What to Know in Washington: Biden Presses Ahead as Trump Fights

President-elect Joe Biden is moving ahead with plans to address the coronavirus pandemic and shape his incoming administration, steps aimed at strengthening his claim on the White House even as President Donald Trump continues to dispute the results of last week’s election.

Biden is largely ignoring Trump’s efforts to undermine his victory. The president-elect plans to unveil today his transition team’s coronavirus task force, a step toward fulfilling his central campaign promise: He will make containing the pandemic his first priority.

He is in other ways methodically moving on with the work expected of a newly elected president, launching his transition, moving toward appointments to White House staff jobs, and giving a traditional victory speech on Saturday night. He seemed to acknowledge the sharp partisan divide in pledging to work for those who didn’t vote for him, and saying he expected a good working relationship with Republicans in Congress.

Biden has so far won 290 Electoral College votes, according to the Associated Press, 20 more than required to clinch the nomination.

None of that has stopped Trump, who continued to question the results, fire off unfounded allegations of widespread voting irregularities and alternate between claiming victory and saying he’d been robbed of a win.

Trump’s reaction has frozen Republican officeholders — few have so far acknowledged the win, though they aren’t fully embracing Trump’s position. White House staff have faced a leadership vacuum, fueled by another apparent coronavirus outbreak with Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, among those now battling the virus.

Tellingly, the administrator of the General Services Administration, a Trump appointee, has so far not formally acknowledged that Biden won the election, as required under the 57-year-old Presidential Transition Act. Certification by the GSA administrator allows transition teams to fan across the federal government, access expanded office space, start tapping into $6 million of funding, and study detailed agency briefing books. Read more from Josh Wingrove and Jennifer Epstein.

Photographer: Amir Hamja/Bloomberg

Republican Leaders Wait for Trump: Republican congressional leaders still wary of crossing Trump are holding back from acknowledging Biden’s victory. Some prominent party members, including former President George W. Bush and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, have offered Biden congratulations since Saturday morning. Plaudits from world leaders have also piled up.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and most other GOP leaders in Congress have either stayed silent or said that legal challenges to the outcome should be allowed to play out. None, however, have repeated Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread vote fraud, and there were indications that there are limits to how long they’ll wait.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of McConnell’s leadership team, said media projections of the winner are mostly meaningless, especially since so many forecasts for the election turned out to be wrong. Any determination of the result should await final counts by state officials and any challenges from the president’s legal team, he said yesterday. “That has to happen and then we move forward,” Blunt said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “It’s time for the president’s lawyers to present the facts and then it’s time for those facts to speak for themselves.” Read more from Laura Litvan and Billy House.

Trump Advisers View Legal Challenges as Futile: Recognition is growing in Trump’s inner circle that efforts to overturn Biden’s victory will be futile, though some advisers have urged the president to pursue focused legal challenges, according to several people familiar with the matter. Trump has given no indication he’s preparing to concede. His closest aide, son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, has recommended the president ask the courts to ensure transparency around ongoing counts of ballots in several contested states, the people said. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs and Jordan Fabian.

Preparing for Transition

Biden Begins Transition, Cabinet Picks Weeks Away: Biden is launching transition efforts to shape the new administration, but he is still weeks away from making cabinet nominations, his transition team said yesterday. With the election called Saturday, Biden has only begun to focus on the transition and has not yet started working through potential nominees in depth, several people familiar with the planning said. His transition is set to follow a calendar similar to Barack Obama’s in 2008, when almost all nominations were announced in December. The one exception then, in the middle of a financial crisis, was Treasury Department nominee Tim Geithner, who was announced on Nov. 24. Read more from Jennifer Epstein and Tyler Pager.

More Coverage:

Coronavirus Task Force: Biden today announced a new coronavirus task force as his transition team seeks to fulfill a campaign promise to develop a dramatically different approach than Trump’s to contain the pandemic. The 13-member task force is composed largely of doctors and public health experts, who will work with Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and the transition team to map out the public health and economic policies needed to curtail the virus. From the onset of the pandemic, Biden said it was critical to listen to scientists and medical experts in charting a path out of the pandemic. He staked much of his presidential campaign on striking a contrast with Trump, who repeatedly downplayed the dangers of the virus even after being hospitalized when he contracted it.

The team will be led by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, and Marcella Nunez-Smith, a professor of public health at Yale University. It will include about a dozen people, many of whom were already advising Biden and his staff throughout the campaign. Kessler and Murthy, in particular, were deeply involved in shaping the Biden campaign’s plans for responding to the virus, and they both regularly briefed the president-elect. Read more from Tyler Pager.

Biden will also reach out to Republicans and Democrats in Congress to discuss a new relief package, with one ally calling on Trump to support one before Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20. Josh Wingrove and Jennifer Epstein have more.

  • Biden’s health-care advisers have held talks with pharmaceutical-industry executives in which they discussed Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. research and development effort for coronavirus vaccines and treatments, according to people familiar with the matter. Biden advisers met with companies that have Covid vaccines or therapies in late-stage clinical trials in September and October, the people said, to gather information about the manufacturing and distribution of shots to ward off the virus and therapies to treat the sick. Read more from Riley Griffin.
  • Close to 10 million Americans have been diagnosed with Covid-19 in the past 10 months, and with the start of winter just a month away, and the public increasingly likely to spend more time cooped up inside, the virus shows few signs of slowing down. Infections are setting sequential daily records with the U.S. reporting more than 126,000 new infections for the third consecutive day over the weekend and deaths remaining at more than 1,000 daily for a fifth day. Infections are expected to soar further as cold weather grips northern states, schools and businesses try to reopen, people move their daily activities inside and the holidays spur gatherings, health officials and experts said. Read more from Michelle Fay Cortez.

Biden’s Economic Challenge Tied to Rebound Pace: Biden inherits one of the most fraught economies in generations, requiring his administration to sustain its fragile momentum and help millions of Americans get back to work. As Covid-19 cases begin to spike again, stricter health policies to contain the virus’s spread would risk stifling the recovery and make it even more difficult for companies to boost hiring. At the same time, the pandemic has introduced its own economic hurdles that could become systemic if left unaddressed. Read more from Katia Dmitrieva.

Tax Regulations May Be on Chopping Block: Biden’s Treasury Department may try to scrutinize some of the Trump administration’s signature tax rules, especially since the potential for Republicans to hang on to the Senate would make it nearly impossible to move forward with legislative plans to roll back the 2017 tax law. Biden’s campaign plan called for curtailing some of the tax cuts through new legislation—whether he can do that depends on the makeup of the House and Senate, which isn’t yet final. High on the list of regulations that may get a second look are rules allowing companies to opt out of a new tax on global intangible low-taxed income (GILTI) if certain foreign affiliates are already paying at least 18.9% in offshore taxes. Read more from Allyson Versprille, Isabel Gottlieb and Kaustuv Basu.

Biden Poised to Reverse Transgender Military Ban: The U.S. military’s transgender service ban could come to an end soon after Biden takes office. The former vice president campaigned on a promise to reinstate an Obama-era policy of open service for transgender troops, which was reversed by Trump last year. Eliminating the ban could be as easy as “pushing a button” for the Biden administration, said Shannon Minter, the legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “I hope and expect it will be one of the first things he does.” Read more from Travis Tritten.

Student Debt Cancellation Tests Progressives’ Sway: Biden embraced progressive demands for student debt cancellation after he won the Democratic nomination. Whether he agrees to use executive authority to grant loan relief will test how much influence progressives hold in his administration. Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been pushing for automatic loan forgiveness for student borrowers in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In prodding Trump to act, she said he didn’t have to wait for Congress because he had the authority to grant that relief himself. Now Warren and other progressives have Biden to convince. Read more from Andrew Kreighbaum.

Biden’s DOJ to Weigh Whether to Prosecute Trump: Biden won the presidency promising to bring Americans together. But his administration is sure to come under pressure from some Democrats to risk exacerbating divisions by investigating and prosecuting Trump. It would be a turnabout of the “Lock him up!” chants regularly directed at Biden by Trump’s supporters at campaign rallies.

Although Biden has said that prosecuting a former president would be a “very unusual thing and probably not very good for democracy,” he also vowed in an NPR interview in August that he wouldn’t “interfere with the Justice Department’s judgment of whether or not they think they should pursue the prosecution of anyone that they think has violated the law.” Read more from David Yaffe-Bellany and Billy House.

Biden’s Long History with China Unlikely to Mend Trump Rift: Unlike Trump, whom Chinese officials had little knowledge of before he took office, Biden is well known in Beijing. But that history is unlikely to quickly repair a relationship between the global powers that has fundamentally changed over the past four years. A supporter of engagement with Beijing since the 1970s, Biden held extensive meetings with Xi Jinping when both served as vice president back in 2011. Yet his stance toward the world’s second-largest economy hardened over the past decade. In office, Biden will likely continue Trump’s pushback against Chinese assertiveness while working more closely with U.S. allies to rein in Beijing — extending an intensifying strategic competition. Read more from Peter Martin and Jenny Leonard.

Happening on the Hill

Lame-Duck Agenda: Congress will face a packed lame-duck session, with government funding and coronavirus relief at the top of the agenda. Negotiations could also continue on a coronavirus stimulus package after pre-election talks didn’t yield an agreement. Several coronavirus response programs are set to expire at the end of the year, including emergency leave and pandemic unemployment assistance programs. Bloomberg Government outlines the deadlines that will drive the congressional agenda for the rest of the year and in the 117th Congress. Find the lame-duck’s dates to watch here.

Senate to Release Spending Bills: Senate appropriators will release all 12 of their fiscal 2021 spending bills tomorrow morning, a Senate Republican aide said, a move that sets the table for bicameral omnibus negotiations in the lame-duck session. Lawmakers have to fund the government by Dec. 11 to avoid a shutdown, and congressional leaders have said they want a full omnibus spending deal, not another stopgap measure.

It’s an ambitious goal, partly because senators didn’t release any of their spending bills earlier this year, let alone hold markups or floor votes. The House has passed the bulk of its measures. Tomorrow’s bill release will serve as the opening offer from Senate Republicans in bicameral negotiations. Read more from Jack Fitzpatrick.

Democratic Hopes for Senate Control Face Long Odds: After securing the White House in the bitter campaign to oust Trump, Democrats’ next task may be even tougher: a double win in Senate Races in historically red Georgia. With Biden’s agenda in his first two years in office at stake, and Republicans facing the risk of being locked out of power, the Jan. 5 contest is primed to break records for campaign spending and outside attention. The unusual double runoff, triggered by the two Republican incumbents failing to secure the majority required last Tuesday, would normally not be a contest. It’s been two decades since Georgians last elected a Democrat to the Senate, and runoffs typically don’t spur high turnout, favoring the more established party.

The Senate now stands at 48-48 with counts still going on in North Carolina and Alaska, where the Republican incumbents are positioned to win. Democrats would need both Georgia seats to get to 50 in the Senate, which would give them control by virtue of Kamala Harris as vice president having the tie-breaking vote. Read more from Billy House.

Democrats Sticking With Health-Care Push After Losses: Democrats are sticking to their health-care messaging even as that strategy didn’t resonate as wide as they had planned in last week’s election. Democratic leaders leaned heavily on the agenda they believe earned them a majority two years ago: strengthening the Affordable Care Act while deflecting the Trump administration’s attempts to undermine it, and lowering drug prices. This year, they came up short of growing their House majority or capturing the Senate.

Election observers say health-care issues weren’t as salient for many voters this election, even given the pandemic, and Republicans gained ground in key races by painting their opponents as extremists and generating turnout. “This election was more about people’s identity than health care,” said Gregg Bloche, a health-care adviser to former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, who now teaches law at Georgetown University.

Democratic-aligned groups say they are now retooling their health-care message for the two run-off races in Georgia. They’ll be aided by the fact that a legal challenge to Obamacare will reach the U.S. Supreme Court later this week. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

  • Democrats’ failure to secure a Senate majority has heightened the importance of tomorrow’s Supreme Court showdown over the Affordable Care Act, increasing the chances the court will get the final word on a law that provides health insurance to 20 million people. Trump’s administration is joining Republican-led states in challenging the law, which the GOP has been trying to wipe out since it was enacted in 2010. They’re banking on the court’s strengthened conservative majority with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett. The prospect of a divided government could leave Democrats without the ability to override a ruling invalidating the law. Read more from Greg Stohr and Lydia Wheeler.

Ocasio-Cortez Sees Divisions in House Democrats: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said that House Democrats must unify rather than blame progressive members for a slimmer majority in the next Congress. “There are, at least in the House caucus, very deep divisions,” Ocasio-Cortez said Sunday on CNN. “Pointing fingers and telling each other what to do, it deepens the division in the party.” Speaking for the progressive wing, she said “We have assets to offer the party that the party has not yet fully leaned into or exploited.” Read more from Yueqi Yang.

  • Meanwhile, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who was at the center of a heated conference call with House Democrats last week where she blamed progressive rhetoric for costing Democrats seats, won re-election to the seat she flipped in 2018. Spanberger defeated GOP state delegate Nick Freitas, The Associated Press projected. Spanberger, a former CIA operative, is a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, Caitlin Webber reports.

What Else to Know Today

Celebrations Gloss Over Divided Electorate: Ecstatic Biden supporters spilled into the streets of major cities on Saturday, but the intensity of their celebrations overstated his victory in an election that illustrated the nation’s stark political divisions and the difficulty he’ll encounter trying to govern. The former vice president gained among one key Democratic constituency, union members, according to data from exit polls, and held onto the party’s advantage among women while drawing more men. But it was hardly enough to claim a sweeping mandate in a country where just under half of voters wanted Trump to remain president. Read more from Gregory Korte and Josh Wingrove.

Romney Says Election an Endorsement of Conservatism: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Republican gains across many down-ballot races in last week’s election were an endorsement of conservative principles, while losing the White House was “a referendum on a person.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” one of three appearances yesterday, Romney said it was legitimate for Trump to pursue any irregularities in the Nov. 3 vote. “But if, as expected, those things don’t change the outcome, why, he will accept the inevitable,” Romney added. Read more from Ros Krasny and Shawn Donnan.

Vaccine Prevents 90% of Infections in Study: The Covid-19 vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech prevented more than 90% of infections in a study of tens of thousands of volunteers, the most encouraging scientific advance so far in the battle against the coronavirus. Eight months into the worst pandemic in a century, the preliminary results pave the way for the companies to seek an emergency-use authorization from regulators if further research shows the shot is also safe. Read more from Robert Langreth, Naomi Kresge and Riley Griffin.

Germany Backs U.S. Tariff Delay: Germany is seeking to mend transatlantic trade relations and is mulling a more conciliatory approach that would see the European Union delay tariffs set to hit $4 billion of American products as soon as Tuesday, according to a senior official familiar with the government’s thinking. Read more from Birgit Jennen and Bryce Baschuk.

U.S. Goes Nuclear to Compete With Russia, China: The former Cold War frontier of eastern Europe is becoming a battleground in the $500 billion business of building nuclear power plants. Four months after lifting a prohibition on financing nuclear-energy deals overseas, the U.S. is finding an opening for companies such as General Electric, Westinghouse Electric and Bechtel Group. Read more from Irina Vilcu, Slav Okov and Andra Timu.

Tropical Storm Eta Makes Landfall: Tropical Storm Eta made landfall in the middle Florida Keys overnight, becoming the year’s record 12th named storm in the U.S. It’s then set to drift west, build in strength, and make a second run at the Sunshine State north of Tampa. Read more from Brian K. Sullivan.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com