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Legislative Update

Senate. The Senate is in recess until Feb. 22, when Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) will deliver George Washington’s Farewell Address. During the week, the Senate will take up additional nominations.

House. The House is also in recess and had planned to reconvene Monday, Feb. 22. Today however, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) notified Members that the House will not meet until Tuesday and will be in session through Friday, with votes planned on the American Rescue Plan (i.e., the $1.9 billion reconciliation bill), a wilderness package, and the Equality Act, designed to end legal discrimination against LGBTQ Americans. The week of March 1 will see a vote on H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which deals with campaign finance reform. Also that week, the House will consider the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act addressing racial bias in law enforcement.

Reconciliation. The House authorizing committees have reported out their various portions of the Covid-relief reconciliation measure, and the Budget Committee this week will package them into a single bill. Next stop will be the Rules Committee, and then the full House will take up the measure next week. In his message to members today, Hoyer advised that “the American Rescue Plan will not be ready for a vote until later in the week,” and lawmakers “may need to remain in session through the weekend next week to complete consideration.”

Assuming House passage, the measure is expected to bypass Senate committees and go straight to the floor. Senate debate, including consideration of amendments, is limited to 20 hours, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, but most of the amendments will likely be offered and voted on after the 20 hours have expired. Thus, the Senate will engage in another multi-hour vote-a-rama to dispose of amendments.

A simple majority will be needed for final passage, but if there is a party-line vote, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will have to get the buy-in of all 50 Democrats to set up a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Harris. Also, because consideration will be governed by strict parliamentary rules, i.e., the Byrd Rule, the final Senate version will differ from the House-passed version.

If Senate Democrats round up a majority for passage, the amended bill would then go back to the House, which would vote on agreeing to the Senate changes. Democrats are hoping to send the final version of the reconciliation bill to the President before March 14, when expanded unemployment benefits expire.

Nominations Scorecard. Next week the full Senate will vote on the nominations of Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be U.N. Ambassador and Tom Vilsack to be Agriculture Secretary. On Feb. 23, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Xavier Becerra to be HHS Secretary. The Senate Finance Committee has not yet announced a date for its hearing on the Becerra nomination.

Musical Chairs. In December, Senate Democrats adopted two new rules that have led to a turnover in subcommittee chairs. The first rule grew out of a discussion among Senate Democrats after Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced in November that she would step aside as the highest ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) quickly bid to fill Feinstein’s slot at the top of the committee, but some Democrats were concerned that he would be serving not only as the Whip but also as the top Democrat on Judiciary and the Defense Subcommittee of Appropriations. The Senate Democratic Caucus then changed its rules so that Durbin could keep his Whip position but could only hold the gavel (now that Democrats control the Senate) at one panel. Durbin opted for Judiciary and gave up his top spot on the Defense spending panel.

The Durbin-related discussion then led to adoption of another new rule proposed by Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). The Murphy rule provides that Democrats who chair the 13 “A” committees can’t also chair a subcommittee until every other member of the caucus has the opportunity to choose a gavel. On February 4, there was an effort by more senior members in the caucus to delay the rule by two years, but a majority of Democrats voted to reject the delay. The new rule is now in effect, and the results were especially noticeable at the Appropriations Committee, where nine of the 12 subcommittees now have new Democratic leadership.

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