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Road ahead: Barr testifying on DOJ budget, likely to get grilled about Mueller report

House to vote on net neutrality bill before Democratic retreat, Senate picks up pace on nominations after going nuclear

Attorney General William P. Barr will be the headline witness on Capitol Hill this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Attorney General William P. Barr will be the headline witness on Capitol Hill this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

All eyes will be on the House and Senate Appropriations committees this week — but not necessarily because of President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget blueprint.

Attorney General William P. Barr is scheduled to testify Tuesday in the House and Wednesday in the Senate about the Justice Department’s budget, but the conversation is sure to turn to his handling of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report.

Barr has come under criticism over reports that Mueller’s findings showed more evidence against the president, particularly regarding possible obstruction of justice, than the attorney general suggested in his four-page letter summarizing the report’s key conclusions.

“Certainly the Mueller report will come up,” Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright told Fox News on Friday.“I may ask about that, but probably not. Until the actual redacted version of the Mueller report comes out, we’re all just kind of stabbing around in the dark about what’s going to be left out.”

Watch: The back and forth on why Mueller’s report hasn’t been released yet

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Cartwright is a member of the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee that will be questioning Barr, and some panel Democrats are certain to ask about the special counsel investigation and DOJ officials’ handling of its conclusion.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services is scheduled to hear Tuesday from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Internal Revenue Commissioner Charles P. Rettig about their budget requests but like with the Barr hearing, the questioning may well drift into oversight matters.

The House Ways and Means Committee has asked Rettig to hand over the past six years of President Donald Trump’s tax returns by Wednesday, and if Rettig does not plan to comply, as the administration has suggested, both he and Mnuchin will likely be asked to explain why.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting director Ronald D. Vitiello is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee and may be asked questions about Friday’s surprise news that Trump was withdrawing his nomination to be the agency’s permanent director. The White House offered no explanation for the withdrawal outside of Trump’s comment to reporters that he plans to go “in a tougher direction.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to testify before both the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and the Foreign Relations Committee on his departmental budget request. Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had been scheduled to testify before the Homeland Security Appropriations panel, before she resigned from the administration Sunday.

Short schedules

Both the Senate and the House are planning somewhat truncated weeks. Senators will not be back voting until Tuesday, and the House will be finishing up legislative business on the floor Wednesday.

House Democrats head to Leesburg, Virginia, for their rescheduled annual retreat Wednesday through Friday. But first they will vote on a bill to codify net neutrality and potentially a measure to raise the statutory spending caps. 

The short legislative week will see the House voting on the Save the Internet Act of 2019, sponsored by Pennsylvania Democrat Mike Doyle. The measure would codify the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rule that was implemented during the Obama administration and repealed under Trump. 

The House is also tentatively planning a vote on the Investing for the People Act of 2019. This is the Democrats’ proposal for raising the statutory discretionary spending caps implemented under sequestration for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. 

As reported out of the Budget Committee, the measure would cap defense spending at $664 billion in fiscal 2020 and $680 billion in fiscal 2021, while limiting nondefense spending to $631 billion in fiscal 2020 and $646 billion in fiscal 2021.

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth crafted the proposal adhering to Democrats’ longheld principle of “parity,” which calls for same-dollar increases for both defense and nondefense spending.

But many progressive Democrats, feeling empowered with their party in the majority, want to move away from parity to provide a greater increase for nondefense spending. Discussions were ongoing late last week about an amendment to the bill that would satisfy progressives’ concerns, and floor action seems to be dependent on a resolution that would win over at least some skeptics. 

Democrats on retreat

The House Democrats’ retreat, initially scheduled for February, was postponed because the dates bumped up against the Feb. 15 deadline Congress set for itself to complete the fiscal 2019 appropriations bills and avoid another partial government shutdown. 

With a theme of “100 Days In: Fighting for the People,” the Democrats are expected to focus on further fleshing out their agenda, building on the legislative work already underway to meet their goals of reducing health care costs, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and cleaning up corruption in Washington.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell will attend a session to discuss the current economic situation, as Democrats plan to devote a large portion of the retreat to discussing ideas for continuing to create well-paying jobs.

In addition to jobs-focused plenary sessions, including one that will look at adapting the workforce in the age of automation, Democrats will also hold sessions on health care, infrastructure and immigration.

Back at the Capitol, the Senate floor will again be occupied with votes on Trump nominees, with a new procedure in place to expedite consideration thanks to last week’s use of the “nuclear option” to effectively change the rules. The nominations list includes retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, who is the president’s choice to be U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will be busy as well, with a full schedule including a Wednesday subcommittee hearing on free speech protections, focusing on digital platforms and social media.

John T. Bennett and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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