The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Power Up: White House big foots coronavirus relief negotiations

with Brent D. Griffiths

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On the Hill

HERE WE GO AGAIN: Negotiations over an economic relief package took a new turn last night after the White House interceded to demand “far skimpier” unemployment benefits in exchange for $600 direct stimulus payments per person and child, my colleagues Jeff Stein and Mike DeBonis scooped. 

The new bid by the White House throws a wrench into momentum that seemed to be growing around a bipartisan $908 billion package aimed at alleviating the economic pain of millions of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tuesday night bid by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “was a non-starter for Democrats and a rejection of the bipartisan efforts that have gotten the two parties closer to a compromise on a legislative package amid signs that the U.S. economy is deteriorating under the increasing strain of the coronavirus.” 

A second round of direct payments was excluded from both the bipartisan framework put forward last week by moderate senators and the separate legislation proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But it's a sticking point for the White House, along with a handful of Republican and Democratic lawmakers who are seeking to include direct payments in a new deal. 

However, the White House's plan to slash federal unemployment benefits was already drawing ire.

  • How the hell are you supposed to survive the next four months on $100 per week?," one senior Democratic aide told Jeff and Mike. 
  • While there’s an uptick in the flurry of activity surrounding bipartisan talks, there’s so far little evidence actual progress is being made, even as Democratic and Republican leaders insist that Congress will not leave for the holidays without a deal,” Politico's Marianne Levine and Burgess Everett report. 

While Mnuchin's new $916 billion proposal would extend unemployment benefits expiring at the end of the month, it does not include any supplementary federal benefit, meaning millions of jobless workers would receive no additional federal help, one person familiar with the plan told Jeff and Mike. 

  • The plan submitted by Mnuchin is almost certain to be viewed as a non-starter by Congressional Democrats, who have been adamant that the federal government provide additional income support to laid-off workers. It could also imperil revived talks over stimulus negotiations,” they report.
  • While the bipartisan framework did not include another round of stimulus payments, Congress would approve about $180 billion in new federal unemployment benefits for tens of millions of jobless Americans. That would be enough to fund federal supplementary unemployment benefits at $300 per week while extending various unemployment programs that are set to expire at the end of the year.” 

Hmmm: In March, Congress approved $1,200 stimulus checks for  eligible Americans. And President Trump has supported both supplemental unemployment benefits and another round of stimulus checks since the summer. Privately, the president has indicated he's willing to raise that amount to as much as $2,000, one person in direct communication with Trump told Jeff.

  • “I’d be surprised if he didn’t support $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for couples,” Sen. Josh Hawley told Politico's Burgess Everett on Tuesday after speaking with Trump about direct payments. “My sense is that it’s a very high priority. And he indicated as much to me on Saturday night when I spoke to him about it. He reiterated it again when I spoke to him today.”

McConnell offered to table the two other controversial sticking points before Mnuchin's deal that put them back on the table: a provision to shield businesses from liability from covid-19 related worker claims and state and local aid. However, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) quickly rejected the idea.

“Mitch doesn’t want a deal,” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) told reporters of McConnell's pitch to scrap both provisions. “You have to have both.”

  • Our colleagues Eli Rosenberg, Jeff and Mike point out an insignificant number of coronavirus-related lawsuits so far have been filed around the country: “An online complaint tracker from the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth shows that out of an overall pool of about 6,500 lawsuits filed across the country so far, only 116 have been filed by employees over issues such as lack of personal protective equipment, exposure or infections at work, and death. Consumers have filed an additional 29 personal-injury or wrongful-death claims related to virus exposure.”
  • “That’s like two to four lawsuits per state,” Hugh Baran, an expert on legal recourse for employees at the worker-focused National Employment Law Project, told them. “That’s a trickle. It’s not a flood. … This whole immunity bill that’s been proposed by McConnell and Cornyn is really a solution in search of a problem.”

Meanwhile: “Millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic have fallen thousands of dollars behind on rent and utility bills, a warning sign that people are running out of money for basic needs,” our colleague Heather Long reported earlier this week. 

  • “Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, Moody’s Analytics warns. Last month, 9 million renters said they were behind on rent, according to a Census Bureau survey.”
  • “The stakes are high for some 20 million Americans receiving some kind of unemployment aid, who have seen weekly checks dwindle since August, making it harder to pay bills. About 12 million unemployed are slated to have their benefits cut off entirely at the end of the year unless lawmakers act before then.”

Economic hardship is hitting families with children and people of color even harder:The numbers of those behind on rent and utilities were especially high for families with children, with 21 percent falling behind on rent, and among families of color. About 29 percent of Black families and 17 percent of Hispanic renters were behind, the Census Bureau reported, per Heather. 

  • “This is like a Charles Dickens novel,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. “It’s an evolving story of how people at the bottom are suffering.”

From the courts

ET TU, JUSTICES?: “The Supreme Court denied a last-minute attempt by Trump’s allies to overturn the election results in Pennsylvania, a blow to the president’s continuing efforts to reverse his loss to Democrat Joe Biden,” Robert Barnes and Elise Viebeck report.

  • Not a single justice, including the three Trump appointees, voiced their dissent: “It was the first request to delay or overturn the results of last month’s presidential election to reach the court, and it appears that Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s latest nominee, took part in the case.”

Trump allies haven't given up their hopes of overturning Joe Biden's win: “Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) filed a brash and sweeping complaint that asked the court to overturn Biden’s wins in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia,” our colleague writes.

  • Both Georgia senators support the suit: In short, both Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue want to overturn the will of their own constituents. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carson, a fellow Republican, slammed the effort.

Legal experts say the case is dubious and weak.

  • “My view in brief: this is a press release masquerading as a lawsuit,” writes Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine . “What utter garbage. Dangerous garbage, but garbage.”

The transition

BIDEN NAMES AGRICULTURE, HUD SECRETARIES: The president-elect has ­selected Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) as his secretary of housing and urban development. He also tapped former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to be Agriculture secretary, Annie Linskey, Matt Viser and Seung Min Kim report.

Fudge would be the second Black person to lead a department in his administration: “The three choices appeared choreographed to blunt criticism that Biden has received from Black advocacy organizations dissatisfied that before this week marquee jobs hadn’t gone to Black officials,” our colleagues write.

  • The congresswoman was initially being pushed by some for agriculture secretary: “Vilsack’s planned nomination followed efforts by Black allies of Biden to derail the former governor. Some civil rights leaders had initially backed Fudge, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, for that job in hopes that she would transform the agency into one with more focus on farmworkers, food production and alleviating hunger. Some also opposed Vilsack, saying he had been insensitive to a Black employee during his earlier tenure as agriculture secretary.”
  • If confirmed, Fudge's elevation would further weaken the Democratic House majority: “Biden has already tapped Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) for a senior adviser position in the White House, meaning the House Democratic majority could drop to as low as 220 members.”

Meanwhile, there is growing opposition Biden's choice for defense secretary — Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III because he has not been out of the military for the required seven years and would need a waiver to head the Pentagon. Congress approved such a waiver in 2017 to allow Trump to elevate Gen. Jim Mattis to the same role.

  • Uh oh: Choosing another recently retired general to serve in a role that is designed for a civilian just feels off,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who worked with Austin during a CIA deployment to Iraq, said in a statement Tuesday, per The Post's Karoun Demirjian.
  • Shot: “In 2017, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that ‘waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation’ and promised that he would ‘not support a waiver for future nominees,’” Karoun reports.
  • Chaser: “But on Tuesday, [Reed] told reporters that a waiver for Austin ‘has to be evaluated’ and would depend on ‘his aptitude and qualities,’” Karoun reported. "‘He’s an outstanding officer,’ Reed added."
  • “In particular, national security experts raised concerns about Austin’s lack of experience handling what many consider to be the most pressing challenge facing the United States for years to come: an increasingly aggressive China,” Bryan Bender and Lara Seligman of Politico reported.

Why? Biden decision to make history by picking the first Black Pentagon chief “appears to have been based heavily on his deep personal connection with the president-elect," Politico added.

  • “Austin also developed a close relationship with Biden’s late son, Beau, when he served on Austin’s staff in Iraq in 2008 and 2009, said one source close to the discussions, who asked not to be named to discuss private matters. Austin and the younger Biden attended Mass together, sitting side-by-side almost every Sunday, and they kept in touch after Beau returned from his deployment,” Politico wrote.
  • Biden explained his decision in a piece yesterday for The Atlantic, leading with an anecdote about Austin helming a key change of command in Iraq.
  • Key quote: General Austin got the job done. He played a crucial role in bringing 150,000 American troops home from the theater of war. Pulling that off took more than just the skill and strategy of a seasoned soldier. It required Austin to practice diplomacy, building relationships with our Iraqi counterparts and with our partners in the region. He served as a statesman, representing our country with honor and dignity and always, above all, looking out for his people.”
  • The other key quote: “I’ve spent countless hours with him, in the field and in the White House Situation Room. I’ve sought his advice, seen his command, and admired his calm and his character. He is the definition of a patriot.”
  • Read The Post's Dan Lamothe's profile of Austin here.
President-elect Joe Biden plans to name retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III to be defense secretary. If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black Pentagon Chief. (Video: Reuters)

At the White House

TRUMP AND BIDEN'S VACCINE SPLIT SCREEN: “One president all but declared victory over the pandemic, hailing new vaccines as a ‘medical miracle’ and congratulating himself for doing what ‘nobody has ever seen before.’ The next president declared the pandemic deadlier than ever, calling it a ‘mass casualty’ event that is leaving “a gaping hole” in America with more misery to come,” the New York Times's Peter Baker reports of the dueling virus-focused events on Tuesday.

  • Trump spoke at a vaccine summit, which failed to include any transition team members: “Now, let’s see whether or not somebody has the courage — whether it’s a legislator or legislatures, or whether it’s a justice of the Supreme Court or a number of justices of the Supreme Court,” Trump responded when asked about the absence.
President-elect Joe Biden on Dec. 8 introduced his plan to complete “100 million covid vaccine shots” in his first 100 days in office. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Biden laid out his three-point plan to combat the pandemic: He pledged to sign an executive order the day he is sworn in to require Americans to wear masks on buses and trains crossing state lines, as well as in federal buildings. He also vowed distribute “at least 100 million covid vaccine shots” during his first 100 days in office, Amy Goldstein reports.

  • And he wants to reopen as many schools as possible: “Biden called on Congress to devote the funding needed to make it safe for students and teachers to return to classrooms.”

FDA confirms the safety and efficacy of Pfizer's vaccine: “The Food and Drug Administration’s review, the first hint of how its career scientists are approaching one of the most momentous decisions in the agency’s history, arrived during a week that could mark a turning point in the pandemic,” Carolyn Y. Johnson, Laurie McGinley, Chris Alcantara and Aaron Steckelberg report.

The policies

HOUSE PASSES DEFENSE BILL OVER VETO THREATS: “The House passed a bipartisan, $741 billion defense authorization bill by a sizable veto-proof majority, throwing down the first of two expected gauntlets before Trump, who has escalated his threat to scuttle the legislation,” Karoun reports.

  • The legislation received more votes than an earlier version did this summer: “The 335-to-78 vote also represents a sharp rebuke to Trump’s exhortations to Republicans to vote against the measure: Fewer than half of the GOP lawmakers who opposed the initial defense bill over the summer voted against the bipartisan compromise Tuesday.”

Now, it's on to the Senate: The stronger the vote, the less chance of having to deal with a veto later,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters Monday, adding that GOP lawmakers should seriously weigh the “consequences of a no vote” before siding with Trump.

In the agencies

FACEBOOK ANTITRUST SUIT EXPECTED TODAY: “More than 40 attorneys general and the U.S. government are preparing to file antitrust lawsuits against Facebook, alleging that the tech giant engaged in unlawful, anticompetitive tactics to buy or kill off its rivals and solidify its dominance in social networking,” Tony Romm reports.

  • “The states’ lawsuit in particular is expected to allege that Facebook’s purchase of Instagram, a photo-sharing app, and WhatsApp, a messaging service, marked a pattern of behavior to neutralize competitive threats — allowing Facebook to become a market leader while depriving users of privacy-protective alternatives.”

In the media

‘The Macher’ is back: “Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who mixed business-friendly politics with liberal social policies over four hard-charging years as Virginia governor, will announce later this afternoon that he wants a second term,” Laura Vozzella scoops from Richmond.

  • Not everyone is happy: “[A] slew of political groups focused on women and Black voters have a message before he jumps in the race: It’s not your time … They argue he shouldn’t be trying to reclaim the post he vacated three years ago when there are already two Black female candidates in the field— state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy,” Politico's Sabrina Rodriguez and Maya King report.

Two of Biden's Cabinet nominees played a role in a criticized Clinton-era commutation: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whom Biden has announced he intends to nominate as health and human services secretary, and Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s pick for homeland security secretary ”played key roles in a clemency scandal that shook Los Angeles and Minnesota two decades ago, when the early release of a convicted cocaine trafficker raised complaints of political favoritism and drew sharp condemnations from prosecutors," Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger report.

  • The commutation came on Clinton's last day in office: “The  Carlos Vignali Jr. commutation drew intense scrutiny because a group of well-connected California Democrats who were friendly with Vignali’s father, Horacio — including Becerra, then a U.S. congressman, and Mayorkas, then the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles — communicated with White House officials about the matter before Clinton acted. Vignali’s father also paid $200,000 to Hugh Rodham, the brother of then-first lady Hillary Clinton, to help secure Vignali’s release.”


TO BE OR NOT BE VACCINATED?: “After an 81-year-old named William Shakespeare became the second person in the West to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine in Britain outside clinical trials Tuesday, social media erupted with joy, puns and many quotes from the great British playwright,” Jennifer Hassan reports.