April Washington D.C. Update


— Mueller report: A redacted copy of special counsel Robert Mueller's report will be made publicly mid-April "if not sooner," Attorney General William Barr said, with congressional hearings possible in early May. But House Democrats are pressing for access to the full, unredacted report by this week.

— Border tensions escalate: Relations between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill are fraying as defense leaders move to divert $1 billion for barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is moving to reallocate unspent funds from Army personnel accounts toward the border without seeking congressional approval, defying decades of tradition. Meanwhile, officials are warning that the U.S. immigration system is at a "breaking point" as Central American immigrants arrive at the border. President Donald Trump responded by threatening to close the border this week and to cut aid to three Central American countries.

— All the money in the world: House lawmakers say they're planning to tackle the 12 annual spending bills needed to fund the federal government late this month or in early May to meet House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's goal of passing all of those fiscal 2020 measures on the floor by the end of June.

Here's a deeper dive on the month's policy agenda:


Backward beginning: Despite Hoyer's goal, the trains aren't all running on time. Appropriators will once again be working backward, since congressional leaders have yet to strike a deal on overall budget caps for defense and non-defense spending. Once those two overarching figures are finalized and limits are set for the 12 bills, appropriators will need to rejigger funding levels for each department, agency and program.

Budget writers are also expected to get started this spring on resurrecting their plan to overhaul the congressional budget process. While the Senate Budget Committee has just approved its budget resolution, the measure is not guaranteed to reach the floor for a "vote-a-rama" this year. And House leaders aren't sure they're going to pay heed to their own budget resolution for fiscal 2020, either.

Spending leaders also hope to work this month to iron out disputes over disaster aid for Puerto Rico to get the broader multibillion-dollar relief bill, H.R. 268, cleared for Trump's signature. — Jennifer Scholtes


Changes for the taxman: Lawmakers in both chambers have teed up bipartisan legislation to overhaul some IRS operations, and they're aiming to get it through the House this month. The legislation, scheduled for a Ways and Means markup April 2, would make a raft of changes to the way the agency interacts with taxpayers, such as establishing an independent appeals process. It also includes provisions meant to combat tax fraud arising from identity theft, curb asset seizure authority and shield more low-income taxpayers from debt-collection efforts by IRS contractors. Similar legislation was close to enactment last year but didn't make it across the finish line before Congress adjourned.

Ways and Means also intends to take up legislation to encourage retirement savings, including an expansion of some tax credits.

Waiting on extenders: The outlook for temporary tax breaks known as extenders is cloudier, and business uncertainty over the issue looks likely to persist through April. Ways and Means is no longer expected to consider reviving the dozens of expired tax benefits at its markup. Some House Democrats are reluctant to extend the provisions since they mainly benefit businesses, and others want to see that the cost is covered. Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) has dangled the possibility of expanding tax credits for low-income working families to bring around some of his colleagues.

The taxman cometh: Tax returns are due for most taxpayers on April 15. The current filing season is getting more scrutiny than usual since it marks the first under the Republicans' tax overhaul. The number of returns filed and processed to date have been down a bit from a year ago, while refund amounts are about the same after initially lagging, according to IRS data. There's some expectation that more taxpayers than usual will request filing extensions. — Aaron Lorenzo


Obamacare wars reopen: Trump's demand that Republicans make another attempt to get rid of Obamacare has shaken GOP lawmakers eager to forget the 2017 repeal debacle that contributed to their losing control of the House and several state capitols.

Early indications are that Republicans will slow-walk the issue this time and try to stick to health care topics that have appeal on both sides of the aisle, like addressing "surprise" medical bills that hit insured people who end up with an out-of-network provider.

Aside from the narrower policy moves, GOP leadership will repeat its longstanding message that Obamacare has "failed" and that Democrats' "Medicare for All" proposals pose a threat to the current system. Democrats control the House now, and the GOP's vision of replacing Obamacare with block grants or other conservative proposals — ideas they couldn't enact when they controlled both chambers — appear to be a fantasy.

They may have to tread water for a year. The Trump administration sent lawmakers scrambling when the Justice Department abruptly announced on March 25 that it is backing a lawsuit led by Texas seeking to throw out Obamacare entirely, reversing a far narrower legal strategy.

That case is pending before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and it may well end up before the Supreme Court. Trump told Congress he wants a plan at the ready to replace Obamacare if the court voids the law — but Republicans generally expect the legal battle to last another year or so, giving them some breathing room. — Alice Miranda Ollstein and Burgess Everett


Pentagon job in limbo: Shanahan's once-expected nomination to be the permanent Defense secretary appears to be on hold as the Pentagon's inspector general investigates whether he violated ethics rules and favored his former employer, Boeing, as deputy secretary.

Still, the acting Pentagon chief now has an influential ally in his corner: Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). Though he's expressed doubts that Shanahan would be the permanent pick after a record-breaking tenure as acting secretary, Inhofe says he'd now support Shanahan's confirmation as secretary. — Connor O'Brien


Facebook runs afoul: Anticipation is rising for a conclusion to the yearlong Federal Trade Commission probe into Facebook's data practices. The investigation was triggered by Facebook's failure to secure user data against improper access by Trump-linked political firm Cambridge Analytica, but it's ballooned into an expansive review of the company's overall approach to protecting its users' privacy and keeping their data locked down.

That trajectory tracks with a decline in Facebook's broader Washington fortunes: Once the darling of tech-friendly Democrats and a platform eagerly adopted by Republicans including Trump, Facebook now faces blistering criticism over data security, how it polices content on its platforms, whether ads on its platform are discriminatory and its overall size and market power.

The conclusion of the FTC probe is likely to represent the first concrete Washington punishment for the company, making it a bellwether for how serious policymakers are about reining it in. The end result could be a multibillion-dollar fine — which itself could provoke further criticism, as Facebook is now large enough to shrug off almost any amount of money regulators could demand — or imposed structural changes that could produce real pain for the company. — Kyle Daly


Next steps on new NAFTA: Congress is counting down to April 19, the day a report on the new North American free trade pact is expected to be published. The U.S. International Trade Commission is required by law to do an economic analysis of the trade deal, known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Some early predictions say the report will find that the new agreement provides only a slight boost to the U.S. economy, which could sink the pact's chances in Congress.

Watchful eye on China talks: A Chinese team led by Vice Premier Liu He will be in Washington this week to continue talks aimed at settling contentious issues in the U.S.-China trade war. Trump is interested in holding a final signing summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago after the the two sides wrap up discussions. But last week, a top White House official said it could be months before the talks are resolved.

Another inquiry to wrap up: The Commerce Department is expected to conclude this month an investigation into whether imports of uranium represent a risk to national security. The case was initiated after two uranium producers with headquarters in the U.S. requested an inquiry.

Global meet: Trade tensions could also be front of mind when top finance officials gather in Washington April 9-14 for the annual spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. — Adam Behsudi


Farm and ranch round-up: The Agriculture Department is slated to release its national farm census on April 11 after it was delayed by the partial government shutdown. The census, conducted every five years, provides an accounting of all U.S. farms and ranches as well as demographic information about the people who operate them. It will give policymakers a sense of whether efforts to promote just-starting-out farmers and ranchers have attracted more newcomers to agriculture. It will also provide data on how ownership and production practices have changed in recent years and reveal whether more women and people of color are entering or leaving the sector.

Food stamp case heads to SCOTUS: The Supreme Court is slated this month to hear a case that will ultimately decide whether USDA can publicly release retailer sales data from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Back in 2011, the Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper, filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking a few years of SNAP retailer sales data. USDA denied the request on grounds the data is considered confidential business information. The denial kicked off a lengthy legal fight between the newspaper and USDA, which was later backed up by the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group representing major retailers. Oral arguments are scheduled for April 22. — Helena Bottemiller Evich


Pop quiz: The Education Department will continue its "preliminary investigation" of eight colleges tied to the sweeping admissions cheating and bribery scandal revealed in March as many of those allegedly involved face criminal charges in court. Education Department officials are demandingthe eight schools turn over a range of documents, including marketing materials and admissions information. They are examining whether any of the universities violated any laws or rules "governing the Federal student financial aid programs" or "any other applicable laws," according to letters sent to the schools' presidents on March 25. The department requested responses within 30 days.

Campus sexual assault takes center stage: The Senate HELP Committee is continuing work on legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has said his goal is to report legislation out of committee by spring so the Senate can consider it this summer. The full committee will hold a hearing April 2 on campus sexual assault, which coincides with the Education Department's effort to write new rules for how schools handle sexual assault allegations under Title IX, the law that bans discrimination on the basis of sex for education programs receiving federal assistance. The department is reviewing more than 100,000 public comments.

More school rules: An Education Department-appointed rulemaking panel will meet for its last round of negotiations on the rewrite of a slew of federal rules regulating higher education. On the table: accreditation, religious schools and nontraditional education providers. If the panel doesn't reach a consensus, the Education Department is free to write its own rules. — Nicole Gaudiano


Troubled Waters: The CEOs of the nation's biggest banks will go before the House Financial Services Committee for an April 10 hearing, where they will be grilled by Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and other lawmakers on contentious issues such as their lack of diversity and financing of the gun industry and private prisons. The hearing will come just weeks after one of the committee's biggest targets — Tim Sloan of Wells Fargo — was ousted as CEO of the scandal-ridden bank.

The panel has also called Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to an April 9 hearing for his first appearance since Democrats won back the House. Mnuchin — who has famously tangled with Waters before — will be pressed to explain the Trump administration's recent decision to ease Russia sanctions, among other issues.

A big boost for startups: The SEC is moving ahead with a proposed rule change that would allow businesses of any size to confidentially discuss initial public offerings with investors without first registering with the agency. A public comment period ends on April 29 for the proposal, which is designed to let the companies gauge investor interest in potential IPOs.

New housing boss: Housing insiders expect the Senate to confirm Mark Calabria, the White House's nominee to take over the Federal Housing Finance Agency, before leaving for the two-week April recess. Calabria would assume control of the agency at a pivotal time, as the Trump administration works to overhaul the country's housing finance system and develop a plan to end government control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the dominant mortgage financiers, which Calabria would regulate.

Foreign relations: Bank regulators are poised this month to release a long-awaited proposal easing requirements for foreign banks, in line with a similar plan for large domestic lenders that would relax rules around capital, liquidity and stress testing. But the agencies aren't only considering deregulation: They're also expected to request feedback on placing new liquidity requirements on U.S. branches of foreign banks, which are more lightly regulated than other American subsidiaries. — Mark McQuillan


Boeing dominates agenda: Both chambers of Congress will scrutinize Boeing's troubled 737 MAX jets, which have been grounded over concerns about design flaws that may have contributed to two overseas plane crashes that together took almost 350 lives. Oversight hearings are focused on both Boeing and the FAA's role in certifying the planes as safe to fly. The Senate held its first hearing , with federal regulators at the witness table, in late March, but another one with Boeing is still pending. The House's first hearing on the topic is expected soon. — Kathryn A. Wolfe


House climate work kicks into gear: House lawmakers will focus on climate change measures this month, with the Energy and Commerce Commerce launching a series of hearings to craft bills on "low-hanging fruit" like energy efficiency and weatherization. Meanwhile, the newly formed Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will hold its first hearing. Look for the chamber to consider H.R. 9, a bill that would hold the U.S. to its Paris climate commitments that Trump promised to withdraw from.

Bernhardt on track for Interior: David Bernhardt is likely to see his nomination to be Interior secretary advance to the full Senate this month, and there appears to be little standing in his way. Democrats sought to call out his potential conflicts of interest at his confirmation hearing last week, but Republicans stood staunchly behind the former oil and gas lobbyist, who has been serving as acting secretary since Ryan Zinke left the post in early January amid ethics woes.

Republicans were also not bothered by the lack of detail around Interior's still-pending offshore drilling plan, even though several had pushed back last year when the Trump administration proposed opening up nearly every part of the U.S. coast to oil and gas exploration. Despite promises from Zinke that the final five-year drilling plan would be released last fall, Bernhardt told senators at his hearing it was still in the early stages. — Ben Lefebvre and Anthony Adragna


Carbon tax comes to a head: Canada's carbon tax program took effect April 1 in the four provinces — Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — that bucked the national requirement for a carbon pricing plan that meets federal standards. Individuals filing tax returns are set to enjoy rebates worth hundreds of Canadian dollars. But small businesses are pressingthe Trudeau government for answers on how they'll be compensated for the costs of the tax and which companies must register with the government to be subject to it — and it's unclear when they're coming. Ontario heads to appeals court on April 15 to challenge the program, as that province and Saskatchewan argue it's unconstitutional. Saskatchewan had its day in court in February; a ruling has yet to come down. — Lauren Gardner


H-1B cap kickoff: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin accepting petitions today for the fiscal year 2020 allotment of H-1B visas, which allow employers to hire specialized foreign workers — but there's a twist.

In addition to announcing a new electronic lottery system, USCIS published a final rule in January that calls for all applicants — including those with advanced degrees — to first fill slots in the general pool of 65,000 visas. Any remaining applicants with a U.S. master's degree or higher will then head to an advanced degree pool of 20,000 visas, a move expected to push up the number of U.S. master's grads in the program.

SCOTUS grapples with citizenship questions: The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments April 23 on the Trump's administration's plan to inquire about citizenship on the 2020 census. A pair of federal judges have ruled against the addition of the question, which critics contend will suppress immigrant household responses.

A New York City-based judge found the administration's process to add the question violated a federal regulatory law but that challengers didn't adequately prove it would cause discrimination. In a separate ruling, a San Francisco-based judge said the question violated regulatory law and ran afoul of the Constitution's Enumeration Clause, which requires a census every 10 years to determine how many representatives each state should have in Congress.

Regs in the pipeline: The White House budget office continues to review a proposed rule that would roll back work authorization for spouses of H-1B visas holders, a move opposed by tech industry groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

DHS has received public comment on two other major regulations that are now subject to an internal review: The so-called public charge' proposed rule published in October could block immigrants from obtaining green cards if they've received public benefits, or if they're deemed likely to do so in the future. A separate proposed rule published in September seeks to override a settlement agreement that limits the time children can spend in detention, which would allow families to be detained together indefinitely. — Ted Hesson


Red flags and risks: The U.S. intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security, law enforcement agencies and U.S. allies are raising alarms that supply chain risks will become more dangerous — especially if there isn't more scrutiny of the entire manufacturing process. The U.S. has been pressuring allies not to buy products from Chinese telecom giant Huawei, for example.

Because of the amount of technology packed into consumer and commercial products, it's becoming harder to detect potential software risk in the supply chain. In an effort to bolster transparency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is working on a template industries can use to produce a so-called software bill of materials — a list of all the technology that goes into a product — and has a meeting set for April 11. And DHS recently convened the first full meeting of a supply chain task force, a public-private partnership that includes representatives from Verizon, Samsung, Dell and many other major tech companies. — Michael B. Farrell

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