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Welcome to The Hill’s Morning Report. It is Monday, and Happy Hanukkah! We get you up to speed on the most important developments in politics and policy, plus trends to watch. Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver are the co-creators. Readers can find us on Twitter @asimendinger and @alweaver22. Please recommend the Morning Report to friends and let us know what you think. CLICK HERE to subscribe!
Total U.S. coronavirus deaths as of today: 776,639.
As of this morning, 69.7 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 59.1 percent is fully vaccinated, according to the Bloomberg News global vaccine tracker. A little more than 11 percent of the U.S. eligible population has received a booster dose.
Just when the world hoped COVID-19 might one day be beatable, or at least a controllable risk in people’s daily lives, a new variant of the coronavirus set off alarms, triggering unanswered scientific questions but instantaneous emergency international responses and panic in financial markets on Friday.
Today, the United States joins other nations in restricting visitors from eight African countries because of the potential risks of the omicron variant of COVID-19. The variant has been detected in at least a dozen countries, including South Africa (where less than a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19), Canada (first confirmation in North America), Israel, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany, France, Portugal, Australia and the United Kingdom, where a mask mandate is back in place.
President BidenJoe BidenPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Vilsack accuses China of breaking commitments in Trump-era trade deal MORE will speak about the situation today from the White House. The United Kingdom plans a meeting today of health ministers from the seven largest industrialized nations to discuss responses.
Researchers insist omicron is not “apocalyptic,” and there is no early evidence that it causes more severe disease or higher risks of death than previous variants, including delta. It is unclear how quickly omicron spreads; anecdotal information from South Africa suggests it is efficient at moving from human to human.
CNBC: Moderna says a vaccine with targeted effectiveness against omicron could be ready next year. It is not clear such a vaccine will be needed.
The Associated Press: Here is what scientists know so far about the new variant.
Scientists, including Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, predict it will take about two weeks to gain a better understanding of omicron’s capabilities, and in the meantime, he and other administration officials urge Americans to get first, second or third doses of COVID-19 vaccines (The Hill).
Anthony FauciAnthony FauciLet's stop saying 'breakthrough cases' — it isn't helping The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Voting rights week for Democrats (again) Trump-DeSantis tensions ratchet up MORE, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC News over the weekend that he “would not be surprised” if the variant is already in this country.
“We have not detected it yet,” Fauci said on Saturday. “But when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel and Belgium and other places, ... it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over” (The Hill).
CBS News: “It’s almost definitely here already,” former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Sunday.
Biden on Saturday urged all Americans ages 5 and up to get vaccinated and, if eligible, obtain booster doses as soon as possible. “That is the minimum that everyone should be doing. And I — you know, we always talk about whether this is about freedom, but I think it's a patriotic responsibility to do that.”
Fauci joined administration officials in the Oval Office on Sunday to brief the president, all speaking through masks to tell Biden that experts believe existing vaccines are likely to continue to provide some protection against severe cases of COVID-19 infection as omicron spreads, the White House said in a statement. Fauci repeated the scientific community’s view that boosters for fully vaccinated individuals “provide the strongest available protection” against the coronavirus by replenishing waning immune responses.
The World Health Organization (WHO) protested nations that implemented travel restrictions at borders because of omicron (The Associated Press) and instead called for more vaccinations, increased surveillance of the variant and laboratory experiments to better understand its biology. Scientists have already developed a standard PCR (polymerase chain reaction) nasal swab test that identifies the newest version of the coronavirus (The Associated Press and The New York Times).
The U.S. travel rules in place today apply to individuals originating from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. They do not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents.
The Hill: Fauci defends new U.S. travel restrictions.
Reuters: Japan, Israel shut borders to foreigners because of omicron.
WHO officials were first alerted by South Africa on Wednesday about the new variant, which scientists are studying with urgency because of its abundant mutations affecting the virus’s spike protein, its potent transmissibility and possible adaptations to evade COVID-19 vaccines (The New York Times).
The Associated Press: In Switzerland, legislation already in force to require special COVID-19 certificates, under which only people who have been vaccinated, recovered or tested negative can attend public events and gatherings, won majority voter support in a Sunday referendum.
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LEADING THE DAY
CONGRESS: Lawmakers return to Washington today and Tuesday staring down a critical pre-Christmas to-do list. Priorities include increasing the nation’s borrowing authority by mid-December to pay for U.S. commitments already approved by Congress; averting a shutdown by funding the government; and resolving the fate of the Democrats’ Build Back Better agenda through the Senate.
Although Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Predictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure Voting rights and Senate wrongs MORE (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service Biden clarifies any Russian movement into Ukraine 'is an invasion' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks MORE (R-Ky.) renewed debt-ceiling discussions shortly before the Thanksgiving break, the two leaders do not appear to be close to a deal. As The Hill’s Alexander Bolton writes, both leaders face tough issues within their own ranks, with McConnell’s being more troublesome.
Republicans say there will be no repeat of the Band-Aid from October, when McConnell lined up 11 Republicans to pass a temporary debt limit extension. The party’s stance against raising the borrowing limit has intensified, forcing Democrats to weigh whether they could resolve the problem without GOP votes through a massive and still-unresolved budget reconciliation measure.
Democrats, however, maintain that Schumer will not burn up a week of Senate floor time to try to raise the debt ceiling relying only on the majority. Some Republicans have suggested Democrats use reconciliation, with Republicans lending a hand only to expedite the process, to be completed on a partisan basis on the floor.
Treasury Secretary Janet YellenJanet YellenYellen says Biden's COVID-19 relief bill 'acted like a vaccine for the American economy' On the Money — Yellen highlights wealth gap in MLK speech Yellen: US has 'much more work' to close racial wealth gap MORE says available funds to meet U.S. obligations will run out by Dec. 15, leaving Democrats with a big problem and no easy answers.
The Washington Post: Congress returns to work staring down fiscal deadlines and unresolved fights over Biden’s agenda.
The Hill: Republicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall.
Meanwhile, the future of the Build Back Better agenda is officially in the Senate’s hands, and all eyes remain on Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBriahna Joy Gray: Last-minute push for voting legislation felt 'perfomative' Manchin: Biden spending plan talks would start 'from scratch' Manchin, Collins leading talks on overhauling election law, protecting election officials MORE (D-W.Va.) as Biden’s top domestic priority hangs in the balance.
As The Hill’s Naomi Jagoda writes, the need to win Manchin’s support means a couple of items included in the House version could be on the chopping block, including four weeks of paid family leave, which Manchin has signaled opposition to. A number of climate provisions could also be on the outs to bring the West Virginia centrist into the fold.
One other thing to watch is how Manchin affects when the package is brought to the floor. The West Virginia senator recently said that he’s undecided on whether he’ll help start debate on it. Any vote is unlikely to occur without Manchin’s backing.
Jordain Carney, The Hill: Five ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan.
The Hill: With Build Back Better, Dems aim to correct messaging missteps.
The Wall Street Journal: Democrats tackle changes to $2 trillion spending plan as deadlines loom.
The Hill: The administration is resisting calls for tougher Russia sanctions in Congress.
The Hill: Former Rep. Carrie Meek (D-Fla.) died at age 95.
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
POLITICS: The attention of the political universe is shifting more and more toward the 2022 midterms with just over 11 months before Republicans get their chance to retake the majority in both congressional chambers.
The Hill’s Niall Stanage lays out the key issues that will set the scene for the midterm battles, with the ongoing troubles surrounding COVID-19 and inflation leading the way.
While case totals are nowhere near their peak figures in January, the unpredictability of the virus will remain an issue for the foreseeable future, as the omicron variant has already shown only days after its discovery. However, if the U.S. shows signs that the nation is moving past the pandemic by the spring, Biden and Democrats could be big-time political benefactors.
On the other side of the coin are Biden’s ongoing troubles with inflation, which have helped drag down his approval ratings in recent months. According to a CBS News-YouGov poll released last Sunday, 67 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of inflation, with 82 percent reporting that items they usually buy are more expensive.
However, Biden’s resources to corral rising costs are limited. The White House is unable to adjust interest rates as that authority resides with the Federal Reserve, with top officials maintaining that the issue is a temporary result of supply chain problems coupled with pandemic related troubles and not due to Democratic spending, the main GOP line of attack.
Politico: Former President TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE’s Senate picks stumble out of the gate.
Dan Balz, The Washington Post: Biden’s challenge, gamble and wish set the table for the 2022 elections.
The Associated Press: Food, gas prices pinch families as inflation surges globally.
If Republicans do take back the House next year, lawmakers are eyeing retribution against their Democratic counterparts and stripping some notable members of their committee assignments.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyHouse GOP leaders vow to end proxy voting despite widespread use among Republicans Jan. 6 committee asks Ivanka Trump to sit for interview How Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump MORE (R-Calif.) wants an eye for an eye after Democrats booted Reps. Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she's meeting with Trump 'soon' in Florida MORE (R-Ga.) and Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarJan. 6 committee subpoenas leaders of 'America First' movement Lawmakers coming under increased threats — sometimes from one another McCarthy says he'll strip Dems of committee slots if GOP wins House MORE (R-Ariz.) of committee seats, warning that some liberal lawmakers “will need the approval of a majority to keep those positions in the future.”
As The Hill’s Cristina Marcos notes, none of the Democrats McCarthy has singled out have embraced conspiracy theories or promoted violence against their political opponents the way Greene and Gosar have. Among those Republicans are looking at are Reps. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSenate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Overnight Defense & National Security — DOD watchdog to review extremism screening Omar calls for closure of Guantánamo Bay prison after 20 years of 'lawlessness and cruelty' MORE (D-Minn.), Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersRemedying injustice for the wrongfully convicted does not end when they are released McCarthy says he'll strip Dems of committee slots if GOP wins House A presidential candidate pledge can right the wrongs of an infamous day MORE (D-Calif.), Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffCIA says 'Havana syndrome' unlikely a result of 'worldwide campaign' by foreign power The Hill's Morning Report - Biden to make voting rights play in Atlanta Democrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit MORE (D-Calif.) and Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellSwalwell slams House Republican for touting funding in bill she voted down There's no such thing as 'absolute immunity' for former presidents The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden strategizes with Senate Dems MORE (D-Calif.).
Hanna Trudo, The Hill: Restless progressives eye 2024.
The Hollywood Reporter: Matthew McConaughey says he is not pursuing a run for Texas governor.
The New York Times: Former Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back Former defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Major Russia weapons test stokes tensions MORE claims Department of Defense is improperly blocking parts of his memoir.
The Morning Report is created by journalists Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver. We want to hear from you! Email: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. We invite you to share The Hill’s reporting and newsletters, and encourage others to SUBSCRIBE!
The rule of six: A newly radicalized Supreme Court is poised to reshape the nation, by Ruth Marcus, columnist, The Washington Post. https://wapo.st/3I3CSe7
Omicron: Keep calm and carry on vaccinating, by Therese Raphael, columnist, Bloomberg Opinion. https://bloom.bg/3lgYFVT
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WHERE AND WHEN
The House meets at 2 p.m. on Tuesday.
The Senate convenes at 3 p.m. and resumes consideration of the motion to consider the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2022.
The president and Vice President Harris will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 10 a.m. Biden and Harris at 10:45 a.m. will receive a briefing from advisers about the omicron COVID-19 variant before the president delivers remarks on that subject at 11:45 a.m. The president will meet at 2 p.m. with corporate CEOs to discuss the holiday shopping season. He will speak at 3:45 p.m. about administration efforts to improve the nation’s supply chains.
First lady Jill BidenJill BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks Jill Biden adds to communications team in lead-up to midterm elections Harris invokes MLK in voting rights push, urges Senate to 'do its job' MORE today will unveil the “gifts from the heart” theme selected for the 2021 Christmas and Hanukkah decorations at the White House accompanied by invited guests and offering thank-yous to the more than 100 volunteers who helped decorate the people’s house for the season. The Oval Office Christmas tree, one of 41 this year, sports navy blue and gold ornaments (which just happen to be University of Delaware school colors), including some golden starfish.
The White House daily press briefing is scheduled at 1 p.m.
➔ INTERNATIONAL: Russia's ambassador to the United States said on Sunday that 27 more Russian diplomats and their families were expelled from the United States and would leave on Jan. 30 (Reuters). … Nuclear talks with Iran resume today in Vienna. The last round of difficult discussions in June sought to bring Tehran back into compliance with the international agreement concluded six years ago (The Associated Press). … An early-winter snowstorm in Yorkshire, England, killed at least three people, downed power lines and left people stranded for days in locations, including one pub, blocked by three feet of snow (The New York Times).
➔ SUPREME COURT: On Wednesday, justices will hear arguments in a landmark abortion case (The Hill). … Ketanji Brown Jackson, seen by Democrats as a top contender for a future Supreme Court vacancy, is one of three judges assigned the weighty task of reviewing Trump’s bid to block a congressional subpoena for records related to the Jan. 6 attack (The Hill).
➔ LOBBYING: The recently enacted $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment law, which will benefit states and localities nationwide, has spawned plenty of lobbying (The Hill). … Climate activists are pressuring the administration after rejecting their push to replace Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell (The Hill).
And finally … Trees that are as old as the pyramids? That’s what scientists are examining in the rocky slopes of California’s White Mountains.
Researchers are studying ancient bristlecone trees by taking core samples from their trunks to date the tree rings. In fact, the oldest known bristlecone tree is estimated to be 4,800 years old, and experts readily acknowledge that there are almost certainly older trees out there.
"It would be naïve to think that we just happened to get the oldest tree when we looked,” said Andy Bunn, a researcher.
The largest bristlecone, known as the “Patriarch Tree,” is only 1,500 years old (approximately) (CBS News).