What to Know in Washington: Leaders Make Progress on Aid Deal

The top four congressional leaders will continue negotiating a Covid-19 relief package today that they could attach to crucial spending legislation ahead of Friday’s deadline to keep the government open.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) met for several hours last night, reporting progress in the talks but with no agreement in hand.

The leaders held two rounds of extended negotiations at the Capitol yesterday, trying to reach agreement for a package of aid for businesses and workers struggling through the pandemic’s economic fallout.

“We’re making significant progress and I’m optimistic that we’re gonna be able to complete an understanding sometime soon,” McConnell said as he left the Capitol. “Everybody wants to get a final agreement as soon as possible.”

Schumer also said the exchanges had brought progress and “there is a genuine desire to come to an agreement by all four parties.”

The four leaders have been trying to finalize coronavirus aid to attach to the spending bills before funding for federal agencies runs out on Friday at midnight. Both sides have vowed that Congress won’t recess for the holidays without getting both done. Read the latest from Erik Wasson.

Virus Aid, Tax Breaks Poised to Hitch Ride: Lawmakers are also negotiating other priorities to be carried on the spending package, likely the last major piece of legislation passed this year. Members of both parties are pushing to attach dozens of policy and tax fixes, including tax breaks for craft beer brewers, an energy package, pumping $1 billion into a civics and history program, and creating new museums to honor Latino people and women.

As a must-pass measure, the $1.4 trillion omnibus, which would fund the federal government through the end of fiscal 2021, is the most attractive vehicle for lawmakers rushing to wrap up business before heading home for the holidays. That also carries the next installment of virus-related economic relief, the most significant add-on being considered. It would boost the total price tag of the omnibus to more than $2 trillion. Nancy Ognanovich runs down the list of measures that may move along with the spending bill.

Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
Schumer at the Capitol on Tuesday.

The Presidential Transition

Biden Enlists Team to Fight Climate Change: Biden has begun to assemble the team he will rely on to drive his ambitious clean-energy and climate agenda, a diverse group of government veterans that includes a former EPA chief and a Midwestern governor. The personnel choices come as Biden seeks to fulfill campaign promises to decarbonize the electric grid in 15 years, promote electric vehicles and restrict oil development on federal land. The president-elect may have to lean heavily on regulations and executive orders to achieve his goals, with the Republicans set to hold at least 50 seats in the Senate. Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Ari Natter.

  • Biden Picks Ex-Gov. Granholm for Energy: Biden has chosen Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of the politically pivotal state of Michigan, to lead the Department of Energy, people familiar with the matter said. The Energy Department is expected to play an enlarged role in the fight against climate change. Granholm served as energy adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and has been credited with expanding Michigan’s clean energy industry during her two terms as governor. She also served as Michigan’s attorney general from 1999 to 2003 and is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Read more from Jennifer Epstein and Ari Natter.
  • Former EPA Chief McCarthy Selected as Climate Czar: Biden also has selected Gina McCarthy, Barack Obama’s former EPA chief, to run a special White House office on climate change that will coordinate policy and elevate global warming to a top place in the executive office, three people familiar with the matter said. McCarthy, who led the EPA for nearly four years during Obama’s second term, was the driving force behind combating climate change through regulation, including his signature Clean Power Plan, which took a novel approach to limit greenhouse gas emissions but was repealed by Trump before it got underway. As the White House climate czar, she would work across agencies to ensure a coordinated, approach to confronting climate change. Read more from Ari Natter, Jennifer Jacobs and Jennifer A. Dlouhy.
  • Emma Kinery and Christopher Cannon track Biden’s Cabinet nominees so far.

Biden Meets Resistance in Picking Haaland for Interior: Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) is Biden’s preferred candidate to lead the Interior Department, though a final decision has been delayed as House leaders express concerns about filling her seat and other vacant spots. The selection process was described by people familiar with the matter. If confirmed as secretary of the Interior, Haaland would be the first American Indian secretary in American history. But House leaders have said it could take months to hold a special election to fill her seat. Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Ari Natter have more.

Buttigieg Will Face Infrastructure Funding Woes: Biden’s pick of Pete Buttigieg would begin his tenure at the Transportation Department as pressure mounts for the administration and Congress to reach a deal on paying for infrastructure spending. Congress faces a September deadline to reauthorize federal funding for highways, transit, rail, and safety programs. During the campaign both Biden and Buttigieg offered plans to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure, but Buttigieg actually offered a plan to break through an old Washington problem: how to pay for it. Read more from Courtney Rozen.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Trump Sits Out Debut of Covid-19 Vaccine: Donald Trump pinned all his hopes for ending the pandemic on a vaccine, but as shots started going into American arms this week, the president has barely acknowledged the moment and has wavered on when he’ll be inoculated. The first shipments of a coronavirus vaccine created by Pfizer and German company BioNTech arrived on Monday, with front-line health-care workers receiving injections on live television to mark the occasion. The rollout coincides with the U.S. setting records for daily cases, daily deaths and hospitalizations.

The president has had little to say about any of it, beyond a single congratulatory tweet buried among a stream of false assertions and conspiracy theories about the election he lost. The White House is now preparing to publicly inoculate a handful of officials in an event to celebrate the breakthrough and encourage Americans to get vaccinated. Vice President Mike Pence, who is not known to have contracted the virus, said he’ll receive a vaccination within days, but his office declined to say if it would be in front of cameras. Read more from Josh Wingrove.

States Get $227 Million for Vaccine Distribution: The federal government will provide states and territories almost $227 million to distribute Covid-19 vaccines and track the virus, the HHS announced yesterday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will award $140 million to all 50 states and additional jurisdictions for vaccine preparedness and $87 million for Covid-19 tracking and testing. Read more from Jacquie Lee.

Elections and Politics

Biden Hails Georgia Democrats in Bid to Swing Senate: Biden campaigned on behalf of two Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia yesterday, an appearance that highlights the races’ importance to his first-term agenda with control of the Senate at stake. “I need two senators from this state who want to get something done, not two senators who are just going to get in the way,” Biden said at a drive-in rally in Atlanta for the candidates, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. Read more from Mario Parker and Jennifer Epstein.

Some GOP-Led States Push for Expanded Voter Access: Some Republican state officials are newly open to expanded voting options after such moves proved popular and the party’s down-ballot candidates won in a high-turnout election, despite Trump railing against the changes. Republican elections officials and state lawmakers in Kentucky, Missouri and Texas are considering changes that would either make vote-by-mail more accessible or increase early in-person voting.

Any such moves would be going against the current in the Republican Party, where Trump’s baseless claims of fraud have spurred GOP state lawmakers in Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania to consider tightening requirements on mail-in ballots. Officials in Georgia have even filed suit to curtail the use of drop boxes for absentee ballots and add new layers of scrutiny to the signature-matching process before the Jan. 5 Senate run-off votes. Read more from Ryan Teague Beckwith.

Lawmaker Vows to Carry On Trump’s Election Fight: A Republican lawmaker is pledging to carry out his challenge of Biden’s election as president despite McConnell’s recognition of the result and warnings from other Republicans that the effort is futile. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said he’ll object when Congress convenes Jan. 6 to count certificates of electoral votes, usually a mostly ceremonial process confirming the results of the presidential election. “If you surrender, there is zero chance of success,” Brooks said. “Fighting yields a better chance than surrender, so I fight.” Read more from Daniel Flatley and Steven T. Dennis.

Powell Asks High Court to Nullify Two Biden Wins: Former Trump campaign lawyer Sidney Powell asked the Supreme Court to overturn Biden’s election victories in Michigan and Georgia, continuing with a flurry of long-shot litigation despite repeated rejections in the courts. The latest requests appeared on the court’s online docket yesterday, a day after the Electoral College confirmed Biden’s victory. Read more from Greg Stohr.

What Else to Know Today

Ex-Big Law Partner Confirmed to Barrett’s Old Seat: Thomas L. Kirsch was confirmed to fill Amy Coney Barrett’s seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, giving Trump at least one more marquee judicial appointment as his term winds down. The Senate cleared the federal prosecutor and former Big Law partner 51-44 late yesterday. Madison Alder has more.

O’Brien Cuts Trips Short for Talks on Russia Hack: National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien has returned early from his trip to the Middle East and Europe to deal with the hack of federal agencies, according to a spokesperson for the National Security Council. O’Brien planned to return to Washington on Saturday, but visited only Israel and France before canceling stops in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the U.K., a person familiar with the matter said. He arrived back in the U.S. yesterday afternoon. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs.

  • The federal agency charged with protecting federal cyber infrastructure lacks funding it needs to pay a surge of private contractors to counter the Russian-backed breaches of government networks, cyber firms and a former Homeland official said. The Homeland Security Department’s cybersecurity agency’s budget troubles stem in part from how it has been spending money without a full-year funding law in place. Shaun Courtney and Jack Fitzpatrick have more.
  • A bipartisan group of senators, including leaders of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Senate Appropriations Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee, wrote to the FBI and CISA asking for more information on the scope of the attack, the level of U.S. agencies’ vulnerabilities, and the agencies’ responses to the attack. Under the Federal Information Security Modernization Act guidance, the committee will be briefed on the incident.

Trump’s $200 Medicare Cards Expected to Ship Jan. 1: The Trump administration expects to begin sending $200 prescription drug discount cards to seniors by Jan. 1, a campaign promise to seniors that Trump was unable to fulfill before losing re-election, a person familiar with the matter said. A White House official described the timeline for shipping out the discount cards to Medicare beneficiaries. Politico reported late yesterday that an obscure industry panel that advises the IRS on administering benefit cards abruptly dropped its opposition to them. Read more from Justin Sink.

Trump Labor Agency Issues Hot-Topic Fiduciary Rule: The Labor Department has released its controversial fiduciary exemption that broadens the kinds of retirement plan investments from which financial advisers can profit. The fiduciary rule DOL officials announced yesterday opens federally protected retirement plan participants and beneficiaries to formerly banned financial advice. Read more from Austin R. Ramsey.

FDIC Brokered Deposit Rule Aims for Fintech Partnership Clarity: Banks will have more clarity about their ability to partner with financial technology companies looking to park deposits with them under a new FDIC rule. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. yesterday issued a final rule updating its brokered deposit standards. The new rule expands the definition of what types of third-party deposits can be placed inside banks, with the intention of making it easier for banks to engage with fintech companies and other newer entrants to the financial system, the FDIC said, Evan Weinberger reports.

  • Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), ranking member of Senate Banking Committee, called out the FDIC for the move, accusing the agency of putting the economy at risk, according to a statement yesterday.

High Court Asked to Halt Abortion Pill Deliveries: The Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to reinstate a requirement that women visit a medical facility before obtaining abortion-inducing pills, seeking to lift a lower-court decision that has allowed delivery by mail amid the pandemic. The filing yesterday renews a request that the court temporarily rejected in October, when it was shorthanded after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose seat was filled by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Read more from Greg Stohr.

Environmentalists Ask Court to Block Arctic Oil Auction: Native Alaskans and environmental groups are asking a federal court to block the Trump administration from selling oil drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge next month. The groups yesterday filed requests with an Anchorage judge for a preliminary injunction to prevent the Interior Department’s planned Jan. 6 auction of oil and gas leases across the refuge’s 1.56-million-acre coastal plain. The intervention could be critical to ensuring Biden is able to fulfill his campaign promise to protect the refuge. Once the Trump administration conducts the auction, any formally issued leases become legal contracts with the federal government that would be difficult for the Biden administration to revoke. Read more from Jennifer A. Dlouhy.

Executions Fall to Near 30-Year Low: Executions in the U.S. in 2020 fell to the lowest level in nearly three decades even as the federal government resumed executions for the first time in 17 years, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center. The 17 executions in 2020 are the lowest since 1991 when 14 inmates were put to death in the U.S., according to the center’s report released Wednesday. The drop is even more pronounced at the state level where the seven executions carried out are the fewest since 1983, outnumbered by the 10 inmates put to death this year by the U.S. government. Read more from Jordan S. Rubin.

Amazon Says Bid for Pentagon Cloud Deal Was Cheaper, Better: Amazon said the Defense Department wrongfully awarded a highly lucrative cloud computing contract to Microsoft even after it proposed a cheaper and technically superior bid for the deal. In an amended complaint that was filed Oct. 23 and unsealed yesterday, the e-commerce giant claimed that during a re-evaluation of revised bids from both companies, the Pentagon underrated Amazon’s advantages and ignored key contract requirements. Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said in a statement that it offered “the lowest-priced bid by tens of millions of dollars.” Read more from Naomi Nix.

Google to Face Off With Ken Starr in Texas Antitrust Lawsuit: Texas plans to hire Ken Starr, the former independent counsel in the investigation that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, to represent the state in an antitrust lawsuit against Alphabet’s Google, according to a person familiar with the matter. The state plans to hire Starr’s firm, the Lanier Law Firm, and Keller Lenkner if it files a lawsuit stemming from its investigation into the company’s role in the online ad market, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said yesterday in a statement, Ben Brody reports.

Trump’s Staff Secretary Lyons to Leave: One of Trump’s closest aides, staff secretary Derek Lyons, will leave his job before the end of the year. Lyons plans to depart the White House before his boss’s term ends in January in order to spend time with his family and pursue a private sector opportunity related to jobs in the U.S., according to a person familiar with the matter. Read more from Jordan Fabian.

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