Big decisions loom as power vacuum lingers

By Geof Koss | 10/19/2015 06:54 AM EDT

Lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., this week facing quick deadlines on the debt ceiling and transportation funding, but the most immediate matter on Capitol Hill’s mind is whether Rep. Paul Ryan is running for speaker of the House.

Lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., this week facing quick deadlines on the debt ceiling and transportation funding, but the most immediate matter on Capitol Hill’s mind is whether Rep. Paul Ryan is running for speaker of the House.

After cloistering himself at home for the past week to mull over the possibility, the Wisconsin Republican is "seriously considering" launching a bid to replace the retiring Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as speaker, CBS News reported yesterday, citing "those close to him."

But the same sources signaled that Ryan won’t negotiate with the House Freedom Caucus to win their support, raising questions over whether the dozens of conservative ideologues would coalesce behind the popular Ways and Means chairman after weeks of demanding procedural changes to caucus rules that would strengthen their hands in setting policy.


House Republicans across the political spectrum have said Ryan may be the only member capable of uniting the divided caucus, but conservative pundits have also criticized him over the past week over his immigration stances and track record on cutting deals with Democrats (Greenwire, Oct. 14).

The House doesn’t return until tomorrow, when it will start to become clearer how strong Ryan sentiment remains after the weeklong recess.

In the meantime, the ranks of would-be speakers continued to grow over the break, with CNN reporting Friday that Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) is joining Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) as potential candidates.

Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), the current choice of the Freedom Caucus, is already a declared candidate, as is Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). And while Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is expected to remain in the No. 2 slot, there will be plenty of angling among Republicans for the remaining leadership slots.

Against the backdrop of the ugly power struggle is an assortment of tough agenda items that must be dealt with before the end of the year.

The most pressing agenda item is raising the debt limit. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew last week warned congressional leaders that the country will hit the debt ceiling Nov. 3 — two days sooner than earlier predictions (Greenwire, Oct. 15).

Boehner, who has said he wants to "clean the barn up a little" before handing off the speaker’s gavel, is widely expected to eventually bring up the clean debt limit increase sought by Democrats before his departure.

So far, the only official sign of addressing the debt limit is tomorrow’s House Rules Committee meeting on legislation (H.R. 692) that would allow the federal government to pay the principal and interest on publicly held debt, as well as on Social Security payments. Doing so defuses some of the political pressure over the debt ceiling but is widely opposed among Democrats.

That measure will easily pass the House but will fall short in the Senate, demonstrating the need for the clean debt increase that will require Democrats to move in the lower chamber.

Congress is also likely to pass yet another short-term transportation bill before the end of the month, when the current measure expires. The House continues to play catch-up with the Senate, with a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee markup of its new long-term authorization set for Thursday (Greenwire, Oct. 16).

However, how to pay for the $325 billion bill remains an open question — one intertwined with Ryan’s decision on the speakership, given that Ways and Means will have to provide the pay-fors.

As the House’s top tax writer, Ryan may also be a central figure in budget talks to fund the federal government after the continuing resolution expires Dec. 11. Discussions over a possible deal to replace the current sequestration caps are already underway between the White House and top congressional leaders, and Democrats have pointed to the 2013 budget deal cut by Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) as a model.

Both sides are already staking out familiar positions on entitlement spending, and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is said to be continuing to press policy riders targeting U.S. EPA regulations (E&ENews PM, Oct. 13).

A number of energy-related bills continue to seek an opening in the crowded agenda.

House Republicans have signaled they plan to bring the Energy and Commerce Committee’s broad energy package (H.R. 8) to the floor this fall, despite the objections of Democrats, who say they were left out of the process. But a key conservative group last week also noted its own concerns about the bill, which resulted from months of bipartisan negotiations before falling apart (E&ENews PM, Oct. 15).

A Senate companion, which currently retains bipartisan support, also awaits floor time. But Senate Republicans seem more focused on trying to lift the crude oil export ban, as the House did before the break (Greenwire, Oct. 9).

Speculation continues to fly over a deal that would lift the ban while extending renewable tax credits. One key industry lobbyist last week said it could hitch a ride on an end-of-year budget deal (Greenwire, Oct. 14).

Also likely in the coming weeks is a Senate vote on overhauling the Toxic Substances Control Act, which has sufficient support to pass the upper chamber but is stalled over a push by Republican senators who want to use it as a vehicle for reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (E&E Daily, Oct. 9).