Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Thursday tweeted feigned offense at...

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Thursday tweeted feigned offense at President Joe Biden's remark on two GOP governors' "Neanderthal thinking" in ending mask mandates. Credit: Getty Images / TNS / Tasos Katopodis

Defending our ancestry

"Neanderthals" is the new "deplorables."

President Joe Biden's slap at a pair of red-state governors for showing "Neanderthal thinking" by shedding mask mandates has some Republicans trying to turn the put-down into a badge of honor, as Trumpists did when Hillary Clinton in 2016 called them "deplorables." Two GOP senators spoke up in defense of the prehistoric humans as worthy of greater retrospective respect.

"Neanderthals are hunter-gatherers, they’re protectors of their family," Sen. Marsha Blackburn said on Fox Business Network. "They are resilient. They are resourceful. They tend to their own. So, I think Joe Biden needs to rethink what he is saying." Ironically, Blackburn's home state of Tennessee was the scene of the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a teacher was found guilty of violating a state law banning lessons on human evolution over creationism.

A tweet from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, ostensibly taking offense, pivoted to an apparent mockery of liberal wokeness. "President Biden’s use of an old stereotype is hurtful to modern Europeans, Asians & Americans who inherit about 2% of their genes from Neanderthal ancestors. ... He should apologize for his insensitive comments and seek training on unconscious bias," wrote Rubio.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday attempted a cleanup of Biden's Wednesday reaction to announcements by Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi that they were ending their states' mask mandates and relaxing social-distancing rules — all imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Public health officials have said it's too soon to lift the rules. Psaki suggested Biden hadn't resorted to personal name-calling.

"The behavior of a Neanderthal, just to be very clear, the behavior of," Psaki said in trying to make a distinction, calling Biden's remark a "reflection of his frustration and exasperation."

In counterpoint to some Republicans' embrace of a Flintstonian identity, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) tweeted: "I note Neanderthals became extinct."

Janison: The mask and the mirror

Biden's shot at red-state governors mirrored to some degree his predecessor Donald Trump's attacks on blue-state leaders for emergency health measures they chose last year, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

The Democratic president called it a "big mistake" for Texas and Mississippi to drop mask mandates with the virus still in play and vaccinations still ramping up. "Look, I hope everybody's realized by now, these masks make a difference," Biden said.

Clearly, Biden still sees a need to counter Trump's spurning of masks, espousal of fringe theories, undermining of experts and flouting of social-distance rules.

The current context is brighter. Federal-versus-state frictions now center on when to lift restrictions — rather than when and how to impose them. Health authorities advise that the states are not yet out of the woods. That is far more hopeful than bracing for the worst to hit.

But there remains a dark spot — the fact that masks ever became a matter of political contention. And Biden's "Neanderthal" jibe is unlikely to help get mask-phobes to cooperate, no matter what the rules say.

COVID bill crawls in Senate

With Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaker, the Senate voted 51-50 to begin consideration of Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus bill on Thursday. While it looks unlikely that Republicans can stop it, they are doing their best to slow its progress, making a vote on passage unlikely before the weekend.

"No matter how long it takes, the Senate is going to stay in session to finish the bill, this week. The American people deserve nothing less," Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Once it passes, the Senate version will have to go back to the House for final approval before being sent to Biden for his signature. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has guaranteed that her chamber will pass the Senate bill despite some changes that liberals dislike, including narrower eligibility for $1,400 direct checks and excluding a $15 minimum wage.

Senate Democratic leaders made over a dozen late additions to their package, reflecting their need to cement unanimous support on their side of the aisle.

Progressives got money boosting feeding programs, federal subsidies for health care for workers who lose jobs, tax-free student loans, and money for public broadcasting and consumer protection investigations. Moderates won funds for rural health care, language assuring minimum amounts of money for smaller states and a prohibition on states receiving aid using the windfalls to cut taxes.

Accomplishing the minimum?

The White House is weighing whether to engage in talks with Republicans on a minimum-wage increase once Congress passes Biden's COVID-19 relief bill, Politico reported.

It may not be a $15-hourly minimum by 2025, however. With 10 Republicans needed to reach the 60 votes required in the Senate, possibilities include lowering the amount or lengthening the phase-in period.

Capitol Police: Can't let guard down

A feared right-wing militia threat to the U.S. Capitol did not materialize amid heightened security on Thursday, March 4, a date that raised alarm because of conspiracy theorists' predictions. But the Capitol Police has asked the National Guard to extend its deployment there beyond next week amid continuing concerns over violent extremists seeking to target Congress.

A congressional official familiar with the Capitol Police request described the timetable for the troop presence as having no specific end date. More than 5,200 Guard members, drawn from multiple states, are currently deployed to Washington in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the decision to extend the Guard’s stay would be up to Capitol security officials. Missouri's Sen. Roy Blunt — the top Republican on the Rules Committee, which is investigating the security failures of the Jan. 6 riot — said "some active military police guard in a more permanent basis near the Capitol could be a good idea for the foreseeable future, principally because they would actually be able to relieve the Capitol Police."

A draft copy of Capitol security recommendations from retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who Pelosi asked to lead a sweeping review, recommends an expanded and better equipped police force, a "quick reaction force" on 24/7 standby and even an overhaul of the police K-9 unit, which has too many aging dogs, Fox News reported.

CNN reported that federal investigators are examining records of communications between members of Congress and the pro-Trump mob that attacked the Capitol, exploring whether there were lawmakers who wittingly or unwittingly helped the insurrectionists.

Milley: No Trump request for Guard

Trump claimed in a recent Fox News interview that he had been so worried about the prospect of violence in Washington on Jan. 6 that he had ordered the military to deploy 10,000 troops there, only to be rebuffed by "the people at the Capitol." The nation's top uniformed officer cast extreme doubt on Trump's claim, The New Yorker reported Thursday.

"As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if there was an order for 10,000 National Guardsmen, I would like to believe I would know that," said Gen. Mark Milley. "I know that was never transmitted to me by anyone — the President, the Secretary of Defense, or anyone else — for the 6th of January."

Milley was diplomatic on the stark contrast between the Trump and Biden administrations, the report said. But he signaled a sense of relief that old-fashioned process — "regular order" — has returned to national-security policy.

He described the Biden administration’s approach as "disciplined," "thoughtful," "deliberative" and "inclusive." Milley added, "I perceive rational discussion and legitimate points of view being presented in a rational, mature way on very serious topics of national security."

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Lisa L. Colangelo. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • The Senate Energy Committee voted 11-9 on Thursday to advance Rep. Deb Haaland’s confirmation for Interior Department secretary to the full chamber. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska broke with fellow Republicans to support the nominee, saying that despite her "misgivings" regarding energy policy, Native Americans in her state are putting hopes of attention to their issues on Haaland, who is one of them.
  • YouTube will reinstate Trump’s channel once the "elevated risk of violence" has passed, the video-sharing site’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki, said Thursday. "When we see reduced law enforcement in capitals in the U.S. and fewer [threat] warnings," she said, "those would be signals to us [that it is] safe to turn the channel back on."
  • The trade policies under formation by the Biden administration more closely resemble those of Trump than of Biden's time as a pro-free-trade senator and vice president, The Washington Post reports. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged Wednesday that policymakers for too long had been blind to the suffering of American workers displaced by trade deals and promised "our approach now will be different" to make sure it will "benefit all Americans, not only those for whom the economy is already working."
  • Biden is sending senior members of his team to the southern border to see firsthand the influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, ABC News reported.
  • Trump's last Supreme Court nominee, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, on Thursday authored her first ruling since joining the court in October. The 7-2 decision handed a defeat to an environmental group that had sought access to government documents.
  • House Republicans are appealing to Trump to stay out of 2022 GOP primary races, warning he could hurt the party’s efforts to win back the chamber. But Trump has shown no sign of backing away from his threat of revenge against the 10 House Republicans who voted for his second impeachment.