This week: Congress to snub Obama's last budget

President Obama is expected to release his final budget plan on Tuesday, but Republicans on Capitol Hill are indicating that they won’t give it much thought.

The chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees issued a joint statement late last week announcing that, breaking with precedent, they wouldn’t invite the Office of Management and Budget director to testify before their respective panels to discuss the president’s budget.

“Instead of hearing from an Administration unconcerned with our $19 trillion in debt, we should focus on how to reform America’s broken budget process and restore the trust of hardworking taxpayers,” Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said in a joint press release with his House counterpart, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.).

White House press secretary Josh Earnest compared the move to GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s decision to skip a Fox News debate last month.

"Maybe they're taking the Donald Trump approach to debates about the budget — they're just not going to show up," Earnest said.

Republicans are still mulling their options for their own budget blueprint this year. The two-year budget deal brokered by former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in his final days in office already establishes an outline for spending in the next fiscal year that starts in October.

But many conservatives, who overwhelmingly voted against the bipartisan budget pact last fall, are pushing for lower spending levels in an effort to reduce the deficit. The problem: using a more conservative budget outline would complicate the ability to clear individual appropriations bills in the Senate, where Democrats could filibuster.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is pledging that the Senate will make a "major effort" to pass a budget heading into the 2016 election. He has repeatedly touted his ability to pass a budget last year, using it to contrast a Republican-controlled Senate after years of a Democratic majority. 

But vulnerable Republican senators have suggested that the Senate doesn't need to pass another budget, with top line numbers already set by a two-year deal reached last year. 

A marathon of amendment votes—known as a "vote-a-rama"—could also put McConnell's caucus in a tough spot as they work to defend 24 Senate seats in the November election. Multiple amendment votes last year underscored division among GOP senators, with blue-state Republicans bucking their party on issues including paid sick leave and benefits for same-sex couples.  

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the goal is to produce a budget out of committee during the last week of February and hold a floor vote sometime in early March.

Amid the presidential budget rollout, the House plans to vote on legislation requiring the Treasury Secretary to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee about the status of the nation’s debt. The Treasury Secretary would have to provide a report detailing the president’s proposals to reduce the deficit and projections for the status of entitlement programs. 

North Korea

The Senate is expected to pass new sanctions cracking down on North Korea after the country said it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. 

McConnell set up the Senate to take up sanctions legislation Wednesday, with lawmakers expected to take a vote on final passage after up to seven hours of debate. 

"[It's a] very important piece of legislation that I'm pleased to say the whole Senate thinks ought to be taken up and voted on and passed, and it will be an important change in our policy toward this rogue regime," the Republican leader said last week.

The Senate legislation goes further than a House bill that passed last month, though Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said there have been conversations between staffers about the broader Senate bill.  

The Senate policy requires that the administration sanction anyone involved with North Korea's nuclear weapons program, arms-related materials, luxury goods, human rights abuses, activities that negatively impact cybersecurity and the use of coal or metals in any of the activities.

Penalties would include freezing assets under U.S. jurisdiction, banning individuals from traveling to the United States or blocking government contracts.

The bill passed out of the Foreign Relations Committee by a voice vote after lawmakers merged legislation from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) with a bill from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). 

By setting up a final vote on the Senate floor, the sanctions legislation will be able to avoid being attached to any potential so-called "poison pill" amendments that have previously derailed otherwise uncontroversial legislation. 

Energy fight

A wide-ranging energy bill is back under the spotlight after it was derailed last week over a Democratic-push to include aid for the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis. 

Senators and staff said they'd negotiate through the weekend in an effort to get a deal and save the otherwise bipartisan legislation by early this week. 

"Hopefully we'll be able to salvage this important bipartisan legislation in the next few days," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after Democrats blocked the legislation last week over the Flint fight. 

Democrats — led by Michigan Sens. Peters and Debbie Stabenow — want $600 million for Flint, including $400 million to match state funds to repair and replace old pipes in the city and the balance going to a research and education center on lead poisoning.

Stabenow and Peters have suggested they are hopeful they could get an agreement by early this week, with Peters telling reporters that they were "very close" to a deal but needed more time. 

Democrats rejected an offer last week from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that included giving $50 million directly to Flint and another $500 million to make additional loans available to the city and others with similar drinking water emergencies.

While Democrats are flexible on the amount of funding, Stabenow suggested the loan program included in Murkowski's offer would take too long to kick in. 

After the setback, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) suggested that Democrats were trying to score political points. 

"It's not an effort in good faith to try to solve a problem. It's to try to create an issue and a wedge and embarrass people," he told reporters. 

Scientific research

The House is slated to consider a measure on Wednesday that would establish standards for National Science Foundation research grants to be “worthy of federal funding.” Research projects would have to be “in the national interest” in order to qualify.

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the bill’s author, has argued that some projects awarded federal grants are too frivolous, such as a climate change-themed musical or studying early human-set fires in New Zealand.

Democrats, however, warn that the bill’s language is too broad and would threaten valuable research efforts in fields like social science.

The House passed legislation with similar restrictions on research grants last year.

Nutrition labeling

Another item slated for House consideration later this week is a bill to modify the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) menu-labeling rule for restaurants, which is expected to go into effect within the next year.

The legislation would require disclosing the number of calories contained in a menu item, as well as the number of calories per serving. Restaurant establishments with menu items that come in a variety of combinations would have flexibility in using nutrition disclosure methods approved by the FDA.

The bill has eight Democratic co-sponsors, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who introduced it with House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.).