First Thoughts: The unfinished business for the 113th Congress

Congress’ to-do list for 2014… But first, Senate holds cloture vote on budget deal at 10:00 am ET… How does the administration ultimately respond to yesterday’s court ruling on the NSA?... Obama sits down with tech executives at 10:45 am ET… Scott Brown would put New Hampshire in play -- but he also would have some work to do… Schweitzer and 2016… And House Ethics Committee to investigate Radel.

A general view of the U.S. Capitol Dome in Washington, October 4, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

*** The unfinished business for the 113th Congress: Congress’ last major vote of the year takes place at 10:00 am ET, when the Senate holds a cloture vote on the Ryan-Murray budget deal. As we wrote yesterday, it’s expected to get the 60 needed to clear the procedural hurdle, setting up a vote for final passage later in the week. And that will essentially bring the first year of the 113th Congress to a close (although the Senate also will hold votes on several nominations, including Janet Yellen’s to head the Federal Reserve). So what’s the unfinished business for Congress when it returns next year? Our list:

-- Passing the farm bill (they have to do it, but food stamps continue to be a sticking point);

-- Extending unemployment insurance (don’t be surprised if it’s just a short-term deal -- or if it doesn’t happen at all);

-- Raising the debt ceiling by Feb. 7 (despite Paul Ryan’s recent rhetoric, do Republicans really want to distract from health care?);

-- Increasing the minimum wage (this probably is going to be a major thrust of President Obama’s State of the Union; as our NBC/WSJ poll shows, nearly half of Republicans and Tea Party supporters back raising it to $10.10 per hour);

-- And having the House take up immigration (we’re a little more optimistic than others that something gets done by the summer).

There’s something else which Congress will certainly discuss but which probably won’t go anywhere: tax reform. So that’s quite a to-do list for the least productive (so far), least active, and most unpopular Congress on record.

*** How does the administration ultimately respond to yesterday’s court ruling on the NSA? Here’s another thing Congress will probably turn to after yesterday’s news: reforming the National Security Agency. “A federal district judge ruled on Monday that the National Security Agency program that is systematically keeping records of all Americans’ phone calls most likely violates the Constitution, describing its technology as ‘almost Orwellian’ and suggesting that James Madison would be ‘aghast’ to learn that the government was encroaching on liberty in such a way,” the New York Times says. The challenge for the Obama administration isn’t to win the appeal. Instead, its challenge is to come up with a reform -- like having the NSA going to the phone/web companies for the meta-data -- that makes any judicial ruling moot. That’s their goal.

*** Obama sits down with tech execs: Don’t be surprised if Obama’s 10:45 am ET meeting with tech company executives -- like Apple’s Tim Cook, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Google’s Eric Schmidt -- is dominated by this NSA issue. The White House says the agenda is to discuss “progress made in addressing performance and capacity issues with HealthCare.Gov and how government can better deliver IT to maximize innovation, efficiency and customer service.” But the NSA issue will be on the agenda, too.

*** Scott Brown would put New Hampshire in play -- but he would have some work to do: Turning to the 2014 midterms, we saw two pieces of news come out of New Hampshire yesterday. First Bloomberg News reported that former Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) is selling his house in Massachusetts and is planning to move to New Hampshire, possibly prepping for Senate bid in the Granite State. Second, the GOP-leaning group Ending Spending is up with a TV ad in New Hampshire hitting incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) on the health-care law. “On health care, Jeanne Shaheen didn’t tell the truth,” the ad goes. “So next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don’t, you know what to do.” (Don’t be surprised if you see this punch line a lot in 2014.) Make no mistake: Scott Brown as the GOP’s nominee would put New Hampshire’s Senate seat in play for next year; in fact, it would be a homerun. But he would have some work to do -- respond to the carpetbagger charge (he ran and lost in Massachusetts just a year ago) and sell himself to New Hampshire Republicans who might think he’s too moderate. Remember, Kelly Ayotte BARELY won her 2010 Senate primary, and she didn’t move from next-door Massachusetts the year before. In the past, non-presidential primaries in New Hampshire have been dominated by conservatives. One other question we have: If Brown really wants back in the Senate, why didn’t he run for John Kerry’s open seat earlier this year?

*** Schweitzer and 2016: Meanwhile, the Weekly Standard runs a profile of former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, in which the Democrat expresses an interest in running in 2016 and in which he lays out a populist case against Hillary Clinton (and President Obama). “The question that we have is, will it be the Hillary that leads the progressives?” he said on MSNBC. “Or is it the Hillary that says, ‘I’m already going to win the Democratic nomination, and so I can shift hard right on Day 1.’ We can’t afford any more hard right. We had eight years of George Bush. Now we’ve had five years of Obama, [who], I would argue, in many cases has been a corporatist.” Those are some pretty tough words from Schweitzer, whose decision NOT to run for the Senate in 2014 might be the chief reason why Republicans have a chance of winning control of the chamber next year. (If Montana weren’t in play, Republicans would have absolutely no margin for error in the remaining Senate contests.)

*** Ethics Committee to investigate Radel: Finally, NBC’s Frank Thorp reports that the House Ethics Committee voted to establish an investigative subcommittee to determine whether Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) violated congressional laws, rules, regulations, or other standards of conduct when he was charged for possession of cocaine after buying the drug from an undercover officer in DC in October. Thorp adds that Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) will serve as the chairman of the investigative subcommittee, and Rep Yvette Clarke (D-NY) will serve as the ranking member. Two other members will sit on the subcommittee, Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Janice Hahn (D-CA).

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