Political News

Congress' to-do list: 5 things to do (or try to do) by Memorial Day

Posted May 20, 2018 10:49 a.m. EDT

— Few things inspire Congress to get things done like a deadline, and the pull of the week-long Memorial Day recess is no exception.

That said a variety of issues -- some situations of their own making, others created by outside forces -- have led to a packed week of congressional activity on such hot-button issues as veterans' health care, immigration, government spending and the handling of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

Here's what congressional leaders want to get done this week:

1. Put a veterans health care bill on the President's desk ...

The Senate is scheduled to take up, and expected to pass with bipartisan support, a bill that will allow veterans to see doctors that are outside the Veterans Affairs system. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture on the bill last Thursday.

The House overwhelmingly passed the VA MISSION Act last week, and has support from the White House. Lawmakers are pushing to have the legislation on the President's desk for his signature before they leave at the end of the week for the Memorial Day recess.

The $51 billion plan includes $5.2 billion for the Veterans Choice Program, which funds private care. VA officials have warned that the program could run out of money as early as the end of the month, disrupting care for patients. There has been a long-simmering debate about the extent to which veterans obtain care in the private sector. Many veterans groups say they don't want to see too many resources shifted outside the VA, a move they say would fundamentally bleed the health system dry.

2. ... and meet the new VA secretary nominee

The Senate also has a new Veteran's Affairs nominee to consider, three weeks after the previous nominee, Adm. Ronny Jackson, pulled his name from consideration.

In an impromptu moment during a prison reform event last week, President Donald Trump announced that he is nominating Robert Wilkie for the job, a post he has held as acting secretary since David Shulkin's ousting in March.

Veteran's Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, put out a statement congratulating Wilkie, saying he looks forward to learning more about his long-term views for the VA, "including how he plans to implement the VA MISSION Act when it becomes law."

3. Clear (or try to clear) a legislative backlog in the House

In the House, conversations will continue over immigration, rescissions and the failed farm bill. Lawmakers will also be voting on a reauthorizing the National Defense Authorization Act, as well as the Senate bill that was passed in March to roll back parts of the Dodd-Frank banking bill.

The House will also vote on a "Right to Try" bill that will give terminally ill patients the right to seek drug treatments that remain in clinical trials.

4. Grill two key Cabinet secretaries

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be on the Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, to testify on their agencies and will likely face politically charged questions from lawmakers.

DeVos will appear before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday to discuss her tenure as the secretary of education. Questions about her leadership are likely to come up during the hearing.

Amid questions DeVos might face: A Department of Education team that had looked into fraud and abuse by for-profit colleges has been dismantled to the point that it has "effectively killed investigations" into institutions where DeVos's top hires once worked, The New York Times reported last week, citing current and former employees.

On Wednesday, Pompeo will appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to talk about the State Department's budget. It will be his first hearing as secretary of state, which he assumed after first being appointed CIA director by Trump. Questions about his new leadership of the agency are likely to come up -- as well as news that he lifted the hiring freeze on his agency.

5. Figure out how the Senate will address sexual harassment

After more than 100 days of inaction, lawmakers are hopeful this will be the week there is a deal struck on the long-stalled sexual harassment legislation in the Senate.

The bipartisan duo of Senate negotiators, Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, have been meeting among themselves, with staff, and talking to leadership as they inch towards finalizing changes to the sexual harassment bill, which would overhaul how sexual harassment claims are made and handled on Capitol Hill.

Late last week, Blunt and Klobuchar told CNN they are very close to getting agreement on the finalized text, which would change parts of the legislation the House passed in February.

Both negotiators, who have been working closely with McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, told CNN last week they hope to get agreement on legislative text before the Memorial Day recess.