8 min read

What Washington did this week

Congress votes to avert a rail strike, Biden creates a new national monument, and more.
What Washington did this week

Good morning! It’s Friday, December 2, 2022. The Georgia runoff is four days away. The 2024 elections are 704 days away.

Congrats on making it to Friday. As I sometimes say, here at WUTP, I like to close the week off by trading my “political reporter” hat for my “government reporter” hat — and filling you in on the important, substantive work that goes on here in Washington week in and week out, but sometimes goes unnoticed.

Since Congress was on recess before the midterms, it’s been a few weeks since I’ve brought you this feature — but I’m happy to bring it back, full of all the important policy developments you should know about from the past week.

Speaking of the past week, here are two WUTP pieces to go back to in case you missed them: my column on the intersections between Trump, Kanye, and Elon and my primer on Hakeem Jeffries, the new House Democratic leader.

Thanks so much for reading. Have an excellent weekend.

If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

What Washington did this week

Here’s a roundup of what got done in all three branches of government this week:

🚆 Averting a rail strike

Both chambers of Congress passed bipartisan legislation to avert a national railroad strike by enforcing a tentative agreement between rail companies and their unions mediated by the Biden administration. The measure passed 80-15-1 in the Senate and 290-137 in the House; it now goes to President Biden, who is scheduled to sign it today.

Workers in four of the 12 rail unions had voted to veto the agreement, sparking the possibility of a strike starting on December 9 — which would have disrupted travel and shipping ahead of the holiday season. Under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause and the Rail Labor Act of 1926, Congress is able to force railroad unions to accept a new contract in situations such as this one.

The House also voted 221-207 to add seven days of annual paid sick leave for rail workers to the agreement — the original only gave them one; the unions had requested 15 — but the measure failed 52-43 in the Senate, where it needed 60 votes. It did attract support from an unusual coalition, however: “I always knew you were a socialist,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) could be heard jokingly telling Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) after they both voted for the paid sick leave addition.

👨‍❤️‍👨 Protecting same-sex marriage

The Senate voted 61-36 to pass the Respect for Marriage Act, a bipartisan bill to codify federal protections for same-sex and interracial marriages in case the Supreme Court overturns its decisions legalizing both.

If the justices were to reverse their rulings, the bill would not require states to perform same-sex marriages — but it would require them to recognize such marriages performed in other states. The measure also formally repeals the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law previously struck down by the Supreme Court which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman for federal purposes.

The Respect for Marriage Act already passed the House in July in a 267-157 vote, but the bill was amended in the Senate to expand its religious liberty protections and clarify that it does not legalize polygamy, so it must pass the House again before going to Biden’s desk.

London Pride parade - 2016
A demonstration for LGBT rights. (Ian Taylor / Unsplash)

🎓 Student loan debt case

The Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments on Biden’s student loan debt forgiveness plan, which had been poised to cancel up to $20,000 in debt for federal borrowers before being paused by an appeals court.

The high court justices said the plan would remain blocked for now, but fast-tracked the case so that it will be heard in February. Biden’s legal rationale for the debt forgiveness was a 2003 law aimed at veterans which allows the Education Department to waive student loan debt “in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency.”

The president said the Covid-19 national emergency allowed for the broad application of the law; several Republican-led states challenged that interpretation, leading to the case now in the courts.

⛰️ A new national monument

Biden announced plans to create Avi Kwa Ame National Monument, putting roughly 450,000 acres in the southern tip of Nevada off-limits for development. Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, presidents are able to conserve “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” by setting them aside as national monuments.

Avi Kwa Ame is the Mojave name for Spirit Mountain, the 5,642-foot peak included in the newly conserved land, which is sacred for the Mojave people and 11 other Native tribes. This will be Biden’s second original use of the Antiquites Act; he previously protected a 53,800-acre World War II training site and wilderness area in Colorado.

The president announced the new designation at a White House tribal summit, where the administration also announced plans to give three Native tribes — two in Alaska, one in Washington state — $25 million each to move away from coastal areas. The New York Times described it as “one of the nation’s largest efforts to date to relocate communities that are facing an urgent threat from climate change.”

Spirit Mountain, the site of the newest national monument. (Ken Lund)

🧑‍⚖️ Criminal justice

The House passed three bipartisan bills related to criminal justice:

  • A bill to clarify that anyone sentenced for a crack cocaine offense before 2010 can apply for a sentencing reduction under the First Step Act, the Trump-era criminal justice reform bill. The measure is a response to a Supreme Court decision from last year which held that low-level offenders were not covered by the original law. Passed 307-101
  • A bill to improve the treatment of pregnant women in federal prisons, including by establishing standards of care for them and prohibiting they be placed in solitary confinement during the third trimester. Passed 324-90
  • A bill to fund the creation of reentry centers across the country to provide resources for formerly incarcerated people returning to their communities. Passed 259-167

And more...

  • The Senate unanimously approved a bill providing for the return of Native American cultural items that were illegally obtained. The House passed the measure last year, so it will now be sent to the president’s desk.
  • The House voted for a bipartisan bill creating a State Department office to oversee human rights issues relating to the Uyghur people, the religious minority being detained in internment camps in China.
  • Biden issued a memorandum strengthening efforts to combat sexual violence in war zones, including Ukraine, the first time that the U.S. has put acts of sexual violence on par with other conflict-related human rights abuses.
  • The Biden administration, Japan, and South Korea, imposed coordinated sanctions on three North Korean officials tied to the country’s recent missile launches.

🚨 What else you should know

➞ ECONOMY: “The U.S. economy added 263,000 jobs in November and the jobless rate remained at 3.7%, signs of continued strength in the labor market.” WSJ

➞ TRUMP: “A unanimous federal appeals court on Thursday ended an independent review of documents seized from former President Donald Trump’s Florida estate, removing a hurdle the Justice Department said had delayed its criminal investigation into the retention of top-secret government information.” AP

➞ 2024: “President Biden has asked leaders of the Democratic National Committee to make South Carolina the nation’s first primary state, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada a week later, and hold subsequent weekly primaries in Georgia and Michigan, according to Democrats briefed on the plans.” WaPo

  • The new 2024 calendar — which removes Iowa as an early voting state, a major shift from the past four decades — is set to be voted on at a DNC meeting this weekend.

➞ GEORGIA: Inside Elections has changed its rating from the Georgia Senate runoff from Tossup to Tilt Democratic, as Republicans express worries that former football star Herschel Walker is not spending enough time on the trail in his campaign against Sen. Raphael Warnock.

➞ KANYE: Kanye West, who has said he is running for president in 2024, was suspended from Twitter last night after posting a photo of a swasitaka inside a Jewish star — hours after making a string of anti-semitic and pro-Hitler comments in an interview with Alex Jones.

  • Update to my Monday column: West’s latest comments led the House Judiciary Committee Republicans to delete their viral tweet, “Kanye. Elon. Trump.” The former president, who hosted the rapper for dinner just last week, has yet to comment on the situation.

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.

Executive Branch

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing (9 am) and sign H.J.Res.100, the legislation averting a national rail strike, into law (10:15 am).

This afternoon, he’ll travel to Boston, Massachusetts. After arriving, Biden will greet Prince William and Princess Kate of Wales — who are also visiting Boston — at the JFK Library (2:50 pm).

Biden will then participate in an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers phone bank (4:10 pm) and a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reception (5:45 pm) before traveling to Camp David, the presidential retreat, where he will spend the weekend.

Vice President Harris has nothing on her public schedule.

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will deliver remarks at the 12th annual NewDEAL Leaders Conference, a gathering of progressive state and local elected officials (12 pm).  

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold a press gaggle aboard Air Force One during the flight to Boston.

Legislative Branch

The Senate is out until Monday.

The House will convene (9 am) and vote on one piece of legislation: the Jackie Walorski Maternal and Child Home Visiting Reauthorization Act, which would increase funding for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program and reauthorize it through 2027.

Per a bill summary, the program “supports home visits for expectant and new parents who live in communities that are at-risk for poor maternal and child health outcomes.” The bill has been named for the late Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN), who died in a car crash in August at age 58.

The House January 6th committee will meet today to discuss potential criminal referrals as the panel prepares to wrap up its investigation.

The Supreme Court will meet for its weekly conference.

👋 Before I go...

Here’s something interesting: “A new dinosaur species discovered in Mongolia is being called the first prehistoric meat-eater ever found with two legs and a streamlined body adapted for diving and hunting underwater,” the Wall Street Journal reports.

What did it look like, you ask? Here’s a rendering of the Natovenator polydontus, the swimming, duck-sized dinosaur that is the first known carnivore of its kind:

(Yusik Choi)

👍 Thanks for reading.

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Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe