It might be a new year, but the same old questions are occupying Congress

As it settles in for real work after the holidays and its January 6 look-back, Congress, at least some members, are starting to wonder how the long continuing r...

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As it settles in for real work after the holidays and its January 6 look-back, Congress, at least some members, are starting to wonder how the long continuing resolution is affecting the Defense Department. For more on this and other matters under the dome, Bloomberg Government deputy news director Loren Duggan joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Loren, in the new year, the Defense Department is with the old year’s budget, as are all departments. What’s going on with respect to this concern?

Loren Duggan: Well, we’re gonna have a hearing this week on the House side with the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee meeting to explore this question What does it mean if DoD is operating under a continuing resolution? Because there’s, at this juncture, not really a clear path to a full year appropriation bill for DoD or any part of the government. What we did see before the end of the year was passage, and then enactment with the president’s signature, of the defense authorization bill that would propose $25 billion more than the administration wanted for those programs, kind of a consensus there, if you can get that over the line and signs for that number. But there still isn’t an agreement on the total spending that House and Senate members and the administration are willing to spend across the 12 appropriations bills. So this hearing will be a chance for people to, you know, put on display the concerns they have with not moving forward on this, trying probably to tamp down any talk of a full year CR, because that would have a number of effects, obviously, across the government. Because it’s harder to start new programs or adjust staffing levels, if you’re just carrying over the previous year’s funding levels, especially given that we had a change of administration in there. So Democrats want to spend more than the levels that were kind of approved under the Trump years.

Tom Temin: Sounds like there’s some dawning recognition in Congress that it’s not simply a budgetary issue, but a programmatic issue to keep DoD where it needs to be — where it says it needs to be — with respect to worldwide response and readiness and all of those things.

Loren Duggan: Absolutely. And I think a country we’ll hear come up a lot here is China, and just making sure that our readiness there is being addressed. That’s not only a defense issue; that’s something that Congress is going to look at across the government — things like how do we make sure we have our own capacity to make chips or purchase chips. So anything right now that touches on China, I think, will also be brought to the fore, when it comes to something like talking about DoD,

Tom Temin: Probably safe to say the continuing resolution is an unknown phenomenon in China, where you have, kind of, dear leader being able to decide anything he wants, basically.

Loren Duggan: Indeed, this is a conscious choice that Congress is making, at least for now. You know, we have until February 18 — that’s a few weeks — but with no top-line agreement, no agreement on any of the bills, it is going to be a tall order for them to get that done between now and February 18. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point we start asking around about another CR or other ride alongs to go with this. Do we need more money, for example, for addressing COVID-19? Because the conditions there have changed in the last few weeks with testing and other things that we’re trying to do. So there’s a lot that’s going to go into this discussion. And this is sort of the opening bid in it, with just reviewing, hey, what’s the effect of a CR this late into the year?

Tom Temin: And a downstream issue from DoD, of course, is veterans affairs and veterans benefits. And you are reporting on a couple of benefits bills for veterans also coming up in the house.

Loren Duggan: The house, in its first week back, is looking at a couple of veterans bills. One would make veterans automatically enrolled into health care benefits, and another would count training in a different way towards how educational benefits are calculated. Now, a lot of what the House Veterans Affairs Committee does is less controversial, you know, broad bipartisan support, easily passes with 400 votes easily sometimes. These are a little more controversial because of their long-term costs. Republicans had some different approaches. So there might be a little bit more debate on these on the House floor than usual. But part of this opening week agenda is looking at these veterans programs.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Loren Duggan. He’s deputy news director at Bloomberg Government. And the rules and the possibility of filibuster in all of this — that’s going to really occupy the Senate now pretty heavily, isn’t it?

Loren Duggan: Yea. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set a goal of the MLK Day recess for acting on voting rights legislation. And what he said is, if Senate Republicans don’t support moving forward with this legislation, which requires 60 votes even to get onto the bill and start debating it, then he wants to force a vote on changing the Senate rules. One of the issues here is that in a 50-50 Senate, you need all 50 Democrats to agree on something to move it forward — something that’s stymied other legislation already this year. But even that rules change would require unanimity among Democrats that they don’t necessarily have yet. So we’ll be looking to see is there some change to the 60 vote requirement that is acceptable to enough people to allow it to move forward? And, you know, there’s ideas out there about actually forcing people to filibuster the bill — stand on the floor and talk — versus what happens now, where there are basically different clocks that are set under the Senate rules, and they just have to run through them. So we’ll be watching this very closely this week, a big debate about the Senate itself even more than the legislation they’re talking about, although there will be a lot of focus on that as they move forward this week.

Tom Temin: It’s always curious when one side or the other wants to change the rules to its advantage. I mean, the late Harry Reid did this. And then the next thing, you know, a year later, he’s the minority leader, and the Republicans in charge use the very rule change he initiated against him now that he’s the minority party. Does that occur to Chuck Schumer, I wonder, that it cuts both ways when you change the rules?

Loren Duggan: Well that’s always been the sticking point on this, and why the rules change process that they would use is known as the “nuclear option,” because you’re blowing up the Senate and its traditional consensus based way of doing things. And there are people who have long memories of being in the minority themselves who may not want this. But then there’s also the fear among some members that they’ll state that well, you know, if we don’t do it, what if the Republicans do? So I think that there’s a lot of dynamics that will go into this question about whether to change the rules. As you mentioned, Harry Reid changed the rules on nominations. You don’t need 60 votes on those anymore, which has made it easier to get nominees through for President Trump and now even President Biden. But, you know, legislation has always been in a separate category, except for the many exceptions that exist. But it’s been seen as, you know, that hot burner on the stove that people didn’t want to touch. But maybe this week, they actually will.

Tom Temin: Alright, and speaking of nominations, those have been picking up in pace before the end of 2021. There was some some heavy duty voting, and what’s ahead now for nominations?

Loren Duggan: A number of the committees this week are going to continue their hearings on nominees and start voting them out. A big one will be Jerome Powell going before the Senate Banking Committee. Obviously, the Federal Reserve Chair has a big role in economic policy, but we’ll also see some action on folks like Robert Califf for the FDA, the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, a number of foreign service nominations. So a lot will be churning this week. Some of the nominations were sent back to the White House at the end of last year, which is part of the way the Senate works, and some of those have already been sent back over by the White House. So we’ll probably see a lot of committee churn here, and then maybe after the Senate wraps up this process on voting rights and its own rules, they’ll turn back to many of these nominees and keep processing them.

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

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

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