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Road Ahead: Appropriations on Senate Floor, Russia Talk Away From It

Senators to vote on spending for four cabinet departments

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, left, actually had better attendance last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, left, actually had better attendance last week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

With the Senate back to legislating, more attention will be on lawmaker attendance than it was during last week’s abbreviated session.

At the high-water mark, only 90 senators  were present for votes during the two-day workweek, with most of the absentees being members of the GOP. That led a reporter to quip to Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York that his Democrats actually had the majority.

As the August session continues, senators will turn their attention in earnest to a measure that combines two spending bills covering appropriations for four Cabinet departments, led by the Department of Defense.

Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby focused his speech kicking off the floor debate Thursday afternoon on the Defense portion.

“The bill includes substantial investments in the areas of basic research, hypersonics, directed energy, artificial intelligence, microelectronics, missile defense, cybersecurity, and our test and evaluation infrastructure — among many other priorities,” the Alabama Republican said. “Just as important, the package before the Senate provides our men and women in uniform with the largest pay increase they have seen in nearly a decade, and they certainly deserve it.”

The Senate Worked Two Whole Days This Week: Congressional Hits and Misses

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The combined Senate bill includes the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations package, as well. That bill is traditionally among the most difficult to get across the Senate floor because of predictable partisan debates about social policy issues.

One look at the early list of amendments filed highlights the potential landmines.

Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah have, for instance, filed an amendment that would block funding from flowing to groups like Planned Parenthood, which provide abortion services.

“One of the top priorities for a Republican Congress that professes pro-life values on the campaign trail should be to stop taxpayer funding for abortion providers,” Paul said in a statement on Friday. “This is our chance to turn our words into action, stand up for the sanctity of life, and speak out for the most innocent among us that have no voice.”

Leaders and members of the Appropriations Committee are more than likely going to work to avoid amendments to Paul’s proposal because their adoption would be “poison pills” leading to a Democrat-led filibuster.

The amendments up for roll call votes Monday evening are the kind that should get rather overwhelming support, however.

Sens. Robert Menendez and Lisa Murkowski are first in line. The New Jersey Democrat and Alaska Republican want to allocate $1 million for the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act. Authorizing legislation became law last month.

Russia dominates off-the-floor action

Speaking of Menendez, it’s fairly easy to guess what could be the most notable Senate activity off the floor this week.

The Foreign Relations Committee, led by Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee and Menendez, the ranking Democrat, has scheduled a Tuesday hearing on U.S. relations with Russia.

Two State Department witnesses are scheduled to testify, along with Marshall Billingslea, the assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department.

The Billingslea appearance could be the most intriguing because GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, a member of the Foreign Relations panel, has been leading a push to require a determination of whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government is a state sponsor of terror.

Meanwhile, the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which has lead jurisdiction on sanctions policy, is also holding a Russia-related hearing on Tuesday. That hearing is expected to focus on the effectiveness of current sanctions against Russia and what further action may be needed.

Keeping with the theme of Russia and its possible interference in U.S. elections, that is not all.

Elsewhere, the Rules and Administration Committee has scheduled a Wednesday mark-up of draft legislation designed to promote security of election systems.

Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, the Rules chairman, told reporters Thursday that an updated version of the legislation would include a focus on the importance of paper ballots and verifiable voting records.

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