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Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus package a good bet to pass largely intact

President Joe Biden speaks to reporters at Joint

President Joe Biden speaks to reporters at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Friday as he returns to Washington following a visit to the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine plant in Kalamazoo, Mich. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Brendan Smialowski

Biden has a W in sight on COVID bill

President Joe Biden's top legislative priority — a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package — is on the path to passage without undue delay and largely mirroring the key elements he originally proposed.

Though Biden has made pitches for bipartisan support, Republicans who have resisted the size of the stimulus plan are expected to remain bystanders. House Democrats are expected to push it through this week, reports Newsday's Tom Brune, as they race toward approving it in both chambers before enhanced unemployment checks expire in mid-March.

The biggest unknown is whether an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour will remain in the legislation.

It will be up to the Senate parliamentarian to decide whether the rules will allow it to be included in a budget reconciliation measure, which requires a simple majority — the 50 Democratic caucus members plus Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker — to pass. Even then, one Democratic defection on the wage provision could sink it.

But Democrats are holding together on keeping the package ambitious. CNN reports that supporters were boosted by a positive public polling — which White House officials and congressional leaders made a point of regularly putting in front of their members — and a push for passage by state and district-level officials and advocacy groups with sway on Capitol Hill.

Even as Democrats have privately grumbled about certain aspects of the bill — its overall scope, or the eligibility for who receives stimulus checks or the minimum wage question — most members acknowledge they will ultimately vote for it.

Several Democratic sources pointed out that there has been no significant opposition from the outside by GOP campaign or advocacy groups, a contrast to past fights such as on Obamacare. In effect, it's a concession that much of the bill, including the bigger $1,400 stimulus checks that even former President Donald Trump favored, are popular with Republican voters, too.

White House: We want schools open

Schools can safely reopen without waiting, as some teachers' unions have advocated, for every teacher to get vaccinated, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Sunday.

"We all believe that teachers should be prioritized" for vaccines, Psaki said, but "It doesn't need to be a prerequisite." Echoing the position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she spoke of broader steps "that can be taken" to reduce the risk of spread.

When asked on ABC's "This Week" if it was realistic to expect the majority of grade schools nationwide to open five days a week for in-person instruction by April, Psaki said, "That's our goal, that's our objective, that's our plan." Congress could help make it happen, she said, by passing the stimulus package that includes $130 billion in funding to help schools reopen.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden's chief medical adviser, said on CNN’s "State of the Union" he believed universal teacher vaccination isn't a must. "I believe we should prioritize them and get as many vaccinated as we can," Fauci said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest labor unions in the country, told NBC’s "Meet the Press" that she wanted to "debunk this myth that teacher unions — at least our union — doesn’t want to reopen schools." She added: "If the NFL could figure out how to do this, in terms of testing and the protocols, if schools are that important, let's do it. And my members want it, they just want to be safe."

For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez and Scott Eidler.

Janison: Repairing alliances, encouraging democracy

When Biden addressed a virtual audience of the Munich Security Conference on Friday, he spoke of reaching an "inflection point" between democracy and autocracy and said, "democracy will and must prevail."

He also pledged to behave like an ally toward allies again. "I know the past few years have strained and tested our trans-Atlantic relationship," Biden continued, "but the United States is determined — determined — to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trust and leadership."

Biden thus showed, again, that he has ditched Donald Trump's cosseting of foreign autocrats and prickliness toward European allies, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. But it is hard to see what authentic changes Trump's foreign policy really produced, and therefore hard to say what concrete impact Biden's reversals will have.

Regardless of Trump's many complaints about NATO, the essential U.S. posture toward the defense league remained status quo. That may be why Biden's tweak of "America first" becomes "America is back." The message is that the U.S. hadn't led in another direction for four years so much as checked out and drifted. The passivity Trump showed Russia's Vladimir Putin and his regime never transformed relations between Moscow and Washington.

Taking a stance in favor of democracy and against autocracy ordinarily would seem easy and expected for a U.S. president. But Trump never really did that, so Biden will pick up short-term credit for a restoration of tone and direction.

Biden's AG would target extremism

Judge Merrick Garland, Biden's pick for attorney general, will vow in confirmation hearings opening Monday to see that the Justice Department roots out violent domestic political extremists, including those behind the Jan. 6. Capitol insurrection, and to fight discrimination in the criminal justice system.

As a prosecutor earlier in his career, Garland supervised Justice's criminal investigation into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that led to the convictions of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. He since became a federal judge and is currently a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Former President Barack Obama nominated Garland for the Supreme Court in 2016 but Republicans controlling the Senate refused at the time to consider him, holding open the vacancy that Trump eventually filled with a conservative judge.

This time, he is widely expected to sail through his confirmation process with bipartisan support.

Mean tweeter Tanden teeters

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday he trying to save Biden's nomination of Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget.

"I am working with President Biden to find the extra votes so she can be passed," he told reporters during a news conference in New York.

Her confirmation is in jeopardy after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said Friday that he would vote against Tanden, who heads a center-left think tank, because of her past tweets roasting senators — mostly Republicans. One example: she tweeted that "vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz," the Texas Republican. Manchin said she would have a "toxic and detrimental impact" on the relationship between Congress and the OMB.

Biden said Friday he was sticking with the nomination and "I think we are going to find the votes to get her confirmed." That would mean finding a Republican to back her.

Psaki ducks question on Cuomo

Does Biden still think, as he said last April, that Gov. Andrew Cuomo represents the "gold standard" for response to the pandemic? Psaki deflected a question about that on Sunday, reports Newsday's Figueroa.

Cuomo faces a federal probe regarding the state's reporting of nursing home deaths from COVID-19.

Asked if Biden stands by that assessment, Psaki said, "We're going to continue to work with a range of governors including of course Gov. Cuomo, because we think that people of New York, people of the states across the country, need assistance not just to get through the pandemic, but to get through this difficult economic time."

She also noted that Cuomo currently serves as chairman of the National Governors Association, "so he’s played an important role in ensuring that we’re coordinating closely and getting assistance out to the people of his state and states across the country, and we’ll continue to do that."

More coronavirus news

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

What else is happening:

  • With the U.S. approaching 500,000 COVID-19 deaths, plans are underway for Biden to mark the moment this week with a candle-lighting ceremony at the White House, CNN reported. It could happen as early as Monday if the threshold is reached.
  • Trump will speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, on Feb. 28 — his first public appearance since he left office — and is expected to talk about his impeachment trial and to attack Biden's immigration policy, NBC News reported.
  • A Suffolk University/USA Today Poll of Republicans finds that if Trump decided to start a new party, those surveyed say they would abandon the GOP by 46% to 27%. The rest are undecided.
  • The Justice Department is looking into whether Trump confidant Roger Stone played any role with extremists as they planned the Capitol riot to disrupt the certification of Biden’s electoral victory, The New York Times reported.
  • Biden visited for an hour Saturday with former Sen. Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee who is battling Stage 4 lung cancer. Dole, 97, and Biden have been friends since they served together for more than 20 years in the Senate.
  • New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration on Sunday relented temporarily on forcing the Trump Organization to cease operating two skating rinks in Central Park this week, before the end of winter, The New York Times reported. The city has moved to end contracts with the former president's business following the Capitol riot.

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