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Uphill: Senate Democrats Race to Pass Aid Package
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Uphill: Senate Democrats Race to Pass Aid Package

Plus, Biden's strikes in Syria renew congressional interest in addressing war powers.

Good morning. It’s set to be another busy week on Capitol Hill, as Democrats seek to finalize their massive coronavirus aid package. 

The Senate will also continue voting on President Joe Biden’s nominees this week. Last night, the chamber approved Miguel Cardona to be education secretary with a vote of 64-33. Senators will soon consider Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to lead the Commerce Department and Dr. Cecilia Rouse to chair the Council of Economic Advisers.

The House, meanwhile, is poised to approve for a second time a police reform bill named after George Floyd. It would ban chokeholds and make it easier for the government to prosecute police misconduct cases. The House is also scheduled to vote on a mostly symbolic, sweeping election overhaul bill. Neither measure has enough support to pass the Senate as written. 

Democrats Enter Stimulus Sprint

House Democrats approved their version of President Joe Biden’s nearly $2 trillion coronavirus aid package over the weekend. Only two Democrats, Reps. Jared Golden and Kurt Schrader, joined Republicans in opposing the measure. The ball is now in the Senate’s court, with Democratic leaders racing to beat a critical March 14 federal unemployment insurance deadline. 

Among other items, the legislation includes funding for vaccine distribution, testing, and schools. It would also send $350 billion to state and local governments and a round of $1,400 stimulus checks to most adults, with an additional $1,400 for each of their dependents. It would expand and reauthorize federal unemployment benefits through the end of August and would boost a child tax credit.

But one initial priority—raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025—likely won’t be included after all. 

Democrats are using the budget reconciliation process to pass the legislation. Reconciliation will allow them to sidestep the 60-vote threshold for most legislation in the Senate, requiring only a simple majority instead. The process entails a set of rules about what kinds of provisions can be included, however. The Senate parliamentarian ruled last week that the minimum wage component, included in the House-passed bill, does not comply with the reconciliation rules. 

After learning of the decision, senior Democrats briefly considered an option to reverse-engineer the wage increase by imposing tax penalties on large companies that don’t pay their employees $15 per hour, but that proposal was quickly identified as too complex and difficult to pull off in a matter of days. The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein first reported on Sunday that Democrats were abandoning the backup plan. 

Even if the parliamentarian had deemed the wage hike acceptable, Democrats would have faced challenges in passing it as written. With a 50-50 chamber and Vice President Kamala Harris acting as tiebreaker, Democrats need to stay completely unified to pass legislation under reconciliation without GOP support. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema had both expressed opposition to the minimum wage increase, jeopardizing it even before the parliamentarian weighed in. 

Still, progressives are pushing for Harris to overrule the parliamentarian’s decision in her role as president of the Senate.

“We must act now to prevent tens of millions of hardworking Americans from being underpaid any longer,” more than 20 House Democrats wrote in a letter Monday. They argued that the reconciliation rules are “rooted in restricting progress” and “must not be an impediment to improving people’s lives.”

Some Democrats are also renewing their calls for party leaders to get rid of the 60-vote requirement for most bills in the chamber. There isn’t enough support for such a move at this time, but pressure will only build as more Democratic priorities bite the dust in the coming weeks and months.

The Biden administration has already shot down the more immediate idea of rejecting the parliamentarian’s decision.

“That’s not an action we intend to take,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated Monday.

She indicated Democrats will revisit the minimum wage debate at a later point, saying it “remains a commitment.” 

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has projected the policy would raise wages for millions and could lift 900,000 people out of poverty, but could also result in the loss of 1.4 million jobs.

Now that it probably won’t be included in any form in the coronavirus aid package, some Senate Democrats could push for a bipartisan agreement to increase the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25, has not been raised in more than a decade. 

Republican Sens. Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton recently proposed a gradual increase to $10 per hour, paired with a mandate that all employers use E-Verify to prevent businesses from hiring undocumented workers. Their plan as written is unlikely to win enough support among Democrats, who view the immigration provisions as a nonstarter. But their figure for the wage hike is in Manchin’s ballpark. The West Virginia Democrat has publicly pointed to $11 per hour as a minimum wage he could support. 

The Senate will begin debate on the aid package this week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday. 

“I expect a hearty debate and some late nights. But the American people sent us here with a job to do: to help the country through this moment of extraordinary challenge,” he said.

Before a vote on final passage, the chamber will have 20 hours of debate and a process for Republicans to attempt to amend the bill. 

Republicans are expected to oppose the legislation when it comes up for a final vote, arguing the bill is not targeted to current needs. 

“De­moc­rats have cho­sen to go a com­pletely par­ti­san route,” Sen­ate Mi­nor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell said yesterday. “When­ever their long­time lib­eral dreams came into con­flict with what Amer­i­cans ac­tu­ally need right now, De­moc­rats de­cided their ide­ol­ogy should win out.”

Syria Strike Sparks Debate Over Use of Force Authorization

President Joe Biden ordered a series of airstrikes in eastern Syria last week, targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups. The strikes were in response to recent rocket attacks against American and coalition forces in Iraq. Biden told reporters Friday that he wanted to send Iran a message to be careful. “You can’t act with impunity,” he said.

Lawmakers from both parties praised the strikes. But some proponents of checking executive war powers questioned the legal authority behind the decision and argued that Congress should take it as a wake-up call for action on a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). We revisited the long-running debate over the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs a couple of weeks ago in Uphill. You can go back to read that item in full here.

For nearly two decades, presidents from both parties have cited the 2001 and 2002 authorizations—intended for force against those responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, and to go to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, respectively—to justify various military actions around the globe. Members of Congress have offered several different plans to replace the 2001 authorization, which underpins much of the United States’ global war on terrorism, with an updated authorization to reflect current opponents and conditions. Lawmakers recognize the 2001 and 2002 authorizations are outdated at best. The 2002 AUMF, in particular, is widely viewed as unnecessary for current operations and ripe for abuse by the president. 

The House voted most recently to repeal the 2002 authorization after former President Donald Trump cited it in part as justification for his strike against Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani last January. 

Biden notably avoided citing either the 2001 or 2002 AUMF in his letter to Congress about the strikes, pointing instead to his Article II powers as president.

“I directed this military action consistent with my responsibility to protect United States citizens both at home and abroad and in furtherance of United States national security and foreign policy interests, pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct United States foreign relations and as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive,” Biden wrote.

Still, progressive members of Congress expressed concerns about the decision, saying Biden should have sought approval first.

“We cannot stand up for congressional authorization before military strikes only when there is a Republican president,” said California Rep. Ro Khanna. “The administration should have sought congressional authorization here. We need to work to extricate from the Middle East, not escalate.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders likewise said he was worried the strike “puts our country on the path of continuing the forever war instead of ending it.”

“For far too long administrations of both parties have interpreted their authorities in an extremely expansive way to continue military interventions across the Middle East region and elsewhere. This must end,” he said.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine called for a congressional briefing on the operation and noted that “offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances.”

Kaine has drafted several options to replace the 2001 AUMF. One, introduced in 2017 alongside former Sen. Jeff Flake, would have targeted al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS, and it would have expired after five years. A later Kaine proposal alongside former Sen. Bob Corker was more deferential to the executive branch, without a firm expiration date or significant restrictions on military operations around the globe.

Lawmakers are split—not always along neat party lines—between those who would prefer to leave more authority for the president in these matters and those who want to impose stricter rules for military force. It’s also a thorny issue by nature: Most members of Congress don’t want to have to vote on something as controversial as a war authorization. 

Still, freshman Rep. Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican, told The Dispatch there is momentum in both parties to take action on the matter. He said he’s had conversations about repealing the two AUMFs with about 10 congressional Democrats as well as a number of Republicans.

“The broad takeaway that I’ve had so far is there’s definitely an appetite, but as anything else in politics, it is highly situationally dependent. I’m mindful of wanting to make sure we’re not operating in any knee-jerk or rushed fashion,” he said.

Meijer argued that repealing the 2002 authorization, at least, should be uncontroversial: ”That, to me, is just sort of the low-hanging fruit. Let’s get it done. Let’s not have these justifications kind of laying out there waiting for someone’s creative interpretation to do something far from the intent.”

Replacing the 2001 authorization is more difficult, he said, and the details will depend on how the Biden administration approaches negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan in the coming weeks. But he said he would like to see some geographic limits and more congressional oversight in the authorization, pointing to the 2017 ambush of troops in Niger.

“It’s a problem when troops die in a foreign country, and members of Congress turn and say, ‘Wait, I didn’t know we were there,’” Meijer said.

He added that he supports an expiration date—either after one, two, or three years—to ensure Congress continues to weigh in on the authorization.

“It has to be a serious effort. This is an important enough issue that they have to be well thought out,” he said of drafting a replacement. “But we also can’t lose that momentum, because we could quickly get consumed or overwhelmed by external events.”

Key Hearings

  • FBI Director Christopher Wray is testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning on the bureau’s response to the January 6 attack. You can watch his remarks here.

  • The Senate Homeland Security and Rules committees will hold another joint hearing Wednesday at 10 a.m. to examine the January 6 attack on the Capitol and security response. Officials from the FBI, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security are set to appear. The commanding general of the D.C. National Guard will also testify.

  • Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman will testify before the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch on Wednesday at 10 a.m. about the police force’s budget. 

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.