Morning Report

The Hill’s Morning Report — Biden administration makes huge election year decision

The Justice Department’s decision Tuesday to ask the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to say whether a mask mandate for travelers is “necessary for the public’s health” hands a legal and political issue back to scientists, which President Biden prefers. 

Who can best protect the public interest against a highly communicable pathogen that has cost the lives of nearly 1 million people in this country? The government’s scientists, judges, politicians or members of the public, who on Tuesday boarded airplanes content to forgo masks and “live with the virus”?

The public confusion about mask guidance has festered for more than a year. Last summer, the president told an Ohio woman, a Democrat, who asked him about school masks during a CNN town hall, “If you’re vaccinated, you shouldn’t wear a mask. If you aren’t vaccinated, you should be wearing a mask.”

Asked by reporters on Tuesday whether Americans should be wearing masks, Biden said, “That’s up to them.

The administration, which was already expecting to lift the federal mask mandate for travelers on May 3, said on Monday the government won’t enforce its requirement for the time being. Public health experts believe any U.S. administration should want to defend the government’s legal standing to impose restrictions on the public during future pandemics. 

Since Monday, major U.S. airlines made masks optional, as did Uber, Lyft, Amtrak and many mass transit systems.

When it comes to airports, decisions vary. Mask wearing is still being enforced at LaGuardia Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport, at other New York transportation facilities and at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. But in New Jersey, for example, including at Newark Liberty International Airport, face masks are now optional for travelers and employees (The Hill). 

NBC News: Biden administration scrambles on next steps on travel mask mandate.

New York magazine: Chaos after judge strikes down transportation mask mandate.

The Hill: What’s next for the 14-months long mask mandate?

The Hill’s John Kruzel describes the legal underpinnings of a judge’s ruling on Monday, which sparked a backlash. 

Vaccines: Moderna hopes to offer updated COVID-19 boosters in the fall that combine its original vaccine with protection against the omicron variant. On Tuesday, it reported a preliminary hint that such an approach might work (The Associated Press).

Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported as of this morning, according to Johns Hopkins University: 989,386. Current average U.S. COVID-19 daily deaths are 389, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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LEADING THE DAY

UKRAINE CRISIS: Russia’s continued assaults mounted on Tuesday as one European official predicted the southern port city of Mariupol was on the brink of being overrun, the eastern Ukrainian city of Kreminna was seized by Russian forces and Western leaders raced to get more artillery to Ukraine’s fighters.

Russia demanded again on Tuesday that Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol give up. The commander of Ukrainian forces’ last stronghold there, Maj. Serhiy Volyna, who with members of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade was surrounded by Russians and subjected to a constant barrage of fire, said Tuesday they will not surrender. “We will not lay down our weapons,” he told The Washington Post.

The New York Times: A message of dispair from Mariupol: “We’re surrounded; they’re bombing us with everything they can,” a Ukrainian soldier who identified himself as Gasim, said via video chat on WhatsApp on Tuesday night. “Our only plan is for the blockade to be broken by our forces so that we can get out of here.”

Russia, which on Tuesday rejected calls for a cease-fire, has about 75 battalion tactical groups in Ukraine, each with roughly 1,000 troops, according to Pentagon estimates. It also has tens of thousands more troops in reserve north of Ukraine who are being resupplied and readied to join the fight, U.S. officials said (The New York Times). 

“The outcome hinges on who can reconstitute effective forces faster than the other,” Maj. Gen. Michael Repass, a former commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in Europe familiar with Ukrainian defense matters since 2016, told the Times. “Fresh faces from elsewhere in Russia aren’t going to be much use as replacements unless they are combat ready when they show up.

Reuters: Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, reacting to Russia’s all-out offensive against Ukraine’s eastern regions,  on Tuesday pledged more artillery for Ukraine. Biden said the U.S. will send weapons designed to respond to Russia’s use of long-range missiles, howitzers and armed drones in the new phase of the Kremlin’s war plan.

CNN, NBC News: The Biden administration is assembling another $800 million weapons package for Ukraine for possible announcement within days.

Bloomberg News: Russia’s stepped-up new offensive in eastern Ukraine could encircle Ukrainian troops.

Reuters: The World Bank on Tuesday projected that Russia’s war with Ukraine and its aftermath will shrink global growth in 2022 by nearly a full percentage point. 

© Associated Press / Emilio Morenatti | Civilians line up for food on Tuesday in Bucha, Ukraine.

IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES

POLITICS: House Democrats are facing headwinds across the board heading into the midterm elections. However, they are claiming victory in one aspect despite all of the troubles: redistricting. 

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Hill’s Reid Wilson in an interview that the party will be in a strong position throughout the coming decade after the redistricting battle, allowing Democrats to compete for the majority on a more consistent basis. 

The New York Democrat added that the party in power has defied expectations in the process. The wins will allow Democrats to potentially limit their losses in November in what is expected to be a brutal campaign cycle.

“We won for the same reason we’re going to win in November. We’ve got a plan and they’ve got a bunch of assumptions that are infused with overconfidence and wishful thinking,” Maloney told The Hill. “Remember, we won 4.7 million more votes than the Republicans in 2020 and lost a bunch of seats. That tells you the maps are very unfair currently. We can argue for fair maps and do better. The other side depends on unfair maps to win elections.”

Axios: Biden’s inner circle is discussing a delay in the planned repeal of Title 42 border restrictions scheduled on May 23. The White House is looking for ways to buy time to avoid a massive influx of migrants that would add to already-historic border numbers. That already endangers Democratic incumbents in states that could decide the Senate majority in November.

Elsewhere on the campaign committee scene, Democrats are welcoming Republican Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.) as the leader of the minority party’s Senate campaign committee. He’s become a named target in political messaging that Democrats have deployed ahead of November contests as a way to describe contrasts for likely voters. As The Hill’s Jordain Carney writes, the development is a shift from past cycles when campaign committee heads largely flew under the radar.

Scott, whose plan includes a call for all Americans to have skin in the game taxwise, has divided Republicans, providing Democrats with a messaging gift. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, predicted it will be a focus of the party’s midterm strategy.

Niall Stanage: The Memo: Left and right accuse Biden of failing to meet the moment.

Politico: 5 plot twists that could upend the midterms.

On the 2022 Senate map, the GOP cavalcade is coming together in North Carolina to boost Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) as its nominee amid a chaotic and expensive primary contest that Republicans worry could set them back ahead of the November general election. 

Budd, who trailed former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) for months, has sprinted to the front of the pack in recent weeks, buoyed by former President Trump’s endorsement and millions in ads on his behalf by Club for Growth Action. However, he still is not considered a lock to make it through the primary and must eclipse the 30 percent threshold needed to win the nomination outright next month (The Hill). 

© Associated Press / Chris Seward | Former President Trump with Senate GOP candidate Ted Budd in Selma, N.C., April 9.

The Tar Heel State is, however, proving troublesome in other ways after a former district staff member for Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) accused the 26-year-old lawmaker of improperly firing her after denying family and medical leave. According to a leaked call of her conversation with an anti-Cawthorn PAC, she also described his district office as having “more liquor bottles than they do water bottles” (The Hill).

The New York Times: Herschel Walker’s Senate bid in Georgia is powered by fandom.

Josh Kraushaar, National Journal: Trump gambling on his own political future.

The New York Times: For David McCormick, the Christmas tree farm is a fraction of his wealth.

Spectrum New NY1; The White House today announced the creation of a federal customer support team for rural communities dubbed the Rural Partners Network based within the Agriculture Department. The concept is to “bring the federal government to rural America” to help individuals and businesses “take full advantage” of available governmentwide resources that promote economic opportunity. 

The Associated Press: Former Nebraska Rep. Brad Ashford (D) dies at age 72.

OPINION

One week, three numbers tell the tale of Democratic political distress, by Charles Lane, columnist, The Washington Post. https://wapo.st/3uUQ4xo 

How to deter nuclear war in Ukraine, by Robert C. O’Brien, opinion contributor, The Wall Street Journal. https://on.wsj.com/3819eZA 

WHERE AND WHEN

The House meets for a pro forma session at 9 a.m. Thursday. Lawmakers return from their spring recess next week.

The Senate convenes for a pro forma session on Thursday at noon. Senators are in recess until Monday.

The president will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 10:15 a.m. ​​Biden will meet in the Cabinet Room with the Defense secretary and deputy secretary, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders. The president and first lady Jill Biden will host a dinner at 5:30 p.m. in the Blue Room for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley and members of the Joint Chiefs, combatant commanders and their spouses.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Panama to participate in a ministerial conference about migration and stabilization of communities, and post-COVID-19 recovery. He will be part of a press availability at 11:30 a.m. local with Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Panamanian Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes and Panamanian Public Security Minister Juan Manuel Pino Forero in Panama City. 

John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, will take questions as part of a virtual interview event hosted by the Center for Global Development at 9:30 a.m. ET.

The White House daily press briefing is scheduled at 3 p.m.

📺 Hill.TV’s “Rising” program features news and interviews at http://thehill.com/hilltv, on YouTube and on Facebook at 10:30 a.m. ET. Also, check out the “Rising” podcast here.

ELSEWHERE  

➤ MAIL BOAT, PONY EXPRESS?: To save on air transport costs beginning on May 1, theU.S. Postal Service says it will slow its first-class package delivery (lightweight shipments frequently used for electronics and prescription drugs) by a day or two for about a third of all parcels. It’s a move that experts believe won’t save much money for the quasi-independent agency, which has long operated in the red (The Wall Street Journal and Federal News Network).  

© Associated Press / Robert F. Bukaty | Postal Service truck, Maine, 2020.

ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT: A court forced the administration to release about 144,000 acres of publicly owned lands for oil and gas drilling — or at least that’s the explanation from Biden’s spokespeople about a decision that contradicts Democrats’ environmental goals to move away from U.S. oil and gas drilling in order to support renewable sources of energy (The Hill). … The Biden administration on Tuesday restored some of the environmental regulations governing infrastructure permitting that were rolled back by the Trump administration. The White House Council on Environmental Quality is finalizing its “phase 1” changes governing the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act, requiring environmental reviews for projects such as highways or pipelines (The Hill). … Financially distressed nuclear power plants are about to receive the largest federal boost in history, with a $6 billion rescue seen by the Biden administration as an investment in a carbon-free source of power that helps combat climate change (The Associated Press).

THE CLOSER

And finally …  Could Uranus be next? 

The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recommended on Tuesday that NASA prioritize a mission to icy, distant Uranus, something that has not happened in more than three decades. 

Uranus, the seventh planet in the solar system, has only been visited only once before by NASA when the Voyager 2 probe made a brief fly-by in 1986. The expert panel believes an in-depth study of the third-largest planet could help explain similarly sized objects being discovered around other stars (BBC). 

© Associated Press / NASA Hubble Space Telescope photo | A moon around Uranus.


Morning Report journalists Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver can be reached at asimendinger@thehill.com and aweaver@thehill.com. Send us a message and/or SUBSCRIBE!

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