Over on Capitol Hill with the lame duck session has both the current and the future to deal with. The pandemic is returning to a boil, and so are the calls for some sort of relief bill. And some members are starting to get annoyed at the General Services Administration’s Emily Murphy over the presidential transition process. For more on the week ahead, WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
Tom Temin: And I guess it’s a little bit surreal these days, Mitchell, but what are they actually doing in this coming week?
Mitchell Miller: Well, this is going to be a big day for GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, who as you know is really feeling the heat and congressional Democrats in particular have cranked it up over the past week, giving her until today to provide a briefing on ascertaining Joe Biden’s victory so he can get transition resources to move to the White House. If she does not. They say she could be called in with other GSA officials to publicly testify at hearings before lawmakers. Murphy was sent a letter last week signed by the House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey, Virginia Congressman Gerry Connelly, who chairs the Subcommittee on Government Operations, as well as Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley, who chairs the Subcommittee on Financial Services – all of them making this push to make sure that Murphy does something now related to the transition. She is obviously jammed in a very tight spot. The White House has said it’s her call, but she’s clearly feeling the pressure not to announce anything as these unfounded legal claims get tossed out in court related to the election.
Tom Temin: Because the letter to her did state that well, all of the major news organizations have pronounced Joe Biden the winner, and while that’s let’s face it, 99% likely that’s not an official pronouncement.
Mitchell Miller: Right. And it’s interesting that the White House has tried to back off a little bit. Kayleigh McEnany, when asked about this last week, said, again, that it was really Murphy’s call. But clearly, she’s really feeling a ton of pressure here. Really, there’s been, as you know, a lot of reports about her just feeling basically stressed out being pinched from both sides as this moves forward. At some point, it’s going to have to be resolved. And obviously the Biden campaign and the president-elect’s staffers are now also speaking pretty loudly about this saying something needs to be done. And there’s also been some members of Congress here, including some Republicans – the latest was on Friday – Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, longtime supporter of the president, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, basically saying that they need to move forward on this.
Tom Temin: And in her defense, we should say that Emily Murphy is not some kind of a lunatic fringe type of person. She’s quite down-to-earth, quite normal, and has worked in other administrations. So that’s, I think, an indication that she is getting pressure from both sides of this question.
Mitchell Miller: Right, another example of someone who’s a career government official who gets caught in these very strange times.
Tom Temin: All right, and besides that, there is also telework. The Senate is showing some signs on a bill there. Tell us what’s happening on that side?
Mitchell Miller: Right, well, for all, for all the complaints we’ve heard, and we’ve talked about this many times about federal agencies dragging their feet on telework. This seems to be a bit of an emerging success story. Officials from the labor and transportation department told the senate panel last week that telework has actually gone surprisingly well, in some cases. Keith Washington with the Transportation Department says a survey of managers found that about 55% of their “working units,” as they identified them, were more effective during the pandemic than before. As a result, they’re considering changing their hiring policies, potentially opening things up for more applicants across the country who could do work remotely. Other agencies have had more limited progress. The Social Security Administration says it’s still working through a lot of issues and it doesn’t really work, they say for some jobs. Sen. [James] Lankford from Oklahoma has indicated he thinks that this is a positive thing, and that they can potentially continue to expand telework through a lot of these agencies, as you and I have talked about. Of course, on the House side, Congressman Gerry Connelly continues to press for these agencies to do more to make sure that employees can do this, and especially since the pandemic is actually getting worse now. It looks like a lot of these agencies are going to have to continue these policies and perhaps expand them.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, who is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. And moving on to some of the more prosaic issues – it’s like you can’t have the sweet potatoes with with marshmallows on top until you finish your Brussels sprouts – but there’s COVID relief, there’s the omnibus spending bills they have to do, there’s the NDAA. Is that going to come up this week? Because the time is running out.
Mitchell Miller: The time is running out. But you know, Congress has really fled for the moment. So they’re going to have a lot of work when they get back. And those Brussels sprouts really are burning in the oven right now because there has just been really very, very little progress on COVID relief despite the repeated calls from members of both parties. On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi again pushed out the call saying to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has not been involved in the negotiations directly, to come back to the table to try to get something going. But of course, there’s this vacuum related to the transition, too, because how Speaker Pelosi as we’ve talked about has been negotiating with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin. But that is really frozen right now. So there have been some talks in general, this past week, basically, all of the power brokers, staff members got together, but that was really mainly a talk about all the issues related to the omnibus spending bill, rather than COVID relief, although there were some tangential discussion about that. That is one positive thing related to all of this is this omnibus major spending measure, of course, coming up to a deadline on Dec. 11, for another potential government shutdown. It does look like they are going to hopefully work something out in the next few weeks between staff and top members of Congress to try to get all of these appropriations bills passed. Obviously, if they don’t, then we go to the old “kick the can down the road” approach of the continuing resolution. But really, lawmakers from both sides – a rare area of agreement here on the Hill, they don’t want to go that route again. Now, there has been a lot of talk about whether they would somehow try to work in the COVID relief measures into that bill, it just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. There’s just too many moving parts right now. And they just really need to make sure that they get that done. And then, of course, the defense authorization, they are also moving forward on that as well. Still a lot of issues still to be worked out on that. But I think those two areas are ones that we can have a little bit of optimism as we wait for this whole turkey and everything to cook over the next few days.
Tom Temin: Sure. And before we go, is the House leadership question, does that come up, or when does that actually come up?
Mitchell Miller: Right. So there will be a formal vote coming up in January. But this past week, basically how Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and the House Whip James Clyburn all got the positive backing of the Democratic Caucus, it still has to be formalized with that vote coming up in January. But basically, the Democrats endorsed this trio that have been taking them through the last couple of years. And this is an older group. Let’s face it, House Speaker Pelosi is 80, Steny Hoyer is 81 and James Clyburn is 80 as well. So Pelosi has indicated basically that this will be her last term, she has essentially led the Democrats since 2003. And I think then you’re going to see some movement over the next – not only years, but really in the coming months, I think you’re going to start to see, obviously the more liberal wing of the party starting to raise their voices. And among the people that everyone should kind of keep their eye on politically for political watchers is New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who again, is chairing the caucus but is widely seen as a likely successor to House Speaker Pelosi provided that Democrats maintain power in the House, which they obviously lost a lot of seats to the Republicans, so we’ll see what happens there.
Tom Temin: Yeah, it reminds me of that song from the “Li’l Abner” show: “Who’d think of marryin’ an octogenarian,” Clyburn and Pelosi. Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. As always, thanks so much.
Mitchell Miller: You bet.
Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows.