6 min read

This week in Washington

Lawmakers worked this week on China, overturning a pair of D.C. laws, and on judicial confirmations.
This week in Washington
(Agriculture Department)

Good morning! It’s Friday, February 10, 2023. The 2024 elections are 634 days away.

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Week in review: Lawmakers unite on China

“We hear a lot about the shocking dysfunction in Congress,” Washington Post contributing columnist Amanda Ripley wrote this week. “But what about stories of shocking function?”

I love that question. And as all you know, I try to answer it here every Friday, examining the “shocking function” that took place in Washington in the past week.

The week of the State of the Union address, after all, is generally one of peak partisanship: the two parties sit on opposite sides of the House chamber, with one half leaping up to applaud every few minutes and the other staying planted in their seats. (RIP the Obama-era attempts to change that).

But there was also some bipartisanship on display during the speech — Kevin McCarthy actually stood to applaud quite a few of Biden’s “unity agenda” proposals — and in the days that followed it. Here are the issues and dynamics that dominated Washington this week:

Chinese spy balloon.

The House voted 419-0 to approve a resolution condemning China for flying a surveillance balloon over the U.S. last week, which the chamber called a “brazen violation” of American sovereignty.

Both Politico and the New York Times called the vote a “remarkable” display of bipartisanship, especially in light of the fact that the resolution was originally going to be focused on blasting the Biden administration for its response.

According to the Times, the change came after three influential Republican committee chairmen persuaded GOP leadership to work across the aisle on the resolution instead of making it a partisan exercise.

Lawmakers from both parties did launch plenty of criticism at the Biden administration this week, though, after the House and Senate received briefings on the spy balloon and its capabilities.

In the briefings and a public Senate hearing, U.S. officials revealed that the balloon was armed with antennas and sensors to collect intelligence and communications, and was part of a broader Chinese program that has sent balloons to 40 countries. (Per CNN, officials also told lawmakers that their “working theory” is that the ballon was sent without Chinese president Xi Jinping’s knowledge.)

“Do we have a plan for the next time it happens, and how we’re going to deal with it?” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) asked during the public hearing. “Because quite frankly, I’ll just tell you, I don’t want a damn balloon going across the United States when we potentially could have taken it down over the Aleutian Islands.”

China is increasingly shaping up to be one of the major areas of agreement in the new Congress: this is the third bipartisan House vote on the issue, after votes to create a China select committee and to bar the U.S. from selling oil in its reserves to China.

Overturning D.C. laws.

There was also a surprising level of bipartisanship in two House votes on overturning laws passed by the District of Columbia. (Under the Home Rule Act of 1973, Congress reserves the right to repeal any local D.C. law within 30, or sometimes 60, days.)

The chamber voted 260-162 to overturn a controversial measure allowing non-citizens to vote in D.C. elections and 250-173 to undo an overhaul of the city’s criminal code. 42 Democrats joined all Republicans in supporting the first measure; 31 Democrats voted for the second.

Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser originally vetoed the revised criminal code — which would eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences and decrease the maximum penalties for violent crimes — but the D.C. Council overrode her objection.

The two House resolutions now go to the Senate, where they will not be subject to the filibuster and could pass if two Democrats vote in support. The White House issued a statement opposing the resolutions this week, but notably stopped short of a veto threat.  

Expect more bills like this to come from the House, as Republican leaders attempt to identify pressure points where they might be able to divide the opposition and peel off Democratic defections — a strategy that paid off this week.

The slow Senate.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, the Senate has only passed two pieces of legislation in 2023: resolutions to designate January 2023 as “National Stalking Awareness Month” and “National Trafficking and Modern Slavery Prevention Month.” (It should also be noted that the latter resolution didn’t pass until February 1, when the month in question was already over.)

The chamber is — finally — fully organized, but still appears to be in no rush to move on legislation. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer actually acknowledged as much to the New York Times yesterday: “It’s going to be an implementation year,” he said, “an implementation Congress.”

Read: the Senate, like the White House, will be focused on promoting the bills that already passed in the past two years, rather than doing much of any new legislating now that Republicans control the House. And Schumer does not seem in a rush to schedule the type of symbolic messaging votes the House is now holding, seeing as Senate Democrats already got those out of the way in 2021 and 2022.

In the absence of legislation, the Senate is expected to continue churning through Biden-nominated judges. This week, the chamber voted 53-44 (with five Republicans in support) to confirm its first of the year, an appeals court judge who will be the 98th Biden nominee to join the federal bench.

The judge, DeAndrea Benjamin, is also the 12th Black woman named to a federal appeals court by Biden. (“No previous president named more than three,” former White House chief of staff Ron Klain noted on Twitter.)  

One debate to keep an eye on, as the Senate shifts to judicial confirmation mode: Democrats are wrestling with whether to dismantle the “blue slip” courtesy, a tradition which has historically allowed senators to veto district court nominees in their home states. (Blue slips once applied to appeals court nominees as well, but Republicans did away with that in the Trump era.)

Biden has now filled most of the vacancies in blue states, leading to pressure on Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) to move ahead with nominations in red states, too, even if the Republican senators haven’t signed off on them.

So far, Durbin has demurred, ignoring the recent drumbeat from editorial boards and activists, although he said he would act if he felt a blue slip wasn’t being filed because of a nominee’s “race, gender, or sexual orientation.”

More from this week:

  • A bipartisan group of senators teamed up to once again introduce a repeal of the 20-year-old resolution authorizing military force in Iraq, which has been used to greenlight several additional military strikes in the years since.
  • The Biden administration announced a $2 billion loan to Redwood Materials, which the Nevada-based company says will allow it to produce enough battery materials to make 1 million electric vehicles a year.
  • The State Department sent $85 million to support relief efforts in Turkey and Syria, where the earthquake death toll has grown above 21,000.

More news to know.

(Gage Skidmore)

Trump investigations.

Former VP Mike Pence has been subpoenaed by the special counsel investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Robert O’Brien, who served as national security adviser at the end of Trump’s tenure, was reportedly hit with a subpoena as well.

Biden investigations.

House Republicans requested documents from Hunter and James Biden, the president’s son and brother. The Oversight Committee is probing foreign business dealings conducted by the two Bidens.

Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court justices can’t agree on a code of ethics. Per CNN, the justices have spent four years attempting to draft a code of conduct in response to ethical concerns but have been unable to find consensus.

The day ahead.

All times Eastern.

White House

President Biden and Vice President Harris will host the nation’s governors at the White House as part of the National Governors Association Winter Meeting.

Biden will also meet with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to discuss democracy in Brazil, climate change, food security, and other issues.

First Lady Biden will host a luncheon for the governors’ spouses.


The Senate is out until Monday.

The House will meet for a brief pro forma session. No legislative business will be conducted.


The Supreme Court has nothing on its schedule today.

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— Gabe