Legislative / Policy Update
Senate. The Senate is in session and considering various nominations. Senators may also take up legislation to reinstate elements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that expired March 15.
A number of in-person hearings are set to take place under guidelines for necessary health precautions, but one hearing will now be a remote session because of quarantining. The Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing on Tuesday will focus on the government’s response to Covid-19, but Chairman Lamar Alexander has not returned to Washington because one of his staffers has tested positive, and three of the four witnesses are self-isolating after being exposed to persons who have tested positive. The three are FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, CDC Director Robert Redfield, and Anthony Fauci of NIH. The fourth witness is Brett Giroir of HHS.
House. If the House returns this week, it will be no earlier than Friday, May 15, according to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. In a memo today to Members, Hoyer reiterated that lawmakers will be given 72-hours’ notice of when they would need to return. When Members do return, it will be to vote on a Cares 2 package and a resolution to allow for remote voting. Because details of the Cares 2 proposal have not yet been finalized, a House vote could slip until next week.
Cares 2. In a Mother’s Day letter to her Democratic colleagues, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Democrats “to ‘Think Big’ For the People” and support legislation that provides, among other things, “direct payments, unemployment insurance, rental and mortgage help and student loan assistance.” The House proposal, which will provide substantial aid to states, counties, and cities, could wind up with a price tag of over $2 trillion, and it’s no secret that the bill will not be embraced by Senate Republicans or the President. With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in no hurry to pass another bill (and significant differences between House and Senate goals), it could well be the end of June before a Cares 2 package is finalized.
FY 2021 Appropriations. In the July 2019 budget deal, Congress agreed to set new, slightly higher discretionary spending caps for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. As the first step in its work on FY 2021 bills, House appropriators in early April took those top-line numbers and apportioned the available funds among the 12 subcommittees that write the individual bills. Those subcommittee numbers, known as 302(b) allocations, have not yet been made public, but the allocations have allowed subcommittees to craft their bills, with a number of subcommittees sending their draft bills on May 8 to the full committee for review.
Because of the pandemic, there has been bipartisan discussion of finding a way to allow additional spending for programs to address the coronavirus. House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey supports such budget cap exemptions, and the ranking member of the subcommittee that provides health-related funding, Rep. Tom Cole, agrees. “We’re going to have to do a lot more in the areas of CDC, NIH, Strategic Stockpile, and it can’t be a one-and-done supplemental, in my view,” Cole said.
Such an exemption from the spending caps would have to be approved in legislation, and it remains to be seen whether the Administration and the Senate will support the change. The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to decide on its 302(b) allocations, but Republican members of the panel met last week to discuss their plans. Those plans reportedly foresee committee votes by the end of June on 10 of the 12 bills, with a chance for floor action in June on some of those bills. The two bills not yet on the committee’s agenda would be funding for the Department of Homeland Security (border wall issues) and Military Construction/Veterans Affairs (growing cost of VA healthcare).
Given the differences between the two chambers on border wall spending and other issues, the expectation is that a continuing resolution will be needed to provide funding beyond the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year.
Committee Action of Note
Special Elections. There are two House special elections on Tuesday to fill vacant seats in southern California and northwestern Wisconsin. In California’s 25th District, which is open following the resignation in November of Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, the race is between Democratic State Rep. Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia, a real estate investor. The district has historically voted Republican, and there is a chance that Garcia could switch the seat back to red from blue.
The seat in Wisconsin’s 7th District opened up with the resignation in September of Republican Rep. Sean Duffy. The seat is expected to stay in the Republican column, with State Sen. Tom Tiffany favored over Democrat Tricia Zunker.