The Hill’s Morning Report – Biden on COVID-19: Next year Americans will be ‘better off’
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Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported each morning this week: Monday, 486,106; Tuesday, 486,325; Wednesday, 488,081.
President Biden on Tuesday said Americans might return by early next year to the routines and lives they remember before COVID-19, but he conceded less than a month into his presidency that “we don’t know.”
Speaking for the first time as president during a town hall event hosted by CNN in Milwaukee, Wis., Biden said he would like to see schools reopen for in-person instruction by summer, urged Americans to do everything possible to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and said he empathizes with public confusion and fear about everything from byzantine online vaccine appointment systems to shifting scientific predictions about the impact of coronavirus mutations (The Hill).
“If you’re eligible and it’s available, get the vaccine,” he said, adding “thus far there is no evidence” that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines don’t offer protection against new strains of COVID-19 first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.
The Hill: Biden optimistic U.S. will be in “very different circumstance” with pandemic by Christmas.
The Associated Press: Biden reframes his goal on reopening of elementary schools.
The Hill: Biden to increase number of vaccine doses to states.
The Hill: Biden offers to help Wisconsin woman locate COVID-19 vaccine for teenage son with COPD.
Apologizing that his answers were lengthy and at times meandering, Biden digressed with quotes he attributed to his parents, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. while reviving his campaign themes of honest talk, decency in governance and fact-based solutions to intractable problems.
COVID-19 is at the top of his list. “Look what we inherited,” he said about the Trump administration’s approach to the pandemic response. “We wasted so much time.”
Biden told CNN’s Anderson Cooper and audience members who asked questions that he has not retreated from his plan to enact $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief legislation and he voiced unwavering support for a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, a benchmark goal among progressives. Biden also said he “guaranteed” mom and pop small businesses that federal loan money included in his plan would benefit them rather than the large companies that qualified for Paycheck Protection Program funds last year.
The Hill: Where things stand on the COVID-19 relief measure.
The Hill: Biden officials mull priorities after coronavirus relief bill.
During the 75-minute discussion, Biden tried without complete success to avoid mentioning former President Trump, calling him at one point “the former guy.” The president said it was time to talk about the American people and not his predecessor.
“For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump. The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people. I’m tired of talking about Trump,” Biden said when asked about Trump’s weekend impeachment acquittal (The Hill).
CNBC: “I’m tired of talking about Trump”: Biden steers clear of “the former guy” in COVID relief pitch.
Asked about other pending legislation, Biden dove into the tricky waters of immigration, hinting that he would embrace a piecemeal approach to reform. He told Cooper that he would sign a bill even if a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers is not included, but added that the provision remains a priority for his administration.
On the world stage, Biden said the United States “must speak up on human rights” and declared that there will “be repercussions for China” regarding human rights abuses. The president said he raised human rights during his recent two-hour phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. However, Biden also noted the complexity of the issue, saying that, “I shouldn’t try to talk China policy in 10 minutes on television.”
Tuesday’s Wisconsin event took place in a community concerned about the Jacob Blake police shooting last year, prompting questions about how police departments — especially within minority communities — can be reformed. Biden said the answer is not to defund the police, but rather to improve police departments and to improve judicial sentencing.
Biden also waded into the issue of student debt, reiterating his support to forgive up to $10,000 in repayments. When pressed by one woman who insisted that the forgiveness level needs to rise to $50,000, Biden flatly told her, “I will not make that happen,” pointing to his inability to do that via executive action. The $50,000 figure is one frequently floated by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) (The Hill).
The Hill: Biden honeymoon with green groups faces tests.
Biden was candid before flying back to the White House from a city that helped him defeat Trump in November that living his life as president is a lot different than he expected. He described the White House as “like a gilded cage” staffed by attentive residence professionals who are present at every turn, which he said takes some getting used to. He surprised Cooper by saying he’d never been in the private quarters of the White House during his career as a senator and vice president.
Biden added that he’s been president for just weeks, “but sometimes it feels like four years because there’s so much happening.”
“It’s the greatest honor an American can be given, from my perspective,” the president continued. “I literally pray that I have the capacity to do for the country what you all deserve should be done.”
> Earmarks: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told House Democrats on Tuesday that earmarks are making a return to Capitol Hill, adding that he can “guarantee” the process “will be bipartisan.” Fifteen years ago, House and Senate reformers in both parties, including the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), energetically assailed earmarks as corrosive, wasteful spending (pictured below). Renewed enthusiasm in 2021 is focused on encouraging inducements to bipartisan cooperation in the budget process.
Any return of the practice, however, could be politically fraught, opening another lane for Republicans to lob attack ads against vulnerable Democratic lawmakers. Earmarks were the source of multiple political scandals in the 2000s, prompting House Republicans to end the practice when they retook the chamber in 2010 (Politico).
LEADING THE DAY
POLITICS: Banned from Twitter, Trump seemingly took all of his tweet drafts and compiled them into an eight-paragraph tirade against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), deriding him in Trumpian terms and vowing to back challengers to lawmakers who have crossed him, previewing a brutal primary cycle for the GOP.
Trump’s statement, which was released through his Save America super PAC, placed the blame for the Senate losses in 2020 at McConnell’s feet.
“Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again,” Trump said. “He will never do what needs to be done, or what is right for our Country. Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First. We want brilliant, strong, thoughtful, and compassionate leadership.”
The extended attack on McConnell — which included an unfounded claim that the senator’s wife, Elaine Chao, Trump’s former Transportation secretary, has “substantial Chinese business holdings” — came three days after McConnell voted to acquit Trump on charges that he incited an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Shortly after the vote, McConnell directly blamed Trump, saying he was “practically and morally” responsible for the riot (The Hill).
According to Politico, the statement did not attack McConnell as forcefully as Trump had hoped, as he wanted it to mock the Kentucky Republican for having “too many chins.” Aides advised him to leave that part out.
McConnell is hardly the only Republican under siege this week from Trump and his allies as state and county parties are moving en masse to censure senators and lawmakers who voted to convict or impeach Trump in recent weeks.
As The Hill’s Jonathan Easley and Max Greenwood write, party chairmen say that the punishments have stemmed from a groundswell of outrage from grassroots conservatives furious at members supportive of Trump’s conviction.
The ongoing battle is a preview of coming attractions for the GOP, which is expecting a chaotic primary season between those deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump and others on the opposite side of the spectrum.
Over in the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is staying mum about his frantic call during the Jan. 6 mob where he pleaded with Trump to call off the attack. However, as The Hill’s Mike Lillis and Scott Wong note, the call is almost surely to come under increased scrutiny when a 9/11-style commission is formed to delve into the deadly insurrection.
The impending examination of the call could create problems for the House GOP leader, who has two preeminent goals for the 2022 cycle: to retake the lower chamber and to at last become Speaker. Any complication in his relationship with Trump could jeopardize both of those objectives.
The Hill: NAACP, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) sue Trump, Rudy Giuliani over Capitol riot.
The Hill: Former Capitol Police chief, sergeants at arms called to testify on Capitol riot.
Mark Leibovich, The New York Times: Don’t care for this impeachment? Wait until next year.
> Weather politics: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is coming under intense scrutiny over his handling of mass power outages in the state caused by once-in-a-blue-moon winter weather conditions as he prepares to run for reelection next year.
Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa accused Abbott of “playing politics with alternative sources of energy” in a statement on Monday, saying that as Lone Star State residents struggle, the governor “continues to relax and wait” (The Hill).
On Tuesday night, Biden spoke with Abbott and a number of other governors of states that have been severely impacted by the winter storm, saying that the administration “is prepared to assist and stands ready to respond to requests for Federal assistance” and “will deploy any additional Federal emergency resources available to assist the residents of their states,” according to the White House.
The Hill: Texas snow storm wreaks havoc on power grid.
Reuters: Texans shiver through the night as Arctic cold keeps energy offline.
Houston Chronicle: “Your government failed you”: Texas lawmakers, mayors sound off on power outages.
> Gotham: The Hill’s Tal Axelrod takes a deep dive into the world of the New York mayoral contest, which is hurtling toward the June primary with a diverse crowd of candidates to replace outgoing and unpopular Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). Worth watching in coming months: How COVID-19 impacts the contest, how New Yorkers seek to turn the page from the de Blasio era, and the role of ranked-choice voting in the election’s outcome.
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
CORONAVIRUS: During a pause between this country’s post-Christmas rampage of COVID-19 infections and agita about how to reopen offices, schools, arenas and churches, questions linger about a new pathogen that may never be entirely banished.
The Biden administration, which has staked a presidency on ending a public health crisis, announced on Tuesday it will boost COVID-19 vaccine doses next week for supply-starved states.
The president tweeted his optimism that the U.S. vaccine rollout will surpass forecasts, although a massive winter storm stalled efforts to deliver shots this week in some states. “Before I took office, I set a big goal of administering 100 million shots in the first 100 days,” he said before flying to Wisconsin for the CNN town hall. “With the progress we’re making, I believe we’ll not only reach that; we’ll break it.”
Experts have argued that Biden’s goal may not be enough to get the nation to the point where vaccines are readily available by spring. Vaccines must be manufactured, shipped and injected into the population more quickly, they say (USA Today).
States will receive a 23 percent increase in doses compared with the previous week and a 57 percent increase since Biden took office three weeks ago, administration officials told governors on Tuesday. The White House announced it is doubling to 2 million the number of doses sent directly to pharmacies.
“This program will expand access to neighborhoods across the country,” Jeff Zients, Biden’s COVID-19 coordinator, told USA Today.
Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said on Tuesday that the “general public” will likely have to wait months before gaining access to doses of COVID-19 vaccine, which is a change from his recent prediction that most Americans in the general population would be on their way to full inoculations by the end of April. Now he’s saying those waits stretch toward late May or June because of supply issues (CNN).
The Hill: The seven-day average number of U.S. confirmed coronavirus cases fell below 90,000 for the first time since November. Still bad but considered hopeful news.
> N95 masks: There is no shortage in the United States of N95 masks available for hospital clinicians and staff. The reason nurses, doctors and aides are forced to ration the safest face coverings while caring for multiple patients is because of a dire case of national miscommunication stretching back to 2020, The Associated Press discovered after extensive reporting. Many hospital procurement officers say they are relying on last year’s guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to handle supplies during the pandemic, even if their own stockpiles of masks are robust and don’t need to be reused.
> Schools: Echoing Biden’s call for enactment of $1.9 trillion in relief legislation that includes money for schools, teachers unions have largely praised federal guidance about how to safely put children and young students back in classrooms. At the same time, Republican lawmakers tell voters that Biden and Democrats are politically beholden to coronavirus mitigation policies favored by unions (The Hill).
NBC News: Republicans say parents want their children back in school and are fed up with virtual learning precautions. GOP politicians are taking aim at teachers unions in a bid to blame the majority party and retake the suburbs in the 2022 elections. “It’s the teachers unions that want to keep the schools closed,” Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said while explaining the new GOP messaging. “Democrats are ignoring the science, and they’re standing with their special-interest donors instead of the students.”
> Hoop dreams, in person: Meanwhile, New York City is celebrating preparations to welcome 2,000 socially distanced fans back to pandemic-pummeled Madison Square Garden (pictured below) next week (ABC News 7). Fans who attend the New York Knicks vs. Golden State Warriors game next Tuesday must provide proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours before the event (NBC News).
> Tourism: Bourbon Street in New Orleans was almost unrecognizable on Tuesday for Mardi Gras revelry because of canceled parades, shuttered bars and empty hotel lobbies tied to COVID-19 (The Associated Press).
> International: In South Africa, the government said on Tuesday it is preparing to administer its first COVID-19 vaccinations — doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine still being tested — to health care workers this week (The Associated Press).
The Morning Report is created by journalists Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver. We want to hear from you! Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. We invite you to share The Hill’s reporting and newsletters, and encourage others to SUBSCRIBE!
Double masks, vaccines and airplane tickets: Safe travels in our COVID era, by Marc Siegel, opinion contributor, The Hill. https://bit.ly/3pA6Ps5
A powerful tool to take on the Supreme Court — if Democrats use it right, by G. Michael Parsons, opinion contributor, The Hill. https://bit.ly/37njjwH
WHERE AND WHEN
The House meets Thursday at 12:30 p.m. for a pro forma session and returns to legislative work on Tuesday.
The Senate convenes Friday at 10:15 a.m. for a pro forma session. No votes are scheduled this week.
The president and Vice President Harris will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 11:30 a.m. Biden and Harris will have lunch together at 12:30 p.m. and will meet with labor leaders in the Oval Office to discuss the COVID-19 package at 3:30 p.m. and talk about Biden’s infrastructure plan.
The White House press briefing is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Press secretary Jen Psaki will be joined by Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology. Separately, an administration COVID-19 briefing will take place at 11 a.m.
Economic indicator: The Census Bureau at 8:30 a.m. will report retail sales in January. The report is seen as key data that may show a turnaround in January compared with the final quarter of last year, hinting at the improving picture for coronavirus infections and vaccines and rising consumer optimism at the start of 2021.
The Hill’s senior correspondent Amie Parnes and co-author Jonathan Allen of NBC News have written a political book to follow their 2017 best-seller, “Shattered.” Biden’s rollercoaster 2020 campaign and nail-biting victory against a crowded primary field and then former President Trump is revealed with deep reporting, analysis and new anecdotes in “Lucky,” which is in bookstores March 2 and available for pre-order with Penguin Random House HERE and on Amazon HERE.
INVITATION to The Hill’s Virtually Live event: THURSDAY at 1 p.m., “Prioritizing the Patient.” Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), vice chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust; Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.); former Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands), board chairwoman of Consumers for Quality Care; and a panel of experts will convene for a discussion about moving the needle on quality, affordable healthcare and addressing inequities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. RSVP HERE.
➔ Washington probes GameStop drama: A group of tech and hedge fund executives will face a bipartisan firestorm Thursday during a House hearing about the GameStop and Robinhood stock controversy. Backlash about big tech and Wall Street behavior will take center stage as the companies in the middle of last month’s wild market volatility try to explain their roles (The Hill and MarketWatch).
➔ FINANCE: The valuation of digital currency (bitcoin) topped $50,000 on Tuesday for the first time, leaping past “an emotional level” for investors, according to one analyst. What’s driving the surge? Supply and demand. The higher the demand, the greater the acceptance of an asset long an object of derision among regulators and lawmakers since its launch in 2009 (The Wall Street Journal). Despite the explanations behind the stratospheric rally since last year, plenty of analysts predict a bitcoin crash, arguing the only question is when (Yahoo Finance).
➔ SCIENCE: Half a mile beneath the floating ice in Antarctica, scientists have discovered animal life, or what biologists believe are types of sponge, according to a scientific account published on Monday with photographs. Geologists bored a deep hole through 3,000-year-old thick ice and lowered a camera, expecting to see mud. Instead, biologists were stunned to see colonies of “stationary” animals attached to rock – what they believe are sponges and related sea creatures. The next question for study is how the animals feed and thrive without movement and without photosynthesis in inky cold water (NBC News).
And finally … You don’t have to be a sophisticated fan of amateur outdoor hockey to enjoy this great read about “speakeasy hockey” and the determined inventiveness of families who love the ice and all that goes with it (including big umbrella insurance policies).
“Locked out of indoor rinks because of the pandemic, hockey parents pivoted to their backyards, where they repurposed old barns, expanded previous playing spaces or purchased easy-to-assemble kits to keep their children occupied,” reports Kevin Armstrong of The New York Times.
“Some were especially resourceful, spending a couple of hundred dollars at Home Depot and building from scratch. Others invested thousands in customizing rinks they had bought online. … With ice time at a premium, backyard rink owners were flooded with requests for open skating times,” he added.