Biden Transition Live Updates: $900 Billion Stimulus Compromise Appears Within Reach

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Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Top Democrats and Republicans in Congress haggled on Thursday over the remaining hurdles to an emerging $900 billion stimulus deal, with Democrats making a last-ditch effort to use the package to deliver more emergency aid to states struggling amid the pandemic.

With Congress running out of time to deliver another round of relief to Americans and stave off a government shutdown on Friday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi reported more momentum toward a compromise that could be ready as early as today.

“We made some progress this morning,” Ms. Pelosi, of California, told reporters at the Capitol. Asked if a final agreement would be announced within the day, she said: “We’ll let you know.”

The plan under discussion would provide a dose of badly needed relief after months of stalled negotiations and amid a national public health crisis that has killed more than 307,000 people.

That includes a new round of stimulus payments, probably $600, to American adults; a temporary infusion of enhanced federal jobless aid of around $300 per week; and rental and food assistance. It would also revive a loan program for struggling small businesses and provide funding for schools, hospitals and the distribution of the vaccine.

With plans to merge a final agreement with a sweeping omnibus government funding package, Congress may have to approve another stopgap spending measure to avert a government shutdown on Friday while negotiators put the finishing touches on the stimulus deal. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, warned Republicans on Wednesday that they should prepare to remain in Washington through the weekend.

“I hope it wouldn’t be more than 24 or 48 hours,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, said of a possible stopgap bill, adding, “I really think this is coming to a close.”

Ms. Pelosi, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, spoke late Wednesday evening to continue ironing out differences over the measure, a spokesman for Ms. Pelosi said, and they planned to continue talks on Thursday.

In order to reach an agreement, Republicans appear to have dropped their demand for a sweeping coronavirus liability shield for businesses in exchange for Democrats agreeing to exclude a direct funding stream for state and local governments that are facing fiscal crises, according to two officials familiar with the discussions.

But Democrats were pushing to provide billions of dollars for governors to use for health-related expenses during the pandemic — including vaccine distribution — and extend emergency federal assistance for states and local governments through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Republicans who have fiercely opposed sending more aid to states and cities were resisting the moves, concerned about leaving FEMA with enough money for future natural disasters and about the lack of restrictions on how the funds are spent.

Some Republicans — in particular Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania — were pushing to curtail the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority, which Democrats argue would hamper the Biden administration’s ability to continue supporting the country’s economic recovery. After the Federal Reserve used such authority earlier this year after the enactment of the $2.2 trillion stimulus law, Mr. Mnuchin clawed back the remaining funds in part to offset the cost of another stimulus bill.

There is also a push to include billions of dollars in relief for theaters and venues, something that lawmakers in both parties support.

Zach Montague contributed reporting.

Dominion Voting Systems sent a letter to the former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell demanding that she retract false statements about their voting machines.
Credit…Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

Dominion Voting Systems sent a blistering letter on Wednesday night to the right-wing lawyer Sidney Powell, demanding that she publicly retract her “wild, knowingly baseless and false accusations” about the company’s voting machines, which have repeatedly found themselves at the heart of conspiracy theories surrounding the election.

The letter, a preparatory step to formal legal action, accused Ms. Powell of engaging in “reckless disinformation” about Dominion’s machines at news conferences, rallies in support of President Trump and on conservative media outlets like Fox News, Newsmax and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.

Ms. Powell has also filed unsuccessful federal lawsuits seeking to overturn the election in four key swing states, lodging claims that were “predicated on lies,” the letter says, and that have “endangered Dominion’s business and the lives of its employees.”

In the wake of Ms. Powell’s allegations, Dominion has come under fire from the president and his supporters, who have maintained without evidence that the company’s machines switched votes from Mr. Trump to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. On Monday, John Poulos, Dominion’s chief executive, told Michigan lawmakers investigating the election that the company had been the victim of “a dangerous and reckless disinformation campaign aimed at sowing doubt and confusion.”

In its letter, Dominion demanded that Ms. Powell publicly disavow several false claims she has repeated in the past few weeks. She has maintained, for instance, that Dominion machines and their software were created in Venezuela to help the country’s now-deceased former president, Hugo Chavez, win elections. But Dominion insists that it has no connection to Venezuela, to Mr. Chavez or for that matter, as the letter notes, to “Big Foot or the Loch Ness monster.”

Dominion also demanded that Ms. Powell retract false statements she has made suggesting that the company paid kickbacks to officials in Georgia for “no-bid contracts” to use its machines and that it manipulated votes in “an effort to rig the 2020 election.”

Dominion noted that Ms. Powell never mentioned her accusations in any of her court filings, depriving the company of the opportunity to legally refute them. “While you are entitled to your own opinions, Ms. Powell,” the company wrote, “you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Ms. Powell did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Dominion’s letter.

Not long after the election, the president embraced Ms. Powell, a former federal prosecutor who had represented his onetime national security adviser Michael T. Flynn in a criminal case stemming from the Russia investigation. But after she appeared with Rudolph W. Giuliani, who led Mr. Trump’s postelection legal campaign, at a bizarre news conference where she spouted unproven conspiracies about Dominion, Mr. Trump distanced himself from her and she was left to file lawsuits on her own.

All of the suits were dismissed by federal judges. One said Ms. Powell’s claims were based on “nothing but speculation and conjecture,” another that the “expert reports” she submitted reached “implausible conclusions.” In one case in Michigan, lawyers for the City of Detroit have served her with papers that are the first step toward asking a judge to formally sanction her.

Nearly a year after the coronavirus outbreak, the full impact of the pandemic on the U.S. economy remains unclear. Some of the most obvious indicators are in conflict: As some companies report enormous profits, the number of unemployed Americans is nearly 10 million more than it was in February, and hundreds of thousands are expected to have filed new unemployment claims last week.

The Times interviewed a rage of economists and experts who suggested looking at eight measures to understand the state of the economy that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will face on Jan. 20.

  • Wages: That wages and salaries have bounced back quickly is a sign that things are on track for a rapid recovery. During the last recession — which Mr. Biden and then-President Barack Obama inherited in 2009 — drops of wages and salaries took years to recover.

  • Unemployment for Black men: The current crisis has had a particularly negative, persistent impact on employment for Black men, who face an unemployment rate of 11.3 percent, five percentage points higher than the unemployment rate for white men.

  • Long-term unemployment: The number of Americans who are still in the labor force but have been unemployed for more than six months has been increasing since April. A sociologist with a left-leaning think tank said the rise in long-term unemployment, coupled with the fact that millions of workers have left the labor market altogether since February, indicated “a very serious problem in connecting people who are able to produce needed goods and services with the opportunity to do so.”

  • Housing costs: Home prices and rents have risen during the pandemic. But while the rising costs have strained low-income renters, the rise in housing prices typically signals strong economic growth.

  • New businesses: Even as countless businesses have been forced to close over the course of the pandemic, the increase in business applications over the last year is a sign that the economy may be adapting rather than totally seizing.

  • Spending on goods: Though the pandemic has altered Americans’ day-to-day lives, it hasn’t halted their spending as much as some feared it would. Consumption has shifted toward goods over services — buying alcohol from stores instead of from bars, for example — bucking a generational trend toward a service economy.

  • Food scarcity — More families across the country are unable to meet their basic needs for housing and food security, according to a Census Bureau survey.

Vice President Mike Pence will be vaccinated at the White House tomorrow.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, will receive the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine on Friday, according to the White House, a move that the Trump administration says is intended to “promote the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and build confidence among the American people.”

Mr. Pence leads the White House’s coronavirus task force, and his inoculation will be a high-profile move for the administration amid a broader push to encourage Americans to get vaccinated.

The event, just days into the nation’s ambitious mass vaccination campaign, will take place at the White House, and the Pences will be joined by Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who will also receive the vaccine.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said on Tuesday that he would recommend that President Trump and Mr. Pence get the vaccine, even though the president has already had Covid-19.

Dr. Fauci also said that it was his “strong recommendation” that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris receive a Covid-19 vaccine quickly.

“For security reasons, I really feel strongly that we should get them vaccinated as soon as we possibly can,” he said on “Good Morning America.” “You want him fully protected as he enters into the presidency in January.”

Mr. Biden told reporters in Delaware on Tuesday, “When I do it, you’ll have notice and we’ll do it publicly.”

Dr. Fauci, who is 79, has said that he will also be vaccinated publicly, to show his confidence in the vaccine. Three former presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have all said they are willing to be vaccinated on camera.

At a briefing on Tuesday, Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said that Mr. Trump would “receive the vaccine as soon as his medical team determines it’s best,” but that he was not yet scheduled to do so.

For some elected officials and public figures, getting vaccinated may be a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t proposition. On the one hand, doing so publicly could be useful as a show of confidence to the public. But with the vaccine in scarce supply, some in positions of power don’t want to be accused of jumping the line.

Vacant retail shops in Columbus, Ohio. The rate of jobless claims has been rising as coronavirus cases remain high across the country.
Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Rising Covid-19 cases are taking a steep toll on economic activity, battering the labor market even as new vaccines offer a ray of hope for next year.

The number of Americans filing initial claims for unemployment insurance remained high last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday. After dropping earlier in the fall, claims have moved higher, and they remain at levels that dwarf the pace of past recessions.

There were 935,000 new claims for state benefits, compared with 956,000 the previous week, while 455,000 filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federally funded program for part-time workers, the self-employed and others ordinarily ineligible for jobless benefits.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the number of new state claims was 885,000, an increase of 23,000 from the previous week.

Consumer caution, coupled with new restrictions on business activity like indoor dining, has pummeled the hospitality industry, lodging, airlines and other service businesses. The debut of a coronavirus vaccine this week offers the prospect of relief, but until mass inoculations begin next year, the economy will remain under pressure.

“Businesses are closing, and as a result, we are seeing job losses mount — and that’s exactly what we were fearful of going into the winter,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. “It’s going to be a challenging few months, no doubt.”

At the end of November, more than 20 million workers were collecting unemployment benefits under state or federal programs, Labor Department data indicates.

With the weakening economy as the backdrop, Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress continued talks on Wednesday on another pandemic relief bill, something that economists have warned is overdue. Without action, two key programs for unemployed workers will expire this month, cutting off benefits to millions.

“We are not moving in the right direction,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “With the looming expiration of benefits, it’s even more worrisome.”

Data released on Wednesday showed a 1.1 percent drop in retail sales in November, a disappointing start to the crucial holiday season. Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services, expects economic growth to be weak for the next few months before picking up later in 2021.

“Until we get a lot of people vaccinated, the economy will face a difficult test,” he said. “I don’t know if we will see an outright contraction or the loss of jobs, but the pace of improvement will slow markedly.”

A use agreement says no member of the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., may stay on the property for more than 21 days a year.
Credit…Carlos Barria/Reuters

Neighbors of President Trump in Florida sent a letter to the Town of Palm Beach and the U.S. Secret Service on Tuesday complaining that Mr. Trump has violated a 1993 agreement he made with the town that says Mar-a-Lago, his private social club, cannot be used as a full-time residence, as Mr. Trump has suggested he plans to do.

The letter came as Mr. Trump’s days in the White House are winding down, and he is proceeding with plans to move with his wife and son to Florida after the inauguration of his successor, President-elect Joseph R. Biden. Jr., and take up residence in the resort. The New York Times reported in 2018 that Mr. Trump had changed his domicile to Mar-a-Lago, in part for tax purposes.

“To avoid an embarrassing situation for everyone and to give the president time to make other living arrangements in the area, we trust you will work with his team to remind them of the use agreement parameters,” wrote Reginald Stambaugh, a lawyer representing the DeMoss family, which has a property next to Mar-a-Lago. “Palm Beach has many lovely estates for sale, and surely he can find one which meets his needs.”

While serving as president, Mr. Trump has been given unusual leeway by the town because of legitimate security concerns. Among concessions was the addition of a helipad for Marine One, which will be removed after he leaves office.

But the use agreement, which was reviewed by The Times, states that no member of the club could stay on the property for seven consecutive days a year, and no more than 21 days a year.

“The significant tax breaks the president received for this arrangement remain in effect, as does the use agreement,” Mr. Stambaugh wrote.

Brenda Mallory at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming in 2018. She is currently director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Credit…via Brenda Mallory

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has chosen Brenda Mallory, an environmental lawyer who spent more than 15 years working in the federal government under both Republican and Democratic presidents, to lead the Council on Environmental Quality, according to two people close to the Biden transition team.

The council is expected to expand its focus on issues of environmental justice under Ms. Mallory in addition to its traditional role of coordinating environment policy throughout the government, other people close to the presidential transition said.

Ms. Mallory, who currently serves as the director of regulatory policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center, a watchdog group, has worked on both pollution and land conservation issues throughout her career, including helping to create new national monuments under the Obama administration and fighting the dismantlement of those monuments under the Trump administration.

The council, a division of the office of the president, tends to play a behind-the-scenes role in federal environmental policy and its administrators are typically less prominent than ones who lead major agencies like the Interior Department or the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Mr. Biden has pledged to make addressing racial disparities in environmental policies a core part of his climate change agenda, potentially giving the council a beefed-up mission in that and other areas.

The Climate 21 Project, a blueprint from more than 150 former government officials laying out advice for a governmentwide response to climate change, identified the Council on Environmental Quality as “best suited to elevate environmental justice to the White House and to lead the agenda on climate change resilience.”

A graduate of Yale University and Columbia Law School, Ms. Mallory started her career in private practice before joining the federal government in 2000. She spent more than 15 years at various positions within the Environmental Protection Agency, rising to principal deputy general counsel, the ranking career position in that office. During the Obama administration she served as the general counsel for the Council on Environmental Quality.

Representative Deb Haaland, Democrat of New Mexico, would be the first Native American to lead the Interior Department. 
Credit…Jim Thompson/The Albuquerque Journal, via Associated Press

Top Democrats in the House, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, publicly expressed support on Wednesday for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to choose Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico as interior secretary, rebuffing criticism that they were standing in the way of her appointment over concerns about the party’s slim majority in their chamber.

For weeks, rank-and-file House Democrats, progressive groups and tribal leaders have been pushing for Mr. Biden to select Ms. Haaland, who would be the first Native American to lead the Interior Department, and have grown frustrated over the belief that Democratic leadership might be blocking her.

“Congresswoman Deb Haaland is one of the most respected and one of the best members of Congress I have served with,” Ms. Pelosi said in a statement. “I am so proud that, as one of the first Native American women to have served in Congress, she serves as chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. Congresswoman Haaland knows the territory, and if she is the president-elect’s choice for Interior Secretary, then he will have made an excellent choice.”

Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, also said on Wednesday that he supported Ms. Haaland for the job.

Mr. Hoyer had publicly raised concerns that selecting House members for the cabinet could weaken Democrats’ narrow majority in the chamber, telling reporters last week that he had counseled the Biden administration against choosing more House Democrats for posts. Mr. Biden has already tapped Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana as director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio for secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “Two is a lot,” Mr. Hoyer said, “Two is too many.”

But on Wednesday, Mr. Hoyer insisted he had never advised the Biden transition team not to pick Ms. Haaland specifically.

“I am a very close and dear friend of Deb Haaland’s,” he told reporters. “I think she is a wonderful, smart, effective leader, and I think she would be excellent. If the administration chooses her to be the secretary of the Interior, I think it would be historic and very appropriate.”

The majority leader reiterated his general concerns, though. “What I said shortly after the election was the margin was very close, and I thought it would be difficult if, in fact, members were selected,” he said.

House Republicans flipped at least 10 seats in the November election, weakening Democrats’ control of the chamber.

The Interior Department has 70,000 employees and is responsible for managing most of the land controlled by the federal government and administering programs concerning Native Americans.

Ms. Haaland’s supporters have asked another member of Congress under consideration for the post, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, who is retiring after 12 years in the Senate, to pull out of contention.

“We are calling on you to continue to be a strong advocate for Indian Country, representation and progress by modeling what a true commitment to Native leadership and climate justice looks like by heeding the call of Native leaders and supporting Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior,” the progressive groups Sunrise Movement, NDN Collective, Justice Democrats, and Data for Progress wrote in a recent letter to Mr. Udall.

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