Agenda Is Stacked for Return of Congress; Obama Will Pile on More With His Budget

Billy House

The prospects for renewed talks on a long-term deficit-reduction deal reach a pivotal point this week with the release Wednesday of President Obama’s budget plan, which offers cuts to Social Security and Medicare in the hope of softening Republican opposition to tax hikes.

But even before his proposals have been officially unveiled, Obama is taking political heat from Democrats and liberal groups for compromising too much. And congressional Republican leaders must decide how to respond to Obama’s bargaining, including a determination whether the spending cuts and other concessions offered by the president are, in fact, enough to give ground on their antitax positioning. Their initial responses have not been warm.

Lawmakers, returning from their two-week recess, will pore over details of what Obama proposes, seek to gauge constituent reaction, and hold hearings with administration officials. The real show, however, could come on Wednesday night, when Obama dines again with Senate Republicans, the second time in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, gun control, immigration reform, and confirmation hearings for several Obama administration nominees are other topics that will grab the spotlight this week in the House and Senate. Activities will include:

  • A Senate Budget Committee hearing on Wednesday regarding the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell as Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Chuck Hagel’s return Thursday to Capitol Hill for the first time in his official capacity as secretary of Defense. He and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey will appear before the House Armed Services Committee.
  • A Senate Environment Committee hearing on Thursday on the confirmation of Gina McCarthy as Obama’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • A Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on Tuesday on confirmation of Ernest Moniz as the president’s nominee for Energy secretary.
  • A House Rules Committee meeting Wednesday to consider procedures for a floor vote on a bill to freeze the work of the National Labor Relations Board if it does not have a full quorum, a response by Republicans to complaints that Obama overstepped his bounds last year by appointing board members without Senate consent.

In a reversal of the usual process, in which the president's budget arrives first, the GOP-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate have already passed vastly different budgets this year. Obama's spending plan for fiscal 2014 is arriving late, thanks to protracted battles over the fiscal cliff and sequestration, administration officials say.

Obama may be floating potential budget savings in Medicare and other entitlement programs in an effort to convince Republicans to renew talks over a larger bargain, one that goes beyond just the next fiscal year’s finances.

Such a bargain would seek to end Washington’s chronic budget impasses with a multiyear plan to shrink the deficit, while securing an agreement to raise the debt ceiling this summer and avoid defaulting on the nation's debt. Talks over such a deal came undone last year when the president insisted on higher taxes for the rich and corporations.

The president’s Wednesday budget proposal will also include as much as $600 billion in new revenues or tax hikes, and a new formula for calculating inflation that would reduce cost-of-living payments for Social Security benefits for some recipients, an idea referred to as "chained CPI."

Senate Democrats declined to take on entitlements in their budget, and already there are signs Obama may be alienating some in his party by doing so. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Reps. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., are among those already disappointed.

“Republicans have been trying to dismantle Social Security ever since President [Franklin] Roosevelt proposed it during the Great Depression. We should not try to bargain for their good will with policies that hurt our seniors, especially since they’ve been unwilling to reduce tax loopholes for millionaires and wealthy corporations by so much as a dime,” they said in a joint statement.

For their part, House Republicans don’t appear overly impressed, either. In fact, some are dismayed that the president's budget calls for additional revenue. "If the president believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there’s no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes,” said Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a statement.

Fiscal Fault Lines

Both parties will have the chance to react to Obama’s budget in public during a series of hearings in which Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Jeffrey Zients will testify about its contours.

Lew’s scheduled appearance Thursday before the House Ways and Means Committee is also expected to include questioning by committee members on the administration’s efforts and plans regarding comprehensive tax reform.

Hagel on the Hill

Defense-watchers will be keen to know the details of Obama's budget request for the Pentagon when it is released Wednesday. Defense accounts, expected to total $526.6 billion without war costs, according to Bloomberg, are also expected to ignore sequestration. Budget drama is likely to unfold as the House Armed Services Committee hears from Hagel and Dempsey on Thursday. The spotlight will be on Hagel, because it will be his first time testifying on the Hill in his new role as Defense chief.

Climate-Change Showdown

Expect lots of fireworks at Thursday’s Senate Environment Committee confirmation hearing for McCarthy, Obama’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The hearing will represent this year’s first big climate-change showdown between congressional Republicans and the Obama administration. Over the next four years, EPA will be the epicenter of Obama’s climate-change policies, as the agency prepares to issue a series of regulations to slash greenhouse-gas pollution from coal-fired power plants. At the hearing, expect Environment Committee ranking member David Vitter of Louisiana, along with fellow Republicans John Barrasso of Wyoming and James Inhofe of Oklahoma — all of whom hail from major fossil-fuel-producing states — to go hard after McCarthy about regulations that the GOP has labeled “job-killing.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Obama’s nominee for Energy secretary will go before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for his confirmation hearing. Although he’s likely to face some grilling from Republicans, Moniz is ultimately expected to enjoy a fairly smooth passage to confirmation. While his predecessor, Steven Chu, became a target of Republican attacks due to his full-throated championing of climate-change regulations and clean-energy spending, Moniz has a record of supporting more traditional fuels, such as nuclear power and natural gas.

On Wednesday, House Republicans kick off their springtime energy-messaging agenda with a hearing on their bill to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. The GOP wants to bring the measure to the floor for a vote ahead of Memorial Day weekend — the kickoff of the vacation driving season — to channel unhappiness over high gas prices against Obama.

And when Obama unveils his budget request Wednesday, it’s expected to include funding requests in line with his energy and climate priorities, including spending on clean-energy research and regulatory offices.

Losing Battle

The Senate is slated to begin debate on gun legislation this week, which could amount to an almost total loss on the part of gun-control advocates. The real question is how long it will take. Democrats are still hopeful to reach a compromise with Republicans on background checks. If they succeed, votes could be delayed a week to draft the bill.

Several tea-party GOP senators, led by Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, have said they will filibuster the legislation that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will put on the floor. The "base bill" already lacks an assault-weapons ban or a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips, which means that proponents will have to try to add those items as amendments. The base legislation includes an expansion of background checks for gun purchases, increased penalties on "straw purchasing" of guns, and $40 million for safety grants for schools.

The assault weapons ban doesn't have enough support to clear a majority in the Senate, let alone the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. A ban on high-capacity magazine clips also does not have enough votes. Gun-control advocates are hoping that the background-check expansion can clear the 60-vote threshold, but they would need to be willing to accept a compromise that eliminates paper records of the purchases, a concept that they generally find unacceptable.

The school-safety grants, and perhaps even the gun-trafficking piece, could, in theory, pass the Senate, but the two smaller gun provisions are linked to the background-check measure in such a way that uncoupling them could prove difficult. If Reid decides to use his authority to stop the filibuster under a new procedure brokered with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., earlier this year, each side will be limited to just two amendments. Democrats already want votes on the assault weapons ban and, separately, on high-capacity ammunition. That leaves no room for additional parsing of the various gun proposals on Democrats' end. If Reid decides not to stop the filibuster, the tea party will have a heyday dragging the floor debate out for weeks until Democrats cry "Uncle!"

Painful Cuts

All eyes will be on the president's budget, expected to include $400 billion in suggested cuts to the major health programs. Few of them will be big surprises, because last year's budget was so detailed and because the president has been pushing a $400 billion package as part of fiscal cliff and sequester talks. But there remain a few critical unknowns.

But the big health event this week will be Marilyn Tavenner's confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee. If she is confirmed, Tavenner will be the first Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator to be approved by Congress in seven years. Tavenner, a former hospital executive, has ruffled few feathers and appears to have bipartisan support — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., (who does not get a vote) has been loudly singing Tavenner's praises to his Senate colleagues.

But there's a reason why it's so tough to confirm an administrator: CMS has oversight of nearly all of the Affordable Care Act's implementation, as well as the massive Medicare and Medicaid programs. Expect her to get tough questions about the department's regulatory approach and its plans for health reform. Finance will also hold a hearing on the president's budget Thursday.

Also on Thursday: The House Ways and Means Committee will hold its own budget hearing, bringing Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to testify; the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing on Obamacare insurance-market regulations; and the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on Medicare's benefit design.

Numbers Game

The Senate "Gang of Eight" Republicans and Democrats are still putting the final touches on a draft immigration bill that will likely put off the publication that was slated for this week. The "gang" left town before the spring break without a final agreement because labor groups and business groups had yet to ink a final deal on a new work-visa program. Since then, both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have issued public olive branches to one another and to Congress on the program. The initial dispute over wage rates for foreign workers appears to be resolved, but the two sides are still haggling over the numbers. Labor wants to keep the new foreign-worker numbers low—under 100,000 generally and never above 200,000 per year even in an economic boom. Business says that isn't nearly enough. Lawmakers are waiting for them to come together in the middle.

Other outstanding issues are waiting for the work-visa details to be hammered out, including contingencies for border security, how family-based visas will be treated, and how the legalization program for 11 million undocumented immigrants will work. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has promised immediate but thorough consideration of the legislation in committee once it's ready. That has angered some Republicans — notably Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. — who want to slow the process with extensive hearings and public vetting. Leahy has largely rejected those pleas, saying time is of the essence if the bill is to be passed this summer.

Guns and Numbers

For Obama, this week is all about guns and numbers. On Monday, he travels to Hartford, Conn., to remind the nation of the December killings by a lone gunman of 20 school children and six adults. On Tuesday, his message will be stressed by Vice President Joe Biden at a White House event with law enforcement. On Wednesday, first lady Michelle Obama carries that message to Chicago. And on Thursday, Biden participates in a gun discussion on Morning Joe on MSNBC.

While his wife and vice president keep the focus on guns, the president turns on Wednesday to taxes, spending, and entitlements with the long-delayed release of his budget. Finally, on Thursday, Obama will posthumously award the Medal of Honor to Capt. Emil J. Kapaun, the Army chaplain who displayed great bravery in the face of withering enemy fire during the Korean War.