The 2024 National Defense Authorization Act becomes a dart board for peevish lawmakers

An extended hold on military promotions by a Republican Senator is distorting talks over the National Defense Authorization Act.

An extended hold on military promotions by a Republican Senator is distorting talks over the National Defense Authorization Act. But that is not all that is bothering Congress these days. For the week’s outlook,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin  spoke with WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And Mitchell, let’s talk about the House bill. What are some of the barbs in there that are just not going to get the Senate to swallow?

Mitchell Miller Well, this was another high wire political act for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in the Republican conference needing to wrangle those conservative members to join with the more moderates. And before diving into the politics of this, I should note, it includes a 5.2% pay increase for military personnel. That’s the largest in decades. And it would raise the pay of entry level military men and women to historic highs. Now, as for how this moves forward, as you alluded to, very complicated. Members of that conservative house freedom conference were pleased that they were able to offer up a slew of amendments. But the one that stands out in terms of getting this passed by the Senate, and really it’s a major roadblock to getting it passed in the Senate, is an amendment which prohibits the Pentagon from reimbursing military personnel for traveling for an abortion. It does not actually pay for the abortion procedure itself. That is the issue that has caused Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) to continue to put a hold on those hundreds of military officers promotions in the Senate. And it’s clearly going to be an issue that will have to be worked out as the Senate works on its version of the NDAA. And as you know, this has always passed, one of the only things that actually passes on time in Congress. It’s done this for more than six decades in a row, but right now it’s really unclear what the path forward is. You had Senator Tuberville speaking with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week, and they’re supposed to speak again this week. But again, it’s not clear how it’s going to get resolved. And then there are also all these other hot button issues in this House legislation.

Mitchell Miller Among them, in addition to this abortion issue, there are issues related to LGBTQ and whether there can be any kind of medical care or psychological assistance for people that are involved in transitions. There’s also a major provision that would essentially take out the diversity quotient, if you will, within the Pentagon in trying to address issues related to race relations. Basically, Republicans say that this is another critical race theory and that they accuse Democrats of trying and the Pentagon of trying to make it a woke military. Democrats are fiercely opposed to this. They say that the Republicans really don’t have a definition for what this is. So, as you can see here, you have a big stew brewing then with the Democratic controlled Senate getting ready to take this bill. It’s really going to take some work now to see what’s going to happen and finally get it across the finish line.

Tom Temin So about the only thing they do agree on is, besides some of the numbers that are authorized, the 5.2% pay raise that they do have unanimity on.

Mitchell Miller They do. And overall, the bill when it came out of the House Armed Services Committee, it was actually passed on a 58 to 1 vote. But then, because of this tenuous situation that we’ve talked about for months in connection with the House speaker and the conservatives within his conference, he decided that it would be better to just let them put out all of these amendments out on the floor and see where things landed. Now, it did pass again. It was narrow, but he got the votes that he needed, 219 to 210. But then that sets up this big collision with the Senate. And even though they’re very similar in terms of the numbers, as you noted, there are these hot button issues that I think are going to cause some real problems as this moves forward.

Tom Temin And by the way, that 219 to 210 means there are a few Democrats in the House that did vote for it.

Mitchell Miller That’s right. There were four Democrats that actually voted for it and four Republicans that voted against it. And while that may not seem like a lot when you consider the fact that Speaker McCarthy can only afford to lose four votes in his conference if he loses five and doesn’t get any support from Democrats, then something can’t pass. And so there was actually some nervousness ahead before this vote, because a lot of people were wondering after this has passed for decades, as I mentioned, was it really possible that it might not pass? And there was some talk about that in the days leading up to the vote. But Speaker McCarthy proudly stepped up to the microphone after the vote and said, hey, to reporters, you are all asking me these questions about whether or not this was going to pass, it passed. And then he talked about the policies and really touted that pay hike, basically trying to jab the Democrats and say, why would you vote against a pay hike for military personnel?

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. So we’ll see how that plays in the Senate. And they’ve got some time, but it’s going to be interesting. There are other issues. One was that Government Accountability Office report that came out, something of a blockbuster last week. With respect to how little occupied all of this federal space is, not just in Washington, but in other cities also. And so lawmakers are wondering, why are we paying for all this leased space?

Mitchell Miller Yeah, this is a real eye opener, I think, for a lot of members of Congress. I mean we’ve talked about over the past several months about this whole issue, about how many people were actually going back to their federal offices. And then this GAO report drops saying essentially that out of those federal buildings, they are only at a quarter occupancy in many of them. In fact, the GAO found that 17 agencies were at or below 25% occupancy and that, as you might imagine, really riled up some of the lawmakers that found out about this report. It came up in one of the subcommittees, the House Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee. And among those who were highly critical is the chairman of that subcommittee, Scott Perry (R-Pa.). He just said, you’ve got to be using your space. And he says basically that Republicans are going to push these agencies and try to, as he said, we’re going to try to help them do it. And he doesn’t mean help in a good way. So I think you’re going to see a lot more attention on this issue, even though there have been issues, as you’ve noted with Federal News Network over the years, that there have been problems with this and whether or not they were really filled buildings now, especially in the wake of the pandemic, I think this is going to get a lot more attention.

Tom Temin Right. So no legislation at this point actually specifically proposed, but it sounds like they could get at it through maybe appropriations and say, well, your rent allowance is 25% of what it was last year.

Mitchell Miller Right. Because we’ve already seen this actually with the FBI. A lot of Republicans have said that they need to take away the funding from the FBI so it won’t move to its new headquarters. In fact, there’s even a new proposal from Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who wants to move it to Alabama and an existing building, saying that  could save money. Obviously, that’s getting a lot of pushback from Virginia and Maryland lawmakers in the Washington region, because they’re still battling to see whether it could be relocated either in Northern Virginia or in Prince George’s County. But yeah, I think you’re just going to see lawmakers really getting a lot more micromanaging on these issues related to federal buildings, because, let’s face it, if building is 75% empty and the government is paying all the money, whether they own it, they lease it or whatever the situation is, it’s just going to come under a lot more scrutiny from lawmakers.

Tom Temin Yes, because if they own the building and of course, in the D.C. area, well, other cities, too, then it’s easier to consolidate. I mean, there are shared uses of federally owned buildings as it is now, so that’s not an unknown thing to do. But maybe they can force a little bit more in, I guess, the universal constant that no one can quite figure out besides gravity. And the preservation of energy is the traffic in Washington is horrible and nobody’s going to work.

Mitchell Miller I know that’s really the conundrum, isn’t it, that I’ve just spoken with people anecdotally and they say that the traffic has continued to get worse. And yet, if you look at a lot of these figures about how many people are actually working in these federal buildings, five days a week, much less three, it’s obviously a lot less than it used to be. So it’s an interesting situation.

Tom Temin And the FBI generally is kind of getting roughed up, one over its headquarters debate. And then that wonderful quaff of Director Wray kind of got messed up a little bit in that Judiciary Committee hearing. You’ve seen a lot of these kinds of hearings. This was one of the roughest on an agency official you’ve seen.

Mitchell Miller Yes, I could not recall an incident where, or a hearing where the FBI director in this case, Christopher Wray (R-N.Y.) got just battered like a piñata during the entire hearing. And it was all from Republicans. It was really an interesting reversal. Years ago, you used to have Democrats criticizing the FBI for doing various things, in terms of internal investigations and looking after people on the left. Now, you have it totally flipped in the other direction. And Republicans very skeptical of what the FBI is doing, asking about how it’s handling the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)] requests. Still going back to issues related to former President Trump and, of course, the more recent investigation related to Mar a Lago in the classified documents at the former president’s home. And throughout this hearing, I will say that the FBI director did keep his cool. He knew he was in for a really long hearing, in fact, it was broken up in half and then they came back again and then just started beating up on him again. And he did at one point say I am known for being a relatively low key guy and I tried to lead by example, but he said, don’t mistake this for a lack of spine and my defense of the agency.

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