated and connected vehicles.

The advancement of the two bills comes as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee works on a multi-year surface transportation reauthorization bill.  Committee staff confirmed that Republican members are meeting to discuss the measure, but a markup date has not yet been announced.

In other Highway Bill news, Congress’ $8.1 billion transfer of general fund money into the cash-strapped Highway Trust Fund will last through the end of June 2016, according to the Transportation Department’s latest estimate.

The new date means the funds would last six months longer than was assumed when lawmakers approved the transfer in July as part of a short-term extension of surface transportation authorization (P.L. 114-41) through October 29.

Passage of the measure in July came after the Senate moved a six-year authorization (H.R. 22), which the chamber hopes to bring to conference with the House this fall.  The House refused to take up the Senate’s measure as the August recess approached.

Despite the new estimate, lawmakers were quick to note as they resumed work Tuesday that they don’t want the extra months’ funding to slow down work this fall on a long-term bill.

Washington Outlook

Congress has returned from the month long August recess and so far are off to a slow start.  September 30 marks the due date to pass a budget or face a government shutdown.  Also on their to-do list is: vote on the Iran Nuclear Deal, address the upcoming debt ceiling, reauthorize the Federal Aviation Act, debate crude oil exports, replenish the Highway Trust Fund and the Social Security disability trust fund, and hopefully renew the Import-Export Bank charter.

Given that the Senate has eleven and the House has just six work days through the end of the month, not to mention a visit by Pope Francis, a continuing resolution will probably be used to kick the can on any major budgetary changes for a later date.

Both the House and Senate are not in session Monday, September 14th.  The Senate will reconvene on Tuesday to resume consideration of the legislative vehicle (HJ Res 61) for a joint resolution that would disapprove of the Iran nuclear agreement, and a cloture vote on the substitute amendment that would replace the measure that currently deals with the 2010 health care law and veterans with the joint resolution of disapproval scheduled for later that evening.  The House is also expected to vote on the Iran deal next week.