Congress returns this week: 7 things to watch
Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill on Monday after being away for what was a chaotic and damaging week for President Donald Trump, who is under scrutiny from federal investigators and questions surrounding a payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
But members of Congress have their own issues to deal with, as a thwarted attempt to oust the House of Representatives’ chaplain had lawmakers from both parties questioning why Speaker Paul Ryan pushed for the priest’s removal. High profile hearings — both for a CIA director nominee and with opioid manufacturers — are expected to make waves midweek. And lawmakers must decide whether to approve Trump judicial nominees and whether to cut spending as political calculations intensify the closer the calendar gets to this year’s midterm elections.
Here are seven things to watch this week on Capitol Hill:
1. The cloud surrounding Trump looms over Capitol Hill
The New York Times published a lengthy list of questions the special counsel Robert Mueller wants to ask Trump, demonstrating the prosecutor’s probe remains broad and unsettled. Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, did not rule out Sunday that the President could plead the Fifth Amendment in Mueller’s investigation.
Also last week, Giuliani told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that Trump paid back his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, the $130,000 in hush money that was used to pay off Daniels, contradicting Trump, who previously denied knowledge of the payment, which has since spurred a lawsuit against the President.
Will there be any softening in GOP support for the embattled President, especially as Republicans recognize they may now lose control of Congress because of a backlash against Trump and his long list of scandals? One Republican, retiring Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, called for congressional hearings into the Daniels matter. Will others join the call?
2. Haspel hearing Wednesday is Capitol Hill’s marquee event this week
The Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled for this week a hearing on Gina Haspel to be CIA Director, who was nominated to replace Mike Pompeo, who was sworn-in last week to be secretary of state.
Haspel will testify on Wednesday before the panel and her hearing is sure to be contentious, as she’s facing a difficult fight to get confirmed with opposition coming from members of both parties.
Haspel’s nomination is controversial because of her involvement in the George W. Bush administration’s interrogation and detention program, which critics say amounted to torture. Haspel supervised a “black site” in Thailand in 2002 where detainees were interrogated, and she was chief of staff to the CIA’s then-clandestine chief Jose Rodriguez in 2005 when he ordered the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes.
Senators have pressed the CIA to declassify more of Haspel’s 33-year CIA career, most of which was spent undercover. The CIA has made some details about her life and career public, and has pledged to provide information to senators in a classified setting. It also released an internal CIA report clearing Haspel of wrongdoing in the tapes incident, but Democrats have argued that’s not nearly enough to give senators and the public a fair accounting of her record.
On Sunday afternoon, The Washington Post reported that Haspel offered to withdraw her nomination following a conversation with White House officials though she eventually decided to continue seeking confirmation.
Haspel’s nomination is opposed by numerous Democrats, as well as Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Just like Pompeo, Republicans are looking to red-state Democrats to secure the 50 votes needed for her confirmation.
One key Republican voice could be Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and has been a leading voice on the issue in the Senate. But he seems unlikely to return to Washington during her confirmation process as he battles brain cancer.
3. The House chaplain’s job seems safe — for now
Father Patrick Conroy, who has served as House Chaplain for the past seven years, will return to his job Monday following a week of drama with Ryan’s office.
Conroy, a Jesuit priest, submitted his resignation in late April at the request of the speaker but rescinded it late last week, pushing back on charges that he had not adequately attended to members’ needs and address speculation that lawmakers wanted a chaplain who wasn’t a Catholic. “
“I inquired as to whether or not it was ‘for cause,'” Conroy wrote in his letter to Ryan, adding that Ryan’s chief of staff “mentioned dismissively something like, ‘maybe it’s time that we had a Chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic.'” Ryan’s chief of staff denied he made such a statement.
The speaker, in a statement soon after, said he “accepted Father Conroy’s letter and decided that he will remain in his position as chaplain of the House.”
“My original decision was made in what I believed to be in the best interest of this institution,” Ryan said in the statement. “To be clear, that decision was based on my duty to ensure that the House has the kind of pastoral services that it deserves.”
Ryan and Conroy are expected to meet in person this week.
4. The hunt for the next VA secretary continues
The nomination of Adm. Ronny Jackson, Trump’s pick to head the sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs, ended in dramatic fashion when Jackson, who also served as White House physician, withdrew his name from consideration late last month.
The White House has yet to name a new pick, though the President said in an interview with Fox that he was looking for a candidate with more “political capability” than Jackson.
Former Florida Congressman Jeff Miller met with Trump about the job, but it is expected that the White House will take their time before naming someone for the position. In the meantime, Robert Wilkie will remain as Acting Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs. Wilkie, a former undersecretary at the Pentagon, was appointed following the dismissal of Secretary David Shulkin.
Members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee expect that they will be more involved in the process this time around.
5. McConnell’s quest to confirm judicial nominees
On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has set up votes on six circuit court nominees, influential appeals court judges. McConnell has made reshaping the federal courts with Trump’s judicial picks a top priority and moving to break Democratic filibusters of so many judges is evidence of that strong push.
Leadership aides wouldn’t predict how long it will take to get through the six but it’s possible one nominee who has drawn the ire of Democrats could be confirmed this week.
Democrats oppose Michael Brennan for the Seventh Circuit because Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, moved him through committee despite the lack of a “blue slip” being returned by Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. The blue slip is a tradition that allows home state senators to weigh in on nominees to judicial posts in their states, even if the President is from a different party. Democrats are concerned the bipartisan approach to selecting judges — of which the blue slip is a key component — is waning under Trump.
6. House members try to make Trump’s budget slashing dream come true
In the wake of the President’s vented frustration — and short-lived veto threat — over the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that was passed in March, the White House is set to send a rescission package to Capitol Hill this week that will try to cut $11 billion dollars from the federal budget.
The rescission effort, a rarely used mechanism that allows for changes to already-passed appropriations measures, won’t actually affect the $1.3 trillion omnibus at all, but is composed entirely of cuts to unspent funds in other programs. The effort is being led by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.
The idea of reopening the spending deal had been pronounced dead on arrival in the Senate and very unlikely to have the votes to move in the House. The White House, however, is reserving the right to send up another package — likely larger, and touching the omnibus — at a later date, depending on the success of this one.
Ryan, wary of setting up his conference for failure, has also played a role, sources said, on shaping a package that has been subject to significant lobbying in recent weeks from GOP leaders concerned that the White House was going to send up a large package of cuts that would fail to win a majority in the House.
The Senate remains unlikely to take up any House-passed measure. It would require only a simple majority to pass, but because of its structure, it also would likely lead to a vote-a-rama that neither party wants to engage in at this point. Congress will technically have 45 days to consider the rescissions package when it arrives on Capitol Hill.
7. Opioid manufacturers face Congress
Top executives from three of the nation’s largest prescription drug distributors — and two regional distributors — will face lawmakers this week over the growing opioid crisis, particularly in West Virginia.
The five will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Wednesday as the House continues their year-long investigation into their role in the opioid epidemic.
The committee has demanded the distributors turn over shipping records and answer questions on how millions of hydrocodone and oxycodone pills ended up in small rural communities in West Virginia.