President Biden on Friday toured a mass coronavirus vaccination facility in Houston, where he touted the progress that has been made so far in combating the pandemic, reassured Americans that vaccines are safe and urging them not to let their guard down in the coming months.

“Cases and hospitalizations could go back up as new variants emerge,” Biden said. “And it’s not the time to relax. We have to keep washing our hands, staying socially distanced, and for God’s sake, wear your mask. It’s not a political statement. It’s a patriotic thing to do.”

Earlier Friday, Biden surveyed recovery efforts from winter storms that left millions of Texans without power and clean water amid freezing temperatures.

While Biden is away from Washington, the House is debating, and is ultimately expected to pass, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that he has heavily pushed and that includes a new round of $1,400 stimulus checks to individuals.

Here’s what to know:
  • Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation that led to the brutal 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to a long-withheld U.S. intelligence report made public Friday.
  • The Biden administration conducted an airstrike in Syria that officials believe killed a number of alleged Iranian-linked fighters.
  • The acting chief of the U.S. Capitol Police warned lawmakers that extremists involved in the Jan. 6 riot “want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible” during Biden’s first congressional address.
  • The Conservative Political Action Conference continues in Orlando. Former president Donald Trump is expected to close out the conference Sunday.
  • One day after the Senate parliamentarian ruled against them, House Democrats intend to pass the coronavirus relief package with the $15 minimum wage included. It is unclear how the issue will ultimately be resolved.
12:51 a.m.
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GOP lawmakers cited the ‘public health emergency’ to skip floor votes. They were at CPAC.

ORLANDO — Several Republican lawmakers skipped House floor votes Friday, instead asking proxies to vote on their behalf, citing the “ongoing public health emergency.” However, those members of Congress were actually spotted at or expected to attend CPAC in Florida, as first reported by CNN.

Republican Reps. Jim Banks (Ind.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Ted Budd (N.C.), Madison Cawthorn (N.C.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.), Mark Green (Tenn.), Darrell Issa (Calif.), Ronny Jackson (Tex.), Mike Kelly (Pa.), Ralph Norman (S.C.), Devin Nunes (Calif.) and Greg Steube (Fla.) were among those who designated proxies to vote on their behalf Thursday and Friday, according to proxy letters filed with the House clerk.

The House changed its rules last May, allowing remote voting for the first time in its 231-year history, to try to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans at the time raised several objections and sued to stop the rule change; the lawsuit was later dismissed by a judge.

At CPAC on Friday, Gaetz, who opposed the May vote to allow proxy voting in the House, defended his designation of a proxy for the week. Gaetz later published an essay arguing for remote voting.

“I am O.G. pro-remote voting,” Gaetz said after stepping off a Fox Nation set at CPAC. “I wrote an essay in the Washington Examiner about it. Remote voting is a great thing for the country, and we should do it more.”

Asked why the letter said that he and other members were voting by proxy because of the pandemic, not because of CPAC, Gaetz said that “the pandemic caused that vote,” a reference to the covid bill.

Many Democrats also cited “the ongoing public health emergency” to vote by proxy Friday, including several members of the Texas delegation — Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green, Lizzie Fletcher and Sylvia Garcia — who were in Houston with Biden for his tour of a mass vaccination facility Friday.

12:07 a.m.
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White House and press at odds over plan to charge reporters for coronavirus testing

Reporters who cover the White House may soon be paying what amounts to an admission fee to do their jobs.

Starting Monday, the White House’s press office said it will start charging journalists for coronavirus tests, which are required for anyone entering the White House grounds.

The proposed cost for each test: $170.

With dozens of journalists at the White House each day, the fees could add up to tens of thousands of dollars flowing from newsrooms, many of them small and cash-strapped, into government coffers.

Until now, the cost of testing has been borne by the White House. But officials there contend that the cost of maintaining the testing regime for nearly a year has strained its budget, so it wants to shift the burden onto news organizations: no test, no entry to the White House.

11:20 p.m.
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At coronavirus vaccination site, Biden urges Americans not to let their guard down against pandemic’s spread

In remarks at a coronavirus mass vaccination site in Houston’s NRG Stadium, Biden hailed the progress that has been made in slowing the spread of the virus — and urged Americans to remain vigilant and continue following social distancing guidelines.

“We’re going to save people’s lives as a result of these round-the-clock efforts. In five weeks, America has administered the most shots of any country in the world. That’s great progress,” Biden said after touring the vaccination site.

He noted, however, that coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations could rise as variants of the virus emerge.

“And it’s not the time to relax,” he said. “We have to keep washing our hands, staying socially distanced, and for God’s sake, wear your mask. It’s not a political statement. It’s a patriotic thing to do.”

At a vaccination site in Houston on Feb. 26, President Biden praised U.S. progress in fight the coronavirus pandemic and pushed Americans to stay vigilant. (The Washington Post)

As he has done in recent weeks, Biden sought to reassure Americans that it is safe to be vaccinated.

“If there’s one message that needs to cut through all this, it’s that vaccines are safe,” he said. “I promise you, they are safe and effective.”

Biden also touted his meeting that day with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) — conservative Republicans, he noted, with whom he disagreed on many issues.

“But there are plenty of things we can work on together. And one of them is represented right here today, the effort to speed up vaccinations,” Biden said. “We’re not giving shots to Democrats or Republicans; I’ll say it again, we’re giving a shot to Americans.”

10:57 p.m.
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‘You can’t act with impunity,’ Biden says of message to Iran intended in airstrike

A day after his administration launched an airstrike Thursday in eastern Syria that reportedly killed several alleged Iranian-linked fighters, President Biden said the message he was trying to send to Iran was, “You can’t act with impunity.”

Asked by reporters about the strike as he was touring a coronavirus mass vaccination site in Houston on Friday, Biden also added, “Be careful.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the attack was “authorized in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats.”

The U.S. attack on a border crossing station in eastern Syria, the first lethal operation ordered by the Biden administration against Iran’s network of armed proxies, reportedly killed a number of alleged Iranian-linked fighters. It also signaled the Biden administration’s intent to use targeted military action to push back against violence tied to Tehran.

The operation followed a deadly attack on a location housing U.S. personnel in Iraq that American officials have attributed to Iranian-linked groups. Earlier this month, rocket fire in northern Iraq killed a contractor working with the U.S. military and injured an American service member.

“President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said in a statement. “We have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.”

10:31 p.m.
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Analysis: Josh Hawley, who tried to derail Biden’s presidency, now champions ‘the rule of the people’

Let’s be very clear about what Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) actually tried to do on Jan. 6 of this year.

President Donald Trump had been arguing for weeks that his 2020 reelection loss was a function of rampant voter fraud, a claim for which neither he nor his allies ever presented any credible evidence. As the weeks passed and the inexorable process of transitioning power to Joe Biden pressed forward, Trump grasped at any claim he saw in his Twitter feed and embraced any theory of how he could retain power that was whispered in his ear.

At some point, he seized on the idea that the formal counting of the electoral votes in Congress on Jan. 6 presented one final chance to block Biden’s victory. He insisted that Vice President Mike Pence could simply reject the electoral votes states had sent in, which he couldn’t. He also encouraged Republicans in Congress to formally object to submitted votes, which they could — with the hope that somehow he could cobble together enough votes in the House and Senate to actually block some of Biden’s electoral votes.

9:56 p.m.
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Donald Trump Jr. rails against Liz Cheney, touts his father as future of GOP at CPAC

Donald Trump Jr. closed out CPAC Friday by railing against Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), one of the few Republican members of Congress who voted to impeach the former president and who has said Donald Trump “does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward.”

“Speaking of bombing the Middle East, have you seen Liz Cheney’s poll numbers?” said Trump Jr., who spoke in the last slot of the conference Friday. “Liz Cheney and her politics are only slightly less popular than her father is at a quail hunt.”

The remarks were in keeping with the pro-Trump rhetoric throughout the day, as speaker after speaker pushed back on the idea that the former president and his “America First” movement were either fading or dividing the Republican Party. Rather, they said, Trump was the future of the party.

Trump Jr.’s speech included a veiled reference to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who went from more or less walking in lockstep with Trump while he was in office and voting to acquit him in his second impeachment trial to declaring that the former president was “practically and morally responsible” for the violent Capitol siege on Jan. 6.

In response, Trump called McConnell a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack” who could not be trusted with the future of the Republican Party. Despite that, McConnell on Thursday told Fox News he would still support Trump if he were the party’s presidential nominee in 2024.

“You’ve heard the rhetoric from some of them over the last couple of weeks, and now you’ve seen that change very quickly, because if there’s one thing the Republican Party has been really good at over the last few decades, is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” Trump Jr. told the crowd Friday.

He ended by hyping up the crowd for his father’s appearance on Sunday.

“Imagine it will not be what we call a low-energy speech and I assure you that it will solidify Donald Trump and all of your feelings about the MAGA movement as the future of the Republican Party,” Trump Jr. said.

9:12 p.m.
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Hawley gets loudest applause of the day at CPAC for bringing up his Jan. 6 objection to electoral college certification

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) received the loudest and most sustained applause of the day at CPAC so far for recalling that he objected to the confirmation of electoral college votes Jan. 6.

“Maybe you heard about it,” Hawley, clasping the lectern, told the crowd, which clapped and roared in approval. “I did. I stood up — ”

Hawley paused as the audience continued cheering for several moments.

“I stood up and I said, I said, we ought to have a debate about election integrity,” Hawley continued. “I said, it is the right of the people to be heard. And my constituents in Missouri want to be heard on this issue.”

Hawley did not mention that his objection to the process took place hours after a pro-Trump mob, driven by the former president’s baseless claims about election fraud, overran the U.S. Capitol in a violent insurrection that resulted in five deaths. (In addition, two police officers who fought the rioters died by suicide afterward.)

Hawley also railed against the “radical left” and the oligarchs who he claimed had censored him. After the Capitol insurrection, Simon & Schuster canceled a deal for a book Hawley had been writing titled “The Tyranny of Big Tech,” saying they could no longer support Hawley “after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.”

“I was called a traitor. I was called a seditionist,” Hawley said. “The radical left said I should be resigned and if I wouldn’t resign, I should be expelled from the United States Senate. Well, as I said a moment ago, I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here.”

8:56 p.m.
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‘You’re doing God’s work,’ Biden tells local officials at Houston emergency operations center

President Biden on Friday afternoon joined Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in surveying the recovery efforts from winter storms that left millions of Texans without power and clean water amid freezing temperatures.

“You’re saving people’s lives. As my mother would say, you’re doing God’s work,” Biden told local officials as he toured an emergency operations center in Houston. “Thank you.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) greeted Biden and told him the center has been “our home away from home for five months,” during the coronavirus pandemic and now the crisis brought on by this month’s winter storms.

Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, showed a color-coded map indicating that 126 of Texas’s 254 counties are under a federal major-disaster declaration.

“We have a lot of families and businesses and, importantly, schools that have not yet been able to submit their damage assessments to us,” Kidd said. The storms and resulting utility failures have kept many counties from collecting and reporting the data necessary for the assessment, he said.

“We’ve got a long way to go, Mr. President,” Kidd added. “I know we can get through this together, and we’ve just got to keep going.”

Later Friday, the president and first lady Jill Biden toured the Houston Food Bank, the largest food bank in the country. The center serves more than 1.1 million people in 18 counties in southeastern Texas, according to the White House.

The Bidens were expected to visit a mass covid-19 vaccination site before returning to Washington.

8:38 p.m.
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Warren endorses pushing citizenship for undocumented essential workers through reconciliation

Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Friday that Democrats should immediately use budget reconciliation — a dramatic act that would make it easier to pass a bill in the Senate — to create a pathway to U.S. citizenship for millions of undocumented workers in essential jobs such as health care and farming.

The Massachusetts Democrat spoke the day after the Senate parliamentarian rejected leading senators’ attempt to use reconciliation to pass Biden’s proposed $15-an-hour minimum wage. Reconciliation requires a simple majority vote and is increasingly attractive to Democrats eager to bypass the 60 votes — including 10 Republicans — required to pass a Senate bill. But the procedure also limits what can be included in the budget package, and it is unclear whether the Senate parliamentarian would include a path to citizenship for undocumented essential workers.

Warren said Democrats and Republicans have a moral obligation to pass the measure to protect essential workers who “have kept us alive the past year.”

“We should use budget reconciliation to pass this bill. And when? We should do it right now,” she said at a news conference to introduce the Citizenship For Essential Workers Act, joined by Democratic Reps. Joaquin Castro (Tex. and Ted Lieu (Calif.) and Sen. Alex Padilla (Calif.). “There is no point for delaying this. People are going out every day and putting their lives on the line. Now is the time to make clear that these are people who will have protected status and a pathway to citizenship.”

The bill would grant immediate green cards and a path to U.S. citizenship to undocumented workers who have been instrumental to the nation’s covid-19 response. An estimated 5.2 million undocumented immigrants are in essential jobs such as hospital custodians, farmworkers and nurses, lawmakers said. Of these, approximately 1 million are Dreamers, people who have been in the United States since they were children or teenagers.

8:02 p.m.
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Analysis: The evolution of CPAC’s speaker line-up is the story of the GOP

Every year, the American Conservative Union hypes its Conservative Political Action Conference by listing the galaxy of conservative leaders who’ve been invited to attend. The conference’s website for years has had a page that promotes the speakers who attendees will hear or, should they be so lucky, meet. The page for this year’s event, which began Friday in Orlando, shows who CPAC thinks will generate the greatest ticket sales:

There’s former president Donald Trump, of course, followed by ACU head Matt Schlapp, who’s become a much-better-known name in the Trump era. Then Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R-S.D.) and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, both of whom are positioning themselves for possible 2024 presidential runs on the Make America Great Again ticket.

The story of CPAC over its past seven iterations is, in fact, the story of how the right-most wing of the party became the party’s core. That story can be told as we do above, by looking at the speakers that have been highlighted each year in an effort to sell more tickets.

7:30 p.m.
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CPAC panels continue to spread baseless claim the 2020 election was stolen

ORLANDO — As a CPAC panel discussed baseless theories that the 2020 election was stolen, accusing the media of covering it up, a conservative video network that had been streaming the conference briefly broke away.

“We must jump in here and make a small disclosure: We want you to do your own research,” said one host of Right Side Broadcasting, one of several channels running CPAC’s main programming — and the one piped into a media work center at the conference. “We’re just doing this out of pure safety, in regards to being canceled, on the tech side.”

By the time CPAC wraps up on Sunday, seven speeches and panels will focus on the conduct of elections, more time than will be devoted to any other topic. The first panels were rife with misinformation, with columnist Deroy Murdock falsely claiming that “mysterious late night ballot dumps” swung states against former president Donald Trump and that Republican election observers were “blocked … from ballot counting rooms.”

Murdock stayed for a discussion with Heritage Foundation scholar Hans von Spakovsky and former Trump team election lawyer Jesse Binnall, who falsely claimed that there had been no investigations of Republican fraud claims, and that courts refused to consider any fraud accusations on the merits, which Binnall suggested was a sign that judges were cowed by skeptical coverage of the lawsuits.

“When the media has this narrative that there’s no voter fraud,” Binnall insisted, it’s “one of the most enraging, successful gaslighting attempts in American history.”

7:27 p.m.
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In faraway state houses, a battle brews over making D.C. the 51st state

South Dakota fired the first shot: a resolution in the state legislature opposing statehood for the residents of Washington, D.C.

It glided through committee — “incredibly smaller than any other state in geography,” lawmakers declared. “ … [T]he major economic activity is government.”

By Feb. 1, it had passed both chambers of the Capitol in Pierre.

The response came from state legislatures from Rhode Island to Missouri: a barrage of resolutions supporting D.C. statehood.

6:56 p.m.
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Biden greeted by Texas Gov. Abbott as he arrives in Houston

President Biden was greeted by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday after he arrived on Air Force One in Houston to survey recovery efforts from the recent winter storm.

After Biden and Abbott (R) shared a fist bump, Biden introduced him to first lady Jill Biden, who is joining the president on the trip.

Others who greeted Biden on the tarmac included Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) and four House Democrats from Texas: Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Lizzie Fletcher, Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, who shared an elbow bump with Biden. Green pulled out a cellphone to take a photograph with the president.

The Bidens shared a kiss as they headed to separate vehicles. They were scheduled to meet up later Friday afternoon at the Houston Food Bank. The president was scheduled first to head to the Harris County Emergency Operations Center.

6:46 p.m.
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Trump hasn’t pledged not to back primary challenges against sitting Republican lawmakers, McCarthy says

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Friday that he has not received a commitment from former president Donald Trump that he will not back primary challenges against sitting Republican members of Congress, days ahead of Trump’s speech at a major conservative conference.

At his weekly press briefing, McCarthy declined to say whether he wants such a commitment from the former president.

“I don’t have a commitment [on] that,” McCarthy said. “I’ve worked closely with the president on working on endorsements to win seats in the House.”

Trump has begun reemerging on the political stage in recent weeks and, as he has done in the past, is lashing out at fellow Republicans who have criticized him. In a statement issued by his Save America PAC, Trump earlier this month called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack” and predicted that “if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again.”

McConnell voted to acquit Trump of the charge of incitement of insurrection but said in a floor speech after his vote that the former president was “practically and morally responsible for provoking” the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

At his Friday news conference, McCarthy dodged questions about Trump’s potential involvement in GOP primaries, telling reporters, “I’ll deal with politics later.”

“My focus right now is not on politics. My focus is getting people back to work, back to school and back to health,” he said.

As Congress continues to grapple with the fallout from the Jan. 6 attack, McCarthy said he does not believe it is necessary for lawmakers to be allowed to bring firearms on the House floor, a step some GOP lawmakers have called for.

He also took aim at the Capitol security structure, arguing that security officials should not report to the speaker of the House.

“I think a restructuring probably should happen,” he said, arguing that the current structure allows “a political person” to decide what’s best for the Capitol.

But at a hearing earlier this week, former House sergeant-at-arms Paul D. Irving disputed speculation from Republicans that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was to blame for the security failures at the Capitol.

When asked by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) whether he had waited for permission from congressional leaders before deploying the National Guard, Irving said, “Absolutely not.”

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.