With help from Ari Hawkins
HOUSE HARDBALL — The fight over the House speakership that kicked off the 118th Congress — and the significant concessions Kevin McCarthy had to make to win the position — provided the first glimpse at the power dynamics and priorities of the new Republican majority.
This week has provided even more insight. In filling out key panels, McCarthy underscored the heightened role conservative hardliners will play in influencing legislation that comes to the House floor and in challenging Biden administration policies. And by moving against several Democrats who have earned the ire of his party, McCarthy has also signaled his intention to play hardball with the Democratic minority.
A sprawling investigative subcommittee — designed to scrutinize the so-called weaponization of the federal government against conservatives — will be led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an ally of Donald Trump and a co-founder of the hardline House Freedom Caucus. A separate subcommittee investigating the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic will include conservative firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
On the powerful Rules Committee, which sets the rules governing debate, approves amendments, and shapes legislation, two Freedom Caucus members will have slots — a marked departure for a panel known as “the speaker’s committee” that is typically filled with leadership allies.
McCarthy has also delivered some payback to Democrats. The speaker is pushing to oust Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from her position on the Foreign Affairs Committee (a move which requires a House vote) and has already kicked Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Adam Schiff off the Intelligence Committee (which he was able to do unilaterally).
Nightly spoke with POLITICO’s deputy managing editor for Congress, Elana Schor, to put this week’s congressional machinations in context. This interview has been edited.
We’ve seen lots of recent action in terms of appointments to high-profile House committees or subcommittees. When you add it all up, what does it tell us about the nature of the new House majority and the climate and direction of Congress over the next two years?
The incoming GOP speaker and his conference are making huge plans for oversight and investigations as well as legislating — a lot of it was what we already heard on the midterm campaign trail, from investigating the Biden family and the origins of the coronavirus to lawmaking on issues from taxes to tech. We see these appointments that are commensurate with those ambitions, but we also see House Republicans operating with a historically small majority, much tinier than they expected. Assuming complete attendance at votes, Speaker McCarthy can only afford to lose FOUR of his members. And speaking of committees, it’s going to be tough for McCarthy to win a floor vote (expected next week) on booting Rep. Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee, which might seem like a red-meat issue for his members, with two public opponents on his side of the aisle and more undecided.
Do these selections reveal anything about Speaker McCarthy’s governing or leadership style?
McCarthy has given a lot to his right flank, which makes sense given the 21 holdouts who almost denied him the speakership. But looking at the DOJ “weaponization” committee in particular, we see that some of the more rhetorically fire-breathing members of the Freedom Caucus (your Andy Biggses or Scott Perrys) are absent and some more predictable players, like conference chair Elise Stefanik, are present. Broadly speaking, that committee’s roster isn’t as hard-right as it could have been. And that tells us something else about McCarthy: He’s trying to find opportunities to spare himself political headaches, where he can.
What can we expect from the new subcommittees on Covid and the “weaponization” of the federal government? Judging from a few of the members named to these panels, it would seem that there could be a theatrical element to their work product. In other words, how substantive do we expect this oversight to be?
Well, substance versus theater in these investigations is very often in the eye of the partisan beholder. But the Covid origins committee in particular promises to be politically risky for the House GOP, to the extent that it offers a forum for potential forays into conspiracy theories that exist in some corners of the online right, and the “weaponization” committee’s very origin is an attempt to push back at DOJ decision-making that is designed to spark contention with the Biden administration. Perhaps the most telling thing about the latter panel, though, is that it’s chaired by Jim Jordan — who’s also leading the Judiciary Committee. What we might see it become is simply that panel’s hot-button subsidiary.
What’s behind McCarthy’s efforts to oust Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the Foreign Affairs Committee and deny Intelligence Committee slots to Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.)? Will those efforts amp up the polarization in the House or is the chamber so bitterly divided at this point that it can’t get much worse?
Frankly, it’s hard to see things getting any more polarized than they were in the last Congress, with the aftermath of the brutal Capitol riot still fresh in members’ minds. As antagonistic as those moves are toward Democrats, McCarthy telegraphed them pretty broadly before the midterms — he might even struggle to find the votes on the Omar eviction. When it comes to polarization, to use your word above, there’s the theatrical and the actual. And in a chamber where the new speaker can only lose four votes on the floor, he may find himself needing a small handful of centrist Dems more than he wants to admit right now. So I would hold off on declaring this a new low just yet. Let’s wait to see how House Republicans do finding the votes to pass their first bills.
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— Republicans launch newest fight against Biden’s oil drawdowns: Republicans are aiming to neutralize one of the main tools that Biden used to lower gasoline prices before last year’s elections — his prolific releases of oil from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The House GOP is calling a vote this week on legislation, H.R. 21 (118), that would prohibit releases from the underground petroleum stockpile unless the government approves a corresponding increase in domestic gas and oil production on federal lands. Two weeks ago, the House passed legislation that would ban sales from the reserve to China.
— Biden finally gets a win against inflation: The war on inflation may be far from over, but the economy has reached a key, little-noticed milestone: Workers’ wage gains are finally outpacing the rise in consumer prices. Americans’ average income has beaten inflation for the past six months, driven by the plummeting cost of gas, along with drops in furniture, cars and other goods. If the trend continues, it could be a boost for Biden as he gears up for a tough reelection campaign, undercutting one of the main Republican arguments against his handling of the economy.
— Pair of lawsuits kick off state-federal battle over abortion pills: A widely anticipated legal battle over whether federal policies supersede state laws began today with a pair of lawsuits seeking to stop restrictions on abortion pills in two states. The challenges — targeting laws in North Carolina and West Virginia that block patients from receiving abortion pills by mail or from retail pharmacies or ban the use of the pills entirely — will likely have national implications, as more than a dozen states have imposed laws limiting how, when and where patients can obtain abortion pills.
— Senior FDA official resigns following baby formula crisis, turmoil in agency: Frank Yiannas has resigned from his post as the Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, following the baby formula crisis and a series of internal breakdowns at the main agency tasked with overseeing food safety in the U.S. Yiannas was among the senior FDA officials involved in the Biden administration’s hobbled response to the infant formula crisis. FDA officials were warned months before about food safety concerns at a key plant in Sturgis, Mich. operated by Abbott Nutrition.
AMERICAN PRISONERS OF IRAN — The Iranian government sanctioned dozens of European individuals and entities today in response to Western sanctions over crackdowns against protests in Iran. The growing penalties are the latest indication of a breakdown of relations between Western governments and Tehran, further complicating efforts to release foreign nationals detained abroad, Ari Hawkins reports for Nightly.
An American dual national imprisoned in Iran since 2015 named Siamak Namazi ended a hunger strike this week that marked the seventh anniversary of being left behind after a deal between Iran and the United States secured the release of other prisoners. His statement, which was shared through his lawyer, urged the White House to consider the plight of American prisoners wrongly jailed in Iran.
“I went on hunger strike because I’ve learned the hard way that U.S. presidents tend to rely more on their political thermometer than their moral compass when deciding whether or not to enter a prisoner deal with Iran … I denied myself food for an entire week so that maybe President Biden will recognize just how desperate the situation of the U.S. hostages here has become,” Namazi wrote.
International governments and human rights groups have long accused Iran of taking foreign nationals as “hostages” on baseless charges in an effort to gain concessions from the West.
But as the relationship between Iran and the U.S. continues to sour, it has become harder for the U.S. to press Iran into agreements, according to Namazi’s family as well as legal experts, who say the difficulty of securing Namazi’s release and the release of other American hostages reflects the growing divide between Tehran and Washington.
“Namazi has remained in prison across three presidential administrations,”Jared Genser, the lawyer representing Namazi’s case, told Nightly in an interview. Genser previously helped secure the release of Namazi’s father Mohammad, who was charged with espionage.
“During the Trump administration, there was a no contact order in place, which meant for almost a full year, the U.S. could not even negotiate for the release of American hostages. Working with the Biden administration, we were finally able to secure the release of Namazi’s father, who was older and very sick, but those lines of communications are always changing.”
Iran has been under heavy sanctions from the U.S. and Europe for many years. The U.S. and EU lifted some of those sanctions in 2015 after they reached an agreement with Iran on their nuclear program, but the U.S. withdrew from the deal in 2018.
While Biden promised to restore talks, none have occurred since September after Iran rejected a proposal to revive the deal.
Tensions have only worsened in recent months since the regime’s crackdown against protestors over the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters yesterday that the president had received Namazi’s letter and that the U.S. was “continuing to work to bring him home, along with U.S. citizens who are wrongfully detained in Iran, including Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz.” His family says that’s not enough.
“We encountered, for probably the millionth time, statements this week about how Namazi’s release is the highest priority for the president and blah blah blah. We have suffered for seven years,” Babak Namazi, the brother of Siamak, told Nightly.
“We’ve heard enough rhetoric. The U.S. government has the tools, the means and the power. What I need, what Siamak needs, and what the other American hostages held in Iran need, is real action.”
THINK LOCAL, ACT GLOBAL — There’s a new kind of shop popping up in cities around the country. It looks local, but it’s sourced with products from around the world. Everything from its storefront to its products look ripe for Instagram. Its shelves are stocked with brands that are becoming popular overnight — many of them thanks to investments from venture capital firms. These places are less local to a city or a neighborhood than they are to the Internet. As (often wealthy) people hanker for products that look local but are sourced globally, the phenomenon shows no sign of slowing down, Emily Sundberg reports on what she terms “smallwashing,” making a product seem local even though it’s everywhere, for Grubstreet.
CALIFORNIA MODEL — Student health centers in California have two new drugs that they are now required to carry, in addition to the usual antivirals, painkillers and antibiotics: mifepristone and misoprostol — the regimen that induces an abortion.
The first-in-the-nation mandate for student health centers to carry abortion pills is just one of more than a dozen new California policies that aim to make the state the nation’s leading haven for abortion rights. Now, Democrats are holding up California as a model as New York, Washington, Illinois and other blue states prepare to enact similar policies in 2023, writes Alice Miranda Ollstein.
Health workers at the University of California, Santa Barbara — where the program has been rolled out — spent more than a year preparing to implement the program, and even began prescribing the pills last April, well ahead of the January deadline. They’ve written prescriptions for about 50 students so far.
After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June, GOP-controlled states raced to outlaw abortion, while California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s Democratic legislature sped in the opposite direction. They enacted new legal protections and tech privacy measures for patients and providers, allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to help low-income people afford the procedure, and created programs to grow the medical workforce needed to handle the out-of-state influx.
The state’s aggressive stance made it a target of the anti-abortion movement.
Conservative advocacy groups are suing to try to block some of the new laws. Republicans in D.C., specifically citing California’s new campus pill mandate, introduced a bill last week that would strip federal funding from any college or university that participates. And colleges across the state are adding new security measures as they brace for the kind of disruptive protests long seen outside abortion clinics.
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