Washington Bulletin 2/5

February 6, 2018
Washington Update

On Capitol Hill

Spending and Immigration Continue to Dominate the Conversation

Congress confronts another funding deadline, although with scant chance of a government shutdown this time. Still, the week promises partisan skirmishing over immigration and in response to a disputed memo alleging FBI abuses in the Russia probe.

Congress is set to vote on a fifth temporary spending measure to keep the government running after midnight Thursday. House Republicans are working on a measure to extend government funding through Friday, March 23, although a final decision hasn’t been made.

This time Senate Democrats aren’t threatening a government shutdown, saying they anticipate sufficient progress in bipartisan talks over a measure that would extend protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said there will be a Senate floor debate on an immigration measure if an agreement isn’t reached by Thursday, February 8. Even if the Senate can muster the 60 votes needed to advance such a bill, prospects are far from rosy in the House, where conservatives are demanding border wall funding and restrictions on family visas.

Another temporary funding patch is necessary because leaders are still negotiating a larger spending package for the remainder of fiscal 2018. That would entail reaching a bipartisan agreement on raising spending caps for defense and non-military programs.

Adding to their fiscal headaches, lawmakers face a deadline to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Treasury Department projecting the government running out of cash within weeks. On Tuesday Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will almost certainly be pressed about the debt ceiling deadline when he’s scheduled to testify at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on the annual report of the Financial Stability Oversight Council.

Congress came under increased pressure to raise the nation’s debt ceiling following two reports forecasting that the federal government will run out of cash within a matter of weeks.

That could throw another wrench into already complicated budget and immigration talks seeking to avoid a repeat of this month’s government shutdown.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that the Treasury Department will exhaust accounting moves to prevent default in the first half of March. CBO had previously said a debt default could be held off until late March or early April. A key reason for the change is the implementation of December’s tax overhaul through new withholding tables in February.

Separately, the Treasury expects to be able to fund the government through the end of February, and it urged Congress to “act promptly” to increase the limit.

The Treasury bill market is starting to show apprehension about when the government might exhaust its borrowing authority, with signs of stress emerging in securities due early March. Investors are now demanding a bigger premium to hold early March debt, putting a kink in the usually upward-sloping T-bills curve.

David Popp, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader McConnell, declined to comment on whether the debt ceiling would be part of the next short-term government funding bill.

State of Union

President Donald Trump’s comments on immigrants in his State of the Union address set back chances for getting a combined deal on the budget and immigration any time soon, making it likely that lawmakers will have to pass another stopgap spending bill next week to keep the government operating.

After being stung by the political backlash over a three-day government shutdown a little more than a week ago, a senior House Democratic aide said there are no plans within the party to force a resolution on immigration by holding up government funding and forcing another closing.

Democrats may use an agreement on a broader budget plan for the rest of this fiscal year as a bargaining chip, including raising statutory limits on defense and domestic spending.

Republicans and Democrats agree that a spending caps deal in itself is very close to an agreement. The deal would likely raise military spending by about $80 billion for two years and increase domestic spending in part by using budget gimmicks. Democrats would be able to claim the increases are equal to military spending while Republicans would be able to claim that minus the gimmicks, the military got the better end of the bargain. There remain differences over how some of the money will be allocated and over offsetting spending cuts.

Increased Spending

While some House and Senate conservatives are raising objections to the increased spending — and are offering alternative plans — the White House appears to be on board. President Trump didn’t mention the expanding federal deficit in his State of the Union speech.

The main snag is that House Democrats in particular aren’t willing to allow that deal to go forward without providing protection from deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. They had been protected under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which Trump has said would end in March without congressional action and a broader deal that includes border security money and deep cuts to legal immigration.

Curtailing Immigration

In a speech peppered with pleas for bipartisanship, President Trump drew the ire of some Democrats with his warning that undocumented immigrants and those who enter the country through a visa lottery system and family sponsorships — which he suggested are “deadly loopholes” –include criminals and terrorists.

He reiterated his offer to give a path to citizenship to 1.8 million people brought to the U.S. as children in exchange for $25 billion for a border wall and other security measures, an end to the visa lottery program and drastically curtailed family sponsorship.

Stopgap Funding

The primary negotiators on an immigration deal are Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX). Sen. Durbin said that both sides were no closer than they had been in weeks on an immigration deal.

A group of about 30 senators from both parties also have been working on an immigration proposal, with the goal of trying to produce a plan by early next week. If that deal can be put on the floor for votes and amendments Sen. McConnell will have fulfilled a promise he made to help end the last shutdown.

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), one of the bipartisan group’s leaders, said President  Trump’s offer for legal status and an eventual path to citizenship for the young undocumented immigrants gives Democrats “something to work with.” Now, the senators are “trying to work through” the administration’s proposal to limit family reunification to spouses and children, end the diversity visa lottery, as well as the administration’s funding request for security.

The bipartisan Senate group is prepared to offer its proposal as a “plan B” if the Sen. Durbin  and Sen. Cornyn talks fail. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that such an effort would likely be a narrow bill focusing on some protections for the young immigrants and increased border security. That bill could then be expanded by amendments.

Even if the Senate can get the 60 votes it needs to pass an immigration plan, the House may be unwilling to go along. House leaders are measuring support for a hard-line bill authored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). That bill is less generous to the young immigrants than President Trump’s proposal and would more greatly expand immigration enforcement in the workplace.

GOP Train Crash

An Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress to a party retreat Wednesday, January 31 struck a garbage truck outside Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one person on the truck. At least one other person on the truck was badly injured. Amtrak said two of the train’s crew members and two passengers were taken to a local hospital with minor injuries.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was on the train and was not hurt, and the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was not on the train.


Surface Transportation Hearing – House Homeland Security Subcommittee

The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Protective Security and Subcommittee on Emergency, Preparedness, Response, & Communication held a hearing titled, “Securing Our Surface Transportation Systems: Examining the Department of Homeland Security’s Role in Surface Transportation Technologies.” Subcommittee Chairman John Katko (R-NY) highlighted the need to address the current threat facing surface transportation, including the threat to commuter buses, transit agencies, freight rale, and all other modes of surface transportation. In his opening statement, Chairman Katko stated, “Security regulations, inspections, VIPR teams, and grants are only parts of the conversations we should be having on how to secure surface transportation. These initiatives must be supplemented by the deployment of innovative security to effectively reduce risk.”

Sonya Proctor, Director of the Surface Division and Robert Pryor, Director of the Intermodal Division represented the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as witnesses. In their opening statement, Proctor and Pryor emphasized TSA’s commitment to securing our nation’s surface transportation system; which is comprised of roads, bridges, tunnels, mass transit systems, passenger and freight railroads, over-the-road bus operators, motor carrier operators, pipelines, and maritime facilities, and is an extremely complex, interconnected, open network. Securing surface transportation systems is critically important, given recent attacks, such as the attempted suicide bombing in the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal and vehicle ramming in Manhattan. TSA is reexamining its approaches and vigorously evaluating how to improve its surface expertise to strengthen TSA’s collaboration with surface transportation stakeholders.


In the Administration

Proposed Updates to Offshore Oil Rules Draw Criticism

Oil and gas companies would face additional safety requirements under proposed changes to regulations for offshore rigs—and the prospect has made the companies uneasy.

The proposals from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), an Interior Department agency, would add to the technical requirements for companies by giving force of law to 17 voluntary technical standards recently updated by industry.

The revised standards were proposed by BSEE in December for the Production Safety Systems Rule. The American Petroleum Institute’s initial response was, in essence: Not so fast, please. Some of the largest companies to start production at additional Gulf of Mexico oil fields over the last dozen years include Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc, and Anadarko Petroleum Corp.

Standards including more than 3,800 pages of technical documents shouldn’t be made mandatory without a longer, more deliberative analysis, the industry group said. The standards were developed by the API in association with the American National Standards Institute.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent a letter Monday, February 5 to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, opposing President Donald Trump’s proposal to allow oil and gas drilling off Washington’s coast and asking that Washington be exempted.

If Washington is not removed from the plan, AG Ferguson warned Sec. Zinke he will file a lawsuit.


EPA Plan to Delay Obama Water Rule Clears White House

The White House speedily completed its review of a regulation to push back to 2020 an Obama-era rule that expansively defined the reach of the Clean Water Act.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent the rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for an interagency review on Thursday, January 25, and the review was completed five days later. The rule was first proposed in November.

Issuing this rule took on urgency for the Trump administration after U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down the nationwide ban on the 2015 Clean Water Rule, also known as Waters of the U.S.

The rule defining which waters and wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act and subject to federal permits and water quality standards was opposed by 30 states and many business groups. They complained that the 2015 rule expanded federal authority over land-use decisions, making even the smallest ponds and streams subject to costly permitting requirements

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that litigation over the 2015 Clean Water Rule will be heard in federal district courts across the nation. The ruling struck down a nationwide hold on the regulation put in place by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, leaving the debate for federal district courts.

An order from the Supreme Court making its decision official is expected Friday, February. 16. The Trump administration has rushed to block the rule from taking effect before that date as it considers repealing it and replacing it with another regulation.

The rule is still blocked in 13 states by a federal district court in North Dakota.