Gavel Down

GAVEL DOWN: Closing out the Week in Congress (Mar. 13-17, 2017)

Gavel Down - Closing out the week in Congress

Despite the snow, it was another busy week on the Hill…

House Budget advanced legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, teeing up final House vote for next week. President Trump unveiled “America First” budget proposal. Both House and Senate Intelligence said there’s no evidence that the federal government wiretapped Trump Tower. Bipartisan lawmakers took to the road on 31-hour drive to Washington. Senate confirmed two more nominees, bringing the total to 20 confirmed nominees. Federal judges ruled on President Trump's revised travel executive order. Debt limit suspension expired, as lawmakers talk about raising the debt ceiling. Senate Finance held confirmation hearing for Robert Lighthizer, nominee for nation’s top trade position.

House Budget advanced legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare

The American Health Care Act (AHCA) remained in the spotlight this week. If you're just catching up, the AHCA is House Republicans' plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Catch up on its introduction, overnight marathon markups, and key provisions.

This week House Budget considered the recommendations reported from House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means, while House Democrats held an alternative hearing regarding the legislation. House Budget passed the legislation 19-17, with Reps. Sanford, Brat, and Palmer breaking ranks with fellow Republicans. The lawmakers belong to the House Freedom Caucus who has expressed concerns with the AHCA. The bill now heads to House Rules, who determines how it will appear before the full House for consideration. Leadership is aiming for the bill to hit the House floor on March 23. Check out the running whip count. House Republicans can only afford to lose 21 votes to pass the legislation.

There was lots of fuss this week about the CBO. If you were left scratching your head over another acronym, here's the deal — the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is a federal agency that provides Congress with nonpartisan analyses related to budgetary and economic issues. The agency's been around for over forty years and "scores" legislation reported by committees. Check out this video to learn more about the CBO, as well as this explainer.

So why did you hear so much about the CBO? Because the agency released its cost estimate of the American Health Care Act (AHCA). CBO estimates that 24 million people will lose health insurance by 2026 under the AHCA. If enacted, the AHCA would cut the federal deficit by $337 billion over 10 years but would return the share of Americans without insurance coverage to pre-ACA levels. These estimates were supported by internal White House analysis.

Meanwhile, President Trump urged Speaker Ryan to make changes to the legislation to appease the far right, while Senate Republicans called for revisions in the other direction. Sen. Tom Cotton [R, AR] warned House GOP about passing the bill, saying it would fail in the Senate and could affect reelection efforts in 2018. Sen. Susan Collins [R, ME] said she cannot support the legislation in its current form. Check out the Republican lawmakers whose voters have the most at stake on Obamacare replacement bill.



President Trump unveiled budget proposal

This week President Trump unveiled his "America First" budget proposal. It included significant cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, State Department, and Agriculture and increases to Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs. Trump's budget marks the first time a president has called for ending the national endowments (the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities).

The endowments, what's that? Time for a history throwback — In 1965, President Lyndon signed legislation into law, creating the endowments. Picture a bill signing ceremony with Gregory Peck, Ansel Adams, and Ralph Ellison (or watch it here). The legislation marked the federal government's investment in culture, arts, and humanities.

Image: The New York Times

So how's this all work, anyways? Well, the president submits a budget proposal to Congress reflecting his priorities and plan for the country, but only Congress can determine the final spending plan. Congress devises its own federal budget, and then Appropriations works out the nitty gritty details as to how to spend money.

What's this all mean right now? Don't believe anything you hear about programs coming to an immediate end upon release of this budget. The president's budget is far from a given. So, for example, there are no changes to Meals on Wheels coming any time soon. The President's budget suggests eliminating Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs), administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which provides some funding for Meals on Wheels. A majority of funding for the program, however, comes from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).


What do you do now? Go ahead and weigh in on the president's budget, and get a head start on letting Congress know what programs you think deserve more or less funding from the federal government.


House and Senate Intelligence Committees say no evidence supporting wiretapping claims

On Friday, the Department of Justice delivered documents to the House and Senate Intelligence committee related to the president's claims and the broader investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

Leaders of Senate and House Intelligence committees made statements on the president's unfounded claims that the Obama Administration wiretapped Trump Tower:

  • "Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016," – Chairman Richard Burr and Ranking Member Mark Warner.
  • House Intelligence committee leaders Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff appeared together to say that they saw no evidence to support the president's claim.

. The House Intelligence committee holds a hearing on the Russia probe next Monday:

Bipartisan lawmakers take to the road

What do you do when your flight to Washington gets cancelled due to a big snowstorm? You team up with a colleague, rent a Chevy Impala, and take a 31-hour road trip to Washington to make it in time for work.

If you didn't follow #BipartisanRoadtrip, you should really check it out. This week Texas Reps. Beto O'Rourke [D, TX-16] and Rep. Will Hurd [R, TX-23] livestreamed their entire road trip to Washington, D.C. They fielded calls and questions from the public, bickered about directions, and jammed out to music (seriously, check the playlist). They highlighted landmarks and local gems and called members as they passed through their districts. They debated everything from healthcare reform to gun control to education. Folks were rooting for them to make votes in time, with House Majority Leader saying he would stall as long as he could.

Indeed, they did make it in time, and more than that, they ended up signing on to each other's bills they discussed in the car. Rourke's legislation would allow family members barred from reentering the U.S. because of a technical violation to ask a federal judge to reconsider, and Hurd's legislation would authorize federal funds for local law enforcement to hire veterans.

Senate confirmed two more nominees

Senate confirmed two more nominees this week, bringing the total to 20 confirmed nominees (or 36% of the total number submitted for confirmation). 

On Monday, the Senate confirmed Seema Verma as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The final vote was 55-43. Shortly after taking office, the nation's new top official for Medicaid coauthored a letter with HHS Secretary Tom Price addressing the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. The letter was sent to every governor. It recommended states put new requirements on Medicaid recipients, such as working, paying premiums, and making emergency-room copayments.

Then on Wednesday, the Senate confirmed former Sen. Dan Coats as director of national intelligence. Coats is only the fifth person to hold the position since its creation, following the September 11 terrorist attacks. The final vote was 85-12. See how your senators voted.

Confused as to why the Senate also voted on H.R. McMaster this week? Here's the deal: national security adviser is not a position that requires Senate confirmation. However, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster chose to remain in the military rather than retiring, and generals need Senate approval when they change assignments. So the Senate voted 86-10 to allow McMaster to stay on active duty and retain his three stars while serving as national security adviser. 

"What does it mean when there are suspensions?"

"Suspensions" refer to bills considered under "suspension of the rules." This is an expedited way to consider non-controversial bills. These bills require a two-thirds majority vote to pass, receive 40 minutes of debate, and no amendments are allowed (except for technical corrections). Per a protocol adopted in the 112th Congress, bills brought up under "suspension of the rules" must be available publicly and electronically for three days before the vote. Check out this report from the Congressional Research Service if you really want to dive into House legislative procedure.

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Federal judges ruled on revised executive order

This week President Trump's revised travel executive order faced three court hearings before it was scheduled to take effect at midnight on Wednesday.

First up, a Hawaii ruling issued a "sweeping freeze" of the order. The 43-page opinion cited comments from Trump advisers about the new order's similarity to the previous order. Here are the key points from the ruling.

Early Thursday, a federal judge in Maryland issued a second injunction. It was more narrow than the Hawaii ruling and suspended only the portion that "stopped the issuance of visas" to citizens of the six named countries. 

What's the main difference between these two rulings? The Hawaii ruling was more broad and blocked two provisions of the executive order:

  1. 120-day ban on all refugees from entering the country
  2. 90-day ban on all foreign nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen

The Maryland ruling only affects the latter provision (the 90-day ban). The judge in Maryland issued a preliminary injunction (which means it lasts through a trial on the merits of the case), whereas the Hawaii judge issued a temporary restraining order (typically more limited in time).

Today, lawyers for the Trump administration filed notice to appeal the Maryland federal judge's ruling. So what's next? The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will eventually hear the case. The Justice Department has not filed its formal appellate brief yet.

What happened in the third hearing? The federal judge in Washington (whose order blocked the original order) did not block the new order, saying it was different enough that his injunction shouldn't apply.

Debt limit suspension expired

The debt limit suspension expired at midnight on Wednesday, resetting the debt ceiling to about $20 trillion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate will definitely raise the debt limit, but the timing is unclear. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said Democrats would vote for a debt limit increase as long as the bill is clean, meaning the bill would raise the debit limit without any extraneous conditions.

Confused by all this? We've got you covered.

Senate progresses on confirming nominees

Each week we update you on the Senate's progress in confirming Trump nominees. President Trump has now nominated 10% of the total number requiring Senate confirmation, and the Senate has confirmed 36% of the total number submitted. The Cabinet, however, is shaping up with 71% confirmed.

This week Senate Finance held confirmation hearing for Robert Lighthizer, nominee for Trade Representative. A partisan split emerged over whether a waiver is needed before the full Senate can vote on the nomination. The waiver would exempt Lighthizer from 1995 law barring people who represented foreign governments in trade disputes with the U.S. from serving as the nation's top trade official.

Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley said committee will not advance deputy attorney general nomination until the committee receives requested briefing from FBI on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Coming up — Senate Agriculture announced it will hold confirmation hearing for Agriculture secretary nominee Sonny Perdue next week. Perdue and Labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta are the only remaining Cabinet members requiring Senate confirmation.

SCOTUS in the spotlight next week — Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch spent the week undergoing several hours of preparation for next week's confirmation hearings. Check out his full questionnaire, and be sure to message your lawmakers with relevant thoughts!

Word on the street — President Trump is expected to name coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as deputy chief of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).


Please keep in mind that highlighting specific legislation does not imply POPVOX endorsement in any way. As always, our goal is to offer one more way to help you stay informed about the complex U.S. legislative system.