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House Republicans tout infrastructure funding they voted against

Michael Godek/iStock

(WASHINGTON) -- In November, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Virginia, was one of 205 House Republicans to vote against the bipartisan, $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, calling it irresponsible and the "Green New Deal in disguise."

On Friday, he took to Twitter to tout funding from the bill he voted against -- highlighting a $70 million expansion of the Port of Virginia in Norfolk -- one of the busiest and deepest ports in the United States.

Wittman, who deleted the tweet Friday shortly after ABC News reached out to his office for comment, is the latest member of a growing group of Republicans celebrating new initiatives they originally opposed on the floor.

Shortly after voting against the measure last fall, Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Alabama, celebrated its hundreds of millions in funding for a stalled highway project in Birmingham.

Last week, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, touted new funding for a flood control project from the package, which she opposed last year, decrying it at the time as a "so-called infrastructure bill."

Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, a freshman lawmaker who also voted against the infrastructure bill, celebrating new "game-changing" funding to upgrade locks along the Upper Mississippi River.

Thirteen House Republicans and 19 Senate Republicans -- including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky -- voted with Democrats to approve the package, with many working with Democrats and the Biden White House on the details and legislative language.

"When I voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, I was voting for exactly this type of federal support for critical infrastructure that Iowans depend on,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement about the new lock and dam funding that Hinson also recognized.

Democrats have been quick to call out Republicans who voted against the infrastructure deal and recent COVID-19 relief package while praising elements of the legislation, criticizing them for "voting no and taking the dough."

“When these Republicans had the chance to actually do something good for their constituents, they refused,” Nebeyatt Betre, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “We’re not going to let them get away with this blatant attempt to rewrite history.”

Republicans have pushed back on the characterizations of their votes, arguing that they had issues with Democrats' larger agenda that included the bipartisan package, called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

“Congresswoman Hinson opposed the infrastructure package because it was tied to trillions of other spending in the House. Since the bill was signed into law, this money was going to be spent regardless. If there’s federal money on the table she is, of course, going to do everything she can to make sure it is reinvested in Iowa," a spokesperson for Hinson told ABC News.

A spokesperson for Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican who touted a $1 billion investment in flood protection and hurricane repairs in his home state funded by the package he opposed, told ABC News that the GOP whip has "consistently supported these flood protection projects" and approved earlier legislation to pave the way for them.

"What he did not support is tying necessary infrastructure needs to unrelated, Green New Deal policies Democrats put in their $1.2 trillion dollar bill -- very little of which was dedicated to traditional infrastructure -- that would cripple Louisiana’s energy economy and hurt workers and families in his state," the spokesperson said.

"You can see why the Obama administration insisted on signage" for projects funded by the American Recovery Act, Jeff Davis, a senior fellow with the Eno Center for Transportation, told ABC News.

"People will be claiming these things for years, and it's going to be hard to tell five years from now which projects were funded mostly or entirely with IIJA money or money out of the annual budget, he said.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


US preparing to approve evacuation from embassy in Ukraine: Sources

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Department of State is preparing to approve the evacuation of some U.S. diplomats and diplomats' families from the embassy in Ukraine, sources confirmed to ABC News.

The final authorization has not been approved, the sources said, so the scope of the evacuation is not yet clear.

A State Department spokesperson told ABC News, "We have nothing to announce at this time. We conduct rigorous contingency planning, as we always do, in the event the security situation deteriorates."

That contingency planning has been underway for weeks now, as ABC News first reported last month that the embassy was preparing for an authorized or ordered departure.

An authorized departure allows families and non-emergency staff to evacuate, usually on commercial flights, while an ordered departure requires them to do so.

In either case, the State Department will warn U.S. citizens to depart the country, too. Ukraine is already a Level 4: Do Not Travel on the department's travel advisory, with an explicit warning that "Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine."

But while Americans will be warned to depart this week, the State Department is making clear that they will not be evacuated on government aircraft, like in Afghanistan -- an evacuation that the department continues to say is not a precedent.

"If there is a decision to change our posture with respect to American diplomats and their families, American citizens should not anticipate that there will be U.S. government-sponsored evacuations," the State Department's spokesperson said. "Currently commercial flights are available to support departures."

The decision to evacuate some staff and families from the embassy has upset the Ukrainian government, according to one source, who said they were "p----- off."

Ukrainians on the ground in Kyiv and at the front lines in the war between Ukraine and Russian-led forces in eastern provinces have told ABC News they are less convinced that a full-scale Russian attack is imminent. Some have suggested that the pressure from Moscow is a bluff -- and one they see the U.S. as buying into with moves like this.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hinted at that during his meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken Wednesday, telling him during a photo-op beforehand, "Your intelligence is excellent, but you are far overseas, and we are here, and I think we know some things a little bit deeper."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Biden's 1st-year record on immigration: tough challenges, harsh criticism

Alex Wong/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden has faced persistent challenges as his administration worked to reform U.S. immigration policy during his first year in office.

Some efforts over the past 12 months have succeeded in reversing hardline measures from the Trump era while other promises have stalled, generating harsh criticism from immigrant advocates.

Despite setbacks, Biden in sheer numbers has made more changes than Trump to federal immigrationpolicy with many reversals to the way the U.S. enforces immigration law.

Biden issued 296 executive actions during his first year compared to 86 in Trump’s first year and 472 over his four-year term, according to analysts from the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute.

Perhaps the most sweeping impact of the Biden presidency in immigration policy can be seen in the new approaches to interior immigration enforcement or the way Immigration and Customs Enforcement makes arrests.

Last September, ICE leadership moved to implement enforcement guidelines that once again made violent criminal offenders a top priority for deportation.

"This is a huge change in the way we approach enforcement writ large," MPI Senior Fellow Muzaffar Chishti said during a policy conference this week.

While the prior administration openly justified an enforcement crackdown as a necessary means of deterrence, Biden's security officials have ended long-term family detention and discontinued workplace raids.

Advocates decry the continued use of private ICE facilities and many have called for the end of civil immigration detention altogether.

"In the United States everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect," Detention Watch Network Executive Director Silky Shah said Friday. "ICE enforcement and detention is inhumane, morally and financially costly, and completely unnecessary."

Nonetheless, ICE arrests have been cut in half compared to the final year of the Trump presidency and the detained immigrant population is the lowest since 1999, according to MPI.

But at the border, it's how the administration has handled new waves of unauthorized migration where the administration has faced immense challenges and criticism from a wide range of political perspectives.

Left-leaning advocacy groups point to the continued use of the rapid deportation protocols known as "Title 42," which limits access to U.S. legal resources for unauthorized immigrants. The administration has engaged in legal battles to preserve the policy and, as recently as this week, continued the argument originally from Trump officials that the protocols are strictly a public health measure necessary to curb the global pandemic.

"It has been frustrating to all of us inside and personally to me I wish we there was more that we we -- there's more that -- much more than we need to be doing and could be doing and -- building blocks for that are also underway," outgoing White House Deputy Director for Immigration Esther Olavarria said this week.

From the right, Biden faced strong opposition this year to his attempts at rolling back Trump-era practices including the "Remain in Mexico" policy which forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait for their U.S. immigration court hearings in Mexico. After the states of Texas and Missouri launched a lawsuit against the repeal of "Remain in Mexico," the Biden administration was forced to reinstate the practice while it continues an appeal.

"He completely dismantled the successful policies of the previous administration," Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said at a press conference Thursday.

The year was marked with a historic level of unauthorized border crossing attempts which hit a peak of 213,000 in the month of July, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. More than a quarter of those encounters with immigration authorities involved repeat offenders.

The easing of enforcement measures against immigrants in the country without legal documentation, Republicans say, has signaled to prospective migrants that attempting an illegitimate asylum claim might succeed.

The need to strengthen the immigration legal process is another spoke in the wheel of challenges for Biden's immigration agenda. For migrants who avoid the "Title 42" rapid expulsion process and are directed to the typical "Title 8" route, cases are brought before an administrative judge and can take months or years to resolve. This past year, the immigration court case backlog surpassed 1.5 million for the first time, according to researchers at Syracuse University.

For those on the pathway to obtaining a green card, also known as legal permanent residency, the administration made a significant change with with reversal of the Trump administration "public charge" rule, which imposed new income and education requirements on immigrant applicants.

Biden has also sought to boost refugee admissions as well as preserve DACA -- the Obama-era policy that shields from deportation those brought to the country illegally as children. The administration was forced to draft a new rule implementing the program after a federal judge ordered all new applications halted.

On the legislative front, Biden's promise to provide a pathway to citizenship for about 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants has faced major headwinds in the Senate. Multiple attempts to get some version of the proposal included in the "Build Back Better" spending package were shot down by the Senate parliamentarian last year. And this week, Biden said the agenda items in the Build Back Better Act may need to be split up anyway to get enough support.

Politically, views of Biden's approach to immigration have dragged down his overall approval ratings over the past year. A Gallup poll released last November found just 31 percent of Americans approve of his handling of immigration issues.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Anti-abortion rights proponents say they are prepping for 'post-Roe America’

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(WASHINGTON) -- The anti-abortion rights movement is at a critical moment, motivated in large part by conservative justices on the Supreme Court who seem poised to rule in favor of states' stringent abortion laws. Now, with the majority of the highest court seemingly on their side, anti-abortion rights supporters are publicly preparing for a post-Roe v. Wade America.

"I know in my heart that the tide has turned for the pro-life movement" said former Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at the National Pro-Life Summit in Washington, D.C., on Saturday morning. Pence's rallying remarks mark one of several public appearances related to the Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade he's given in the past several months.

"The pro-life generation has never been stronger. And thanks to all of you, life is winning in America again. And I believe the majority of the highest court in the land is on our side as well."

At the summit, the rallying cry was clear: abortion rights opponents believe the post-Roe world is imminent. Kristan Hawkins, the president of the Students of Life America, roused crowds to "launch the next phase of the anti-abortion movement from Washington, D.C,. to every one of your state's capitols."

"The final fight for freedom is here. It's today, it's now," said Hawkins.

And that mantra was echoed across the anti-abortion rights movement in recent days.

"Next year will be a new era, because Roe will be gone," Daniel Lipinski, a former member of Congress from Illinois, told a crowd of anti-abortion advocates at Friday's March for Life on the National Mall.

For the last 49 years, throngs of activists have poured into Washington on the anniversary of the passage of Roe v. Wade to evangelize their message, lobby Congress and march down Independence Avenue for their beliefs. Some high-level proponents hope this year's gathering will be their last.

"We had a dream that we wouldn't have to go back on a cold day in January every year," said Cardinal Sean O'Malley in a homily mass on Friday at the National Prayer Vigil for Life.

"Perhaps this will be the year of Herod's death," O'Malley added, likening the biblical tale of King Herod to Roe's potential demise, "when legal protection for unborn children will be enshrined in our laws."

Members at all ranks of the anti-abortion rights movement show new confidence in a Supreme Court, outfitted by three appointees from then-President Donald Trump -- appointees specifically chosen to overturn Roe, according to the former president. For the first time in decades, the justices are taking up one of the largest threats to abortion protections guaranteed by Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey with their consideration of Dobbs v. Jackson's Women's Health Organization, a challenge to a Mississippi law that bans nearly all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. While a final decision isn't expected until June, the justices' response to oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson gave anti-abortion rights advocates new vigor.

"The energy from the pro-life movement today is palpable," said Prudence Robertson, host of EWTN's Pro-Life Weekly.

"We expect this year's March for Life to be historic with even higher levels of enthusiasm from participants," Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, told ABC News in a statement. "We are all hopeful that, with the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case before the Supreme Court, this year will bring us much closer to building the culture of life we have all marched for since Roe v. Wade was imposed on our nation nearly 50 years ago."

Jeff Hunt, vice president of public policy at Colorado Christian University, who was previously affiliated with both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney's presidential bids, told ABC News that this year's March for Life comes at a "historic moment."

"We are the precipice of weakening the stranglehold Roe v. Wade has had on American citizens' rights to address abortion policy," said Hunt.

Such weakening is not new. Over the past several years, states have been highlighting and passing anti-abortion rights policies, aided heavily by the Trump administration appointing conservative judges at near breakneck speed. In 2019 alone, 18 states enacted laws to prohibit or restrict abortion, with nine of them enacting pre-viability bans, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a pro-abortion rights advocacy group.

Last year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into a law that bans all abortions once cardiac activity is detected, while newly installed Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has freshly tasked his new chief diversity officer to serve as an "ambassador for unborn children."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Some state lawmakers focusing on abortion access amid challenge to Roe v. Wade

Cyndi Monaghan/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- Several state lawmakers are looking to expand abortion access this legislative session while a challenge to Roe v. Wade is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two bills out of Maryland and Washington aim to increase the pool of abortion providers operating in the states, which will likely see an increased demand for the service should the conservative-leaning high court overturn or limit Roe in the coming months through its decision on the Mississippi case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.

Washington state Sen. Emily Randall, the majority whip for the Senate Democratic Caucus, is the lead sponsor of a bill under consideration this session that would expand abortion providers recognized under state law to include physician assistants and advanced registered nurse practitioners, in addition to physicians.

"Abortion providers in Washington are rapidly preparing for the increase in women and people ... who will drive hundreds of miles to Washington's borders from our neighbors in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Nevada, depending on what type of ban the Supreme Court institutes," Randall said during a media briefing Thursday with the State Innovation Exchange, a strategy center that supports state legislators nationwide in advancing progressive policies. "That's why this policy is more important than ever."

Democratic Maryland Del. Ariana Kelly, a former executive director at NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, also plans to introduce legislation this session that would expand abortion access in the state by allowing qualified health care providers such as midwives and nurse practitioners to provide abortions and increase access to training for abortion providers. The so-called Abortion Care Access Act would also ensure Medicaid covers abortion procedures and eliminate copays and deductibles on abortion care.

"What we want to do is address what we see as a critical provider shortage and also affordability issues," Kelly said during Thursday's briefing, held two days before the 49th anniversary of Roe. "As we're seeing an increased wait time for appointments, we can recognize that there's a shortage of providers. In today's climate, six months from now, I think we're only going to see this getting worse."

Kelly said that two-thirds of Maryland counties do not have abortion providers, particularly in rural areas, while the state is also seeing increased demand -- including from patients flying in from Texas in the wake of a state ban on abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. Helping Maryland residents access abortion care "more efficiently and effectively" may also help providers care for those coming from out of state, Kelly said.

Georgia Democratic state Rep. Park Cannon said she plans to introduce a resolution next week that addresses abortion access in the state, including for women of color, while a law that would ban abortion as early as six weeks in the state is being challenged in court.

"We need to resolve measures that say that Georgia has a strong commitment to the protection of reproductive health, rights and justice, which of course includes the right to safe and legal abortion care, but also the right to make reproductive decisions on your own," Cannon said during the briefing.

Other states moving to protect abortion rights while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to uphold the Mississippi abortion ban include New Jersey, which last week enacted a bill that codifies the right to an abortion into state law.

The Vermont state legislature is also considering Prop 5, an amendment that would enshrine "reproductive autonomy," including abortion, in the state constitution. If ultimately passed, the proposal could go before voters in November.

Meanwhile, states looking to restrict abortion rights include Florida, where state legislators are considering a bill that, like the Mississippi law before the Supreme Court, would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Washington state Republicans have also introduced legislation this session that would roll back abortion access, including a bill that would make providing medical abortion methods a felony.

Additionally, voters in Kansas and Kentucky are expected to decide this year whether to amend their state constitutions to say there is no right to an abortion.

Last year, 108 abortion restrictions were enacted in 19 states, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights research organization. That's the highest total in any year since 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion with its decision in Roe v Wade, the organization said.

After hearing arguments last month over the Mississippi law, the Supreme Court's conservative majority appeared inclined to scale back abortion rights. A decision on the case is expected by the end of the court's term in June.

Should the court overturn Roe, leaving the right to an abortion decided on a state-by-state basis, 26 states are "certain or likely" to ban abortion, according to a report published in October by the Guttmacher Institute.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


CIA says foreign actor may be behind some Havana syndrome cases

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(WASHINGTON) -- The CIA has assessed that the "majority" of reported cases of unexplained medical symptoms known as "Havana syndrome" can be "reasonably explained by medical conditions or environmental and technical factors," a senior CIA official told ABC News.

The spy agency has assessed it's "unlikely that a foreign actor, including Russia, is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism," they added.

But they left the door open to the possibility that some personnel have been attacked by a still-unknown actor or device, saying a foreign actor's role has not been ruled out "in specific cases. We're still looking."

The issue has vexed U.S. officials for over five years now after the first incidents were reported by personnel at the U.S. embassy in Cuba. Since then, scores of cases have been reported on nearly every continent in over a dozen countries, especially after the CIA and State Department urged employees to come forward if they experienced symptoms. But it was never clear how many of those reports were later confirmed as medically diagnosed cases.

In a rare statement, CIA Director Bill Burns said those symptoms are "real," his agency's commitment to providing care for officers is "unwavering" and its investigation is "not done."

"We are pursuing this complex issue with analytic rigor, round tradecraft, and compassion and have dedicated intensive resources to this challenge," he said. "While underlying causes may differ, our officers are suffering real symptoms."

In a note to all staff obtained by ABC News, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also offered strong support for employees and encouraged diplomats and their families to continue reporting potential incidents.

"Those who have been affected have real stories to tell -- their pain is real. There is no doubt in my mind about that," he wrote.

But many of the affected personnel are outraged or upset by the CIA's assessment, with some like Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA agent who was affected while on assignment in Moscow, fearing they will not be believed or will be "mocked and vilified."

"I remain grateful of the health care that Director Burns has agreed to provide for those who have been impacted, but now victims are being shamed and mocked," Polymeropoulos said, calling it "a return to the early days of Havana where officers were not believed."

A declassified internal government watchdog report found that the State Department moved too slowly to address the issues when personnel first reported incidents and symptoms in November 2016. Symptoms have included headaches, dizziness, cognitive difficulties, tinnitus, vertigo and trouble with seeing, hearing, or balancing. Many officials have suffered symptoms years after reporting an incident while some have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries.

Beyond Cuba, cases of what the Biden administration has called "anomalous health incidents," or AHI's, have been reported in China, Austria, Germany, Vietnam, India, Uzbekistan and Colombia, among other countries. There have even been reports of incidents in the U.S., although the White House said the vast majority are overseas.

But the CIA assessment found that "previously undiagnosed illnesses, environmental factors, reporting out of an abundance of caution" led to the majority of the cases, the senior official said.

"Many of the reports came in following growing workforce awareness of AHI's - after requests by departments and agencies for personnel to come forward," they added. "This finding doesn't call into question at all the fact that our officers are reporting real symptoms and experiences. It's just that there's not one single cause that can be explained."

But after media reports emerged, some critics cast doubt again on whether U.S. personnel experienced anything at all, sparking anger in other corners that the CIA had undermined its personnel and those from other agencies.

"The CIA's interim conclusions are incredibly disappointing, insulting to those who are suffering, and highly suspect," whistleblower attorney Mark Zaid, who represents over a dozen affected employees, said in an email to ABC News. "Once again, it is demonstrated that the failure of the government to produce a uniform, expert report only causes further controversy rather than resolution."

Zaid said the agency was "more likely" issuing it "to allay a workforce which in recent months has been refusing overseas assignments in the wake of an overwhelming number of reported new cases among its ranks."

"Other agencies [are] furious no coordination occurred & they disagree," he added in a tweet, calling the interim report "disinformation."

"It's not disinformation. That's absurd," the senior CIA official said in response, adding the assessment was conducted "with the normal partners" and through "the intelligence community process."

Blinken also tried to address personnel's concerns about being believed. While he declined to address the assessment during a press conference in Berlin on Thursday, he told reporters employees "have had real experiences, real symptoms, and real suffering, and we are going to continue to do everything we can with all the resources we can bring to bear to understand, again, what happened, why, and who might be responsible."

What is clear is that the report is preliminary. Lawmakers called for the CIA to continue to probe the issue, especially those cases that remain unexplained.

"Today's assessment, while rigorously conducted, reflects only the interim work of the CIA task force," said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., chair of the Senate intelligence committee, which "will continue pressing for answers on a bipartisan basis," he added.

His Republican counterpart, ranking member Marco Rubio, R-Fla., reiterated that, saying the CIA "must continue to make this issue a priority and seek answers to the causes of mysterious symptoms, including brain injury, and whether they can be attributed to the work of a foreign government or a specific weapon or device, particularly in a core group of cases."

It's unclear exactly how many cases are in that "core group" that remains under active investigation. The senior CIA official said that it numbers around a "couple dozen" and that it could still involve a "foreign actor."

"We're not ruling it out in specific cases. We're still looking," they said, but added, "There are no patterns or linkages at this stage."

Russia had long been suspected in some circles as being behind the incidents, but it's unclear how or with what device such an attack would be possible. Blinken said last week that he and other U.S. officials have raised the issue with the Russians even without clear attribution.

Asked whether he would raise the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when they meet Friday, Blinken declined to comment Thursday.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Supreme Court deals another blow to Texas abortion providers that want new law blocked

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court's conservative majority on Thursday -- over the furious objections of their liberal colleagues -- dealt another blow to Texas abortion providers' quest to challenge SB8 in federal court.

SB8, which took effect Sept. 1, banned most abortions in the nation's second-most populous state, despite longstanding legal precedent protecting access to the procedure.

The majority has now rejected a "petition of mandamus" from the providers who wanted the justices to order the case immediately sent to a trial judge so that proceedings could get underway.

The conservative justices did not elaborate on their decision.

The providers argued that the 5th Circuit panel, one of the most conservative in the country, has been holding up the process, flouting the judgment of the high court, which last year voted 8-1 to allow a narrow suit against several Texas medical licensing officials who have a role enforcing the law.

Instead, the appeals court sent the matter to Texas state Supreme Court for a procedural analysis -- a process that will delay the providers' challenge for some time and effectively freezes any hope for relief.

"This court was clear," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent. "When the mandate issued, I had thought the Court of Appeals would quickly remand the case to the District Court."

In a separate blistering dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: "This case is a disaster for the rule of law and a grave disservice to women in Texas, who have a right to control their own bodies. I will not stand by silently as a State continues to nullify this constitutional guarantee."

While the move by the Supreme Court is another setback for Texas abortion rights advocates, many have acknowledged openly that the narrow suit was unlikely to restore full abortion access in the state even if they prevailed.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Bipartisan senators turn to reforming Electoral Count Act now that voting rights standoff over

Michael Godek/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- With voting rights reform now firmly in the rear view mirror, negotiations to reform the Electoral Count Act have ramped up, but it remains far from certain that the talks will bear fruit despite the growing bipartisan interest.

The obscure 19th century law that governs the counting of each state's electoral votes for president, a process then-President Donald Trump and his allies sought to exploit to secure a victory not won at the ballot box, has long been the subject of bipartisan ire.

The law allows one congressman paired with one senator to object to the results submitted by each state, something both parties have done previously, although Trump allies in 2020 attempted to block the decision of far more states than ever before.

The vice president's role in what usually is a perfunctory proceeding -- counting and announcing the votes -- is also extremely unclear, and Trump and his team attempted, in an effort to overturn the election, to exert pressure on then-Vice President Mike Pence to declare some states' slates of electoral votes in question, pressure that led to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"I've always thought we should just repeal it," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a former secretary of state, said Thursday. "If you can't replace it, I'd be just for repealing it. I think it creates more problems than it creates solutions. And so I think there's a lot of interest in doing something about that. And my guess is that the majority of Republican senators would agree with that."

But therein lies the problem for Democrats, unsure if GOP interest in electoral law changes is real after the party's unified, high-profile opposition to federal voting law changes. Republicans are, likewise, suspicious of Democrats whose leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, recently lambasted attempts to reform the ECA as "offensive."

"If you're going to rig the game and say, 'Oh, we'll count the rigged game accurately,' what good is that?" Schumer recently scoffed when asked about budding ECA reform efforts. Branding those efforts "the McConnell plan," since the GOP leader – Mitch McConnell of Kentucky -- has expressed an openness to reforming the law, Schumer added, "It's unacceptably insufficient and even offensive."

Despite the lack of trust among the parties, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has led bipartisan talks behind closed doors for the past three weeks to try to reform the law, with interest in those negotiations growing "big time" in the wake of the Democrats' failed effort at broader electoral reforms, according to a Senate aide with knowledge of the matter.

"We're going to be working hard over the recess," Collins told reporters. "I'm very encouraged at the amount of interest that there is from both sides of the aisle."

For his part, McConnell reiterated his support for possible ECA reform and the Collins talks Thursday, but went a bit further, telling ABC News, "I think it needs fixing, and I wish them well, and I'd be happy to talk a look at whatever they can come up with." Asked for any red lines in those negotiations, the leader said, "I just encourage the discussion, because I think (the ECA) is clearly is flawed. This is directly related to what happened on January 6th, and I think we ought to be able to figure out a bipartisan way to fix it."

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, an early member of the group, told ABC News, "There are about 10 Republicans and maybe four or five Democrats that are working on it. We exchanged a list of things that we thought ought to be included in an election reform package -- some items related to making sure that election officials were not harassed, others related to how elections are certified, others related to what the role of the Vice President is in the electoral accounting process, how you would deal with an objection to a slate of electors."

The details around how to implement each of these items would be complex, and the negotiation is "just now beginning to talk about which of these we'll find sufficient support for in a bill," said Romney.

Both conservative Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona -- who refused to support changing the Senate rules to pass their party's sweeping voting rights legislation -- are working with Collins on ECA changes, along with GOP Senators Thom Tillis, Lisa Murkowski, and Roger Wicker, among others. Some senators, like Blunt, Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., have shown interest, according to aides involved in the talks, but have yet to commit to being a part of the group.

Manchin, speaking with reporters about the talks, said he was particularly focused on violence and threats against poll workers which have ramped up in recent years in particular in the wake of Trump's so-called "big lie" that he won the 2020 election but it was stolen from him by fraud.

"They're scared now, because of the highly charged political atmosphere. We do want to make sure that we can raise this to the level of a federal crime if you accost, if you threaten anyone who works at the polls, you'll be dealt with with the harshest penalties," said Manchin, who is leading the talks for Democrats. "You're not going to fool with the count and our voting people."

The Collins-Manchin group plans to meet by Zoom in the next few days, with an eye toward potentially producing a legislative proposal at the end of next week's recess, according to Romney, though Collins offered a more sober estimate. "I think we don't know how long it's going to take. We've done a lot of research. We've talked to election experts, professors, the election assistance commissioners, all sorts of people to make sure we get this right."

Collins said the scope of her group's work will go beyond just the 150-year old Electoral Count Act, like additional grant funding for states to improve the quality of their voting systems, and that she was encouraged by President Joe Biden's comments expressing a willingness to work with Republicans to get this done.

A parallel effort is happening among a group of senior Democrats, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Angus King - - led by Schumer's number two, Dick Durbin of Illinois. Durbin said he planned to talk to Sen. Collins about her efforts to see what might be done together.

"We wouldn't necessarily merge our efforts, no. We just want to see what they are doing and talk it through," Durbin told reporters this week.

In the House, a staff report from the Administration Committee, outlined in a 31-page report potential changes to the law which the group says is "badly in need of reform." Their proposal could provide a foundation for the special committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks from which to recommend legislative changes, the panel's chair, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., told NPR.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Biden nominee would be 1st Muslim woman to serve as federal judge

ACLU Illinois

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden announced the nomination of Nusrat Jahan Choudhury to the federal judiciary Wednesday, who, if confirmed by the Senate, would become the first Muslim American woman to serve as a federal judge. She is also the first Muslim American woman to be nominated to the federal judiciary.

Choudhury was nominated to sit on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York and is also the first Bangladeshi American to be nominated to the federal bench. She would be the second Muslim American appointed to a federal judgeship, according to the White House announcement.

"These choices also continue to fulfill the President's promise to ensure that the nation's courts reflect the diversity that is one of our greatest assets as a country," the statement read.

Choudhury is currently the legal director at the Illinois division of the American Civil Liberties Union and previously served as the deputy director of the national ACLU Racial Justice Program. She is a graduate of Yale Law School, Columbia University and Princeton University.

The other nominees include Arianna Freeman, who would be the first African American woman to serve on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals; Ana Isabel de Alba, who would be the first Latina to serve on the Eastern District of California; and Nina Nin-Yuen Wang, who would be the second Asian American to serve the United States District Court. Tiffany Cartwright, Robert Steven Huie, Natasha Merle and Jennifer Rearden round out the president's first set of nominees for 2022 and the 13th of his presidency.

The selections align with Biden's goal of nominating more women and people of color to serve on the bench, jobs that come with a lifetime appointment. The trend is in stark contrast to his predecessor.

Former President Donald Trump's nominees were 85% white and 76% of them were men, according to the Alliance for Justice advocacy group. To date, 78% of Biden's confirmations have been women and 53% have been people of color, according to the White House.

Democrats have pushed Biden to make federal court nominations a priority after Trump and former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a concerted effort to shape the nation's courts.

Over the course of one term, Trump had 245 judges confirmed compared with Former President Barack Obama's 334 confirmed judges across two terms according to the United States Courts.

As of Jan, 1, however, Biden had gotten the most federal judges confirmed in a president's first year in office since former President Ronald Reagan.

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Georgia prosecutor requests special grand jury in probe of Trump's efforts to overturn election

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(ATLANTA) -- A Georgia prosecutor investigating possible criminal behavior by former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election has officially requested to seat a special grand jury, according to a letter obtained by ABC News.

The development is a major step forward in the only publicly known criminal investigation into Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

In a letter Thursday to Fulton County Chief Judge Christopher Brasher, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis wrote that the move is needed because "a significant number of witnesses and prospective witnesses have refused to cooperate with the investigation absent a subpoena requiring their testimony."

Willis officially launched the probe last February, after Trump was heard in a recorded phone call pushing Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help him "find 11,780 votes," the exact number Trump needed to win Georgia in the 2020 presidential election.

Willis says that Raffensperger is one of those who will not comply with the investigation without a subpoena, based on comments he made in an interview with NBC.

In response to Willis' request, Trump, in a statement, said, "My phone call to the Secretary of State of Georgia was perfect, perhaps even more so than my call with the Ukrainian President, if that’s possible." The reference was to the phone call Trump made to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of the 2020 election asking him to dig up dirt on his political rival Joe Biden; Trump was ultimately impeached for that call, but the Senate did not convict him.

"I didn’t say anything wrong in the call," Trump said of his call to Raffensperger. "No more political witch hunts!"

If empaneled, the special grand jury will not have the authority to return an indictment, according to the Willis' letter. Instead it may "make recommendations concerning criminal prosecution as it shall see fit," the letter said.

A majority of the judges on the Fulton County Superior Court will have to vote to approve the request in order for the special grand jury to be seated, according to Georgia state law.

Describing his Jan. 2 call with Trump in an exclusive interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos last year, Raffensperger said that Trump "did most of the talking."

"We did most of the listening," Raffensperger said. "But I did want to make my points that the data that he has is just plain wrong."

ABC News' Steve Osunsami and Brandon Baur contributed to this report.

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US escalates pressure on Russia, approving new arms and accusing it of plot against Ukraine

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(WASHINGTON) -- Ahead of a key meeting on Friday between the U.S. and Russia, the Biden administration on Thursday pushed a full-scale campaign to pressure Moscow as Russian leader Vladimir Putin weighs a possible attack on its neighbor Ukraine.

The U.S. approved its NATO allies in the Baltics to provide additional arms to Ukraine, including critical anti-aircraft missiles that escalate U.S. support. The U.S. Treasury sanctioned four Ukrainian officials it accused of working with Russian intelligence, including to form a new government backed by Russian occupying forces. The State Department blasted a Russian disinformation campaign it said was part of its "pretext" to invade Ukraine and "divide the international reaction to its actions."

One day before his sit-down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to push back on Russia's narrative and make clear just how high the stakes are in the standoff.

"It's bigger than a conflict between two countries. It's bigger than Russia and NATO. It's a crisis with global consequences, and it requires global attention and action," the top U.S. diplomat said in Berlin, hours after meeting his German, French, and British counterparts to coordinate a response.

That coordination has had tremendous doubt cast on it after President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the NATO alliance was not united about how to respond to aggression from Russia that fell short of an all-out attack on Ukraine -- an uncomfortable truth that U.S. and NATO officials have tried to paper over for weeks.

After the White House scrambled to clean that up, Biden himself clarified on Thursday, "If any -- any -- assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion. But -- and it will be met with severe and coordinated economic response that I've discussed in detail with our allies."

But the challenge remains of what the U.S. and its allies will do if Russia attacks Ukraine with the same gray-zone tactics it has used for the last eight years, as it annexed Crimea, launched a war in eastern Ukraine, and began a slow-motion annexation of those provinces.

That war, which has killed approximately 14,000 people, rages on in fits and starts on the frontlines -- and in cyberspace. Ukrainian government websites were hacked in ""the largest cyberattack on Ukraine in the last four years," a Ukrainian cyber official said Wednesday, and Moscow has launched a "disinformation storm" portraying Ukraine as the aggressor and trying to "build public support for a further Russian invasion," a senior State Department official said Thursday.

The Kremlin's campaign to destabilize its smaller, democratic neighbor allegedly includes spies on the ground, collecting information and even plotting to form a new Ukrainian government.

"Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force," the U.S. Treasury said in a statement.

The U.S. has sanctioned two sitting members of Ukrainian parliament, Taras Kozak and Oleh Voloshyn, who it accused of furthering a plot by the FSB, Russia's main security agency and the successor of the KGB. The agency, which Biden said Wednesday has forces on the ground in Ukraine, is "destabilizing the political situation in Ukraine and laying the groundwork for creating a new, Russian-controlled government in Ukraine," Treasury added.

In the face of that effort, the U.S. is hoping that transparency can undercut any pretext Russian operatives or their Ukrainian colleagues may create -- just as the White House last week accused the Kremlin of positioning operatives trained in urban warfare and explosives and planning a possible "false-flag" operation.

Russia has denied that, calling it "complete disinformation." It has said repeatedly it does not plan to attack the former Soviet state, even as Putin warned that his demands, including barring Ukraine from joining NATO, be met or Russia will take "military technical" measures.

The U.S. is taking its own military measures, approving the transfer of more weaponry to Ukraine -- this time from Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, a State Department spokesperson confirmed, while declining to say what weapons exactly.

But a Lithuanian Ministry of Defense source told ABC News the country was given the green light to transfer to Ukraine Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger portable surface-to-air missiles. The Baltic state wanted to send the weapons even earlier, but because they were originally U.S. provided, it needed American approval, which only came during consultations Wednesday, the source said.

Stingers are a kind of man-portable air-defense system, or MANPAD, where an individual soldier can carry the weapon and use it to down fighter aircraft. Javelins, which the Trump administration provided after the Obama administration had refused, have become an important weapon for Ukraine to pierce Russian-made tanks, which could come rolling across the border in an invasion .

Ukraine's military capacity still pales in comparison to Russia's overwhelming military superiority, and it's unclear how many missiles are being provided. Lithuania has only 54 of the missiles in its inventory and only eight launchers from which to fire them from, meaning the amount provided to Ukraine will likely be even lower.

Still, Stingers in particular represent a symbolic threshold that previous administrations had not crossed. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who was in Kyiv earlier this week as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation, warned Thursday that in this "very fragile time... it would not be helpful to give Putin an excuse to invade Ukraine, so I think we've got to be very thoughtful about how we address some of these issues like a missile system."

Russia has already warned that it sees any Western weapons provided to Ukraine as a threat, especially after the U.S. announced $200 million in new military aid ($650 million total over the last year) and the United Kingdom announced it provided anti-tank missiles.

Russia, however, has warned that it sees any Western weapons provided to Ukraine as a threat.

"We underline the necessity of ceasing boosting the war-like Ukrainian regime with arms deliveries ... and a lot else that represents a direct threat for us," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Wednesday.

But Blinken pushed back on that Thursday in a major speech, disputing the Russian narrative and making clear Moscow is the aggressor.

"On its face, that’s absurd. NATO didn't invade Georgia, NATO didn't invade Ukraine - Russia did," he said, adding NATO neighbors account for six percent of Russia's borders and have 5,000 allied troops in those countries, while Russia has massed 20 times that around Ukraine.

There has been tense speculation about whether Putin will attack Ukraine, with Biden saying Wednesday he believes the strongman leader will "move in." But Blinken said Thursday the U.S. still believes he has not made up his mind yet, but added his animus towards Ukraine has long been known.

"He's told us repeatedly - he's laying the groundwork for an invasion because he doesn't believe that Ukraine is a sovereign nation," Blinken said.

That argument has been a key part of Russia's disinformation ecosystem, which has been in overdrive in recent weeks, according to senior State Department officials.

Russia's military and intelligence entities have deployed 3,500 posts per day in December -- an increase of 200 percent from November -- as they seek to "create conditions conducive to success of attempted aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere and to divide the international reaction to its actions," a senior State Department official told reporters.

"These are not just public statements from Russia's MFA accounts ... These are broader campaigns using shell companies, false names, and layers to conceal the real backers and their intentions," a second senior State Department official said, calling it "a war on truth."

Russia must pull back its propaganda campaign in addition to its troops on Ukraine's borders, the official added, echoing previous U.S. calls for de-escalation to give diplomacy a shot.

Whether or not diplomacy has a shot will be tested again Friday in Geneva, where Blinken and Lavrov will meet. A senior State Department official said earlier in the week that the meeting itself is a sign the door to diplomacy remains open, but the two sides continue to talk past each other.

The two diplomats will "discuss draft agreements on security guarantees," Russia's embassy in Washington tweeted Thursday - a reference to its demands that NATO bar Ukraine from joining and pull back forces from Eastern European member states. But U.S. officials have repeatedly called those "nonstarters," and Blinken said Wednesday in Kyiv he would not be "presenting a paper" to Lavrov in response.

That has raised fears that Moscow is simply using diplomatic talks to see them fail - yet another pretext before an attack. But regardless of whether there's a full-born assault, Russia has now effectively shaken Ukraine once again. Its president Volodymyr Zelenskyy tried to reassure the nation late Wednesday, even pushing back on the U.S. warnings that the threat is more urgent.

"These risks have been there for more than one day, and they haven't grown nowadays - there is just more buzz around them," he said in a televised address.

ABC's Dada Jovanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia, Patrick Reevell from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Luis Martinez from the Pentagon.

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Biden clarifies comments on Ukraine, says any Russian move across border would be an 'invasion'

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(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden on Thursday sought to clean up his comments on Ukraine made during his marathon news conference Wednesday, making it "absolutely clear" that any Russian move into Ukraine would be seen as an "invasion."

"I've been absolutely clear with President Putin. He has no misunderstanding. If any, any, assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion. But -- and it will be met with severe and coordinated economic response that I've discussed in detail with our allies, as well as laid out very clearly for President Putin," he told reporters.

"Let there be no doubt at all: If Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price," Biden added.

The clarification comes after he seemed to throw into question how the U.S. and NATO would respond if Russia did take action against Ukraine -- in the case of what he called a "minor incursion."

"It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera," Biden said Wednesday.

"But if they actually do what they're capable of doing with the force they've massed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine."

Wednesday evening, shortly after his news conference, White House press secretary issued a statement attempting to clarify Biden's suggestion the NATO alliance might be divided, saying, in part, "If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that's a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Berlin meeting with Germany's Chancellor Scholtz ahead of his talks Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said, "We have been very clear throughout -- if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border and commit new acts of aggression against Ukraine, that will be met with a swift, severe, united response from the United States and our allies and partners."

Vice President Kamala Harris, in several network morning show appearances Thursday, also tried to clean up the president's comments.

"We will interpret any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia and Vladimir Putin as an aggressive action, and it will be met with costs, severe and certain," Harris told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "Good Morning America."

Biden's initial comments were quickly met with criticism from Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Rob Portman, who was part of a congressional delegation that traveled to Ukraine earlier this week. Portman tweeted he was "deeply troubled" by Biden's remarks, adding "any Russian military incursion into Ukraine should be viewed as a major one that could likely destabilize Ukraine and Europe."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was also critical, saying Biden's news conference was "a bizarre and devastating performance, especially -- I would add -- for our friends on the front lines."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seemed to issue his own rebuke of Biden's comments in a pointed tweet Thursday morning.

"We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power," Zelenskyy said.

ABC News' Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

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FBI conducts 'law enforcement activity' at home, campaign office of Rep. Henry Cuellar

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(LAREDO, Texas) -- Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar's Laredo home and campaign office were the subject of FBI activity Wednesday evening, according to an FBI spokesperson.

"The FBI was present in the vicinity of Windridge Drive and Estate Drive in Laredo conducting court-authorized law enforcement activity," FBI spokesperson Rosanne Hughes told ABC News. "The FBI cannot provide further comment on an ongoing investigation."

Local news reports showed members of the FBI's Evidence Response Team at Cuellar's campaign office as well.

The FBI declined to provide specifics about the investigation. Local news reports say that boxes were seen being taken from the home.

"Congressman Cuellar will fully cooperate in any investigation. He is committed to ensuring that justice and the law are upheld," a Cuellar aide told ABC News in a statement.

Cuellar, who represents Texas' 28th Congressional District, which extends to the U.S.- Mexico border, has been in Congress since 2005.

At times, Cuellar has been an outspoken critic of the Biden administration's border policies.

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Psaki, Harris argue Biden wasn't saying 2022 election results might not be legitimate

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Sarah Kolinovsky, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- One day after President Joe Biden appeared to cast doubt on whether the midterm election results will be legitimate without the passage of a new voting rights law, his vice president and press secretary worked to dispel any mistrust in the integrity of the vote.

"Speaking of voting rights legislation, if this isn't passed, do you still believe the upcoming election will be fairly conducted and its results will be legitimate?" a reporter asked Biden Wednesday at a lengthy press conference marking the end of his first year in office.

"Well, it all depends on whether or not we're able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election," Biden said.

"I'm not saying it's not going to be legit, it’s the increase in the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these, these reforms passed," Biden told another reporter who followed up on his assertion that the integrity of the results "depends" on passing voting rights legislation.

Early Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted, refuting the notion Biden believes there's a possibility the election results will be questionable.

“Lets be clear: @potus was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election. He was making the opposite point: In 2020, a record number of voters turned out in the face of a pandemic, and election officials made sure they could vote and have those votes counted," she said.

“He was explaining that the results would be illegitimate if states do what the former president asked them to do after the 2020 election: toss out ballots and overturn results after the fact. The Big Lie is putting our democracy at risk. We’re fighting to protect it.”

Psaki also appeared on Fox News, saying directly that Biden "was not making a prediction" about the legitimacy of the results.

"I talked to the president a lot about this and he is not predicting that the 2022 elections would be illegitimate," Psaki said on "America's Newsroom." "... The point he was making the former president asked seven or more states to overturn the outcome of the election. Now obviously if there is an effort to do that we have to fight against it. That's what our commitment is to doing, but he was not making a prediction. He has confidence in the American people and do everything we can to protect people's rights."

But a major Biden ally, Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., whose support for Biden in the critical primary state of South Carolina changed the trajectory of the 2020 primary, expressed agreement on the idea that the 2022 results could be questionable in a CNN interview Thursday.

"Are you concerned that without these voting rights bills the election results won’t be legitimate?” CNN's Kasie Hunt asked Clyburn.

“I’m absolutely concerned about that," Clyburn said.

Vice President Kamala Harris, appearing on all three broadcast network morning shows Thursday to dispel confusion over several comments from the press conference, argued the attention should remain on protecting the right to vote, dismissing questions surrounding election integrity.

"Let's not conflate issues. What we are looking, and the topic of so much debate last night, was that we as America cannot afford to allow this blatant erosion of our democracy, and in particular, the right of all Americans who are eligible to vote to have access to the ballot unfettered. That is the topic of the conversation. Let's not be distracted by the political gamesmanship," Harris said on NBC's "Today" program.

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One year in, Biden's climate record is a mix of progress and inconsistency

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(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden arrived in office with lofty expectations from environmentalists who hoped that his ambitious campaign rhetoric would translate into an aggressive climate platform to match.

One year into his tenure, advocates credit Biden for setting an historically bold agenda, taking important steps to undo Trump-era rollbacks, and enacting a whole-of-government approach to combat climate change.

"President Biden is delivering," said Margo Oge, the former director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, and current chair of the International Council on Clean Transportation.

But for others, the honeymoon has ended. Inconsistencies and broken pledges have frustrated some, and the fate of Biden's ambitious Build Back Better proposal -- which would commit $550 billion toward addressing climate change -- remains in congressional purgatory.

His most fervent critics say he is failing.

"While Biden started off the year strong by undoing most of Trump's anti-climate executive orders, Biden has stopped leading and is instead feeding us empty promises without delivering on a bold climate agenda," said Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, an advocacy group that supports political action on climate change.

The mixed reviews reflect a larger dispute within the environmental community as to what constitutes success. Pragmatists see Biden's climate change efforts as crucial momentum in what Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce calls the "incredibly plodding, deliberative pace of administrative rulemaking." But more progressive groups like the Sunrise Movement see it differently. Biden, says Prakash, is "refusing to meet the moment we're in right now."

Indeed, as the Biden administration embarks on its second year in power, important climate change metrics continue their dire trend. European scientists recently concluded that the past seven years have been the hottest on record "by a clear margin." And in 2021, America's greenhouse gas emissions rose by more than 6%, according to the Rhodium Group global research institute.

Experts warn that the political outlook for the coming year may shrink Biden's window for a legislative victory. Congressional gridlock shows no sign of letting up, looming midterm elections may soon complicate efforts to take bold action, and Biden's approval rating remains on a downward trend, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.

And if Democrats lose control of Congress in November's midterms, or the White House in 2024, advocates fear the next few months may end up being the last chance for environmentalists to see major legislative action for a decade.

On Wednesday, Biden said he remains "confident [the administration] can get pieces -- big chunks -- of the Build Back Better law signed into law" before the midterm elections.

"Now is the time for the Biden administration to build on and accelerate the progress made in their first year," said Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental group.

'Come out swinging'

For environmentalists, Biden's very presence in the White House marked an important turning point in the climate fight. His predecessor, former President Donald Trump, sought to dismantle the federal government's ability to address climate change and took a series of executive actions in line with that philosophy, including removing the U.S. from Paris Climate Accord -- a move that Biden reversed on his first day in office.

Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency also took steps to loosen emissions standards put in place during the Obama administration -- another measure that Biden has since reversed.

"We were super excited for President Biden -- who ran on what was the most aggressive and ambitious climate agenda ever -- to come out swinging," said Pierce. "The level of ambition, scope, and breadth of what he was tackling was extraordinary."

Before even setting foot in the Oval Office, Biden signaled his intent to prioritize climate issues. He committed to making the U.S. government carbon neutral by 2050, and placed fighting climate change in his pantheon of top priorities alongside strengthening the economy, ending the coronavirus pandemic, and battling racism.

The emphasis on climate reached the far corners of Biden's transition process. A former member of Biden's intelligence transition team told ABC News that their mandate was to focus resources toward combatting "the three C's" -- COVID-19, China, and climate change.

"Climate science demands this 'whole of government' approach that pursues every opportunity," said Chase Huntley, the vice president of strategy at the nonprofit Wilderness Society.

Once in office, Biden took several organizational and bureaucratic steps to pivot away from Trump's policies. He launched a White House Climate Policy Office to coordinate an administration-wide response to climate change, and established the White House's first Environmental Justice Advisory Council to ensure that at least 40% of the benefits of climate investments go to communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution.

Then came the executive actions, which environmentalists lauded for their sweeping reversal of Trump's rollbacks. A Washington Post analysis found that Biden targeted half of the Trump era's energy and environmental executive actions. A White House spokesperson highlighted Biden’s efforts to restore U.S. climate leadership abroad, jump-start electric vehicle development, and accelerate clean energy initiatives.

But since those early days of the Biden administration, his climate victories have been blunted by setbacks.

Two steps forward, one step back

While experts say the Biden administration has made meaningful progress on climate issues ranging from emissions standards to fossil fuel extraction, environmentalists also see inconsistencies -- actions from the administration that seem to undermine the president's own pledges and rhetoric.

On the use of federal lands and waters, for example, the administration garnered praise from environmentalists when the Department of Interior suspended its controversial oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the summer of 2021. And just last week, the White House announced plans to open up large swaths of New York and New Jersey coastal waters for renewable wind infrastructure, which experts say will eventually produce enough energy to power two million homes.

But those developments have been overshadowed by the Biden administration's auctioning off of large swaths of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico for oil drilling, a decision that will serve to "perpetuate climate pollution from public lands instead of reduce it," according to Huntley.

Biden pledged to end new drilling on federal lands during his presidential campaign, and just days before the lease sale in November, he encouraged every nation at the Glasgow COP26 Climate Conference to "do its part" to solve the climate crisis.

"It's hard to imagine a more dangerous, hypocritical action in the aftermath of the climate summit," said Kristen Monsell, a lawyer for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

Administration officials justified the decision to move forward with the lease sale by citing a court order to do so, despite claims from environmentalists that they were under no such obligation. On Wednesday, environmental groups sent a legal petition calling on the administration to cease oil and gas production on public lands by 2035. The Department of Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Vehicle emissions have also emerged as a source of contention. The EPA under Biden recently proposed the most aggressive limits on pollution from cars and light trucks in history, mandating higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles starting in 2023. Experts welcomed the measure and took stock of its significance.

"Given that transportation is the number-one greenhouse gas contributor in the U.S., that was a pretty big deal," said Oge.

But Biden refused to sign on to a multi-country commitment to take similar steps for buses and large trucks -- some of the highest-polluting vehicles on the road. After the COP26 summit in Glasgow, 15 countries signed a pledge to make all new commercial trucks electric by 2040. The U.S. was not one of them.

"I was disappointed," Oge said. "But it does not mean the administration can't still take steps to reduce those emissions."

The administration also scored points with activists when it stepped in to halt the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. But Abigail Dillen of Earthjustice points out that it failed to take action against the Line 3 pipeline, which, "from a climate standpoint, [is] equally harmful," Dillen said.

"The Biden administration has clear authority to take back the Line 3 permit," said Dillen. "The real difference between these two pipelines appears to be a political calculus. The Biden administration encountered unsurprising blowback in some quarters for its Keystone decision."

Several environmentalists speculate that the Biden administration has sought to use its executive authority sparingly -- doing enough to strengthen major climate priorities, but not so much as to put off moderate legislators whose votes will be needed to pass Build Back Better.

Despite those apparent contradictions, Biden's political allies remain in his corner -- particularly when his environmental record is held up against Trump's -- but they say they're looking forward to additional progress in the coming year.

"Compared to Trump, the Biden administration has done a good job," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "But we must hold our government to a higher standard than President Trump and his cronies if we are going to be serious about taking on climate change."

Hope and headwinds

Environmentalists and industry leaders view the next few months as crucial to Biden's climate legacy, even as he faces political headwinds. Many seem inclined to be patient with Biden and his team, in light of their progress and pledges to date, and point to several areas where Biden can put points on the board.

Advocates say the administration can take additional executive actions, such as encouraging federal agencies, including the Pentagon, to turn toward electric vehicles for its fleets. The EPA has also signaled that it may propose tighter greenhouse gas emissions for heavy-duty vehicles starting in 2027 -- which Oge said she hopes will include "strong and ambitious requirements for buses and delivery vans to be electric."

"Looking ahead, this administration needs to be turning all the knobs under their control as far as they can go, for the sake of climate," Huntley said.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in February in a case brought by Republican-led states that could curb the EPA's authority to regulate carbon emissions standards.

The most pressing issue, however, remains Biden's signature Build Back Better plan -- an enormous package that experts believe will make or break Biden's environmental ambitions. The plan is universally opposed by congressional Republicans.

The plan is universally opposed by congressional Republicans, who have expressed concern over what its $1.7 trillion price tag would do to the national debt, and a pair of moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who are advocating for a pared-down version of the bill.

But the White House indicated this week that it will press forward, even as other legislative priorities take center stage.

"Yes, there is a lot one can do under executive order -- but a really large portion driving the kind of investments to tackle climate change has to come from Congress," said the Sierra Club's Melinda Pierce. "When you look to measure what was done in Year One, clearly the piece that has to be achieved legislatively is incomplete."

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KJC Kennel Club

   

 



JET

2007-2009

"Always in our Heart! "