Congress is running through internal housekeeping items

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Both houses of Congress are working this week. They’ve got internal housekeeping items to attend to, but also some bills critical to keep the government functioning. With a look at the week ahead, Bloomberg Government Editorial Director Loren Duggan joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Loren, aside from the politics, which will continue to dominate probably until Inauguration Day, but there is really some real stuff they’ve got to do. Give us the rundown.

Loren Duggan: Yes, this week is the first that we’ll see both the House and the Senate back in session since October. The Senate obviously was here in parts of October, but the House had pretty much stayed away for six weeks. This week is kind of the prelude to the heart of the lame duck session that will come after Thanksgiving. But some of that groundwork is already being laid to get some of those must pass big ticket items done when they get to December. In terms of what we’ll see this week, the Senate is processing more judicial nominations, as well as an important nomination to the Federal Reserve, Judy Shelton. Her pick has been controversial, even among Republicans. But the fact that they’ve scheduled that vote and gotten to the point where they may have the cloture vote and the roll call vote on confirmation this week, suggests that Republicans have the support they need to get her across the line. And then again, those important judicial picks that have been a major theme for the Senate agenda.

Tom Temin: I read that the Biden administration will get its chance to pick several Federal Reserve Board members, not a majority, but I think three members could come in in the ensuing administration.

Loren Duggan: That’s right. And these are positions where the terms run not consecutive with presidential administration. So unlike a secretary of defense who comes and goes with the administration, most of the time, Federal Reserve Boards have longer set terms because their policy decisions, they’re supposed to be removed from politics, at least officially. And so then on the House side, the floor will have some activity, they’re going to pass an apprenticeships bill that’s written more in a way the Democrats like the Republicans, even though there’s kind of broad support for the concept of apprenticeships. But most of the activity there is going to be off the floor as they hold leadership elections and continue the freshman orientation that began last week where members elect are beginning to learn the ropes of the Congress that they’ll be constituting in January when they meet for the first time.

Tom Temin: And just review for us getting back to the apprenticeships, these are apprenticeships to what and were?

Loren Duggan: Well, this is more about creating some grant programs and funding them so that workers have the chance to take up a number of different apprenticeship opportunities. So this is funding programs around the country, I believe it’s somewhere like $3.5 billion would be authorized over the next several years to fund those programs and support them around the country. But Republicans voted against this bill, when it came up in the Education and Labor Committee, the Trump administration could still weigh in, you know, it’s not even clear that this is the kind of bill that could make it through both chambers and get to the President, even if there was consensus. But this is kind of the centerpiece bill that they picked up for this week, at least, deferring a lot of the bigger ticket items until December in the House.

Tom Temin: And I imagine the orientation of the new members of Congress, and there are quite a number of switches, even though the the basic numbers, you know, some shift toward the Republican side in the House by several seats, that must be difficult because of the pandemic. And the fact that the Congress, the standing members can’t even meet for the most part together.

Loren Duggan: Right. Everything is socially distance wearing masks, some stuff will shift to virtual rather than being in rooms, including I think there was some reporting last week that even the leadership elections will have a virtual component to them. But you do want to get the members here start to get to learn the ropes and and understand the dynamics of what will go on. The Congress that meets next year will probably be facing some of the same restrictions we have right now from COVID, around how you hold committee proceedings, what you do on the floor, and that’s not going to probably go away between now and January. So they’re already learning about the kind of modified Congress that they’ll be stepping into, even as some of the traditions carry on.

Tom Temin: Well, there’s one new member that will know his way around, I was surprised to see Darryl Issa had retired from Congress and two years later back via another congressional district.

Loren Duggan: That’s right. He shifted districts, had retired in 2018, won re-election in 2020. He and another member Pete Sessions from Texas, who had lost his race in 2018, shifted to a different district. He’s also coming back. So those are two members who can already be mentors to some of their fellow freshmen, even though they’ll have considerably more experience and time as committee chairman, for example. So, there’s different levels of experience to be sure in these members who are showing up.

Tom Temin: Well, hopefully they didn’t toss out their buttons when they left the first time. And let’s talk about the NDAA, National Defense Authorization Act, and the federal budget. That’s lame duck material too, isn’t it?

Loren Duggan: Huge lame duck material. On the NDAA, the Big Four as they’re known, the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee. They had a meeting last week. They’re continuing to work through some of the issues on that bill and the plan had been to try to cobble together a compromise there that you could bring to the House the Senate floor sometime in December. The top lines were similar on those. I think there’s a lot in the bills that would probably be easy territory to work out. Hanging over that bill through the earlier discussions was the issue of Confederate named bases. Unclear how that’s going to factor in, including if we’re looking ahead to potentially different administration in January, who would have a different position on that, not clear how that will affect that dynamic. But that’s certainly there. Now on the federal budget. The big development last week is that the Senate Appropriations Committee laid out 12 bills that didn’t go through markup, haven’t been officially considered, but are their negotiating position going into talks with the House. And leadership and appropriators are saying that they want to get an omnibus appropriations bill done in December, not rely on a stopgap into next year. It’s still a heavy lift, even though there’s some agreement or the distance might not be that great on the bills between the House and the Senate. But it’s still a tall lift to get that much negotiating and paperwork done by December 11. But that’s at least the goal they’ve set for themselves at this point.

Tom Temin: And there is the minor issue, perhaps that the President would have to sign that bill. And who knows, I mean, his mood and demeanor and what it is he’s actually doing day in day out is a little bit unclear at this point, you might say.

Loren Duggan: That’s fair. And I think that the members will be trying to cobble together a bill that has as wide support as possible. In the worst case scenario, if they’re facing down a veto threat on some sort of spending package, they would have to get to a two thirds majority to override the veto. If they could get that on the initial vote through the House and the Senate, that might signal to the president hey you could veto this but you would lose a vote on whether to overturn your veto. So that’s a dynamic that will be in the minds of members. Is there a particular item that the President is going to demand. We know that border wall funding has been an issue in the past. Could it be an issue here, it remains to be seen what what sticky points there could be as they get to that point and that the administration is involved.

Tom Temin: And of course, in the last couple of weeks, the COVID monster has kind of grown a fresh head almost like the Hydra and is snarling at the country, and the cases are going up. Sounds like there might be some more impetus for some kind of stimulus bill do you think?

Loren Duggan: There’s definitely renewed discussion about that. One of the things that Bloomberg reported last week is that the talks have really shifted from between the White House and House Democrats to congressional leaders at this point, where the White House said we could step back in if progress is made or you need our input, but you have to work this out among yourselves. And one of the difficulties there is that just as there was misalignment in the top line numbers between the White House and House Democrats, the House and Senate don’t agree on a top line number. And in fact, Mitch McConnell has pretty much stuck to his around $500 billion mark, whereas House Democrats and Senate Democrats last week were pushing for the 2 trillion plus package that the House has already passed. So there may be more impetus for portions of that, we’ll have to see if the dynamics change about the gap in between the two bills and the provisions that go in them. Because the top line isn’t the only argument here, it’s also what constitutes that top line number and what policies are in that bill.

Tom Temin: And in the meantime, both parties are focusing their hopes and dreams and efforts on what might happen in the Georgia runoff Senate elections. Those don’t occur till when? January?

Loren Duggan: January 5, so potentially after the new Congress is seated, we might have an empty seat there as the outcome of one of those is being decided. There are two races, one is a special election, one is the regularly occurring election, a lot of time, money and effort is going to go into those two seats. If the Democrats won both of them, that would be a 50/50 senate where the vice president would be the tiebreaker. So presumably January 20, it would be Kamala Harris coming in as Vice President breaking the tie in favor of Democrats, they would set the agenda. If the Republicans win one or both, they’re in a good position to have the majority and be potentially a check on a Biden administration and House Democrats. So huge stakes in those elections. I think we’re gonna see a lot of surrogates going down there — time, money and effort, as I said, the center of political gravity is going to shift to Atlanta and beyond.

Tom Temin: Well, I guess if you want to look at something beautiful in the meantime, go to a sausage factory. You’ll see a lot of that.

Loren Duggan: Yes.

Tom Temin: Loren Duggan is editorial director of Bloomberg government. Thanks so much.

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

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