Members of Congress return to Washington, D.C. this week for a three-week work period before the Memorial Day recess. As with the congressional agenda in April, the Republican majority will work towards meeting deadlines on several priority items—Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 appropriations bills, the Farm Bill authorization (set to lapse in September), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization (also expires in September), the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and the Water Resources Development Act.
The Senate is still focusing much of its floor time confirming Executive Branch and judicial nominees, with six circuit court nominees scheduled for consideration early this week. Most controversial of the current batch of nominations is that of Gina Haspel to be CIA Director. A career CIA official, Haspel has been serving as Acting Director since the elevation of Mike Pompeo from the post to his current position as Secretary of State. Director Haspel’s nomination has run into considerable controversy, principally over her role implementing enhanced interrogation techniques at the Agency that are now under disfavor, and her potential role in the destruction of evidence of videotapes depicting one such practice — waterboarding. Her nomination is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, and if the nomination clears Committee, is likely to face a close vote in the narrowly divided Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has also pledged to continue to confirm President Trump’s judicial nominations as they are reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee throughout the remainder of this year. According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the Senate has so far confirmed 33 of President Trump’s nominees for the federal courts in the 115th Congress, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and 15 appeals court judges. Approving the six nominations under consideration this week would increase that number up to 21. During a recent interview, Leader McConnell said his goal is “to confirm all the circuit and district court judges that come out of committee this calendar year.”
Also during this work period, the Senate is likely to take up a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution related to net neutrality. Senate Democrats announced they plan to force a vote on a measure that would nullify the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) 2017 decision on net neutrality, which repealed 2015 regulations that prohibited broadband providers from blocking or slowing down traffic and preventing them from charging higher rates for faster speeds. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has introduced a resolution (S.J. Res 52) under the Congressional Review Act to reverse this action. Consideration under the CRA would allow the Senate to move forward with a simple majority, as the measure is not subject to a filibuster. Supporters have already secured the necessary 30 Senate signatures to discharge the resolution from committee and force a vote on the Senate floor. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine supports the measure, and particularly with the current absence of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is undergoing cancer treatment, the measure provides the possibility of a rare win for the minority party in the Senate. The measure is considered dead on arrival in the House, however, as Democrats do not have nearly enough support to force a vote on a resolution.
On the other side of the Capitol, the House is expected to take up its version of the Farm Bill during the second week of this legislative work session. Advanced by the House Agriculture Committee on April 20, by a party-line 26-20 vote, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 authorizes agricultural support and food assistance programs through 2023, and also contains some controversial reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also commonly known as food stamps, conservation programs, and payment limits. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) is reportedly working to secure support for the measure from the entire GOP conference and trying to limit some of the amendments that may be offered during floor consideration that could jeopardize final passage. Press reports indicate the Senate Agriculture Committee is readying its bill for committee consideration, although a draft has not yet been made public. Senate Agriculture Committee members report that progress is being made and the process remains open and bipartisan, a stated priority for committee leaders, Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). However inclusive the process may be in the Senate, this bill would have to be conferenced with any eventual House legislation, which is likely to lack Democratic support that would eventually be necessary in order for a conference report to secure the 60 votes necessary for Senate passage.
The House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to mark up its FY 2019 NDAA on May 9. The annual authorization bill sets Department of Defense policy and authorizes spending levels for the year ahead. The Armed Services subcommittees each marked up their portions of the NDAA last month, and a final bill was released on Friday, May 4. The defense policy bill would authorize $717 billion in spending over the next fiscal year, a number that complies with the recent bipartisan budget agreement, with $616.7 billion provided for the Pentagon’s base budget, $22.1 billion for the Department of Energy’s defense programs and $300 million for other defense-related base budget items. The measure also includes $69 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The Senate will also conduct NDAA work this month, as the subcommittees of the Senate Armed Services Committee will markup up their portions of the measure beginning on May 21. Both committees are working to move their proposals through their respective chambers by early summer so that they can negotiate a final product that can be signed into law before the fiscal year ends on September 30.
House and Senate Transportation Committees are readying a long-term FAA reauthorization measure. On April 27, the full House of Representatives passed a 5-year FAA reauthorization bill by a bipartisan 393-13 vote. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) steered a bill through the committee with his counterpart Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in 2017, but it has yet to be considered by the full Senate. Chairman Thune had publicly indicated he would be willing to drop a controversial provision related to pilot training requirements, in order to move the bill in the Senate and go to conference with the House and negotiate a final product that can pass both chambers, and he is reportedly working on securing floor time for the measure as soon as this month. Both Chairman Thune and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Penn.) have publicly stated their hope to complete a long-term reauthorization bill before the August recess.
Press reports indicate Chairman Shuster is concurrently working on WRDA legislation, a two-year reauthorization of numerous projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works Program, which includes flood protection, harbor and coastal dredging, and seaport improvement programs. The Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment has held hearings and policy discussions related to the reauthorization over the past few months, as has the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which also has jurisdiction over the program. Chairmen of both committees have expressed their desire to complete a bill this year.
This month will also see further activity on FY 2019 appropriations bills in the House and Senate. Newly-installed Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who took over the gavel last month after the retirement of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), has pledged a return to “regular order” in the appropriations process following the two-year bipartisan budget agreement reached earlier this year and a veto threat from President Trump over the FY 2018 omnibus measure. Chairman Shelby is prepared to move individual bills through the full committee beginning in May, readying them for floor consideration as early as June. House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) seems prepared to follow a similarly accelerated timeline, with the first full committee markup scheduled on Tuesday, May 8. Both chambers appear committed to quick consideration of individual bills or “minibuses,” packaged in groups of three or four, which may be more palatable for the White House over a single massive spending bill. However, both Appropriations Committee Chairmen have acknowledged it will be difficult to pass and conference all twelve bills through each chamber before the end of the fiscal year on September 30, which will likely mean a short-term continuing resolution will be necessary to fund the government into the lame duck session after the November midterms.
This article was originally published in Law360.