That tick-tick-tick-tick-tick you hear? It’s the countdown to debt ceiling doomsday

With cameras whirring, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other congressional leaders will meet with President Biden tomorrow.

With cameras whirring, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other congressional leaders will meet with President Biden tomorrow. Their topic? What else but the debt ceiling impasse. For more on this and other congressional matters,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview Transcript: 

Mitchell Miller Well, everybody’s hopes are all poured into this meeting, maybe too much so, because nothing really happened over the past week other than a lot of finger pointing related to the Democrats and the Republicans about who’s to blame for getting us closer and closer to this deadline, which, depending on who you listen to, could be as early as June 1. We heard some testimony at a congressional hearing last week, it might be a little bit later, maybe June 8, but it could also push farther into the summer. But at any rate, all eyes, of course, are going to be on this meeting tomorrow. And really, who is going to blink first on this? Is it going to be President Biden still sticking with his position that he will not deal in any way, shape or form with cutting things just to raise the debt ceiling? Or will House Speaker McCarthy(R-Calif.) stick to his guns and to all the wants and needs of his conservative wing of the party that say, no, we’ve got to use this leverage right now to get these cuts, because if we don’t, it’s not going to happen.

Tom Temin And what’s surprising is the absence of the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell(R-Ala.), is he still fully there? I mean, a fall that was pretty severe. Someone his age, is he got the capacity to do this? Because he’s been pretty self-effacing in this particular situation.

Mitchell Miller Right. It’s really interesting in connection with that. He seems fine after coming back from having that fall a little while ago. But unlike in past years when a lot of Republicans, frankly, on the Senate side look to McConnell, and when he was majority leader as well, as kind of this senator coming in on the white knight horse to come in and rescue the day that he was always calm as as the deadline approached. But this time, this past week, he made it very clear that he is not going to get involved. He said, look, we’ve had divided government many times before. He said, I’m not part of this right now. This is all about President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. So he’s really backing McCarthy and just letting him take the reins. Now, a lot of Republicans privately are a little nervous about that because, as you know, that House Republican Conference can get very unwieldy and things can change pretty fast. But right now, the House speaker, he won that legislative debate. They got their bill passed, even though it’s really a messaging bill at this point. But it does provide leverage going into this big meeting on Tuesday.

Tom Temin And some members have been talking about the actual effects for various federal agencies that this shutdown or this lapse in funding the debt ceiling limit default would have.

Mitchell Miller Right. And one of the biggest ones is related to veterans. Democrats have really been hammering home saying, that if this legislation were to go forward or if the Republican proposals would move ahead, that effectively it would cut federal funding for veterans by more than 20%. Now, Republicans are pushing back hard on this. And in their legislation, there’s no specific numbers to say what is going to be cut. And that’s, of course, a strategic decision by Republicans. But you have the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs saying that this is going to lead to cuts. There’s going to be lower services, reduced telehealth access, a loss of jobs potentially. And because of that, more than 50 House Republicans signed a letter to the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Denis McDonough (D-Minn.), for basically pushing back on all that the Veterans Department has been saying, and saying, wait a second, we’re not cutting anything at this point. And they’re trying to say that they are not going to cut anything. This was a group led by Virginia Congresswoman Jen Kiggans (R-Va.), who’s a Navy veteran. And they’re really trying to push back on that, because they know this could be a damaging political message for them.

Tom Temin So then it’s basically wait and see what happens after that meeting and whether they come out smiling or glaring at one another.

Mitchell Miller Right. And I think, obviously, both sides are going to be posturing. Both sides are trying to say we’re winning this battle one way or another. So what they’re really looking for privately is a way that both of them can come out of that meeting with the smiles and say, look, I’m doing exactly what my Republican conference is doing or wants. Or on the other side, President Biden and Democrats can say, yep, we got exactly what we wanted. And that’s a tough line to get to because there’s a lot at stake here, as you know.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. And then there’s the issue of Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.). He’s holding up military promotions and they’re starting to back up visibly over something in the military he doesn’t like.

Mitchell Miller Right. And this is something that is really troubling to a lot of people on Capitol Hill. Senator Tuberville is frustrating both military leaders, Democratic senators, a lot of staffers behind the scenes with this hold on military promotions for general and flag officers. This has been going on now for about two months. Tuberville has said he will not drop his objection until the military pulls back on a defense policy it announced last year, which would provide leave time and stipends for troops and qualified family members to travel across state lines to receive abortion services. And that’s his real complaint about this. Now, a lot of people on the Republican side say there’s nothing wrong with him having this complaint and he should be able to issue it. But the military is really getting nervous about this, because they actually have some three and four star military officers who are waiting to get their final approval. And this includes someone in the the head of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, the head of the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific. You also have the next director of intelligence at the U.S. Cyber Command. And it’s really unclear how this is going to be resolved. Former defense secretaries last week tried to add to some pressure that have served under Republicans and Democrats. They sent a letter basically saying that the military should not be made political pawns in this process.

Tom Temin Yeah, so brinksmanship is happening pretty much everywhere you look these days.

Mitchell Miller It is.

Tom Temin And what is the reaction to the Hill on the return to the office, telework, new work environment? There’s a lot of words for it. That guidance that came from the Office of Management and Budget, the White House, which I wrote a column, If you can understand the memo, then you might be able to help start to carry it out. But that’s really kind of stuck to, isn’t it?

Mitchell Miller Right. And as you pointed out, I mean, there’s really a lot of confusion about what the memo actually means specifically to agencies and for all these people who are trying to figure out whether or not they are going to have X amount of days teleworking or going back to the offices. And, as you have noted, they have tried to figure out within each of these agencies what this actually means. I mean, the memo, it seems, is trying to say we need to have something of a reset here after the pandemic and we make sure that everything is being done correctly, but also responding to what basically our customers or the people that rely on these agencies need. And it seems like every agency is trying to work its way through all of this. I was struck by the Federal News Network survey that found that close to two-thirds who responded said they would look for a new job if their agency decided to increase work at the office, while you also have a lot of lawmakers on Capitol Hill who would like there to be a nice balance between telework and working at the office, but also a lot that are pushing, particularly Republicans, to get people back into the office. So it’s a really interesting back and forth related to this issue.

Tom Temin And meanwhile, the Capitol Hill itself is open and there are more accessible areas thanks to the Republicans taking over the House. What’s it look like these days up there? Or post cherry blossom time?

Mitchell Miller We are post cherry blossom time, but you would never know it. I have not seen this many people, kids, big tour groups, all kinds of organizations on the Hill. I have not seen this in several years. Going back to the pandemic, of course. And then you had all the security issues related to Jan. 6. And as we’ve talked about in the past, lawmakers like to see people, they like to see their constituents coming up to the Hill. So it’s been really nice to come into the Capitol every day and see all of these people, not only on the outside of the Capitol, but working through the visitor center and going through the corridors. And then what’s really interesting is just across the hall for me is the balcony, the visitor’s balcony to the House chamber. Well, for a long time that’s been all locked off. Even when members of Congress would come up with groups, they could not actually look into the chamber. And, of course, that’s a big deal when you come to the Capitol. Now, those doors are open. They can get groups down there to actually look at where the work is either taking place or not taking place, depending on the day. And it’s really nice to see.


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