The Pentagon's top general said Wednesday that China's recent test of an earth-circling hypersonic missile was akin to the Soviet Union's stunning launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, which sparked the superpowers' space race.
Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed for the first time the Chinese test of a nuclear-capable missile that would be very difficult to defend against.
"What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning," Milley told Bloomberg TV.
"I don't know if it's quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it's very close to that," he said.
"It's a very significant technological event that occurred... and it has all of our attention."
The US Department of Defense had previously declined to confirm the test, first reported by the Financial Times on October 16.
The newspaper said the August test launch caught Washington by surprise.
The missile circled the Earth at a low altitude and a velocity of more than five times the speed of sound, although it missed its target by more than 30 kilometers (19 miles), according to the Financial Times.
China denied the report, saying it was a routine test of a reusable space vehicle.
Hypersonics are the new frontier in missile technology, because they fly lower and so are harder to detect than ballistic missiles, can reach targets more quickly, and are maneuverable.
That makes them more dangerous, particularly if mounted with nuclear warheads.
The United States, Russia, China and North Korea have all tested hypersonics and several others are developing the technology.
China in 2019 unveiled a hypersonic medium-range missile, the DF-17, which can travel around 2,000 kilometres and can carry nuclear warheads.
The missile mentioned in the FT story is a different one, with a longer range. It can be launched into orbit before coming back into the atmosphere to hit its target.
Asked Wednesday about China's test, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby again declined to confirm it.
But he said that any major advancement in China's military capabilities does "very little to help decrease tensions in the region and beyond."
Such advances, he said, are "paired with a foreign and defense policy approach that uses intimidation and coercion of neighboring nations to yield to China's interests."
The White House and Democratic congressional leaders raced Wednesday to resolve lingering disputes on their giant social spending plan before President Joe Biden flies overseas -- although several lawmakers signaled that a deal by day's end looked impossible.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote to colleagues that Biden's domestic agenda was moving "closer to passing," but a key centrist senator later dismissed a new tax on billionaires to help pay for the $1.5-$2 trillion package as a non-starter.
Biden hopes to use passage of the Build Back Better Act as evidence of the United States leading the world on global warming and other issues as he heads to a G20 summit in Rome and United Nations climate gathering in Glasgow.
White House aides were assessing the situation "hour by hour," his spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
Pelosi, the top House Democrat, has given lawmakers until at least the end of Thursday to ready their final language on the historic bill targeting climate change, child care, pre-school education and health care.
The mammoth package is crucial to another big win Biden had hoped to secure before jetting off to Rome -- a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to transform US roads, bridges and broadband access.
The bills are linked because the Democratic left flank in the House is withholding its green light on the Senate-passed infrastructure legislation until progressives have seen a final text on Build Back Better, their top priority.
Weeks of negotiations between the party's left and center have yet to produce consensus even on the price tag of the social welfare package, let alone the provisions it should include or how to pay for it.
Biden has no votes to spare in the 50-50 split Senate so any Democrat can tank any bill, throwing Biden's domestic agenda into disarray.
In a tweet Wednesday evening, the president urged lawmakers to "bring these bills over the finish line."
"Universal preschool. Historic climate investments. Lower health care costs," he wrote, listing the bill's major goals.
"They're all within our reach."
Biden met Tuesday evening with moderate senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, both holdouts on Build Back Better who have spent weeks chiseling the original $3.5 trillion top line to somewhere nearer half that.
There was no significant breakthrough, but a White House official said the trio "made progress on top of what has been accomplished in recent days," and the senators were in follow-up meetings Wednesday with Biden aides.
"The speaker has said that 90 percent of the Build Back Better Act is done and we're just waiting on the final agreement from the two senators, who haven't agreed on everything yet and we need them," Pramila Jayapal, leader of the 96-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, told MSNBC.
Democrats have yet to reach consensus on a slew of issues in the Build Back Better package, including taxes, paid family leave, prescription drug pricing and expanding health care coverage for elderly and low-income Americans.
'Not nailed down'
"There's just huge pieces of this that are not nailed down. So each time I hear 'Well, it's almost done,' I don't know what the hell people are talking about," Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley told NBC.
In a last-second scramble to pay for Biden's plans, Senate Democrats proposed a billionaires' tax that would target roughly 700 tycoons with over $1 billion in assets or $100 million in income for three consecutive years.
The collective fortune of America's billionaires soared by 70 percent during the pandemic, according to the liberal-leaning Institute for Policy Studies, from almost $3 trillion in March 2020 to more than $5 trillion by October 15 this year.
Under the proposal, according to US media, billionaires would begin paying capital gains taxes of 23.8 percent on the appreciation in value of tradeable assets such as stocks and bonds, regardless of whether they are sold.
The tax would bring in an estimated $300 billion, around a fifth of the expected compromise cost of Build Back Better.
But the idea appeared dead on arrival as Sinema and Richie Neal, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, indicated they were against it and Manchin explicitly dismissed it as divisive.
There were signs of light, however, with tentative agreement among the Democrats, who control Congress and the White House, on a minimum 15 percent corporate tax on the profits of companies clearing more than $1 billion a year.
Nearly 200 companies would be subject to the tax, another key revenue raiser that could generate as much as $400 billion, its backers say. Crucially, Manchin and Sinema are both on board.
A "war room" set up in a luxury Washington hotel by advisors of president Donald Trump has become the focus of the congressional investigation into the violent January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
Trump strategist Steve Bannon and legal consultants Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman worked in suites at the Willard InterContinental across the street from the White House in the days surrounding the attack, in which Trump supporters stormed Congress to halt certification of Democrat Joe Biden's presidential election victory.
They and others are suspected of maintaining communications between the White House and groups involved in so-called "Stop the Steal" protests, according to a congressional resolution holding Bannon in contempt last week.
Bannon, who rejected a subpoena to testify in the January 6 investigation, was cited for his "role in constructing and participating in the 'stop the steal' public relations effort that motivated the attack."
That included, the resolution said, "his participation in the events of that day from a 'war room'" at the Willard.
Longtime hub for powerbrokers
First established in 1847, the elegant Willard has long been a hub for high society, political powerbrokers and visiting dignitaries in the US capital, especially those visiting the White House.
The term "lobbyist" gained currency in Washington, where people hung out in the Willard's lobby seeking to influence US presidents and other politicians.
Earlier this year independent investigator Seth Abramson, on his website "Proof," documented that dozens of people involved in trying to reverse Biden's November 2020 election victory over Trump were at the hotel in the run up to January 6.
They included Trump advocates like political tactician Roger Stone, one-time spokesman Jason Miller, campaign advisor Boris Epshteyn, and former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik.
The House special committee probing the January 6 insurrection is examining whether people close to the White House, including potentially Trump himself, instigated the attack on the Capitol, which shut down for several hours the joint session meant to confirm Biden as election winner.
The Willard operation has also come into focus because of the explosive new book, "Peril," an account of the last weeks of the Trump presidency by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
They document how Eastman fashioned an extraordinary legal strategy for Trump to have vice president Mike Pence block Biden's confirmation in Congress on grounds of alleged election fraud.
(There has been no evidence to support significant fraud claims.)
'Point of attack'
On January 5 Trump told supporters that Pence had agreed to block Biden's certification the next day.
But according to Woodward and Costa, in an evening meeting Pence rejected the pressure.
After that meeting Trump made at least one call to the Willard operation.
"After it doesn't go well for Trump, he calls in to the Willard War room.... He's coordinating this effort to speak for Pence," Costa said Monday on MSNBC.
Who Trump spoke to and what was said are not known. The January 6 committee is seeking phone records on communications related to what took place, and to interview others who were at the Willard.
Bannon is a key figure because, according to "Peril," in December he encouraged Trump to use the unsupported claims of voter fraud to stop certification on January 6.
In a podcast on January 5, Bannon predicted the next day would be momentous, successfully blocking Biden's presidency.
"It's all converging and now we are on the point of attack," he told listeners.
"We're on the cusp of victory.... All hell is going to break loose tomorrow."
The Willard operation was not secret.
"We had a war room at the Willard Hotel, kind of coordinating all of the communications," Eastman told Denver radio talk show host Peter Boyles in May.
Abramson also documents a key meeting at another hotel nearby, the president's own Trump International, where on the night before the attack Trump's sons, Giuliani, several top advisors and Republican officials gathered.
But Woodward told MSNBC on Monday that the communications involving the White House and the Willard operation on January 5 were central to what happened the next day.
"Bannon and Trump realized that this is the point that they have to blow it up, and that's exactly what they did," he said.
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