Everything you need to know about what Congress is (and isn’t) doing this week

February 25, 2013

(JONATHAN ERNST - REUTERS)

It's the ninth inning, or the fourth quarter with just seconds left on the clock. It's like having four days left before a big midterm paper is due. It's like ... oh, forget the cliches, we've seen this all before: Congress is coming back to Washington from a week-long recess, there's just four days left until $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts begin -- but this time, lawmakers are making no effort to sort it out before the deadline.


So what is Congress doing this week? Here's a quick primer:

1.) Sequestration Sequestration Sequestration: (Want to impress someone? Tell them it's "secuestrar" in Spanish.) Not only can the White House and Congress not agree on how to avert the impending budget cuts and who's to blame for the idea, but now they disagree on how badly the cuts might hurt. Republican senators spent Sunday accusing President Obama of exaggerating the potential affects of the cuts and for trotting out Cabinet secretaries to start laying out specific examples of furloughs and service reductions.

"Shame on Ray LaHood," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said when asked about how the transportation secretary -- and former Republican lawmaker -- is warning about delayed flights if the FAA furloughs air traffic controllers.

Senate Democrats are expected to try holding a vote on a plan that identifies $120 billion in savings -- evenly split between cuts and revenues -- to replace sequestration through the end of the year. But Senate Republicans are likely to block a vote. Beyond that, there's no evidence of House or Senate leaders working to strike a last-minute deal.

If the cuts occur as scheduled, then both parties will face a critical political test, as was deftly explained in Sunday's Washington Post by Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane:

Obama is betting Americans will be outraged by the abrupt and substantial cuts to a wide range of government services, from law enforcement to food safety to public schools. And he is hoping they will rise up to demand what he calls a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction that replaces some cuts with higher taxes.

But if voters react with a shrug, congressional Republicans will have won a major victory in their campaign to shrink the size of government. Instead of cancelling the sequester, the GOP will likely push for more.

So will there be a deal this week? Which party might blink first? Stay tuned.


2.) Is a bipartisan gun-control deal imminent?: We reported Sunday that a bipartisan group of senators is on the verge of a deal to expand background checks to all private firearm sales with limited exemptions. Significant disagreements remain, however, on the issue of keeping records of private gun sales.

One of the senators involved in the talks, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), poured cold water on the talks by telling "Fox News Sunday" that he doesn't think the group is close to a deal.

"There absolutely will not be record-keeping on legitimate, law abiding gun owners in this country.” Coburn said. “And if they want to eliminate the benefits of actually trying to prevent the sales to people who are mentally ill and to criminals, all they have to do is create a record keeping. And that will kill this bill.”

It's no surprise that Coburn is taking a firm stance in public, according to Senate Democratic aides, who said the talks will continue even if he drops out. Other GOP senators, including John McCain (Ariz.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Susan Collins (Maine), could sign on to the deal in the coming days despite Coburn's objections, aides said.

But this is the week that the formal bill-writing process to address gun violence is expected to begin. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to meet as early as Thursday to consider several gun-related proposals. A deal on expanding background checks -- if reached -- is still considered the proposal most likely to earn the broad bipartisan support and final passage in the Senate.


3.) Will the haggling over Chuck Hagel succeed?: Nope. Fifteen Republican senators sent a letter to Obama last week asking him to withdraw Hagel's nomination to serve as the next defense secretary, but their efforts likely won't stop a confirmation vote now that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has said that he'll vote to confirm the former Republican Nebraska senator. Shelby's support gives Hagel more than the 50 votes needed to earn confirmation and become the 24th man to lead the Pentagon.

McCain, who has delivered some of the sharpest criticism of Hagel, conceded Sunday that the cake is baked: "I don't believe Chuck Hagel, who is a friend of mine, is qualified to be secretary of defense," McCain told CNN's "State of the Union." "But I do believe that elections have consequences, unfortunately, and the president of the United States was reelected."

(Side note: Make sure to read David Ignatius's assessment of how Obama's new national security team is shaping up. He warns that Obama "is perilously close to groupthink" now that his storied "Team of Rivals" is no longer in place.)

4.) Is anyone else heading for the exits?: We're still waiting to hear from Sens. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- all of whom could decide not to run for reelection in 2014.

For those of you keeping score, six senators have already left or don't plan to run again: Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). As The Post's Aaron Blake recently noted, the number of Senate retirements over the last three election cycles is nearing a 40-year high.

5.) Violence Against Women Act: The House is expected to vote Wednesday on a GOP-sponsored plan to reauthorize the landmark law. But the Republican plan differs significantly from a Senate bill passed a few weeks ago. Chiefly, the House bill doesn't extend protections to same-sex couples, nor does it grant tribal courts new jurisdiction to try non-native men accused of abuse on Indian reservations. Senate Democrats, with some Republican support, added both of those provisions to their bill, but House Republicans argue they shouldn't be included in a reauthorization of current law.


6.) Rosa Parks: Official Washington is scheduled to break from the name-calling, finger-pointing and blame-giving on Wednesday morning, when congressional leaders and Obama are scheduled to gather in the Capitol's Statuary Hall to unveil a statue honoring civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

Parks also is one of just 32 people to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda and will be the first black woman honored with a statue in the building, an achievement House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) noted in a video previewing the event posted on his Web site.

Perhaps a more fitting tribute to Parks would be if Obama and congressional leaders attended the dedication ceremony and then found a room in the Capitol somewhere to cut a deal to avert sequestration. Is that too much to ask?

Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

What else did we miss? Let us know in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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Sean Sullivan · February 25, 2013