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Covid Stimulus Bill Heads to the Senate




WASHINGTON — President Biden’s agenda is facing its most consequential test as Democrats prepare to maneuver his $1.9 trillion stimulus package through the evenly divided Senate, an effort that could strain the fragile alliance between progressives and centrists and the limits of his power in Congress.

An early-morning House vote to pass the sweeping pandemic aid measure only underscored the depth of partisan division over the proposal, which was opposed by every Republican. But the road ahead in the Senate is far bumpier, with a thicket of arcane rules and a one-vote margin of control threatening to imperil crucial aspects of the plan as Democrats rush to deliver it to Mr. Biden’s desk within two weeks.

Already, Mr. Biden’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 as part of the plan has run aground because of budgetary rules for the measure, which Democrats are advancing under a complex process that allows it to pass by simple majority vote, bypassing Republican opposition.

In the week ahead, they will also face challenges in steering other aspects of the bill through procedural obstacles and around political pitfalls, including debates over how much to spend on closing state and local budget shortfalls and how to distribute expanded tax benefits aimed at helping impoverished families.

The challenge for Mr. Biden will be holding both sides together in the face of unified Republican opposition to secure a bill that White House officials believe will cushion vulnerable Americans through the end of the pandemic and turbo-boost the economy as it reopens in full.

“We have no time to waste,” Mr. Biden said on Saturday at the White House. “If we act now decisively, quickly and boldly, we can finally get ahead of this virus.”

Progressives are pushing hard for party leaders to change Senate rules to keep the wage increase in the bill, arguing that Democrats must not scale back their ambitions for Mr. Biden’s first major legislative package.

The debate over the minimum wage, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, told reporters, “sets the stage for how effective we’ll be for the rest of the term.”

But moderates including Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona want to keep Senate rules — which effectively require 60 votes to advance most major legislation — intact, and are opposed to including such a sharp increase in the minimum wage in the package.

Party leaders and White House officials remain confident that Mr. Biden has the votes, no matter the fate of the wage increase. All but two House Democrats voted for the legislation, called the American Rescue Plan, which has broad bipartisan support among voters. But congressional Republicans have united against it, after being effectively frozen out of drafting the bill.

“The House’s partisan vote reflects a deliberately partisan process and a missed opportunity to meet Americans’ needs,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said in a statement.

The measure now moves to the Senate, which is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris controlling the tiebreaking vote. Mr. Biden’s early attempts to find common ground with moderate Republican senators on the package yielded little other than general expressions of bipartisan aspiration, with the Republicans proposing a plan amounting to less than one-third of what the president is asking to address the toll of a crisis that has left 10 million Americans out of work.

With unemployment benefits set to begin lapsing on March 14 for the workers who have been thrown off the job longest in the crisis, Democrats have only two weeks to finish the package in the Senate and resend it to the House and Mr. Biden’s desk. Because party leaders decided to use a fast-track budget process known as reconciliation to swiftly move the legislation and circumvent Republican opposition in the Senate, the bill will need to comply with a series of strict budgetary rules along the way.

While the House included the federal minimum wage increase in the version it passed on Saturday, a key Senate official has warned that it violates the reconciliation rules, enabling Republicans to challenge it and jettison it from the package. It is likely that more changes to the bill will be needed to ensure it complies with Senate rules and can draw the support of every Democrat.

Senate Democrats are now spending the weekend plotting possible ways to salvage the minimum wage provision, which would gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025.

Progressives in the House warned on Friday that they might withhold their votes for the stimulus package if the wage increase were removed. The debate has fueled an already simmering dispute over whether Democrats should try to abolish Senate rules, chiefly those governing filibusters that mandate a 60-vote threshold to move forward, that the minority party has long used to block major legislative initiatives.

“This is not a matter of whether you have the votes — this is a matter of whether you do what you said,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, a co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, a grass-roots organization that plans to continue lobbying for Ms. Harris to force a vote on the merits of the parliamentarian’s ruling and for Mr. Manchin, Ms. Sinema and other lawmakers to support taking the procedural steps needed for the minimum wage provision to become law. “Don’t hide behind a rule. Don’t hide behind a backdoor meeting.”

Mr. Biden has acknowledged publicly that the wage increase could fall out of the bill, and indicated he would sign the package regardless. His chief of staff, Ron Klain, ruled out the possibility that Ms. Harris would override the guidance of Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian who has said the proposal is out of order under reconciliation. Top Democrats have signaled that they have no plans to oust Ms. MacDonough, who became the first woman to hold the post in 2012, despite liberal calls to do so.

Still, White House economic officials argue that even the increase of the wage to $9.50 this year, as the bill calls for, would bolster incomes and spending for the lowest-paid workers in the economy, helping fuel economic growth.

Democrats have begun drafting alternative plans — including tax penalties for large corporations that pay low hourly wages — that could qualify under Senate rules and achieve similar goals. Top Democrats, including Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, are contemplating the possibility of including an amendment that would penalize corporations that pay workers less than $15 an hour, potentially imposing an escalating tax on the payrolls of large corporations.

Party leaders say they will find a middle ground that will allow the stimulus package to move forward.

“We have a consensus in our caucus that we are here to get the job done for the American people,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said on Friday at a news conference. Pressed on whether Democrats would ultimately be able to pass the legislation without the inclusion of the minimum wage provision, she said, “absolutely.”

Democrats are bracing for additional revisions to the legislation as a result of Ms. MacDonough’s guidance, including changing how quickly people can reap the benefits of an expanded tax credit meant to help low-income families with children. With some moderate Democrats in favor of targeting elements of the relief plan, they may also be forced to scale back or otherwise alter how the $350 billion allotted for state, local and tribal governments is distributed.

Republicans face perils of their own in opposing the measure en masse. The bill enjoys strong and bipartisan support in national polls, with seven in 10 Americans approving. Most polls show significant backing among Republican voters for the effort. Some show majority Republican support.

Critical provisions of the bill that Republican lawmakers have derided as wasteful — including direct payments of $1,400 per adult and child to individuals earning up to $75,000 a year and couples earning up to $150,000 — are backed by as many as four in five Americans.

Business groups and budget hawks have staked out a middle ground, urging Democrats to pare back or amend the package in the Senate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called for a bipartisan compromise on raising the wage, to an amount less than $15 an hour. The U.S. Travel Association called on lawmakers Saturday to take additional steps in the bill to support an industry that “lost half a trillion dollars and millions of jobs last year” — with no immediate rebound in sight.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which has raised concerns over the size of the package and the targeting of its spending, urged lawmakers to reduce the bill’s $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, and to scale back the number of Americans who receive direct payments in order to avoid sending money to people who have not lost hours or income in the crisis.

But without the majority support needed to eliminate the Senate filibuster, some Democrats are looking toward negotiations with Republicans as the only way to push a minimum wage increase into law.

“Not the answer we hoped for, but the one as a lawyer I expected,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, wrote on Twitter of the parliamentarian’s rejection of the minimum wage provision, which he called “within bounds.”

“Now we need to get it done the hard, old-fashioned way,” he added.


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In Washington, Policy Revolves Around Joe Manchin. He Likes It That Way.





WASHINGTON — If Democrats eliminate the filibuster, there is one senator who would have an outsized impact in the 50-50 chamber on issues that could reshape the nation’s future: infrastructure, immigration, gun laws and voting rights. That senator is Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

There is also a senator whose opposition to eliminating the filibuster is a significant reason it may never happen. That senator, too, is Mr. Manchin.

“He should want to get rid of the filibuster because he suddenly becomes the most powerful person in this place — he’s the 50th vote on everything,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, sketching out the argument.

Mr. Manchin, however, does not see it that way. To the exasperation of Democrats, delight of Republicans and bewilderment of politicians who can’t understand why he wouldn’t want to wield more power, Mr. Manchin, a former governor of the state, isn’t budging.

“Sixty votes,” he said in an interview last week in his office, referring to the threshold required to advance most legislation, adding that he would not consider suspending the filibuster for certain bills, as some of his colleagues have floated: “You’re either committed or not.”

But with 18 people dead after two mass shootings within a week, a worsening migrant challenge on the border and Republicans trying to restrict voting in almost every state where they hold power, liberals believe this moment cries out for a different sort of commitment. At a time when they have full control of Congress and are confronting overlapping crises, many Democrats feel a moral and political imperative to act, process be damned.

That puts Mr. Manchin, 73, at the center of the most important policy debates in Washington — and has set the stage for a collision between a party eager to use its majorities to pass sweeping legislation and a political throwback determined to restore bipartisanship to a chamber that’s as polarized as the country.

Mr. Manchin believes that ending the legislative filibuster would effectively destroy the Senate. He recalled his predecessor, Robert C. Byrd, telling him that the chamber had been designed to force consensus.

Mr. Manchin has expressed willingness to support a “talking filibuster,” in which lawmakers have to actually hold the floor, perhaps for many hours, to block a vote. But he has not yielded on getting rid of it altogether and on an array of issues, including voting rights and gun control, his admonition is less about any particular policy end and more about making sure the legislation has support from both parties.

More broadly, Mr. Manchin’s resistance to ending the filibuster has ripened fundamental questions about which version of Congress would be more dysfunctional: a body stymied by gridlock or one that can pass legislation only by scrapping longstanding guidelines so it can push through party-line votes?

“You can’t make the place work if nothing significant is getting passed,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a leading progressive from California.

Mr. Manchin worries that the short-term benefit of ditching the filibuster would backfire for Democrats over the long term.

“I’m concerned about the House pushing an agenda that would be hard for us to maintain the majority,” Mr. Manchin said about the progressive legislation that House Democrats are stacking up at the Senate door. As for pressure from the left, he said, tauntingly: “What are they going to do, they going to go into West Virginia and campaign against me? Please, that would help me more than anything.”

To a growing number of his Democratic colleagues — and not just liberals — it’s naïve to keep putting hope over history, and believe, as Mr. Manchin said about gun legislation, that Republicans may say, “Listen, it’s time for us to do the reasonable, sensible thing.”

Of course, few in a Senate that depends on Mr. Manchin for a 50th vote will say outright that their colleague is indulging in fantasy.

“Joe’s focus, I believe, is bipartisanship, and I agree with the starting point,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, before lowering the boom: “They weren’t going to give us a single vote,” he said about the stimulus bill.

A former high school quarterback who friends say still relishes being at the center of the action, Mr. Manchin is something of a unicorn in today’s Congress. As a pro-coal and anti-abortion Democrat, he reflects a less-homogenized era when regionalism was as significant as partisanship and senators were more individual actors than predictable votes for their caucus.

Twice elected governor before claiming Mr. Byrd’s seat, he’s the only lawmaker standing in the way of an all-Republican congressional delegation in West Virginia, a state that former President Donald J. Trump carried by nearly 40 points last year. And he is an unlikely majority-maker of the Democratic Senate.

“We really are the big tent,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, before knowingly adding: “Now it’s a lot of work when you have a big tent, right? But that’s the way we have a majority.”

While out of step with his national party on some issues, and written off by parts of the left as little better than a Republican, his politics are more complex, even confounding, than they appear at first glance.

He provided the deciding vote on two of the biggest liberal priorities of this era — blocking repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 and on passage of the nearly $2 trillion stimulus bill this month — while also twice voting to convict an impeached president wildly popular in his home state.

And while he may admire Mr. Byrd’s dedication to Senate tradition, Mr. Manchin has not emulated his predecessor by leveraging his power to focus relentlessly on steering spending projects back to West Virginia.

When Mr. Manchin was holding out on a single amendment that was delaying passage of the stimulus bill, White House aides were perplexed because his price for supporting the measure was not additional money for his impoverished home state. His main request, West Wing officials said, was to pare back spending and consider Republican input that could have made the bill appear more moderate.

Mr. Manchin said President Biden warned him in a phone call that the progressive left in the House might balk if the bill were significantly trimmed. “I said, ‘Mr. President, all we’re trying to do is put some guard rails on this,’” he recalled.

He was less happy about Vice President Kamala Harris’s effort to nudge him on the legislation by making an appearance on a television affiliate in West Virginia to promote the bill without forewarning him. The clip went viral and, Mr. Manchin said, prompted cleanup conversations with Mr. Biden and the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain.

As for any pressure that he may feel on the filibuster, Mr. Manchin said he had reminded Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, of how essential he was to providing Democrats a majority.

He said he had told Mr. Schumer, “I know one thing, Chuck, you wouldn’t have this problem at all if I wasn’t here.”

He is not the only impediment to the sort of expansive liberal agenda preferred by many congressional Democrats or even the only one still defending the filibuster. Other Senate Democrats, including Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, also share his reluctance.

Yet none are as eager as Mr. Manchin to restore a bygone day of collegiality. And perhaps, more to the point, none are as happy as him to talk about the need to do so as he navigates representing a once-heavily Democratic state that had been shifting to the G.O.P. even before Mr. Trump arrived on the scene.

He crossed the aisle last year to endorse his closest Republican ally, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and is already co-hosting bipartisan lunches with her. He is plotting the post-pandemic restoration of his pizza-and-beer parties on the boat he calls home while in Washington. (It’s called “Almost Heaven,” the opening lyric to John Denver’s ode to West Virginia.)

Although some of his colleagues relish the ideologically-charged prime-time cable news programs, Mr. Manchin prefers another Washington institution that also flourished in less-polarized times: the Sunday morning show.

In the fashion of many former governors who grow exasperated with Washington’s glacial pace, at times he can barely contain his impatience. He’s repeatedly mused about leaving the Senate and trying to reclaim his old job in Charleston.

But those who know Mr. Manchin well believe he likes the attention that he receives in the capital, the same as he did as a signal-caller in Farmington, W.V., where he grew up near Nick Saban, the legendary football coach at the University of Alabama and a lifelong friend of Mr. Manchin.

“You’re in the hot seat when you’re a quarterback, but it’s pretty satisfying when you make progress,” said Nick Casey, a Manchin ally and former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party. Mr. Casey said the senator, who sustained an injury that cut short his playing days, was “the greatest QB who never got to start at West Virginia University — just ask him.”

Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington, W.V., who served with Mr. Manchin in the state legislature, said: “This is the closest he has been to how he could be as governor, actually driving the agenda, pulling people together.’’

It’s the last part that most animates the senator. Happily bantering with reporters as he positions himself as a lonely, if well-covered, voice for comity, he shifts questions from policy to process.

“Why don’t you ask people when was the last time they took time to talk to some of the people on this side?” Mr. Manchin told a CNN reporter this week. “Try to convince them, or work with them. Have you had dinner with them? Have you had a lunch with them? Have you had a cup of coffee with them? Try something.”

A number of anti-filibuster Senate Democrats, though, are more focused on what Mr. Manchin’s support of the “talking filibuster” could portend.

“I think that gives us a lot of room for discussion,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, adopting a glass-is-half-full perspective.

What does seem clear is that Mr. Manchin is not going to switch parties.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, although we’d welcome him with open arms,” said Ms. Collins, who has tried in the past to persuade her friend to join Republicans.

It’s not difficult to see why Mr. Manchin remains in his forefathers’ party. A Catholic of Italian descent, he sought John F. Kennedy’s desk when he arrived in the Senate, displays a picture of the slain president in his office lobby and can recall hearing that Massachusetts accent in his kitchen when Kennedy’s brothers came to his parents’ house during the West Virginia primary in 1960.

“Joe reminds me a lot of the old conservative Democrats in Texas,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “They were born Democrats. They’re going to die Democrats.”

As for the filibuster, Mr. Coons, who was sworn in alongside Mr. Manchin in 2010, said liberals shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Recalling a conversation with somebody who knows Mr. Manchin well, Mr. Coons said this person told him: “If the ghost of Robert Byrd came back to life and said the future of West Virginia itself is on the line he might … think about it.”


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C.D.C. Funding Gun Violence Research For First Time in Decades





That was the argument he used to help persuade Congress to appropriate money for gun violence research in 2019. The research itself was never banned outright, and in 2013, weeks after the massacre that killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Barack Obama directed the C.D.C. to reconsider funding studies on gun violence.

The agency commissioned a report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council outlining priorities, but little changed. By 2019, after Democrats reclaimed the House, liberal organizations like were petitioning Congress to repeal the Dickey Amendment. Nearly every House Democrat signed on.

But Dr. Rosenberg argued it should remain intact, to “provide cover for Republicans and gun-loving Democrats who can put money into the science and tell their constituents, ‘This is not money for gun control.’ ”

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chaired the House subcommittee that oversees the C.D.C.’s budget at the time, said she put $50 million into the appropriations bill that year, but the Senate, controlled by Republicans, eliminated it. The two chambers agreed on $25 million as a compromise, but she said she hoped to double the funding this year.

Dr. Naik-Mathuria, the Houston trauma surgeon, said she would like to see Washington address the problem of gun violence as a matter of injury prevention, not politics. She began researching methods to reduce gun violence about six years ago, she said, after seeing “kids come in dead because they shot themselves in the head when they found a gun at home.”

Her current study is aimed at determining risk factors for gun violence for children and adults, and her past work has led to some changes in medical practice, she said.

Pediatricians in Texas, she said, are hesitant to talk about gun safety out of concern that “it would anger parents or become political.” So she and her group made a broader safety video that tucked in messages about gun safety — like keeping guns locked and stored — with tips like how to keep children away from poison.


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Who Are Gavin Newsom’s Enemies?





There’s still time for a lot to change: If the organizers of the recall effort reach the signature threshold, the vote to recall Mr. Newsom and to choose his successor — both would be done on a single ballot — probably wouldn’t occur until near the end of the year.

That recall effort is being led by Orrin Heatlie, a conservative and a former sergeant in the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department, who as recently as last year shared anti-vaccination and anti-L.G.B.T.Q. views online. But the endeavor has the backing of a number of deep-pocketed political action committees, most of them right-leaning.

Randy Economy, a political consultant and talk-radio host, serves as the lead adviser to Recall Gavin Newsom, the group organizing the effort. He said the governor’s behavior and demeanor had made the recall necessary. “It’s because of Gavin Newsom himself, and the way he conducts himself every day since he’s become governor,” Mr. Economy said in an interview. “It’s all been more about his image and self-aggrandizing, as opposed to fixing the problems.”

Mr. Newsom’s approval rating isn’t nearly as low as Gov. Gray Davis’s was in 2003, when voters ousted him in a recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger, running as a moderate Republican, was the beneficiary of that effort, winning the recall election and going on to serve as governor for more than seven years.

California politics are different — and decidedly more Democratic — than they were 18 years ago. Democrats now have a 2-to-1 advantage in terms of voter registration across the state. Just because there is a Republican-led effort does not mean that a Republican will be the one to ultimately benefit. Mr. Economy, who volunteered in 2016 for Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign but has also worked for Democrats in the past, insisted that his team’s goal was not partisan in nature.

“Our job is not to pick the next governor; our job is to make sure that this governor’s recalled and removed from office,” he said.

The state is light on prominent (let alone popular) G.O.P. politicians, and some ambitious Democrats already appear ready to run through the open door. All of which points to a possible irony: Even if it were to become only the second successful recall effort in California history, the push — led by conservative interests — could ultimately lift up another Democrat, possibly one to the left of Mr. Newsom.


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