Legislative / Policy Update
Senate Floor. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement today announcing that the Senate will return to session on Monday, May 4. “We will modify routines in ways that are smart and safe,” McConnell wrote, “but we will honor our constitutional duty to the American people and conduct critical business in person. If it is essential for doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, truck drivers, grocery-store workers, and many other brave Americans to keep carefully manning their own duty stations, then it is essential for Senators to carefully man ours and support them.” At 5:30 on Monday, the Senate will vote on the nomination of Robert Feitel to be Inspector General of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. No one would be surprised if McConnell brought up additional nominations next week.
There is also speculation that McConnell might ask for unanimous consent to proceed to the surface transportation bill that the Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved on July 30. Senate Republicans are looking to merge the bill, which would authorize $287 billion over five years to repair roads and bridges, with two measures that would authorize funding to shore up the nation’s water infrastructure. Other than money that flows into the Highway Trust Fund from the federal gasoline and diesel taxes, the infrastructure proposals are not paid for.
House Floor. House leaders also announced today that the chamber will return on Monday, May 4. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer indicated that the focus next week will not be on floor votes (there’s one suspension vote Monday evening) and, instead, most of the work will be at the committee level.
Next Steps. Now that the President has signed into law the interim package approved by unanimous consent in the Senate on April 21 and passed in the House 388-5 on April 23, attention is turning to what will be in the next package (and what to call it). Leading candidates for a name are Coronavirus 4.0 (based on the interim package being referred to as 3.5) and CARES 2.0 (although that title was affixed before there was talk of an interim package that built on the CARES Act).
Whatever the name, it’s likely that the next piece of legislation will include more financial aid for state and local governments. Although the Administration and McConnell rejected Democratic efforts to add those funds to the interim package, the Administration and some Senate Republicans are open to discussing additional aid as part of the next bill.
While McConnell wants to “push the pause button” on the next bill, Democrats are busy compiling a list of their priorities for Corona 4.0. In addition to aid for state and local governments, the list includes additional direct payments to individuals, payments to small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, more funds for unemployment insurance benefits, hazard pay for front-line workers, funding for the U.S. Postal Service, money to expand voting by mail, and an infrastructure package.
In a pair of tweets on April 21, President Trump cited state and local aid and infrastructure investments as priorities, adding that the next bill should also include tax incentives for restaurants, entertainment, and sports as well as payroll tax cuts. The White House is also reported to be preparing to push for extending various tax breaks that are set to expire in 2022 under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, including a 100% deduction for investment in certain new business equipment in the year it’s purchased. According to the Washington Post, the White House “is also likely to ask Congress to approve a ‘liability shield’ that would prevent businesses from being sued if a customer or employee gets covid-19.”
With Democrats and Republicans on different pages as to what provisions should be included in the next bill and whether expedited consideration is warranted, it is unclear when an agreement can be hammered out on a Coronavirus 4.0 package. The speculation right now is sometime in the May-June timeframe.
Remote Voting. Given Republican opposition to a Democratic resolution providing for proxy voting in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi opted to create a bipartisan task force to study the matter rather than force a vote last Thursday on the proposal. Speaker Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy agreed to set up the task force, whose members are the top Democrats and Republicans on the Rules Committee (Reps. Jim McGovern and Tom Cole) and the House Administration Committee (Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Rodney Davis) as well as Majority Leader Hoyer and Minority Leader McCarthy. The task force held its first meeting on Thursday.
Meanwhile, on the Senate side, the Office of the Sergeant at Arms is working on a plan that would allow committees to host remote hearings and will be conducting a series of demonstrations of the technology for committees.
Budget Deficit. On April 24, the Congressional Budget Office said an early look at the numbers for FY 2020 indicates that the federal budget deficit could hit $3.7 trillion, and the federal debt held by the public could be 101% percent of GDP. The estimated 2020 deficit would be almost four times larger than the 2019 deficit of $984 billion, which was the highest dollar amount since 2012. In 2009, the country recorded a deficit of $1.4 trillion, the highest one-year federal deficit in terms of gross dollars in U.S. history.
U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer formally notified Congress on Friday that the USMCA will go into effect on July 1. However, there are still a few loose ends to tie up, including the drafting of regulations by the three countries for automakers to follow. U.S. auto companies have argued that the coronavirus pandemic will make it more difficult for them to meet the more stringent rules-of-origin requirements.