The Hill’s Morning Report – Russia widens war; Biden speaks tonight
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As President Biden prepares to speak tonight to Americans about the future of a troubled United States, some analysts believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is escalating efforts toward his vision of victory in Ukraine while unleashing payback aimed at Western government sanctions and corporate divestitures now crippling Russia’s economy.
Even traditionally neutral Switzerland stood with the West against Russia on Monday, and Shell, which has helped enrich Russia over the years in the energy industry, exited projects there worth $3 billion with the explanation that the company “would not stand by.”
The Hill: Western and multinational companies flee Russia.
The Associated Press: To keep Russia’s economy afloat, the Kremlin eyes workarounds to mitigate the effects of global sanctions.
The Russia-Ukraine military war, now entering a sixth day, is described as just beginning (The New York Times and The Hill). But in Russia, waves of international sanctions are hitting with full force. The value of Russia’s currency vaporized, despite efforts by Russia’s central bank, its reserves largely frozen, to try to stabilize the ruble (The New York Times and The Hill). Russians raced to pull currency out of ATMs as they watched the value of their assets plunge while costs of consumer goods soared and Putin appeared unrelenting.
Talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials on Monday at the Belarus border were inconclusive; negotiators expressed a desire to keep talking (Al-Jazeera). Putin on Monday issued a statement with conditions for a cease-fire that covered familiar ground about Russia’s security demands.
The Kremlin on Tuesday stepped up shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, pounding civilian targets there. A massive explosion rocked the central city (pictured above) and casualties mounted.
Artillery attacks late on Monday and Tuesday battered Ukraine’s capital. British intelligence information, shared publicly today, said, “The Russian advance on Kyiv has made little progress over the past 24 hours, probably as a result of continuing logistical difficulties.” A U.S. satellite firm captured images of a miles-long Russian military convoy (pictured below) that snaked its way toward Kyiv bearing reinforcements, fuel and provisions.
News coverage described Russia’s escalating assaults, the civilian casualties and the continued exodus of an estimated half a million Ukrainians across borders to neighboring countries.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who accused Russia of war crimes in the killing of civilians, asked Biden and NATO on Monday to impose a “no-fly zone” over “significant parts” of his country, arguing, as he has for months, that Ukraine “can beat the aggressor” if the Western allies “do their part” (Axios). The White House and the United Kingdom remain cool to the idea, viewing military participation as a direct conflict with Moscow when sanctions and diplomacy are the aims (Reuters and iNews).
The Associated Press: The U.S. closed its embassy in Belarus and advised nonessential U.S. diplomatic personnel on Monday they could leave Russia.
U.S. lawmakers, now back in Washington after a lengthy break, had hoped to turn their attention to domestic legislative aims ahead of the midterms, recognizing that voters are focused on inflation, jobs, schools, crime and many kitchen table concerns.
The Washington Post: On Monday night, House members received a classified briefing about the Ukraine crisis. Top Cabinet officials estimated the current phase of the conflict would last another three to four weeks before turning into an insurgency against invading Russian forces.
Ahead of tonight’s presidential address, lawmakers found themselves talking to reporters about swiftly passing billions of dollars in emergency spending for Ukraine. Specifically, Biden seeks $6.4 billion, which could get attached to a must-pass U.S. government funding bill that has a March 11 deadline. The administration’s request would provide roughly $3.5 billion in new military spending, and an additional $2.9 billion for the State Department, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, to provide help for refugees fleeing Ukraine.
The Hill: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), without committing to a specific dollar figure, said on Monday that Congress is ready to provide economic help to Ukraine.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Biden’s request will likely be attached to this month’s must-pass omnibus funding measure.
The Hill: Governors propose to punish Russia by divesting state retirement funds from Russian companies, ending sister-city relationships with Russia and even yanking vodka off the shelves at state-run liquor stores.
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LEADING THE DAY
STATE OF THE UNION & CONGRESS: Biden tonight will deliver his first State of the Union address amid struggles on a number of fronts, headlined by continued troubles in dealing with inflation and rising prices across the U.S and his ability to advance his agenda through Congress.
In a mini preview of the address, the White House laid out a four-point economic plan Biden plans to discuss, including making more goods in the U.S. and strengthening supply chains, reducing the cost of everyday expenses and reducing the deficit, promoting fair competition to lower prices, and eliminating barriers to well-paying jobs (The Hill).
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday that Biden will specifically mention inflation during the speech.
“The president will absolutely use the word inflation tomorrow, and he will talk about inflation in his speech. Of course, that is a huge issue on the minds of Americans,” Psaki said when it was noted that White House officials in a call with reporters declined to reveal whether inflation would be addressed directly.
Outside of the economic issue, plenty of top-of-mind issues are sure to be mentioned. The situation in Ukraine will certainly be mentioned, but how much remains an open question.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic will play a role, including optically, as masks on Capitol Hill are now optional on Capitol Hill following the updated guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday (NBC News). However, whether Biden declares it is time to live with the virus remains to be seen.
In the aftermath of tonight’s speech, Biden will take his message on the road, starting with an appearance in Superior, Wis., on Wednesday to discuss the bipartisan infrastructure law.
The Wall Street Journal: Biden’s State of the Union address to highlight economic plans, Russia sanctions.
Niall Stanage: The Memo: Biden speech gets wartime overtone.
Bloomberg News: Biden State of the Union to cast climate bill as anti-inflation.
The Associated Press: Biden to launch ambitious overhaul of nursing home quality.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill on Monday following the Presidents Day recess to find their agenda flipped on its head as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the fight to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court take center stage.
As The Hill’s Jordain Carney writes, Democrats had hoped to highlight their efforts to cut costs for voters heading into November. However, any chance to do that is on the back burner as the situation abroad swallows up most of the political oxygen, and the battle to put Jackson on the high court will be a main topic for at least the next six weeks.
Alexander Bolton, The Hill: Senate gears up for confirmation of first Black woman to Supreme Court.
The Hill: Jackson to meet with Senate leaders, Senate Judiciary Committee heads on Wednesday.
The Hill: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) criticizes GOP members who spoke at white nationalist conference: “Unacceptable.”
SFGate: Richard Blum, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) dies.
> 2022 watch: In an unexpected twist, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) announced that he will not run for reelection on Monday, bringing the number of House Democrats to decide against a bid for another term to 31 ahead of a potentially challenging midterm election cycle (CBS Miami).
Deutch, a longtime champion for the Jewish community, will become CEO of the American Jewish Committee. In a statement, he highlighted an “unprecedented rise in antisemitism” in the U.S. and around the globe. He served in Congress since 2010.
There were also shockwaves on the GOP side as Rep. Fred Keller (R) decided against a reelection bid in central Pennsylvania after the state Supreme Court pushed him into a potential member versus member battle against Rep. Dan Meuser (R). In a statement, Keller said that he didn’t want to “pit Republicans against Republicans” and would not be engaging in a primary campaign against another member of the state delegation (Politico).
POLITICS: Primary season officially gets underway today as voters in Texas head to the polls to offer a sneak peak of contests to come and help set the stage for the November midterm elections.
The Hill’s Julia Manchester lays out a preview of tonight’s contests, headlined by Rep. Henry Cuellar’s (D-Texas) fight to hold onto his seat in the state’s 28th Congressional District. Cuellar, who is dealing with an ongoing FBI probe, is in a duel with Jessica Cisneros, a progressive who lost to the House incumbent by a 3.6-point margin in 2020.
Cuellar’s house was raided by the FBI, but no reason for an investigation has ever been divulged, and the nine-term moderate Democrat has been defiant that he has committed no wrongdoing. However, his career hangs in the balance, and a win by Cisneros would be another feather in the caps of progressives.
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are watching a number of primary battles, including the state attorney general race, where Ken Paxton, who’s held the office since 2014 despite being charged with securities fraud in 2015 and accused of abuse of office and bribery in 2020. However, he has former President Trump’s endorsement, having been a top proponent of overturning the 2020 election. Paxton is being opposed by George P. Bush, the state land commissioner, and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).
One other thing worth watching is the impact of the state’s new voting law, which has resulted in a high volume of rejected ballots and widespread confusion.
Early voting ahead of today’s elections ran from Feb. 14 through Friday. According to The Texas Tribune, roughly 10 percent of registered voters took advantage of the early voting period to cast a ballot.
The Texas Tribune: As Republicans try to flip an open seat in South Texas, Democrats debate how to win over voters.
Politico: 6 House races to watch in Texas.
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
CORONAVIRUS: Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported each morning this week: Monday, 948,397; Tuesday, 950,481.
A COVID-19 shot made by Pfizer-BioNTech and authorized in the U.S. for youngsters is less effective in preventing infection in children ages 5 to 11 than in older children, adolescents and adults, according to new data (The New York Times). It still prevents severe illness in the children but offers virtually no protection against infection, even within a month after full immunization.
The sharp drop in the vaccine’s performance in young children may stem from the fact that they receive one-third the dose given to older children and adults, researchers and federal officials who have reviewed the data said. The findings, which were posted online Monday, come on the heels of clinical trial results indicating that the vaccine fared poorly in children ages 2 to 4, who received an even smaller dose.
Experts worried that the news would further dissuade hesitant parents from immunizing their children, the Times reported. Other studies have shown the vaccine was not powerfully protective against infection with the omicron variant in adults, either.
The White House today is ending its COVID-19 mask requirement protocol for vaccinated employees, according to an NBC News report. … California, Oregon and Washington on Monday announced together that masks are no longer required for school children indoors in those states (The Associated Press and NBC News).
Public opinion: As the surge of omicron infections and hospitalizations ebb across the U.S., pandemic fears are fading too, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey released on Monday and conducted among 1,289 U.S. adults. Just 24 percent of those polled Feb. 18 to Feb. 21 said they were “extremely” or “very” worried about themselves or a family member contracting COVID-19, down from 36 percent in both December and January, when omicron caused a massive spike in infections. Another 34 percent said they were somewhat worried. The survey has a margin of error of- 3.7 percentage points.
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Putin accidentally revitalized the West’s liberal order, by Kori Schake, contributing writer, The Atlantic. https://bit.ly/3C1c7EE
Putin’s strategic mistakes are making Zelensky a war hero, by James Stavridis, columnist, Bloomberg Opinion. https://bloom.bg/3K5REBi
WHERE AND WHEN
The House meets at 10 a.m. The House chamber is the setting for tonight’s State of the Union address. The entire congressional body has been invited to attend, although guest attendance will remain prohibited as a coronavirus safety protocol. Attendees were to have submitted a negative PCR COVID-19 test as of Monday.
The Senate convenes at 10:15 a.m. and will resume consideration of the Postal Service Reform Act of 2022.
The president will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 9:50 a.m. Biden will deliver the annual State of the Union address at 9 p.m. ET.
Vice President Harris will attend the president’s address in the House chamber, seated at the dais next to Pelosi.
➜ ENVIRONMENT: The Supreme Court on Monday struggled to define the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a case with major implications for the agency’s power to address a main contributor to climate change. At issue during Monday’s argument was the scope of the EPA’s authority to regulate air pollution from power plants and whether it extends beyond the confines of plant sites to encompass broader aspects of the U.S. energy sector (The Hill). … The Hill’s Rachel Frazin lays out five of the main takeaways from the United Nations climate science panel’s report detailing both the impacts of climate change and possible measures that can be taken to slow its effect.
➜ PLAY BALL?: Major League Baseball and the player’s association extended the deadline to reach a collective bargaining agreement until 5 p.m. today or else risk postponing Opening Day after a marathon day of talks that lasted for more than 16 hours and included a number of breakthroughs in negotiations. The two sides reached a deal to expand the postseason from 10 to 12 teams, but more thorny issues, including the luxury tax and the minimum salary, remain unresolved. Talks will restart today at 11 a.m. (ESPN).
And finally … Following horrific natural disasters and now amid a war, the World Central Kitchen charity finds ways to cut red tape, mobilize, and get up and running with hot meals under challenging circumstances to feed and comfort victims around the globe.
Founder and chef José Andrés, now partnering the nonprofit with chefs in the region near Ukraine, is feeding some of the hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees and telling that story himself, bundled against the cold near a border checkpoint in Poland, using his social media megaphone.
ET: Chef Andrés sets up World Central Kitchen on Ukraine-Poland border to feed refugees.
CBS local: Humanitarian chef Andrés is feeding thousands at the Poland-Ukraine border.
The charity said last week it expects to spend millions of dollars on Ukraine relief drawn from resources it received last summer from Amazon founder and philanthropist Jeff Bezos and from new donations it is receiving in response to Ukraine’s plight.