A brief column for a brief work period.  The House left at the end of last week for its annual August break.  The Senate had been scheduled to join the House too, but in the run-up to the debate on the failed healthcare-reform bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the Senate would remain in session for the first two weeks of August.  The Senate is expected to spend floor time processing executive and judicial nominations stalled by Senate Democrats during the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.  The minority party, upset with the speed at which Republicans were drafting the healthcare legislation and decrying a lack of public input, has been forcing procedural votes on nominees and refusing to yield back debate time on the floor, requiring the maximum amount of time, up to three days, for consideration for each nomination.  With the repeal-and-replace debate shelved at least for now, Republicans are now hoping to move through the confirmation process at a more rapid pace, starting with a cloture vote for a U.S. Circuit Court nominee.  Other pending nominations include Deputy and Under Secretary positions at various federal agencies, ambassadors to foreign nations, and the nominee to serve as FBI Director, Christopher Wray.  Several Senate committees are also scheduled to hold confirmation hearings this month.  Reports continue to circulate that Senator McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are close to negotiating a package deal to clear many nominees.  If that deal is finalized, look for the Senate to start its August recess prior to the now-scheduled August 11 date.

There is a possibility the Senate may take up legislation to reauthorize the Food and Drug Administration’s user fees that are set to expire at the end of September.  H.R. 2430, the FDA Reauthorization Act of 2017, would renew and enhance the FDA drug, medical-device, biosimilar, and generic-drug user-fee provisions.  The legislation, which passed the House of Representatives on July 12 and is currently pending on the Senate calendar, is similar to S. 934, which was reported on a bipartisan basis by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in May.  One obstacle to Senate passage is a threat from Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) to hold up the bill unless the Senate adds “right-to-try” language to the House bill.  Such an amendment would provide terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs and treatments outside of clinical trials.  Further complicating the prospects for enactment are the Administration’s views on FDA user fees.  The Trump White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy following House passage of H.R. 2430, citing the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 budget proposal to increase user fees in order to make up for a proposed decrease in the FDA’s budget.

Senators are also expected to vote on S. 114, the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act, legislation that will provide over $2 billion in supplementary funding over six months to the Choice Program administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  The program, created in 2014 in a response to allegations of manipulation of patient wait times at VA facilities, allows veterans to seek private or community health care, but has been more popular than anticipated resulting in a shortage of funds. The legislation passed the House 414-0 last Friday.  The bill reflects a bipartisan consensus to avert a shutdown of the program in August.  The bill includes a provision authorizing the leasing of 28 new VA facilities in 17 states, allowing the VA to increase the number of facilities at which it provides medical services. In addition to the $2 billion in additional funds for the Choice Program, the bill provides funding for workforce improvements and new health care specialist hires.

Finally, Leader McConnell has expressed a desire for the Senate to pass a clean increase in the debt ceiling before the Senate leaves for its August recess.  Whether he is able to bring such a bill to the floor and get it passed prior to members heading out of town is uncertain.  If the Senate does not tackle the bill in August, it is likely to become fodder for the substantial fiscal debates that are likely to consume Congress when both chambers return in September, the final month of the current fiscal year, with but few legislative days to reach broad deals to avert a government shutdown at the end of the month.