GOP-Led Congress off to a slow start
As Congress prepares to leave for the President’s day recess, Republicans, who now control both chambers,are heading home mostly empty-handed.
Even with GOP control of both chambers, the Hill has sent scant legislation to the White House and so far, the 114th Congress has yielded just one Public Law: a measure reauthorizing the terrorism risk insurance program.
Leaders, particularly in the House, thought the month would be marked by small-bore measures meant to foster unity, instead it turned out to be one legislative fight after another, and mostly among themselves.
The first week in session was marred by a failed coup to overthrow House Speaker John Boehner. The second week brought a Department of Homeland Security funding measure that has the House and Senate in a standoff over provisions targeting Obama's immigration executive actions.
During the third week, Republicans fought over an abortion bill, which mired the party in a no-win conversation about defining rape. Eventually, the legislation was pulled, but the incident damaged feelings among both antiabortion activists and House Republican women members who complained about the measure in the first place. Finally, leaders pulled a border-security bill, one they hoped would set them on a path to Republican-centric immigration reform, because they did not have enough support in their conference to pass it.
Congress and White House clash over climate and energy
The climate and energy battle between congressional Republicans and the White House is on.
Wednesday, the House voted to send legislation mandating approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to Obama's desk, where it awaits his veto pen. A key Senate committee is holding a hearing in the first step to action against the Environmental Protection Agency's high-profile rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. And Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz will likely be grilled about the administration's natural gas export policies.
Those hearings should be followed by more confrontational sessions this month and next with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, whose agency is forging ahead with hydraulic fracturing rules that are unpopular with Republicans. A top House Republican just release a broad framework for comprehensive energy legislation that will likely prompt collisions with Democrats.
The debates will be far more wide-ranging and consequential than the Keystone pipeline issue that Republicans used to start the year. The president is expected to veto the bill, and the GOP doesn't have the votes to override the veto. That outcome was expected and the debate symbolic, but the rest of the year will feature GOP attempts to beat back environmental and climate rules that Obama wants as a part of his legacy.
The White House has signaled that Obama won't sacrifice his big initiatives to cut carbon emissions in the name of forging fiscal deals with Capitol Hill. But that won't prevent Republicans from looking for openings to undermine his agenda.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold its first hearing on the EPA's planned rules for new and existing power plants Wednesday. Janet McCabe, EPA's top air pollution official, will be the sole witness.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already vowed an effort to attach provisions to spending legislation that block the EPA rules, putting himself on the appropriations subcommittee that handles the agency's budget.
Spending bills are just one option Republicans have available to them.
They also could seek to use the Congressional Review Act, a mid-1990s law that was part of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." It gives lawmakers power to overturn final agency regulations, but has only been used successfully once. EPA plans to complete emissions rules for new and existing power plants this summer.
Obama requests use of force authorization
This week, President Obama sent a draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to Congress.
The request from the Obama administration would give the president the authority to use the U.S. armed forces as he sees fit "against ISIL or associated persons or forces." The administration defines "associated persons or forces" as "individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners."
The request does not authorize the use of armed forces in "enduring offensive ground combat operations" and it would also repeal the 2002 Authorization of Military Force Against Iraq. The authorization would last three years after enactment unless it is reauthorized, and the president would be required to update Congress at least once every six months on "specific actions taken pursuant to this authorization." There are not, however, clear geographical limitations.
Now that lawmakers on Capitol Hill have received the official AUMF language from the White House, they are expected to begin altering it. Generally, Democrats are concerned about the prohibition on "enduring offensive ground troops" and the lack of any other restrictions against American boots on the ground.
Republicans, meanwhile, are voicing growing worries about the administration's overall strategy against ISIL, which the document spends precious little words addressing.
Both points will be the focus of congressional hearings over the next month or more. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) said this week that his committee is already preparing for hearings on the AUMF legislation, but with Congress scheduled to be on break all of next week, the real debate won't begin until the end of the month at the earliest.
Some Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans have raised concerns about the administration's decision to sunset the 2002 Iraq War Authorization, while leaving in place the much more broadly defined 2001 AUMF authorizing the president to use force against any entities deemed related to the September 11 attacks.
Watch the Washington Business Brief video, “National Security in the Spotlight with Steve LaTourette .”
Finding savings in the Ag bill: Crop insurance vs food stamps
Congressional Republican leaders, including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway (R-TX), have expressed enthusiasm for reining in the deficit through reconciliation, a budget tool that would require each authorizing committee to trim the programs under its jurisdiction, probably on a percentage basis.
When it comes to cutting the Ag budget, the Republican congressional focus is on cutting food stamps while the administration has proposed cutting crop insurance.
Food stamps—formally the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—is the biggest Agriculture Department program, and cutting it would seem easy in a Republican-led Congress. The administration and congressional Democrats, however, would oppose any efforts to make eligibility more difficult or reduce benefit levels. Some Republicans may also oppose as the presidential election year approaches.
The situation with crop insurance is the opposite. The Obama administration has long held the view that the program, which pays for about 62 percent of the cost of farmers' premiums and pays crop insurance companies to manage the program, is subsidized more than necessary, especially for big farmers. The cost of the program is about $9 billion per year, although federal budget officers have projected that the cost will go down if crop prices stay low and crops have a lower insurable value.
For fiscal year 2016, the president's budget proposed cutting the premium subsidy by 10 percentage points for protecting farmers from certain revenue drops and for reducing the coverage that farmers can get in case they are prevented from planting a crop because of bad weather. The changes would save $16 billion over 10 years.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have introduced a measure to cap crop insurance benefits at $50,000 per person or entity.
Farm groups, the crop insurance industry, and the bankers who consider crop insurance a vital protection against weather and price risks sent all members of Congress a letter that the cuts would "cripple" the program.
White House says climate change is bigger threat than terrorism
President Obama drew fire from the right this week for a response he gave to an interview with Vox. Vox asked Obama, “Do you think the media sometimes overstates the level of alarm people should have about terrorism and this kind of chaos, as opposed to a longer-term problem of climate change and epidemic disease?"
The president’s response:
"Absolutely. And I don't blame the media for that. What's the famous saying about local newscasts, right? If it bleeds, it leads, right? You show crime stories and you show fires, because that's what folks watch, and it's all about ratings. And, you know, the problems of terrorism and dysfunction and chaos, along with plane crashes and a few other things, that's the equivalent when it comes to covering international affairs. … And climate change is one that is happening at such a broad scale and at such a complex system, it's a hard story for the media to tell on a day-to-day basis."
On Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest reaffirmed that President Obama believes that climate change affects far more Americans than terrorism does.
"There are many more people on an annual basis who have to confront ... the direct impact on their lives of climate change or on the spread of a disease than on terrorism," Earnest told reporters.
"The point that the president is making is that when you're talking about the direct daily impact of these kinds of challenges on the daily lives of Americans, particularly Americans living in this country … more people are directly affected by those things than by terrorism."
The administration also highlighted climate change as a security threat at the end of last week with the release of its latest national security strategy, a foreign policy blueprint that put climate change on par with such risks as weapons of mass destruction, the outbreak and spread of infectious disease and terrorist attack.
Transportation in focus
Passenger rail bill passes subcommittee
On Thursday, in a rare show of bipartisan unity, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a $7.8 billion passenger rail bill. The measure includes $1.7 billion a year in funding for Amtrak over the next four years - a slight increase over the present funding amount. Both Democrats and Republicans praised the bill, which passed without a single no vote.
The bill, known as the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment (PRRIA) Act, provides about $982 million per year for Amtrak's national network and another $470 million annually for its popular Northeast U.S. routes.
The bill appropriates another $300 million per year for construction on Amtrak routes in the rest of country and about $24 million per year for the company's inspector general.
Previous Amtrak bills have been partisan and highly contentious affairs - with Democrats pushing for more subsidies for passenger rail and with some Republicans pushing to privatize the rail service.
Republicans were pleased with a provision in the passenger rail bill that would require Amtrak to use revenue generated by the northeast corridor to be used only on improvements to that popular corridor.
Michigan 7th Congressional District: State Rep. Gretchen Driskell (D), the former mayor of Saline, announced she will run against Rep. Tim Walberg (R).
Virginia 7th Congressional District: Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), who last year defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said he "probably" will have an establishment-backed primary challenger in 2016, hinting that some members of the business community in his district have been used to "favoritism."
California: A new poll finds state Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) leading former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) 45-23 percent in a head-to-head match up.
Nevada: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told his staffers this week to begin preparing for his re-election bid. Some had believed that Reid would retire at the end of this term.
Pennsylvania: A Quinnipiac poll found Sen. Pat Toomey's (R) leading his current challenger, former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-07) 45-35 percent. Toomey's approval was 37-21 percent, and 64 percent of voters didn't know enough about Sestak to form an opinion.
Indiana: Former Rep. Baron Hill (D-IN) said he is considering running for governor, and that he will "make that decision probably in the spring, or no later than the summer."
North Carolina: State Attorney General Roy Cooper (D-NC) trails Governor Pat McCrory (R-NC) according to a new poll out this week. The poll, by Meeting Street Research, shows McCrory leading Cooper by a razor thin 47-44 percent.
Oregon: Gov. John Kitzhaber (D-OR) decided to resign Tuesday but then changed his mind, insisting Wednesday afternoon that he's staying. The governor decided to pull back from resigning after meeting with his attorney and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes. Hayes' role in his administration has been the source of much of his troubles.
New polling from TargetPoint Consulting (R) shows Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) leading the GOP field in three of the four traditional early-voting states.
In Iowa, Walker leads with 21 percent, followed by 10 percent for Jeb Bush (R-FL), 9 percent for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR), 8 percent for Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), 7 percent for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (R-MD), and 5 percent for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ).
In New Hampshire, Bush is in first with 15 percent, followed by Walker with 11 percent, Paul with 10 percent, Christie with 9 percent, and Huckabee with 6 percent.
In Nevada, Walker is on top with 18 percent, followed by Bush with 12 percent, Paul with 9 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) with 7 percent, and Carson with 7 percent.
In South Carolina, Walker is in front with 12 percent, followed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) with 11 percent, Huckabee with 10 percent, and Bush with 9 percent.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA): On Monday, Bobby Jindal slammed the RNC's plans to trim the number of GOP primary debates and the length of the primary process, calling the efforts "futile." If he seeks the GOP nomination, Jindal said he won't follow the RNC's attempt to prevent candidates from taking part in debates not sanctioned by the RNC.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL): This week, Rubio hired Jim Merrill, who previously directed both of Mitt Romney’s New Hampshire primary campaigns. Merrill will be joining Rubio’s PAC as a “senior adviser.”
Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina (R-CA): Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina will appear at a women's conference on March 14 in Des Moines, IA. The Republican Party of Polk County and Polk County Republican Women are holding the event.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY): Rand Paul had the highest favorability rating among Republican primary voters in New Hampshire, at 63 percent favorable and 25 percent unfavorable, according to a Bloomberg Politics - Saint Anselm College poll conducted by Purple Strategies.
A LOOK AHEAD
The House and Senate are in Recess Next Week
WASHINGTON BY THE NUMBERS
200 – The number of times conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh mentioned potential 2016 GOP candidate Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) on his show over a 2-week period.
93 - The approximate percentage of heat trapped by greenhouse gases that ends up in the oceans.
THEY SAID WHAT?
“I have a friend from Arizona State who got busted for marijuana possession. Whenever he talks about it, I say: ‘Rand Paul 2016.’” -- Ryan Kelly, 19 (Bloomberg Politics)
“Last night was the long-awaited return of ‘The Walking Dead’ — or as some people call it, ‘"The 57th Annual Grammy Awards.” – Jimmy Fallon
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