Congress is busy, but not with bills necessarily

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The riots and the inauguration behind it, Congress has barely settled into the next session. With only a few bills actually introduced, the Senate is mainly concerned with the Biden administration confirmations for the moment. For the week ahead outlook, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to Bloomberg Government editorial director Loren Duggan.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And I guess they’re not quite to the impeachment questions yet but legislatively, what does it look like?

Loren Duggan:  Your introduction is pretty much correct that not a lot has happened legislatively yet. Congress is still getting off the ground. The Democrats in the House knew they had a majority, albeit a very bare one. The Democrats learned just on Jan. 5 that they would have the majority and be taking over that chamber after six years of Republican control. And the party seems to still be coming to grips with that. And the things that you mentioned as well – preparing for the inauguration, dealing with what happened on Jan. 6, and the fallout from that, which seems to still linger a little bit – has kind of kept them from getting at too much by way of legislation. The Senate has been busy already holding hearings on some of these nominations that President Biden has made confirming some on the floor and looking ahead to some additional ones as well. So the House was initially going to be around this week, but flips this weekend next, so that they can focus on committees this week, and more floor action next week, which I think points to as well, their desire to get some more ducks in a row before they start putting more bills on the floor and actually starting to knock those out.

Tom Temin: And I guess you have to give some credit to the Biden administration for being rather ready with what it wanted, what it expected, both in terms of, well, several fronts. One, the executive orders which don’t involve Congress; one, what it would like legislatively, and I think in a couple of the signing ceremonies, President Biden said, yeah, this is what we’re going to ask for. And then on the lineup of appointees ready to roll – was pretty together, it seemed like when they came in.

Loren Duggan: They did have a pretty thorough list ready to go. Obviously, that list of nominees trickled out over the course of a couple of months, even heading into the final weekend before President Biden and Vice President Harris were sworn in. But they had names up to Capitol Hill and Capitol Hill began vetting some of those nominations, even before they had the swearing in on Jan. 20. Now, that happens fairly frequently, the parties have worked together traditionally, to start that process out. There were fewer confirmations right away on the 20th than some people certainly wanted, and even than some past presidents have been able to secure on their first day, but the processes are rolling along. The Biden team had acting people ready to go and has been naming those and rolling those out as well. So that the agencies are still running and functioning with somebody in charge. So they were ready to go there. And then executive orders, they had a stack of those ready to go obviously, even on the first day, by the time President Biden made it to the White House, he had some things to sign. So you’re right, they have a lot of ducks in a row, including a big stimulus proposal that I think is going to be one of the dominant issues coming up.

Tom Temin: And I want to get to that, too. But just a final question on the confirmations. Some people are controversial, some less so. Do you think that because of the close division in the Senate 51-50, if you will, that the Republicans will keep their powder dry for the really, really controversial confirmations and save their energy on the ones that maybe they don’t love but let them get by easily?

Loren Duggan: They might, we’ll have to see how it plays out. There were some holds placed last week that then came off. One, for example was Avril Haines who was the director of National Intelligence nominee. There was a hold placed on that which pauses action and would require leaders to go through several steps unless there was unanimous consent. But a senator came to the floor, in this case I think it was Tom Cotton and said he lifted his hold allowing her to move forward. So, so far we seem to be having the nominees that are easy go first, ones that they can get unanimous consent to move to quickly knock out the vote and then move on to the next one. There will be picks that will be harder, that will be slowed down, that if senators wanted to could slow the process around. But they probably are going to knock out some of the less controversial ones first. The thing is you only need 50 votes to cut off debate and get to a vote on confirming. They would have those 50 votes if everybody stayed on side. If they needed that 51st vote from Kamala Harris she would obviously go over to the Capitol and cast that and move these forward. So we will be watching as these play out because there are some, as you mentioned, more controversial than others.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Lauren Dugan, editorial director of Bloomberg Government. And getting back to that stimulus, I guess there’s a little bit better appetite now in the Senate than there might have been had it’s gone 51-50 the other way or 49-51 the other way. And how are people handicapping that both in terms of what will actually be in it and when this might actually come to pass?

Loren Duggan: So as president-elect, President Biden announced a $1.9 trillion package that included things that hadn’t made the cut in past rounds and other priorities that he wants to see go through – things that aren’t necessarily directly related to the stimulus, but are also Democratic priorities. So that could even be something like the minimum wage increase that he’s seeking, but also looking for money for vaccines and for state and local governments. The reception on Capitol Hill has been a little mixed. Some of the Republicans that helped negotiate the deal that was passed in December are cool to this so far, saying we just put $900 billion out there, maybe we should take a little bit more time on this? The beginning position of the Biden administration is trying to work with Republicans and get to a bill that needs 60 votes or would possibly need 60 votes, rather than looking at some of the options for pushing something through with 50 votes. So that’s a dynamic we’ll be watching as the administration tries to sell this to – and particularly Republicans in the Senate – that moderate group of Republicans and Democrats who were so key to getting that last deal, and seeing what’s possible, and then what process they used to bring that together.

Tom Temin: And on the House side, Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly wasted no time in putting out a really nice, well 2%-plus-1%-for-locality pay raise next year for federal employees. That actually could have legs, I guess now, again, given the situation in the Senate.

Loren Duggan: Definitely, I mean, having senators in charge of committees and being the one who actually puts the pen on the page and writes these bills will give bills the Democrats want a chance of moving through. So whether that issue moves on its own as a standalone bill remains to be seen. The financial services general government appropriations bill that they have to pass every year and funds different agencies could be a good target for that. So as that bill’s moving through its stages later this year, it might be an attractive vehicle for moving something like that. Or there may also be other packages of federal worker protections that could go into to another piece of legislation that’s moving. So even if Rep. Connolly’s bill isn’t the one that gets picked up and moved, that’s certainly a conversation starter. He has a Senate companion bill, I think it’s Brian Schatz of Hawaii is on board with him. So that’s certainly an opening bid for making sure that there’s a higher wage in 2022 for federal workers. There are already champions for that, even as that’s 11 months away still.

Tom Temin: And now the National Guard has gone home, and a lot of the fencing has come down. Yet there is the aftermath of the riot, which has seemed to have slipped into the background for the time being and the excitement of the new administration, and the Oval Office viewings and all of this. What is actually going to happen now? Congress still needs to come to grips with its own police force, and its own modes of operating in the future now that it knows that it’s vulnerable.

Loren Duggan: Absolutely. There’s an appetite by a number of committees and subcommittees to look into what happened on Jan. 6, and afterwards and beforehand, too, what instigated and led up to that. So we are going to see more action and discussion on that. I would expect a lot of hearings from House and Senate Committees that have oversight of the Capitol Police or law enforcement or even the military to find out what happened with why the National Guard wasn’t there on the sixth, for example. So many investigations there. We’ve already seen in the House, one of the reactions was to install magnetometers outside the chamber. That’s caused some problems for members who don’t want to pass through those on their way to vote or to speak on the floor. Nancy Pelosi has said she may look into fines for people who don’t comply with that. So that’s a lingering thing. And then committees still need to get up and running and name all the members of the subcommittees and start looking at their internal budgets and then start dealing obviously with the federal government’s budget for the coming year. So the pace of getting to the point where they can really legislate and do full committee work has been slowed, including in the Senate where they’re still coming to grips with being a 50/50 Senate and making sure that they can move forward with that very razor-thin majority, because it does change the way committees operate when you don’t have a absolute majority in the way you would if it was a 52-48 or you know, even back in the day 60-40 Senate with one party having an advantage. So we’re almost to February, but Congress is still a month in, coming to grips with really forming itself and getting going.

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

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview with FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows.

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