Spending, Defense and Border Security Languish But Impeachment Advances
Christmas is around the corner and Congress is preparing to head home on Friday, leaving behind legislative sleighs filled with spending bills, supplemental aid to Israel and Ukraine and bolstered border security.
It’s a story as old as time.
There are sharp differences between House Republicans and most of the Senate on spending cuts in Fiscal Year 2024 that has impeded progress on 12 appropriations.
The House and Senate have different ideas on what should or shouldn’t be in the national defense bill, including provisions relating to surveillance. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Act allows the U.S. government to collect digital communications of foreigners located outside the country. U.S. intelligence officials say that authority is critical to monitor and intercept fentanyl shipments into the country. (After this blog was posted, the House voted to accept a Senate version of a national defense bill that didn’t include culture war provisions sought by House conservative.)
Military and humanitarian aid to Israel and Ukraine is bottled up over Republican insistence on border security funding and immigration policy changes. President Biden has expressed willingness to negotiate border security and immigration issues, but a deal hasn’t coalesced.
Stopgap Funding Could Extend Longer
The federal government is sputtering along under a pair of stopgap funding measures that expire in January and February. Speaker Mike Johnson, backed by the conservative wing of his GOP caucus, is using the possibility of further stopgap funding measures as leverage. A provision in the earlier debt ceiling deal requires an automatic $73 billion spending cut if continuing resolutions extend for all of FY 2024. The spending cuts Johnson is seeking happen to total $73 billion.
While there are lots of moving parts and ongoing negotiations, the situation resembles a still photograph. Congress isn’t much further along on key issues than a month ago or last summer. There is a new Speaker but not new issues. The House Freedom Caucus still longs for a government shutdown to show it’s serious about spending cuts.
Ukraine and Israel Aid Stalled
Biden has tried to inject urgency into congressional spending consideration. He says the spending authority for aid to Ukraine will be used up by the end of this year. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who came to Washington this week for the third time, says the loss of U.S. aid could spell his country’s defeat in the nearly two-year-long war with Russia. U.S. weapons manufacturers have quietly warned cutting off Ukraine military aid could impact their production lines that have made the tanks, planes and missiles to replace what was given to Ukraine from U.S. stockpiles.
Israel’s continued bombardment of Gaza in its war to destroy Hamas also has complicated the diplomacy around its request for military aid. Before that, Johnson’s ploy to tie $12billion aid to Israel with an equally sized spending reduction for the Internal Revenue Service bogged down consideration in the Senate.
Formal Biden Impeachment Inquiry
Egged on by former President Trump, House Republicans have announced plans for a floor vote before the holiday break to open a formal impeachment inquiry against Biden. The most recent impetus is a new set of tax-related charges against Hunter Biden filed in California by a special prosecutor. The most ardent supporters of impeachment believe he President Biden benefitted from his son’s financial machinations, though no proof of that has surfaced publicly.
The waiting game by House Republicans faces its own challenge after Congressman George Santos, R-New York, was expelled and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, announced his retirement at the end of the year. Their departures shrink an already tiny House GOP majority. A Democrat is expected to win a special election to replace Santos. It’s unclear how quickly Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom must call a special election to replace McCarthy, whose district is solidly Republican.
Ability to Fill Mass Vacancies Fast
There was a pre-holiday moment of bipartisanship when eight members of the House Administration Committee asked the General Accounting Office to study the ability of all 50 states to fill vacancies resulting from a massive attack on Congress. Washington Democratic Congressman Derek Kilmer was one of the letter signees.
“In light of a worrisome increase in the number of serious, credible threats against members of Congress, we want to ensure that the states are appropriately positioned to act to ensure continuity of government and operations in the event of the unthinkable,” their letter said.
After the 9/11 attack, when a plane presumably headed toward the Capitol was downed by passengers in a Pennsylvania field, Congress enacted a law that required congressional vacancies to be filled within 49 days if there were more than 100 House vacancies.
Special Prosecutor Jack Smith seeks quick Supreme Court ruling
on Trump claim of presidential immunity from criminal charges.
Trump Trials and Tribulations
While Congress seems tied up in political knots, down the street, attorneys for Donald Trump are trying to delay the former president’s election interference trial scheduled to start in March with motions contending Trump had immunity from any criminal charges while President.
The federal trial judge hearing the case has ruled such presidential immunity doesn’t exists Trump’s lawyers appealed the ruling to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Special Prosecutor Jack Smith subsequently filed a motion seeking a pre-emptive U.S. Supreme Court ruling on presidential immunity. The high court quickly reacted by asking Trump’s lawyers to respond to Smith’s motion before the end of the month.
There is no explicit constitutional reference to presidential immunity from criminal charges. The closest ruling came in the Supreme Court’s decision to require President Richard Nixon to turn over tapes that may have implicated him in the Watergate scandal. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached or charged with conspiracy.
In his filing, Smith alluded to the Nixon ruling by noting federal prosecutors now possess cell phone exchanges between Trump and other alleged conspirators involved in the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Trump’s lead attorney has argued the former president had immunity when in office and, if re-elected, would have his immunity restored. If the Supreme Court agreed Trump enjoyed immunity from all criminal charges, the special prosecutor’s election interference call and Georgia’s election racketeering cases could be jeopardized.
In New York, the civil fraud trial against Trump and his two eldest sons is coming to an end, though with a slight twist. New York Attorney General Letitia James exercised her option to call two additional witnesses to rebut Trump’s final defense witness. Trump had said he would be the final defense witness, but he decided against it at the last minute.