What to Know in Washington: Trump Rushes Policy Moves for Biden

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President Donald Trump is rushing to leave his final mark on energy, financial and foreign policy while stalling the transition to President-elect Joe Biden — who warned that further delays in the handoff risk increasing the coronavirus death toll.

The Pentagon told military commanders yesterday it would draw down U.S. deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to about 2,500 troops in each country by the end of the year. The announcement followed administration moves to escalate tensions with Iran and China, offering the incoming president unenviable choices as he seeks to revive international accords struck under former President Barack Obama.

Domestically, Trump is rushing to lease oil drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before Biden takes office. And Senate Republicans are trying to push through a controversial nominee for the Federal Reserve board of governors, Judy Shelton, so that the new president won’t be able to fill the vacancy.

The outgoing administration’s aggressive rear-guard tactics go well beyond previous last-minute actions undertaken by parties about to lose control of the White House. Major decisions, involving both domestic and foreign policy, are in the works that Trump and his aides know Biden opposes.

One of the easiest areas for Trump to advance his vision and limit the options for his successor is in foreign policy, where the executive branch has wide latitude and the president-elect has pledged not to interfere before his inauguration. Read more from Justin Sink and Nick Wadhams.

Photographer: Chris Kleponis/Polaris/Bloomberg
Trump at the White House on Nov. 13.

Biden to Receive Briefing From National Security Experts: Biden will meet with national security experts today to discuss readiness at key agencies even as his transition team continues to be denied access to those federal departments. Diplomatic, intelligence and defense advisers will brief Biden, a transition official said last night. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will join Biden for the session.

The meeting is not an official U.S. government briefing because the General Services Administration has not yet made the “ascertainment” that Biden has won the presidential election. Without access to the agencies, Biden is relying on experts from the Obama administration — as well as people who left government during the Trump years and are cooperative — to plan for the new administration. Read more from Jennifer Epstein.

The Presidential Transition

Critics Seek to Head Off Heitkamp’s USDA Prospects: Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a possible pick to head the Agriculture Department under Biden, should be ruled out for her ties to agribusiness corporations and fossil fuel interests, more than 150 environmental, social justice, and labor groups said. The Center for Food Safety, Farmworker Justice, the Humane League and other advocacy organizations called Heitkamp “the wrong choice” for the job in a letter today to Biden and his transition team. They point to past contributions to her congressional campaign from the fossil fuel industry and corporate giants, including Cargill, Bayer, and Monsanto, as problematic. Read more from Megan U. Boyanton.

Biden Sizing Up State Leaders for Health-Care Posts: Biden’s health team is shaping up as a competition largely between Obama administration alumni who stayed in Washington and those who joined state health agencies. Biden, who made fighting the coronavirus and expanding health care top campaign priorities, faces a steep climb for central parts of his agenda, including expanding the Affordable Care Act’s insurance subsidies and creating government-run insurance. Democrats’ majority has been narrowed in the House and control of the Senate remains undecided.

The transition is eyeing two state officials for key health policy jobs: New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) and North Carolina HHS Secretary Mandy Cohen, seven people with knowledge of the team’s plans said. They’re also considering former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, a former HHS official who helped lead the department’s steps to carry out the ACA. Read more from Alex Ruoff and Shira Stein.

Biden to Bring Three Top Campaign Officials to White House: Biden is beginning to fill out his roster of top White House aides, with Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), Jen O’Malley Dillon, and Steve Ricchetti planning to take top jobs, according to people familiar with the matter. Richmond will have a senior role that would include public engagement. O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, will be a deputy chief of staff and Ricchetti, Biden’s campaign chairman, will be given a senior role, the people said. All appointments are scheduled to be announced today. Biden had said he planned to name key White House aides before turning to cabinet jobs that require Senate confirmation. Read more from Tyler Pager and Jennifer Epstein.

Swift Hiring at EPA Remains a Question Mark: One of the EPA’s first challenges when Biden takes office will be to quickly hire scientists, regulatory officials, and even administrative staffers to make up for staff cuts under the Trump administration, current and former agency officials say. But they’re also concerned the hiring won’t happen quickly, because of congressional budget limits and the bureaucracy involved in bringing new federal employees on board.

Biden has already laid out a bold agenda for the EPA, including reviving regulations on climate pollutants and beefing up the agency’s environmental justice work. But the new EPA’s ability to quickly get started on that work could be hamstrung by the fact that the agency’s ranks have fallen under Trump to about 14,200—down 14.3% from the average level during the Obama administration. Staffing is also down about one-fifth from its peak in 1999. Read more from Stephen Lee.

Biden’s Stimulus Call Runs Into GOP Opposition: Biden’s call for Congress to pass a larger-scale stimulus package yesterday ran into swift headwinds, with downbeat comments from a senior Republican senator. Biden, in his first remarks dedicated to the economy since winning the election, called on lawmakers to immediately pass a bill like the $2.4 trillion relief measure passed by the House earlier this year. But Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) made clear that’s not going to come soon.

“We’re not going to pass a gigantic measure right now,” Shelby said hours after Biden spoke. “The question is will we pass it later? Doubtful.” He added: “Start with the skinny bill. We had targeted it to various needs of small business and hiring. Keep the economy going, not a wish list of fixes for political, social problems.” Read more from Erik Wasson and Laura Litvan.

Trump and Allies Dial Back Vote Fraud Claims: Trump’s legal campaign to overturn his 2020 election defeat shrank further with the narrowing of a key Pennsylvania lawsuit and a retreat of supporters who had sued in four battleground states. The Trump campaign Sunday revised its highly touted suit to block certification of Biden’s projected Pennsylvania win, abandoning its most extravagant claims of widespread voter fraud. Yesterday, four suits associated with a conservative group that also sought to block vote certifications based on broad fraud claims were dropped in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia. Read more from Erik Larson.

Clinton Says China’s Direction Upended U.S. Ties: Former President Bill Clinton said Xi Jinping’s long-term reign has upended U.S.-China relations, and will require Biden’s incoming administration and its allies to take a more coordinated approach to dealing with Beijing. Speaking in conversation with former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, Clinton said the U.S. could strengthen its negotiating position with China by enlisting partners, from Europe to Asian nations which were part of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact abandoned by Trump.

“The old Chinese system, which was by no means a democracy, still guaranteed enough debate, and play, and openness because there was a regular rotation of leadership,” Clinton said. “Now that it appears that a person is in charge of China who intends to stay there for life, in essence, that changes things. But we shouldn’t accept or assume that it’s all going to be bad without working to make it better.” Read more from Iain Marlow.

Happening on the Hill

Republicans Vie for Top Energy & Commerce Spot: The three-way race for the top Republican spot on the House Energy and Commerce Committee could make history, following an election that will send a record number of GOP women to the chamber in the 117th Congress. Reps. Michael Burgess (Texas), Bob Latta (Ohio), and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) have been vying for the role for the past year, since current ranking member Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.) announced his retirement in October 2019. If McMorris Rodgers prevails, she’ll be the first woman of either party to occupy a full committee leadership role on the Energy and Commerce panel, a powerful House committee with a broad portfolio of issues that includes energy, health care, telecommunications, and consumer protection. Kellie Lunney takes a closer look at the state of the race.

Senate Passes Grains Legislation: The Senate passed the U.S. Grain Standards Reauthorization Act yesterday, which Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said “will allow America to continue fostering a healthy domestic grain market and positive relationships with our trading partners.” The committee-approved bill by Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) would reauthorize the act for five years and permit the Agriculture Department to set marketing standards for select grains and oilseeds, such as barley and soybeans, Megan Boyanton reports.

Owens Wins House Race in Utah: Republican Burgess Owens beat first-term Democrat Ben McAdams in the race for Utah’s 4th Congressional District, the AP reports. Owens is a former NFL football player.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Testing Bottlenecks Again Gripping U.S.: A surge in coronavirus cases, paired with a rising demand for tests before the holidays and continued supply shortages, are putting renewed pressure on American testing systems. The American Clinical Laboratory Association, whose members do about half of the country’s testing, said late last week it is seeing a big increase in test orders with the demand expected to continue ahead of Thanksgiving Day. As a result, turnaround times of around two days could increase as labs reach or exceed their capacities in the coming days, the group warned.

Meanwhile, labs are also grappling with supply shortages, including pipette tips—which are used to transport samples during the testing process—and swabs. Though the government has invested in manufacturers to build out capacity, that will take into 2021 to pan out, said Scott Becker, the head of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “All of the issues we uncovered in the spring, and lived through in the summer, haven’t gone away completely,” Becker said by telephone. Read more from Emma Court.

America Locks Down From Atlantic to Pacific: In just a matter of days, America’s long effort to revive its virus-battered economy has been put on pause — or thrown into reverse — across much of the country as new infections soar at the fastest pace since the pandemic’s earliest days. California on Monday reinstituted bans on many indoor businesses across the state, and its governor warned he may impose a curfew. Michigan has ordered a three-week partial shutdown, while states including Oregon, Washington and New Jersey tightened curbs. Even the governor of Iowa, long resistant to virus rules, issued a limited mask mandate yesterday. Read more from David R. Baker, Angelica LaVito and Elise Young.

Biden Blames Trump for Vaccine Skepticism: Biden said yesterday that Trump has made the American people skeptical about the safety of a coronavirus vaccine by encouraging unproven treatments and politicizing the FDA’s vaccine approval process. “I wouldn’t hesitate to get the vaccine,” Biden said after remarks on his economic agenda. “The only reason people question the vaccine now is because of Donald Trump.” Biden reaffirmed his position yesterday that if Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said the shot was safe and effective, he would take it. Read more from Tyler Pager.

Meadows Back in White House After Diagnosis: White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who was diagnosed with Covid-19 on Nov. 4, reported to work yesterday, according to people familiar with the matter. The people, who asked not to be named as the matter isn’t public, said Meadows had fulfilled the requirement of the White House Medical Unit of testing negative for the virus two days in a row. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs.

What Else to Know Today

Pentagon Has Long Way to Go for Clean Audit: The Defense Department will need at least another seven years until it can produce a clean audit of how U.S. taxpayer money is spent, according to a Pentagon official. The department has plans to get to a clean audit opinion by about 2027, Thomas Harker, who is performing the duties of the comptroller, told reporters. Like the last couple of years, the latest review of the Pentagon’s books cost almost $1 billion, including roughly $200 million in auditing fees. Roxana Tiron and Tony Capaccio have more.

DHS Rules Jeopardized by Court’s Wolf Ruling: A federal court’s ruling that acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf is serving unlawfully in his role is likely to have a ripple effect of undercutting other contested agency actions, though how quickly those measures could be affected remains unknown. The court verdict over the weekend by U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn is the latest in a series of decisions questioning Wolf’s status — beginning with an August report from the Government Accountability Office, which said he was serving unlawfully. Read more from Genevieve Douglas.

Drug Intermediaries Seek to Preserve Price Cuts: Pharmacy intermediaries who negotiate drug insurance coverage are already threatening lawsuits if the Trump administration follows through on a revived plan to roll back drug rebates. The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing a final rule as of yesterday that would end legal shields for the rebates drugmakers pay to pharmacy middlemen and to insurance plans providing coverage through Medicaid or the Medicare drug program, according to its website. Read more from Jacquie Lee.

Florida’s Minimum Wage Might Be a Tipping Point: Pressure on Congress to boost the federal wage floor for the first time in 13 years is building after voters in Republican-leaning Florida approved a ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2026. Seven states already passed laws that will eventually bring their minimum wage to $15, but they’re states that typically back Democrats and progressive labor policies, including California and New York. That Floridians bypassed their Republican-controlled legislature to enact the new wage by constitutional amendment will be impossible to ignore, says Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, executive director of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington.

Virginia Governor Calls on State to Legalize Pot: Virginia’s governor yesterday urged lawmakers to send him a bill that would legalize marijuana. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he wants to sign a measure that would include the automatic expunging of past marijuana-related criminal records, an abuse-prevention element, and age restrictions. Virginia decriminalized marijuana earlier this year under Northam and the Democratic-led General Assembly, Andrew M. Ballard reports.

U.S. Intercepts Target Mimicking North Korean ICBM: A U.S. Navy destroyer successfully intercepted a mock intercontinental ballistic missile designed to simulate one developed by North Korea, a Pentagon official said. Read more from Tony Capaccio.

With assistance from Megan U. Boyanton

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

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