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Uphill: House to Vote on COVID Relief This Week
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Uphill: House to Vote on COVID Relief This Week

Plus: Hearings on the violence of January 6, and Merrick Garland faces the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Good morning. It’s going to be a busy week in Washington. Foremost on the agenda is an upcoming House vote on President Joe Biden’s nearly $2 trillion coronavirus aid package. 

House Democrats are set to vote on the legislation at some point this week, with the schedule potentially stretching into the weekend. Relevant committees have pieced together their portions of the bill, and it is nearly ready for floor consideration. Democrats plan to pass the legislation without Republican support. Because of their tight margin in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will have to keep her members unified for the approach to succeed.

The process has been smoother so far than one might expect with such a large bill. That can be attributed in part to a shared sense of urgency among Democrats to pass aid legislation quickly. This is also Biden’s first real legislative push, and moderates and progressives who may otherwise make a fuss over various provisions are allowing more wiggle room for it than they may later permit for different efforts, like an infrastructure bill. (CNN’s Phil Mattingly and Lauren Fox have some good reporting here about those dynamics.)

A lot can happen in a week, though. The bill appears to have very few hurdles to passage in the House right now, but that could change if a handful of Democratic members take issue with the legislation for one reason or another.

The bill includes funding for vaccine distribution, coronavirus testing, and schools. It would also expand federal unemployment benefits from $300 per week to $400 per week and extend them through the end of August. It includes another round of stimulus checks of $1,400 for millions of Americans. (If you haven’t gotten to it yet, Scott Lincicome’s skeptical analysis of the aid package in his most recent edition of Capitolism is worth reading.) 

The legislation incorporates many Democratic priorities, like directing $350 billion to state and local governments. To the frustration of congressional Republicans, Democrats have changed the formula for state and local funding to target states with higher unemployment rates. This tends to prioritize states with Democratic governors who imposed stricter coronavirus rules rather than weighting the money toward states with larger populations, as the earlier formula did.

House Democrats also included provisions to expand the child tax credit and provide the money monthly for Americans under a certain income threshold. Some economists have criticized the way this section was written, arguing it could introduce administrative headaches and may not be the most effective way to address the matter. Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney has proposed his own plan, which could sidestep many of those concerns.

The House’s aid package won’t be the final version of the bill. Changes are possible in the Senate, where lack of support from members could imperil some items, like raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema have both indicated they oppose the minimum wage proposal. With a 50-50 Senate chamber and Vice President Kamala Harris needed to break a tie, any bill Democrats want to pass without Republican support, like this one, will need every Democratic senator behind it. Democrats could instead advance a scaled-back minimum wage increase, such as $12 per hour, if it can receive Manchin’s and Sinema’s blessing. 

There are also procedural concerns. Reconciliation is a process that allows passage of legislation in the Senate with only a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than the filibuster-proof 60-vote threshold needed for most items in the chamber. Republicans used it for their 2017 tax bill. The process carries more stringent rules about what kinds of provisions can be included. 

Whether the minimum wage provisions make it into the final bill will depend on whether the Senate parliamentarian determines the proposal is allowed under budget reconciliation rules. That decision could come as soon as this week.

Some progressives have made the case that Democrats could overrule the decision if it isn’t in their favor. To ignore the reconciliation rules would amount to a soft nuclear option: Rather than ending the legislative filibuster entirely, Democrats in this scenario would be removing the limits on what kinds of bills they are able to pass under the special reconciliation process. This doesn’t appear to be under real consideration by Democratic leaders—for now, at least. 

Democrats are aiming to pass the bill before March 14, when federal unemployment benefits expire. Once the House approves its version, the Senate is expected to move shortly on the legislation. If the Senate alters the legislation in any way, the House will vote again on the new version of the bill after it has passed the Senate.

The House Budget Committee approved the package with a 19-16 vote yesterday afternoon, clearing a procedural hurdle prior to a full floor vote later this week. Only one Democrat, Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, joined Republicans in voting against the bill—and that was by accident. 

“Rep. Doggett was getting off the plane to D.C. from Texas and joined remotely in this hearing just as a vote was about to be announced,” his office said later. “He misunderstood that vote. He supports the COVID-19 relief legislation.”

Former Security Officials to Testify on Capitol Breach

Three officials previously responsible for protecting the Capitol complex, all of whom resigned after the attack on January 6, will testify this morning about the events leading up to that day and the security response during the riot. 

Senators are likely to grill the witnesses—including former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, former House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, and former Senate Sergeant at Arms Michael Stenger—about their failure to act on intelligence regarding the potential for violence in the days before the attack. Senators will also drill down on the timeline of various actions that day, including the painfully slow response to requests to bring in the National Guard to assist in clearing out the building. The mob was able to wander around the Capitol, doing damage to the building and attacking police officers, for hours that day while lawmakers hunkered down in their offices and in undisclosed secure locations around the complex. 

Acting D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee III will also testify during the hearing.

Sund has shared his side of the story in letters and in the press, claiming his initial request for National Guard assistance to be placed on standby prior to January 6 was rejected due to concerns about optics. Contee has also discussed the attack publicly, emphasizing the brutal injuries and the dangerous situations his officers had to face in their efforts to protect the building that day. 

This hearing will be the first we’ve heard from Irving and Stenger since the attack. They’ll have a lot to answer for. According to the New York Times, Sund made his request to Irving, the former House sergeant at arms, for National Guard help at 1:09 p.m. on January 6, as protesters were breaking through barricades around the Capitol complex. Irving was then supposed to run it by Speaker Pelosi, but her office said Monday that she did not hear from Irving about the request until half an hour later. There was then reportedly some confusion about whether congressional leaders actually needed to approve the request. It took a full hour from the request first being made for Irving to get back to Sund to let him know Pelosi and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had approved it.

That wasn’t the end of it, though. Because Washington, D.C. is not a state, approval from the secretary of the Army was required to deploy the National Guard. Sund has said that he tried to emphasize the need for assistance during a conference call at around 2:30 p.m., but he was met with resistance. Sund claims Army staff director Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt told him during that conversation that he didn’t like the visual of the National Guard being deployed to the Capitol. 

Lawmakers will likely focus intensely on this period of time during today’s hearing. Not only does it seem the internal congressional approval process for bringing in the National Guard was delayed and flawed, but the request also faced hurdles with Defense Department brass. National Guard personnel didn’t arrive at the Capitol until around 5:40 p.m. 

It’s worth bringing some skepticism to the proceedings: The former officials will likely want to portray their actions in the best light and justify any questionable decisions they made. 

Senators will also bring their own agendas. Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, who played a large role in leading many Americans to wrongly believe the results of the election could be overturned that day, will be participating. 

Congressional Republicans have also recently looked to blame Pelosi specifically for the Capitol’s readiness for the attack, despite the fact that McConnell would have also been involved in the preparations. It’s important to examine her stance leading up to the riot and any related decisions she made, but partisan finger-pointing is more likely from some senators during this hearing than serious inquiry. 

Still, the hearing may shed light on the events of January 6. The American public still has remarkably little certainty about what exactly happened during the official response to the attack. Capitol Police leaders have not given a public briefing about the event. This will be an opportunity to learn more about a devastating day and why it unfolded the way it did.

Garland Gets a Confirmation Hearing

My colleague Andrew Egger followed the initial Senate confirmation hearing for Judge Merrick Garland yesterday, and has this to share:

Five years ago, Garland—then one of the country’s top appellate judges—became the face of a partisan proxy war in the closing year of Barack Obama’s presidency when the Republican-controlled Senate successfully stalled his nomination until the end of Obama’s term.

Now nominated to be President Biden’s attorney general, Garland faces much better chances of confirmation this time around. Republicans have taken a stand against only a handful of Biden’s nominees so far, and GOP leaders like Sens. Chuck Grassley and John Cornyn have spoken approvingly of Garland in recent days.

Nevertheless, the judge’s Monday nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee doubled as a proxy fight of another sort, with members of both parties accusing the other of politicizing the Department of Justice while in power in the recent past.

In his opening remarks, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin characterized Garland’s forthcoming tenure as an “existential moment” for justice—a time for rebuilding the people’s trust after “four tumultuous years of intrigue, controversy, and brute political force,” during which time “the Justice Department literally became an arm of the White House, committed to advancing the interest of President Trump, his family, and his political allies.”

Across the aisle, Sen. Grassley, the committee’s ranking member, told Garland he hoped his confirmation would not mean “a return to the Obama years,” citing Eric Holder’s description of himself as the president’s “wingman.” Grassley also brought up how Obama’s DOJ cut corners in applying for a secret court’s permission to surveil members of the Trump campaign: “I don’t want a Justice Department that abuses the FISA process to spy on Americans.”

For his part, Garland repeatedly pledged to run a department free of undue political influence, albeit one modestly in keeping with current lines in Democratic thought: He inched away from his historical support for the death penalty and pledged to make investigating the January 6 Capitol riot a top priority during his tenure.

At the same time, Garland suggested he would not interfere in several politically sensitive investigations, including a federal investigation into the president’s son Hunter in Delaware and special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the roots of the Trump-Russia investigation.

“I think deeply that we have to be careful about how we use FISA, and that’s the reason we have pretty strict regulations internally in policies,” Garland said. “We need to find out why they aren’t followed and to be sure that they are followed.” 

Key Hearings This Week

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a confirmation hearing at 9:30 a.m. today on Rep. Debra Haaland’s nomination for secretary of the interior.

  • Health and Human Services nominee Xavier Becerra will testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee at 10 a.m. today. He is set to appear again before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

  • A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee will hold a hearing on expanding access to coronavirus vaccines today at 10:30 a.m. Officials from Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and Novavax have been invited to testify.

  • A House Armed Services subcommittee will hold a hearing on “Near-Peer Advancements in Space and Nuclear Weapons” this afternoon.

  • Top officials from the U.S. Postal Service are set to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday morning about the USPS’s financial sustainability.

  • A House Appropriations subcommittee will hold a hearing Thursday morning about security failures leading up to and during the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman and Acting House Sergeant at Arms Timothy Blodgett are set to testify.

  • The Senate Finance Committee will hold a confirmation hearing Thursday morning for Katherine Tai’s nomination to be U.S. trade representative.

Of Note

Something Cool

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.