There’s a lot to do, as Congress returns

With Congress back in action next week, many eyes are on how it's going to handle international affairs.

With Congress back in action next week, many eyes are on how it’s going to handle international affairs. Speaker Mike Johnson is still getting his feet wet in the role, and he may already be facing calls for his resignation. For details on what’s happening, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with WTOP Congressional Correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview Transcript: 

Mitchell Miller Congress really has a lot on its plate coming back, and it’s going to be a particularly testing time for House speaker Mike Johnson. Among the things that he’s got to deal with, of course, is Israel and Ukraine. And then on top of that, while they were on break, of course, we had the big collapse of the Key Bridge in Baltimore. And there is a huge push, of course, with President Biden visiting Baltimore last week to get the legislation moved into the House so they can start working on an emergency aid package. But one of the biggest things really will be to figure out how Mike Johnson is going to deal with Ukraine. This is something that he has basically pushed off for month after month, and now it’s coming to a head, and it really is coming into a head for him because the conservative wing of the Republican Party, specifically Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, has the threat of ousting him from the speakership if he brings something to the floor on Ukraine that she doesn’t like. Now she’s only made this as a threat. It’s not clear whether or not she’s actually going to trigger it. But this is certainly hanging over his head. So, there’s a lot of questions right now about what is going to happen with aid for Ukraine. Of course, the Senate passed an aid package, a supplemental that included aid for Ukraine as well as Israel and parts of the Pacific. But that has just been, as they say around here, collecting dust for a while until the speaker decides what to do. So, it’s going to be interesting also because of what’s been happening with Israel on the Democratic side. There is a lot of dissension about what is going to happen with more military aid for Israel in light of the humanitarian convoy that was hit, and several people were killed. A lot of tension right now among Democrats trying to put more pressure on Israel. There was a thought a while back that they would split the Israel and Ukraine packages. But now that is really in doubt. And some people think that the House speaker will actually, at some point be forced to take the Senate supplemental and try to take it up on its own, because just breaking everything up and starting over will be too difficult.

Eric White And somewhere Kevin McCarthy is probably smiling, saying, okay, you see, you want this thankless job, you can have it. This is definitely one of the first major test for Mike Johnson, kind of teetering the sides of both sides of his own party and both sides of Congress. How’s he how’s he going to do that?

Mitchell Miller You know, there’s really a lot of questions within his own party as well as among Democrats. Democrats have been kind of on the side just waiting to see what he would do. But he is getting so much pressure from his right flank. And that is why he has put this off for so long. But really, he can’t put it off any longer because things are of course, getting worse in Ukraine. We’ve seen the evolving situation in Israel, and really it is the biggest question mark hanging over Congress right now, because on the Senate side, you still have the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, pushing very hard to get Ukraine $60 billion worth. And on the other side, you have Marjorie Taylor Greene, the aforementioned lawmaker from Georgia, saying if you bring that $60 billion bill to the floor, I am going to make the motion to vacate. And there potentially could be a vote on the floor related to what Kevin McCarthy had to deal with, which, of course, eventually left him not only out of the speakership, but out of Congress. Now, some Democrats have said they might come in to save Mike Johnson because they just don’t want more dissension. And of course, there are many Republicans that really don’t want this to happen either, because we’re in the middle of the election year. And as we remember the last time that the speaker was kicked out, it was more than three weeks before Republicans could figure out who they wanted to lead the party. So, a lot of big questions hanging over Congress right now.

Eric White And apart from the international affairs, we have domestic affairs. You mentioned the Key Bridge. That was the major story, you know, of the month of March. What are the next steps, I guess, in getting the package that President Biden did promise? I imagine there’s going to have to be some boxes that need to be checked to make sure that that does come through.

Mitchell Miller Absolutely. And this will be a big week for that. On Tuesday, there will be a meeting, including the Maryland congressional delegation, including the senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, along with the head of OMB, Shalanda Young, to try to figure out what kind, of course can they move forward with to get the money that is needed not only to replace the bridge, but also to help accelerate things with opening up the port of Baltimore? And there’s been a lot of talk about trying to do more to help all of these idled dock workers that just don’t have any money coming in, because everything is just frozen right now, aside from a few boats. A small channel or two going through Baltimore. So, what they’re trying to do is figure out, how big is this big emergency package going to be, is it going to be everything where it includes the long term? Look at what’s going to be taken to reconstruct the bridge, which is conceivably in the billions of dollars at least over $1 billion. And then on the other side, there are some people, particularly Republicans. I was speaking with Maryland Republican Andy Harris, and he suggests that they should not take this all at once and that they should do it more incrementally. So, it’s not such a financial jolt to the system that perhaps getting a smaller package right away to help with the port and then start to move forward in bits and pieces on the longer-term issue of reconstructing the bridge, which will, of course, take several years. The first bridge that collapsed, that took five years to build, and that was after everything was all put in place financially. So, this is going to be a very, very long-term slog for Congress.

Eric White And it’s a shame about those dockworkers, you know, that they can’t have some sort of option to telework loading on the docks. But the federal workforce does have the option to telework. And I understand the Senate is going to be looking at giving out more information on what they want to see from agencies. As far as telework goes, what do you have on that?

Mitchell Miller Right. Well, even though they were on break, Senators Gary Peters of Michigan and Joni Ernst of Iowa have both proposed the Telework Transparency Act. And what they’re really trying to do, as you know, and as Federal News Network has reported, is trying to get more transparency from the federal agencies on exactly what is happening with telework. It’s interesting that we’ve kind of come full circle. We had for years lawmakers pushing to get more people to telework and get all the agencies in line on that. And now in the wake of the pandemic, there’s been this big push, of course, to get people back into the office. And as you’re well aware, Senator Joni Ernst is really on the forefront of this. She is putting a lot of political heat on federal agencies trying to find out exactly what they’re doing, how many people are actually getting back into the office, how many days are they getting back into the office? And also, what kind of efficiency is taking place? Are things better or worse, depending on where people are working from. So there’s going to be a bigger push, I think, continuing from lawmakers, trying to get this, telework information because there’s been, you know, general information coming through OPM, but lawmakers are trying to get down a little bit more into the weeds and try to find out exactly what agencies are doing to meet some of the push and some of the federal guidelines that they want put in place.

Eric White And one other piece of legislation with some federal workforce implications, how does it start from, you know, being part of some sort of partisan, I guess, you know, chicanery back and forth is kind of a wink at the other side. But Representative Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, submitting the Guard act, which would say anybody who is convicted of a crime is not allowed to have access to classified material. Probably not a bad idea. But, you know, obviously the sights are set on President Trump and his many legal issues, but it also might affect legislators in her own state. What have you heard on that?

Mitchell Miller Right. This is the Guard act guarding the United States Against Reckless Disclosures Act. And it would, as you indicate, not only bar lawmakers, but bar the president, the vice president, and federal candidates from receiving classified information if they are charged with an obstructing an official proceeding. Now, that was aimed, of course, at former President Trump and January 6th. But really now this legislation potentially could affect Senator Bob Menendez, who, ironically, is from New Jersey, which is where Mikie Sherrill is from. But she is proposing that this be put into place. And there really has been a lot of questions here on Capitol Hill, particularly related to Senator Bob Menendez, including from members of his own Democratic Party. A lot of people questioning, you know, since he has been charged, he’s under indictment. Of course, he has denied all charges. But part of the indictment alleges that he was involved with doing favors illegally for the country of Egypt and others. And some lawmakers have really questioned about whether or not he should be receiving classified briefings. And every time he is asked about this, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tries to get away from the question a little bit. He does definitely criticize Menendez for the allegations that he’s under, but it still remains to be seen whether or not Senator Menendez is really going to be kept out of a lot of these classified briefings, which there have been many of them recently. And then, of course, he lost his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to Maryland’s Ben Cardin. He basically stepped down after these charges came against him. So, I’m really interested to see how this is going to move forward, since it’s now, as you indicated, has a kind of bipartisan bent. Which was not the way it started.

Eric White Yeah. And I can’t imagine somebody having to brief a president saying, we can’t tell you exactly what’s going on, but we need your decision, right?

Mitchell Miller Right. And all of this with the backdrop, of course, of the legal case involving former President Trump and the classified documents that. So given the fact that we’re also in the middle of a political election year, it’s hard to see how this might actually move all the way to getting approved. But we’ll just have to wait and find out.

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