$350B in Pandemic Aid Helps Build … Golf Courses?

$350B in Pandemic Aid Helps Build … Golf Courses?

U.S. President Biden speaks about Bipartisan Infrastructure Law at the White House in Washington
By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Friday, January 21, 2022
Happy Friday! It’s January 21, which means that February is almost here, which means that March is just around the corner, which means spring will be here soon. Right? Please?

Where Does Democrats’ Build Back Better Bill Go From Here?

President Joe Biden said Wednesday that Democrats will "probably" have to break up their package of social spending, climate programs and tax changes.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said Thursday that his party would have to start "from scratch" in trying to draft a bill that can pass.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reminded reporters at her weekly press conference that the Democratic strategy was to pass the legislation via the special budget reconciliation process, which would allow them to bypass the threat of a Republican filibuster but comes with very specific requirements. "So when people say let's divide it up – nah. No, they don't understand the process," Pelosi said.

That all leaves the future of the plan very much up in the air.

Politico’s Burgess Everett and Marianne LeVine report that, while Democrats hope to revive their domestic agenda, including both the domestic spending plan and their election reform push, both items are likely to take a back seat to other, more bipartisan efforts. "There’s little appetite in the Democratic majority to publicly fall short on high-profile priorities so soon after the party’s failures to both weaken the filibuster to pass election reform and to approve President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion social spending bill," they write. "Instead, many Democrats are itching to get back to voting on bills that have plenty of GOP support, such as a new deal to fund the government or changing antitrust laws."

Everett and Levine note that lawmakers aren’t unified behind that approach, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pushing to force votes on the Build Back Better bill, even if they fail, in order to get Republicans — and Democratic holdout Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) — to put their opposition on the record. "We’ve been negotiating with two senators for five months and it has gotten us nowhere, so we need a new course of action. And I think what we have got to do now is to make it clear where 48 of us stand," Sanders said. "Right now, we are playing into Republicans’ hands by not having them vote against anything."

Prioritizing the long-delayed annual spending bill: Despite such demands, Pelosi followed up Friday with a Dear Colleague letter that indicated that the Build Back Better bill will have to wait as party leaders look to put some point on the board and deal with a February 18 deadline to fund the government.

Pelosi listed a number of "important initiatives ahead," with passing an omnibus budget bill at the top of the list followed by a competitiveness bill targeting China, legislation relating to Ukraine and Russia and a bill to provide care for veterans exposed to toxic substances in burn pits. She said House Democrats would "continue to advance the provisions of the Build Back Better Act," but it seems clear that the bipartisan talks to reach a deal on a spending bill and finish the long-delayed annual appropriations process will take priority for the moment.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said Thursday that negotiations on the spending are "getting much closer to something that both the House and the Senate could agree on," per Politico.

Options for the next version of Build Back Better: Whenever Democrats get back to their domestic spending plan, they would face some significant challenges if they do look to break it into "big chunks," as Biden suggested Wednesday.

Roll Call’s Paul M. Krawzak offers a thorough rundown of the options Democrats would have to split up their plan, with a warning: "All of them pose complications for Democrats and the White House in one form or another, which will make it difficult for the party leadership to get another shot before the November midterms."

Some possible paths:

1. Democrats could look to pass separate reconciliation bills covering various elements of their plan, but Krawzak says they’d need to convince the Senate parliamentarian "to cast aside precedent and allow the existing budget instructions to be used for more than one bill."

2. They could revise their 2022 budget resolution, which included the original instructions for the reconciliation package, to provide a new set of instructions and open up more options for their reconciliation bill or bills. One potential pitfall: Any such amendment would likely have to go through the normal Senate Budget Committee markup process, meaning that Republicans might be able to block the changes, or at least force another "vote-a-rama" packed with politically sensitive votes.

3. Democrats could move ahead to a new budget resolution for fiscal year 2023. "Of course," Krawzak says, "there’s no guarantee such an approach would win the needed votes from Manchin or Sinema. Nor is it clear that the Senate Democratic caucus as a whole has appetite for two more vote-a-ramas, which would be required, for the budget resolution and reconciliation bill, so close to the midterms with their thinnest-possible majority hanging in the balance."

4. Democrats could try to come up with a fiscal 2022 reconciliation bill that includes only the elements that can pass both the House and Senate, leaving the rest for later — and hoping that they can reach deals with Republicans on at least some of those other agenda items.

The bottom line: "If we can pass bills at 60, we’ll do that," Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told Politico. "If we can pass bills with 51, we’ll also do that. The question is what has the votes necessary for enactment and that will be a criteria."

$350 Billion in State and Local Aid Helps Build … Golf Courses?

Congress has provided state and local governments with about $350 billion to help them navigate the coronavirus crisis, but according to The Washington Post’s Tony Romm, the money is sometimes being used in surprising and perhaps questionable ways.

A wealthy town in coastal Florida, for example, is spending $2 million in federal aid to help build a golf course — in an area that already has more than 150 of them.

In other non-pandemic-related examples cited by Romm, North Dakota is using $150 million in federal pandemic aid to help build a gas pipeline, Alabama is spending $400 million to rebuild a prison and Indiana will put $3 million toward the expansion of the Fort Wayne International Airport.

Do we have a problem? At first glance, the use of federal relief funds for things like golf courses seems deeply problematic. In general, the money provided by Congress was intended to be used for important initiatives related to the pandemic, such as vaccinations, the purchase of medical equipment and the support of local school budgets. A golf course is a long way from a hospital or fire station.

But Congress put few restrictions on the use of the funds, opting to allow state and local officials to spend the money as they see fit. And some of the funds were meant to be used to help prop up local economies, which in sunny Florida might include the construction of yet another golf course.

"What’s a good and bad use of money? It’s not really clear," Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget told Romm.

Defending the fiscal firehose: White House economic adviser Gene Sperling, who is overseeing the enactment of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, said the federal aid has played a crucial role in softening the blow of the pandemic. It has given "state and localities the fiscal fire power and flexibility to deal both with immediate crisis as well as continuing disruptions and lingering impacts that could hamper a full, durable and equitable recovery," Sperling said.

He added: "These funds were meant to ensure that unlike the post-Great Recession recovery — where Congress later refused to add more state and local resources — we would see state and local governments adding to growth and jobs, instead of being a major source of austerity, job loss and barrier to stronger growth."

Judge Blocks Vaccine Mandate for Federal Workers

In another setback for the Biden administration’s effort to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, a federal judge in Texas issued a nationwide injunction against President Biden’s mandate that all federal workers be vaccinated against the highly contagious virus.

Judge Jeffrey Vincent Brown, who was appointed to the Southern District of Texas by then-President Donald Trump in 2019, said the mandate, which Biden announced in September, exceeds the president’s authority. "As the court has already noted, Congress appears … to have limited the President’s authority in this field to workplace conduct," Brown wrote. "For its part, this court will say only this: however extensive that power is, the federal-worker mandate exceeds it."

The ruling emerged from a lawsuit brought by Feds for Medical Freedom, a group of federal workers opposed to the vaccine mandate.

Most already vaccinated: The mandate applies to more than 3 million federal employees, as well as roughly 4 million contractors. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that 98% of federal workers had already gotten their shots.

However, The Washington Post reports that some agencies still have significantly higher levels of unvaccinated workers. The unvaccinated rate at Veterans Affairs is 11.5%, the Post says, while it’s 17.5% at the Bureau of Prisons.

White House will seek to end injunction: The Department of Justice said it would appeal Judge Brown’s decision, and Psaki expressed confidence in the lawfulness of the Biden mandate. "Obviously, we are confident in our legal authority here," she said.

The reaction of University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck to the ruling was a bit more colorful, and hints at the intensity of the emotions surrounding the issue on all sides. "I’m sorry, but this is just insane," he tweeted. "The federal government lacks the power to require its *own* employees to be vaccinated? … I don’t even know what to say anymore."

Number of the Day: 90%

Vaccine booster shots are highly effective at protecting against severe disease from the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, according to three reports released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One study found that a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines was 90% effective at preventing hospitalization and 82% effective in preventing visits to the emergency room or urgent care.

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