Still in the crosshairs
President Joe Biden hasn't yet scheduled his first address to a joint session of Congress, but the acting chief of the Capitol Police warned House lawmakers Thursday that extremist militia groups are looking to the event with mass murder on their minds.
"We know that members of the militia groups that were present on Jan. 6 have stated their desires that they want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible with a direct nexus to the State of the Union," acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman said Thursday. While presidents in their first year typically don't present an official State of the Union, Biden is considering delivering an address to Congress, as Donald Trump did in 2017 and Barack Obama in 2009. No date has been set.
Pittman's comments to the House Appropriations Committee mark one of the first times law enforcement officials have publicly cited specific threats against the U. S. Capitol and lawmakers related to Biden's expected address. It's one reason Capitol Police have warned against relaxing the post-Jan. 6 security posture any time soon, including National Guard troops and razor-wire fencing surrounding Capitol. The Washington Post reported it was not clear whether other agencies also have identified threats to the Capitol during Biden’s first congressional address.
Pittman and acting House Sergeant-at-Arms Timothy Blodgett — predecessors of both were ousted swiftly after the deadly insurrectionist rampage — were grilled about the Jan. 6 security failures, including a breakdown in communication to and from commanders. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican from Washington state, said officers she was with during the attack "were getting no actual real communication, they were getting no leadership, they were getting no direction, there was no coordination and you could see the fear in their eyes."
Pittman responded by telling lawmakers that the department didn't follow protocols during the insurrection for how to deal with an emergency situation, largely because rank-and-file officers were so overwhelmed that commanders desperately threw themselves at the front lines.
Contradicting one detail in Senate testimony Tuesday by her predecessor, former Chief Steven Sund, Pittman said an FBI intelligence warning on Jan. 5 reached as far as a lieutenant, not a sergeant. "That information was not then forwarded any further up the chain," she said. But she also said it would not have made a difference because it didn't lay out the size of the attack police would face the next day by "thousands of American citizens."
Pittman said there were "well over 10,000" people on the Capitol grounds and about 800 people penetrated the building.
Biden orders airstrike
In his first known new military action as president, Biden ordered a series of airstrikes Thursday against suspected Iran-backed militias operating in eastern Syria in retaliation for recent deadly rocket attacks on a base in northern Iraq that houses U.S. and coalition troops and civilians.
"At President Biden's direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted airstrikes against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Thursday night in a statement. "These strikes were authorized in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel."
Kirby identified the targets as positions held by two Iran-backed militias in Syria near the Iraq border. "The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel," while also acting "in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq."
The attacks last week by Iran-backed forces injured an American service member and killed a civilian contractor.
Janison: Postal fix overdue
If it wasn't already clear after Biden put forward three nominees to assert Democratic control of the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors, press secretary Jen Psaki said the president wants USPS "leadership that can and will do a better job." That would seem to raise the chance of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy getting canceled by a revamped board.
But changes at the top won't instantly solve the pile of problems that afflicted the Postal Service well before Trump put his own smudged stamp on the independent agency, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
Postal service on a federal level is a little like mass transit on a New York State level. The elected executive exerts influence indirectly through a mostly appointed board of governors. Fees charged to the public cannot cover costs, and labor efficiency, automation, debt and service delivery are constant issues.
The nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office offered a bleak outlook in 2019 that is proving valid. The Postal Service had lost $69 billion over the previous 11 fiscal years — including $3.9 billion in 2018. Unfunded liabilities and debt had grown to double annual revenue. Expenses were growing faster than receipts. The volume of first-class mail was down while wage and benefit costs were rising, according to the GAO.
A basic dilemma lingers: How well will mail be delivered and at what cost?
Republicans harden COVID bill opposition
Republicans are closing ranks against Biden's proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, but Democratic leaders were poised to push the package with stimulus payments through the House on Friday.
The House Democrats were hoping the Senate, where changes seem likely, would follow quickly enough to have legislation on Biden’s desk by mid-March, The Associated Press reported.
Minimum wage hike out of bill
The Senate's nonpartisan parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, ruled that the Democrats can't include a minimum wage boost in the budget reconciliation package that contains the coronavirus relief legislation, CNN and others reported on Thursday night.
Had she ruled otherwise, the increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 hourly by 2025 could have been rolled into a bill that can be passed with a simple majority of the Senate. A wage increase would now require 60 votes to be filibuster-proof, needing Republican support that is out of reach.
The decision marks the end of an effort by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, to include the provision in the relief bill. But the ruling also makes it easier for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to keep his caucus in line, because moderates Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia had balked at the $15 figure.
50 million doses, more to come
Biden on Thursday marked the 50 millionth dose of COVID-19 vaccine given since his swearing-in. The moment came days after the nation reached the devastating milestone of 500,000 U.S. coronavirus deaths and ahead of a meeting with the nation’s governors on plans to speed distribution further.
"The more people get vaccinated, the faster we’re going to beat this pandemic," Biden said at the White House, noting that his administration is on course to exceed his promise to deliver 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office, a goal that caused debate on whether it was ambitious enough.
Biden noted predictions that there will be enough vaccine by late spring to administer to anyone in the U.S. that wants it, but he said getting enough people to trust it remains a problem. He promised a "massive campaign to educate people" about the safety and reliability of the vaccines as the nation aims to vaccinate about 80% of adults to reach herd immunity and end the pandemic.
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 spoke with Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Thursday ahead of the release of a CIA report expected to implicate the king's son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Axios reports Biden appears to have attempted to reassure the king of a continuing alliance, at an arm's length.
- Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm won Senate confirmation Thursday to be energy secretary, giving her a key role in trying to meet Biden’s commitment for a green economy to slow climate change. The vote in her favor was 64-35.
- The four-day Conservative Political Action Conference opening Thursday night will be largely devoted to recycling debunked claims that the election was "stolen" from Trump, with discussion of conservative policy ideas taking a back seat, The Washington Post reported. Trump is set to speak on Sunday, his first speech since he was forced into private life.
- Is there a limit to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's political rupture with Trump? McConnell, who blamed Trump for inciting the insurrection, said Thursday on Fox News that he would support Trump in 2024 if he became the Republican presidential nominee.
- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo met virtually with Biden on Thursday in his role as chairman of the bipartisan National Governors Association to help lead a discussion on progress in fighting the pandemic. Earlier, when asked about a recent sexual harassment allegation against Cuomo, Psaki said generically that accusers in such cases "deserve to be treated with dignity and respect" and "any allegation should be reviewed."