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Nothing has quite jelled enough to be headed to the president’s desk for signing, but many bills concerning federal agencies and their operations are simmering in Congress. Postal Service reform, 10 bills about veterans and Veterans Affairs and a couple of key nominations. For the latest, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.
Tom Temin: And Mitchell, let’s start with Postal Service reform. This seems to be – maybe this is the year it could happen?
Mitchell Miller: Maybe it is, after many, many years, as you well know, of arguments back and forth about the future of the Postal Service. And of course, former President Trump not a big fan of the Postal Service. It does seem like we’re finally making some progress here. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week, putting out this new bipartisan bill that would do all kinds of reforms related to the Postal Service. But the big one, as you have reported on for many, many years, of course, is the big issue about pre-funding the requirement for Postal Service retirees, basically, the reform proposed by Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio would allow this to be deferred. And that would save close to $50 billion over a decade, which would really do a lot, of course, to alleviate a lot of the Postal Service’s issues on the financial side. And then there are also reforms related to the day to day things, they would still require that the post office deliver mail six days a week, and there would be more reporting to Congress to make it more accountable. These, of course, come on top of the reforms that have been proposed by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a lot of Democrats still don’t like some of those proposals. But nonetheless, I think this bipartisan legislation actually does have a chance of getting passed, because it looks like at least 10 Republicans have indicated they would support it. And that’s a rare thing these days on Capitol Hill, as you know.
Tom Temin: Yeah, and the other key provision in there is that future retirees would be going on to Medicare. So the Postal Service itself would not face the $50 billion savings just later on down the line. They’d have to pay it all, at some future indeterminant point.
Mitchell Miller: Exactly, and that’s a huge part of that whole financial picture because without that cost, at least on an annual basis that really could, at least for the temporary time being hold off the money woes for the Postal Service.
Tom Temin: All right. So that has bipartisan support and – mentioned the Senate, and the House has a component there, also?
Mitchell Miller: The House also has a component. Some of the details are still being worked out on that. But it does seem like the lead on the Senate side is going to really help because as you know, everything seems to get backed up on the Senate side. So the fact that that we have agreement on the Senate side, I think that the House legislation can be pulled along.
Tom Temin: And when they can’t agree on anything else, there’s always Veterans Affairs and veterans.
Mitchell Miller: That’s right. A good bipartisan area, something like infrastructure, right? Although there does seem to be more of an agreement here, whereas infrastructure, as we may touch on later does not have that. But this is a big package of bipartisan bills that was put out by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, the House last week passed this package. That in itself is actually an accomplishment, because there’s been some procedural issues about getting these big packages of bills through the House. But nonetheless, they were able to do that among some of the bills, one that would make more accountability in connection with sexual harassment cases. They would strengthen the oversight of COVID relief money, they would expand healthcare resources at the VA. And then there’s an interesting one involving a case in West Virginia, they’re actually going to expand the use of cameras in Veterans Affairs facilities. There was a lot of concern about security and issues about people going in and out of a facility in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where some murders actually took place there. So there was a big push to get cameras and more accountability related to security issues, at these VA facilities.
Tom Temin: Interesting about the oversight on the spending for the VA stimulus money from the pandemic. Because it turns out, they’ve only spent half of it so far.
Mitchell Miller: Right, they’ve still got a pot of money there that they’ve got to figure out exactly what to do with. They’re still trying to basically parse that out and get it out. And that is true also of a lot of other agencies where there is money. And that’s been one of the criticisms that Republican lawmakers have lodged, saying, when we’re continuing to approve we Congress continue to improve approve all of this money that is not obviously going right into the bloodstream of all these agencies right away. So that’s another issue for the VA.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. And this commission on Jan. 6 seems to be really scrambling up already bad relations. Since that seemed to have been passed on a party line vote. I guess one side wants to skip it. The other side wants to put up scaffolding on the front lawn to hang people. So where’s that all headed?
Mitchell Miller: Well, it looks like the commission and security funding for the Capitol are both in big trouble in the Senate. The security measure did pass barely by one vote actually, and almost was taken down by a group of liberal Democrats who had problems with the funding of Capitol Police. But then the 9/11-type commission for looking into Jan. 6, once Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came out and said he was going to be against it, along with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, that basically gave a safe haven for a lot of Republicans in the Senate who now say that they are not going to support it. In fact, there are only really a handful of Republicans who say they’re still looking at it. So once again, for Democrats to get those 10 votes to overcome the filibuster looks very, very difficult, related to Jan. 6 and actually, the funding related to improvements at the Capitol, which would include a huge retractable fence around the Capitol complex, a rapid response team that would be part of the D.C. National Guard, those elements are also in some trouble in the Senate as some Republicans say that they’ve really just rushed this through and that there needs to be a more timely, a lengthier assessment of everything that is needed. So while there were a lot of calls right after Jan. 6 for this bipartisan commission, I just wonder if it’s really going to happen at this point, because now there’s a lot of talk about whether there’ll be a select committee in the House or whether it will just be left to all the House and Senate Committees to do their own investigations?
Tom Temin: And switching gears, any nominations for the administration? I mean, they’re down to kind of the second tier positions at this point.
Mitchell Miller: Right, we’re really down to what is left the last immediate Cabinet-level position. And this is really new that it’s a Cabinet-level position. This is the – to be the director of the House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Eric Lander is the nominee who basically would be President Biden’s chief science advisor. This is something the administration wanted to do. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation pushed through his nomination, not with complete unanimity however. There were some questions raised by Republicans, one interesting one that was raised by Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn was about the fact that Lander had some interactions with Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier and of course, got caught up in with the controversy with all kinds of sexual allegations. But Lander said that he had only met Epstein a couple of times and didn’t really have any major interactions with him. I think this was a kind of minor blip in connection with his nomination. I do expect it will probably move forward by the full Senate.
Tom Temin: Gosh, that Epstein had a way of getting around, didn’t he?
Mitchell Miller: Boy, he talked to just about everybody. I mean, it’s amazing how whether it’s, former President Bill Clinton, or all these high level people on the financial side with Wall Street and politicians, it’s incredible how many fingerprints he got on a lot of different things.
Tom Temin: Just for the record, neither you or I ever met the guy.
Mitchell Miller: Never met the guy, no.
Tom Temin: And now I’m glad I didn’t. And what about just to get to the stimulus idea? Because that is looking like maybe there is some conference going on there.
Mitchell Miller: Right, Republicans are still trying to basically get their final proposal to the Biden administration. There were more talks last week, with Republicans coming forward. As you know, President Biden has tried to keep an open door at the White House getting more of these bipartisan meetings, whether or not they can really close this gap still remains to be seen. Republicans are slowly kind of bumping up their proposal from close to $600 billion, they say it may go as high as $800 billion. Of course, that would still be only a fraction of more than $2 trillion that the administration is talking about. The other thing is they’re still considering whether it might be parsed out as it traditionally has been into smaller pieces. The White House has indicated that they might be open to that but there are a lot of congressional Democrats who really just want to say, let’s get this through, and they’re still keeping that budget reconciliation possibility in their back pocket.
Tom Temin: And just a final question i everywhere I look, there is somebody talking about this new book about the Secret Service, Carol Leonnig’s new book “Zero Fail.” Everywhere I look, there’s a review of it. Has any of that reached Capitol Hill that you’ve heard about people talking about looking at the Secret Service as a congressional concern?
Mitchell Miller: Well, they’re definitely talking about it. Whether or not they will actually have any type of hearings is still being worked out. But there is a lot of concern about that. I mean, some of the things that she reported on as you know, were just kind of mind blowing the fact that the first of all, the morale in the Secret Service has really dipped in recent years. But more specifically, you had those incidents where people that basically had no real plan got over the White House fence and then literally got into the White House. So there’s also concerns lingering related to former President Trump and some of the costs incurred related to the Secret Service and his family and the protection but there’s a – really concern about from some lawmakers that the Secret Service has in many respects lost some of its luster. Now, obviously there are a lot of incredibly brave and really great people within the Secret Service. But there is worry that a lot of these different issues over the years have sort of tarnished the Service. And, it kind of reminds me in a different respect, although they have two very different roles of what’s happened with the Capitol Police, that there was some concern about whether the Capitol Police may have been involved in somehow letting some of these demonstrators through on Jan. 6. The morale, frankly within the Capitol Police has also dropped quite a bit. And then of course, you have the arguments back and forth about exactly what should be done to bolster the department. So these are two law enforcement agencies that are really undergoing a lot of tummult right now.
Tom Temin: Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. As always, thanks so much.