Capitol Commentary: The Month Ahead in Washington, DC

(Posted 5/30/17)

With Congress in recess this week, we look ahead to June.

Next month promises to push to the forefront tensions between military spending and deficit cutting, between defense priorities and domestic needs, and between congressional leaders and the Trump White House. Hard choices will be negotiated as the House and Senate Armed Services committees start writing the 2018 defense authorization bills. Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain wants to undo the military spending caps that have constrained the Pentagon since enactment in 2011 of the Budget Control Act. The Arizona Republican has warned that he is willing to force a floor vote on the caps during consideration of any bill — any bill at all — that makes it to the Senate floor. McCain and House Armed Services Chair Mac Thornberry both wanted the administration to ask for more fiscal 2018 military spending than made it into the budget request. They want $640 billion, excluding war funds. The Trump administration’s request came in at $603 billion. So far, the two chairs say they have not made a final decision on whether to write their authorization bills at the level they prefer. House subcommittees are planning to debate portions of the fiscal 2018 authorization the week of June 19, with the marathon full-committee markup tentatively planned for the following week. Senators are preparing to start marking up their version of the bill the week of June 26.

The Senate has schedule a June 6 vote on the nomination of Courtney Elwood to become general counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Lisa Murkowski has said she wants an early June committee vote on two Federal Energy Regulatory Commission picks and deputy secretary nominees at the Energy and Interior departments.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he plans to bring to the floor after the recess S. 1094, legislation that would empower Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to fire employees as he tries to improve medical care of veterans and reduce wait times for VA hospital admissions.

Another bill that could be in line for Senate floor action would let the administration impose more economic sanctions against Iran, as well as companies and individuals that assist Tehran in ballistic missile tests or fomenting terrorism in the region. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the bill, S. 722, on May 25.

The House plans to take up legislation to overhaul the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. After a behind-the-scenes fight, H.R. 10 will go to the floor with a managers’ amendment that would keep in place the law’s cap on “swipe fees” that go to banks when customers use debit cards to buy merchandise or a meal. Score that as a victory for retailers, as Elizabeth Dexheimer explains: Wal-Mart Beats JPMorgan Again as GOP Keeps Cap on Swipe Fees.

Look for committees in both chambers to begin drafting legislation to renew the Federal Aviation Administration’s power to collect ticket and fuel taxes to fund its operations. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Bill Shuster favors privatizing the FAA-run air traffic control system — a position that has little support in the Senate. Highway Subcommittee Chair Sam Graves of Missouri said there could be a markup as early as June.

Before the Senate can debate a Republican-crafted replacement for the previous administration’s health-care law, the leaders and enough of the rank-and-file must agree on what the main pillars of their plan should be, and that is still a work in progress. The No. 2 Republican leader, John Cornyn, told reporters May 25 that the “general tone” of discussions in their 13-member working group is encouraging because of “a willingness of people to make small concessions to build consensus.”

“With 50 senators needing to agree on this bill, everybody is in a strong position so we cannot roll anybody, so we are going to have to continue to talk about that issue,” he told reporters.

South Carolina Republican Tim Scott predicted that senators will not leave for the August recess “without having a vote on health care.” After the June work period, there are three more weeks of session before the August break.’

John Zang Contributed to this Report

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