There’s only one question before Congress, at least this week

With the machinery already cranking up for a federal government shutdown, can Congress pull itself together to pass a continuing resolution? The situation is fl...

With the machinery already cranking up for a federal government shutdown, can Congress pull itself together to pass a continuing resolution? The situation is fluid. For the latest,  Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Mitchell Miller, WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent.

Interview Transcript: 

Mitchell Miller It certainly doesn’t look like it. Of course, we’ve been through these many times before and there always seems to be an ability for members of Congress to pull a rabbit out of a hat and maybe get a last minute reprieve from this. But what’s interesting about this is that the train is moving down the tracks toward this government shutdown. And really, there’s nobody flagging it, saying that it’s not going to happen. Many of the lawmakers who will usually hedge and say, well, we can maybe work something out here or there, they just aren’t talking like that this time around. It’s just because the gaps between the House and Senate, as well as within the House itself, are so deep right now. And of course, biggest problem is the House Republicans just not being able to get on the same page related to a short term spending bill. There’s that hard core group of about five or six hardliners who just do not want to have a continuing resolution, and they say it won’t go forward no matter what. Now, what they’re trying to do, at least for show, is to get some of the appropriations bills moved forward this week. But really, when it comes down to it, that doesn’t really make any difference. Many of these people in the House Freedom Caucus say that they would like to get back, of course, to regular order and get all 12 appropriations bills done. Well, of course, that’s just not going to happen this week prior to the deadline, which comes up on Saturday at midnight.

Mitchell Miller So right now, everybody is just waiting really to see what’s going to happen. Now, there is movement behind the scenes with a variety of possibilities, I’ll run through a couple of them. One of them would be if the Republicans somehow were able to get a short term spending plan and get it over to the House. Of course, it would probably be rejected right away by the Senate. That’s probably unlikely. Another, more likely, but still pretty rare scenario would be Democrats reaching across the aisle to help House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) somehow get this continuing resolution across the finish line. But of course, McCarthy has the issue of whether or not they would vacate the chair. In other words, make a motion to boot him out of the speakership if he cooperates too closely with the Democrats. So obviously, House Speaker McCarthy really in a political vise right now. And as a result, the country is once again facing down a possible government shutdown.

Tom Temin Yeah, it’s really amazing. I guess, maybe both sides figure once it is going to be inevitable, what can we do to get the most political hay out of it? Maybe, which is kind of cynical, but that’s how they look at it, I think, sometimes.

Mitchell Miller Right. And the polling has really shown that whichever party pushes to do this usually suffers politically. And all of the cases prior to this, it’s really been the Republicans. Now they have legitimate complaints about too much spending and they want to get the spending down. And Democrats even say that’s okay, but they say take it through the regular process, don’t penalize federal workers and a lot of federal agencies and other people just because you have these political goals in mind. And I think there is concern within the moderate Republicans in the House and of course, definitely many Republicans in the Senate that this is going to hurt the party politically moving forward. Now, we’ll have to see how long does this government shutdown last? Of course, we all remember the last one that was from 2018 into 2019, the longest shutdown ever. 35 days. I don’t think that we would get into that kind of territory. I think there is a resignation that while the shutdown will take place, that they will start somehow trying to move the levers politically with the Senate perhaps taking a more active role to get the shutdown ended relatively quickly.

Tom Temin But the idea of doing regular appropriations bills, that almost sounds like trying to play the violin on a storm tossed dinghy.

Mitchell Miller There really does. There’s just not time. Look at what the calendar says to us right now. Were in September and they only passed one bill all year long and that was in the House. How are they going to get anything close to all of these bills passed by this Friday? It’s just not going to happen.

Tom Temin We were speaking with top Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller and the failure of that vote that was astounding on the military budget.

Mitchell Miller It really was. This is something that just does not happen hardly ever in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s the procedural vote to the rules. You have to approve the rule to move on to the main debate. And then, of course, the final vote on whatever the issue may be. In this case, the issue is an $826 billion budget for the Pentagon. That, by the way, includes military pay raises. Usually this is an easy slam dunk for lawmakers to get passed. But we were really stunned, everyone on the Hill, including the lawmakers that Republicans for the second time, not just the first time, was unable to get enough of their own members to pass the rule to get to this Pentagon budget. And so, once again, we have a major legislative initiative that is stuck in the U.S. House.

Tom Temin And well, there it stands. And I wanted to ask you about something else that seemed stuck, and that is the vote on the nomination of the Joint Chiefs chair. Why didn’t Schumer do this months ago? Why did he choose now to do it? Because the holds are still in place and most people look at this and scratch their heads at the procedure.

Mitchell Miller Right. So looking at this from a broader standpoint, a lot of people say, well, Ok, the Senate finally did take up and approve the nominations of the Joint Chiefs, the commandant of the Marine Corps, the Army chief of staff. This could have been done months ago, even though a senator, Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), has had this hold on for more than six months. The reasoning, at least from majority Leader Schumer’s standpoint, is that many Democrats felt if they did give in early on this, that this would basically set a precedent that any member of the U.S. Senate could take any kind of issue, put a hold on it, and then just wait for the other party to cave. Now, some argue that this does open the way just for that. And there is concern within the Democratic Party about whether or not Schumer should have done this. I think ultimately, though, they just felt that they had to get these key major positions high up in the military brass obviously moved through. Now, this doesn’t really change anything for better or for worse. Tuberville has not changed his position in any way, and we’ll have to see whether or not this causes them to move on any of the other nominations. But there has been an estimate if they actually went through all of the more than 200 nominations that are held up right now, that this could literally take months to do.

Tom Temin What a picture you’re painting, it looks like. What was that one by Picasso? Guernica. That’s what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye. A giant mural of the ultimate chaos Congress.

Mitchell Miller Absolute, ultimate congressional chaos right now.

Tom Temin And one little thing that kind of came and went without a lot of notice, and that is a measure that the House Oversight Committee approved. And we should say that must have been bipartisan, which means that marijuana usage prior will not necessarily prevent someone from getting security clearance.

Mitchell Miller Right. This was something that was spurred by the fact that many states, of course, have changed their laws related to marijuana. And one of the co-sponsors is Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). And in the House Oversight Committee last week, they had an extensive discussion about this. But ultimately, Congressman Raskin and some Republicans who also back it, including Congresswoman Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), they say it’s just really time to change the federal guidelines related to people that are applying for these federal jobs. So for somebody who had previously used marijuana and admitted it in interviews, that will no longer, at least under this bill moving forward, be a cause for them not to get a chance at getting that federal job. And also, it affects the security clearance. And a lot of people have gone through these security clearances, they remember this question. And in this case, they are going to move that aside as well. This is called the Cure Act, which is stands for Cannabis Users Restoration of Eligibility. But a lot of lawmakers from both parties felt that it was really time to move forward. And if somebody did partake some time, years or months or whatever it was a long time ago, that they should not be prevented from applying for and getting a federal job.

Tom Temin Yeah, with this new generation of lawmakers, they’re like the woman that sniffed the chicken and said it wasn’t fresh. And the butcher said, Could you pass that test? So maybe this is what’s going on here. I just can’t let the occasion go by without some thoughts of yours on what’s the reaction in the press. What does it look like with the new dress code or lack of dress code in the Senate? How far can they go?

Mitchell Miller I know this is really interesting. Amid all the chaos that we’ve been talking about with shutdowns and everything that’s going on. This is getting a ton of attention from everybody in the Capitol. A lot of people talking about it, of course, the Senate dress code generally. You see a senator with a suit and a tie, and that’s really how most of the senators, virtually all of them, still walk around when you see them in the hallway. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) loosened that dress code, he hasn’t specifically said why, but I think everybody knows why. And that is because Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who stands very tall in the Capitol, also is very noticeable when he walks in with shorts off in a hoodie. I saw him last week walking with shorts and a short sleeved shirt with tennis shoes. He does really cut an imposing figure. And some say that it’s an embarrassment, frankly. A lot of Republicans have sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Schumer saying he should maybe reconsider this. And even the number two Democrat, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), actually asked Senator Schumer to reconsider. This late last week. Now, there are lesser, more kind of Friday casual clothes that take place here in the capital. You see a lot of people have talked about the fact that they basically say that lawmakers are wearing tennis shoes. Well, that’s not quite right. These shoes are kind of like all work on the top and tennis shoe on the bottom, if you will. And so a lot of them just wear them for comfort. And I think those are pretty widely accepted. For example, you see the House minority leader, Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who’s a very sartorially well put together person, often wears these shoes. And it got a lot of attention months ago when there was a picture in the White House with him and others, and some said, Hey, what are they doing wearing tennis shoes? So that part of it people accept. But there is a lot of pushback related to this change that’s made and made by the Senate majority leader. And also a very funny comment that came from Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine.), the Republican, who said, well, maybe if they’re changing everything, I’m just going to wear a bikini to work.

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