The Senate has returned and will try to focus on the NDAA

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The Senate is back in session today from recess mainly to work on the annual defense authorization bill. Traditionally, Congress sends this bill to the president before the end of the calendar year. For more on this and what else is happening in Congress, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin  turned to WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent, Mitchell Miller.

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Senate is back in session today from recess mainly to work on the annual defense authorization bill. Traditionally, Congress sends this bill to the president before the end of the calendar year. For more on this and what else is happening in Congress, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin  turned to WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent, Mitchell Miller.

Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin: Mitchell, let’s start with the NDAA. The Senate is the one that’s pretty much behind on this, correct?

Mitchell Miller: That’s correct. This is a rare moment, in the middle of all the run up to the midterm elections, where senators are actually going to get together, it’s going to be pretty bare bones today in connection with getting on this defense authorization bill, but they thought that they needed to do something this week just to get the ball rolling for later on after the midterms when they’ll actually vote on it. But they have to do some procedural work here. And then there’s also as you know, there’s always a lot of amendments, there’s actually more than 900 amendments on this Senate NDAA. Obviously, they won’t get to all of those, but they do have to kind of sort things out. It was the House that approved the $850 billion NDAA during the summer. That is kind of the rough guidelines of what we’re going to be looking at it includes a 4.6% pay increase for military personnel, civilians in the Defense Department would get 2.4% increase. And it also includes some other things like a bonus for people in the Defense Department who make less than $45,000 a year. Also the bill in the House version at least sets a $15 minimum wage for federal contract workers. So the Senate version is slightly higher than the House bill, but it is expected to pass again after the midterms, as you well know, the Congress rarely does anything like clockwork. This has however, for six decades been passed. And it does look like it’ll eventually be on track to pass and get reconciled between the two chambers.

Tom Temin: Well, they do do things like clockwork, but just not like a clock, we would want to know the time of day by looking at it. What about inflation adjustment for contractors? That’s something that’s widely hoped for, you know, among that community.

Mitchell Miller: There’s been a lot of effort to try to get more pay for federal contract workers, just because there has been so much attrition, frankly, and a lot of the retention has been difficult to have. A lot of House lawmakers wanted to get this $15 minimum wage for federal contractors in and then also with this inflation bonus for people making under $45,000. It’s hoped that they can again, try to get more people involved in the whole governmental process and keep them there, because retention just seems to be a real issue ongoing every year, and lawmakers are usually very concerned about that.

Tom Temin: So then what does this all mean? If the Senate gets this work done, then there’s still the whole reconciliation with the House? Correct?

Mitchell Miller: That’s right. So they still have a lot of work to do, particularly on the Senate side with all the authorizations that have to take place. Really, the house has been way ahead of this, which often happens, the Senate still has to basically go through all the authorization bills when they get back through the lame duck session. And there’s still a lot of questions about how that’s going to be done. The stopgap measure that was passed before lawmakers left goes through December 16. A lot of lawmakers would really like to just get everything done and push it into the next year. Because obviously, if you have a change in one of the chambers, or even both of the chambers, with Republicans taking over for Democrats that really stirs things up and changes a lot of the priorities for spending. So there’s going to be a real hard push, I think after the midterm elections, to try to get something that’s longer term than just another kick the can down the road type of thing. But we’ll see there’s a lot of House Republicans who say they don’t want to sign off on anything until you know, after these elections are over with and they have really pushed back on some of the things that Democrats wanted to do. That was the main reason many of the House Republicans actually voted against the bill that would have, and did, prevent the government shutdown.

Tom Temin: We are speaking with Mitchell Miller, he is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. And so just then review the schedule that we can expect from Congress between the midterm elections coming up. Golly, it’s really just a few weeks away now.

Mitchell Miller: Right, exactly. So we’re going to go through the midterms, and then the Senate will come back. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has indicated that he thinks that they are going to have to get a lot done, as we’ve just alluded to over the next couple of months before the end of the year. So they’re going to have to really move fast in the Senate side. I think that they do have kind of the framework there. So I think that they will get on these bills relatively quickly after everything sorts out from the midterms, although we’ll have to see because it could be complicated. For example, with a 50-50 Senate, we may not know which party actually controls the Senate for quite some time after the election. So that could push back things. And then if there’s any kind of elections that are, you know, challenged or anything like that, I think the House will be a little bit more straightforward. It still looks like Republicans are probably going to pick up anywhere from 15 to 20 seats, and that will likely change things there. And then on top of all of that, then you still have the January 6 hearings that need to be wrapped up and a report that has to take place before the end of the year. That last hearing of the January 6 Committee is this Thursday, and then they may put out an interim report, but then they will definitely put out a full report. Again, likely to be at the end of December because they want to push it all the way toward the end. Because under the way the legislation is written for the committee, they have to basically disband unless they’re reauthorized after 30 days after the report is issued. So they basically want to take that report to the end of the year so that they can continue to gather evidence as long as they can.

Tom Temin: All right, you know, the military talks about the color of money, but sometimes the party of money comes up. And what about Florida appropriations? I mean, we had California burning and there was money. Now we have parts of Florida, unfortunately drowning because of the hurricane. So is that all a settled issue, what kind of money Florida will get from federal coffers?

Mitchell Miller: That’s really interesting, because it’s not a settled issue at this point within the stopgap measure that was passed before lawmakers left it included nearly $19 billion in disaster assistance. And a lot of that was for those previous things that you mentioned, wildfires earlier, flooding, earlier hurricanes. Interestingly enough, there’s been a surprise, surprise political back and forth over that because many House Republicans voted against that. Even ones from Florida, Democrats pointing that out, although the Republicans said it was loaded with other things. And that’s why they voted against it. But now the Florida congressional delegation, including its two senators, is all pushing for basically a all or nothing bill that would only give emergency aid to Florida. Frankly, I just don’t see that happening. You know, it’s understandable because they don’t want other waste or anything put on that bill. But as you’re well aware, usually, the natural disaster legislation, at least had a history at one point of being relatively benign, that everybody said, well, all these different states need money for different things. This is a little bit different. So I’ll be interested to see how they actually move forward on that. Or if it again, gets kind of lumped into other types of things. You know, obviously Puerto Rico is still pushing for disaster assistance there. And there’s a whole variety of things that happening in other states. So I would be surprised if it only stuck with the sunshine state.

Tom Temin: Sure. And people in Miami would like to have mangrove-covered islands put in for flood mitigation that had nothing to do with a hurricane. But just in case, they want to slip in, I guess.

Mitchell Miller: Yes. Exactly. There’s all these different things that can actually mitigate potential storm damage and a variety of things related to wildfires and what have you, and a lot of members of Congress would like to see that, but I just don’t see that happening.

Tom Temin: And just a final question on the idea of boosting staffing of the Federal Protective Service. That came up on the Hill, too. I guess was that in connection with the January 6 idea?

Mitchell Miller: Well, it was overall looking at both Capitol Police related to January 6, and then that also caused lawmakers to say, “Well, what’s going on with basically federal protection of all these 1000s of federal facilities, not only here in Washington, but across the country,” and a panel of the House Appropriations Committee was looking at this. And basically, it was acknowledged that there is not full strength for the Federal Protective Service. And what that means, at least in the eyes of many lawmakers is there’s just not enough protection for a lot of these federal facilities. Now, of course, they get 1000s of contracted employees and guard staff, but really many lawmakers just do not think there’s enough protection there. You know, you have this increase that has been documented by the homeland security officials who say that the FBI itself, the IRS, the National Archives, in connection with the dispute involving former President Trump, all of them have received increased threats. And then you and I’ve talked about earlier, lawmakers have actually undergone a lot more threats here on Capitol Hill in the wake of January 6, and they’re still trying to hire about 200 Capitol Police officers for that they also want to hire about the same number of additional federal law enforcement officers who would also protect these other federal facilities. So it’s interesting, there’s a lot of concern here on Capitol Hill related to security and federal workers.

Tom Temin: Well, I guess maybe the age of social media amplifies people’s concerns in a way that makes them irrational. And you’re seeing this manifest against people of goodwill, even from both sides.

Mitchell Miller: Right, exactly. I mean, we know that over the years, of course, the IRS was obviously a likely target of ire from people but it was usually a little bit more benign, I would say. It was kind of more of a grumbling kind of thing where these social media sites are actually advocating some type of violence in many cases or taking some kind of action and that’s what really has federal investigators concerned.

Tom Temin: Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP.

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