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WASHINGTON WATCH: January 9, 2024


HE LONG GAME: Leaders reach spending deal; Lawmakers react to Sec. Austin incident

Congressional leaders announced a deal Sunday to fund the government for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2024. The agreement comes not a moment too soon: Lawmakers have just days ten left to avert a partial government shutdown. On January 19, funding for several key departments and programs—including military construction, the Food and Drug Administration, Agriculture, Veterans’ Affairs, and Housing and Urban Development– runs out; funding for the rest of the government expires on February 2. The agreement announced jointly by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) calls for $1.66 trillion in spending, including an increase in Pentagon spending. It also includes a clawback of some unspent COVID-19 funds, while another $10 billion would be cut from the IRS. However, several conservative House members, including those who helped orchestrate the ouster of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), have voiced stiff opposition to the deal. The House Freedom Caucus wrote on social media that the proposal was a “total failure.” To appease conservatives, Johnson said that he would support policy riders to the individual spending bills. Far-right members have pushed for such measures to end what they call “woke” government policies. Democrats insist that the appropriations bills must exclude such riders. Stay tuned.

A growing number of lawmakers from both parties voiced alarm over the failure of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to inform the White House about his recent hospitalization. Two GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee, Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Jim Banks (R-IN), called for Austin’s removal. The committee’s leaders, Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) and ranking Democrat Adam Smith (D-WA), were more measured in their response. “Transparency is vitally important…Sec. Austin must provide these additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible,” said the pair in a joint statement. The senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), called for lawmakers to be briefed on the timeline of the incident. Another Democrat, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, commended Austin for "taking ownership" of the situation and said that an "important conversation" must occur following his return to work. Today, the Pentagon disclosed that Sec. Austin had surgery after a prostate cancer diagnosis, which led to medical complications and a lengthy hospitalization.

Washington Watch is published weekly when Congress is in session. Published monthly during extended recess or adjournment.


Spotlight on Puerto Rico

Island birth rate plummets in 2023

The number of births in Puerto Rico dropped dramatically in 2023 falling to their lowest levels since record-keeping began in 1888. Only 17,772 births were registered during the year compared to 19,163 births in 2022, a sharper decrease than was expected and less than half of those reported just a decade ago. Demographers call the decrease worrisome and warn that the trend is expected to continue based on current fertility rates. A fertility rate of 2.1 would allow for parental replacement; Puerto Rico’s current figure is below .90.  

Puerto Rican legislators to consider “refundable incentive”

When they begin their new legislative session this week, Puerto Rican lawmakers are expected to approve a resolution, RCC 583, that would allow the government to return an estimated $250 million to taxpayers. The mechanism is known as a “refundable incentive” and would benefit approximately 177,000 taxpayers. Both House Speaker Rafael "Tatito" Hernández Montañez and House Treasury Committee Chairman Jesús Santa said that they expected the resolution to pass on the first day of the new session.

Major changes to tax system not a certainty in 2024, official cautions

An official of the Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency acknowledged that the outlook for changes to Puerto Rico’s tax system "is not necessarily in our favor" in 2024. Although talks could be initiated in the coming months, Omar J. Marrero Díaz, the executive director of the agency, cautioned that the looming 2024 elections and the number of pending fiscal issues could impede the approval of any changes. Among the topics to be addressed during the six-month legislative session will be the Island’s budget and the restructuring of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) debt.


View From The White House

  • President Biden spoke out about the “poison” of white supremacy during a visit Monday to a church in Charleston, South Carolina where nine Black congregants were murdered in 2015.

  • In a move that could greatly impact the “gig economy,” the Department of Labor is set to release a final rule as soon as this week that will make it more difficult for companies to treat employees as independent contractors.

  • Arguing that a state cannot run its own immigration system, the Biden administration sued the state of Texas last week over its new law that empowers local police to arrest migrants.



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