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Road ahead: Will Congress get a disaster relief deal before Memorial Day?

House and Senate will keep full schedules as budget talks continue for this week and beyond

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will join their fellow congressional leaders to discuss the budget and the need to lift the country’s debt limit with the administration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will join their fellow congressional leaders to discuss the budget and the need to lift the country’s debt limit with the administration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The big question for the week is whether Congress will actually act on long-awaited disaster relief before lawmakers head out for Memorial Day.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said such a vote is on the floor agenda for this week, but as senators left Thursday afternoon for the weekend, there was still no final agreement on any bipartisan package.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and McConnell have agreed to huddle this week with President Donald Trump’s administration to discuss spending levels for fiscal 2020, as well as debt limit legislation, according to sources with knowledge of the conversations.

McConnell met May 16 with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

The meeting broached disaster aid, the debt limit and spending levels for the upcoming fiscal year, according to Alabama GOP Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the Senate Appropriations chairman.

“A lot of the emphasis was on spending caps because we’re looking at disaster, we’ve been playing with that too long, and if we finish this we’ve got to go to approps, which is much bigger,” Shelby said after speaking with McConnell.

As for the House floor, the focus this week will be on financial services matters, with the chamber set to vote on legislation from House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters that would reverse the changes made to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since Trump took office.

The measure would require consumer complaint data be made publicly available. Trump appointees reduced the size and scope of some public reports.

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Democrats have criticized Trump’s handling of the CFPB, starting with his appointment of Mulvaney to run it as acting director in November 2017. Taking over from the agency’s first director, Obama appointee Richard Cordray, Mulvaney slowed regulatory initiatives and suspended some enforcement.

The bill would reinstitute memoranda of understanding between the bureau and the Department of Education on data sharing and complaint response collaboration terminated in 2017. The bill would reestablish the Office of Students and Young Consumers, which Mulvaney folded into the Office of Financial Education in May 2018.

Student loans and lending issues have been in the spotlight recently. Lawmakers, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have questioned whether the CFPB has “abandoned its supervision and enforcement activities,” related to more than $1 trillion in student loans. 

The Financial Services Committee advanced the measure, 34-26, in late March.

Also on the House agenda is a package of retirement savings incentives, but stripped of a provision to expand the uses for so-called Section 529 education savings accounts to homeschooling and certain private school expenses. House leaders dropped that provision amid opposition from teachers unions and several House Democrats.

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, called the underlying bill, adopted by his committee April 2 by voice vote, “the most important advance in 15 years in retirement.”

The measure would make it easier for small businesses to band together to offer retirement benefits, while offering tax credits to defray the start-up costs. The bill would also allow retirees to delay taking required minimum distributions from their savings plans, an acknowledgement that Americans are living longer and need to let additional savings build up, according to supporters.

Meanwhile, both Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig did not comply with Neal’s subpoenas ordering they provide the president’s tax returns by 5 p.m. Friday. Neal said last week that once the deadline passed,  he’d proceed to court as quickly as possible, as soon as this week.

Another subpoena in question this week is that of former White House counsel Don McGahn. The House Judiciary Committee has a hearing on the report of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Russian election interference scheduled for Tuesday morning, and McGahn was issued a subpoena to testify. It’s not clear if he’ll make an appearance.

The agenda in the Senate will be far more predictable.

While waiting for the disaster relief deal, and with budget cap talks getting underway, McConnell is pushing ahead with more judicial nominations, highlighted by the second nominee for a 9th Circuit seat in as many weeks. Senators will vote late Monday to limit debate on the nomination of Daniel P. Collins.

A Los Angeles-based appellate lawyer, Collins was an associate deputy attorney general during the George W. Bush presidency, and his background also includes a clerkship for the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

As with Kenneth Lee, who was confirmed last week, California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris oppose the home-state nominee.

Collins’ confirmation will continue the effort by Trump and McConnell to replace Democratic nominees with Republican ones on the 9th Circuit, long regarded as the most hospitable to progressive causes.

McConnell last week also moved to cut off debate on four district court nominees. While there will be up to 30 hours of post-cloture debate on Collins, the remainder of the nominees have only up to two hours under the precedent set earlier in 2019. That could give enough floor time for the emergency supplemental spending bill, if it materializes.

While the debate time runs, there will be an all-senators briefing behind closed doors on Tuesday regarding the increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran and what the Trump administration views as an increased threat from the country.

The Iran situation will certainly be on the minds of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well.

Members of that committee will spend much of the run-up to the Memorial Day recess in closed session to craft the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill. Subcommittee markups begin Monday afternoon, with a marathon full committee markup scheduled for Wednesday.

Jennifer Shutt, Jim Saksa and Doug Sword contributed to this report.

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