Welcome to The Hill’s Morning Report. It is Thursday! 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, 866,540; Tuesday, 868,512; Wednesday, 872,126; Thursday, 876,066.
News Wednesday of a decision by liberal Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to retire by summer unleashed reminders that President Biden aspires to nominate a Black female to the high court and that Senate Democrats will race to confirm a successor ahead of the November elections — by a party-line vote if necessary.
Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who played a prominent role in opposing the nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1991, is expected today at the White House to hail Breyer’s judicial career while announcing the justice’s decision to depart.
Breyer, 83, reportedly conveyed his plans to the president last week (scooped by NBC News), and now gives Biden the first Supreme Court pick of his presidency. Breyer’s successor would not change the 6-3 conservative divide on a court, now in the midst of a potentially consequential term on issues including abortion rights, religion and guns.
The New York Times: Breyer’s departure will leave the court younger and more divided.
The Associated Press: Breyer: a pragmatic approach searching for a middle ground.
“President Biden’s nominee will receive a prompt hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be considered and confirmed by the full United States Senate with all deliberate speed,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
The Wall Street Journal: Political risks, opportunities for Democrats.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, tweeted, “If all Democrats hang together — which I expect they will — they have the power to replace Justice Breyer in 2022 without one Republican vote in support. Elections have consequences, and that is most evident when it comes to fulfilling vacancies on the Supreme Court.”
Both Biden and Vice President Harris in the past have expressed their shared ambition to see the makeup of the high court gain the diversity of a Black woman, and leading candidates include former Breyer law clerk Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, 51, who was confirmed to D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last year with support from three Republicans, Sens. Graham, Susan Collins (Maine), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) (The Associated Press, The Washington Post and CNN). In addition, Graham has backed most of Biden’s judicial nominees and supported the confirmations of Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Additional possibilities include California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, 45 and South Carolina U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs, 55, a favorite of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).
ABC News: What to know about Jackson (pictured below), one of just 39 active Black female federal judges out of 793 total.
The New York Times: What to know about Kruger.
Breyer, nominated by former President Clinton in 1994, has defended the Supreme Court as independent of politics even as he was repeatedly and publicly encouraged by progressives to retire to give Biden an opening to seat a young successor while Senate Democrats still control the confirmation process. He reportedly wants to leave at the end of this term, which for practical purposes occurs when all court opinions have been issued, which means by June or perhaps early July. The court’s next term starts in October, a month before the midterm elections, which could hand Senate control to the GOP.
The Hill: Progressives see Breyer retirement as cold comfort.
Niall Stanage, The Memo: Breyer delivers circuit breaker gift to embattled Biden.
The Hill: Justice’s retirement throws a curveball into the midterms.
LEADING THE DAY
ECONOMY: The Federal Reserve on Wednesday gave every indication it will soon raise interest rates for the first time in more than three years as part of a broader tightening of historically easy monetary policy to combat inflation (CNBC).
The central bank’s policy making leaders said a quarter-point increase to its benchmark short-term borrowing rate is likely forthcoming, and analysts said they expect a series of rate hikes to begin in March. It would be the first rise since December 2018.
The Wall Street Journal: Fed tees up March increase.
Chairman Jerome Powell told reporters the Fed wants its tightening process to be “orderly and predictable,” believing the central bank can move assertively without harming its goal of “another long expansion,” noting that risks continue to be COVID-19’s impacts, a tight labor market, emerging tensions in Eastern Europe and especially inflation-aggravating supply chain bottlenecks, which Powell said emphatically are “not making much progress.”
“I think there’s quite a bit of room to raise interest rates without threatening the labor market,” he added.
The chairman said the Fed had not made decisions about the size and frequency of rate hikes ahead, adding that those discussions are to come. “This outlook is quite uncertain and we’re going to have to adapt,” he noted.
The Hill’s Sylvan Lane reports the Fed, as expected, keeps interest rates unchanged with hikes expected this year.
ADMINISTRATION: The U.S. and NATO on Wednesday told Russian officials in separate written responses they reject Moscow’s call to bar Ukraine from joining the alliance. They said allied troop deployments in Eastern Europe are not up for negotiation and that NATO’s open-door policy for membership will stand as is.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the promised U.S. written response to Russia, which has amassed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border while denying it has intentions to invade its neighbor. Blinken said the president made personal edits to the document delivered in Moscow but declined to be specific.
Blinken said the response to Russian demands “reiterates what we said publicly for many weeks and in a sense for many, many years,” rejecting the Kremlin’s insistence that NATO close its doors to future applicants, in particular Ukraine and other former Soviet Union countries. The Kremlin seeks to limit how the U.S. military engages globally.
“We made clear that there are core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend, including Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances,” Blinken said (The Hill).
Russia’s spokesman said the government will take its time before responding (The Washington Post). Moscow officials have warned of “retaliatory measures” if demands are not met (The Associated Press).
The secretary added that the U.S. reiterated its openness to discussions with Russia on a “reciprocal” basis to address security concerns in Moscow but also those in Washington and among European allies.
“All told, it sets out a serious diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it,” Blinken said.
The New York Times: Republican rift on Ukraine could undercut U.S. appeals to allies.
The Wall Street Journal: What Russia wants and what the U.S. is proposing in the Ukraine crisis.
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
CONGRESS: House Republicans on Wednesday poo-pooed the Democrats’ bill unveiled a day earlier to deal with China competitiveness, panning it as a one-sided, partisan proposal that will go nowhere with their caucus.
As The Hill’s Mike Lillis and Cristina Marcos note, the massive package is designed to boost national innovation, promote the production of scarce computer chips within the U.S. and ease the supply chain that’s led to skyrocketing inflation. In a bid to win support from GOP corners, the blueprint includes a number of bills that have already passed the lower chamber with wide bipartisan support.
However, that wasn’t good enough for the minority party, which called the package a creation of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and pointed to “poison-pill” provisions.
“Contrary to the false statements put out by the White House and congressional Democrats, this is absolutely NOT a bipartisan bill and will likely garner no Republican support,” Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), the top GOP member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “It was hastily thrown together behind closed doors in a process with no Republican input and is being jammed through the House.”
The House is expected to vote on the legislation when members return next week.
> Jan. 6 latest: Ben Williamson, a top aide and adviser to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, met on Tuesday with the House select committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
As CNN notes, Williamson was in the West Wing while the deadly riot was ongoing. The meeting with the committee was held virtually and lasted between six and seven hours. Meadows, in contrast, has opted to halt his initial cooperation with the panel, which could result in contempt of Congress charges.
Reuters: A South Carolina man (jailed since April) who attacked police on Jan. 6 at the Capitol, received a 44-month sentence from a federal judge on Wednesday.
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!
Breyer’s Supreme Court pragmatism will be missed, by Noah Feldman, columnist, Bloomberg Opinion. https://bloom.bg/3ADRT3g
The year of American disappointment, by Ross Douthat, columnist, The New York Times. https://nyti.ms/3r5RR0A
WHERE AND WHEN
The House meets on Friday at 9 a.m. for a pro forma session.
The Senate convenes at 10 a.m. for a pro forma session. Senators will return to work on Monday.
The president will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 9:30 a.m. Biden will get a weekly economic briefing at 3:30 p.m. with advisers in the Roosevelt Room.
The vice president will be in Honduras for the inauguration of President Xiomara Castro at 11 a.m. CST (The Hill). Harris will hold a bilateral meeting with Castro at 2 p.m. CST and depart in the early evening to return to Washington.
Economic indicators: The Bureau of Economic Analysis at 8:30 a.m. will release its advance report on gross domestic product in the fourth quarter of 2021 and growth for the year. … The Labor Department will release claims for unemployment insurance filed in the week ending Jan. 22.
The White House daily press briefing is scheduled at 12:30 p.m.
➜ CORONAVIRUS: The U.S. has shared 400 million COVID-19 vaccine doses with 112 countries “for free, with no strings attached the world,” more than any other nation, the Biden administration announced Wednesday. Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, revealed the figure during a public health briefing (The Hill). … Washington D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) on Wednesday extended the district’s indoor mask mandate until Feb. 28. The directive was set to expire at the end of January (The Washington Post).
➜ STATE WATCH: Governors this month are telling voters they’re determined to work with legislatures to reduce or pause all kinds of taxes, in part because many states are flush with cash (Forbes). In Virginia, newly inaugurated Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) wants to cut grocery and gas taxes (Richmond Times-Dispatch). … Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), who is leaving office instead of pursuing a third term, is another example (tax relief for renters, low-income workers, seniors) (The Boston Globe). … New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), vying for reelection, wants tax cuts for low-wage earners (The Associated Press). … Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) is appealing to legislators to slash taxes on corporations and high earners, which would reduce state coffers by $179 million (The Associated Press).
➜ POLITICS: In the closely watched Georgia GOP gubernatorial primary, Gov. Brian Kemp, frequently the target of former President Trump’s wrath, leads former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who lost a runoff in 2021 and has been endorsed by Trump, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll (The Hill). The winner of the GOP primary will likely face former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams in the general election. Kemp defeated Abrams in the gubernatorial contest in 2018 by roughly 55,000 votes.
And finally … It’s Thursday, which means it’s time for this week’s Morning Report Quiz! Inspired by Wednesday’s second anniversary since Kobe Bryant’s death in an airplane crash at age 41, we’re looking for some smart guesses about his basketball career.
Email your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com, and please add “Quiz” to subject lines. Winners who submit correct answers will enjoy some richly deserved newsletter fame on Friday.
Bryant was named to 18 NBA All-Star teams. Who is the only player named more often?
- LeBron James
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- Michael Jordan
- All of the above
After his basketball career ended, which accolade was Bryant awarded?
- Grammy Award
- Golden Globe Award
- Academy Award
- Nobel Peace Prize
During the past 30 NBA seasons, how many players have topped Bryant’s 2005-06 single-season scoring high of 35.4 points per game?
Bryant never endorsed which product/company during his lengthy career?