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The Morning Dispatch: Congress’ Lengthy December To-Do List
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The Morning Dispatch: Congress’ Lengthy December To-Do List

The legislative branch has a lot on its plate before the holiday recess.

Happy Wednesday! Some free mid-week advice: If you’re a college football coach quitting your job right before the College Football Playoff, don’t wait for your players to find out from news reports, belatedly call a 7 a.m. meeting to discuss your decision the following morning, and then leave said meeting without answering any questions after just two minutes. It’s not a good look.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Dr. Uğur Şahin—the co-founder of BioNTech who helped develop Pfizer’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccine—told The Wall Street Journal Tuesday that, even if the Omicron variant leads to more breakthrough COVID-19 infections, he believes the vaccines will continue to protect against severe disease. “If a virus achieves immune escape, it achieves it against antibodies, but there is the second level of immune response that protects from severe disease—the T-cells,” he said. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said yesterday that as of Tuesday morning, 44 Omicron variant cases had been confirmed by 11 European countries and that “all cases for which there is information available on severity were either asymptomatic or had mild symptoms.”

  • Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell signaled a much more hawkish approach to inflation on Tuesday, telling the Senate Banking Committee it would be “appropriate” for the Fed to finish tapering its asset purchases “a few months sooner” than it had previously anticipated and that “it’s probably a good time to retire” the word “transitory.” The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 both fell about 1.9 percent yesterday.

  • President Biden on Tuesday signed into law four bipartisan bills aimed at helping veterans and military families: The Protecting Moms Who Served Act, the Hire Veteran Health Heroes Act, the Colonel John M. McHugh Tuition Fairness for Survivors Act, and a measure requiring the Government Accountability Office to study potential racial disparities in the administration of VA benefits.

  • The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reported Tuesday that U.S. house prices increased 18.5 percent year-over-year in the third quarter of 2021 and 4.2 percent quarter-over-quarter. The FHFA also announced yesterday it is increasing the cap on the size of mortgage loans eligible to be backed by the government to $647,200 in most of the United States and up to $970,800 in the country’s highest-cost areas.

  • A Human Rights Watch report based on dozens of on-the-ground interviews and published Tuesday found that Taliban forces likely killed or “forcibly disappeared” more than 100 former members of the Afghan National Security Forces in Afgahnistan’s Ghazni, Helmand, Kunduz, and Kandahar provinces alone over the past three months.

  • Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson said yesterday that Mark Meadows, Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, has been cooperating with the January 6 Select Committee through his attorney, producing thousands of emails and agreeing to appear soon for an initial deposition. Meadows and the committee could end up disagreeing, however, about what information is protected by executive privilege.

  • The State Department formally removed the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) from the United States’ list of foreign terrorist organization on Tuesday, citing a 2016 Peace Accord with the Colombian government. “[FARC] no longer exists as a unified organization that engages in terrorism or terrorist activity or has the capability or intent to do so,” Secretary Antony Blinken said.

  • A Small Business Administration (SBA) inspector general report published Tuesday found the SBA issued nearly $3.7 billion in COVID-19 relief to entities on the Treasury Department’s “Do Not Pay” list that the inspector general had previously identified as “potential fraud risks.”

  • Honduras elected leftist Xiomara Castro its first female president yesterday. National Party candidate Nasry Asfura conceded Tuesday night as the country’s former first lady led 53 percent to 34 percent with just over half of the votes counted.

  • TV personality and surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz announced Tuesday he is running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.

Congress’ Lengthy December To-Do List

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.)

Slightly more than two months ago, we devoted an issue of TMD to the legislative pileup in Congress, as the federal government was days away from both shutting down and defaulting on its debt, and Democrats were rapidly approaching their self-imposed deadlines to advance the Build Back Better Act and bipartisan infrastructure deal.

Today, we are devoting an issue of TMD to the legislative pileup in Congress, as the federal government is days away from both shutting down and defaulting on its debt, and Democrats are rapidly approaching their self-imposed deadline to advance the Build Back Better Act. At least they took care of the bipartisan infrastructure deal!

(The Senate also has to approve the annual National Defense Authorization Act, but The Hill reported late last night a bipartisan deal is likely to be struck today after hitting a snag earlier in the week.)

It’s not uncommon for lawmakers to leave legislative priorities to the last minute—President Trump signed Republicans’ 2017 tax reform package into law three days before Christmas—but it’s shaping up to be a busy few weeks, even by Washington standards. Sen. Patrick Leahy—the retiring chair of the Appropriations Committee—told reporters on Monday he was so confident the Senate would be in session late into the month that he and his wife bought a Christmas tree for their place in the capital.

Between TMD and Uphill, The Dispatch will cover many of these efforts in more detail as they progress, but we thought we’d provide you with a general overview of what’s on tap as the calendar turns to December (how is it already December?!).

Funding the Government

Just hours before the government was set to shut down at the end of September, majorities in Congress were able to cobble together and pass a continuing resolution that funded the federal government at existing levels through December 3, theoretically giving lawmakers time to work out their differences and pass a longer-term appropriations package. Well, December 3 is Friday and—you’re not going to believe this—it seems lawmakers have not worked out their differences on a longer-term appropriations package.

GOP Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, however, told reporters this week that there is “absolutely no appetite” for a shutdown on either side of the political aisle, so another short-term continuing resolution is expected. Democrats can pass the stopgap measure along party lines in the House, but at least 10 Republican votes will be required to overcome a filibuster in the Senate; a vote in Congress’ lower chamber could come as early as today in order to provide the Senate enough time to advance the bill to President Biden’s desk.

But lawmakers have not yet agreed how long to kick the can down the road. Because a continuing resolution would more or less freeze in place the budget that former President Donald Trump signed into law last year, Democrats would prefer to reach a longer-term deal sooner rather than later, while Republicans are generally fine with waiting. In fact, some GOP officials have said they’re content riding out the remaining 10 months of the fiscal year on a continuing resolution—forgoing their preferred bumps in defense spending—if Democrats refuse to drop certain progressive provisions from a broader appropriations bill, like the removal of the Hyde Amendment that prohibits federal funding from going to abortion.

Democrats initially had hoped to extend government funding for just two additional weeks—upping pressure on Republicans to agree to a longer-term deal before the holidays—but momentum seems to be trending toward a continuing resolution that expires in January or February of next year.

Raising the Debt Limit

If and when lawmakers stave off a government shutdown, they’ll quickly have to turn their attention towards preventing the United States from defaulting on its debt. Uphill explained the process well back in August: 

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 suspended the debt ceiling entirely for a period of two years—a move that proved fortuitous, given the titanic pile of pandemic spending that lurked just around the corner. [But] that provision expired—automatically snapping the debt ceiling to the current level of debt and putting Congress on a short clock to raise the ceiling again. 

As a matter of law, Congress decides how much money comes into and out of the hands of the federal government when it passes tax and spending bills. When tax revenues aren’t large enough to cover the spending Congress has authorized—which, in modern times, is always—the Treasury Department raises the difference by issuing bonds to borrow the rest. But the Treasury can only do this up to the limit prescribed by Congress—the federal debt ceiling.

After an inordinate amount of partisan bickering earlier this year, a handful of Republicans in mid-October ultimately relented on their demands that Democrats raise the debt limit on their own through the reconciliation process and allowed a $480 billion increase to pass, punting the issue into December. “I will not provide such assistance again if your all-Democrat government drifts into another avoidable crisis,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote to President Biden at the time.

As with the short-term government funding deal, the extra time lawmakers bought themselves on the debt limit is just about up. In a letter to congressional leaders a few weeks ago, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said she could not guarantee the government would be able to finance its operations beyond December 15.

“I cannot overstate how critical it is that Congress address [the debt limit],” Yellen told the Senate Banking Committee yesterday. “America must pay its bills on time and in full. If we do not, we will eviscerate our current recovery. In a matter of days, the majority of Americans would suffer financial pain as critical payments, like Social Security checks and military paychecks, would not reach their bank accounts, and that would likely be followed by a deep recession.”

Congressional leaders haven’t announced any breakthroughs yet, but negotiations seem to be far less contentious than they were a few months ago. “The government will not default, as it never has,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. “The Majority Leader and I have been having discussions on the way forward.”

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed similar sentiments in a floor speech. “I recently had a good conversation with the Republican leader about this issue,” he said. “I expect to continue those talks on achieving a bipartisan solution to addressing the debt limit.”

What remains unclear, however, is the mechanism by which the debt ceiling will be raised given McConnell’s warning to Biden back in October. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin told reporters earlier this week one option could be an expedited reconciliation process, with Republicans agreeing to forgo the typical debate and amendment time and Democrats agreeing to raise the increase on their own.

“I think that that’s our responsibility, to make sure that we take care of the debt ceiling,” Manchin said. “Democrats are now in control, so we want to make sure that we do it and do it right.”

Passing the Build Back Better Act

Speaking of Sen. Joe Manchin, he and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema hold all the power when it comes to Democratic leadership’s goal to get the Build Back Better Act to President Biden’s desk by Christmas. The House voted 220-213 on November 19 to advance the $1.75 trillion environmental and social safety net package, but its path in the evenly divided Senate is far more treacherous.

Because the legislation faces unanimous opposition from Republicans, Senate Democrats will have to wrangle their entire caucus behind a version of the bill. And given their caucus includes both Manchin and Sen. Bernie Sanders, that’s proving to be a difficult task.

Manchin’s gripes with the legislation are well known at this point. He opposes the four weeks of paid family leave Democrats included in the House version of the bill, and has qualms with including a methane fee on oil and gas companies, expanding Medicare and Medicaid benefits, and creating new tax credits to incentivize the purchase of electric vehicles. Plus, he’s repeatedly expressed overall concerns about inflation and the national debt, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found last month the legislation would add about $160 billion to the deficit over the next decade.

Democrats, however, remain convinced they can secure the West Virginian’s vote. Schumer had what he described as a “good meeting” with Manchin on Tuesday, declaring once again that they’re “going to get this bill done with 50 Democrats before Christmas.” 

Manchin, for his part, had a more muted response to the meeting. “The different energy stuff is what we mostly talked about,” he told reporters. “Just basically looking at different things that we agree [on] and adjustments that need to be made.” He has not yet committed to supporting the legislation when Schumer brings it to the floor (reportedly the week of December 13), and “people familiar with his thinking” told Axios last week he likely wants to wait until 2022 before making a final decision on the package.

Some of Manchin’s Democratic colleagues are fed up. “God Bless Joe Manchin,” Sen. Dick Durbin told reporters yesterday. “But how many months has this gone on? I told him a month ago, ‘For God Sake Joe, declare victory and close the deal.’”

Even if Democrats were to get Manchin onboard, it wouldn’t necessarily spell the end of the BBB saga. Any changes made to the House-passed legislation to earn Manchin and Sinema’s support would then have to be sent back to Congress’ lower chamber, where progressives could balk at the scaling back of their priorities. And looming over negotiations is the nonpartisan Senate parliamentarian, who is expected to issue her ruling in the coming days as to whether certain provisions of the bill—including those pertaining to immigration and prescription drug prices—comply with the Byrd rule that restricts what can be included in the reconciliation process. 

Worth Your Time

  • New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose has an interesting take on Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s decision this week to leave the company: Tech moguls are getting “bored and restless” at the empires that they’ve built. “This year’s big wave of tech executive departures partly reflects the fact that the biggest Silicon Valley giants are so huge and profitable that they no longer need visionary founders in charge—just competent managers who can keep the money-printing machines running and avoid any catastrophic mistakes,” he writes. “But it also hints at how little fun the titans of tech seem to be having. The founders of today’s biggest tech giants are growing tired of managing their empires, which are increasingly burdened by political controversy and hard-to-fix problems like misinformation and hate speech. They don’t see an easy way out, and they’re more excited by building new things than fixing old ones. So they are turning those empires over to others and heading off in search of new frontiers.”

  • In an essay for The Atlantic, Michael Schuman explains why the Chinese Communist Party has reacted so bizarrely to Peng Shuai’s sexual assault allegations against former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. “The Peng story shows that China’s leadership will tolerate no challenge to its authority, no matter how apolitical,” he writes. “Peng is not aiming to bring down the Communist regime. She’s not advocating for democracy, or calling for reform, or even directly standing up for women’s rights. Yet she is being treated as if she is. For a political party that presents itself as infallible, anything that suggests otherwise is perceived as dangerous. The corollary to this rule is that the party’s most senior leaders, especially those with the right connections and relationships, can act as they wish, without fear of public scrutiny or reproach. Perhaps at some point the party will quietly punish Zhang (less for any sex crime than because his poor judgment left the party vulnerable). But, at least for now, the party will prioritize fixing its image over addressing any wrongdoing, let alone wider discrimination against women.”

  • Bret Stephens’ latest column asks readers to exhibit a little humility and end the blame games when it comes to COVID-19. Over the course of the pandemic, the virus has hit red states and blue states, cities and rural areas, places with strict lockdown measures and high vaccination rates and places without them. “There were those on the right who predicted an end to the pandemic based on expected herd-immunity thresholds. There were those on the left who foresaw an end based on vaccination rates,” he writes. “Nature—on the one hand viral and the other hand human—embarrassed them both. If the Omicron variant is anything like the Delta one in its transmissibility, it will embarrass them again. … Let’s put away our crystal balls and shake up our snow globes instead. We have about as much foresight in this crisis as a snowman in a blizzard.”

  • A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel recommended Merck’s COVID-19 antiviral pill yesterday—and will likely do the same for Pfizer’s more effective pill soon—but as Reason’s Ron Bailey points out, the agency’s slow walking of at-home COVID tests will ultimately undermine the drugs’ real-world impact because both pills must be taken within three to five days of symptom onset to be most effective at preventing hospitalization or death. “A February 2021 poll by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported if COVID-19 self-tests cost $1 a piece, 79 percent of Americans would test themselves regularly at home. That figure dropped to only 33 percent if the cost was $25 per test,” he writes. “A quick internet check finds that most COVID-19 self-tests are still not widely available and those that are available cost more than $20. Of course, speedier FDA approval of COVID-19 self-tests would have spurred competition between brands that would have made them more widely available and lowered their prices to consumers.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Haley, Harvest, and Ryan are still slogging through the legislative text of the Build Back Better Act, and in Tuesday’s Uphill, they break down the package’s tax, tech, and cybersecurity provisions. By raising the state and local tax deduction cap, limiting retirement account contributions for the wealthy, and beefing up Internal Revenue Service enforcement, BBB could affect how much you owe the government every year.

  • In this week’s Sweep, Sarah examines  the changes in how political candidates talk about the economy, Audrey dives into the Virginia Republican Party’s decision to hold a ranked-choice voting primary last summer, and Chris Stirewalt discusses the politics of COVD-19 and the new Omicron variant. “It’s true that Democratic leaders are dealing with many in their own party who have formed unhealthy attachments to the expanded public health powers and social controls that sprang up with the response to COVID-19,” Chris writes. “But as President Biden’s remarks Monday on the latest variant of the virus made clear, those attachments are understood to be a liability.”

  • David’s Tuesday French Press (🔒) focuses on the cultural power of Fox News, and its implications for the right. “Audience share that large means that Fox defines the format, the visuals, and the ethos of the entire market,” he writes. “The result is an immense pressure to conform—with an understanding that new right-wing voices are often engaged in a de facto audition for that coveted Fox airtime. That reality, combined with Fox’s own aggressive defense of its brand, is one reason why so very little right-wing ‘media criticism’ is aimed at the largest, most powerful, and most profitable cable network in the land.”

  • On today’s Remnant, Jonah is joined by Chris Stirewalt for some early 2024 rank punditry, a conversation about why Build Back Better is the “kitchen junk drawer” of policy proposals, and discussion of recent events surrounding a certain cable news network.

Let Us Know

Are you, like the United States Congress, a procrastinator? If not, do you have any tips for those of us who are?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).