House has nearly finished its budget work, now it’s the Senate’s turn

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The Senate returns this week with a pretty long list of things to do. Nomination votes, debate on its coronavirus bill. And then of course there’s the 2021 budget. For our weekly look ahead, Bloomberg Government Editorial Director Loren Duggan joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Loren, what should we start with what’s ahead this coming week is a lot going on and kind of a messed up who’s here and who’s not here?

Loren Duggan: That’s right. We have the Senate back for sure in the House on standby in case there’s something to come back to do around the coronavirus. They left last week with no agreement in place on this latest package of coronavirus aid, which may be the last one before the election, and certainly one that is timely because of the expiration of some key benefits like bonus unemployment benefits and also some eviction protection. So there’s there’s an element of time here that they need to get back to this discussion as quickly as possible and get something passed. But for now, we have the Senate here working on some things while those negotiations continue.

Tom Temin: And what about counting formation votes? There was a withdrawal of one candidate for a pretty high position at the Defense Department because he turned out to be an oddball.

Loren Duggan: Yeah, his statements raise concern with both members of the aisle at the Senate Armed Services Committee. That was the nomination of Tata, I believe his last name was and he’s since been withdrawn by the administration or they indicated they would, and that was a hearing that was ready to happen and then got pulled back rather suddenly. So that one seems off the table. On the Senate floor this week, we’ll see a vote for the Deputy Energy Secretary Mark Menezes. He’s already an Undersecretary there. There’s a vote this evening on that and probably confirmation later in the week, though his nomination went through committee with a voice vote, there’s some opposition from Catherine Cortez Masto, a Senator from Nevada, who is interested in Yucca Mountain policy, which comes up a lot whenever the Energy Department is discussed and their Senators from Nevada who wants to stop that project or get some clarity.

Tom Temin: The ghost of Harry Reid still stalk.

Loren Duggan: Yes, exactly. Harry Reid may be gone, but people are carrying the water on that issue still.

Tom Temin: You mentioned that there’s a shell bill on the floor of the of the Senate. That’s a term I confess I don’t know.

Loren Duggan: So legislation has to be passed, go through both chambers under the same number. And sometimes what will happen is the Senate will pick up a bill that because it’s been passed by both chambers or especially sometimes when there’s tax legislation that has to be passed first by the House, the Senate or the House will pick up unrelated legislation and use it for a different purpose. So in this case, there was a bill that the House and Senate had passed in different forms on Uighurs, the population in China that the Chinese government has taken a lot of negative steps towards. There was a bill around that and to get onto a bill quickly, Mitch McConnell picked up this piece of legislation on the desk and had a kind of a test vote just to get on the legislation. So the bill that’s on the floor doesn’t yet have anything around unemployment insurance or coronavirus, but it could be a vehicle for that in the end. So this like higher level legislative things that go on in the Hill, and this is certainly one of them.

Tom Temin: So it’s almost like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers approach to getting bills passed?

Loren Duggan: In a way because it could be about topic A and then becomes topic B. So it’s really interesting when that happens.

Tom Temin: And the House, what’s going on there? I mean, they are almost wound up with their budget bills anyhow, on that side of Capitol Hill.

Loren Duggan: Yeah, as of Friday, they passed another spending bill package with six bills, which joins the four bill package they had passed the previous week. So 10 out of 12 by the end of July is pretty good record for these days. Two remain, Homeland Security and legislative branch, each with their own sort of issues that kept them off the floor. But these bills were pretty much backed only by Democrats. Republicans had issues with policy provisions that were stuck in there, and then a lot of bonus money over and above the spending cap deal that they reached in 2019. So those are markers for future talks with the Senate, but we still don’t have any bills out of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Again, because markups were delayed because of policy issues and amendments that might have come up that they wanted to avoid. So, we could wind up here with 10 through the House, zero through the Senate, but returning in September, after the conventions, with a heavy to do list, including what to do with even a short term funding bill before September 30, because that’s the most likely outcome at this point is probably a continuing resolution that just extends funding for a while.

Tom Temin: And what you say actually reminds me of another question I had about getting back to the Senate’s possible bill on the pandemic relief, and that is there was $29 billion of defense spending in that bill as the summary came out, and among that 29 billion was, I think, $8 billion to acquire weapons programs, F-35s, new wings for this plane and so on. That seemed like they should be in the defense appropriations bill, and not in the pandemic responsibility, the HEALS Act- so that could raise objections.

Loren Duggan: We’ve seen two bills here. We’ve seen the HEROES Act and the HEALS Act, and while much of it is about the immediate response to the coronavirus, there are other things that have come up in the context there that are either long standing policy goals or projects of certain members who get to pick up a pen and help write these bills. One of the provisions you probably also saw discussion about last week was money for a new FBI building, $1.75 billion that was in the bill and asked for by the administration, but then members started backing off by the end of the week when questions were raised. So these are very big bills, they’re being produced quickly and in different offices and then assembled and brought to the floor when when they’re ready to go. So some of these could be traded away in the negotiations over a final product, and others may come back later on because there are needs across the government, both related to coronavirus and just in general. So interesting packaging going on here.

Tom Temin: And while all of this is going on the budget talks in the budget preparation talks, is the White House involved at all this, the Treasury Secretary involved?

Loren Duggan: Well, the negotiations on the stimulus are taking most of the time and the two folks from the administration who have been on the Hill a lot, our Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Mark Meadows, the new White House Chief of Staff. They’ve been meeting primarily last week with the two Democratic leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and minority leader Chuck Schumer. So there’s a lot of discussion there. I don’t think they’ve turned very much the fiscal 21 talks as far as I’ve seen, because this acute problem that they’re trying to solve is taking so much of their energy and time.

Tom Temin: So we have bubbles in the pot but not a full boil on anything yet.

Loren Duggan: We’ll be waiting to see what they can come up with. There was some concern they couldn’t even get to it this week when they were meeting last week, so we’ll be waiting and seeing what they can get done.

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

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

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