Dialing up the vials
President Joe Biden touted a production deal between two pharma rivals as shots in the arm against the pandemic as he announced a new goal of having enough COVID-19 vaccine on hand for all eligible Americans by the end of May — two months sooner than previously predicted, reports Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez.
Drug manufacturer Merck, which failed in its own coronavirus vaccine development, has agreed to help produce Johnson & Johnson’s recently FDA-approved single-shot vaccine, Biden said Tuesday in a White House speech. The president said he had invoked the Defense Production Act to help Merck convert two of its plants to produce its rival's preventive product. "This is a type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II," Biden said. While the supply is now predicted to be on hand within three months, it wasn't clear how much longer it might take to administer the shots.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden aides played an active role in brokering an agreement between the two competitors after Johnson & Johnson executives told a congressional hearing last week of its struggles to ramp up production.
J&J's coronavirus vaccine on Saturday became the third successful candidate to get federal emergency approval after Pfizer and Moderna won approval for their two-shot vaccines in December. Requiring only one shot is not its only advantage; it also easier to transport, requiring less stringent refrigeration needs than the other two vaccines.
Biden said the increase in overall vaccine supply would aid in the effort to reopen schools safely and also announced a federal initiative aimed at speeding states’ COVID-19 vaccinations for all schoolteachers and school staff. "We want every educator school staff member child care worker to receive at least one shot, by the end of the month of March," Biden said.
Asked when he expected a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, Biden told reporters: "I’ve been cautioned not to give an answer to that because we don’t know for sure, but my hope is by this time next year we’re going to be back to normal."
But officials caution that vaccines aren't the only answer. After Texas and Mississippi announced Tuesday that they will lift statewide mask mandates and roll back other restrictions, a White House senior adviser for COVID-19 response, Andy Slavitt, told CNN: "We think it's a mistake to lift these mandates too early. Masks are saving a lot of lives."
Tanden abandons confirmation fight
Biden's nomination of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget has ended in tweet sorrow, handing the president his first disappointment in Cabinet confirmations.
While the professional qualifications of the veteran center-left policy wonk weren't in dispute, Tanden drew the enmity of Republicans and at least one key Democrat for her years of caustic Twitter posts targeting political figures on both her right and left, including a number of senators who were being asked to confirm her.
At the time of Tanden's withdrawal Tuesday, two senators she needed to squeak — Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats — had not announced definitive intentions. Both had been on the receiving end of unflattering Tanden's online commentary.
"Unfortunately, it now seems clear that there is no path forward to gain confirmation, and I do not want continued consideration of my nomination to be a distraction from your other priorities," Tanden wrote in a letter to Biden. The president, pledging to find another role for Tanden in his administration that doesn't require a Senate signoff, said he has "utmost respect for her record of accomplishment, her experience and her counsel."
FBI's Wray: Wrong came from the right
FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday labeled the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol as "domestic terrorism" — with violent militia groups and white supremacists in the vanguard of the attack — and warned of a rapidly growing threat of homegrown violent extremism.
Wray said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the number of domestic terrorism investigations has increased from around 1,000 when he became FBI director in 2017 to about 2,000 now. The number of white-supremacist arrests has almost tripled, he said.
"Jan. 6 was not an isolated event. The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away any time soon," said Wray. He also said evidence collected in the massive FBI investigation into the insurrection finds nothing to support the conspiracy theories — relentlessly promoted by supporters of former President Donald Trump — that antifa and Black Lives Matter activists carried out the attacks in MAGA masquerades. The falsehood has taken hold among Trump voters.
Many of the senators’ questions centered on the FBI’s handling of a Jan. 5 report from its Norfolk, Virginia, field office that warned of online posts foreshadowing a "war" in Washington the following day. "We did communicate that information in a timely fashion to the Capitol Police and [Metropolitan Police Department] in not one, not two, but three different ways," Wray said.
But given how unprepared the security forces were for the size and ferocity of the attack, Wray said the FBI was looking into what it could have done differently "and we’re going to keep working to get better."
Janison: Picking up the ball
The Biden administration seeks to pick up not only where the Trump administration left off but also where it checked out, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
Trump sought to downplay the threat of right-wing extremists and the need to monitor them, preferring to blame all seditious violence on the left. The FBI's Wray, appointed under Trump, played up Tuesday why those cases are a top priority. Beyond law enforcement, Biden is looking at other unfinished business.
Restoration rather than revolution emerges as an unwritten theme for the new White House. Biden speaks of comprehensively rebuilding U.S. infrastructure, a goal Trump spoke of but never pursued seriously.
It was reported last week that the U.S. and Canada plan to modernize a network of defense satellites and radar in the arctic to offset a bigger military presence by Russia and China in the polar region. Biden asked Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ramp up Canada’s spending on such defense systems. That doesn't sound like a shift in general direction so much as an end to Trump's grumblings about NATO, Western democracies, military spending and Americans who rail against Russia.
While in office, Trump took Twitter shots at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, The Washington Post's owner, regarding postal rates. But Biden seems to be taking a harder stand regarding the influential billionaire by supporting unionization of Amazon's workers.
Biden: Stay the course on relief package
The president urged Senate Democrats during a lunchtime call Tuesday to stay united behind his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus bill.
Amendments are expected from all sides, with Sanders pledging a vote to include a $15-hourly federal minimum wage, which the Senate parliamentarian ruled was not allowed in the bill under the rules of budget reconciliation. Republicans are teeing up amendments aimed at dividing Democrats. And moderate Senate Democrats are eyeing changes of their own that, if adopted, could create problems for the bill among liberals in the House, The Washington Post reported.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Senate will move forward as soon as Wednesday and pledged, "We’ll have the votes we need to pass the bill."
The $15 minimum wage is just one of Biden's campaign promises more likely than not to die in the Senate, Politico writes.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Democratic majority is expected in coming weeks to pass legislation on policing, gun control, voting rights, women's rights, union rights and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
But the 50 Democratic votes in the Senate won't be enough to pass such legislation because the simple-majority rules that will allow that chamber to pass the COVID-19 relief bill through budget reconciliation won't apply. That means 60 votes would be needed to break Republican filibusters, and the bills won't go anywhere without sufficient GOP support.
Progressives will renew their push to change Senate rules to end filibusters, but opposition from at least one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, ensures they won't be able to muster the necessary majority to accomplish that.
More coronavirus news
See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's Bart Jones and Joie Tyrrell. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.
What else is happening:
- Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin of Shirley told Newsday's Tom Brune on Tuesday that he is "actively exploring a run for governor of New York against Andrew Cuomo in 2022" — if he thinks he could win. Zeldin's close ties to Trump could be a liability in the heavily Democratic state.
- YouTube said it suspended Rudy Giuliani, Trump's former personal lawyer, for the second time in two months for lying again in videos that the 2020 presidential election was "stolen" from Trump. Giuliani's ads for an online cigar shop also violated the platform's rules against promoting nicotine.
- The Senate voted 84-15 on Tuesday to confirm Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo to head the U.S. Commerce Department. Also on Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously advanced William Burns’ nomination as CIA director, setting him up for a full floor vote where he is expected to win confirmation.
- In coordination with the European Union, the Biden administration announced new penalties on Russia on Tuesday in response to the poisoning and jailing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. "The U.S. government has exercised its authorities to send a clear signal that Russia's use of chemical weapons and abuse of human rights have severe consequences," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
- The Supreme Court appeared ready Tuesday to make it more difficult for voting rights advocates to prove that certain state election laws should be struck down as discriminatory. In a phone hearing involving Arizona, a majority of the justices on the court’s conservative wing voiced concern about setting a legal test that could wipe out legitimate state election laws just because those laws affected racial minorities more, Roll Call reported.
- Mitch McConnell doesn't want to talk about Trump anymore, but the Senate minority leader on Tuesday couldn't resist a slap back at the former president's claim that his endorsement boosted the Kentuckian's reelection last November. "I want to thank him for the 15-point margin I had in 2014 as well," cracked McConnell, referring to his sixth-term win the year before Trump entered politics.