Senators Step Into Voting Rights Debate
The Judiciary Committee is hearing testimony on the fight over voting that has erupted since the 2020 election. Here’s the latest from Washington.,
Senate Democrats on Tuesday renewed their push for a national expansion of voting rights, summoning leaders from the battleground state of Georgia to help build a public case that Congress should intervene to lower state barriers to vote.
Senators on the Judiciary Committee began taking testimony from elected officials, academics and advocates at opposite ends of the partisan fight over voting that has erupted since the 2020 election. But the dominant witness was Stacey Abrams, the rising Democratic star who waged a battle against Georgia’s divisive new voting law and who has done as much as anyone to focus her party’s attention on the issue.
Ms. Abrams argued that the states like hers across the country are witnessing “a resurgence of Jim Crow-style voter suppression measures sweeping across state legislatures grounded in the ‘big lie’ about fraud and insecurity in the 2020 election,” referencing false claims of election fraud by former President Donald J. Trump.
“When the fundamental right to vote is left to the political ambitions and prejudices of state actors, ones who rely on suppression to maintain power, federal intercession stands as the appropriate remedy,” Ms. Abrams said.
While the hearing is not tied to any particular legislation, it comes as congressional Democrats seek to pass two significant voting bills. The first is a gigantic national elections overhaul that would force states to expand early voting and mail-in ballots, mandate automatic voter registration and neuter voter identification laws, among other measures. The second bill would restore a key enforcement provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that made it harder for states to target voters of color. It was struck down in 2013 by the Supreme Court.
Republicans fiercely oppose the first bill, which also includes a new public campaign financing system and a revamp of the Federal Election Commission, calling it an overreach designed to help Democrats consolidate power. They have argued that states like Georgia are simply acting to restore faith in their electoral systems.
One of their witnesses, Jan Jones, the Republican speaker pro tempore of the Georgia House, mounted an energetic defense of her state’s new election law, which she framed as a periodic update “making it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
Ms. Jones said a provision barring third party groups from providing food and water to voters waiting in line to cast their ballots was not a draconian oppression tactic, but an attempt to stop activists and candidates from using food and other goodies to sway voters. (A New York Times analysis identified 16 provisions in the Georgia law that hinder some people’s ability to vote or shift power to the Republican-controlled legislature.)
Bill Gardner, New Hampshire’s long-serving top elections official and a Democrat, argued that Democrats’ attempted overhaul would backfire on even its stated goals.
“An unjustified federal intrusion into the election processes of the individual states will damage voter confidence, diminish the importance of Election Day, and ultimately result in lower voter turnout,” Mr. Gardner said.
The Senate Rules Committee is expected to debate and vote on the comprehensive voting bill in mid-May. But with Republicans unified in opposition, its path to passage remains murky.
A congressional panel has opened an investigation into Emergent BioSolutions, the company whose Baltimore factory ruined millions of doses of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine, focusing on whether it was improperly awarded a $628 million federal contract to manufacture vaccines.
The inquiry will look into whether a Trump administration official steered the work to the company despite questions about its qualifications, according to a statement released late Monday. The investigation was announced by Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat who heads the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and James E. Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina who heads a subcommittee on the pandemic response.
Mr. Clyburn requested that Emergent’s two top executives testify at a May 19 hearing and provide a wide array of records.
“Specifically, we are investigating reports that Emergent received multimillion-dollar contracts to manufacture coronavirus vaccines despite a long, documented history of inadequately trained staff and quality control issues,” the statement said. It also said the company had “a track record of raising prices and failing to meet contract requirements.”
The committees said they were also looking into Emergent’s “actions to unduly influence anthrax vaccine assets” in the Strategic National Stockpile, the subject of a New York Times article last month.
The congressional inquiry is the latest in a series of problems for Emergent, a longtime federal contractor that has a reputation for aggressive lobbying tactics. This month, the Food and Drug Administration began an audit of its factory in southeastern Baltimore after workers contaminated a batch of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine with an ingredient for AstraZeneca’s vaccine, another product manufactured at the plant.
Emergent said on Monday that it had suspended operations at the plant and acknowledged that it needed to make improvements to “restore confidence” in its work. It also said it was quarantining the vaccine substance already produced at the plant until after the inspection ends and the company has had a chance to fix any problems highlighted in the review.
Biden administration officials have said that AstraZeneca’s vaccine will no longer be manufactured at the plant, and Johnson & Johnson has vowed to exert stronger control over Emergent, its subcontractor. The F.D.A. has not certified the facility to distribute any vaccine to the public; all Johnson & Johnson doses that have been administered were manufactured overseas. AstraZeneca’s vaccine is not yet authorized in the United States.
The New York Times reported this month that confidential audits and internal documents showed that Emergent had failed to follow some basic industry standards and identified repeated shortcomings in efforts to prevent contamination. Those records were among the documents that congressional investigators are now seeking.
The inspections flagged a persistent problem with mold in areas required to be kept clean, poor disinfection of some plant equipment, repeated use of raw materials that were not fully tested and inadequate training of employees. In one month, they indicate, workers making AstraZeneca’s vaccine deviated from manufacturing standards an average of over three times a day.
The Emergent Baltimore facility is one of two federally designated “Centers for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing,” created during the Obama administration, that were supposed to be at the ready in case of a pandemic. The company secured a $628 million contract to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines in June.
The congressional lawmakers said that Dr. Robert Kadlec, who served as assistant health secretary for preparedness and response under President Donald J. Trump and previously worked as a consultant for Emergent, “appears to have pushed for this award despite indications that Emergent did not have the ability to reliably fulfill the contract.”
In an interview Tuesday, Dr. Kadlec said that his consulting work for Emergent in 2013 and 2014 involved educating leaders in South Korea and Saudi Arabia about the risks of bioterrorism, and that he did not promote the company’s products. He said that when he awarded the company the contract in June, he was exercising an option on an earlier contract awarded in 2012 by his predecessor.
Dr. Kadlec he said that he knew Emergent was a risky choice, but that federal officials had turned to Emergent because few companies based in the United States were able to make the type of vaccines developed by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, and because the government already had a contract with the company. He said he also sought to involve Merck, a more experienced manufacturer, but those negotiations did not work out.
“That was the path of fastest action, but we recognized that there were going to be inherent risks with that approach,” he said of working with Emergent, “and we would try to mitigate those risks throughout.”
Former President George W. Bush, whose push for immigration reform and the invasion of Iraq spurred a backlash that helped lead to the rise of Donald J. Trump, is not happy with the current state of the Republican Party.
“I would describe it as isolationist, protectionist and, to a certain extent, nativist,” Mr. Bush said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show that aired on Tuesday, promoting his new book of paintings and essays honoring immigrants in America.
“But I’m just an old guy they put out to pasture — a simple painter,” added the 43rd president, who said he published the book to “elevate” the discourse around immigration.
Over the weekend, Mr. Bush called on congressional Republicans to tone down their “harsh rhetoric about immigration” and urged them to enact comprehensive changes, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“The problem with the immigration debate is that one can create a lot of fear,” he told CBS.
Mr. Bush has mostly steered clear of political fights after leaving office in 2009 with low approval ratings stemming from the bloody aftermath of his invasion of Iraq. He has been more willing to weigh in after the departure of Mr. Trump, who lashed out at him during the 2016 presidential campaign after suggesting Mr. Bush should have been impeached for invading Iraq. Mr. Trump also attacked Mr. Bush’s brother Jeb, who began the campaign as a top-tier contender for the party’s nomination.
Immigration is now the issue that divides them most.
Mr. Bush’s support of a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, later adopted in more limited form by 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, proved deeply unpopular with the party’s base — and Mr. Trump took advantage of that political opening by taking a much harder line, including pushing for construction of a border wall.
A Reuters poll in March found that 56 percent of Republicans do not favor a path to citizenship, up from 38 percent who held that position early in Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Mr. Bush recognized President Biden’s victory on Nov. 8, 2020, among the first high-profile Republicans to do so. And Mr. Biden consulted Mr. Bush and former President Obama before announcing the Sept. 11, 2021 deadline for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In the interview on Tuesday, Mr. Bush expressed his disgust at the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters seeking to overthrow the results of the election.
“It kind of made me sick — not kind of made me sick, it did make me sick,” he said. “I felt ill. I just couldn’t believe it.”
However, the vote to certify the election, which came hours after the riot, confirmed his faith “in the institutional stability of our country,” he added.
In his CBS interview, Mr. Bush — who ran hard-edged, highly partisan presidential campaigns — expressed bewilderment at the state of politics today, saying he was “shocked” that people were surprised when he embraced Michelle Obama during John McCain’s funeral in 2018.
“Americans are so polarized in their thinking that they can’t imagine a George W. Bush and a Michelle Obama being friends,” he said.
Following closing arguments on Monday, both Derek Chauvin’s lawyer and Judge Peter A. Cahill suggested that a Democratic congresswoman’s comments about racial justice protesters, suggesting they should “get more confrontational” if the jury doesn’t return a guilty verdict, could affect the outcome of the former officer’s trial.
Eric J. Nelson, Mr. Chauvin’s lawyer, argued that Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, had interfered with “the sanctity of the jury process” when she told reporters in Brooklyn Center, Minn., on Saturday night that demonstrators would need to “stay on the street” and “get more active” if Mr. Chauvin was acquitted.
“An elected official, a United States congressperson, was making what I interpreted to be — what I think are reasonably interpreted to be — threats against the sanctity of the jury process,” Mr. Nelson said, calling for a mistrial because of Ms. Waters’s remarks.
Judge Cahill dismissed his motion but said that Ms. Waters may have inadvertently handed the defense a gift. “I’ll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned,” he said.
Still, the judge, who ended every day of testimony during the trial by telling jurors, “Have a good night and don’t watch the news,” added that he believes that the jurors have been following those instructions and would not be directly exposed to Ms. Waters’s comments. “A congresswoman’s opinion really doesn’t matter a whole lot,” he added.
The discussion in court of Ms. Waters’s comments came as Republicans in Washington were seeking to capitalize on them, accusing her of inciting violence — a similar charge to the one leveled against former President Donald J. Trump in his impeachment trial in February — and clamoring for Democratic congressional leaders to punish her.
Ms. Waters, the chairwoman of the Financial Services Committee and a frequent target of rage from the right, stopped on Saturday to meet with demonstrators protesting police brutality after an officer killed Daunte Wright.
At one point, asked what protesters should do if no guilty verdict was reached in Mr. Chauvin’s trial, Ms. Waters said: “We’ve got to stay on the street, and we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational; we’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”
Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, said he would introduce a resolution to censure the congresswoman if Democratic leaders refused to. The reaction was striking, after Mr. McCarthy declined this year to take any action against Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who in the past had endorsed assassinating Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Ms. Pelosi defended Ms. Waters on Monday, telling reporters that her comments had nothing to do with inciting violence.
“Maxine talked about confrontation in the manner of the civil rights movement,” Ms. Pelosi said. “No, I don’t think she should apologize.”
Republicans have invoked the sharp-tongued Ms. Waters in the past to excuse extreme rhetoric within their party. Mr. Trump’s defense team repeatedly played video at his impeachment trial of her and other Democrats speaking in harsh terms, arguing that the former president’s bellicose words were no different than those on the other side.
Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, called for cooperation and openness to an audience of business and financial leaders on Tuesday. He also had some warnings, presumably for the United States.
Speaking electronically to a largely virtual audience at China’s annual Boao Forum, Mr. Xi warned that the world should not allow “unilateralism pursued by certain countries to set the pace for the whole world.”
The audience included American business leaders including Tim Cook of Apple and Elon Musk of Tesla, as well as two Wall Street financiers, Ray Dalio and Stephen Schwarzman. Long a platform for China to show off its economic prowess and leadership, the Boao Forum is held annually on the southern Chinese island of Hainan. (Last year’s was canceled amid the pandemic.)
In recent years, Mr. Xi has used the forum to portray himself as an advocate of free trade and globalization, calling for openness even as many in the global business community have become increasingly vocal about growing restrictions in China’s own domestic market.
On Tuesday, he also reiterated his earlier message opposing efforts by countries to weaken their economic interdependence with China.
“Attempts to ‘erect walls’ or ‘decouple'” would “hurt others’ interests without benefiting oneself,” Mr. Xi said, in what appeared to be a reference to the United States and the Biden administration’s plans to support domestic high-tech manufacturing in the United States.
The White House held a meeting with business executives last week to discuss a global chip shortage and plan for semiconductor “supply chain resilience.” Speaking to executives from Google, Intel and Samsung, Mr. Biden said “China and the rest of the world is not waiting, and there’s no reason why Americans should wait.”
China is pursuing its own program for self-sufficiency in chip manufacturing.
Mr. Xi also pledged to continue to open the Chinese economy for foreign businesses, a promise that big Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have clung to even as foreign executives complain that the broader business landscape has become more challenging.
Walter F. Mondale, the former vice president and champion of liberal politics, activist government and civil rights who ran as the Democratic candidate for president in 1984, losing to President Ronald Reagan in a landslide, died on Monday at his home in Minneapolis. He was 93.
Kathy Tunheim, a spokeswoman for the family, announced the death. She did not specify a cause. But Mr. Mondale was prepared for the end. Over the weekend he spoke for the last time with former President Jimmy Carter, under whom he served; with President Biden and his wife, Jill Biden; and with Vice President Kamala Harris. And he sent a farewell email to his former staff members.
A son of a minister of modest means, Fritz Mondale, as he was widely known, led a rich public life that began in Minnesota under the tutelage of his state’s progressive pathfinder, Hubert H. Humphrey. He achieved his own historic firsts, especially with his selection of Representative Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York as his running mate in 1984, the first woman to seek the vice presidency on a major national ticket.
Under President Carter, from 1977 to 1981, Mr. Mondale was the first vice president to serve as a genuine partner of a president, with full access to intelligence briefings, a weekly lunch with Mr. Carter, his own office near the president’s and his own staff integrated with Mr. Carter’s.
“Fritz used his political skill and personal integrity to transform the vice presidency into a dynamic, policy-driving force that had never been seen before,” Mr. Carter said in a statement on Monday night, expressing grief over the passing of “my dear friend.”
President Biden said in his own message of condolence that when then-Senator Barack Obama asked him to consider running for vice president alongside him in 2008, “Fritz was my first call and trusted guide.” He said that Mr. Mondale’s redefining the vice presidency “as a full partnership” had “helped provide a model for my service.”
And he noted that Mr. Mondale “was the first presidential nominee of either party to select a woman as his running mate, and I know how pleased he was to be able to see Kamala Harris become vice president.”
A dozen megadonors and their spouses contributed a combined $3.4 billion to federal candidates and political groups since 2009, accounting for nearly one out of every 13 dollars raised, according to a new report.
The report, produced by Issue One, a nonpartisan group that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics, shows the top 12 donors split equally between six Democrats and six Republicans. The list includes multiple Wall Street billionaires and investors, a Facebook co-founder, a shipping magnate and the heir to a family fortune dating back to the Gilded Age.
The study quantifies the intensifying concentration and increasing role of the super rich in American politics following the loosening of restrictions on political spending by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a decade ago.
“This is a stark illustration of our broken campaign finance system,” said Nick Penniman, the founder and chief executive of Issue One. “Today, a handful of megadonors wield outsized influence in our politics.”
The single biggest spender on federal campaigns from 2009 to 2020 was Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who spent $1.4 billion. Of that, $1 billion went toward his own failed campaign for president in 2020 and $314 million went to other federal candidates, super PACs and political groups.
He is the only donor to spent more than $1 billion. The No. 2 contributor is another Democrat, Tom Steyer, who, like Mr. Bloomberg, lost his bid for president in 2020. Mr. Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, have spent $653 million, with more than half going toward his own presidential campaign and $311 million to other federal candidates and committees.
The largest Republican contributor was Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, and his wife, Miriam Adelson, a physician. The Adelsons have contributed $523 million to Republican candidates and committees since 2009.
Mr. Adelson’s death in January 2021, at age 87, leaves a potential major shortfall for Republicans who have come to rely upon his largess.