Capitol Hill has a pretty busy to-do list ahead of its Easter recess in two weeks, which coincides with a key deadline to avert another government shutdown, but perhaps one of the week’s most influential events is happening more than a couple hundred miles away from Washington.
Congress’ eyes will be on Pennsylvania on Tuesday for a reading of the political tea leaves, as voters head to the polls to fill the suburban Pittsburgh House seat of former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy.
The race has drawn national attention as a potential political bellwether for the November midterms. President Donald Trump campaigned for GOP candidate Rick Saccone on Saturday and former Vice President Joe Biden stumped for the Democratic candidate Conor Lamb last week.
Millions of dollars are pouring into the race from the national parties and outside groups. Republicans are growing increasingly worried that the reliably red district that Trump won by double digits in 2016 could slip away and trigger more House GOP retirements. The race is viewed as a referendum on Trump, and a Lamb victory will only fuel more predictions the GOP-controlled chamber will flip in the fall.
No matter who wins in Pennsylvania, the nation’s lawmakers have plenty else to keep them occupied this week.
Most lawmakers had left Washington by the time it was announced that Trump had accepted an invitation to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Reaction from lawmakers so far has been cautiously optimistic, with House Intelligence Committee top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, saying the meeting “could mark the beginning of a new path forward on the Korean Peninsula” but warning that the President – not one for extensive study – will be required “to rely on the expertise within the State Department, the Intelligence community and throughout the government, and not simply on his own estimation of his skills as a ‘deal maker.”
Republicans are still reeling from Trump’s announcement earlier this month that he will slap on new tariffs on aluminum and steel.
While Trump said he’d exempt Mexico and Canada from the tariffs, Republicans still warn Trump’s risking a trade war and could potentially undermine any economic boosts from the GOP’s tax cuts, passed last year and are a key political messaging tool for the party.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota and member of GOP leadership. “It’s still all bad.”
Republicans now must decide if they will take action against Trump. They have a few options. Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, warned Thursday ahead of the announcement that he would look at introducing legislation nullifying the tariffs, although Congress would likely need a veto-proof majority to do that, something Republicans have said they aren’t sure they’d get. Republicans could also look to take legal action. Some experts and congressional Republicans have said that the President’s justification that he’s slapping on new tariffs because of national security issues is undermined by the fact he exempted Mexico and Canada.
“He claims the national security justification that probably be challenged, probably would be challenged in a court as well,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican senator from Wisconsin. On Sunday, Johnson told CNN’s “State of the Union” he’d back legislation to nullify Trump’s tariffs.
On guns, the House is set to vote on a bill that would give school more money to strengthen security. The bill does not include any gun control measures, much to the chagrin of Democratic lawmakers as well as some Republicans who will still want to look at some gun-related legislation.
Other bills are paralyzed in Congress, and it’s unclear yet whether the Senate will take up a bill that aims to improve the background check system and already has more than 60 cosponsors.
Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee will a hold hearing Wednesday on the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that left 17 people dead. The hearing will focus on the reported failure of the FBI and law enforcement to follow up on red flags raised about the shooter, as well as school safety and possible gun legislation.
The Senate will wrap-up debate on a major bank deregulation bill probably by midweek. The bill makes changes to the Dodd-Frank regulations that were enacted after the 2008 financial crisis that Republicans – and some Democrats – believe were too harsh and hurt small and midsize banks, especially those in rural areas.
Democrats are sharply divided on the issue. Liberals, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, are warning rolling back Dodd-Frank rules could lead to another financial collapse.
“Frankly, I just don’t see how any senator can vote to weaken the regulations on Wall Street banks,” the Massachusetts senator told CNN’s Jim Acosta on “State of the Union” Sunday.
But moderate Democrats, including several who are running for re-election in states won by Trump, are backing the bill saying the demands of Dodd-Frank caused banks in their states to close, drying up credit to many farmers and small businesses.
Once the bill passes, which is expected, it will need to go back to the House to be voted on again before going to Trump’s desk for his expected signature.
Spending package deadline approaches
House GOP leaders are aiming to finish work on the omnibus spending package and bring it up for a House vote this week, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said last week. Both chambers need to pass a funding bill by March 23 to avoid another government shutdown.
The budget deal that Trump signed last month already set the topline budget numbers but lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee are still negotiating about how to dole out the money to various federal agencies.
As usual there are major disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over issues like funding for Planned Parenthood and women’s’ health programs, border security money and environmental programs.
In addition, the White House has insisted it doesn’t want to approve any money for the so-called “Gateway” project that would build new rail tunnels between New York and New Jersey. Lawmakers from those states are pressing for roughly $1 billion in federal money for the project, which is in addition to the money that the states are providing.
Sex trafficking bill
The Senate will take up an anti-trafficking bill that would make websites liable for trafficking that occurs on their platforms. The bill has wide support and is expected to pass, but some tech companies are concerned about unintended consequences and worry it could hurt startup Internet companies.
This measure, called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which passed with a majority from both parties in the House by a vote of 388-25, seeks to amend federal law to allow victims to sue the online platforms that facilitate such crimes, an act that critics say will chew into protections for free speech on the Internet.
Current federal law protects websites from being held responsible for material published on their sites by a third party.
Critics of the measure argue that the language in the bill is too broad, and that as a result, has the potential to hurt small start-ups. In a letter to Senate leaders obtained by CNN, a group of tech companies including Twitter and Pinterest urge the Senate to make alterations to the bill that would clarify what they believe to be ambiguity around what encompasses “culpable knowledge” from a platform of trafficking activity. The letter was first reported by Axios.
“There’s ambiguity in how this bill is meant to work, and we, along with the companies in the letter, are trying to be constructive and come up with clarifications of the bill that satisfy the underlying purpose while making it feasible for small platforms,” Evan Engstrom, Executive Director of Engine, the tech advocacy group that led the letter, told CNN.
Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who has led the bipartisan bill in the Senate, pushed back saying, “We’re pleased with the bill’s strong bipartisan support from trafficking survivors, law enforcement, faith-based groups and the tech community. The issues raised in this letter were dealt with by the Commerce Committee, and we’re certainly not going to do anything that waters down the bill.”
The bill, which has 67 Senate co-sponsors and has already garnered the support of the White House, is expected to pass in the Senate following the aforementioned banking bill.
Erin go Braugh
On Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has Irish roots, welcomes Prime Minister Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland as well as Trump to the Capitol for the traditional St. Patrick’s Day lunch.
Lawmakers from both parties attend the event, which was started by then-President Ronald Reagan and the then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill in the 1980s, and which celebrates the relationship between two allies.
“Equal parts beer and bipartisanship, I trust it will surely satisfy everyone’s appetite to celebrate St. Patrick,” Ryan said in a statement.