WASHINGTON WATCH: October 19, 2021
THE LONG GAME: Critical negotiations continue on spending plan; Schumer pushes voting bill
The White House ramped up signals that it wants to see lawmakers make progress on its spending and infrastructure bills. In Connecticut on Friday, President Biden emphasized that the spending bill, which still has a $3.5 trillion price tag, would be deficit neutral. The plan is “paid for,” he stressed, because “big corporations and the very wealthy” will “start paying their fair share.” He added that nobody with incomes of less than $400,000 per year would see a tax increase. Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are looking at the end of the month as a target date for passing both the infrastructure and reconciliation packages. However, so far, little progress has been achieved on negotiating differences between centrist and progressive Democrats on the social spending plan. Over the weekend, it was reported that a major element of the president’s climate agenda—a program to replace coal- and gas-fired plants with renewable energy sources—would be scrapped at the insistence of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). The New York Times reported that the bill is now being rewritten without the $150 billion clean energy proposal, and that other policies are being considered to cut carbon emissions. Since every Democratic vote is critical, numerous meetings with Members of Congress are taking place with President Biden at the White House today.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sent a letter to his caucus on Thursday explaining that he would bring up a voting rights bill for a procedural vote this week. “We cannot allow conservative-controlled states to double down on their regressive and subversive voting bills,” Schumer wrote, adding that the Freedom to Vote Act would “right the ship of our democracy.” The legislation would, among other things, make election day a public holiday, ensure that each state offers same-day voter registration, set minimum standards for mail-in voting and ban partisan gerrymandering. The bill would need the support of ten Republicans to advance to the floor which seems unlikely after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the bill as a “power grab” by the left.
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 October 18
According to the Puerto Rico Health Department, 320,676 people are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, an increase of 738 since October 11. This points to a continuing decrease in the rate of new cases, as the increase between October 4 and October 11 was 940. The death toll is currently 3,207, with 15 of those registered since October 11. Comparatively, 27 people died from the virus between during the previous week.
Currently, there are an estimated 2,848,293 people in Puerto Rico who are eligible for the vaccine; 88.3% of that amount has been partially vaccinated, while 80.3% has been fully vaccinated. Despite the success in lowering COVID cases and deaths—although still not to the lows seen in June this year—the Puerto Rican government has continued enforcing most of the anti-COVID measures outlined in Executive Order 2021-065; only the rule forcing establishments serving the public to close between midnight and 5:00 a.m., and forbidding, during those hours, both the sale and public consumption of alcohol, has been nullified.
2020 Census reflects changing Puerto Rican attitudes toward racial identity
Puerto Rico’s national narrative has historically emphasized the concept of Puerto Ricans as a mixture of three different peoples—the Native Taínos who originally inhabited the Island, the Spanish colonizers who occupied the Island for 400 years, and the Africans forcibly brought in by colonizers as part of the slave trade. According to the 2020 Census, ideas regarding race may be changing. Whereas 2,825,100 Puerto Ricans identified as solely white in the 2010 Census, that amount plummeted by 80% in 2020.
“Puerto Ricans themselves are understanding their whiteness comes with an asterisk,” Yarimar Bonilla, a political anthropologist and director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, told the Associated Press. Changes in the way the census is worded may have also contributed to the shift.
Continuing Puerto Rico blackouts lead to new protests, investigations
Puerto Rico’s increasingly unreliable power grid has been making life harder for weeks now, with almost daily hours-long blackouts resulting in worse health outcomes, greater anxiety, and lost income. This week, the crisis led thousands to take to the streets in San Juan, calling for an end to the contract that privatized management of the grid and assigned it to LUMA Energy. Among those in attendance were government officials including Comerío mayor Joséan Santiago; electrical workers who had previously warned of the consequences of the contract with LUMA; and Puerto Ricans who have seen their livelihoods threatened by the lack of reliable power.
Meanwhile, the House Natural Resources Committee continued its attempts to exert some oversight after LUMA CEO Wayne Stensby failed to fully answer the committee’s questions about LUMA’s performance. Two days after a congressional hearing on the matter, the committee sent Stensby a letter requesting access to key information, including, according to an NBC.com article on the matter, “the number of experienced workers Luma Energy employs to fix damaged power lines, as well as compensation packages and titles of employees who earn more than $200,000 a year.”
The other privatization battle: Puerto Rico’s beaches
As developers and millionaires have worked to close off parts of the coasts to the public, in places like Vieques, Santa Isabel on the south, Dorado on the north, and Rincón on the west, some local residents are fighting back. In Rincón, more than 500 police officers were mobilized in response to the community outcry against the construction of a new private pool built into Los Almendros public beach, which cost at least $630,803 in overtime pay, not counting associated costs.
These battles are not just about recreation or economics: there is a vital environmental element at play. As described in The Huffington Post, Puerto Rico’s coastal areas are not only extremely susceptible to the effects of climate change, they are also home to several already-endangered fauna and flora, which the new construction has further jeopardized.
View From The White House
Led by former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, the White House released a report on Friday outlining its goals for mitigating the financial and economic dangers associated with climate change, including protecting pensions and savings from climate-related financial risk.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas wrote in a memo that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is ending the practice of deportation raids at worksites, adding that such raids go against the department’s civil rights code.
The Biden Administration announced on Friday that travel restrictions for fully vaccinated international visitors will be lifted starting November 8.
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