Biden Transition Live Updates: Congress Racing to Close Stimulus Deal

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Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Lawmakers are on the brink of agreement on a $900 billion compromise relief bill after breaking through an impasse late Saturday night, with votes on final legislation expected to unfold as early as Sunday afternoon and very likely just hours before the government is set to run out of funding.

Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, agreed Saturday night to narrow his effort to rein in the Federal Reserve and accepted an offer put forward by Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, according to three aides familiar with the discussion. All three aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, noted that the precise language was still being finalized.

The agreement was a critical breakthrough for lawmakers who have been racing to complete a package to rush direct payments, unemployment benefits and food and rental assistance to millions of Americans struggling financially during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as relief to businesses and funds for vaccine distribution. Although negotiators were still wrangling over smaller issues, the Federal Reserve language had emerged as the biggest impediment to a final agreement.

“If things continue on this path, and nothing gets in the way, we’ll be able to vote tomorrow,” Mr. Schumer told reporters as he left the Capitol shortly before midnight. “House and Senate.”

One of the potential remaining stumbling blocks is President Trump, who has largely been removed from the stimulus negotiations as he continues to attack the outcome of the Nov. 3 election and undermine President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory. Shortly after midnight on Sunday, he tweeted his frustration with Congress for not yet acting on a stimulus and signaled that he would want larger direct payments than the $600 payments currently under discussion.

“GET IT DONE, and give them more money in direct payments,” the president wrote on Twitter.

While Congress approved $1,200 direct payments in the $2.2 trillion stimulus law that passed in March, lawmakers are coalescing around $600 payments for this round in part to maintain Republican support and to keep the price tag of the measure under $1 trillion. The emerging deal would also provide enhanced federal jobless payments of $300 per week until early spring. It would also provide hundreds of billions of dollars to prop up small businesses, schools and other institutions struggling amid the pandemic, and fund the distribution of vaccines.

Congressional leaders plan to merge the $900 billion compromise measure with a catchall omnibus package that will keep the government funded for the remainder of the fiscal year. House leaders notified lawmakers to prepare for votes as soon as early Sunday afternoon. But lawmakers have yet to see the text for either legislative package, and, particularly in the Senate, a single senator could potentially delay passage past the midnight funding deadline.

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, said on MSNBC that he hoped the legislation could clear the House before midnight. Without that, he said, Congress would likely take up another stopgap spending bill to avoid a lapse in funding.

Sidney Powell, a lawyer who has represented the Trump campaign, at a press conference on election results in Alpharetta, Ga., this month.
Credit…Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

President Trump on Friday discussed naming Sidney Powell, who as a lawyer for his campaign team unleashed conspiracy theories about a Venezuelan plot to rig voting machines in the United States, to be a special counsel overseeing an investigation of voter fraud, according to two people briefed on the discussion.

It was unclear if Mr. Trump will move ahead with such a plan.

Most of his advisers opposed the idea, two of the people briefed on the discussion said, including Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer. Mr. Giuliani joined the discussion by phone initially, while Ms. Powell was at the White House for a meeting that became raucous and involved people shouting at each other at times, according to one of the people briefed on what took place.

Ms. Powell’s client, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser whom the president recently pardoned, was also there, two of the people briefed on the meeting said. Some senior administration officials drifted in and out of the meeting.

During an appearance on the conservative Newsmax channel this week, Mr. Flynn pushed for Mr. Trump to impose martial law and deploy the military to “rerun” the election. At one point in the meeting on Friday, Mr. Trump asked about that idea.

Ms. Powell’s ideas were shot down by every other Trump adviser present, all of whom repeatedly pointed out that she had yet to back up her claims with proof. At one point, one person briefed on the meeting said, she produced several affidavits, but upon inspection they were all signed by a man she has previously used as an expert witness, whose credentials have been called into question.

The White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, and the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, repeatedly and aggressively pushed back on the ideas being proposed, which went beyond the special counsel idea, those briefed on the meeting said.

The baseless claims that Ms. Powell and others have made of widespread fraud have been thoroughly debunked and even many of Mr. Trump’s closest allies have dismissed as preposterous her tale of an international conspiracy to rig the vote.

The idea that Mr. Trump would try to install Ms. Powell in a position to investigate the outcome sent shock waves through the president’s circle.

A White House spokesman, Ms. Powell and a spokeswoman for Mr. Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment.

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. introducing nominees for his cabinet in Wilmington, Del., this month. Still a work in progress, his cabinet is designed to be an extension of his own ideology.
Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

His economic and environment teams are a little left of center. His foreign policy picks fall squarely in the Democratic Party’s mainstream. His top White House aides are Washington veterans.

Taken together, the picture that emerges from President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s initial wave of personnel choices is a familiar, pragmatic and largely centrist one.

Still a work in progress, Mr. Biden’s cabinet is designed to be an extension of his own ideology, rooted in long-held Democratic Party principles but with a greater focus on the plight of working-class Americans, a new sense of urgency about climate change and a deeper empathy about the issues of racial justice that he has said persuaded him to run for the presidency a third time.

His nominees are diverse in ways that appeal to liberals, young voters and people of color. And they are moderate like the swing voters who helped him win in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

For his cabinet, Mr. Obama assembled outsize personalities like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Robert M. Gates, the defense secretary who was a holdover from the George W. Bush administration.

Mr. Biden’s cabinet so far has no one likely to draw the same kind of high-octane attention. His choices have decades of quiet, behind-the-scenes policymaking experience, matching Mr. Biden’s pledge to return basic competence to the government after four years of Mr. Trump’s chaotic administration.

His nominees and choice of top White House aides make only a nod to the progressive movement in the Democratic Party that helped Mr. Biden win the election. That has left some of the party’s liberals frustrated by what they say is the creation of a new administration dominated by old thinking, unprepared to confront the post-Trumpian world of deeper racial and economic inequities and more entrenched Republican resistance.

“It is still an older, whiter, male-er group in general,” said Varshini Prakash, the executive director and a founder of the Sunrise Movement, a liberal group focused on climate change. “We are never going to develop the leadership we need for decades to come if we keep appointing people who are in their 60s and 70s who have served in multiple administrations already.”

Voting machines at the Fulton County Election Preparation Center in Atlanta last month.
Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Rudolph W. Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, has pressed the Department of Homeland Security to seize possession of voting machines as part of a push to overturn the results of the election, three people familiar with the discussion said. Mr. Giuliani was told the department does not have the authority to do such a thing.

The conversation between Mr. Giuliani and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, took place in the past week, according to the people familiar with the discussion, who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the conversation.

The department oversees the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the agency responsible for safeguarding critical systems, such as elections and hospitals.

Mr. Cuccinelli is said to have told Mr. Giuliani that there is no authority by which the agency, which spent the year working with state election officials to prepare for the election, could assert control over voting machines in those states.

It was unclear whether Mr. Trump facilitated the phone call.

Mr. Giuliani called Mr. Cuccinelli this week to push the department to re-examine the machines to find evidence of what the Trump campaign has called widespread fraud, two of the people briefed on the discussion said.

The effort by Mr. Trump’s campaign to use the cybersecurity agency in the push to overturn the results of the election comes after the president last month fired the head of that agency, Christopher C. Krebs. Before he was ousted, Mr. Krebs joined other top election officials in calling the 2020 election “the most secure in American history.”

State and local governments take the lead in managing elections in the United States while the cybersecurity agency primarily provides support, guidance and intelligence with the local leaders on potential threats to the voting system.

“We don’t own those networks and we do not have independent legal authority to go in and start combing through those networks,” said Suzanne Spaulding, an under secretary for cybersecurity and critical infrastructure in the Obama administration. “Efforts that appear to be driving a partisan agenda, particularly completely unfounded allegations, significantly undermine the hard work these men and women have been engaged in for years.”

Mr. Cuccinelli, who led the federal government’s legal immigration agency before rising to become the second highest ranking official in the Homeland Security Department, emerged as one of the public faces of the department’s cybersecurity efforts in the weeks before the election, joining Mr. Krebs in urging patience when it comes to counting the votes.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview on The Mark Levin Show on Friday that the cybersecurity breach was a “very significant effort.”
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a conservative radio show host that “we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians” behind the vast hack of the federal government and American industry, he was contradicted on Saturday by President Trump, who sought to muddy the intelligence findings by raising the possibility that China was responsible.

Defying the conclusions of experts inside and outside the government who say the attack was a cybersecurity breach on a scale Washington has never experienced, Mr. Trump also played down the severity of the hack, saying “everything is well under control,” insisting that the news media has exaggerated the damage and suggesting, with no evidence, that the real issue was whether the election results had been compromised.

“There could also have been a hit on our ridiculous voting machines during the election,” he wrote on Twitter in his latest iteration of that unfounded conspiracy theory. He tagged Mr. Pompeo, the latest cabinet member to anger him, in his Twitter post.

With 30 days left in office, Mr. Trump’s dismissive statements made clear there would be no serious effort by his administration to punish Russia for the hack, and national security officials say they are all but certain to hand off the fallout and response to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Mr. Trump’s tweet was his first comment on the hack, which came to light a week ago. Privately, the president has called the hack a “hoax” and pressured associates to downplay its significance and push alternate theories for who is responsible, two people familiar with the exchanges said.

In contrast to Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden has signaled that he will not let the intrusion, whose full extent is not yet known, go unanswered.

“A good defense isn’t enough,’’ Mr. Biden said Thursday, vowing to impose “substantial costs on those responsible for such malicious attacks.”

Mr. Trump’s comments on Saturday had echoes of his stance toward the hacks during 2016 presidential campaign, when he contradicted intelligence findings that it was Russia who interfered in that election. Two years later, Mr. Trump’s own Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers.

What no one in the Trump administration wants to address, at least publicly, is how the Russians managed to evade billions of dollars in American-built defenses designed to alert agencies to foreign intrusions. That question, too, now seems certain to be left to Mr. Biden to answer.

Michael Pack, the chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, wants to stop federal funding for a nonprofit that helps increase internet access around the world.
Credit…Voice of America

The Trump appointee who oversees the government’s global media operations is moving to shut down a federally funded nonprofit that helps support internet access around the world, documents show, a decision that could limit people’s ability to get around constraints in places that tightly control internet access, like Iran and China.

The appointee, Michael Pack, the chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media is seeking to restrict the nonprofit, the Open Technology Fund, from receiving federal funding for three years, in part because of a dispute over whether the fund should support work done by the Falun Gong, the spiritual movement known for spreading anti-China, pro-Trump misinformation.

Officials at the fund have 30 days to appeal Mr. Pack’s decision, according to documents. Mr. Pack will oversee any appeal, legal experts said. His final decision must be made by Jan. 19, one day before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office, the documents show.

Legal experts said that Mr. Biden would likely not be able to immediately overturn Mr. Pack’s decision, indicating it could be months before all legal questions surrounding Mr. Pack’s decision are answered.

The nonprofit, which is funded by the global media agency, helps develop technology that makes it easier for more than 2 billion people in over 60 countries to access the internet. It is known for helping create tools like Signal, an encrypted messaging application, and Tor, a web browser that conceals a user’s identity while logged onto the internet.

Without funding, projects that help provide nearly 1 in 4 Iranian citizens and 10 million people in China access to the internet could be at risk of stopping, the officials added.

“This is the kill shot,” Laura Cunningham, acting chief executive officer of the Open Technology Fund, said in a statement to The New York Times. “Without O.T.F., users around the world will be cut off from the global internet.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Agency for Global Media said that the agency is committed to funding a range of firewall circumvention technologies.

In a joint statement on Saturday, Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, both Republicans, said Mr. Pack’s attempts to strip the Open Technology Fund of access to U.S. government funding for the next three years, called debarment, would be a significant setback to U.S. foreign policy objectives.

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