House Democrats passed sweeping voting and ethics legislation over unanimous Republican opposition, advancing to the Senate what would be the largest overhaul of the U.S. election law in at least a generation.
House Resolution 1, which touches on virtually every aspect of the electoral process, was approved Wednesday night on a near party-line 220-210 vote. It would restrict partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, strike down hurdles to voting and bring transparency to a murky campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to anonymously bankroll political causes.
The bill is a powerful counterweight to voting rights restrictions advancing in Republican-controlled statehouses across the country in the wake of Donald Trump’s repeated false claims of a stolen 2020 election. Yet it faces an uncertain fate in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it has little chance of passing without changes to procedural rules that currently allow Republicans to block it.
The stakes in the outcome are monumental, cutting to the foundational idea that one person equals one vote, and carrying with it the potential to shape election outcomes for years to come. It also offers a test of how hard President Joe Biden and his party are willing to fight for their priorities, as well as those of their voters.
This bill “will put a stop at the voter suppression that we’re seeing debated right now,” said Rep. Nikema Williams, a new congresswoman who represents the Georgia district that deceased voting rights champion John Lewis held for years. “This bill is the ‘Good Trouble’ he fought for his entire life.”
To Republicans, however, it would give license to unwanted federal interference in states' authority to conduct their own elections — ultimately benefiting Democrats through higher turnout, most notably among minorities.
“Democrats want to use their razor-thin majority not to pass bills to earn voters’ trust, but to ensure they don’t lose more seats in the next election,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said from the House floor Tuesday.
The measure has been a priority for Democrats since they won their House majority in 2018. But it has taken on added urgency in the wake of Trump’s false claims, which incited the deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol in January.
Courts and even Trump's last attorney general, William Barr, found his claims about the election to be without merit. But, spurred on by those lies, state lawmakers across the U.S. have filed more than 200 bills in 43 states that would limit ballot access, according to a tally kept by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
In Iowa, the legislature voted to cut absentee and in-person early voting, while preventing local elections officials from setting up additional locations to make early voting easier. In Georgia, the House on Monday voted for legislation requiring identification to vote by mail that would also allow counties to cancel early in-person voting on Sundays, when many Black voters cast ballots after church.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court appeared ready to uphold voting restrictions in Arizona, which could make it harder to challenge state election laws in the future.
When asked why proponents sought to uphold the Arizona laws, which limit who can turn in absentee ballots and enable ballots to be thrown out if they are cast in the wrong precinct, a lawyer for the state's Republican Party was stunningly clear.
“Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats,” said attorney Michael Carvin. “Politics is a zero-sum game."
Battle lines are quickly being drawn by outside groups who plan to spend millions of dollars on advertising and outreach campaigns.
Republicans “are not even being coy about it. They are saying the ‘quiet parts’ out loud,” said Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, a left-leaning group that aims to curtail the influence of corporate money in politics. Her organization has launched a $10 million effort supporting the bill. “For them, this isn’t about protecting our democracy or protecting our elections. This is about pure partisan political gain.”
Conservatives, meanwhile, are mobilizing a $5 million pressure campaign, urging moderate Senate Democrats to oppose rule changes needed to pass the measure.
“H.R. 1 is not about making elections better,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a former Trump administration Homeland Security official who is leading the effort. "It’s about the opposite. It’s intended to dirty up elections.”
So what's actually in the bill?
H.R. 1 would require states to automatically register eligible voters, as well as offer same-day registration. It would limit states' ability to purge registered voters from their rolls and restore former felons' voting rights. Among dozens of other provisions, it would also require states to offer 15 days of early voting and allow no-excuse absentee balloting.
On the cusp of a once-in-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries, typically a fiercely partisan affair, the bill would mandate that nonpartisan commissions handle the process instead of state legislatures.
Many Republican opponents in Congress have focused on narrower aspects, like the creation of a public financing system for congressional campaigns that would be funded through fines and settlement proceeds raised from corporate bad actors.
They've also attacked an effort to revamp the federal government's toothless elections cop. That agency, the Federal Election Commission, has been gripped by partisan deadlock for years, allowing campaign finance law violators to go mostly unchecked.
Another section that's been a focus of Republican ire would force the disclosure of donors to “dark money” political groups, which are a magnet for wealthy interests looking to influence the political process while remaining anonymous.
Still, the biggest obstacles lie ahead in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.
On some legislation, it takes only 51 votes to pass, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. On a deeply divisive bill like this one, they would need 60 votes under the Senate’s rules to overcome a Republican filibuster — a tally they are unlikely to reach.
Some Democrats have discussed options like lowering the threshold to break a filibuster, or creating a workaround that would allow priority legislation, including a separate John Lewis Voting Rights bill, to be exempt. Biden has been cool to filibuster reforms and Democratic congressional aides say the conversations are fluid but underway.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has not committed to a time frame but vowed “to figure out the best way to get big, bold action on a whole lot of fronts.”
He said: “We’re not going to be the legislative graveyard. ... People are going to be forced to vote on them, yes or no, on a whole lot of very important and serious issues.”
President Joe Biden doesn’t just have to manage the coronavirus pandemic — he also has to manage people’s expectations for how soon the country will come out of it.
And on the latter task, projecting too much optimism can be as risky as offering too little, requiring what one public health expert calls a “necessarily mixed message.”
At every turn, as the Biden administration works to inoculate every adult American, the president is tempering bullish proclamations about the nation’s vaccine supply with warnings about the challenges ahead.
His big announcement Tuesday that there would be enough vaccine for all adults by the end of May, two months earlier than previous predictions, came with a chaser from Biden that it could be a full year before the nation gets back to normal.
But even then, his pledge skated over the idea that while the administration expects to have procured enough vaccine by the end of May, there is no guarantee that all those shots will get into arms by then.
The Biden administration has been moving to scale up capacity to administer vaccines at an ever-faster clip. But by April, administration officials expect supply of the vaccine to outpace demand, requiring increased outreach to persuade hesitant Americans to roll up their sleeves.
Biden’s overarching strategy has been to underpromise and overdeliver, a proven political strategy that comes with reminders that Americans need to remain vigilant as more contagious variants of the virus take hold.
In his first days in office, Biden had promised enough vaccine for all adults by the end of summer. He moved the timetable up to the end of July through additional purchases of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. This past weekend’s approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, combined with a new production deal with Merck and manufacturing improvements for the existing shots, gave Biden confidence Tuesday to set May as the new milestone.
Yet even as he holds up the vaccinations as a promising step toward normalcy, Biden has been loath to set a clear timetable.
“I’ve been cautioned not to give an answer to that because we don’t know for sure,” he said Tuesday after announcing the stepped-up vaccine timetable. And then he offered his subdued goal for “this time next year” or better.
“But again,” he added, “it depends upon if people continue to be smart and understand that we still can have significant losses."
Unlike his predecessor, who frequently established goals he could not meet, Biden has tried to set modest expectations and then beat them. His initial goal to administer 100 million shots in his first 100 days will be easily surpassed.
But even as the timetable for vaccine supply has sped up, the president has repeatedly pushed back his guess about when things will get back to normal. He raised eyebrows recently when he suggested Christmas and then again on Tuesday when he pointed to early 2022.
Biden’s hesitance, aides say, stems from lingering uncertainty over the potential for vaccinated individuals to still transmit infections, as well as concerns over rising coronavirus variants that could challenge the effectiveness of the shots.
It’s an outgrowth of his pledge to “follow the science” in his decision-making on the pandemic — an explicit rejection of former President Donald Trump’s unrealistic predictions and unfounded prescriptions for the public. But some public health experts worry that Biden may be overcorrecting.
Once there is more vaccine saturation, some experts say, the messaging will need to shift to how to safely reopen, with less emphasis on dire warnings and more of a push on how the effectiveness of the vaccine allows for a return to day-to-day life. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to offer initial guidance for what vaccinated individuals can and can’t safely do.
Former CDC Director Tom Frieden called it a “necessarily mixed message,” pointing to progress with vaccines and cases coming down from January highs, but also to the persistent rate of infection and the rise of variants.
“On one hand you want people to know we have reason to hope the end may be near, but also, don’t let down your guard,” said Frieden, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives. “Almost always you’re setting public policy based on the best available evidence, where not everything is certain. But in this case, you do want to apply the basic concept of better safe than sorry.”
The virus’ ability to cause mass death may be fading because some of the most vulnerable populations have been vaccinated, but even so, COVID-19 has the potential to remain a potent killer.
Frieden said the next several weeks would be instructive: “We’ll know which way cases are going. Are we going into a fourth surge? Are we stalling out at a very high level of infection? Or will the decline resume?”
Trump’s unrealistic assessments of the pandemic’s trajectory left Americans uncertain about what to expect. He set a goal to reopen the country by last Easter, nearly 11 months ago, and in the fall frequently declared that the vaccines would be available “in weeks,” even though public health experts warned they would not come until after the election.
Moreover, Trump played down the severity of the crisis, leading many of his supporters to disregard basic health guidelines and fall ill, while also erroneously proclaiming on the fall campaign trail that the nation was “rounding the corner” on the pandemic, an incorrect prediction not forgiven by voters.
“Managing expectations is the first step to effective crisis response,” said Alex Conant, a senior campaign adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “If you exceed expectations, you’re a hero. If you fail to meet them, you’re a failure. You want to be honest with people about what is attainable and then make sure you hit those goals. Trump tried to win news cycles; Biden has been trying to win elections.”
While Tuesday’s optimistic announcement about the vaccine supply sent hopes soaring, it also raised pressure on the Biden administration to actually get them administered to Americans. Failure to do so would be viewed as a bitter disappointment and clear political setback.
“The buck stops with the president,” Conant said. “If Americans can’t get access to vaccines, they are going to blame the guy in charge.”
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The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to confirm Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to serve as President Joe Biden’s commerce secretary and help guide the economy's recovery during and after the coronavirus pandemic.
The vote was 84-15.
Raimondo, 49, was the first woman elected governor of Rhode Island and is serving her second term. She is a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate of Yale Law School who went on to become a venture capitalist before turning to politics.
Raimondo will be responsible for promoting the nation's economic growth domestically and overseas.
Later Tuesday, the Senate voted 95-4 to confirm Cecilia Rouse to be chair of Biden's Council of Economic Advisers. Rouse will be the first Black woman to lead the CEA in its 74 years of existence.
Republican opposition to Raimondo's confirmation focused on concerns that she would not be forceful enough in confronting the Chinese government's efforts to gain an economic and technological edge through espionage.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in particular said he was concerned that she declined during her confirmation hearing to commit to keeping Chinese telecom giant Huawei on the department’s Entity List. U.S. companies need to get a license to sell sophisticated technology to companies on the list.
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She subsequently told senators she had no reason to believe that companies on the list should not be there. But that answer failed to satisfy Cruz. He said it would have been a simple matter for Raimondo to commit to keeping Huawei and others on the Entity List.
“She refused to do so, repeatedly," Cruz said before the vote. “This appears to be part of a pattern of a systemic decision to embrace communist China."
Biden has said China is in for “extreme competition” from the U.S. under his administration, but that the new relationship he wants to forge need not be one of conflict.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China, has also strained the relationship between the two countries with members of both U.S. political parties working to highlight any accommodations they see the other side making toward China.
Much of Raimondo's work will be focused on regional economic issues. Lawmakers from coastal states want help protecting valuable fishing industries. Lawmakers from rural states want greater investment in broadband. She confirmed her interest in working with them on those issues during her confirmation hearing and emphasized the need to tackle climate change. She noted as governor that she oversaw construction of the nation’s first offshore wind farm.
“We’re looking for someone who can come in and help, with private sector experience, to really move the agenda of this administration forward. So, for me, Gov. Raimondo’s private sector experience really means a lot," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “She knows how to invest in new technologies and things that are going to help us grow jobs for the future, and she knows how to match up a workforce with those job opportunities."
The Commerce Department comprises a dozen bureaus and agencies, including the National Weather Service, the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Raimondo would oversee the work of more than 40,000 employees.
Drugmaker Merck & Co. will help produce rival Johnson & Johnson’s newly approved coronavirus vaccine in an effort to expand supply more quickly, a Biden administration official confirmed Tuesday.
The announcement comes as the White House looks to speed the production of the single-dose vaccine. Officials have said J&J faced unexpected production issues with its vaccine and produced only 3.9 million doses ahead of its receiving emergency use authorization on Saturday. The company says it is on pace to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June.
Facing questions about the company’s slipping delivery schedule, J&J Vice President Richard Nettles told lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week that the company had faced “significant challenges” because of its “highly complex” manufacturing process.
The assistance from Merck was expected to help J&J meet its production commitments and expand supply even further, but the administration did not immediately provide specifics.
President Joe Biden is set to highlight the development in a speech Tuesday afternoon, as his administration now expects to have enough supply of the three approved vaccines to inoculate all eligible American adults by June — though actually delivering the injections could take longer.
The official confirmed Merck’s involvement on condition of anonymity ahead of Biden’s public announcement. The news was first reported by The Washington Post.
It was not immediately clear when the effect of Merck’s assistance would be reflected in supply. Previously, federal officials have cautioned that setting up the highly specialized manufacturing lines to produce vaccines would take months.
Merck halted its own plans to develop a coronavirus vaccine earlier this year, finding that their candidates were generating an inferior immune system response compared with other vaccines. It said it would instead focus its work on developing treatments for COVID-19.
Compared to the two-dose versions produced by Moderna and Pfizer, the J&J vaccine is less resource intensive to distribute and administer, making it a critical piece to U.S. plans to spread vaccinations around the world — but only once Americans are inoculated. The J&J vaccine can be stored for months at refrigerated temperatures, rather than frozen, and doesn’t require patients to return for a second dose three or four weeks later.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump over the weekend hinted at a possible 2024 White House run. But with four years until the elections, it remains unclear whether that will occur.
In his first major speech since he left the White House in January, Trump on Sunday suggested he may run again in 2024, although he did not say so explicitly.
"Who knows?" Trump said at the weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in the U.S. state of Florida. "I may even decide to beat them for a third time," an assertion doubling down on the false claim that had it not been for the widespread voter fraud, he should have won the 2020 election. The only election Trump won was the one in 2016.
Christopher Galdieri, assistant professor at Saint Anselm College, told Xinhua that "he's certainly talking like he will (run) and the CPAC straw poll suggests he still has a constituency."
"But there is a long time between now and the start of the 2024 nomination race, and he's facing multiple investigations and lawsuits. If those all fizzle out, then maybe he will run," Galdieri said.
"If even one of those ends in serious consequences -- a felony conviction, a plea bargain, an admission of guilt -- I think that hurts him even more. I'm inclined to be skeptical either way," Galdieri said.
Some experts said there are a few conditions that, if met, could lead to another Trump run.
Those include assuming that voters are not concerned about his age, the many lawsuits he is facing do not derail him, and the Congress does not pass a measure restricting him from office.
Clay Ramsay, a researcher at the center for international and security studies at the University of Maryland, said, "With these three conditions met, would Trump want to run for president? Yes."
Still, others believed that Trump's legal troubles will prevent him from running again.
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Darrell West told Xinhua he would be "surprised if he (Trump) ran in 2024 because he faces major business and legal problems going forward.
The bombastic billionaire is under investigation for tax and bank fraud and has just turned over millions of tax and financial documents to New York prosecutors, West noted.
"If he gets indicted, it will be hard for him to seek future office," West said.
Despite two impeachments and a public that is deeply divided over the former president, Trump remains a major force in the GOP, although the party is somewhat fractured at the moment.
Ramsay said Trump is definitely the head of a major party, but contended that there are really two Republican parties now -- Trump's own America-first Republican party, and a conservative fragment of non-Trump Republicans.
The annual CPAC straw poll showed that 95 percent of those attending the conference said Republicans should continue along Trump's policy lines, and 68 percent of conference goers said Trump should run in 2024.
At the same time, things can change dramatically from now until 2024. Four years ago, Senator Ted Cruz won the straw poll, but was later beaten by Trump.
In Sunday's speech, Trump blasted a laundry list of opponents, from establishment Republicans to big tech, which he said should be sanctioned for stifling "conservative voices."
Trump also lambasted U.S. President Joe Biden for everything from immigration to his handling of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
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"None of us even imagined just how bad they would be and how far left they would go," the former president said from the stage.
"In just one short month, we have gone from 'America First' to 'America Last,'" he said.
Upon assuming office, the Biden administration complained about having to start from scratch with regard to vaccine development.
Trump is the only president ever to be impeached twice, but experts said this may not be an issue.
While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi aims to investigate the causes of the Jan. 6 Capitol Building riot -- the grounds for Trump's second impeachment -- some experts doubt this will prevent Trump from running in 2024.