Congress pondering next coronavirus relief bill

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At least one Congressman doesn’t like the smell of the administration’s guidance for reopening federal offices. This, as Congress starts thinking about the next coronavirus relief package, with lots of possible provisions relating to federal employees. For what’s ahead Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to WTOP capitol hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Mitchell, let’s begin with who’s in town who’s not in town and what does Congress look like this week?

Mitchell Miller: Right. Well, actually, the Senate is back. A lot of talk about that. But the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided that if essential workers, people across the country, health care workers, grocery workers, truck drivers, if they can be going to work, he says the Senate needs to be going to work. He has received some pushback, by the way related to that, especially from democratic senators. A lot of them question about a lot of the health guidelines going into effect. There were some questions about why the Senate is in session today as opposed to the House. Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker decided to basically stay out of the senate business and said they checked with the the physician here at the Capitol and that it was recommended that because the number of coronavirus cases keeps spreading in the Washington area that it would not be a good idea for more than 400 lawmakers plus their staff to come back but the Senate is back and they’re ready to go to work.

Tom Temin: Well I just learned from the Homeland Security Department that they have discovered I guess people should know this by now that on indoor doorknobs, metal surfaces, the coronavirus can live for quite a while, days. So you know, keep wiping down your hands in the doorknobs inside the Capitol.

Mitchell Miller: Exactly. And as a quick footnote related to that, if you go around in the Capitol, and I’m one of the few people that’s been here for quite a while, virtually all of the entryways that have a doorknob they will have a little note on it that basically says the cleaning crew does not need to go into that room. So they’re really trying to minimize that contact.

Tom Temin: Interesting. And on the opening plan. So the reopening plans of federal building is that the White House has put forth, Virginia congressman Gerry Connolly had a few things to say about that,

Mitchell Miller: Right. Connolly not happy with how the Office of Management and Budget as well as the Office of Personnel Management have rolled out their plans for the reopening, so called, of various government agencies. He basically says in a letter to both of those agencies that it is unclear and it needs to be much more detailed, and he has actually been joined by a number of senators, more than 20 senators, Democratic senators have also raised similar concerns. Among their concerns. Again, as we’ve talked about, Gerry Connolly always concerned about telework just says that there doesn’t seem to be enough clarity there about what the agencies are allowing and not allowing. There’s been questions about the VA and whether they actually allowed telework after there were some reports that they weren’t allowing people to work from home. They reverse that last week. But the other questions related to how much people are being told about COVID-19 cases in the workplace. Federal workers at the Postal Service say they have basically had to rely on word of mouth from co workers, so the lawmakers are really Pushing to make sure that agencies are very clear with the workers about whether people have tested what happens. What are the policies, a lot of federal workers, as you know, still unclear about some of the things that are going on with their agencies and where they stand and where things are moving forward, especially with all this movement toward reopening agencies as well as states across the country.

Tom Temin: But as far as we know, those plans are going to move forth and all Gerry Connolly can do, I guess, is raise a haggle at this point.

Mitchell Miller: That’s right. It really seems like they’re going to keep pushing on this now. OMB and OPM have said that they do feel that they have clarity on a lot of these problems that have been cited by lawmakers and a lot of other agencies have said they are continually changing and trying to adapt to what is obviously a very challenging environment, especially for a big bureaucracy. So there’s going to be a lot of push and pull on this.

Tom Temin: And the next round of bills. There are lots of provisions proposed in these for federal employees. What do you see going on? And can anything happen anyhow until the house comes back?

Mitchell Miller: Well, it looks like it’s gonna be in a holding pattern for a while. And we can get into some of the back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. But some of the wish lists, if you will, for both parties, Democrats are pushing for what they would say is essentially be a bill of rights for essential workers, including federal employees that would include providing extra pay for health care workers and other frontline workers in the pandemic. There’s a variety of proposals there related to how much money they would actually get for returning to work every day. And on the Republican side, the republican Study Committee wants to make hiring more flexible. Some agencies have been given some flexibility, but the committee says that should really be government wide and that there hasn’t been enough consistencies there. The panel is also proposing changes that would help federal agencies make sure that stimulus payments don’t go out improperly.

Tom Temin: It looks like from the Republican side some of the changes in the terms of federal employment and in federal hiring, that they’ve been wanting and pushing for for a long time, they might use this particular vehicle to get that done.

Mitchell Miller: Exactly. They may want to try to speed things up a little bit as you know, it the whole process, the hiring process can take so long. And so there is this movement. Now, within the government, it does seem that there is going to be a permanent change as a result of the pandemic. Obviously, a lot of negative things are happening. But some people feel that this is actually helping this huge government, you know, move that giant battleship and get things so that they can get through the process a little bit faster.

Tom Temin: And that whole issue of state and local government aid is not strictly a federal issue. But many of those agencies are in fact at the state and local level that is, are the agents if you will of federal agencies. That’s how programs get delivered. So I wonder where that fight could end up and if the government backs these government’s or not.

Mitchell Miller: Exactly. That’s really shaping up as the biggest struggle battle. Whatever you want to call it related to this next huge piece of cares act two, if you will cares to related to this major legislation that’s going to be developed probably over a period of weeks. Nancy Pelosi last week, the House Speaker signaling that she wants up to a trillion dollars related to state, local and municipal. And as you noted, a lot of these are intertwined with all the federal agencies at the very local level. And so they say that Democrats say that all of this money is needed over a period of years, it would actually be paid out, but also obviously, they want the money in the hands of state and local government now, so that Democrats warned that a lot of people on the front lines, the first responders, people that are really going to be dealing with this issue for quite some time could be in danger of being laid off. And we’ve heard that, of course, from a lot of states. Now, on the other side, the republicans want a lot of protections for businesses saying that there is a lot of liability issues there that if people go back to work as we have this continual reopen And companies can’t be feeling like they’re going to be at risk of being sued. So that to me seems to be a huge battle point as we move forward on this legislation about how much each side is going to give and take, but clearly state and local governments is going to be the big one. And Nancy Pelosi says that will be the largest piece of funding in that next piece of legislation, at least if democrats get their way.

Tom Temin: Yeah, interesting, because we have seen some of the tort lawyers starting to circle like buzzards over a horse carcass. So, you know, anything’s possible just as the cruise industry and finally any progress on whether the house can operate remotely.

Mitchell Miller: You know, this has been a frustrating issue for a lot of lawmakers actually many of the lawmakers both in the in the Senate and the House, but especially in the house now because they will not be coming back. At least for another week. Nancy Pelosi said they might come back next week. We’ll have to see they are going to of course, check with the Capitol physician, but there’s been a lot of discussion, but really, they’re still moving very incrementally. Given the fact that the house just cannot come back right now, Nancy Pelosi and the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had discussions about this this past week. They’re trying to figure out some kind of middle ground. But it is such a big order that they really can’t decide on what they’re going to do. For example, the democrats really would like to have proxy voting where you could say, Okay, I’m a lawmaker, and I’m going to vote for these lawmakers when I am physically there. McCarthy has some real reservations about that. He also says that he thinks that Democrats are over promising on some of the proposals related to security and actually being able to tap to tap in you know, in these high tech situations where many people are, of course doing zoom and a variety of other things related to Microsoft team. But lawmakers say this isn’t really adequate for what Congress has to do. Obviously, you’ve got, you know, defense measures, you’ve got national security issues. And so while there have been some cases Baby Steps related to committee work where they’ve actually got together but not necessarily had a formal hearing. They are making some progress there but they still have a ways to go. And again, they have to be here. If they are going to change the rules, they actually actually physically have to be here. The house has to be here to change the rules, so it is going to be some more time before any changes take place. Of course, these rules go back more than 200 years.

Tom Temin: Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. Thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller: You bet.