White House hosts event to recognize the 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act

The FMLA required covered employers to provide eligible employees with unpaid leave, opening the door for more women to stay in the workforce.

Advocates call on Congress to expand FMLA and grant paid leave

Grassroots organization MomsRising gathered outside the Capitol to push for the expansion of FMLA as its 30th anniversary approaches.

Republicans remove Omar from Foreign Affairs Committee, cite antisemitic comments

House Democrats stood together in defending Omar, despite differences. 90% of the Jewish members of the House voted to retain Omar’s committee position.

McCarthy reports ‘good meeting’ with Biden on debt limit, says talks will continue

The speaker and the president met for the first time regarding one of the most important issues Congress will tackle this year.

Republicans launch new era of oversight with hearing on pandemic spending

In the House Oversight Committee’s first hearing of the new Congress, Rep. James Comer (D-Ky.) criticized Democrats for their lack of accountability with regard to pandemic spending.

Latest in Politics

Advocates call on Congress to expand FMLA and grant paid leave

WASHINGTON —- Several advocates dressed in groundhog costumes gathered outside the Capitol Thursday morning to urge Congress to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act and ensure paid leave for workers.

“We’re tired of being in the shadows,” said Ruth Martin, senior vice president and chief workplace justice officer of the social welfare organization MomsRising

The event was held on Groundhog’s Day and in the lead up to FMLA’s 30th anniversary this weekend. According to a statement released by the organization on Wednesday, members wore the costumes because “like a groundhog that sees its shadow, Republicans in Congress have scurried back underground, blocking the progress the country needs.”

Former President Clinton signed The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) into law on February 5, 1993, after opponents blocked it for nearly a decade. It allows employees who have worked at a company for at least 12 months and accrued at least 1,250 hours to take a 12-week unpaid leave without risk of losing their job, but only if the company has 50 or more employees.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute, about 44% of workers are ineligible to take unpaid leave under FMLA. 

In a Thursday press release, President Biden issued a memorandum calling on the heads of federal agencies to support access to unpaid leave for employees, including during their first year on the job. He also said he has been working with state legislators to expand access to paid family and medical leave. 

“Access to paid leave has proven to help keep people out of poverty, keep them in the jobs they need, strengthen their economic security,” said Martin. “It’s a really vital thing that all parents need, [and] all working people need, not just moms.”

California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia have already passed paid family and medical leave laws. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), alongside other democratic leaders, have been pushing to modernize FMLA and enshrine paid leave into federal law. 

Gillibrand and DeLauro proposed the FAMILY Act to ensure that every worker has access to paid leave. In conjunction, Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) and Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) reintroduced the Job Protection Act, which would close gaps in FMLA coverage by expanding protections to part-time workers and those employed by small businesses

“No one should ever have to decide between caring for a loved one and earning a paycheck,” said Gillibrand during a Wednesday press conference. 

While expanded FMLA and paid leave has received support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the parties have failed to reach common ground on how it will be funded. Democratic proposals have typically been structured as tax-funded payments, while Republicans, who want to cut spending, prefer to incentivize employers through tax credits. 

“It’s not good policy, it’s not sustainable, and it doesn’t actually increase access to paid leave,” said Martin of Republicans’ tax credit approach. “But we welcome anyone who wants to talk about what a good policy looks like; then we can make sure that we’re getting comprehensive coverage.”

To continue to amplify their voices, representatives of the organization walked to the offices of key Congress members to deliver their message.

 

Republicans remove Omar from Foreign Affairs Committee, cite antisemitic comments

WASHINGTON –– House Republicans voted Thursday to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, citing her past remarks about Israel, America’s longtime ally. 

Omar has been heavily critical of Israel in her position on the committee. In 2021, Omar seemingly compared Israel and the United States with the terrorist organizations Hamas and the Taliban, prompting claims that Omar is antisemitic.

Earlier today, however, Omar backed a resolution recognizing Israel as a legitimate U.S. ally and condemning antisemitism.

A dozen Jewish Democrats, led by Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), issued a statement condemning those comments in June 2021. 

“Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law and contemptible organizations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one’s intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice,” the statement read.

The statement was accompanied by a House resolution condemning hate against Jewish and Muslim people. 

But despite the fact that Omar, a member of “The Squad” of progressives, has drawn the ire of her party colleagues in the past, House Democrats voted unanimously against the resolution to strip her of her committee assignment. The final vote tally was 218-211, with one Democrat not at the vote.

During the House debate Thursday, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who is Jewish, noted that while House Republicans claimed the resolution was aimed at condemning anti-semitism, 90% of the House’s Jewish members opposed removing Omar from the committee.

“This is the very weaponization of anti-semitism that I as a Jewish person find repulsive, dangerous and shameful,” Phillips said in a speech on the House floor defending his vote.

The move to strip Omar of her assignment is reminiscent of a similar action taken by House Democrats after the 2020 elections. With the support of 11 Republicans, the then-majority of House Democrats voted in 2021 to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) of her committee assignments after she encouraged violence against Democrats and amplified racist and controversial antisemitic conspiracy theories.

During  a press conference following the vote, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that the move wasn’t a tit-for-tat, despite vowing last year to strip Omar and other Democrats of their committe assignments as retribution for their moves against Greene. While House Democrats opted to remove Greene from all of her committee assignments, McCarthy said Republicans only removed Omar from the committee they felt she wasn’t fit to serve on. 

Omar is currently assigned to the House Education and Workforce Committee. It’s unclear whether she will be appointed to other committees during this Congress. 

“I’m not removing anyone from all committees, like (Democrats) did. They cheered when they did that,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy continued to say that it wasn’t just Omar’s comments on Israel that made her unsuitable for the committee, but also her comments on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack after she said “something happened” that day.

“What does that say to other people around the world? What does that say to somebody else who wants to create another 9/11 here?” McCarthy said.

Omar’s comments about Sept. 11 in addition to those on Israel were a common theme in Republicans’ defense of their vote during House debate.

Democrats were forceful in their defense of Omar, noting that she apologized for her remarks. They called Republicans hypocritcal for defending Greene and other Republican lawmakers who have peddled antisemitic conspiracy theories. Fellow members of the Squad also characterized the resolution as an attack on the only woman of color on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“There is nothing consistent with the Republican Party’s continued attack, except for the racism and incitement of violence against women of color in this body,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), arguing that the resolution is an extension of the legacy of Islamophobia that was sparked by 9/11.

The move to oust Omar from her Foreign Affairs assignment comes after George Santos (R-N.Y.) voluntarily recused himself from all committee assignments amid public outcry. McCarthy has also ousted Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) from the Intelligence Committee.

McCarthy pointed to the controversy after Swallwell was targeted by a Chinese spy and Schiff’s statements during the Jan. 6 committee’s probe of former President Donald Trump as reasons they should be barred from the appointments. The congressmen argued that their removal was an act of “political vengeance.”

McCarthy was able to unilaterally block the two California congressmen from the Intelligence Committee due to its nature as a select committee, while removing Omar from a standing committee required a floor vote. 

Latest in Education

Supreme Court hears lawsuit against a school district for discriminating against a deaf student

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday about a deaf student who was denied a high school diploma from a Michigan school district that failed to provide him with a qualified ASL interpreter. 

The court will decide if the plaintiff, Miguel Perez, and his family exhausted all of their administrative remedies before filing a discrimination claim against Sturgis Public Schools in federal court and are entitled to financial compensation after settling with the district.

“For 12 years, Sturgis neglected Miguel, denied him an education, and lied to his parents about the progress he was allegedly making in school,” Roman Martinez, Perez’s lawyer, said in Court on Wednesday. “Congress didn’t punish kids for saying yes to favorable IDEA settlements.” 

Perez’s family immigrated from Mexico in 2004 and was never provided a Spanish-language interpreter to inform them about their son’s educational status. Although Miguel made the honor roll every semester, he never learned how to read and write.

“The parents really didn’t have an understanding of what their rights were,” Pete Wright, founder of Wrightslaw, a special education law and advocacy group, said. “There’s nothing that reimburses the kid for all the damage that he’s suffered from never really being properly taught. It’s a classic example of what it is, not a free, appropriate public education at all.”

Shira Wakschlag, Senior Director of Legal Advocacy and General Counsel at The Arc, a nonprofit for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, says that the purpose of these laws is for students with disabilities to have an avenue for relief if their rights are denied in the school environment. 

“A settlement that is agreed on by both parties is always the goal,” Wakschlag said. “So to say that that doesn’t constitute exhaustion under the law, when the law promotes settlement would really be against public policy and against the meaning of the statute.” 

Perez, who was denied the proper ASL services from the school, went through due process with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Americans with Disabilities Act claims. Still, the ADA claims could not be heard at the due process level and were subsequently dismissed. The Michigan Department of Education settled the IDEA claims and agreed to pay for Perez’s attendance at the Michigan School for the Deaf. 

“Exhausting a non-IDEA claim means obtaining an administrative decision from an educational expert, just as an IDEA plaintiff must do before going to court,” Shay Dvoretzky, Sturgis’ lawyer, said in court. “That’s why Mr. Perez’s improper new argument that ‘settles’ equals ‘exhaustion’ is incorrect. An IDEA plaintiff cannot sue after settling.”

However, Perez is seeking justice for his unequal access to education and compensatory damages for emotional distress under the ADA lawsuit. The lower court held that Perez gave up his right to sue when he settled the IDEA claims.

“The plaintiffs are really asking the court to protect students with disabilities, and ensure that the families of these students are able to pursue the full range of civil rights remedies directly in federal court,” Wakschlag said. “And this is essentially preventing them from doing that and creating more obstacles.”

Questions remain about how the Biden administration’s plan to cut monthly student loan payments would work

WASHINGTON — Supporters of student loan debt relief praised the U.S. Department of Education’s newest proposed regulations that would reduce monthly student loan payments for millions of Americans, but many say it’s only a temporary fix to a bigger problem. 

The new proposal makes changes to an existing repayment plan known as Revised Pay As You Earn, or REPAYE, which caps borrowers’ monthly payments to a percentage of their discretionary income. 

According to the Department of Education, the current income-driven repayment plan requires borrowers to pay 10 percent of their discretionary income toward their student debt each month; the new plan would lower that to 5 percent. 

If finalized, borrowers who make roughly less than $30,600 a year would be eligible for $0 monthly payments – effectively pausing them. Those who do not meet the income threshold could have their monthly payments for undergraduate loans reduced by half. 

Additionally, unpaid interest will no longer accumulate if payments are made on time, including for those whose payments have been paused. 

“We cannot return to the same broken system we had before the pandemic, when a million borrowers defaulted on their loans a year and snowballing interest left millions owing more than they initially borrowed,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a press call Monday evening. 

According to a fact sheet released by the White House last year, 45 million borrowers have more than $1.6 trillion in federal student loan debt.

The proposal was first announced last summer but was overshadowed by the Biden administration’s sweeping student loan forgiveness plan that could relieve eligible borrowers of up to $20,000 in debt. That plan remains on hold as courts examine legal challenges brought forth by Republicans, many of whom argue that it is an abuse of executive power and will harm taxpayers.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) is one of several Republicans who oppose Biden’s one-time student loan forgiveness plan and has expressed her disapproval of the new plan.

“Expansions of already generous repayment options, institutional shame lists, and other failed policies of the past won’t lower the cost of college for students and families. It does, however, turn the federal loan program into an untargeted grant with complete disregard for the taxpayers that fund it,” Foxx said in a press release on Tuesday. 

Sabrina Calazans, managing director at Student Debt Crisis Center, a non-profit organization that helps borrowers navigate loan repayment and advocates for debt relief, said the new proposals for the income-driven repayment plan are helpful, but it needs to go further.  

The proposed amendments to the REPAYE plan exclude many parent borrowers, and those who only have graduate school loans will have to continue to pay 10 percent of their discretionary income.

 “I think at the end of the day, we need to make sure that borrowers are informed and secure and that they have a chance at contributing to the economy and surviving because it’s millions of families and individuals who are impacted by these decisions,” Calazans said.  

The department also plans to compile and publish a list of colleges and universities that leave students with unaffordable amounts of debt in an effort to promote accountability. Institutions with programs on the list will have to submit improvement plans to the Department of Education.

A question that looms is whether the new REPAYE plan will encounter legal challenges alongside the one-time debt relief Biden proposed last year. 

Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on financial aid and student loans, said the plan may face legal challenges but is more likely to survive them because the U.S. Department of Education has very broad regulatory authority that allows them to make such changes. 

Victoria Jackson, assistant director of higher education policy at The Education Trust –  an organization committed to advancing the American education system – said the student debt crisis results from failed policies, and relief is critically important. 

“I hope that, you know, policymakers and others around the country realize that proposed changes to income-driven payment plans will help millions of Americans,” Jackson said. 

The proposals will go through a 30-day public comment period, but it remains unclear when the new REPAYE plan will officially be available to borrowers.

Health & Science

Youth vaping epidemic remains after Congress gives FDA control over synthetic nicotine regulation

WASHINGTON — The American Lung Association’s annual State of Tobacco Control report, released Wednesday, found tobacco and e-cigarette use among teens rose slightly in 2022 after three years of decline. 

The higher rates of tobacco use among the nation’s youth come after Congress gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate products containing synthetic nicotine through bipartisan legislation in March 2022. The report found 16.5% of high school students and 4.5% of middle school students used tobacco products in 2022, an increase of about 3% for high schoolers and 0.5% for middle schoolers since 2021.

Thomas Carr, ALA’s national director of policy, said products using synthetic nicotine were supposed to apply to get permission from the FDA to remain in the market. According to the report, synthetic products without pre-market tobacco authorizations became illegal on July 13, 2022, though “delays in enforcement” have left many illegal products on shelves. 

“There are still a lot of illegal flavored products in the market and that’s contributing to the high youth rates we’re seeing,” Carr said. “We certainly think that FDA’s been somewhat asleep at the switch on enforcement of this. We’ve certainly been encouraging them.” 

Dr. Maria Rahmandar, the medical director of the substance use and prevention program at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said there is a negligible difference between synthetic nicotine and nicotine derived from tobacco. She said promoting synthetic nicotine as a safer option is a marketing ploy for companies and helps them get around regulations.

E-cigarette companies have also used an assortment of flavors to attract younger users in recent years. Before the rise in flavored e-cigarette products, Rahmandar said tobacco usage among youth was at “all-time lows.” According to the report, 85% of kids using e-cigarettes used flavored products, and the report stated flavor variety continues to “be a big driver” in usage patterns. 

These products can cause nicotine addiction and serve as a gateway to more serious drugs, and Rahmandar said she’s also seen some evidence that shows teens faced worsening asthma and problems with dental health after using these products. She added the long-term consequences of e-cigarette usage are still unclear. 

“It took us decades to learn about all the awful things that traditional combustible cigarettes can do,” Rahmandar said. “Unfortunately, it will take time for us to see because these have not been around for very long for us to know what really the long-term consequences are on people, but I suspect they’re not good.”

Banning flavors and closing loopholes are important steps Rahmandar said the government should take to lower youth usage. The FDA denied Juul authorization to sell and distribute its products on July 5, 2022, but Rahmandar said new companies, including PuffBar, have found loopholes to continue distributing flavored synthetic nicotine. The ALA report said PuffBar is one of the most-used brands among children. 

Rahmandar said some prominent examples of loopholes include limiting flavors in closed-system e-liquid cartridge products like Juul but not in disposable products like PuffBar, or banning menthol in traditional cigarettes, but not their electronic counterparts. 

“I think we’re just leaving space for the tobacco industry to fill because they see the loopholes and they make products to fill those areas,” Rahmandar said. “The more we can be comprehensive and use the lessons we learned in regulating traditional cigarettes, the better we’ll be.” 

PuffBar did not respond to a request for comment. 

Abby Capobianco, the press officer for the Center for Tobacco Products, told the Medill News Service the FDA has issued marketing denial orders for more than one million flavored e-cigarettes and continues to review premarket applications. It issued a warning letter to EVO Brands LLC and PVG2 LLC, companies that do business as PuffBar, in October 2022. 

“FDA is committed to protecting youth from all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, which are the most commonly used tobacco products by youth,” Capobianco said in an email. “FDA demonstrates this commitment in multiple ways, not only through premarket review of new tobacco products, but also via compliance and enforcement efforts, and successful public awareness campaigns educating teens about the dangers of using tobacco products.”

Aparna Soni, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, said another way to limit e-cigarette usage is to raise taxes. Currently, states like California have additional taxes on traditional products that can add more than $4 to a pack, but she said only about half of all states have placed these taxes on e-cigarettes. 

“Some goods are so, so addictive that even if we impose taxes, even if we increase the price, people are so addicted to these goods that they will continue to consume them,” Soni said. “But for e-cigarettes, especially for younger users who haven’t had time to develop that level of addiction yet, we do know that they do respond to prices.”

Soni said these price restrictions would be easier to enforce than regulations like minimum age laws. While people in the U.S. must be 21 years or older to buy tobacco products, she said kids can easily get them from friends and family, or through fake IDs. 

Rahmandar agreed the age rule is difficult to enforce, and emphasized sellers should face repercussions, not underage customers. Carr said the FDA should issue guidance to help states enforce these underage selling rules better. 

The FDA still needs to finalize its rules surrounding synthetic nicotine, he said. 

“We’ve seen some encouraging signs this year,” Carr said. “But we still obviously want to see more action on the part of FDA to get a handle on the illegal market and illegal flavored products in the market.” 


Published in conjunction with UPI Logo

Pro-Choice Caucus leaders reintroduce bill to expand access to abortion care

WASHINGTON — Leaders of the House Pro-Choice Caucus reintroduced a bill on Thursday that would allow the use of federal funds for abortions, marking a continuation of their efforts to expand access. 

The Equal Access to Abortion Coverage (EACH) Act was first introduced in 2019, but has failed to reach a vote in Congress.  

If passed, it would repeal the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which currently bans major federal health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid from providing abortion care coverage except in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus, said the amendment disproportionately affects low-income women and women of color.

According to Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights advocacy nonprofit, 20% of women of reproductive age are enrolled in Medicare, and 48% are below the federal poverty level. 

“We are introducing our bill, the EACH Act, to repeal the racist, discriminatory ban on abortion coverage,” Lee said. 

The reintroduction comes seven months after the Dobbs decision eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion and a few days after what would have been the 50th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that granted it. 

House Democrats are in the minority this year, and Republicans are already voting on anti-abortion bills, foreshadowing gridlock that could make it harder to pass abortion rights legislation. However, Rep. Lee said the caucus will continue to introduce bills and raise awareness about Republican extremism. 

“When we fight, we win, and no one said this was going to happen overnight,” she said. 

Latest in Environment

Harris touts clean energy project during speech in Arizona

WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris addressed climate change, clean energy and union jobs in Tonopah, Arizona, as part of a speech promoting the Ten West Link transmission line Thursday. 

The Ten West Link transmission line connects Blythe, California, with Tonopah. Harris said the project will provide clean electricity from solar panels and wind turbines to big cities including Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as to rural communities.  

“America is at the start of a historic transition away from fossil fuel plants that pollute our communities,” Harris said. “Our nation is building new sources of energy. In particular, new wind and solar farms, which generate clean power for millions of families.” 

Most of the wind and solar farms are not located near the communities that use their energy, and Harris said infrastructure that can transport these renewable energy sources needs to be built. The Ten West Link will provide connections for cleaner energy. 

Harris said the new initiative will also be cheaper, as clean electricity is, on average, cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels. The construction of more high-voltage transmission lines will also create union jobs, she said. 

The Ten West Link transmission line is part of a series of investments the Biden-Harris administration has made for climate, Harris added. She said the flooding in California and droughts in Arizona are two examples of rising environmental safety concerns in the country. 

“Our nation has not acted with the urgency the climate crisis demands,” Harris said. “I’m here today because this project demonstrates a very important point. It shows that when we invest in climate, we also invest in families, in communities, in opportunity and prosperity for all people.”

The environmental case about nothing — could be everything

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices stumbled this week when hearing arguments about the most impactful environmental case in a generation.

The problem, in part, is that the case concerns nothing.

“There isn’t really anything for the Supreme Court to consider,” said Joe Minott, executive director and chief counsel of the Clean Air Council. “What’s interesting to me is why the court should have agreed to this case at all.”

West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency concerns an Obama-era environmental regulation — the Clean Power Plan (CPP) — that the court suspended in 2016 before it could ever take effect. Then, the Trump administration further squashed it, replacing it with the weaker Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule.

But coal industry representatives and a bloc of red states are now calling on the court to say Congress, under Obama’s plan, didn’t authorize the EPA to exercise “unbridled” power to regulate power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions.

If the justices agree –– and at least five on the 6-3 conservative majority did voice some alignment — the agency’s ability to control power plant emissions overall could be ravaged. This would be bad news for President Biden, who aims to cut the nation’s emissions in half by 2030.

“Electricity generation is a pervasive and essential aspect of modern life and squarely within the states’ traditional zone,” Solicitor General Lindsay See told the justices, speaking on behalf of state petitioners. “Congress did not green light this transformative power.”

Red states pulled evidence from the Clean Air Act, particularly Section 111(d), which instructs the EPA to set emission standards, taking into account factors like cost, that consider the application of the “best system of emission reduction.”

“It takes an existing pollution source as a given and asks what emissions rate is achievable for that source,” said Jacob Roth, who represented private companies in the case.

Roth and fellow CPP opponents argued Obama’s plan would impose such strict emission standards that the energy sector’s only option would be “generation shifting,” or transitioning away from dirtier options like coal to production technologies that use relatively clean natural gas and renewable energy to emit less.

To some justices on Monday, this argument walks an “inside the fence” line.

“Inside the fence” regulation would determine how a specific plant operates, which is how CPP opponents interpret the Clean Air Act. “Outside the fence” measures would regulate the nation’s electricity grid as a whole — stretching EPA authority.

“Traditionally, EPA regulations under Section 111(d) have concerned only what goes on within the fenceline of the sources,” said Craig Oren, professor emeritus of Rutgers Law School and Clean Air Act expert. “EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a very extensive program that goes beyond what happens inside the fence line.”

To Justice Elena Kagan, this argument has contradictions and bears no necessary relationship.

“Inside-the-fence reform can be very small or it can be catastrophic,” she said. “There are inside-the-fence technological fixes that could drive the entire coal industry out of business tomorrow.”

Per Justice Clarence Thomas’ example, this could look like the EPA requiring a power plant to install such a costly technology that it would be unable to compete in the electricity market.

Applying the Major Questions Doctrine

Justices struggled on Monday with whether this case applied to what’s called the “major questions doctrine,” which limits federal agencies’ power to affect consequential regulations.

According to Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA’s ruling, the court should block these regulations with “vast economic and political significance” unless Congress’ statute very clearly gives the agency authority.

“This is a major question because it allows EPA to determine what the power sector as a whole should look like and who can be in it,” See argued.

Many justices appeared to be fumbling through how to apply this vague doctrine to a defunct rule.

“I think the potential surprise here…doesn’t go to regulating CO2….but is using a cap-and-trade regime,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh said.

He suggested that the EPA threatened to install such a “regime” for any state non-compliant with the CPP. While the EPA issued a model cap-and-trade plan, it never formally imposed it on any states.

Justice Sotomayor grappled with how the court could apply this doctrine given Kagan’s explanation of the “fence” contradiction.

“How do we define this major question?” She asked See. “It can’t be that what Congress has chosen might lead in or outside the fence because there’s some out-of-fence activities that don’t necessarily lead to generation system-changing.”

What Happens Next

At least five right-leaning justices appeared to voice some agreement with CPP’s opponents, increasing the likelihood the court may strike down the Obama-era plan.

Only Justice Amy Coney Barrett expressed a mixed opinion.

“If we’re thinking about EPA regulating greenhouse gases, well there’s a match between the regulation and the agency’s wheelhouse, right?” she said.

The court is expected to rule on the case by the end of its term in late June or early July. Until then, environmental advocacy groups will continue to rally in support of the Clean Air Act.

“If they do sort of move on this, then it’s to me truly a very political thing to do,” said Minott of the Clean Air Council. “That’s a really dangerous precedent.”

Published in conjunction with Planet Forward logo

Latest in National Security

US to send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that the U.S. will send 31 of its powerful M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, capping months of anticipation over whether the West would provide Ukraine with some of its strongest military equipment.

“These tanks are further evidence of our enduring, unflagging commitment to Ukraine and our confidence in the skill of the Ukrainian forces,” Biden said at the White House Wednesday, flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

The decision to escalate military support to Ukraine comes alongside a similar commitment from Germany, which announced Wednesday it would send 14 of its Leopard 2 tanks and approve shipments of the tanks from other countries. About 2,000 of the Leopard 2s are held by several countries across Europe, some of which have signaled their intentions to contribute to the effort to help Ukraine regain territory taken by Russia over the last eleven months.

Last week, defense officials from approximately 50 nations failed to reach an agreement to send Western tanks to Ukraine during the eighth iteration of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. 

“Hundreds of thank yous are not hundreds of tanks,” Zelensky told the group, pleading for Ukraine’s Western allies to greenlight the transfer equipment.

While German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was expected to announce a shipment of Leopard 2s to Ukraine at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, he instead said that Germany would not do so until the U.S. agreed to send its Abrams.

The Russian Embassy in Berlin called Germany’s decision to send tanks “extremely dangerous,” while Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday before Biden’s announcement that the U.S. supplying Ukraine with Abrams would be “absurd.”

The tanks are part of a new wave of increased military support for Ukraine from the U.S. and its allies, including Poland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and Canada, which ranges from anti-aircraft Stinger missiles to howitzer firearms. The U.K. has also agreed to send 14 of its Challenger 2 battle tanks.

The U.S. has provided over $27 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the war, with the Pentagon announcing $3.75 billion in new assistance last week that included 50 Bradley armored vehicles and more ammunition. Ukrainian troops are also currently undergoing training on the U.S.’ Patriot missile system at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the decision to send tanks “overdue” and said he hopes other European countries with access to Leopard 2s will move swiftly to provide Ukraine with more tanks.

Biden explained that the tanks are intended to help Ukraine defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, emphasizing that there is no offensive threat to Russia. He also acknowledged the challenges in transporting, maintaining and operating the tanks, barriers that have held the Biden administration back from sending the tanks even as Ukraine has requested them for months.

In an address to Congress last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the U.S. for its military assistance but also pleaded for more.

“I believe there should be no taboos between us in our alliance,” Zelensky said, assuring American leaders that  Ukrainian soldiers are capable of operating American tanks and planes.

The White House acknowledged that it will take time to get the tanks to Ukraine but said training on the Abrams will start “very soon.” 

National Security Council Communications Coordinator John Kirby resisted suggestions that the U.S.’ decision was motivated by a need to provide cover for Germany.

“I wouldn’t use the word cover,” Kirby told reporters in a White House press briefing Wednesday afternoon. “What this decision does do is show how unified we are with our allies and partners and doing all of this in a coordinated way.”

Ukrainian officials applauded the announcements from the U.S. and Germany, and are asking for fighter jets next, but the White House has not commented on whether it will agree to supply Ukraine with the planes.

US Secret Service report finds that mass attackers often have had run-ins with law enforcement

WASHINGTON — As Americans reel from the spate of mass killings in recent weeks, the United States Secret Service released a report on Wednesday that aims to shed light on what it calls mass attacks in public spaces.

The agency’s National Threat Assessment Center identified 173 mass attacks in public spaces between 2016 and 2020, defined as an incident where three or more people were harmed during an attack in a public or semi-public space.

The report, however, was a behavioral assessment of the attackers involved and gave no concrete solution to communities. 

When asked what communities should be doing to prevent attacks, chief of the National Threat Assessment Center Lina Alathari said in a news conference the Secret Service encourages communities to use this information and the resources available to identify potential attackers and stop them but gave no further guidance. 

Among the more surprising aspects of the report was that many of the attackers were on the radar of some law enforcement agency, according to Alathari. 

Nearly two-thirds had a history of criminal charges or arrests and one-third had at least one contact with authorities that did not result in arrest. Several also had a history of domestic violence. 

“What the research tells us is that these individuals engage in concerning behavior and this concerning behavior is evident to those around them,” Alathari said. 

The Secret Service is hoping that the report will teach communities how to identify potential threats.

“We know why these (attacks) happen, we see the warning signs, but how can we get this information out there to make sure that communities are equipped with the tools, resources, training to be able to identify, assess and intervene before a tragedy occurs,” Alathari said.

While Alathari said there is no profile for the attackers, there are commonalities in behavior that can be identified, including criminal background or violent history and motive. Overwhelmingly, such attackers have unresolved grievances. 

“Consistent across the five-year time frame and in every year we’ve studied, by far grievances were the top motive for the attacks,” Alathari said. “These were attackers retaliating for some sort of perceived wrongs.” 

Of the 173 attacks, 88 targeted businesses, 60 targeted open spaces and 13 targeted places of education. In just under half of the attacks, the perpetrator had an affiliation with the location. 

While over half of the attackers experienced mental health symptoms including depression and psychosis, Alathari emphasized that mental illness is not an indicator of potential threat. 

“It is not a correlation for mass attacks,” Alathari said. “The vast majority of individuals with mental illness in this country will never be violent.” 

During the presentation, reporters asked Alathari about the wave of violence in California, including the mass attack in Monterey Park, Calif., on Lunar New Year.  But she declined to address reasons for those attacks directly.

The research also described a variety of beliefs and fixations. About one-quarter of attackers believed in conspiracy theories or held hate-focused beliefs on gender and identity. 

In one-third of cases studied, researchers were able to find evidence that the attackers planned the incident. One-quarter communicated their plans online overtly or covertly, according to Alathari. 

The research concluded that the attacks happen all over the country and in every type of community. 

“There is no community that’s immune to this, there’s no profile for what kind of community,” Alathari said.

She added that everyone — schools, businesses, local officials, family members and friends — have a role to play in the prevention of these tragedies, to ensure no information or concerning signs slips through the cracks.

“I want the communities to understand this: these tragedies can be preventable if the communities are equipped with identifying warning signs, encouraging bystander reporting and knowing how to act on that information,” Alathari said.

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Lawmakers, advocates prepare to move forward with toxic exposure legislation

WASHINGTON –– When Jen Burch first returned from a tour in Afghanistan nearly a decade ago, she was seriously sick.

Her temperature was so high that it was flagged going through the airport en route to Okinawa, her home base at the time. When she arrived, she took a cab straight to the ER, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia and bronchitis. Since then, Burch has endured painful migraines, post-traumatic stress disorder and significant weight loss as a result of toxic exposure. 

“You know when you turn the car on and all the lights come on? That’s how I felt,” Burch said.

Toxic exposure occurs when military members are exposed to harmful chemicals and toxins while serving. For Burch, it was burn pits in Afghanistan. For Vietnam veterans, it was Agent Orange. For World War II veterans in Japan, it was radiation. Exposure to such toxins can cause wide-ranging, long-term health impacts. 

But the U.S. government has historically moved slowly to address such conditions. Following the Vietnam War, it took over a decade of advocacy and lawsuits to prompt the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to recognize the damaging effects of Agent Orange. 

Now, over 20 years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, granting benefits to toxic exposed veterans is gaining momentum. President Joe Biden addressed it during the State of the Union, announcing nine new medical conditions the VA will link to toxic exposure. Both the House and Senate have passed varying versions of toxic exposure legislation.

“For one of the first times, it feels like we’re being seen,” Burch, now an advocate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said. “It’s been a journey. I’ve been out of Afghanistan for 10 years now. But there’s other vets who have been out even longer, who have been battling this for much longer than I have, that have gone through some pretty tough hardships to get where they are. Unfortunately, some veterans have died.”

Differing Legislation

Many lawmakers and advocates alike want to get toxic exposure to the president’s desk. But the path forward is uncertain. The legislation passed by the House, the Honoring Our PACT Act, is markedly different from the legislation passed by the Senate, the Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans’ Act. 

The House version, the Honoring Our PACT Act, expands health care coverage for over three million veterans and draws presumptive connections between 23 different illnesses and toxic exposed service members. 

The Senate version, Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans Act, however, doesn’t link any medical conditions to toxic exposure, instead expanding the timeline for eligibility for VA health care to 10 years after service and training VA service providers to look for toxic exposure. The act is just one segment of a three-part legislative push, with plans to address connections between illness and service and expand benefits in the future. 

With two different bills, veterans’ advocates and lawmakers are divided on where to go from here. Rosie Torres, founder of the veterans’ advocacy organization Burn Pits 360, said the expanded eligibility in the Senate legislation doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s a delay tactic,” Torres said. “That delay, deny, wait until you die tactic on behalf of the government, just to say, ‘We won’t give you compensation and the burden of proof will still be on you, but here’s some more health care.’ We know that the onset of these conditions [can be] more than 10 years. It’s not always 10 years, it could be 20 years when these issues start to surface.” 

Burch called the House version the “most comprehensive” legislation Congress has ever created to address toxic exposure. She worries that the Senate’s idea of passing a three-part plan is not enough, saying breaking apart the legislation runs the risk that it might not pass in the future.

“You get the whole package there,” Burch said of the House version. “It’s not this cut-up part. [After] Vietnam, it took years, decades to get stuff passed and it would just be these tiny pieces. Instead of waiting decades and just slowly running smaller packages, let’s do it all now in one big one.”

Some leaders of the American Legion, however, said they would support either piece of toxic exposure legislation. Ralph Bozella, chairman of the American Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission, said the two different acts don’t have to compete, saying he will be happy as long as toxic exposed veterans receive expanded health care.

Lawmakers Grapple

Now, it’s up to lawmakers to figure out which piece of legislation to move forward with.

The Health Care for Burn Pit Veterans’ Act passed unanimously in the Senate, while the Honoring Our PACT Act passed unanimously among House Democrats. The latter didn’t perform as well among House Republicans, however, only garnering 34 votes in favor.

For some Republicans, the price is a sticking point. The House version would cost $208 billion over the following decade, while the Senate version would cost less than $1 billion.

Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has frequently criticized the price tag of the House legislation. In a March 3 statement, Bost took issue with the House passing the Honoring Our PACT Act rather than taking up the Senate’s legislation. 

Instead, House Democrats’ shoved the deeply flawed policies and wildly expensive costs of the PACT Act through the House with no regard for finding common ground,” Bost wrote in the statement. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), however, condemned the idea that the cost should deter Congress from passing the House version. She said what the act will do for veterans should outweigh any price concerns. 

“This is a cost of war that we should recognize when we go,” Pelosi said in a March 2 press conference outside the Capitol.  “And that is – there should be no question. Because this is not going to be expensive, it’s going to be worth it.”

In a statement, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has been working closely alongside Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and colleagues in the House to get “bipartisan, comprehensive toxic exposure legislation” through Congress as soon as possible. 

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Moving Forward

Regardless of which legislation veterans’ advocates support, many are at a consensus: they want greater acknowledgement of toxic exposure, and they want it signed into law soon.

Torres, a supporter of the House version, said she feels the bill has the support of the White House and President Biden, who spoke about expanding presumptions during the State of the Union. Now, one priority of hers is to change Republicans’ minds that the bill is “fiscally irresponsible.”

American Legion National Commander Paul Dillard noted that cost concerns remain a dividing factor. But his colleague Bozella said they remain heartened by the bipartisan support for toxic exposure. 

“This battle is not going to be a battle because it’s non-partisan,” Dillard said. “Both chambers [were] all jumping in, so I think we’re in the right direction.”

Burch, now over a decade removed from her service in Afghanistan, was heartened by the passage of the House legislation. But she’s not ready to let the momentum slow anytime soon.

“Now the push is there,” Burch said. “It lifts your spirits, and it’s like, ‘Okay, we got a victory. Let’s keep going.’”

TRANS RIGHTS POST-SOTU: TEXAS COURT, HHS AND ADVOCATES RESPOND

WASHINGTON – A day after President Biden’s State of the Union, a Texas judge issued a temporary restraining order, blocking the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) from investigating two parents for providing gender-affirming health care to their 16-year-old transgender daughter.

The restraining order only applies to the Doe family and its lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Texas and Lambda Legal on Tuesday. However, District Judge Amy Clark Meachum will consider a request for a broader injunction next Friday. 

Advocates are encouraging at-risk families to seek legal assistance prior to any potential investigations.  

“This is a critical victory and important first step in stopping these egregious and illegal actions from Texas officials,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, in a press release. “We are relieved for our plaintiffs and ready to keep fighting to stop the governor, commissioner, and DFPS from inflicting further harm on trans people and their families and communities across Texas.” 

After Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s call to consider gender-affirming health care for minors as child abuse under state law — and Gov. Greg Abbott’s public support of the opinion — parents supporting trans children were put at legal risk, with some even considering moving out of state. 

President Biden condemned anti-trans legislation in Texas and nationwide in a statement released on Wednesday. 

“Elected leaders in Texas have launched a cynical and dangerous campaign targeting transgender children and their parents,” Biden said. 

Abbott and Paxton’s push to consider parents’ provision of gender-affirming health care to minors is “government overreach at its worst,” the president added. 

“The Governor’s actions callously threaten to harm children and their families just to score political points. These actions are terrifying many families in Texas and beyond. And they must stop,” he said. 

Biden also referenced his State of the Union promise to always have transgender Americans’ backs, adding that he and the first lady “will continue to fight for a future where all children can thrive.”

Medill News Service spoke with Erin Reed, a trans right advocate and transgender woman, on what the above federal guidance and provision of resources mean for her community. Reed had previously told MNS that Biden’s remarks on “LGBTQ+ Americans” during the Tuesday address were hopeful but not enough.  

“This mobilization of federal resources feels like a breath of air in the middle of this experience where it feels like we’re just drowning in legislation targeted towards trans people,” Reed said. “There’s more morale now, and it seems like people are hopeful now.”  

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra called the current treatment of transgender Texans “discriminatory” and “unconscionable” and encouraged Texans to contact the Office for Civil Rights to report their experience if feeling unsafe or threatened. 

 “At HHS, we listen to medical experts and doctors, and they agree with us, that access to affirming care for transgender youth is essential and can be life-saving,” Becerra said. 

HHS has released guidance on how local governments can use state child welfare agencies to “advance safety and support for LGBTQI+ youth,” as well as guidance on illegality of denying health care based on gender identity, as well as restricting doctors and health care providers from providing medical assistance. 

“I definitely still don’t have any hope on legislation, on the Equality Act, anything like that,” Reed said. “Our best bet is through a mixture of state and local laws where these laws can be passed, and then executive branch guidance and support and mobilization of resources and enforcement of federal law in non-discrimination and constitutional protections that we have.”

More details and resources can be found in the HHS statement

Both the Texas and federal decisions come as a variety of advocates across the nation – including immigration and trans rights – demanded Congress and Biden actually take action, rather than reiterate promises of protection. 

“I want to see the follow through,” Reed said.

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Sanders Pushes for “Transformational Change” on National and Local Level at U.S. Mayors Conference

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took his national message local on Thursday as he addressed Mayors at a panel on innovation and workforce development at the United States Conference of Mayors.

Sanders, a former mayor himself of Burlington, Vermont, spoke mainly about issues relating to health care, childcare, education and job access, issues that will fall under his new chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Introducing Sanders was Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix, who set the tone by painting current economic conditions as an opportunity.

“We will be taking a look at the changing nature of work accelerated by the pandemic,” she said. “We’re facing an extremely tight job market right now which means we have a chance to innovate.”

After opening remarks about national challenges, Sanders then moved to issues facing local governments, in particular health care. In addition to a crisis of too many uninsured Americans, he used his own state’s anecdotes to describe the shortage of medical professionals.

“We don’t have enough nurses,” he said. “In my small city, Burlington, the local hospital is (using) traveling nurses because we don’t have enough local nurses.”

Sanders also lamented the lack of diversity in the health care workforce, an issue he says must be solved in addition to expanding the number of those in the profession. Only 5% of doctors are Black and 6% are Hispanic

The senator also highlighted shortages in both the childcare and education sectors. He attributes them to low pay, noting that childcare workers make an average $13.31 hourly wage and that teacher pay is growing less than other college graduates’ pay adjusted for inflation. 

How do you attract workers to these sectors? Sanders said it starts by uplifting them.

“We have to respect education,” he said. “Make education important. Treat teachers with respect. Pay them with higher salaries that they deserve.”

People also need greater opportunities to enter these sectors, of which Sanders said includes making college affordable. He thanked the Mayors who have already taken action to make community college free.

But Sanders also voiced a need to improve trade schools. Trades workers shortages are ones that he said are making it difficult to actually execute investments in economic development.

“One of the exciting things we have seen as a result of the infrastructure and jobs act and CHIPS act is, construction is really out recruiting,” Gallego said about Phoenix, a sign she thinks is hopeful for her community. 

In addition to Sanders, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Alejandra Castillo gave an update on how recently passed federal legislation has been fueling regional growth across the country, showcasing the intersection between federal policy and local development.

But many of these funds, like the 2021 American Rescue Plan and 2022 CHIPS act, are one time investments, and Castillo said the EDA’s nearly $400 million budget isn’t enough to create true long-term growth. Making these investments consistent and permanent was a wish of both Sanders and Castillo.

“If we’re going to meet the opportunities of the future, it has to be long term,” she said. “I will continue to commit to you that as long as I am in this position, that is what I will continue to advocate for.”

Legislators, experts, and public call for deeper examination of FAA outage

WASHINGTON – Airports and airlines are attempting to recoup their losses and quell public exasperation a day after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had to issue a 90-minute nationwide ground stop to air travel, scrambling schedules and grounding thousands of flights.

The ground-stop order was the result of a system outage to the FAA’s so-called Notice to Air Mission (NOTAM) alerts, which are key to ensuring pilots are aware of safety hazards, including closed runways and navigation beacons. With the system offline, there was no way to guarantee that planes were able to take off safely.

A statement posted Wednesday evening on Twitter by the FAA said the agency “has traced the outage to a damaged database file.” Still, many travelers and policymakers are left wondering how the failure managed to cause such a widespread and long-lasting interruption.

Southwest, one of the most-affected airlines with nearly half of its flights canceled, said it worked quickly to get its operations fully running after the damaged NOTAM system was back online.

“We’re fully staffed and focused on operating as many flights as possible today, and we expect delays across our system on this day shortened by the FAA ground stop that pushed the departure of our first flights on the East Coast by two to three hours,” Chris Perry, a public-relations consultant for Southwest Airlines, said on Wednesday.

The disruption this week came shortly after the airline canceled over 16,000 flights in late December after widespread problems in its crew scheduling system during a massive winter storm.

While the two disturbances are unrelated, the original bout of weather-related cancellations is already predicted to cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars. The financial impact of the FAA’s outage could be just as significant.

Lawmakers and federal employees were quick to criticize the Southwest disruption in December, and many officials cast a harsh spotlight when the federal government itself appeared to bear the responsibility for the chaos.

“Just as Southwest’s widespread disruption a few weeks ago was inexcusable, so too is the DOT’s and FAA’s failure to properly maintain and operate the air traffic control system,” Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement. 

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also called the FAA’s problems unacceptable. “When these NOTAMs did not go out to pilots, safety had to come first, and they need these NOTAMs to understand the situational awareness of flying,” Larsen said last night on MSNBC.

When asked for additional comment, the Department of Transportation, the FAA’s parent agency, pointed back to the FAA’s and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s statements. Buttigieg said on Twitter that he had directed officials to “determine root causes and recommend next steps.”

The secretary also defended the ground stop as necessary because of the system failure. “The bottom line for us is always going to be safety,” Buttigieg said on CNN on Wednesday. “We are extremely conservative when there is any question or irregularity.”

According to FlightAware, the two U.S. airports that faced the highest percentages of canceled and delayed flights were the Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW) and the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI).

BWI had 48 percent of outgoing flights and 43 percent of incoming flights canceled before the ground stop was lifted. As of Wednesday evening, BWI officials said the airport has resumed normal operations. 

“The airport terminal is quiet, with no significant lines at airline ticketing or the TSA security checkpoints,” said Jonathan Dean, BWI’s communications director. “Our operations personnel remain in close contact with the FAA and airline partners.”

Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group International and aviation expert, contested some of the federal agencies’ and representatives’ explanations. He posited that the underlying issue is the lack of aviation experts at the helm of the FAA, calling it “a repository for political appointees at the very top.”

“Except a couple times, they have not had any competent leadership. They’ve had political people running it. We can’t have that any more than you can have a hospital run by somebody who knows the auto industry,” Boyd said.

Among the pressing and still-unanswered questions remains what will prevent such a failure in the future.

The FAA’s lack of specificity on what exactly caused the NOTAM system outage allowed these accusations of unpreparedness to proliferate. “You anticipate what’s going to happen, you anticipate the worst, and then say, ‘If this happens, what do we do?’” Boyd said. “None of that has been in place at the FAA, and that’s a management failure.”

Despite Secretary Buttigieg’s statement that the NOTAM system has “a lot of redundancy built into it with backups,” Boyd felt it was still lacking in sufficient protections. The FAA site states that the agency has modernized the NOTAM, which was created shortly after World War II, in partnership with airlines, unions and other parties. But analysts say more needs to be done to ensure such failures don’t escalate like they did this week.

“It’s not so much about seeing it coming as it is assuming it’s going to come and having a backup system,” Boyd said. “They didn’t have a backup system. That’s the real issue.”

SOTU: Health Care

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Tuesday that Congress should approve his plan to replace Obamacare with a new health care program that would provide “affordable alternative” insurance options and criticized Democrats for trying to impose “a socialist takeover of our health care system.”

“A good life for American families requires the most affordable, innovative and high-quality health care system on earth,” Trump said in his third State of the Union address.

Trump said he has proposed health care plans that would be up to 60% cheaper than the Affordable Care Act plans. Both the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond when asked if a specific replacement plan has existed or ever will.

The president blamed Democrats for not providing the American people with the health care reforms he has promised.

“As we work to improve Americans’ health care, there are those who want to take away your health care, take away your doctor, and abolish private insurance entirely,” said Trump, referring to the Democrats.

Democrats stood up at this comment, pointed their fingers at Trump and shouted “YOU.”

Trump said 130 Democrats endorse legislation to impose a “socialist takeover” of the health care system by “taking away the private health insurance plans of 180 million.”

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are pushing for a “Medicare for All” plan that would end private health insurance while other candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., are pushing to expand on Obamacare.

“We will never let socialism destroy American health care,” Trump said.

Trump emphasized the administration’s efforts to protect patients with pre-existing conditions, to which Democrats threw up their hands and shook their heads in disagreement. Led by House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate and House Democrats brought more than 80 patients, doctors and health care advocates from across the country as guests to the speech.

“President Trump will speak to an audience filled with Americans who are suffering because of his broken promises on prescription drug costs and his all-out assault on Americans with preexisting conditions,” Pelosi said in a press release Tuesday morning.

The president also called upon Congress to pass legislation to lower prescription drug prices.

“Get a bill to my desk, and I will sign it into law without delay,” the president said.

Democrats responded to this by booing and holding up three fingers to represent H.R. 3, legislation proposed by the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings that would require the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to negotiate certain drug prices. The bill has been on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk for over a month after being passed in the House.

Generic prescription drug prices dropped 1% in 2018, the first price drop in 45 years, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Trump said it was the first time in 51 years. Brand-name drug prices, however, are still increasing.

Trump said the administration will continue to make health care more transparent by requiring hospitals to make their prices negotiated with insurers public and easily accessible online. He also pointed to the passage of administration-backed legislation called “Right to Try,” which allows terminally ill patients access to drugs not fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration if they feel they have tried all other options.

He also said he has launched new initiatives to improve care for Americans with kidney disease, Alzheimer’s and those struggling with mental health challenges, in addition to pursuing new cures for childhood cancer and AIDS.

The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday afternoon to further discuss Trump’s health care policies and overcoming pharmaceutical barriers in particular.

Trump Sticks By Wall in State of the Union Address

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s call for a wall to secure America’s southern border in his State of the Union address Tuesday night was no surprise to opponents.

Jennifer Johnson, the policy director at the Southern Border Communities Coalition, said Trump continually characterizes the southern border as a violent area.

“More of a reality check, these are families and children seeking protection, fleeing spiraling violence and poverty,” she said.

Chris Montoya, who served as a Customs and Border Protection agent for 21 years, said that “crime rates are pretty low in border cities. Being a border patrol agent is one of the safest law enforcement jobs. All those things together means a safe border.”

Rep.  Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., invited as his guest a mother who had been separated from her children at the border.

Other Democrats brought undocumented immigrants as their guests, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J.

Rep. Sheila Jackson, D-Texas, was enthusiastic about their attendance at the address. “Their presence here today is representative of the big tent that America is,” she said.

In his address, Trump attributed what he called at crisis at the border to America’s “reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools, and hospitals that are so crowded you can’t get in.” He referenced San Diego and El Paso as being cities that were once violent, and now safe with the addition of physical barriers.

Trump also mentioned the prevalence of MS-13 within the country. “They almost all come through our Southern border,” he said.

Montoya said MS-13 members do enter through the southern border on rare occasions, but it is uncommon for CBP agents to make an arrest.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin is the ranking member on the Senate Subcommittee for Border Security and Immigration. He said nothing changed in Trump’s rhetoric. “If we’re waiting on him, we’re not going to get this solved,” he said.

Washingtonians alternately protest, celebrate the State of the Union

WASHINGTON – DC-area residents had very different reactions to President Donald Trump’s second State of the Union address Tuesday night. But whether they celebrated or denounced the event, emotions were strong.

Around 40-50 people gathered at each of two intersections near the Capitol ahead of the address  — far fewer than the 400 people who protested last year, according to Resist DC, the community action group that organized both years’ protests.

People lined the sidewalks along the streets that President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other Trump cabinet members’ motorcades were expected pass by. They held homemade signs lit with string lights so they would be visible to government officials in their cars and chanted anti-Trump messages to music and drums.

Eileen Minarick, 70, said she was protesting simply “because the state of our union is terrible.”

Members of Herndon-Reston Indivisible, a group created to resist President Trump's policies and elect Democrats to office, held lit-up letters spelling “Fraud” and “Yuge Liar.” (Ester Wells/MNS)40-50 protestors were stationed at each of two points along 3rd Street NW in Washington, D.C. (Ester Wells/MNS)Protestors waved Russian flags as they waited along the sidewalk. (Ester Wells/MNS)A protestor held a lit-up sign as he shouted the words. (Ester Wells/MNS)Eileen Minarick, 70, said, “I don’t feel I’m protesting Trump. I’m protesting the policies of his administration, which are inhuman.” (Ester Wells/MNS)(Ester Wells/MNS)Police cars and officers patrolled the streets surrounding the Capitol, many of which were blocked off to both vehicles and pedestrians. (Ester Wells/MNS)Patrons don pink stickers and resistance apparel as they listen to activist speakers and wait for President Trump's State of the Union address to begin  (Brooke Fowler/MNS)Sitting in front of the projector, a stray star is caught on actor Danny Glover's face as he prepares to educate attendees about the conflict in Latin America. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)Co-founder of CODEPINK, Madea Benjamin addresses the crowd as other speakers converse with audience members. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)The classic pairing of wine and board games is at every table, except with a twist. In order to ‘survive the night’ patrons mark a square every time President Trump utters a common saying. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)Violence against women must end, said Chad Smith, a trainer with nonprofit organization Men Can Stop Rape. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)All eyes are trained on the screen as Trump enters the House Chamber for the State of the Union address. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)Grinning, a man in a Make America Great Again hat listens as President Donald Trump announced “I will get it built” in reference to a southern border wall at a local Young Republicans watch party. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)A sign welcomes members of the DC Young Republicans and Arlington Falls Church Young Republicans. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)Members of Republican organizations gather around as President Trump continues past expected time in his State of the Union speech. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)The scene is more mellow downstairs, where a few recluse bar patrons chat with each other as the television screens broadcast in synchrony. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)

Elsewhere in the city, local bar patrons gathered to drink beer, compete in presidential bingo and watch the State of the Union.

Grassroots activist group CODEPINK hosted a number of guest speakers, including actor Danny Glover, for a lively discussion before the main event. Topics ranged from the Bolivarian revolution to ending domestic violence.

Anita Jenkins, spokeswoman for Stand Up for Democracy, riled the crowd with a call to establish the District of Columbia the 51st state in the United States.

“The people of D.C. have no representation… We have nobody to speak for us,” she said. Modifying the words of America’s early founders, she said, “Taxation without representation is a rip-off.”

As President Trump appeared on the projector, shouts of disapproval rose from the bar patrons. The State of the Union 2019 had begun and the energy was energetic in its moroseness.

Across town, the atmosphere was also charged. Members of DC Young Republicans and Arlington Falls Church Young Republicans filled a restaurant for a celebratory viewing party.

“In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall… but the proper wall never got built,” said Donald Trump. He paused and then said, “I’ll get it built.” Hoots and hollers erupted in the bar and two girls were seen smiling and hugging each other.

Though Trump stressed unity in his national address, DC-area residents remained divided in their reactions.

2020 Candidates Alternate Cheers, Hisses to Trump Wall, Immigration Proposals during State of Union

WASHINGTON – Several Democratic 2020 presidential candidates expressed their displeasure with many of President Donald Trump’s policies during the State of the Union address Tuesday.

Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., could be seen shaking their heads when Trump mentioned controversial topics such as his commitment to building a border wall and the dangers of migrant caravans heading to the U.S. southern border.

Harris, who announced her candidacy on Jan. 21, shook her head and visibly mouthed, “They’re not,” as Trump said, “Large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States.”

In a Facebook Live address before the State of the Union, Harris told viewers, “It’s a moment for a president to rise above politics and unite the country with a vision that includes all Americans, not just the ones who may have voted for them. It’s a moment to bring us together.”

Early in the address, Harris was often reluctant to give Trump a standing ovation, asking her colleagues, “Really?” as they cheered the president’s comments about space exploration.

The candidates and their Democratic colleagues booed and hissed as Trump labeled the numerous investigations into his campaign finance and relationship with Russia “ridiculous partisan investigations.”

“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way!”

Democrats cheered later as Trump mentioned that women have filled 58 percent of new jobs in the past year. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has formed a presidential exploratory committee, pointed at the newly elected House Democrats, who stood up and chanted, “USA, USA.”

“I think he didn’t realize that all the female jobs he created were for [congresswomen],” Gillibrand said after the speech.

The Democratic candidates stood and applauded with everyone in the chamber when Trump recognized World War II veterans, a SWAT team member and a childhood cancer survivor.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., sat stoically as Trump denounced socialism. Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, is widely considered likely e to enter the presidential race. Unlike Sanders, Gillibrand and Harris stood and applauded as Trump said, “America will never be a socialist country.”

TRUMP STRIKES CHORD WITH WOMEN, FALLS FLAT ON BIPARTISAN BORDER WALL PITCH

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump got one of his biggest rounds of applause during his State of the Union address Tuesday night when he noted that Congress now has a record-high number of elected women, but it wasn’t lost on the crowd that when the women rose to cheer they were mostly on the Democratic side of the aisle.

“Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before,” Trump said as the women lawmakers rose to clap and celebrate. He then advised them “Don’t sit. You’re going to like this.”

“Exactly one century after the Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in the Congress than at any time before,” he said. There were 117 women elected to Congress in 2018.

Bipartisan chants of “USA! USA!” filled the chamber as both the Democrats and Republicans broke into uproarious applause. Many of the Democratic women wore white and donned pins that read “ERA YES,” in a nod to the women of the suffragette movement.

Trump called his list of priorities “the agenda of the American people” in his second State of the Union address Tuesday, which was delayed a week because of the 35-day government shutdown, which didn’t end until the previous Friday. The address was the first the president has delivered before the new Democratic majority in the House.

The president remained on-script for the duration of the 84-minute speech and touted his administration’s achievements from the past two years. He also laid out several legislative priorities going forward, including a “smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier,” an infrastructure bill and the eradication of HIV and AIDS.

Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., was glad that health care was a topic in the speech, while Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., described the speech as “terrific.”

“We haven’t gotten that right when it comes to protection our citizens with pre-existing conditions, correcting all the problems and costs associated with the ACA,” French said. “I like that he kept an emphasis on that while also tackling the prescription drug process.”

For Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., laying out these broad initiatives wasn’t enough.

“I wrote down a number of initiatives — defense spending, cancer research, transportation, infrastructure — and never heard anything of how we’re going to pay for them,” he said.

The president also pushed his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and to reduce drastically the number of troops in Afghanistan.

Among Democrats, reactions were mixed as Trump highlighted his achievements. When Trump lauded the U.S. increase in gas and oil production, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who has championed a Green New Deal to address accelerating climate change, remained seated.

Many Democrats applauded Trump’s push for a new infrastructure bill and decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who sat behind Trump with Vice President Mike Pence, was clearly following a printed version of the speech. She applauded when Trump mentioned criminal justice reform and bipartisan efforts on lowering drug costs and furthering women’s rights.

After praising a recent bipartisan effort to secure criminal justice reform, Trump shifted to a project he said would require the same bipartisan effort: a southern border wall.

“Simply put, walls work and walls save lives,” he said. “So let’s work together, compromise and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.”

However, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was not encouraged by the president’s attempt to strike a bipartisan tone.

“I just don’t think he is to be trusted,” she said. “This is not a president who is working for the middle class of this country.”

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said that while parts of Trump’s speech were good, he was too combative at times.

“There should have been more emphasis on the fact that the government was shut down and we all need to work together to bring it back,” he said. “Blaming the Democrats is not going to keep the government open.”

Freshmen members of Congress excited, disappointed at their first State of the Union address

WASHINGTON — Before attending his first State of the Union address, Rep. Jefferson Van Drew, D-N.J., felt a sense of excitement and joy, but also feared the president might once again fan partisan flames by rehashing controversial issues.

“I hope that right now, he doesn’t talk about closing the government again. I hope he doesn’t talk right now about declaring a national emergency. I would so much rather see that we try to work together and get something done. That requires flexibility on Democrats side as well. Both sides have to do this,” said Van Drew.

Partisanship is the reason the approval rating for Congress is so low, but issues like border security, and infrastructure deserve cooperation between the two parties, said Van Drew.

“Rather than just argue and disagree and investigative and be hurtful on both sides, maybe we can actually get something get done.”

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Chris Pappas, D-N.H.

Although having been full-fledged members of Congress for a little over a month, the freshmen class of senators and representatives still retains a “sense of awe” about the State of the Union address, said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. Pappas said he hoped Trump would strike a conciliatory tone with Democrats, allowing lawmakers to avoid a second government shutdown.

Pappas brought a transgender military veteran from his home state to hear the president as a symbol of his hope that Trump’s transgender military service ban will be lifted.

“That doesn’t make us any safer and in fact plays politics with the military,” he said.

In addition to passing social justice reform, Pappas said he would like Trump to speak about the opioid crisis, prescription drug costs and infrastructure — and Trump did.

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Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill.

In Illinois Rep. Sean Casten’s dreams, Trump’s State of the Union address would make climate change a priority, but said his expectations were low. Trump did not in fact mention the environment.

“Truth is what I hope he doesn’t say is what I fear he will say,” Casten said, “which is that he’s going to threaten to shut down the government again if he doesn’t get a wall.”

Casten’s guest was Julie Caribeaux, the executive director of Family Shelter Service, which receives federal aid and provides support for victims of domestic abuse. He said domestic violence victims are some of the “primary victims” of Trump’s rhetoric.

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Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-NY, was hoping for a message of bipartisanship and unity, things that “the American people are calling for.” Trump did call on Congress to act together on many issues.

Brindisi’s top priorities this year are trying to find common ground with the Republicans on immigration reform, infrastructure and lowering prescription drug costs. On infrastructure, he said he specifically wanted to hear Trump’s ideas on investing in job training programs. Trump mentioned all the issues, but with little specificity except that he wants a border wall and enforcement to stop what he called “caravans of migrants” heading to the southern border.

“Those are things that I talked about during the campaign that many people back in upstate New York are calling for and those are things I hope he does say,” Brindisi said.

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Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev.

Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., said she gets excited every time she walks onto the House floor, and Tuesday was no exception. Although there were parts of the speech she did not agree with, namely Trump’s insistence on a border wall, Lee said she appreciated the call for bipartisanship.

Lowering prescription drug prices, investing in infrastructure and a comprehensive border control strategy — these are all components of his speech Lee said she could agree with.

“These are all ideas I can get behind and they work together to produce some results for American families,” she said.

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Rep. Deb Halaand, D-N.M.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., said she was dismayed about Trump’s urgency regarding funding for a border wall.

“I wasn’t surprised. Let’s put it that way about the president’s speech. I mean, of course, we don’t want a wall,” said Halland. “He instilled fear and everybody about the danger, you know, the danger that’s coming across the border.”

Haaland hopes to focus on promoting awareness about climate change and wished the President would be more receptive to the diverse issues and people around the country.

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Rep. Chuy Garcia, D-Ill., said he enjoyed his first State of the Union in a historical sense, but wanted President Trump to address issues he feels are important, including raising the minimum wage and healthcare.

Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill.

He said while the president did mention lowering prescription drug costs, there was another area of healthcare that was not noted, such as the millions who do not have healthcare at all.

“He wrapped himself around a lot of patriotism and recognition of your courageous battles and victories and but in the end, I think he failed to address important things more,” Garcia said.

 

 

Post-SOTU Interviews with Illinois Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowski and Cheri Bustos

Our Alex Lederman sat down with Illinois Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowski and Cheri Bustos after the State of the Union to hear their thoughts on President Obama’s address.

Schakowski — Evanston’s congresswoman since 1999 — said “(Obama)’s vision of what makes our country strong was so human and so true.”

Bustos said Obama is focused on the future — our children and grandchildren — and working together to solve the nation’s problems.

Medill on the Hill produces live State of the Union broadcast

WASHINGTON — It was the third day of reporting for the 21 students in Medill on the Hill. It also happened to be the day the president would deliver his final State of the Union address.

Months ago, buoyed by the excitement of the possibilities and the folly of youth, some of us came up with the idea of taking Medill on the Hill to a new level — producing live TV while also finding new ways of storytelling for the website and social media.

On State of the Union night, Jan. 12, the Washington web team led by Alex Duner and Celena Chong managed the flow of copy and constant web updates streaming in from reporters around Capitol Hill and elsewhere in D.C. There also was a constant stream of @medillonthehill tweets and snapchats as well as several Periscopes.

Tyler Kendall, Allyson Chiu and Shane McKeon were responsible for the main story, and Chiu said the experience was, “the highlight” of her journalism career.

“It was hectic, crazy and we were definitely all running on adrenaline by the end of the night,” she said.

Other reporters were assigned to stories on specific issues the president mentioned, or how local college students reacted to the speech. One even tweeted the speech in Spanish.

My task was to produce the Washington end of a live television broadcast.

Nine months ago Jesse Kirsch came back from 2015 Medill on the Hill with an idea for Carlin McCarthy, another producer with the Northwestern News Network, and me.

He said, with the optimism of a television anchor, that for the 2016 State of the Union we should produce a live broadcast with analysts at our home studio in Evanston and reporters in our D.C. bureau and on Capitol Hill. I said, with the skepticism of a television producer, that I thought he was crazy.

It took long nights, patience and a lot of support from the Medill faculty and staff, but we pulled it off.

Jesse opened the show in Evanston and before we knew it Isabella Gutierrez was doing a live hit from the Washington bureau. Then we were live in Statuary Hall with Noah Fromson, followed by a live report from graduate student Ryan Holmes on what to watch for just minutes before we streamed the live feed of President Barack Obama addressing a joint session of Congress for his final State of the Union.

We did a live interviews with Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, wrote scripts while we counted down the seconds until they were read and gathered quotes from senators and members of Congress. Alex Lederman also provided quick-turn video interviews with two congresswomen.

Associate Producer Geordan Tilley, who interviewed Durbin, was nervous before the show, but she said she is proud of the Medill effort.

“I thought the show was some of our best work, Tilley said. “Especially considering how many firsts were involved, not the least of which was our first time going live.”

 

 

 


 

Medill Today | February 2, 2023