Summary for week ending April 7, 2017
Maneuverings This Week -
The signature legislation aiming to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) did not pull sufficient votes to pass last week and so was pulled from the floor without a vote by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI-1) with promises from nearly every quarter of the Republican caucuses that it will return soon. The sticking point was not that few if any Democrats would support the bill because Republicans have sufficient numbers to pass it on their own. The resistance to passage came from the House Freedom Caucus, a 30 to 40-member caucus that holds to far right conservative positions that required removal of the 10 healthcare needs insurers must meet, the requirement that insurers cover those with preexisting conditions, and the prohibition of life-time payout caps to beneficiaries as per the Affordable Care Act. Moderate Republicans found removing those provisions unsettling so shifting the bill to the more conservative Freedom Caucus to get their votes meant losing the moderate votes.
Republican leadership has vowed to iron out differences and bring the bill back for a floor vote. The compromise in the works that aims to appease both caucuses is to allow the 10 required coverage provisions, the preexisting condition, and the lifetime caps provisions to stay in the bill but leave the decision to implement them or otherwise to the States. Another possibility is the creation of a $100 billion high risk pool to cover those very ill and therefore very expensive for insurers to cover.
As has been reported, the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court requires 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans have 52 seats, Democrats 48. Democrats are generally opposed to Gorsuch due to his reported non-response to his position on Roe vs Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in the U.S., and Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited campaign donations from corporations. While four Democrat Senators signaled support for Gorsuch, the tally in favor stands at 56, shy four votes for confirmation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has vowed that Gorsuch will be confirmed this week alluding to the so-called nuclear option through which Senate rules are changed and the nominee needs only a majority vote, 51, to put him on the court.
The nuclear option originated with a past narrow majority of Democrats in the Senate who invoked that option to fill lower court nominees from the Obama Administration. It was an understanding between both parties then that the decision is a step away from regular order but should not ever apply to Supreme Court nominees.
Gorsuch received 55 votes against 44 votes on the motion to proceed to further debate and a final vote.
Democrats took up a filibuster on the bill attempting to indefinitely stall the vote. The filibuster action, always of questionable use beyond bringing the matter to the news cycle, did not prevent McConnell’s option to invoke the ‘nuclear option’ and allow for passage with 51 votes by making a point of order to allow for a majority vote. Gorsuch will be confirmed Friday, April 7th.
The House took action on two bills this week regarding North Korea; first a resolution condemning that country’s firing of Intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a bill, HR 479, that sets the stage for designating North Korea a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Under the bill the Secretary of State must show North Korea ‘directly or indirectly, committed, conspired to commit, attempted, aided, or abetted any act’ that constitutes support for international terrorism and must explain why not if that is his conclusion.
The government of Syrian President Assad is now accused of dropping chlorine gas and other dangerous chemical gases on its own people as Assad continues to resist Syrians organized in opposition to his government practices. Congress this week remains silent and the White House condemned the practice, threatened action it did not yet define, and then blamed it on the previous Administration for not doing anything over the past eight years. While the Obama Administration hesitated to send ground troops into Syria, the reasons stated then were that the situation in Syria involved authentic resistance to Assad, but because of many splinter groups whose missions were unclear arming one side could have the effect of those arms making their way to groups not in line with US thinking. The President deferred to Congress on the matter but Congress had no appetite for another ground war which was likely to become a quagmire also involving Russia and Iran siding with President Assad which is the current situation.
The House Intelligence Committee investigation lost credibility due to the actions of Committee Chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA-24). Nunes visited the White House grounds one late evening and was reportedly shown documents that he later said indicated some White House officials had been caught up in a customary phone surveillance of Russian officials. Such information gathering does not identify Americans swept up in such a surveillance. Nunes then discussed the matter with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI-1) who he said told him to take the information to the President. Nunes informed the press and then went to the White House to advise the President of the documents. Nunes then held another press conference but did not provide the documents to his committee or his co-chair. Nunes then canceled witness testimony and eventually stopped holding hearings on the matter. That committee is reportedly now meeting again.
As of April 6th, Nunes has stepped aside as chair due to his being investigated by the House Ethics Committee over complaints about his actions involving the White House.
Nunes will temporarily be replaced by three Republicans; Rep. Mike Conway (R-TX) who has equated the alleged Russian hacking during the 2016 campaign to foreign entertainers who performed at a Clinton Rally in Nevada; Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) who chaired the Benghazi investigation and found no evidence but during interviews by the House Intelligence Committee seemed to ignore the matter of hacking, the purpose of the investigation, and questioned witnesses about the alleged leaking of information Trump wanted investigated; and Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) who in his current and previous districts did little but send out emails vilifying the Obama Administration and the Affordable Care Act often declaring the law unconstitutional. Those choices, to many, further affirm that the House investigation is not reliable.
The Senate stepped into the miasma Nunes’ action created and began hearings on some 20 witnesses with the help of six staff members with very high security clearances. The Senate Intelligence Committee investigation is under the guidance of Chair, Richard Burr (R-NC) and Co-chair Mark Warner (D-VA) who immediately held press conferences explaining their way forward and making the promise that they will get to the bottom of the matter. Witness interviews continue.
Debt Limit Increase
A previous budget agreement set the public debt limit to be revisited by April 28, 2017. The expiration of previous debt limits has led first to Treasury using methods to continue to pay the nation’s debts for a time after which it would default on those payments and face a credit downgrade as it has in the past. The resistance to increasing the debt limit thereby giving Congress the funds to pay for the government came from the 30 to 40-member Freedom Caucus objections to the spending and some not agreeable amendments to the bill. Congress breaks this week until Monday, April 24 leaving them only four days to deal with the contentions. Perhaps an indicator of things to come, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) introduced a bill addressing paying government workers in the event of a government shutdown.
The Senate and House are adjourning and will return to work on Monday April 24, 2017. The next edition of TheWeekinCongress.com will be published on Thursday evening, April 27th.
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