February Washington D.C. Preview

February 3, 2020

QUICK FIX

— February off to a fast start: The shortest month of the year kicks off with rapid-fire key moments. The 2020 election begins in earnest today with the Iowa caucuses — and the results could have big implications for the tech world if a Silicon Valley critic like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) does well.

 

President Donald Trump will outline his policy agenda in a State of the Union speech Tuesday, one day before Senate Republicans are expected to vote to acquit him in the impeachment trial. Trump will then unveil his budget on Feb. 10.

 

On Friday, Democratic presidential candidates will debate in New Hampshire ahead of the primary there Feb. 11. The month ends with two more debates: Feb. 19 in Nevada and Feb. 25 in South Carolina.

WAITING FOR THE BUDGET

Awaiting Trump's funding wish list: Trump plans to release his budget request on Feb. 10, kicking off spending negotiations with Congress for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Once that fiscal 2021 wish list is bound into a big blue book, appropriators on Capitol Hill will start scheduling hearings to question top Trump administration officials about the funding needs of federal agencies.

 

Under the budget agreement signed last summer, H.R. 3877 (116), another $5 billion is allowed for the upcoming fiscal year, beyond the funding enacted under the two spending packages Trump signed in late December, H.R. 1865 (116) and H.R. 1158 (116). Of that, a $2.5 billion boost is allowed for the military and a $2.5 billion increase is permitted for non-defense programs. — Jennifer Scholtes

 

Defense caps: The budget is widely expected to hew to a deal struck last summer that caps overall national defense spending at $741 billion, a slight increase from $738 billion this year. This marks a slowdown in defense spending, which has expanded rapidly under Trump and Republican hawks on Capitol Hill.

 

It's a harsh reality Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top Pentagon leaders are warning about as they look to carry out a new strategy focused on matching military gains by China and Russia and hunt for savings within the defense budget to pay for it. — Connor O'Brien

WHAT HHS IS UP TO

Coronavirus containment: The Trump administration is seeking to calm fears in the U.S. over the Wuhan coronavirus, with national security adviser Robert O'Brien telling CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday that "right now there's no reason for Americans to panic. This is something that is a low risk, we think in the U.S." O'Brien is a member of Trump's coronavirus task force along with HHS Secretary Alex Azar and others, and the National Security Council is coordinating the administration's response. The administration declared a public health emergency Friday and closed the U.S. border to foreign nationals who have recently been in China. In addition, flights from China will be "funneled" through seven airports. The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee will hold the first congressional hearing on the outbreak this week, with CDC Director Robert Redfield set to appear. So far, more than 14,500 cases of the virus have been confirmed around the world, including 241 U.S. patients, according to Pro DataPoint's Patterson Clark.

 

Trump readies another push on drug prices: Trump health officials are preparing to advance a drug pricing plan seen skeptically by some Republicans as the president feels new urgency to address a top issue for voters. Trump lashed out at Azar last month over negative health care polling, arguing that he hasn't gotten enough credit for drug pricing efforts. His administration is now scrambling to release a plan that would link the price of some Medicare drugs to cheaper prices paid by other developed countries. — Jason Millman

 

HHS preparing data-sharing rules: HHS is working to finalize a pair of rules intended to ease data-sharing this month. The draft version, unveiled in February 2019, proposed, among other things, allowing researchers to share screenshots of health software; requiring hospitals to send notifications of patient admissions, discharges, or transfers; and requiring electronic health records to make patient data available through API. The rules, now under Office of Management and Budget review, are likely to aggressively increase data-sharing requirements, despite an intense lobbying effort to dampen them. HHS is targeting unveiling the rules before the State of the Union on Tuesday, but the lobbying effort and legal considerations may delay them. — Darius Tahir

TRADE WINDS

Looking to the next trade deals: President Donald Trump is looking to land another trade deal, and India is next. He is expected to travel to the South Asian nation the week of Feb. 23 to sign off on a limited pact that could provide more market access for U.S.-made medical devices and agricultural products. The administration could also soon announce its desire to negotiate a trade deal with Kenya, the first with a sub-Saharan African country. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta will give public speeches in Washington on Feb. 5 and 6 and is likely to meet with Trump during his visit. In addition, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is widely expected to meet with Trump in Washington this month possibly to launch trade talks. And European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Jan. 22 she is looking to reach a deal with the U.S. "in a few weeks."

 

Eye on the calendar: USTR faces a Feb. 28 deadline for sending Congress its annual report on the president's trade agenda for the coming year. The Commerce Department also faces a mid-February deadline for extending a waiver that allowed certain types of transactions with blacklisted company Huawei. — Adam Behsudi

 

Another tranche of trade aid: USDA plans to release a third and final round of tariff relief payments to farmers for the financial losses they suffered in 2019 amid Trump's trade war with China. USDA set aside up to $14.5 billion for 2019 aid, on top of $8.6 billion for 2018 production.

 

The department will also host its annual Agricultural Outlook Forum starting Feb. 20 in Arlington, Va., with top USDA officials and industry leaders. — Ryan McCrimmon

TECHNOLOGY

Congress in 'wait and C-band' mode: Combatants in the fight over the slice of 5G-friendly spectrum known as the C-band will have a lot to watch on Capitol Hill this month, after Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) reached a bipartisan compromise last week (first reported by POLITICO) for how Congress should direct the FCC to auction off the airwaves and split the proceeds. (His bill would steer $5 billion to the Treasury, give as much as $6 billion in compensation and relocation costs to the satellite operators that now hold the airwaves, plus fund broadband and 911 upgrades.) But the satellite incumbents object, saying Kennedy's deal would pay them pennies on the dollar for what they've invested in this valuable spectrum over the decades. And other lawmakers made it clear Kennedy doesn't have the last word — House Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) called his bill "a good opening salvo." So now it's down to negotiating.

 

Meanwhile, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says the commission at its February meeting will tee up the auction it hopes to kick off by the end of the year. This leaves plenty of time for more congressional wrangling. — Bob King

LABOR

Ambitious labor rights bill to reach House floor: The House is expected Thursday or Friday to take up a far-reaching labor bill, H.R. 2474 (116), that would make it easier for workers to create and maintain labor unions. The legislation would, among other things, allow Uber and Lyft drivers to join unions, and enable the NLRB — which now can collect only back pay — to levy punitive fines on employers. The bill would also permit unionization in some circumstances through "card check" — the informal collection by union organizers of authorization forms signed by workers. The bill will likely clear the House and then die in the Republican-controlled Senate. — Rebecca Rainey

TAX

Family credits: House Ways and Means Democrats on the panel are renewing their effort to expand tax credits that benefit individuals and households, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. As they did last year, they frame those discussions in the context of making a tradeoff with Republicans in Congress for fixing errors in the GOP-led tax overhaul of 2017, H.R. 1 (115), primarily the slower-than-intended business write-off schedule for retail and restaurants.

 

Senate oversight: Across the Capitol, tax issues in the Senate Finance Committee are largely more investigative in nature. Bipartisan scrutiny of tax deductions for land donations through so-called syndicated conservation easements is continuing under the watch of Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). In addition, Grassley recently asked the IRS to look into fraudulent claims for the electric vehicle tax credit, as millions of dollars' worth of credits have been awarded to cars that aren't electric. — Aaron Lorenzo

NOT EASY BEING GREEN

Ways and Means goes green: House Ways and Means Democrats are eyeballing ways to broaden a variety of tax breaks in the renewable energy sector, and they could introduce some new ones in the process. This month or next, they plan to advance a package centered around a bill to widen the existing tax credit for electric vehicles, which would lift the sales ceiling on car manufacturers before the credit starts phasing out. They've also begun discussions on how to pay for a nationwide infrastructure spending plan that a larger group of House Democrats are starting to map out. — Aaron Lorenzo

 

Movement on climate bills: Expect continued feedback on legislative frameworks from three House committees — Energy and Commerce, Natural Resources and Transportation and Infrastructure concerning how they'd address climate change. No markups or hearings are scheduled, but they likely will begin this month. Committee leaders have said they hope to advance an infrastructure package with an extensive climate title as well as a separate climate bill this year. — Anthony Adragna

 

Still not infrastructure week: As Congress' impeachment drama drew to a close last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her committee chairs rolled out a package of principles to inform an eventual infrastructure package, a $760 billion, five-year blueprint that covered everything from highways to broadband and even climate change.

 

With the surface transportation law the FAST Act expiring at the end of September, Congress will enact some kind of multi-year, multibillion-dollar measure. But whether it will look anything like House Democrats' blueprint remains to be seen. House Transportation Republicans separately put out their own principles, which mentioned the desire for more project streamlining but nothing about climate change.

 

The State of the Union and the White House's annual budget request will give Trump a chance to weigh in on what he wants to see in an infrastructure package — support that will be necessary to get anything done, regardless of the specifics. — Kathryn A. Wolfe

FINANCIAL SERVICES

Eyes on Powell: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell will testify in back-to-back hearings with the Senate Banking and House Financial Services committees in mid-February on monetary policy. Trump has resumed his attacks on Powell for being too slow to cut interest rates, and the pressure from the White House is bound to get more intense as Election Day approaches and the economy falls short of Trump's prediction of 3 percent growth or better.

 

Kraninger vs. Waters: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Kathy Kraninger will testify before the House Financial Services Committee on Feb. 6, amid increasing scrutiny of her agency's handling of fair lending laws. Since Kraninger took over in December 2018, the bureau has brought just one fair-lending action, in contrast to the more aggressive enforcement during the Obama administration, when the CFPB was created. She's also likely to get pointed questions about her recent decision to name a Justice Department political appointee to lead the bureau's enforcement division.

 

Fannie-Freddie capital: The Federal Housing Finance Agency plans to issue a long-anticipated rule setting capital requirements for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a move that's being closely watched by investors eager to see the two mortgage giants released from a decade of government control. It will be important for investors since the capital rule will be a key factor when Fannie and Freddie seek to raise private funds as they exit conservatorship. — Mark McQuillan

EDUCATION

OMB meeting with groups on Title IX regs: Colleges, universities and K-12 schools continue to await the formal release of the Trump administration's updated Title IX regulations. Rules to govern how schools handle sexual misconduct remain in the final approval stage at OMB, which has meetings scheduled with interest groups in February to discuss the plan.

 

NCAA policy coming to address sexual violence: The NCAA is crafting an expanded sexual violence policy that could land in the coming weeks. Some of the new language may address background checks, given that NCAA President Mark Emmert has said officials agree schools should have access to students' background information when deciding whether to admit them. Ohio State University President Michael Drake says precise policy language is still being developed. — Juan Perez Jr.

CYBERSECURITY

RSA Conference considers the 'human element' in cybersecurity: The RSA Conference , one of the largest global gatherings of cybersecurity experts, executives and practitioners, begins on Feb. 24 in San Francisco. This year, panelists and speakers will consider the so-called human element of cybersecurity — that is, the role cybersecurity practitioners in the private sector and government play in protecting the most vulnerable parts of society such as elections.

 

Every year, cybersecurity policy has become more of a focus for the conference, and this year's agenda features a number of key cyber figures from the federal government, including John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security; Donna Dodson, chief cybersecurity adviser for the National Institute of Standards and Technology; and William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

 

Pro Cybersecurity reporters Tim Starks and Eric Geller will be in San Francisco to cover all the highlights and key developments at the event. — Michael B. Farrell

CANNABIS

All eyes on New Mexico: The outcome of the first big marijuana legalization battle of 2020 will be decided in the coming weeks, with New Mexico's legislative session slated to adjourn on Feb. 20. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made establishing a regulated adult-use market a top priority. Legislation has been introduced that draws heavily from the recommendations of a legalization task force created by Grisham last year, and is almost certain to pass the House. But a similar proposal stalled in the Senate last year, and the bill's prospects in that chamber remain murky. Opponents are warning that legalization will increase the number of impaired drivers on the roads and emphasizing concerns about links between marijuana use and mental illness.

 

Industry gathers in Boston as legalization debate heats up: Top industry officials will gather in Boston later this month for the Northeast Cannabis Business Conference. The National Cannabis Industry Association's gathering takes place as several northeastern states debate legalization. — Paul Demko

CANADA

Trudeau's mine decision on deck: By the end of next month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet must decide whether to approve Teck Resources' $20 billion Frontier mine in northern Alberta, a massive, polarizing project with a big environmental footprint that could produce up to 260,000 barrels of oil a day. The decision will be taken as a sign of Liberals' true colors on climate change and resource development, as Trudeau promised since he came to power in 2015 that his government would fight climate change but also champion Canada's natural resources. If Liberals don't approve it, they'll be accused of trying to phase out the oil sands (a risky proposition as the party lost all seats in oil-rich Alberta and Saskatchewan in the October election). If they do, they'll be accused of not being serious about reducing emissions. — Maura Forrest

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