Congress Has 4 Days To Act on Obama’s Syria Plan

Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., right, and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., walk to the Senate chamber prior to a vote on Capitol Hill, on March 27, 2014.

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Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., right, and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., walk to the Senate chamber prior to a vote on Capitol Hill, on March 27, 2014.

Congress has plenty to tackle in its last week before recess, including whether or not to include language in its spending bill that would authorize the training of Syrian rebels. By Michael Catalini and Billy House

This was supposed to be easier.

Come back to Washington from August recess and pass a temporary spending bill to keep government from shutting down on Oct. 1, then return home to campaign ahead of the midterm elections. That was all Congress wanted to do in September.

Instead, lawmakers eager to go home at the end of this week for the pre-Election Day stretch run must first deal with President Obama’s request for authority to arm Syrian rebels. And they will also play host this week to the president of Ukraine, who will be addressing Congress on Thursday, amid the ongoing incursion of Russian forces into his country’s territory.

All politics may be local, but foreign policy is now taking center stage.

There is broad—though not unanimous—support in the House and Senate for Obama’s plan to aid Syrian rebels combating Islamic State militants. But whether lawmakers will include the provision he seeks in the must-pass spending bill, or take some other legislative route, remains unclear.

House Republicans began weighing the request last week, and many prefer to leave the Syria language out of the spending bill, known as a continuing resolution. The gravity of the situation necessitates it be debated separately and voted on as a matter of conscience, some Republicans say.

But a standalone bill that will focus entirely on war authority is the last thing some Democrats fighting for their majority want to weigh in on, or have on their campaign resumes. “Plan A” is to pass the CR and the war-training authority in one measure, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. “Plan B” would be a separate vote.

Combining the war vote with the CR leaves Democrats on the campaign trail some rhetorical wiggle room, the aide said. They can argue their vote was needed to keep the government open, including some money to fight a cruel and dangerous enemy, the thinking goes. But political opponents could wield an entirely separate vote to their own advantage, the aide said.

Meanwhile, the administration will not be just a bystander in this debate.

A handful of top administration officials are headed to Capitol Hill this week to explain—and defend—the plan to take on ISIS.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are to appear Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss what threat the terrorist organization poses. Hagel is also expected to travel across the Hill Thursday to the House Armed Services Committee to defend the administration’s proposal to defeat ISIS. Its chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, wants to embed special operations forces with Sunni tribes in Iraq.

There is no way around it, American boots will be standing on sand,” McKeon said during an American Enterprise Institute speech Thursday. “Americans will be shot at, and they will be shooting back. There is simply no other way to do this.”

Secretary of State John Kerry—who drew attention this week for saying the U.S.’s ISIS plan is a “very significant counterterrorism operation,” not a war—will also make back-to-back appearances on the Hill. The secretary is set to talk about the administration’s response to ISIS with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday afternoon. He will meet with its House counterpart, the Foreign Affairs Committee, on Thursday.

On the domestic front, FBI Director James Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will appear before the House Homeland Security Committee Wednesday to discuss threats to the homeland. ISIS will likely dominate that hearing, with lawmakers concerned that members of the terrorist organization could come to the United States to carry out an attack. Committee members are also expected to ask about al-Qaida branches in Yemen and Somalia, as well as the threat posed by homegrown terrorists.

Even before much of this, House Republicans expect to hold a Rules Committee hearing Monday on the procedural way forward on the Syria authority language and the CR—whether they are the same legislative vehicle or not—and a vote or votes could come as early as Wednesday.

But a wrap-up of the House’s activities won’t occur before Thursday, when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is expected to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress. The speech comes as the White House, along with the European Union, released a new set of financial, energy, and defense sanctions against Russia.

The Senate could then leave town, having passed the CR and the Syria language by Thursday, said a senior Democratic aide.

Still, there is some tension even among Democrats about granting the president the authority he seeks. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut called on Congress to vote on an authorization for the use of military force to confront ISIS—a broader legislative action that goes beyond what the White House is seeking.

There is no viable excuse for Congress to abdicate its constitutional responsibility to authorize war,” Murphy said.

It’s also unclear how Senate Republicans would vote on the measure or measures and whether they might slow down the process.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky signaled there would be no drama over the measure funding the government, but Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said last week he favors using any means—including the CR—to prevent Obama from issuing an executive order granting illegal immigrants legal status. (The White House has put that off until after the election.)

And some Republicans object to the president’s approach to ISIS as well. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, suggested he has problems with the president’s request.

I believe the president is exercising poor judgment by not explicitly seeking an authorization from Congress where consensus can be reached around a substantive plan of action and support can be built for an operation that he has described will take several years,” Corker said last week.

However the military language is handled, Congress is expected to include in the CR a temporary reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank this week, as well as an extension of moratorium on Internet taxes. As introduced last week in the House, the CR would fund government through Dec. 11, and also carry these and other extensions.

The bank’s renewal in the bill would run until June 2015. That is not what House conservatives who want the bank shut down prefer, nor is it the years-long renewal that many Democrats want.

But both sides appear ready to accept a nine-month extension. If House Republicans stick to such a short extension for the bank in a spending bill that also includes Syria language, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sander Levin said of House Democrats, “We’ll probably have to take it.”

There are a few other items to address this week, as well, including some campaign-messaging maneuverings in the form of legislation.

For instance, the House will revive several previously passed bills on energy issues in a messaging bid to send what Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called a “single, common-sense energy plan” to the Senate. So, too, will the House pick up its messaging on jobs, including action on the Jobs for America Act.

Among the legislation will be bills to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, expedite exports of liquefied natural gas, lower barriers for hydraulic fracturing, and streamline offshore drilling. It’s unlikely the bills would have much of a chance in the Senate on their second go-round.

On Monday, the Senate will vote once again on a key piece of the Democratic election-year agenda. Democrats expect Republicans to block the Paycheck Fairness Act.

The Senate will also vote Monday on the nominations of Jeffrey Baran and Stephen Burns to be members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Here’s what else Congress will be doing:

DEFENSE and NATIONAL SECURITY

Lawmakers will continue to focus on the embattled Veterans Affairs Department. Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will dig into a final report from the VA Office of Inspector General on the scandal surrounding the department’s medical facility in Phoenix.

Lawmakers are sure to ask Richard Griffin, the acting inspector general, about allegations that his office allowed the VA to influence the findings of the report, including that inspectors could not “conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths” of roughly 40 veterans. VA Secretary Robert McDonald will also testify at the hearing.

ENERGY

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee is to hold a full committee hearing on Wednesday on Environmental Protection Agency regulations to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from the nation’s existing fleet of power plants.

The hearing, titled “The Administration’s Climate Plan: Failure By Design,” will feature a heavy dose of criticism from conservative panel members aimed at the regulations, which stand as the central pillar of administration efforts to tackle global warming. Testimony in defense of the rule will be given by Janet McCabe, the acting assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, and John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, will take up the question of energy tax credits as part of a discussion on comprehensive tax reform at a hearing Wednesday.

The panel previously passed a bill of tax extenders, including the renewable-energy production tax credit, before Congress left for recess, but the fate of the green-power tax incentive remains uncertain and could be a topic of discussion during the hearing.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power will meet Wednesday to consider a bipartisan bill meant to improve employment among minorities and underrepresented communities in the energy sector. The bill, from subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and ranking member Bobby Rush of Illinois, would require the Energy Department to increase education and energy job training programs.

HEALTH CARE

As the Ebola outbreak continues to rage in West Africa, Congress will consider global attempts to control the virus this week. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing on the subject Tuesday, with witnesses including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden as well as American aid worker and Ebola survivor Kent Brantly.

Brantly is to testify again, along with other witnesses, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday.

The international response to the public health crisis has been slow-moving and insufficient, and the World Health Organization is pleading with organizations and countries to send more resources and health workers. WHO estimates that the number of reported Ebola cases in the region thus far is about 4,800, with more than 2,400 deaths, and the organization said the number could reach 20,000 in the coming months.

The Senate HELP Committee will mark up the Sunscreen Innovation Act on Wednesday, which would implement a timetable for Food and Drug Administration approval of new sunscreen ingredients. The bill passed the House in July, and supporters are hoping to get the Senate version through on Wednesday, but the timetable is tight with the lame-duck session and start of the new Congress looming.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing on issues regarding the government’s health care website, HealthCare.gov, on Thursday, with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner testifying.

The hearing comes with just under two months remaining until the Obamacare’s second open-enrollment period begins Nov. 15. Expect questions about the security breach of the federal enrollment system this summer from Republicans, and questions on insurance auto-enrollment from Democrats.

TECH

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a net-neutrality hearing on Wednesday. Chairman Patrick Leahy is pushing the Federal Communications Commission to enact tougher rules, though Republicans remain skeptical of any Internet-access regulation.

The FCC will hold roundtable discussions on net neutrality on Tuesday and Friday. The deadline for comments to the agency on the issue is Monday.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee is to vote Wednesday on legislation to reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, which is set to expire at the end of the year. Chairman Jay Rockefeller and ranking member John Thune have abandoned their attempt to attach sweeping changes to the bill, but TV broadcasters remain opposed to other provisions that could reduce the fees they receive from cable providers.

WHITE HOUSE

President Obama will travel south this week before returning to Washington to host Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko in a highly anticipated visit.

Obama will begin by awarding the Medal of Honor to two Vietnam veterans in a Mondayceremony at the White House and then will raise money for Democratic candidates at an event in D.C. that evening. 

Tuesday will see the president flying to Atlanta to be briefed at the CDC on the Ebola outbreak in Africa. On Wednesday, he’ll tour the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., before returning to Washington to join members of Congress at the annual summer picnic at the White House.

On Thursday, Obama will host Poroshenko at the White House, where the two leaders will discuss efforts to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the face-off with Russia in eastern Ukraine. And on Friday, the president will participate in the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Leadership Forum in Washington.

Sophie Novak, Jordain Carey, Jason Plautz, Ben Geman, and Brendan Sasso contributed to this article.

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