Disaster capitalism 'hits new heights' as Wall Street profiteers cash in on recovery loans

Critics of post-crisis profiteering responded with disgust to new reporting that private financial institutions in the U.S. are taking advantage of the federal government's failure to respond swiftly to disasters by providing loans—to be repaid, with interest, by taxpayers—to landlords affected by floods, wildfires, and other catastrophes that are growing in frequency and intensity due to the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency.

"A few profit and the rest of us pay."

The New York Times reported Tuesday that disaster "victims often wait years for help to get back into their homes because money for repairs moves so slowly."

The recovery process often exacerbates class and racial inequalities, as renters—who are more likely to have low incomes and are disproportionately people of color—typically wait longer than homeowners for aid. A new initiative seeks to reduce the amount of time tenants are forced to wait, but instead of expediting public assistance, it creates a profit-making opportunity for Wall Street.

According to the Times, "The program, funded in part by the financial giant Morgan Stanley, will pay owners of apartment buildings to rebuild more quickly, so they don't have to wait for federal funds."

The newspaper explained:

Enterprise and Morgan Stanley said they will begin loaning money to owners of multifamily rental buildings to repair the damage to those complexes, making it quicker for renters to move back home.
The loans are to be paid back with interest using disaster money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Enterprise. The department provides the bulk of federal disaster recovery money through its Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery [CDBG-DR] program.
Morgan Stanley declined an interview request. Joan Tally, managing director for community development finance at Morgan Stanley, said in a statement that the program would "accelerate the flow of capital for affordable rental housing in communities impacted by natural disasters."

Natalie Bennett, a British parliamentarian from the Green Party, criticized the program—which is beginning in Iowa, Louisiana, and Oregon—for privatizing federal disaster relief.

With a nod to author Naomi Klein—who coined the term in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine—Bennet said, "Disaster capitalism hits new heights."

According to research from the Urban Institute, HUD's CDBG-DR program starts distributing funds 20 months after a disaster, on average, and is typically still allocating money two years after that.

"The amount of damage inflicted by disasters is a choice. If Congress wanted to make it easier and faster to rebuild, it could do so."

"The delay in distributing the money reflects the ad hoc nature of HUD's disaster recovery spending," the Times reported. "Congress has never given the department permission to establish a permanent program for disasters. Instead, lawmakers must decide after every disaster whether to give HUD money to help victims."

While noting that investment banks are treating "administrative burdens as rent-seeking opportunities," Donald Moynihan, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, argued that congressional lawmakers deserve most of the blame for the slow disbursement of post-disaster recovery funds.

Citing a line from the Times' article that has since been cut—in which an unnamed HUD official said that the agency "could reduce the time it takes to provide disaster money by as much as 90% if Congress made the disaster-recovery program permanent"—Moynihan noted that it "seems a lot easier and cheaper to make an emergency fund permanent rather than pay private lender fees."

"In the absence of fixes to the disaster recovery program, climate experts said the new lending arrangement from Enterprise and Morgan Stanley was useful," the Times reported. "That program 'responds to a real need,' said Liz Koslov, a professor in the urban planning department at the University of California, Los Angeles. But she said it was nonetheless problematic, part of a broader trend of private companies that profit from disasters."

Christopher Flavelle, the Times journalist who wrote the story, tweeted Wednesday: "I've been covering climate adaptation for a while, and what I think most people don't realize is that the amount of damage inflicted by disasters is a choice. If Congress wanted to make it easier and faster to rebuild, it could do so."

'Pro-death cult strikes back': Right-wing judges block Biden’s vaccine rule for big companies

Progressives concerned about workplace safety and public health responded with dismay after a federal appeals court on Saturday temporarily blocked the Biden administration's attempt to require workers at companies with 100 or more employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or tested weekly.

Citing "grave statutory and constitutional" problems with the rule, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued the stay in response to a joint petition filed Friday by a coalition of businesses, conservative advocacy groups, and the states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Utah.

That legal challenge, and separate lawsuits from Republican-led states, came just one day after President Joe Biden announced that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would begin enforcing its newly unveiled Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) in the coming weeks. Companies with at least 100 employees have until December 5 to require unvaccinated workers to wear masks indoors, and by January 4, they must require vaccinations or administer weekly tests.

Decrying the decision of the "right-wing Fifth Circuit," labor journalist Steven Greenhouse said on social media that "it's terrible for worker safety and public health that three conservative activist judges have suspended Biden's... new rule requiring workers at companies with more than 100 workers to get vaccinated or tested."

"OSHA's mission is to protect workers' health," Greenhouse continued, "but the appellate judges seem to forget that Covid has killed thousands of meatpacking, retail, and other workers."

More than 750,000 people in the U.S. have died from Covid-19 since the pandemic started last March, and the disease continues to kill nearly 1,100 people per day, most of them unvaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Recent studies confirm that vaccines save lives. Last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services analyzed the relationship between county-level inoculation rates and Covid-19 outcomes among U.S. seniors and found that vaccines helped ward off 265,000 infections, 107,000 hospitalizations, and 39,000 deaths during the first five months of 2021.

And in September, CDC researchers found that individuals in the U.S. who were not fully vaccinated last spring and summer were 11 times more likely to die after being infected with the coronavirus—and over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized—than those who were fully inoculated.

Greenhouse said that "the judges evidently sympathize with [Texas Republican Gov.] Greg Abbott's let-people-die stance—that it's overreach for OSHA to act strongly to protect workers from Covid."

David Michaels, a leader of OSHA during the Obama administration, also rebuked the federal appeals court, describing its decision as legally dubious and politically motivated.

"The same activist court that refused to stay Texas' law that permits bounty hunters to sue anyone who aids an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy has stayed an OSHA rule that is clearly within OSHA's authority, will save lives, and make workplaces safe," he told the New York Times.

According to the Times, "At the core of the legal challenge is the question of whether OSHA exceeded its authority in issuing the rule and whether such a mandate would need to be passed by Congress."

The newspaper reported:

The suit against the mandate stated that President Biden "set the legislative policy" of substantially increasing the number of Americans covered by vaccination requirements, and "then set binding rules enforced with the threat of large fines."

"That is a quintessential legislative act—and one wholly unrelated to the purpose of OSHA itself, which is protecting workplace safety," the suit said. "Nowhere in OSHA's enabling legislation does Congress confer upon it the power to end pandemics."

Corporate executives asked, and the Biden administration agreed, to delay implementation of OSHA's new ETS "until after the New Year, citing concerns about worker shortages during the important holiday season," Reuters noted.

Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda, meanwhile, said in a statement that the Labor Department, home to OSHA, is "confident in its legal authority" to issue vaccine requirements.

The vaccine rule for companies with 100 or more employees "applies to 84.2 million workers at 1.9 million private-sector employers," Reuters reported. "OSHA estimates that 31.7 million of [those] workers are unvaccinated and 60% of employers will require vaccinations, up from 25% today, resulting in another 22.7 million employees getting vaccinated."

Several million additional workers are covered by the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for employees of the executive branch, federal contractors, and staff at healthcare facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid funding. OSHA officials say they are considering expanding the jab-or-test rule to include companies with fewer than 100 workers.

"The Occupational Safety and Health Act explicitly gives OSHA the authority to act quickly in an emergency where the agency finds that workers are subjected to a grave danger and a new standard is necessary to protect them," Nanda said. "We are fully prepared to defend this standard in court."

The Fifth Circuit panel's two-page order directs the Biden administration to respond to the request for a permanent injunction against the rule by 5 p.m. ET Monday.

As the Times noted, it remains unclear whether the court's stay "would be a procedural blip for the Biden administration or the first step in the unwinding of the mandate."

The newspaper explained that "after both sides have filed briefs, the court will decide whether to lift the temporary injunction, allowing the rule to proceed as planned, or whether to grant a permanent injunction. OSHA could then take the case to the Supreme Court."

While some legal experts argue that the Labor Department has the regulatory authority to compel private employers to protect the health of workers and the broader public through mandatory vaccination amid a deadly global pandemic, Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, told Reuters that "there will be so much litigation it will never see the light of day."

Twenty-four attorneys general threatened to sue the Biden administration over the rule back in September, and several followed through immediately after it was published in the federal register on Friday.

In addition to the petition filed with the Fifth Circuit, attorneys general in 11 states—Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming—filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

And in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, the states of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia sued, with Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis saying at a press conference that "the federal government can't just unilaterally impose medical policy under the guise of workplace regulation."

Roughly 70% of U.S. adults are fully inoculated against Covid-19, and about 80% have received at least one shot, according to the CDC. Recent polling shows that a majority of U.S. adults favor Covid-19 vaccination requirements, with only about one-fifth to one-quarter of respondents opposed.

OSHA, Reuters pointed out, is "fighting history. The agency has issued 10 ETS over its 50 years. Of the six that were challenged in court, only one survived entirely intact."

Donald Verrilli, U.S. solicitor general during former President Barack Obama's administration, however, told the news outlet that the Biden administration "wouldn't move forward unless they thought that they could defend it legally... I think the constitutional challenges are all going to fail."

'Kentucky needs a new deal': Charles Booker outlines plan to defeat Rand Paul, abolish poverty

In a stirring speech on Saturday, Charles Booker, a former Kentucky state representative and now a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate running to unseat Republican incumbent Rand Paul, shed light on the persistence of poverty in the Bluegrass State and made the case for why "Kentucky needs a New Deal" to curb runaway inequality and create a society that works for the many, not just the wealthy few.

"We've been getting screwed. We've been getting robbed. We have been receiving a bad deal."

"In the news and the national narrative we get talked about, we get disrespected, we get demeaned, we're doubted, we're cast aside," Booker said at the beginning of his speech in front of the Fayette County District Court in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. "But we know the truth. We're fighters. We're believers."

"We are here today as family, as fed up Kentuckians, as human beings that are ready to win a brighter future," Booker continued. "It starts today. We're going to make history today."

"You are part of something big right now," Booker told attendees, before going on to sketch the contours of the Kentucky New Deal, a sweeping vision for how to harness the power of government to improve the lives of working people throughout the Commonwealth. It centers on delivering clean water, quality healthcare, affordable housing, broadband internet, fully funded public education, living wage jobs in sustainable industries, and more to all Kentuckians—"from the hood to the holler," as Booker likes to say.

Despite the sacrifices made by Kentucky's multi-racial working class, he noted, the promise of widespread prosperity has not been realized, and in fact hardship is growing more acute.

Holding up his insulin pen, Booker, who has diabetes, lamented the fact that the medication he relies on to stay alive costs "more than my rent."

"That wasn't part of the deal," he added. "People going bankrupt to... try to pay medical bills or student debt wasn't part of the deal. Jobs leaving and never coming back wasn't part of the deal. Breonna's door being kicked in and her being killed in the dead of night wasn't part of the deal," he said, alluding to last year's murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police officers.

"Homelessness wasn't part of the deal," he added. "People not having food on their table was not a part of the deal!"

"We've been getting screwed," Booker stressed. "We've been getting robbed. We have been receiving a bad deal."

"The problem here—why I'm running to be your candidate for United States Senate—is because we have politicians like Rand Paul who have chosen corruption over our lives," he said. "Who have chosen to put money in their pocket while we suffer, lose our livelihoods, lose our loved ones."

Booker, who earlier this year said that Rand Paul "does not care whether we live or die," went on to recount how the Kentucky Republican's wife bought stock in the pharmaceutical company that makes remdesivir, an antiviral drug used to treat Covid-19, after the Trump administration briefed the Senate Health Committee on the coronavirus but before the pandemic had been declared.

"We are in the midst of what I call the Great Exploitation," said Booker. "We're at a point now where industries have left, haven't come back, communities have been left behind, people have felt so hopeless, they've felt like giving up."

It was in the context of worsening economic insecurity, Booker argued, that former President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign pledge to "make America great again" attracted millions of voters who had previously cast ballots for former President Barack Obama's promise of "hope and change" or for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) transformative agenda during the Democratic Party's 2016 presidential primary.

"Regular people are fed up and tired of being ignored."

Booker emphasized that "the system is broken." Trump, he said, made some people who are disgusted by more than four decades of bipartisan neoliberalism feel heard, but "he was weaponizing hate and fear and racism" and "never had a plan to actually help us heal."

Just as former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded to the Great Depression by enacting redistributive reforms that improved the material well-being of workers and staved off the growing threat of right-wing authoritarianism, Booker also believes that now is the time to pursue a humane and egalitarian alternative to the unjust status quo, which is at risk of becoming more anti-democratic in the absence of progressive political and economic change.

"We're here today because we've had enough," Booker told the audience in Lexington. "We're putting our foot down and we're going to turn course as a Commonwealth—all of us—to say that Kentucky deserves better. We can't wait for those politicians to do it for us, so we're going to do it ourselves. We're going to lead ourselves even if we come from the hood, if you come from the holler, if you've seen tough times you still matter."

"We're not waiting for Washington to come tell us what we want, to tell us what we deserve," he added. "We're gonna lead ourselves with a Kentucky New Deal. That's what this time demands."

Saturday's event marked the launch of a statewide organizing push to engage people from all walks of life, with the goal being to listen to what's most important to the Commonwealth's residents in order to craft the best possible Kentucky New Deal that provides a better future for all.

Notably, it coincided with the publication of an article in the New York Times arguing that the GOP's victories at the polls last week in Virginia—which depended in part on Republicans running up the score in sparsely populated, heavily white counties—expose the pressing need for Democrats to develop a compelling message to win back rural America.

"We're putting our foot down... to say that Kentucky deserves better."

Booker, who said Saturday that he doesn't care what party someone belongs to or whether they're registered, has a knack for connecting the plight of the dispossessed across geography and race—from the low-income and predominantly Black West End of Louisville, where he grew up and still resides, to downtrodden areas in Appalachia.

"The Kentucky New Deal is about us," he said. "It's about the people. It's about Kentuckians, no matter where you're from, how much money you have in your pocket, the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, whether you're walking or using a wheelchair, the pronouns you use. It's about the people."

Denouncing "the wedge issues that have driven us apart" and emphasizing the need for solidarity, Booker said that "at the end of the day, we have so much more in common than we do otherwise. If we stand together we can win together."

To unite seemingly disparate populations in a common fight against exploitation, Booker focuses his ire on the powerful forces responsible for reproducing poverty and environmental injustice throughout Kentucky.

"With the devastation of a global pandemic weighing down on us, the height of tension in our politics and in society, severely crumbling infrastructure, and the continued economic uncertainty from the loss of jobs and the decline of the fossil fuel industry, it is critical that we stand now to fight for our future," reads his campaign website. "Regular people are fed up and tired of being ignored. We are done with the days of politicians like Rand Paul exploiting us and making a mockery of our lives."

During his speech on Saturday, Booker said that "we're done with corruption, we're done with the greed and politics that is robbing us blind. We believe that Kentucky can do more than be at the bottom in everything!"

"A Kentucky New Deal," he added, "is our declaration that we deserve the greatest investment in our infrastructure in our Commonwealth's history! It's time for us to be the priority."

"Poverty can end!" he exclaimed. "We can fully and equitably fund our public schools... We can take care of our teachers that serve in the classroom and pay them more and protect their pensions."

Booker added that "no one has to ration their insulin in the United States of America. We can ensure great, quality healthcare for every single one of you with Medicare for All." Moreover, he said, "you deserve a guaranteed annual income."

Alluding to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "arc of the moral universe," Booker said that justice "doesn't just happen... We have to be the arc-benders. All of us."

'Time is really running out': Dems urged to counteract GOP's gerrymandering spree that could aid Trump 2024 comeback

As redistricting kicks into full gear and GOP-controlled states follow Texas' anti-democratic playbook this week by advancing congressional and state legislative maps that would disenfranchise communities of color and cement Republican power for at least a decade, voting rights advocates are once again urging Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill to swiftly pass federal legislation to reverse partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression laws.

"Democrats... could soon be powerless to stop the GOP's takeover of the U.S. House and state Capitols for the next decade."

"Time is really running out for [Democrats] to pass voting rights legislation to reverse extreme gerrymandering," journalist and author Ari Berman said Wednesday.

Berman was reacting to a proposed congressional map unveiled Wednesday morning by Ohio House Republicans that "could give the GOP a 13-2 advantage among representatives to the U.S. House despite voter-approved changes to prevent gerrymandering," as Jessie Balmert of The Columbus Dispatch reported.

Although former President Donald Trump won Ohio with just over half of the vote in the 2020 election, 86% of the state's 15 U.S. House seats could soon be occupied by Republicans thanks to partisan gerrymandering.

According to Balmert, Ohio House Democrats didn't see a copy of their GOP colleagues' proposed map until 10:42 a.m., just 18 minutes before the committee meeting started, prompting Michael Li, a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, to say, "This is not how redistricting is supposed to work."

Other critics say that Ohio's entire redistricting process—not only the House GOP's failure to give Democrats in the chamber ample review time—has been marred by a lack of fairness and transparency.

After the Ohio House Government Oversight Committee and the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee announced that they will hold hearings Thursday on bills that are simply placeholders and do not present actual maps—scheduling the two public meetings within half an hour of one another—advocates demanded that the Ohio General Assembly provide citizens with meaningful opportunities to participate.

"The congressional maps that state lawmakers draw will impact Ohioans' voting power for the next decade," Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said Wednesday in a statement. "The public deserves to have a seat at the table."

"Despite voters' repeated pleas and public demonstrations for more opportunities to participate, state leaders have intentionally made it difficult for even the most informed voters to weigh in," Turcer continued. "Field hearings were focused only on state legislative mapmaking. The state Legislature held no public hearings in September and the Ohio Redistricting Commission convened only once."

As The Hill reported on Monday:

A new bipartisan commission tasked with redrawing Ohio's political boundaries every decade surrendered its authority to draw congressional districts without even considering a proposal, punting the decision to a state legislature overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans.
The commission, created three years ago with the support of more than 70% of Ohio voters, held just one meeting to consider congressional district boundaries.

"The congressional redistricting process is really just getting started," Turcer added. "It is time for the state Legislature to make a dramatic change by publicizing a plan for public hearings for the month of November. Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved the new rules for congressional mapmaking and we expect a much more transparent and participatory process."

Ohio is far from alone. On Monday, the Republican-led redistricting committee in the North Carolina Senate greenlit its proposed congressional map, and state senators voted along party lines to approve it the next day.

Princeton University's Gerrymandering Project gave North Carolina's proposed congressional map an "F" grade, due to the fact that it produces a "significant Republican advantage." As Berman noted, the map could result in the GOP taking roughly three-quarters of the state's 14 U.S. House seats even though Trump won the state with less than half of the vote last year.

The News & Observer reported Wednesday that "if all goes according to the plan lawmakers set in motion earlier this week, the maps could be official as soon as Thursday. If they become law as expected, they will be used in every election from 2022 through 2030—unless a lawsuit succeeds in forcing them to be redrawn, as has happened numerous times in North Carolina dating back to the 1980s."

While the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 ruled 5-3 that the maps drawn by North Carolina Republicans in 2011 misused racial data and amounted to unconstitutional racial gerrymandering in two congressional districts, the right-wing justices just two years later condoned partisan gerrymandering, arguing that the practice is beyond the high court's purview.

"President Biden has said that we're facing the 'most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.' It's time to act like it."

Given that Black U.S. voters overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, it can be difficult to disentangle racial gerrymandering from partisan gerrymandering, which is why progressives warned that the Supreme Court's refusal to outlaw the latter could effectively legalize the former.

Republican mapmakers, meanwhile, have been perfecting techniques to secure political advantages without running afoul of the 14th Amendment's "one person, one vote" protections and other anti-discrimination laws.

While a North Carolina state court in 2019 invalidated GOP-drawn congressional districts before the 2020 election—ruling that the map violated the state constitution—the Supreme Court's decision just months earlier put the onus on members of Congress to take action to prevent gerrymandering.

For months, progressives have been clamoring for congressional Democrats to repeal the Senate's 60-vote filibuster rule and pass pro-democracy reforms.

Before Texas' GOP-controlled Legislature approved its heavily gerrymandered maps last month, Berman warned that the Lone Star State's plan represented "an ominous sign of things to come in other Southern battleground states."

"Republicans need just five seats to take back the House," he added, "and could accomplish this through gerrymandering in Texas, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina."

In early August, before the U.S. Census Bureau released the latest decennial data used by state governments for redistricting, progressives—already dismayed by the right-wing assault on ballot access—sounded the alarm about the impending gerrymandering bonanza and urged congressional Democrats to prevent Republicans from carrying out an anti-democratic power grab that would have long-lasting consequences for human rights and the climate crisis.

Senate Democrats failed to abolish the filibuster and join their House counterparts in passing the For the People Act—a popular and far-reaching bill that would require independent redistricting commissions and also includes anti-corruption provisions as well as measures to neutralize the GOP's nationwide flurry of voter suppression laws and bills—prior to that mid-August deadline.

Although Democratic lawmakers did introduce the Freedom to Vote Act, a compromise bill endorsed by conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), in September, Senate Republicans obstructed the legislation last month, intensifying long-standing calls to end the filibuster.

And on Wednesday, all but one Republican senator blocked debate on the recently reintroduced John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, filibustering the third piece of pro-democracy legislation this year.

Just hours before that happened, Stand Up America founder and president Sean Eldridge was arrested alongside members of Martin Luther King Jr.'s family and other activists who engaged in civil disobedience outside the White House to demand that President Joe Biden publicly call on Senate Democrats to eliminate the filibuster and pass federal voting rights legislation.

"It is an honor to stand in solidarity with the King family and all of the civil rights leaders who put their bodies on the line today to demand action to protect the precious right to vote," Eldridge said in a statement.

"President Biden has said that we're facing the 'most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War,'" Eldridge continued. "It's time to act like it. We don't need more handwringing, more delays, or more excuses. We need action on voting rights now."

"It's time for President Biden to loudly call on the Senate to end the Jim Crow filibuster and protect the freedom to vote," he added.

Last month, Li said that if Senate Democrats reform or scrap the filibuster and pass the Freedom to Vote Act, racial and partisan gerrymandering of the sort being pushed by right-wing lawmakers in multiple states would be outlawed.

With Republican lawmakers' proposed redistricting maps set to become law in just a matter of days or weeks, Berman stressed last month, "Democrats are running out of time to pass it or devise a strategy for overcoming a GOP filibuster—and could soon be powerless to stop the GOP's takeover of the U.S. House and state Capitols for the next decade."

Progressives vow to 'push very hard' to keep agenda from being gutted beyond recognition

Reps. Ro Khanna, Ilhan Omar, and other House progressives on Monday stressed that they will fight for the inclusion of dental, hearing, and vision benefits, along with a host of other popular measures, in the Build Back Better agenda put on the chopping block by corporate Democrats.

Echoing Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) weekend remarks that a proposed expansion of Medicare benefits—one of the pending legislative package's most popular provisions—is "not coming out" of the reconciliation bill to appease right-wing Democrats, Khanna (D-Calif.) told Democracy Now's Amy Goodman that the Vermont Independent "is absolutely right."

"Now, it's up to progressive lawmakers to ensure the final Biden agenda bill doesn't end up a hollowed-out shell that won't meaningfully help anyone."

"This is actually the most popular part of the Build Back Better agenda," said Khanna. "That's not an opinion; it's a fact, if you look at the polling."

Surveys show that 84% of U.S. adults, including nearly nine in 10 Democratic voters, support Sanders' long-standing proposal to expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing, and vision care for tens of millions of older Americans.

"It's not coming out," Khanna added. "We will push very hard to make sure it stays in. I know that this is a top priority for the senator, and it's a top priority for House progressives."

Khanna's comments came in the wake of a Saturday night news dump from Politico, which reported that President Joe Biden and congressional leaders are considering removing Medicare expansion, as well as guaranteed paid family leave, from the Build Back Better Act in order to satisfy Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) demand to slash the reconciliation bill's 10-year spending level from $3.5 trillion to $1.5 trillion.

The original Build Back Better Act is overwhelmingly popular, and while the legislation is immune to a GOP filibuster, passing it through the budget reconciliation process requires the support of all 50 Senate Democrats and all but three House Democrats.

Following a weekend of White House negotiations, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told CNN on Sunday that congressional Democrats are close to finalizing the bill, which she and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) want to wrap up this week.

"Now, it's up to progressive lawmakers," the Daily Poster's Andrew Perez wrote Monday, "to ensure the final Biden agenda bill doesn't end up a hollowed-out shell that won't meaningfully help anyone."

In his interview, Khanna suggested that House progressives intend to push back against the Democratic Party's conservative obstructionists, whose opposition to the Build Back Better Act's transformative proposals has resulted in a significantly weaker version of the bill.

Asked about paid family leave, which was already on the verge of being cut to four weeks before it was reported that the number could actually be zero, Khanna said, "It's absurd to have it at four weeks."

"This is an area, again, where progressives are pushing very hard," Khanna continued. "We're saying do the 12 weeks, do what every other wealthy democracy and wealthy nation does, every other OECD country does."

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The New York Times reported just over a week ago that Democratic leaders are prepared to nix the Clean Electricity Performance Program—the reconciliation bill's most important mechanism for promoting renewable energy and decarbonizing the nation's power grid—to secure the support of Manchin, a coal profiteer and Congress' top recipient of Big Oil cash.

According to Khanna: "If we're going to remove the climate energy program, that is the robust program of mandates and incentives to get us to 50% reduction by 2030—that's the president's goal—if we're going to remove that, we have to have an alternative to hit the president's goal. That is ongoing, that negotiation. Several ideas have been proposed: block grants to states, penalties for industrial polluters."

Khanna reiterated that progressive lawmakers in the House remain opposed to voting for the Senate-passed bipartisan physical infrastructure bill, "which has almost zero climate provisions, unless there is an agreed-upon deal on the reconciliation bill."

Omar (D-Minn.) suggested on Monday that the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) may also withhold its support for the Build Back Better Act if the package continues to be gutted beyond recognition.

"Let's be clear," Omar tweeted. "Votes need to be earned."

"Progressives are fighting to tackle the climate crisis, expand Medicare to cover dental, vision, and hearing, and guarantee family leave in America," she added. "These are the investments major countries make in their communities and we can too."

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) has also emphasized that no deals have yet been reached.

Saturday's report that expanded Medicare benefits and paid family leave benefits may be on the chopping block came just one day after Politico reported that "Congressional Democrats are watering down—and may entirely drop—a plan to have the government directly negotiate some Medicare drug prices in order to help clinch a deal on their sweeping social spending package."

Although polls indicate that voters want the federal government to take action against Big Pharma's deadly profiteering—and the party has promised for years that it would do something to mitigate the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs, for which Americans pay twice as much as people in other countries—industry-bankrolled corporate Democrats, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Reps. Kathleen Rice (N.Y.), Scott Peters (Calif.), Kurt Schrader (Ore.), and Bob Menendez (N.J.), are opposed to empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prices.

Neither Khanna nor Omar addressed Medicare drug price negotiation, but eliminating it would substantially reduce the ability of the reconciliation package to raise revenue, as would Sinema's opposition to increasing tax rates on corporations and wealthy individuals. One possible source of revenue that has emerged during Build Back Better negotiations is introducing a tax on the nation's 745 billionaires.

Perez argued that "none of these developments should come as a surprise—thanks to all the leeway progressives have provided to their conservative Democratic colleagues and their corporate masters."

He continued:

Yes, progressives in the House recently stood firm against holding a vote on the lobbyist-sculpted bipartisan Senate infrastructural deal, a maneuver that kept the broader Biden agenda bill alive. But it was only a narrow victory, in part because progressives have steadfastly refused to make specific, public demands about what must be in the broader reconciliation bill to secure their votes—giving corporate Democrats all the space they've needed to gut the legislation.
And when you look at the demands that progressives have made more quietly in press releases, it's clear that party leaders believe they are not at the table, but are instead on the menu.

"The only way to change those expectations—and to actually wield power—is for CPC members to pledge to vote no on a hollowed-out shell, and finally make their demands clear," wrote Perez. "If they don't, they'll likely get rolled, and no barrage of tweets or press releases, or email blasts will hide that avoidable outcome."

Manchin sparks fury with demands for work requirement and $60K income cap on child tax credit

Progressives responded with outrage following Sunday night's report that right-wing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has told the White House that he would only support prolonging the expanded child tax credit—a key component of his party's potentially historic investment in improving social welfare—if it includes a work requirement and limits benefits to households with annual incomes under $60,000.

"The White House needs to tell Joe Manchin 'no'... Six months of appeasement brings stuff like this that will guarantee Dem losses in 2022."

"The White House needs to tell Joe Manchin 'no'" Robert Cruickshank, campaign director at Demand Progress, tweeted in response to Axios' new reporting. "They haven't yet done so and instead six months of appeasement brings stuff like this that will guarantee Dem losses in 2022."

Originally expanded in March when President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, the child tax credit has provided millions of families—including those who are out of the workforce and lack taxable income—with monthly checks of up to $300 per child. If made permanent, analysts estimate that the policy would lift 4.3 million children out of poverty nationwide, including 25,000 kids in Manchin's home state of West Virginia.

Payments are currently set to expire at the end of the year, but House Democrats have proposed continuing relief through 2025. The proposed extension of the child tax credit is included in the Build Back Better Act, a popular bill that would raise taxes on corporations and on individuals with annual incomes above $400,000 in order to pay for a variety of anti-poverty initiatives and climate action.

A recent analysis by Accountable.US found that while approximately 96% of West Virginia children would benefit from an extension of the child tax credit, just 3.4% of West Virginia households—including the yacht-residing multimillionaire Manchin and his coal baron son—would see a higher tax rate.

Critics were quick to denounce Manchin for his hypocritical and punitive attempt to burden impoverished households with an onerous work requirement, which would exclude families with the greatest need for income support.

"Weird that Manchin's obsession with only helping the 'deserving' and resisting an 'entitlement society' ends when it comes to massive tax breaks for rich stockholders and wealthy heirs like himself and his family," tweeted New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie.

"America," noted The Daily Poster's David Sirota, "is a country that offers a preferential capital gains tax rate to rich people who collect passive income without working."

Others pointed out that Manchin's preferred income cap of $60,000 is so low that if adopted, the measure would only serve to punish children who were born into families of slightly higher—but still precarious—means.

"The thing about work requirements for child tax credits is that we all know it's just an idea designed to hurt people," Sirota added. "It's not even pretending to be a serious policy. It's just a sadistic idea deliberately crafted to inflict pain, for no actual reason."

HuffPost reporter Arthur Delaney concurred. According to him, denying the child tax credit to families that earn over $60,000 per year—rather than sticking with the existing cap of $150,000—would only cut program costs by roughly 28% because the majority of current beneficiaries are not affluent.

"Who besides a cartoon villain would ever think this is a good idea?" asked New York state Sen. Julia Salazar.

Democratic lawmakers can pass their ambitious social infrastructure package without Republican support through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process, but they cannot afford a single defection in the evenly split Senate, and they must secure the approval of all but three caucus members in the House given the lower chamber's razor-thin margins.

Despite the best efforts of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to prevent the reconciliation package from being means-tested to death, Manchin, who has raked in $1.5 million in campaign cash from corporate donors since 2011, and fellow conservative Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a leading recipient of Big Pharma money, are trying to tank Biden's agenda on behalf of anti-working class lobbyists.

"Means-testing is a choice to deprive millions of our neighbors of what they need simply to cope with a budget artificially limited by regressive tax policy."

Backed by Sinema and a few Wall Street-friendly House Democrats led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Manchin wants to reduce the legislation's topline figure from $3.5 trillion over 10 years to $1.5 trillion over a decade.

When accounting for projected revenue raised through the reconciliation bill's proposed tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the net cost of the Build Back Better Act drops to between $1 trillion and $1.75 trillion over a decade—or a per-year average of just $100 billion to $175 billion—amounting to roughly 0.3% to 0.6% of GDP.

Manchin, meanwhile, has voted for every Pentagon budget since he was elected, rubber-stamping $9.1 trillion in military spending between 2011 and 2020 while continuing to portray himself as "fiscally responsible."

Manchin's attempt to drastically weaken the Build Back Better Act's child tax credit proposal came just two days after the lawmaker—Congress' top recipient of oil, gas, and coal industry donations this election cycle who has refused to answer questions about how he profits from his family's dirty energy business—told the White House that he is firmly opposed to the Clean Electricity Performance Program, one of the reconciliation bill's provisions to decarbonize the nation's power grid.

The West Virginia Democrat's self-interested effort to torpedo policies to promote renewable energy persists even as the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency threatens his constituents with the worst flood risks in the nation.

In addition to exacerbating deadly extreme weather disasters, Manchin's obstruction of the Build Back Better Act could cost his constituents $16.6 billion in public funding and 31,583 jobs over the next 10 years, according to a study released last month by the Green New Deal Network.

Last week, in a Washington Post op-ed decrying the folly of means-testing, Democratic Reps. Mondaire Jones (N.Y.) and Katie Porter (Calif.) argued that "universal programs are good policy and good politics. They build solidarity that helps them stand the test of time—when we all have a stake in the success of a public program, it can withstand changing political winds."

"Medicare and Social Security are so untouchable that Donald Trump ran on protecting them," wrote the duo. "Means-tested programs such as SNAP and TANF, in contrast, have been cut by Democrats and Republicans alike in the past decade."

The pair of lawmakers continued: "We need to show that government can still work for all Americans. We do that by creating programs that are broadly accessible, understandable, and beneficial. That's why the child care program that we fought to include in the Build Back Better Act in the House doesn't include means-testing, and why we're fighting to keep means-testing out of any part of the final bill that's signed into law."

"Fundamentally," Jones and Porter added, "means-testing is a choice to deprive millions of our neighbors of what they need simply to cope with a budget artificially limited by regressive tax policy. The truth is, there is enough to go around when we make the wealthiest Americans and big corporations pay their fair shares."

Manchin admits getting his bill passed and then tanking progressive package was always the plan

Sen. Joe Manchin admitted Thursday, ahead of a scheduled House vote on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill, that it had been corporate Democrats' plan all along to first secure passage of their fossil fuel-friendly legislation and then undermine the party's more ambitious reconciliation package that proposes investing up to $3.5 trillion over a decade in clean energy and the social safety net.

The conservative West Virginia Democrat told reporters Thursday that on July 28, he secured a signed agreement (pdf) from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) outlining his conditions for voting on the final reconciliation bill.

A spokesperson for Schumer, meanwhile, told Politico that "Schumer never agreed to any of the conditions Sen. Manchin laid out; he merely acknowledged where Sen. Manchin was on the subject at the time."

In addition to demanding a topline figure no higher than $1.5 trillion, something he reiterated on Thursday, Manchin said in July that he wanted to delay debate on the reconciliation package until October 1.

Meanwhile, a small group of corporate-funded House Democrats—led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.) and supported by Manchin and fellow right-wing Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.)—in August pressured Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to bring the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF) to the floor by September 27 in exchange for their votes on the $3.5 trillion budget resolution that enabled lawmakers to draft the Build Back Better Act, as the reconciliation package has since been named.

Critics were quick to point out the significance of Manchin's revelation.

"It sure feeds the idea that their goal is to pass BIF then bail on reconciliation," noted former Senate staffer Adam Jentleson, now executive director of the Battle Born Collective, a progressive messaging firm.

Ezra Levin, co-founder and co-executive director of Indivisible, a progressive advocacy group, expressed gratitude for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has vowed to secure President Joe Biden's entire domestic policy agenda by voting down the bipartisan physical infrastructure bill until Congress passes the popular Build Back Better Act—a broader social infrastructure package that would fund climate action and anti-poverty measures by raising taxes on corporations and the rich—through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process.

It remains unclear whether Pelosi still plans to bring the BIF to a vote on Thursday, but progressives' pledge to block the bipartisan bill until it is relinked with the reconciliation package is consistent with the deal that Democratic Party leaders outlined months ago to keep both pieces of legislation connected and advance them together.

In June, Pelosi said that the House would not take up either piece of legislation until the Senate passed both. Last month, she successfully got Gottheimer and the other holdouts to vote for the $3.5 trillion budget blueprint. In order to secure their support, however, Pelosi agreed to hold a late-September vote on the Senate-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as the BIF is also known.

Pelosi's decision on Monday to schedule a vote on the bipartisan bill even though the reconciliation package is not yet ready, let alone approved—a reversal of her earlier promise to not decouple the two pieces of legislation—has been sharply rebuked by progressives in the House as well as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

As Sanders said Tuesday, "If the bipartisan infrastructure bill is passed on its own on Thursday, this will be in violation of an agreement that was reached within the Democratic Caucus in Congress."

"More importantly," Sanders warned, "it will end all leverage that we have to pass a major reconciliation bill."

"That means there will be no serious effort to address the long-neglected crises facing the working families of our country, the children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor," he added. "It also means that Congress will continue to ignore the existential threat to our country and planet with regard to climate change."

Critics slam Manchin for invoking 'brutal fiscal reality' to defend tanking of Biden agenda

Just ahead of Sen. Joe Manchin's Thursday declaration that $1.5 trillion is his topline number for the reconciliation bill, the corporate Democrat referred to the United States' so-called "brutal fiscal reality" on Wednesday to defend his opposition to the Democratic Party's 10-year, $3.5 trillion package—a justification progressives criticized as baseless and a threat to Americans' future well-being.

"While I am hopeful that common ground can be found that would result in another historic investment in our nation, I cannot—and will not—support trillions in spending or an all or nothing approach that ignores the brutal fiscal reality our nation faces," Manchin (D-W.Va.) said Wednesday night in a statement, adding that he wants to "pass on a better America to the next generation."

"There is no brutal fiscal reality the nation faces," MSNBC's Chris Hayes responded in an all-caps tweet. "It is entirely made up!"

Researcher and writer David Atkins echoed Hayes.

"Needless to say, our country does not face a 'brutal fiscal reality,'" tweeted Atkins. "Our debt-to-GDP ratio is well within reasonable limits, it is fiscally prudent to make good investments in the nation's future, and any potential inflation can be handled by taxing [the] obscenely wealthy."

Warren Gunnels, staff director for Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), juxtaposed Manchin's deficit fear-mongering with his refusal to address the growing needs of the working class, pointing to worsening poverty in West Virginia and an intensifying global climate crisis.

"No reconciliation, no deal," Gunnels stressed, reiterating the Congressional Progressive Caucus' well-publicized strategy for securing President Joe Biden's entire domestic policy agenda.

Manchin's statement came as the House prepared for a Thursday vote on the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a widely criticized, fossil fuel-friendly bill—of which Manchin was a key architect—that was passed by the Senate in July and would authorize $550 billion in new spending to upgrade the nation's roads, bridges, and ports.

Dozens of progressive lawmakers in the House have vowed to block the bipartisan physical infrastructure bill until Congress passes the popular Build Back Better Act—a broader social infrastructure package that includes climate action and anti-poverty measures—through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process.

While progressives are sticking to the deal that Democratic Party leaders outlined months ago to keep both pieces of legislation linked and advance them together, Manchin and fellow right-wing congressional Democrats, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and a handful of House lawmakers led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), are refusing to drop their opposition to the more ambitious bill after receiving thousands of dollars in campaign donations from corporations actively lobbying against it.

Other critics of Manchin have drawn attention to the fact that the conservative lawmaker has routinely voted for annual Pentagon budgets approaching or surpassing $700 billion, which translates to roughly $7 trillion over the course of 10 years. That's twice as much spending on militarization as what the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill would invest over a decade in healthcare, child care, housing, and renewable energy.

When accounting for projected revenue raised through the reconciliation bill's proposed tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the net cost of the Build Back Better Act drops to $1 trillion to $1.75 trillion over a decade, or a per-year average of just $100 billion to $175 billion, amounting to roughly 0.3% to 0.6% of GDP.

In a series of tweets, economist Gabriel Zucman highlighted "the brutal fiscal reality," which is that "the cost of the bill is in fact quite small and wealth at the top quite big."

According to Zucman, an annual wealth tax of 8% on the nation's nine centi-billionaires would generate approximately $100 billion—offsetting the full cost of the expanded child tax credit, the extension of which Manchin and other corporate Democrats are obstructing.

Moreover, Zucman noted, "an annual 0.3% wealth tax on the top 10%—similar to the one that exists in Switzerland—would fund the entire $3.5 trillion bill."

Manchin on Wednesday night claimed that "the amount we spend now must be balanced with what we need and can afford—not designed to reengineer the social and economic fabric of this nation or vengefully tax for the sake of wishful spending."

That comment came just hours after the conservative lawmaker—already Congress' top recipient of cash from the oil, gas, and coal industry this election cycle—refused to answer questions about how he profits from a family business that sells coal to power plants in his home state of West Virginia.

A recent survey (pdf) commissioned by Americans for Tax Fairness showed that when voters in West Virginia were made aware of the reconciliation bill's proposals to raise taxes on corporations and the rich while closing loopholes that have exacerbated wealth inequality—reforms that Manchin dismissed as "vengeful"—support for the legislation increased from 48% to 70%.

According to a study (pdf) released last week by the Green New Deal Network, Manchin's obstruction of the Build Back Better Act could cost his constituents $16.6 billion in public funding and 31,583 jobs over the next 10 years.

FBI releases first declassified 9/11 document following Biden order

The Federal Bureau of Investigation on Saturday night released a previously withheld document related to its probe of the September 11, 2001 attacks and allegations of Saudi government support for the plane hijackers.

The 16-page document, which was written in 2016 and remains heavily redacted, is the first of several classified records expected to be published in the coming months following an executive order issued last week by U.S. President Joe Biden.

CNN reported that the newly declassified document, which summarizes an investigation called Operation ENCORE, "provides details of the FBI's work to investigate the alleged logistical support that a Saudi consular official and a suspected Saudi intelligence agent in Los Angeles provided to at least two of the men who hijacked planes."

"It details multiple connections and witness testimony that prompted FBI suspicion of Omar al-Bayoumi, who was purportedly a Saudi student in Los Angeles but whom the FBI suspected to be a Saudi intelligence agent," CNN noted. "The FBI document describes him as deeply involved in providing 'travel assistance, lodging and financing' to help the two hijackers."

In addition, NPR noted that while the 9/11 Commission Report released in 2004 "was largely unable to tie the Saudi men to the hijackers, the FBI document describes multiple connections and phone calls."

According to the news outlet:

Years ago, the Commission wrote that when it came to the Saudi diplomat Fahad al-Thumairy, "We have not found evidence that Thumairy provided assistance to the two hijackers." A decade later, it appears FBI agents came to a different conclusion. The report says Thumairy "tasked" an associate to help the hijackers when they arrived in Los Angeles, and told the associate the hijackers were "two very significant people," more than a year before the attacks.

Although the FBI document "outlined contacts between the hijackers and Saudi associates," it supplied "no evidence the government in Riyadh was complicit in the attacks," Reuters reported.

Last week, the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., said in a statement that it "welcomes the release of" the documents, and that "any allegation that Saudi Arabia is complicit in the September 11 attacks is categorically false."

"As past investigations have revealed, including the 9/11 Commission and the release of the so-called '28 Pages,' no evidence has ever emerged to indicate that the Saudi government or its officials had previous knowledge of the terrorist attack or were in any way involved," the embassy added.

Reuters reported:

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. A U.S. government commission found no evidence that Saudi Arabia directly funded al Qaeda, the group given safe haven by the Taliban in Afghanistan at the time. It left open whether individual Saudi officials might have.
The families of roughly 2,500 of those killed, and more than 20,000 people who suffered injuries, businesses and various insurers, have sued Saudi Arabia seeking billions of dollars.

According to NPR, "While the report does not draw any direct links between hijackers and the Saudi Arabian government as a whole, Jim Kreindler, who represents many of the families suing Saudi Arabia, said the report validates the arguments they have made in the case."

"This document, together with the public evidence gathered to date, provides a blueprint for how al-Qaeda operated inside the U.S.," he said, "with the active, knowing support of the Saudi government."

In response to public disclosure of the FBI document, 9/11 Families United said in a statement that "this report and other evidence confirms that it was a group of Saudi government officials affiliated with the Kingdom's Ministry of Islamic Affairs, the cradle of Wahhabi extremism within the Saudi government, who came immediately to their aid as they commenced their terrorist preparations."

"Even with the unfortunate number of redactions, the report contains a host of bombshell new revelations, implicating numerous Saudi government officials, in a coordinated effort to mobilize an essential support network for the first arriving 9/11 hijackers, Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Mihdhar," the organization continued. "The range of contacts at critical moments among these Saudi government officials, al-Qaeda, and the hijackers is stunning."

"Now the Saudis' secrets are exposed and it is well past time for the Kingdom to own up to its officials' roles in murdering thousands on American soil," Terry Strada, whose husband Tom was killed in the attack, said on behalf of the group.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, however, "reaffirmed Sunday that his country welcomes the decision by the U.S. to release classified documents relating to its investigation of the attacks, saying the documents 'would completely show that there was no (Saudi) involvement' in the attacks," CNN reported.

Biden's order came a month after nearly 1,800 family members, survivors, and first responders sent a letter (pdf) urging the president to steer clear of memorial events marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11 unless he declassified information that they claimed would reveal how Saudi government officials "materially supported" the hijackers.

Biden to issue COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal workers

During a Thursday night speech laying out his administration's plans to contain the coronavirus pandemic that continues to overwhelm the nation's hospitals, U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to announce that the vast majority of federal workers must be vaccinated against Covid-19.

According to the New York Times, "The mandate will apply to employees of the executive branch, including the White House and all federal agencies and members of the armed services—a workforce that numbers more than four million—but not to those who work for Congress or the federal court system."

Unlike the existing vaccine rules for federal workers that Biden implemented earlier this summer, the president's forthcoming executive order will not allow employees to opt out through regular testing, CNN reported, citing an unnamed source familiar with the plans.

Biden is also expected to sign another executive order that would extend the same standard to contractors who work with the federal government.

The Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Indian Health Service, and the National Institute of Health already announced mandatory vaccination requirements for their 2.5 million workers.

The White House has praised employers in the public and private sectors for requiring workers to be inoculated, CNN noted, and wants the federal government to "act as a model" for companies throughout the country.

Biden is expected to encourage businesses to impose stronger vaccine rules on employees and customers during his speech on Thursday.

The president is also reportedly set to announce an expansion of free testing, which public health officials have said is increasingly crucial as some adults return to workplaces and now that millions of kids, many of whom are vaccine-ineligible, are back in classrooms.

Children, who now account for approximately 27% of new Covid-19 cases, have been made more susceptible to infection in states where GOP governors have banned mask-wearing requirements, another topic Biden is expected to address on Thursday.

Biden will also reportedly discuss booster shots, which have been a source of confusion due to uncertainty about when third doses will be authorized as well as criticism given the vast inequities in global vaccine access.

Covid-19 has killed roughly 653,000 people in the U.S., while the global death toll has climbed to nearly 4.6 million.

'Unacceptable': US Treasury says 89 percent of rental aid still not disbursed

As the White House prepares for a U.S. Supreme Court order that could invalidate the new federal eviction moratorium, data released Wednesday revealed that state and local governments have disbursed just 11% of the funds that Congress allocated to help pay off debts accrued by renters during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"States... must immediately get these funds to renters with the urgency this crisis demands."
—Rep. Mondaire Jones

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, only $1.7 billion was distributed in July. The New York Times reported that last month's amount "was a modest increase from the prior month, bringing the total aid disbursed thus far to about $5.1 billion." That's a small fraction of the $46.5 billion that Congress appropriated for rental assistance in two coronavirus relief packages passed in the last year.

"This is unacceptable," Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) said in response to the new figures. "We fought to extend the eviction moratorium to give states a chance to distribute these funds, but time is of the essence."

Just weeks ago, a group of progressive lawmakers led by Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) held overnight rallies outside the Capitol to pressure President Joe Biden to extend the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's nationwide eviction moratorium. While Biden let the previous CDC order lapse on July 31, sustained direct action pushed his administration to implement on August 3 a new, more limited 60-day ban on evictions to give state and local governments more time to distribute rent relief.

Jones said Wednesday that "states... must immediately get these funds to renters with the urgency this crisis demands."

The Times noted that the new data came as the Biden administration "mapped out policy contingencies if the Supreme Court strikes down the moratorium, which is the administration's principal safeguard for hundreds of thousands of low-income and working class tenants hit hardest by the pandemic." The White House anticipates a decision as soon as this week.

According to the Times, Treasury Department and White House officials said during a Tuesday night conference call that while some progress has been made this month, states are delivering rental aid at such a slow pace that an eviction surge is likely even if the high court allows the new ban to continue until its scheduled October 2 expiration date.

The newspaper added:

On Wednesday, the Treasury Department rolled out a slate of incremental changes intended to pressure states to move more quickly. But administration officials continue to blame the program's struggles on local officials, many of whom are reluctant to take advantage of the program's new fast-track application process, which allows tenants to self-certify their financial information.
In recent weeks, local officials have complained that moving too fast on aid applications could lead to errors, fraud, and audits; the White House has countered by telling them those risks are insignificant compared with a wave of evictions hitting tenants who did not get their aid quickly enough to keep a roof over their heads.

Journalist Brian Goldstone argued that the unwillingness of local agencies to expedite the allocation of funds, including by giving money directly to renters, means that "they trust landlords—but not tenants—to tell the truth."

The Times noted that many landlords "have rejected the federal aid, arguing that evicting nonpaying tenants is not only their right but the most effective way of ensuring their revenue is not interrupted in the future."

Matt Ford of The New Republic called the situation "a colossal failure of governance."

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Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott calls another special session to attack voting rights

Just weeks after Texas Democrats defeated a sweeping voter suppression bill by fleeing the state to deny Republican lawmakers the quorum necessary to proceed to a vote, far-right Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday announced another special session, prompting pro-democracy advocates to denounce the Lone Star State GOP's relentless assault on voting rights.

"The decision to call a second special session is nothing more than a partisan power grab to distract us from the real challenges our communities face."
—Stephanie Gómez, Common Cause Texas

"While a deadly pandemic and an energy crisis threaten our way of life in Texas, Gov. Abbott remains focused on stripping away the rights of thousands of Texans," Stephanie Gómez, associate director of Common Cause Texas, said in a statement.

"Texas is already the most difficult place to vote in the entire country, but the governor and partisan legislators want to make it even harder for us to cast a ballot and have our vote be counted," Gómez continued. "The decision to call a second special session is nothing more than a partisan power grab to distract us from the real challenges our communities face, like taking action to slow the spread of the Delta variant and address our failing energy grid."

The upcoming special session of the Texas state Legislature—this summer's second—is set to begin on Saturday, August 7.

Prior to the aborted July meeting, only one other special session had been called in the past five years and just five special sessions had been called over the past decade, according to Texas legislative records.

While Abbott's attempt to ram through the state GOP's voter suppression bill in multiple legislative sessions is unprecedented, his announcement (pdf) Thursday did not come as a surprise.

The right-wing governor has made clear that the purpose of his special sessions is to enact restrictive voting legislation.

"I will continue to call special session, after special session, after special session every single month until we address and vote on these bills," Abbott said in an interview shortly after Texas Democrats left the state on July 12.

Last month's special session came after state Democratic lawmakers in late May successfully thwarted the Texas GOP's voter suppression bill for the first time—by walking off the House floor, thereby denying the chamber's Republican majority quorum and bringing the regular session to a close.

"The governor and partisan legislators waging war on our right to vote failed to pass anti-democratic legislation in the regular session and the last special session," Gómez said Thursday. "Texans are ready to make sure they fail again."

Dozens of Texas Democrats, as well as more than a hundred lawmakers from other states, have gathered in Washington, D.C., where they are urging Democratic members of Congress to act immediately to protect U.S. democracy amid the GOP's nationwide attacks on the franchise.

Although state lawmakers and progressive advocates have not yet persuaded Senate Democrats to scrap the filibuster and pass the For the People Act, a trio of congressional Democrats did take one step toward advancing democracy this week by unveiling a bill described by its lead Senate sponsor as the "first-ever affirmative federal voting rights guarantee for all U.S. citizens."

As Common Dreams reported, the Right to Vote Act—introduced Wednesday in the House by Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) and in the upper chamber by Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.)—would for the first time establish a statutory right to vote in federal elections.

If passed, the legislation would enable Americans to mount legal challenges to any policies that make it harder to cast ballots, and it would counter voter suppression efforts by requiring state officials to prove claims of electoral fraud.

Gómez, for her part, said that "in Texas, we cherish our freedom to vote and have a voice in our government. We believe there is nothing more sacred than our constitutionally protected right to have a say on the issues that impact our everyday lives."

"Common Cause Texas will continue to fight day and night for our voting rights," she added, "no matter how many special sessions the governor calls."

'Historic victory': Bayer to end US residential sales of glyphosate-based herbicides

In a move that environmental groups celebrated as a "historic victory" following years of campaigning to remove Roundup and similar weedkillers from store shelves, Bayer on Thursday announced that it will halt the sale of glyphosate-based herbicides to consumers in the U.S. lawn and garden market by 2023.

"Bayer's decision to end U.S. residential sale[s] of Roundup is a historic victory for public health and the environment," Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), said in a statement.

"As agricultural, large-scale use of this toxic pesticide continues," he added, "our farmworkers remain at risk. It's time for EPA to act and ban glyphosate for all uses."

While calling the announcement "an important victory to protect the health of Americans," Kendra Klein, senior scientist at Friends of the Earth, stressed that "action on this toxic weedkiller can't wait until 2023. Major home and garden retailers like Home Depot and Lowe's must lead the industry by ending the sales of Roundup immediately."

The key ingredient found in Roundup, the world's most widely used herbicide, is glyphosate. Described by the World Health Organization as "probably carcinogenic," glyphosate poses threats to human health and to pollinators such as bumblebees and monarch butterflies.

Bayer stated that it will switch Roundup and other glyphosate-based weedkillers to formulas that "rely on alternative active ingredients" in order to "manage litigation risk and not because of any safety concerns."

Thursday's decision came in response to several legal battles that Bayer, a German pharmaceutical and biotech corporation, inherited when it acquired Monsanto, a U.S. agrochemical giant and creator of Roundup, in 2018.

Last year, Bayer announced multiple massive settlements totaling more than $11 billion to compensate individuals harmed by two Monsanto herbicides.

In one case, the company agreed to pay $10.9 billion to about 125,000 people who alleged the use of Roundup was to blame for their cancer diagnoses.

The Roundup litigation settlement was preceded by three high-profile lawsuits, in which juries sided with plaintiffs suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma "in finding that their exposure to glyphosate contributed to their cancers," CFS explained. "Plaintiffs Edwin Hardeman, DeWayne Johnson, and Alberta and Alva Pilliod were each awarded between $25 to $87 million."

"Massive amounts of glyphosate will continue to be sprayed in parks, schools, and on food crops."
—Kendra Klein, Friends of the Earth

Two months ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco affirmed a lower court ruling in Hardeman v. Monsanto, which found that Monsanto had failed to disclose the dangers glyphosate poses to human health and must be held accountable for the cancer suffered by users of Roundup.

By upholding the previous judgment against Monsanto, Kimbrell said at the time, the court "unanimously rejected Bayer's argument that Mr. Hardeman and thousands of others harmed by their products are prohibited by federal law from suing to redress their injuries."

In a separate settlement last year, Bayer agreed to pay $400 million to thousands of farmers whose crops had been damaged as a result of the widespread drift of Monsanto's dicamba herbicide. That agreement was preceded by two lawsuits that, according to CFS, "likely provided impetus for Bayer to settle."

In California, jury trials over Monsanto's Roundup and dicamba products continue to be held.

Meanwhile, CFS is also currently representing a coalition of farmworkers and environmentalists in a lawsuit that seeks to reverse the Environmental Protection Agency's approval of glyphosate, which was reviewed and registered in January 2020 by Trump administration officials.

While President Joe Biden's EPA admitted in May that the Trump-era assessment of glyphosate was flawed and requires a do-over, the agency failed to provide a deadline for a new decision and argued that Roundup should remain on U.S. shelves in the meantime.

Given that Bayer's decision to stop selling glyphosate-based herbicides by 2023 only applies to consumers in the U.S. lawn and garden market, Klein emphasized that "the battle against this toxic chemical is far from over."

"Massive amounts of glyphosate will continue to be sprayed in parks, schools, and on food crops," she added. "Retailers and regulators must act now to ban this cancer-linked weedkiller."

'No one is safe': Phone numbers of 3 presidents and other world leaders on Pegasus spying list

The Washington Post on Tuesday revealed that three presidents, 10 prime ministers, and a king are among the more than 50,000 individuals whose phone numbers appeared on a leaked list of potential targets of Pegasus, the military-grade spyware licensed by Israeli firm NSO Group, prompting human rights defenders to call for a global crackdown on the surveillance industry's invasive technologies.

According to the Post, the phone numbers of hundreds of public officials, including 14 heads of state and government, appeared on the list. It was not possible to confirm if the world leaders' smartphones had been infected with Pegasus, however, because none agreed to a forensic analysis of their iPhones or Android devices.

The newspaper reported that the list included three siting presidents (France's Emmanuel Macron, Iraq's Barham Salih, and South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa) and three current prime ministers (Egypt's Mostafa Madbouly, Morocco's Saad-Eddine El Othmani, and Pakistan's Imran Khan). Also on the list were seven former prime ministers, whose numbers were added while they were still in office, according to time stamps.

"If 10 prime ministers and three presidents can't be safe from mercenary spyware, what chance do the rest of us stand?" asked John Scott Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, part of the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. "Since the hacking industry is incapable of self-control, governments must step up."

Railton's message was echoed by Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who has lived in Russia with asylum protections since leaking classified materials on U.S. government mass surveillance in 2013.

"No one is safe from the out-of-control designer spyware industry," said Snowden. "Export controls have failed as a means of regulating this easily abused technology. Without an immediate global moratorium on the trade, this will only get worse."

After obtaining the leaked list of phone numbers, Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media nonprofit, and Amnesty International shared the data with more than 80 journalists from 17 news outlets in 10 countries. The media consortium's collaborative investigation, dubbed the Pegasus Project, was first made public on Sunday. Since then, partner newsrooms have been disclosing more information about the worldwide reach of Pegasus, NSO's signature hacking tool.

As the Post reported Tuesday:

NSO—just one of several major players in this market—says it has 60 government agency clients in 40 countries. In every case, the company says, the targets are supposed to be terrorists and criminals, such as pedophiles, drug lords, and human traffickers. The company says it specifically prohibits targeting law-abiding citizens, including government officials carrying out their ordinary business.

But recent revelations about the targeting of activists, journalists, and politicians contradict NSO's claims.

Etienne Maynier, a technologist at Amnesty's Security Lab, said Sunday in a statement that the Pegasus Project hopes "the damning evidence published over the next week will lead governments to overhaul a surveillance industry that is out of control."

So far, there has been a strong outcry from experts and critics who say that Pegasus malware has been used to facilitate human rights violations around the world.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Monday in a statement that the revelations "are extremely alarming, and seem to confirm some of the worst fears about the potential misuse of surveillance technology to illegally undermine people's human rights."

"If the recent allegations about the use of Pegasus are even partly true," she added, "then that red line has been crossed again and again with total impunity."

Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, on Sunday argued that "the number of journalists identified as targets vividly illustrates how Pegasus is used as a tool to intimidate critical media. It is about controlling [the] public narrative, resisting scrutiny, and suppressing any dissenting voice."

"Until this company and the industry as a whole can show it is capable of respecting human rights," she added, "there must be an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology."

'Pandemic is not over': As Delta variant spreads, US Surgeon General 'worried about what is to come'

During appearances on multiple Sunday talk shows, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy expressed dismay over the current surge in Covid-19 cases—more than half of which are now linked to the highly transmissible Delta variant—throughout the country, especially in areas with low inoculation rates, and urged people to get vaccinated swiftly.

"We've made so much progress over this past year, but what I worry about are those... millions of people in our country who are not vaccinated."
—Dr. Vivek Murthy

"I am worried about what is to come because we are seeing increasing cases among the unvaccinated in particular," Murthy told Dana Bash, host of CNN's "State of the Union."

"And while if you are vaccinated you are very well protected against hospitalization and death, unfortunately, that is not true if you are not vaccinated," said Murthy.

According to the surgeon general, 99.5% of Covid-19 deaths now occurring in the U.S. are among the unvaccinated.

"That's why it's so important," said Murthy, "that we take every measure possible to make sure people have the information they need about the vaccine, to make sure they have access to the vaccine, and to help them get vaccinated as quickly as possible." He added that "it is our fastest, most effective way out of this pandemic."

The surgeon general's comments came amid a dramatic nationwide increase in the average number of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the average number of new reported cases (26,306 per day) has grown by 69.3% since last week, while the average number of hospitalizations (2,794 per day) and deaths (211 per day) have grown by 35.8% and 26.3%, respectively, during the same time period.

Although the U.S. made some progress in combating the virus during the first few months of the year, the highly transmissible Delta variant has become dominant in recent weeks at the same time as fewer people have been getting vaccinated, leading to an uptick in infections and mortality.

Last week, the number of doses administered per day (270,592) declined by 35.7% compared with the previous 7-day moving average. Since peaking in mid-April, when the U.S. was giving out roughly 3.4 million shots each day, on average, the pace of vaccination has declined steadily. Overall, 55.8% of the total U.S. population have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while less than half (48.4%) have been fully inoculated.

US vaccination rate

As the U.S. vaccination drive stalled, the global circulation of more contagious variants continued. While the Delta variant was responsible for just over 3% of new cases at the end of May, the CDC now predicts that 57.6% of reported cases can be attributed to it.

The rapidly spreading Delta variant is hitting states and counties with low vaccination rates particularly hard.

A recent CNN analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University and the CDC showed that "states that have fully vaccinated more than half of their residents reported an average of 2.8 new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people each day last week, compared to an average of about 7.8 cases per 100,000 people each day in states that have vaccinated less than half of their residents."

Earlier this month, researchers at Georgetown University pinpointed five undervaccinated clusters in the U.S. that are impeding the ability of the nation and world to contain the pandemic.

According to the team's analysis: "The five clusters are largely in parts of eight states, starting in the east in Georgia and stretching west to Texas and north to southern Missouri. The clusters also include parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, and are made up of mostly smaller counties but also cities such as Montgomery, Alabama; Shreveport, Louisiana; and Amarillo, Texas."

President Joe Biden on Friday accused social media platforms of "killing people" by allowing misinformation about vaccines and other coronavirus-related topics to proliferate on their sites. According to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, just 12 people are responsible for almost two-thirds of all anti-vaccine posts on social media, and yet "all of them remain active on Facebook."

When asked by Bash if conservative news outlets are also complicit in the dissemination of deadly misinformation, Murthy said that "I think all of us, including the media... individuals, and health professionals have the responsibility to share the truth about health... as science informs us."

"Unless we are honest about the consequences of our communication with people, unless we are rigorous about ensuring that what we communicate is actually sourced from science and not from opinion on critical issues like the vaccine... then we are going to ultimately put people at risk," added Murthy, who on Thursday released a Surgeon General Advisory entitled Confronting Health Misinformation (pdf).

As Common Dreams reported on Friday, experts have been particularly alarmed by Covid-19 lies and misinformation promoted by right-wing cable news and websites. Fox News has been a hotbed of anti-vaccine propaganda from both hosts and guests, but the network is not alone in spreading misinformation and sowing doubt. Last week, Newsmax host Rob Schmitt made a Social Darwinian argument that vaccines are "against nature."

During her Sunday morning segment, Martha Raddatz, host of ABC's "This Week," asked Murthy: "If we don't get this under control now, what do you anticipate the fall looking like?"

"I am deeply concerned," Murthy responded. "We've made so much progress over this past year, but what I worry about are those... millions of people in our country who are not vaccinated."

As millions of students prepare to return to school next month, Murthy drew attention to the vulnerability of young children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

"We have to still protect our children under 12 who don't have a vaccine available to them." Murthy added. "Our kids depend on the people around them being protected, being vaccinated in order to shield them from the virus. And that's why, again, it's so important for us to get vaccinated."

ABC News reported Sunday that "amid a surge in cases, Los Angeles County reinstated its indoor mask mandate in all public places for all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, and at least 10 additional counties in California, including the city of Berkeley, have highly recommended all residents wear masks indoors again."

Murthy told Raddatz that "in areas where there are low numbers of vaccinated people, where cases are rising, it's very reasonable for counties to take more mitigation measures, like the mask rules coming out of L.A.," adding that he "anticipate[s] that will happen in other parts of the country."

Alluding to the public health crisis that has killed nearly 610,000 people in the U.S. and over four million worldwide, Murthy told Chris Wallace on Sunday during an interview on Fox News that "this pandemic is not over."

Happy Holidays!