WASHINGTON WATCH: April 5, 2022
THE LONG GAME: McConnell urges “no” votes on SCOTUS nominee; House OKs marijuana decriminalization bill
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) announced that she would support Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court, citing Jackson’s “sterling academic and professional credentials.” Coupled with the declaration of support for Jackson from other centrists — including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) — her confirmation is virtually assured. Still, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is leaning hard on GOP members to oppose her nomination. He reportedly told colleagues during a closed-door meeting that Jackson was a “radical” and her record was “extreme.” McConnell, sources say, is looking toward the midterms and hopes to saddle vulnerable Democrats with their vote on the nomination. However, Republicans who oppose Jackson would be going against the wishes of most Americans; a recent Gallup poll found that Jackson’s nomination was supported by 58% of the public, tying for the highest level of support of any recent Supreme Court nominee. By a 220-204 vote, the House voted Friday to legalize marijuana at the federal level. “This landmark legislation is one of the most important criminal justice reform bills in recent history,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on the floor. In addition to decriminalizing the manufacture, distribution or possession of marijuana, the bill would enable people to expunge prior convictions from their records and would impose a tax on sales of the substance. Revenues from the tax would fund job training, legal aid and mentoring programs, plus substance abuse treatment. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) are developing similar legislation on the Senate side, though chances for passage in the upper chamber are slim.
Washington Watch is published weekly when Congress is in session. Published monthly during extended recess or adjournment.
Spotlight on Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican legislators push for abortion restrictions
Abortion rights were thrust into the spotlight this week, as the Puerto Rico Senate’s Life and Family Affairs Committee voted 10 to 3 in favor of Senate Bill 693, banning, with exceptions, the procedure after the 22nd week of pregnancy. Although the bill was spearheaded by Joanne Rodríguez Veve of Proyecto Dignidad—an emerging party based on “Christian ideals”— the bill has bipartisan support. Senate Minority Leader Thomas Rivera Schatz of the New Progressive Party and Senate President José Luis Dalmau Santiago of the Popular Democratic Party are among its drafters. No public hearings were held, nor statements solicited from reproductive rights organizations.
Although the bill is among the least restrictive anti-abortion measures introduced in state legislatures across the United States, the sentiments of its sponsors mirror those who would see the procedure banned altogether. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), abortions at this stage are rare, with 1.2% of abortions after this period recorded in 2013. The bill carves out an exception when the life of the mother is at risk, it would create a registry of women who have an abortion after the 22-week period, including details such as the patient's age, the gestational period during which the abortion was performed, and the abortion method.
The outcry against the bill has been loud and widespread, with organizations such as the ACLU, The Puerto Rico Medical Surgeons’ Association, the Puerto Rican Association for the Welfare of Families, and former Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia all speaking against it . Much of that criticism has centered on Senate President Dalmau, who has been among the most vociferous of the bill’s defenders and publicly declared that he considered those who perform abortions of viable fetuses to be murderers. Governor Pedro Pierluisi has only said that “the measure is still in the legislative process. It’s an issue that can’t be taken lightly, which is why I favor holding broad public hearings that allow input from all parties, including medical opinions.” Dalmau had indicated that he would bring the bill to a vote on Monday, it was ultimately decided, in the face of criticism, to first subject it to public hearings.
Governor Pierluisi gives second State of the Commonwealth Address
Governor Pedro Pierluisi gave his second State of The Commonwealth address before the Puerto Rico Legislature last week. The governor began by hailing the passage of the Plan of Adjustment, stating that it “cleans our credit, protects our pensioners, and returns to tens of thousands of public servants their savings.” He then moved on to the economy, noting that the current unemployment rate of 6.8% is “the lowest in all our history." He also claimed credit for progress in the war against poverty, via the minimum wage increase and equity under the federal Child Tax Credit. He later emphasized the use of various federal funds, such as those assigned by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Federal Highway Administration, for construction and repair projects on roads, aqueducts, and tourist attractions, among other things.
The week in COVID
Puerto Rico’s COVID positivity rate continued to increase this week, reaching 7.98% as of Monday noon, well above the rates that, according to the World Health Organization (5%) and medical experts in Puerto Rico (3%), indicate that the pandemic is under control. Similarly, the seven-day average of new cases (including both confirmed and probable cases) is now 366, a significant increase compared to a week ago, when it was 232. While hospitalizations remain fairly stable—there are currently 41 people hospitalized due to COVID, compared to 42 last week—deaths are increasing, with eleven deaths in the past seven days—more than in the previous two weeks combined—bringing the total up to 4,170.
Health Secretary Carlos Mellado announced that while they are not yet contemplating an increase in restrictions, the next two weeks will remain crucial. As a second booster shot for COVID becomes available for Puerto Ricans fifty or older, vaccinations in general have stalled somewhat: while 86.6% of the eligible population of Puerto Rico obtained the first two original shots of the vaccine, a significantly lower amount—59.7%--has obtained the first booster.
Puerto Rico health care industry calls for Medicare equity
A group of Puerto Rican healthcare, business and insurance organizations this week sent a joint letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, calling on the Biden administration to close a “funding gap” undercutting the Island’s medical services and affecting nearly 630,000 senior citizens, The Hill reports. The federal government funds Puerto Rico’s Medicare Advantage programs—used by 90% of Medicare-using Boricuas—at 42% below the average national rate, a gap that has only increased over the past decade. While President Biden had vowed to close this gap as a candidate, he has yet to do so, leading many Puerto Ricans to emigrate to the United States for better medical services.
A similar letter was penned last month, when 11 members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote to Becerra, arguing that “failing to close the [Medicare Advantage] funding gap between Puerto Rico and the states effectively relegates the Puerto Rico health care system to second-tier status.”
View From The White House
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Friday plans to rescind Title 42 on May 23, ending the controversial Trump Administration policy that enabled migrants at the border to be quickly expelled on supposed public health grounds.
The White House last week launched covid.gov, a website designed to be a “one-stop shop” for resources related to the pandemic, such as information on where to go for testing, get vaccines and receive antiviral treatments.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced on Friday that it was increasing fuel economy standards, reversing a Trump-era rollback and raising requirements to 8% annually for model years 2024 and ’25, and 10% for ‘26.
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