WASHINGTON WATCH: February 1, 2022
THE LONG GAME: Senate to act on SCOTUS vacancy; House to consider COMPETES act
After failing to pass the president’s social spending and climate plan and legislation on voting rights, Senate Democrats now have the chance to deliver a win for President Biden and their party with the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is said to be considering a quick timeline to approve Breyer’s replacement, saying that he plans to act “with all deliberate speed.” Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) said that the hearings will be “fair,” “deliberate,” and “timely.” Senators will have to wait, of course, for Biden to nominate a successor to Breyer.
The White House has indicated that he will name a new justice by late February. Biden had promised during his campaign to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. Leading contenders include judges Ketanji Brown Jackson and J. Michelle Childs of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, and Leondra Kruger of the California Supreme Court. The House will take up legislation this week designed to increase competition with China and increase U.S. semiconductor manufacturing. The America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing Pre-Eminence in Technology and Economic Strength Act (or, America COMPETES Act) represents the House’s version of a bill approved by the Senate in June. The House bill includes $45 billion to address supply chain shortages and $52 billion to support domestic chip research and production. It omits $200 billion included in the Senate bill to reinforce U.S. scientific research and innovation.
Washington Watch is published weekly when Congress is in session. Published monthly during extended recess or adjournment.
Spotlight on Puerto Rico
The week in COVID
With cases dropping and the winter COVID surge now three weeks past its peak, the Puerto Rican government has lifted some of the restrictions it had put into place to battle the Omicron wave: starting on Wednesday, limits on alcohol sales will be lifted, and businesses will once again be able to operate between 12:00 a.m. and 5 a.m. Additionally, capacity limits in certain establishments will be increased, and eliminated altogether in the case of outdoor areas in restaurants.
However, Puerto Rico is far from being back to its pre-Omicron levels. January was the deadliest month for COVID, with the total death toll at 536, and while hospitalization levels have dropped considerably since their peak, the current level—505 as of Monday the 31st—is still enough to put a strain on the Island’s health care system. Meanwhile, the positivity rate is currently at 20.01%. “The pandemic is not over,” said Lemuel Martínez, chairman of the Puerto Rico Society of Infectious Diseases. He also warned that the Island could see another spike in cases around Holy Week, from April 10th to April 16th. In fact, the relaxation of restrictions was done against advice from the governor’s coalition of scientists, who believed that they needed to be kept in place for several more weeks.
The past two weeks have also seen the Puerto Rico Department of Health grow less transparent in informing Puerto Ricans about the changing situation. The COVID reports posted daily on Twitter, which included details such as new cases, vaccination rates, and deaths per demographic, have now been pared down to two major statistics: deaths per day—split by the victims’ vaccination status—and hospitalizations.
Pro-statehood lawmakers express disappointment over potential Biden judicial picks
As President Biden fills judicial vacancies across the U.S., statehood-supporting officials, including Governor Pedro Pierluisi, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, and U.S. Congressman Darren Soto (D-FL), had recommended that Veronica Ferraiuoli Hornedo, an aide to Commissioner González and a Republican, be nominated to fill one of the three vacant seats on the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. With that recommendation seemingly ignored—she has not been vetted or interviewed, according to NBC News-- some Puerto Rico lawmakers have begun expressing their chagrin.
Further disheartening to statehood supporters is the identity of a person whom President Biden isapparently considering: Sulay Ríos-Fuentes, a public defender who has expressed sympathy for Puerto Rican independence and is viewed as a more progressive pick. “The White House has gone tone-deaf,” Puerto Rico Senator Carmelo Ríos Santiago, a Pierluisi ally with ties to the 2020 Biden campaign, told NBC News. While a Ríos-Fuentes confirmation would be a blow to statehood-supporters, it would not necessarily indicate that they have lost their influence: earlier in Biden’s term, the president appointed Gustavo Gelpí as a judge for the 1st District Court of appeals, selecting him over candidates with more progressive support.
FOMB Confirms Fiscal Plan for 2022
The Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) on Thursday certified the updated Fiscal Plan for Puerto Rico. The updated Fiscal Plan reflects the Plan of Adjustment recently confirmed by the U.S. District Court of the District of Puerto Rico. It would massively reduce the Commonwealth’s debt and reflects recent increases in federal funding and other updates to revenue and expense projections.
The updated Fiscal Plan reflects a turning point for Puerto Rico. This first Fiscal Plan after the confirmation of the Plan of Adjustment no longer focuses on rightsizing the Commonwealth government. The fiscal predictability provided by the exit from bankruptcy, together with the significant increase in federal funding, allows the government to increase public employee salaries and invest in more effective services for the people and businesses of Puerto Rico.
Speaking on Puerto Rico’s energy future, Resident Commissioner González stumps for natural gas
While expressing her support for Puerto Rico’s goal of ultimately obtaining 100% of its energy via renewable sources, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González (PR-R) argued that adopting natural gas would be necessary to get there. In a front-page interview with El Vocero, the resident commissioner indicated that “Puerto Rico must go on diversifying its energy industry into one that is economical. That’s why I believe so much in natural gas—which is the mechanism for the transition to renewable energy—because it’s clean, economical, and accessible and allows for the stability of the power grid...”
The Resident Commissioner’s support for natural gas is not recent: in 2017, she co-sponsored legislationto facilitate the export of natural gas to Puerto Rico. Additionally, her support for renewable energy has been, at best, inconsistent: almost exactly one year ago, she was one of the co-sponsors of Rep. Kelly Armstrong’s (R-ND) Keystone XL Pipeline Construction and Jobs Preservation Act, which would have, if passed, authorized the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, the subject of one of the most prominent environmental battles of the last decade.
View From The White House
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and attorneys general from seven other states filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden Administration to try to halt the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee and Parole Program, which allows some children from Central America to enter the U.S. to be reunited with their parents and legal guardians.
The U.S. informed Egypt that it will withhold $130 million in security assistance, after the State Department concluded that the Egyptian government had not done enough to protect the rights of political opponents, journalists, women and others.
In a win for environmental groups, a federal judge on Thursday threw out the administration’s plan to lease millions of acres in the Gulf of Mexico for offshore oil drilling.
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