What’s on the agenda as Congress returns to Washington

Congress has returned from recess, and the Defense Department will be high on the agenda.

The Defense Department will be high on the agenda, as Congress returns from recess today. A House committee has passed a version of the defense authorization bill for 2025, while Senate Republicans will try to expand the DoD budget. For details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin The Defense Department will be high on the agenda as Congress returns from recess today. A House committee has passed a version of the Defense Authorization for 2025, while Senate Republicans will try to expand the DoD budget. Details on this and much more from WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller. And let’s start with the NDAA. That’s going to be high on the agenda?

Mitchell Miller Absolutely. A lot of appropriations action finally getting into gear now. The amendment deadline for the $884 billion National Defense Authorization Act is coming up in a few days. So we’re going to continue to see a lot of amendments, especially from Republicans. They want to put their imprint on the NDAA. Among them, just to mention a few, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia is already proposing banning any additional funding from going to Ukraine, eliminating funding for NATO. Those will, of course, be poison pills for a lot of Democrats, but the NDAA is expected to come up to the House on the floor next week. And then going back to where it originated, of course, was the House Armed Services Committee, and it passed virtually unanimously out of that committee. But again, these amendments are going to kind of slow things down, as they usually do. One of the hot topics in connection with the debate within the committee was this proposal offered by the Air Force, which would reserve the right of state governors to approve the transfer of guard units to the Space Force, but not actually create a separate Space National Guard. There had been a lot of discussion about that. A lot of the state governors were actually opposing that Air Force request. That’s one of many major issues, as you know, that are popping up in the NDAA.

Tom Temin Well, cutting funding for Ukraine and for NATO, that would be a sticky point for some Republicans, also.

Mitchell Miller Oh, absolutely. There’s no question. There’s a lot of conservative Republicans and moderate Republicans who say this is not the time to pull the plug on anything for Ukraine. After all, they just approved close to $60 billion in aid for Ukraine. And there’s also a lot of talk about the need to fund NATO, given what is happening with Russia, as well as various other threats in connection with the desire to beef up defense.

Tom Temin And on the appropriations front, outside of that authorization, there is movement.

Mitchell Miller Yeah, absolutely. It looks like we are going to get the veterans and military construction proposal coming up this week out of the rules committee. Again, there will be a lot of amendments. So we’ll see how fast that can pass. But as you know, out of the 12 appropriations bills, this is the one that usually moves through the easiest. We’ll have to see if that actually takes place. But this will at least get the ball rolling. And there’s really a pretty aggressive scheduling done by at least outlined by House Majority Leader Steve Scalise. He really wants to push through to get all of these appropriations bills done this summer. We’ll see if that really happens. The House and the Senate, for that matter, they don’t have a lot of days that they’re actually in session through the end of the year, this being a campaign year.

Tom Temin Right. So, the continuing resolution idea, we should not set aside just because there is some action going on now for appropriations.

Mitchell Miller Right? I mean, it all sounds good right now with everybody laying things out saying that we’re going to move quickly. But as you and I both know, it tends to grind to a very slow or at least to a halt later on in the year. So I think we’re definitely, probably going to be looking again at a continuing resolution.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller. And, out of curiosity more than anything else, with the recent convictions of former President Trump in New York, what effect is that having inside the halls of Congress, do you think?

Mitchell Miller I think it’s going to cause things to kind of slow down overall, because there’s going to be this period where, without a doubt, Republicans have already made it very clear that they are getting fully behind the former president. And so I think you’re going to see a lot more aggressive oversight from some of the committees that we’ve already seen, such as House Judiciary Committee, led by Jim Jordan, the House Oversight Committee led by James Comer. And I think that’s going to cause more tension. We’d already have a high level of tension just because it’s an election year. But now because of this, I think it is going to give that push and pull within all of these things a little more oomph, if you will, because as we know, there’s just a lot of partisanship going on right now. But early on, I think we’re still kind of feeling it out, trying to get a sense of where things are going.

Tom Temin And this is the beginning. Well, we had Memorial Day, which is when they went on recess. But now summer is actually getting here, and you’re starting to see the tour buses en masse coming into Washington. Just give us a sense of the state of Capitol Hill itself as a physical asset that people want to access.

Mitchell Miller Well, it’s interesting. For example, last Friday when I came into the Capitol, there was an exercise which they often have here at the U.S. Capitol, just to make sure that everybody knows where to go and how to evacuate and that kind of thing so that that is still always in the background and that is going to continue to take place. But I think what is really heartening to see is I have not, in the last few years, seen as many major tour groups as well as school children coming through the Capitol as I have over the last few weeks. And it’s really heartening because you can see the smiles on the faces of lawmakers and staffers. Everybody likes to see that flow of people in and out of the Capitol, and we’ve really been seeing that a lot more lately. You see the people coming up to the U.S. Capitol Police officers and saying, hey, where’s the visitor center? And they’re happy to show them where it is. And so there is a sense, despite the backdrop of all the things that we’ve just talked about in terms of the politics and what’s happening with former President Trump, there is more of a normalcy, I would say, here on Capitol Hill than there has been over the last several years.

Tom Temin And what about the return to work? I mean, before the recess, that was something that at least Republicans in the House. Well, Democrats too, from a different standpoint, were looking at the federal workforce. Is that likely to come up again?

Mitchell Miller Yeah, there’s no question about it. And particularly Republicans are continuing to push on trying to get these people back into the offices. There’s been a back and forth about whether it should be 50% or 60%, and how many days during the week. And as you know, agencies have been making some progress. I think we’re going to hear more about that this week. There’s a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Tuesday where they’re going to talk about the budgets of Treasury and the FBI. Of course, the IRS will be getting a lot of attention in connection with the funding that it’s been getting and efforts to get IRS employees back into the office. And then there’s, of course, the political football that the FBI has become in terms of how much funding they are going to get. FBI Director Christopher Wray told a House panel a few weeks ago that he feels that they need a half billion dollars more. That’s not going to happen, but there’s certainly going to be some give and take there. But in terms of getting the people back to work, I think that’s going to be continuing to be an issue on Capitol Hill. There are a lot of lawmakers, as you noted, not only from the Republican side, but from the Democratic side, that just want to know what is going on with the federal agencies. What are they doing, exactly, to measure the effectiveness of people coming back or working outside of the office?

Tom Temin Right. It seems mostly the executive levels, managerial levels of government are in the office. I spoke to an executive at the IRS by Zoom the other day, and she was clearly in the New Carrollton office. But the lower you go, the more likely you’re going to get the House.

Mitchell Miller Right. And there’s also concern about the hiring of younger workers. A lot of them have made it clear if they work for the federal government, they would like more time away from the office to be able to telework. Also, one interesting thing related to the Veterans Affairs Department, there’s been some signs of improvement there. You know, as you know, that morale had been an issue for a long time, but it seems like the trust scores are going up there and a lot of improvements seemed to be happening. But on the flip side, there was little action in connection with, you talk about higher management. With the VA, some lawmakers are upset that they believe that some of the bonuses that went to senior executives may have been sent out improperly. They felt that workers who were really supposed to get money for helping to process health benefits for veterans, that they were supposed to be getting these bonuses. So there’s now a bipartisan look from senators who are doing oversight to say, hey, what’s going on with these bonuses? This is in connection with a VA Inspector General report that came out recently. So, we’ll see what happens. A lot of action really on Capitol Hill now, despite the fact that we are starting to enter into the summer.

Tom Temin Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. As always, thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller You bet.

Tom Temin And we’ll post this interview at federalnewsnetwork.com/federaldrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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