The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – The omicron threat and Biden’s plan to beat it
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Welcome to The Hill’s Morning Report. It is Tuesday! 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 reported each morning this week: Monday, 776,639; Tuesday, 778,601.
President Biden on Monday told Americans the best way to prepare for the new omicron variant of COVID-19 is to get available vaccine jabs, including boosters, and use safety precautions without panicking as scientists spend the next few weeks gathering data about a constantly mutating coronavirus.
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” the president said while standing some distance from Vice President Harris and infectious diseases adviser Anthony Fauci, both of whom wore masks. “We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day. And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed. Not chaos and confusion,” Biden added (The Hill).
No one can say whether omicron, first identified by South African scientists last week, is more transmissible than delta, although the new variant has since been identified elsewhere in Africa as well as in Japan, Europe, the Middle East, Australia and North America, suggesting it swiftly hitched rides to circle the globe.
Scientists, who had already been preparing for a winter surge of the virus in the United States as people moved indoors, said they have no initial indication that omicron causes more severe illness, or defeats immunity shields provided by vaccines, although Moderna jolted financial markets today with a warning that its vaccine may show weaker effectiveness against the variant. Researchers and infectious disease clinicians say the race is on to answer such key questions as the World Health Organization warned omicron poses “very high” risk (The Associated Press).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday updated its guidance for COVID-19 booster doses to include all vaccinated adults (NBC News). Leading COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers also said they are confident existing inoculations can be tweaked within three months to be effective against the omicron variant, if necessary (Bloomberg News).
The United States began Monday to close U.S. entry to international travelers from southern African nations, hoping to buy some time. There is ample criticism in some quarters that closing borders is ineffective and only stigmatizes nations and regions that act swiftly to alert the world about worrisome coronavirus developments (The Hill). Biden assured Americans that a return to U.S. lockdowns will not be needed (The Hill).
Biden’s COVID-19 advisers believe it is only a matter of time before omicron is confirmed among Americans tested for the virus (The Hill). In New York City on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi strongly recommended that people wear masks indoors and in public places in the city. “Our entire focus once again is going to be on vaccination,” the mayor said. “Based on everything we know, vaccination is crucial to any strategy for addressing omicron” (CNBC and NBC New York).
The Washington Post: Pfizer is poised to request emergency federal approval for booster doses for 16- and 17-year-olds. U.S. adolescents 12 and older have been eligible for Pfizer vaccinations for six months, since May.
The Hill: Omicron poses unanswerable questions about the outlook for the U.S. economic recovery.
NBC News: “I don’t think we know anything about the virulence. What we’re worried more about is the transmissibility and the immune-evasion capabilities,” said Amesh Adalja, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
The Hill: Biden faces new political threats.
Niall Stanage’s Memo for The Hill: The Biden presidency faces potential setbacks as scientists assess omicron’s capabilities in a nation with too many people who are unvaccinated.
Politico, Jonathan Lemire: COVID-19 looms over Biden’s presidency.
Mandates and the courts: A federal judge barred the administration from enforcing a vaccine mandate for health care workers in 10 states (The Hill). The preliminary injunction by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri marks the first victory for opponents of the mandate, which requires health care employees to be vaccinated by Jan. 4 (Bloomberg Law). … The administration on Monday said departments and agencies will not be required to enforce its vaccine mandate for federal workers until 2022. The government previously announced that 90 to 95 percent of federal workers are vaccinated against COVID-19 (NY1). … The Supreme Court on Monday said it will not exempt Massachusetts hospital workers who opposed a Boston institution’s mandatory vaccine requirement (The Hill).
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LEADING THE DAY
CONGRESS: Although lawmakers are debating how to raise the debt ceiling and Senate Democrats are eager to pass the Build Back Better agenda, members of Congress have a more pressing matter before them this week: funding the government.
According to The Hill’s Alexander Bolton, Senate and House Democrats are batting back and forth options to keep the government’s lights on past Dec. 3, when funding is slated to expire. Headlining those is a short-term bill aimed at funding the government until late January.
However, nitty-gritty details, including a possible provision to provide funding for minors taken into custody at the U.S. southern border, are expected to prove troublesome for members and complicate any deal. A Senate Democratic aide familiar with the stopgap resolution says it will be “lean” and have a “limited number” of added measures, such as emergency funding to help resettle Afghan refugees.
Elsewhere on the congressional front, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Monday that his “goal” is to pass the administration’s massive social spending package by Christmas as he awaits rulings by the Senate parliamentarian on what can and cannot be included in a final bill.
“Once this necessary work is completed with the parliamentarian, I will bring the president’s Build Back Better legislation to the floor so we can pass it as soon as possible and send it to the president’s desk,” Schumer said from the Senate floor. “Our goal continues to be to get this done before Christmas” (The Hill).
However, underlying that hope is the possibility that work on the gargantuan bill could slip into 2022. As The Hill’s Jordain Carney notes, Democrats still do not have all 50 senators on board to formally start debate on the package, let alone pass the bill. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the preeminent moderate whose support remains at large, declined to say if he would vote to start debate on the legislation and sidestepped committing to the end-of-the-year timeline being pushed by Senate Democratic leadership.
> Defense bill trouble: The effort to pass the annual defense bill is by no means on a glide path, as Senate Republicans blocked it on Monday, throwing the must-pass bill into limbo and complicating the year-end legislative schedule.
The Senate voted 45-51 to start winding down debate on the National Defense Authorization Act, falling short of the 60 votes needed to do so. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) was the only Republican to vote with Democrats, while four Senate Democrats, plus Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), voted alongside 46 GOP senators.
As Jordain Carney points out, the setback comes amid a stalemate on allowing votes on amendments to the bill. Leadership previously struck a pre-Thanksgiving deal to allow for 18 amendment votes, but several Republicans who didn’t get their own proposals included stood in the way of the agreement.
The Hill: Jan. 6 panel plans vote to censure Trump Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark.
> Tense call: The war of words between Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) kept up on Monday as the two blasted each other following a phone call after video surfaced of the far-right lawmaker making Islamophobic remarks about her colleague.
The two members issued statements attacking each other after Boebert declined to publicly apologize for comments that came to light over Thanksgiving weekend in which the GOP member was getting on a Capitol elevator with a staffer when she saw a Capitol Police officer racing toward them. She then turned and saw Omar standing nearby.
“I said, ‘Well, she doesn’t have a backpack. We should be fine,’” Boebert recalled, drawing laughs from the audience. “And I said, ‘Oh, look. The jihad squad decided to show up for work today.’”
The call ended with Omar hanging up on Boebert, labeling it “unproductive.”
“Instead of apologizing for her Islamophobic comments and fabricated lies, Rep. Boebert refused to publicly acknowledge her hurtful and dangerous comments,” Omar said in a statement. “I believe in engaging with those we disagree with respectfully, but not when that disagreement is rooted in outright bigotry and hate” (The Hill).
The Hill: Democrat Rep. Debbie Dingell’s Dearborn, Mich., office was vandalized on Monday.
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
POLITICS: Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) announced his bid for the Empire State’s governorship on Monday, complicating the path to reelection for New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) as he looks to occupy the centrist lane in the contest.
Suozzi, a three-term Long Island Democrat who previously served as Nassau County executive, made the announcement at a virtual news conference and is pitching himself as a results-oriented centrist in the race.
“I don’t believe it’s about going to the far left or to the far right,” said Suozzi, who recently worked to lift the state and local tax deduction cap as part of the House’s Build Back Better package. “I’ll work with anybody. … It’s not about being politically correct. It’s about doing the correct thing to actually help people.”
Along with taxes, Suozzi is running on an agenda headlined by efforts to combat crime and homelessness, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the economy in the state (The New York Times).
From the real world gubernatorial bids to hypothetical ones, Democrats are growing increasingly anxious over the prospect of a Stacey Abrams bid for the Georgia governorship amid silence from her camp about a possible run.
As The Hill’s Max Greenwood writes, party operatives almost universally believe she will run, but her decision to remain mum about her plans has some people worried that a late entrance into the race could hamper the party’s hopes of victory next year. In addition, Abrams’s standing among Georgia Democrats has left the party without a clear alternative in the event that she passes on another gubernatorial campaign, with all other possible candidates waiting for her to make the first move.
“I think she still has a little bit of time,” one Democratic strategist told The Hill. “The minute she announces, she is automatically the candidate to beat. The problem is, I think that keeps everything in kind of a holding pattern when we really need to be aggressive and proactive in Georgia.”
The Hill: Former Vice President Mike Pence: Supreme Court has chance to right “historic wrong” with abortion ruling.
The Washington Post: Chris Cuomo sought “intel” on media coverage about accusations against his brother, text messages show.
The Washington Post: Trump allies work to place supporters in key election posts across the country, spurring fears about future vote challenges.
ADMINISTRATION: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin — under pressure from lawmakers because of detailed findings and on-the-record sources who told The New York Times about a U.S. F-15E airstrike in Syria that killed women and children huddled at a river bank in 2019 — on Monday ordered a new investigation into potential violations, including allegations of attempts to conceal a war crime. The New York Times also explained its investigative reporting for “The Daily” podcast (transcript here).
> Renewed negotiations with Iran to rejoin the international nuclear deal, which was rejected by the Trump administration, began on Monday in Vienna and today, Tehran has made maximalist demands (The Associated Press). Washington and Tehran are still arguing about who needs to take the first step (The Hill). … Israel, a nation opposed to cutting a deal with Iran, shared intelligence over the past two weeks with the U.S. and several European allies suggesting that Iran is taking technical steps to prepare to enrich uranium to 90 percent purity — the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon (Axios).
> The Federal Trade Commission is asking Amazon, Procter & Gamble, Walmart and other companies for information about supply chain issues — on the hunt for clues about whether supply problems have led to anticompetitive behavior and higher prices, reports The Wall Street Journal.
> A new Interior Department report recommends changes to the U.S. federal oil and gas leasing program while leaving one big puzzle: how to account for climate change? The Biden administration has long said it may seek to make drillers pay for the climate harms caused by their fossil fuel extraction, but a recent review leaves the issue open (The Hill).
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Medical bias can be deadly. Our research found a way to curb it, by Damon Centola, opinion contributor, Los Angeles Times. https://lat.ms/3FZJ8C0
Lauren Boebert is what George W. Bush called the “worst of humankind,” by Dana Milbank, columnist, The Washington Post. https://wapo.st/3Da9qzw
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WHERE AND WHEN
The House meets at 2 p.m.
The Senate convenes at 10 a.m. and resumes consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act.
The president will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 9:30 a.m. Biden will speak at the White House while signing four measures into law at 10:45 a.m. He will fly to Rosemount, Minn., to speak at 3:30 p.m. at Dakota County Technical College about the job creation potential of the recently enacted bipartisan infrastructure law. Biden will return to the White House at 8 p.m.
The vice president will participate in a call at 10 a.m. to rally with advocates for enactment of the president’s Build Back Better agenda. Harris will attend the president’s bill signing ceremony this morning. She will ceremonially swear in Jonathan Kaplan at 11:35 a.m. to be U.S. Ambassador to Singapore, followed by the swearing-in about 20 minutes later of David Cohen to be U.S. Ambassador to Canada.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell will join Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to testify at 10 a.m. before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee about the coronavirus and oversight of the central bank and Treasury, provisions included in the 2020 CARES Act. Powell will tell senators that omicron contributes to inflation uncertainty (The New York Times).
The White House coronavirus response team will brief journalists at 12:30 p.m.
INVITATIONS to The Hill’s Virtually Live events: WEDNESDAY at 1 p.m., “Regulating Cannabis,” with Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), and state and additional federal authorities on the subject (information HERE); and THURSDAY at 1 p.m., “Investing in Maternal & Infant Health,” with Reps. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), plus federal and advocacy organization experts (information HERE).
➔ INTERNATIONAL: Russia’s navy on Monday successfully test-fired a prospective hypersonic missile, the military said (The Associated Press). … As China speeds up its nuclear weapons program, including hypersonic weapons, the United States wants to talk. The Pentagon thinks Beijing may build 1,000 or more weapons by 2030. But it’s the new technologies that worry strategists, including the potential that China will perfect advanced nuclear weapons that evade the United States’ primary missile interceptors (The New York Times). … A Myanmar court on Tuesday postponed issuing a verdict against Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s ousted leader, until Dec. 6 to allow a former top party member to offer testimony. The former national leader was arrested in February and is facing charges of incitement and violating coronavirus restrictions. She faces dozens of years in prison if convicted (The Associated Press)..
➔ COURTS: The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals at 9:30 a.m. will hear oral arguments in Donald Trump v. Bennie Thompson, which involves pursuit of former President Trump‘s call logs and other records by a House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol (The Associated Press). … Prosecutors on Monday argued to jurors that Ghislaine Maxwell, on trial for sex trafficking, and the late Jeffrey Epstein were “partners in crime” in grooming teenage girls for sexual abuse dating back to the mid-1990s. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz said that the pair urged girls ages 14 and older to give “so-called massages” after doling out money and various gifts before they were sexually abused (The Associated Press). … Prosecutors asked the Supreme Court on Monday to review the decision to overturn Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction. They said in a petition that allowing a press release to be considered an immunity agreement would be a dangerous precedent to set, referring to the 2005 release by then-prosecutor Bruce Castor (The Associated Press).
➔ TECH: CEO Jack Dorsey, who co-founded Twitter in 2006, announced Monday he is stepping down. He will be replaced by the company’s chief technology officer, Parag Agrawal, 37, an immigrant from India (The Associated Press). Dorsey’s exit marks a significant shift at the company, which has navigated years of pressure from investors who thought it did not make enough money and criticism from official Washington (The New York Times).
> SPORTS: Tiger Woods broke his leg in a grisly auto accident near Los Angeles in February and has been recovering since. In his first in-depth interview since that event, the 45-year-old, who was driving when he crashed, tells Golf Digest that it’s still “a tough road” to regain movement and strength. These days he says he’s inspired to watch his 12-year-old son, Charlie, play the game, or to simply rest in the grass. Woods stirred excitement in the golf world when he posted a video clip of his swing on Twitter Nov. 21, captioning it “Making progress.”
And finally … The White House on Monday sparkled with holiday lights and bright colors for the season as first lady Jill Biden welcomed journalists on a tour of this year’s “gifts from the heart” theme for decorations both traditional and contemporary.
The Hill’s Alex Gangitano reported that the first family’s focus on unity and giving includes references to faith, family and friendship — from flying doves of peace on the official Blue Room fir tree to live orchids on the Green Room mantel to the annual gingerbread White House surrounded by a village of edible front-line workplaces, such as a gas station, police station, postal office and hospital.