Weekly Legislative Report Feb 3, 2017

J.R. Reskovac
Sarah Strup Herbert

Appropriations/Budget

Senate Budget Committee members met this week to discuss the best ways to increase government revenue and reduce the deficit and the debt, following testimony from Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Keith Hall.

Chairman Michael Enzi (R-WY) said, “we need to look beyond the annual appropriations process,” and suggested entitlement programs may need to be looked at in order to meet budgetary requirements.

Ranking member Bernie Sanders (I-VT) rebuked Enzi for what he believed was a proposition that Congress should overhaul mandatory spending programs, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Hall warned that there would be consequences for allowing the debt to continue increasing during the next decade and noted that if Congress addresses Social Security’s insolvency soon, it could require a 33 percent reduction in benefits, but that number increases by 5 percentage points every six years that lawmakers do not take action.

Defense

Nuclear Arsenal

The Defense Science Board, a panel of outside experts that advises military officials, has recommended via an unpublished report that the U.S expand its nuclear arsenal.  The issue could generate a greater debate as the Pentagon prepares for an up-to-$1 trillion update of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the next several years.  Currently the update involves primarily building new versions of the same submarines, bombers, missiles, bombs and warheads.  Support for the modernization effort is bipartisan, but expansion for any reason other than deterrence will receive pushback from Democrats.

Federal Hiring Freeze

On February 1, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work issued a memo exempting thousands of jobs at shipyards, depots and maintenance facilities from the Trump administration’s hiring freeze.  Without such an exemption, part-time and temporary employees in many, mostly Republican, districts would have lost their jobs.   

Other exemptions include, but are not limited to: positions directly supporting contingency operations, scheduled military operations and deployments and security cooperation exercises and training; positions required for cybersecurity, cyberspace and space operations or planning; positions at medical and dental facilities; first responder and law enforcement positions; positions necessary to carry out treaties and other international obligations; and positions providing operational support to the president, Defense secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.

Education

Republican lawmakers who have advocated for a federal school choice voucher system now see a possible opening to push through legislation that once couldn’t garner enough support.  Vouchers can allow families to use federal or state funds to send their children to the school of their choice, whether that is a religious or a charter school.

In 2015, eight Republicans in the Senate and 49 in the House joined Democrats to reject several amendments that would have allowed states to use federal funds to create voucher programs through the Every Student Succeeds Act (PL 114-95).  However, with the White House and Dept. of Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos advocating for school choice, lawmakers who have praised voucher and school choice programs, including House Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), there could be a push for similar legislation this Congress.

Despite the support for school choice and vouchers, passage of ESSA was less than two years ago, and making changes to the bill could prove difficult.  Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has also made statements that his committee’s main focus will be reauthorizing the higher education act (PL 110-315).

Energy/Environment

The Senate voted 54-45 on Thursday to pass a Congressional Review Act joint resolution (HJ Res 38) to nullify the Interior Department’s Stream Protection Rule aimed to limit polluted runoff from surface coal mining into nearby water sources.

The resolution passed the House by a vote of 228 – 194 on Wednesday, and now goes to President Trump for signature.  Trump is expected to sign, as helping the coal industry was one of his campaign promises.  The controversial stream rule, also known as the stream buffer rule, was finalized in December.  It was written to update a 1983 federal rule limiting runoff contamination from open pit coal mines.

Congress has used the CRA to nullify a regulation only once before, but Republicans plan use the law in the coming weeks to undo regulations that were finalized in the past 60 legislative days of the Obama administration.  That time frame would allow Congress to act on rules made final on or after June 13, with the Senate only needing a simple majority to pass.

Trump Cabinet

Attorney General

The Senate Judiciary Committee met on February 1st and voted among party lines in favor of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for attorney general.  His full Senate vote has not been scheduled.

Department of Education

The Senate moved one step closer Friday to confirming the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Education secretary after clearing a procedural hurdle, setting up a confirmation vote on Tuesday, February 7.

The procedural cloture vote to limit debate on the nomination came after two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), said they would vote against DeVos’ confirmation after a flood of phone calls, letters and social media postings by constituents pressured Republican senators to oppose the nominee.  With nays from Collins and Murkowski, it brings the Senate to a 50-50 tie which Vice President Mike Pence can break in what would be an unprecedented move on a Cabinet nominee.

Department of Energy

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Tuesday voted 16-7 to advance Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) as Energy Secretary.  His Senate vote is not yet scheduled.

Department of Health and Human Services

The Senate voted 51-48 yesterday for cloture on the motion to proceed to executive session, which allows consideration of HHS secretary nominee Rep. Tom Price (R-GA).  The action comes a day after the Senate Finance Committee took the unusual step of waiving committee rules to advance the nomination to the Senate floor without the presence or support of a single Democrat. 

Department of the Interior

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) was approved on Tuesday by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and now goes to the full Senate for confirmation to lead the DOI.

Department of State

The Senate on Wednesday confirmed former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of State with a vote of 56-43.  Senate Democrats were nearly unanimous in their animosity toward the nominee.  Initially, some high-profile Republican Defense hawks, including Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), had expressed skepticism about Tillerson’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  But following his confirmation hearing, all Senate Republicans threw their support behind the nominee.

Department of Transportation

The Senate on Tuesday voted 93-6 to confirm Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation.  The Senators to vote against her confirmation were Cory Booker, Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Department of the Treasury

The Senate Finance Committee was scheduled to vote Wednesday on the nomination of Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, but as the case with Tom Price, Democrats did not show up for the vote, and Republicans moved to suspend the rules and vote without Democrats present.  Mnuchin, a former partner of Goldman Sachs and hedge fund manager, has also been a controversial choice due to his time with OneWest Bank, which has been criticized for cruel and overly aggressive foreclosure practices.

Environmental Protection Agency

Despite a boycott by committee Democrats, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s nomination to lead the EPA to the full Senate.  Republicans agreed by voice vote to suspend panel rules requiring at least two Democrats to be present for a vote, after the minority party sought for a second day to block Pruitt’s confirmation over questions about potential conflicts of interest and ties to the oil and gas industry.  Nonetheless, Pruitt is expected to be confirmed.

Office of Management and Budget

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s pick for director of OMB, was approved on Feb. 2nd by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Budget Committee.  He now goes to the full Senate for a floor vote.

Small Business Administration

Linda McMahon was approved by the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee on January 31st, in an 18-1 vote, to head the SBA.  The only senator to vote against McMahon was Cory Booker.  Her Senate vote has not yet been scheduled.

Washington Outlook

Next week in Congress, the Senate will continue confirmation hearings and floor votes on the remainder of President Trump’s cabinet nominations. 

Currently, the cabinet positions that have been confirmed are Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.  Mattis and Kelly were sworn in on Jan. 20th, Haley on Jan. 24th, Chao on Jan. 31st, and Tillerson on Feb. 1st.