Senate Gears Up for Floor Fight on Immigration

Billy House

Following a scheduled vote Monday evening on final passage of its farm bill, the Senate this week will press ahead with what is anticipated to become intensely combative floor action on major legislation to legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Weeks of floor debate on the bill are still on tap, with Senate Democratic leaders holding out hope for completion by the congressional recess that begins July 1. But the road is expected to be strewn with perhaps dozens of amendments that reform advocates fear are designed to undercut the bill. All of this is occurring as immigration-reform efforts in the House appeared last week to be unraveling in their own right.

Before the immigration floor battle resumes, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has scheduled a roll-call vote for 5:30 p.m. Monday on the Senate’s $955 billion version of the next five-year farm bill. That will take place after just 30 minutes of scheduled debate on the bill.

Other congressional activity this week will include:

A House Ways and Means Committee hearing Thursday on U.S. and foreign multinational corporations’ use of tax havens to avoid taxes and shift profits outside of the country.

Ernest Moniz’s first appearance on Capitol Hill since being sworn in as Energy Secretary. He will testify Thursday before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on his department’s budget proposal for fiscal 2014.

A House vote this week on its version of a National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014. The Rules Committee will set the floor procedures for the vote in a Wednesday hearing.

Visits to lawmakers Thursday by a Newtown Action Alliance contingency, which is pegging the six-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings to a reenergized push for universal background checks for gun buyers.

An appearance by FBI Director Robert Mueller on Thursday before a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing.

Continued back-and-forth between the two parties over who is more at fault for a continued lack of a two-chamber budget conference—as the clock ticks toward the Oct. 1 start of a new fiscal year.

The Senate’s farm bill last week grabbed strong bipartisan backing in a 76-22 procedural vote to end debate, easily clearing the 60-vote threshold to advance. Passage on Monday thus seems almost certain, despite urgings from some groups such as Heritage Action for America that senators vote no. Heritage is among opponents who cite the high percentage of funding for food-stamp and nutrition programs, which they say undermine true efforts to reform agriculture policy.

But the House’s $940 billion version still faces much uncertainty, as some Democrats believe it already cuts too much, while some Republicans are pressing for more cuts. The House plans to vote on its bill next week. If the House bill is approved, the two chambers must bridge their differences to come up with a final, two-chamber version.


Tax Paybacks

The seemingly unglamorous subject of taxation finds its way into every almost legislative battle. So it goes as the Senate debates its immigration bill. One thorny issue is a provision that would require immigrants to pay back taxes to the federal government—and calculate that tax bill themselves instead of having the Internal Revenue Service do it. Expect these details to become major sticking points in the floor fights between Republicans and Democrats.

The two parties also will continue their battle over who is more at fault for the lack of a budget conference. After producing a budget for the first time in four years, Senate Democrats keep pushing House Republicans to appoint budget conferees and move ahead with the discussion. After all, the Republican goading moved Senate Democrats to propose a budget proposal in the first place.

But now, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, keeps demurring by saying that appointing budget conferees and setting a timetable for deal-making would only give his Democratic colleagues space and time to tack potentially embarrassing amendments onto any legislation. On Thursday, he also indicated that he thought it was unlikely that a debt-ceiling deal would involve a budget conference. Meanwhile, the chairs of both Budget committees, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, keep meeting and talking to one another, and the two parties keep trying to cast themselves as the more responsible one on fiscal matters.


Private Markup

Following in the footsteps of its House counterparts, the Senate this week will mark up its version of the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill. But don’t get too excited to plunk in front of C-SPAN until 2 a.m. like last week—the committee’s markup is going to be closed to the public. Four subcommittees will hold open sessions on Tuesday, but if you’re interested in what the Seapower and Emerging Threats and Capabilities panels have to say, you’re out of luck, because those are closed, too. On the House side, there’s a possibility a defense bill will move to the floor next week, opening debate to all the members.


Law Overhaul

No Child Left Behind is back, but who knows how long the effort to reauthorize the long-overdue legislation will last. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is slated to begin debating a bill Tuesday to overhaul the laws governing the nation’s elementary and secondary school system.

The problem is that Republicans on the committee aren’t likely to support the legislation put together by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Led by ranking member Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Republicans have drafted their own alternative—which they proudly note is about one-fifth the size of Harkin’s bill—that would free the states from many of the requirements put in place by No Child Left Behind.

Harkin’s bill aims to do the same thing, but Alexander says it doesn’t go far enough, because the federal government would still be able to direct states’ efforts on accountability and turning around low-performing schools.

The bill will probably pass the committee without too much difficulty, but it is unclear when it will be on the Senate floor. It won’t see the light of day in the House.


Waiting Game

The low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency remains out of reach this month as the Senate begins debate on immigration reform that’s expected to take at least the rest of June. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, have been trying for the past couple of years to get a vote on their energy-efficiency legislation. The quest this time around is proving just as hard as previous efforts.

“I of course tried to get it on the floor before we got to immigration,” Majority Leader Harry Reid said on a conference call late last week. “But everything we do around here, because of the tea-party-driven House and, frankly, Senate, makes it very difficult.”

Along with Senate leadership, Portman, Shaheen, and the leaders on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be spending the next several weeks coming up with a list of amendments the Senate would vote on as part of the energy bill whenever it does finally make it to the floor. That list would likely include an amendment approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Reid went so far as to say a vote on the pipeline could be relevant (“germane,” in parliamentary speak) to the energy-efficiency bill.

“There is going to come at time when we vote on it,” Reid said. “That’s fine. It doesn’t bother me at all. I think that’s why we’re elected—[to cast] easy and hard ones [votes]. If it’s hard for someone, that’s too bad.”

Reid and Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, appear to be in agreement. “I don’t think we should be afraid of our process,” Murkowski told National Journal Daily late last week. “If we have to take some votes on some things we don’t want to take a vote on, that’s the way it is.”

Meanwhile, the confirmation vote of Gina McCarthy to be Environmental Protection Agency administrator is still not expected to occur until July, once the immigration-reform debate is complete.

The House Natural Resources Committee holds a markup Wednesday to consider 14 bills, including the package of drilling bills that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has prioritized for floor action this month. All the measures are likely to pass the GOP-controlled House, but they’re dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate.


‘Doc Fix’ Focus

On Wednesday, law firm BakerHostetler will hold a half-day seminar on tax and health care policy. Speakers include Boehner, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich. Proposals for reforming the way physicians who treat Medicare patients are paid—a permanent “doc fix”—have been a focus this year on both the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees, and they may be a topic of discussion at the seminar, along with entitlement reform.

Also on Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee will hold a hearing examining state perspectives on Medicaid reform. In March, the committee released a staff report on the state of Medicaid and making the case for reforming the program.


Amendment Moment

Sponsors of major legislation to legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants say they are seeking 70 votes for the bill to pad its chances. Reid has reserved three weeks for floor debate, promising to schedule a final vote on the bill before the Independence Day recess.

How the opposition handles that time is up to them, Reid said last week. If they choose to filibuster, they will have fewer opportunities to offer amendments.

On the horizon may be dozens of amendments that reform advocates are worried will destroy the entire effort and that senators are hoping will pick off reluctant lawmakers. Among them are proposals to deny immigrants transitioning to citizenship the ability to access the earned-income-tax credit, or put the onus on them to calculate the taxes they owe for any income they received as illegal residents.

Still other amendments are designed to destroy the bill entirely, such as proposals to require a secure border before any legalization can take place.

While it appears that the Senate, run by Democrats, has the votes to pass the legislation, sponsors fear that a slim vote of 60 in favor or fewer will signal its eventual death in the House.

The House immigration effort, meanwhile, is fracturing of its own accord. Last week, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho—the tea-party leader of the group of eight House members who were putting together their own package—bolted the group. Labrador cited concerns that taxpayers could be left on the hook for the health care charges incurred by immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally and have been granted legal status.

In his absence, the chances of a companion comprehensive bill coming out of the House decrease considerably. The House is readying a series of smaller bills to pass through committee and put on the floor, a strategy that reform advocates say won’t solve the fundamental problems with the immigration system.


Fundraising Journeys

President Obama will be keeping a close eye on the immigration debate this week, sticking close to the White House. But he will leave town long enough to raise some money for the Democratic Party in two states. He is heading to Boston on Wednesday morning to help out Democratic Rep. Edward Markey in his battle against Republican Gabriel Gomez just two weeks before voting in the special Senate race there on June 25. From there, he will go to Miami for a Democratic National Committee event in a private home.