The Weekly National News Roundup | Shlomo Rudman

BBB Stalls in the Senate – Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill might be going home empty-handed after months of negotiations on their $2 trillion package to overhaul the country’s health care, childcare, climate, immigration, and tax laws before the end of this year. The pivot from the Build Back Better Act (BBB) to another long-stalled priority earlier this week — reforming the nation’s elections and voting laws — foreshadowed the potential for a major political setback. Yet another roadblock popped up for Democrats Thursday night: the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the bill’s immigration provisions don’t comply with rules of reconciliation, the budget process Democrats are using to pass the bill to evade the threat of a filibuster. Plus, without BBB, the souped-up child tax credit Democrats passed earlier this year will expire on Jan. 1 unless Congress passes standalone legislation to extend it, which the White House ruled out doing on Thursday. President Biden himself, seeking to manage expectations Thursday evening, suggested that negotiations could drag into next year.

Biden Signs Bill Raising US Debt Limit President Biden on Thursday signed a bill raising the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion, narrowly averting default on the nation’s debt. The measure passed the Senate Tuesday afternoon in a 50-49 vote that was strictly along party lines after Democrats and Republicans reached a deal to sidestep the filibuster. The House moved to pass the bill late Tuesday in a 221-209 vote with one Republican member voting in favor, sending it to Biden’s desk for his signature. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had warned Congress that the federal government could default on its debt soon after Wednesday without action to raise the debt limit. As the Senate passed the measure Tuesday, the White House urged “quick action” on the bill and commended Senate leaders for “fulfilling this fundamental legislative and constitutional responsibility.” The action means that the U.S. will avoid default until at least 2023.

Congress Passes Annual Defense Budget – The Senate passed a crucial defense spending bill Wednesday. The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, a roughly $770 billion package to fund national defense programs and set the policy agenda at the Department of Defense, passed the Senate 89-10. It cleared the House earlier this month in a 363-70 vote.  The legislation provides $740 billion for the Pentagon and gives $25 billion to increase Biden’s first defense budget request. The bill, which Congress takes up each year, also sets the policy agenda for the Defense Department and other agencies.  Additionally, it would include nearly $28 billion for nuclear weapons programs and provides a 2.7% pay increase for Defense Department civilian employees and military service members.

Aid Workers Released by Haitian Gang- The 12 remaining members of a missionary group kidnapped in Haiti have been released, according to officials yesterday. Their return means all 17 people—a group that included five children—have been returned safely. Five hostages had previously been released. The US-based team was abducted en route to the airport in October after assisting in the construction of an orphanage. A gang known as the 400 Mawozo, one of several gangs vying for control in the country, demanded up to $1M per hostage for their safe return. Details of the release are murky—the 12 hostages were reportedly found by locals in the outlying area of the capital of Port-au-Prince. It is unclear whether a ransom was paid. The country has been gripped by a number of political and natural disasters in recent years, leading to a social and economic crisis, with a number of gangs seeking to fill the power vacuum.

Chauvin Pleads Guilty to More Charges – Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty to federal civil rights violations stemming from the arrest and killing of George Floyd last May. The decision likely avoids another trial expected to be subject to intense public scrutiny. Chauvin was convicted of state-level murder and manslaughter charges during an April criminal trial, receiving a sentence of more than 22 years in prison. The federal charges were brought separately, alleging Floyd’s rights were violated twice—once when Chauvin kneeled on his neck despite Floyd being handcuffed and not resisting, and again when Chauvin failed to call for medical care. A sentencing hearing is yet to be scheduled; experts say the plea may add around six years to his term. Three other former officers involved in Floyd’s death—Thomas Lane, J. Kueng, and Tou Thao—go on trial in March.

Pfizer Releases Data on Anti-Covid Pill – Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced yesterday its COVID-19 antiviral pill retained an 89% efficacy in reducing hospitalizations and deaths in a large-scale trial. Meant to be taken shortly after an infection begins, the treatment is viewed as a potentially significant tool in battling the virus in at-risk populations and lower-income countries where vaccines are not readily available. The news comes one day after rival Merck revealed the effectiveness of its antiviral treatment had dropped from 50% to 30% between preliminary and later-stage trials. US health regulators had previously narrowly approved emergency authorization use of the Merck pill in high-risk patients. Separately, more data released yesterday bolstered evidence that the omicron variant spreads quicker and evades vaccine defenses more readily than other strains but causes less severe symptoms. The variant currently makes up 3% of US cases. Roughly 60,000 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, up by almost 50% over the past month.

House Votes to Hold Mark Meadows in Contempt- The House voted Tuesday to hold former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress after he ceased to cooperate with the Jan. 6 Committee investigating the Capitol insurrection — making it the first time the chamber has voted to hold a former member in contempt since the 1830s. The near-party-line 222-208 vote is the second time the special committee has sought to punish a witness for defying a subpoena. The vote is the latest show of force by the Jan. 6 panel, which is leaving no angle unexplored — and no subpoena unanswered — as it investigates the worst attack on the Capitol in more than 200 years. Lawmakers on the panel are determined to get answers quickly, and in doing so reassert the congressional authority that eroded while former President Donald Trump was in office. The two GOP votes — Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who serve on the committee — in favor of the resolution came after nine Republicans voted to hold former Trump ally Steve Bannon in contempt in October. While Bannon’s case was more clear-cut — he never engaged with the committee at all — Meadows had turned over documents and negotiated for two months with the panel about an interview. Meadows also has closer relationships within the Republican caucus, having just left Congress last year.

DC Attorney Sues Jan. 6 Organizers – D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced Tuesday that he has filed a lawsuit against the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers over the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Racine said the lawsuit is the first to be filed “by a state or municipal government to hold accountable the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and more than 30 of their leaders and members for conspiring to terrorize the District of Columbia and for unlawfully interfering with our country’s peaceful transition of power.” Racine is seeking to use a law known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 — which he says was enacted after the Civil War to “protect our country against violent conspiracies” — against the groups, which he believes are responsible for the Capitol riot.

Biden Awards 3 with Medal of Honor – The Biden administration awarded three Medals of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, to soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan in a White House ceremony today. The soldiers receiving the honor include Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, Master Sgt. Earl Plumlee, and Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Celiz. Cashe is the first Black US service member to receive the honor since Vietnam. Cashe died in 2005 from injuries sustained while rescuing soldiers from a burning vehicle in Iraq. Plumlee, a member of the Army’s elite Special Forces, fended off Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan in 2013. Celiz, an Army Ranger, placed himself between Taliban soldiers and a US helicopter evacuating soldiers in Afghanistan in 2018; he died in combat. Historically, Medals of Honor must be awarded within five years of the action. However, legislation was passed earlier this year that waived the five-year limit for Cashe, Plumlee, and two others.

National Archives Releases More JFK Assassination Documents – Nearly 1,500 previously classified documents pertaining to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy were released by the National Archives on Wednesday, with thousands more yet to be disclosed. The latest tranche of documents, posted to the National Archives’ website, comes after President Biden in October delayed their release until this month, giving federal agencies more time to review the documents. The National Archives said it and other agencies “will be conducting an intensive review” of redactions across more than 14,000 withheld documents “to ensure that the United States Government maximizes transparency.”

Dozens Killed in Tornado Outbreak – Dozens of people were killed and many others injured after intense storms last Friday evening that unleashed tornadoes across five states. Almost 20 tornadoes were confirmed along a path stretching across Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, and Kentucky—one tornado may have been on the ground for more than 200 miles. The exact death toll is unclear, with rescue teams continuing to search wreckage in multiple states. At least eight people were killed when the long-lasting twister made a direct hit on a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, where more than 100 people were working a night shift. See drone footage of the aftermath here. At least six people were confirmed dead in Illinois, four in Tennessee, and two in both Missouri and Arkansas. Many cities in the region saw record-high temperatures late last week. Meteorologists say a low-pressure system—a cold front moving into an area of warm air—was behind the intense activity, with wind shears fueled by the jet stream.

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