Biden administration resists Democrats’ pleas on student debt relief as deadline nears

Congressional Democrats are urging the White House to extend the freeze on student loan repayments, and for the president to cancel up to $50,000 of student debt — but so far the administration is not budging.

The standoff is one of the more noticeable splits between President Joe Biden and members of his party, who are applying intense pressure to provide more borrower relief as the expiration of a pandemic-era freeze nears.

Stephen Graves, the director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Black Studies at the University of Missouri, said in an interview that Black student borrowers are going to be affected the most by the end of the freeze, and he warned it could affect turnout of young adults at the polls in 2022.

“A lot of Black students usually end up with undergraduate degrees, and or majors, or taking jobs that are less likely to allow them to pay back those student loans,” he said.

During a recent press briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the Biden administration has not directed the Department of Education to continue the pause on student loan repayments, which ends on Jan. 31.

Psaki said that President Joe Biden supports a $10,000 per borrower cancellation of student debt, if passed by Congress.

“If Congress sends him a bill, he’s happy to sign it,” she said. “They haven’t sent him a bill on that yet.”

Emergency freeze

In the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, the Trump administration issued an emergency pause on student loan repayments. Both the Trump and Biden administrations extended it. The pandemic is still ongoing, and the U.S. just surpassed 800,000 deaths due to the coronavirus.

Senate Democrats now are urging Biden to use his executive privilege to cancel up to $50,000 worth of student loan debt.

“There have been questions and asks about what executive authorities could be used; that has been under review,” Psaki said on Tuesday. “I don’t have anything to report on that at this point in time.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on the Senate floor that congressional approval is not necessary, and that Democrats lack the votes on their own to pass legislation that would cancel student debt.

In an evenly divided Senate, Democrats would need all their party members to fall in line, along with 10 Republicans, due to current Senate filibuster rules.

“This is about taking one commonsense, easy step to save peoples’ costs; it’s about racial equity; and it’s about giving people more opportunities to build wealth and achieve the American dream and the administration can do it on its own,” Schumer said.

The Federal Reserve estimates that the total U.S. student loan debt is more than $1.75 trillion. The Department of Education owns about 92% of that student loan debt, which is why Democrats argue Biden has the authority to wipe out student debt through an executive order.

Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, along with 13 Senate Democrats, sent a letter to Biden, arguing that the country is still in a state of national emergency due to the pandemic and that the administration should extend the freeze.

“The U.S. Department of Education (“Department”) notes the waiver of student loan interest is saving borrowers an additional $5 billion each month,” they wrote in the letter. “This is money that is now available for housing, food, and other daily necessities to help borrowers support themselves, their families, and their communities during this pandemic.”

Other senators who signed on include Ron Wyden of Oregon, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Tina Smith of Minnesota, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, among others.

Some loan forgiveness

The Biden administration has forgiven up to $11.5 billion in loans for nearly 600,000 borrowers.

However, that forgiveness only applies to borrowers in specific circumstances — those who have permanent disabilities, who attended schools that are no longer in operation or public service workers.

During a town hall in Wisconsin in February, Biden was clear that he did not support the cancellation of up to $50,000 per student borrower and said that he only supported a $10,000 cancellation by Congress.

In a letter to Biden, the Student Borrower Protection Center — a student loan advocacy group — along with 200 organizations pushed for immediate student debt relief.

“It is critical that your administration continue to deliver on your promises made to student loan borrowers and their families before ending the pause in payments and collections,” according to the letter.

Borrowers need immediate relief from the crushing burdens of massive student loan debt as the pandemic exacerbates financial strain for all Americans and throws existing racial disparities in wealth and educational attainment into especially stark relief.”

The organizations pointed out that the “burden of student debt and the costs of our broken student loan system fall disproportionately on Black and Brown borrowers.”

The Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank, reported in 2016 that, on average, Black students who graduated owed $7,400 more than white, Asian and Latino students who graduated at the same time.

Repayment struggles

Graves said that Black borrowers take on larger amounts of student debt, likely more than other groups, and struggle with repayment.

Even with the pause on student loan repayments for the last two years, Black borrowers are still unlikely to benefit as much as white borrowers, he said.

“Not having to pay those student loans in the last couple of years has allowed them some kind of flexibility, of course, but unfortunately that’s happened during the time of COVID for which there’s been a higher amount of layoffs and job losses and Black people are most likely to be in laborious jobs that don’t allow them to work from home,” he said.

He added that young voters are not going to be motivated to vote for Democrats if campaign promises such as reforming student loan debt are not kept.

“You went out there on a platform of forgiving student loan debt,” Graves said of Biden. “You came out on the platform of student loan forgiveness and then you of course then reneged and then lied about it and did not do so. Young people are going to remember these things.”

In October 2020, during a town hall in Miami, Biden said that “I’m going to eliminate your student debt if you come from a family (making less) than $125,000 and went to a public university,” according to Black Enterprise.

Biden later added that, “I’m going to make sure everyone gets $10,000 knocked off of their student debt.” Biden’s campaign platform called for making public college tuition-free for those earning less than $125,000 and other initiatives.

Graves added that many of the policies that Democrats are pushing do not help young voters, but benefit middle class white voters, such as the expanded child tax credit and paternity leave.

“Things like the child tax credit are doing nothing for young Democrats,” he said, “Young people aren’t having kids. We can’t afford to have kids.”


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Biden’s big social spending bill caught in snags in the Senate

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s giant social and climate spending bill on Thursday night appeared stalled in the U.S. Senate for some time to come, a deep frustration for congressional Democrats who aimed to pass the ambitious package by the Christmas recess.

At risk also is a temporary expansion of the child tax credit, the last payment of which was made Wednesday. The expansion was included in Biden’s bill, known as Build Back Better, and Democrats in the evenly divided Senate say they can’t pass it separately because Republicans won’t support it.

In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported that a key immigration provision added by the House to the bill has been rejected by the Senate parliamentarian.

Biden in a statement on Thursday night said that he spoke earlier in the day with congressional leaders about his negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin III, the moderate West Virginia Democrat whose objections to the funding of the expanded child tax credit have held up the Build Back Better measure.

“My team and I are having ongoing discussions with Senator Manchin; that work will continue next week,” Biden said. “It takes time to finalize these agreements, prepare the legislative changes, and finish all the parliamentary and procedural steps needed to enable a Senate vote. We will advance this work together over the days and weeks ahead; Leader [Chuck] Schumer and I are determined to see the bill successfully on the floor as early as possible.”

During Thursday’s White House press briefing, Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the administration would not go into details on a timeline for when the bill would be passed.

“The president is determined to get this done as soon as possible,” she said.

Negotiations have foundered over objections by Manchin, who has said the price tag for “Build Back Better” should account for a 10-year expansion of the child tax credit, which would help lift millions of children and families out of poverty.

The bill now includes just a one-year expansion, through 2022, and adding another nine years of the revamped tax credit would push the overall cost far beyond what Manchin has said he would accept.

Manchin told CNN earlier this week that Build Back Better should be “within the limits of what we can afford.”

Manchin also has objected to the inclusion of a universal paid parental and family leave provision.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the bill would spend about $1.7 trillion over 10 years. Budget analysts project another roughly $500 billion in tax breaks, putting the total cost at about $2.2 trillion over a decade, higher than earlier estimates from the White House.

The bill includes historic investments in child care and universal pre-K for 3-and-4 year-olds. It would also for the first time give Medicare the ability to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies on the price of some prescription drugs, and offer coverage of hearing aids for seniors, among other things.

“Build Back Better is urgently needed to lower the cost of prescription drugs, health care, child care, and elder care,” Biden said. “Notwithstanding the unrelenting Republican obstruction — not a single Republican is willing to move forward on the bill — I am determined to see this bill enacted into law, to give America’s families the breathing room they deserve. We also need urgent action on climate change and other priorities in the Build Back Better plan.”

However, it’s become unclear if an extension to the child tax credit will be included, given Manchin’s stance.

When a Huffington Post reporter asked Manchin Wednesday if he supported the child tax credit, Manchin lost his temper and did not answer the question.

Democrats temporarily expanded the child tax credit earlier this year under the American Rescue Plan from $2,000 to $3,600 for kids under 6, and to $3,000 for kids from 6 to 17.

Republicans have objected to the overall cost of the bill.

The legislation also includes $555 billion in climate spending and tax credits, primarily in the form of $320 billion in new and extended clean energy tax credits.

Rep. Kathy Castor, (D-Fla.), is also urging the Senate to not remove the ban on offshore drilling off the Atlantic, Pacific and the eastern Gulf of Mexico from its version of the bill. Manchin has raised opposition to offshore drilling bans, according to the New York Times.

“We have a moral obligation to urgently reduce our carbon dioxide and methane pollution, which are fueling catastrophic extreme weather events across the country,” Castor said in a statement. “That’s why we must permanently ban drilling on our coasts and address the pollution spewed by hundreds of abandoned, leaky rigs and pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has not yet scheduled a vote on the bill, which is also undergoing scrutiny by the parliamentarian so that it complies with a process called reconciliation, which allows passage with a simple majority in the evenly divided Senate.

Schumer said he met with Biden and other Democratic senators about the Senate stalemate. “All I’m saying is that we had a very good discussion on voting rights and BBB,” Schumer said, according to Capitol Hill pool reports.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said that she had a virtual meeting with the president and vice president, along with Manchin, on passing voting protections.

Immigration policy also hangs in the balance.

The House passed its version of Build Back Better in late November, and wrapped in temporary work and deportation protections through a parole program that allows some undocumented people to change their status to prevent deportation.

The Senate is now waiting for a decision by the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, who is nonpartisan and provides advice and help on Senate rules and procedures, on whether the immigration provisions in the package can be passed through reconciliation.

However, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday night that MacDonough rejected Democrats’ immigration proposals.

Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that he was “disappointed” about the parliamentarian’s ruling, according to Capitol Hill pool reports.

“We’re considering what options remain,” he said.

Many immigration advocates and House progressives were not satisfied with those provisions as they pushed Congress to include a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people in the bill.

Democrats have tried to include a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people through the reconciliation package, but were blocked by the Senate parliamentarian from including those provisions.

Many advocates and progressive Democrats have argued that the parliamentarian is merely an adviser and that the Senate could overrule her opinion.

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Congress gives up on attempt to make women register for the draft after GOP outcry

A bipartisan provision in an annual defense measure that would have required all young Americans to register for the military draft has been cut following a Republican backlash.

Lawmakers tried to include the provision in the $777.9 billion measure, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2022, to require all Americans — including women — ages 18 to 25 to be included for registration with the Selective Service System.

Even though the provision had the backing of members from both parties like Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, (D-Pa.), and Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), as well as Sen. Joni Ernst, (R-Iowa), and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Republicans moved to strip the measure, arguing that women should not be forced to fight in wars.

The House passed a final negotiated version of the bill, usually viewed as must-pass legislation, 363-70. The measure now goes to the Senate.

Politico first reported the language on the military draft had been dropped from the compromise.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said on Twitter that if the draft language was not removed from the bill he would “continue to insist on a vote on the Senate floor to strike the provision.”

He introduced his own amendment, which struck out the provision.

GOP senators who signed onto the amendment included Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Steve Daines of Montana, Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida, among others.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, (R-Mo.), also voiced her objection to the requirement for registration in the NDAA.

“This provision was never about improving military readiness,” she said on Twitter. “Instead, it passed through committee under the misplaced guise of ‘equality,’ imposing a woke ideology on our troops rather than meeting the current needs of our military.”

She later praised the removal of the change to selective service requirements.

“Women are not chess pieces in a political game,” she said. “They are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and already valuable members of our all-volunteer force.”

Under current law, only “male persons” are required to register for selective service, which hasn’t been used since the Vietnam War.

The inclusion of the provision even had the support of the White House.

“The administration supports section 513 and the registration requirement for all citizens, which further ensures a military selective system that is fair and just,” according to the Biden administration, referring to the section of the bill dealing with the requirement.

Ernst, the first female veteran senator, has voiced her support for women to be included in the selective service.

“Senator Ernst – the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate and mom to a daughter at West Point – supports more women joining our armed forces and believes that, although extremely rare, in the event a draft is instituted women bring tremendous talent to our national defense,” her office said in a statement.


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Paul Gosar joins House GOP extremists in slamming treatment of Jan. 6 defendants held at DC jail

Four House Republicans held a Tuesday press conference to complain about the poor conditions at a District of Columbia jail housing inmates charged with violence in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

But a District of Columbia advocate for prison reform in an interview said that jail and another in D.C. have been in terrible shape for years, and little attention has been paid when it is primarily local Black inmates who are affected.

A 2015 report by civil rights lawyers documented “appalling” conditions at the facilities, “especially in light of their disproportionate impact on African-Americans.”

The press event, held inside the U.S. Capitol, included two GOP members who have been stripped of their committee assignments by a vote in the House — Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona.

Action was taken against Greene after social media posts surfaced where she encouraged violence against Democratic leaders.

Gosar additionally was censured by Democrats for posting an online anime-style video that depicted him attacking Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, (D-N.Y.).

A third congressman at the press briefing, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, is under investigation by the Justice Department looking into sex trafficking allegations to conclude if he violated federal law by providing payments to a 17-year-old girl in exchange for sex.

The fourth, Rep. Louis Gohmert of Texas, has filed to run for attorney general of his state.

Greene at the press event issued a report on her visit to the two D.C. jails, where she talked to some of the more than three dozen inmates being held as they await their trials for their part in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

A mob of thousands of pro-Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on that date in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election. All four of the House members at Tuesday’s press event supported at least one objection to counting President Joe Biden’s electoral votes.

Five people died on Jan. 6, including one police officer, and after the insurrection, four law enforcement officers died by suicide.

Greene said those jailed in connection with the Capitol attack are not being treated like other inmates. “The January 6th defendants are being treated differently, on a whole ’nother level,” she said.

“These inmates are suffering from long periods of isolation from the outside world,” Gosar said. “They are being denied the right to attend chapel in the religious service, they even aren’t allowed communion. Many have described having to burn their hair by utilizing harsh chemicals to trim.”

Inmates are required to be vaccinated if they want to receive communion or get a hair cut.

Gaetz joked that he was glad House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stripped Greene of her committees so she could work on the report, which he called “the most rigorous report that Republicans have done in the 117th Congress.”

“This report is going to be a guidepost for ongoing Republican oversight effort in the Congress,” Gaetz said.

He added that if the GOP takes back the House in the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans are going to issue subpoenas and conduct oversight.

“The notion that Republicans are going to take control of the House, and we’re going to hold hands in a warm spring rain with the Democrats and legislate, is ludicrous,” Gaetz said.

All the lawmakers called for the Jan. 6 inmates to be released.

A panel of three judges, in a decision handed down by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, denied bonds for rioters with charges of violence lodged against them, such as those who actually assaulted police officers and broke through windows, doors, and barricades, and those who aided, conspired with, planned, or coordinated such actions, are in a different category of dangerousness than those who cheered on the violence or entered the Capitol after others cleared the way.”

The Justice Department has charged nearly 675 people who were involved in some part of the insurrection. But only some are being held in D.C.

Greene’s report did not take into consideration the other 1,400 inmates at that jail and another in the District of Columbia. It only focused on those who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The two jails are the Central Detention Facility, known as the D.C. Jail, and the Central Treatment Facility.

The one that is housing those involved in the insurrection is the Central Treatment Facility, which is considered to be the more adequate of the two facilities, federal officials have found.

A U.S. Marshals Service report found that the CTF was less egregious than the D.C. Jail.

The CTF facility also provides medical services and visitation with families.

The poor conditions at both D.C. facilities are not new, but with the arrival of the more than 40 individuals involved in the insurrection, there is now a revived interest — though Washington advocates have raised concerns for years.

In 2015, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs released a report that condemned the treatment of prisoners at the jails.

“The appalling conditions of confinement in D.C. prison facilities, especially in light of their disproportionate impact on African-Americans, are a key criminal justice and civil rights issue in Washington DC,” the report said.

In February, a local task force issued a plan to shut down both jails and open a new main facility.

Patrice Sulton, the director of DC Justice Lab — an organization that advocates for criminal justice reform — helped put the task force report together.

She told States Newsroom she was particularly frustrated that the conditions of the D.C. jails were getting attention with the arrival of the insurrectionists.

“To have a handful of white people in what is the nicer of the two facilities raise concerns and have that strong of a response locally is incredibly insulting to the value of Black life,” she said.

Sulton said while the change is welcome, she’s hoping that it pushes the D.C. Council to implement the recommendations put forth by the task force.

“There is no such thing as a humane place to cage human beings,” she said. “We can do considerable better than we have been doing.”


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Women would sign up for the military draft under defense bill in Congress

As the Senate works to finalize a major annual defense measure, there is a bipartisan push to include a requirement that all young Americans — including women — for the first time register for the military draft.

The $777.9 billion measure, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2022, also would allocate millions to cleaning up toxic chemicals at bases and extend a heath study of the chemicals’ effects on people.

Some lawmakers leading the effort to allow all Americans ages 18 to 25 to be included for registration with the Selective Service System are Reps. Chrissy Houlahan, (D-Pa.), and Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), as well as Sen. Joni Ernst, (R-Iowa), and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

“Simply put, as the Selective Service System is currently written it is unconstitutional and discriminates based on sex,” Houlahan said in a statement.

Current law refers to registration of “male persons” and both documented and undocumented immigrants are included.

The military now is all-volunteer, and there hasn’t been a draft since the Vietnam War, but the registration system is maintained.

The White House also agreed with lawmakers on the update to the selective service.

“The Administration supports section 513 and the registration requirement for all citizens, which further ensures a military selective system that is fair and just,” according to the Biden administration, referring to the section of the bill dealing with the requirement.

However, the White House also said it opposes the removal of “incentives for registration” because they are needed “to achieve an equitable system that can be implemented effectively.” When men register for selective service, they remain eligible for federal benefits like state-based student aid, loans and job training programs.

Houlahan is a veteran herself and introduced the amendment on the House side. The House Armed Services Committee backed the amendment 35-24.

Houlahan also included a 12-week maternity and paternity leave for primary and secondary caregivers in the NDAA, the shorthand for the massive defense legislation.

The House passed its version of the NDAA in September, with a vote of 316-113. The Senate has not yet scheduled a vote and continues haggling over the details, but the draft provision is included in its version.

Ernst, the first female veteran senator, has spoken in favor of allowing women to be included in the selective service.

“We are now competing in the space of combat arms, and I think it’s important that we all serve to the best of our capacity,” she told Axios.

Congress tried to update the selective service requirement back in the fiscal 2017 NDAA, but instead directed an 11-member National Commission on Military, National and Public Service to conduct a study on whether women should be included in the selective service.

The report’s findings were published in 2020, with the recommendation that women be included.

The Selective Service System currently includes men who are between 18 and 25, which equated to about 17 million men in 2019, according to the agency.

But not all Republicans are on board with the concept.

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri is leading at least a dozen senators pushing for a removal of the provision.

In a statement, Hawley argued it’s “wrong to force our daughters, mothers, wives, and sisters to fight our wars.”

“Our country is extremely grateful for the brave women who have volunteered to serve our country with and alongside our fighting forces,” he said. “But volunteering for military service is not the same as being forced into it, and no woman should be compelled to do so.”

Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Steve Daines of Montana made similar remarks and introduced a resolution with Hawley “expressing that the Senate should not pass legislation mandating the registration of women for the Selective Service System.”

Neither Rubio, Daines or Hawley have served in the military.

‘Forever’ chemicals

The NDAA also includes $549 million toward the testing and cleanup of toxic chemicals known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, at military sites.

Of those cleanup funds, $100 million goes toward formerly used defense sites, $175 million for the Air Force, $174 million for the Navy and $100 million for the Army.

The chemicals are linked to several health problems such as thyroid issues, some cancers and liver damage.

Some lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee who worked to include PFAS amendments are Reps. Elissa Slotkin, (D-Mich.), Jackie Speier, (D-Calif.), John Garamendi, (D-Calif.), Michael Turner, (R-Ohio), Jack Bergman, (R-Mich.) and Bill Posey (R-Fla.).

Those provisions direct the Department of Defense to report the status of cleanup at 50 PFAS sites across the country.

They also require the agency to publicly announce the results of drinking and groundwater testing for the chemicals at nearby military sites, and prevent DOD from purchasing materials made out of the chemicals.

On the Senate side, Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut included in the NDAA language to establish deadlines for DOD to test for the chemicals at all military sites and require the agency to provide reports on PFAS remediation at those sites.

“This amendment will ensure better transparency and accountability to confront and clean up PFAS, which is what our communities have long called for,” Shaheen said in a statement.

Shaheen also pushed to include $15 million towards the continuation of a PFAS health impact report she first started in the fiscal 2018 NDAA.


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White House imposes travel restrictions for Africa amid new COVID-19 variant

The White House is set to announce travel restrictions to eight countries in Southern Africa on Monday due to the discovery of a new coronavirus variant, according to senior administration officials.

The World Health Organization classified the COVID-19 variant as a “variant of concern" due to its high mutation and transmission rate, and is calling the new strain the “omicron."

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning," the WHO said in a statement. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other (variants of concern)."

Based on the advice of the President's Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the restrictions go in effect Monday and those countries include South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

These restrictions do not apply to Americans or lawful permanent residents, but international travelers must still provide a negative COVID-19 test before traveling.

President Joe Biden urged those Americans who are already vaccinated, to get a booster shot “so you can have this additional protection during the holiday season," and for those who are unvaccinated, to get vaccinated.

“America is leading the world in vaccinating children ages 5-11, and has been vaccinating teens for many months now – but we need more Americans in all age groups to get this life-saving protection," Biden said.

The president also called on countries to contribute their share of donating vaccines, as “this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations."

On CNN, Fauci said that the U.S. is currently reviewing the research from South Africa to determine how effective the vaccines are against the new variant.

“We just arranged, right now, a discussion between our scientists and the South African scientists a little bit later in the morning to really get the facts, because you're hearing a lot of things back and forth," he said.

Dozens of countries have taken similar measures. Late Thursday, the United Kingdom banned travel to six African countries — South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.


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House Dems ask why federal judges hired law clerk with 'a history of nakedly racist and hateful conduct'

Democratic leaders of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee are urging the chief justice of the Supreme Court to investigate decisions by federal judges in Georgia and Alabama to hire a law clerk who allegedly has “a history of nakedly racist and hateful conduct."

The letter says the Democrats have “grave concern" about the hiring by Judge William Pryor, chief judge of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, and Judge Corey Maze of the Northern District of Alabama.

States in the 11th Circuit include Florida, Alabama and Georgia. The letter was led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York and Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, who chairs the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet.

“Placing an individual with this history in such close proximity to judicial decision-making threatens to seriously undermine the public's faith in the federal judiciary," the House Democrats wrote.

“To put it mildly, it would be reasonable to question these judges' impartiality in cases where race, religion, or national origin plays a role, which is the statutory standard for disqualification," they wrote.

They did not name the law clerk in their letter but in footnotes link to articles about Crystal Clanton, a student at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University in Virginia.

The legal blog Above the Law first reported Clanton had been hired for the “incredibly prestigious" clerkships, set for 2022 and 2023, by Pryor and Maze.

Clanton made headlines in 2017 when The New Yorker reported that she sent a racist text message to her co-workers at the conservative student group Turning Point USA, writing “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE… I hate blacks. End of story." The New Yorker reviewed a screenshot of the text.

Clanton told the publication, “I have no recollection of these messages and they do not reflect what I believe or who I am and the same was true when I was a teenager."

The House Democrats' letter details other reported incidents, such as when Clanton sent a photo of a man with brown skin to her co-workers with the caption “just thinking about ways to do another 9/11," according to the publication Mediaite.

When she worked at Turning Point USA, Clanton fired the organization's only Black employee on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and that employee stated in The New Yorker article that she felt “very uncomfortable working there because I was black."

Clanton left Turning Point USA and later worked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' wife, Ginni.

The House Democrats wrote to Roberts as the presiding member of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the national policy-making body for the federal courts. They also addressed the letter to Judge Charles Wilson, the most senior active member of the 11th Circuit appeals court.

They said while the reported remarks are “worrying in the extreme," their concern was more that Pryor and Maze would make such a hire. They said the clerk's past conduct was clearly available at the time of the hiring decisions.

“If the judges were not aware of their law clerk's widely reported record, their negligent hiring practices present their own set of problems with the judiciary and the judges' abilities to discharge their administrative responsibilities competently," the Democrats said.

Due to a federal holiday, Pryor and Maze could not be reached for comment.

The Democrats said “to date, the news of these judges' hiring decisions has been met with uniform silence by the judges themselves, the courts on which they sit, and the Judicial Conference."

The letter was also signed by Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties Chair Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations Chair Gerry Connolly, D-Va.

The lawmakers wrote that they expect a briefing on the matter by Dec. 1.


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What's in—and out—of Biden's $1.75 trillion social spending and climate bill

President Joe Biden's sprawling social spending and climate package has been slimmed down into a still-massive $1.75 trillion plan that he and top congressional Democrats are attempting to wrestle through after months of negotiations.

Snipped from that proposal are a number of key priorities for Democrats, including an attempt to create the first paid family leave program for parents and other caregivers.

But the framework announced Thursday includes other sweeping policy changes, such as universal pre-K for U.S. children, help with skyrocketing daycare costs, expanded health care coverage for millions of people, and a major clean-energy investment aimed at combating climate change.

Democrats also tucked in an immigration provision that would update the green card registry from 1972 to 2010, making undocumented people who entered the country before 2010 eligible for the cards that extend permission to reside and work in the U.S.

“No one got everything they wanted, including me, but that's what compromise is," Biden said in a White House speech Thursday morning after meeting with congressional Democrats on Capitol Hill. “That's consensus."

But a firm agreement among Democrats remained elusive. Two Democratic senators who objected to the broader, more expensive plan that Biden initially outlined — Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — have not yet publicly committed to voting for the measure.

Progressive Democrats also have eyed the proposal skeptically after high-profile policy changes they lobbied for were nixed. They want to ensure that the expansion of social programs isn't left behind if Congress moves first on a pending infrastructure bill to repair the nation's aging roads, bridges and rails.

The House was set to vote Thursday night on an extension on transportation funding to Dec. 3 to give lawmakers more time to hash out Biden's social reform package.

Here's some of what's in, and what's out, of the social spending and climate bill, according to the White House and members of Congress:

WHAT'S IN

  • Money to combat climate change — The largest chunk of the bill, $550 billion, would pay for tax breaks for electric vehicles and improvements to clean-energy transmission and storage, as well as money to help make communities more resilient to extreme weather events.
  • Universal pre-K; subsidies to reduce daycare costs — Another $400 billion would pay for a new, six-year program to guarantee free preschool for 3- and-4-year-olds. The proposal also would limit child care costs to no more than 7% of income for families earning up to 250% of a state's median income.
  • Extension of expanded Child Tax Credit — The major tax change that has given millions of parents monthly checks instead of an annual credit on their tax bills, and extended that relief to more parents, would continue for another year.
  • End the gap in Medicaid coverage — Those living in states that refused to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act could get tax credits to receive premium-free health coverage on the Obamacare health exchanges through 2025.
  • Hearing coverage for Medicare recipients.
  • Reduced premiums for health insurance bought on the ACA marketplace.
  • Improved Medicaid coverage for home care services.
  • $150 billion to expand access to affordable housing.
  • Bigger Pell Grants for low-income college students.
  • Expanded free school meals.

WHAT'S OUT

  • Paid family and medical leave — The 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents and other caregivers was pared back during negotiations to four weeks, and then ultimately removed from the proposal.
  • Dental and vision care for Medicare recipients.
  • Efforts to rein in prescription drug prices — though Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat who leads the Energy and Commerce panel, says he is “committed to finalizing an agreement" that would include changes like allowing price negotiations.
  • Funding for two years of tuition-free community college ($109 billion).
  • The Clean Energy Performance Program, which provides financial incentives to utilities to transition away from fossil fuel uses ($150 billion).

The social spending bill would be paid for through a 15% minimum tax on large corporations, as well as a new surtax on the income of multi-millionaires and billionaires, the wealthiest 0.02 percent of Americans, the White House said. Biden has pledged that no one earning less than $400,000 annually will pay more in taxes.

The plan also relies on revenue raised from rolling back some of the Trump administration's 2017 tax cuts, and more IRS efforts to combat tax evaders.

The Biden administration released details of the framework Thursday morning as the president gave an in-person sales pitch to House Democratic legislators before departing on a long-planned trip to Italy and Scotland.

The latter half of that trip involves a global climate conference, and Biden's arrival without congressional action on any meaningful U.S. steps to combat climate change would undercut efforts to ask other countries to also reduce greenhouse emissions.

'Betting on America'

Biden framed debate over the proposal as deciding between “competitiveness vs complacency," urging lawmakers to support investments he depicted as necessary to restore the U.S. as a leader among nations.

“That's what these plans are about: betting on America, about believing in America, about believing in the capacity of the American people," Biden said.

Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress also got some help from former President Barack Obama, who described the deal as “the best chance we've had in years to build on the progress we made during my administration and address some of the most urgent challenges of our time."

Progressives' votes

But progressives were not budging on their stance to not vote for an infrastructure package without the complete legislative text for Biden's social reform package, as well as a guarantee that Manchin and Sinema will back it, the leader of the caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, (D-Wash.) said in a statement. Progressives also want the social reform package to be scheduled for a floor vote along with the infrastructure bill.

“There is too much at stake for working families and our communities to settle for something that can be later misunderstood, amended, or abandoned altogether," she said. “That is why dozens of our members insist on keeping both bills linked and cannot vote only for one until they can be voted on together."

Rep. Cori Bush, (D-Mo.), said that she would not vote on the infrastructure package based on the framework the president pitched to lawmakers.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, (D-Minn.), added that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not have the votes from the House Progressive Caucus to pass Biden's infrastructure package.

House Democrats were also frustrated by a lack of commitment from Sinema and Manchin, who have not stated that they plan to vote on the framework Biden provided.

“After months of productive, good-faith negotiations with President Biden and the White House, we have made significant progress on the proposed budget reconciliation package," Sinema said in a statement. “I look forward to getting this done, expanding economic opportunities and helping everyday families get ahead."

Pelosi held a press conference late Thursday afternoon, where she defended the president's framework. She said even though it did not include everything that Democrats wanted, it was still an historic social reform bill.

“I'm still fighting for paid leave," she said, adding that the federal government provides paid family leave for Department of Defense federal employees.

In the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the Trump administration included 12 weeks of paid family leave for federal employees, a bill that Manchin voted for.

Pelosi did not answer questions whether she was certain that Manchin and Sinema would vote for the Build Back Better package.

“I trust the president of the United States," she said.

Fine print

Minutes before the press conference, the House Rules Committee released a nearly 2,000-page draft text of Biden's social reform package.

The Rules Committee later held a hearing on the bill, where Republicans criticized Democrats for the meeting's quick timing and objected that they did not have enough time to read the legislative text.

The committee's chair, Rep. James McGovern, (D-Mass.), made it clear that the meeting was not a markup of the bill and that the House had no plans to bring the bill to a floor vote on Thursday.

Pallone, who also chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said during the Rules Committee meeting that he would push for an inclusion of prescription drug pricing such as a cap on seniors' out-of-pocket spending and penalties for pharmaceutical companies that unfairly raise drug prices.

“I hope that it would have been in there," he said. “We've got to make these investments to deal with the public health crisis."

Immigration and the Senate

On the immigration provision on green cards, it's still up to the Senate parliamentarian to give an opinion on whether it would be allowed under the reconciliation process Democrats plan to use because it requires a simple majority in the evenly divided Senate.

The parliamentarian has already ruled against Democrats' plans to create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people.

The Biden administration set aside $100 billion for immigration policy—separate from the social reform package—that would help reduce immigration backlogs, expand legal representation and help with processing at the border.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler, (D-N.Y.), said in a statement that the framework will help improve immigration policy.

“With this framework, Congress is taking a key step forward in our effort to modernize our immigration system, and there is no doubt that our country will benefit from the resulting economic gains for decades to come," he said.

“The immigration provisions in the Build Back Better framework include advancing the registry date, a move last championed by President Ronald Reagan, to allow those who have lived and worked in service to our communities for more than 11 years an opportunity to apply for permanent residence."


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Biden pitches new $1.75T spending blueprint to Dems that drops paid family leave

President Joe Biden met with congressional Democrats on Capitol Hill Thursday morning to pitch lawmakers on a new slimmed-down framework for what would be included in a massive social reform package, according to senior administration officials.

The $1.75 trillion blueprint that Biden presented to Democrats includes a universal pre-K program for 3-and-4 year-olds, limits child care costs so that families do not pay more than 7% of their income, and extends funding for both for six years. Those two programs are estimated to cost $400 billion.

It would also extend for a year the expanded child tax credit; improve long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities; extend expanded tax credits for the Affordable Care Act; and provide the tax credits to 4 million uninsured people in states where Medicaid has not been expanded.

Notably Biden's new plan does not include paid family and medical leave, a major initiative which had been included in earlier versions of the Build Back Better plan before it was trimmed to meet demands from moderate Democrats.

Paid leave would set groundbreaking policy in the U.S., which is one of six wealthy countries in the world where no national paid parental policy exists. Most daycare centers don't accept newborns until they are six weeks old.

The White House said that Biden developed the new plan after “hearing input from all sides and negotiating in good faith with Senators Manchin and Sinema, Congressional Leadership, and a broad swath of Members of Congress" and is confident his plan could pass Congress.

Biden also spoke to the nation Thursday morning, just before he left for a long-planned trip to Europe and a major climate conference.

Democratic support unclear

The framework he presented to Democrats also provides $550 billion for climate change policy, ranging from tax credits for clean energy to investments in making communities climate resilient through a civilian climate corps.

The plan would be paid for with a 15% minimum tax on the corporate profits that large corporations — those with over $1 billion in profits — report to shareholders, as well as a new surtax on the income of multi-millionaires and billionaires, the wealthiest 0.02% of Americans, the White House said. It would apply a 5% rate above income of $10 million, and an additional 3% surtax on income above $25 million.

It's unclear if Democrats will support the new framework, particularly two Senate Democrats, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who have objected to tax raises on corporations and four weeks of paid parental leave.

House progressives have also warned that they want to see the bill's legislative text before making a decision to vote on the package.

The leader of the House Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), said that she has an idea of what's in the framework, but wants to see the bill's text, according to Capitol Hill pool reports.

“We want to see the actual text because we don't want any confusion and misunderstandings," she said. “My understanding is that the framework is very general. So let's turn it into legislative text. If 90% of the text is already written as the speaker has said, then it should be very quick — we can do anywhere from two to seven days."

Several major policy initiatives that Biden campaigned on have been stripped from the framework, such as paid parental leave, free community college, and climate change policy such as the Clean Energy Performance Program, which incentivized utilities to switch to clean energy and penalized those who don't.

Democrats also tried to include an expansion of the Affordable Care Act to include dental benefits in Medicare. The framework Biden is expected to show to lawmakers would help reduce premiums and have Medicare cover hearing services.

Democrats have also struggled to include immigration policy in the package after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that lawmakers cannot create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people through reconciliation, the process being used for Build Back Better that requires just a simple majority vote in the evenly divided Senate.

The White House specifies that it would “reform our broken immigration system, consistent with the Senate's reconciliation rules." Some advocates have pushed for lawmakers to overturn the parliamentarian's ruling in the interests of getting immigration reform enacted.

The framework Biden is presenting to lawmakers would provide $100 billion to help reduce immigration backlogs, expand legal representation and help with processing at the border.


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FBI to investigate threats made against school board members and teachers

Georgia secretary of state attacked by Trump decries 'huge disinformation campaign' over 2020 election

WASHINGTON — Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who took the brunt of former President Donald Trump's attacks over Georgia's 2020 election results, said during a Friday virtual panel that he hopes election disinformation starts to dissipate.

“People weren't questioning the (election) process before, but there was a huge disinformation campaign which really destabilized many segments of American society," Raffensperger said during the panel, referring to his party's conduct in reaction to 2020. “I think the challenge that we have as Republicans is that right now our party is really fractured."

But Raffensperger's participation in the University of California, Irvine School of Law's Fair Elections and Speech Center forum on “election subversion" drew intense criticism from Democrats in his home state.

Georgia state lawmakers and advocacy groups argued in a letter to the panel sponsors that Raffensperger helped pass Georgia's new election overhaul bill, SB 202, widely criticized for restricting voting rights.

“Raffensperger has cheered the initial subversion steps taken by the State Board of Elections that could result in a state takeover of the Fulton County Board of Elections, the first time a state has taken steps toward subversion," according to the letter.

During the panel discussion, Raffensperger said that election integrity was crucial more than ever, pointing to how Trump pressed him to turn over Georgia election results, as well as the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. A mob of pro-Trump supporters stormed the building over the former president's “big lie" that the presidential election was stolen from him.

Republican-controlled states in reaction to the 2020 election have introduced and passed dozens of restrictive voting laws, including the one in Georgia.

Raffensperger added that he's hoping far-right Republicans move on from the November election and instead focus on winning future elections rather than harassing poll workers.

“No one should ever be threatened, a poll worker particularly," he said. “Many of those are volunteer positions. They're doing this out of their civic responsibility, and that needs to end and we need to make sure coming into 2022 that we have safe, secure elections and people aren't threatened with their lives."

But the letter from his critics in Georgia said that Raffensperger is a “participant" in the very election subversion under discussion.

One of the lawmakers who signed the letter, Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democrat, is running for secretary of state.

“Mr. Raffensperger backed many of the provisions of Senate Bill 202, the anti-voter legislation in Georgia that pushed election subversion," according to the letter. “The Raffensperger-supported legislation became an election subversion model for other state legislatures seeking powers to take over local elections administration."

In response to those objections, Raffensperger argued that he stood by the bill.

He said many Democrats have objected to the bill's emphasis on voter ID laws, but he added that many states are moving toward using voter ID laws when voting rather than using signatures to match votes.

This year alone, 18 states have passed 30 restrictive voting laws that range from making mail-in voting harder to enacting voter ID requirements and purging voter rolls, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

More than 400 bills in 49 states with restrictive voting provisions have been introduced in the 2021 legislative sessions.

Georgia is currently known as “ground zero" in the fight for voting rights. Senate Democrats held a field hearing in the state and the Biden administration has directed the Department of Justice to sue the state over its election bill, arguing that it violated the Voting Rights Act.

Voting rights advocates and grassroots organizations are pressuring congressional Democrats to pass federal voting rights legislation to halt the new laws that many researchers say would disproportionately impact voters of color. The U.S. Senate has yet to schedule a vote on advancing the latest version of voting rights legislation.

Isabel Longoria of Texas also participated in the virtual conference. She is Harris County's first-ever elections administrator, a nonpartisan position.

Longoria said that since the 2020 presidential election, she's received hundreds of calls from people who believe the election office is not conducting fair elections. She added that she's helped facilitate multiple elections since then and in not one case has she received the same number of calls.

“If you really think elections are being conducted inappropriately, you would think that they were being conducted inappropriately for every election, but apparently it only matters for the November 2020 presidential election," she said.

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Revised voting rights bill rolled out in US Senate, with Manchin on board

Senate Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a revamped voting rights bill that would expand voter registration as well as create nonpartisan redistricting committees, but the measure is still likely to face an uphill battle in an evenly divided Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he will bring the legislation to the floor of the Senate “as soon as next week," but supporters will need the backing of 10 Republicans to advance beyond a GOP filibuster.

The 592-page bill, spearheaded by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, is the product of months-long negotiations with moderate Sen. Joe Manchin III, (D-W.Va.).

Manchin wavered on an earlier package of sweeping elections reforms and voting rights initiatives, the For the People Act, that passed the House in March but stalled in the Senate. This new version has been dubbed the Freedom to Vote Act.

“I applaud Senator Manchin for his work here," Schumer said. “He has always said that he wants to try and bring Republicans on, and now, with the support of Democrats and this compromise bill—which Senator Manchin had great input into—he can go forward in that regard."

Klobuchar said in a statement that the freedom to vote is fundamental.

“With the Freedom to Vote Act, the entire voting rights working group, including Senators Manchin and Merkley, is united behind legislation that will set basic national standards to make sure all Americans can cast their ballots in the way that works best for them, regardless of what ZIP code they live in."

New national holiday

If passed, the bill would designate Election Day a national holiday, along with enacting automatic voter registration for each state, so that all voters would have access to online voter registration, backers said.

The bill would also extend at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections. Many Republican-controlled states have passed voting-related legislation that limits early voting.

Klobuchar introduced the bill along with Georgia's Sen. Raphael Warnock and fellow Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Manchin and Jon Tester of Montana.

“As access to the ballot remains under threat for voters in Georgia and states across the nation, I'm proud to stand with my colleagues to introduce the Freedom to Vote Act that will protect the sacred right to vote for every eligible American, no matter where they live, and enact commonsense democracy reforms that will help ensure our government remains by and for the people," Warnock said in a statement.

Georgia Sens. Warnock and Jon Ossoff have been vocal about protecting voting rights, particularly after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a restrictive voting bill that would limit early voting and drop box locations.

Georgia also placed a ban on giving away water or food to voters within a certain distance of voters or from polling sites. Poll workers are allowed to set up water, but are not required to do so, under the Georgia state law.

An investigation by ProPublica and Georgia Public Broadcasting found that Black voters sometimes waited in lines for hours compared to white voters as the number of polling places were reduced in primarily Black neighborhoods.

Ossoff pushed for a provision in the bill to “protect voters' access to water when they are made to wait in line outside polling places," according to his office.

“Too many Americans bled and died for voting rights to give up this fight," he said in a statement.

The legislation would also make sure that every state offers same day voter registration at a limited number of locations for the 2022 elections and at all polling locations by 2024. That time frame is to allow rural areas time to implement those new requirements.

“This bill will allow us to maintain local control over our voting systems while keeping our elections safe in the face of new and evolving threats, shine a light on dark money in politics, and close loopholes that allow foreign spending on elections," Tester said in a statement.

The bill would also require states to follow non-partisan congressional redistricting criteria and allow states to choose how to develop those plans, such as by having an independent redistricting commission.

States would be prohibited from using “a redistricting plan to conduct an election that, when considered on a statewide basis, has been drawn with the intent or has the effect of materially favoring or disfavoring any political party," according to the bill text. Many states now are in the process of drawing new district maps.

Restrictive voting laws

Schumer said that the legislation is necessary to help fight the onslaught of restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-controlled states.

“A few weeks ago, the governor of Texas signed one of the most sweeping voter suppression bills in the entire country," he said. “It comes on the heels of other restrictions sprouting across the country—from ending election-day registration in Montana, limiting after-hours drop boxes in Florida, even making it a crime to give food and water to voters at the polls in Georgia."

As of July, Republican-controlled states have passed 30 restrictive voting laws in 18 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

State Republican lawmakers have introduced more than 400 restrictive voting bills in 49 states. But state Democrats have also pushed back and have passed 54 laws with expansive voting rights provisions in 25 states, according to the Brennan Center.

The rash of restrictive voting laws passed by Republicans is in response to the 2020 presidential election, in which former President Donald Trump has repeated the lie that the election was stolen from him. His backers stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

“I've lived through a violent attack on the Capitol by people wanting to overturn an election," Kaine said in a statement. “And I am watching state legislatures scheme to reduce people's ability to vote."


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