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Congress Returns, With Eyes Off the Floors

Committee activity will be headlined by Zuckerberg and Trump Cabinet picks

Senate GOP leadership likely did not anticipate reserving chunks of time ahead of the midterms this year for Cabinet-level posts that were already filled. Pictured above, from left: Sens. Cory Gardner, John Barrasso and Roy Blunt, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate GOP leadership likely did not anticipate reserving chunks of time ahead of the midterms this year for Cabinet-level posts that were already filled. Pictured above, from left: Sens. Cory Gardner, John Barrasso and Roy Blunt, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congress returns Monday after two weeks away, but much of the focus will be on the action outside the House and Senate chambers.

The highlight of the week will be hearings with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg amid the ongoing fallout from the social media giant’s admission that user data was improperly shared with political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Two Senate panels get the first opportunity to question Zuckerberg on Tuesday, with the House Energy and Commerce Committee following on Wednesday.

Senators return for votes Monday afternoon to continue grinding through confirmation of President Donald Trump’s nominees. Shortly after the opening of business, the chamber will welcome Cindy Hyde-Smith, its newest member. The Mississippi Republican succeeds longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, who resigned April 1 for health reasons. But senators will not be around the Capitol for long, with the next recess slated for the end of April and to extend through the first week of May. 

Watch: Politics and Nominations Abound as the Senate Returns to Washington

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Now that the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending package has become law, there isn’t much in the way of legislation that is expected to make its way through Congress before the elections. A new farm bill must pass this year, but no markups have been scheduled, and the authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration runs out in September.

While still several months away, the looming midterms will overshadow both chambers’ work for the remainder of the year. That is particularly so in the Senate, although the special election to replace former Republican Rep. Trent Franks in Arizona’s 8th District is April 24.

Democrats are defending 26 Senate seats this cycle, including 10 in states Trump won in 2016. But with momentum from several recent election wins — some in deeply Republican areas — Democrats are upbeat about their chances this November.

That optimism could persuade Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to make life more difficult for the minority. For now, though, it’s business as usual in the chamber. 

‘Personnel business’

McConnell has already lined up procedural votes to confirm six nominees during the three-week April session. The sequence of votes to break potential filibusters, which might take two weeks, is bookended by judicial nominations in the Republican leader’s home state of Kentucky.

Claria Horn Boom is up first. The Lexington lawyer is a former assistant U.S. attorney whom Trump has nominated for a lifetime seat shared between Kentucky’s Eastern and Western judicial districts.

McConnell, who often speaks of the Senate’s important role in the “personnel business,” made some headlines during the second week of recess while speaking with the editorial board of Kentucky Today about the 2018 elections.

He acknowledged the “headwinds” faced by the GOP.

“I’m hoping we can hold the Senate,” he said April 3. “And the principle reason for that, even if we were to lose the House and be stymied legislatively, we could still approve appointments, which is a huge part of what we do.”

There would be plenty of Trump nominations to move through to confirmation, even without legislating, with more Cabinet shifts to be expected in the second half of a presidential term.

Déjà vu

But Senate Republicans surely did not anticipate reserving chunks of the spring and summer ahead of the midterms for hearings and floor action on Cabinet-level posts that were already filled. That would suggest most of the real action could be off the Senate floor in the near term. 

At the end of recess, confirmation hearings were in order, though not yet scheduled, for new leaders of the State Department, Department of Veterans Affairs and the CIA.

Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director who has been selected by Trump to replace the ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, might have the clearest path forward. 

Several Democrats already supported his nomination to lead the CIA, but have since raised concerns about his hawkish views on war.

Pompeo will likely face questions over the administration’s strategy for a potential meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and could also be forced to address the White House’s position on continued U.S. engagement in Syria. 

Ronny L. Jackson, Trump’s pick to replace David Shulkin VA secretary, is expected in the coming weeks to meet with key senators, such as Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Johnny Isakson of Georgia and ranking Democrat Jon Tester of Montana. 

Given that Jackson is a relatively unknown quantity on Capitol Hill, his nomination is viewed as a bit of a wild card. He has been the personal military doctor to Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama.

Several senators, however, have made their views abundantly known about Gina Haspel, nominated to replace Pompeo as CIA director. She is already facing pressure from GOP lawmakers to address her role at a CIA “black site” prison and her involvement in its “enhanced interrogation” program, which members like Sen. John McCain of Arizona say amounted to torture. 

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has already indicated he will vote against the Pompeo and Haspel nominations, which means it is highly likely both will need Democratic support to advance.

Try, try again

The expected highlight of the week for the House is a Republican-led effort to adopt a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia introduced the version that is expected to reach the floor, according to GOP aides.

Watch: What to Expect, and Not Expect, From the House After Recess

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Constitutional amendments require two-thirds support of each chamber in order to be sent to the states.

The closest such an amendment came to getting through the Senate was back in 1995, when a GOP effort fell one vote short thanks to opposition from Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, who at the time was about to resume the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee.

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