Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sends a warning to Pelosi and Schumer

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined seven of her fellow New York Democrats on Tuesday in issuing a warning to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer: Don't cut funding for housing, transportation, or immigration reform from the emerging reconciliation bill in an attempt to appease right-wing lawmakers.

"We can't negotiate the reconciliation bill down to nothing," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

In their letter, the New York Democrats argued that "the Build Back Better reconciliation package is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a sustainable and prosperous future for our country—affordable housing; quality, sustainable, and accessible public transportation; and sound immigration reform must remain priorities in the debate."

Specifically, the House Democrats urged Pelosi and Schumer to ensure that the final reconciliation package includes $80 billion in funding for public housing, a $10 billion investment in public transportation, and $107 billion to "expand safety-net protections and create a pathway to citizenship for millions of DACA recipients, people with temporary protected status, essential workers, and farm workers."

"It is vital that we preserve the entirety of this funding allocation, not only because these communities have been the backbone of our national economy throughout this pandemic and beyond, but also because the U.S. is their only home and refuge from the political, economic, and climate disasters they are fleeing," the lawmakers wrote.

The message from Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the New York congressional delegation was made public hours after Pelosi circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter indicating that the Democratic leadership could be considering cutting programs from the reconciliation bill in order to lower its $3.5 trillion price tag—an effort aimed at securing the votes of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), and other corporate-backed holdouts.

"Overwhelmingly," Pelosi wrote, "the guidance I am receiving from members is to do fewer things well so that we can still have a transformative impact on families in the workplace and responsibly address the climate crisis."

That approach could spark backlash from progressive lawmakers such as Ocasio-Cortez, who has argued that Democrats should shorten the duration of programs to reduce costs, not cut out key priorities. Pelosi did not specify which programs are at risk of being removed from the reconciliation package, which is a centerpiece of President Joe Biden's domestic policy agenda.

"One of the ideas that's out there is: fully fund what we can fully fund, but maybe instead of doing it for 10 years, we fully fund it for five years," Ocasio-Cortez said during an interview with CBS earlier this month. "I think it's unfortunate that we have to even, as Democrats, have a discussion about not having a child tax credit. I think it's unfortunate that we have to compromise with ourselves for an ambitious agenda for working people."

Speaking to the press Tuesday morning, Pelosi suggested that Democrats could go the route suggested by Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives—a message that conflicts with the sentiment of her "Dear Colleague" letter. The House Speaker voiced "hope" that Democrats ultimately won't have to drop any programs from the reconciliation measure.

The push by right-wing Democrats to slash the reconciliation bill's price tag has set off a scramble among lawmakers to ensure that programs they support—from Medicare expansion to the expanded child tax credit to paid family leave—aren't left on the cutting room floor. Progressive lawmakers in the House and Senate have argued that there is no need to pit priorities against one another in the name of fiscal restraint.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told reporters Tuesday that "$3.5 trillion is already a major compromise."

"The time is now long overdue for Sen. Manchin and Sen. Sinema to tell us… where do they want to cut?" Sanders added.

Referring to progressives' effort to expand Medicare benefits to cover dental, hearing, and vision, the Vermont senator said: "This to me is not negotiable. This is what the American people want."

During a recent closed-door Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) meeting, according to the Washington Post, "members stood up one by one to vouch for establishing universal pre-K, making the child tax credit permanent, and guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid family leave."

"Others mentioned the need to expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing, and vision, which would get them one step closer to the progressive goal of Medicare for All," the Post noted.

In a tweet on Tuesday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)—chair of the 96-member CPC—declared that "the agenda that Progressives are fighting for IS the president's agenda."

"We must pass the full Build Back Better Act—and we can't let corporate interests, Big Pharma, and a few conservative Democrats stand in our way of delivering," Jayapal added.

In other news, former President Donald Trump could soon be off the hook in the Stormy Daniels payoff case — and former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is disgusted. WATCH:

Trump could soon be off the hook in Stormy Daniels case — and Michael Cohen is 'disgusted'

Merck slammed for 4,000% markup of taxpayer-funded COVID-19 drug

The New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant Merck is facing accusations of price gouging after it charged the U.S. over $700 per patient for a taxpayer-funded coronavirus treatment that, according to research, costs just $17.74 to produce.

Last week, Merck announced plans to request emergency federal authorization for molnupiravir after a late-stage clinical trial showed that a five-day course of the antiviral drug cut the risk of Covid-19 hospitalization or death in half in patients with mild-to-moderate cases.

The same day Merck unveiled the results of the trial and White House officials hailed the drug as another possible tool against Covid-19, the New York Times reported that "the federal government has placed advance orders for 1.7 million courses of treatment, at a price of about $700 per patient"—far more than the estimated cost of manufacturing the drug.

According to an analysis by Melissa Barber of Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Dzintars Gotham of King's College Hospital in London, "the cost of production for molnupiravir capsules is US$1.74 per unit, or US$17.74 per five-day regimen."

"Adding an allowance for 10% profit margin and taxes in India, we arrive at an estimated sustainable generic price of US$1.96 per capsule or US$19.99 per five-day regimen," the researchers concluded.

Dean Baker, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, noted that the $712 price-per-course price the U.S. government is set to pay for molnupiravir amounts to a roughly 4,000% markup.

Quartz's Annalisa Merelli reported last week that with Merck expecting to produce 10 million courses of molnupiravir before the end of 2021, the company "could bring in revenue up to $7 billion."

"This would make it, in only a few weeks, one of the 10 most lucrative drugs ever," Merelli observed.

If authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, molnupiravir—which Merck developed in partnership with the Miami-based firm Ridgeback Biotherapeutics—would be the first antiviral pill approved to treat Covid-19, potentially a major breakthrough in the fight against the global pandemic.

But it's unclear how accessible the treatment will be for people in the U.S. and around the world, given its cost and Merck's monopoly control over production. Numerous countries, including Singapore and Thailand, are already racing to secure access to the drug.

"Governments must break Merck's monopolies so generic companies can expand supply and slash prices globally," said Asia Russell, executive director of Health GAP.

Heidi Chow of the Jubilee Debt Campaign decried the $700-per-patient price the U.S. government paid for molnupiravir as "another example of Big Pharma reaping billions from public investment into research by charging extortionate, rip-off prices for lifesaving Covid drugs."

"This is why we need to waive patents on all Covid treatments and vaccines," said Chow.

As The Intercept's Sharon Lerner reported Tuesday, molnupiravir was developed with the help of tens of millions of dollars in U.S. government funding.

"The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a division of the Department of Defense, provided more than $10 million of funding in 2013 and 2015 to Emory University," from which Ridgeback licensed the drug in 2020, Lerner noted. "The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, also provided Emory with more than $19 million in additional grants."

In addition to slamming Merck for selling the drug to the U.S. at a price 40 times higher than the cost of production, public health advocates stressed the Biden administration has an obligation to ensure that the treatment is made widely available and affordable to all.

"The public funded this drug, and therefore the public has some rights, including the rights you have it available under reasonable terms," Luis Gil Abinader, a senior researcher at Knowledge Ecology International, told The Intercept.

Abinader pointed to the federal government's so-called "march in" rights under the Bayh-Dole Act. That law, enacted in 1980, allows the government to intervene and license a federally funded drug to a third party if the manufacturer fails to make the medicine "available to the public on reasonable terms." The U.S. government has never exercised its march in rights to drive down the cost of a drug.

"The pressure for march-in rights around this drug is going to be huge," Abinader said of molnupiravir. "When the Biden administration negotiates another supply agreement with Merck, they should probably leverage those rights in order to get a better price."

'Fire DeJoy' demand intensifies as 10-year plan to sabotage postal service takes effect

Defenders of the U.S. Postal Service are urgently renewing their calls for the ouster of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy as his 10-year plan to overhaul the cherished government institution is set to take effect Friday, ushering in permanently slower mail delivery while hiking prices for consumers.

"DeJoy calls his plan 'Delivering for America,' but it will do the exact opposite—slowing many First Class Mail deliveries down, taking their standard from three to five days," Porter McConnell of Take on Wall Street, a co-founder of the Save the Post Office Coalition, warns in a video posted online late Tuesday.

"Slower ground transportation will also now be prioritized over air transportation," McConnell added. "These new service standards won't improve the Postal Service—they will make it harder for people all across the country to receive their medications, their bills, their paychecks, and more."

Appointed in May 2020 by the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors, DeJoy—a major donor to former President Donald Trump—sparked a nationwide uproar by dramatically slowing mail delivery in the run-up to that year's pivotal elections, which relied heavily on absentee voting due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We're still wondering why the hell Louis DeJoy is still Postmaster General when he's doing this to USPS."

But DeJoy, who can only be fired by a majority of the USPS board, has clung to his job despite incessant demands for his resignation or removal over the past year. In recent months, calls for DeJoy's termination have intensified as his conflicts of interest and past fundraising activities continue to draw scrutiny from watchdogs and the FBI.

During a House Oversight Committee hearing in February, DeJoy made clear he has no intention of leaving his post voluntarily.

"Get used to me," he told lawmakers.

Despite widespread criticism of his performance as head of the USPS, DeJoy still enjoys the enthusiastic backing of key postal board members, including Chairman Ron Bloom, a Democrat. Bloom, along with five other officials on the nine-member board, was appointed by Trump.

Notably, however, two recently confirmed board members appointed by President Joe Biden have vocally criticized DeJoy's looming 10-year strategic plan for the U.S. Postal Service.

Ronald Stroman, the former deputy postmaster general and one of Biden's picks, called DeJoy's plan "strategically-ill conceived" during a postal board meeting in August.

Presented as a roadmap toward "financial sustainability and service excellence," Stroman warned that DeJoy's initiative "creates dangerous risks that are not justified by the relatively low financial return, and doesn't meet our responsibility as an essential part of America's critical infrastructure." Experts have noted that the Postal Service's recent financial woes are largely the fault of an onerous congressional mandate that requires the USPS to prefund retiree benefits decades in advance.

"There is no compelling financial reason to make this change," Stroman said of DeJoy's plan. "The relatively minor savings associated with changing service standards, even if achieved, will have no significant impact on the Postal Service's financial future."

On top of lengthening mail delivery timelines and raising prices, DeJoy's strategy (pdf) would slash Post Office hours across the nation and consolidate mail processing facilities—a plan that the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union condemned as a "slap in the face."

After DeJoy rolled out his 10-year blueprint in March, a group of House Democrats ominously predicted the plan would ensure the "death spiral" of the Postal Service

Citing USPS spokesperson Kim Frum, NPR reported Tuesday that "beginning October 3 and ending on December 26, the postal service will temporarily increase prices on all 'commercial and retail domestic packages' due to the holiday season."

"In August, the Postal Service announced its standard for first-class mail delivery was met 83.6% of the time throughout the quarter ending June 30, in comparison to its 88.9% performance during the same period in 2020," NPR noted.

As USA Today summarized, "USPS mail delivery is about to get permanently slower and temporarily more expensive."

To limit and potentially reverse the damage DeJoy has inflicted on the USPS, watchdog groups and progressive advocates are ramping up pressure on Biden to take immediate action.

While the president can't remove DeJoy on his own, analysts have noted that he can soon replace both Bloom—who is currently serving a one-year holdover term—and John Barger, whose term expires in December. Such steps would give Biden appointees a majority on the USPS board—and potentially the votes to oust the postmaster general.

"President Biden has the power to remake the postal governing board and remove DeJoy," McConnell said in her video Tuesday. "He must act soon to name two new governors who understand the Postal Service is essential and must be strengthened as a beloved public institution."

Lisa Graves, executive director of True North Research, told Common Dreams that "the American people deserve a Postal Service with leaders devoted to ensuring that this public institution provides fast and affordable mail and other public services like postal banking."

House gears up to subpoena DeJoy over his refusal to turn over documents: report

House gears up to subpoena DeJoy over his refusal to turn over documents: report Postmaster General Louis DeJoy (Photo: Screen capture)

"Instead with DeJoy and the majority of the board Trump appointed," Graves added, "we have seen the Postal Service politicized, a series of poor decisions that have caused severe delays, issued directives that will charge people more for slower mail, and rebuffed innovations like postal banking."

This story has been updated with comment from Lisa Graves, executive director of True North Research.

'Carrying water for big corporations': Sinema faces backlash for opposing tax hikes

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has reportedly told her Democratic colleagues that she will not support any tax hikes on corporations or wealthy individuals, a stance that could derail the party's plan to fund its sprawling safety net and climate package.

"The right-wing Dems are carrying water for big corporations and billionaires who don't want their taxes to go up."

According to the New York Times, Sinema's "resistance to tax rate increases" that Democrats have proposed to finance their reconciliation bill "has set off a scramble for alternatives, including a carbon tax, international corporate tax changes, and closing loopholes for businesses that pay through the individual income tax system."

Democrats can't afford a single defection in the Senate, a dynamic that gives Sinema and other right-wing lawmakers significant leverage over the reconciliation bill, which is a centerpiece of President Joe Biden's domestic policy agenda. On top of opposing tax hikes, Sinema has also said she won't support a package that includes $3.5 trillion in spending over the next decade, a price tag that progressive lawmakers have characterized as a bare minimum.

"This gives away what is really going on in Congress," Robert Cruickshank, campaign director at the advocacy group Demand Progress, said in response to Sinema's posturing. "The right-wing Dems are carrying water for big corporations and billionaires who don't want their taxes to go up."

The government watchdog group Accountable.US estimates that Sinema has received at least $923,000 in donations from industry lobbying groups that are currently working to kill or water down Democrats' reconciliation package, which has been dubbed the Build Back Better Act. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its leadership boards have donated $448,000 to the Arizona Democrat, Accountable.US found.

"Super-rich corporations have given Senator Sinema nearly a million reasons to vote against making them pay their fair share in taxes," Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, said in a statement. "Make no mistake, if she sides with her wealthy donors and kills popular investments to jump-start the economy, everyday families—including across Arizona—will pay the price."

It's not clear whether Sinema would be willing to tank the entire reconciliation package over Democrats' proposed tax increases, which would partially or completely reverse elements of the GOP's deeply unpopular 2017 tax law. Sinema voted against the Republican tax cuts.

According to an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, House Democrats' proposal to fund the Build Back Better Act "would result in a tax cut for the average taxpayer in all income groups except the richest 5%."

On Friday, Biden expressed confidence that congressional Democrats will ultimately approve enough revenue raisers to "pay for" the entire reconciliation package, which is expected to include major investments in green energy, child care, housing, Medicare expansion, and more.

"It is zero price tag on the debt we're paying," the president said in remarks from the State Dining Room of the White House. "We're going to pay for everything we spend."

ITEP graphic

Sinema's opposition to her party's tax plan was reported as progressive and conservative Democrats continued to fight over the top-line price tag and the specific details of the emerging reconciliation package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Saturday that she intends to bring to the floor and pass both the Build Back Better Act and a $550 billion partisan infrastructure bill—which Sinema helped author—within the next week.

"The initiatives of the Build Back Better Act are ones in which President Biden takes a great pride, which House and Senate Democrats share," Pelosi wrote in a "Dear Colleague" letter. "Build Back Better will cut taxes for the middle class, create more jobs, lower costs for working families, and make sure the wealthiest and corporations pay their fair share."

Last month, Pelosi vowed to bring the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill to the House floor for a vote by September 27. But progressives are threatening to vote down the bipartisan bill if it comes up before Congress approves the reconciliation package, which likely won't be finished by Monday.

Progressives fear that passing the bipartisan bill first would free conservative Democrats to tank or dramatically pare back the reconciliation package.

In an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)—chair of the 96-member Congressional Progressive Caucus—said that "the votes aren't there" to pass the bipartisan bill before the reconciliation process is complete.

"Ultimately, we're delivering on the president's agenda," Jayapal said. "The Build Back Better agenda is not some crazy agenda that just a few people support. It's actually the vast majority of the Democratic caucus, and there's a few people in the House and a couple in the Senate who aren't quite there yet. But even moderates in frontline districts all support this Build Back Better agenda."

Trump's CIA considered kidnapping or assassinating Julian Assange: report

Under the leadership of then-Director Mike Pompeo, the CIA in 2017 reportedly plotted to kidnap—and discussed plans to assassinate—WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange, who is currently imprisoned in London as he fights the Biden administration's efforts to extradite him to the United States.

Citing conversations with more than 30 former U.S. officials, Yahoo News reported Sunday that "discussions over kidnapping or killing Assange occurred 'at the highest levels' of the Trump administration."

According to Yahoo:

The conversations were part of an unprecedented CIA campaign directed against WikiLeaks and its founder. The agency's multipronged plans also included extensive spying on WikiLeaks associates, sowing discord among the group's members, and stealing their electronic devices.
While Assange had been on the radar of U.S. intelligence agencies for years, these plans for an all-out war against him were sparked by WikiLeaks' ongoing publication of extraordinarily sensitive CIA hacking tools, known collectively as "Vault 7," which the agency ultimately concluded represented "the largest data loss in CIA history."
President Trump's newly installed CIA director, Mike Pompeo, was seeking revenge on WikiLeaks and Assange, who had sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden on rape allegations he denied. Pompeo and other top agency leaders "were completely detached from reality because they were so embarrassed about Vault 7," said a former Trump national security official. "They were seeing blood."

Yahoo's reporting makes clear that Assange is not the only journalist U.S. officials have attempted to target in recent years. During the Obama presidency, according to Yahoo, "top intelligence officials lobbied the White House to redefine WikiLeaks—and some high-profile journalists—as 'information brokers,' which would have opened up the use of more investigative tools against them, potentially paving the way for their prosecution."

"Among the journalists some U.S. officials wanted to designate as 'information brokers' were Glenn Greenwald, then a columnist for The Guardian, and Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker, who had both been instrumental in publishing documents provided by [NSA whistleblower Edward] Snowden," Yahoo reported.

In a statement to Yahoo, Poitras called the intelligence officials' efforts "bone-chilling and a threat to journalists worldwide."

Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement that "these new revelations, which involve a shocking disregard of the law, are truly beyond the pale."

"The CIA is a disgrace," said Timm. "The fact that it contemplated and engaged in so many illegal acts against WikiLeaks, its associates, and even other award-winning journalists is an outright scandal that should be investigated by Congress and the Justice Department. The Biden administration must drop its charges against Assange immediately. The case already threatens the rights of countless reporters."

The Trump Justice Department charged Assange with 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act for publishing classified documents, something journalists do often. Despite urgent pleas from press freedom advocates, the Biden administration has refused to drop the charges and continued its predecessor's attempt to extradite the WikiLeaks founder.

As Poitras wrote in an op-ed for the the New York Times last year, "It is impossible to overstate the dangerous precedent Mr. Assange's indictment under the Espionage Act and possible extradition sets: Every national security journalist who reports on classified information now faces possible Espionage Act charges."

"It paves the way for the United States government to indict other international journalists and publishers. And it normalizes other countries' prosecution of journalists from the United States as spies," Poitras noted. "To reverse this dangerous precedent, the Justice Department should immediately drop these charges and the president should pardon Mr. Assange."

'Billionaires are popping champagne': Progressives slam House Dems' tax plan

Democrats on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee are reportedly planning to unveil a slate of changes to the U.S. tax code that would raise the rates paid by large corporations and the rich—but not to the extent that President Joe Biden proposed earlier this year.

According to a brief draft document circulating among congressional aides and lobbyists, Democrats at the helm of the House's chief tax-writing committee are aiming to raise the top corporate rate from 21% to 26.5%, short of the 28% rate that Biden endorsed.

In its current form, House Democrats' proposal also calls for a smaller-than-expected increase in the top capital gains rate, which would rise from the current level of 20% to 25%. Biden, by contrast, has called for a 39.6% top tax rate on capital gains, the profits from the sale of an asset.

Instead of raising the top capital gains rate to the level Biden supports, House Democrats are pushing for a 3% surtax on individual income above $5 million.

Progressive groups were quick to voice their disapproval of the contours of House Democrats' plan, which has yet to be finalized. Erica Payne, the president and founder of Patriotic Millionaires, an organization that advocates for higher taxes on the wealthy, said in a statement late Sunday that "America's billionaires are popping champagne tonight as the House Ways and Means Committee—led by Chair Richie Neal [D-Mass.]—fails the president, fails the country, and fails history."

The details of House Democrats' plan, which is designed to help fund the party's reconciliation package, began to emerge after corporate lobbyists voiced confidence that they would be able limit any potential tax increases on businesses and wealthy investors.

"The business community has made progress with certain Democrats on legitimate policy concerns with some of these proposals and their implications on the economy and international competitiveness," one unnamed lobbyist told The Hill late last month. "A lot of those arguments are landing."

As Bloomberg reported early Monday, the House Ways and Means Committee proposals "are slimmed down to appeal to business-minded Democrats, many of whom hail from swing districts."

"And Democratic leaders, who need the party's full support to push Biden's agenda through Congress, will almost certainly pare them down further in the weeks ahead," the outlet added.

With Democrats racing to assemble their reconciliation package—and the bill's "pay-fors"—by a self-imposed September 15 deadline, tensions between the party's progressives and conservatives are intensifying as the latter faction attempts to shrink a centerpiece of Biden's social spending and climate agenda. Progressives, led by Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Senate and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) in the House, have made clear that they won't approve of anything less than $3.5 trillion.

The House and Senate, both of which are narrowly controlled by Democrats, must ultimately approve an identical package for it to become law.

"There is a sense of urgency which I think the American people understand," Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, said Sunday. "And what they want, is finally—maybe, just maybe—the Congress of the United States will act for them, and not just for the wealthy campaign contributors."

Preliminary estimates indicate that House Democrats' new tax plan—which calls for hiking the top individual tax rate to 39.6%—would raise as much as $2.9 trillion in revenue over the next decade. The Washington Post reported Sunday that "the sum also includes savings achieved as a result of greater enforcement of existing tax laws and additional policy reforms targeting Medicare prescription benefits."

"Lawmakers believe this means the total $3.5 trillion package is paid for in full, since it also relies on a budgetary move known as dynamic scoring, which takes into account the economic activity generated by federal spending," the Post noted.

But the Patriotic Millionaires warned that the House Ways and Means Committee's proposal would leave intact "the preferential treatment the rich receive in the tax code" by maintaining "even some of the code's most egregious tax loopholes like the stepped-up basis, a tax giveaway to America's wealthiest families, and the carried interest loophole, which allows fund managers to pretend they are investors with regard to taxes."

According to the Wall Street Journal, House Democrats' plan would limit the ability of private equity fund managers to "have their carried interest profits taxed as capital gains." But Ashley Schapitl, a spokesperson for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), confirmed on Twitter that the House proposal doesn't go as far as Wyden's.

"If this proposal becomes law, working people in America will continue to pay almost twice the tax rate of millionaire investors, heirs to billionaires will continue to inherit enormous amounts of money and property tax-free, and the concentration of wealth and power will continue until this country becomes what it is already fast approaching, a feudal aristocracy," the Patriotic Millionaires said of the House plan.

"And because the House Ways and Means Committee refuses to stand up to the 55 profitable multinational companies that paid no federal income tax last year," the group added, "corporations will continue to play international shell games with their profits while moving American jobs overseas."

AOC to Kellyanne Conway: 'Don't let the fascist victim complex hit you on the way out'

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined left-leaning politicians and pundits Wednesday who took swipes at Kellyanne Conway after the former senior adviser to ex-President Donald Trump said she would not comply with a Biden administration request to resign from the U.S. Air Force Academy's advisory board.

"Clinging onto vestiges of power against the people's will is kind of your/Trump's/ the GOP's thing."
—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The White House Office of Presidential Personnel sent letters on Wednesday to Trump appointees on advisory boards at the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Naval Academy, and U.S. Air Force Academy requesting their resignations. Such advisory board terms normally last three years.

According to Military Times, those asked to step down include Conway, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

Current White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that President Joe Biden's "objective is what any president's objective is... to ensure you have nominees and people serving on these boards who are qualified to serve on them and who are aligned with your values."

"I will let others evaluate whether they think Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer and others were qualified or not... to serve on these boards," Psaki added.

A defiant Conway took to Twitter to share a letter she wrote to Biden rejecting the administration's resignation request.

"I'm not resigning, but you should," she wrote, noting that the "request is a break from presidential norms."

Responding to Conway's intransigence, Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called the actions of the former Trump aide—with whom she frequently sparred—"predictable."

"When you're fired, don't let the fascist victim complex hit you on the way out," she quipped.

Conway's objection to Biden's departure from "presidential norms" drew squalls of laughter from some left-leaning observers. In a Harry Potter reference, Rantt Media co-founder Ahmed Baba, who chronicled every day of the Trump administration, tweeted that "seeing Kellyanne Conway complain about a 'break from presidential norms' is like seeing Bellatrix Lestrange complain about people using dark magic."

"Bruh," added Baba, "you were working for Voldemort for years."

CIA torture cover-up still looms over 9/11 trials at Guantánamo

U.S. war crimes in the so-called War on Terror were back in the spotlight Tuesday as pretrial hearings for alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants resumed at Guantánamo Bay, with a lawyer for one of the men asserting that a "continuing cover-up" of CIA torture is the reason none of the suspects have been tried 15 years after their transfer to the extralegal prison.

"Enter the Guantánamo Bay military commissions, purpose-built to launder the CIA torture program."
—Alka Pradhan, human rights lawyer

After a 17-month delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the five defendants—Mohammed, his nephew Ammar al-Baluchi, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shib, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi—appeared before a U.S. military court at Gitmo's "Camp Justice" Tuesday.

The men—two Pakistanis, two Yemenis, and one Saudi—stand accused of what military prosecutor Clayton Trivett Jr. has called the "summary execution" of nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania during the September 11, 2001 attacks. They face execution if convicted.

However, the defendants' attorneys argue that their clients' confessions should be thrown out because they were extracted through torture, evidence of which has been blocked from the courtroom. Experts also say that confessions and information resulting from torture are highly unreliable.

"Make no mistake. Covering up torture is the reason that these men were brought to Guantánamo and the continuing cover-up of torture is the reason that indefinite detention at Guantánamo still exists," Jay Connell, the lawyer representing al-Baluchi, said Tuesday. "The cover-up of torture is also the reason that we are all gathered at Guantánamo for the 42nd hearing in the 9/11 military commission on the 15th anniversary of the transfer of these men to Guantanamo."

The five defendants, who were all captured in Pakistan in late 2002 and early 2003, were turned over to the United States before being transfered to CIA black sites, including the notorius "Salt Pit" outside Kabul, Afghanistan, where suspected militant Gul Rahman was tortured to death in November 2002. In 2006, the prisoners were transferred to Gitmo.

All five men were tortured. Mohammed was subjected to interrupted drowning, commonly called "waterboarding," 183 times, as well as other torture and abuse approved under the George W. Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation" program. Hawsawi suffered a shredded rectum resulting from sodomization during so-called "rectal hydration" and has had to manually reinsert parts of his anal cavity to defecate.

As recently as December 2017, United Nations special rapporteur Nils Melzer warned that al-Baluchi was still being tortured at Guantánamo.

The defendants' treatment is thoroughly documented in a 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on post-9/11 CIA torture, which found that many innocent individuals were wrongfully detained due to mistaken identity and faulty intelligence, that detainees were subjected to horrific and even deadly abuse, and that the brutality and scope of the program were hidden from key government officials. The report also raised serious doubts about al-Hawsawi's guilt.

However, in December 2012, then-presiding judge James L. Pohl prohibited all testimony related to the defendants' capture, imprisonment, and torture, and according to a May 2016 court filing the Army colonel conspired with military prosecutors to destroy evidence in Mohammed's case.

Several Gitmo prosecutors have resigned over what they said is a corrupt military commissions system designed to convict every defendant. Former lead prosecutor Col. Morris Davis called the trials "rigged from the start" and said he was told by a top Bush lawyer that acquittals were unacceptable. At least four other military prosecutors requested removal from the military commissions because they felt the proceedings were unfair.

Alka Pradhan, a U.S. human rights attorney who has represented Guantánamo prisoners and other torture victims, on Monday called the Gitmo military commissions "purpose-built to launder the CIA torture program."

Of the approximately 780 men and boys imprisoned at Guantánamo since 2002, 39 remain following last month's transfer of 56-year-old Moroccan detainee Abdul Latif Nasser, who was jailed for 19 years without charge or trial. Of the 39, 28 have never been charged with crimes over nearly two decades of imprisonment. Ten have been recommended for third-country transfers.

"Two decades after the attacks of September 11 were carried out the survivors and their families have yet to see any justice, reparation, or accountability for that heinous crime," Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement Wednesday.

"Rather than fair and transparent trials, the military commissions created at Guantánamo Bay have been a dismal failure," she added, "denying survivors and their families justice, skirting United States and international law, and abusing the rights of those who remain imprisoned at the facility."

Warnings of Trump-like insurrection ahead of Bolsonaro rallies in Brazil

As supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro prepare to take to the streets for orchestrated demonstrations Tuesday, warnings within the country and across the world are growing that the embattled right-wing leader is seeking to foment an insurrection or possibly a military coup with similar undertones to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol incited by former President Donald Trump.

"We are gravely concerned about the imminent threat to Brazil's democratic institutions—and we stand vigilant to defend them ahead of 7 September and after."
—Open Letter

"Right now, President Jair Bolsonaro and his allies—including white supremacist groups, military police, and public officials at every level of government—are preparing a nation-wide march against the Supreme Court and Congress on 7 September, stoking fears of a coup in the world's third largest democracy," said over 150 lawmakers, academics, and former government officials in a joint statement issued Monday.

Among the signatories of the statement—spearheaded by Progressive International—are ex-national leaders including former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and former Colombian President Ernesto Samper; current parliamentarians such as Greece's Yanis Varoufakis, Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, and U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.); academics including Noam Chomsky and Cornel West; and other notable leftist figures like Argentine artist and Nobel Peace Laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.

The signers noted that "Bolsonaro has escalated his attacks on Brazil's democratic institutions in recent weeks. On 10 August, he directed an unprecedented military parade through the capital city of Brasília, as his allies in Congress pushed sweeping reforms to the country's electoral system, widely considered to be one of the most trustworthy in the world. Bolsonaro and his government have threatened—several times — to cancel the 2022 presidential elections if Congress fails to approve these reforms."

The letter continues:

Now, Bolsonaro is calling on his followers to travel to Brasília on 7 September in an act of intimidation of the country's democratic institutions. According to a message shared by the president on 21 August, the march is preparation for a "necessary counter-coup" against the Congress and the Supreme Court. The message claimed that Brazil's "communist constitution" has taken away Bolsonaro's power, and accused "the judiciary, the left, and a whole apparatus of hidden interests" of conspiring against him.

"Members of Congress in Brazil have warned that the 7 September mobilization has been modeled on the insurrection at the United States Capital on 6 January 2021, when then-President Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to 'stop the steal' with false claims of electoral fraud in the 2020 presidential elections," the letter states. "We are gravely concerned about the imminent threat to Brazil's democratic institutions—and we stand vigilant to defend them ahead of 7 September and after."

"The people of Brazil have struggled for decades to secure democracy from military rule," the progressives conclude. "Bolsonaro must not be permitted to rob them of it now."

Opposition lawmakers have previously warned that Bolsonaro is attempting to ape Trump's failed electoral subversion effort by making spurious claims that Brazil's electronic voting is susceptible to tampering, and that he would have won the 2018 election in the first round were it not for fraud.

Recent polls put Bolsonaro's approval rating at a historically low 23% as he faces a series of massive protests and calls for impeachment over his administration's mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, corruption scandals, a weakening economy, and accusations of genocide and ecocide for his exploitation of the Amazon and disregard for the nation's Indigenous people.

With Brazil's Independence Day observed on September 7, critics warn Bolsonaro is exploiting the national holiday to stir his base and further entrench hostility to the nation's democratic systems.

"The time has come to declare our independence for good, to say we will not allow some people in Brasilia to impose their will on us," the president said in a thinly veiled swipe at the Supreme Court and Congress during a speech to supporters last week. "The will that matters is yours."

He added: "If you want peace, get ready for war."

"Bolsonaro supporters are very reactionary, they're going to want to go to war. The president can't control it if there's violence. He's taking a calculated risk."
—Andre Rosa, political consultant

Critics say Bolsonaro—a former army captain who has waxed nostalgic for the country's former U.S.-backed military dictatorship—is making a dangerous gambit that could provoke violence. Numerous social media posts promoting Tuesday's rallies contain violent imagery, with the slogan "independence or death" trending on Twitter.

"Bolsonaro supporters are very reactionary, they're going to want to go to war," political consultant Andre Rosa told Agence France-Presse. "The president can't control it if there's violence. He's taking a calculated risk."

Marcelo Zero, a senatorial adviser for the leftist Worker's Party (PT), accused Boslonaro of trying to co-opt Independence Day.

"Bolsonaristas think they are the only patriots, therefore, they are the only ones eligible to participate in September 7," wrote Zero. "They are the only 'green and yellows,' the rest are riffraff of another color. Those who oppose them—who disagree with them in any way—are not real Brazilians. They are traitors who should leave the country or, as the president candidly said, go to the 'end of the beach'—a dictatorship-era military euphemism for execution."

Graciele Marques dos Santos, a PT city councilwoman in Sinop, Mato Grosso state, told The Guardian that many of Bolsonaro's supporters consider him "a messenger of God."

"I think we could see tragedies. People here feel so angry," said dos Santos. "The head of our nation is someone who incites hatred and violence. It's awful, it's horrible."

Big Pharma: Lower drug prices for Americans 'too good to be true'

Determined to shield its surging pandemic profits, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry is ramping up its campaign to stop congressional Democrats from enacting reforms to curb sky-high drug prices—a broadly popular legislative effort that one Big Pharma spokesperson dismissed as "too good to be true."

"Members of Congress can either vote with these drug companies or vote for reforms that lower the price of drugs for patients. Lives are on the line."
—Leslie Dach, Protect Our Care

Politico reported Thursday that in recent private discussions with lawmakers, pharmaceutical lobbyists have explicitly invoked the industry's role in the rapid development of coronavirus vaccines as an argument against proposed fixes for out-of-control prescription drug costs and other regulations. Any government attempt to intervene in pharmaceutical companies' price-setting, industry lobbyists claim, would stifle innovation and prolong the fight against Covid-19.

"For years, politicians have been saying that the federal government can interfere in the price of medicines and patients won't suffer any harm," said Brian Newell, a spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a trade group that represents some of the largest drug companies in the nation, including Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Eli Lilly.

"In countries where this already happens, people experience fewer choices and less access to prescription medicines," Newell declared. "Patients know if something sounds too good to be true, then it usually is."

Progressive advocates for lower drug prices adamantly reject that argument, characterizing it as a disingenuous narrative concocted by pharmaceutical companies looking to protect their bottom lines and uphold a status quo that has left the U.S. with by far the highest drug prices of any rich country.

David Mitchell, founder of Patients for Affordable Drugs, told Politico that "this is the best chance that we have seen in a couple of decades to enact meaningful reforms to drug pricing policy in the United States that will lower the prices of prescription drugs, and it's very clear that the drug companies are going all out to stop it."

As part of their emerging budget reconciliation package, Democrats are pushing to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies—a proposal that President Joe Biden has endorsed.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chair of the Senate Budget Committee and a leading advocate of the reform, estimates it would save the federal government around $450 billion over the next decade, funds that could be used to expand Medicare's benefits. Recent research has also found that the policy change could save individual patients thousands of dollars on crucial prescription medications.

But for the for-profit pharmaceutical industry, said Mitchell, the ability of Medicare to negotiate lower prices would amount to "Armageddon."

In a tweet Thursday, Mitchell countered the pharmaceutical industry's attempt to tout successful vaccine development as an argument against government action to lower drug prices.

"Sorry PhRMA, drug corps didn't make vaccines possible: taxpayers did," he wrote. "The government spent billions on research pre-pandemic and $18 billion more on trials, production, and purchase. Drug corps are reaping record profits and execs are becoming billionaires. Thanks to us."

A report (pdf) released last week by the advocacy group Protect Our Care estimates that the pharmaceutical industry is currently financing at least eight ad campaigns attacking Democrats' push to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, which it is currently barred from doing under federal law.

"By delivering on these promises, Democrats can take a major step forward in ending Big Pharma's monopoly control over drug pricing."
—Margarida Jorge, Lower Drug Prices Now

One campaign spotlighted in the report is the American Action Network's (AAN) $5 million ad blitz falsely warning that the Medicare price-negotiation proposal is "a socialist prescription drug plan that would limit patients' access to lifesaving medications." Protect Our Care notes that AAN has received nearly $15 million from PhRMA between 2016 and 2019.

"Members of Congress can either vote with these drug companies or vote for reforms that lower the price of drugs for patients," Leslie Dach, chair of Protect Our Care, said in a statement. "Lives are on the line."

According to Patients for Affordable Drugs, Big Pharma-backed groups have spent more than $18 million this year on advertisements against proposed reforms aimed at lowering prescription medicine prices. Patients for Affordable Drugs released a document last week refuting some of the pharmaceutical industry's arguments against Medicare negotiation.

"Big Pharma will stop at nothing to maintain its unfettered pricing power at the expense of patients who are struggling to afford their prescription drugs," said Mitchell. "The industry is doing what it has done for decades—using front groups to push lies and misleading claims to scare patients and lawmakers from passing any drug pricing reform into law. This time, patients and elected officials aren't buying the lies, and we are not going to let them get away with it."

Aggressive lobbying from the pharmaceutical industry and other powerful healthcare interest groups comes as House and Senate Democrats are racing to assemble a multitrillion-dollar reconciliation package covering an array of priorities, from climate action to paid family leave to Medicare expansion.

With conservative Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) threatening to oppose the $3.5 trillion price tag agreed upon by the party's leadership, the rest of the Democratic caucus and Biden are facing pressure from grassroots groups to hold their ground and ensure that drug-cost reforms remain in the final reconciliation package.

"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Congress and President Biden to keep their promise to lower costs and improve healthcare for families and seniors," Margarida Jorge, campaign director for Lower Drug Prices Now, said in a statement. "We can't Build Back Better without affordable prescription medicines for everyone who needs them."

"By giving Medicare the power to negotiate, capping out-of-pocket costs for beneficiaries, and holding drug corporations accountable for price-gouging, we can ensure that no American gets priced-out of access to life-saving medications," Jorge added. "By delivering on these promises, Democrats can take a major step forward in ending Big Pharma's monopoly control over drug pricing and finally put patients before profit."

'Catastrophe' feared as 35 million people are set to lose jobless aid in 3 days

Millions of jobless workers are set to lose critical unemployment benefits in roughly 72 hours—and neither Congress nor the Biden administration seem prepared to do anything about it.

"Around 35 million people (10% of the U.S. population) live in households that are scheduled to lose unemployment income."
—Matt Bruenig, People's Policy Project

Despite the ongoing threat posed by the highly transmissible Delta variant, the White House and Democratic lawmakers have provided no indication that they plan to prevent several pandemic-related unemployment programs from expiring on September 6, which—in a cruel irony—happens to be Labor Day.

The consequences of government inaction in the face of what one analyst recently described as "the largest cutoff of unemployment benefits in history" could be massive, both for those directly impacted by the cuts and the still-ailing U.S. economy.

As Matt Bruenig of the People's Policy Project noted Thursday, the Labor Department's latest weekly unemployment insurance (UI) report shows that "9.2 million people are currently receiving benefits from either the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program or the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program," which were implemented last year to extend the duration of jobless aid and provide assistance to those who are typically ineligible for UI, such as gig workers.

"According to the Census Household Pulse Survey, the average household that is receiving UI benefits has 3.8 members in it," Bruenig observed. "This means that around 35 million people (10% of the U.S. population) live in households that are scheduled to lose unemployment income."

"These are not small cuts either," he continued. "Based on what happened in the states that already cut these benefits, we know that around half of those on UI will see their benefits drop to $0 while the remaining half will see their benefits cut by $300 per week, which is equivalent to $15,200 per year. Those formerly on UI will also cut their spending by about $145 per week ($7,540 annually), which will have negative effects on the revenue and employment of the businesses they patronize."

But even amid such dire warnings, the possibility of a UI extension has been virtually absent from discussions on Capitol Hill as Democratic lawmakers work to assemble a $3.5 trillion spending package aimed at achieving a range of longstanding policy goals, from major climate investments to Medicare expansion.

"The Biden administration has not made it a priority, and outside of Ron Wyden, you haven't heard too many people in the Senate be willing to push on that," Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told Vox, referring to the Democratic senator from Oregon, a key architect of the soon-to-expire UI programs.

"The unwillingness to extend emergency benefits—or even debate it—shows how inured we've become to plight of the unemployed."
—Andrew Stettner, Century Foundation

"It doesn't seem like right now there would even be 50 votes in the Senate" for an extension, Stettner observed.

Last week, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that President Joe Biden believes it is "appropriate" for the $300-per-week federal UI boost to expire as scheduled. Twenty-six states—each led by a Republican governor except Louisiana—have already ended the emergency UI aid, and the Biden administration did not try to stop them.

Subsequent research has vindicated economists who warned that—contrary to the claims and predictions of Republican leaders—ending the benefits prematurely would do little to boost hiring. A Wall Street Journal analysis released Wednesday found that "states that ended enhanced federal unemployment benefits early have so far seen about the same job growth as states that continued offering the pandemic-related extra aid."

While Republicans have insisted that the emergency UI programs are dissuading people from returning to the workforce, analysts have pointed to the myriad other factors at play, including lack of child care and pandemic-related health concerns.

Dr. Rakeen Mabud, the chief economist at the Groundwork Collaborative, warned in a statement earlier this week that "amid increasing uncertainty in the trajectory of the pandemic, Monday's unemployment cliff could not come at a worse time."

"Millions will suffer as they lose this critical source of income and the loss of spending will suppress job growth, setting us back yet again in our efforts for an inclusive and equitable recovery," Mabud said.

Painful enough in itself, the benefit cut-off will come just days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration's nationwide eviction moratorium, putting millions of people at imminent risk of losing their homes amid a deadly pandemic. The U.S. is currently averaging around 164,000 new coronavirus infections and 1,500 deaths per day.

"It's going to be a perfect storm for a lot of folks," Jordan Dewbre, a staff attorney for the New York-based community organization BronxWorks, said of the confluence of UI expirations and the end of the eviction moratorium. "We are still in the middle of a pandemic."

In a series of tweets on Thursday, Stettner of the Century Foundation warned that "this cliff dwarfs anything we have seen before." If the federal programs expire, jobless workers will be left with often-paltry state-level UI benefits or—if they've exhausted their eligibility for such assistance—nothing at all.

"The unwillingness to extend emergency benefits—or even debate it—shows how inured we've become to plight of the unemployed," Stettner wrote. "With eviction protections ending at the same time, long-term unemployed workers are now vulnerable to lasting economic damage. Black and Latino workers have the least in savings built up to navigate this transitional period."

"Congress should have the courage to reinstate benefits, especially in high unemployment states, if the Delta surge slows the recovery," Stettner added, "and make permanent changes to UI benefits so that we won't have to rely on emergency programs during the next economic crisis."

Fears of more violence as far-right extremists plan Sept 18 Capitol rally

Amid rising fears of the threat posed by the GOP's mobilization of out-and-out fascists and its intensifying assault on democracy, lawmakers and intelligence officials are voicing concerns about a September 18 U.S. Capitol rally that far-right extremists organized to demand "justice" for those facing charges over their role in the violent insurrection on January 6 of this year.

Citing unnamed people familiar with federal intelligence, the Associated Press reported Wednesday that "extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are planning to attend" the rally, which "comes as a jittery Washington has seen a series of troubling one-off incidents—including, most recently, a man who parked a pickup truck near the Library of Congress and said he had a bomb and detonator."

Law enforcement agencies that were unprepared for the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters insist they are ready for any violence that may break out at the September 18 rally, which organizers have dubbed "Justice for J6." More than 600 people have been charged in connection with the January 6 insurrection thus far, and law enforcement agencies are still searching for dozens of additional suspects—including the individual who planted pipe bombs around the Capitol building ahead of the January 6 attack.

Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger told AP that his department is "closely monitoring September 18 and we are planning accordingly."

"After January 6, we made department-wide changes to the way we gather and share intelligence internally and externally," said Manger. "I am confident the work we are doing now will make sure our officers have what they need to keep everyone safe."

As CNN reported last week, Democratic members of Congress are pointing to the upcoming rally to amplify "their warnings that far-right conspiracy theories, extremist online rhetoric, and the GOP's continued embrace of former President Donald Trump's lies about the 2020 election could lead to more politically motivated attacks that could impact Capitol Hill and beyond."

"You don't get an insurrection on January 6 and all threats of violence go away," said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.). "In fact, the fear is that future planning will produce other violent acts."

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Critics recount all the times Susan Collins promised Brett Kavanaugh  wouldn't gut Roe v. Wade

In a 2018 speech announcing her decisive vote in favor of confirming right-wing judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine insisted—despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary—that he would value legal precedent and not support efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.

"This is Susan Collins' court and her legacy."
—Marie Follayttar, Mainers for Accountable Leadership

But less than three years later, Kavanaugh effectively did just that by joining four of his fellow conservative justices late Wednesday in voting to leave in place Texas' six-week abortion ban, the most restrictive in the nation. While the court's 5-4 majority claimed in a brief unsigned order that its decision "is not based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas' law," analysts argued that the conservative justices' move guts Roe v. Wade "under the cover of a procedural punt."

In the weeks ahead of her vote to confirm Kavanaugh—a Trump nominee who was accused of sexual assault—Collins repeatedly expressed her belief that the judge "reveres our Constitution" and would not approve of overturning Roe, a 1973 decision that established abortion as a constitutional right.

A compilation of Collins' remarks posted online in the wake of the Supreme Court's Wednesday order offers a glimpse at some of the Maine senator's past comments touting Kavanaugh's expressed commitment to keeping Roe intact:

Marie Follayttar, director of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, told Common Dreams on Thursday that Collins "will forever be the U.S. senator who gaslit a nation and her constituents and voted to install Brett Kavanaugh, who cast a vote against a woman's right to an abortion."

"This is Susan Collins' court and her legacy," said Follayttar. "Collins told us that Kavanaugh would respect precedent. Two hundred and thirty Maine attorneys wrote her that Kavanaugh would 'cast the fifth vote, making a majority, to erode or eliminate federal protections for a woman's right to choose.'"

"We failed to defeat Susan Collins at the ballot box, but we will succeed in making sure her role in overturning Roe vs. Wade is remembered," she continued. "It's incumbent on the Biden administration and Democratic leadership to expand the court, abolish the filibuster, and protect our right to an abortion. Anything less is unacceptable."

The Texas law that the Supreme Court opted to uphold with its dead-of-night order empowers private individuals to sue abortion providers and anyone who "aids and abets" patients attempting to obtain the procedure after around six weeks of a preganancy. Texas Republicans deliberately crafted the law—which amounts to a near-total ban on abortions in the state—to shield it from legal challenges, a maneuver that other GOP-controlled states are now likely to replicate.

Slate court reporter Mark Joseph Stern wrote early Thursday that "although the majority did not say these words exactly, the upshot of Wednesday's decision is undeniable: The Supreme Court has abandoned the constitutional right to abortion. Roe is no longer good law."

"In defending her vote to confirm him to the bench, Republican Sen. Susan Collins said Kavanaugh believed that precedent was 'not something to be trimmed, narrowed, discarded, or overlooked,'" Stern noted. "Now Kavanaugh has allowed Texas to overturn Roe, a nearly half-century-old precedent. He took less than three years to prove her wrong."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor rips right-wing Supreme Court colleagues

The conservative U.S. Supreme Court issued an unsigned order in the dead of night Wednesday leaving Texas' draconian abortion ban in place, a move that effectively overturns Roe v. Wade and imperils reproductive rights across much of the United States.

The high court's decision—against which Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and John Roberts dissented—lets stand the most restrictive abortion ban in the country, an unprecedented law that deputizes private individuals to sue anyone who performs an abortion or "aids and abets" one after around six weeks of a pregnancy.

"The court has rewarded the state's effort to delay federal review of a plainly unconstitutional statute."
—Justice Sonia Sotomayor

The law's empowerment of private citizens rather than state officials to enforce the abortion ban was designed to make the new restrictions difficult to challenge in court. Plaintiffs who win their lawsuits against abortion providers and others—potentially including those who drive a person to a clinic to obtain the procedure—are entitled to $10,000 and the recovery of their legal fees, a reward that reproductive rights advocates have characterized as a bounty.

In her blistering dissent (pdf) against the 5-4 decision, Sotomayor condemned the Supreme Court's most conservative justices for opting to "bury their heads in the sand" when faced with a "flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny."

The Texas law, Sotomayor noted, "equates to a near-categorical ban on abortions beginning six weeks after a woman's last menstrual period, before many women realize they are pregnant, and months before fetal viability."

"The act is clearly unconstitutional under existing precedents... The respondents do not even try to argue otherwise. Nor could they: No federal appellate court has upheld such a comprehensive prohibition on abortions before viability under current law," Sotomayor continued. "Taken together, the act is a breathtaking act of defiance—of the Constitution, of this court's precedents, and of the rights of women seeking abortions throughout Texas."

Turning her attention to the conservative justices who refused to block the law—Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas—Sotomayor wrote that "the court has rewarded the state's effort to delay federal review of a plainly unconstitutional statute, enacted in disregard of the court's precedents, through procedural entanglements of the state's own creation."

"The court should not be so content to ignore its constitutional obligations to protect not only the rights of women, but also the sanctity of its precedents and of the rule of law," Sotomayor added.

Legal analysts and advocates warned that the high court's ruling all but spells the end for Roe v. Wade, a landmark 1973 decision that established abortion as a constitutional right—a right that has long been in the crosshairs of the conservative movement.

"We can stop debating about whether the court overturned Roe v. Wade. They did. So what if it's on a technicality? It's not a technicality to the people forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will," wrote Jessica Mason Pieklo, executive editor of Rewire News Group. "In the immediate, it means that Roe is dead letter law in Texas. And probably Mississippi and Louisiana—the other states in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. And it means more bad news is coming."

"But it doesn't mean people stop needing access to abortion," she continued. "Nor does it mean that providers will stop providing that care. After this week though, it is undeniable that the abortion landscape is radically changed—for generations."

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 22 states across the U.S. currently have laws that could be used to restrict or gut abortion rights. The research organization notes in its latest round-up that nine states have "unconstitutional post-Roe restrictions that are currently blocked by courts but could be brought back into effect with a court order in Roe's absence."

In Texas, the near-term consequence of the law—known as Senate Bill 8—could be the imminent closure of the massive state's relatively few abortion clinics, many of which cannot withstand the risk of a wave of lawsuits.

"We can stop debating about whether the court overturned Roe v. Wade. They did."
—Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire

"If this was a criminal ban, we'd know what this is and what we can and cannot do," Jessica Rubino, a doctor at Austin Women's Health Center, told the New York Times. "But this ban has civil implications. It requires a lawyer to go to court. It requires lawyers' fees. And then $10,000 if we don't win. What happens if everybody is sued, not just me?"

"My staff is nervous," she added. "They've been asking, 'What about our families?'"

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman's Health, said in a statement earlier Wednesday that "we are heartbroken that this law has not yet been blocked."

"Last night, our waiting rooms were filled with patients and their loved ones, and our staff were pouring their hearts out trying to help every person they could up until 11:59 pm—the minute before S.B. 8 went into effect," said Hagstrom Miller. "But today, we will be forced to turn away most Texans seeking an abortion. Anti-abortion politicians in Texas can no longer hide behind the guise of health or safety—this is an abortion ban, plain and simple. It robs Texans of their ability to make decisions about their health and their futures. We have been here before, and we'll continue serving our patients however we legally can and fighting for their right to safe, compassionate abortion care."

With fundamental reproductive rights under assault from the courts and Republican-led states, Democratic members of Congress are facing growing pressure to respond with legislative action.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus co-chairs Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said Congress must "immediately take action to enshrine the right to access abortion into federal law."

"The House should immediately pass the Women's Health Protection Act... to ensure that states like Texas cannot ban this critical health service, and we urge the Senate to do whatever is necessary to send it to the president's desk," the lawmakers said. "Congress must also continue to strike down other restrictions on access to abortion in federal law, including bans on insurance coverage like the Hyde Amendment."

The three House Democrats also urged the Biden administration to uphold its "commitment to protecting the right to abortion."

"We call on Attorney General Garland to explore whatever steps the Department of Justice can take to respond to this blatant violation of Texans' constitutional rights," they said. "Everyone—no matter their income, where they live, or how they're insured—has the right to make their own decisions about their bodies and their lives, and we are committed to promoting policies that protect the reproductive freedom of all people."

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Children, US soldiers among casualties in explosions outside Kabul airport

This is a developing news story... Check back for possible updates...

Children, adult civilians, and U.S. military personnel were among those reportedly killed or wounded Thursday in a pair of explosions near Kabul's international airport, the site of a chaotic evacuation effort that the Biden administration is aiming to complete by early next week.

It's not yet clear who or what caused the blasts, which are believed to have killed more than a dozen people. Citing a Taliban official, Reuters reported that at least 13 people—including children—were killed in the explosions.

U.S. Defense Department Press Secretary John Kirby confirmed that there were at least two explosions, one of which he said was "the result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of U.S. and civilian casualties."

"We can also confirm at least one other explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, a short distance from [the Kabul airport's] Abbey Gate," Kirby wrote on Twitter.

Unnamed U.S. officials told Reuters that at least one of the blasts Thursday was caused by a suicide attack.

The explosions came after the U.S., United Kingdom, and other Western governments warned their citizens earlier Thursday not to travel to the Kabul airport, pointing to "very credible" intelligence indicating a possible attack.

Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement following the deadly blasts that Afghan officials "have warned U.S. troops about possible terrorist groups such as ISIS."

"The Taliban are committed to the international community and will not allow terrorists to use Afghanistan as a base for their operations," Mujahid added.

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