Continuing resolution just one of many pressing issues on Congress’ to-do list

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When the General Services Administration released transition funding for the incoming Biden administration, it included a little note – that money, like all other federal appropriations, is coming from a continuing resolution, which expires in less than two weeks. So Congress, which returns today, has some no-foolin’ work to do. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got the latest from Bloomberg Government Editorial Director Loren Duggan.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And that did come to mind in reading Emily Murphy’s letter to the Biden – well to Joe Biden personally, that yes, here’s your $6.3 million, but it’s under a CR and could expire on Dec. 11. So that kind of seemed emblematic for what Congress has got to do. What do they got to do?

Loren Duggan: Absolutely. That’s the top job for the next few weeks is to figure out how to keep the government funded past Dec. 11. The goal is to pass some sort of omnibus spending bill that provides full-year funding. The leaders were hoping they could avoid another CR, so that you know, they could wrap up this work this year and not have it to carry over into 2021 with everything they want to do. It got a boost last week when Richard Shelby the Senate Appropriations chairman, and Nita Lowey the House Appropriations chairwoman, agreed on top line figures for the 12 parts that would make up an omnibus. That’s really important because having a shared group of numbers makes it easier to write those bills when the people in charge of each of those 12 subcommittees sit down to do that. They also reached an agreement, we understand it on the emergency portion of funding that would be over and above the spending caps that were agreed to in 2019. That’s also important because if you’re not on the same page with that, that could easily break down the talks, given all the interest right now and having money that would exceed those caps. The one note that may give us some caution is that Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority leader, said that he isn’t in favor of the handshake agreement that they reached on those top line numbers. So we’ll be watching this week to see how that plays out. If the administration weighs in more on their position on this because you still have to get a bill through both chambers and passed and signed by President Trump in order to keep the government funded after Dec. 11. So a lot to watch for there.

Tom Temin: Was the disagreement that McCarthy expressed based on the number itself, or was there some way that the money was allocated among different policies that he objected to?

Loren Duggan: At this point, it seems to be the number itself. And his concern was that it doesn’t abide by the spending agreement. And that could be because of the money that’s over and above the $1.4 trillion cap that they’re working on. That was agreed to in a two-year budget plan that the House and Senate and White House all signed off on was signed into law last year. So it’s about the amount of money. We haven’t even gotten to the policy disagreements yet but those are the kind of things that they’ll obviously be buckling down on this week.

Tom Temin: And on that emergency part of it, this would be for COVID pandemic response, is that what that’s all about?

Loren Duggan: Some of it would be that but a chunk that had caused some controversy is around how to treat veterans funding, in particular what to do about the VA MISSION Act, which expanded the opportunities for veterans to get treatment in community settings rather than in the VA. So this has been a long simmering issue that as that program moved into the discretionary side of the ledger, you had to figure out a way to account for that and not take away from other programs. The administration had initially wanted them to produce other spending to keep that within the caps. But it sounds like they may have figured out a way to kind of thread the needle on that. But again, the details haven’t been released. We’ll be waiting to see that which may not come until the bills are actually released when they have an agreement.

Tom Temin: Sure. And it’s hard to tell how much energy the administration wants to put in any of this at this point. I think the most prominent release coming from the White House in the last few days was all about the pardoning of the turkey that the president did in the Rose Garden.

Loren Duggan: Right. I mean, it’s interesting to see how the administration gets involved in some of these last minute things. They do have leverage, though, if they do want to draw a line in the sand and ask for something in particular, they might be able to get it, given the dynamic here of wanting to keep the government funding and avoiding a shutdown right now, especially with all the extra responsibilities the government’s taking on during the pandemic.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bloomberg Government Editorial Director Loren Duggan. And speaking of leverage, in the next Congress with that much slimmer Democratic majority, it’s almost as if there’s a echo of the Trump administration, in the sense that there might have to be more horse trading going on in that Congress, in that House than we’ve seen with the larger majority over the last couple of years.

Loren Duggan: That’s right, slimming that majority down makes it harder, because you know, it’s not always easy to get everybody in the Democratic caucus in line, even when you have greater numbers. And that goes back even to the size of the majority that President Obama had in his first two years. He had a large majority and still had to work to get things through. So that narrower majority will be harder for Nancy Pelosi, she’s – may lose some members to the administration as well, if they take jobs over there, as Cedric Richmond of Louisiana already said he would so that’ll be a slimmer margin. And then we’re still waiting until early January to figure out who’s going to run the Senate, because those two Senate seats will be decided early next year. If Democrats took both of those, they would have the majority. If Republicans win one or both, they keep the majority. So we’d have a divided Congress and all that that will entail for the incoming Biden administration. So there will probably need to be a lot of horse trading, and especially because you still need 60 votes for a lot of things in the Senate. And that rule looks unlikely to change in the near future.

Tom Temin: All right, and let’s get to the National Defense Authorization Act. There has been some recent signals from the administration, they still are raising their cackles over the renaming of certain bases that carry Confederate general names. What’s the status of NDAA at this point?

Loren Duggan: Well, right before Thanksgiving, there seemed to be green shoots of optimism about the bill. They formally went to conference, they had a meeting, House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters put out a press release talking about things she had won so far in the talk. So you know, things seem to be proceeding along. But then we were hearing from Adam Smith, the House Armed Services Chairman. His concern that this Confederate base name thing could maybe even scuttle the bill. Because there’s still a desire to keep that language in there. The administration doesn’t want it. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe told the president he tried to keep it out. So it’s a weird situation. And there are members on the Hill who wants to make sure that that language is in there. And others would have even said, you know, the Biden administration could start making these changes next year, even if it’s not in the bill. So we’ll have to see how that dynamic plays out. That bill has been done 59 years in a row, this would be number 60, as all the players keep reminding us. So there is real pressure to get that done and do things like set troop funding levels and other policy for DoD. It’s gonna be an interesting thing to see play out.

Tom Temin: Sure. I guess that kind of optimism is like a turkey standing in line before Thanksgiving. You know, an hour later, he’s still in line saying, so far, so good. What about COVID-19? That’s all expiring also – the funding to help it.

Loren Duggan: Right. There’s several programs including and some of the laws passed earlier this year and aid provided by the administration on the education front. That’s going to lapse at the end of the year, which is going to add to pressure to do something. The dynamics that have persisted for several months are still there where Democrats point to their north of $2 trillion bill that they passed, Senate Republicans have offered a $500 billion plan that couldn’t get enough support to overcome procedural hurdles. We saw the administration and the former Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin ask the Fed to send some of the money that was available to finance programs back to the general fund of the Treasury, which would forestall that so there have been big developments on some of those fronts. But we’ll have to see if they get back to the table, come up with some sort of agreement. It remains to be seen whether that’ll be done this year, or wait till early next year. But you know, I think there will be more calls for that, especially as we see some of the COVID numbers around the country.

Tom Temin: Loren Duggan is editorial director of Bloomberg Government, as always, thanks so much.

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.

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