As Appropriations Deadline Looms, Both Chambers Take Up Messaging Bills

U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) (L) speaks as House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) (R) looks on during a news conference after a House Republicans Conference meeting December 3, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. House GOPs held the meeting to discuss their agenda. (National Journal)

As Congress returns this week from its holiday hibernation, Senate Democrats and House Republicans will open up the action with bills in their respective chambers that will play well to their political bases.

It is, after all, an election year — and that will be a guiding light in both chambers through November.

In the House, which returns Tuesday, the GOP leadership plans to continue its efforts to wrestle with the Affordable Care Act, taking up a bill designed to ensure that is secure, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said last week.

In the Senate, which returns Monday, Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to put a measure on the floor to extend long-term unemployment insurance for three months. The benefits expired Dec. 28.

Extending the benefits is a key goal for Democrats, who left town angered they were unable to tack the measure onto the budget deal brokered by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan. The bill has bipartisan support in the Senate, where it's cosponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican, and the White House has signaled its support.

However, while House Speaker John Boehner has said he would consider an extension, he has also insisted that it include a means to pay for it. Democrats argue renewing the benefits constitutes an emergency and balk at the idea of an offset.

Those aren't the only issues expected to generate heat this week. More confirmations are expected to be taken up in the Senate, highlighted by a vote on Monday to install Janet Yellen as chairwoman of the Federal Reserve.

Moreover, Congress is facing another fiscal deadline: the expiration of the current continuing resolution on Jan. 15. Though the budget deal is in hand, appropriators must now pass an omnibus bill through both chambers in order to keep the government funded through October.

Many staffers on both Appropriations committees had to cancel their Christmas plans in order to prepare a 12-bill omnibus, which is still being haggled over. None of the dozen bills were completed heading into this week and while several lawmakers participated in the holiday discussions over the phone — including both Appropriations Committee chairs — aides say that many of the sticking points for both sides will not be resolved until lawmakers return to the Capitol.

Those sticking points include disagreements over funding levels for the Interior, Financial Services, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments in particular. But even discussions about the top-line numbers for each of the 12 Appropriations subcommittees are ongoing.

Because of the abbreviated timeline to draft an omnibus bill — the Ryan-Murray budget passed both houses less than three weeks ago — the subcommittees were not given official 302(b) allocation figures, which set the top-line numbers that chairmen work with and would have to be approved by the full committee in each chambers.

Instead, the subcommittee chairs were provided with working figures not long after the Ryan-Murray budget passed and warned that they are subject to change as the negotiations continue, according to a House Democratic aide.

Still, progress is being made, according to sources on both committees, and appropriators are expected to unveil the package this week, giving both chambers time to consider and pass the measure before next Wednesday's deadline. One House Republican staffer predicted that the committee chairmen will handle the remaining disagreements themselves in order to get a bill to the floor. At worst, staffers on both sides say, the House and Senate could agree to a one- or two-day CR while both sides hash it out.

The omnibus bill if passed will fund the government at the $1.012 trillion level set in the Ryan-Murray budget through the remainder of fiscal 2014. It will allow appropriators to return to regular order for the next fiscal year, pushing many major policy arguments into the next appropriations process.

While predictable flashpoints over non-security funding could hamper the bill's path to passage — particularly in the Republican-controlled House — it is widely expected to pass both chambers, pushing many major policy arguments into next year's appropriations fight.


Focus on the Fed

Congress will focus on the Federal Reserve its first week back from recess. On Monday, the Senate is expected to vote on and easily confirm Yellen to be the next Fed chair. A vote had been expected before the holiday recess, but, if taken Monday, still leaves plenty of breathing room between Yellen's confirmation and the last day of current chairman Ben Bernanke's term, Jan. 31.

On Wednesday, the Senate Banking Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection Subcommittee will hold a hearing to discuss a Government Accountability Office report on government support for banking holding companies. Also on Wednesday, the Fed will release the minutes from its policy-setting meeting last month, which resulted in the decision to begin tapering the central bank's monthly asset-purchase program. The minutes will shed further light on this choice.

A House Financial Services subcommittee will examine the Fed's asset-purchase program and its impact on the international financial system in a Thursday hearing. The committee has pledged to spend the year — the Fed's 100th in existence — studying the central bank's practices and considering legislative reforms.

Also in the international realm: Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew will spend the first half of the week meeting with senior government officials in Europe.

The Friday morning release of the December jobs report will cap off the week. In November, nonfarm payrolls grew by 203,000 as the unemployment rate dropped to 7 percent, besting economists' expectations for growth. Friday's numbers, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics will release at 8:30 a.m., will show whether that momentum continued through the end of the year.


Eyes on Exports

On Tuesday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, will jump deeper into the political fray over U.S. energy export policy when she gives a speech and issues a "white paper" on the topic.

Murkowski and other officials from oil and gas states like Alaska and Louisiana are seeking faster federal approval of natural gas exports.

But the most closely watched parts of the speech and paper will be what Murkowski, the Senate Energy Committee's top Republican, says about exporting U.S. crude oil.

Oil companies such as Exxon Mobil and Shell, as U.S. production booms, are increasingly calling for an end to decades-old laws and policies that effectively ban export of domestic crude.

Meanwhile, Republicans will continue to charge the administration with waging a war on coal this week at an oversight hearing held on Thursday by the House Natural Resources Committee. The hearing will focus on controversy surrounding the Obama administration's rewrite of the stream buffer zone rule, an environmental regulation designed to protect streams from debris generated by mountaintop-removal coal mining, and will spotlight an investigation by the Interior Department's Office of the Inspector General into administration efforts to amend the rule.


'Doc Fix' Dilemma

House Republicans will continue their Obamacare attacks when they return to Capitol Hill next week. Majority Leader Cantor announced last week that the House will vote on a bill to "strengthen security requirements" on, and "require prompt notification in the event of a breach involving personal information." Currently the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services determines whether the issue warrants notification. Privacy and data breaches have been a major point of attack for Republicans, but CMS insists the website is secure and there is no reason for concern. The House vote is part of a continued effort on the part of Republicans to weaken and repeal the health care law.

On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee will convene at 10 a.m. in 2123 Rayburn to discuss "The Extenders Policies: What are they and how should they continue under a permanent SGR repeal landscape?" The extenders are supplemental Medicare payments to providers that face additional challenges — such as rural facilities that receive a disproportionate share of low-income patients — which have received increasing scrutiny in recent years from fiscal conservatives concerned about the budget.

The hearing picks up a discussion about a permanent fix to the Sustainable Growth Rate formula used to reimburse Medicare physicians. Permanent "doc-fix" legislation was approved in both the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees just days before the holiday recess. The budget deal carried a three-month temporary doc fix to prevent a 20 percent cut in Medicare physicians' pay, giving Congress more time to negotiate the permanent solution, which looked possible for the first time last year when the Congressional Budget Office gave it a low cost estimate.


Sanctions Showdown

On the national security front, the House and Senate are easing into the New Year with little committee activity planned. Senators are gearing up for a debate on sexual assault in the military that could come up later this month and are continuing to grapple with a bipartisan push for additional Iran sanctions opposed by the Obama administration and several key Democratic committee chairs.

In other matters, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee turns to consider the nomination of John Roth for the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department, with a hearing set for Wednesday. Roth is a director of criminal investigations with the Food and Drug Administration and if confirmed would fill a role that has not had a confirmed watchdog since February 2011.

In the House, the Foreign Affairs Committee holds a subcommittee hearing Thursday titled "Will there be an African economic community?" with representatives from the Brookings Institution, Manchester Trade, and the University of Ghana.

Catherine Hollander, Stacy Kaper, Clara Ritger, Clare Foran, Billy House, and Ben Geman contributed to this article