Can Congress Get Back to Governing?

Posted October 25, 2013 at 4:04pm

Two pivotal conference committees could test the post-shutdown theory that now is the time for both parties and chambers to finally come to the table and resolve their differences.

The high-profile conferences on the budget and the farm bill could serve as the primary sites of legislative activity, but it’s not yet clear how much of either conference’s inner workings the public will get to see.

The long-anticipated budget conference committee is slated to hold its first public meeting on the morning of Oct. 30. Conferees will deliver opening statements that could set the tone for the negotiations to come — but after that it’s anybody’s guess whether, or when, outsiders will again be let into the room. Congressional aides say it’s too early to know.

Already, statements from House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and other party leaders seem to suggest the usual deadlock over taxes will persist.

Some House-side lawmakers, even those in leadership, have already begun to grow wary of the possibility that the high-stakes budget negotiations could go on behind closed doors.

“If there is a transparent negotiation, I have more hope than if they say, ‘Well, we are meeting ourselves and then one day we will have one open meeting,’” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters the day after the shutdown ended. “If there isn’t live coverage, then it is hard to see how a product can come out of it that we can present to our members to say it was an honest debate.”

On the afternoon of Oct. 30, conferees will start reconciling two divergent frameworks for reauthorizing the nation’s farm and nutrition programs.

The biggest challenge will be coming up with a common dollar amount to cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Senate-passed legislation would cut $4 billion from SNAP; the House endorsed slashing the program by just under $40 billion. Those negotiations are likely to take place in private.

The Senate’s agenda could include a number of contentious executive and judicial branch nominations.

That kicks off with an evening cloture vote on Oct. 28 on Richard F. Griffin Jr.’s nomination to be general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board. Griffin previously held a disputed recess appointment to be a member of the board and his nomination could lead into a partisan standoff over filling the remaining vacant seats on the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Separately, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., could try to hold up the nomination of Janet L. Yellen to head the Federal Reserve unless he gets a vote on his bill to require Federal Reserve audits.

And Senate Democrats hope to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. They’re inching closer to having the 60 votes needed to beat back a filibuster on the gay rights measure.

A bipartisan energy efficiency bill was left hanging on the Senate floor when the government shutdown standoff began. Of course, any bill coming to the floor is likely to invite another effort by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to offer his amendment to end the employer contribution to health insurance for members and staff.

Over the next week, the House is expected to run through some outstanding items on the suspension calendar.

There is also at least a theoretical chance that House Republican leadership could bring something immigration-related to the floor amid a renewed push by President Barack Obama, although they have yet to figure out a way to do so that keeps the bulk of their conference on board without losing Democratic votes.

October was originally thought to be the pivotal month for the immigration debate, but time got eaten away with September’s focus on a possible military strike in Syria, followed by the weekslong struggle to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. Republican leaders have been privately mulling whether it’s politically necessary for them to move forward on immigration at all.

But some recent developments suggest that House floor votes on immigration bills before the year’s end remain a possibility. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla, and House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., are separately pursuing legislation that would deal with certain aspects of the citizenship question.

And Doug Heye, spokesman for Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., confirmed that his boss is still working with the Judiciary Committee on the “Kids Act,” which would address the status of the “DREAMers,” undocumented immigrants who were brought into the United States illegally by their parents.

“I still think that immigration reform is an important subject that needs to be addressed,” Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Wednesday. “I’m hopeful.”

“We hope to move something before the year’s end,” Heye told CQ Roll Call on Friday, “but there’s no specific timetable right now.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.