Morning Report

The Hill’s Morning Report — Biden cheers Griner freedom; Congress protects gay marriage

Cherell Griner and President Biden
AP/Patrick Semansky
Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in Washington, with President Joe Biden, left. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris are behind. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Editor’s note: The Hill’s Morning Report is our daily newsletter that dives deep into Washington’s agenda. To subscribe, click here or fill out the box below.

The White House and Democratic lawmakers each had headline-grabbing achievements to celebrate on Thursday.

Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap after nearly 10 months of detention, President Biden announced at the White House.

On Capitol Hill, House Democrats hailed passage of legislation Biden soon will sign, intended to create a statutory shield around same-sex and interracial marriages, viewed by Democrats as vulnerable to the precedent-challenging conservative majority on the Supreme Court. It is one of the final acts of the Democratic-controlled Congress.

The release of Griner, who turned 32 while in custody, represented a pause in the ongoing confrontation between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin over Russia’s war with Ukraine.

The New York Times reported that Putin views himself as a dealmaker — and he got something he wanted. Putin swapped the U.S. All-Star basketball center and two-time Olympic gold medalist for a Russian arms merchant, Viktor Bout, who served less than half of a 25-year sentence in the United States on charges that included conspiring to kill Americans.

The Washington Post: Russia wanted Bout back, badly. The question is: Why?

The New York Times: The number of Americans being “wrongfully detained” by foreign governments has risen.

In February, Griner was stopped at an airport near Moscow after customs officials found two vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. Amid sympathetic international attention and protests, Griner was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony on drug charges.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, who was with Biden for the announcement, thanked the president, Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a long list of administration officials and others who worked to achieve Brittney Griner’s release after what the United States denounced as wrongful detention.

Following a medical evaluation in Texas (The Washington Post), Brittney Griner will be free to resume her life. Cherelle Griner worked for months to keep public pressure on the White House not to forget about her wife, smiling on Thursday in the Roosevelt Room while saying, “Today my family is whole.”

Biden said Russia did not agree to release American former Marine Paul Whelan, who the president said would continue to be the focus of administration negotiations.

During a phone interview, Whelan told CNN he is “greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up.”

“I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” he said in a call from the penal colony where he is being held in a remote part of Russia. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.” Whelan, who is an American, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial U.S. officials denounced as unfair. “It’s quite obvious that I’m being held hostage,” he said.

Meanwhile, at the U.S. Capitol, the House approved the Respect for Marriage Act with fanfare and sent the bipartisan measure to Biden. Just a few years ago, enactment of such legislation would have been politically out of reach, but prominent gay Republican donors and operatives helped smooth the way for its passage. 

Twelve Republican senators joined every Democrat in voting “aye” (The New York Times). Openly LGBTQ lawmakers praised the bill as a triumph for equality while acknowledging its limitations. In the House, 10 Republicans who voted for the version of the bill that passed in July changed their votes on Thursday. Seven moved from “yes” to “no,” two switched from “no” to “yes,” and one, Rep. Burgess Owen (R-Utah), voted “present” (The Hill).

“Voting to pass the Respect for Marriage Act today is one of the proudest votes I’ve ever cast,” Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) wrote Thursday on Twitter. “I’m humbled. I’m honored. And I’m hopeful — as the fight for LGBTQ+ rights continues.”

Being gay is normal. Gay friends, gay family members, and gay marriages are normal,” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), one of two openly LGBTQ senators, tweeted.

Our Respect for Marriage Act now heads to the President’s desk — ensuring same-sex married couples enjoy the same protections as all other married couples. It’s a great day in America,” Sinema added (The Hill).

When enacted, the Respect for Marriage Act will repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that defines marriage for federal purposes as a union between one man and one woman.

BREAKING: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema says she is switching her party affiliation to independent, Politico reported this morning. The decision is a blow to Democrats’ narrow majority heading into 2023 and upends Senate calculations and Washington politics. In a 45-minute interview, the first-term senator said she will not caucus with Republicans and suggested that she intends to vote the same way she has for four years in the Senate. “Nothing will change about my values or my behavior,” she said. 


Related Articles

WFAA-TV: Russian state media video shows Griner departing Russia and speaking on a plane to Abu Dhabi.

Instagram, The Washington Post: Russian state media footage shows Griner and Bout during the prisoner swap at the Abu Dhabi airport on Thursday.

The Dallas Morning News: Texas reaction is divided over the U.S. prisoner swap to release Griner, a Houston native, from Russia. Griner is believed to have landed in San Antonio this morning.

The Hill’s Niall Stanage: Why Biden’s decision to approve the swap for Griner with Russia poses big political risks.

The Hill: The White House disputes Saudi, UAE accounts of mediating Griner’s release. 

Reuters: U.S. citizen Sarah Krivanek, who spent almost 11 months in detention in Russia on charges of causing light injuries to her civil partner, was ordered deported and left Russia on Thursday.


LEADING THE DAY

MORE CONGRESS

The House on Thursday passed the annual defense authorization bill, sending the mammoth $847 billion measure to the Senate for consideration ahead of the year-end deadline.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), seen as a must-pass for Congress, was approved in a bipartisan 350-80 vote. It includes an $817 billion top line for the Defense Department and about $30 billion to fund nuclear activities in the Department of Energy.

The bill lays out the blueprint for how the billions of dollars will be allocated at the Pentagon, including a 4.6 percent pay raise for both service members and the agency’s civilian workforce, new weapons programs and equipment upgrades, and new programs and personnel policies.

The final bill came together after months of negotiations between lawmakers of both parties and chambers, which bore victories for those on both sides of the aisle. In a win for Republicans, the measure includes language that repeals the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for service members, which has been in place since August 2021. And progressives saw a significant victory after a deal on energy project permitting reform, which Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) advocated, was excluded from the text (The Hill).

The elimination of the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate represents a surprise concession by Democrats and shows how the politics of the pandemic have changed, The Hill’s Nathaniel Weixel reports. Vaccine mandates have been championed by the Biden administration, congressional Democrats and blue state governors as an important tool in the fight against the coronavirus.  

But by giving in to Republican demands, Democrats are acknowledging the reality that the public has moved on, and there’s no longer a widespread appetite for any sort of virus-fighting rules. 

Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, meanwhile, are frustrated by the House Democratic leaders’ decision to fast-track the NDAA without tackling voting rights. As The Hill’s Mike Lillis writes, the members saw the must-pass Pentagon package as their last best chance to address election protections this year. The critics are grumbling that party leaders simply haven’t been aggressive enough in efforts to force the Senate to adopt the various voting rights bills passed by the House this Congress.

“It seems like the Black Caucus has always supported leadership in what it’s tried to do, but leadership of this Caucus hasn’t returned the favor, always,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a member of both the Black Caucus and the progressive “squad.“And so now we’re in a precarious position where voting rights will continue to be under attack — state to state — will continue to be gutted.”

While the passage of the NDAA takes one major piece of legislation off lawmakers’ plates, there’s still the issue of a looming government shutdown if Congress doesn’t pass a spending bill by the end of next week. Lawmakers are digging their heels deeper into a high stakes spending tug of war, The Hill’s Aris Folley writes, and while negotiators have been exchanging topline figures for a potential omnibus funding bill that many are hopeful to see pass this month, members say it’s also becoming clearer negotiations will likely need to extend beyond next week’s deadline — meaning Congress would be required to pass a stopgap spending measure to keep the lights on.

Politico: Ope, sorry: Midwestern House Dems push for leaders between the coasts.

The Hill: Frustration swirls in House GOP over Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (Calif.) Speakership opposition.

In the Senate, Democrats now have unilateral subpoena power after gaining a seat in the midterm election, giving them a true majority — 51-49 — for the first time in eight years. Now they must figure out what to do with the new power, and whether to use it to counter what are expected to be a slew of House GOP investigations of the Biden administration (The Hill). 

POLITICS

Prosecutors have urged a federal judge to hold former President Trump’s office in contempt of court for failing to fully comply with a subpoena to return all classified documents in his possession, The Washington Post reports. The hearing is scheduled for today. 

The request follows months of mounting frustration from the Justice Department that spiked in June, after Trump’s lawyers assured prosecutors that a diligent search had been conducted for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. But the FBI amassed evidence that was later confirmed through a court-authorized search showing that many more remained.

The former president is under investigation for three potential crimes: the mishandling of classified documents, obstruction and the destruction of government records.

The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection is considering criminal referrals for at least four individuals in addition to Trump, CNN reports. The panel is weighing criminal referrals for former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, right-wing lawyer John Eastman, former Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark and Trump’s former lawyer Rudy Giuliani, though the committee has not officially decided whom to refer to the Justice Department for prosecution and for what offenses.

Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) announced Wednesday that the panel’s long-awaited report will be released on Dec. 21 (ABC News).

Roll Call: Once again, the GOP has an opportunity to win the Senate in 2024.

BuzzFeed News: “I did what I had to do”: Christian Walker opened up about how he helped bring down his dad, Herschel Walker, in his Senate campaign.

FiveThirtyEight: Georgia can’t be reduced to one political color. Why red, blue and purple can only tell us so much.

Democrats are trying to stop outside groups from forming a bipartisan presidential ticket in 2024, warning voters that the effort is political malpractice, Axios reports. A third-party candidacy could hand the presidency to Trump, warns a new report from Third Way.

“If a third-party candidate blew past historic precedent and managed to win enough Electoral Votes to keep any candidate from getting to 270, then the outcome would be decided in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans and where Donald Trump would prevail,” the report says.

The report comes as voters’ dissatisfaction with both parties — and with candidates considered too extreme on either side — grows and has reenergized a quiet campaign to recruit and fund an alternative presidential ticket. Over the course of this year, the bipartisan group No Labels has been working to build a $70 million operation to potentially support a third-party option in 2024. While No Labels didn’t rule out boosting an alternative to Biden should he run again, it told Axios that the group won’t offer a presidential ticket “if that choice isn’t needed.”


IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES

INTERNATIONAL

Iran on Thursday morning carried out the first known execution of a prisoner arrested during months-long protests, according to state media, marking a major escalation that sent shock waves throughout the country. Rights groups warned the move could signal an even bloodier phase in the violent crackdown on the nationwide uprising (The Washington Post and Reuters).

“Iranian authorities have executed a protester, sentenced to death in show trials without any due process,” Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of the Norway-based group Iran Human Rights, tweeted, saying the execution “must be [met] with STRONG reactions otherwise we will be facing daily executions of protesters… This execution must have rapid practical consequences internationally.”

Russian strikes have killed at least 10 people in eastern Ukraine, marking the deadliest single Russian attack on civilians in weeks. A barrage of artillery fire struck the town of Kurakhove on Wednesday, hitting a market, a bus station and several residential buildings (The Wall Street Journal). Moscow also shelled the entire front line in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv reported, as part of what appears to be the Kremlin’s scaled-back ambition to secure only the bulk of territory it has claimed (Reuters).

“The Russian army carried out a very brutal, absolutely deliberate strike at Kurakhove,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly video address. “Precisely at civilians. At ordinary people.”

The Wall Street Journal: Police seize weapons in far-right German coup-plot investigation.

The New York Times: China and Saudi Arabia sign a strategic partnership as Xi Jinping visits the kingdom. The Chinese leader’s trip has been scant on details and heavy on ceremony, but it showcases the growing ties between Beijing and a longtime American ally.

Reuters: “It’s dead out here”: China’s slow exit from zero-COVID.

Reuters: Japan, Britain and Italy to build joint jet fighter.

The Globe and Mail: Inside Myanmar’s civil war: A photojournalist’s journey to the front line with insurgent groups.


OPINION

■ Brittney Griner’s release and the strategic value of good diplomacy, by Tara D. Sonenshine, opinion contributor, The Hill. https://bit.ly/3uCSfVC

■ Fed’s cryptocurrency pilot opens door for dangerous retail option, by David Waugh, opinion contributor, The Hill. https://bit.ly/3HokJtS


WHERE AND WHEN

🎄 A note to readers: Morning Report will be helmed through Dec. 22 by The Hill’s Kristina Karisch; co-writer Alexis Simendinger will wrap up a newsy 2022 by taking a holiday break. 

👉 The Hill: Share a news query tied to an expert journalist’s insights: The Hill launched something new and (we hope) engaging via text with Editor-in-Chief Bob Cusack. Learn more and sign up HERE.

INVITATION: Join a newsmaker event hosted by The Hill andthe Bipartisan Policy Center on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 10 a.m. ET (hybrid), “Risk to Resilience: Cyber & Climate Solutions to Bolster America’s Power Grid,” withRep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Energy Department Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response Director Puesh Kumar and more. Information for in-person and online participation is HERE.

The House will convene at noon on Monday. 

The Senate will convene at 3 p.m. on Monday and resume consideration of the nomination of Tamika Montgomery-Reeves to be a U.S. circuit judge for the Third Circuit.

The president will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 9 a.m. He has no public events on his schedule as of this morning.

Vice President Harris is in Washington and has no public schedule.

First lady Jill Biden will deliver opening remarksat 11:45 a.m. at a virtual town hall event to urge individuals, especially those 50 and older, to get updated COVID-19 vaccine doses during the holiday season. Information about locating and scheduling COVID-19 vaccine and booster doses can be found at Vaccines.gov. The White House discussion will include retiring National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci; Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator; and AARP Chief Executive Officer Jo Ann Jenkins. The event will be live streamed at www.whitehouse.gov/live.  

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff will join Attorney General Merrick Garland, White House Counsel Stuart Delery and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough at 2 p.m. at an interagency roundtable about legal aid and the justice system. 

The White House daily press briefing is scheduled at 1 p.m. 


ELSEWHERE

WORKERS

Airport workers across the country participated in rallies and walkouts Thursday to draw attention to their working conditions and legislation that could improve them.

Workers at 15 U.S. airports, including ones in Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and Phoenix, participated in on-site rallies. Formal strikes occurred at Boston’s Logan International Airport, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and the Newark Liberty International Airport.

“Airport workers like me and working people all across the economy are fed up,” Verna Montalvo, a cabin cleaner at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, said in a statement provided by the Service Employees International Union, which is planning the action. “Without us, no one could travel safely to visit their families over the holidays. Seeing smiles on passengers’ faces gives me a huge sense of pride, but it comes at a huge cost when I can’t support my own family on poverty wages.”

The rallies are in support of the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, introduced in June by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass). It would set a minimum wage of $15 for airport service workers and ensure workers’ benefits (NBC News and The Hill).

Bloomberg News: Blue Apron to cut 10 percent of jobs as it struggles to stay afloat.

Vox: Layoffs, buyouts, and rescinded offers: Amazon’s status as a top tech employer is taking a hit. A leaked memo shows Amazon was concerned with attracting and retaining top engineers earlier this year.

A drop in the growth of unit labor costs this week has economists pointing to corporate profits as a driver of inflation, writes The Hill’s Tobias Burns. Unit labor costs, which are measured by the Labor Department to determine how much businesses are paying for workers to produce their goods and services, have been getting outpaced by profits over the last several quarters, complicating an argument by the Federal Reserve that it’s an excess of consumer demand for goods and services that has inflation hovering around 40-year-highs. 

PANDEMIC & HEALTH 

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday cleared doses of the updated COVID-19 vaccines for children younger than age 5. The FDA’s decision aims to better protect the littlest kids amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases around the country — at a time when children’s hospitals already are packed with tots suffering from other respiratory illnesses including the flu.

“Vaccination is the best way we know to help prevent the serious outcomes of COVID-19, such as hospitalization and death,” said Peter Marks, FDA’s vaccine chief (NPR).

Of all the groups still threatened by COVID-19 — including the elderly and the immunocompromised — it is pregnant people who seem the most unaware of the risks.

The virus can kill pregnant individuals and can result in miscarriage, preterm births or stillbirths even in cases of asymptomatic or mild illness. The infection may also affect the baby’s brain development. Yet only 70 percent of new parents completed the primary vaccination series for COVID-19 before or during pregnancy. Since early September, only 15 percent have opted for a booster shot (The New York Times).

The “pandemic pet” phenomenon may have been more anecdote than fact, as it turns out: dog and cat adoptions actually declined in 2020, shelter data show. But the post-pandemic shelter crisis of 2022 is real, writes The Hill’s Daniel de Visé. Shelters around the nation have been overwhelmed this year, as adoptions lag and a steady stream of families surrender dogs and cats they no longer want, and factors include the end of virtual work and the rising cost of kibble. 

Information about COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot availability can be found at Vaccines.gov.

Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported as of this morning, according to Johns Hopkins University (trackers all vary slightly): 1,084,236. Current U.S. COVID-19 deaths are 2,981 for the week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The CDC shifted its tally of available data from daily to weekly, now reported on Fridays.)


THE CLOSER

And finally …  👏👏👏 Bravo to winners of this week’s Morning Report Quiz! Inspired by the Georgia runoff on Tuesday, we posed trivia questions about close and not-so-close elections.

Here’s who went 4/4 into the weeds of U.S. election history: Paul Harris, Patrick Kavanagh, Bob McLellan, William Grieshober, Harry Strulovici, Ki Harvey, Terry Pflaumer, M.R. Tofalo, Lori Cowdrey Benso, Sharon Banitt, Randall Patrick, Len Jones and Steve James.

They knew that in 1972, former President Nixon won reelection overwhelmingly, securing the electoral votes of 49 states. The exception was Massachusetts. 

Former President Obama and his party suffered significant losses in the 2010 midterm elections. During a post-election news conference, Obama called the result “a shellacking.”

John Quincy Adams’s presidential victory was ultimately determined by a single vote in the House of Representatives.

The closest election in Senate history, resulting in a two-vote difference after a recount, occurred in the 1974 New Hampshire race between Republican Louis Wyman and Democrat John Durkin. 


Stay Engaged

We want to hear from you! Email: Alexis Simendinger and Kristina Karisch. Follow us on Twitter (@asimendinger and @kristinakarisch) and suggest this newsletter to friends!


Tags Biden Biden Bout Brittney Griner China Gay Marriage Griner Herschel Walker Kyrsten Sinema Mohammad bin Salman Morning Report NDAA Paul Whelan Prisoner swap Saudi Arabia Sinema spending bill Viktor Bout Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping
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