The Boys Are Back in Town
Lawmakers ready China package after two-week recess.
Good morning. Both chambers of Congress are back after a two-week recess. It’s set to be a busy week on Capitol Hill, as Democrats jockey over the details of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure/sweeping social investments bill. We’ll save more thorough coverage of that effort for another time, when things are more clear and the story is a little more interesting than “Will Democrats try to pass it in one bill or two?”
Senate Moves Ahead With China Measure
The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced an agreement last week for a sweeping package to compete with the Chinese government as Beijing seeks to heighten its influence around the world.
The draft version of the bill prioritizes international partnerships and military investments to counter the Chinese government. It would also task the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) with monitoring foreign influence in higher education and identifying if foreign governments are backing malign espionage activities against such institutions. CFIUS currently tracks financial transactions to ensure they do not threaten national security. The legislation mandates a series of government reports related to China, including one looking into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill also authorizes $15 million per year for the next six fiscal years for the State Department to establish a program to help companies move their supply chains out of China. The measure emphasizes the United States’ relationship with Taiwan and calls for there to be no restrictions on interactions between American and Taiwanese officials.
“The Strategic Competition Act of 2021is a recognition that this moment demands a unified, strategic response that can rebuild American leadership, invest in our ability to out-compete China, and reground diplomacy in our core values,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez said. “The United States government must be clear-eyed and sober about Beijing’s intentions and actions, and calibrate our policy and strategy accordingly.”
The legislation directs $10 million to the State Department to promote democracy in Hong Kong. It also calls for the president to impose sanctions on those responsible for forced labor practices in and around Xinjiang, as well as the campaign of systemic rape, coercive abortion, forced sterilization, and other human rights abuses Muslim minorities in the region face.
But the package is lighter on human rights provisions than some had hoped. It does not include either the House or Senate version of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would place the burden on companies rather than Customs and Border Patrol to ensure their supply chains are not tainted by forced labor. The House passed a version of the bill last year, with a formidable vote of 406-3. It faltered in the Senate, though, as several large corporations lobbied to water down some of its provisions.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who reintroduced the legislation in the Senate this year, told The Dispatch last month that his office had been arguing the measure is “a logical thing to include” in the Strategic Competition Act. “There’s a lot of corporate lobbying under the radar against it. I hope that doesn’t become a factor that keeps it out. It shouldn’t,” he said.
In a statement to The Dispatch on Monday, Rubio called for quick passage of the forced labor bill.
"It is critical that Congress come together in a bipartisan fashion to take decisive action against the CCP. As we work on that larger package, the Senate should also quickly move my bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act,” Rubio said. “Doing so would send a clear signal to Beijing, corporate America, and the world that the United States Senate is serious. There is no time for further delay."
The broader China legislation also does not address one of the most tangible steps the United States can take to help Uyghurs and other oppressed ethnic minorities from Xinjiang: Granting them priority refugee status. There is bipartisan support for that effort. A bill recently introduced in the House would give special refugee status to Uyghurs and other minorities, empowering them to apply directly to the U.S. government for asylum. The bill includes those who are residing outside of Xinjiang and those who have fled to other countries but have not been firmly resettled yet.
Peter Irwin, senior program officer for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told The Dispatch he is hoping senators will introduce a companion bill in their chamber for the refugee measure soon.
“If the U.S. government is serious about supporting Uyghurs, members of Congress should support this legislation,” he said. “While sanctions are an important step in targeting the Chinese government directly, there are thousands of Uyghurs abroad who are not yet safe from harassment and intimidation. Many of whom could be forcibly returned to China to face arbitrary detention if measures aren't taken to protect them.”
There are still some details that need to be worked out between the House and Senate with the forced labor prevention bill, and the refugee legislation was introduced recently enough that it may not have enough support to pass yet. Senators likely decided to avoid including anything that would hinder passage of the overall strategic competition measure.
Less defensible, though, is the Strategic Competition Act’s failure to call the Chinese government’s brutal campaign against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities what it is. Not once in the nearly 300-page bill does the word “genocide” appear—despite the State Department’s determination that the Chinese government’s actions constitute genocide.
Members will have a chance to offer amendments to the legislation next week when the Foreign Relations Committee holds a markup for the bill.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how House Republican leaders have handled fringe members in their ranks. GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy’s permissiveness this year has left some Republicans wondering where the line is between acceptable behavior and the kind of behavior that requires a response from the top of the conference.
Republican leaders are now facing a new but related challenge, as Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for a wide range of accused behavior—including alleged sexual misconduct, illegal drug use, campaign finance violations, and other potential violations of federal law. Gaetz has vociferously denied wrongdoing.
The New York Times first reported two weeks ago that Gaetz is under investigation by the Justice Department, which is looking into whether he broke federal sex trafficking and prostitution laws and had sex with a 17-year-old girl. Gaetz says he has never paid for sex and “as an adult man, have not slept with a 17-year-old.”
Other disturbing claims have surfaced since: CNN first reported that Gaetz showed other lawmakers photos and videos of nude women he claimed to have slept with, including while he was on the House floor for official business.
House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney, who has clashed with the Florida Republican in the past, said over the weekend that the allegations against him “certainly are sickening.”
But she deferred to the ongoing investigations, saying she would not comment further on the matter publicly.
McCarthy, for his part, has said he would strip Gaetz of his committee assignments if the Justice Department investigation has basis in fact.
“Those are serious implications. If it comes out to be true, yes, we would remove him if that's the case,” McCarthy told Fox News. “But right now Matt Gaetz says that it’s not true, and we don’t have any information. So let's get all the information.”
McCarthy said at the time that he planned to speak with Gaetz about the situation. It’s not clear if that conversation has already happened. McCarthy has not discussed the matter again publicly since the Fox interview.
Gaetz is one of the most ardent Trump supporters in the House GOP Conference. He was first elected to Congress in 2016, representing the Florida panhandle’s 1st Congressional District. Gaetz previously served in the Florida state house from 2010-2016.
Republicans are sure to face fresh questions about Gaetz this week when they return to the Capitol in person. One House Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, has called on Gaetz to step down.
Gaetz has made clear that isn’t in the cards—at least for now. He delivered a defiant speech over the weekend at former President Donald Trump's National Doral resort in Miami.
“I’m built for the battle, and I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
Lawmakers Push Biden on Refugee Admissions
When President Biden took office, he told Congress he would increase the ceiling for allowing refugees into the United States, countering former President Donald Trump’s historic low set for fiscal year 2021. But more than two months later, Biden hasn’t taken the simple step required to actually follow through on the pledge.
The delay is unusual. Presidents typically issue the presidential determination needed to enact their desired refugee ceiling shortly after informing Congress of their plans. This determination is required by law: without it, Trump’s orders have remained in effect. Biden’s failure to issue the determination has had real impacts on refugees who are waiting to enter the United States. Last month, hundreds of refugees who had been vetted, approved, and scheduled to come to America had their flights canceled because Biden had—to the surprise of the State Department—not yet lifted Trump’s cap on admissions despite his early pledge to do so.
Trump drastically cut refugee admissions during his presidency, breaking records each year for setting the strictest limits for the program in its 40-year history. Before he left office, Trump set the limit at 15,000 spots for fiscal year 2021. Biden informed Congress in February that he would raise the ceiling to 62,500 for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends in September. He said he plans to set the limit even higher, at 125,000 refugees for fiscal year 2022, which begins in October. The not-finalized 125,000 figure is far more than Trump allowed at any time in office, but it is similar to ceilings prior to Trump’s time in office.
A recent report from the humanitarian nonprofit International Rescue Committee said Biden is on track to admit the lowest number of refugees of any modern president. Halfway through the 2021 fiscal year, only 2,050 refugees have been admitted to the United States, the report notes. The group estimated that number will reach only about 4,510 refugees if admissions continue at the current pace and Biden does not take action to lift Trump’s ceiling. That is only half the number of refugees Trump admitted in his final year in office, which was itself a historic low.
Time is running short to boost admissions before fiscal year 2021 ends. Some Democratic lawmakers are losing patience with the delay, questioning why Biden has not formally boosted the refugee limit yet.
“Joe Biden ran on a promise to increase the refugee cap,” Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar wrote in a statement last week. “When meeting with the Administration, I have repeatedly urged them to follow through on these promises, yet the Administration has yet to reverse the harsh limitations of refugee admissions set by the previous administration. Because of this, hundreds of refugees had their hopes dashed last month as we cancelled their flights to the United States.”
“Abandoning those who fled unthinkable atrocities does not align with the values we hold as Americans—nor does it align with the promises set by this administration,” she added. “President Biden must follow through on his promise and issue a presidential directive to immediately increase the refugee cap.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also raised concerns about the delay.
“I don’t know why there’s a hold-up. I want to understand why this hasn’t already happened,” she told reporters last night.
On the Floor
The Senate will continue voting on Biden’s nominees this week. The chamber is set to vote on Polly Trottenberg’s nomination to be deputy secretary of transportation later today. Senators are also set to consider Gary Gensler to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Senate is expected to take up a bill later this week sponsored by Sen. Mazie Hirono to assign a Justice Department official to expedite reviews of potential hate crimes related to the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans have criticized the bill’s language, and some Democrats have questioned why the measure has not received a committee hearing before coming to the floor.
The House will take up legislation to impose stricter rules on businesses in pursuit of equal pay for women. The bill passed the House in 2019 with all Democrats supporting it alongside only seven Republicans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged opposition to the measure last month, saying it conflates discriminatory practices with “other non-discriminatory factors that result in legitimate pay disparities.” The legislation isn’t likely to pass the Senate as currently drafted. Members will also vote on a bill to expand federal efforts to protect health care and social service workers from violence. That measure also passed in 2019, with all Democrats and 32 Republicans supporting it.
The Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on student debt on Tuesday afternoon. Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley will testify, along with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy.
The House Judiciary Committee will consider and vote on a bill Wednesday morning to establish a commission to study reparations proposals for African Americans.
The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning on the bipartisan Endless Frontier Act, which seeks to boost American leadership in science and innovation through investments in research and key industries.
The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on two bills related to Puerto Rico statehood on Wednesday afternoon.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday at 10 a.m. on pandemic preparedness and the early response to the coronavirus outbreak. Four former government officials who worked in the pandemic and emergency preparedness fields will testify before the panel.
The House Intelligence Committee will hold its annual world wide threats hearing on Thursday morning.
The House Administration Committee will hold an oversight hearing Thursday at 1 p.m. on the U.S. Capitol Police’s preparations and response to the Capitol attack on January 6. Michael Bolton, inspector general for the Capitol Police, will testify.
U.S. Capitol Police officer Billy Evans was killed over the congressional recess when a 25-year-old man intentionally rammed his car into a Capitol Police checkpoint. Another officer, Ken Shaver, was injured in the attack. A third Capitol Police officer shot the assailant when he got out of his car and brandished a knife at police after running into the checkpoint. Evans will lie in honor in the Capitol rotunda this evening. Our thoughts are with Evans’ family and his colleagues during this painful time.
Rank-and-file Capitol Police officers are contending with an overwhelming sense of grief and trauma as they mourn the deaths of three of their colleagues in recent months, and as many officers who were wounded during the attack on the Capitol on January 6 are still recovering. Last week, Politico looked into the emotional and psychological toll the January 6 insurrection and the recent car attack have taken on the police force.
“Understaffed and overtaxed, the nearly 2,000-strong Capitol Police force lost three colleagues in three months and saw dozens more assaulted—violence that rivals the non-COVID death toll suffered by the police forces in entire metropolitan areas so far this year, trained on a force that covers only a few square miles,” Politico’s Kyle Cheney and Nicholas Wu write.
Members of Congress are examining how best to support the officers and bolster mental health resources.
"Having a loss like this on the heels of Jan. 6, and the losses after that, is devastating to the police department,” Rep. Jennifer Wexton said. “We need to make sure that they have the resources that they need and show that they have our support. We need to demonstrate it with action.”