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Good morning from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where the City of Buffalo and sports fans everywhere received much-needed good news about the condition of Bills Safety Damar Hamlin who is now awake and fully breathing on his own. As Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said, “to see him recovering so remarkably is certainly lifting spirits throughout our community and across the country.” Hamlin’s injury—and the beginning of his recovery–were national stories: among those praying and sending well-wishes to Hamlin was President Joe Biden, who spoke with Hamlin’s parents “at length” and has been following along on Twitter as more updates have been released. Damar’s charity organization, The Chasing M’s Foundation, has been flooded with donations from across the country, totaling nearly $8 million in one week. On Friday, Hamlin was able to FaceTime the entire Buffalo Bills team for the first time, telling them “Love you boys.”

All of our thoughts are with Damar and his family for a continued recovery and we, like so many others, are grateful for the fast action and professionalism of the on-field training and medical staff who saved Hamlin’s life. 

In Washington D.C., all eyes were on the election for Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Amidst tumult and indecision not seen in the lower House of Congress since before the Civil War, Republican Kevin McCarthy of California was finally elected Speaker early Saturday morning on the fifteenth vote, the longest it has taken since the Nineteenth Century. McCarthy eventually weathered the far right opposition from within his own party to achieve victory but only after by offering so many compromises that many analysts argued the concessions may deeply damage the House itself. Most notably, the promises include capping spending at 2022 levels, allowing any individual member to call a vote to vacate the speakership, and expanding the House Rules and Appropriations Committees to include additional members of the House Freedom Caucus. During the penultimate ballot, McCarthy ally Mike Rogers of Alabama had to be physically restrained from Freedom Caucus Member Matt Gaetz of Florida shortly after Gaetz torpedoed McCarthy’s chances on that ballot.

Of course, the most important question is what the Speaker’s razor thin victory will mean for the House. McCarthy ultimately won with 216 votes to Democratic Hakeem Jeffries’ 212. The already slim majority will be further exacerbated by many of the compromises McCarthy made with the Freedom Caucus, whom former Republican Speaker John Boehner called “legislative terrorists,” when they pushed for his exit. Among a number of issues coming up this year (see last week’s legislative preview), McCarthy’s concessions cast doubt on future debt limit discussions as well as any budget agreement presaging some difficult negotiations and serious threats to shut down government.

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2023 New York State Legislative Session and 118th Congress Preview

“The concessions he’s made means that it will be a minority of a minority of the minority, because of the Freedom Caucus, that will get to dictate the outcomes of legislative achievement. The problem is for him that, with every concession, he has to wake up every day wondering if he’s still going to have his job. Because the smallest disagreement could lead to a motion from the body to remove him from the speakership,” said Democrat Rep. Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the ranker on the powerful House Ways & Means Committee.

One of the oddities we enjoyed last week was the footage of the House. With no Speaker in place and subsequently, no rules package, the C-SPAN cameramen took advantage of their short-lived ability to broadcast anything they want. Normal House rules restrict what can be filmed and broadcasted, usually requiring camera shots to be limited to an individual member speaking or, wide-angle camera shots that obscure the interactions of members to prevent embarrassing moments or unwanted questions about Chamber interactions. During the marathon of votes for Speaker, C-SPAN has been able to show all the sidebar meetings, the facial reactions of members, and other visual tidbits that add a layer of intrigue. Ben O’Connell, Director of Editorial Operations at C-SPAN, said “Because we have cameras in the Chamber, we’re able to tell the story of what’s happening on the House floor, you’re able to see the migrating scrums of Congressmen on the House floor as they negotiate with each other. You’re able to see extraordinary conversations and you’re able to see conversations that sometimes look somewhat contentious among some members. You’d never be able to see that with the standard House feed.” Most notably, the cameras have seemed trained on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who has been maneuvering around the House floor, holding unlikely conversations with Republican hold-outs such as Matt Gaetz of Florida and Paul Gosar of Wyoming, leaving the viewer to guess what these diametrically opposed, and sometimes publicly-feuding, lawmakers could be conversing about. 

One of the real stars of the show was House Clerk Cheryl Johnson who, in lieu of a Speaker, was in charge and also was tasked with running the proceedings of the Speaker’s race. Members of both parties have been extremely complimentary of Johnson, a University of Iowa and Howard Law School grad, for handling the chaos. Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California went so far as to suggest Johnson would make a good Speaker herself. The position of House Clerk is not well-known but is essential in ensuring the day-to-day operations of the Chamber. The Clerk is appointed every two years meaning Johnson’s term is up once the 118th Congress is formally sworn in and it will be up to the new Speaker to decide if Johnson remains. 

Member of Congress George Santos’s first day in Congress was captured by the aforementioned freewheeling C-SPAN cameras and it did not look like he was having fun. He did not talk to reporters outside of his office and has seemed to be trying to keep a lower profile compared to his parade of defensive interviews when the story first broke. Santos consistently voted for Kevin McCarthy for Speaker and was increasingly seen alongside fellow McCarthy supporter, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). Last week, Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York introduced the Stop Another Non Truthful Office Seeker (SANTOS) Act which would require candidates to disclose their employment, education, and military history under oath.

In significant 2024 news, Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, announced this past week that she will not seek reelection next year, saying in a statement, “Inspired by a new generation of leaders, I have decided to pass the torch in the U.S. Senate. I am announcing today that I will not seek re-election and will leave the U.S. Senate at the end of my term on January 3, 2025.” The announcement came as a surprise to many Democrats who are now looking for a replacement to hold a Democratic seat in what will already be an incredibly difficult Senate map for them in 2024. Current House members Debbie Dingell and Elissa Slotkin, both moderates who have won in difficult districts, have been floated as potential replacements while two other prominent Michigan Democrats have indicated they are not interested in running, current Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Democrats had a clean sweep in 2020, winning control of all the levers of power and what they do with it will have an impact on who voters trust come the 2024 Presidential Election. 

In New York…The biggest fight continues to be over the nomination of Judge Hector LaSalle to serve as the Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Senator Brad Hoylman has indicated that he intends to give LaSalle a hearing saying, “It’s our constitutional responsibility, in fact, to provide advice and consent to have a full and fair hearing of the judiciary committee and that’s what I intend to do.” However, Hoylman also acknowledged that LaSalle faces a tough path to confirmation, “This is a very narrow pathway if one exists at all. That said, this is completely the governor’s decision, which I and my colleagues respect, to advance the nomination.”

An added dynamic to watch: Senate Democrats decided to increase the membership of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 15 to 19 Senators. One of those new Senators is Senator Jessica Ramos who has already said she intends to vote against Lasalle’s nomination. The other is Senator Shelley Mayer who also announced that she will be a no vote on Judge LaSalle. Governor Hochul has called the increase in membership an “unprecedented” attempt to stack the Judiciary Committee.

To recap from last week’s MMM, Hochul faced almost immediate pushback from Senators upon nominating LaSalle who have concerns over his past rulings as they relate to criminal justice reform, women’s reproductive rights, and protections for labor unions. At least a dozen Democratic Senators have publicly stated they plan to oppose LaSalle’s confirmation. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins offered, “I do not see this ending in the way the Governor (wants), I met with Judge LaSalle and we had a very pleasant conversation. I told him what the situation is on the ground. … The reality is in my Conference, the numbers are not there.” Hochul has expressed confidence that once Senators hear from LaSalle, they will change their minds. We shall see. 

That said, the 2023 Legislative Session began on Wednesday with more tension than usual among lawmakers in the opening days of a new session. In addition to the looming fight over Judge LaSalle’s confirmation, there was also the fight over newly-elected Assembly Member Lester Chang who faces questions surrounding his residency and the eligibility requirements for the Assembly. It has been reported that Chang actually lives in Manhattan, not Brooklyn, rendering him ineligible to hold the Brooklyn-based 49th Assembly District. State Democrats had been wrestling with whether to expel Chang outright or seat him, for now, while the issue is further investigated. Late Friday, Speaker Carl Heastie and Assembly Democrats announced they would not expel Chang, rather referring the findings of the Assembly’s investigation to the relevant authorities and law enforcement.

New Committee Chairs were announced shortly after members were sworn in with some notable changes in both Houses. In the Assembly, Amy Paulin will lead the Health Committee following the retirement of longtime Chairman Richard Gottfried. Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal will replace Steve Cymbrowitz as Chair of the Assembly Housing Committee while Assemblymember Deborah Glick will be the new Chair of the Committee on Environmental Conservation. On the Senate side, Pete Harckham will Chair the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee and freshman Senator Nathalia Fernandez will Chair the Senate Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. Senator Rachel May will move from the committee on Aging to the Chair of Cities II which is open as a result of Senator Jeremy Cooney switching to Chair the Procurement and Contracts Committee.

Tomorrow, Governor Hochul will deliver her State of the State address at 1 pm in the Assembly Chamber, her first as an elected Governor. From what she has hinted at in the weeks since winning reelection, her address and second term will center around affordability and safety. On the affordability front, Hochul acknowledged there is work to be done, saying “New Yorkers are just struggling to pay rent, food, and gas to get to their jobs.” The Governor is reported to unveil a plan to build 800,000 new housing units over the next decade to combat the sky-high rents and lack of adequate housing in New York City. Any discussions around public safety will certainly include revisiting the state’s bail law and exploring additional changes as she did in last year’s budget. Mayor Eric Adams has urged Hochul to further tighten the bail law but the move would certainly face opposition from members of her own party. 

Last week was the NYC Crime Summit hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton at his National Action Network in Harlem and was attended by Mayor Eric Adams, Attorney General Tish James, Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg, Bronx D.A. Darcel Clark, Brooklyn D.A. Eric Gonzalez, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Hazel Dukes, the president of the NAACP New York State Conference as well as a slate of other state and local elected officials. The focus of the summit was to find ways to increase public safety while also promoting fairness and accountability in law enforcement. Earlier that day, the NYPD released their crime statistics for December which showed an increase in overall crime but a decrease in five of the seven major index-crime categories. As Democrats recognize the need for action, rather than rhetoric, on public safety, party leaders are looking to what Mayor Byron Brown has done in Buffalo where he has presided over a steady, decade-long decrease in the crime rate

You will also want to make sure you are paying attention to legislative reintroductions/introductions this week. As of Saturday evening, the Senate had reintroduced/introduced over 800 bills and the Assembly almost 400. While we await new policies outlined in the State of the State, these bills gave us a snapshot of the 2023 Session priorities, including many we discussed in our legislative preview like the Build Public Renewables Act and the New York Privacy Act.

Finally, in a further sign of America’s decline that I believe both the political left and political right as well as all patriots can agree on…Warner Brothers is set to pull hundreds of Looney Tunes episodes from HBO Max

-Jack O’Donnell

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