Bipartisan group of lawmakers meets with top Biden administration officials
A bipartisan group of lawmakers met by Zoom Sunday afternoon with top members of President Joe Biden’s administration as they tried to make the case for a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package and other top legislative priorities on Capitol Hill.
A group of 16 senators from both sides of the aisle including key moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Angus King, I-Maine, took part in the call, along with two members of the House: Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Tom Reed, R-N.Y., according to a person familiar with the call not authorized to speak on the record.
They were briefed by three officials on the hour-and-fifteen-minute-long call : White House Legislative Affairs Director Louisa Terrell, coordinator of Biden's COVID-19 task force Jeff Zients, and Director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese, the source said.
In a conference call with reporters later Sunday, King said the meeting had been "cordial and productive and constructive." He said everyone on the call had agreed vaccine development and distribution' along with COVID-19 testing and tracing, were among their top priorities as they drafted legislation.
Some Republican senators like Romney and Collins had expressed resistance to passing another $1.9 trillion bill after passing a $900 billion relief package in December, but the overall price tag of the bill did not come up on the call, King said. There was not any discussion of breaking the package into smaller bills that might be able to more easily pass Congress "at this time," King said, nor did the officials give the senators any indication they wanted to do so.
Instead, senators had pressed for answers on how much of the December package had already been spent, though he declined to say what the response was from the administration officials.
Biden did not join the call, King said.
One of the largest issues with trying to pass a package was President Donald Trump’s looming impeachment trial, King explained. It is set to start during the week of Feb. 8, and could put a halt to much of the Senate’s work as the trial goes on.
"The question is – it's a big bill ... how much can we get done in two weeks?” King asked.
– Nicholas Wu
Biden to impose travel ban on Brazil, South Africa and much of Europe
President Joe Biden will reimpose travel bans on the Brazil, Ireland, the United Kingdom and much of Europe to slow the spread of new strains of the coronavirus, a White House official who was not authorized to speak ahead of the public announcement told USA TODAY.
Biden will impose a travel ban on South Africa, where a new potent strain of the virus has been discovered.
On Jan. 18, President Donald Trump lifted travel bans on Brazil and Europe, a move that these travel restrictions now reverse.
"We are adding South Africa to the restricted list because of the concerning variant present that has already spread beyond South Africa," Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, told Reuters in an interview Sunday.
"With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel," White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted.
Strains of the coronavirus that may be more easily spread and deadlier have emerged in the United Kingdom and South Africa; the strains are the causes of intense outbreaks in much of Europe and Brazil. Some cases of the new strains have since been discovered in the United States as well.
– Matthew Brown
Fauci discusses working in Trump administration
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, disclosed what it felt like to work under President Donald Trump as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the country in an interview with The New York Times published Sunday.
"It isn’t like I took pleasure in contradicting the president of the United States," Fauci said of conflicts early in the pandemic over the severity of the virus, effectiveness of drugs like hydroxychloroquine and mask-wearing. "I have great respect for the office. But I made a decision that I just had to. Otherwise, I would be compromising my own integrity, and be giving a false message to the world."
Though Fauci says though he was at times harassed by senior administration officials like White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and chief economic adviser Peter Navarro, Trump never directly asked him to step down.
"He would get on the phone and express disappointment in me that I was not being more positive," Fauci said of Trump’s response to his at times dismal assessments of the pandemic response.
Fauci received many death threats through the course of the pandemic, and the NIAID director became an icon caught in the nation’s culture war over mask-wearing, effective COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.
"One day I got a letter in the mail, I opened it up and a puff of powder came all over my face and my chest," Fauci told the Times. After a hazmat team doused Fauci in water and tested the chemical, they determined it was harmless. "It was a benign nothing. But it was frightening," Fauci said.
Fauci says he was not concerned about being blamed for the administration’s failures by association, though he did accept that at times some might have seen him as "complicit in the distortions" presented during press conferences.
"But I felt that if I stepped down, that would leave a void. Someone’s got to not be afraid to speak out the truth," he claimed.
Fauci, who was recently named special counsel to President Joe Biden, said that his wife sometimes brought up the idea of him leaving the government, but that ultimately, he convinced her it was best for him to stay.
"I think in the big picture, I felt it would be better for the country and better for the cause for me to stay, as opposed to walk away," Fauci said.
– Matthew Brown
Biden speaks with leaders of France, UK, Mexico, Canada in diplomatic blitz
President Joe Biden spoke with world leaders over the weekend on subjects ranging from increasing cooperation between nations on security issues and the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change and trade policy.
Biden spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justice Trudeau; French President Emmanuel Macron; U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson; and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Biden spoke with Macron about ways to "strengthen bilateral ties with our oldest ally" and build a more durable relationship between the U.S. and European Union. The two agreed to tackle shared challenges like climate change and the global pandemic through international institutions, a strategy which former President Donald Trump often rejected.
On his decision to terminate the Keystone XL Pipeline, Biden acknowledged Trudeau’s disappointment but emphasized "his commitment to maintain an active bilateral dialogue and to further deepen cooperation with Canada," according to the White House. Biden and Trudeau discussed an "ambitious and wide-ranging agenda" to be revisited in a meeting again next month.
Biden reaffirmed his commitment “to strengthen the special relationship between our countries and revitalize transatlantic ties” with the United Kingdom in his call with Johnson, who some have suspected might be deprioritized in a Biden administration as the UK repositions itself in the global order.
Biden assured López Obrador that he would "reduce immigration by addressing its root causes" with a focus on promoting development and stability in both Mexico and the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
In each case, the White House highlighted a multilateral approach to world affairs which has a decadeslong tradition in foreign policy but was strongly rejected in the Trump era.
– Matthew Brown
ABC News host pushes back on Rand Paul's election fraud claims
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., continued to spread election misinformation during ABC News’ "This Week," where Paul refused to acknowledge that the 2020 presidential election was not stolen.
Paul repeated several debunked claims about the election in an effort to claim that enough votes were invalidated or illegally cast to have affected the result of the 2020 election in states across the country.
Claims of election fraud have been investigated by the Department of Justice, state and local auditors, the media and the judicial system. None have turned out to be true.
Paul argued that "we do need to look at election integrity" because polls have found most Republican voters believe the election was somehow stolen. ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos said this was because many were "fed a big lie" by President Donald Trump.
Paul’s comments echo a broad sentiment among American conservatives who have expressed sentiments that the presidential election was illegitimate. While many in the Republican Party continue to perpetuate the sentiment, some Republican elites have begun to break with the former president.
"This election was not stolen," former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a "This Week" panel member, said after Paul's interview. "There were no type of irregularities that would have changed the result in one state," he said, adding that many in the party are being "lied to" by Trump and his allies.
"There are two sides to every story," Paul said, promising to spend the next two years on election integrity and "going around state to state, fixing these problems."
"There are not two sides to this story. This has been looked at in every single state," Stephanopoulos retorted.
– Matthew Brown
Kentucky GOP rejects resolution urging McConnell to stand with Trump
The Republican Party of Kentucky's State Central Committee rejected a resolution Saturday that would have urged Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to fully support former President Donald Trump and condemn his second impeachment.
The committee met Saturday to consider the proposal after the Republican Party of Nelson County announced more than 30 GOP county chairs and vice chairs had called for a meeting to consider the resolution aimed at the commonwealth's longtime senator.
Republican Party of Kentucky Chairman Mac Brown called the resolution out of order, and the majority of the committee agreed, a member told The Courier Journal after the meeting. The final vote agreeing the resolution should be deemed out of order was 134-49, the member said.
Republican Party of Nelson County Chair Don Thrasher, who led the resolution effort, said the chairs who supported it will now bring a motion asking for McConnell's resignation, which he said is in the purview of the rules.
Trump has been impeached on a charge of inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 that led to the deaths of a police officer and four other people. McConnell was one of Trump's chief defenders during the former president's first impeachment and the ensuing trial, but this time he has taken a different approach. That upset some Kentucky Republicans, prompting Saturday's meeting.
"The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government," McConnell said in a Senate speech last week.
The Nelson County GOP's executive committee formally censured McConnell on Tuesday night for that and demanded he retract his statements "impugning" the former president's honor.
– Morgan Watkins, Louisville Courier Journal
Sanders says Democrats will pass relief package through reconciliation
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said that Democrats will pass a relief package "as soon as we possibly can" through budget reconciliation rather than full legislation.
Budget reconciliation is a form of legislation that specifically governs changes to government spending, revenue and the federal debt limit. While it is limited in the scope of what policies it can include, reconciliation bills are immune to the 60-vote filibuster in the Senate, meaning only 51 Democrats would have to sign on to pass the legislation.
"I don’t know what the word compromise means," Sanders said of calls by Republicans to work together on a bipartisan package in the upper chamber. "I know that there are more working families today living in economic desperation than at any time since the Great Depression."
"What we cannot do is wait weeks and weeks and months and months to go forward," Sanders said of the need for immediate coronavirus relief.
As the incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders will have a critical role in determining federal spending allotments and priorities in the incoming Congress. A coronavirus stimulus package proposed through budget reconciliation would give the first signs of how Sanders will use the new role.
President Joe Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that would provide greater stimulus to state and local governments, small businesses, and help build a more robust vaccine rollout infrastructure, among other big list items.
The proposal has been criticized by many Republicans and some Democrats for being too big and not sufficiently targeted.
"We're going to do it. But we're going to do it to protect ordinary people, not just the rich and powerful,” Sanders said.
– Matthew Brown
Rubio and Romney take contrasting stances ahead of second Trump impeachment trial
Republican senators have publicly diverged in their assessment of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. The Senate trial comes after the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump on a charge of inciting a mob of his supporters that stormed and ransacked the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn the results of the November presidential election.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was receptive to impeaching the president.
Romney, the only Republican senator who voted to convict Trump in his first Senate impeachment trial, indicated he was open to voting to convict Trump again given the severity of the charge against the former president.
"There's no question that the article of impeachment sent over by the House suggests impeachable conduct, but we have not yet heard either from the prosecution or from the defense," Romney said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“I believe that what is being alleged and what we saw, which is incitement to insurrection, is an impeachable offense,” Romney asserted on CNN. “If not? what is?” he asked.
Other GOP senators have taken a more skeptical view of the trial.
“Well, first of all, I think the trial is stupid,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on "Fox News Sunday." Rubio argued that it would be "arrogant" for the Senate to convict Trump after he’s left office, and that while the former president "bears responsibility" for the Capitol insurrection, it is wrong to "stir up" the controversy again.
"All I’m arguing is we have some really important things to work on," Rubio said, asserting that impeachment was an impediment to unity. "It’ll be bad for the country, it really will,” Rubio said.
Romney expressed a different view on Fox News, arguing "If we’re going to have unity" there must be "accountability" for wrongdoing from all actors, including Trump.
In recent days, other senators like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., claimed impeaching Trump would “destroy” the Republican Party. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, threatened that a post-presidency impeachment of Trump would eventually result in the impeachment of Democratic presidents like Barack Obama.
Conversely, senators Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., have also expressed openness to impeaching Trump.
– Matthew Brown
Poll: Americans positive about Biden COVID-19 response, ability to unite country
Americans are broadly supportive of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response and his prospects for bringing the nation together, according to a recent ABC News poll.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans approve of Biden’s plans to address the coronavirus pandemic while 57% believe Biden can follow-through on his promise to unite a divided America.
Notably, 40% of Republicans also approve of Biden’s early coronavirus response, signaling a bipartisan honeymoon that may help the president implement his more ambitious plans to tackle the virus. Ninety-seven percent of Democrats and 70% of independents back Biden’s early steps to contain the pandemic.
After taking office on Wednesday, Biden imposed a mask-wearing mandate on federal property, issued orders to ramp up vaccine and personal protective equipment distribution, and issued an order requiring international travelers to test negative for COVID-19 before they can enter the U.S.
On Sunday, Biden signed executive orders which streamlined the delivery of stimulus checks and expand federal food aid programs.
Eighty-one percent of Americans back the executive order requiring masks on federal property. Fifty-five percent of Americans also supported Biden’s reversal of Trump’s ban on travel from several majority Muslim countries, as well as his halting of border wall construction on the southern border with Mexico. Sixty-five percent of Americans support Biden’s decision to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program for undocumented youth.
Republicans overwhelmingly oppose Biden ending each of those measures, indicating the president’s bipartisan honeymoon on coronavirus response may have its limits in a hyper-polarized nation.
Unity was the central topic of Biden’s inauguration. "We stop the shouting and lower the temperature. Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury," Biden cautioned during his speech. "Unity is the only path forward."
Seventy-one percent of those polled who heard Biden’s speech found it convincing, according to the ABC News poll. But nearly a quarter (24%) said they are deeply skeptical of his ability to bridge the nation’s divides.
– Matthew Brown
Arizona GOP censures Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake, Doug Ducey
The Arizona Republican Party on Saturday passed three resolutions censuring high-profile Republicans: Gov. Doug Ducey, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain.
It was another sign of the party's move to the right.
The party censured Ducey over his decision to impose emergency rules during the pandemic that the GOP said "restrict personal liberties and force compliance to unconstitutional edicts."
It said McCain, who endorsed President Joe Biden, "has supported globalist policies and candidates" and "condemned President Trump for his criticism of her husband and erroneously placed behaviors over actual presidential results."
And it declared Flake has "condemned the Republican Party, rejected populism, and rejected the interests of the American people over globalist interests." The party suggested Flake join the Democrats.
Sara Mueller, Ducey's political director, took the censure in stride.
"These resolutions are of no consequence whatsoever, and the people behind them have lost whatever little moral authority they may have once had," she said.
– Ronald J. Hansen, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, Arizona Republic
Trump weighed firing acting AG to pursue unfounded voter fraud claims
In his last weeks of office, then-President Donald Trump weighed a plan to oust acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and replace him with a loyalist inside the Justice Department when Rosen refused to pursue Trump's unfounded claims of voter fraud, a person familiar with the matter told USA TODAY.
The source who is not authorized to comment publicly said the plan, which Trump ultimately dropped, prompted remaining top Justice officials to threaten a mass resignation.
"Until the very end, the pressure never stopped; the pressure was real," the source said, describing Trump's efforts to coerce federal prosecutors to take up a campaign ultimately aimed at overturning the election of President Joe Biden.
The plan, first reported by The New York Times, entailed replacing Rosen with Jeffrey Clark, who Trump had appointed to lead Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division and who later served as acting chief of the Civil Division.
Had the effort proceeded, Clark, who had earlier raised concerns about voter fraud within the department, would have been in a position to act on Trump's behalf to challenge election results in Georgia where the president had previously pressured state officials.
– Kevin Johnson and Sarah Elbeshbishi
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rand Paul refuses to say election wasn't stolen: Politics updates