Democrats Plan to Move Quickly on COVID Bill

Plus: The acting Capitol Police chief apologizes to lawmakers.

Good morning. Let’s get right to it.

Portman Talks with The Dispatch

A few days ago, I wrote that it is unlikely 17 Senate Republicans will vote to convict former President Donald Trump in his upcoming impeachment trial. That’s even more clear today: Only five Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting to proceed to the trial this week. Forty-five Republicans supported Sen. Rand Paul’s procedural effort to dismiss the trial. 

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who announced this week that he is retiring, was among the Republicans who supported Paul’s point of order. He has said his vote doesn’t necessarily act as a proxy for how he’ll ultimately decide on Trump’s conviction, although he has concerns about the constitutionality of impeaching and convicting a former president. (Legal experts across the political spectrum are generally in agreement that impeaching and trying a former president is constitutional. One of the two possible penalties for impeachment, they note, is disqualification from holding future office.)

Portman spoke about the upcoming trial during a phone interview Thursday with The Dispatch’s CEO and co-founder, Steve Hayes. Although he said he is “listening as a juror,” and he won’t make “any decisions until I hear both sides,” Portman sounded unlikely to vote against Trump.

“I suppose you could argue that it would heal the country more to have a conviction. But, number one, there's not going to be a conviction. We all know that. Frankly, I've known that from the start, and I think you have,” he said. 

Assuming enough Republican senators did vote to convict, he added, “what would that mean in terms of healing the wounds here?” 

He said many of Trump’s voters truly believe the former president’s claims that the election was stolen, and they would be outraged if Trump is convicted and unable to run for the presidency again. “People in Congress are going to tell them that he’s not going to be able to run again, therefore they can’t vote for who they want to. And I think that's going to further polarize and deeply divide the country.”

Portman also discussed his decision to retire, saying how much a senator can get done in Congress these days is “diminishing.” 

“I'm a conservative, but I've figured out how to find common ground and get to a result. And we've been good at it. I mean, 82 of our bills were signed into law by President Trump, 68 by Obama, I’m told. So it's not that we haven't figured it out, but it's harder and harder. And that balance is harder and harder to justify,” he said.

Asked why he thinks it’s gotten more difficult for rank-and-file lawmakers to meaningfully legislate these days, Portman said the political system and the overall culture in America “pushes us to the extremes these days.”

“The rewards in politics have changed. The days of bipartisanship being viewed as a positive versus a negative have shifted. And I think it's partly because of social media,” he said. “People are online finding what they want to read and learn about, and it tends to affirm their beliefs and probably strengthen their beliefs on the right or on the left.”

You can read the transcript of the whole interview here.

Democrats Plan to Move Quickly on COVID Bill

Congressional Democrats are expected to lay the groundwork next week to advance a coronavirus relief package without support from Republicans.

The procedure, known as budget reconciliation, will allow Democrats to pass legislation in the Senate with only a simple majority of 51 votes (with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as tie-breaker), instead of relying on 10 Republicans to compromise on the proposal. Most bills in the Senate need 60 votes to pass, but the reconciliation process bypasses this requirement—although it comes with more stringent rules about what kinds of provisions can be included.

Republicans used budget reconciliation to advance their 2017 tax bill. Before that they used it in their ultimately unsuccessful attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

To pass a coronavirus relief package under the reconciliation process, Democrats in both chambers will have to approve budget resolutions. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday that the chamber may consider a fiscal year 2021 budget resolution as soon as next week. Democratic leaders in the House have also said they plan to take action on a budget next week. Once approved, relevant committees will get to work drafting the package according to instructions included in the resolution. 

(I don’t want to get too bogged down in the process, but for those who want to know more, Roll Call has a good breakdown of what to expect here.)

Even as Democrats may soon take a step toward passing a relief bill, it’s worth emphasizing: The details of the coronavirus aid package are flexible at this point. 

Biden proposed a nearly $2 trillion framework two weeks ago that includes funding for testing, vaccine distribution, schools, and state and local governments. It would also boost federal unemployment benefits from $300 to $400 per week and extend them through September. Among other provisions, the plan would increase the child tax credit to $3,000 from $2,000 per child this year, with an additional $600 for children under the age of 6. It would also include another round of checks—$1,400 this time—to most Americans.

With a substantial price tag and with Democratic priorities the vast majority of Republicans oppose, including a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, GOP lawmakers almost immediately brushed it off as something they could not support.  

Even so, there are a number of moderate Republicans who are hoping to work with the administration on a relief bill. GOP senators in that group, including Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, have raised concerns about the direct payments going to high income families. They, along with a few of their Democratic colleagues, would like to pursue a more targeted approach for this round of checks. Biden said this week that he’s open to the idea and is up for negotiation. 

But the handful of Republicans engaging with the legislation don’t really represent a majority of their party, and the kind of bill they might support is miles away from what congressional Democrats want to pass. Democrats also aren’t planning to wait around for a pared-back bipartisan deal: They want an ambitious, comprehensive package, and they want to move on it as quickly as possible.

“We want to work with our Republican colleagues if we can, to include their ideas and input if they’ll offer them. That is our preference,” Schumer said on the Senate floor this week. “But if our Republican colleagues decide to oppose the necessary, robust COVID relief, we will have to move forward without them. It is not our preference, but dealing with this crisis in a bold and sufficient way is a necessity. This Senate is going to respond to the country’s needs, and deliver help to the American people—fast.”

Rank-and-file Democrats are emphasizing their priorities before the drafting effort officially gets underway.

The New Democrat Coalition in the House, with more than 90 members, is pushing to include automatic stabilizers to link federal unemployment benefits to economic conditions. Instead of setting an arbitrary end date for the aid, the plan would ensure the relief provisions continue until certain economic thresholds are met. Automatic stabilizers would avert the need for Congress to act on the issue every few months, racing to get new legislation passed in the face of an expiration date. The benefits are next set to expire in mid-March. While Democrats are more likely to consider the idea now that they control both chambers of Congress, the proposal has faced hurdles in the past because it could be more expensive over time.

A group of more than 50 House progressives is also calling for the bill to include recurring direct payments for most Americans rather than a one-time sum of $1,400 per person.

There is almost no room for disagreement in the House because Democrats have such a slim majority in that chamber. Members of various ideological factions have more bargaining power than usual under the circumstances, and they could make demands that may complicate or derail some provisions of the legislation. 

House Democrats can afford to lose only five of their members if all representatives are voting and Republicans are uniformly opposed to the bill. This gives the party extraordinarily little wiggle room in piecing the legislation together. For example: In 2019, six Democrats split with their colleagues and voted against a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by the year 2025. Most of those six Democrats didn’t win reelection, however, and it’s unclear how many members would take issue with a minimum wage increase this time around. But if even a handful of House Democrats oppose the provision—or any other item in the bill, for that matter—it could cause trouble for Democratic leaders. 

(It’s also not certain that the minimum wage increase could actually be passed through reconciliation. Democrats have said they still want to try it, but the Senate parliamentarian could shoot it down later.)

In the Senate, there is no margin for dissent at all. With a 50-50 chamber and Vice President Harris needed to cast the decisive vote, Democrats will have to be completely unified if they want to pass a bill without any Republican support.

These dynamics could make crafting and passing the legislation difficult. But Democrats’ widely shared sense of urgency to act could smooth things over: Members may feel less comfortable about holding up an economic relief package during a pandemic than they might about, say, an infrastructure plan. 

Capitol Police Leaders Admit Failure to Act on Intelligence

Members of Congress are continuing to investigate why the leaders of the U.S. Capitol Police were so woefully unprepared for the violence perpetrated by pro-Trump rioters on January 6.

Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman apologized to a panel of lawmakers behind closed doors earlier this week for the agency’s failure to substantially act on relevant intelligence leading up to the attack. Pittman, previously an assistant chief who filled the top position after former USCP Chief Steven Sund resigned in the aftermath of the attack, acknowledged the agency knew the gathering would pose a heightened security threat compared with other protests around the Capitol over the past year.

“Let me be clear: the Department should have been more prepared for this attack. By January 4th, the Department knew that the January 6th event would not be like any of the previous protests held in 2020. We knew that militia groups and white supremacists organizations would be attending,” Pittman said in her prepared statement. “We also knew that some of these participants were intending to bring firearms and other weapons to the event. We knew that there was a strong potential for violence and that Congress was the target.”

Lawmakers said after hearing from Pittman that they want to drill down on why the Capitol Police did not adequately act on the intelligence they had in advance. Several congressional committees are actively investigating the law enforcement agency’s planning process and its response to the events of January 6. The Capitol Police inspector general is also investigating the matter.

The U.S. Capitol Police union slammed the leadership after Pittman’s remarks became public. “The officers are angry, and I don’t blame them. The entire executive team failed us, and they must be held accountable,” said union chairman Gus Papathanasiou. “Their inaction cost lives.”

USCP officer Brian Sicknick died after being injured during the attack. Another Capitol Police officer who was on duty that day, Howard Liebengood, died by suicide several days afterward. Acting Metro PD chief Robert Contee III disclosed Tuesday that another officer who responded to the mobbing of the Capitol, Jeffrey Smith, recently died by suicide. 

Papathanasiou said Wednesday that between the Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, nearly 140 officers were injured during the insurrection. 

"I have officers who were not issued helmets prior to the attack who have sustained brain injuries. One officer has two cracked ribs and two smashed spinal discs,” he wrote. “One officer is going to lose his eye, and another was stabbed with a metal fence stake.”

Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act Reintroduced

A bipartisan group of nearly 30 senators reintroduced the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act this week, aiming to rid supply chains of products made with coerced labor in Xinjiang. 

The Chinese government—in addition to its years-long mass internment of more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims as well as other ethnic groups and its brutal campaign of forced abortions and sterilizations in the region—has been forcing Muslim minorities to work in a vast network of factories and cotton fields. 

The United States imposed sanctions on 11 Chinese companies implicated in the human rights abuses last year. In December, the Trump administration moved to block imports of cotton and cotton products from Xinjiang.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would place the burden on companies to ensure their products are made without any connection to forced labor, rather than relying only on Customs and Border Protection agents to monitor and investigate violations. The House passed its own version of the bill last year, with an overwhelming vote of 406-3.

The legislation stalled in the Senate, however, amid a lobbying effort from several large corporations who wanted to water down some of its provisions. The new Senate measure harmonizes some of the differences between the original House and Senate versions, and it has a few additional changes—including one that gives businesses more time to contest a CBP determination that their supply chains are tainted.

The bill also now requires agencies involved to hold public hearings on their enforcement strategies.

Now that the latest version has been introduced, the legislation could get another shot at passage in the coming months.

“As the Chinese Communist Party is committing egregious human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, including genocide and other crimes against humanity, there is no excuse to turn a blind eye. We must instead do everything in our power to stop them,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been one of the leading proponents of the legislation.“This bill is an important step in that direction.”

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