What’s Next? An Update From the Hill

February 16, 2022 | Devon Page

East entrance of the U.S. Capitol at nightThe new year began with a storm. A rare snowy blaze was unleashed on D.C., causing confusion, bewilderment, and inactivity. Though the snowfall subsided, its remnants melted, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) is no longer stuck in Armageddon-level traffic, a disorienting flurry of political activity (and inactivity) continues to swarm the Hill and for that reason, with respect to crossing off some priorities on Democrats’ agenda, members of congress might as well still be stuck in traffic.

Last week, the House passed a third continuing resolution to fund the government through March 11. In order to avoid a government shutdown, Senators must approve the resolution by Friday, Feb. 18. Despite the small window and ongoing disputes over vaccine mandates and harm reduction efforts, party leaders appear confident that they'll be able to avoid a shutdown. Furthermore, the past two weeks have marked significant progress in a months-long party standoff over funding the government for Fiscal Year 22. There is bipartisan agreement for top line numbers, and congressional staff are now actively engaged negotiating and writing legislation.

Despite Senator Manchin’s (D-WV) insistence that the Build Back Better Act is dead, the social spending package lives in the minds of Democratic legislators. However, attention has shifted from passing the entire $2 trillion package to passing several popular provisions originally included in the legislation. With nothing set in stone, advocates are diving into the mud, pushing for their top priorities.

Of all the great BBB provisions—and in the eyes of this correspondent, there are a lot—ASTHO is doubling down on two: the establishment of a mandatory public health infrastructure fund to provide sustained, flexible, and long-term funding for public health departments and a permanent fix for Medicaid funding for the U.S. Territories. Among a plethora of strategic advocacy efforts, ASTHO in a recent letter exhorted Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to include the two policies in any revised social spending package.

But, as of earlier this month Sen. Schumer’s title as Majority Leader might, well, be just that—a title. While Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) recovers from a stroke, Democrats are facing an effectively balanced Senate for the foreseeable future. So now passing party-line legislation has become not only a practical impossibility (because of filibuster rules); it’s also, without a majority, a theoretical impossibility. If the fragility of the Democratic majority has not yet been made indubitably clear, Sen. Luján’s absence certainly does. Hopefully—for reasons beyond just the political, however important the political are— Sen. Luján makes a speedy and full recovery.

For the time being, it seems that BBB sits on the back burner—and not just because of Sen. Luján’s malady. There is, plainly, a lot to get done, and much of it has a deadline. Confirming a Supreme Court Justice, especially in the contemporary Senate, is neither easy nor quick. The cumbersome selection and confirmation process—filled with private meetings, stakeholder input, and high scrutiny—requires months. Justice Breyer’s retirement announcement adds another serving to an already full congressional plate.

Although the future of federal policy and the Biden Administration’s agenda remains as unclear as ever before, optimism can—and I argue, should—be found. First, reports are surfacing that, without any complications, Sen. Ben Ray Luján could be back to the Senate in as little as a month. Additionally, it appears that bipartisan support is growing for several ASTHO priorities, notably for ensuring equitable Medicaid funding for the U.S. Territories. And after about a year, Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) released a discussion draft of the long-awaited PREVENT Pandemics Act, marking a step forward for the advancement of bipartisan public health initiatives. (ASTHO has submitted comments on the discussion draft to the Chairwoman and Ranking Member.) Last but certainly not least, ASTHO’s annual hill day is around the corner. In the middle of an exciting and eventful Washington Week on Wednesday, Feb. 23, ASTHO members will hold meetings with their respective congressional delegations in support of ASTHO FY22 and FY23 appropriations requests among other legislative priorities.

…and yes, you read that right: “FY23”…

Traffic, as frustrating as it may feel, does not stop the world from moving.