The curtain opens on a Congress deeply divided, but you knew that already. Now the question is whether they’ll pass a budget for the year starting October 1. At least the continuing resolution negotiations won’t get wrapped around the axle of a new pandemic response bill. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got the outlook from Bloomberg Government congressional reporter Jack Fitzpatrick.
Tom Temin: Jack, good to have you back.
Jack Fitzpatrick: Thanks for having me.
Tom Temin: So what does it look like — they come back today and have they just given up on having a budget in time, and they’re just assuming CR is the way they’re going to go?
Jack Fitzpatrick: Yeah, it was a foregone conclusion for a pretty long time that they need a stopgap measure. Even months ago, when I was talking to appropriators even before the pandemic, everybody was saying, this presidential election year is going to make it really tough to actually get our appropriations work done. The question is, how and when and all those other questions of how long does a CR go? Can it be kept clean from stimulus talks? There was an agreement last week between Speaker Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin to try to agree to a clean car to fund the government without tying it into stimulus talks. The question also, though, is are they going to go to December as they usually do? Or do they kick it longer, and try not to give themselves a difficult lame duck session and negotiations between the election and the next inauguration in the next Congress?
Tom Temin: So the bottom line is the two ideas, the CR and the pandemic relief, whatever it might be, are going to be separate.
Jack Fitzpatrick: Yes, the initial agreement is a clean CR is the easy way to go. If they can just kick the can on spending, that would keep things much more simple. That’s not a guarantee that things go well throughout the course of the month in September, but initial agreement to try to use that just to fund the government and not use it as a legislative vehicle. The phrase on Capitol Hill is a Christmas tree if you try to tie too many things on, add too many ornaments to the Christmas tree, it weighs it down in. So a simple clean CR is the goal. And that’s probably good news for avoiding a shutdown, and maybe bad news if you wanted to see a stimulus attached to that and use that as sort of motivation. But it at least that’s an early sign that they are taking the funding deadline seriously and are trying to come up with a plan there.
Tom Temin: Now that is an agreement between the Mnuchin and Nancy Pelosi freshly from the hair salon. What about the Senate? I guess they’ll go along with the same idea.
Jack Fitzpatrick: Yeah, so I haven’t heard from anybody who is hesitant to agree to a CR if it comes together. The division between the House and Senate and White House really come in when you get into the stimulus and any unforeseen issues, I can’t rule out the possibility of something popping up. But when we heard of the beginning of these CR talks, the White House sent a list of requests that they always request some anomalies, minor changes to the legislative language in a CR. And that was standard. It wasn’t like in 2018 when the White House said give us a CR and 5 billion for the border wall. So nothing has really popped up and already made things difficult. There’s always the chance that they sort of trip over their own feet. But the early signs are no one is throwing a wrench into the process to at least get this stopgap done.
Tom Temin: I guess both sides must figure there’s an election looming over this and that both sides feel they’ll get their mitts on the budget after the election.
Jack Fitzpatrick: Yeah, the question is, do Democrats push for a longer CR to avoid a December showdown? Because if you remember, and this is relevant, because the polls are looking better now for Biden than for Trump, that we don’t know what’s going to happen. If you remember in 2018, when Democrats took back the House, Trump clearly wanted a showdown with Pelosi right before she was going to become speaker again, and we had the shutdown over the border wall. Everybody is hesitant to say what their negotiating position is right now for the length of a CR, but the standard is just kick it to December, deal with it in the lame duck. The question that we’re going to try to answer over the course of September is, are there Democrats who say maybe we could just take it to what we hope is a Biden administration, that could turn into a debate, but they haven’t exactly dropped the gloves on that yet. It’s early in the negotiations as of now.
Tom Temin: Anything else on their plate as they come back here? What’s the schedule looking like over the next couple of months?
Jack Fitzpatrick: Well, the CR usually is a useful vehicle for minor things, if not a major stimulus package. They have other deadlines. For example, the authorization for the National Flood Insurance Program, we saw that the White House requested that they just tie that into the CR and that would be sort of the normal way of doing things. So there’s all sorts of little bits of authorizing language that could get tied into a CR. But the other big question is what happens with this stimulus package? Can they do anything at all on unemployment insurance, and that is something that actually could also make for a really tough lame duck session. The proposals from both Democrats and Republicans were to extend at least some additional unemployment insurance benefits to the winter, Republicans wanted to go to late December, Democrats wanted to go to January. The crisis is not going to be entirely over by the winter, so if they do kick the unemployment deadline to the winter, that could also make for a tough lame duck session. So really, the questions that they face in September are, are we going to see extensions of government funding and unemployment benefits for a few months or are they going to try to do something longer even though that’s a tougher agreement?
Tom Temin: And what about the National Defense Authorization Act — that needs to be done way before all that happens.
Jack Fitzpatrick: In the course of them getting wrapped up with these stimulus talks and then having to focus on government funding, that seems to have fallen off the radar of the absolute principal negotiators. But that’s another deadline that’s a essentially a must pass. We haven’t heard of that getting combined into anything else. But the NDAA bill is also something that’s kind of been running in the background with lawmakers working on getting that done. And as always, September is a month with a lot of deadlines that they have to meet. And we’ll see how they choose to package things together by at least September 30.
Tom Temin: I guess the difference is both the House and the Senate have approved their NDAAs, it’s just a matter of reconciliation, correct?
Jack Fitzpatrick: Yes. And what we’re seeing now is what we usually see in a presidential election year when you get into reconciling House and Senate bills, whether it’s NDAA or appropriations or talking about a CR or any other must pass because legislation, you really need to get the principles involved. You need the White House to get involved in negotiations. You need Pelosi and McConnell to tie up the loose ends. And the stimulus seems to have really dominated everyone’s attention until right now. So that’s the challenge for now is can they walk and chew gum at the same time? How many different things can they accomplish in the month of September?
Tom Temin: Because they are further apart on the stimulus idea. There’s nothing from the Senate and the House has the HEROES Act that’s sort of hanging there twisting slowly in the wind.
Jack Fitzpatrick: Yeah. So the Democrats passed back in May something that came up to about three and a half trillion dollars in the top line cost. There’s not absolutely nothing from Republicans. They came out with their trillion dollar proposal. But immediately after that, you heard complaints from Republican lawmakers. Some of the conservatives like Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson saying there may not even be support among Republicans for a trillion dollar proposal. They then put out a skinny $500 billion proposal. When I’ve asked around about what is going on and what the linchpin is here, the issue is they are very focused on those top line numbers and the politics surrounding them rather than saying, what are the individual measures that are necessary and then we’ll pay for whatever we need to pay for. So the the big gap between 3 trillion and 1 trillion or Pelosi says she could go down to 2.2 trillion, but no lower than that. They have differences on the details, but this is one of those cases where the devil is not in the details. It’s really in the top line, and they just can’t seem to agree even on the concept of meeting in the middle there.
Tom Temin: Or as Michael Corleone once said, my offer is nothing. Jack Fitzpatrick is congressional reporter for Bloomberg government. Thanks so much for joining me.
Jack Fitzpatrick: Thank you for having me.