Road ahead: Defense discussions dominate, plus infrastructure week in the House

Transportation and health care also high on the agenda

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will be back on Capitol Hill this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will be back on Capitol Hill this week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 29, 2020 at 3:07pm, Updated at 7:25pm

Defense policy discussions will attract most of the attention in the halls of Congress this week, as the Senate takes up the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill on the floor and the House Armed Services Committee marks up its version.

Senate floor consideration will include a timely debate over the naming of U.S. military bases and other assets for Confederate military figures. The base text coming out of committee includes language that would require the Pentagon to change the names within three years, though the White House has said the president would not sign such a bill.

Aside from the Confederate conflagration, this year’s defense policy bill shied away from most contentious areas.

The coronavirus pandemic is partly the reason for a smooth process so far, but Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., told CQ Roll Call many sticky issues were ironed out in committee.

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On Monday evening, the Senate voted 89-4 on a motion to proceed to the defense bill.

Meanwhile, on the House floor, it’s infrastructure week.

The focus of the rare full week — or close to it — of floor activity will be on a big infrastructure package covering about $1.5 trillion worth of projects, according to House Democrats.

Debate on the legislation and related amendments is expected to get underway Tuesday and consume the balance of the week, which ends Thursday since Friday is the federal government’s observance of Independence Day. (The actual Fourth of July is Saturday.)

The infrastructure package is the first real test of the House’s move to hold several amendment votes at a time when vote series are longer to accommodate for social distancing.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said leadership was trying to consolidate members’ amendments by including them in a manager’s amendment or having them voted on “en bloc,” meaning grouped together, on the floor.

“We’re trying to do what we can to honor people’s opinions but also honor the time constraints that our current accommodations to distancing requires,” the Maryland Democrat told CQ Roll Call last week.

In general, Hoyer said votes have been moving more quickly since the House first implemented its social distancing procedures, and he thinks they can speed them up even more.

“Votes were averaging an hour and 15 minutes. We got it down to 50 minutes or somewhere in there,” he said. “I think we can get it down to 30 minutes, or maybe even 25 minutes. Because, as you’ve seen, the floor is not crowded because members are doing what they’re supposed to do. They come on, they vote, and they leave.”

House votes

Before getting to the transportation bill, the House spent Monday finishing up work on two pieces of legislation that have received formal veto threats from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

Lawmakers passed, 230-179, a joint resolution of disapproval for a rule from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency regarding the Community Reinvestment Act. House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., introduced the measure.

The rule, which changes the threshold for what banking activities count toward CRA credit and changes standards for data collection, among other things, has been criticized by Democrats as running counter to the law’s purpose.

“The Community Reinvestment Act is an essential law that was put in place to prevent redlining and to require banks to invest and lend responsibly in the communities where they are chartered. It is completely unacceptable for the OCC to use the cover of a pandemic to rush out a rule that will be harmful to communities that are already suffering during this crisis,” Waters said in a statement when she introduced her resolution earlier this month.

Another measure with stated White House opposition was a bill to expand the 2010 health care law with provisions that include making the tax credit subsidies for premiums more generous. The chamber passed the bill Monday on a 234-179 vote.

Among the bill’s provisions, it would stop the Trump administration’s expansion of short-term heath insurance plans that Democrats deride as “junk” plans.

Committee work

Numerous committees continue this week with oversight of the administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the next steps for reopening as infection counts rise across much of the country.

High-profile health and finance officials are expected to deliver testimony this week as lawmakers continue examining the pandemic’s impact on the country and potential future moves to help America weather the storm.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is scheduled to hold another hearing Tuesday on progress toward safely getting back to work and school.

Testimony will be provided by Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield.

A Senate Appropriations subcommittee gets its turn to hear from the NIH and CDC directors Thursday as it receives an update on the initiative to research and manufacture a coronavirus vaccine, dubbed “Operation Warp Speed.”

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on the response and mitigation to the pandemic in Native communities.

Waters and her House Financial Services panel are scheduled to hear Tuesday from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on the pandemic response.

IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig is also scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee on the 2020 filing season and coronavirus-related topics. The Government Accountability Office called on the agency to develop options last week for recovering nearly $1.4 billion in tax rebate checks sent to 1.1 million dead people as part of virus relief efforts.

The House Small Business Committee is scheduled to hear Wednesday from the Small Business Administration on another piece of the COVID-19 response puzzle, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, while a Foreign Affairs subcommittee will hear from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development on the response efforts in the Caribbean and Latin America.

The full House Foreign Affairs Committee has a hearing scheduled for Thursday on another controversy, as part of the panel’s probe of the dismissal of the State Department’s inspector general.

Aside from hearings related to the pandemic, Senate committee highlights include a Judiciary hearing Tuesday on the call from the Judicial Conference of the United States to increase the number of federal judges and a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing the same day on the nomination of Derek Kan to be the No. 2 official at the OMB.

There is also a Wednesday hearing at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to consider efforts to compensate student athletes for the use of their names and likenesses.

Chris Cioffi and Emily Kopp contributed to this report.