Monthly Archives: November 2016

Weekly Legislative Report Nov 18, 2016

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup Herbert

Appropriations/ Budget

On Thursday, House Republicans announced that they will begin work on a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through March 31, 2017, a strategy requested by President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team.  Senators from both parties raised strong objections, though none went so far as to threaten to shut down the government over the move.

The House Republican conference met with Vice President-elect Mike Pence where they decided to defer final funding decisions into March in order to give the incoming Trump administration a say in final FY17 spending decisions.

Congressional Leadership

House Republicans on Tuesday nominated Paul Ryan (WI) to serve as Speaker of the House for the next two years as they make plans for a unified GOP government in 2017.  Ryan ran unopposed for the top leadership post and was nominated in a unanimous voice vote during a closed-door meeting.  The following leadership roles were also assigned:

  • Majority Leader: Kevin McCarthy (CA)
  • Majority Whip Steve Scalise (LA)
  • GOP Conference Chair: Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA)
  • Policy Chairman: Luke Messer (IN)
  • National Republican Congressional Committee Chair: Steve Stivers (OH)
  • GOP Conference Vice Chairman: Doug Collins (GA)
  • GOP Conference Secretary: Jason Smith (MO)

It now appears Ryan will be re-elected as Speaker on January 3, when all members of the House of Representatives cast their vote in a public roll call.  Ryan needs a simple majority, or roughly 218 votes, to win his first full, two-year term as Speaker.

On Wednesday, the Senate Republican caucus unanimously re-elected Mitch McConnell (KY) as Majority Leader.  Cory Gardner (CO) was then chosen to replace Roger Wicker (MS) take over the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).  The rest of the GOP Senate leadership roles for the 115th Congress remain the same:

  • Conference Chairman: John Thune (SD)
  • Conference Vice Chair: Roy Blunt (MO)
  • Policy Committee Chairman: John Barrasso (WY)

The Senate Democratic caucus met Wednesday to elect Charles Schumer (NY) to replace retiring Harry Reid (NV) as Minority Leader.  As Caucus Chair, Schumer then made the following leadership appointments for the 115th Congress:

  • Minority Whip: Dick Durbin (IL)
  • Assistant Democratic Leader: Patty Murray (WA)
  • Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee: Debbie Stabenow (MI)
  • Vice Chair of the Conference: Elizabeth Warren (MA)
  • Vice Chair of the Conference: Mark Warner (VA)
  • Chair of the Steering Committee: Amy Klobuchar (MN)
  • Chair of Outreach: Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
  • Vice Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee: Joe Manchin (WV)
  • Senate Democratic Conference Secretary: Tammy Baldwin (WI)

Facing heavy pressure from House Democrats, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) on Tuesday delayed the party’s leadership elections until the end of the month.  Pelosi is now facing several challengers due to frustration with leadership’s unwillingness to re-evaluate strategy after this year’s election has reduced Democrats to its smallest congressional minority since 1929.

Defense

Two controversial provisions in the FY17 defense authorization bill (NDAA) that could have led to a White House veto have reportedly been agreed to be removed.   

One provision would have had the sage grouse bird removed from the endangered species list on the grounds that protecting it is impairing the military from full use of training ranges in the Western U.S.; the second would have overturned an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

House and Senate conferees are still in continuing discussions over the most significant remaining issue between the two bills (H.R. 4909, S. 2943), the level of funding.

Earmarks

On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) put a halt to consideration of rolling back a ban on earmarks during a closed-door House Republican Conference meeting to set House rules for the next two years.  He argued that Republicans should not change the prohibition on earmarks right after President-elect Donald Trump campaigned heavily on a “drain the swamp” message.  In return for a postponement, Ryan promised his Caucus a more thorough review of earmarks and a vote on the measure by the end of the first quarter of next year.

During the meeting, two amendments to revive earmarks were debated. The first amendment from Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) would have allowed lawmakers to direct appropriations to federal, state or local government projects.  The second from Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) would have modified the earmark ban to allow representatives to direct Army Corps of Engineers funding to projects in their districts.

Republican Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said it was his opinion that a majority of Republicans in the room were in favor of lifting the earmark ban, saying “It was pretty clear from the number of people speaking and the crowd reaction that had the two amendments had gone forward, they would have passed.”

Even if the House GOP had decided to bring back congressionally directed spending during the 115th session of Congress, the Senate was not expected to follow along.  Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) reinforced his support of the ban during a news conference last week and Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) also voiced opposition to bringing back earmarks on Wednesday.

Removing the earmark ban has been a topic of discussion among Democrats and Republicans since it first took effect in the House in 2011 and support has been building among rank-and-file Republicans to revive the use of them.  Earmark supporters say Congress shouldn’t cede the power of the purse, as provided in the Constitution, to the executive branch.

Education

The Education Writers Association held a panel discussion at the National Press Club Monday on how a Trump presidency and GOP Congress is likely to reshape federal policy on education from preschool to college.

During his campaign, President-elect Trump spent relatively little time discussing a platform on education.  However, he did briefly touch on some issues, including: criticism of Common Core, the need to scale back or eliminate the Department of Education, high student debt, support of charter schools and proposing a plan to significantly expand school choice.

Speakers on the panel weighed in on some of these issues, starting with higher education – an issue on Congress is hoping to address in 2017.  After passing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (AHA) was put on the back burner.  Members of the Senate HELP and House Education and Workforce Committee have said this is an issue they are hoping to tackle in the 115th Congress.

Regarding Common Core and charter schools, experts doubted a Trump Administration could or would do much to change the law at the federal level since ESSA gave significant power to states and localities to handle these issues as they see fit.  School choice is a more bi-partisan issue that may have an easier pathway to be altered.

The panel discussed the role of the Department of Education, and given the difficulty of dismantling a cabinet, predicted that the agency would be scaled back so as to implement ESSA without overreach.

Healthcare

House lawmakers are hoping to reach a consensus on a package of biomedical innovation bills that would also include legislation that would help overhaul the U.S. mental health care system, according to lead sponsor Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI).

House Republicans were informed at a meeting with Vice President-elect Mike Pence Thursday morning that House negotiations on the package known as 21st Century Cures (H.R. 6) are nearing completion.

The package is still expected to provide some additional funding for research.  While no funding numbers have been officially finalized, the committee is reportedly considering $4 billion for NIH and $1 billion for the moonshot.

Water Resources

Now that Congress has opted for a CR, federal funding for to aid Flint, Michigan in repairing its lead-poisoned water system could be separated from the water resources conference to a new stopgap spending bill.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) told reporters Thursday that an aid package for Flint is likely to be included in a CR.  There is currently $170 million in aid for Flint included in the House water projects authorization bill (H.R. 5303), but if moved to a CR, would be in the form of an appropriation rather than an authorization.

That amount, however, is lower than the Senate included in its bill (S. 2848) to authorize projects under the Water Resources Development Act.  The Senate’s Flint package totals $220 million. 

If the Flint funding issue is removed from the WRDA bill, prospects should increase for the House and Senate completing a conference agreement on the legislation.

Washington Outlook

Both chambers have recessed for the Thanksgiving holiday.  The next Weekly Legislative Update will be sent on December 2.  As always, we will keep you apprised of relevant events.

A lot has happened since Election Day on November 8 – Republicans will have control of the White House and both chambers in 2017, and there is talk about reviving the stalled FY17 budget resolution, passed by the House Budget Committee in March but never taken up on the floor, to help speed the partial repeal of President Obama’s health care law.

Last year, Congress failed to pass a budget for fiscal year 2017, creating an opportunity for Congress to pass two budgets resolutions next year, rather than just one.

Using the FY17 budget resolution would allow Republicans to accomplish their long held objective of repealing the health care law before turning to a brand-new FY18 budget resolution to accomplish tax reform or other objectives.  Rewriting the stalled fiscal 2017 budget and later adopting a FY18 budget with reconciliation instructions could allow Republicans to complete two of their top legislative priorities without hitting the Democratic firewall in the Senate since both measures would include instructions for reconciliation, a streamlined budget procedure that gives the Senate the power to approve items with a simple majority vote instead of the 60-vote super-majority normally required.  In addition, they will have President-elect Donald Trump in the White House to sign the bills.

In the meantime, plenty of questions remain unanswered about whether the reconciliation process would be sufficient to repeal and replace vast portions of the health care law simultaneously without causing disruption in the marketplace, which Trump has said he does not want to see while making a transition.  Senate rules require that any reconciliation provisions affect spending or taxes.  Key provisions of the health care law, like its coverage requirements, caps on annual spending, or the ban on pre-existing condition exclusions, cannot be overturned through that process. 

The strategy currently being discussed involves reviving the FY17 budget resolution in January to ensure swift passage of a measure that would repeal, at least partially, the 2010 health care law.  It remains unclear whether a replacement law would be part of the package or would be handled separately at a later time.