WASHINGTON WATCH: November 16, 2021
THE LONG GAME: Biden signs infrastructure bill; Senate to take up NDAA instead of BBBA
President Biden on Monday signed into law the sweeping $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. Members of the House passed the legislation before departing Washington for a one-week break. The vote was 228-206; thirteen Republicans broke ranks to support the bill, while six progressive Democrats-- upset that the legislation did not move in tandem with the president’s $1.75 trillion social spending bill-- voted against it. The legislation calls for $550 billion in new spending over five years on roads, bridges, airports, ports and public transit, plus $65 billion for improvements to the nation’s broadband infrastructure. Electric vehicles would get a boost with $7.5 billion to be spent on a network of plug-in electric vehicle charging stations. The bill’s passage represented a victory for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and President Biden but came too late to help Democrats in the off-year elections, particularly in the Virginia governor’s race. On Sunday, the White House announced that Biden had selected former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu to oversee implementation of the package.
While some Democrats had hoped that the Senate would take up the president’s Build Back Better Act (BBBA) this week, the upper chamber will instead begin floor action on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote a letter to colleagues on Sunday telling them to expect action on the defense spending policy bill, which will include a vote to repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization. It is likely to be merged with the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which, among other things, would help increase high-tech manufacturing competitiveness with China and address immediate supply chain issues. Meanwhile, Senators are also waiting for scoring of the Build Back Better Act by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). This increases the odds that Senate action on the spending bill will slip into December.
Washington Watch is published weekly when Congress is in session. Published monthly during extended recess or adjournment.
Spotlight on Puerto Rico
SSI gets its day in the Supreme Court
Even as President Joe Biden speaks in favor of allowing Puerto Rico residents to be eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI)—a federal benefit available to the elderly and disabled—his Deputy Solicitor General Curtis Gannon argued for the opposite last week, speaking before the United States Supreme Court during arguments in U.S. v. Jose Luis Vaello-Madero. After two lower courts ruled that residents of Puerto Rico are constitutionally entitled to the benefit, it is now up to the Supreme Court to decide whether that will indeed be the case; if they affirm the lower courts’ opinion, SSI will become available to some 700,000 Puerto Ricans, and to eligible residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.
Of the justices hearing the case, it was Justice Sonia Sotomayor who pushed back most assertively against Gannon’s arguments that the United States was entitled to treat Puerto Rico and other territories differently. She also implied that the distinction between states and territories was immaterial, given that the SSI program is federal. “I don’t understand what the different relationship with Puerto Rico has to do with this program because there’s no cost to the government,” she said. “The money’s going directly to the people, not to the government.”
GAO rejects permanent law to allow the allocation of $3 billion per year in Medicaid funds to Puerto Rico
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Monday rejected the Biden Administration’s position that a December 2019 federal law allows for the allocation “in perpetuity” of about $3 billion annually in Medicaid funds to Puerto Rico. This GAO’s analysis could create an enormous problem as the Island was trying to avoid the possibility of a fiscal abyss in Puerto Rico's health system and of a judicial challenge, if a new law is not approved by December 3. According to the GAO, if new funds are not authorized, Puerto Rico’s Medicaid allocation would fall to approximately $392.5 million annually, a reduction of around $2.4 billion compared to the amount allocated in the previous federal fiscal year.
At the end of September, Congress temporarily extended until December 3 the same level of Medicaid allocations from federal fiscal year 2021, which reached about $2.8 billion annually or about $240 million monthly, with a federal contribution for medical services of 76%. Puerto Rico is currently expected to receive an annual Medicaid allocation of $3.6 billion if the current language in the reconciliation bill stays.
Puerto Rico coronavirus statistics for November 15
According to the Puerto Rico Health Department, 323,872 people are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, an increase of 936 since November 8. The increase between November 1 and November 8 was 808, making this the second consecutive week of increases. The death toll is currently 3,257, with 11 of those registered since November 8. Comparatively, 12 people died during the previous week. Currently, the Puerto Rico Health Department estimates that there are 2,848,293 people in Puerto Rico who are eligible for the vaccine, and that 81.6% of that amount has been fully vaccinated, while 90% has been partially vaccinated; however, these figures do not take into account children 5 to 11 years old, who are now eligible to be vaccinated, and who have begun receiving their first doses this week.
Given the upward shift in the COVID infection rates over the past two weeks and an increasing positivity rate—it is currently 3.1%, up from lows of 1.88% in October—the Health Department has boosted both testing efforts and promotions of the booster shots, which so far have been distributed among 11.8% of the population. Meanwhile, the government, which in the past week had announced a mandate stating that businesses with more than 50 employees would need to require employee vaccinations or continued negative testing, issued a new executive order on Monday.
First week of Plan of Adjustment hearings concludes
With all of the agreements with creditors finalized and the legislation concluded, the next step for the Plan of Adjustment (POA), which would significantly cut the current debt and allow Puerto Rico to issue new bonds, is for Judge Laura Taylor Swain to decide if the plan is acceptable. To that end, the federal judge has been holding hearings on the matter for the past week, which will continue this week.
Even though, according to media reports, the majority of those in the voting classes in the bankruptcy case (47 of the 61) officially support it, including 90% of all bond classes, it is the judge who has the last word. It is expected that Judge Swain’s decision on the pensions is likely to determine the fate of the POA. The confirmation hearings are expected to last until the end of the month.
View From The White House
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th district—which included two judges appointed by Donald Trump and one by Ronald Reagan—issued a ruling Friday to halt the administration’s vaccine or testing requirement for private employers.
Biden’s job approval dropped to a new low in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday, with 41 percent reporting that they approve of his performance, while 53 percent disapproved.
In an effort to help re-establish anti-discrimination protections, the Biden administration announced Thursday that it was rescinding a Trump-era rule that had expanded religious exemptions for federal contractors.
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