Coronavirus: The Hill and the Headlines, February 18 2021

Your guide to the latest Hill developments, news narratives, and media headlines from Hogan Lovells Government Relations and Public Affairs practice.

In Washington:

  • The Labor Department on Thursday adjusted last week’s jobless claims numbers upward, showing claims surged to a seasonally adjusted 861,000, a sign that the labor market continues to struggle to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Data for recent weeks, which showed claims dipping below 800,000 for the first time in weeks, has regularly been revised upward. Weekly jobless claims remain similar to their August levels, having left behind the slight improvement seen in October and November, and briefly in January.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is considering toughening enforcement and COVID-19 safety measures amid widespread flouting of safety fines. Only one-third of more than 300 employers who have accrued safety penalties during the pandemic have paid, according to a Reuters investigation. Appeals of citations have surged, too, during which companies are not required to mitigate hazards or pay fines. Acting OSHA head James Frederick told Reuters the agency is “taking a hard look at enforcement efforts” and may issue an emergency standard mandating workplace social distancing and masks.
  • The White House officials said President Biden will pledge $4 billion in support behind COVAX, an initiative to get doses to countries that have been cut out of the vaccination race.  The Trump administration had declined to participate in the program which helps low-and middle-income countries.   Biden will make the announcement at the G-7 meeting on Friday.
  • The House Budget plans to meet Monday to start the markup pulling together the more than 500 plus pages of the COVID-19 relief package that the House committees passed last week.  Democratic leaders hope to pass the bill later in the week.  Meanwhile, the Senate Budget Committee is also working on the package with the chamber's Parliamentarian's office to see which provisions will be allowed under the Byrd Rule.  One such provision that will test those limits will be the $15 minimum wage provision.  Even if the minimum wage passes the Byrd Rule, opposition from Democratic senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D- AZ) will probably make leadership pull it from the bill. Last week, President Biden privately told a group of mayors and governors that his minimum wage proposal was unlikely to happen through budget reconciliation.
  • Biden allies are creating a new nonprofit advocacy organization named “Building Back Together” to promote the President’s COVID-19 relief plan.  The group would be a  501(c)(4), which would be funded by donors, but there has yet to be any word on whether the group will voluntarily disclose its donors.  
  • The SenateCommittee on Health, Education, and Pensions has scheduled confirmation hearings on Feb. 25 for Vivek Murthy, President Joe Biden’s pick for surgeon general and Rachel Levine, Biden’s nominee for assistant health secretary.

In the News:

  • Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are now reportedly investigating whether the administration of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) covered-up the true extent of COVID-19 deaths in New York nursing homes. Democratic state Senate leadership are additionally preparing to remove Cuomo’s pandemic emergency powers. And on Thursday, state Assembly member Ron Kim (D) claimed that Cuomo threatened and berated him by phone, asking him to “lie” (in Kim’s words) by releasing a statement reversing Kim’s allegations of a cover-up. Cuomo’s office flatly denied Kim’s claim and released a key meeting transcript purportedly exonerating Cuomo.
  • Vatican officials have told employees they may risk getting fired if they refuse a coronavirus vaccination. Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello said in an announcement that employees who refuse without a health-based excuse will face “varying degrees of consequences that could lead to dismissal[.]” Pope Francis has made a moral case for getting the shot, telling the media last month “it is an ethical choice because [without the vaccine] you are gambling with your health, with your life, but you are also gambling with the lives of others.” The pope was vaccinated in January.
  • The pandemic knocked the U.S. back on track to meet its targets in the Paris climate accord, according to a new report from Bloomberg NEF and advocacy group the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. Greenhouse gas emissions “plummeted” in the U.S., down 9 percent from 2019. Emissions from transportation sources fell 40 percent below 2005 levels, placing the country on track to meet its 2015 Paris agreement obligations. While emissions may rise as the pandemic subsides, 2020 also featured a record year in building wind and solar energy sources, potentially making the shifts somewhat more long-lasting.


Authored by Ivan Zapien

Ivan Zapien
Washington, D.C.
Shelley Castle
Legislative Specialist
Washington, D.C.
Jared Crum
Washington, D.C.


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