8 min read

16 things Washington did this week

Helping homeless vets. Researching tranq. A historic tie-breaker. High-speed rail. March-in rights. And a Native tribe in the Olympics?

Good morning! It’s Friday, December 8, 2023. The 2024 elections are 333 days away. The Iowa caucuses are 38 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Here in my neck of the woods, the semester is winding down and finals are in full swing starting today — which means WUTP is going to go into a brief hibernation.

Next week, the newsletter will go on pause so I can focus on the stack of essays and exams in front of me. Then, Congress will be leaving town for the rest of December — which means there (hopefully) won’t be much news from Washington, so my plan is to stay out of your inbox for a little longer instead of bothering you during the holidays. We could all use a break.

Thank you all so much for reading and supporting the newsletter in 2023. I know I owe many of you responses to your feedback and questions sent over the past few weeks — I promise I will catch up on emails over the break, so don’t be surprised if you hear from me.

I hope you all have a great holiday season. See you back in your inbox in January. And now, to my favorite weekly feature...


What Washington did this week

Senate staffers wheel the compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act — all 3,093 pages — through the Capitol. (Caroline Coudriet / Twitter)

Every Friday, I like to take my “political reporter” hat off and put my “government reporter” hat on, and fill you in on the nitty-gritty policies your leaders in Washington advanced throughout the week.

My goal is to cover the big stuff — the attention-grabbing votes and announcements — but also the smaller things, the less flashy (but still consequential!) policy news that can sometimes get missed by other outlets.

Without further ado (and in no particular order), here’s what Washington did this week:

House of Representatives

1. The House unanimously passed the TRANQ Research Act, which directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to conduct research into xylazine, the drug commonly known as “tranq.” An animal sedative not intended for human use, xylazine is increasingly being mixed with fentanyl, increasing the frequency of opioid overdoses and making them harder to reverse. As of last year, 11% of U.S. fentanyl deaths involved xylazine, up from 3% in 2019.

The bill already passed the Senate in June, which means it now heads to President Biden’s desk. It is the 40th piece of legislation to pass both chambers of Congress this year.

2. The House passed the DETERRENT Act, which would require U.S. colleges and universities to annually disclose foreign gifts valued at $50,000 or more — and any gifts from China or Russia. Currently, colleges only need to report foreign gifts greater than $250,000. The bill was approved 246-170, with bipartisan support.

3. The House passed the Housing Our Military Veterans Effectively Act, which would extend a pandemic-era program that creates a stipend for veterans who are homeless or using federal rental vouchers to “purchase necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, and hygiene items; transportation services; or communications equipment such as smartphones so the veterans can maintain contact with health care providers, prospective landlords, and family members.”

The bill, which passed 408-10, would also increase the per diem rate that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) pays to non-profits like the Salvation Army that help veterans access housing. More than 33,000 veterans across the U.S. are homeless.

4. The House also unanimously passed two other bills to assist veterans. Currently, the VA only reimburses veterans for emergency care from non-VA facilities if the veteran is considered an “active” VA patient, one who went to a VA health care appointment in the last two years. But it can sometimes take several weeks for veterans to complete their first appointment — which means significant time can elapse before they are able to receive reimbursement for an emergency visit.

The RELIEVE Act fills this gap by waiving the “active patient” requirement for a veteran’s first 60 days as a VA recipient, when it would be difficult for them to have had a VA appointment in the past two years. Meanwhile, the COPE Act would make new mental health resources available to veterans’ caregivers.

5. The House passed two bills to combat Biden administration priorities. The Choice in Automobile Retail Sales Act, which would block an EPA proposal to require electric vehicles to make up two-thirds of new cars sold in the U.S. by 2032, passed 221-197, with all Republicans and five Democrats in support.

Another measure — which passed 210-189, with all Republicans and two Democrats in support — would overturn the Education Department’s new income-driven student loan repayment plan, known as the “SAVE Plan.”

6. The House voted 311-14-92 in favor of a resolution condemning antisemitism, explicitly including anti-Zionism under that umbrella. 13 Democrats and one Republican opposed the measure; 92 Democrats voted “present,” which is tantamount to an abstention.

7. The House voted 214-191-5 in favor of a resolution censuring Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), who falsely pulled a Capitol fire alarm earlier this year. Three Democrats and all Republicans voted for the measure; four Democrats and one Republican voted “present.” Bowman is the 27th House member in history to be censured — and the third this year. As per tradition, he stood in the well of the House as the rebuke against him was read aloud.

Senate

8. The Senate unanimously approved 425 military promotions after Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) largely dropped his months-long blockade, which protested the Pentagon’s abortion policy. Tuberville maintained holds only on eight four-star generals, allowing all lower-ranked officers to be confirmed.

9. The Senate also confirmed a new circuit court judge in a bipartisan 80-12 vote and a new district court judge in a 50-50 vote, with Vice President Harris breaking the tie. It was Harris’ 33rd tie-breaking vote as VP, breaking the record set by John C. Calhoun, who served as vice president under Andrew Jackson. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) awarded her a golden gavel to recognize the feat.

10. Conference committee negotiators released their 3,093-page compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense policy package, which was then promptly advanced in the Senate by an 82-15 vote. A final vote is expected next week.

The package would raise service member pay by 5.2%, create a training program for Taiwanese troops, set up an inspector general for Ukraine aid, extend Section 702 surveillance authority through mid-April, and require the government to compile its Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) records for the first time. Many of the provisions in the House version restricting abortion and transgender care were stripped out.

11. The Senate voted 49-51 to block the National Security and Border Act, the $110 billion Democratic package to aid Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, while also boosting border security spending.

12. The Senate voted 13-84 against a resolution by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would have withdrawn the 900 U.S. troops currently stationed in Syria.

Biden administration

13. The Transportation Department announced $8.2 billion in funding for 10 new passenger rail projects across the country, including the nation’s first high-speed rail systems. The funding comes from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package; the U.S. currently lags far behind other countries in high-speed rail.

Some of the funded projects (seen below) include a high-speed rail system between California and Nevada, projected to serve more than 11 million passengers annually, and another that will eventually link Los Angeles and San Francisco.

14. The Education Department announced $4.8 billion in new student loan debt relief, through an income-driven relief program and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. In total, 80,300 borrowers were impacted by the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).

15. Under the bipartisan Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, the U.S. government reserves the right to seize the patents of any drugs created through public-private partnership if the product isn’t made “reasonably” available. The government has never asserted this power, known as “march-in rights.”

The Departments of Commerce and Health and Human Services released a proposed framework this week that could pave the way for the “march-in rights” to be invoked. Importantly, the guidelines include pricing under the definition of “reasonably” available — meaning the government could seize the patent of a taxpayer-funded drug if it’s deemed to be too expensive.

16. President Biden signed an executive order that aims to make it easier for Native tribes to receive federal funding. He also endorsed the efforts of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (formerly known as the Iroquois Confederacy) to field their own lacrosse team for the 2028 Olympics.

It will be the first time since 1908 that lacrosse is contested at the Olympics; the sport was originated by Native Americans in the 12th century. It is very difficult for countries without national Olympic committees to participate in the Games: no Native tribe has ever done so.


More news to know.

The new Hunter Biden indictment. (Full document)

Olympic committeesHunter Biden is indicted on 9 tax charges, adding to gun charges in a special counsel investigation / AP

U.S. payrolls rose 199,000 in November, unemployment rate falls to 3.7% / CNBC

Palestinian Authority Working With US on Gaza Postwar Political Plan / Bloomberg

Trump immunity appeal offers best chance to stave off 2020 election trial / Reuters

NewsNation’s GOP debate in Alabama watched by 4.1 million viewers / AL.com

Putin to stand for fifth term as Russian president / BBC

Pro-Trump lawyer Kenneth Chesebro cooperating in multiple state probes into 2020 fake electors plot / CNN

GOP lawmaker: Ousted aides targeted my daughter for OnlyFans account / Politico


The day ahead.

Biden loves his trains. (White House)

President Biden will travel to Las Vegas, Nevada, to announce $8.2 billion in new funding for passenger rail projects across the country. Later, he will travel to Santa Monica, California, to participate in a campaign fundraiser.

Vice President Harris will swear in Edward Kagan as U.S. ambasasdor to Malaysia. Later, she and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will host a holiday reception.

The House and Senate are out for the weekend.

The Supreme Court will meet for its weekly conference.


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