Yes it got an infrastructure bill passed, but Congress still has a lot of work to do

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President Biden signs an infrastructure bill today (Nov. 15, 2021). Which, after a long and messy debate, the House passed last week. Now there’s the matter of a few crucial requirements to keep the government itself going. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got the week’s outlook from Bloomberg Government deputy news director Loren Duggan.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Loren, let’s start with a schedule, they are back after some recess, but not for very long?

Loren Duggan: They’re really just supposed to be in this week, that could easily slip into the weekend or maybe even into the beginning of next week. But traditionally, they do leave town around Thanksgiving to go home and be with family. And so their staff can do the same, but we have this little burst of activity, and then a big one coming after the Thanksgiving week, where we’re gonna see a lot of things potentially tackled as they try to resolve many of the open items they have to deal with to keep the government open, to keep the government financed, and to also check off other things on their to do list that they either need to do or want to do before the end of the year.

Tom Temin: And so that reconciliation of the second so called infrastructure bill — it has a million names — reconciliation bill, will that probably mostly occupied the house this week?

Loren Duggan: That’s the big vote this week. And that was, before they left, the House to two things. The first was they passed that infrastructure bill that President Biden’s gonna sign and do a victory lap the next couple of days, just as he did last week. And then they set up the procedure to debate this reconciliation bill this week. There was hope that they would do both of them together at the same time among many progressive Democrats. But there was a group of moderates who said, no, we need to see the CBO cost estimate. And that’s the official analysis that the Congressional Budget Office puts out, says how much programs are going to cost over how long. And that’s an important document here, because this is a budget reconciliation bill. And it’s about what it does to the federal budget. So, they held off the vote until this week, we’ll see if the information they’ve gotten and continued to get from the Congressional Budget Office helps them move that forward. But they would very much like to have this vote in the House and send it over to the Senate because the Senate still has a lot of work to do on this bill. I would not view the product that the House may pass this week as the final version of this because senators will want to put their stamp on it. And they may put their stamp on it because provisions may not comply with the budget reconciliation process. The Byrd rule as it’s known after Senator Robert Byrd, who’s been dead many years now, but was a longtime institution, limits what can go in this bill. So some of these provisions that the House passes may not pass muster there. And there could be fights over that. If the Senate changes it, they would probably send it back over to the House who would have to deal with it. If not before Thanksgiving, they would probably move to do that as quickly as possible right afterwards, provided it gets back to them. So there’s a lot of ifs here on that bill, that bills still has many twists and turns, unlike infrastructure, which is not going to be a done deal.

Tom Temin: Right. So you’ve got the moderates in the Senate still at odds with the progressives in the House, and each one changing the bill to the opposite way that the other side wants it. So that’s still a impediment here. Correct?

Loren Duggan: To an extent, yes. If the House passes this bill, by definition that progressives and moderates there have at least agreed to the compromise, they may not be happy. Progressives clearly wanted more money, moderates would like less and make sure that it’s fiscally responsible. Now, when it gets over to the Senate side, the big question will remain Joe Manchin, who has been one of the factors that pushed this bill down from almost $3.5 trillion in total spending down to more like $1.75 trillion. And he’s also said there are still provisions in the House version that he doesn’t like. And that could be one of the reasons that the bill changes if he teams with Republicans to pull things out. It’s important to remember there are 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans in the Senate, Kamala Harris would break the tie as vice president. So, if they lose Joe Manchin, any of those votes go the way of the Republicans if stuff comes out. So, that’s why this is still a work in progress. As much as they wanted a version that could go through both chambers, they haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. And I would expect some changes.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Loren Duggan, deputy news director of Bloomberg Government. And the NDAA, and of course regular appropriations with the CR expiring December 3, all of a sudden we’re almost at December 3. And what do you see there?

Loren Duggan: The main principles on the federal spending question have met — tried to reach agreement and didn’t recently — so what we’re looking at there is no top line agreement on how much to spend on Defense and non Defense spending. And also no real agreement on a path forward on the policy writers in those bills, which can be as contentious and can cause as much problems as the amount that are allocated to each agency. If there’s no agreement on that by December 3, which seems quite possible at this point, we could be looking at another at least short term continuing resolution to give themselves more time in December to talk this through. Hanging over that is the debt limit. A few weeks ago, they passed a short term debt limit fix, they increase the debt limit by about $480 billion, which took it to an uncertain period of time. So there are estimates that that could last into December, maybe into next year. That could be complicated by some of the spending and provisions in the infrastructure package, however, so they’re going to be looking at this spending picture and this debt picture and trying to figure out how to move forward. This could be a great crucial week, people back in town across the table from each other. Sometimes that breaks things loose. But that’s one of the things we’re watching very closely. They’re been talk on the GOP side of potentially a year long continuing resolution. That’s not something that agencies like. They don’t like the short term ones, they definitely don’t like the long term ones, because funding doesn’t get adjusted to meet the reality of what they need for the next nine months. So a lot still to come on that issue.

Tom Temin: And there are a lot of nominations by the Biden administration the Senate needs to look at, Will they get to some of that this week?

Loren Duggan: That’s what’s right now scheduled on the Senate. They have some more assistant secretary and undersecretary level positions, including the Treasury Department. There’s judicial nominees waiting in the wings. And then there’s a number of agencies waiting in the wings as well. You and I have talked about the Merit Systems Protection Board, those are still waiting for action after having come out of committee. So that seems to be the Senate’s default position — If no legislation we will deal with nominations. They had hoped to get the reconciliation bill sooner rather than later and maybe move to that. NDAA, the annual defense bill, which has been passed for more than six decades in a row every year, that hasn’t come up yet in the Senate. If that reaches the floor, as some members wanted to do as soon as possible, that can be a lengthy debate with a number of amendments touching everything under the sun. So they’d like to, as they have every year, wrap that bill up. They just don’t need a Senate version, they need a House-Senate compromise there on the NDAA. So maybe we’ll see that debate start before Thanksgiving or that might be one of the first things they do when they come back.

Tom Temin: Loren Duggan is deputy news director of Bloomberg Government, as always, thanks so much.

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

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