Congress debating another round of coronavirus stimulus money

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It might feel like groundhog day on Capitol Hill. Congress will be debating pandemic relief legislation as the Senate works to craft a bill likely to be very different from what the House has already passed. For these and other matters ahead on the hill, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to WTOP congressional correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Mitchell, I guess, August 7th is when the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says they’ll do something or what’s going on now?

Mitchell Miller: Right. Well, they originally wanted to get something done by the end of this week, but that’s clearly not going to happen. You had the kind of the stumbling out of the blocks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican leaders. They originally were going to have everything kind of fleshed out late last week, and then they had to get into a lot of extensive talks with the White House. So a lot of negotiating with the White House before the rollout takes place. There will be more of that rollout. today. We’ll get more details related to that trillion dollar package. But it’s clearly much different from that House passed package that went through the House more than two months ago. The House wants to spend more than $3 trillion. So they are literally about $2 trillion apart. And there are all these issues, as you know, that are still trying to be grinded out, of course, the extended benefits on unemployment insurance, a big one. And even if that gets resolved at some point soon, that means that a lot of people who will be without that extra $600, and whatever the amount eventually comes out to be it’s going to have to be a reset for all the states to try to redo their unemployment insurance benefits. So it’s clearly going to be several weeks for many people to be without that extra payment. A lot of issues really have to be grinded out here over the coming weeks, but they are hoping to get done by August, or through August.

Tom Temin: Well earlier in the bill, the cares act that caused havoc with the IRS, with the Small Business Administration, with Health and Human Services and with the Treasury Department to name the bulk of it. They were just settling back to normal getting back to say a tax filing season that’s really, really late. And so maybe the agencies ought to brace for a whole new load of work when this eventually does come out very late in the fiscal year.

Mitchell Miller: Right, exactly. I mean, this is a lot of work that they’re going to be thrown at just in the in the coming weeks, as you said, we’re going to be coming up on October 1, pretty soon, it took several weeks and months for this whole system to get set up initially. And now they basically had to shut it down because the deadline came over the weekend. So then they will have to again ramp up as we move into August to get to October. So a lot of work ahead for federal agencies, and a lot of employees and employers still nervous about exactly what’s going to happen with this legislation.

Tom Temin: And the employees of course have the added burden of wondering when, if how, why, should they come back to the office, and that seems to be getting more and more unraveled as time goes on.

Mitchell Miller: Right. There was a time when people thought that there would be kind of a clear stage one, stage two, stage three, and everybody would be starting to get back to work. Right now, a lot of federal workers thought that they would be in phase three, just one example, as Federal News Network has reported, the Energy Department, they were planning to be in this phase three, which essentially meant starting to phase out those full time telework agreements that everybody has been working on, and getting people physically back into the office. But then a memo came out that indicated, wait hold on, we may not be doing this quite yet. So it looks like telework is going to continue. There’s going to be the continuation of these flexible work schedules as a lot of these federal agencies, in addition to the Energy Department, try to figure out exactly how to get people back in to these agencies. And of course, here in Washington, that’s a real tough question because we just had last week the order from the mayor saying that there will be even tighter mask wearing requirements. So that’s another indication that things are very much not back to normal here in Washington.

Tom Temin: And then there is the issue of the two National Defense Authorization Acts. Both have passed their respective chambers, the House and Senate, will they be reconciled quickly or do they have some major issues that they have to knock heads over?

Mitchell Miller: It looks like it’s going to be fairly smooth. Now, I say that with a caveat anything here on Capitol Hill has a chance to be on a bumpy road, but they are pretty similar in a lot of respects. There is a major difference, for example, related to what’s going to happen with the renaming of Confederate military bases that are named after military Confederate leaders. For example, the House bill calls for military bases to be renamed within one year, the Senate bill kind of gradually moves that over a period of three years, that’s probably one of the biggest things that they’re going to have to reconcile. And then another major thing relates to foreign policy and the military overseas. The House bill basically takes what President Trump wanted to do in Germany, which is draw down troops across Germany and states that there’s going to be some pushback there that he can’t just do that right away. The Senate measure, rather, had an amendment that was tried to be attached by Senator Mitt Romney, but that failed. So the President, by the way, has also said he would veto the defense policy bill, especially if it included this Confederate stipulation. However, in both the House and the Senate, there are veto proof majorities so it doesn’t look like the President is going to be able to stop it. But certainly, a lot of things still to be worked out on, a lot of other smaller issues. Another big issue, of course, for federal workers and the military is that military personnel will be getting a 3% pay raise.

Tom Temin: Yeah, well, that’s always good news. And that seems to get partisan support and White House support at least when the troops are involved.

Mitchell Miller: Exactly.

Tom Temin: And briefly, the House is going to be looking at election security. What is the federal role here in election security that’s conducted by states?

Mitchell Miller: Right. On Tuesday, the House Homeland Security Committee is going to look at election security. And this has been a huge issue just in the past few weeks. Many lawmakers are talking about it here on Capitol Hill. Just one example is Maryland where we had the problems in Maryland where mail in ballots were sent out to registered voters in the June primary, but there was a much smaller number of people actually going to in person voting sites that related to a lot of problems related to the election. And then now Governor Larry Hogan says he wants all the polling sites open in November, encouraging Maryland voters to go in or vote early or by mail, that has caused some pushback here on the Hill. I was talking with Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland — he says he thinks things like that need to be changed. And then there are the much more broad issues, some of which the Homeland Security Committee will be touching on. The electronics. What’s going to happen with machines? How are all these states going to handle what will be a huge tsunami of mail in voting that they are just frankly not prepared for? So a lot of issues related to Homeland Security that are going to be tackled in the coming weeks and months.

Tom Temin: Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. As always, thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller: You bet.