Three weeks remain on the schedule for the 114th Congress and three unfinished priorities remain on the to-do list. Before the close of the lame duck session, each chamber is expected to take action on a Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 funding mechanism to keep the government funded beyond the December 9 expiration of the current continuing resolution, the annual defense authorization bill, and a bipartisan measure to increase medical innovation and make reforms to the mental health system.
The stopgap funding measure is perhaps the biggest hurdle for members to complete this month, capping off a year-long battle over the annual appropriations process and funding levels for FY 2017. Despite the support of many Republican members to enact an omnibus bill or several smaller, so-called minibus bills to complete the months-long work by appropriators on individual FY 2017 2017 bills, House Republican leadership has indicated, in consultation with the President-elect, to pursue another short-term stopgap bill to continue current funding levels through March 31, 2017. This approach will require Congress to agree on a funding bill in early 2017 through the end of the fiscal year, September 30. The move is designed to leave any new funding decisions to the new session of Republican-controlled Congress and the new administration. Legislative language has not yet been formally introduced, and the outgoing administration has so far abstained from threatening a veto of another short-term funding bill, even though the President has indicated his support for a bill that provides funding through September 30. There appears to be little appetite among members in both parties, however, to stay in Washington, DC for another down-to-the-wire appropriations battle.
While the details for a spending bill are settled, House and Senate leaders are also finalizing the 21st Century Cures Act, legislation to invest greater resources in medical innovation and speed up the process by which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves new drugs and devices. The bipartisan measure had been held up over disputes on how to pay for the initiatives included in the bill. While significantly lower than the initial levels included in the House-passed bill, the compromise legislation is reported to provide an additional $4.8 billion in funding over 10 years to the National Institutes of Health. The bill also authorizes an additional $1 billion over two years beyond the recently enacted Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act to address opioid abuse, an epidemic affecting a wide range of constituencies for members in both chambers. Press reports indicate a bipartisan and long-negotiated mental health reform bill sponsored in the House by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) and Senate legislation sponsored by Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) will also be included in the 21st Century Cures package. As with the innovation measure, the legislation may not be as sweeping as the versions initially drafted, but it provides some much-needed reforms to the nation’s mental health system by focusing programs and resources on psychiatric care for patients and families most in need of services. The measure is also expected to establish a new position of assistant secretary for mental health in the Department of Health and Human Services, along with a chief medical officer. The summary of provisions in the legislation is based on media reports, because legislative text has not yet been released.
The conference report to the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act is another item considered a “must do” during the lame duck session, and it may be ready to see action as early as this week. Press reports indicate that leaders from the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have negotiated through several major differences between their two versions of the annual defense spending blueprint. One of the biggest disparities was the gap between funding levels, which reached $18 billion after the House shifted funding for overseas contingency operations (OCO) to boost defense spending above statutory budget caps. The new compromise conference report that was negotiated through the fall is allegedly set to include an additional $9 billion in funding for OCO and readiness shortfalls and covers the $5.8 billion supplemental request sent by the President to Congress in November. Reports indicate that House and Senate leaders have also been able to work out several controversial policy provisions that previously prompted a veto threat from the White House, though it is unclear whether the changes will be enough to assuage the Administration’s concerns.
As negotiations continue on the three major priority items discussed above, both the House and Senate will work on moving several other bills this week.
The Senate is scheduled to return to legislative business on Monday, November 28. The next vote is scheduled for Tuesday morning on passage of a bill regarding the use of technology to deliver health care in rural areas (S. 2873).
On the other side of the Capitol, the House is scheduled to return to legislative business on Tuesday, November 29, when members will consider 16 bills under suspension of the rules. The suspension package includes seven bills reported out of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, including H.R. 5458, the Veterans TRICARE Choice Act of 2016, legislation that would allow veterans who participate in the TRICARE benefit program to contribute to health savings accounts.
Members will take up an additional 13 bills under suspension of the rules on Wednesday, including several U.S. Postal Service facility designations and other items reported out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and three measures reported by the Financial Services Committee.
The House is also expected to consider H.R. 6392, the Systemic Risk Designation Improvement Act of 2016. This legislation would amend the Dodd-Frank law to alter the process by which federal regulators determine which bank holding companies should be designated as systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs). The bill would require an assessment based on risk, rather than by asset size. Consideration of H.R. 6392 will be subject to a rule.
One event of note taking place off the floor this week is the Democratic leadership elections in the House of Representatives for the 115th Congress. The elections were scheduled prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, but postponed until this Wednesday. Current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is being challenged by Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), who is seeking to inject more youthful leadership into the congressional party that lost many seats between 2010 and 2014 and picked up only six seats in November, a dramatic underperformance from what had been expected. The debate is not just about age, but is also about the direction of the Democratic Party. Leader Pelosi is from San Francisco and has been an aggressive culture warrior for the left; Rep. Ryan is from Ohio, and is seeking to reclaim for the Democratic Party the support of the working class, which has recently become increasingly Republican. Leader Pelosi recently announced she was expanding the ranks of members in the Leadership, and she remains expected to receive substantial support from the conference to maintain her post for the next two years. Nonetheless, the fight for the future of the party will be taking shape in this debate.
The hearing schedule in both chambers remains light due to the winding down of the legislative session. Of note is a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday looking at Iranian support for terrorism and a Wednesday Senate Commerce Subcommittee hearing on Artificial Intelligence. The full schedule of hearings for the week ahead is included below: