The House and Senate adjourned on Friday for a two-week recess. Both chambers are set to return on Monday, April 13.
There was a steady flurry of activity prior to their adjournment, as both chambers considered their annual budget resolutions (though the Senate had not considered a budget resolution for several years under Democratic control), a process that will set the budget rules and the spending limits for the congressional Appropriations Committees to follow in funding federal agencies for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, which begins on October 1.
The House approved its $3.8 trillion budget resolution (H. Con. Res. 27) on Wednesday by a vote of 228-199. Republicans rejected the initial blueprint authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) by a vote of 105-319 and then voted 219-208 to advance an alternative budget proposal that included an additional $2 billion for the Department of Defense for overseas contingency operations (OCO). This version was supported by defense hawks who have been demanding higher levels of funding for the military over amounts that would be made available under the 2011 budget agreement and sequester. In addition to the military spending provisions, the House resolution seeks to balance the budget in ten years with no new tax increases and cuts to domestic spending, including a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act and an overhaul of the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
The Senate “vote-a-rama” on Thursday evening resulted in passage of its budget resolution (S. Con. Res. 11) by a vote of 52-46. More than 800 amendments on a variety of budget and non-budget related issues were filed to the Senate blueprint; 49 amendments were actually considered and 35 were approved. Like its House counterpart, the Senate budget seeks to cut more than $5 trillion in domestic spending in order to balance the budget in ten years. The Senate proposal also provides additional funding for defense spending outside of the statutory cap, with a caveat that any legislation providing more than $58 billion for the OCO fund will be subject to a 60-vote point of order.
The statutory deadline by which Congress must pass a budget is April 15 (although Congress can miss this deadline without consequence), which means the House and Senate must work quickly to iron out the differences between their two proposals when they return to Washington in April. A significant issue of disagreement will be between the defense and deficit hawks over military funding and whether the Department of Defense will be held to its statutory spending cap. While a congressional budget resolution is not signed into law by the President, it serves as an agreement between the House and Senate on a budget framework for any spending or revenue legislation moving forward. Adoption of a budget is also important if Republicans want to use the vehicle of reconciliation, a budgetary tool which provides the Senate majority with procedural benefits when they try to enact significant legislation.
In addition to resolving the congressional budget, the House and Senate both have full agendas in April when they return to Washington after the Easter-Passover recess. The Senate will take up House-passed legislation to replace a formula for physicians’ reimbursement rates in the Medicare program. Without an extension of current law, fees to doctors will be cut substantially pursuant to a formula, called the Sustainable Growth Rate, enacted years ago. Congress has passed 17 patches to avoid the cut in physician payments. The House passed a bill last week by an overwhelming 392-37 margin to replace the Sustainable Growth Rate with a new annual reimbursement update each year for five years and streamline other methods of payment to doctors who accept Medicare. The legislation also provides a two-year extension for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Even though the current patch expires April 1, when Congress will be out of session, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has stated that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “can handle a two week gap” in processing the payments, and that the Senate will “turn to it very quickly when we get back.” The margin of the vote in the House and the support for the bill expressed by the President is likely to prompt easy Senate passage of the House bill, despite complaints from a few deficit-hawks that the changes made by the bill are not fully paid for by the bill’s offsets for the new spending.
After addressing the physician-payments bill, the Senate is expected to turn its attention back to S.178, Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015, that had stalled earlier in March due to a Democratic filibuster over the inclusion of an anti-abortion provision. The bill is still seemingly two votes shy of securing the 60 votes needed to cut off the filibuster. The President’s nominee for Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, is also awaiting a confirmation vote. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not allow a vote on the Lynch nomination until the trafficking bill passes. Both sides left town holding firm to their positions, so a way forward is not yet evident.
In the coming weeks, Congress will have to deal with the expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act and the highway funding law before the Memorial Day recess at the end of May. Still hanging over Congress is the need to raise the debt limit. The limit was reached in March, but the Treasury Department is taking extraordinary measures to continue to pay the national debt. Estimates vary on a firm date by which the debt limit will have to be increased or the country will default on its obligations, so the timing of congressional consideration of the issue is unclear, but the need to tackle the issue in the coming weeks or months is certain. Both chambers are also looking to move forward on Trade Promotion Authority legislation. Other potential items when Congress returns are the Iran sanctions legislation and consideration of the President’s request for authorization for the use of military force against the Islamic State, a request that has been the subject of some hearings but no action on the Hill. Members will need the coming two-week recess to recharge, because this agenda means that things will not get easier when they return to Washington in April.
Below is a short schedule of announced field hearings to be held outside of Washington during the first week of recess:
Monday, March 30, 2015
Federal Regulation and Small Business Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship
Full Committee Field Hearing
10:30 a.m., Council Chamber, East Baton Rouge Parish City Hall, 222 St. Louis St., Baton Rouge, La.
Tomah VAMC Oversight
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; House Veterans’ Affairs Committees Joint Hearing 1 p.m., Cranberry Country Lodge, 319 Wittig Rd., Tomah, Wis.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Drugs in Native Communities
Senate Indian Affairs
Full Committee Field Hearing
10:30 a.m., Wyoming Tech Center, 638 Blue Sky Highway, Ethete, Wyo.