Christmas cometh; whither the Defense Authorization bill?

It's down to the wire for the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, over which the House and Senate are still working out differences. This as Congress prepa...

It’s down to the wire for the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, over which the House and Senate are still working out differences. This as Congress prepares to depart for the holidays. For the details, Federal Drive Host Tom Temin spoke with Bloomberg Government Deputy News Director Loren Duggan.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin So they just need to vote, or what’s left yet to do, so that they make their annual deadline of end of calendar year?

Loren Duggan Yeah, this is all about getting the final product across the finish line in both chambers. It could take some time because while they reached a compromise that has bipartisan support, there’s always some provision in here that has somebody upset or sometimes something that didn’t make the cut that has folks upset. But a 3100 page conference report filed last Wednesday that people are still kind of poring over to see all the details in. But the general contours are an $886 billion deal that reflects the top lines that both the bills had. And then there were some compromises along the way with some puts and takes between what the House and the Senate had on weapons programs and systems, but then dropping some of the controversial provisions from the House bill while keeping a few in there that had a bit of more bipartisan support and seemed to be able to get through both chambers.

Tom Temin Yes. And while I was away, the Tuberville hold on the military officer appointments and promotions, that was mostly lifted, but there’s still a few left still of the general officers. What’s the prospect of that, given that there is a compromise bill on the NDAA?

Loren Duggan And what’s interesting is Tuberville had held up those nominations around the DoD’s abortion policy, allowing troops to to take time and do things to obtain an abortion. That language that would have blocked it in the House bill is not in the final version. But he had lifted his hold even before that was 100% clear. Tuberville has said he’s made his point. He got a discussion about this. He released many of the nominees, but still some of the top ones remain to be processed. What we saw even during his holds was that if they got the vote scheduled, they could get through them somewhat quickly. So we’ll see if between now and when the Senate heads to the exits, if they’ll try to schedule some of those. They’d like to get more of those positions filled, obviously, given the length of time, the ten months or so that these holds were in place.

Tom Temin And so there is this compromise bill needs to be voted. And if they do that this week, then there’s also the continuing resolution, the second one in place until sometime in, I believe, the middle of January or so. That means they are likely to be able to go on break. Any big unfinished business between now and then?

Loren Duggan Yeah, we’re in an unusual position. Most Decembers, we’re waiting for a big spending package that will fund the government into the next calendar year and take care of that sort of business. They’ve already preempted that by coming to the agreement to push government spending to January 19th for some agencies and then February 2nd for others. There is still a couple of spending items out there, though, that will see how that will affect the departure. The first is the aid package for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific and for border funding, as well as some Republicans would like to see — or many Republicans — border restrictions and changing policies there. There was that test vote last week in the Senate. They couldn’t get enough to move on to the bill to allow that debate to happen. And then negotiators in the Senate got back in the room and said they’d try to work again on the border language. It seems to me at this vantage point, it would be hard to get that done by the end of the year. Michael McCaul, who’s the House Foreign Relations chair, very interested in this subject and who wants to see it move forward, even said last week that he doesn’t see how it can get done during this calendar year. So it may it may come to pass that that doesn’t get done. They’re also working for a topline spending deal that doesn’t have to be passed. But in order for the appropriators to meet those deadlines I just mentioned, they have to have some sort of number to work to. And that’s one of the things that I think we’ll see action on before they leave. At least some talks continuing to go on behind closed doors.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Loren Duggan, deputy news director at Bloomberg Government. These talks then could maybe continue informally or unofficially during their Christmas season break because there’s just so much to be done, sounds like.

Loren Duggan Yeah, there is a lot to be done in writing appropriations bills, as you know. You just don’t snap your fingers and get them. It will take time to know what your target is and then figure out how to allocate money between the programs and agencies. So there was a positive sign potentially last week when the speaker, Mike Johnson, said that the debt limit deal was the law of the land when it came to total spending. Now there’s a lot that that still leaves question marks around: Do you take money from other places and use that to offset and get more spending overall? But that might help talks along when the $100 billion or so gap between the House and the Senate has been a key reason nothing’s moved for much of the year on this.

Tom Temin Any other authorizations like the FAA? What’s going on there?

Loren Duggan Yeah, two big ones. The FAA expires at the end of the year. That was part of the original CR that prevented the September 30th-October 1st shutdown. There’s a bill coming through the House that would extend that to March. I probably will see action in both chambers to ensure that doesn’t shut down. Of the longer term bill in the Senate has been stalled over a pilot training issue. It would be hard to see that get through committee, through the floor and get everything done by the end of the year. There’s also the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Section 7O2, that’s about monitoring persons outside the U.S. with electronic communications. That would be extended in the defense authorization bill to give time for the House and Senate to work on the longer term measure there. So we might even see votes in the House this week on some longer term proposals, but that at least kicks it into next year so that they don’t leave for the holidays with that unfinished.

Tom Temin And getting back to the Ukraine funding issue tied to border security. There was the infamous letter from last week stating how much — this is from the Office of Management and Budget — stating how much is left. So I guess maybe the Republicans that were blocking this feel that since there are a couple of months or so of spending still to go, there’s money still to go through in Ukraine. They feel like they’re in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t have to be appropriated right now, this moment.

Loren Duggan Right. They think they have a little bit of time. There are these January and February deadlines that maybe if they came to a deal, they could use that. But they want to use the leverage they have to get something done on the border here. There’s a real frustration about what’s happening and policy decisions they don’t like. So they’re using you know, you use vehicles and you use debates to try to achieve something. And House Republicans also want this broader language. They control one of the chambers. They have allies in the Senate who have real leverage when it comes to this debate. So we’ll see if there can be an agreement reached on that either now or sometime in the next calendar year.

Tom Temin And what about all of these non-appropriations, non-authorizations gambits that have emerged? There’s a impeachment idea for Joe Biden, the president, there’s Hunter Biden, there’s new things popping up on that front all the time. And then there’s the college presidents, [Rep.] Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.). These are, I guess, strictly Republican things. Or do the Democrats have their other gambits that are not directly tied to legislation for appropriations?

Loren Duggan I mean, on the impeachment front, they are aiming for a vote this week to set up an impeachment inquiry formally. Former Speaker [Kevin] McCarthy (R-Calif.) had set one up more informally, but this will be enshrined in a resolution and put some some structure around it. There’s, as you mentioned, Hunter Biden supposed to or has been subpoenaed to testify behind closed doors this week if he doesn’t show up because he wants to do it in public, not in private. Then House Republicans have said they might hold him in contempt of Congress. Then there’s all the censuring we’ve seen going on. Last week it was [Rep.] Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) being censured for pulling the fire alarm and pleading guilty to a misdemeanor. And then, of course, we had a member expelled not too long ago, George Santos, who was thrown out. That was a more bipartisan thing. But we are seeing a lot of this kind of tit-for-tat investigations, censuring, impeachment. So it’s kind of a weird time. And when you talk about the college professors and resolutions about anti-Semitism that have kind of split the parties, or wrinkled things, there’s a lot of issues here that aren’t strictly bills, but are things that Congress does get involved in and certainly have generated a lot of debate and interest.

Tom Temin Well, if it gets too bad, we can all go bake gingerbread.

Loren Duggan Indeed.


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