THE LONG GAME: GOP takes House control (sort of); Biden to stress bipartisanship
Lawmakers reconvened this week for the start of the 118th Congress, but it was unlike any opening session in recent memory. For the first time in a century, the vote for speaker went to multiple ballots, as Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) fell far short of the necessary votes to secure the position—and actually lost ground as voting proceeded to a fifth ballot. Until members-elect select a speaker, all other business is on hold. When they finally get started, some big-picture issues are certain to be addressed in the months ahead. Among them is the issue of the nation’s debt ceiling. Conservative House members are likely to demand big cuts in spending or other policy changes to in order to vote for raising the debt ceiling. Another thing is certain: the new majority will spend a significant amount of time—and political capital—on investigations of the Biden administration and the president’s inner-circle. Rep. James Comer (R-KY), the incoming chair of the Oversight and Reform Committee, has signaled that his panel will launch investigations of the White House’s COVID response and that Dr. Anthony Fauci will be called as a witness. Finally, with the 2024 election on the horizon, Republicans will make time to investigate the president’s son, Hunter Biden.
Despite the partisanship that grips Capitol Hill, where both the House and Senate are to be governed by razor-thin majorities, President Biden is sending a strong signal of his intention to reach across the aisle. Biden is scheduled to travel on Wednesday to Kentucky to tout improvements made possible by the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed last year. Scheduled to join him is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), as well as Governors Mike DeWine (R-OH) and Andy Beshear (D-KY). In the coming weeks, as the State of the Union address approaches, Biden is expected to continue to emphasize the theme of bipartisanship and to point to recent legislative accomplishments that passed with support from both parties, including a recent technology bill and support for marriage equality.
Washington Watch is published weekly when Congress is in session. Published monthly during extended recess or adjournment.
Spotlight on Puerto Rico
FEMA denies Puerto Rican aid requests
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) rejected two requests filed by the Governor of Puerto Rico for more emergency funds to accelerate reconstruction after Hurricanes María and Fiona. The specific request was for a 30-day extension for 100 percent emergency work funding after Fiona. Because FEMA decided not to grant the extension, it will cover 90 percent of specific reconstruction costs, like debris removal, and the Puerto Rican government and/or municipalities will pay the remaining 10 percent. Any work completed within the first 60 days immediately following Hurricane Fiona will be 100 percent paid for. Work that started 60 days after the disaster will be paid on the 90/10 program.
Once new Congress is sworn-in, Puerto Rico Status Act may end up in limbo
As expected, the Puerto Rico Status Act did not get a vote in the Senate before the 117th Congress adjourned, leaving an uncertain future for the bill that sought to give Puerto Ricans the chance to change the territory's status through a federally-binding vote. The Biden administration announced its support of the bill and called on Congress to act swiftly right before the House passed the measure in a 233-191 vote. All "no" votes were from Republicans; 16 GOP members joined 217 Democrats to approve the bill. With the new Congress (hopefully) sworn in this week, the bill would require another vote in the House Natural Resources Committee, which is no longer chaired by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-N.M.), the bill's lead sponsor. Instead, the incoming Chairman, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), is not expected to make this bill a priority, to say the least. Westerman voted against the Puerto Rico Status Act.
Non-profit helps rebuild roofs neglected since Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico
PRoTechos, a nonprofit formed after Hurricane Maria to repair the roofs of family homes that didn't get government help to do so, discovered people living under roofs damaged not just by Irma and Maria which struck the Island in 2017 or Fiona in 2022, but also by Hurricane Georges which hit Puerto Rico in 1998. The Puerto Rican government recently said roughly 3,000 homes damaged by Maria were still covered in the blue FEMA-issued tarps that became a symbol of residents' wait for assistance after the storm. The non-profit estimates that the number may be closer to 15,000. Many are homes that were ineligible for government-funded repairs because owners lacked formal title or other documents. There are also roofs that government-contracted crews “fixed” so badly their work is falling apart. PRoTechos is a workforce-development initiative funded by a federal grant to train the construction workers that Puerto Rico will need to complete the billions of dollars' worth of post-Maria reconstruction projects that have yet to begin.
View From The White House
President Biden issued six end-of-the-year pardons last week, including for people who had completed their sentences for drug-related crimes and for an individual whose experience led to legal recognition of battered woman syndrome.
The Department of Health and Human Services issued a proposal on Thursday to partially rescind a Trump-era rule that had enabled medical workers to refuse to provide services that they objected to, including abortions, contraception or gender-affirming care.
President Biden will renominate dozens of people to key positions whose nominations lapsed at the end of the 117th Congress, including former Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti to be the U.S. ambassador to India.
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