Back From Midterms, Congress To Take Up NDAA, VA Reform, Ebola and ISIS

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a news conference the day after the Midterm elections, on November 5, 2014.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a news conference the day after the Midterm elections, on November 5, 2014.

Both current and newly elected lawmakers return to Capitol Hill to talk ISIS strategy and take the temperature of the VA's efforts to clean up its act. By Billy House and Rachel Roubein

Fiscal matters, foreign policy issues, and residual partisan haggling await lawmakers in the lame-duck session that starts this week, with the elephant in the room being that Republicans will shortly take over the Senate and full control of Congress.

However, that new Congress elected on Nov. 4 doesn’t officially take power until January. And an omnibus spending bill, or some other more-temporary measure, must be taken up by this outgoing House and Senate to extend government funding beyond Dec. 11 and keep agencies operating.

The Senate will also begin examining the qualifications of Loretta Lynch, whom Obama announced Saturday as his pick to be the next Attorney General. Lynch, the current U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, has so far earned praise and has been confirmed by the Senate twice before. But it’s unclear how quickly her confirmation will move, and some Republicans have complained they don’t believe Senators who were defeated for re-election should have a chance to vote on her nomination.

Other matters facing lawmakers include whether more money should go to address the Ebola outbreak and whether potential use of military force in the Middle East should be authorized. On Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee is to hold a hearing on the government’s response to the Ebola outbreak, with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden among the witnesses.

Against this backdrop, reelected and new members from both chambers will also choose their party leaders this week and next for the next session.

For his part, President Obama takes off to China, Myanmar, and Australia for four summits and meetings with allies and other Asian leaders, including a meeting with President Xi Jinping. 

Given the impending shift in Senate control, some lawmakers are urging that legislative efforts these last lame-duck weeks of the 113th Congress—which are not yet completely scheduled—should be limited to keeping government functioning and other must-pass legislation.

Issues that are not required to be determined now—not required to be determined in the lame-duck session—should be considered by new members of Congress, the ones the voters just elected,” argues Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

But other lawmakers and some outside interests are pushing to get more things done.

Such items range from renewal of dozens of already-expired tax breaks to extending the soon-to-expire Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, to an Internet sales tax measure. Some of the hoped-for tax extenders would address popular items and those sought by businesses, such as tax breaks for research and development and purchases of equipment, the mortgage interest deduction, and a child-care credit.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has called for extending more than 50 such tax breaks and credits that lapsed last year through next year, to allow for more time to address a comprehensive tax-code overhaul sought by both parties. In addition, the Internal Revenue Service is prodding Congress to reach a decision on extenders before the end of the year or risk complicating next year’s tax-filing season. House Republican aides say a tax-extender package during the lame duck is possible. Democrats may also seek to act on judicial picks while still in control of the Senate, which must confirm such nominations. For now, GOP opposition can still be thwarted, because Democrats changed Senate rules so that a nominee could be confirmed with a simple majority in the 100-seat chamber. Previously, it took 60 votes to get past a procedural hurdle.

Other lame-duck squawking and controversy could erupt if Obama keeps his promise to Hispanic leaders that he’d take executive action before the end of the year on immigration reform. However, little of this is expected to play out loudly during this first week back in Washington for lawmakers, as party leaders and their members in both chambers more-privately sort out their agendas and strategies. Most of the opening days of the lame duck are instead to be devoted to welcoming receptions and dinners for just-elected members-to-be, orientation programs, and intra-party leadership elections.

The Senate will be back in session Wednesday afternoon. And House Republicans who will continue to control that chamber next session—but with an even larger majority—will officially reconvene in Washington that same day. That evening, a “Leadership Election Candidate Forum” will be held. Then, on Thursday, the reelected and newly elected members will vote behind closed doors on their leaders for the next two-year session. The next day, Republicans will meet again to consider their party rules for the 114th Congress. House Speaker John Boehner and the chamber’s top three other GOP leaders are each expected to win approval in those internal elections, although races for lower-level posts could take time to play out.

In the Senate, orientation programs also are scheduled for new members. Both Senate Democrats and Republicans will elect their leaders for the next session Thursday morning. No major switch-ups are expected, with current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky poised to become majority leader. Sen. Harry Reid, who has been the top Democrat since 2005, is expected to easily slide into the minority leader spot.

Unlike McConnell, House rules will then require Boehner to be formally reelected speaker in January by a majority of all of the 435 House members who show up for the vote (Democrats included). If some ornery conservatives and tea-party-affiliated members—including members-elect who pledged during their campaigns not to support Boehner—want to try and embarrass the Ohioan, that is likely to happen in that vote. But as a group, they appear to have little momentum or any replacement to defeat him.

Meanwhile, House Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi are set to hold their leadership elections on Nov. 18, with both Pelosi and other top leaders unlikely to face opposition. But competitive races for open ranking-member slots on some key committees are already poised to provide some intra-party tension.

The extent of legislative action that will occur during this lame-duck period is not yet set in stone. Republicans have scheduled action in the House the week of Nov. 16 on two bills targeting the science behind Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and a third measure dealing with manufacturing.

Here’s some of what else Congress is doing this week:

DEFENSE

Back from recess, lawmakers have a full plate of defense and national security issues to tackle before the end of year. That includes authorization for the Pentagon to train Syrian rebels, funding—and a possible authorization of—the fight against ISIS, passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, and funding for the Pentagon’s Ebola mission in West Africa.

On the ISIS front, the administration on Friday asked congressional leaders assembled at the White House for an additional $5.6 billion to fund its efforts against the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will head to Capitol Hill to provide members of the House Armed Services Committee with an update on the fight against ISIS during a hearing Thursday.

The hearing comes the week after Obama said he would work with lawmakers on a new Authorization for Use of Military Force for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Syria. Some, including Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., have said a vote on a new AUMF should be held next year to allow newly elected members to weigh in.

On Thursday morning, the House Financial Services Committee will use a hearing to dig into ISIS’s finances. The terrorist group reportedly brings in millions each day, and lawmakers want to know where the funds are coming from.

And House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, will discuss at a Council on Cybersecurity event Thursday evening how the group and foreign fighters threaten the United States.

The Veterans Affairs Department is also back under the spotlight. Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee are holding a hearing Thursday to assess how well the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act has been implemented.

Lawmakers passed the legislation before they left town at the end of July. The bill increased department funding, and it allowed for clinicians to be hired and for the VA to increase its number of clinics. But since then, some lawmakers and veterans advocacy groups have criticized VA Secretary Bob McDonald for what they say is a hesitation to fire those involved in the department’s data-manipulation scandal.

TECHNOLOGY

The Federal Communications Commission will begin to auction off the rights to a valuable block of airwaves, known as “AWS-3,” on Thursday. Cell-phone carriers are expected to spend billions of dollars for the airwaves, which will make their networks faster. The government plans to use the auction proceeds to build a nationwide communications network for first responders.

HEALTH CARE

The federal government’s Ebola response will be in the spotlight as Congress returns this week. The Senate Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on U.S. efforts to address the outbreak, with witnesses including Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, CDC Director Thomas Frieden, and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci. The Obama administration has requested about $6.2 billion in funding from Congress—including $4.64 billion for immediate response and $1.54 billion in contingency funding—to be used for domestic preparedness and to fight the epidemic in West Africa. Officials say the funding is crucial and urgent, and remain optimistic that a deal will be struck with lawmakers during the lame-duck session.

WHITE HOUSE

Obama gets far away from all the bad political news this week, traveling to China, Myanmar, and Australia for four summits and meetings with allies and other Asian leaders. Monday and Tuesday he will be in Beijing, attending the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and meeting with President Xi Jinping. Wednesday, he goes to Myanmar, site of two summits—the East Asia Summit and the annual U.S.-ASEAN summit. He also will meet with Myanmar President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. From there, he will go to Brisbane, Australia, on Saturday. He will spend two days there, attending the G-20 summit and delivering a major speech on Asia policy.

Jordain Carney, Dustin Volz, Sophie Novack, Clare Foran, and George E. Condon Jr. contributed to this article.

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