The Hill’s Morning Report — Mystery grows on objects shot down by US
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If the U.S. government knows the purpose and origin of the objects that fighter jets have shot down over Alaska, Canada and Michigan since Friday, federal officials have been mum with the public and with most members of Congress.
Shrouded in mystery, the events involving the shootdown of a Chinese spy balloon as well as the destruction of smaller, as-yet-vaguely described high-altitude objects now involve three governments, at least four U.S. states and leaders of the House and Senate.
▪ Global Times, Bloomberg News and Business Insider: Chinese authorities said on Sunday they were preparing to shoot down an “unidentified flying object” spotted near the Yellow Sea. They complain that U.S. balloons passed over China more than 10 times since the start of 2022 (Bloomberg News).
▪ ABC News: The Navy and Marine Corps on Sunday held drills in the South China Sea at a time of heightened tensions with Beijing.
▪ The New York Times: Theories but no answers in shootdowns of mystery craft.
The 10-story Chinese surveillance balloon first noticed over Montana on Feb. 3 as well as subsequent smaller objects that drifted between Alaska and the Great Lakes have aggravated tensions between two superpowers, sparked second guessing of President Biden as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, heaped doubts on the work of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and encouraged members of Congress to argue that defense spending cuts should now be off the table, reported The Hill’s Alexander Bolton.
“We should take every step we can to try to reduce our dependency on China [and] try to build stronger military deterrence against them,” saidSen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), following an administration briefing. “I do not think that we should be talking about cutting the defense budget at all right now. If anything, substantial defense increases.”
On Sunday, the U.S. military shot down an unidentified object over Lake Huron, a body of water that stretches from Michigan to Ontario, Canada (NBC News). On Saturday, fighter pilots downed an unidentified, cylindrical object over frozen territory in northern Canada a day after another object had been shot down over Alaskan airspace by a U.S. F-22. Days before that, a U.S. Sidewinder missile off the coast of South Carolina sent China’s giant orb hurtling with its payload of sensors and other equipment into the ocean to be hauled out in pieces by the Navy, Coast Guard and other specialists (CNN).
It remains unclear if the military is now spotting objects that have been present but not noticed, or if there are new aerial objects that were not present before, NBC reported Sunday’s shoot-down over North America was the third in as many days, and the fourth this month. NORAD — which says it has now fine-tuned monitoring to close gaps and detect aerial intrusions it previously might have screened out — uses “a network of satellites, ground-based radar, airborne radar and fighters to detect, intercept and engage” aerial threats to Canada and the United States.
Biden has not addressed the American people about the UFOs, leaving it to lawmakers to advise their constituents using the news media and social media, drawing on new information gleaned from closed-door military briefings.
On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the president’s national security adviser told him that the objects intercepted in U.S. airspace were all “balloons,” albeit of different sizes and detected at different altitudes (ABC News).
It’s essential for lawmakers to learn more, Schumer added, noting efforts made by Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D).
“I think our military, our intelligence is doing a great job, present and future,” Schumer added. “I feel a lot of confidence in what they are doing. But why as far back as the Trump administration did no one know about this?”
The Hill: On Sunday, the Federal Aviation Administration shut down airspace over Montana for “defense activities” and then lifted the restrictions. NORAD said there was a radar anomaly. Tester said it might have been a “false alarm” over his state — or an actual aerial object.
Meanwhile, Washington’s simultaneous mano-a-mano battle over the debt ceiling and federal spending has been impacted, at least temporarily, by China’s spying and public pressure from the president and Democrats in Congress. The GOP, sensitive to public opinion ahead of the 2024 elections, is suddenly back peddling against using proposed defense, Social Security and Medicare reductions as leverage to raise the federal borrowing limit to avert default, The Hill’s Julia Manchester reports.
Taking entitlement programs and defense spending off the negotiating table greatly narrows GOP options to achieve budget balance into the future, especially without tax hikes or other revenue raisers. Defense, Social Security, health, income security and Medicare combined account for 77 percent of all federal spending (The Washington Post).
▪ The Hill: Can these lawmaker proposals save Social Security?
▪ NPR: Republicans say they won’t cut Social Security or Medicare, so why does it keep coming up?
2024 watch: Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican who served in former President Trump’s Cabinet, is poised to take a leap into the unknown on Wednesday when she becomes the first Republican to challenge Trump for the GOP’s 2024 nod, report The Hill’s Max Greenwood and Julia Manchester. Some Republicans have floated Haley as a potential running mate for a GOP nominee as her national profile emerges with a campaign. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen by many in the party to be the potential candidate best positioned to challenge the former president based on 2023 polling and enthusiasm among party leaders. Haley, meanwhile, is pulling a fraction of support seen in recent surveys for Trump and DeSantis.
▪ The Hill’s Memo by Niall Stanage: Former Vice President Mike Pence has hit speed bumps along the 2024 road as another classified document was found at his Indiana home on Friday and special counsel Jack Smith subpoenaed Pence last week as part of the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into a range of former President Trump’s activities (ABC News).
▪ MSNBC legal blog: Smith should win any privilege fight over the Pence subpoena.
▪ The Hill: Here’s a look at seven issues that will shape the 2024 elections, including abortion, education, LGBT rights, international affairs, immigration, and federal entitlement spending.
▪ The Washington Post: After helping the rise of a Saudi prince, Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner benefit from Saudi funds.
LEADING THE DAY
Schumer on Sunday repeated on ABC’s “This Week” that Democrats will not bow to Republicans over the debt ceiling.
“Four times Democrats, even when Trump was in power, even two times when Trump and the Republicans had the House and Senate, we could have blocked it,” Schumer said. “We did not play brinkmanship.”
As lawmakers near a June deadline to pass an increase to the debt ceiling — or risk the U.S. defaulting on its debt — Republicans have demanded that the White House and Democrats agree to spending cuts. But Democrats said they won’t commit to cuts, accusing Republicans of threatening to tank the U.S. economy if they do not meet the GOP’s demands. Debt ceiling talks are expected to continue in the coming weeks and months, as experts caution that a debt default would be catastrophic to both the U.S. and world economy (The Hill).
Abortion: Advocacy groups are braced for a looming decision by a judge in Texas that could end nationwide access to the mifepristone abortion pill (The Hill). … State attorneys general pick sides in Texas abortion pill lawsuit (The Washington Post). … Republicans clash with prosecutors over enforcement of abortion bans (Politico)
DeSantis has leaned hard into educational issues as he burnishes his national profile ahead of a potential White House bid, writes The Hill’s Lexi Lonas, and conservatives love what they see. DeSantis, who last year won reelection by the largest margin for a Florida governor in decades, has secured GOP plaudits for moves ranging from his reopening of schools during the coronavirus pandemic to his recent skirmish with the College Board over an Advanced Placement African American studies course. Now, he’s the only Republican polling alongside — or in some cases, even ahead of — Trump for the party’s presidential nomination, and if DeSantis does run, he’ll likely spend a good amount of time touting his education actions in Florida.
The College Board, meanwhile, lashed out against DeSantis and the Florida Education Department on Saturday, saying that their disparagement of the new AP African American Studies course amounted to “slander” (The Washington Post).
The New York Times: As Trump steps up his attacks, DeSantis is avoiding conflict. But a clash is inevitable if the governor runs for president.
➤ MORE IN CONGRESS & ADMINISTRATION
As Republicans gear up for two years of aggressive oversight of the Biden administration, Democrats have quickly stood up their own response machine, drawing resources from inside and outside Congress to push back against a GOP-led House. The Hill’s Rebecca Beitsch reports that the White House has established a response organization within its counsel’s office, cobbling together a team that has been rolling out memos ahead of hearings and pushing back on committee correspondence and even subpoenas minutes after they land.
Meanwhile, in Congress, top Democrats on panels with oversight authority say they plan to counter Republicans in real time during hearings, and outside groups have geared up their own response efforts, mimicking campaign structures to undertake opposition research on Republicans and fire off fact checks and attacks.
“It definitely has the ethos of a campaign. It definitely has the feel of a campaign. And that’s what we’re doing,” Brad Woodhouse, a former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee who is now a board member of the Congressional Integrity Project, told The Hill.
When House Republicans took hold of the chamber’s majority this year, they had planned to quickly pass a border bill that would allow the Homeland Security secretary to turn away migrants for any reason, write The Hill’s Emily Brooks and Rafael Bernal. But the bill hit a major snag due to GOP opposition from moderates, and the delay and disagreement highlights the challenge for House GOP leaders in managing their slim majority in the lower chamber, even for bills relating to issues that drive the party’s top messaging and attention.
▪ Roll Call: The feud between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) boils as Biden applies heat.
▪ Vox: The House GOP’s many, many investigations, explained.
▪ The New York Times. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has a new role leading the Senate health committee. It could be his final act in Washington.
Biden faces a tough set of choices to elect a successor to lead the Labor Department after Secretary Marty Walsh, who is leaving the Cabinet to become the top executive at the NHL Players’ Association, reports The Hill’s Alex Gangitano. Among the president’s considerations: appealing to organized labor, an important Biden constituency in any election year, and assuring that a nominee can be confirmed in a narrowly divided Senate.
Veterans who have illnesses that may be linked to contamination at North Carolina’s Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune should seek disability benefits even if filing might complicate future quests for legal recourse, according to the Veterans Affairs Department. The veterans in question are those who served at the base in the early 1950s through the late 1980s and could have been exposed to a variety of cancer-linked compounds during their service (The Hill).
IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES
The death toll has exceeded 34,000 in Turkey and Syria as hopes fade that survivors will continue to be found after the devastating earthquakes that shook the region last week. Bekir Bozdag, a spokesman for Turkey’s Justice Ministry, said Sunday the government opened “earthquake crimes investigation” offices to probe possible negligence or wrongdoing that left buildings vulnerable to collapse during the quakes.
Authorities have identified some 134 suspects and arrested at least 14 people over alleged building negligence, Turkish media reported (The Washington Post and CNN).
In Syria the quakes hit hardest in the rebel-held northwest, leaving many people homeless who had already been displaced several times by a decade-old civil war. The region has received little aid compared to government-held areas. “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria,” United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths tweeted from the Turkey-Syria border, where only a single crossing is open for U.N. aid supplies (Reuters).
▪ The Guardian, analysis: Turkey earthquake death toll suggests lessons of 1999 quake were not learned.
▪ ABC News: The earthquake in Turkey is only the latest tragedy for refugees.
▪ Vox: Earthquake aid crisis in Syria is a “perfect storm.”
▪ The Wall Street Journal: Aid arrives in Turkey after earthquakes but anger grows.
Ukraine claims to have destroyed a prized Russian BMP-T armored vehicle, nicknamed the “Terminator,” in Luhansk. The governor of the Luhansk region, shared several aerial photos appearing to show the vehicle being blown up and destroyed on his Telegram channel, where he said that Russian propagandists had boasted the vehicle is impossible to destroy “So many beautiful words about the car being almost impossible to destroy… almost,” he wrote on Telegram (Business Insider).
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday hailed efforts to restore power generation systems damaged by Russian attacks, but warned it was too early to declare victory on the energy front. Zelensky said power workers had done such a good job repairing the damage caused by Russian missile and drone strikes on Friday that most people had not had to face too many outages over the weekend.
“The very fact that … after a massive missile strike this week, we can have such peaceful energy days proves the professionalism of our energy workers,” he said in an evening video address (Reuters).
Russian forces, meanwhile, edged closer to Bakhmut on Sunday, claiming to capture a village on the outskirts of the strategic city in eastern Ukraine as they hammered nearby settlements with tank rounds, mortar fire and artillery shells. The Wagner private military company, whose forces have helped lead the brutal and monthslong Russian campaign to seize Bakhmut, said that its “assault units” had taken the village of Krasna Gora, near the city’s northern edge. Bakhmut has emerged as a focal point of the war and an important prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has poured troops into the battle for a city seen as key to his stated goal of seizing the entire Donbas area of eastern Ukraine (The New York Times).
▪ The New York Times: They are Russians fighting against their homeland. Here’s why.
▪ ABC News: Neutral Austria is under pressure to get tougher on Russia after granting visas that will allow sanctioned Russian lawmakers to attend a Vienna meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
▪ The Washington Post: Protesters descend on Jerusalem as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to weaken the courts.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will not seek to extend his term, which ends in October (Reuters). NATO meets this week.
🌀 In New Zealand, schools across Auckland closed Monday as the island nation’s largest city braced for the arrival of Cyclone Gabrielle, which has left thousands without power (CNN and BBC).
■ Go ahead and ban my book, by Margaret Atwood, contributor, The Atlantic. https://bit.ly/3YGinvG
■ The false choices facing the Republican Party, by Stephen Goldsmith and Ryan Streeter, contributors, Politico Magazine. https://politi.co/3jLhCmp
WHERE AND WHEN
📲 Ask The Hill: Share a news query tied to an expert journalist’s insights: The Hill launched something new and (we hope) engaging via text with Editor-in-Chief Bob Cusack. Learn more and sign up HERE.
The House will convene for a pro forma session on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
The Senate meets at 3 p.m. to resume consideration of the nomination of Gina Méndez-Miró to be a U.S. district judge for the District of Puerto Rico.
The president will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 9 a.m. Biden will speak at 1:15 p.m. to the National Association of Counties during its annual gathering at a Washington hotel, then return to the White House.
Vice President Harris will be in Washington and has no public schedule.
The first lady will join Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Mesa, Ariz., Mayor John Giles (D) at Mesa Community College at 12:30 p.m. local time to discuss the affordability of community college for many students.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken at 2 p.m. at the White House will chair the annual meeting of the president’s Interagency task force to monitor and combat human trafficking. The secretary will meet at 4 p.m. with Danish Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen at the State Department.. Blinken will host a 5 p.m. reception at the department in honor of Amy Pope, the U.S. candidate for director general of the International Organization for Migration.
The White House daily press briefing is scheduled at 1 p.m.
➤ HEALTH & PANDEMIC
Childbirth is deadlier for Black families, even when they’re rich, according to a new study of 2 million births in California (The New York Times). Why? The best medical care for mothers and babies is not equally accessible to everyone.
The United States is facing a growing childcare crisis, writes The Hill’s Gianna Melillo, the economic impact of which has more than doubled since 2018, rising to a staggering $122 billion annually in lost earnings, productivity and revenue last year. Meanwhile, the crisis itself threatens the future of the country’s youngest and is hindering employment and educational advancement of the American workforce. In comparison to the economic impact seen in 2022, in 2018 the toll was estimated at $57 billion per year.
The new report “is just one more finding that makes it clear that the status quo with child care is not working,” Anne Hedgepeth, chief of policy and advocacy at Child Care Aware of America, which was not involved in the research, told The Hill. “This is not just a problem for individual parents and families. It’s a problem for all of us. It’s impacting the economy, and it’s impacting our communities.”
▪ NPR: Are there places in which you should still mask forever? Three experts weigh in.
▪ The New York Times: Seniors are increasingly left to protect themselves as the rest of the country abandons COVID-19 pandemic precautions: “Americans do not agree about the duty to protect others.”
Information about the availability of COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots can be found at Vaccines.gov.
Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported as of this morning, according to Johns Hopkins University (trackers all vary slightly): 1,114,378. Current U.S. COVID-19 deaths are 3,171 for the week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The CDC shifted its tally of available data from daily to weekly, now reported on Fridays.)
And finally … 🏈 The Chiefs defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 38-35 on Sunday. In front of 67,827 at State Farm Stadium in Arizona, Kansas City won its second Super Bowl championship in four seasons, cementing its status as an all-time great team. The Chiefs are multi-time champions who triumphed over a formidable foe and conquered their own limitations, all with their MVP quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, who played through the pain of a high ankle sprain (The Washington Post).
The New York Times: How Mahomes and Kansas City captured the Super Bowl LVII over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Earlier in the day, Puppy Bowl’s Team Fluff triumphed over Team Ruff 87-83 to capture the “Lombarky” trophy in a close contest promoted by Animal Planet in its 19th year featuring more than 100 adoptable rescue dogs (CNN). Here’s a photo gallery of the 2023 canine athletes (Discovery) and check out the pups still looking for their forever homes HERE. Twitter was in a swoon over Team Ruff’s MVP “Joey,” who was born without front legs.
▪ The New York Times: Black quarterbacks will lead both teams in Sunday’s Super Bowl. But for much of pro football history, Black players were steered away from the position because of racist assumptions.
▪ Variety: Rihanna’s comeback concert (while pregnant with her second child) during halftime at the Super Bowl earned rave reviews. With an army of dancers, wild outfits and a spectacular fireworks finish, it was a triumphant return to performing after a five-year performance hiatus.
▪ CBS News: The biggest star of Super Bowl LVII commercials? Nostalgia.
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