Monday, April 15, 2013

Slow-Motion Gun Battle Plays Out in Senate

Lawmakers will stage some slow-going drama this week as the Senate proceeds in its deliberations on gun-control legislation with a series of votes on amendments?many of them likely to usher in their own mini-floor fights, or even filibusters.

At least one vote is slated on a bipartisan proposal to require background checks at gun shows and for Internet sales. Other amendments are in the works on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and mental health.

In fact, it seems Congress is finally getting a breather from fiscal issues this week, with the Senate?s bipartisan ?Gang of Eight? expected to unveil its draft immigration-reform bill in preparation for Wednesday?s Judiciary Committee hearing.

But several administration members are scheduled to appear before various committees to talk about President Obama?s fiscal 2014 budget proposal. And with both chambers having already approved their own spending plans for next year, the two Budget committees? chairs, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will continue to negotiate how and when to move to a conference committee. Senior aides say they would not rule out?but cannot promise?announcement of a timeline.

Other activities this week will include:

  • House floor action on cybersecurity legislation, including the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act sponsored by Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich.
  • A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee markup on Tuesday of a GOP bill to take away Obama?s authority to make the final decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, helping to ensure its approval;
  • Capitol Hill appearances by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to testify before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday and the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee on Thursday about the health portions of Obama?s latest budget (though HHS requests for Affordable Care Act implementation funding may get more attention);
  • And a hearing before the Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on the fungal-meningitis outbreak linked to tainted steroids produced in a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy.
  • Away from the Capitol, the Interior Department is expected to release potentially controversial new federal regulations as soon as this week regarding ?fracking? for oil and gas on public lands.



Expect continued fallout on the part of both Republicans and Democrats from the president?s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal.

Some Republicans, such as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., have called it a step in the right direction with its proposal concerning ?chained CPI.? Yet the GOP still criticizes the president for not going far enough to balance the budget in the next 10 years and for not proposing structural changes to Medicare and Medicaid.

Meanwhile, Democrats continue to balk at the chained-CPI provision, which would change the cost-of-living calculation for government benefits including Social Security and make them less generous. And labor unions and advocacy groups such as AARP are not planning to just sit back and wait for chained CPI to end up in some small-scale hypothetical budget deal.

Now the ongoing budget wars in Washington will also include internal skirmishes among Democrats.


Analyzing Needs

Mark your calendars: It?s a jam-packed week for the House and Senate Armed Services committees. They will hear from military leaders about the Pentagon?s $526.6 billion budget request for fiscal year 2014, analyzing the needs of all four service branches in a slew of hearings this week.

The House panel will also hear an update on recent developments in Afghanistan as decisions on future troop levels are being made, and the Pentagon?s budget notably left out a firm request for overseas contingency accounts to fund the war until the Obama administration has an update.

The Senate committee Tuesday will also hear about the war effort there from Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Afghan war commander, and more about the budget request as a whole the following day from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey. The two defense leaders will also weigh in on Syria in a second panel that day. Intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn, will appear before the panel Thursday to testify on the wide range of threats facing the United States, presumably everything from cybersecurity to North Korea to Iran.


Regulating ?Fracking?

House Republicans continue to plug ahead with an energy agenda aimed at making life uncomfortable for Obama. On Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on federal vs. state regulation of oil and gas development, titled ?What State Regulators Are Doing Right.?

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations panel with oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department holds a hearing. It?s expected that those federal entities? regulatory agendas?and their 2014 budget requests?will come under attack. On Thursday, the Senate Energy Committee holds a hearing on the president?s fiscal 2014 request for the Energy Department.


Sophisticated Debate

The debate on guns has gotten increasingly more sophisticated as lawmakers respond to public-opinion polls that signify wide support for expanded buyer background checks and better enforcement of gun trafficking.

Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, want to stall the Senate debate, which means much of the week will be devoted to negotiating which amendments get votes on the floor. Other Republicans are crafting their own alternative to the legislation put forth by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., which includes universal background checks, increased penalties for gun trafficking, and school-safety grants.

Republicans want to talk about getting data on mental-health cases into the national database of prohibited gun buyers and the lack of prosecutions of people who don?t pass background checks. Democrats want to talk about banning assault weapons and why high-capacity ammunition clips are unnecessary. They also are playing up the gaping regulation loopholes regarding gun shows and Internet gun purchases, hoping that the background-check amendment by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., can get more than 60 votes, an almost certain glide path to passage of a robust gun-control bill.


Diagnosing Obama?s Budget

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will be back on the Hill to testify before the Senate Finance Committee (Wednesday) and the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee (Thursday) on the health portions of the president?s budget. (She spoke to Ways and Means on Friday.)

The budget outlines a series of Medicare cuts and premium increases that have gotten most of the public attention since the plan?s release. But HHS requests for Affordable Care Act implementation funding may get more attention at the hearings. The department has essentially acknowledged that it is running out of money to roll out the health law and has begun shifting funds from different accounts, including one intended to support public health and prevention. The budget requests more earmarked funds for implementation.

The Energy and Commerce Committee?s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the fungal meningitis outbreak this week comes as the Food and Drug Administration has said it lacks adequate authority to regulate pharmacies like the one responsible for the drug. FDA is seeking new legislative authority. Some members of the committee believe the agency could have done more to prevent the public-health crisis.


Unveiling Draft

The outlines of the bill the Senate ?Gang of Eight? is to unveil will not be a surprise?immediate probationary legalization for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, more work visas for foreign workers in both high-skilled and low-skilled jobs, mandatory verification of employment authorization, and stepped-up enforcement at the border. Analysts will be parsing the language of the bill to see how much the new programs will cost.

The eight senators say they will oppose amendments designed to kill their compromise package, but they are open to ways in which it can be improved. Some Republicans, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., say the debate is going too quickly for such a momentous piece of legislation, but those complaints are being largely ignored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and other members of the bipartisan group. ?There will be lots of amendments,? predicted Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who heads the Democrats in the group.


Mixed Agenda

Sports, guns, and the Middle East are on President Obama?s agenda this week.

Guns are there?even though no specific events are scheduled?because he will continue to lobby Congress to back his gun-violence measures. Sports are there because he will honor two champions: the University of Alabama Crimson Tide on Monday for winning the collegiate football title, and NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski on Tuesday for winning the Sprint Cup Series championship.

On Tuesday, he also will meet at the White House with Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates. On Wednesday, Obama will meet with participants in the Wounded Warrior Project?s seventh annual Soldier Ride, a cycling event to help wounded members of the military.

George E. Condon Jr., Nancy Cook, Coral Davenport, Fawn Johnson, Margot Sanger-Katz, and Sara Sorcher contributed


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