The Senate is alone on Capitol Hill this week, as the budget debate rolls on

The House is in recess this week, but the Senate will hear more budget testimony and deal with judicial nominees.  Federal Drive with Tom Temin got the outlook from Bloomberg Government Deputy News Director Loren Duggan.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin The House is in recess this week, but the Senate will hear more budget testimony and deal with judicial nominees. We get the outlook from Bloomberg Government Deputy News Director Loren Dugan. I guess I’m a little surprised. I haven’t looked at the schedule lately, but after dropping something of a bomb in the house, barely passed debt ceiling budget negotiation type of bill, they wouldn’t kind of stick around to push it now that the Senate, I guess, in theory has to deal with it.

Loren Duggan That’s true. I mean, they made sure they got this done before they took this week off, because they wanted to have something in the hopper by the end of April. This was a long scheduled recess week. There’s some travel that members are doing, including Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the speaker going to Israel and addressing the Knesset, they are planning to at the very least. So they did pass that. As you noted, it was 217-215, but is still passed. And now that’s waiting for the Senate to do something, and also for President Biden perhaps to get involved in negotiations or talks with people on Capitol Hill.

Tom Temin Right. Because the president has said he’s not going to meet with Kevin McCarthy. But on the other hand, even some of the papers that are, you might say in the Democratic column, somewhat editorially, are urging this to happen.

Loren Duggan Right. The president has said he’ll talk to Kevin McCarthy, just not about the debt limit. His position has been increase the debt limit, deal with it, I’m not going to talk about anything else around that subject. So at some point, they’re going to have to talk. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has encouraged talks to go on and he is up for reelection next year. Tough race. I think he wants to be seen as pushing this along and coming to a resolution. It was really important for the House Republicans to get behind a plan, pass it, and then have this is their negotiating stake in the ground, the coverage leading into that vote. As if it hadn’t been successful, it would have been disastrous for Kevin McCarthy. I think the opposite is true now. Now that he’s passed it, he has a position. His conference is behind it, it gives him a strengthened hand in these talks. So it remains to be seen what the Democrats are going to offer in return, other than what they said today, which is that they want to increase the debt limit. It’s important to pay the bills that we’ve already obligated ourselves to and let’s just get it done. So a little bit of time left to go on this. The X date is still in the future, but not too much time given everything else that has to happen as well.

Tom Temin Yeah, the best estimate now is, sometime early summer to maybe mid-summer, right?

Loren Duggan That’s right. And it depends on how the cash flow of the government is, the revenues that continue to maybe trickle in from tax season and other payments that are due maybe in June. So a lot depends on just the bookkeeping and the churn of cash in the federal government.

Tom Temin Right, where they can go ransacking for money that they’ll have to pay back. What a way to run a coffee shop. All right. Still some Senate side budget hearings, though. That’s still almost a pro forma thing, but they are looking at the submissions from the administration on behalf of the agencies still.

Loren Duggan That’s right. They’re still going through those at the Cabinet, even sub-Cabinet level. One of the big ones this week will be Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), the interior secretary, going to the Senate energy panel. But these are beginning to wind down. They’re still going through these discussions, that is a chance for committees, both appropriators and authorizers, to take a deeper dive into what was sent to them by the administration. But really what we’re getting closer and closer to is actually writing the spending bills and the defense policy bill, that will do something with this budget request that was sent up by the White House. So we’re getting near the end here. Some of these are pretty routine, some of them still have their flash points of members want to ask a tough question or hold whoever’s in front of them to account on that particular day. But this is getting near the tail end of the normal spring season for this.

Tom Temin But is there a connection between all of that debt ceiling talk, because the Republicans are looking for cuts in return for, I guess, agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. But then these budget hearings have been going on and there were a bunch in the House, and now there’s winding down on the Senate, as you tell us. Is there any connection between those two? Because of the budget they’re talking about cutting is what they’re examining in the hearings.

Loren Duggan That’s right. I mean, one of the ideas in this House Republican plan is to reduce spending to fiscal 2022 levels when they write the bills for fiscal 2024. That’s more than $100 billion cut, compared to what they just passed in last year’s omnibus. So overall, the spending will have to come down and you’ll have to budget within that, if that is the level that the two sides agree to. Now, there’s going to be pressure in the Senate to push that up and not agree to that. But I think, when it comes to writing the spending bills, you have to live within your means. Defense is obviously a hard thing to cut, and Republicans are going to push to maintain or even grow spending there to keep pace with inflation. So some of these discretionary increases that were sought by the administration are going to fall on some deaf ears when it comes to Congress. So there’s a long way to go here. But you can write a bill that has your priorities and then negotiate it along the way.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Loren Duggan, deputy news director at Bloomberg Government. And the Supreme Court ethics kerfuffle going on thanks to some reporting from different sources. What’s going to happen with that? Is that the take up time? And anything going to come of it, do you think?

Loren Duggan That remains to be seen. It’s a separation of power issues keeps getting raised. The legislative branch trying to tell the judicial branch what to do, although, that’s not a perfect blowing mind, because the legislative branch does have some power in our system of checks and balances. But what we may see, what we’re supposed to see this week, is a hearing held by Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in the Senate Judiciary Committee looking at Supreme Court ethics. The big witness he wanted was Chief Justice John Roberts (R-N.Y.), who declined to attend, saying there wasn’t precedent and that he wouldn’t show up basically. The hearing is still supposed to go on. They’re still going to discuss this. There’s people who have talked about using the eventual appropriations bill for the judiciary, which is part of the financial services spending bill, to maybe require code of ethics there. So I think this discussion is going to go on. People are obviously upset about the news reports that you referenced and really want some sort of written down code for the Supreme Court that they can see, which they say they haven’t, even though the Supreme Court says they do have a code that they’re abiding by.

Tom Temin Veterans Affairs, as always, an active area for legislation year in, year out, mostly in a bipartisan way. And we saw some gambits on the electronic health records project and a few other items, cannabis. Anything going to happen in the near term there, do you think?

Loren Duggan Well, there was a vote last week that fell short of the 60 senators needed. It was, I think 57 said yes, and actually Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was a yes, but changed his vote to no to make it easier to go back to this. That bill was, at its heart, a cannabis research bill that they then are going to expand to have some home and community health based provisions in it. And then what really seem to hold it back, though, was concern from Republicans that they wouldn’t have a chance to offer their amendments. I think there could be a path forward on this bill. And there is a lot of interest, as you say, in veterans legislation, especially in May, around Memorial Day and November, around Veterans Day, so I think we’ll see more there. On the electronic health records issue, Jon Tester (D-Mont.) And Patty Murray (D-Wash.) had introduced a bill, I think, back in March to try to overhaul that system. Jon Tester, who’s the chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, claimed some credit a couple of weeks ago when the Veterans Affairs Department said they’re going to reset the program and try to get things rolling. And he’s been tied that back to his bill. So I think that is going to be a closely watched thing going into the spending season. And there will be some action on veterans legislation that maybe the less controversial stuff is easier, and some of these other things could be a little more fraught as they try to do them.

Tom Temin Well, the EHR system itself keeps obliging this debate by failing and crashing and not operating where it’s supposed to, so that still goes on. So, I guess, maybe the hearings and the debate will still go on. And with respect to Health and Human Services, the HELP bill on drug pricing, that’s something Bernie Sanders (D-N.Y.) And Bill Cassidy (R-La.) worked out.

Loren Duggan Yeah, they don’t seem like natural partners, but they’re the chair and the ranking member of that committee and both care a lot about health issues. And so they’ve come to an agreement on a package of drug pricing bills, including reining in, as they see it, pharmacy benefit managers. You’ve probably seen a lot of those ads in the Washington, D.C. area when you go on TV or watch streaming.

Tom Temin I’ve seen those ads. And what they claim in those ads are kind of hard to believe. The $7 pill was charged, 5,000. You just wonder if it’s true.

Loren Duggan The ads are meant to draw attention to themselves. That’s the thing with those. So this is the package of bills will probably move on a bipartisan basis, given the fact that the chair and the ranking member have worked this out, that would then head to the floor where, I think, people would like a win on a bipartisan basis on something like that. So that’s something to watch as it’s moving forward. And these narrowly divided chambers, anything that has that bipartisan imprimatur behind it, really you have to watch.

 

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