April began with Washington learning of the first-quarter fundraising hauls of Democratic presidential hopefuls, many of whom are current or former senators and House members. Meanwhile, several additional potential presidential candidates continue to weigh their options for jumping into the race, with much of the attention on former Vice President Joe Biden, who is trying to decide whether to run amidst multiple allegations that he initiated unwelcome physical contact with women whom he encountered in public settings over a period of years.
But even as the nascent 2020 presidential primary race captures much attention, both chambers of Congress grapple with difficult decisions on the budget and appropriations bills. And there is high partisan rancor over the prospect of Congress requiring the U.S. Department of Justice to publicize much of the report of special counsel Robert Mueller, even as Senate Republicans have again changed the Senate’s procedure regarding debate over nominations, and now seek to capitalize on those changes with rapid Senate floor confirmations.
During the first week of April, the House passed a resolution restricting the authority of the United States to use military force in Yemen, absent specific congressional approval. The resolution had previously passed the Senate, where it was sponsored by progressive presidential candidate Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. This could pave the way for President Donald Trump to issue the second veto of his presidency. The House in late March was not able to override his first veto, of a congressional resolution disapproving of his use of the statutorily created emergency designation to help fund a United States southern border wall.
Last week the House also passed legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, with some new gun possession restrictions included that are opposed by the National Rifle Association. Most House Republicans voted against the bill. That bill, and those provisions in particular, face an uncertain fate in negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate. The House is now preparing to take up legislation gradually increasing the federal minimum wage to $15.00 per hour by 2024. That bill, having passed the House Committee on Education and Labor, appears poised for House floor action sometime this spring.
The Senate has commenced the month of April with two Senate floor disputes. The first dispute, over how much assistance Puerto Rico should receive as part of disaster supplemental funding legislation, has led to a stalemate, with neither side able to muster the 60 votes needed to move a disaster funding package forward. The Senate did take initial steps to move forward with debating the House-passed disaster supplemental package, but the Trump administration was critical of the Puerto Rico aid portion of the package, and is working with Senate Republicans to trim it. It is unclear whether the Senate can find compromise, or try to defer the dispute for a possible conference committee with the House.
A second dispute on the Senate floor involves a failed effort by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to push legislation sponsored by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., which would have changed the Senate’s procedures regarding post-cloture debate over many types of presidential nominations. Democrats opposed the changes, and the Lankford legislation failed, but Republicans moved to implement the changes anyway with respect to particular nominations on the Senate floor, the first being that of Jeffrey Kessler to be an assistant secretary of commerce.
These tactics, which limit the options available to the minority party or to those senators who oppose a particular presidential nomination, will surely increase the amount of partisan hostility in the upper chamber. But having forced through the changes, McConnell is now seeking to capitalize on them by filling the Senate’s floor agenda with nominations.
Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have been conducting oversight committee hearings relating to Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget request. But each chamber is pursuing its own course on budget objectives. Senate Budget Committee chairman Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., brought Senate budget legislation before his committee, which marked up the bill over a two-day period and prepared it for potential action on the Senate floor. House Budget Committee chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., appears to be preparing to opt instead for a budget strategy of raising caps on discretionary spending put in place during the Obama years, in a manner that might lead to a more generous new cap on discretionary nondefense spending than on the defense budget.
While Yarmuth points to “parity” in the raising of the caps between defense and nondefense discretionary spending, many House Democrats would prefer a higher nondefense cap. The legislation could reach the House floor this week. This House tactic of raising the caps to parity with defense, or to a more generous level for nondefense spending, would place House Democrats at odds with the White House, which appears to favor generously raising the caps on defense discretionary spending only.
As Congress and the Trump administration are headed towards an impasse over the budget, Congress also has begun work on 12 appropriations bills. Looming over that process is how to address Trump’s request for a large appropriation in the Homeland Security bill for his southern border wall. Adding fuel to the impasse was U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s abrupt resignation, and Trump’s withdrawal of his pending nomination of Ron Vitiello to be the next director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Vitiello continues to serve in an acting role, and is scheduled to testify before Congress this week. While budget legislation is not required to be passed to keep the government functioning, inability to pass a spending package because of the continued stalemate over a southern border wall could lead to a lapse in appropriation, and another federal government shutdown.
House Democrats are pressing to see, and make public, the Mueller report on Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and any involvement of Trump and his advisers in that effort. The House Judiciary Committee voted on Wednesday, April 3, to empower its chairman, Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., to issue subpoenas for the Mueller report after the U.S. Department of Justice declined to release the report, and U.S. attorney general William Barr issued a summary of the report that limits the wrongdoing attributable to the broader Trump network — a summary which many Democrats believe might overly favor the president in its interpretation. Barr is testifying on the U.S. Department of Justice budget request this week, and is facing questions about his actions related to the Mueller report.
At the end of this week, Congress is scheduled to break for a two-week April recess, returning to round out the month in session.
This article also was published in Law360.