The outlook for Capitol Hill, as the Senate returns to Washington

The Senate has returned to Washington. The House remains on recess for another week. Either way, Congress faces a haystack of work, and precious little time in ...

The Senate has returned to Washington. The House remains on recess for another week. Either way, Congress faces a haystack of work, and precious little time in the fiscal year to do it. For an update, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Bloomberg Government congressional reporter, Zach Cohen.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin  And, well, where do they begin? I mean, the NDAA might be top of mind. We understand that staff has been working steadily to try to reconcile the House and Senate NDAA, but there’s a more than usually convoluted path to getting that done to correct this year.

Zach Cohen The name of the game really both for the NDAA, the annual military policy bill as well as government appropriations, where something needs to happen on that by the end of the month. Both of those are still being worked out behind closed doors. The House and the Senate have come up with all of their legislative language for both of those bills. The key is bridging the differences between the House and the Senate. It doesn’t seem like there’s been a lot of talk besides maybe some staff talk over the August recess. As you mentioned, the Senate is back today. The House will be back next week. But they still need to figure out how to bridge the gaps, especially given the fact that the only bill that has come out of the House so far has been along party lines, whereas the Senate bills are bipartisan. So the Senate’s hoping that those House bills will start to look a little bit more like the Senate’s, which will be difficult to get through a House Republican majority.

Tom Temin Yes, right. So in the House, the funny dynamic is it’s almost as if you have a Democratic block and then you have two Republican blocs and together they make up a majority. So couldn’t it still pass if all the Democrats like it and half the Republicans do?

Zach Cohen That’s certainly the Democrats argument. And I think we saw this during the debt ceiling fight a couple of months ago where the House Republicans come up with their version. Democrats say no way, Jose, And then they come back a couple of months later and Democrats and Republicans come together on a bipartisan deal that has the support of not just House and Senate leadership, but also, of course, the White House. President Biden has to sign these bills. And so that causes some problems for House speaker, Kevin McCarthy. There’s certainly a bloc there in the House Freedom Caucus, including those that never supported his bid for speaker or they did so after much wrangling that first week in January. So the key will be finding some sort of bipartisan agreement that can get through both chambers without necessarily angering the parts of Kevin McCarthy’s majority that he needs to keep on his side in order to remain speaker.

Tom Temin Right. And then, of course, besides the NDAA, there is the budget itself and a lot of people seem to be assuming it’s like being in the what do they call it, the Big Bend coast of Florida. This thing is coming. Let’s just get ready for it. And I’m talking about, of course, a lapse in appropriations. And what is the shape of that likely to be? Because we’ve seen them last as long as a month and as long as a few hours in recent years.

Zach Cohen Well, certainly full year government funding bills for fiscal year 24 are not going to happen by the end of the fiscal year, fiscal 23, which ends in a couple of weeks. As I mentioned, the House is only passed one of the total appropriation bills. The Senate has not passed any of them, although the Senate Appropriations Committee has written all 12. But it sounds like the Senate might bring up a couple of the more bipartisan bills, not because they have any chance of becoming law as they stand, but because it would boost the Senate’s negotiating positions in conference negotiations with the House. So they’re going to have to go to a continuing resolution, a stopgap spending bill. Both McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have discussed maybe one that goes into early December, which lines up with the congressional calendar, and that would give them about two months to hash out an agreement on the rest of the fiscal year.

Tom Temin Right. So therefore, batten down the hatches for a C.R. on top of a lapse, possibly.

Zach Cohen Exactly. It really I don’t think it’s been decades since the Congress and the White House have agreed on annual government appropriations on time. But these stopgap measures are pretty common. The only complication here is that a number of government authorizations that also expire at the end of September that need to be reauthorized. Some of them have been negotiated in larger packages. Things like the FAA reauthorization still needs to happen. The farm bill, I think over 100 programs that expire again in September. And so whether there’s any complications in getting those into a C.R. remains to be seen. But if they’re able to get past the stopgap measure and then focus on the full year government spending bill and working out bipartisan agreements on those other authorizations, that could bode well for the rest of the year.

Tom Temin We speaking with Zach Cohen. He’s a congressional reporter for Bloomberg Government. And on the Senate side, there is a pretty good roster of nominations they’ve got to deal with. Let’s run through some of those.

Zach Cohen Yeah, I mean, as long as they’re still negotiating behind closed doors on appropriations bills, on the NDAA as well. Also for time with some nominees where they can’t get unanimous consent to bring those up otherwise. First up is Philip Jefferson. He’s being promoted to be vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. The interest rate setting, the monetary policy setting, folks that especially here at Bloomberg we care about, he’ll be the second ever black man to actually hold that role, the first in over a decade, which is rather remarkable. And then he’s got two colleagues who also could see confirmation. This week, Lisa Cook is already on the Fed but should be reappointed as well as Adriana Kugler, who would join the Fed. It would be the first person ever of Latino heritage to join the Fed. And as two other nominees, we’re watching the. National Labor Relations Board member Gwen Wilcox was already on the NLRB but needs to be renewed. Her term action expired technically last week, and so that should come up probably as soon as Wednesday. And then Anna Gomes probably cap off the week. Her confirmation to the Federal Communications Commission will actually give Democrats a majority on the FCC for the first time since the Biden administration. So that’s a rather important nominee to watch.

Tom Temin And what about the Tuberville hold on the promotions in the military? Is there any sign of a crack or a way around that at all? Because it’s getting to be kind of long in tooth here. How long? There is no chairman and on down.

Zach Cohen It’s actually not just not going anywhere. I think it’s actually backsliding. I think it’s actually getting farther away from an agreement between Senator Tommy Tuberville, the Alabama Republican who has put this procedural hold on any senior military promotions that usually go through the Senate by unanimous consent. It’s got him on one side, as well as congressional Democrats, a fair number of Republicans and, of course, the Pentagon and the Biden administration on the other side. So Tuberville has some supporters in among Senate Republicans for this, where he’s objecting to the Pentagon’s policy that reimburses troops when they seek abortions out of state, not for the abortion itself, because that would be in violation of the Hyde prohibition on federal funding for abortions. But it does help with travel costs, stipends and whatnot. The issue now is not only does the DOD not like this policy, it not only does not want to release this hold until the policy is gone, but he’s actually said now that there are a number of nominees that he’s been looking at these holding up anyway and saying that he’s got individual concerns on some of them for their support for various diversity equity inclusion programs that the Pentagon runs. And so even if you have an agreement on abortion policy, there might be some of these senior military promotions that won’t get through absent a Senate floor vote. And Schumer and congressional Democrats have been hesitant to bring up some of these nominees for votes because it would create this precedent that holding up military nominees is something that can just be overridden with a vote. They would rather get this all done in one fell swoop.

Tom Temin Wow. So that could linger on. Lord knows how long.

Zach Cohen Exactly. Right. There does not seem to be an end in sight on this. The NDAA is a vehicle maybe to legislate some of this, but certainly from a political standpoint, Tuberville doesn’t seem to be facing the kind of pressure that would get him to release his hold at this point. And Democrats don’t seem inclined to give in to his demands that they hold individual floor votes on all these nominees.

Tom Temin And just from the point of view of someone who spends time literally on Capitol Hill and you’re in the corridors there, what are outsiders not seeing with some of the members of the Senate, particularly Dianne Feinstein and Mitch McConnell, who are just visibly impaired and all, is that just fodder for chit chat on television or could something actually happen to deal with the fact that they are having impairment because of age?

Zach Cohen Presumably, the Senate’s one of those bodies that is institutional in nature in a couple of different ways. One is that senators don’t like talking about their colleagues health problems. And so it’s one of those things that very quietly lawmakers will talk about. There may be a few that will mouth off on the platform formerly known as Twitter about it. But a lot of folks tend to want to give folks like Senator Feinstein and McConnell their space to recover from whatever health challenge they have. Senator John Fetterman, Similarly, when he was out undergoing treatment for depression at Walter Reed Medical Center, McConnell obviously had another health scare last week where he publicly froze when he was having a press conference in Covington, Kentucky. It’s the second time, at least publicly, that we’ve seen this since he had a fall and a concussion at a political fundraising event a couple of months ago. And so certainly lawmakers have concerns about the degree to which McConnell, Feinstein and some of these older lawmakers continue to do their job. But in a body that does not have term limits, and as long as they keep getting reelected and getting to stay in those positions, one of the key questions, I think, coming up, especially when Senate Republicans meet on Wednesday in a private setting for the first time since the August recess is what, if any, pressure does McConnell get to step aside or step down? He has said that he wants to serve out the rest of his current term as leader, which ends after the 2024 elections. But certainly, given these health challenges, I think there’s going to be more questions that he and his team will need to answer.

Tom Temin Yeah. Clinging is a bipartisan activity, isn’t it?

Zach Cohen It’s hard to give up the influence and the title and the prestige. This is something we’ve seen over the years. I remember Thad Cochran, a Republican from Mississippi, who stayed in the Senate probably beyond when you had the mental faculty to do so. There’s a long history of senators with health challenges continuing to serve. The question becomes not just for voters but for members of Congress, is do those colleagues continue to have the mental faculties to do their job? And that’s a really tough question to answer. And really, at the end of the day, really only question that the senator and ultimately voters ballot box can answer.

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