Congress week ahead: Gov’t shutdown deadline looms

Senate passes proposal to expand private health care for veterans
U.S. Capitol Visitor Center/CNN

Congress returns this week with just eight legislative days before a possible government shutdown.

Top Republican leaders huddled with President Donald Trump over the weekend at Camp David to chart the 2018 legislative agenda and prepare for the challenging midterm elections in November, but more immediately they need to figure out a budget deal before the Jan. 19 deadline, when the government runs out of money.

Bipartisan budget talks began last week, but Democrats and Republicans are still restating their long-held positions — the GOP pressing for a significant uptick in defense spending and Democrats insisting that any increase for the Pentagon be matched with an equal increase for domestic programs.

Perhaps an even thornier issue is what to do about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which is set to expire in early March. Many progressive Democrats are pressing their leaders not to agree to any spending deal that also doesn’t ensure that undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children aren’t required to leave the country. Republicans want to deal with the issue separately, but say they can work together on a bipartisan plan. All eyes are on a meeting with Trump at the White House this week, where lawmakers are hoping to learn what exactly the White House will accept.

Pot protocol

There was bipartisan pushback against Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ move to roll back the Obama administration’s position of allowing states to determine how they handled marijuana laws.

Members of both parties blasted the move as inconsistent with Sessions’ own position of deferring to states’ rights. But it’s unclear whether there is any real momentum for Congress to step in and pass legislation to put the power back in the hands of those states that have passed measures to legalize pot for medical and recreational purposes.

Intelligence committee

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes reached a deal with the Department of Justice for documents he requested in the Russia probe. The panel’s investigation continues along stark partisan lines, with Republicans pressing to wrap up interviews while Democrats argue there is more work to be done.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the panel, said last week that he expected former White House adviser Steve Bannon to appear before the committee soon.

Notable hearings

The House is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a nonbinding resolution supporting the people of Iran, many of whom are protesting the current regime in Tehran.

The Senate Finance Committee will hear from Trump’s nominee to be the next secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar. His nomination — which was not held over from the last session of the Senate and had to be re-submitted by the White House — is expected to face some pointed questions over the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and Medicaid and Medicare funding.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will also be considering the re-submission of judicial nominees, including Stuart Kyle Duncan of Louisiana for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and David Stras for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Judiciary Committee hearings have gained must-watch status since the simple-yet-devastating questioning by Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican, that effectively derailed the nomination of Matthew Petersen to the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

In Duncan’s case, Kennedy has provided the traditional “blue slip” approval, a process by which a nominee’s home state senator turns in a blue piece of paper signifying his or her approval for a confirmation hearing to be held — but Kennedy marked himself as “undecided” on Duncan’s nomination.

During Duncan’s previous appearance before the committee, Kennedy made clear that he was not consulted by the White House before Duncan’s nomination — a move that is typically part of the blue slip process — saying Duncan’s questionnaire “seems to imply that Mr. Duncan’s name came from Sen. (Bill) Cassidy and me. At least from my point of view, that is not accurate.”

“In truth, I don’t know Mr. Duncan very well,” Kennedy said in the November hearing. “I hope that he can demonstrate to me today that he is the second coming of Justice (Oliver Wendell) Holmes or Justice (Antonin) Scalia and not the second cousin of somebody who is politically connected in the Washington swamp.”