The situation in Congress is probably worse than you think

The bizarre stalemate in Congress is probably bad politically. But it might be even worse for the government itself. It increases the possibility that the conti...

The bizarre stalemate in Congress is probably bad politically. But it might be even worse for the government itself. It increases the possibility that the continuing resolution, set to expire November 17, only postponed a government shutdown. For what this all looks like from inside and under the dome, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Mitchell Miller, WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin: And, Mitchell, we should point out that you have been putting in really long hours as a congressional reporter. It is just chaotic. I mean, how would you describe it up there?

Mitchell Miller It is chaotic. And I know people have been using the term Capitol Hill chaos, but it really is. I can never remember any time like this where everybody is just pointing fingers at each other. People within the Republican Party are super mad at each other. There was a conversation I had recently with a Capitol Police officer as I was coming in, and she said a staffer turned to her and said, Can we just have a day where we don’t make history.

Tom Temin Like normal people.

Mitchell Miller Right. So this really is an unprecedented time. Obviously, there had never been a motion to vacate that was successfully carried out. And the fact that the House is literally paralyzed right now is really remarkable when you think about the fact that just early last week, House Republicans were starting to hopefully grind away on some of these appropriations bills. They were doing something as simple as addressing the energy and water development bill that was going to come up. And then all of a sudden everything just exploded. And because of the rules, of course, with the House, you cannot actually legislate at all until you have a leader. So while we were having all these preparations potentially for a government shutdown recently, including some of the Senate and House committees canceling hearings because they were worried that the government was going to be shut down. Well, effectively, part of the government, at least on this side of the Capitol, was shut down because they couldn’t decide on who would be the next House speaker.

Tom Temin What was it that Senator Robert Byrd once said? The House doesn’t matter, but maybe it does. We do have two chambers.

Mitchell Miller You often will talk to senators and there will be a little bit of eye rolling kind of at this group on the House side. Of course, the discussion always goes back to the days whether it’s apocryphal or not, that President George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were discussing the fact that pouring a little bit of hot tea into the saucer and they were like, what are you doing? And well, actually, I pour the hot tea on the saucer to let it cool. And the Senate is supposed to let things cool. But when you don’t have any legislation actually moving over to the Senate, the Senate is kind of stalled, too. They’re just doing their usual thing with nominations and going through floor speeches. So it’s really an odd time here in the Capitol where we’re just kind of frozen in time, if you will, until House Republicans actually decide on what they’re going to do this week.

Tom Temin Yeah, it’s looking more and more like the House of Commons, sounding like the House of Commons with the House of Lords, there’s where you get the tea poured. Now, the Republicans are going to meet today. Is there any prospect that they will get organized and find a speaker?

Mitchell Miller Well, it’s interesting. So last week, a lot of things started to come together. Of course, you have Jim Jordan (R-Ohio.), the Ohio congressman who’s the head of the Judiciary Committee, going up against Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House majority leader. And it sounds like what they’re going to do is try to initially get a little bit of coalescence around who is likely to get the most votes over this next day or two with these closed door meetings. And then the hope is that they will by Wednesday, actually have some type of internal vote. But, of course, all of this is subject to all kinds of things within the Republican conference. And there’s really no guarantee exactly when a vote will begin on a House speaker, actually on the House floor. A lot of people initially assumed that would take place on Wednesday. That would be possible, but that would be sort of the best case scenario for the GOP right now. It could be later in the week. And then, of course, we just don’t know how many votes it’s going to take. Both candidates, Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise, have a pretty significant number of supporters around 100 or so. But of course, you need 218 to actually get elected. So we’re going to have to see are we going to return to January where we had 15 votes before Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was ultimately elected? And then within the conference, they’re still debating whether or not they should change the rules so that a single lawmaker can’t necessarily, as Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) of Florida did, make the motion to vacate and then essentially boot the speaker of the House out of his position.

Tom Temin Yeah, that record of Happy Homes. We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, WTOP’s Capitol Hill correspondent. Meanwhile, the prospect of the shutdown, which was narrowly averted, still killed some committee meeting momentum. And they’ve got to kind of reorganize to get the machinery for everything else that would happen normally had there not been a shutdown or had they not figured there’d be a shutdown.

Mitchell Miller Right. And you figure we’re really careening from crisis to crisis right now because it just seems like we barely got through that moment where they passed the short term spending plan and we got some time bought until Nov.17, as you pointed out. But now that’s only just over a month away. And I think if anything, the chances of another shutdown, I believe, are actually increasing at this point, because there’s no guarantee that the Republican Party at this point can really get together. And they’re talking a lot about trying to cross with conservatives and moderates and other parts of the party. But there is still that hardline group that hasn’t really changed. And so when push comes to shove, I think we’re going to have another major showdown in November and we’ll have to see what happens after that, because obviously there hasn’t been a lot of progress, as I mentioned, related to the appropriations bills. They certainly are not going to be able to mow those down and get 12 appropriations bills ready in time. So I think we’re just going to have another huge clash here on Capitol Hill. Lots of rocky roads ahead.

Tom Temin And it keeps getting called a Republican meltdown. But if you look at the mechanics, they have a four seat majority, but eight of the seats voted with the rest of the Democrats, which gave the Democrats the four seat majority. And that’s what happened with the vote. So really, the Democrats are kind of getting off scot free, but four of them could have voted for McCarthy.

Mitchell Miller Absolutely. And there was a lot of talk, as you know, in the weeks ahead before the potential shutdown earlier, about whether or not there would be some kind of crossing of the aisles and some of the more moderate Democrats would go along with the Republicans and try to save Kevin McCarthy. But it quickly became clearer in the hours running up to that infamous vote that the Democrats were not going to do that. Now, of course, the Republicans point a finger at the Democrats and say, look, if you really wanted to save the institution of the U.S. House, you would have taken some kind of action along those lines. And of course, both parties are always partizan, but it is interesting to see this back and forth and the fact that although there are groups like The Problem Solvers and other more centrist groups, they’ve really been kind of pushed aside, even though they tried to make some of these moves, as you mentioned, they really have less power in some respects than they used to have. And it’s really amazing how as few as eight members of Congress can wield this much power.

Tom Temin All right. We have discussed the prospect for a budget being established even by that deadline, and that’s not looking very good. Anything else that’s going on? I mean, there’s a federal pay raise that is part of the discussion here. A military pay raise and and so on.

Mitchell Miller Yeah. So all of those issues that were brought up during the debate prior to the potential shutdown are still there. The fact that the pay raise is there, as you mentioned. The fact that Kevin McCarthy himself said one of the reasons that he decided to do what he did with that short term measure was because of the military and concerns about military personnel not getting paid. None of those issues have gone away. And so we’re going to be right back to square one, I think. And then, as you well know, this whole appropriations process is just really broken. The Republicans have tried to get back to regular order, but really they tried to get back to regular order in about a week as opposed to taking six weeks off during the summer. So that was clearly not going to happen. And then you look at historically, Congress has not passed 12 appropriations bills since 1996. And in fact, Congress since we’ve gone to the more modern age, if you will, under the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, there’s only been four times that they’ve done this on time. And that goes again all the way back to the mid-nineties. So something has to change. I don’t know exactly what some people have floated the idea of going to an appropriations year that actually matches the calendar year that you don’t always hit up on this Oct. 1 date and then get into these arguments over continuing resolutions. But there is no doubt and lawmakers will say this themselves, that the real appropriations program here is busted.

Tom Temin Wow. And just a quick couple of questions with international implications. One is the Ukraine question then becomes totally up in the air because there was no, even in the C.R., there was nothing for Ukraine. And the Pentagon has a few months of dollars left to keep supplying Ukraine. And then the border. There’s money for walls that bizarrely now will be built by the Biden administration. These are also deeply unresolved issues.

Mitchell Miller Absolutely. And they are only going to get more intensified as we move ahead. You take Ukraine, for example. We knew that Ukrainian aid support was probably going to start weakening over a period of time, but it’s really accelerated quite a bit now, especially in connection with everything that’s happening as we’ve just talked about with the House GOP. You have a House speaker candidate in Jim Jordan who has made it very clear he does not want more aid for Ukraine. There’s already a lot of nervousness on the Senate side, particularly about whether or not this supplemental that the White House has asked for of $24 billion, is that now in danger? And even though the majority of lawmakers, I think, in the House and Senate actually support more aid for Ukraine, again, because you have this vocal group and a lot of people pushing back against it, that is going to be a huge fight. And then you had this major reversal in connection with the southern border by the White House this past week. A lot of people on the Republican side are saying, we told you so. And the White House trying to explain it has had a little bit of difficulty doing that. But there is no doubt that is going to be a huge issue because it’s already one of the top priorities of the House speaker’s race that the top candidates, whoever comes out on top on this, is going to be making sure that there is more resources, that more attention to the southern border. And you’re already seeing reaction now from the White House. Many Republicans saying finally and some of them saying part of this is because so many migrants have been sent to urban areas across the country in major cities and blue areas of the country are now really struggling with this.

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