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Judicial, CIA nominations highlight may congressional agenda

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Acting CIA Director Gina Haspel’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Wednesday morning. (CIA/TNS)

WASHINGTON — As Congress returns this week for a work period that stretches to Memorial Day, the legislative agenda on the floors faces long odds of enactment even as broader issues surrounding the president’s judicial and executive nominees, as well as the annual Pentagon policy bill, compete for attention.

Senators arrive in Washington on Monday evening for a three-week run highlighted by yet another batch of federal appeals court nominations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, keeping up his effort to prioritize lifetime appointments to the federal courts, moved to break off potential filibusters of six more circuit court nominations before leaving for last week’s recess.

As McConnell made clear in an interview last week, this practice will continue, likely even past the midterm elections in November.

“We’re going to continue to confirm judges all year. You know, the Congress doesn’t stop with the elections,” McConnell said. “I’m processing them as quickly as they come out of the Judiciary Committee, and the administration’s sending them up rapidly. I don’t know what the final number is, but my goal … is to confirm all the circuit and district court judges that come out of committee this calendar year. All of them.”

But as is often the case when judicial nominations highlight the activity on the Senate floor, much of the focus will be elsewhere.

The House is going to be writing spending bills for next year. A full handful of the measures will be at either the subcommittee or full committee level, with the Legislative Branch and Military Construction-VA bills being reported out to be available for floor action.

Senate appropriators are continuing to gear up in the hope that at least some of the dozen regular spending bills for the next year will be able to reach the floor of their chamber.

The week’s list of Appropriations hearings includes visits to the Senate by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Operating along a somewhat parallel track is the joint select committee that was established to try to overhaul the budget process. That group of lawmakers from both sides of the Capitol will hear testimony on Wednesday from a familiar collection of outside experts on the budget process.

The highlight of the week is a Wednesday morning confirmation hearing for acting CIA Director Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the agency.

Haspel will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee and undoubtedly face a barrage of questions about her past involvement in the use of torture techniques at so-called black site facilities and a cable she drafted about the destruction of interrogation tapes.

Haspel’s hearing could be critical to her getting the votes needed for Senate confirmation, since much of her intelligence career has been quite literally cloaked in secrecy. If Haspel does well, it would be no surprise to see McConnell try to get her through to confirmation before the next recess, which coincides with the Memorial Day holiday.

It’s possible that the more contentious Senate hearing on Wednesday might actually be over at the Judiciary Committee, where Trump’s choice for an Oregon-based seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to testify.

Giving a more moderate makeover to the San Francisco-based appellate court is one of the priorities for Trump and the Senate Republicans. Ryan Bounds is a current assistant U.S. attorney, but past writings dating to his time at Stanford University led Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden to decline to return blue slips to the Judiciary Committee, signaling opposition.

Under Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, failure to return blue slips from home state senators for circuit court nominees does not represent an effective veto, meaning the nomination of Bounds can advance anyway. Still, Bounds will surely be asked to further explain his earlier writings that have been called racist and sexist.

A Judiciary Committee spokesperson said the Bounds hearing would take place Wednesday, and that there had been appropriate consultation with the Democratic senators from Oregon.

“Ryan Bounds is a longtime public servant, having served in the Department of Justice during the Bush and Obama Administrations and as a federal prosecutor in Oregon for the past eight years,” the spokesperson said.

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