The next chapter
As odd as it sounds, leading the fight against the coronavirus pandemic may turn out to have been the easy part for President Joe Biden. On Wednesday, his first speech before a joint session of Congress and a prime-time television audience may be his best shot at selling an ambitious and expensive agenda beyond his first 100 days.
There's the $2.3 trillion first part of his broadly defined infrastructure package and a $1.8 trillion second part — focused on expanding access to education, health care and child care — that Biden will lay out in his 9 p.m. speech, writes Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez. Biden will call for free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children, a $200 billion investment, The Associated Press reported.
Biden also will use his speech to urge lawmakers to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. "It's absolutely a priority on his mind, and he feels this is a moment where there should be momentum for action," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Other priorities Biden is expected to discuss include passage of stricter background-check laws for gun sales after recent mass shootings, as well as tackling immigration reform amid an increase in asylum-seekers at the southern border.
The staging will be a departure from the usual for a presidential address on Capitol Hill, with coronavirus protocols still in effect and security even tighter in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection. In years past, nearly 1,600 attendees have been seated in the House chamber. This year, attendance has been pared to about 200 lawmakers and dignitaries.
Psaki, speaking to reporters on Monday, said the event "won’t look, or feel, or sound like it has in the past." But from Biden’s "vantage point, it still is an opportunity to speak directly to the American people about the progress that's been made, the work that's still ahead."
Look for one historic first. Both dais seats behind the president will be filled by women: Vice President Kamala Harris, in her capacity as president of the Senate, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Biden raises a wage floor
Biden signed an executive order Tuesday to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour for federal-contract workers, which will eventually provide a pay bump to hundreds of thousands of them.
The increase could be dramatic for contractors who earn the current minimum of $10.95 an hour.
The raise won't kick in immediately. The executive order states that all federal agencies will need to implement the $15 minimum wage in new contracts by March 30, 2022. It's difficult to amend existing contracts, but wages can be changed when they are up for annual review.
Biden favored a nationwide $15 minimum wage for all workers as part of his coronavirus relief and stimulus package, but a parliamentarian ruling stating that that provision needed 60 Senate votes instead of 50 put it beyond reach.
CDC: Unmasking outdoors OK for vaxed
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its guidelines Tuesday on wearing masks to prevent coronavirus spread, saying fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to cover their noses and mouths while outdoors unless they are in a big crowd of strangers.
"Today, I hope, is a day when we can take another step back to the normalcy of before," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.
The CDC guidance considers people as fully vaccinated two weeks after their completed series of a U.S.-approved COVID-19 vaccine. Those who are unvaccinated can go outside without masks in more limited situations — such as when they walk, bike or run either alone or with members of their household.
Biden portrayed the new guidance — which states can use to update their policies, if any — as a reward and a motivator for the unvaccinated to get the COVID-19 shots.
"The bottom line is clear: If you’re vaccinated, you can do more things, more safely, both outdoors as well as indoors," Biden said at the White House. "So for those who haven’t gotten their vaccinations yet, especially if you’re younger or thinking you don’t need it, this is another great reason to go get vaccinated now." (Click here to see the CDC's chart on activities.)
Biden wants booster shot for IRS
White House officials plan to make a massive increase in the Internal Revenue Service's enforcement resources a central component of the tax proposal they will unveil this week alongside a $1.8 trillion spending package, The Washington Post reported.
The officials estimate they can recoup as much as $700 billion from tougher enforcement and auditing over 10 years. The plan is to beef up the number of agents and give the IRS new tools and technology to execute collections and crack down on tax avoidance, with a focus on the wealthy, the Post reported.
The IRS lost roughly 18,000 full-time positions after 2010, due primarily to budget cuts pushed by a Republican majority in Congress during the Obama administration, with the number of auditors as low as they were in the 1950s.
A nicer ICE pick?
Biden has nominated the Houston-area sheriff — a critic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies — to run U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez withdrew his department from a voluntary program that for years helped the federal government detain and deport immigrants, and he has voiced concern about deportation policies that make undocumented immigrants afraid to report crimes. Gonzalez is aligned with the Biden administration's position to limit ICE arrests to recent border crossers and to people who are threats to national security or convicted of aggravated felonies.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security no longer will arrest immigrants for deportation proceedings when they appear at courthouses unless they pose a public-safety threat or meet other narrow criteria, The Washington Post reported.
Criticized for the border surge in migrants, the Biden administration on Tuesday announced a stepped-up enforcement initiative targeting human smuggling operations. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said federal officials are targeting transnational criminal organizations and their members by going after their ability to travel, trade and access financial assets within the United States.
A bumper crop of bogus
Before former President Donald Trump co-opted the term "fake news" for reporting he did not like, the words were defined as misinformation weaponized as a propaganda tool. Republicans and their media allies have been spreading fake news — the classic kind — in abundance lately.
A day ago, The 1600 recounted how a phony story about Biden — that he would all but eliminate red meat from American dinner tables — went viral with a push from Fox News and GOP officials' Twitter accounts. Another serving of empty news calories came in Saturday's false New York Post report, which claimed that undocumented minors were being welcomed to the United States with copies of a children’s book, "Superheroes are Everywhere," authored by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The front-page story was spun from a Reuters photo showing a single book on a vacant bed at a shelter in Long Beach, California, last week. It was one of many items, including toys and clothing, donated by residents. But the New York Post story incorrectly said migrant kids were getting the book in "welcome kits."
The writer of that story, Laura Italiano, announced Tuesday on Twitter that she has resigned. "The Kamala Harris story — an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against — was my breaking point," said Italiano, who had been with the paper since the 1990s. For her bosses, it was just a launching point. A follow-up story claimed "thousands" of copies of the book were being distributed.
Next came the predictable GOP pile-on, amplified by Fox. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tweeted: "Now they're forcing taxpayers to buy Kamala Harris' book to give to ... illegal immigrants?" From Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel: "Was Harris paid for these books? Is she profiting from Biden’s border crisis?"
On Tuesday, after The Washington Post Fact Checker debunked the book stories, they disappeared from the New York Post's website. A few hours later, edited versions reappeared. A note was appended to the original article: "Editor’s note: The original version of this article said migrant kids were getting Harris’ book in a welcome kit, but has been updated to note that only one known copy of the book was given to a child." In fact, The Washington Post noted, it’s not even clear whether a child actually received that single copy of the book.
More coronavirus news
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:
- Biden is going to Philadelphia on Friday to mark the 50th anniversary of Amtrak’s founding, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. In his Senate years, Biden rode the rail line on daily commutes between Delaware and Washington.
- Trump weighed in about the record-low TV ratings for Sunday's Oscars telecast. Along with broadsides against political correctness, he complained: "What used to be called The Academy Awards" now is "called the 'Oscars' — a far less important and elegant name." The ceremony was rebranded in 2013 and the Oscars nickname has been around since the 1930s. Trump also said the show would be better with "a great host." That part could be true.
- Many U.S. veterans of the war in Afghanistan said they feel Biden is making the right call in pulling U.S. troops out. At the same time, they wonder if the blood and treasure were well spent in a war that, if not a loss, certainly wasn’t a victory, The Wall Street Journal reports.
- An interview in Vox with veteran Democratic strategist James Carville is drawing wide attention for his argument that "wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it" inside his party — but that they fear that saying so will get them "canceled." Carville said phrases dreamed up in "faculty lounges" turn off voters and that Democrats need to "speak the way regular people speak."
- The FBI confirmed it has opened a federal civil rights investigation into last week's shooting death of Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man, by sheriff's deputies in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
- The U.S. Navy fired warning shots at Iranian military boats in the northern Persian Gulf on Monday, the first such escalation in nearly four years, the Pentagon announced Tuesday. Politico reported the incident comes just weeks after the Biden administration and Iran had begun indirect talks on reviving U.S. participation in the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump left in 2018.