Senate on Glide Path to Passing Immigration-Reform Bill

Billy House

The Senate is in pursuit of a bipartisan compromise on border protections before a vote later this week on final passage of its bill, which aims to usher in the most significant immigration reforms in 30 years. Meanwhile, the House takes up an agriculture spending bill and two energy measures tied to offshore drilling.

The big test before any wrap-up of the Senate's immigration bill, though, is the anticipated vote on the amendment to beef up the number of Border Patrol agents, the amounts of border fencing and other conventional security measures, and high-tech protections along the U.S.-Mexico border. A cloture vote on that amendment is set for Monday.

That amendment is designed to win over support from reluctant Republicans for the overall bill, which would give a path to citizenship to millions of unauthorized immigrants and create a new low-skill work visa program for future immigrants. Sponsors are seeking 70 votes for the overall bill, a tall order when most of the Republican senators now are firm "no"' votes. A vote on final passage could come Thursday.

Other congressional activity this week will include:

  • A House vote on its fiscal 2014 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, which carries $19.5 billion in discretionary spending, about $1.3 billion less than the level enacted in fiscal 2013. A Rules Committee hearing planned for Tuesday would set floor action on the bill.
  • The House Judiciary Committee's continued piece-by-piece approach to immigration reform. The panel is slated to mark up a high-skilled visa bill that would increase the number of H-1B visas available and eliminate a lottery that under current law distributes visas across various countries. The committee is also expected to mark up legislation that would require employers to electronically verify that the people they hire are authorized.
  • A Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Monday on prescription-drug abuse in Medicare, the subject of a recent report by the Health and Human Services inspector general.
  • A hearing Wednesday led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., on reforming the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG oversees the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Marti, and the Middle East Broadcast Networks.

Floor action for this week also will be set Monday by the House Rules Committee on the two energy bills, the Offshore Energy and Jobs Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Transboundary Hydrocarbon Agreements Authorization Act.

The Offshore Energy and Jobs Act would direct the Interior Department to adopt a new leasing plan for 2015 through 2020 and require auctions of leases in areas off of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Senate passage of that bill is not seen as likely. The other bill would approve an agreement last year between the United States and Mexico on the development of oil and gas resources in what is known as the "transboundary" area in the Gulf of Mexico.


Student-Loan Rates

Congress's fiscal battles will continue this week, even as lawmakers will be consumed by immigration reform and the looming increase in student-loan rates.

The House Agriculture appropriations bill to be voted on this week will likely provide yet another skirmish, as Democrats are upset at the proposed 6.2-percent reduction from the comparable fiscal 2013 spending level. They ague that it reflects how Republicans are creating winners of defense spending bills, and losers out of domestic programs, in terms of which will bear more-severe sequester-cut allocations. Democrats also will continue their calls for Republicans to agree to go to conference to find a two-chamber agreement on a budget resolution.

On the question of student loans, Congress needs to act before July 1 to prevent Stafford loan rates from doubling from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told National Journal Daily last week, "I hope we can have a couple of proposals to vote on" by July 1. The House already passed a bill that ties the rates to the 10-year Treasury note, plus 2.5 percent on top.


Offshore Drilling

The House is expected to vote this week on two bills expanding offshore drilling. Both bills are expected to pass the House but go nowhere in the Senate. Meanwhile, both chambers of Congress this week will inch ahead on the rare, albeit small-bore, energy issues on which there is actually bipartisan agreement.

On Tuesday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on a pair of energy-efficiency bills, whose provisions could ultimately join a larger efficiency bill, sponsored by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio, which chamber leaders have said could have a shot at a Senate floor vote.

On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee holds a hearing on the Renewable Fuel Standard, the law mandating production of biofuels like ethanol. Both House Energy Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan, a Republican, and ranking Democrat Henry Waxman of California have expressed interest in reforming the mandate, after a growing number of interests groups—the oil industry, environmentalists, and food producers—joined together to criticize the mandate. And on Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee will take up the fiscal 2014 spending bill funding the Energy Department.


Online Exchanges

The Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform at the Brookings Institution is holding a panel presentation Tuesday on the status of implementation of new online health insurance marketplaces, known as exchanges, that were created under the Affordable Care Act. A Government Accountability Office report released last week raised questions about the exchanges' readiness for their scheduled Oct. 1 opening. Officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will be describing the government's progress in getting the marketplaces up and running, as well as how they're preparing the public to shop with them, as the date approaches.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has hearings scheduled on redesigning Medicare (Wednesday), the challenges businesses will face meeting new requirements under "Obamacare" (also Wednesday), and possible reforms to the Medicare Part B drug program (Friday).

The Senate Finance Committee in a hearing Wednesday will take a look at health care quality.


Border Security

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the members of the "Gang of Eight" that crafted the Senate immigration-reform bill, acknowledges they will likely lose one or two Democrats on final passage of the overall bill if the border-security amendment passes. But sponsors are determined to get 70 votes for the overall measure, requiring Republican pick-ups, and they believe the amendment crafted by Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to dramatically boost the number of people and technology at the U.S.-Mexico border may get that done.

The biggest problem Reid is managing is the hard-core GOP opposition to the bill and the hundreds of amendments still pending on the legislation. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., threw a tantrum on the floor last week because her noncontroversial amendments weren't in the queue while Republicans, whose amendments have no chance of passing, are getting all the floor time. At the same time, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is likely to object to any attempt to end the debate prematurely. Expect Reid to pull out his time-honored threat of keeping the members in over the weekend.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has several amendments on tap dealing with entitlements (health care, welfare, Social Security) for immigrants that he wants included in the bill. They are designed to make sure that the immigrants who have yet to naturalize to full citizens don't receive entitlement benefits.

"I'll be reasonable," Hatch told National Journal Daily about his requests. "I do think it's the right thing to get this done.... But at a certain point, I'll walk."

In the House, the remaining seven members working on a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration bill that mirrors the Senate bill are still reviewing the draft and circulating it among the Republican and Democratic leaders and the various caucuses. That bill isn't likely to be taken up by the House Judiciary Committee immediately.

House Oversight and Government Reform's National Security subcommittee on Thursday will be holding its own hearing on border security. The hearing is billed as one that will examine the varied threats to U.S. border security, from illegal entries to drug trafficking organizations to potential national security breaches, how to measure each risk, and the most effective responses to each threat.


African Safari

President Obama barely had time to unpack his bags from Europe last week. But he's back on the international road this week, leaving Wednesday for an eight-day, three-country swing through sub-Saharan Africa. He will visit Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, hoping to lay the groundwork for more U.S. trade and investment on the continent.