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Not a promise, but Biden's dreaming of a post-pandemic Christmas

President Joe Biden at a CNN town hall

President Joe Biden at a CNN town hall forum Tuesday night in Milwaukee. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

A president's prognosis

The audience at a CNN town hall in Milwaukee on Tuesday night had questions for President Joe Biden about the coronavirus pandemic: Parents anxious for schools to reopen, teachers worried if they will be safe and small-business owners who need more help. An 8-year-old girl received personal assurance from Biden that her risk or getting the disease was low — "I wouldn’t worry about it, baby, I promise you." He offered personal off-air help to a mother who was concerned over how long her 19-year-old son with lung disease can wait for his turn to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Biden said he did not want to "over-promise anything here" because unknowns remain, such as on getting a third vaccine — Johnson & Johnson's — awaiting approval into the mix and the degree to which mutant strains of COVID-19 will complicate the battle. While not indulging, as his predecessor did, in magical thinking-out-loud, he pointed to reasons for optimism, including a pace of vaccinations that could get doses to anyone who wants one by July, getting the country closer to a herd immunity.

"So if that works that way — as my mother would say, with the grace of God and the goodwill of the neighbors — that by next Christmas, I think we'll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today," Biden said. "A year from now, I think that there will be significantly fewer people having to be socially distanced, have to wear a mask — but we don't know," he cautioned.

Biden said he hopes most K-8 schools would be open by the end of his first 100 days in office and blamed a "mistake in the communication" for an aide's comment last week that once-a-week in-class instruction would meet the definition of a school being open. He agreed with a teacher in the audience that the educators should get a higher priority for vaccine eligibility. "We should move them up in the hierarchy," the president said.

For small-business and broader economic recovery, he sought support for his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus package. "Now’s the time we should be spending. Now’s the time to go big," Biden said. "Between six months and a year and a half, we can come back. We can come roaring back."

Biden said getting the pandemic under control was the most important step to get there. He said that during last year's presidential campaign, "you had the former guy talking about we're just going to open things up and that's all we need to do. I said, ‘No, you've gotta deal with the disease before getting the economy going.’ "

Along with turning the page on the coronavirus, Biden was emphatic about turning the page on his predecessor. "Look, for four years, all that's been in the news is Trump. The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people," he said, adding, "I'm tired of talking about Trump." Here are a series of video highlights of the town hall from CNN. (See a transcript.)

Flexible on $15 minimum wage

On another subject, Biden indicated Tuesday that he’s open to negotiation on his proposal for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which is now attached to his relief package but is looking like a sticking point in Congress.

Biden suggested he could be open to a longer phase-in than the current proposal of five years. He also indicated that a lower amount — $12 or $13 an hour — would still help the working poor while easing concerns from business owners.

Janison: Civil servants' stakes in pie

Biden's relief package offers much for many: billions in aid to small businesses and schools, shoring up unemployment benefits and a new round of $1,400 direct payments to individuals.

Along with this general aid, public employees across the U.S. have a particular interest in what gets through, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. Unlike the last stimulus measure enacted in late December, the Biden proposal moving forward included $350 billion for the state and local governments that employ them and are sustaining big deficits, largely driven by the coronavirus pandemic.

Much of the timing here involves blue-state-versus-red-state politics. When Donald Trump was in the White House and Republicans in control of the Senate, GOP objections to "bailing out the blue states" carried the day. Once the elections secured Democrats' power, they could look to direct help for states and cities.

Across the U.S., the public sector employs more than 20 million people, or 14.5% of the total workforce. According to an analysis from The Washington Post, at least 26 states sustained a decline in tax revenue in 2020 and more than 1 in 20 government jobs vanished overall.

Trump, Giuliani sued over riot

The House Homeland Security Committee chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), sued Trump on Tuesday, accusing the former president and others of inciting the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and conspiring to try to prevent Congress from affirming the results of the presidential election he lost.

The suit also names as defendants Rudy Giuliani, who was Trump’s personal lawyer and lead election lawyer, and two extremist groups whose members have been charged in the insurrection, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.

"All I wanted to do was do my job, and the insurrection that occurred prevented me from doing that," Thompson told reporters Tuesday as he recounted his harrowing experiences on Jan. 6. He said other members of Congress are expected to join the suit, which alleges Trump and the other defendants violated the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. That law targeted unrest after the Civil War and allows suits seeking compensation for civil-rights violations.

The NAACP said it is representing Thompson because the civil rights organization believes the riot was part of a broader effort by Trump and his supporters to challenge votes cast by Black Americans.

A spokesman for Trump, Jason Miller, said the former president "did not incite or conspire to incite any violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6." Miller also dropped another news nugget: "Mayor Giuliani is not currently representing President Trump in any legal matters." He said Giuliani "remains an ally and a friend" of Trump.

Trump to GOP: Overthrow McConnell

Trump lit into Mitch McConnell in a written statement Tuesday, airing grievances that go beyond the Senate Republican leader's blistering comments — after he voted not guilty at the impeachment trial — holding Trump "morally responsible" for inciting the insurrection.

Calling McConnell a "dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack," Trump said, "If Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again." The statement — read it in full here — went on to blame the minority leader for the loss of two Senate seats from Georgia and for not backing Trump's false election-fraud claims.

Trump also may have been set off by McConnell's comments in interviews with The Wall Street Journal and Politico, in which he said he'll support GOP primary candidates with the best chance of winning, regardless of whether Trump thinks they're loyal enough to him. "Some of them may be people the former president likes. Some of them may not be. The only thing I care about is electability," said the Kentucky senator. Trump's retort: "I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First."

Trump's assault extended to McConnell's wife. "McConnell has no credibility on China because of his family's substantial Chinese business holding," he said. What Trump left out is that he brought McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, into his own Cabinet as secretary of transportation. Her family's business interests were no mystery to the Trump White House, and Chao served for almost the entire four years of his presidency before announcing her resignation on Jan. 7, citing the "events at the U.S. Capitol" the previous day.

Politico reports that an earlier draft of Trump's statement was even nastier, mocking McConnell for having multiple chins.

Blood thinner than MAGA

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois voted to impeach Trump last month and was one of his sharpest critics among House Republicans. He's paying a price on the homefront.

After Kinzinger called for removing Trump from office following the Capitol riot, 11 members of his family sent him a handwritten two-page letter, saying the lawmaker was in cahoots with "the devil’s army," reports The New York Times. Karen Otto, a cousin of the Air Force veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote him: "Oh my, what a disappointment you are to us and to God!" and "You have embarrassed the Kinzinger family name!"

The Washington Examiner reports a wave of retribution throughout the country aimed at conservatives who have solid conservative-policy records but committed the sin of disloyalty to Trump.

Dave Ball, chairman of Pennsylvania’s Washington County Republican Party, said Sen. Pat Toomey, who on Saturday voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, was not elected "to vote his conscience" or "do the right thing … We sent him there to represent us."

A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted after Trump's second trial measured his potential strength in a 2024 GOP presidential primary matchup against 13 hypothetical opponents. He had support from 53% of Republicans, a bounceback from his post-insurrection decline. In second place was former Vice President Mike Pence at 12%. What about the two Republican senators who spearheaded Trump's last attempt to overturn the election results? Texas' Ted Cruz had 3%; Missouri's Josh Hawley had 1%.

Biden riding high

Biden has a 62% approval rating among all surveyed in the Politico/Morning Consult poll. That reflects overwhelming 92% support among Democrats and a not-insignificant 20% rating from Republicans.

Vaccine hits and hiccups

The Biden administration will now send out 13.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine per week, up from 11 million last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.

But a bipartisan group of governors wrote the White House on Monday that better coordination is needed between the federal government and states on distributing doses to prevent confusion and duplicative efforts.

A person familiar with the situation told CNN that governors want the Biden administration to be more clear with the American public that the constraints in receiving the vaccine are due to a national shortage of doses and not due to the failures of state and local officials, who are largely being blamed.

The governors also said states don't always know every pharmacy or assisted living facility that's getting a direct shipment of vaccines from the federal government, further complicating distribution plans.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond, written by Newsday's Bart Jones and Rachelle Blidner. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Republicans are seeking to capitalize on parents' frustrations with delays in school reopenings with attacks on teachers' unions and blaming Democrats the unions donate to for letting them have their way, NBC News reports.
  • The FBI is still seeking public assistance in identifying images of suspected Capitol rioters. Here is their latest photo gallery.
  • Leo Brent Bozell IV, the son of longtime conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III, was charged in a criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday with three federal offenses for alleged participation in the Capitol riot, HuffPost reported.
  • The backbiting and chaos inside Trump's impeachment-trial legal team, as described by one of the lawyers, resembled the Trump White House. David Schoen told the Jewish Insider that after Trump kept changing the lineup, it wasn't clear which of them was in charge. Though Trump beat conviction, Schoen said he believes the defense lost two or three votes with a poor performance in the trial's question-and-answer phase Friday.
  • The Biden White House has faced questions on why the president has yet to call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Psaki said Tuesday that Biden will reach out "soon" and the call will be Biden's first to a leader in the Middle East. She also said Biden is unlikely to meet in person with a foreign leader, either at the White House or abroad, for "a couple of months."
  • Senate confirmation hearings are scheduled next week for Merrick Garland, Biden's choice for U.S. attorney general, and Xavier Becerra, who would lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • The former Trump Plaza hotel and casino in Atlantic City, which fell into decrepitude, will be leveled by implosion at 9 a.m. Wednesday. A lot within viewing distance will charge spectators $10 for parking. The local newspaper, The Press of Atlantic City, planned to show a livestream of the 39-story building's demolition on its website, starting at 8:45 a.m.

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