Update from Washington, D.C. 01/18/2013
House members returned to Capitol Hill the week of January 14
from a brief hiatus ready to put the finishing touches on a
Hurricane Sandy recovery bill that had been tied up for weeks due
to the fiscal cliff debate and disagreements over the scope of
spending in the disaster-relief package. After fiscal
conservatives unsuccessfully attempted to offset $17 billion of
the emergency spending with across-the-board cuts to domestic and
defense programs, nearly 50 Republicans joined an almost
unanimous Democratic caucus in voting to approve the roughly
$50.5 billion measure (HR 152).
The Senate, which is slated to return to Washington from a two-week recess next week, is expected to consider the House-passed disaster-relief bill as early as January 22.
After dispensing with the hurricane recovery legislation, House Republicans headed to Williamsburg, VA for their issues retreat. The theme of the event, which is the party’s annual political and policy conference, was “One Conference, Many Voices.” House Democrats will hold their own retreat from February 6 – 8 in Leesburg, VA.
During the retreat, GOP members discussed key issues facing their party, including immigration reform and laws that will need to be reauthorized in the near future, such as the transportation bill (MAP-21) and the No Child Left Behind education law. It was clear, however, that the primary focus was on major fiscal and budget matters, particularly the need to raise the debt limit.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who will be stepping down from his post later this month, recently warned Congress that the government will be unable to meet all its financial obligations at some point between the middle of February and early March, unless the statutory debt limit is raised. For his part, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) confirmed that House Republicans were, in fact, considering a short-term debt ceiling increase.
Aside from the discussion on the nation’s spending limit, Congress will also have to confront a series of across-the-board cuts set to kick in on March 1. It should also be noted that the federal government is operating under the auspices of a continuing resolution (PL 112-175) that will expire on March 27.
In other developments, President Barack Obama unveiled on January 16 a package of legislative proposals aimed at curbing gun violence. Among other things, Obama recommended universal background checks for all gun buyers and a crackdown on gun trafficking. He also called on Congress to reinstate the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips, both of which lapsed in 2004.
In addition, the president signed 23 separate executive orders, directives that are intended to provide law enforcement, schools, mental health professionals and the public health community with the tools they need to help reduce gun violence. Among the orders are a Presidential Memorandum to require federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background-check system, a directive to the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence, and a commitment to finalizing mental-health parity regulations.
The president’s plan was met with mixed reactions on Capitol Hill. While there will likely be congressional hearings scheduled in the coming weeks, Obama’s plan faces a tough road as many Republicans have expressed their opposition to most forms of gun control, and Democrats are far from unified within their own party when it comes to restrictions on firearms and ammunition.
Finally, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis both recently announced plans to step down later this year. They join Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Treasury Secretary Geithner who have also announced plans to leave. While it is unclear who President Obama will nominate to fill the openings at the Departments of Labor and Interior, the leading candidates to replace Salazar are former North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes, and outgoing Washington Governor Christine Gregoire.