Congress is back today, and the federal budget is back on the agenda

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After a short break for the Martin Luther King Day holiday, Congress is back. Members will resume budget talks that started late last week, which is encouraging given that the continuing resolution deadline is just a month away. WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchell Miller joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin with the latest.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Mitchell, before we get to that, are they going to talk about anything in the Senate except filibuster? Can they filibuster the talk about filibuster?

Mitchell Miller: We’re gonna hear that word a lot. The Senate had planned to be off this week, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer deciding to have senators come back to debate possible rules to the filibuster and its 60-vote requirement. The house interestingly last week had rushed to combine two voting rights bills, making them the Freedom to Vote John Lewis Act, and attach them to a NASA bill. So they could proceed to debate with a majority less than 60 votes, just a majority. But that doesn’t solve the 60 votes that would be needed to pass this legislation. So they are going to discuss talking about the filibuster. They are going to talk about the filibuster. From the old Mr. Smith Goes to Washington movie, they’re talking about the talking filibuster where you would actually have to stand up on the floor for hours on end to try to get something blocked. There are other procedural changes. But Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have said no to changes in the filibuster. So this, at least for now, really isn’t going anywhere.

Tom Temin: Yes. Because I mean, the issue there is not so much whether you talk or not physically, yourself. It’s what is the nature of the Senate that is supposed to, you know, have this idea of consensus so that you can get 60 people, you know, or two thirds. And I think that’s lost, I think, in some of the discussions. Or, they’re talking across purposes.

Mitchell Miller: Exactly. And that was a point actually that Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema made when she unfortunately for the President went to the floor right before he came to Capitol Hill to try to push things forward. She made that point, and a lot of people, and if you talk to senators themselves, they say the Senate really just does not legislate like it should or like it has in the past. As you point out, they’re just talking past each other, rather than sitting down and talking to each other to try to get something done.

Tom Temin: Well, in the meantime, there is the issue of the federal budget, which is under CR, as we’ve discussed, and it’s coming closer to that February, I believe, 18 deadline, but there are signs they are waking up to it.

Mitchell Miller: Well, speaking of talks and sitting down together, this is an area where they actually did do this starting late last week. A little late, obviously, they’re really months behind the eight ball right now. But the top four appropriators in the House and Senate sat down and talked, including Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, longtime veterans of this type of thing. And they are all sounding a little bit optimistic actually, that they might be able to get something done. But it’s still very early in this process. And a lot of things are being kicked around, there is still discussion of possibly trying to come up with more money to help with vaccinations and testing. There is also a proposal that’s just starting to come about from Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott, who is talking about potentially getting employers to provide paid leave to workers that have been affected by COVID. As you know, this is something that Democrats have been trying for a long time to get paid leave into something. But there are on the other side, the Republicans have a lot of riders related to a variety of things that are in place now that Democrats don’t like. So they still have quite a bit of work to do. We’ll have to see what happens. And as you point out, this continuing resolution runs out on February 18. I would note that one large entity that is very concerned about going to another continuing resolution, if it comes to that, is the Pentagon, which as you know, does not really want to just sustain levels but wants to get to its new weapon systems, to new training. And there was a hearing before a defense subcommittee last week of the House Appropriations Committee where representatives of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps said that extending the CR would hurt their ability to train and to modernize weapon systems. And also they’d need to find other areas which they’re already having to start doing to pay for that 2.7% pay raise that military personnel get, because the President signed that into law last month. In fact, that pay increase went into effect with the first paychecks that went out last Friday.

Tom Temin: Yes, that’s right, because in those armed services committees, even though they might disagree about how much dollars the Pentagon should get in the given year, they do agree that it should be conducted in a proper manner so that they have their money at the beginning of the year, whatever they’ve agreed to. And that way the Pentagon can have its continuity of operations, if you will.

Mitchell Miller: Exactly. And as you know, they have to plan literally years out ahead for some of these systems that they’re planning for as well, with weapons and other things. And so if they cannot do that, they just cannot go day-to-day, month-to-month in the way that some agencies, while they wouldn’t like to, are a little more adept to being able to do that.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller. And then Representative Gerry Connolly in the house has a proposal for a 5.1% pay raise for federal employees. What’s that prospect?

Mitchell Miller: Well, I heard you elicit a little bit of a smile there, knowing the fact that probably is not going to happen. As you know, Congressman Connolly has made this kind of an annual ritual. He’s, I think, proposed this for eight years in a row. This 5.1% pay raise would be a 4.1% across the board pay hike, and then you’d potentially get a 1% increase in locality pay. This would be really one of the highest pay raises that’s come down the line in quite some time. It does not look like that’s likely to happen. But Gerry Connolly, as you know, is a fierce advocate for federal workers in the Washington area, so he is pushing that. There is a Senate version that’s also sponsored by Hawaiian Senator Brian Schatz. So we’ll see what happens. Probably it will come at a lower level. There was a pay increase a few years ago after the government shutdown, which was the first one in a while, but the Feds did get, as you know, a 2.7% pay raise for this fiscal year.

Tom Temin: And switching gears here, the COVID, of course, still manages to dominate everything everybody’s talking about. And I went to the CDC site to see what they actually say. Because once it’s distilled through the confused presentations on television, it really does sound confusing. And they have a flowchart at the CDC site, which has if this is the case, then ABCD. But if this is the case, the next row, then ABCD. And then the third row is if this is the case, ABCD. That doesn’t quite make it out as clarity to the public. And so how is the Hill dealing with that for themselves?

Mitchell Miller: Well, there’s been a lot of frustration among lawmakers from members of both parties. And that was clear at a Senate Health Committee hearing that I covered last week where you had people that are individuals like Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who is generally a pretty strong supporter of the Biden administration, having a lot of questions about where’s the testing? How come it didn’t come earlier? What’s going to be next? A lot of other lawmakers asking about that as well. And then, as you mentioned, the guidance, CDC director Rochelle Walensky has come under a lot of fire in connection with the guidance just not being that clear. And actually, she tried to walk through some of that guidance — you know, the five days of quarantining and then you get tested — during that hearing, but it is difficult, as you know, to state that very clearly and cogently in a public setting. And she has had some stumbles, which I think the administration would acknowledge. CNN was the first to report that she actually got some additional media training, because many people, including those in the White House, just didn’t think that the messaging was as clear as it should be. So I think you’re going to see members of Congress continuing to push the administration to do a better job of not only messaging but getting things out. I mean, of course, the administration just announced last week that it’s going to try to get out 500 million rapid tests, but that’s going to take a while to ramp up. And in fact, even before that happened, there was a group of nearly 50 Democratic lawmakers that were pushing the administration to get more testing. So there is just a lot of concern still happening here. We’ll see, you know, where Omicron goes over the next several weeks or months. Obviously, the hope is that at some point the country will hit the hump, as some countries overseas have, and then it’ll start to dissipate a little bit.

Tom Temin: Just to note on the media training you mentioned that Dr. Walensky got. I was complaining to my wife a couple months ago, I said, why don’t they get that lady a decent place to broadcast from and put up a decent camera and microphone. She looks like she’s talking into a watery PC, typical zoom experience. And I’ve noticed that CDC has invested in a little bit more studio-grade ways for Dr. Walensky to get her message out. Maybe that was part of it.

Mitchell Miller: Yea, and I think the other thing is that there was some concern that she did not want to go to CDC headquarters in Atlanta full time, and has a lot of responsibilities in the Boston area where she lives and comes down to Washington here. But because of that, I think that also added to some of the issues there that you’re talking about. And when you’re talking about things that are so confusing and necessary that it literally can be life saving, in some cases, when you’re talking through a watery zoom call that does not help things.

Tom Temin: All right, well, good for her for getting some baffling and some good cameras and mics in there. WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller. Thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller: You bet.

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