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Stephen Boyd: THE MONDAY BRIEF | May 22, 2023

Stephen Boyd’s weekly Capitol Hill briefing for Alabama’s business, financial, defense and government affairs executives.

No Clear Path to a Debt Deal… NBC Story Jolts SPACECOM Debate… Two Big Presidential Contenders to Join the Race… Others Expected in Soon… DOJ Brings Charges Against Santos…

The Schedule… The House of Representatives is back at work this week in Washington. Though all eyes are on debt talks between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden, other legislative work continues. The House Rules Committee meets later today to prep bills for consideration on three big issues: fentanyl trafficking, EPA restrictions on vehicle emissions, and Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. 

The Senate stands in recess this week, but Senators are on notice that they may be called back to Washington with as little as 24-hour notice to vote on a deal to raise the debt ceiling, should one materialize. Speaking of which…

Path Ahead on Debt Deal Remains Unclear… Biden and McCarthy spoke by phone yesterday and plan to meet in person later today to restart talks on the debt limit that stalled over the weekend. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is increasingly firm in her estimate that the nation’s statutory limit on debt must be raised by June 1, a “hard deadline” to avoid a first-of-its-kind default. That’s just 10 days from now. 

To recap, earlier this year President Biden said he would not negotiate over the debt limit, insisting that Congress approve a “clean” increase with no strings attached. From the start, that was an unrealistic position that has only worked to McCarthy’s political advantage. 

In April, House Republicans passed the “Limit, Save, and Grow Act” that, if enacted, would raise the debt limit by $1.5 trillion while also imposing billions in future spending cuts. That bill was never truly intended to become law, but it staked out an aggressive position and demonstrated Republicans could unite around a proposal. With the ball back in his court, Biden came to the negotiating table, a significant political victory for McCarthy that has marginally increased his strength within his conference. These have been the best few weeks of McCarthy’s speakership to date. 

But the Republican House Conference is complicated. On Thursday, the right-wing House Freedom Caucus called on McCarthy to suspend negotiations.

“There should be no further discussion until the Senate passes the legislation,” a statement from the Republican group said. There was never any chance that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would take up the 320-page House-passed legislation, and the group’s call has largely been ignored. But their statement suggests that McCarthy may yet have trouble rallying all Republicans around a compromise with the White House that will almost certainly include less spending cuts than the original House plan. Given his narrow majority, McCarthy might then have to pass a final debt deal with Democratic votes, an outcome that will not sit well with some on the far right. 

Many issues remain in play: the actual amount of the debt limit increase; the overall spending levels for next year and perhaps two, five, or ten years into the future; energy permitting reform; work requirements for certain welfare programs; and claw backs of unspent COVID money, to name a few.

The pressure is on to reach a deal: the terms must be drafted into legislative language, considered in the House for 72 hours, and then voted on before heading to the Senate. Alternatives to an outright deal include passing a short-term extension to buy more time, or Democrats could invoke a procedural mechanism to bring a “clean” debt limit bill to the floor. 

SPACECOM “Charade” Plays Out in National Media… An NBC News story published last week jolted the ongoing conversation about the Air Force’s decision to permanently locate Space Command, raising fresh concerns that the Biden White House may be blocking the move to Alabama, the Air Force’s previously identified “preferred location” for the 1450-person headquarters. 

As NBC reports, “Some defense and congressional officials believe the White House is laying the groundwork to halt plans to move U.S. Space Command’s headquarters to Alabama in part because of concerns about the state’s restrictive abortion law, according to two U.S. officials and one U.S. defense official familiar with the discussions.” 

Earlier this month—before the NBC story—I wrote that the basing process had become a “charade” and that “abortion policy, Senate procedure, and the Department’s personnel policies have intersected in unhelpful ways.” I also noted that “a multitude of factors—substantive, political, and pragmatic—are likely now in play… I’m confident that (Alabama Representative Mike) Rogers’ perch atop the (House Committee on Armed Services) is on the minds of Department of Defense officials. Legislative Affairs 101: Don’t get crossways with the chairman that oversees your work.”

Thirteen days later, a concrete example: On Friday, Rogers put Department leaders on notice that his committee may engage in extensive congressional oversight of the final stages of the decision-making process—which, unlike the first phases of the Air Force’s objective evaluation, has been anything but “by the book.” 

Rogers wrote, “The Air Force’s deleterious actions concerning the selection of a location for SPACECOM Headquarters require the Committee to now seek document preservation in this matter. Air Force officials have continued to delay finalizing the move of SPACECOM Headquarters to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, in response to apparent politically motivated interference by political appointees in the Biden Administration. 

The words “document preservation” should ring alarm bells within the Pentagon, as Rogers’s letter could portend future document requests, depositions, and hearings. As a practical matter, most high-level executive branch documents are automatically preserved, but the letter sends a clear signal that every handwritten note, Outlook calendar invite, email exchange, or internal report or memo produced on this subject could be of interest to the committee. It may not come to it, but compelling the production of documents and the appearances of witnesses is well within the committee’s power, subject to certain executive branch privileges. 

The Department’s legislative affairs officials will think ahead: the committee has subpoena power, which can be invoked on a simple majority vote. Rep. Lamborn, a Colorado Republican on the committee, might oppose a compulsory process, but his Republican “no” vote could be offset by a “yes” from Alabama’s only Democrat in the House, Terri Sewell. Sewell joined the committee for the first time this year, and she has a well-earned reputation of being a team player on issues impacting her state. 

For now, Roger’s letter will be sobering for administration officials. This is a time to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s, not to play fast and loose with the rules. I’m yet to meet a government official excited to receive an “invitation” to participate in a congressional investigation. 

Republican Presidential Contest Takes Shape… This will be a big week in the 2024 presidential race as several highly anticipated contenders for the Republican nomination are set to make their candidacies official. For those keeping score at home:

Already in… Former President Trump announced first, and polls show Trump as the early favorite despite his current and anticipated legal troubles… Former South Carolina Governor and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley launched her candidacy in February… Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson announced his candidacy in early April. 

Getting “in” this week… South Carolina Senator Tim Scott filed his official paperwork Friday, will announce the launch of his campaign later today, and is making a $6 million advertising buy to start Wednesday in Iowa and New Hampshire. Senator Thune, the number two Republican in the Senate, is offering an early endorsement of his Senate colleague…. Likewise, Ron DeSantis is widely expected to make his run official this week. DeSantis has “tested the waters” under the guise of a book tour, but has faced tougher-than-expected political headwinds in the last few weeks. Supporters hope his official announcement will mark a turning point that allows the Florida governor to sharpen his message and better define his candidacy. 

Nothing official (yet)… Former Vice President Mike Pence is expected to join the field, and has said that he will make his intentions known before the end of June… Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is weighing a bid and would be the most likely to directly take on Trump. His recent interview with David Drucker on the May 7th edition of the Dispatch Podcast is one of the better I have heard from the folks on this list… New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is also rumored to be considering an announcement. 

Taking a pass… Virginia Governor Glenn Younkin, Former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, and Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

Republican contenders will square off in August at their first debate, which will be held in Milwaukee. 

Santos Indicted… The Department of Justice is bringing 13 federal charges against George Santos, the newly elected Republican congressman from New York that has been widely accused of falsifying…. well, just about everything. 

The charges include wire fraud, money laundering, and making false statements to the House of Representatives. Santos got off to a bad start in Washington and things have only gotten worse during his five-month tenure on Capitol Hill—but, for now, Santos will remain a member of the House. In a rare airing of grievances, Santos’s top communications aide noted in her resignation letter that Santos “never took one point of professional advice,” and that she was “honored” to quit. 


EP’s Daylight Savings Time Update… Nothing to report. 




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