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THE LONG GAME: Aid for Ukraine; SOTU preview

Despite the deep partisan rift in Washington and recent attempts by many Republicans to exploit the crisis in Ukraine to inflict political damage on President Biden, lawmakers of both parties appear poised to provide aid to the war-torn country. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) wrote in a memo to his colleagues that support for Ukraine would be a top priority. The White House requested $6.4 billion in humanitarian and security assistance on Friday. Congressional aides said that lawmakers would consider approximately $2.9 billion in aid through an emergency bill for the State Department and USAID, while $3.5 billion would be allocated to the Pentagon in a subsequent bill. This may only be an initial tranche of funds for Ukraine, as overall spending requests for Ukraine could change based on developments on the ground. Additionally, members of both parties appear to back sanctions on Russia beyond those imposed by the Biden Administration. Still, this has not stopped some prominent Republicans from blaming Biden for the crisis. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), for example, said that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was “an invitation to the autocrats of the world that maybe this was a good time to make a move.”

President Biden will deliver his first formal State of the Union address Tuesday night against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. Just weeks ago, it appeared that the speech would be seen as an attempt to reset his presidency and reignite support for chunks of his Build Back Better package. Instead, according to those briefed by White House staff last week, Biden is expected to focus on the Ukraine crisis, efforts to combat inflation, the benefits of the recent infrastructure law, and his recent nomination of judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. With the Omicron variant receding by most measures and the CDC last week easing its mask recommendations, the House of Representatives is lifting its mask mandate in time for the speech. Meanwhile, new fencing has been erected around the Capitol as officials in Washington, D.C. prepare for a potential influx of trucker convoys planning to protest Covid-19 restrictions.

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

While the Omicron surge looks increasingly distant and the COVID positivity rate (now at 5.2%) reaches its lowest point in two months, the Puerto Rico government, unlike most state governments in the United States, has chosen to maintain most of its current safety restrictions until at least March 31. These include mask mandates, vaccination mandates, reduced capacity limits and travel restrictions. The only executive order which has been relaxed has been the one mandating that students 5 to 11 years old be fully vaccinated to take in-person classes; now, students who have begun the vaccination process will be able to attend class before they are fully vaccinated.

Last Saturday marked the first day in two months with fewer than 100 people hospitalized for COVID—the current number is 95—and the seven-day average of new cases (including both confirmed and probable cases) is currently 204; it was 830 three weeks ago. Deaths, meanwhile, now total 4,110, up 165 from February 7, for an average of 55 deaths per week.

As demand increases, supply of centers for elder care dwindles

Puerto Rico’s population is getting older. With birthrates continually falling, the median age of Puerto Ricans has risen from 37.0 in 2010 to 43.2 in 2019. People 65 years or older, who in 2010 made up 15% of the Island’s population in 2010, comprised 19% in 2019. At the same time, many facilities that serve the Island’s elderly population are feeling the strain, with many of them closing even as demand for their services increases.

The reasons cited for the closings, according to a report by El Nuevo Día, include increasing costs—some directly tied to COVID, others tied to more general factors, such as the increase in the cost of essentials like food, water and power. In other cases, the inability to pay attractive wages has brought about staffing shortages. Many of the centers that remain open, meanwhile, are unable to cope with the demand yet are unable to raise prices, given the often-fixed income of many of Puerto Rico’s seniors. While raising prices might lower demand, it would do nothing to lower the need, leaving many of Puerto Rico’s seniors in the lurch.

Puerto Rico obtains first part of $900 million in transportation repair funds

President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $900 million over five years to repair and rebuild Puerto Rico’s roads, highways and bridges; last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that the first $173 million of the $900 million was now available for use. According to Governor Pedro Pierluisi, the funds will be used not only to increase street safety, but also to help finance a project in Road 2 in the municipality of Sabana Grande, as well as the repairs of a bridge in the municipality of Arecibo. The funds will not be used to mitigate increases in tolls, however. “[The funds] are good news for the Puerto Rico Roads Authority and the Puerto Rican people mainly, but we have to deal with these increases in a different way,” the governor stated.

“Bori Flu” Movement stages largest worker demonstration yet

Over the past six months, various groups of workers have been staging protests and strikes against austerity measures, each taking on the moniker of “flu”: “teacher’s flu” for teachers, “white flu” for healthcare workers, “red flu” for firefighters and “blue flu” for law enforcement. The various groups, and others, converged on February 18, under the moniker of Bori flu, a mass worker protest calling for higher wages, a dignified retirement and the end of austerity measures imposed by the Plan of Adjustment.

While the government had responded to prior protests by announcing, separately, salary increases of $500 per month (for firefighters and correctional workers), $1,000 per month (teachers), and 30% (paramedics and EMTS) these were largely received with skepticism due to the fact that the funds for most of these increases would come from federal sources and therefore expire in a few years’ time. After subsequent protests, Governor Pedro Pierluisi announced that the teachers’ salary bump would be permanent, and would eventually be paid for by the General Fund. This, however, was not enough to prevent the Puerto Rico Workers’ Central (CPT in Spanish) from taking further action on February 25th, timed to coincide with a meeting between leaders of various public sector unions and members of Governor Pierluisi’s staff. Given that the meeting did not end to the unions’ satisfaction, it is likely that protests will continue.


View From The White House

  • According to CBS News, Biden is considering issuing Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to certain Ukrainians living in the U.S. without documentation, protecting them from deportation.

  • As part of the recent bipartisan infrastructure act, the Department of Transportation announced $450 million in grant funding to help U.S. ports expand capacity and improve the movement of goods through the supply chain.

  • The Treasury Department on Friday announced a so-called general license allowing private companies and others to do business with Afghanistan, a move designed to provide an influx of funds into the country where the economy has collapsed since the Taliban’s takeover.

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