Political News

Official White House Photo by Adam SchultzBy MICHELLE STODDART and LAUREN KING, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- Friday is Day 45 of the administration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Here is how the day is unfolding. All time Eastern:

Mar 05, 8:25 pm
Deal reached on unemployment benefits after 8 hours

After eight hours of inaction, Democrats have reached an agreement among themselves on how to proceed with jobless benefits with Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, on board.

Senate Democrats will now offer an amendment to extend the enhanced UI program through Sept. 6 at $300 per week, according to a Democratic aide. The House-passed bill was through Aug. 29.

The agreement also provides tax relief to workers who received unemployment insurance compensation by making the first $10,200 of UI benefits nontaxable for the first time to prevent surprise bills for the unemployed at end of year, which was not in the House-passed legislation. The provision applies only to households making under $150,000.

The agreement also extends tax rules regarding excess business loss limitations for one additional year through 2026.

-ABC News' Trish Turner

Mar 05, 5:41 pm
GOP senators make voices heard amid stall over unemployment provisions in COVID bill

Several Republican senators held a press conference Friday evening as the Senate entered its fifth hour of being paralyzed over how to proceed on amendments related to unemployment insurance. (It's now been about six hours since the last vote was called).

The Republicans said that a handful of moderate Democrats -- including Sen. Joe Manchin, . -- are being "worked over" by Democratic leadership and told that they cannot vote with Republicans on Sen. Rob Portman's, R-Ohio, amendment that would reduce weekly jobless benefits to $300 and end the program in July. Democrats have their own amendment that would reduce the jobless benefit to $300 weekly but extend the program through September and make the first $10,200 paid out untaxable.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John Thune, R-S.D., both said they believe Biden is speaking with moderate members over the phone and pressuring them not to vote with Republicans -- though ABC has not confirmed that.

"It's now five and half hours actually since the last vote started. And because there was an amendment that we were prepared to offer that actually had bipartisan support, the Democrats have actually gone back behind closed doors and - as Senator Graham pointed out - tried to get the president on the line to try to pressure a couple of people not to work with Republicans," Thune said.

Graham said the stall makes Biden's call for unity on inauguration day "ring hollow" and that Democrats who may support the Portman amendment are being punished for bipartisanship.

"This break out of bipartisanship has lead to the Senate coming to a halt because they want it their way or no way," Graham said. "There is some bipartisanship we believe to change the bill, but apparently that's an unpardonable sin on the other side. We believe we have some Democrats who read the bill yesterday and found some things they didn't like, sat down with some Republicans to find a better way and the result is we've done nothing for four hours and 20 minutes to break somebody's political arm."

Thune, the Republican whip, conceded that he does not yet know if there would be enough Republican support on the Portman amendment to pass it, but he does believe there are several Democrats who might support it.

-ABC News' Allison Pecorin

Mar 05, 5:12 pm
Biden holds roundtable with people who would benefit from relief bill

On Friday afternoon, Biden hosted three guests for a roundtable to discuss what the passage of the COVID relief bill would mean for them as well as for their communities.

The people Biden spoke with shared their personal stories of struggle during the pandemic as Americans wait to find out what additional aid will be coming their way.

"People in our country are hurting right now, with less than two weeks from enhanced unemployment checks being cut out, and seven million kids don't have enough food -- 13 million people are behind in their rent," Biden said.

"It's gonna provide immediate relief for millions of people that are going to be able to use it in a very constructive way, and also grow the economy in the process," Biden promised of the package, which hit a snag on Friday over unemployment benefits.

"It is clearly, clearly necessary, a lifeline for getting the upper hand against COVID-19 and getting it under control. That isn't some academic discussion, it's about you. It's about people like you and families I grew up with all over America," he said.

Alma Williams, a paratransit driver from Greenbelt, Maryland, told the president "it's just a hard time, financially, mentally, emotionally, like across the board for children, adults, you know."

George Kerr, a Navy veteran who lost his home in a fire last year, has experienced housing instability worsened by the pandemic. A member of the LGBTQ community, he spoke not only about his own challenges, but the importance of the mental health services provided in the bill for LGBTQ seniors who are feeling isolated.

"Mental health is just a real important, and I'm glad to see there's a lot of money in there for mental health services, because it's incredibly important," Kerr said.

Lyda Vanegas, who helps run Mary's Center, which provides health care, education and social services to 60,000 people in the D.C. area, referred to George Kerr's experience and related it to what her own community is facing.

"He just breaks my heart because it's the same situation, they're losing jobs, that's the main thing, you know that. And with that, they have unstable housing, food insecurity, searching, traveling long distances to go and visit this site, the food distribution side. And that's, every day, they do long lines and the next day they have to do the same," she said of her clients.

-ABC News' Sarah Kolinovsky

Mar 05, 4:34 pm
Biden to hold press conference 'before the end of the month': Psaki

Biden has yet to hold a formal press conference 45 days into his administration, despite 15 of his predecessors having done so within that time frame.

When asked about the delay, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a press conference would be held  “before the end of the month” and argued Biden’s focus was on the country.

-ABC News' Molly Nagle

Mar 05, 3:57 pm
COVID relief bill hits early snag over unemployment benefits

Senate Democrats have hit a snag early in the marathon voting session on the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief legislation, as moderate Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, W.Va., threatens to unravel an emerging agreement on how to handle jobless benefits in the package.

Democrats on Friday unveiled what they thought was an agreement on unemployment insurance, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., that would cut the weekly jobless benefit from the $400 allotment in the House bill to $300, while allowing the benefit to continue through September rather than through August. The agreement also included the first $10,200 paid out through the unemployment program being untaxed.

But Manchin, who has been urging his colleagues and the White House to further target the bill, isn't sold on the Carper proposal.

Further complicating matters for Democrats is an amendment expected from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, which would slim down the jobless benefits even more. Portman's proposal would also cut the weekly benefit to $300 dollars, but it would end the program in July, potentially appealing to Manchin.

The Senate was at a standstill as Democrats worked to smooth out the kinks.

-ABC News' Allison Pecorin

Mar 05, 3:54 pm
Biden expected to be 'on the phone' this weekend if necessary about COVID relief bill

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing Friday that Biden was “deeply engaged” in getting the American Rescue Plan across the finish line and took “nothing for granted.”

"I fully expect him to be on the phone through the weekend with Democrats and Republicans as needed, answering questions, addressing needs," Psaki said.

When pressed on how big of a priority it was to get a Republican on board, Psaki demurred, arguing that there was bipartisan support outside of Washington.

Psaki also declined to say what the next legislative focus would be, despite Biden’s continued Oval Office meetings with bipartisan members of Congress on the issue of infrastructure, which many expect to be his next on his legislative agenda.

-ABC News' Molly Nagle

Mar 05, 3:33 pm
White House answers questions on unaccompanied minor policy

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked during a press briefing Friday several rounds of questions focused on the growing number of migrant children coming to the U.S. southern border.

She was asked specifically if the president felt his rhetoric on the campaign trail had contributed to the current spike in activity.

Psaki stressed the administration has sought to clarify that "this is not the time to come," but said by virtue of taking a different approach and allowing unaccompanied minors to stay, it “mathematically” makes sense that there would be an increase.

Despite the increase, Psaki unequivocally said the administration was not rethinking its policy when it comes to unaccompanied minors at the border.

"I think this issue requires us taking a step back as human beings and as mothers, of which I am one," Psaki said.

"They go through the processing system that everyone goes through, but we want to ensure that that is done by treating them humanely and with respect," Pskai said. "Many of them will be sent back home eventually, but we are talking about how we treat them as they come in the country."

Earlier in the day, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent a letter to Biden expressing "great concern" with the administration's approach to the "crisis" at the border and requested a meeting with the president on the issue.

-ABC News' Molly Nagle

Mar 05, 3:10 pm
Biden cites jobs report in final COVID relief bill pitch

Biden sought to make a last-minute pitch for his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, currently under consideration in the Senate, during his briefing with economic advisers, pointing to February’s jobs report as evidence that the massive package is “urgently needed.”

“Our economy still has 9.5 million fewer jobs than it had this time last year," Biden said. "And at that rate, it would take two years to get us back on track.”

Biden said some of the growth last month came from the December COVID relief package, but said without additional resources the gains would diminish, highlighting that the expiration date for emergency unemployment benefit is less than two weeks away.

“We can’t afford one step forward and two steps backwards. We need to beat the virus, provide essential relief, and build an inclusive recovery. People need the help now. In less than two weeks, enhanced unemployment benefits will begin to expire for 11 million people,” Biden warned.

Biden did not take any questions from the press ahead of the weekly briefing, which is expected to include an update on the jobs numbers released today, along with an update on unemployment by race and women's labor force participation, according to the White House. Member of Biden's economic team, including Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse, were also in attendance.

-ABC News' Molly Nagle

Mar 05, 2:20 pm
Biden to travel to Baltimore next week

Biden will travel to Baltimore, Maryland, on Wednesday to hold an event with the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Merck in the wake of their historic partnership to produce more COVID-19 vaccines.

Earlier this week, Biden announced a partnership between the pharmaceutical giants to help produce J&J's newly authorized vaccine and said the partnership meant there would be enough vaccine doses for every American adult by the end of May.

Mar 05, 2:10 pm
Sanders' attempt to add $15 minimum-wage amendment to COVID relief bill falls flat

The first amendment proposed during the marathon vote-a-rama for the COVID-19 relief bill, an amendment brought by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to increase the federal minimum wage over to $15 an hour over five years, failed to be considered after a Senate procedural vote. Surprisingly, a whopping eight Democrats voted against consideration.

Though it was a procedural vote on whether to set the rules aside and approve the amendment, it was a good indication of where support stands in the caucus. The vote was 42-58, which fell far short of the 60 votes needed.

Though the "no" votes from some moderate Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., were unsurprising, "no" votes from five other Democrats, Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., Tom Carper, D-Del., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Sen. Angus King, D-Maine, and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., were unexpected.

"If any Senator believes this is the last time they will cast a vote on whether or not to give a raise to 32 million Americans, they are sorely mistaken," Sanders said in a statement after his amendment fell flat. "We’re going to keep bringing it up, and we’re going to get it done because it is what the American people demand and need.”

-ABC News' Trish Turner

Mar 05, 1:03 pm
House GOP Leader McCarthy wants to meet with Biden on crossings at the southern border

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent a letter to Biden Friday expressing "great concern" with administration's approach to the "crisis" at the border, and requested a meeting with the president on the issue.

"We must acknowledge the crisis, develop a plan, and, in no uncertain terms, strongly discourage individuals from Mexico and Central America from ever making the dangerous journey to our southern border," McCarthy said in the letter.

Mar 05, 11:58 am
WH says Biden supports changes to unemployment benefits in COVID-19 relief bill

White House press secretary Jen Psaki weighed in on the change that would extend unemployment benefits through September at a reduced rate of $300 per week in a new Twitter thread, saying Biden supports the changes that together “would provide more relief to the unemployed than the current legislation.”


The President believes it is critical to extend expanded unemployment benefits through the end of September to help Americans who are struggling, as the President proposed in the American Rescue Plan.

— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) March 5, 2021


“The President believes it is critical to extend expanded unemployment benefits through the end of September to help Americans who are struggling, as the President proposed in the American Rescue Plan. The compromise amendment achieves that while helping to address the surprise tax bills that many are facing by eliminating the first $10,200 of UI benefits from taxation for 2020. Combined, this amendment would provide more relief to the unemployed than the current legislation,” Psaki said over two tweets.

Mar 05, 11:58 am
Senate begins voting on COVID-19 bill amendments

The Senate has begun voting on amendments to the COVID-19 relief bill as part of a vote-a-rama.

The first amendment up for voting, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour over five years. Senators will vote on whether to even consider the amendment in a process vote, after Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., raised an objection to the amendment saying it was out of order in this fast-track reconciliation process. It would take 60 votes in the Senate to consider the amendment, something not likely to happen with the narrow Democratic majority.

"If people here want to vote against raising the minimum wage they have that right. ... But we should not shuffle off that responsibility to an unelected staffer. That's wrong," Sanders said, referring to the chamber's parliamentarian ruling that a straight increase of the hourly minimum to $15 was out of bounds under reconciliation.

Republicans have offered 1,008 other amendments to the bill.

Mar 05, 11:44 am
Senate Dems agree to jobless benefits changes in COVID-19 relief bill

Senate Democrats have agreed to an extension in jobless benefits through September at a reduced amount of $300 a week in the COVID-19 relief bill, according to two Democratic aides. The House bill originally included weekly benefits of $400 through August.

The agreement also "provides tax relief to workers who received unemployment insurance compensation by making the first $10,200 of benefits non-taxable for the first time to prevent surprise bills for unemployed at end of year," according to a Democratic aide.

Mar 05, 10:47 am
Schumer says Senate will pass COVID-19 relief bill 'no matter how long it takes'

In advance of Friday's vote-a-rama on the COVID-19 relief bill, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats are prepared to press on without Republicans while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell continued to characterize the bill as a "liberal wish list".

"We are not going to be timid in the face of big challenges, we are not going to delay when urgent action is called for," Schumer said. "The Senate will move forward today with the American Rescue Plan."

Schumer set the stage for a long night but said the Senate will remain at it "no matter how long it takes." McConnell also hinted that it could take quite a while, with senators proposing various amendments, saying that Republicans "have many ideas to improve the bill, many ideas."

As he has in days past, McConnell again criticized Democrats for moving forward without GOP support.

"This isn't a pandemic rescue package, it's a parade of left-wing pet projects they're ramming through during the pandemic," McConnell said.

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(WASHINGTON) -- In an interview with ABC News, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. is still assessing who was responsible for the recent rocket attack on a base in Iraq that houses U.S. forces.

Austin said that if the U.S. decides to respond to the attack it will be "at a time and place of our own choosing."

He made his comments in a wide-ranging interview with ABC News' "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz set to air on Sunday.

On Wednesday, 10 rockets were fired at the sprawling Al Asad airbase in western Iraq that is home to many of the 2,500 American troops still in Iraq. No service members were wounded, but a civilian American contractor died from a heart attack while sheltering during the rocket attack.

"We want to make sure that that, again, we understand who's responsible for this," Austin told ABC News.

"The message to those that that that would carry out such a such an attack is that, you know, expect us to do what's necessary to defend ourselves," he added.

"We'll strike if we, if that's what we think we need to do at a time and place of our own choosing," Austin said.

The rocket attack followed a U.S. airstrike in eastern Syria last week that targeted a compound used by two Iranian-backed Shia militias that the U.S. and Iraq had assessed were responsible for a deadly rocket attack on another U.S. facility in Erbil. That rocket attack killed a civilian contractor and injured several Americans, including a U.S. military service member.

The airstrike in Syria was the first U.S. military action of the Biden administration and U.S. officials have said it was intended to send a message that the U.S. will defend Americans in the region.

"You can't act with impunity. Be careful," President Joe Biden said last Friday when asked what message the airstrike was meant to convey.

A U.S. official confirmed to ABC News that Biden called off an airstrike on a second target in Syria after it could not be conclusively determined that women and children were not in the target area.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


uschools/iStockBy ALLISON PECORIN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- Senate Democrats have hit a snag early in the marathon voting session on the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief legislation, as moderate Democrat Joe Manchin threatens to unravel an emerging agreement on how to handle jobless benefits in the package.

Democrats on Friday unveiled what they thought was an agreement on unemployment insurance, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., that would cut the weekly jobless benefit from the $400 allotment in the House bill to $300, while allowing the benefit to continue through September rather than through August. The agreement also included the first $10,200 paid out through the unemployment program being untaxed.

But Manchin, who has been urging his colleagues and the White House to further target the bill, isn't sold on the Carper proposal.

Further complicating matters for Democrats is an amendment expected from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, which would slim down the jobless benefits even more. Portman's proposal would also cut the weekly benefit to $300 dollars, but it would end the program in July, potentially appealing to Manchin.

The Senate was at a standstill as Democrats worked to smooth out the kinks.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters he believes Democrats are working behind the scenes to keep their members united on some amendments, including in opposition to Portman's proposal.

"I just think that the Democrats right now are in a bit of a quandary," Thune said. "They've essentially stopped action on the floor so that they can try and persuade, I think, all their members to stay together on some of these votes. And I think they're afraid that they that they could lose on Portman."

The Senate is currently evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. To get Biden's signature piece of legislation passed into law, Democrats cannot afford to lose Manchin, or any other member of their caucus, on the overall vote. And if Manchin votes with Republicans on reducing the unemployment benefit, it risks upending support from progressives on the overall bill.

The balancing act has already required the administration to make other concessions.

Biden and Senate Democrats cut a deal Wednesday to lower the income threshold for who will receive partial direct payments. Individuals making under $75,000 and couples making under $150,000 will still receive a full direct payment, but partial payments will cap off at $80,000 and $160,000 respectively.

That deal appealed to Manchin and other moderate Democrats who hoped to see the direct payments given only to the most adversely impacted families and individuals.

If Democrats do manage to hang together, there is little Republicans can ultimately do to prevent the bill from passing. But that won't stop them from offering a laundry list of amendments to the bill in hopes of delaying a final vote.

The process could easily stretch into the morning hours of Saturday and beyond, depending on how motivated members are.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly coined the relief bill a "liberal wish list" said Friday morning that his members have "many ideas to improve the bill."

"We are about to vote on all kinds of amendments in hopes that some of these ideas make it into the final product," McConnell said.

Already, the process was stalled for several hours because of a request from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., that the entirety of the 600-page bill be read allowed on the floor. It took over 10 hours to complete the process.

Before the amendment process commenced Friday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set the stage for a long night but said the Senate will remain at it "no matter how long it takes."

The first amendment considered this afternoon came from Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose proposal would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The House-passed version of the bill included the same proposal, but it was struck from the Senate bill after the senate parliamentarian ruled it out of bounds.

"Let’s be clear. This is the richest country in the history of the world," Sanders said. "We can no longer tolerate millions of our workers being unable to feed their families because they are working for starvation wages."

The Sanders amendment failed when eight Democrats joined with their Republican colleagues to kill the effort. Sanders said he'll continue fighting for a wage hike.

Many more amendments will be offered before the process concludes.

ABC News' Trish Turner contributed to this report

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty ImagesBy MARLENE LENTHANG, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Both chambers of the New York state legislature have passed a bill to limit Gov. Andrew Cuomo's emergency powers granted in the pandemic.

The Friday vote fell along party lines in the Senate with 43 Democrats voting in favor against 20 Republican votes. The Assembly voted 107-43 several hours after the Senate’s approval to require more legislative oversight before directives are modified or extended.

Cuomo will have to sign off on it for it to take effect. If he doesn't, state Democrats have a veto-proof majority in the legislature to override his vote.

The bill, which was introduced Tuesday by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, seeks to repeal Cuomo’s executive powers granted in the early days of the coronavirus crisis.

He was granted the emergency powers in March 2020, which permitted the governor to issue by executive order any directive necessary to respond to the pandemic, such as mandating mask-wearing and quarantines.

Under the new bill, Cuomo would require legislative review in order to introduce new executive orders concerning the state's virus response. If passed, he would also only be allowed to extend existing emergency directives related to the pandemic if they are "critical to public health."

Cuomo's emergency powers were set to expire April 30. The bill will allow standing directives related to the vaccination process and face coverings to remain in effect for an additional 30 days and they can be extended with Senate and Assembly review.

Republicans in the state Senate argued the bill doesn't go far enough and doesn't fully revoke those emergency powers.

"I think everyone understands where we were back in March and where we are now. The public deserves to have checks and balances," Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. She said the bill "would create a system with increased input while at the same time ensuring New Yorkers continue to be protected."

The move comes as Cuomo has been embroiled in two scandals.

He has been accused of inappropriate conduct by three women, including two who used to work with him.

The governor apologized for his actions in a press conference Wednesday.

"It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it and frankly I am embarrassed by it," he said. But he maintained, "I never touched anyone inappropriately."

His office is also under investigation for allegedly hiding the number of COVID-19 deaths in New York nursing homes.

A probe by the New York attorney general's office released in late January found the number of state nursing home resident deaths from the virus may have been undercounted by as much as 50%. The report said many of those patients died after being moved to the hospital and were not counted as nursing home fatalities.

The Cuomo administration denied altering nursing home death data in a new statement shared with ABC News Friday afternoon. His office said instead, "a decision was made" not to put in numbers determined to be questionable. The Cuomo administration is cooperating with the investigation.

ABC News' Aaron Katersky contributed to this report.

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PinkOmelet/iStockBy MARLENE LENTHANG, ABC News

(AUSTIN, Texas) -- Several states have dropped statewide mask mandates and loosened coronavirus restrictions over the past week.

Texas and Mississippi announced Tuesday that businesses could operate at full capacity, joining fellow Republican-led states Iowa, Montana and North Dakota in dropping statewide requirements for face coverings.

Local lawmakers have cited declining COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and many have argued that their decisions are aimed at restoring power and freedom to their constituents.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading expert on infectious diseases, called reopening so soon "ill-advised" Thursday on CNN.

He said restrictions shouldn't be lifted in the U.S. until new coronavirus cases fall below 10,000 a day "and maybe even considerably less than that" across the country.

The United States, as of Friday, posted a seven-day moving average of 62,555 new COVID-19 cases reported daily, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The last time the U.S. saw fewer than 10,000 cases was March 22, 2020, according to Johns Hopkins University.

It's too soon to tell if these lifted restrictions will lead to an uptick in cases, though experts are concerned. Other state leaders are maintaining them. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said mask mandates shouldn't be lifted because doing so would be seen by some as "macho."

"I don't know really what the big rush to get rid of the masks is, because these masks have saved a lot -- a lot -- of lives," Justice said on CNN Thursday.

Justice said there's been no discussion of lifting the mask mandate in his state.

"In West Virginia, we wanted to be cautious, safe, respectful of everybody's rights," he added. "I'm not going to dance like a politician, because I'm not that."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's announced his state's mandate ends March 10. He said Texans "no longer need government running our lives."

Abbott told ABC Houston station KTRK on Thursday that the decision was a "product of the data that we have seen."

Thursday marked the lowest positivity rate and number of hospitalizations since October, and more than half of Texas 65 or older have received at least one vaccine shot, Abbott said.

Abbott added that he'd still wear a mask and encouraged his constituents to do so. Texans, he added, "know the right thing to do."

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves also cited plummeting hospitalizations and case numbers, and the vaccine rollout, in his decision to end a statewide mask mandate.

President Joe Biden call decisions to end the mandates "Neanderthal thinking."

"We are just simply doing the things to give our people the power back to do what they think is best for themselves and their families," Reeves said in an interview Thursday on Fox News.

Some governors who are relaxing statewide restrictions also are allowing local authorities and constituents to decide for themselves.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds lifted the mask mandate in February, saying, "We know what we need to do, and it doesn't require a government mandate to do it."

In Montana and North Dakota, state mask mandates were allowed to expire, but local authorities can enact their own safety protocols.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced Thursday that her state's mask mandate will end April 9, saying that face coverings will be "a matter of personal responsibility."

This past week, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Michigan, Louisiana, and California and Connecticut all loosened coronavirus restrictions based on declining infection numbers.

Those restrictions were in regard to business capacity, curfews, social gatherings and entertainment venues. Those states did not alter their mask policies.

Fauci said that for things to reopen he'd like to see "a substantial proportion of the population vaccinated," and restrictions should be eased gradually, not all at once.

"You don't want to go from very stringent public health restrictions to just turning it off, and say, 'That's it,'" Fauci said.

As of Friday, according to CDC data, fewer than 9% of all Americans were fully vaccinated.

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Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesBy ALLISON PECORIN, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The Senate began voting on amendments to the COVID-19 relief bill on Friday.

Senate Democrats have agreed to an extension in jobless benefits through September at a reduced amount of $300 a week in the COVID-19 relief bill, according to two Democratic aides. The House bill originally included weekly benefits of $400 through August.

The agreement also "provides tax relief to workers who received unemployment insurance compensation by making the first $10,200 of benefits non-taxable for the first time to prevent surprise bills for unemployed at end of year," according to a Democratic aide.

The Senate began its consideration of the coronavirus relief bill Thursday, but before voting on President Joe Biden's signature legislation, Republicans who claim the bill is massive and won't address issues related to the pandemic set the stage for a lengthy series of procedural measures designed to slow down momentum.

Democrats are projecting that they will hold together and vote unanimously in favor of the aid after Biden made concessions to appease the moderates. If they stick together, there's little the GOP can do to prevent it from passing in the evenly divided Senate.

But that won't stop Republicans from fighting to make passage an arduous affair.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.,extended the length of debate by several hours by requiring the Senate clerk to read the nearly 600-page bill aloud in full.

Republicans also plan to offer a laundry list of amendments to make good on Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's promise that Republicans will be "fighting in every way we can" to block the bill.

The last marathon-voting session on a bill lasted about 15 hours. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., called that a "warm-up session" for what's to come on the vote for final passage.

"There's going to be a lot of amendments," Braun said. "You're going to have a lot of amendments you're going to have a lot of stuff that's going to be struck through an amendment, but whether we get anywhere on that I'm not sure."

The bill cleared the House without a single Republican backer and McConnell said he is hopeful that Senate Republicans will also "unanimously oppose" the bill. It's not yet clear whether he'll have his way.

Moderate Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski hasn't yet said how she intends to vote on the bill, and in recent days, Biden has made concessions to appease moderates within the Democratic caucus -- that could also earn favor with moderate Republicans.

The Senate version of the bill does not include language that would have required a raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, for example. The proposal, which was unpopular with moderate Democrats Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., was ruled out of bounds for a budget bill by the Senate parliamentarian.

Still, Budget Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., appeared on the Senate floor in advance of Friday's vote-a-rama to introduce his amendment, which he'll offer later in the day, to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

"Let’s be clear. This is the richest country in the history of the world," Sanders said. "We can no longer tolerate millions of our workers being unable to feed their families because they are working for starvation wages."

Biden and Senate Democrats cut a deal Wednesday to lower the income threshold for who will receive partial direct payments. Individuals making under $75,000 and couples making under $150,000 will still receive a full direct payment, but partial payments will cap off at $80,000 and $160,000 respectively.

Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., estimated this would decrease the cost of direct checks by $12 billion.

The Senate substitute to the House reconciliation bill is estimated by Congressional Budget Office to be $1.874 trillion.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden had been listening closely to the suggestions of Manchin and other moderates on the bill -- and with the new changes -- Manchin seemed unlikely to vote against the package.

"I just think that the bill has, really, enough good stuff -- really does have enough good stuff -- that we should be able to make this work -- we really should," Manchin said. "I'm very pleased with the discussions and dialogues and some changes that have been agreed upon."

Democrats on Thursday said they were confident they could move through the procedural hoops and pass the legislation.

"We don't have time for the politics that are going on right now," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Thursday. "We're going to just going to keep drinking coffee and getting this thing done."

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Federal Bureau of Investigation said Thursday that it has arrested Federico Klein, one of former President Donald Trump's appointees to the U.S. Department of State, for his alleged role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Klein, 42, was picked up by federal agents in Virginia, according to a spokesperson for the FBI's field office in Washington, D.C. Court documents obtained by ABC News show Klein has been charged with assaulting federal law enforcement personnel during the deadly riot earlier this year.

Klein is the first known member of the Trump administration to face criminal charges in connection with the storming of the Capitol building by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6.

ABC News was unable to immediately reach Klein for comment.

Charging documents filed Tuesday in federal district court in Washington, D.C., accuse Klein of taking part in one of the day's most violent interactions between authorities and the mob seeking entrance at the Lower West Terrace of the Capitol building. Investigators said law enforcement body-worn cameras purportedly captured Klein as he "violently shoved a riot shield that apparently had been taken from an officer, towards the officers trying to stop the mob from gaining access to the building."

Investigators said Klein allegedly "pushed the riot shield in between the doors to the Capitol, preventing officers from closing the doors," according to the court documents.

Investigators said other videos posted on social media purportedly show Klein "inciting the mob and trying to break through the police line in the Lower West Terrace tunnel and into the Capitol building." In one instance, as a crowd of rioters assaulted and struggled with authorities, investigators said Klein was purportedly captured on video repeatedly "calling back to the crowd behind him, 'We need fresh people, we need fresh people,'" according to the court documents.

Investigators also said that, when law enforcement had finally pushed rioters out of the Lower West Terrace tunnel and discovered an officer had been dragged into the crowd, the officers who rushed to retrieve their injured colleague encountered Klein who, when he was told to move, allegedly responded, "No way."

Later, Klein was purportedly captured on video appearing to help the officer make his way back toward the tunnel, according to the court documents.

On Jan. 20, the FBI posted a bulletin showing individuals who it said had made unlawful entry into the Capitol building and assaulted law enforcement personnel on Jan. 6. The list included Klein, who was given the moniker "136-AFO." The FBI then received a tip from an individual who identified 136-AFO as Klein. The tipster told the FBI that Klein was their neighbor and "had exhibited extreme behavior to include displaying inflammatory rhetoric on their vehicle about President Biden, Vice President Harris, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the 'ANTIFA' movement," according to the court documents.

Investigators determined that Klein had been an employee of the U.S. Department of State until resigning his position on Jan. 19, the day before President Joe Biden's inauguration. Klein also possessed a top-secret security clearance, according to the court documents.

As of last summer, Klein was listed in a federal directory as serving as a special assistant in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs since January 2017, and was designated as a "Schedule C" political appointee. He also previously worked on Trump's 2016 presidential campaign as a tech analyst, according to Politico, which first reported his arrest.

Five people, including a police officer, died when a pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol building on Jan. 6 in an unsuccessful attempt to halt the certification of the 2020 election.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



(WASHINGTON) -- In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., Friday, Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell has sued former President Donald Trump and some of his allies, including his son Donald Trump Jr., personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and GOP Rep. Mo Brooks, over their alleged roles in the events leading up to and surrounding the Capitol assault on Jan. 6.

In the 65-page suit, Swalwell, who was a House impeachment manager during Trump's second Senate trial, alleges that they all directly incited the violence at the U.S. Capitol by putting out "a clear call to action" that the crowd responded to.

"Trump directly incited the violence at the Capitol that followed and then watched approvingly as the building was overrun," the lawsuit alleges.

"As Trump was instructing them to go to the Capitol, insurgents were already forcing their way through barricades, attempting to breach the building, while blasting Trump’s speech on a bullhorn," it says.

It also claims that the defendants also violated federal laws, including D.C.'s Anti-Terrorism Act.

"After failing miserably with two impeachment hoaxes, [Swalwell is] attacking our greatest President with yet another witch hunt," Trump senior adviser Jason Miller told ABC News in response to the lawsuit. "It’s a disgrace that a compromised Member of Congress like Swalwell still sits on the House Intelligence Committee."

In a statement to ABC News in January, Trump campaign officials denied that any active members of its team were involved in the planning of the rally that preceded the riot.

No one named in the suit has yet to comment on the allegations.

Swalwell alleges in the filing that the events at the Capitol "were a direct and foreseeable consequence of the Defendants' unlawful actions," and in a statement posted on his Twitter account, Swalwell said they all bear responsibility for the injury and destruction that followed.

"As a direct and foreseeable consequence of the Defendants' false and incendiary allegations of fraud and theft, and in direct response to the Defendants' express calls for violence at the rally, a violent mob attacked the U.S. Capitol and stop Congress's counting of electoral college votes. The Defendants' assembled, inflamed and incited the mob, and as such are wholly responsible for the injury and destruction that followed," the suit claims.

It's the second lawsuit of its kind attempting to hold the former president and those close to him accountable for their actions leading up to and surrounding Jan. 6.

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, alleged in a lawsuit last month that Trump, Giuliani the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers conspired to violate the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, which prohibits any actions designed to prevent Congress from carrying out its duties, when they incited the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


kuzma/iStockBy MEREDITH DELISO, ABC News

(JACKSON, Miss.) -- Mississippi legislators have passd a bill that would ban transgender athletes from competing on female sports teams in schools and universities -- one of over two dozen similar measures proposed by state lawmakers nationwide this year.

The state House voted 81-28 Wednesday to pass the so-called Mississippi Fairness Act. It passed the state Senate last month, 34-9. Gov. Tate Reeves said Thursday that he will sign it.

A growing number of states have proposed legislation that would restrict transgender student-athletes from participating in school sports. As of Feb. 26, the ACLU has tracked 25 states considering such bills this year, compared to 18 last year. This week, Wisconsin also introduced a similar bill.

Idaho became the first state to pass a law banning transgender women from competing in women's sports last year. A federal district court suspended the law and it has yet to be enacted.

Mississippi's act is the first of its ilk to successfully pass through both chambers this year. Some have failed in committee, including in South Dakota on Wednesday and in Utah last month.

A similar bill also died in committee in Mississippi last year. Republican state Sen. Angela Hill, who sponsored that bill and the one that passed the House Wednesday, told ABC News she was inspired to introduce the legislation after learning about two girls' championship-winning transgender high school runners in Connecticut, where state policy allows high school athletes to compete as the gender with which they identify. Mississippi does not have a policy regarding transgender high school athletes.

"If we do not move to protect female sports from biological males who have an unfair physiological advantage, we will eventually no longer have female sports," she said.

Hill could not point to any instance of transgender girls competing on girls' sports teams in her state's high schools, but said she has heard concerns from coaches about Mississippi's lack of guidelines.

"This issue is imminent in Mississippi," she said. "We have to make a statement that women matter, female sports matter."

Following the House passage, Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said Mississippi was "on the wrong side of history."

"There is simply no justification for banning transgender girls and women from participating in athletics other than discrimination," David said in a statement. "Like all girls, transgender girls just want to play and be part of a team with their friends. History will not look kindly on this moment in Mississippi."

LGBTQ advocates warn that such bills send a damaging message to transgender youth.

"These dangerous bills are designed to make the lives of transgender kids more difficult while they try to navigate their adolescence," David said.

The Mississippi bill would require any public school and university that is a member of the Mississippi High School Activities Association and NCAA, among other associations, to designate their athletic teams as male, female or co-ed and restrict athletes assigned male at birth from joining female teams. It would not prevent cis women from participating on a male team.

Reeves has been critical of policies allowing transgender athletes to play women's sports.

Last month, the Republican governor said he was "disappointed" by President Joe Biden's executive order combatting discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, which stated, "Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports."

"I will sign our bill to protect young girls from being forced to compete with biological males for athletic opportunities," Reeves said on social media Thursday. "It’s crazy we have to address it, but the Biden E.O. forced the issue."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



(ATLANTA) -- A grand jury is expected to be seated this week in Fulton County, Georgia, to look into efforts by Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 election, signaling that the county's investigation into the former president is intensifying.

Prosecutors in Fulton County are expected pursue subpoenas for documents and witnesses and rely heavily on them, people familiar with the investigation told ABC News.

In a letter sent last month from Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis to Gov. Brian Kemp and obtained by ABC News, Willis said the grand jury would convene in March and would "begin requesting grand jury subpoenas as necessary at that time."

Willis wrote in the Feb. 10 letter that her office had no reason to believe any Georgia official was the target of the investigation.

The district attorney's office in Fulton County formally launched a criminal probe into Trump's efforts to overturn his election loss in the state last month, after Trump was heard in a Jan. 2 phone call pleading with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help him "find 11,780 votes," the exact number he needed to win Georgia.

"This investigation includes, but is not limited to, potential violations of Georgia law prohibiting the solicitation of election fraud, the making of false statements to state and local governmental bodies, conspiracy, racketeering, violation of oath of office and any involvement in violence or threats related to the election's administration," Willis wrote in her letter to the governor.

George Washington University Law Professor John F. Banzhaf, whose formal complaints with Georgia officials helped trigger the investigation, says that Trump's hour-long call to Raffensperger could have violated as many as three separate state laws.

Trump has previously denied any wrongdoing.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



(WASHINGTON) -- Fewer people will qualify for direct payments as part of the new COVID-19 relief bill under an agreement by Senate Democrats.

The agreement more narrowly tailors who qualifies for those $1,400 direct checks that President Joe Biden has touted as part of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief legislation. The Senate is expected to begin debate on the plan Thursday.

Individuals making less than $75,000 or couples making less than $150,000 will still be eligible for a full $1,400 payment under the new agreement. But partial payments will be capped at $80,000 for individuals and $160,000 for couples.

The House version of the bill allowed reduced payments to those earning up to $100,000 and couples earning up to $200,000. The change means that some who would have received partial payments under the House bill will no longer receive a check.

The agreement comes as Biden and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer jostle to keep the caucus united in support of the president's signature bill.

The Senate is currently divided evenly, which means the defection of even one Democratic senator could hurt the bill's prospects. Moderate Democrats had been lobbying to lower the income threshold on direct payments to ensure that checks are sent to the hardest hit families.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., led that charge and White House press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Biden has been listening closely to the senator's proposals. She also said that Biden is "comfortable with where the negotiations stand."

"He has been open from the beginning for that being more targeted and for there to be a steeper cliff at which that ramp-down ends," Psaki said.

Some of the more progressive members of the Democratic conference aren't pleased with the agreement. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she preferred the higher income eligibility.

"The package as it was originally crafted is good to go," Cantwell said.

But no Democrat has signaled that this change will cause them to vote against the overall package.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called the agreement a "reasonable compromise," but it may also be a necessary one if Democrats are hoping to complete the legislation before the March 14 deadline when unemployment benefits expire.

"I think it's an appropriate way of bringing this to a successful conclusion," Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said.

The agreement struck between Senate Democrats and the White House Wednesday morning does, however, keep the $400 weekly federal boost to unemployment insurance through August in the package, a win for more liberal members.

Manchin had signaled Wednesday that the $400 unemployment insurance payouts were not a deal breaker for him.

"I just think that the bill has, really, enough good stuff -- really does have enough good stuff -- that we should be able to make this work -- we really should," Manchin said. "I'm very pleased with the discussions and dialogues and some changes that have been agreed upon."

An effort by progressive Democrats including Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to extend unemployment insurance through September did not make the cut, however.

The Senate is headed toward an hours-long series of votes on amendments on the COVID package later this week.

Republicans have already said they plan to offer a laundry list of amendments to the bill, focusing on areas of the package that they find most troublesome. The process could keep the Senate in a voting posture for many hours.

Republicans have criticized the bill, calling it a "liberal wish list" poorly targeted at coronavirus-specific needs. They've also bashed Democrats for choosing to "go it alone" rather than work on a bipartisan agreement.

Biden, on a call with Senate Democrats Tuesday, urged members to present a united front during the amendment votes. That unity will be critical because it is not clear that any member of the GOP will support the bill in the Senate. It got no votes from Republicans in the House.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told reporters Wednesday she's undecided on the package, and not all members of the Senate have made clear how they intend to vote.

If Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has his way, the GOP will be equally united in opposition.

"We'll be fighting this in every way that we can," McConnell said Tuesday. "It is my hope that at the end, Senate Republicans will unanimously oppose it."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty ImagesBy BENJAMIN SIEGEL, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- Former White House physician Ronny Jackson "bullied" subordinates and made sexual comments about female colleagues while serving as President Barack Obama's official doctor, according to a new report from the Defense Department inspector general.

The Pentagon watchdog's investigation into Jackson's behavior in the White House Medical Unit stemmed from a referral from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in 2018, when Jackson was nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The allegations about Jackson's inappropriate conduct ultimately led Trump to withdraw Jackson's nomination. He retired from the Navy in 2019, before winning a seat in Congress in 2020.

In a statement to ABC News, Jackson, R-Texas, denied the findings of the watchdog report, calling it a "political hit job" against him "because I have refused to turn my back on President Trump."

The report zeroed in on two presidential trips Jackson made as Obama's physician.

On a presidential trip to the Philippines in April 2014, several witnesses saw Jackson drink alcohol and make inappropriate comments about a female subordinate's breasts.

Jackson was later seen banging on the door to the subordinate's hotel room early the next morning, waking her up and saying, "I need you to come to my room."

On an August 2015 trip to Bariloche, Argentina, Jackson was seen drinking by colleagues and "smelled of alcohol" when he was supposed to be on duty as Obama's physician.

Several witnesses told investigators that Jackson told them he used Ambien, a drug used to treat insomnia that can impair users. White House Medical Office policy at the time prohibited the use of drugs "which can adversely impact the individual member's duty performance."

The report also found that Jackson created a hostile work environment: Of the 60 subordinates interviewed by the watchdog for the inquiry, 56 experienced, saw or heard Jackson "yelling, cursing or belittling" subordinates.

The Defense Department hotline received 12 complaints about Jackson's behavior, that were investigated. Ultimately, the inspector general interviewed 78 witnesses and Jackson -- who was instructed by the White House counsel's office not to answer questions regarding events after he first became the presidential physician in July 2013.

The inspector general's investigation was also limited by White House lawyers, with the watchdog determining that the White House's insistence on having attorneys present for interviews with current medical office staff would have a "chilling effect" that would prevent them from receiving "accurate testimony."

"I have not and will not ever conduct myself in a way that undermines the sincerity with which I take my oath to my country or my constituents," Jackson said in his statement to ABC News, denying that he ever inappropriately drank on the job or harassed any colleagues or subordinates.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Official White House Photo by Lawrence JacksonBy MICHELLE STODDART, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- Wednesday is Day 43 of the administration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Here is how the day unfolded. All time Eastern:

Mar 03, 10:05 pm
House passes massive police reform bill named for George Floyd

The House passed a massive police reform bill late Wednesday on a party line vote, 219-213. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is aimed at preventing police misconduct and was named after George Floyd, a Black man who died last summer in Minnesota at the hands of police.

Two Democrats voted against the bill: Reps. Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Jared Golden of Maine. One Republican supported the bill: Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas, but he said later on Twitter that it was an accident and that he had corrected the record to reflect his opposition to the legislation.

The House was supposed to vote on the bill Thursday, but leadership moved up the vote amid new threats aimed at the Capitol.

The bill would establish a national standard for the operation of police departments, mandate data collection on police encounters, reprogram existing funds to invest in transformative community-based policing programs and streamline federal law to prosecute excessive force and establish independent prosecutors for police investigations. The measure would also ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants and requires that deadly force be used only as a last resort and requires officers to employ de-escalation techniques first.

The bill now heads to the Senate.

Mar 03, 7:42 pm
Biden to Dems: 'speak up and speak out' about COVID relief plan

Speaking virtually to the House Democratic Caucus Wednesday afternoon, Biden thanked his fellow Democrats for stepping up for Americans amid the COVID-19 pandemic and urged them to keep working to get the coronavirus relief plan to his desk for approval.

In a knock to his close friend and the president he served under, Biden said not to repeat the misstep President Barack Obama made in 2009 when he “didn’t adequately explain” the benefits of the American Recovery Act in 2009 to dig the U.S. out of the Great Recession.

“The economists told us we literally saved America from a depression. But we didn't adequately explain what we had done," Biden said. "Barack was so modest he didn't want to take, as he said, 'a victory lap.' I kept saying, tell people what we did. He said, 'we don't have time. I’m not going to take a victory lap.' And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility.”

Biden also said a win for Democrats over this relief bill, will also help them down the road as they get ready to focus on immigration reform and infrastructure.

-ABC News' Justin Gomez

Mar 03, 4:58 pm
Threats to Capitol prompt House leaders to change schedule

The House has changed its schedule so that the chamber will no longer be in session Thursday given concerns about new threats against the Capitol.

Sources familiar confirm to ABC News the change in schedule is due to security concerns regarding possible militia action on March 4.

The House is expected to wrap up all of its legislative work Wednesday night.

Democrats had planned a Thursday vote on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, a massive policing reform bill. That vote will now take place Wednesday night given these new concerns.

As of right now, there are no plans for the Senate to leave early. The Senate is still expected to begin debate and votes on the $1.9 trillion COVID relief plan.

-ABC News' Benjamin Siegel and Mariam Khan

Mar 03, 4:58 pm
Biden to join Democratic conference

The President will virtually join the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday afternoon during their annual retreat, also known as the “Issues Conference.” The theme of this year’s conference is “Build Back Better for the People.”

The President will deliver the final keynote address and participate in a brief question and answer period.

Mar 03, 4:08 pm
Schumer picks all-female leadership team for Senate Sergeant at Arms office

On Wednesday, as Congress heard about serious problems on Jan. 6 regarding the security situation at the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that an Army veteran, Retired Army Lt. Gen. Karen Gibson, with extensive intelligence experience will take over as the new Senate Sergeant at Arms.

Schumer unveiled an all-female leadership team heading the Sergeant at Arms office, the office that oversees security at the Capitol.

-ABC News' Trish Turner

Mar 03, 2:44 pm

Biden says relaxing COVID-19 precautions now is 'neanderthal thinking'

Biden on Wednesday told reporters in the Oval Office that decisions by the Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves to relax COVID-19 restrictions by opening businesses and repealing mask mandates are a "big mistake."

"I think it's a big mistake. Look, I hope everybody has realized by now these masks make a difference," Biden said "We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way we are able to get vaccine in people’s arms."

Despite the promising increase in vaccinations, Biden said it is not time to relax social distancing measures before enough Americans get the vaccine.

"And the last thing, the last thing we need is the neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it," Biden said. "It still matters."

Biden noted that more than 500,00 Americans have died from the pandemic, saying he keeps a card with that number.

"And it’s critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science. Wash your hands. Hot water. Do it frequently. Wear a mask and stay socially distanced. And, I know you all know that," Biden said. "I wish the heck some of our elected officials knew it."

Mar 03, 2:43 pm

Biden hopes to 'preside over the end of cancer'

Biden hosted a meeting with bipartisan lawmakers Wednesday afternoon to discuss ways to get to their shared goal of ending cancer "as we know it."

"And what I want to talk with them about today is how we go about taking advantage of the work they’ve done to get us where we are today, because I think we're on the cusp of some real breakthroughs across the board on cancer," Biden said before the meeting.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki previewed the meeting, saying that fighting cancer has "significant personal importance" to Biden, whose oldest son Beau passed away after fighting brain cancer in 2015. During his tenure as vice president, Biden was tapped by former President Barack Obama to lead the fight against cancer.

Mar 03, 2:23 pm

First lady makes school visit

First lady Jill Biden and newly sworn-in Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Meriden, Connecticut, on Wednesday, to see how the school was adapting to the pandemic. Biden began the tour in a kindergarten classroom, where a teacher at the school showed her plexiglass dividers with pool noodles on the edge, one of the mitigation strategies.

On the next stop on the tour, the first lady visited a sensory room to learn how they modified their approach for special needs students, as well a second-grade classroom, though no students were present.

“I think the teachers are doing such a great job in, you know, meeting the kids where they are, whether that’s in school, whether it’s at home. I mean, really, I think what the teachers have done here to help...America’s children has just been incredible,” Biden said.

-ABC News' Molly Nagle

Mar 03, 2:18 pm

Harris visits woman-owned small business in Virginia

Harris visited Fibre Space, a woman-owned small business in Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday morning to discuss changes small businesses made in the wake of the pandemic and to tout Biden's COVID-19 relief bill.

Fibre Space sells yarn, fibre, and other supplies.

She met with the owner of Fibre Space, Danielle Romanetti, and three employees during the visit, and discussed how Romanetti and her employees have been impacted by COVID-19, including how they have incurred additional child care costs and dealt with uncertainty about their economic futures.

Harris also discussed the importance of passing Biden's American Rescue Plan to get relief to those who need it.

Mar 03, 1:51 pm

White House 'hopeful' Texans, Mississippians will continue to follow health guidelines

White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded to questions in a briefing Wednesday about decisions by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves to relax COVID-19 restrictions, including opening businesses and ending mask mandates.

"... This entire country has paid the price for political leaders who ignored the science when it comes to the pandemic," Psaki said.

Psaki added that the president is "hopeful that people in these states will continue to follow the guidelines that have been set out and the recommendations made by health and medical experts.”

Mar 03, 1:49 pm

Biden is 'comfortable' with COVID-19 relief negotiations

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing Wednesday that the president is "comfortable" with negotiations on Capitol Hill resulting in limiting income thresholds for direct payments in the COVID-19 relief bill.

"We don't have a final bill, as you know. There will be ongoing discussions. He is comfortable and knows there will be tweaks at the margin," Psaki said. "What his firm viewpoint is, is that it needs to meet the scope of the challenge, it needs to be the size he's proposed."

A Democratic aide told ABC News Wednesday morning that changes in the bill include single filers making over $80,000 and joint filers making over $160,000 not receiving $1,400 direct payments.

Psaki added that Biden is "unmovable" on the dollar amount of the payments despite attempts to reduce it.

Mar 03, 1:45 pm

White House says not to expect new OMB pick this week

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the public should "not expect" an announcement for director of the Office of Management and Budget after Biden's pick Neera Tanden withdrew her consideration Tuesday night over criticism from her past tweets critical of Republicans.

Mar 03, 12:22 pm
CDC director pushes back on states reopening

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky responded to the decisions by some governors, including Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, to relax COVID-19 precautions, including opening businesses and ending mask mandates, saying the CDC and White House have been very clear about the need to step up protections and not relax them.

"Today we are at a critical nexus in the pandemic," Walensky said. "So much can turn in the next few weeks. On the one hand, cases in the country are leveling off at rates just on the cusp of potential to resurge."

Walensky made a personal plea to Americans regardless of local policies to continue making choices that will stop the virus from spreading.

"Whether mandated or not, as individuals and as communities, we can still take the right public health action to protect ourselves and others. Wearing a well-fitting mask, avoiding travel and crowds, social distancing, and practicing good hand hygiene," Walensky said. "Now more than ever, we must do all we can to stop the spread of the virus."

Mar 03, 11:38 am
Becerra's nomination moves out of committee despite GOP opposition

The withdrawal of Neera Tanden's nomination Tuesday night marked the first Biden appointee to fall at the hands of the 50-50 split Senate, but Wednesday morning, another potentially controversial nominee was advanced out of committee: Xavier Becerra.

The Finance committee voted on a party-line to advance Becerra's nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Services out of committee. No Republicans supported him.

Democrats tout Becerra's experience as California attorney general, but many in the GOP say they are not sold that he has the relevant experience for the post. It's not entirely clear whether Becerra will have the support necessary to be confirmed. Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.V., has not said yet whether he'll support the nomination.

Mar 03, 11:35 am
House Democratic leaders endorse Young for OMB director

House Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Stenny Hoyer, D-Md., Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., released a statement Wednesday endorsing Shalanda Young for director of the Office of Management and Budget. Young was nominated for deputy director of the agency, but some lawmakers threw their weight behind her as director amid criticism of Neera Tanden, Biden's original pick to lead the agency, who withdrew from consideration Tuesday night.

Young appeared before the Senate Budget Committee Tuesday, and was received positively by some lawmakers. She has also gotten the support of Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Mar 03, 11:24 am
Final COVID-19 bill narrows income brackets for $1,400 direct payments: Source

A Democratic aide tells ABC News that the final Senate COVID-19 relief bill makes changes around who will get a $1,400 direct payment.

The payments will begin to phase out at the $75,000 income bracket, and single filers making over $80,000 will not receive payments. For joint filers, payments will begin to phase out at $150,000 income level and joint filers making over $160,000 will not receive payments.

That addresses concern of moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., who have called for more targeted direct payments.

Mar 03, 10:49 am
White House says 'more than 200,000' have enrolled for health insurance

Biden released a statement Wednesday saying more than 200,000 Americans have signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act in the first two weeks since his administration started a special three-month enrollment period for on Feb. 15.

Biden signed an executive order on Jan. 28, opening the federal marketplace for a three-month special enrollment period for coverage during the pandemic. The special enrollment period ends May 15.

Mar 03, 10:30 am
Debate on COVID-19 relief bill expected Wednesday

Senate Democratic aides tell ABC News they expect debate on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill to start late Wednesday, but they’re waiting on the text to be completed and nonpartisan offices to issue a new price tag, also called a "score," and analysis.

After that, there will be up to 20 hours of debate over the bill, and then a Senate "vote-a-rama" will begin, during which senators can propose amendments. Then the Senate will vote on the bill's passage.

Mar 03, 9:50 am
First lady wades into school reopening debate

Jill Biden, the nation’s highest-ranking teacher, is wading into the debate over reopening schools, with a visit Wednesday to Connecticut and Pennsylvania alongside the newly confirmed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. Upping her role in this contentious fight is a significant move for Jill Biden, and one that could put her in the political crosshairs, as the Biden administration tries to balance the interests of teachers' unions and pandemic-weary parents who are desperate to get their kids back in school.

The first lady will need to walk a fine line. Wednesday's visits are being billed more as a listening session. Biden and the education secretary will be stopping by two schools that have managed to reopen with the hopes of “having a conversation… about what has been effective, what has worked, what are the lessons learned, what do they need more assistance with?" White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

But Biden, who herself is teaching virtually at Northern Virginia Community College this semester, will nonetheless get a reality check on the difficulties facing schools as the Biden administration struggles to achieve its goal to reopen the majority of schools in his first 100 days.

Mar 03, 9:09 am
Biden to hold meeting on cancer, meet with House Dems

After meeting with Senate Democrats two days in a row, Biden speaks, virtually, to the House Democratic Caucus at their annual retreat. Before that, Biden and Harris will hold a 1:45 p.m. bipartisan meeting on cancer in the Oval Office. Details on that are still unclear but Biden has long advocated a cancer "moonshot."

Separately, Harris will spend part of the day visiting a woman-owned small business in Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss the impact of the pandemic and promote the American Rescue Plan. The vice president will also ceremonially swear in Gina Raimondo as Secretary of Commerce in the evening.

The White House Covid-19 response team will hold a press briefing at 11 a.m. and White House press secretary Jen Psaki will hold a briefing at 12:30 p.m.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


hermosawave/iStockBy BENJAMIN SIEGEL, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The House late Wednesday night passed a sweeping ethics and voting rights package, first introduced in 2019.

The "For the People Act of 2021" is something Democrats say is urgently needed as Republican-controlled state legislatures scramble to change voting laws in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.

The House passed the election reform bill in a 220-210 vote. The measure now heads to the Senate.

The package would automatically register people to vote and restore the voting rights of felons. It would also mandate more than two weeks of early voting, encourage voting-by-mail and expand absentee ballot drop boxes across the country -- along with other provisions meant to address concerns raised by election officials during the 2020 election cycle.

"We're not pursuing this reform against the backdrop of the status quo. We're pursuing it against the prospect that the Republicans will take things in the wrong direction, and in a significant way," Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., the lead sponsor of the bill told ABC News.

Following Donald Trump's loss to Joe Biden in November, Republicans across the country have introduced hundreds of proposals to change voting laws, arguing that the changes are needed to restore trust in the election system.

The efforts follow Trump and some Republicans' extended campaign to undermine the election results with unproven claims of widespread voter fraud, and the Trump campaign's repeated failures to challenge state-level results in court.

On Monday, the Republican-controlled state legislature in Georgia -- where turnout helped Biden win in November and two Democrats win the state's Senate seats in January -- approved a new measure changing the state's absentee voting laws, over the objections of Democrats and voting rights advocates.

And on Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case over two Arizona election laws, with conservatives on the court weighing whether to limit what Democrats consider to be key protections against racial discrimination in the Voting Rights Act.

"There is a new and palpable intensity to voter suppression, particularly targeting communities of color," Daniel Weiner, the deputy director of the Brennan Center's Election Reform Program, said of the new voting law proposals pushed by Republicans this year. "There is, frankly, an alarming willingness to push these policies based on false premises, and those are premises that have been amplified by the former president."

Congressional Republicans were expected to oppose the legislation on the floor, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., accusing Democrats of prioritizing legislation "to protect themselves to get reelected" over other major issues.

"The priorities here are wrong," McCarthy said Tuesday during debate on the legislation.

Trump also attacked the legislation in his speech on Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, calling it a "monster" that "cannot be allowed to pass," pointing to provisions meant to expand access to voting.

Lawmakers spent much of Tuesday considering amendments to the package.

In addition to the voting law changes, the legislation would require presidential candidates to release at least 10 years of tax returns, and the spending of presidential inaugural committees -- along with other provisions crafted in 2019 in response to Trump's unwillingness to share his tax returns, and the federal investigation into his inaugural spending. It would also require campaigns to report any contacts with foreign officials.

The nearly 800-page package also includes provisions to bolster election security at the state and federal levels, require social media platforms to maintain databases of political ads, and require states to set up independent redistricting commissions to redraw their congressional districts and prevent partisan gerrymandering -- two provisions Democrats point to ahead of the redrawing of the congressional map following the 2020 census.

The legislation would also create a new 6-to-1 matching system for political donations of up to $200 for presidential and congressional candidates who reject large contributions -- which Republicans have decried as public financing of campaigns. The funds would be generated by financial and corporate settlements.

The American Action Network, a GOP advocacy group, is seizing on that line of attack, running digital ads in 15 Democratic congressional districts urging votes against the legislation.

The legislation, like other key pieces of House Democrats' agenda, heads to the Democrat-controlled Senate, but is expected to languish given a lack of Republican support. Democrats need the backing of 10 Republicans to advance the package past the 60-vote threshold.

Still, advocates said the passage of the measure is necessary in the House to put more pressure on Senate Democrats to consider changing the chamber's rules and eliminating the legislative filibuster, in order to pass their priorities through the narrowly-divided Senate when Democrats control Congress and the White House.

"It's going to be hard without looking at reforming the filibuster," Sarbanes said of passing HR 1. "This sends a very clear message to our colleagues in the Senate of the high priority."

That pressure could also build in the coming weeks when the House sends immigration reform, gun control and criminal justice reform legislation to the Senate, pitting progressives against moderates such as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., who fiercely opposes changing the Senate's rules.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


PinkOmelet/iStockBy STEPHANIE EBBS, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to end his state's mask mandate "Neanderthal thinking," echoing frustration from top COVID-19 response officials in his administration that case numbers are not low enough to relax restrictions before more Americans are vaccinated.

Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday the state would "100% reopen," ending the mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate without restrictions, a move that contradicts Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and public health experts from around the country.

Biden called the decision a big mistake.

"I hope everybody has realized by now these masks make a difference. We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way we are able to get vaccine in people’s arms. We’ve been able to move that all the way up to the end of may to have enough for every American, to get every adult American to get a shot," he told reporters in the Oval Office.

"And the last thing, the last thing, the last thing we need is the Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it. It still matters ... It’s critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science."

Top Biden administration officials involved in COVID-19 response expressed disappointment Wednesday in state decisions to start reopening at a critical point in the pandemic, saying it's more important than ever to keep wearing masks and preventing more cases of COVID-19 that could threaten the vaccine rollout.

Other states, including Mississippi, have also begun to relax restrictions and end requirements to wear masks citing the rate of vaccinations and lower numbers of COVID-19 cases, but infectious disease experts say changes in behavior now could risk another surge and the spread of more contagious variants.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the country is at a "critical nexus" in the pandemic and that individuals have to keep wearing masks, distancing, and protecting themselves and others from the virus so cases don't go back up before more people can be vaccinated.

On the one hand, cases in the country are leveling off at rates -- at rates just on the cusp of potential to resurge. And B-117 hyper transmissible variant looms ready to hijack our successes to date," Walensky said.

"And, on the other hand, stamina has worn thin, fatigue is winning, and the exact measures we have taken to stop the pandemic are now too often being flagrantly ignored."

Walensky said the CDC has been very clear that now is not the time to remove restrictions but said individuals can also choose to keep being proactive even when it's no longer required by their state.

"Every individual has -- is empowered to do the right thing here, regardless of what the states decide for personal health, for public health, for the health and their loved ones and communities. I would still encourage individuals to wear a mask, to socially distance, and to do the right thing to protect their own health," she said.

White House Senior COVID-19 Advisor Andy Slavitt said it is "critically important" to continue wearing masks over the next few months, saying President Joe Biden has emphasized it so much because it could save tens of thousands of lives. He said the White House strongly encourages governors and mayors to keep the course but recognizes they are under a lot of pressure.

"Even though it's counterintuitive, it's actually the most important time for people to make sure we run through the tape and finish that up. I think that's a commonly shared sentiment not just from us but from public health experts everywhere. So hopefully the country will continue to rally together in this front," he said.

When asked if the administration would take any steps to encourage or mandate that states stick to CDC guidelines, Slavitt said they are using federal control where they can but otherwise hope state leaders will listen.

"I think we are using the absolute full extent of all of the areas where we have federal control and we are actively, actively being very, very clear on what we think needs to happen. And so we hope that other elected officials who have authority in their domains will -- will, in fact, listen. We’re realistic enough to recognize that everybody's not going to pay attention to everything we say, but we think this very, very important," he said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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