The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – COVID-19 vaccine moves ahead. Congress? Not so much
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Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported each morning this week: Monday, 282,312; Tuesday, 283,743; Wednesday, 286,325; Thursday, 289,431; Friday, 292,179.
Within days, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to follow the lead of an expert panel that endorsed a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and German company BioNTech and approve it for widespread use in the United States. Doses to inoculate health care workers and nursing home residents could be distributed within a week (The Hill).
An epic U.S. vaccination program is poised to begin as coronavirus infections and deaths surpass previous records and while Congress remains at loggerheads about how to help millions of workers and small-business owners, many of whom face new hurdles just as federal relief runs out.
The New York Times: FDA advisory panel gives the green light to Pfizer’s vaccine.
Financial Times: Will wealthy Americans jump the queue for the COVID vaccine?
There are no optimistic predictions about COVID-19 in the absence of effective, safe vaccines, which public health experts describe as “the cavalry.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicted this week that the number of newly reported coronavirus-related deaths will likely increase over the next month, with the potential for a total death count of up to 362,000 by Jan. 2 (The Hill).
The New York Times: Claims for unemployment benefits filed last week and reported on Thursday soared to 947,000, reversing a dip seen in the previous week. “It’s very clear the third wave of the pandemic is causing businesses to have to lay people off and consumers to cut back spending,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist for the career site Glassdoor. “It seems like we’re in for a rough winter economically.”
President Trump, who has impatiently urged the FDA for months to approve vaccines for what he calls the “China virus,” said little about the vaccine news. He focused his Twitter messaging on his efforts to contest the election.
President-elect Joe Biden, whose team was to receive its first COVID-19 and vaccine transition briefing from the administration on Thursday, called the Pfizer-BioNTech medicine “a bright light in a needlessly dark time,” and praised the “integrity of science” rather than the administration’s virus responses since January. “My first 100 days won’t end COVID-19, but we can and will slow the spread of the disease while we manufacture and distribute this vaccine,” Biden said in a statement.
The New York Times: Walmart prepares to administer a coronavirus vaccine once it is available. And billions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine will move around the world by air, so airlines are gearing up (The New York Times).
AstraZeneca says today that it will test the Russians’ theory that two COVID-19 vaccines may be better than one. The company will test a combination of its own experimental COVID-19 vaccine with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine candidate in two shots, a move Russian scientists have urged (Reuters).
Despite the good news on the vaccine front, the same cannot be said of the situation on Capitol Hill as talks on a coronavirus relief package have cratered, with the two sides trading insults and lawmakers getting no closer to clinching a deal by the end of the year.
Lawmakers on Thursday ran in circles as a potential accord remained elusive, just as it has since late summer. A bipartisan $908 billion proposal made last week had the wind taken out of its sail as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and top Republicans indicated that a $160 billion offer in funds for state and local governments was a no-go with much of the conference, sending those discussions back to square one.
Speaking on the Senate floor, McConnell criticized “controversial state bailouts” and maintained that he hopes for a targeted package, which he has been calling for in recent months. Across the Capitol, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters early Thursday that talks could extend past Christmas.
Despite a desire for a deal before the clock strikes 2021, the comments from the two leaders represented the latest deadlock in discussions and a situation that has become commonplace over months of discussions on a fifth coronavirus-relief package. It also comes at a troublesome time for the country. The Labor Department announced early Thursday that 853,000 Americans filed jobless claims last week, a substantial uptick from one week prior (The Washington Post).
The Associated Press: Congress stuck, McConnell resists state aid in COVID-19 deal.
Politico: “Get off our damn asses”: Stimulus debacle exposes broken Washington.
The Hill: Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) team up to demand vote on second round of stimulus checks.
The New York Times: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is grilled over his handling of stimulus programs.
According to The Hill’s Alexander Bolton and Naomi Jagoda, the latest impasse hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from plowing forward on legislation. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Angus King (I-Maine) are holding conversations on coronavirus liability protections for businesses and other organizations in an attempt to find common ground where other senators have failed. The issue is one of the two main sticking points, along with proposed funds for states and cities.
While they continued to negotiate on Thursday and told colleagues they are close to coming up with a proposal, lawmakers are doubtful that the two could come together on language that will be agreeable to enough lawmakers.
“My sense is that they’re not going to get there on the liability language,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
Overall, optimism is low that the chamber can come to an agreement on any package by the time the chamber breaks for the holidays.
“Very slim,” one Senate GOP aide said when asked about the chances for a deal. “Those two issues are the sticking point. Dems won’t give an inch on a liability shield. There has to be a give and take.”
More about the coronavirus … Pennsylvania and Virginia each rolled out new restrictions on Thursday in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) banned indoor dining and gym operations until Jan. 8, and limited indoor gatherings to 10 people ahead of the holiday season (The Hill). In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) instituted a statewide curfew from 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., and strengthened the state’s mask mandate, requiring individuals to wear them outside when they cannot social distance (ABC-8 Richmond). … Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was released Thursday after receiving treatment for COVID-19 at Georgetown University Hospital. Giuliani tested positive for the virus on Sunday (The Hill).
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LEADING THE DAY
NEW ADMINISTRATION: Biden today is expected to formally announce that the man he envisions as the next secretary of Veterans Affairs may not have served in uniform but brings to the expansive Cabinet department a wealth of knowledge as a former White House chief of staff. Denis McDonough is known as a no-nonsense manager and problem solver who preferred to shun the spotlight as former President Obama’s chief of staff.
Some veterans’ groups on Thursday said they were surprised and disappointed that Biden did not select a nominee for the VA who has served in the armed forces. Members of Congress are especially sensitive about the department because of their veteran constituents and the VA is famously tough on managers when things go wrong. McDonough, who served on Obama’s National Security Council before he became chief of staff, worked during Obama’s second term to improve communications with GOP lawmakers.
Obama in May 2014, when McDonough was chief of staff, painfully accepted the resignation of former Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, who was VA secretary during a scandal in which employees throughout the VA’s massive hospital system conspired to hide months-long wait times for veterans seeking care. Shinseki and Obama said they had been unaware of the troubles.
“He’ll have to go a long way to prove himself to a very skeptical population who would prefer someone with more direct veteran and VA experience,” Jeremy Butler, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said of McDonough (The Washington Post).
In another surprising move, Biden selected Susan Rice, known as a tough-minded former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and seasoned foreign policy adviser, to head the White House Domestic Policy Council (The Associated Press). The president-elect is expected to discuss that appointment today.
Samantha Power, who also served as U.N. ambassador during the Obama years, said on Twitter that it made sense to put Rice (pictured below) in charge of developing domestic policy “to end silos between domestic & foreign policy.” Power ticked off a list of issues that have implications for Americans as well as the rest of the world, including COVID-19, climate change, immigration, election security, trade and China. “Can’t lead abroad without strength at home AND must do more to ensure foreign policy choices benefit the American ppl,” she wrote.
The Hill: The incoming Biden administration is shaping up to be the most “insider Washington” administration ever — and the opposite of the drain-the-swamp movement championed by Trump.
Attorney General: Who will it be? Biden’s choices have been described in the news media but an announcement is not expected this week. Leading the reported lists: Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who lost his bid for reelection and has known and worked with Biden over many years (CNN).
The New York Times: Congressional Democrats are pushing Biden to slash student debts and more than 200 organizations, including many integral to his campaign, have joined the push.
Second gentleman Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, will join the faculty at Washington’s Georgetown Law Center (The Hill).
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
MORE CONGRESS: The government is on the verge of a temporary shutdown as a stopgap funding measure and the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) are both being held up by senators, potentially delaying them into the weekend or next week.
As The Hill’s Jordain Carney writes, Senate leadership had hoped to pass a one-week continuing resolution and the annual defense bill on Thursday. However, those plans were gummed up as lawmakers have delayed both bills.
According to Thune, there are multiple hurdles at play, including Sanders’s effort to use the stopgap legislation to force a vote on the standalone stimulus checks bill and Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) push to slowwalk the NDAA because it reins in Trump’s ability to pull troops from Afghanistan. The moves forced McConnell to convene a rare Friday session.
“This is clearly not just one side that takes advantage of these moments, but I always think it’s unfortunate. We’ve got our work to do, we all know we need to get it done, it seldom produces a result that a member thinks it’s going to produce,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership.
The extra week gives lawmakers more time to pass a spending package for fiscal 2021 and a stimulus package.
Politico: Pelosi offered a vote of confidence Thursday to fellow Californian Rep. Eric Swalwell (D) after revelations of his interactions with a suspected Chinese spy set off a furor among Republicans in Congress. “I don’t have any concern about Mr. Swalwell,” Pelosi told reporters.
POLITICS: Support among Republicans on Capitol Hill swelled on Tuesday for a Texas lawsuit challenging the results of last month’s presidential election, with more than 100 lawmakers signing an amicus brief to flip Biden’s victories in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan.
“This brief presents [our] concern as Members of Congress, shared by untold millions of their constituents, that the unconstitutional irregularities involved in the 2020 presidential election cast doubt upon its outcome and the integrity of the American system of elections,” states the brief signed by 106 GOP lawmakers, with Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) organizing the House GOP’s show of support for the president.
Among the other key House Republicans who signed on were Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio). House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) are not among the signatories (The Hill).
Despite the effort, it is expected to be a futile one as the Supreme Court earlier this week denied one by Trump allies to overturn the result in Pennsylvania. On Thursday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro slammed the latest filing, calling it a “seditious abuse of the judicial process” (The Hill).
The move has also divided the Texas delegation. On Wednesday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) questioned the “legal theory” of the case, while Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, has repeatedly urged Trump to “move on” and focus his attention on more pressing matters. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a House Freedom Caucus member and one of the House GOP’s most conservative members who represents a competitive district, declined to sign on, calling the filing — which was prepared by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is facing bribery allegations — “a dangerous violation of federalism.”
The Associated Press: In Arizona, Trump’s false claims have torn open a GOP rift.
The Wall Street Journal: Attorney General William Barr worked to keep Hunter Biden probes from public view during election.
Niall Stanage: The Memo: Hunter Biden twist brings new problems for president-elect.
Peter Baker: Investigation of his son is likely to hang over Biden as he takes office.
The New York Times: Outgoing Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) moves toward entering New York City mayor’s race.
Person of the Year 2020 on the cover of Time magazine today turned out to be Biden and Harris. “This is the first time we have included a Vice President. In a year that saw an epic struggle for racial justice, and one of the most consequential elections in history, the Biden-Harris partnership sends a powerful message,” Time editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal wrote. “Dismissed as out of touch on the left and misrepresented as a socialist from his right, Biden stood his ground near the center and managed to thrive even as the social, digital and racial landscape around him shifted. With more than 51%, Biden won a higher percentage of the popular vote than any challenger to a presidential incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.”
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Here’s proof that promises for health care are fraudulent, by Deane Waldman, opinion contributor, The Hill. https://bit.ly/3m8P7tG
Trump’s election antics weaken America — at home and abroad, by Kenneth C. Brill, opinion contributor, The Hill. https://bit.ly/3oHM4dG
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WHERE AND WHEN
The House will meet at 1:30 p.m. on Monday.
The Senate will convene at 9:30 a.m. and resume consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2021.
The president and Vice President Pence have no public events.
Biden and Harris will receive the President’s Daily Brief and introduce members of the incoming administration in Wilmington, Del.
➔ INCOME: The Hill’s Reid Wilson took a close look at new census data released on Thursday and reports that more than 42 million Americans live below the federal poverty line, about the same as a decade ago despite economic growth since the Great Recession. The median income of Black households has increased only slightly in the same time frame, while households headed by Native Americans and Alaska Natives remain virtually unchanged. The poorest counties in America are largely concentrated in the Appalachian Mountains, across the Southern Black Belt and in parts of the Dakotas and the Mountain West where Tribal nations are based. … Starbucks is raising hourly wages for many baristas and other workers by at least 10 percent beginning on Dec. 14. Employees who have worked at a company-operated location will receive an increase of at least 11 percent. And starting wages will rise 5 percent to help cafe managers find more staff. The pay hikes come as voters express support for a higher minimum wage. The federal wage has been $7.25 per hour for more than a decade, and the restaurant industry is expecting a hike during the Biden administration. CNBC reports.
➔ INTERNATIONAL: Trump announced on Thursday that Israel and Morocco have agreed to normalize relations, which marks the fourth such accord Israel has made in recent months with an Arab nation. Trump added that the United States would recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the contested territory of Western Sahara. The agreement follows deals to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan (The Jerusalem Post). Administration officials have also been trying to bring Saudi Arabia into the grouping (NBC News).
➔ LOBBYING: The Hill’s list of Top Lobbyists 2020, published this week, showcases successful influencers who stand out by delivering results for their clients in the halls of Congress and in the administration.
➔ HOLIDAY CHEER: ‘Tis the season! We were struck by news that a wave of kindness lasting two-and-a-half consecutive days at a Dairy Queen last week inspired a community in northern Minnesota. Customers in Brainerd, Minn., said they were shocked (and employees were surprised) that drive-thru customers in more than 900 cars paid for each other’s meals by footing bills for those in line behind them. The “pay-it-forward” chain resulted in more than $10,000 in generosity. Dairy Queen chronicled the largesse on Facebook. “We started just asking and encouraging and letting them know, you know, ‘It’s been five cars, it’s been 15 cars, it’s been 30 cars,’” assistant manager Sandra Quam told CBS News. “And you know people started getting excited about it and it just continued” (CNN).
And finally … Bravo to the winners of this week’s Morning Report Quiz! Relying on savvy guesses (along with some top-notch Googling), readers knew their trivia about the Biden transition team.
Here are the quiz masters who went 4/4 with this week’s puzzle: Patrick Kavanagh, Mary Anne McEnery, Pam Manges, Terry Pflaummer, Luther Berg, Lori Benso, John Donato, J. Patrick White and Phil Kirstein.
They knew that former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) did not win any delegates in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Vilsack dropped his 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination more than 10 months before the caucuses and subsequently endorsed then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Ron Klain, the incoming White House chief of staff who has held high-profile jobs across government, has never served as White House Counsel.
The Biden transition team has thus far nominated zero self-identified members of the LGBTQ community to the incoming Cabinet.
Finally, the president-elect badly botched California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s name while introducing him this week as his nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services.
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