Congress, you might say, is running out of runway

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The House vote last week really didn’t do that much given how much dispute there is over the infrastructure bills in the Senate. And even that vote came after multiple delays. And anyhow, Congress is out this week and the regular appropriations continuing resolution hasn’t got much longer to go. Is a year long CR in the offing? Federal Drive with Tom Temin got the outlook from WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And that House vote last week on the infrastructure bills, because I guess, Speaker Pelosi had been thwarted by the left side of her skirt tails there for so long, that she just had to have a vote.

Mitchell Miller: Right. There was a lot of pressure building up after the election results, which she acknowledged was a bad night for Democrats. And it really kind of lit a fire under the Democratic Party. And they said they had to get something done. So ironically, after spending months and months trying to secure basically an agreement with Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the moderate senators who have held up a lot of things on there, and they didn’t really get that before those votes. So now they are still going to have to go to the Senate in the coming months, and try to figure out what is going to ping pong back and forth between the House and Senate. So even though the house has moved on this, with this presidential social spending plan, there is still a lot of work to be done there. Because the Senate has made it very clear that they are not going to include everything that was included in the House bill. Among the things that were added, of course, was extended family leave, which House Speaker Pelosi and many progressives and many Democrats wanted to include. But Sen. Manchin from West Virginia has said “Wait a second, I don’t know if we can spend that kind of money on that kind of program.” So there is going to be a continuing back and forth, which we have seen over the last few months. So a temporary victory for House Democrats, yes, but still much work to be done in the coming month.

Tom Temin: And what about the continuing resolution with the Congress out this week? That gets us dangerously close to Thanksgiving, and then dangerously close to to the Dec. 3 deadline. And I’ve seen, I think Bloomberg was saying that there could be now a year-long CR.

Mitchell Miller: That’s right, it very well could happen. Because you’ve got all of these things. As usual, with Congress piling up, as we get toward Thanksgiving and to early December. In fact, the Senate is really only effectively going to be in session, barring changes for about three weeks, the rest of the year. So obviously, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to get all this appropriations done. And so there is that possibility of a year long CR. And once they get to that Dec. 3, when the latest CR is about to expire, then of course, we’ve also got the debt limit to deal with as well. And you’re going to throw in on top of that, wherever we are with the reconciliation bill with the Democrats. So a lot of things piling up here in the next several weeks and early December. And you know, we could again, – deja vu all over again, Yogi Berra – get into that point of is there going to be a government shutdown? Is there going to be a shorter CR to get us early into the year? Or is it going to be actually, as you noted, a year-long CR?

Tom Temin: And of course, a year long CR, in some – well, in the Washington way of accounting, which is not anything to do with the reality of how most people count money – but in the Washington way that amounts to giant across-the-board budget cuts.

Mitchell Miller: Yeah, exactly. Because they’re going to have to effectively chop things owing to the way that the budgetary setup is worked out. So you’re right, they’re going to have to really cut back and those are, again, more tough decisions that lawmakers are going to have to make.

Tom Temin: And I imagine when they do go home for whatever they’re doing this week – field work, and then later on for the Thanksgiving break, and so on – they’re going to face some very mixed reactions from their constituents, as we’re seeing played out across the country over vaccine mandates. And now the proposed Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule for the 100-plus employers that’s playing great and terrible at the same time in the same places.

Mitchell Miller: Right, there is really a lot of talk again, once again, about vaccines. Of course, we had the order from OSHA last week, which will affect more than 80 million Americans in connection with the private employers of 100 or more. And then you have the federal vaccine mandate for all executive branch employees who have to be vaccinated by Nov. 22. Well, of course, if you do the math backwards, if you get a shot, you have to have two weeks ahead of time. So basically, today is the deadline for a lot of federal workers. And there have been new guidelines point put out for people who are looking for health exemptions, and for religious exemptions. The federal government trying to clarify some of the things that agencies are going to have to be dealing with as people try to apply for these type of exemptions. And then of course, there’s also the issue of if people just absolutely refuse to get vaccinated, then they can be terminated. And as we’ve talked about before, there is a whole series of things that agencies have to do before they can actually let go of somebody. So there’s a lot of issues related to vaccines that are popping up around there. And then of course, also, the other thing is we just had the recent good news related to being able to vaccinate kids, how that affects federal workers is they’ve actually updated the guidelines so that federal workers can actually get paid leave, if they go to take their kids between the ages of five and 11, to get vaccinated. And that runs into some of the other things that agencies have been doing over the last few months.

Tom Temin: And if your kids are over 11, just give them the car keys, and they go – oh, wait a minute! Not quite.

Mitchell Miller: Maybe not as safe.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOp. So is there an agenda then that’s shaping up for the week after this?

Mitchell Miller: Well, clearly the Senate is going to be starting to take up more of the appropriations process, they have to the defense programs have to be put into place. And they really are going to have to get into the nitty gritty of what’s in that social spending plan to see if they can get to a point where Democrats would like to get it by sometime before the Thanksgiving break. So if they are able to intensely work on this over the next several weeks, through November, but a lot of people are also saying this could very easily slip especially with all those deadlines that we’ve talked about in early December. So a lot of activity going to be coming back when they get back after this week.

Tom Temin: And another issue overlaying this for the federal government. One is there is a bill that would sort of force the government to really reassess its real estate needs. On the assumption, I guess that the full workforce will never return to the office that was there before. And at the same time, the GOP is saying, “Get back to work.” So there’s a couple crosscurrents on that front also.

Mitchell Miller: Right, for example, on the getting-back-to-work situation. This is a group of Senate Republicans who have said that they do not think that there have been enough federal employees getting back physically into their offices. So Sen. Cynthia Lummis from Wyoming along with others have co-sponsored legislation called the Having Employees Returned to Duty (HEARD) Act. Basically, it would put pressure on federal agencies to make sure that they’re getting workers back into their offices also, that they resume their pre-pandemic, telework and working schedules. Many of these lawmakers last week issued a letter as well as this legislation indicating that they just don’t think that the federal agencies are moving fast enough to get people back into their offices. And then related to that, which is also an issue for the private sector, as well, as anybody knows around the Washington area, that a lot of these offices, office buildings are just not filled like they used to be. And so a lot of lawmakers are saying, well, let’s try to figure this out and help these agencies make some money related to this. So there’s a piece of legislation called SMART, the Saving Money and Accelerating Repairs Through Leasing Act. Of course, you always have to have an acronym that works, right? That would create a pilot program so that they could take underutilized real estate, in other words, buildings that just don’t have the bodies that they used to, and be able to turn it around so that they could get it to fair market value from from other places. So for example, NASA has used a similar program where they are able to sublet some of these areas and parts of buildings and buildings themselves. And then they are able to utilize that money once the agency gets it and turn it around for other things, maybe capital projects or maintenance for their other facilities that are filled. So that’s another effort where lawmakers are thinking they’ve got to reconsider all of these areas that have been kind of thrown around by the pandemic because obviously, a lot of these buildings are just not filled like they used to be.

Tom Temin: Not sure the HEARD Act is the best name to get people back to office because that’s really what do we sheep here? And if you talk to the Office of Management and Budget, as I did last week, the Deputy Director for Management Jason Miller, very quick to point out that the government in terms of delivering service, they feel hasn’t missed a beat even with people not in the office. So I guess everything’s partisan these days?

Mitchell Miller: Absolutely. Everything is partisan. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s wearing masks, vaccinations, or even just looking at how the federal government has been working or not working depending on your point of view.

Tom Temin: Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. Hey, thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller: You bet.

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