10 things to watch as Congress returns to work

After a week back home, lawmakers in Congress return to Capitol Hill this week with unfinished work and promised legislative action piling up on a variety of fronts, as White House calls for action on immigration are getting little traction, and the two parties continue to clash over investigations of the Trump Cabinet and Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Let’s take a look at what’s on the agenda for Congress, and what lawmakers missed while they were out town.

1. More Stormy weather ahead? Since members weren’t on Capitol Hill last week, one thing GOP lawmakers didn’t have to talk about much were the latest revelations involving President Donald Trump, and legal settlement payments to porn star Stormy Daniels. But once members are back in the halls of Congress, reporters will be swarming them like bugs chasing you around the yard on a warm, humid, summer day. After comments made by Rudy Giuliani, it’s still not clear what President Donald Trump knew about the payments to Daniels and when. And Giuliani didn’t seem to clear that up on Sunday, either.

2. Immigration legislation? What immigration legislation? While lawmakers were gone, President Donald Trump again called for action in Congress on immigration. But while many GOP lawmakers have said they want to do something to tighten laws dealing with illegal immigrants in the U.S., there is not a majority in the House for a get-tough measure backed by the President – just as there wasn’t close to a majority in the Senate for an immigration plan backed by Mr. Trump. Meanwhile, supporters of DACA in both parties are trying to get votes on a bill they want – but GOP leaders have resisted such a move. The White House keeps arguing for action – but nothing is expected any time soon – if at all.

3. The drip, drip, drip continues on Scott Pruitt. I’m sure it’s happened before, but the number of critical stories that keep emerging about EPA chief Scott Pruitt doesn’t seem to stop. Last week, four top officials left the EPA – some under scrutiny, some not, as Republicans led by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) said they would keep pressing for answers about how Pruitt has dealt with personal security costs, raises for employees and more. Meanwhile, the lobbyist couple who rented Pruitt a room for $50 a night, last week paid a $2,034 fine to the District of Columbia, for not having a license to rent the room. Pruitt will be back on Capitol Hill later this month for more hearings with lawmakers. So far, his job still seems secure.

4. A revised House GOP Intel report. If you missed it on Friday night, Republicans put out a slightly different version of their GOP report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, removing blacked-out portions of text from a couple of pages in the report. The biggest news from the new information may well be that the FBI had a counter-intelligence probe going during the Trump Transition on top Trump aide Michael Flynn, who ultimately became National Security Adviser. While FBI agents who interviewed Flynn on January 24, 2017 didn’t think he was lying about his contacts with Russia, transcripts from wiretaps of Flynn’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador showed a much different story – which is what’s spelled out in Flynn’s guilty plea.

5. Expect more battles over Russia probe documents. Republicans in the Congress keep pushing the Justice Department to turn over documents related to the current investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Last week, members of the House Freedom Caucus made it known that they might press for the impeachment Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in a dispute over documents. On Sunday, there were further reports that GOP lawmakers might threaten Attorney General Jeff Sessions with contempt of Congress for not handing over documents from ongoing investigations. Many Democrats argue this goes hand-in-hand with attacks by the White House on the probe of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

6. Uranium One probe fades away. For months, Republicans vowed to uncover wrongdoing involving the Clinton Foundation and the sale of Uranium reserves to Russia. According to GOP lawmakers, the big ace-in-the-hole was said to be an FBI informant, who was going to blow the whistle on all sorts of wrongdoing. That informant, William Campbell, was brought in for a closed door interview. Democrats said it was a disaster for the GOP, that Campbell had no “evidence of a quid pro quo” that involved Hillary Clinton and Democrats in any way. After Democrats put out a scathing review of the testimony, Congressional Republicans pretty much dropped the Uranium One subject, as Campbell won’t be appearing in any public hearing any time soon. The response of the House Oversight Committee – run by the GOP – was telling, in that it didn’t sound like something explosive was about to be unveiled. For now, it’s like Uranium One was never a big deal for the GOP.

7. The House chaplain mess. As members of the House left Capitol Hill in late April, word was just out that Speaker Paul Ryan was pushing out House Chaplain Patrick Conroy – for reasons that never really were clear. Was it a prayer that weighed in on how tax reform might impact the poor? Was it an inability to minister to more-southern GOP lawmakers? There were some rumblings from within GOP circles of a dissatisfaction with Conroy, and rumblings of dissatisfaction with having a Catholic in that post, because that person would not be married and/or have a family. What’s ironic about that is the House never had a Catholic and/or Jesuit chaplain until 2000. Last week, the Speaker reversed his decision on Father Conroy, but it raised a lot of questions about why it was happening in the first place.

8. Congress waits on a new VA Secretary. While the attempted ouster of the House Chaplain was a mess, that paled in comparison to the turmoil involved in President Trump’s choice for someone new to head the VA. With White House doctor Ronny Jackson no longer in the running, the President has evidently been reviewing a new batch of candidates – one of them includes former Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), who retired from the Congress after the 2016 elections. Miller was chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, but while he was popular with members of both parties, the politics of the VA are going to be rough – no matter what. These two tweets are a perfect example.

9. One less case, maybe one more for the Ethics Committee. With the surprise resignation of Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA), who was under an ethics probe related to a sexual harassment settlement involving a former employee, the House Ethics Committee no longer has jurisdiction over the Meehan matter. When Meehan resigned, he said he would repay a $39,000 taxpayer funded settlement within thirty days. (One should note that ex-Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) promised to repay an $84,000 settlement, but has not.) While the ethics panel no longer has jurisdiction over either of those cases, now there are calls to review a matter involving Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA). Last week, Cardenas said that he is the unnamed politician accused in a new lawsuit, which says that a then-teenage girl was possibly drugged and fondled in 2007. Top Democrats immediately called for an ethics review on Saturday.

10. Countdown to another shutdown showdown? Yes, the work is underway in the House and Senate Appropriations Committees on funding bills for 2019 – but it seems unlikely that Congress will be able to finish those spending measures on time, by September 30. Since Congress overhauled the budget process in the mid-1970’s, lawmakers have finished their budget work on time just four different times – 1976, 1988, 1994 and 1996. That’s it. While there is an agreement on the budget limits for next year, the clock is ticking. Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) has been on Twitter for weeks making that point, urging lawmakers to revamp the budget process.   My recommendation to fellow reporters on Capitol Hill would be to avoid planning major vacation time in early October.

 

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