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Biden says stakes are too high for government to be a bystander

President Joe Biden speaks to a joint session

President Joe Biden speaks to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applaud. Credit: Pool via EPA / Doug Mills

'We can't stop now'

Early in his speech Wednesday night, President Joe Biden proclaimed the progress against the coronavirus pandemic in his first 100 days as "one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen." With his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan he signed in March easing the economic impact and with 220 million COVID-19 vaccine shots in arms, Biden is now betting that Americans are open to accepting a federal government as activist as any since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

With an appeal to the nation's pride and hope for a prosperous future, he spoke of momentous competition. A democratic America is facing off against an autocratic China and other countries "to win the 21st century." We'll lose, he said in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, if government stands back.

"Throughout our history, public investments and infrastructure have transformed America," Biden said, tracing a historical arc from the Transcontinental Railroad to the interstate highway system to the space program to the internet, with progress advanced by universal public school and college aid "that opened wide the doors of opportunity."

"These are the investments we make together, as one country, and that only government can make. Time and again, they propel us into the future," Biden said. He added his American Jobs Plan — a central component for $4 trillion in infrastructure proposals — is a "once-in-a-generation investment in America itself" and "the largest jobs plan since World War II." He uttered the word "jobs" 43 times.

Upbeat and forceful, Biden alluded to recent tumult and crisis, including the Jan. 6 insurrection by violent supporters of his predecessor that shed blood in the U.S. Capitol from where he spoke. "We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy — of pandemic and pain — and ‘We the People’ did not flinch," he said. His first 100 days, as Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez writes, were largely defined by federal response to the pandemic. Wednesday marked a pivot point to define and flesh out a post-coronavirus agenda.

As The Associated Press notes, Biden understands that the time for realizing his vision could be perilously short, given that presidents’ parties historically lose congressional seats in the midterm elections, less than two years away. The Democrats’ margins are already razor-thin.

Biden acknowledged it will be a struggle to get his program through. "I’d like to meet with those who have ideas that are different," he said. "We welcome ideas. But the rest of the world isn’t waiting for us. I just want to be clear: From my perspective, doing nothing is not an option. Look, we can’t be so busy competing with one another and forget the competition we have with the rest of the world to win the 21st century."

Elbow to elbow in one way only

Because of coronavirus protocols, Biden spoke in a chamber and gallery with more empty seats than filled ones. It was hard to imagine, say, former President Donald Trump looking out on such a scene without a conniption fit. The tableau behind him was historic in two ways: two women, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris, who exchanged elbow bumps. Both of them were masked, as was Biden when he arrived and left.

While the applause was no less frequent, it did not reach the same volume as in years past.

But crowd size hasn't been a Biden obsession, and it didn't sour his mood. After the conclusion of his 65-minute address, Biden hung around his old haunt, fist-bumping and handshaking the parade of lawmakers who approached the president to engage in mask-muffled chitchat occasionally overheard on C-SPAN’s livestream, The Washington Post reported.

Here's a transcript of Biden's address as delivered, and a complete video.

GOP rebuttal: Don't go to waste

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, delivering the Republican rebuttal to Biden, derided the president's American Jobs Plan as a "liberal wish list of big government waste."

He accused Biden of taking a divisive approach to the presidency by not working with Republicans and of overstating his accomplishments. "This administration inherited a tide that had already turned," he said. "The coronavirus is on the run!"

Scott told a story no other Republican senator could: about the discrimination he has faced as a Black man. "I know what it feels like to be pulled over for no reason. To be followed around a store while I'm shopping," Scott said. But he also disputed the idea, embraced by Biden and Democrats generally, that there is systemic racism. "Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country," Scott said. He extended that position to battles over voting rights and suppression. Biden has accused GOP state lawmakers in states like Georgia of seeking a return to Jim Crow laws, but Scott contended: "Republicans support making it easier to vote and harder to cheat."

Here's a transcript of Scott's remarks and video.

Biden: GOP needs to get its act together

Biden told a group of network television anchors in a session Wednesday afternoon that he wants bipartisanship but because Republicans are so "splintered," it's difficult to work with them.

"Everybody talks about, can I do anything bipartisan?" he said. "Well, I got to figure out if there’s a party to deal with. We need a Republican Party. … We need another party, whatever you call it, that’s unified — not completely splintered and fearful of one another."

The White House announced Wednesday that Biden on May 12 will hold his first meeting with the congressional leadership of both parties — Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. For McCarthy and McConnell, it will be their first visit to the Biden White House.

A White House official said Biden wants to talk with them about "policy areas of mutual agreement and identifying common ground on which they can work together and deliver results on the challenges facing American families."

Feds' raid gives Rudy rude wake-up call

The Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office has been investigating Rudy Giuliani's business dealings in Ukraine since at least 2019. Last year, the prosecutors and FBI wanted to obtain search warrants for Giuliani's phone and electronic devices, but senior political appointees in Trump's Justice Department blocked them, The New York Times reports. With Trump gone and Attorney General Merrick Garland in charge, the Justice Department has a new position: No problem.

Federal agents showed up at 6 a.m. Wednesday at Giuliani's Madison Avenue apartment and his Park Avenue office to collect the phones and computers as potential evidence in the criminal probe of the attorney, who until recently was Trump's personal lawyer and attack dog on several fronts, including efforts to find dirt on Biden, starting well before he became the Democrats' presidential nominee. A focus of the probe is whether Giuliani's activities violated federal lobbying laws.

The warrants signify that federal prosecutors — from the same Manhattan office that Giuliani ran in the 1980s — believe they have probable cause that Giuliani committed a federal crime, though they do not guarantee that charges will materialize. A third search warrant was served on a phone belonging to Washington lawyer Victoria Toensing, a former federal prosecutor and close ally of Giuliani and Trump also involved in Ukraine exploits. Her law firm issued a statement saying she was informed that she is not a target of the investigation.

The Times said prosecutors have examined, among other things, Giuliani’s potential business dealings in Ukraine and his role in pushing for the ouster of the U.S. ambassador to the country, Marie Yovanovitch, seeing her as an obstacle to his mission against Biden. They have explored whether Giuliani also was acting on behalf of Ukrainian officials or businesses who wanted Yovanovitch kicked out for their own reasons.

Giuliani tweeted after the raids that he would respond on his afternoon radio show on WABC, but he didn't show up. In a statement, Giuliani denied any wrongdoing and argued that the search warrants demonstrated a "corrupt double standard" on the part of the Justice Department, which he said had ignored "blatant crimes" by Democrats.

Giuliani's lawyer, Robert Costello, denounced the searches as "legal thuggery. Why would you do this to anyone, let alone someone who was the associate attorney general, United States attorney, the mayor of New York City, and the personal lawyer to the 45th president of the United States?" He told ABC News that he had asked to have Giuliani interviewed by federal prosecutors if they would provide a sense of what they were seeking, but that the offer was rejected. Costello also said the agents seized a computer belonging to longtime Giuliani assistant Jo Ann Zafonte.

Should Trump worry?

Newsday columnist Dan Janison writes on how the arc of the Giuliani story has shot well past any discussion of how he devolved over the long haul from an independent-minded prosecutor and crisis-time mayor into a dubious Trump factotum who lied about national election ballots.

Giuliani now is indisputably the focus of keen interest for criminal investigators and potentially could hurt his former client.

The current federal probes could get underneath some factual stones about the effort to get Ukraine to muddy up Democrats, including Biden, that may have been left unturned during Trump's first congressional impeachment.

In a sense, this probe invites a Michael Cohen déjà vu. That former Trump lawyer ended up in prison partly due to his private actions on behalf of "45," but not before he flipped on Trump.

UnKool with Biden

The Biden administration is expected to announce this week that it will propose a ban on menthol cigarettes — a long-sought public health goal of civil rights and anti-tobacco groups who contend the products have been aggressively marketed to Black people.

About 85% of Black smokers use menthol brands, including Newport and Kool, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The administration also is poised to say it will seek to ban menthol and other flavors in mass-produced cigars, including small cigars popular with young people, officials told The Washington Post.

The ban likely would take years to implement, and a lengthy legal battle with the industry is expected. The FDA faces a court deadline Thursday to respond to a 2013 citizen petition seeking a menthol-cigarette ban.

More coronavirus news

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo set a date to lift a midnight curfew for bars and restaurants in New York State and offered guidelines for dancing at weddings. See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Some Democrats want to go bigger than Biden's plan on an extension of the child tax credit, reports Newsday's Tom Brune. Biden's plan would keep it through 2025; a bill introduced Tuesday by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) would make it permanent.
  • A Trump supporter from Brooklyn, Brendan Hunt, was found guilty Wednesday of threatening to kill members of Congress in the days after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, The New York Times reported. The federal court jury didn't buy his defense that he was just kidding. If convicted, Hunt faces up to 10 years in prison.
  • A Hofstra University Kalikow Center Poll found 52.6% of Americans gave Biden a positive rating, and nearly two-thirds support the American Rescue Plan the president signed in March to help restore the economy, Newsday's Scott Eidler reports.
  • The White House admonished Joe Rogan, the comedian and host of a popular podcast, for telling listeners that younger people needn't bother getting the COVID-19 vaccine. "Did Joe Rogan become a medical doctor while we weren’t looking?" White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said on CNN on Wednesday. "I’m not sure that taking scientific and medical advice from Joe Rogan is perhaps the most productive way for people to get their information."
  • A Miami Beach business executive convicted of charges in $1 billion health-care fraud was sprung from prison in December by a Trump clemency, but he's not in the clear. The Miami Herald reports federal prosecutors will retry Philip Esformes on charges for which the jury in his first trial could not reach a verdict. Esformes’ fraud case was the biggest in the history of the Medicare program. If Esformes is convicted this time, Trump won't be able to help him.
  • A House subcommittee hearing on Biden’s budget request got off to a cringey start when ranking Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma sought a rapport with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, Roll Call reports. "Since you’re Irish, if you like Guinness, Irish cream ale or Irish whiskey, we’ll have a working basis for a relationship," Cole said. Walsh, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober since 1995, didn't answer.
  • Biden is expected to begin naming his choices for high-profile ambassador postings by May, including Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for envoy to the UN's World Food Program and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for ambassador to Japan, The Washington Post reported.

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