Noise from Capitol Hill is starting to sound like a broken record

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With a continuing resolution in place for at least a while, Congress can turn its attention to whatever ambitions it may have for infrastructure. But the going is getting tougher. So no telling whether the bureaucracy will have however many trillions dropped on it. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got the latest from Bloomberg Government Deputy News Director Loren Duggan.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Loren, the continuing resolution then has really pushed any sort of action on a permanent or 2022 appropriation off until they absolutely have to, fair to say?

Loren Duggan: That’s correct. We have two deadlines now looming in December. The first is the government funding, which runs out on Dec. 3. That’s as a result of the continuing resolution. Hanging over all that, of course, is no agreement on how much to spend in total, on the annual appropriations, let alone some of the other stuff we’ll talk about. And then the other thing that Congress did over the last couple of weeks was increase the debt limit by $480 billion, to give them some wiggle room into December as well. So in December, we’re looking at this collision of need to fund the government and the need to do something, again about the debt limit to make sure that they can finance the operations that they need to carry out once they pass that government spending. That’s aside from these larger packages, which really are the things front and center in most members’ minds as they returned to Washington.

Tom Temin: And it’s gotten more acrimonious, even if that’s possible, because the sides – you’ve got those two Democratic senators who were, expressed reservations for the size of these bills, and they’re really getting dumped on by other Democrats. And so the question is, will that bring them into submission? Or will that drive them further away, maybe they’ll become Republicans or something? Unlikely.

Loren Duggan: Probably unlikely those two. But when you look at the reconciliation process, which is very partisan by its very nature, so it splits the majority and the minority, this is all on the majority side of the aisle. So again, you have, you can lose three votes in the House right now if you’re Nancy Pelosi, and if you’re Chuck Schumer, you can lose zero votes. So that gives individual members a lot of power. Here on the Senate side, we have Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who are not comfortable at all with a $3.5 trillion number that was floated along the way this summer. And that’s put a lot of downward pressure on how much they’re going to spend on this bill. There’s still no agreement in place between the moderates and progressives on the Democratic side, how much to spend. And once you come up with that number, you have to figure out how to cram the policy in it. There’s so much focus on the dollar amount here, but what’s really at stake is what sort of policy provisions you put in there, how long they run for how much they cost. And on the other side, how much you bring in revenue, or cut other spending to try to offset that to get to a net zero number, or maybe even deficit reduction, which is what some people are pushing for. So a lot at stake and a lot to kind of figure out still.

Tom Temin: Yes, and something that has been reported here and there. But for those that like process, we should point out that the parliamentarian has been kind of throwing darts and not allowing certain procedures that would be convenient for the people trying to get this bill across.

Loren Duggan: That’s right. So the parliamentarian has a lot of authority here, although ultimately it’s the Senate that makes this decision. And she would say she’s just upholding the rules. But this reconciliation process only is supposed to carry provisions that have actual impact on the budget or “nonincidental” is the language they use. And this has already caused trouble for immigration provisions, people who would like to see permanent protections for the so-called DREAMers or other immigration changes. The parliamentarian ruled that those provisions don’t qualify so probably won’t make the cut. If you remember back earlier this year, there was talk about using the minimum reconciliation for the minimum wage – that didn’t make the cut, either. So this isn’t a limitless procedure. Democrats can’t stick anything they want into this package, it has to affect the budget. Now many things, as we know, do affect the budget, everything from expanding Medicare benefits, expanding Medicaid, doing climate change provisions, which is something that I think we’re gonna see a lot of trading around, as they figure out how big to make this package. So there’s a lot of policy in here and a lot of areas that touched the budget.

Tom Temin: So if not for Sinema and Manchin then they would have had their reconciliation vote by now?

Loren Duggan: Well, without them, I mean, if they had agreed they could have 50/50 vote, push it through. Without them, it’s 48-52 against the bill, basically. So without them, I can’t really move. On the House side, there’s still trading going on there because even some of what they talked about didn’t pass muster with their members. They had to pull the drug pricing provisions they’ve been seeking out of one of the components. Could still make the final cut, but three people voted against it in committee, and that was enough to force them to take it out at that stage. So there’s a lot of members to mollify here and I don’t see the path yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t find it. But it’s going to take a lot of work and face-to-face talks with people back in town.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Loren Duggan, deputy news director at Bloomberg Government. So therefore, this week will be a week of negotiating and no votes, do you think?

Loren Duggan: Well, I think we’ll see votes on the floor on more routine legislation. On the Senate side, there’s potentially a big showdown vote coming on the latest version of an elections procedure overhaul that Democrats would like to push through. The challenge there is that’s a bill to take 60 votes, even with all 50 democrats backing it. If there aren’t 10 Republicans, that bill is not going to move forward. It’s most likely that it will get those extra 10 Republican votes that it would need, because Republicans have pushed back on these bills as federalizing procedures that they would prefer to see at the state level. Democrats are concerned about what they’ve seen at the state level, and are trying to push some federal protections, as they see it on these procedures. So I think you’ll see a lot of debate. There will probably be a big vote. And that will reawaken the debate over changing the rules for Senate debate to try and force this legislation forward. A lot of progressives would like to see the filibuster blown up specifically on this piece of legislation. But as we saw in the debt limit, there’s not appetite in the Democratic caucus to blow that up yet.

Tom Temin: And a small but important thing to federal employees is a full Senate vote on the nominees for the Merit Systems Protection Board. I think they were voted out of committee OK. But any sign of that coming up anytime soon?

Loren Duggan: Well, their nomination procedures, they’ve been churning through those on the floor. There’s a couple of judges slated for this week, maybe after they get over that vote on the elections bill, they’ll turn back to nominations. We do see groups go every now and then by voice vote. Not sure if the Merit System Protection Board candidates would fall into that category. But there’s a big backlog of nominees still pushing through – ambassadors, people at these boards, Assistant Secretary levels that they’re churning through over time. So we’ll see a lot of hearings and committee action on that again this week. And Chuck Schumer will do his best to pencil those in wherever he can.

Tom Temin: And they like to get the NDA done by the end of the calendar year, getting a little bit touch and go here. What’s the movement on the National Defense Authorization Act?

Loren Duggan: The House passed its version before it went on its two-week break. The Senate version is sitting there ready to go I think whenever they can schedule time, and probably give themselves several days to deal with that. That bill can linger on the floor for a week as they figure out what amendments to accept. That could move once they get it off the Senate floor. There’s obviously differences between the bill but if they can agree in both the House and the Senate for that $25 billion increase over what President Biden wanted in his request, that’ll make it a lot easier. That’s the one top line where we may finally be seeing some consensus that could trickle down to the annual appropriations process as well. But that bill, I think will be a pretty big agenda item at some point this fall, first on the Senate floor, and then some sort of House-Senate compromise.

Tom Temin: All right, so then everything’s crowded out basically by these couple of really large items. Have you ever recalled a season like this, where so much routine legislation gets crowded out by a couple of behemoths like the infrastructure bills?

Loren Duggan: Well, certainly, if we think back to the Affordable Care Act days, back in 2008, 2009, and then 2010 when the last push was happening, there’s a lot of off-the-floor action, and a lot of negotiation, a lot of selling to the members. So that does take it off the floor. The House will keep busy, they’re always churning through bills under suspension of the rules that are less controversial, but can have a big impact if it’s your office that’s affected or your program being renewed. But there are these four big questions still: The big infrastructure bill, the social spending-climate change package and then annual spending NDAA, and the debt limit. That’s a lot to keep any Congress busy, but they will still churn through some other legislation because committees are producing work all the time.

Tom Temin: Loren Duggan is deputy news director at Bloomberg Government. Thanks so much.

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

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