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NOT A BIRD, NOT A PLANE— The balloons (and other mysterious aerial intrusions) just keep coming. And lawmakers on Capitol Hill are anxious for answers.
Between the all-members briefings for both chambers on Thursday and this morning, there have been three additional aerial events over North America, with objects shot down in Alaska, Canada and Michigan.
Huron, we have a problem: Michiganders have entered the chat. Just before 3 p.m. on Sunday, an F-16 fighter jet fired on an aerial "octagonal structure" 20,000 feet off the ground in U.S. airspace over Lake Huron, Mich. President Joe Biden gave the order to take out the object.
“I'm glad the object was neutralized over Lake Huron and I'll continue pressing DoD for transparency,” Sen. Gary Peters said Sunday. The Michigan Democrat said he’d been in touch with the Pentagon, Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration about the closure over Great Lakes airspace.
‘Laser-focused’: “We’ll know more about what this was in the coming days, but for now, be assured that all parties have been laser-focused on it from the moment it traversed our waters,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) said on Twitter. She added in a later tweet: “We’re all interested in exactly what this object was and its purpose.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also used “laser-focused” to describe the intelligence and military approach to “coming up with an assessment of what went on before, what's going on now, what could go on in the future.” He continued: “You can be sure if any U.S. interests or people are at risk—they'll take appropriate action.”
Lawmakers who’ve had their states' airspace violated are pressing for information from the Pentagon.
The object had been spotted over Montana on Saturday night and was tracked over Wisconsin and Michigan Sunday at an altitude lower than the previous intrusions. The Pentagon said Sunday that the Lake Huron object had traveled near U.S. military sites and posed a threat both to civilian aviation as well as surveillance.
Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said he is looking for “maximum transparency” from the Defense Department on what it learns about the object that moved over his home state this weekend.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) called the “lack of communication” from the Biden administration on the closure of airspace and shoot downs in Alaska and Canada “unacceptable.”
There is a full-Senate classified briefing scheduled for Wednesday afternoon on Russia and Ukraine, but lawmakers could certainly turn the discussion towards American airspace.
To shoot or not to shoot: “I would prefer them to be trigger-happy than to be permissive,” House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) said of the Biden administration, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “But we’re going to have to see whether or not this is just the administration trying to change headlines.”
Hearings this week: We could hear more about these objects and their threat to the nation’s national security at two Senate hearings this week, one at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday on global security challenges and another at Senate Commerce on the massive system failure of the FAA’s system last month.
Aliens or nah? When asked Sunday night if aliens could be ruled out, Air Force General Glen VanHerck, head of NORAD, said he has not ruled anything out yet and that it is not clear how the objects are staying aloft. But after the general’s remarks, a Defense official who requested anonymity to speak about a developing situation said that there is “no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.”
RELATED READS: China accuses US of ‘illegally’ flying balloons across its airspace, from Nectar Gan, Wayne Chang at CNN; What’s Going On Up There? Theories but No Answers in Shootdowns of Mystery Craft from Julian E. Barnes, Helene Cooper and Edward Wong at The New York Times
GOOD MORNING! Welcome to Huddle, the play-by-play guide to all things Capitol Hill, on this Monday, Feb. 13, where that sound you’re hearing is the ghost of the late Sen. Harry Reid saying “I told you so.”
THREADING THE GOP EARMARK NEEDLE — Federal spending is a tightrope for House Republicans. This year they are going to try and embrace earmarks, despite uneven support among their conference. Negotiations on earmarks are ongoing and details are tightly held. But the final guidelines could be announced as soon as this month, report Sarah and Jennifer. That means while the House is gone for the next two weeks, talks are expected to continue despite the recess.
Republicans want to reap the benefits of the “member directed spending” process that many conservatives deride as wasteful spending. But earmarks can also be a bargaining chip for Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) if he needs to keep the conference in line.
One change you can probably put in the bank is a guardrail to keep members from funding things that could be namesakes for a member: think a county museum or city park.
“We want to be even clearer about not doing commemorations, not doing ‘monuments to me,' making sure there’s absolutely no personal entanglements,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the party’s No. 2 appropriator in the House.
“When people elect us, they have expectations that we will improve at least their district,” House Appropriations Chair Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) said in an interview. “And as long as we do that, and it's perfectly open … you'll know who did what and why. And I think that's what we owe the public.”
MOVING LIKE MOLASSES — Republicans aren’t mad at how slow Congress is moving this year. The House and Senate haven’t passed any new laws this year. The Senate has moved some nominations and nonbinding resolutions, the House has passed some GOP priorities that have no chance in the Senate.
But Republicans are more than happy to run out the clock, slowing down President Joe Biden’s agenda and putting their bet on a GOP candidate to beat him in 2024.
- Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.): “I actually appreciate this go-slow approach,” she said, adding that the country needs a “breather” after the past two years. “It's time to slow down.”
- Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa):. “From our perspective, it’s been great.”
- Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), head of the House GOP campaign arm: “What matters is: Are we going to be able to get our spending bills done? And I'm hopeful that we'll see some activity over there on their side.”
HELL OF A HUMP DAY — This Wednesday is when the Congressional Budget Office is slated to unveil its projection for when the Treasury Department could run out of money if Congress fails to raise the debt limit in the coming months.
The estimate will give lawmakers a better sense of their hard deadline to raise the borrowing cap and will be released in tandem with CBO’s 10-year budget and economic projections.
It will all give the stalemate over the debt limit a fresh timeline to work with.
PORTMAN HEADS TO AEI — Former Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) joins the American Enterprise Institute as a distinguished visiting fellow focused on “focus on free trade expansion, US-China relations, US-Russia relations, the conflict in Europe, US budget and entitlement reform, worker training, retirement security, and other issues.” Portman will also join AEI’s American Dream Initiative, the think tank's project on upward mobility for Americans.
Found love in a hopeless place? …If you have a sweetheart on the Hill, don’t you dare try to deliver them something to work for Valentine’s Day. Think smarter not harder, cupid. Your fresh blooms or chocolate will look worse for wear after the 72 hour package screening. Spare the poor flower delivery people the hassle of a Capitol Police inquiry (and keep your private note of affection from being opened and read and screened etc.) This 2019 advice from yours truly still holds up.
The big game… Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) hung out at the Super Bowl. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) was unhappy with the officiating at the end of the game. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said he’ll introduce a resolution in the Senate today recognizing the Kansas City Chiefs as Super Bowl champions.
Pay to park… The New York Post reported that freshman Democratic Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) racked up at least 84 traffic and parking violations in the last six years in NYC. Now he has somewhere new to worry about parking: the Capitol campus.
The House Administration Committee adopted parking policies for the new Congress which include this provision (which has been in place since 2019): “Members and staff who are habitual Parking Policy violators may be towed and potentially banned from parking on the House Campus permanently, subject to the direction of the Committee on House Administration.”
Opinion: Diversity among top Senate staffers is abysmal, from Paul N.D. Thornell in The Washington Post
Why Mississippi, a Covid Hot Spot, Left Millions in Pandemic Aid Unspent, from Sharon LaFraniere at The New York Times
Bernie Sanders Has a New Role. It Could Be His Final Act in Washington, from Sheryl Gay Stolberg at The New York Times
GOP Lawmaker’s Two Jobs: Investigating Bidens, Managing Firebrands, from Natalie Andrews at The Wall Street Journal
Opinion: These radically simple changes helped lawmakers actually get things done, from Amanda Ripley in The Washington Post
Chris Bigelow will replace Robin Juliano in early March as the House Appropriations Committee’s Democratic staff director. Bigelow was most recently the clerk of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee. Jennifer Chartrand will succeed Bigelow as the Democratic clerk on the Defense panel.
Jill Dickerson is now deputy comms director for the House Budget Committee. She most recently was Republican deputy comms director for the Senate Commerce Committee.
Evan Chapman is now U.S. federal policy director at Clean Air Task Force. He previously was deputy chief of staff/legislative director for the late Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) and Virginia’s 4th District.
Elizabeth Oien is now digital communication and content specialist for the House Appropriations Committee. She most recently was deputy director of the war room at the RNC.
TODAY IN CONGRESS
The House is out.
The Senate convenes at 3 p.m. and will resume consideration of the nomination of Cindy K. Chung to be U.S. Circuit Judge for the Third Circuit, with votes at 5:30 p.m.
AROUND THE HILL
5:45 p.m. Senate Rules Committee holds its organization meeting for the 118th Congress (S-219)
4 p.m. House Natural Resources Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee holds a field hearing entitled “Federal Energy Production Supports Local Communities.” (Midland, Texas)
FRIDAY’S WINNER: Morris Pearl once again correctly answered that Slade Gorton is the last Republican and Guy Gillette was the last Democratic senator to lose twice as an incumbent.
TODAY’S QUESTION: Just two presidents have opted against wearing Brooks Brothers suits during their presidency since the brand launched in 1818. Who are they?
The first person to correctly guess gets a mention in the next edition of Huddle. Send your answers to [email protected]
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