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Window On Washington - February 18, 2019, Vol. 3, Issue 8

Feb 18, 2019

Outlook for This Week in the Nation's Capital

Congress:  Having finally passed a FY19 appropriations spending package acceptable to President Trump, who signed the measure last Friday, the House and Senate take a much needed break this week with Members back in their districts for the Presidents’ Day recess period.  Last week, in addition to appropriations and approving William Barr as the Attorney General, the Senate passed a huge bipartisan public lands package that among other things would create more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness out West, add three national park units and expand eight others.  The House is expected to take up the measure upon returning from recess next week, and the President is expected to sign the bill.

White House:  The President as hoped for signed into law the final FY19 spending deal last Friday, and also as expected went ahead and declared a national emergency on the border, as the final deal was far short of his request.  Business and conservative groups typically aligned with the GOP came out strongly against President Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency over the border, underscoring opposition to the move from traditional Republican circles who are concerned about him broadening the definition of a presidential emergency and concerned about the precedent it may set for future Democratic presidents.  Several prominent Democrats in the House and Senate of course threatened both lawsuits and legislation to block this action, and to resist efforts by the Administration to transfer funds from the DOD or elsewhere to pay for additional border security walls and measures.

Budget & Appropriations:  Congress will be busy upon its return on February 25th, with the FY20 budget and appropriations processes now likely to start in earnest with the conclusion of the remaining unfinished FY19 bills last week.  The deal signed by the President omitted additional emergency funding for damage caused by hurricanes and wildfires last year, which will need to be addressed in the coming months, along with trying to strike a deal with the White House on FY20 budget caps.  The DOD is apparently going to propose getting around the caps by requesting as much as $174 billion of its funding for next year as “Overseas Contingency Operations” funds as a “work around” to those caps, a gambit that Democrats are unlikely to agree with absent caps being raised for domestic spending as well.

Last Week in the Nation's Capital

CONGRESS

Tax Reform

Grassley Says He's not Giving up on Tax Extenders: Though Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is among those disappointed tax extenders didn't get a last-minute revival by being attached to the recently passed budget bill, the Iowa Republican says he will continue to press for an extension. Grassley said he wants an extension to cover both the 2018 and 2019 tax years, and will introduce legislation on the matter. (Clark Hill Insight)

Health

House Committee to Hold Hearing on U.S. Measles Outbreak:  The House Energy and Commerce Committee plans to hold a hearing later this month on the measles outbreak in the U.S.  New York, Texas and Washington have all seen outbreaks this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Those outbreaks have been linked to travelers bringing measles to the U.S. from other countries, and spreading it among communities with groups of people who aren't vaccinated, the CDC said. (The Hill)

Democrats Unveil Bill to Let VA Doctors Prescribe Cannabis:  Two Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill to allow doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe medical cannabis. The legislation, from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), would only apply to the 33 states that already allow medical cannabis, but would lift the federal ban in those states for the VA.  The bill would also direct the VA to study how medical marijuana could be used to treat chronic pain, with the hope that prescribing marijuana for pain could cut down on the need to prescribe opioids, which are at the center of an epidemic of abuse. (The Hill)

Justice

Senate Confirms Trump Nominee William Barr to be Next Attorney General: The Senate on Thursday confirmed William Barr to be the next attorney general of the United States despite Democratic concerns over how he would oversee special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The Senate approved Barr’s nomination in a 54-45 vote, with three Democrats joining nearly every Republican in support. (Politico)

Labor & Workforce

Paycheck Fairness Act on the Move:  Last week the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services and the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing on the Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA). The bill has a whopping 239 cosponsors—more than enough to pass the House. But with the Republican-controlled Senate likely to balk at the PFA’s unlimited compensatory and punitive damages, class action facilitation, and wage data collection provisions, many will be watching to see if proponents of the bill make any changes that might attract Senate Republicans to their side.  (The National Law Review)

Immigration

Congress’s Deal on Immigration Detention, Explained: The heart of the tentative deal reached last week to fund the Department of Homeland Security and avert another government shutdown before Friday’s deadline isn’t actually the $1.375 billion in funds for a physical barrier along 55 miles of the US-Mexico border. It’s funding for the detention of immigrants — both those apprehended at the border and those arrested within the United States — by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Vox)

Defense

Rebuking Trump, House Passes Measure to End U.S. Involvement in Yemen: The House on Wednesday passed a measure aimed at withdrawing all U.S. military support for the Saudi Arabia-backed war in Yemen, the latest in a series of rebukes by Congress to President Trump's foreign policy. (NBC News)

Energy & Natural Resources

Senate Passes Public Lands Package, Including Permanent LWCF Authorization: After much anticipation, the U.S. Senate passed (92-8) a bipartisan public lands package of 170 bills—the Natural Resources Management Act—in one full sweep. More than 600 pages lay out protections for millions of acres of land, hundreds of miles of rivers, dozens and dozens of varieties of wildlife, and more. The bill also permanently reauthorizes the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund. (SNews)

Cyber

Senate Banking Panel Kicks off Talks on Data Security Bill: The leaders of the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday kicked off a push to write stricter data collection and security standards for financial institutions. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), the panel’s chairman, and Sen. Sherrod Brown (OH), the ranking Democrat, on Wednesday asked for input on ways to give consumers more control of personally identifiable information collected by financial firms and regulators. (The Hill)

EXECUTIVE BRANCH

Health/HHS/NIH

Mega Docking Library Set to Speed Drug Discovery: Researchers have launched an ultra-large virtual docking library expected to grow to more than 1 billion molecules by next year. It will expand by 1000-fold the number of such “make-on-demand” compounds readily available to scientists for chemical biology and drug discovery. The larger the library, the better its odds of weeding out inactive “decoy” molecules that could otherwise lead researchers down blind alleys. The project is funded by the National Institutes of Health. (Technology Networks)

Space/NASA & NOAA

NASA Seeks to Accelerate Work on Lunar Missions:  NASA is now emphasizing speed in its lunar exploration plans, including seeking to fly payloads on commercial lunar landers before the end of this year as it works with industry on lander concepts.  In a briefing with reporters at NASA Headquarters here Feb. 14, prior to an industry day for a new human landing systems study procurement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency was working as fast as it could to develop the capabilities needed to return humans to the moon.  That includes accelerating its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, where NASA will buy payload space on commercially developed landers. (Space News)

SpaceX Protests NASA Launch Contract Award:  SpaceX has filed a protest over the award of a launch contract to United Launch Alliance for a NASA planetary science mission, claiming it could carry out the mission for significantly less money.  The protest, filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) Feb. 11, is regarding a NASA procurement formally known as RLSP-35. That contract is for the launch of the Lucy mission to the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter, awarded by NASA to ULA Jan. 31 at a total cost to the agency of $148.3 million. The GAO documents did not disclose additional information about the protest, other than the office has until May 22 to render a decision. NASA said that, as a result of the protest, it’s halted work on the ULA contract. (Space News)

NASA Wants Help from Private Companies to Land Astronauts on the Moon by 2028:  NASA is officially looking for ideas from private companies to develop future lunar technologies, with responses due by the end of next month. In addition, the agency published its methodology for bringing crewed missions back to the lunar surface.  The partnerships would be multiphased and perhaps include collaboration with other nations to "advance our missions to farther destinations, such as Mars, with America leading the way," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, said in the statement.  One important element in NASA's approach is the establishment of a gateway that could support round-trip lunar journeys. (Space.com)

Defense

Trump May Have $21 Billion in Military Funds Available for the Wall: The announcement that President Trump plans to declare a national emergency over the southern border is very likely to rope in the Pentagon, as the White House seeks to divert military funds to build his long-promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. (Foreign Policy)

Former Air Force Intelligence Specialist Charged with Spying for Iran: The Trump administration last week unveiled criminal charges against a former Air Force intelligence specialist who was allegedly recruited by the Iranian government to spy on the United States. (The Hill)

DHS

Homeland Security Says it's 'Doubling Down' on 2020 Election Security Efforts: Protecting the 2020 election from hackers and foreign influence campaigns is a top priority for the Department of Homeland Security, the agency said Thursday. Christopher Krebs, director of the DHS' Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, held a press briefing to detail the DHS' efforts on election security. (CNET)

Trade

No Trade Deal yet, but Mnuchin Calls Talks ‘Productive’: Trade talks between U.S. and Chinese officials in Beijing last week were “productive,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin tweeted on Friday, but there was no indication that the two sides had managed to broker an end to their protracted trade war. A White House statement said the talks had seen “progress between the two parties,” but “much work remains.” (The Mercury News)

Transportation & Infrastructure

With No Funding in Sight, a Push for Major Infrastructure Spending Starts to Face Some Headwinds: Though Trump called again for an infrastructure initiative in his State of the Union address this month, he offered no new plan or any way to pay for it. The administration last year called for spending $200 billion over a decade to leverage as much as $1.5 trillion through private, state and local sources. But Democrats have said more federal money would be needed, while raising doubts that enough private financing would materialize. (Clark Hill Insight)

EPA

EPA Plan to Rid Drinking Water from Toxic Chemicals Sparks Divisions in Washington: The Environmental Protection Agency is calling it “comprehensive” and “historic.” Congressional Democrats are calling it another sign of “complacency” on the part of Trump administration regulators. The EPA's long-awaited "action plan" on keeping a class of long-lasting chemicals out of Americans' drinking water is already turning into another bone of contention in Washington. (The Washington Post)

DOI

Interior Announces New Coal Leases After Trump Loses Bid to Save Kentucky Plant: The Trump administration approved two new leases for coal mining in Utah last Thursday, just hours after the President failed to stop a coal-fired power plant from closing in Kentucky. “American coal jobs matter,” said acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, noting that federal lands provide nearly 40 percent of the nation’s coal. Thursday's project approvals will ensure that the mines remain operational for years, while providing jobs and affordable energy to the people of Utah, Bernhardt said. (Washington Examiner)

Energy

U.S. Expects Record Domestic Oil Production in 2019, 2020: The United States expects domestic oil production to reach new heights this year and next, and that prices — for both crude and gasoline — will be lower than they were in 2018. Government forecasters are sticking to their forecast that the United States — already the world's biggest oil producer — will become a net exporter of crude and petroleum products in 2020. (Fox Business)

DOJ

Whitaker to Stay at Justice Department Following Stint as Acting AG: Former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker will remain at the Justice Department despite William Barr’s being sworn in to lead the department. Whitaker, who served as chief of staff to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions until President Trump tapped him for the acting role in November, is now a senior counselor in the associate attorney general’s office. (Politico)

DOJ Warns White House that National Emergency will Likely be Blocked: The Department of Justice has warned the White House that the courts are likely to block a national emergency declaration to build a wall along the southern border, according to ABC News. The White House, however, remains confident that it can win on appeal and ultimately have such a declaration approved by the courts. (The Hill)

Education

Student Loan Servicers’ Frequent Mistakes Went Unpunished, Audit Finds: An audit released by the Education Department described its slipshod oversight of federal student loan servicers that were regularly let off the hook for mistakes, driving up costs for taxpayers and for borrowers already owing more than $1 trillion in debt. (The New York Times)