With Congress in Recess, President Biden Looks to Infrastructure
Senator Chuck Schumer vowed to continue an “ambitious” agenda when lawmakers return from a two-week break. Here’s the latest on Washington.,
Congress is set to leave town for a two-week recess as one of the most tumultuous stints in Washington in recent memory comes to a close.
After lawmakers faced a deadly attack by a mob of Trump supporters at the Capitol, they spent the following weeks impeaching and acquitting a president, confirming a slew of cabinet members and passing a sweeping $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, one of the largest injections of federal aid since the Great Depression.
On the Senate floor on Thursday, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, listed the policy areas he intended the chamber to focus on when lawmakers returned in April, including voting rights, infrastructure and gun safety. He also said the Senate would consider legislation to “reform our broken immigration system.”
“When the Senate returns to session, our agenda will be no less ambitious than it was over the past few months,” Mr. Schumer said.
At his first formal news conference on Thursday, President Biden said he would do “everything in my power” to pass the voting rights legislation that Democrats were trying to advance through the Senate and called Republican efforts to limit voting in some states “sick” and “un-American.” The news conference came hours before Georgia passed a major law to limit voting access.
But despite his sharp words on voting rights, Mr. Biden said his administration’s “next major initiative” would be infrastructure, an issue that lawmakers from both parties agree should be addressed — though they disagree on details like how to pay for it and what constitutes “infrastructure.” The president pointed to the issue as his priority when asked about the prospects for gun safety legislation in Congress, in the wake of mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia that left 18 people dead.
Much of the news conference focused on immigration, as a surge of migrants have arrived at the border, creating a pressing challenge for the new administration. Mr. Biden said his administration was working to have Mexico take back more migrant families and vowed to accelerate efforts to move children out of crowded facilities at the border.
But the prospects for major immigration legislation remain dim. The House voted last week to create a path to citizenship for about four million undocumented immigrants. Like so much of the president’s agenda, the roadblock is in the Senate, where each party holds 50 seats.
Mr. Biden said at his news conference that he was more open to the Senate changing its rule that requires 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and approve most legislation. Such a change would allow Democrats to pass laws without Republican support.
With Congress on an extended recess, Mr. Biden’s plans include continuing to promote his $1.9 trillion stimulus plan.
— Madeleine Ngo
He reflected on his reputation as a “nice guy” and a “decent man.” He talked about how his great-grandfather set sail on the Irish Sea to make the difficult journey to America. He observed that “politics is the art of the possible.”
In his first formal news conference since taking office, President Biden offered an early glimpse of the man who inhabits the Oval Office and how he is approaching the presidency so far. Unlike President Donald J. Trump’s hot-tempered blowups or President Barack Obama’s extended answers of professorial cool, Mr. Biden was the sober political veteran comfortable with thinking out loud, talking personally and conversationally, and showing occasional impatience before a roomful of reporters.
When he received a question he did not like, such as whether he expected to run in 2024 against Mr. Trump, he shrugged it off with, “I don’t know where you guys come from, man.” But Mr. Biden did say he expected to run again, with Vice President Kamala Harris at his side.
After nearly four decades in politics, including eight as vice president, he showed himself as a student of the office. “It’s a matter of timing,” he said when asked about his legislative priorities. “As you’ve all observed, the successful presidents better than me have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing. Order it. Decide priorities. What needs to be done.” To that end, he cited his $3 trillion infrastructure bill as “the next major initiative.”
And when asked why he did not push to abolish the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation and which Mr. Biden called a relic of the Jim Crow era, he said simply that “successful electoral politics is the art of the possible” — and that he wanted to see whether he could change the filibuster first.
Lawmakers grilled the leaders of Facebook, Google and Twitter on Thursday about the connection between online disinformation and the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, causing Twitter’s chief executive to publicly admit for the first time that his product had played a role in the events that left five people dead.
When a Democratic lawmaker asked the executives to answer with a “yes” or a “no” whether the platforms bore some responsibility for the misinformation that had contributed to the riot, Jack Dorsey of Twitter said “yes” but then qualified that by saying lawmakers “also have to take into consideration a broader ecosystem.”
“It’s not just about the technology platforms we use,” he said.
Neither Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook nor Sundar Pichai of Google would answer the question directly.
The roughly five-hour hearing before a House committee marked the first time lawmakers directly questioned the chief executives regarding social media’s role in the January riot. The tech bosses were also peppered with questions about how their companies helped spread falsehoods around Covid-19 vaccines, enable racism and hurt children’s mental health.
Tough questioning from lawmakers signaled that scrutiny of Silicon Valley’s business practices would not let up, and could even intensify, with Democrats in the White House and leading both chambers of Congress.
The chief executives have become Capitol Hill regulars in recent years. Mr. Zuckerberg has testified seven times since 2018. Mr. Dorsey has appeared five times and Mr. Pichai has testified four times since then. But these hearings, regarding disinformation, antitrust and data privacy, have not led to regulations. Though there is bipartisan animus toward the companies, there is still little agreement on how specifically to hold the internet giants to account.
At the heart of the hearing were questions about whether the companies had a financial incentive to keep users engaged — and clicking on ads — by feeding them divisive, extreme and hateful content. Lawmakers from both parties said Congress should reconsider a law that shields the platforms from lawsuits over content posted by their users.
“You’re not passive bystanders,” said Representative Frank Pallone, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “You’re making money.”
Lawmakers also criticized the platforms for the way they have enabled the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccines for Covid-19. Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who represents part of Silicon Valley, told Mr. Dorsey that Twitter should “eliminate all Covid misinformation — and not label or reduce its spread, but remove it.”
Parler, the social network popular with Trump supporters said on Thursday that it had been working with law enforcement for months to identify possible illegal activity, including notifying authorities of specific threats to the Capitol ahead of the Jan. 6 assault on Congress.
Parler said in a letter to Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York and chair of the House Oversight Committee, that it formalized its relationship with the F.B.I. in November “to facilitate proactive cooperation and referrals of violent threats and incitement to law enforcement.”
The company said that it sent the bureau dozens of concerning posts written by its users, including some related to the deadly Jan. 6 attack.
“In the days and weeks leading up to Jan. 6, Parler referred violent content from its platform to the F.B.I. for investigation over 50 times,” the company said in its letter. “Parler even alerted law enforcement to specific threats of violence being planned at the Capitol.”
The letter raises fresh questions about whether the F.B.I. took seriously enough threats of violence made ahead of Jan. 6, when Congress formally certified the Electoral College after President Donald J. Trump had spent weeks spreading baseless claims about election irregularities.
The F.B.I. declined to comment on the letter or on what it has done with any information it has received from Parler.
Four days before the riot, the company said it gave the F.B.I. posts made by a user who said that he would attend the Jan 6 rally in body armor because “it’s no longer a protest.”
“This is the final stand where we are drawing the red line at Capitol Hill,” according to quotes from his messages that Parler shared with Congress.
“This is not a party until they announce #Trump2020 a winner,” the user wrote. “Don’t be surprised if we take the #capital [sic] building.”
In late December, the company said that it gave the F.B.I. three screenshots of particularly violent rhetoric from a user who threatened to kill politicians and who specifically threatened former Attorney General William P. Barr. And on Christmas Eve, it gave the F.B.I. a post by a user who said that he was looking for “some guys that are planning on lighting up Antifa” when they came to Washington on Jan. 6 because he wanted to “start eliminating people”
“Even after the violent attacks stopped, Parler continued to dutifully and proactively report posts to the F.B.I. where users threatened additional violence,” the company said in its letter.
Parler was embraced by conservatives after the November election, as Twitter and Facebook cracked down on misinformation around the election and kicked Mr. Trump off their platforms for incendiary speech.
The social network became a conservative cause celebre in January, when mainstream companies like Apple, Amazon and Google removed it from their app stores and refused to provide it with technical services, claiming that it had allowed too much content that encouraged violence and crime.
The company came back on line last month with the help of a network of small web-hosting firms.
Separately on Thursday, top Democrats sent letters to the White House, the Justice Department, the F.B.I., the Pentagon, Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, the Park Police, the Metropolitan Police and some cabinet officials requesting all documents and communications related to the attack on the Capitol and its aftermath. The letters were signed by the chairs of the House committees on oversight, judiciary, intelligence, homeland security, administration, armed services and appropriations.
Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, urged Congress on Thursday to make a “generational investment” to improve the nation’s transit and water systems and address climate change and racial inequities, as Democrats began laying the groundwork to pass sweeping infrastructure proposals that could cost $3 trillion to $4 trillion.
Mr. Buttigieg’s inaugural testimony before a key House panel highlighted not only the enormous stakes of the Biden administration’s impending pair of infrastructure proposals, which could help President Biden deliver on a number of campaign promises and reshape the country’s economic and energy future, but also the hurdles ahead. Republicans at the hearing grilled Mr. Buttigieg over how to pay for the plan and signaled that they would not support any legislation that went much beyond the nation’s roads, bridges and waterways.
Mr. Biden’s proposals envision far more than that: One would address physical infrastructure projects and development, including clean energy and other measures to take on climate change, and the other would make investments in child care, education and caregiving.
“I believe that we have at this moment the best chance in any of our lifetimes to make a generational investment in infrastructure that will help us meet the country’s most pressing challenges today, and create a stronger future for decades to come,” Mr. Buttigieg said, adding that the legislation would serve as a sequel to the nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief plan approved this month.
Democrats have professed optimism for a bipartisan package, particularly after pushing the pandemic relief legislation through both chambers over unanimous Republican opposition, and lawmakers in both parties repeatedly emphasized that infrastructure had traditionally been a source of cooperation.
But early partisan divisions spilled over at the hearing, with Republicans criticizing the size and some of the goals of Mr. Biden’s proposals.
It remains unclear whether top Democrats, with slim majorities in both chambers and control of the White House, will be willing to curtail their ambitions to satisfy Republicans. They have refused to rule out using a fast-track budget process, known as reconciliation, to bypass Republican opposition and the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate to advance Mr. Biden’s infrastructure initiatives on strictly party-line votes.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said Democrats would pursue a bipartisan legislative package but would have to “make a judgment” about how to accomplish more ambitious goals related to addressing climate change and economic inequality that Republicans might not support.
“One of the challenges that we face is we cannot just settle for what we can agree on without recognizing that this has to be a bill for the future,” she said.
The calculus around vaccine production is about to change, with significant and unpredictable political and policy implications.
Vaccine manufacturers have been steadily increasing their output, and states have snapped up new doses as quickly as the government could deliver them. But officials expect the supply of vaccines to outstrip U.S. demand by mid-May, if not sooner, and are grappling with what to do with looming surpluses when scarcity turns to glut.
President Biden has promised enough doses by the end of May to immunize all of the nation’s adults. But between then and the end of July, the government has locked in commitments from manufacturers for doses to cover another 100 million people — totaling tens of millions more than the nation’s entire population.
Whether to keep, modify or redirect those orders is a question with significant implications, not just for the nation’s efforts to contain the virus, but also for how soon the pandemic can be brought to an end. Of the vaccine doses given globally, about three-quarters have gone to only 10 countries. At least 30 countries have not yet injected a single person.
And global scarcity threatens to grow more acute as nations and regions clamp down on vaccine exports. With infections soaring, India’s government is holding back nearly all of the 2.4 million daily doses manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, the private company that is one of the world’s largest producers of the AstraZeneca vaccine. That action follows the European Union’s decision this week to move emergency legislation that would curb vaccine exports for the next six weeks.
Biden administration officials who are inclined to hold on to the coming U.S. surplus point to unmet need and rising uncertainty: Children and adolescents are still unvaccinated, and no one is certain whether or when immunity could wear off, which could require scores of millions of booster shots.
Vaccine manufacturers and some top federal officials say decisions about what to do with extra vaccine orders must be made within weeks, or the uncertainty could slow production lines.
The manufacturing process can take up to 10 weeks, so changes for a foreign market need time. The regulatory rules that govern vaccine shipments present another hurdle, as does the limited storage life of the drug substances that make the vaccine.
Senior officials say the administration is leaning toward keeping the doses it has ordered, and at some point directing the excess to other nations in one-off deals or giving it to Covax, an international nonprofit backed by the World Health Organization that is trying to coordinate equitable vaccine distribution. The Biden administration has already donated $4 billion to that international effort.
Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a leading climate scientist, was recently named to a newly created position as senior climate adviser to NASA. Now he faces the challenge of bringing NASA’s climate science to the public and helping figure out how to apply it to saving the planet.
Dr. Schmidt, who since 2014 had headed NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, will be working with an administration that is making climate policy one of its priorities. The Biden team is adding positions throughout the government for policymakers and experts like Dr. Schmidt who understand the threats facing the planet.
“Climate change is not only an environmental issue that belongs to the E.P.A., it’s not only a science issue that belongs to NASA and NOAA,” said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University. “Climate change is an everything issue,” she said, and “it needs to be considered by every single federal agency.”
Dr. Schmidt has written some 150 scientific papers, and has an active and sometimes acerbic social media presence. At the Goddard Institute, he led development of one of the most authoritative models of Earth’s climate system.
“Climate change changes what you need to worry about,” he said, and the space agency can help the nation, and the world, figure out what we all need to know. That includes things like “How do we accelerate the information that you need to build better defenses against coastal flooding?” and “What do we really understand about intensifying precipitation?”
In announcing Dr. Schmidt’s appointment, acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said, “This position will provide NASA leadership critical insights and recommendations for the agency’s full spectrum of science, technology, and infrastructure programs related to climate,” though the position will have no separate budget or staff.
The space agency, which launches the satellites that monitor the conditions of the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, snow, ice and more, is one of the wellsprings of hard science that informs us all about climate change. But its leaders have sometimes had a difficult time talking about it.
“Not every administration was interested in calling it ‘climate change,’ the Trump administration most notably,” said Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator who is now CEO of Earthrise, a nonprofit that promotes using satellite data to address global warming.
Ms. Garver said she was “thrilled” by Dr. Schmidt’s appointment, calling it a message that “this will be a top priority for NASA.”