Latest News Out of Washington, D.C.
February 2, 2017
President Donald Trump nominated federal appellate court judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, Jan. 31. As expected, congressional Republicans applauded the selection of Gorsuch, whose conservative views on many issues parallel those of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. For his part, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) promised to require an exhaustive, robust, and comprehensive debate on Gorsuch’s nomination while at the same time expressing serious doubts about the nominee. Likewise, a number of congressional Democrats were quick to assail the president’s choice to serve on the nation’s highest court, signaling concerns with some of Judge Gorsuch’s previous legal opinions.
The clear partisan divide over Gorsuch’s nomination portends what is expected to be a bitter and perhaps prolonged fight in the Senate. With many Democrats still upset over the fact that Republican leaders refused to grant a hearing or vote for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, the expectation is that the minority party will do everything in its power to resist Gorsuch. While current Senate rules require a 60-vote threshold to advance a Supreme Court nominee, Republicans have not dismissed employing the so-called “nuclear option,” which would mean rewriting Senate rules to require just 51 votes to approve Judge Gorsuch’s nomination.
In related developments, Senate Republican committee leaders clashed this week with their Democratic counterparts over several of President Trump’s key cabinet nominees. Partisan tensions reached a boiling point as Democrats who serve on the Finance Committee and Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee boycotted the consideration of three of Trump’s cabinet-level selections. In response, Finance Committee Republicans ultimately decided to shelve the panel’s quorum rules and subsequently approved the nominations of Representative Tom Price (R-GA) for Health and Human Services secretary and Steven Mnuchin for Treasury secretary. EPW Committee leaders are expected to follow suit in order to advance Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Also this week, the House and Senate are considering resolutions that would roll back so-called “midnight regulations” that were issued late in the Obama administration. Pursuant to the Congressional Review Act, Congress has the ability to nullify agency regulations that are issued in the final months of the previous administration. It should be noted that the law also prevents the executive branch from imposing substantially similar regulations in the future. Congress has only successfully used this tool once before to negate a Clinton-era rule on ergonomic standards.
Among the measures to be considered is a rule dealing with background checks on gun purchases. The regulation, which stems from a series of orders following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, requires the Social Security Administration to report disability insurance recipients who have mental health conditions to the FBI’s background check system. Another measure would rescind a rule requiring federal contractors to disclose their labor violations. A third measure that is likely to be finalized this week would rescind a rule meant to protect streams from surface mining operations.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee and Oversight and Government Reform Committee held four separate hearings this week on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Across Capitol Hill, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee conducted its own ACA-related hearing. As expected, the committee discussions featured heavy doses of partisan wrangling as Republicans and Democrats clashed on a variety of issues, including the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s signature health care law. Incidentally, members largely avoided offering new ideas on forging a legislative path to repair, repeal, or replace the ACA.
In other health news, key committees in both chambers of Congress failed to meet the budget resolution’s (S Con Res 3) January 27th statutory deadline for passage of an ACA repeal measure. Furthermore, a number of prominent Republicans are now publicly stating that legislation dismantling the ACA should not move forward until there is a clear legislative path and details on a suitable replacement. Despite a desire by the Trump administration for Congress to act quickly on a repeal bill, recent developments suggest that it will take a number of months for Republican lawmakers to produce a cohesive legislative package.
Finally, and as reported above, Senate Finance Committee Democrats temporarily thwarted a scheduled committee vote on the nomination of Representative Price to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Citing concerns over Price’s past trades of health stocks while he served on congressional committees with jurisdiction over health-care issues, Democrats abruptly boycotted the panel’s Tuesday meeting. The move set off a firestorm of condemnation from committee Republicans, who, incidentally, boycotted Finance Committee votes on actions proposed by then-President Obama. Committee Republicans ultimately cleared Price for a full floor vote without the participation of any panel Democrats.
House Committee Holds Hearing on Infrastructure
On Wednesday, February 1st, the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee conducted its first hearing of the new 115th Congress. Entitled “Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America,” the hearing featured testimony from the leaders of several major U.S. corporations, as well as the president of the AFL-CIO. The witnesses presented ideas on how to modernize the nation’s aging infrastructure while discussing a number of different approaches to financing various infrastructure upgrades and projects.
For his part, T&I Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) did not express his support for any particular revenue-raising proposal, but did indicate that his committee would be working with the Trump administration to identify viable financing tools. The panel’s ranking member, Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), criticized Congress for not having the foresight to increase user fees, such as the gasoline tax, as part of the 2015 surface transportation reauthorization bill (FAST Act).
It should be noted that the T&I Committee hearing is expected to be the first in a series of discussions on infrastructure, with the Senate EPW Committee also likely to hold its own hearings in the near future.
As expected, the need for investment in infrastructure has received increased attention since the presidential election, when then-candidate Trump pledged to seek as much as $1 trillion for key public works projects. For their part, Senate Democrats recently released their own 10-year, $1 trillion plan to fund a host of aviation, surface transportation, port and waterways projects. Democrats have not yet identified a specific funding source for their plan, though have suggested that revenue for the program would be generated by closing tax loopholes.
The Trump White House, which isn’t expected to release the details of its infrastructure proposal for serval weeks, has indicated that its plan would be financed via a combination of federal tax credits and public-private partnerships. While some Republicans have embraced the administration’s pay-for, a number of conservatives in Congress have expressed skepticism with the size and scope of such a proposal.