Latest News Out of the Nation’s Capitol
Sept. 6, 2018
Members of the House returned to the nation’s capital this week following their annual month-long summer recess. They were joined by their colleagues in the upper chamber who had a more truncated August break. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) kept the Senate in session for much of the month to advance a slew of presidential nominations and to make progress on the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bills.
While the Senate was able to advance a number of Trump administration nominees in recent weeks, the bigger challenge for GOP leaders will be confirming Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s choice to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
As advertised, the confirmation process officially kicked off in the Judiciary Committee this week. Democrats, led by Senators Dianne Feinstein, Kamala Harris, and others, wasted no time in voicing their objections to Kavanaugh. For her part, Senator Feinstein expressed concern with Kavanaugh’s record on issues such as abortion and gun control. Senator Harris, meanwhile, demanded that the proceedings be postponed until Democrats have had ample time to review a multitude of recently released documents from the nominee’s past. Despite their protests, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has continued with the proceedings.
It should be noted that Supreme Court nominees can now be confirmed with a simple majority, rather than the 60-vote threshold that was required in the past. The so-called “nuclear option” was used in 2017 to allow Republicans to break a Democratic filibuster of then-Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. In 2013, Democrats employed the same tactic when then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) led his caucus in lowering the vote threshold needed to advance executive branch nominees and lower court justices.
Following the appointment of former Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) to fill the seat vacated by the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Republicans have regained a 51 to 49 advantage in the upper chamber. Accordingly, GOP leaders are hopeful that Kavanaugh will be confirmed before the court formally opens its term on October 1.
Farm Bill Negotiators Meet Publicly for the First Time
On September 5, House and Senate conferees met publicly for the first time to reconcile the differences between their respective farm bill reauthorization measures. If enacted, the legislation would renew various expiring commodity, trade, rural development, agricultural research, and food and nutrition programs.
While there appears to be wide agreement on a number of policy matters, one major point of contention has been over proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The House-approved measure includes controversial new work requirements for SNAP/CalFRESH recipients. Under the legislation, all able-bodied adults without children under age six would be required to work at least 20 hours per week and/or be engaged in a work-related program. The first failure to do so for more than one month would result in the loss of SNAP benefits for one year. A second failure would result in the denial of benefits for a period of three years.
The House bill also would restrict categorical eligibility for SNAP to only those individuals receiving TANF cash assistance or other TANF supports, such as child care. Currently, there are other ways of becoming eligible for SNAP, such as receiving aid through a state assistance program or Supplemental Security Income. Additionally, the bill would effectively eliminate the use of the standard utility disallowance and instead would require SNAP participants to submit utility bills and would count any LIHEAP benefits when determining SNAP benefits.
In addition to the SNAP provisions, Democrats have expressed concerns over the forestry title of the bill. Specifically, the House bill seeks to expedite approvals for logging in national forests through the expanded use of categorical exclusions (CEs). Projects that could be accelerated through the environmental review process include those that address insect and disease infestation, reduce hazardous fuel loads, protect municipal water sources, enhance critical habitat, and increase water yield, among other things. The Senate bill does not include the aforementioned CEs, but does include language that would give counties the ability to partner with federal land managers through the Good Neighbor Authority.
Senate Republican and Democratic leaders have been clear that they intend to pass a Farm Bill that rejects the SNAP changes proposed by the House. However, House conservatives, as well as President Trump, have been adamant about retaining the new work requirements. With regard to the forestry provisions, party leaders appear willing to negotiate. Congress has until the end of September to approve the legislation before the current farm law expires.
Appropriators Continue to Make Progress on FY 2019 Spending Bills
With only a matter of weeks before the October 1 start of the new fiscal year, lawmakers and staff have continued to make progress on the fiscal year 2019 appropriations legislation. To date, the Senate has passed nine of its 12 annual spending measures, while the House has approved six. It should be noted that a number of the House and Senate-approved bills have been bundled into three separate “minibus” spending packages, which congressional leaders are eager to complete by the end of the month to avoid a full government shutdown. Decisions on some of the more contentious bills, particularly one covering funding for the Department of Homeland Security, would be postponed via a continuing resolution until after the November elections.
Minibus Package I – Energy and Water; Military Construction-VA; Legislative Branch (HR 5895)
Appropriators from the House and Senate met this week to begin reconciling differences in the spending measure covering Energy and Water Development, Military Construction-Veterans Affairs, and the Legislative Branch. While appropriators were hopeful that a final agreement would be reached this week, the conference report will likely be delayed until next week. Leaders on both sides of the aisle have expressed optimism that negotiators will complete their work on the package, which is largely considered the easiest of the three pending bills.
Minibus Package II – Labor-HHS-Education; Defense (HR 6157)
This week, the House agreed to go to conference with the Senate on a second minibus (HR 6157) that combines funding for the Department of Defense with the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education bill. On September 4, House Republicans named eight members to serve on the committee, including California Congressman Ken Calvert. House Democrats will be represented by five members of their caucus, including Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard of California. The Senate is expected to name its conferees in the coming days.
Minibus Package III – Interior-Environment; Financial Services; T-HUD; and Agriculture (HR 6147)
The third minibus (HR 6147) in the series includes the House version of the Interior-Environment and Financial Services spending bills. The Senate package also includes the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development title, as well as the legislation that funds the Department of Agriculture. While committee leaders have indicated that they are close to a final agreement, it is unclear if Congress will have time to consider the package before the start of the new fiscal year.