Congress to tackle 2021 budget as impeachment dust settles

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As Congress returns to business this week, a little bloodied and dazed by political developments of last month, it’s got a 2021 budget to contemplate. For this and what else is on the agenda, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with WTOP capitol hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin: Let’s get right to the budget work. The president has released his budget proposal. We heard the usual salvos against it from the outside, but now they’re back in town. What can we expect?

Mitchel Miller: The president’s nearly $5 trillion budget will be pored over by lawmakers in various committees of course, many of them already saying that it’s dead on arrival. This seems to be a tradition here in Washington. Democrats complaining it cuts too deeply into domestic social programs. Republicans largely hailing the budget as an effort to improve management of federal dollars. One area that will again, no doubt, get a lot of attention is the Department of Homeland Security budget. It’s essentially flat, but it includes the lightning rod known as the president’s border wall. Senate and House appropriations committees will be holding hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, with acting Homeland Security director Chad Wolf scheduled to testify before the House panel. The president has proposed $2 billion for the wall, which is actually less than the five billion proposed last year. But the Pentagon has already announced that nearly $4 billion will be diverted to the wall and border security. Democrats and Republicans have both raised some questions about that move, including the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Texas Congressman Mac Thornberry. The chairman of the committee. Washington’s Adam Smith, has accused the administration of stealing billions from the Pentagon, but right now it’s still unclear what Congress could do about it at this point Tom.

Tom Temin: I guess the distance or the daylight between Adam Smith and Mac
Thornberry is not wide enough to admit that border wall, is it?

Mitch Miller: No, it really isn’t. Tere’s a lot of concern also on the Senate side as well. I spoke with Senator Tim Kaine right after this latest diversion of Pentagon money was announced, and he was really upset by it. He said, basically, that he doesn’t think that the Pentagon budget should be treated as some kind of special account for the president to have it diverted. And it does make a lot of Republicans as well as Democrats a little uncomfortable that the money is being moved. Of course, the president does have his supporters. Many say that this is money that desperately needs to go to the border security and that they need to improve it. But a lot of people involved in the appropriations process, of course, they’re used to the power of the purse. They want to make sure that the money that Congress handles is actually approved by Congress and that they know where the dollars are going. So we’ll see what happens with this, but I can expect some more fireworks related to it.

Tom Temin: There’s another strange twist to this in that is 2021 is the second year of a
two year budget deal between Republicans and Democrats. It kind of didn’t really include the president, who has to simply go along and either sign the budgets or not. But the proposal from the White House is well below some spending caps, a little bit above some of the others, and how does that all relate and fold into this?

Mitch Miller: Well, it seems like there’s kind of, ah bit of a status quo here. We had so much turmoil, as you know, related to that first year and all of the explosions related to what was going to be going on with the border wall money, whether or not it was going to be all tied up in the courts. I think you’re gonna see a lot of behind the scenes skirmishes over this, but it won’t be quite as explosive as it’s been in the past. I think a lot of the appropriations committees and the people that are dealing with this money year in and year out now have a feel of how the White House is trying to handle this. And it’s a little bit more status quo than it’s been in the past.

Tom Temin: Let’s talk about the mood in Congress. I’m always curious about that, especially after something that nobody has seen in 25 years or so, which was an impeachment episode. Are they able to even brush each other in the hall without kind of jabbing each other with their elbows.

Mitch Miller: There is a lot of that. There’s a lot of, you know, verbal elbowing, if you will, in the quarters of the capital. Really, there is a sour mood here in in the capital because impeachment there’s no doubt it’s cast a pall. Its cast a cloud over the entire process. And some people are still very bitter about it. And, of course, we both know that there’s a highly partisan politics here anyway. Then when you add the toxicity of what we had here with impeachment, that it really goes a long way in and getting both sides to dig in even deeper. I spoke with Maryland Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen about this at length recently, and he said he just really feels it every day that there is a feeling that both sides on either side of the aisle, they just have a tougher time reaching across to try to get some kind of bipartisan legislation going. Of course on the Democratic side, you have a lot of people who are very bitter about the trial itself. Chris Van Hollen, he said he thought it was actually the low point of the Senate, not so much because of the acquittal itself, but just because of the way it was handled. And, of course, Democrats have railed at the fact that there was no witnesses called during the Senate trial. On the Republican side, many Republicans say, “let’s just put our heads down and start getting back to work.” They really want to try to get things done. So I asked Chris Van Hollen and some other lawmakers about what is actually going to get done. Can you ever get any kind of agreement on some of these major issues like lowering prescription drugs? Or, of course, what’s become kind of a joke around here, which is Infrastructure week, And everybody likes to talk a good game about having infrastructure, and everybody says that they could agree on it, but then they never actually get anything done. So I think it will be very incremental moves on major issues. Also we’re, of course, in an election year, and that deepens the partisanship as well. So a lot of talk about reform related to Medicare, Medicaid, lowering prescription drug prices. But whether we actually see anything getting done in is really a long way away.

Tom Temin: I guess in the days of Richard Russell and Sam Rayburn, they used bourbon, but that’s out of style. We should also mention especially pertinent to federal executives is that there is a new chair of the House Government Reform and Oversight panel.

Mitch MIller: That’s right, New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. She recently took over for, of course, the late Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings, who was widely respected on the Hill by members of both parties. Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly also had sought that position, but Congresswoman Maloney had the most seniority. So she now holds the gavel on that committee, and she recently introduced a bill to help federal workers get paid leave. This is actually an expansion on legislation that was passed last year as part of the National Defense Authorization Act that the president signed that guarantees federal workers get 12 weeks of paid leave after a child is born or adopted. What this legislation does is essentially tries to fill in some of the blanks on some of the things that they thought were missed. Specifically, they actually call it a Parental Leave Technical Correction Act. It’s going to add employees to this if it gets passed. Among those that would be affected would be Federal Aviation Administration employees, some employees from the VA. Also, actually, some people from D.C.’s courts and public defender service. And then a variety of other positions. employees that work his health providers at the VA and some non-screener personnel for the Transportation Security Administration. A lot of people felt there was good widespread support. And for all the talk about deep divisions here, this is one that did have support from both sides of the aisle. So look for that to be acted on that was recently introduced within the last week or so.

Tom Temin: Thanks so much for joining me.

Mitch Miller: You bet.

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