DC Roundup: Congress Returns for a Four-Week Sprint

DC Roundup: Congress Returns for a Four-Week Sprint

Congress is back from recess today to begin a busy month with measures that would reauthorize farm programs and avert a scheduled doubling of student loan interest rates. Lawmakers will also begin moving the first of the fiscal 2014 appropriations bills dealing with homeland security and military construction and veterans’ programs while continuing to weigh proposals to address the military’s sexual assault scandals.

Today in the Senate: The chamber resumes consideration of a five-year farm bill (S 954), debating an amendment that would overhaul the system for delivering U.S. food aid and increase purchases nearer to areas in need. Meets at 2 p.m.

Today in the House: The schedule is light, with five bills to be considered under suspension, including one (HR 1919) by Bob Latta, R-Ohio, that would revamp the government’s method for tracking prescription drugs. Meets at 2 p.m. with votes postponed until 6:30.

Today at the White House: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. host a national conference on mental health that focuses on outreach and reducing stigma.

SENATE DEBATES STUDENT LOAN FIX: The heated fight over student loan interest rates is headed to the Senate floor, where Democratic leaders this week will press for a vote on an extension of the current 3.4-percent rate. The vehicle will be a plan (S 953) by Jack Reed, D-R.I., that would increase taxes on multinational corporations to pay for a two-year extension. Though it could show up as an amendment to the farm bill, it’s more likely that the chamber will hold side-by-side votes on Reed’s plan and a House-passed Republican measure (HR 1911) that would peg the interest rates to the 10-year Treasury note, with a 60-vote threshold for passage of each. Both measures would probably fail, cranking up pressure on the sides to come up with a compromise. Obama has blasted the House bill, saying it could saddle students with more debt than if rates are allowed to double to 6.8 percent on July 1, as scheduled. CQ reporter Lauren Smith will be tracking the procedural machinations, and whether the Democratic bill attracts any GOP defectors who want to use tax provisions aimed at companies that shift profits overseas to pay for popular priorities. Congress last June extended the student loan rate for a year (PL 112-141) after deadlocking for three months over how to pay for the extension.

MILITARY ASSAULTS BACK IN SPOTLIGHT: The senior uniformed leaders from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard will appear together for the first time to discuss the military’s widening sexual assault scandal at what promises to be a high-profile Senate Armed Services hearing on Tuesday. The gathering, which will also feature testimony from each service’s judge advocate general, comes just weeks before Armed Services marks up a fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill that will contain policy changes aimed at correcting the problem. CQ reporter Megan Scully will be on hand to track calls to overhaul the military justice system, with a particular focus on female panel members such as Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C. A key pressure point remains whether to take prosecutorial decision-making out of the accused’s chain of command for felony-level offenses.

HIGH STAKES FOR DEFENSE MARKUPS: Defense-oriented House lawmakers are approaching a pair of markups on Wednesday with deep trepidation about the final fiscal 2014 Pentagon spending levels. House Armed Services will mark up its fiscal 2014 authorization bill (HR 1960) the same day the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee marks up a draft defense spending bill. The spending limits Congress enacted as part of the 2011 deficit control law (PL 112-25) will hang over each panel’s proceedings, though they’re not likely to be acknowledged. The Defense Department sent Congress a $526.6 billion budget request for fiscal 2014 that would exceed the caps by $52 billion, and Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on whether or how to replace the cuts with alternatives. CQ reporter Frank Oliveri reports pressure is building as military officials emphasize the damage that the sequester is causing. However, budget hawks in both parties appear willing to let politics play out for now, wagering the ill effects of sequester will force the other side to yield.

HEAD-IN-THE-SAND ON SEQUESTER: Many of the lawmakers who voted for the 2011 deficit control law assumed that its across-the-board cuts would be so politically painful that they would force Congress to make rational choices about spending priorities. So far, the House and Senate haven’t flinched, despite furloughs, canceled grants and contracts and other cutbacks affecting constituents. As Oliveri and Kerry Young write in CQ Weekly, the Obama administration and lawmakers embarking on the fiscal 2014 appropriations season are acting as if the caps in place for the coming year don’t matter. What transpires in the coming months will say a lot, not only about spending levels but how seriously policymakers view the threat of future sequesters.

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— Adriel Bettelheim, Morning Briefing editor, adrielbettelheim@cqrollcall.com, on Twitter @abettel