Covid politics return to Washington
Good morning! It’s February 3, 2023. The 2024 elections are 641 days away.
Happy Friday and congrats on making it to the end of another week. Thanks, as always, for reading Wake Up To Politics and for your support of the newsletter. It was a big week here at WUTP, bringing you coverage from both Capitol Hill and the White House.
As per usual, I want to start off Friday’s newsletter by looking at some of the issues and policies that drove D.C. in the week that was.
The week Covid politics came back
Roughly 40,000 Americans tested positive for Covid-19 yesterday, and about 400 died from the disease — still a ways away from “zero Covid,” but on par with some of the virus’ lowest levels of spread since the pandemic began.
Nearly seven-tenths of the country is fully vaccinated, and daily considerations about Covid — once omnipresent — have fallen out of the vast majority of Americans’ lives. Just 12% of U.S. adults say they view the virus as a “severe health risk” in their community, down from a high around 40% in late 2020.
In Washington, though, coronavirus remains an active political football. That was true in the 2022 campaign, when some of the hottest-button midterm issues traced the roots of their renewed relevance back to Covid, including crime, inflation, and education policy.
And it was true this week, when Washington politicians returned to the debates over pandemic policy that they’ve now been having off-and-on for upwards of three years. Here’s how Covid wormed its way back into politics this week...
House Republicans had said that some of the first pieces of legislation they’d pass upon claiming the majority would take on Biden administration Covid policies, and this week they made good on that promise.
The House voted on four Covid-related measures this week:
- A resolution to end the Covid national emergency. (Passed 229-197, with all voting Republicans and 11 Democrats in support.)
- The Pandemic is Over Act, which would end the Covid public health emergency. (Passed 220-210, with all voting Republicans and no Democrats in support.)
- The Freedom for Health Care Workers Act, which would end the federal vaccine mandate for health care workers. (Passed 227-203, with all voting Republicans and seven Democrats in support.)
- The SHOW UP Act, which would require federal agencies to end their pandemic-era telework policies and largely return to in-person work. (Passed 221-206, with three Democrats and all but one voting Republican in support.)
None of these bills are expected to receive votes in the Senate, and all would be vetoed by President Biden even if they did pass the upper chamber.
But in the House, it was the issue du jour this week, as lawmakers held hours of debate that included several false or misleading claims from GOP members.
The new majority also launched their Oversight Committee investigation into Covid aid fraud — which appears to have been an expansive, multi-billion-dollar industry — and set up a select panel that will probe Covid and its origins, promising a continued D.C. spotlight on the virus.
At the White House
In an attempt to head off Democratic support for the House bills forcing an end to the Covid-era emergencies, President Biden announced this week that he would wind them down himself on May 11.
Per Politico, the White House had been planning to make that announcement next week, but specifically moved it up in hopes that the move would limit the number of Democrats who would back the GOP-sponsored legislation. “President Biden caved to House Republicans,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise’s office crowed.
Ending the national and public health emergencies will likely increase the costs of Covid tests and treatments. Private insurers and Medicare will no longer be required to cover the costs of up to eight rapid Covid tests a month for beneficiaries, meaning mostAmericans will have to begin paying for them out of pocket.
Paxlovid, the Covid antiviral pill, has also been free for people both on Medicare and private insurance; both groups will likely be charged for the pill once the emergency is lifted and the federal supply runs out. (Covid vaccines are largely expected to remain free.)
The White House also insists that the end of the public health emergency would allow them to roll back Title 42, the Trump-era border restriction the Supreme Court has kept in place, although Republicans push back on that claim.
On the 2024 trail
Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are jousting over Covid policy, suggesting the upcoming Republican presidential primary could partially hinge on disputes from four years before.
Speaking to reporters from his private plane as he flew to his first 2024 campaign events, Trump began the brawl Saturday by going after DeSantis’ well-groomed image as governor of the “free state of Florida.”
“He promoted the vaccine as much as anybody in this country promoted it. You remember that he closed Florida. Florida was closed. There were Republican governors that did not close,” Trump said.
This was something of a reversal for Trump, who had previously gone after DeSantis for being too anti-vaccine, needling the governor for not joining him in declaring that he received his Covid booster shot. At other points, Trump has also taken credit for the vaccines’ development, which took place during his administration.
DeSantis simply responded to Trump’s criticism by noting that, unlike Trump, his Covid policies led to him being re-elected.
The exchange shows that Covid remains a potent line of political attack among Republicans, and will likely continue to linger over the 2024 primary as Trump and DeSantis fight over whose policies were laxer.
According to the New York Times, Trump’s allies are “building a file of ‘opposition research’ on Mr. DeSantis that consists of videos of him praising the vaccine in its early days,” even utilizing a photograph of DeSantis pushing an elderly woman’s wheelchair as she went to get vaccinated.
More news you should know.
The U.S. unemployment rate is at its lowest level in more than 50 years. According to the Labor Department report released today, the American economy added 517,000 jobs in January — far surpassing economists’ expectations. The unemployment rate stands at 3.4%, lower than at any point since 1969.
China is acknowledging that the “spy balloon” spotted over Montana is theirs. Beijing claims that the balloon is a “civilian airship” used for meterological research that unintentionally drifted into U.S. airspace. The Pentagon raised alarms about the balloon on Thursday.
Apparently, everyone has classified documents and everyone’s homes are being searched for them. According to the Wall Street Journal, the FBI is expected to search former VP Mike Pence’s home for classified materials in the coming days, after his lawyers found some there last month.
Don’t mess with Mitch McConnell. Sens. Rick Scott (R-FL), who staged an unsuccessful challenge against McConnell late last year, and Mike Lee (R-UT), who supported Scott, were removed from the Senate Commerce Committee in the new Congress. They say the move was retribution for the attempted ouster.
What’s happening in Washington today.
➞ President Biden and VP Harris will travel to a water treatment plant in Philadelphia. They’ll announce that $500 million from the 2021 infrastructure package will go to water upgrades and lead service removal in the city.
While in Philadelphia, Biden and Harris will deliver remarks at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser and at the DNC winter meeting. Biden will then travel to Delaware, where he’ll spend the weekend.
➞ First Lady Jill Biden will travel to San Diego. She’ll visit a clinic to mark World Cancer Day, which is tomorrow, and deliver remarks at a gathering of the crew and families of the USS Gabrielle Giffords, a Navy vessel for which the first lady serves as ship sponsor.
➞ The House and Senate are done for the week. Technically, the Senate will hold a pro forma session, but no legislative business is conducted during such meetings and only a few members attend them.
I want to add two clarifications to stories in the “More news you should know” section from yesterday: former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement of Adam Schiff was conditional on Sen. Dianne Feinstein retirement, an unusual move that still has the effect of pushing the incumbent towards the door.
And the College Board claims that changes to its AP African-American Studies course were completed in December, before Gov. Ron DeSantis called for them to be made.
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