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Legislative Affairs

September 8, 2023

Congressional Leadership Remains at Odds with Each Other after the August Recess

Supplemental Aid for Ukraine and Disaster Assistance Splits House and Senate Republicans

Members of Congress were back in session this week after the August recess, and they have begun laying the groundwork for what is expected to be a nasty spending fight through the end of the month. The fiscal year and the government’s spending authority end after September 30th. On October 1st, without a full spending package or a short-term, stopgap spending package passed, the government will shut down, leaving all non-essential government employees furloughed. But before we get to that point, Congress has a few weeks to try and resolve what is shaping up to be a massive budgetary gap between House and Senate spending bills, as well as a variety of political and policy issues.

The Senate is hitting the ground running with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer scheduling the FY2024 MilCon-VA, Agriculture, and Transportation-HUD bills to be introduced on the floor early next week. The Senate versions of these spending bills contain billions of more dollars in spending and lack the “culture war” provisions which the House Appropriations Committee approved. Senators are approaching the appropriations process in a bipartisan way and there is no appetite for a government shutdown.

Meanwhile on the House side, Republicans are running the show on their own; they weren’t able to get a single Democrat to vote for any of the bills in the House Appropriations Committee. Spending in these bills has been cut to well below the number reached in an agreement between Congress and the White House during the debt limit standoff earlier this year. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is now put in the position to somehow wrangle an agreement out of all of this; he stands in the middle between his the far-right Republican Freedom Caucus and the White House and Senate which are mostly in lockstep with each other. Adding to the complexities of this budget deal are the need for a supplemental aid package which the White House and Senate want for disaster relief and to support Ukraine’s military. However, House Republicans want to cut out military assistance for Ukraine is exchange for additional funding and policy changes on the U.S.-Mexico border. Some Republicans have even suggested leveraging their support of any agreement for action by Speaker McCarthy to begin impeachment proceedings of President Joe Biden. As this budget fight continues, keep in mind that any one Member of Congress can issue a motion to vacate and attempt to oust McCarthy from his Speakership.

Here’s what else you may have missed this week:

Department of Defense going on the offensive against Senate blockade of military promotions. Senator Tuberville (R-AL) has been denying unanimous consent to all senior military promotions since February in retaliation for a Pentagon policy which grants leave and reimburses travel expenses for military personnel who cannot obtain an abortion or receive reproductive health care in the state where they are stationed. The backlog has now affected over 300 positions which need Senate confirmation, including those nominated to lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Throughout this week the Pentagon has taken the unusual, but not unprecedented, tactic of having its top military leadership write op-eds and conduct TV interviews to try and get Senator Tuberville to budge. They even spotlighted the issue in an article on their front page earlier this week. In taking the case to the American people, they are arguing that Tuberville is negatively impacting military readiness; Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro claimed the Senator was “aiding and abetting Communist and other autocratic regimes around the world.” Despite this effort, the issue is likely to remain at a standstill with Pentagon officials and the White House refusing to budge on reversing the policy, Senator Chuck Schumer refusing to introduce each nominee one-by-one (to avoid creating a precedent in denying nominees for political expediency), and Senator Tuberville refusing to budge in his anti-abortion fight.

FDA and CDC set to approve new COVID booster as hospitalizations spike around the country. The Food and Drug Administration may approve the updated COVID-19 booster as early as today (so keep an eye on the news) which would pave the way for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is scheduled to meet on Tuesday, to give final approval on the vaccines as early as next week. This update comes as hospitalizations for COVID infections have increased for seven weeks in a row; even First Lady Jill Biden tested positive for the virus (she has since tested negative). The new booster shot will target the omicron subvariant and has been found to give additional protection against other variants as well.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vows to finish his term despite health concerns. During the August recess Sen. McConnell captured headlines again after yet another protracted on-camera freeze during an interview which itself included questions about his health. Staff responded to the incident saying that the Senator was dehydrated. McConnell then took the issue a step further this week during a meeting with Senate Republicans where he presented letters from the on-site doctor in the Capitol for members of Congress who concluded that the Senator had not suffered a seizure or stroke. McConnell asserted that he would finish his term as leader, which ends in January, as well as his term in office, which ends in 2027 unless he runs for reelection. For the most part, McConnell has the support of the rest of his party, although Rand Paul, the junior Senator from Kentucky who himself is a doctor, has voiced skepticism that he could have really had a thorough medical evaluation. For the time being, McConnell has the important role of keeping his party and the Senate united throughout this appropriations process.

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