Congress continues the stalemate plays in the red zone

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The more Congress debates spending, infrastructure and taxes, the more convoluted it gets. It’s starting to look like two football teams in the red zone in a game with infinite downs. For what to expect this week, WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchell Miller joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And so far as we speak, Joe Manchin, Mitchell, has not switched to the Republican Party throwing the majority in the Senate over there. So that’s about the only thing that can probably make it even more complicated.

Mitchell Miller: Yeah, there are so many moving parts right now related to all of this, but the Democrats last week really made a lot of progress. And there has been a lot of skepticism, of course, whether they would actually get close to the finish line, they are actually getting close to the finish line. And we’ll pour through this. While a lot of details still need to be worked out, Democrats and the President, as I said, making progress settling on close to around $2 trillion, maybe a little bit less over the next 10 years. That’s a big drop, of course, from the overall, three and a half trillion dollar plan, and many Democrats wanted something even higher originally. So of course, that’s led to a lot of reductions, and we can go through some of them. The Medicare expansion is one of them. Senator Bernie Sanders has been pushing hard for expanded coverage for dental vision and hearing. Now the vision and hearing may remain because they’re a little less expensive than the dental. But it looks like that may be eliminated, though the White House and lawmakers have floated the idea of creating a voucher program for dental benefits. They’re talking about a program that might be a voucher of around $800, which would allow the benefit to be more immediate and get to people and still not be completely cut out. But that’s a big series of a billion dollars over and over again, related to all of this, actually hundreds of billions of dollars in that program. So that will have to be carved out. Other provisions, we know from the president himself who spoke in a town meeting last week said that tuition free community college is no longer in it. But, there are a lot of education initiatives that are still in, and one that it seems that most Democrats want to keep is universal Pre-K. And in fact, the afar-mentioned West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, actually in West Virginia they have universal Pre-K. So he has been a supporter of that. So that’s a key backing for that program. And then expanded assistance for child care also is in. The child tax credit, a lot of Democrats really like this, they like to tout it as a middle class tax cut, they really would like to keep it going. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said if it were up to her, it would be extended indefinitely. But she also knows about these major issues related to costs. So the child tax credit may only be extended for about a year. And then another big issue has been elder care, which a lot of baby boomers are of course dealing with. But that looks like it’s going to be slimmed down. A lot of these programs, as you know, they’re talking about shrinking the timeline so that they won’t be as expensive over the long term.

Tom Temin: Well, then that’s sort of like a gimmick, I guess. Because if you make it shorter, and then you’ll just renew it in five years, or 10 years, and these things are pretty kill proof once they exist, then it’s still 3.5 trillion or 10 trillion or whatever.

Mitchell Miller: Right. It could easily continue, depending on who’s looking at the numbers, it could easily blow to well beyond what they’re talking about, close to $2 trillion for sure.

Tom Temin: Yeah. And so does that give it a better chance of having acceptance with Republicans?

Mitchell Miller: Right. Well, Republicans are still just going to be completely hands off on this. They don’t, frankly, if it got down to $1 trillion, I don’t think any GOP lawmakers would go along with this. They basically want to make the Democrats sink or swim on this whole program. So they are totally hands off, and they are letting basically for the last several weeks as the sausage making has occurred, they’ve been content to stand on the sidelines and basically let the Democrats go at each other. And they did for a while, it looked like the Democrats were in trouble a few weeks ago, but this past week, they really decided that they had to show that they were making some progress. I think there was a lot of concern, frankly, on the political side that a lot of polls were coming out showing that Americans really weren’t weren’t sure what was in this so called human infrastructure plan. They didn’t really know what it was all about. They kept hearing figures that were thrown about. And so I think the congressional leadership of the Democrats decided we’ve really got to move along with the President and show that there is some progress and that the Democrats can govern, because the Republicans have been taking shots at them repeatedly saying, look at all this disarray, do you really want to reelect these people in the midterm elections?

Tom Temin: Sort of reminds me of that old time horror movie. What’s in this bill? It’s us. We’re speaking with WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller. And what about the IRS funding? That’s a big piece of this. They were talking about some major funding there, which goes along with some of the tax plans the Democrats have, and those are also, let’s say, debated a lot.

Mitchell Miller: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a really interesting issue because the Democrats initially have said that they thought that if they could crack down on a lot people who are not paying all of their taxes or maybe not even paying taxes at all, that they could really lift the amount of money that is going into this program. Senator Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona has really upset the applecart a bit with the fact that she does not want higher taxes on corporations. So now Democrats have really been scrambling to find all these different funding sources and looking for the proverbial change in the huge couch of America. And they repeatedly are going to the IRS trying to figure out is there a way that if they step up the enforcement with the IRS that they can actually get more money and help pay for this. Now, the Republicans last week really went after the Democrats on this. While some Republicans have supported efforts to step up enforcement, last week, they basically, many of them decided to look at what the issue was in terms of Americans and privacy. And you heard in various hearings, whether it was related to the topic at hand, Republicans speaking out against basically the IRS snooping on Americans and saying that they were going to look at levels of income that were much lower than many people expected. Democrats have been trying to push back on that. So you are going to see a back and forth on this. But certainly, the IRS part of this is going to remain in the equation.

Tom Temin: Alright. And switching gears here there is the federal employee vaccine mandate, and there are some deadlines coming up there. With more people having to come under this, what are you seeing from the Hill’s perspective?

Mitchell Miller: Well there is concern about the fact that many federal agencies and DoD have been, while they’ve been making progress, those dates that seemed like they were months away, when the White House and the administration announced these deadlines, now, they’re really coming up. And even though the technical deadline is November 22, because of the amount of time that it takes for the vaccine to fully take effect, two weeks essentially, really, the effective deadline is essentially November 8, which is two weeks from now. So a lot of scrutiny now from members of Congress looking at what is going to happen with these agencies. For example, TSA, Florida Congressman Carlos Jimenez from Florida, as I mentioned, he’s worried about the TSA not having enough workers when the holiday travel season begins, which is only a few weeks away before Thanksgiving. One of the recent estimates is that about 60% of TSA workers are now fully vaccinated. So he was pushing last week to make sure that the TSA has some kind of plan in effect in case they get a real shortage of workers in the coming weeks. And then you look at various agencies like the Veterans Health Administration, they are actually starting disciplinary procedures because they had an October 8 deadline for people to get vaccinated. And as Federal News Network has reported, VHA has also had more people applying for medical or religious exemptions than it normally does in a typical year for flu shots. So they’re trying to deal with that. A lot of other agencies dealing with similar issues, although their deadlines are pushed back. And then of course, the real big one, the Pentagon has put out a memo warning that those who don’t get vaccinated by November 22 can be fired. Now, that won’t happen right away. Those that don’t get vaccinated will essentially undergo a five day counseling and education period. If they still refuse, there’ll be suspended without pay. And then if they still don’t get vaccinated after that, then the paperwork goes into effect and they start to move to fire these people. Defense contractors will also need to be vaccinated or have negative COVID tests when they arrive on site. And if you’re visiting a military facility, you will need to be vaccinated or have a negative test. Overall, the military branches say compliance has has been pretty high, it’s actually much higher than in other areas of society. And as for the federal agencies, Vice President Kamala Harris met with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh last week to go over the progress on vaccinations with all these agencies, but certainly a lot of attention from members of Congress here to see how these agencies are going to be dealing with all these issues.

Tom Temin: It makes you wonder, though, if there is mass separations of people because they did not get the vaccine, can the government sustain that in terms of being able to get the work done if you have to get rid of so many people?

Mitchell Miller: Right, exactly. And that was one of the issues related to TSA that I was mentioning, because that one is immediate, some of these other agencies, it may take a while and the slog of work may start to build up, but something like TSA where you have people actually starting to get on planes a lot more than they used to, that’s a real immediate issue. So there is concern among lawmakers about how these agencies are going to deal with potential shortages.

Tom Temin: And finally a question about, and I want to talk about the process here not the politics, because I don’t know whether Steve Bannon is devil incarnate or a saint, but he has been found in contempt of Congress and the vote has been bipartisan to some degree. And when they say he could go to jail, what is the mechanism by which that actually happens legally? Because Congress can’t, they don’t have bailiffs to go out and get people, do they, and the Marshal Service is part of the executive branch.

Mitchell Miller: Right. This is a really interesting issue that really tests the proverbial checks and balances of government. And what we have found over the last several years is that when former Trump administration officials or when they were in the administration decided not to go along with a subpoena for many of these committees, that it was something that well it had happened in the past, it was pretty rare, and then it happened frequently. So there’s been a real test of those powers of what these committees can actually do. And so now you have the January 6 House Select Committee saying that Steve Bannon after the full House voted last week that they would approve, they approved a resolution saying that he would actually be held in criminal contempt. But what happens then is since the legislature generally does not get involved in the law enforcement, as you mentioned, then it’s up to the court system and up to the Justice Department in this case. So right now, ultimately, it’s up to Attorney General Merrick Garland to decide whether or not to go ahead with prosecution. And they can either take it to a grand jury or they can do it in other ways, but the Justice Department is being counted upon. And by the way, the President backtracked on some comments that he said these people needed to be prosecuted right away. He then later said that he made a mistake in making that comment and said the Justice Department needs to be independent. So they will go through their normal process of reviewing this case, and then deciding whether or not Steve Bannon could be prosecuted. And then of course, it could wind its way through the courts with appeals and all of those types of things. Now, to get to your other issue. What’s also really interesting is, there is the history of what’s called inherent contempt, which has been actually touted by Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, who’s a historian and constitutional scholar, and he has pointed out that Congress does actually have the power through the Sergeant at Arms to actually jail people if they refuse or defy subpoenas. However, that goes back a long, long way. And it really has not been done in any time in recent history. But just as a bit of trivia, when it did happen, what they would often do is they would have Sergeant at Arms, go and get people in, they would hold them in conference rooms here at the Capitol, basically, until they complied or they felt that they had served out whatever term that they had to serve out. But that does not look like it’s going to happen anytime soon in connection with what’s going on currently.

Tom Temin: So far as we know, there’s no hidden chamber off that brick hallway way down in the basement where you might find iron tools and skeletons there.

Mitchell Miller: Right. It’s not like a professional football stadium where they put the drunks downstairs. There is really no jail here in the capital, although perhaps some people in the US public may want to see something like that at times, but certainly not right now.

Tom Temin: Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. Thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller: You bet.

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