THE LONG GAME: Zelensky appeals to Congress; Anti-Lynching bill passes House and Senate
Members of the House and Senate conducted a call over Zoom with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday. About 280 lawmakers participated in the call, during which Zelensky appealed for additional military and humanitarian aid, as well as for a global ban on the purchase of Russian oil. Zelensky also called for help to “control the skies” over Ukraine, though-- according to most sources-- stopped short of calling for a no-fly zone over his country, which could escalate tensions between Russia and the west. Instead, he urged help securing more Soviet-era fighter jets to counter Russian attacks. Under this plan, Poland and Romania would transfer jets to Ukraine, while the U.S. and NATO countries would compensate those two countries. “President Zelenskyy made a desperate plea for Eastern European countries to provide Russian-made planes to Ukraine,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in a statement. “These planes are very much needed. And I will do all I can to help the administration to facilitate their transfer.” The Biden administration sent a $10 billion request to Congress last week. The hope is that the request will not get tangled up in other appropriations debates.
After approximately 200 prior attempts to change lynching laws, the House passed legislation last week making lynching a federal hate crime. The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act passed the House by a 422-3 margin. The legislation is named after the 14-year-old who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. The three Republicans voting against the bill were Andrew Clyde (R-GA), Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Chip Roy (R-TX). "By passing my Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, the House has sent a resounding message that our nation is finally reckoning with one of the darkest and most horrific periods of our history,” said chief sponsor Bobby Rush (D-IL). The bill would specify lynching as a hate crime carrying a punishment of up to 30 years in prison. The Senate passed the bill unanimously last night and the president is expected to sign it.
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
As Puerto Rico’s COVID situation continues on the upswing, Governor Pedro Pierluisi has announced a significant relaxation of COVID prevention mandates, including an end to capacity limits and to the mask mandate outside of healthcare centers. Although the Department of Health may set specific context-sensitive mandates, and private businesses may set whichever rules they wish, the wider mandate is now over and the new rules will take effect on March 10.
Until this week, Puerto Rico’s COVID restrictions remained some of the most stringent in U.S. states and their territories, contributing to its better-than-the-average COVID numbers. The positivity rate is currently 4.1%, and the number of hospitalized is 65, thirty less than a week ago. Deaths now total 4,134, a difference of 24 from last week. Additionally, the seven-day average of new cases (including both confirmed and probable cases) is now 179, compared to last week, when it was 204. Still, some medical experts argue that the situation in Puerto Rico remains precarious. “More than a million people need the booster. Numbers have gone down, but with the new, very contagious sub strain [BA.2], masking and distancing need to be maintained, especially in enclosed spaces,” epidemiologist Juan Carlos Reyes told El Nuevo Día last week.
Census: no gender pay gap in Puerto Rico
While the gender pay gap continues to be significant across the United States, Puerto Rico represents an exception, according to data from the latest U.S. Census. Whereas the “National median earnings for civilians who worked full-time, year-round in the past 12 months was $53,544 for men compared to $43,394 for women,” according to the Census Bureau, in Puerto Rico, the difference between the median salary for each gender was considered not statistically significant. In fact, to the extent that a measurable difference existed, it was skewed in favor of women: the median salary for men in Puerto Rico was $22,804, compared to $23,478 for women.
Governor Pedro Pierluisi vetoes labor reform bill
P.C. 3, the latest iteration of the Puerto Rico Legislature’s Labor Reform Bill, was vetoed by Governor Pierluisi last week, who argued that it demonstrated a lack of “consensus” and that it contained language “harmful to workers’ rights.” The bill had raised complaints from the Puerto Rico chapter of Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), who argued that it would present onerous new costs to employers. The bill would have entitled part-time workers to vacation time, increased sick leave, set overtime pay at twice the pay after ten hours of overtime work, and overturned elements of a previous law, Act 4-2017, which had been soundly criticized by workers. Lawmakers announced that a new bill incorporating the governor’s suggestions, P.C. 1244, will be filed this week.
Biden plans to increase earthquake-response assistance
President Biden last week announced that he would amend the existing Major Disaster Declaration—issued by the Trump administration in response to the earthquakes that rocked the south of Puerto Rico in 2019 and 2020—increasing the level of federal funding for the response. Whereas the original declaration set Federal funding for Public Assistance, Hazard Mitigation, and Other Needs Assistance at 75 percent of the total eligible costs, the Federal share of the costs will now be 90 percent. This boost is expected to save the Puerto Rico government millions in reconstruction costs.
View From The White House
In an interview, White House chief of staff Ron Klain said that the administration was considering extending a freeze on federal student loan payments before it expires in May, and hinted that an executive order on student debt forgiveness might also be issued.
A Trump-appointed district court judge in Texas ruled Friday that the Biden Administration cannot exempt unaccompanied children from Title 42, the policy that allows the U.S. to turn away migrants at the border on public health grounds.
According to an NPR/PBS/Marist poll, President Biden’s approval rating jumped 8 points following his State of the Union speech, increasing to 47 percent, with 52 percent of Americans approving of his handling of the Ukraine crisis.
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