The Hill’s Morning Report – Dems juggling priorities amid new challenge
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, 884,260; Tuesday, 886,687; Wednesday, 890,770; Thursday, 894,316.
Barely back to work this week, Senate Democrats are scrambling to maintain some legislative momentum while over in the House, the Jan. 6 committee is steaming ahead with an investigation that has turned up damning evidence about former President Trump’s efforts to hold onto power.
With much of President Biden’s agenda on ice for the time being, Democrats are turning their attention to the looming battle to confirm Justice Stephen Breyer’s replacement on the Supreme Court. However, uncertainty clouded that possibility earlier in the week when news emerged that Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) suffered a stroke late last week, sidelining him for the foreseeable future and jeopardizing the Senate’s majority lineup to confirm some nominees.
The party received good news on Wednesday, though, as Luján’s office told reporters that the New Mexico Democrat is expected to return to Washington in four to six weeks (The Hill). No Supreme Court nominee is expected to be named until the end of February, giving Democrats breathing room as they await Luján’s return.
“Sen. Lujan’s absence is not expected to affect the Senate’s timeline for moving a SCOTUS nominee,” a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement (Fox News).
Carl Hulse, The New York Times: One illness reminds Democrats they have no votes to spare. How quickly to proceed with the Supreme Court confirmation process has already emerged as a source of tension among Democrats.
The Hill: Democrats hit limits with Luján’s absence.
CNN: How Schumer explains his Senate dilemma.
The Hill: Schumer brushes off talk of possible primary threats to challenge Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
The ongoing Supreme Court discussions are also reverberating across the Capitol as House members worry that the process to replace Breyer could help Manchin and allow him to run out the clock on a second iteration of the Build Back Better package, which some lawmakers continue to clamor for.
As The Hill’s Mike Lillis reports, lawmakers are citing a host of reasons for their call for increased urgency, including the midterm elections and wanting to deliver Biden a big legislative boost.
“There are great dangers involved in dragging it out, including all kinds of intersecting battles,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “I, and most members who have been involved in this, who have a stake in it, we have a sense of urgency. … It’s certainly not an impossible situation. But it’s gone on too long; there’s been too much focus on our internal [disagreements].”
Meanwhile, House Democrats have enough to keep them occupied as the work of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol motors on after Trump discussed plans to give pardons to Capitol rioters if he runs and wins the White House again in 2024.
As The Hill’s Rebecca Beitsch notes, Trump’s latest round of comments — including his false claim that former Vice President Mike Pence could have “overturned” the 2020 election — undercut months of messaging from GOP members pegging the panel as a witch hunt against the former president with no legislative purpose — a key feature for committees with subpoena power.
“I’m not very surprised at this point by what the former president says,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), a member of the committee. “Clearly he said the quiet part out loud on what his intentions were for Jan. 6.”
Politico: Trump considered blanket pardons for Jan. 6 rioters before he left office.
The New York Times: Memos show roots of Trump’s focus on Jan. 6 and alternate electors.
The committee also finds itself in another battle after Kelli Ward (pictured below), the Arizona Republican Party chairwoman, and her husband, Michael Ward, filed suit to block the panel from gaining access to their phone records. The couple signed documents falsely claiming to be presidential electors in 2020, leading the committee to seek the records.
As Politico notes, District Judge Susan Brnovich — the wife of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a candidate for Senate in the state and an ally of the ex-president, was initially assigned the lawsuit. However, she quickly recused herself from the case.
The Hill: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) defends his opposition to Jan 6 pardons after Trump calls him a “RINO.”
CNN: Former Justice official Jeffrey Clark appears before the panel.
> Nominations: Sarah Bloom Raskin faces a lively Senate Banking Committee confirmation hearing today to be the Federal Reserve’s vice chair for supervision, a powerful regulatory role with sway over the nation’s biggest banks and financial institutions.
Republicans believe her openness to considering economic risks from climate change exceeds the Fed’s mandate, while Democrats, including Senate Banking Committee member Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), interviewed by Bloomberg TV and radio on Wednesday, said she’s confident the nominee can explain an outlook about climate risks similar to that expressed by Fed Chair Jerome Powell. Raskin’s private sector work after leaving the Obama administration also is in the spotlight among opponents, reports The Hill’s Alexander Bolton.
The Wall Street Journal: Raskin faces Senate questions this morning over views on climate change, regulations.
The Hill: Manchin facing pushback over Interior nominee second hearing.
The Hill: Business interests take aim at China competitiveness bill.
LEADING THE DAY
ADMINISTRATION: Biden on Tuesday authorized 3,000 troops to deploy to Eastern Europe to bolster defenses of NATO allies. The U.S., which has sent shipments of weapons to Ukraine, says it will not send its troops there but instead will position forces, including 1,000 troops already in Germany, in Poland and Romania to demonstrate solidarity among the European alliance (The New York Times).
Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday about coordinating the response of the U.S. and France, the White House said. The conversation took place shortly after Macron said he might visit Russia to seek a diplomatic solution (France 24).
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that if Russia attacks, the damage will be broad. “This is not going to be a war of Ukraine and Russia,” should diplomacy fail, he warned Tuesday. “This is going to be a European war, a full-fledged war.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday that it’s “important that we send a strong signal to Mr. Putin and the world that NATO matters. … We are making it clear that we are going to be prepared to defend our NATO allies if it comes to that.”
The U.S. is mindful of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s complaints this week that the United States is goading Moscow using an offensive posture, even as Russia has 127,000 troops swarming Ukraine’s borders and boasts of its military exercises (pictured below). The Defense Department says U.S. forces are in a defensive posture. Close to 2,000 troops from Fort Bragg, N.C., many of them paratroopers, are heading to Poland but not for a “tactical operation,” Kirby said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson discussed Ukraine and security guarantees for Russia with Putin during a phone call on Wednesday (Reuters). Russia mocked Johnson as “utterly confused” and ridiculed British politicians for their “stupidity and ignorance,” hurling additional scorn at the West following Putin’s accusations on Tuesday that Washington is the provocateur.
Viewing diplomatic engagement as deterrence, Western leaders have streamed in and out of Kyiv and kept up a flurry of one-on-one talks with Putin and his representatives in search of an agreement by Moscow to withdraw its forces and de-escalate.
The New York Times, David Sanger: Is Biden’s strategy with Putin working, or goading Moscow to war?
The Wall Street Journal: When Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday hold a summit alongside the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics, on display will be a flourishing partnership that complicates U.S. foreign policy.
With China in mind, Biden will participate in a summit in Tokyo among counterparts from Australia, Japan and India in late spring, possibly in May. His Asia trip will include other stops not yet disclosed, possibly including South Korea (Reuters).
The Hill: A Russian invasion in Eastern Europe would be felt by everyday Americans.
> U.S. special forces in Atmeh, Syria, in rebel-held Idlib province early today carried out what the Pentagon said was a large-scale counterterrorism raid. First responders at the scene reported 13 people had been killed, including six children and four women. The target of the raid was unclear, although Syrian sources told Reuters it was likely an al Qaeda-linked jihadist. “The mission was successful,” Kirby said in a Pentagon statement. “There were no U.S. casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available.” Idlib is broadly controlled by Turkey-backed fighters, but is also an Al-Qaida stronghold and home to several of its top operatives. Other militants have also found refuge in the region (The Associated Press and The Washington Post). The reported deaths of civilians comes days after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a directive to U.S. forces aimed at curbing such fatalities.
> Concerned about Chinese espionage during the Olympics, the FBI warned U.S. athletes and other Americans to leave their personal phones and devices at home (CNN).
> At least five Democratic senators oppose the nomination of Robert Califf, a physician who has worked for drug companies and also led the Food and Drug Administration once before and is nominated to do it again. The Senate in 2016 confirmed him by a vote of 89-4. This winter’s pushback is an ominous sign for the administration’s long-delayed choice of a Senate-confirmed administrator amid a public health crisis (STAT News). Separately, some GOP senators are being pressured by anti-abortion groups to also vote against Califf’s nomination (Politico).
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
CORONAVIRUS: The vast majority of active-duty Army are vaccinated, as required, against COVID-19, according to the Pentagon, but the Army announced on Wednesday that it will begin separating soldiers who are unvaccinated and not exempted.
“Unvaccinated soldiers present risk to the force and jeopardize readiness,” according to the Defense Department (The Hill). Ninety-seven percent of active-component Army troops are partially vaccinated, according to data released on Jan. 27, while 96 percent are fully inoculated. In the reserves, 83 percent are partially vaccinated, while 79 percent are fully vaccinated.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate continue to disclose confirmed breakthrough cases of COVID-19: Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), who traveled to Ukraine with a congressional delegation last week, said she tested positive for the coronavirus. Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas), also on that bipartisan trip, said on Sunday that he tested positive for COVID-19 and had mild symptoms after testing negative before and after flying home (The Dallas Morning News).
> International: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Thursday that the country will relax its COVID-19 policies starting on Feb. 27, allowing fully vaccinated citizens, residents and visa holders entering from Australia to forgo a 10-day quarantine. Those individuals must self-quarantine in Australia for two weeks before entering the country. Ultimately, New Zealand aims to lift all of its pandemic-related restrictions by October (The Washington Post).
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What actually changed for little kids’ vaccines? by Katherine J. Wu, staff writer, The Atlantic. https://bit.ly/3gA3Rlj
Eric Adams seems serious about crime. Is Biden? by Heather Mac Donald, opinion contributor, The Wall Street Journal. https://on.wsj.com/3Gs2Vtw
WHERE AND WHEN
The House meets at noon.
The Senate convenes at 10 a.m. and will resume consideration of the nomination of Alexandra Baker to be a deputy under secretary of Defense.
The president and Vice President Harris will participate in the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington at 8 a.m. Biden will travel to New York City to join Mayor Eric Adams (D) and Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) at 12:15 p.m. for an event at the New York Police Department headquarters to describe new Justice Department initiatives focused on gun crimes and illegal guns (The Associated Press). He will also ask Congress to approve $500 million in new funding previously included in a fiscal 2022 spending request to support community programs to curb gun violence, according to the White House. The group of elected officials will visit a public school in Queens at 2:30 p.m. to talk about community violence before Biden returns to the White House in the evening.
The vice president at 1 p.m in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building will swear-in members of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
➜ STATE WATCH: In Pennsylvania’s Gobbler’s Knob at dawn on Wednesday, groundhog Punxsutawney Phil participated in a live streamed, televised and shadowy American ritual that resulted in a prediction of six more weeks of winter (The Hill). … States are reconsidering recently passed rules governing college athletes’ abilities to profit off their names, images and likenesses after the NCAA said it would pass no additional guidance. Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are drafting bipartisan legislation (The Hill).
➜ MEDIA: Jeff Zucker abruptly resigned as head of CNN on Wednesday after failing to disclose a romantic relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, who acknowledged the relationship but is remaining in her role at CNN, according to The New York Times. Both are now divorced. Zucker, who has been among the most powerful and influential media executives, said in a memo to CNN employees that he was asked about “a consensual relationship” with a colleague as part of an investigation into the conduct of former anchor Chris Cuomo and had not previously disclosed his relationship with the subordinate colleague, as required.
➜ SPACE DIAMOND: It’s big and black, it may have come from a world beyond and it’s being auctioned today by Sotheby’s in London for what could be an estimated $6.8 million when the gavel falls (CNN). The unusual diamond is called “The Enigma,” and cryptocurrency is accepted. Take a look HERE.
➜ WHAT’S IN A NAME? The Washington Football Team, formerly the Redskins, on Wednesday changed its name to the Commanders after a lengthy rebranding exercise (The Washington Post). … Digging beneath the surface this morning, the House Oversight and Reform Committee will hear from witnesses who describe the football team’s “toxic workplace culture.”
And finally … It’s Thursday, which means it’s time for this week’s Morning Report Quiz! Inspired by games and mysteries in the news this week, here’s a puzzle about puzzles.
To play along, 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.
A software engineer in Brooklyn this week sold his popular invention for a windfall in the “low seven figures.” What made him rich?
- Cryptocurrency board game resembling Monopoly
- Smartwatch feature that can detect the coronavirus
- Wordle game
- Artificial intelligence video game featuring international cyber spies
Western nations keep saying they are puzzled about the thinking of which world leader?
- Justin Trudeau
- Vladimir Putin
- Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein
- Moon Jae-in
In a scientific journal one week ago, researchers in Australia described a “spooky” flashing object in the Milky Way. What did they determine switches on and off every 20 minutes, as gauged from Earth?
- It’s a mystery
- Ultra-long period magnetar
On “Jeopardy!” this week, the trivia puzzler Amy Schneider ended a streak of 40 consecutive victories. How much prize money did she amass?
- $1.4 million
- $2.1 million
- $5 million