February Issues Preview

The Senate is officially split 50-50, with Democrats holding control through Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote — but that doesn’t mean approving Democratic priorities will be easy.

Democratic leaders are now looking to push a relief bill through reconciliation as a bipartisan deal seems less likely.

Still, the congressional plate is quite full as committees continue to hold confirmation hearings for President Joe Biden’s Cabinet, while tackling his other first 100 days’ priorities.

Our POLITICO policy teams broke down the president's congressional agenda to assess which ones may actually have a shot at making it his desk.

QUICK FIX

— Economic stimulus is the top priority. The president is pushing an ambitious $1.9 trillion plan with a third round of direct stimulus checks, among other Covid relief, but Republicans are balking.

— But there are plenty of complications. Senate Democrats are pushing to investigate the chaotic coronavirus vaccine rollout, while the Biden administration looks to purchase millions more doses to curb the spread of coronavirus. But any hearings could be delayed by efforts to move the relief package — and by former President Donald Trump's impending impeachment trial in the Senate.

— Keep an eye on the committees. Expect some of Biden’s ideas to sail along, while others will face fierce debate.

Welcome to the February edition of the CEO Report, POLITICO Pro’s high-level outlook on the policy issues driving the month … and beyond.

AGRICULTURE

Vilsack confirmation, food insecurity high on Ag agenda: Biden’s pick to lead the Agriculture Department, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, will face the Senate Agriculture Committee for a confirmation hearing Tuesday — and is expected to be easily confirmed.

Vilsack, who served as former President Barack Obama’s USDA secretary for eight years, is expected to answer questions from lawmakers on how he plans to roll out the department’s resources.

Another line of questioning will likely be on Vilsack’s controversial civil rights record during his prior stint at USDA. The department’s strategy for addressing climate change will be yet another focus.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has taken the helm of the Agriculture Committee — power she’s expected to wield to give special attention to issues she’s championed for years, such as expanding food stamp benefits for hungry Americans, investing in conservation programs and expanding local and organic food markets.

Over in the House, the Agriculture Committee also has a new leader: Rep. David Scott, a Blue Dog Democrat from Georgia. Scott is the first Black member and first Georgian to take the committee’s gavel, an achievement that arose after former Chair Collin Peterson of Minnesota lost his reelection battle in 2020.

Scott has indicated his priorities are tackling climate change and pursuing pandemic relief, especially related to rising rates of food insecurity. He's has also declared he'll hold a hearing on the USDA’s treatment and neglect of Black farmers, the first in several decades. — Liz Crampton

HEALTH CARE

Vaccine rollout concerns consume Congress: The sluggish Covid-19 vaccine rollout is providing fodder for a new round of congressional oversight hearings, while a pair of Senate committees overseeing health policy prepare to review the nomination of Biden's health secretary-designate, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. But all that could be swamped later this month by a fight over a new Covid relief package.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will take up the pace of vaccinations and broader questions surrounding the medical supply chain in a pair of hearings this week. Lawmakers are concerned about how vaccines are being allocated to states — and gaps in testing, data collection and supplies of protective gear that have been flagged in Government Accountability Office watchdog reports.

With some states reporting they’re out of Covid-19 shots, the Biden administration is scrambling to figure out why, Democrats plan to give the floor to local health officials, while giving the White House time to get a handle on logistical problems and address potential supply shortages.

The new administration plans to purchase an additional 200 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, in a bid to try to vaccinate the vast majority of Americans this year.

Absent from the response so far is Becerra, who still awaits what could be fiery confirmation hearings before the Senate Finance and HELP committees, which share jurisdiction over the nomination.

Republicans are expected to hone in on Becerra’s support for abortion rights and universal health care. Though he’s almost assured confirmation in the Democratic-controlled Senate, any delay could leave the sprawling federal health department leaderless during a critical stretch of the pandemic — and potentially slow the planned rollback of Trump administration policies on family planning and reproductive health.

The biggest unknown ahead for Congress, however, is what happens to a massive new Covid relief bill that could include more assistance for distributing vaccines.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi will begin moving forward on a package as soon as this week, possibly through a process known as reconciliation that would require only a simple majority vote.

Centrist lawmakers in both chambers have maintained that a bipartisan deal is possible if congressional leaders allow one to be negotiated. But senior Democrats are increasingly skeptical that will happen. — Adriel Bettelheim

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT

Energy action focused on nominees: Democrats will use the coming weeks to confirm Biden nominees to lead agencies furthering his executive actions on climate change, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department, the Interior Department and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Lawmakers may also employ the Congressional Review Act to nullify late-breaking Trump-era rules, though there’s been no consensus on which regulations may be the most tempting targets.

Major action on climate change provisions appears likely to wait until Congress turns its attention toward a major infrastructure package. But sooner action on Covid-19 relief legislation could include funds to stave off utility and water shut offs.

Biden also has proposed $5 billion in funds to cover home energy and water costs for hard-hit renters. — Anthony Andragna

DEFENSE

Pentagon nominees inch forward: With Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the job, the Senate Armed Services Committee is beginning to churn through Biden's picks for other senior Pentagon posts.

The panel holds a confirmation hearing on Tuesday for Kathleen Hicks to be deputy secretary and could soon hear from Biden's pick for Pentagon policy chief, Colin Kahl.

The new president is expected to nominate more top Pentagon officials soon, including the three service secretaries.

The coming budget clash: Democratic control of the House, Senate and White House will likely embolden progressives in their push to significantly cut the defense budget.

The left flank of the Democratic caucus has called for defense spending to be cut by at least 10 percent and redirected to other priorities. And progressive lawmakers will likely push for reductions when an annual budget resolution and defense legislation comes up for votes.

Democrats, however, aren't united on that front. Centrists have opposed steep cuts to defense spending, and Biden has already telegraphed that he won't seek major reductions in the overall Pentagon budget. — Connor O’Brien

EDUCATION

New faces for the agency: Biden’s Education Department is beginning to take shape as a stream of new political appointees join the agency ahead of Miguel Cardona’s expected confirmation as secretary.

Sheila Nix, a longtime adviser to the Bidens, is the Education Department’s chief of staff. Claudia Chavez, a member of the Biden-Harris transition team who also served in former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, is the department’s White House liaison.

The administration has also turned to officials from the National Education Association, the Education Trust and the Center for American Progress to fill other roles. Still, Biden’s administration has yet to publicize its picks for a number of critical department posts. The president can appoint 16 Education Department officials that require Senate confirmation.

Greene snags spot on education panel: A new group of Republicans is also making their way to the House Education and Labor Committee, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

Her support for conspiracy theories, including false claims about mass shootings, is inviting fresh scrutiny and criticism. And it's likely the freshman lawmaker, who eschews mask mandates and loves the spotlight, will revel in attacking Education Department officials.

All of the new arrivals are set for a fresh introduction to one of the country’s most visceral policy debates: Opening schools for in-person instruction as the pandemic continues to rage.

A trio of CDC officials recently charted a path forward to reopening schools, but said resuming in-person instruction may require tough calls from local officials — including limits on indoor school sports and restrictions on indoor dining.

Meanwhile, two CDC reports offered fresh evidence supporting a cautious return to in-person classes, but also highlighted safety risks for certain school sporting events.

Biden’s strategy for beating back the coronavirus includes commitments to expand school-based virus testing. And he’s ordered officials to develop new guidance for schools, track campus reopenings and expand federal disaster funding to cover the cost of personal protective equipment in classrooms.

Still, refilling classrooms and recovering from months of lost learning won’t come easy — or cheap. — Juan Perez Jr.

TECHNOLOGY

A focus on nominees, broadband and social media: With Trump's impeachment trial poised to swallow a chunk of the Senate calendar in February, tech policy action on Capitol Hill will largely take place in deliberations over Biden's nominees and another Covid relief bill.

Biden has already nominated several key appointees with a purview of tech issues, including for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and at the Commerce Department, but they still need to go through confirmation.

D.C. tech watchers are still anxiously awaiting to find out who will serve as permanent chairs of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, how Biden will fill out those commissions and who he'll pick as his top antitrust enforcer at the Justice Department.

Lawmakers have separately indicated that expanding broadband access will be a major focus in the next round of coronavirus relief talks.

Another space to watch: Democrats are out for payback against the tech industry over the role social media played in the insurrection at the Capitol. So, expect more details to trickle out about their oversight plans as the newly formed congressional committees kick into gear, including potential hearings. — Cristiano Lima

TRANSPORTATION

Stimulus to the front: Most of the transportation action this month will be in Congress, as lawmakers continue to figure out the new battle lines and political realities.

Whether by regular order or through reconciliation, any new round of Covid stimulus is sure to have some pot of money for transportation interests, virtually all of which, from transit to airports, are calling urgently for more investment as the economy continues its nosedive. — Kathryn A. Wolfe

TRADE

Renewing two programs: Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the head of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, told POLITICO in January he's confident about the passage of a bill he authored, H.R. 8884 (116). It would write new labor and environmental protections into the Generalized System of Preferences program, which exempts certain developing countries from tariffs, but expired at the end of 2020.

Congress also failed to renew the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill, which provides exemptions from certain import duties, but it’s still unclear when leaders in either chamber will take up that renewal.

Other action to watch: Lawmakers have to deal with the coming expiration of the Trade Promotion Authority in July, which authorizes the president to negotiate trade deals that can pass Congress with an up-or-down vote, bypassing amendments.

Democrats want to remove a provision inserted by Republicans in the last authorization that prevents deals from mandating carbon cuts from U.S. companies, something sure to garner GOP opposition.

Blumenauer, though, has said he would likely not pursue further changes to curtail executive authority under the law, as he contemplated during the campaign, because Biden is now in the White House.

Biden could use any eventual fast-track authority to negotiate a new trade deal in Asia to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Trump abandoned.

Already, some pro-trade Democrats, like Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, are pushing the president to consider restarting talks, pointing to China’s recent signing of a rival trade deal as a sign Beijing is tightening its grip on the region.

So far, though, the White House has so far steered clear of the topic. — Gavin Bade

Featured Posts