The government is open on this short holiday week – and it will stay that way through at least the first couple months of the new year. That is thanks to a continuing resolution Congress passed and the president signed late last week. But the way Congress went about it is going to make things complicated – and maybe harder to pass full appropriations bills for 2024. For more on this, Federal News Network Deputy Editor Jared Serbu talked with Mitchell Miller, WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent, on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
Mitchell Miller Yeah, this had a lot of people’s attention when it was first introduced and actually it came from a Maryland congressman, Andy Harris, who’s a member of the House Freedom Caucus. They were trying to find some way that they could balance the conservatives with the more moderate Republicans in the House and try to figure out some way because a lot of conservatives do not like continuing resolutions, as you know. So this was they were trying to appease both groups. But bottom line for the federal agencies is that you’ve got this two step process, hence the name laddered continuing resolution, where you have these appropriations that are going through January 19th and then another set through February 2nd. Now, critics will say this only creates more opportunity, if you will, for more shutdowns and potentially more issues. And if you look at the two tranches, you have military construction and Veterans Affairs, HUD all being funded in that first January 19th group. And then the Defense Department gets more of its funding on February 2nd. Well, some people from the Pentagon have pointed out that this is really going to make things very difficult for them because they’re already trying to plan around these potential shutdowns. And Mike McCord with the Defense Department, the chief financial officer, last week, he stated that this just makes it more difficult for them to make any kind of long range planning because they’re always having to worry about the possibility of a shutdown. And of course, as he points out, that affects morale, affects planning. And what he would like to do, obviously, is see it more the basic back to regular order. Of course, that’s what the House is trying to get to, but they just aren’t getting there right now. And I think it’s going to be really interesting when you have this what I believe will be a major clash between the House and the Senate when we get into January and into February, there could be a very good chance, actually, of a shutdown because they really did kick the can down the proverbial road this time.
Jared Serbu And what would be the source of that tension? Is it just that there are unacceptable items in the House appropriations bills?
Mitchell Miller That’s part of it. And also that the House really, in the view of Democrats, went back on the agreement on the debt ceiling, where former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Democrats agreed on these certain levels. And then when McCarthy went back and eventually got kicked out by conservatives, they said, no, we don’t want that level. We want to go deeper. So they are proposing a lot of much deeper cuts in these appropriations bills. And also, as you mentioned, some of these poison pills that are scattered around in some of these spending bills as well. So I think they are going to push really hard when we get to January because they kind of gave the new House speaker, Mike Johnson, this little honeymoon period and said, okay, we’ll give you a mulligan here and you can do this C.R. right now. But when we get into January, we’re going to really go hard on getting these spending cuts. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has made it very clear that Democrats are not going to go for any of that. So House Republicans are probably going to hit a stone wall with Democrats in the Senate when we get into the new year.
Jared Serbu And I guess one of the oddities here is this this whole C.R. process will have extended 2023 funding levels, basically not quite, but almost halfway into 2024. So if they want to achieve some set level of 2024 spending reductions, you would have to cut even deeper in that back half of the year in order to get where they want. Is that what you think about it?
Mitchell Miller Yeah, that’s a really good way to think about it. And unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want to think about it in that way. But that’s really where we’re heading. And of course, under that debt ceiling that I mentioned, you know, even if they get close and almost pass all of these 12 appropriations bills, but they don’t and they don’t hit the April 30th deadline, which is under the debt ceiling, to avoid sequestration, then they’re going to hit a 1% across the board top line budget cut. And again, that’s something that the Pentagon is really concerned about as long as well as a lot of Republicans and Democrats, particularly in the Senate, who want to make sure that military funding continues to flow, that could really cause a lot of cuts across the board for defense spending in the coming year.
Jared Serbu And while we have you, Mitch, I wanted to make sure we talk a little bit about the. A decision on the FBI headquarters location in Greenbelt, Maryland, because I know you talked to both members of the Virginia Senate delegation about that this week. Is there still a chance that this may not be a done deal and this saga will drag out further?
Mitchell Miller Well, that’s certainly the hope of the Virginia delegation. They are really roaring mad about this decision. And we all knew that when the decision was made that each side, one side was, of course, going to proclaim victory in this case, as they call themselves, Team Maryland, the Maryland delegation. And then on the other side, Virginia is just so upset about this. But more than just a we thought we had a better site type of back and forth in this case. You have the Virginia delegation formally now requesting that the GSA’s inspector general do a full review of this. And they point to the comments that were made by FBI Director Christopher Wray in a letter to the GSA in which he said he had real problems with the fact that a three member panel of the GSA had recommended the Springfield, Virginia, site and then was effectively overruled by a political appointee within GSA. And so Senators Kaine and Warner have made it clear they are going to push and push hard on this. I don’t know that it will necessarily get reversed, but it will certainly stretch out how long this is going to be discussed. And that, of course, is going to delay whether or not funding actually potentially comes for the actual relocation to greenbelt. Whether or not, you know, the shovels are going to go into the ground. And then there’s a really an interesting twist related to this as well. House Republicans are actually upset with the FBI for totally unrelated reasons. They think that the FBI has gone too far in terms of surveillance and have a whole list of issues that they have with the FBI from a policy standpoint. And they have actually threatened to try to withdraw the money for the relocation because of those reasons. And what’s interesting is last week, Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly actually indicated if the Republicans go ahead and try to hold up the funding for Greenbelt, he would be open to the idea of supporting that. Now, Senators Kaine and Warner wouldn’t go that far necessarily, but that just shows you to the extent the argument is still going on, even though this decision came after literally years being years in the making.
Jared Serbu And speaking of the prospect of punishing agencies for decisions lawmakers don’t like, it looks like there’s a bit of movement on breaking the logjam over military nominations that’s been in place for many months now by Senator Tuberville. What’s happening there?
Mitchell Miller Yeah, this is finally really coming to a head. And it’s only taken, what, nine months. Since February, Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville has held these promotions up. And by the way, they have continued to rise. At one point, it was around 200 military promotions. We’re now at the point where it’s at more than 400 military promotions. And last week, after the continuing resolution was passed by the Senate, you would think that they would kind of wipe their hands of it and say, okay, we’ve we avoided a shutdown, we’re going home. But Republican senators included are so mad at Tuberville that they actually stayed on the Senate floor and tried again, as they have in the past, to individually bring up names for promotions. And each time he objected. And this went literally into Thursday morning, two to like two in the morning as they tried to push him on this. And then, of course, the other big significant development, very significant that could break this logjam is the fact that the Rules Committee basically said they were ready for a change in procedure to allow all of these promotions to be taken up on. Block. In other words, they could all be taken up at once, which has never been done before. And the Democrats, though, they do need to get nine Republican votes to pass to get over a filibuster. There are several Republicans right now who are so fed up with Tuberville’s hold on all these promotions that they have indicated they may go along with Democrats, even though they really, really don’t want to change procedure in the Senate. And it would only be temporary. But nonetheless, there’s a lot of institutionalists that don’t want to change. But I do think that this is going to come to a head in the coming weeks, because actually, if we get to the end of the year and to the start of the year, everything gets wiped out and they would have to start from scratch. So that is really why they’re once again, it’s the calendar that’s putting the pressure on the lawmakers. They’ve allowed this to go on for so many months this year. But if they have to literally start over and then plus, let’s not forget that we have a war raging on in the Middle East. We have the situation in Ukraine, as many of the people have pointed out, and just the hardship on military families. It’s not just the individuals whose promotions are at stake. They have to plan ahead, of course, to where they’re going to live, where they’re going to be reassigned. So it’s been a real mess. And there’s certainly no love lost for Tommy Tuberville in the U.S. Senate right now.
Jared Serbu And if they get to the end of the year by starting over, you mean really start over? They would have to all be renominated by the president, go through the Senate Armed Services Committee, then go to the floor for each one of these.
Mitchell Miller You know, there might be some way to short circuit that a little bit, but that is my understanding that that all of these effectively expire. And so that really has a lot of people concerned, including obviously, the people in the Pentagon who are depending on all these high ranking people to get into the positions they need to be in.