Defense authorization bill comes in for a landing

It will have things to love and hate, but it looks like the National Defense Authorization Bill will make it to passage in the remainder of the 117th Congress. ...

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It will have things to love and hate, but it looks like the National Defense Authorization Bill will make it to passage in the remainder of the 117th Congress. But what about Friday’s government funding deadline? The Federal Drive with Tom Temin gets the latest from Loren Duggan, Bloomberg Government deputy news director.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: There seemed to be last minute progress last week in the House side on NDAA. And it seems like reconciliation will work. And once again, they’ll magically pull it off in time.

Loren Duggan: Yep, that unbroken streak of 62 years, or whatever it is, looks to be continued with House passage of a compromised Defense authorization bill — I would say NDAA plus, because there’s so many other things in here that it goes well beyond the normal scope, which is already pretty broad — of authorizing Defense programs that DoD and the Energy Department and elsewhere in the federal government but there was a little bit of a hiccup. But in the end, a very lopsided bipartisan vote in favor of that in the House. Now it heads over to the Senate, which has not said exactly when they’re going to vote on it. But given how that bill usually shakes out there, I would expect a pretty bipartisan vote, once they get that locked in and scheduled and ready to go.

Tom Temin: Right. And yes, you say it has a lot of scope, for example, authorizing the FedRAMP program for cloud computing, which I guess in some way, maybe affects Defense, but it’s a pretty big bucket, this time getting through.

Loren Duggan: Absolutely. And this is often an attractive vehicle for governmentwide issues, especially when it comes to procurement, given that DoD is such a major acquisition center for the federal government. But there’s also things in here about inspectors general and their authority and what the President needs to do if there’s a vacancy and and how you can dispense or fire one in that case, which is a piece of legislation that’s been going around for a couple of years. And then there’s also authorizations in here for other programs like the Coast Guard, intelligence programs, the State Department, water projects carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers, all of which are big and tangential, related to national security or the civil side of what the Army does, but not usually core provisions included in the NDAA, which is already has a pretty broad scope. But even that Defense portion is a big deal, because it would authorize $45 billion more than the administration requested back when it sent up its fiscal 2023 request. And that will probably feed into later debates that we still have to be had about government funding.

Tom Temin: And technically it doesn’t fund the military. It merely authorizes at certain funding levels. And those funding levels could be changed by appropriators, correct?

Loren Duggan: Absolutely. And that’s the thing. There’s a separate authorization process. Some agencies get it every year; DoD is the big one there. Others don’t get touched for a couple of years at a time. You can even think of the highway authorization as a reauthorization of the FHWA, which is a major program. So appropriators don’t have to go along with what previous Congresses or even the same Congress has said about what they’d like to see appropriated in the end for these programs. But oftentimes, if you agree on a national Defense number that can carry over to the appropriations world as well.

Tom Temin: Because I did hear a congressman on one of the cable networks the other day say something about, well, the NDAA is what funds the military. And I thought is that what they’re saying on Capitol Hill? Not exactly the fact.

Loren Duggan: The key language is authorized to be appropriated, not appropriated. There are some mandatory funds that flow from this bill, but a very small percentage compared with the big budget that still has to be signed into law when the appropriations actually happen.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Loren Duggan. He is Deputy News Director at Bloomberg Government. And of course, Friday, the deadline for appropriations; we’re on the CR now. People, I guess, thought, perhaps beyond hope, that maybe some grand deal could be arrived at but what’s the outlook now?

Loren Duggan: I think the safest bet for this week is that we’ll see a continuing resolution giving Congress more time to figure out what to do. Get past Friday’s deadline, prevent a government shutdown on Saturday morning and allow these talks to continue. What’s still not clear is what they can agree to going beyond that next CR. There has been some talks for months now about what top lines should be for the Defense and non-defense side. Obviously, the NDAA gives some sort of indication of what they’d like to do on the defense side, but non-defense has remained a sticking point. Last week, Richard Shelby, who’s the Republican vice chair or ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said they were maybe $25 or $26 billion apart on the non-defense side. But there’s also concern among Republicans that there’s been a lot of non-defense spending outside of appropriations, when you think about the reconciliation package that was passed earlier. So there’s still some disagreement to work out here. There has been some talk among Democrats of releasing a Democrats only omnibus that would combine all the government spending for the departments and offer their next position on that. It’s not clear if that would move or what would happen with that, but that might be an offer we see made earlier this week to kick things forward. But lots of question marks over government funding. And the backup option, of course, could be a year long CR. DoD doesn’t like that because it wants to see some adjustments made, ability for new starts. A lot of domestic agencies wouldn’t like that either. But that could be a fallback option. Or there could just be another CR into next year where Republicans would have the house and more leverage in these discussions than they have right now, although they have leverage in the Senate because it takes 60 votes to pass one of these bills. So Republicans have a big say still.

Tom Temin: Right. And on another front in the Senate, of course, there is going to be next year, looks like a bigger majority, slightly tiny, much bigger, except now that for the Democrats, but now that Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has said, well, she’s going to be an independent. I mean, she votes democratically for the most part. So is there any practical difference for the balance of power there that’s discernible?

Loren Duggan: Going from 50-50, what they have now, to 51-49 was a big deal for a number of reasons. One, you can have a majority on the committees; instead of being evenly split, you’ll have a one seat edge on those committees. And when it comes to votes there tied votes, you could still send a nominee or a bill to the floor. But this would make it much easier for Democrats to rally their support and get things through. They could also potentially issue more subpoenas because they have the majority to do that. In terms of operationally, the Senate Democratic Caucus has for several years now included two independents: Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Angus King of Maine. They have operated as Democrats in a lot of ways. In fact, Bernie Sanders has been chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and was managing the reconciliation bill. He’s not a formal Democrat, but he’s been part of the caucus. Kyrsten Sinema did say she, I think the indication is that she’s going to stick with the Democratic caucus, but have that (I) after her name, and when it comes to running again, in 2024, would have an (I) under her name, if she does that. But operationally, she would still be part of the Democratic caucus as far as we know, and would just operate more like those other two senators. So you have a Democratic caucus that’s technically going to be 48 Democrats and three independents, but if they stick together, they’ll have a lot of power to get things done. Although they’ll still need nine Republicans for anything that’s filibuster-able.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I always wondered why those two senators, Bernard Sanders and Angus King, do act as independents. I never understood the practical benefit of that.

Loren Duggan: It’s part of their brand. I mean, Bernie Sanders used to describe himself as a Democratic socialist. And that kept him outside the Democratic mainstream. And he’s been an independent in the House and the Senate. Angus King, won as Governor as an independent and ran that way for the Senate. And I think that’s just part of his identity. And there’s been a handful of independents in the past or third parties that made their way into the Senate. And it’s a body where people can do their own thing and be individuals and independent in a lot of ways. But it’d be interesting to just see how that plays out.

Tom Temin: And the new makeup, essentially 51 to 49.,I mean, in effect, still would then speed things up for nominees, right?

Loren Duggan: I would speed it up, you’d have fewer of these votes to just charge the committee, which we’ve seen many of because a deadlock in a committee just means that you have to go to the floor and get a majority there. One person who could benefit from a 51-49 Senate the most is Kamala Harris, who has had to be on hot standby, anytime a vote might have needed her tie breaking vote, which she has cast a lot in her first two years as Vice President, she could still be called upon though, because if [Sen. Joe] Manchin [(D-WV)] swings to vote with the Republicans on a particular issue or nominee, she still might be needed on the floor to get something out or something moving. So, again, 51-49, they’d much rather have that than 50-50. But there could still be a lot of really close votes in the next two years.

Tom Temin: And unlike last year, at this time, this is the end of the two year Congress, and we do move to the 118th. And so there’s a lot of preparation that goes on for that, too, isn’t there between now and New Year’s?

Loren Duggan: Absolutely. We’ve seen party elections in both chambers where a lot of the top people were returned in the Senate side with a few new faces peppered in. Obviously on the House Democratic side, we had the generational change with [Reps.] Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) stepping aside from leadership. [Reps.] Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) joining leadership, and they’ll be the faces for that party next year. And there’s a lot of behind the scenes work on the committees: Who will be the chairman and ranking members? A lot of changes in the House side, obviously with the flip in party control, but who holds the gavels will decide what bills to take up, what hearings to hold, and all sorts of things going into next year. And they are due to start on January 3, bright and early in the new year. So they have to do a lot of that groundwork today to get ready for that.

Tom Temin: And for people retiring like [Sens.] Richard Shelby (D-Ala.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), it’s almost like your sleds have skipped the snow and now you’re on asphalt. It’s over real fast.

Loren Duggan: Exactly. But they have an important job to do and when they’re really, really pushing toward getting something done on spending before they leave and hand something over to their successors. But it’s an interesting time to be on your way out the door.


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