With a potential return of Congress, federal hazard pay will be up for debate

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Hazardous pay for federal employees is starting to gather a little steam in Congress. Soon the Senate will arrive back in Washington, the House is uncertain, to debate this and other measures for the continuing coronavirus situation. For a look ahead, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Bloomberg Government editorial director Loren Duggan.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: The uncertainty is first of all, who’s going to be in town and who isn’t — all we know about is the Senate.

Loren Duggan: That’s right. The Senate was back last week and will return this week. We saw them hold votes and debate but not necessarily legislation quite yet to deal with coronavirus but they dealt with some nominations and dealt with a veto override vote last week with members wearing masks on their way to events and even on the Senate floor when they held votes. So they are returning, second week for them. The House is not quite back yet. They are working on their next coronavirus package, which will open the door for them to return. Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has said they’re working with a capital physician to make sure that when they do return they do so safely. There is pressure to get back into town and start working on the emergency legislation that they want to do around the virus, but also get back down to some of the routine business they need to do, defense authorization appropriation. So we’re watching to see exactly when they return and what they’ll be doing when they get here. But Capitol Hill is beginning to pick up speed again, after several weeks of being very quiet.

Tom Temin: And that fourth stimulus bill, S4 maybe, contents of it have been morphing back and forth. What does it look like, it’s going to look like at this point, as best we can tell?

Loren Duggan: Well, you have different perspectives right now. Some Republicans have said we’ve passed several bills already. We’re still seeing the effects of those legislation as they move through the economy. They’ve talked about interest in liability protections for businesses that start to reopen and that that might be one of the core things they want to see. On the Democratic side, especially in light of the job numbers that we got on Friday, with, you know, huge unemployment numbers and jobless claims numbers, there’s interest in doing what they’re calling CARES 2 to or CARES 2.0 in reference to the largest package that they’ve passed so far, which is more than $2 trillion worth of aid, they’re talking about more aid to state and local governments and perhaps putting more money into some of the funding streams there. We’ll have to see where this goes over the next several days and potentially weeks. And we also have, you know, the asks coming from the administration where President Trump has said he wants a payroll tax cut, although that hasn’t really got any steam on Capitol Hill quite yet. But they’ll have their requests as well in this dynamic. So what we may see first is the House Democrats coming up with a bill and putting that on the floor and passing that and possibly laying down a marker for what they want to see in the next piece of legislation. The Senate’s agenda so far for the week doesn’t have a particular bill on it dealing with coronavirus. They’re mostly looking at nominations and then the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorities that have expired, but they will certainly be having discussions and trying to figure out if there is a need to do another bill and what should be in it so.

Tom Temin: We’ll come back to a couple of the nominations, but with respect to hazardous pay for frontline federal employees that came up with the two democratic senators from Maryland, but I had actually talked to Mark Warner a couple of weeks ago on that topic. And his opinion was, we should go slow on that, because there’s lots of frontline workers that you could say, similarly justify this differential in pay. So I wonder how much steam that’ll really get when you look at the ramifications is how far it could spread throughout the economy.

Loren Duggan: That certainly could come up in these discussions. we seen workplace safety issues come up in previous packages, not necessarily dealing with federal employees, but dealing with OSHA requirements and funding to help for some of that, so you could see interest in doing both. It’ll be interesting to see how those sorts of things pan out over time. Obviously some of the senators locally where there are so many federal workers will be interested in that. But of course, there’s federal workers around the country carrying out different tasks and if you think you’ve been about food safety, and we’ve seen what’s happened with some of the meatpacking plants around the country, and obviously federal employees have to inspect that as well. So there could be more interest in that. And every time there’s one of these packages coming together, there are a lot of things that come up in the context and a lot of things get left on the floor. But you know, it can be about what people can agree on and and what the administration and Congress can come up with because there are partisan interest in different dynamics at play here.

Tom Temin: The appointments that the Senate will be dealing with, anything high level noteworthy?

Loren Duggan: Well, the two that have been teed up for this week one is Brian Montgomery to be Deputy Secretary of HUD. He was reported 20 to 5 by the committee last year by the Senate Banking Committee. That’s the boat they’ll take when they come back right away to try and cut off the debate on that. Aand then Troy Edgar to be CFO at the Homeland Security Department. So trying to make progress through those nominations. That’s been one of Mitch McConnell’s goals for this entire Congress is just keep working through these nominations, judicial ones as they become available. There are more waiting in the wings, some dealing directly with the healthcare and defense issues but also positions like Trey Trainor who was approved last week by the Senate Rules Committee to be at the Federal Elections Commission. That’s a body that hasn’t had a quorum to do business since last year. So getting another member on there would allow them to move forward. But they would still be deadlocked with two Republicans, two Democrats, even if Trainor was confirmed, so there might not be a lot of action there. But we could see action on that nomination in the coming weeks and others that are cleared and ready to go to the floor. But sometimes it’s just a matter of scheduling these and working through the debate time that’s allowed under the rules which can take a lot

Tom Temin: And a lot of people a lot of groups are casting wistful eyes on the NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021, as the sailing ship that will take them into a new glorious future. How’s that coming along?

Loren Duggan: Mac Thornberry last week said, he’s the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said that he thinks that’ll be one of the first items of business they get to when they get back together. They had set a goal for the end of April, beginning of May to have a chairman’s mark and then to start working with members to come up with that. We’re waiting to see if that means they’ll have the full committee markup and then take it to the floor and have the several days of debate there. Same thing over in the senate where now that they’re back in town, they can start having some of the conversations around that but there is a great deal of interest in doing that bill, just the calendar might work against them and how quickly they can go through all the normal stages of that but that is definitely one of the bills we’re most likely to see action on this year. Certainly by the end of the year with the final version because there’s also a you know, going on what six decade now streak of doing that bill every single year. And they’re not going to want to break that. So I would say that has a lot of momentum behind it as do the fiscal 2021 spending bills that members have been working on behind the scenes and are trying to, you know, make progress on that as well, because there’s a lot of work that has to be done on those to keep the government funded. Cause September 30th isn’t going to move, there may be a CR, but they still want to make sure that they’re doing the work toward that.

Tom Temin: And is anyone talking about spending caps with a straight face?

Loren Duggan: Well, what we saw last week was a hearing at House Appropriations where couple of former Senate Majority Leaders and heads of the CDC came and made a pitch for exempting some important health programs from the spending caps so that if you spent more on things like the NIH or the CDC, or the Strategic National Stockpile, that you wouldn’t then have to put pressure on other programs to stay within the cap. So there is interest on the hill and exemptions and we’ve seen top appropriators on both the Republican and Democratic side of the House Appropriations Committee. show interest in that. So Tom Cole, who’s the ranking republican on labor, HHS education where those programs would be funded, he’s interested in it. His counterpart Rosa delauro, and then even full committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey has talked about being open to this exemption idea. So we’ll have to see how that plays out if the White House gets on board with that kind of idea, and the senate as well. So, you know, we spend a lot on an emergency basis, which doesn’t have any ramifications on the cats, but they’re talking about, you know, in the regular budgeting, what should we do about that as well.

Tom Temin: Loren Duggan is editorial director of Bloomberg Government, as always, thanks so much.

Loren Duggan: Thank you.