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The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

Why the McConnell-Scott feud isn't ending any time soon

The Early 202

An essential morning newsletter briefing for leaders in the nation’s capital.

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In today’s edition … Democrats pressure Biden on abortion … A new Ukraine aid package is in the works … Senate prepares for classified briefing on UFO incidents … What we’re watching: New inflation numbers … but first …

🚨: A gunman at Michigan State University killed three people and critically injured five people on Monday before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, our colleagues report.

🏦: President Biden will this week formally name the Federal Reserve’s No. 2 official, Lael Brainard, to lead the National Economic Council, and his longtime aide Jared Bernstein as the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, per our colleagues Jeff Stein and Tyler Pager.

On the Hill

Why the McConnell-Scott feud isn't ending any time soon

The long-running public feud between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) continues to flare regardless of how much fellow Republican senators might wish they would just let it go.

It’s a tension that began during the last election cycle when Scott was chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. It escalated when Republicans failed to win back the Senate majority.

It has intensified again in recent days as President Biden and Democrats keep bringing up Scott’s year-old 12-point plan to sunset all federal laws every five years unless Congress votes to keep them, to accuse Republicans of wanting to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

  • Republicans have said that they don’t want to cut Social Security or Medicare in exchange for raising the debt limit, even as Biden and Democrats insist that they do. Scott’s plan isn’t helping rebut those attacks.

“I mean, clearly, there’s some not-good feelings between the two,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who voted for Scott for Senate minority leader but who has also publicly called for the party’s leaders to stop talking about making cuts to Social Security.

McConnell uncharacteristically rebuked Scott again last week, a move the understated, long-serving Republican leader typically goes to great lengths to avoid — especially for senators, such as Scott, who are up for reelection in potentially competitive states.

“Unfortunately that was the Rick Scott plan,” McConnell told Terry Meiners, a longtime Kentucky radio host. “That’s not the Republican plan.”

Republicans keep their distance

Scott is not the only Republican to propose changes to Social Security. The Republican Study Committee led by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who is running for Senate, last year put out a plan that would raise the retirement age for social security, among other benefit reductions.

But it’s Scott’s plan that is gaining the most attention, and many members are going to great lengths to distance themselves from it.  

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the “vast majority” of Republicans look at the issue differently. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) on Monday called Scott’s plan a “thought piece” that is being perceived as the position of Republicans.

“I think you’ve got to be a little bit more judicious, and I think Leader McConnell is the leader of our conference, and he's dealing with that dynamic,” Tillis said.

Scott defended himself Monday night.

  • “I put a plan out when I ran in '10, '14, '18,” Scott said, referring to his campaigns for governor and his 2018 Senate run. “That’s what Floridians expect out of me. I’m a business guy. I put out my ideas. I came up here to change the direction of Washington. I’m not going to be part of the establishment.”
A direct attack

McConnell’s recent shot at Scott was deliberate and strategic.

He typically leaves the verbal slights to Josh Holmes, a loyal former aide who often leaps to McConnell’s defense on Twitter.

It was Holmes who criticized Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in 2015 when he irritated many Republicans who viewed him as a self-serving grandstander. In 2018, during Cruz’s reelection, tensions between Cruz and McConnell ran high as Cruz struggled to defeat Democrat Beto O’Rourke, but McConnell said little of Cruz at the time. And it was Holmes who in 2021 initially questioned the candidacy of Herschel Walker in Georgia before McConnell and the rest of the party decided to rally around him when no alternative to the former football star emerged.

But with Scott, McConnell appears more than happy to grab the mic himself.

Long-running tensions

McConnell’s exasperation with Scott is long-running.

He blames Scott, in large part, for failing to recapture the Senate last year from Democrats. NRSC funds ran low in the campaign’s home stretch after the committee spent heavily earlier in the cycle.

Scott also cozied up to Trump, who McConnell has repeatedly said was a major factor in Republican losses. Scott was one of only eight Republican senators who didn’t vote to certify the 2020 election after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol and traveled to Mar-a-Lago to praise Trump. Scott didn’t push back against Trump’s chosen Senate candidates who failed to win crucial races last year in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

McConnell suggested that Scott’s much-maligned plan could cost Republicans wins next year, too.

  • “It will be a challenge to deal with this in his own reelection in Florida, a state with more elderly people than any other state in America,” McConnell said, referencing the idea of potentially making cuts to Social Security and Medicare. (Scott argues the programs are both in poor financial condition and that they’ll be forced to cut benefits in the coming years if Congress doesn’t act.)

Internal dynamics have aggravated the tensions. Scott challenged McConnell for Republican leader (McConnell won easily, defeating Scott 37-10) and McConnell recently removed Scott from the Senate Commerce Committee.

Democrats smell weakness

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) opened the Senate floor Monday by discussing Scott’s proposal.

“Many within their own party have been very open about wanting to target Social Security and Medicare,” Schumer said. “Rick Scott being among them, and he was the leader of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.”

Democrats sense vulnerability in Florida this cycle, a state where 3.8 million people over age 65 receive Social Security benefits, according to 2020 Social Security Administration statistics.

  • “Social Security, Medicare is an incredibly powerful issue and Rick Scott I believe is out of touch with folks in Florida on that issue,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Democrats have struggled in Florida for years. They haven’t won a Senate race in the state since then-senator Bill Nelson won reelection in 2012 or a governor’s race since the late Lawton Chiles was reelected in 1994.

Stephanie Murphy, a former Democratic representative from the Orlando area who didn’t run for reelection last year and who has been talked about as a potential challenger to Scott next year, called Scott’s proposal “unwise.”

“I tend to agree with Senator McConnell there — that wasn’t the wisest decision,” Murphy said.

While Scott will be tough to defeat in an increasingly red state in which he’s won three statewide races, for now, the battle is still between Scott and McConnell.

First in The Early: Democrats pressure Biden on abortion

A dozen Democratic senators are pressing Biden to take new steps to protect abortion rights amid worries a federal judge in Texas could soon rule to block access to a drug used in medication abortions. The drug, mifepristone, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2000.

“We trust the administration will use every legal and regulatory tool at their disposal to keep this drug — which has a more than 22 year safety record — on the market,” Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and 10 other senators wrote Monday in a letter to Biden.

The senators urged Biden to consider nearly a dozen ideas to make it easier for women to seek abortions, including asking the Justice Department to issue guidance clarifying the right to travel across state lines to get abortions, revoking executive orders they argue restrict abortion rights and making it easier for federal prisoners to get abortions.

The other signatories are Sens. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

At the White House

New multibillion-dollar Ukrainian aid package in the works

‘Kyiv’s best chance’: “As the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears, U.S. officials are telling Ukrainian leaders they face a critical moment to change the trajectory of the war, raising the pressure on Kyiv to make significant gains on the battlefield while weapons and aid from the United States and its allies are surging,” our colleagues Yasmeen Abutaleb and John Hudson report.

  • “Despite promises to back Ukraine ‘as long as it takes,’ Biden officials say recent aid packages from Congress and America’s allies represent Kyiv’s best chance to decisively change the course of the war. Many conservatives in the Republican-led House have vowed to pull back support, and Europe’s long-term appetite for funding the war effort remains unclear.”
  • “The Biden administration is working with Congress to approve another $10 billion in direct budget assistance to Kyiv and is expected to announce another large military assistance package in the next week and the imposition of more sanctions on the Kremlin around the same time.”
  • Likely not a part of the aid package? F-16 fighter jets. “U.S. defense officials in the past have said that Ukraine has enough Soviet-era aircraft and that sending more would be time-consuming and difficult,” per our colleague Karen DeYoung. “Allies have also expressed concern that the provision of fighter aircraft … could provoke a Russian response toward NATO.”

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … the latest on the UFOs

Close encounters of the balloon kind: On Monday, “White House officials were peppered with questions about the succession of high-altitude objects that the U.S. military has downed starting with what the Biden administration has called a Chinese surveillance balloon on Feb. 4,” our colleagues John Wagner and Mariana Alfaro report. “National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at a briefing that the administration has not determined who owns the latest three that were discovered as military officials began more closely scrutinizing the skies.”

Here’s the latest

The view from the Hill: Senators will receive a classified briefing from defense and military officials on the three unidentified flying objects this morning. The briefing comes as Biden faces “mounting pressure from Congress — including from members within his Democratic party — who want him to respond with transparency and strength,” USA Today’s Josh Meyer, Tom Vanden Brook and Candy Woodall write.

  • From Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “I think they [the American people] need to hear from the president, maybe as simple as saying ‘you know, we don’t know what they are, we’re doing everything we can to sort of determine, and this is why we shot them down.’”

Why the objects were shot down: The White House said that the three flying objects — which were “smaller than the suspected surveillance balloon, lacked communications signals and had no ability to maneuver themselves” — were shot down over the weekend because of the threat they posed to civilian air traffic, our colleagues Mariana, Cate Cadell, Dan Lamothe and Liz Goodwin report.

  • “If any of these objects were to get in the way and collide with these aircraft, it would be catastrophic,” Jeff Guzzetti, a former accident investigator with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, told our colleague Michael Laris. “You’re talking about flying through the air at hundreds of miles per hour … It doesn’t take much at those velocities to impart significant structural damage to an airplane.”

Where things stand with China: On Monday afternoon, Bloomberg News’s Peter Martin and Jennifer Jacobs scooped that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is considering meeting with Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, at the Munich Security Conference later this week. It “would be their first face-to-face talks since an uproar over a Chinese balloon led to a new spike in tensions.”

What we're watching

The Bureau of Labor Statistics will release new data this morning showing that inflation, while still high, has eased for the seventh month in a row, per our colleague Rachel Siegel. The data is expected to show that prices rose about 6.2 percent in January compared with the year before. In December, prices rose approximately 6.5 percent. 

The Data

The main components of stratospheric balloons, visualized: National security and aerospace experts told our colleagues Derek Hawkins, William Neff and Dylan Moriarty that the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon “appeared to share characteristics with high-altitude balloons used by developed countries around the world for weather forecasting, telecommunications and scientific research.”

  • “When these types of balloons finish their flights, their sensor package detaches and parachutes back down to earth, where it’s picked up for analysis. In some cases, an aircraft can collect it while the balloon is still in the sky.”

The Media

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