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WASHINGTON WATCH: November 30, 2021


THE LONG GAME: Lawmakers return to address potential shutdown, debt ceiling

Lawmakers return to Washington this week and the number one priority is ensuring that the week does not end with a government shutdown. The federal government is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that expires on December 3. Leading Democrats are still hopeful that, even if another short-term CR is needed, progress can be made on regular appropriations bills, or an omnibus appropriations package. As an incentive, according to Roll Call, House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) is opposed to including so-called “anomalies” in any stopgap spending bill. (Anomalies allow federal agencies to adjust their spending levels and start new projects that would not otherwise be allowed under a continuing resolution.) Meanwhile, the top Senate GOP appropriator, Sen. Richard Shelby (D-AL), said that it would take a “miracle” to work out a long-term deal by mid-December and anticipates a longer CR that would last until February or March. Among the major areas of disagreement between the two parties is the 2 percent increase in defense funding called for by the House spending bills, as compared to the 16 percent boost that domestic programs would receive.

Time is running out for Congress to tackle a second major deadline: the looming federal debt ceiling. According to recent media reports, Senate Democratic and Republican leaders appear to be taking an increasingly conciliatory approach to solving the looming debt ceiling crisis. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) met to discuss the topic recently, according to Politico. When asked about the debt limit, McConnell said: “we’ll figure out how to avoid default, we always do.” Schumer, for his part, said: “we hope to do it in a bipartisan way.” The Hill quoted Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the second-ranking Senate Republican, as saying: “I just think there’s a realization that this has to get done.” This is in contrast to the harsh rhetoric the leaders aimed at each other in October, when McConnell said that Democrats would have to solve the issue without Republican help. The Treasury Department has said that the government has until approximately December 15 to raise the nation’s borrowing limit to avoid default.

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


Spotlight on Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico coronavirus statistics for November 29

According to the Puerto Rico Health Department, 325,261 people are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, an increase of 521 since November 22. This represents a decrease in the rate of new cases, given that the increase between November 15 November 22 was 868. The rate of deaths held steady for the past two weeks: the death toll is currently 3,269, with 6 of those registered since November 22. Comparatively, 6 people died from the virus between November 15 and November 22.

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 82.4% of that amount has been fully vaccinated, while 91% 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 since approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children, and who began receiving their first doses earlier this month. According to El Nuevo Día, there are 227,000 of Puerto Rico residents within this age range, and of these, 53,480, or 24%, had already received their first doses by Thanksgiving. The Health Department’s goal is to vaccinate 95% of the 5-11 population, and the government has put into place mandates to incentivize vaccination, with an executive order stating that children 5 to 11 years old must be vaccinated by January 31, 2022 in order to attend in-person classes.

Despite global upward trends and increased fears stoked by the discovery of new COVID variants, Puerto Rico remains in a relatively solid position when it comes to handling COVID. The most recent uptick in cases has showed signs of abating, and positivity rates are currently at 3.08%, lower than the 3.10% of two weeks ago. Additionally, the Puerto Rico Health Department has declared that it is confident that it will be able to detect the new Omnicron variant if and when it arrives on Puerto Rico.

Plan of Adjustment hearings conclude

After more than two weeks, the hearing on the Puerto Plan of Adjustment (POA) that would significantly cut Puerto Rico’s debt concluded just before Thanksgiving. It is now up to Judge Laura Taylor Swain to confirm the plan. Her ruling, which could represent a big step to end Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy process under PROMESA, could come before the holidays.

The POA, negotiated by the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (FOMB), is supported by most of Puerto Rico’s diverse group creditors, ranging from the public employee union to bondholders and other creditors, as well as the Governor and the Legislative leadership. During the hearing, Judge Swain also heard from Puerto Ricans who expressed objections and concerns. Among those who spoke were representatives for Puerto Rico’s teachers union, who objected to reforming the pension system for those teachers who have not yet retired.

DOE awards funding for study of small reactors

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded funding to study the potential siting of small reactors in Puerto Rico. The funding would go to the Nuclear Alternative Project (NAP), a non-profit that brings together Puerto Rican engineers from across the U.S. nuclear industry. NAP has identified two potential sites on the Island. According to World Nuclear News, NAP previously conducted a study that concluded that small reactors and microreactors “would be feasible to complement Puerto Rico's increasingly solar-dominated grid, while increasing resilience and lowering power prices for its manufacturing economy.” The funding is in the amount of $1.6 million.

University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras exits strike

Striking students at the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus allowed the university gates to open for regular operations last week, claiming that their three weeks of protest led to their demands being met. These demands, codified in the agreement between the General Student Council and the University’s administration, include a commitment to holding 54 percent of classes in-person, longer library hours, the creation of a committee to address problems with student housing, and a commitment by the chancellor to publicly condemn budget cuts, the Puerto Rico Fiscal Plan, and the closing of UPR universities. Five other universities in the UPR system remain on strike.


View From The White House

  • The Biden Administration approved a major offshore wind energy project to be located off the coast of Rhode Island that would send power to New York’s Long Island, generating enough electricity to power 70,000 homes by 2023.

  • With Biden’s selection of Shalanda Young as budget director-- where she would work alongside deputy budget director Nani Coloretti, a Filipino American-- two women of color are set to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

  • The Interior Department announced Friday that oil and gas companies would be required to pay more to drill for oil and gas on public lands, saying in a report that the current rate of 12.5 percent, which was first imposed in the 1920s, is “out of step with modern times.”

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