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From sequester to Hagel and voting rights, Washington braces for whirlwind week

Capitol Hill in Washington, DC
Capitol Hill in Washington, DCJoshua Roberts / Reuters file photo

A vote on President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Defense Department, Supreme Court arguments about the future of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and the expected onset of automatic spending cuts known as the "sequester" mean the nation's capital is bracing for a politically consequential week ahead.

After a weeklong recess, Congress returns to Washington with a full agenda of business that needs handling. Topping that list is an item which lawmakers are arguably unlikely to resolve over the course of the week: the sequester, about $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to begin taking effect on Friday, the first day of March.

Lawmakers left town before the President's Day holiday no closer to resolving the sequester, the second part of the so-called "fiscal cliff," which was delayed for two months by the New Year's Day deal on taxes.

Last week's recess was more full of posturing and blame-placing by Obama and Republicans in Congress — who each blame the other for the sequester's creation — than any substantive progress toward a deal to address the cuts, which both sides agree would be perilous.

"So now Republicans in Congress face a simple choice: Are they willing to compromise to protect vital investments in education and health care and national security and all the jobs that depend on them?" Obama said last Tuesday at the White House. "Or would they rather put hundreds of thousands of jobs and our entire economy at risk just to protect a few special-interest tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations? That's the choice."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, responded in the pages of the 'Wall Street Journal': "The president's sequester is the wrong way to reduce the deficit, but it is here to stay until Washington Democrats get serious about cutting spending." 

The administration has been warning of the potential consequences to the spending cuts, including military readiness and even delays and inconveniences in air travel.

Related: Why Obama has the PR upper hand in sequestration battle

"We're not making this up in order to put pain on the American people," outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We are required to cut a billion dollars and we are going to do that unless Congress gets together and works together and compromises on this." 

With both sides still so far apart, an agreement to delay or soften the blow of the automatic cuts before Friday seems unlikely.

That legislative showdown would normally suffice to consume all the political oxygen in Washington. But this week also features several other major events worth noting.

One such item is another holdover from before recess. The Senate is set to vote Tuesday on final confirmation for former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to become the next defense secretary. The vote follows tenacious efforts by some Republican senators to block their former colleague from joining the Obama administration.

Senate Democrats had hoped to formally vote to confirm Hagel before last week's recess, but Senate Republicans — even some GOP senators who said they'll support final confirmation for Hagel — joined together to sustain a filibuster, and delay the confirmation vote until this week. For their part, Democrats decried the filibuster as unprecedented against a Pentagon chief's nomination.

Still, Hagel appears to be headed toward confirmation. Some of his most vociferous critics — Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., among them — said they would support moving toward a final vote on confirmation, which would only require a simple majority of the Senate's support. Even still, several GOP senators have said they intend to support Hagel, which only boosts his prospects for confirmation, barring some sort of development.

Hagel isn't the only member of Obama's prospective national security team left hanging over the recess.

After facing a grilling earlier this month before the Senate Intelligence Committee, John O. Brennan's nomination to become the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency faces an uncertain future. Senators are looking for more information about the Obama administration's secretive drone strikes program — and Brennan's role in crafting that strategy — before moving forward with his nomination.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has threatened to filibuster Brennan's nomination before the whole Senate until he's received a satisfactory answer. The concerns about Brennan aren't isolated to Republicans, either; Democrats like Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon have voiced similar misgivings about the secretive use of drone strikes to target suspected terrorists and the process behind them.

Capitol Hill in Washington, DC
Capitol Hill in Washington, DCJoshua Roberts / Reuters file photo

Also this week, the Supreme Court will hear potentially consequential oral arguments challenging a section of the historic Voting Right Acts. The justices will hear a challenge to a section of the law requiring nine states with a history of racial discrimination to seek Justice Department approval for any change in their voting procedures before those changes can take effect.

Obama, speaking Thursday in a radio interview, sought to calm fears that African American or other minority voters would face greater challenges to voting if the Supreme Court were to strike down that section of the law.

"I know in the past some folks have worried that if the Supreme Court strikes down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, they're going to lose their right to vote. That’s not the case," Obama said on "The Black Eagle" radio show. "People will still have the same rights not to be discriminated against when it comes to voting, you just won't have this mechanism, this tool, that allows you to kind of stay ahead of certain practices."