The Senate took its first steps on Wednesday to advance one of Democrats’ top legislative priorities, convening an opening hearing on a sweeping elections bill that would expand voting rights and blunt some Republican state legislators’ efforts to restrict access to the ballot box.
Chock-full of liberal priorities, the bill, called the For the People Act, would usher in landmark changes making it easier to vote, enact new campaign finance laws and end partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts. The legislation passed the House along party lines earlier this month. It faces solid opposition from Republicans who are working to clamp down on ballot access, and who argue that the bill is a power grab by Democrats.
Democrats on the Senate Rules Committee hope that testimony from former Attorney General Eric Holder, prominent voting experts and anti-corruption advocates will help build on a rising drumbeat of support from liberals.
“Today, in the 21st century, there is a concerted, nationwide effort to limit the rights of citizens to vote and to truly have a voice in their own government,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader.
He called the voting rollbacks in the states an “existential threat to our democracy” reminiscent of Jim Crow segregationist laws, chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the Republicans promoting them.
Republicans are equally adamant in their opposition to a measure that promises to be an extraordinarily heavy lift for Democrats. They call it an attempt by Democrats to give themselves a permanent political advantage by driving up turnout among minority groups and by preventing Republicans, who control a majority of statehouses, from drawing new congressional districts this year that would tilt the playing field in their favor.
“This bill is the single most dangerous bill this committee has ever considered,” said Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas. “This bill is designed to corrupt the election process permanently, and it is a brazen and shameless power grab by Democrats.”
He falsely claimed that the bill would register millions of undocumented immigrants to vote and accused Democrats of wanting the most violent criminals to cast ballots, too. In fact, it is illegal for noncitizens to vote, and the bill would do nothing to change that or a requirement that people registering to vote swear they are citizens. It would extend the franchise to millions of former felons, as some states already do, but only after they have served their terms.
So far, not a single Republican supports the nearly 800-page bill, and Democrats are unlikely to win support even from all 50 of their senators without substantial changes.
Democrats’ best hope for enacting the legislation increasingly appears to be to try to leverage its voting protections — which many liberals view as a life-or-death matter not just for American democracy, but for their own political chances in the future — to justify triggering the Senate’s so-called nuclear option: the elimination of the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, to advance most bills. For now, though, even that remains out of reach as long as conservative Democrats in the 50-50 Senate are opposed.
To make the case against the bill, Republicans turned to two officials who backed an effort to overturn President Biden’s election victory. Mac Warner, the secretary of state of West Virginia, and Todd Rokita, the attorney general of Indiana, both supported a Texas lawsuit late last year asking the Supreme Court to invalidate the election results in key battleground states Mr. Biden won, citing groundless claims of voting fraud and other irregularities being spread by former President Donald J. Trump.
Two former Republican chairmen of the Federal Election Commission also testified in opposition on Wednesday. Republicans were particularly outspoken against changes that would transform the body, which regulates federal elections, from a bipartisan and largely toothless entity into a more partisan and punitive one.
The bill proposes restructuring the F.E.C. from an evenly split bipartisan panel into one with an odd number of members, where a chairman selected by the president would effectively take control.
“Talk about ‘shame,’” said Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader.
Vice President Kamala Harris will be in charge of efforts to reduce illegal immigration by finding ways to improve conditions in Central American countries, President Biden said Wednesday as his administration struggles to confront a surge of migrants at the country’s southern border.
“This new surge we are dealing with now started in the past administration, but it is our responsibility” now to deal with it, Mr. Biden said as he made the announcement during a meeting with top immigration advisers.
He called the vice president the most qualified person to deal with Mexico and Central American countries as they try to limit what he called “serious spikes” in the number of people trying to cross the border illegally.
The announcement puts Ms. Harris in the middle of one of the most charged and contentious issues for the White House, which has scrambled to find space for thousands of minors who have crossed the border without their parents in recent weeks.
Mr. Biden said that Ms. Harris would oversee the administration’s plans to pump billions of dollars into the ravaged economies of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in the hopes of reducing the violence and poverty that often drive families in those countries to seek refuge in the United States.
Ms. Harris said that there was “no question this is a challenging situation,” but that she was looking forward to engaging in discussions with leaders of Central American countries.
For Ms. Harris, the diplomatic assignment is one of the first in a portfolio of responsibilities that aides said would continue to expand in the months ahead. They noted that Mr. Biden, as vice president under President Barack Obama, had been in charge of working to improve conditions in the same Central American countries.
The task is likely to be a difficult one. Mr. Biden’s efforts in Central America were largely unsuccessful, as critics charged that corrupt leaders there had not effectively spent foreign aid money. In the years since, the countries have grown more dangerous and more economically unstable.
Now, Ms. Harris will face similar challenges in an even more heated political environment. Republicans have seized on the surge of migrants at the border as evidence that Mr. Biden’s immigration policies are failing.
Aides sought to describe the vice president’s role as limited to working on long-term improvements in Central America. But it may be difficult for Ms. Harris to avoid political blame for the administration’s broader immigration agenda if her efforts fail to significantly stem the flow of migrants arriving at the southern border of the United States in the short term.
Ms. Harris said on Wednesday that she expected to travel to the border in the coming weeks, but did not provide details. Aides declined to say when she would make a trip to Central America or discuss the immigration issue with the leaders of the nations she will work with.
President Biden and Jill Biden, the first lady, will deliver remarks at an event on Wednesday that will outline the importance of equal pay after a year in which millions of women left the work force because of the pandemic.
“This is personal to me, because it’s personal to all women,” Dr. Biden will say, according to prepared remarks published in Elle magazine before the event. “It’s one example of how we still treat women differently than men.”
Mr. Biden has sought to make equality a primary focus of his administration, partly through a $1.9 trillion relief package that targets underserved communities and seeks to provide money to families who have struggled to make ends meet. This month, he signed an executive order to re-establish a gender-focused policy council that had been dormant during the Trump administration.
Women earn about 80 percent of what men make, according to census data. Statistics from the Pew Research Center show that the gender pay gap has narrowed considerably over the past few decades, but that women — particularly women of color — still report a difference in earnings compared with white men.
The White House event is one of many recognizing Equal Pay Day, a symbolic marker created in 1996 by the National Committee on Pay Equity, a coalition of civil rights groups. March 24 is the date in the new year when women catch up to the amount of money that men made in the previous year, according to the committee.
In an attempt to add star power to a policy discussion, the Bidens invited Megan Rapinoe of the United States women’s soccer team to participate in the event. Ms. Rapinoe, 35, is one of the most popular soccer stars in the world and has used her platform to call out pay disparities between male and female athletes.
In December, the United States Soccer Federation and its World Cup champion women’s team said they had reached an agreement over a wage-discrimination lawsuit, months after a federal judge dismissed claims that the female athletes were systematically underpaid.
Two years after Ms. Rapinoe publicly feuded with former President Donald J. Trump over whether she would visit the White House, she accepted the invitation from the Bidens.
Ms. Rapinoe is also outspoken on issues of racial justice: Her decision to kneel during the national anthem in a show of support for the former N.F.L. player Colin Kaepernick put her, along with other athletes, in Mr. Trump’s cross hairs.
The running conflicts between the sports world and the Trump administration turned any decision for athletes to visit the White House into a cultural flash point, so her appearance with the Bidens on Wednesday was hardly an accidental course correction.
Before joining the Bidens, Ms. Rapinoe was scheduled to testify to the House Oversight Committee about the need to close gender-based pay gaps.
“The women’s national team has won four World Cup championships and four Olympic gold medals on behalf of our country,” she wrote in a prepared statement. “Yet despite all this, we are still paid less than men — for each trophy, each win, each tie, each time we play.”
If that can happen to women “with the brightest lights shining on us,” she added, it can happen to women in any industry.
Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday called on Republicans “to stop with the false choices” in the debate over guns — criticizing opponents of gun control for blocking proposals, modest or sweeping, on the grounds that they would endanger the Second Amendment.
Ms. Harris, in her first extended remarks since Monday’s mass shooting in Boulder, Colo., reiterated President Biden’s call for the Senate, where Ms. Harris has the power to cast a tiebreaking vote, to quickly enact a pair of gun control bills recently passed by the House.
“It is time for Congress to act and stop with the false choices,” Ms. Harris said in an interview on “CBS This Morning.” “This is not about getting rid of the Second Amendment. It’s simply about saying we need reasonable gun safety laws. There is no reason why we have assault weapons on the streets of a civil society. They are weapons of war. They are designed to kill a lot of people quickly.”
The vice president also spoke candidly about the rapidly escalating migrant crisis at the country’s southern border, calling the situation a “huge problem.” Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden intend to visit the border, she said, although she did not say when.
Ms. Harris’s remarks came a day after Mr. Biden made a similar appeal for rapid legislative action on guns. It was immediately, and predictably, rebuffed by Senate Republicans.
“There’s not a big appetite among our members to do things that would appear to be addressing it, but actually don’t do anything to fix the problem,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said Tuesday.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said that he was “open to the discussion” around gun control measures, but that he was opposed to the two bills passed by the House.
Some Senate Democrats, including Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, have opposed many gun control bills, but the hardest core of opposition is rooted in the Republican Party’s ardently pro-gun base. Major gun bills would probably require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, which is why many gun control groups favor scrapping the rule.
As vice president, Mr. Biden was tasked with persuading Congress to enact gun control legislation by President Barack Obama. The effort failed. Then, as now, the most likely quick path to change is the use of executive action to implement modest and temporary restrictions.
Ms. Harris has not been assigned a similar role in the Biden administration, which had not, until this week, prioritized the issue.
But on Wednesday, she signaled that she would try to make the case to her former colleagues in the Senate, especially in pushing for beefed-up background checks, a proposal that has widespread public support.
“I’m not willing to give up on what we must do to appeal to the hearts and minds and the reason of the members of the United States Senate,” she said. “Reject the false choices, stop pushing it for sure. Stop pushing the false choice that this means everybody’s trying to come after your guns. That is not what we’re talking about.”
The White House said Tuesday that it would appoint a senior official to focus on Asian-American priorities after the Senate’s two Asian-American Democrats called on President Biden to address what they said was an unacceptable lack of representation at the highest levels of his administration.
In a late-night statement, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Biden would name “a senior-level Asian-American Pacific Islander liaison who will ensure the community’s voice is further represented and heard.”
“The president has made it clear that his administration will reflect the diversity of the country,” Ms. Psaki said. “That has always been, and remains, our goal.”
The announcement came hours after Senators Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii promised to withhold their votes on some nominees until Mr. Biden engaged more actively on the issue amid a rising tide of racism toward Asian-Americans during the pandemic, culminating in last week’s deadly shootings in the Atlanta area.
With the Senate divided evenly between the two parties, the move temporarily threatened to derail the president’s hopes of confirming several executive branch officials, including the Pentagon’s No. 3. Apparently, it also created considerable pressure to find a solution to a diversity problem the senators said they had been quietly raising for months.
Open disputes between Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats have been relatively rare in his first months in office, and the senators’ ultimatum was an unusual public disagreement within a party in uniform control of Washington. But by late Tuesday, Ms. Duckworth and Ms. Hirono had dropped their threats and appeared satisfied by the administration’s response.
Ben Garmisa, a spokesman for Ms. Duckworth, said in a statement that the senator appreciated the White House’s “assurances that it will do much more to elevate A.A.P.I. voices and perspectives at the highest levels of government,” referring to Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. He added that the White House had given assurances that its new appointee would work both to confirm more Asian-American and Pacific Islander nominees and to advance legislation that was “relevant and important to the community.”
“Accordingly, she will not stand in the way of President Biden’s qualified nominees — which will include more A.A.P.I. leaders,” Mr. Garmisa said of Ms. Duckworth.
Citing her own conversation with the White House, Ms. Hirono said on Twitter that she would also “continue voting to confirm the historic and highly qualified nominees President Biden has appointed to serve in his administration.”
Congress has plunged once again into a red-hot dispute over the 2020 balloting, this time weighing whether to overturn the results of a House race in Iowa that could tilt the chamber’s narrow balance of power.
At issue is the outcome of November’s election in a southeastern Iowa district, where state officials declared Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a Republican, the winner in one of the closest contests in American history. Ms. Miller-Meeks prevailed by only six votes out of nearly 400,000 cast in the state’s Second Congressional District; in January, she took the oath of office in Washington.
But her Democratic opponent, Rita Hart, has refused to concede the race, pointing to 22 discarded ballots she says would have made her the winner if counted. Now Democrats, who hold the majority in the House and spent months pushing back on President Donald J. Trump’s falsehoods about a stolen election — including his claim that Congress had the power to unilaterally overturn the results — are thrust into the uncomfortable role of arbiters of a contested race.
Ms. Hart has appealed to the House, including in a new filing on Monday, to step in to overrule the state and seat her instead, sending Ms. Miller-Meeks back to Iowa.
“This was not something I sought, believe me,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California and the chairwoman of the panel looking into the race.
Ms. Lofgren and other Democrats say they have little choice but to take the appeal seriously under a 1960s law Ms. Hart has invoked. In recent weeks, Ms. Lofgren’s panel, the House Administration Committee, has opened a full-scale review into the contest that lawmakers say could lead to impounding ballots, conducting their own hand recount and ultimately a vote by the full House to determine who should rightfully represent the Iowa district.
Reversing the result would give Democrats a crucial additional vote to pad one of the sparest majorities in decades. The House is currently divided 219 to 211, with five vacancies.
House Republicans — more than half of whom voted to overturn Mr. Biden’s win — are accusing Democrats of a screeching, 180-degree turn now that flipping an election result would be to their advantage.
“One hundred percent, pure partisan politics,” said Representative Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the Administration Committee.
New videos obtained by The New York Times show publicly for the first time how the U.S. Capitol Police officer who died after the Jan. 6 attack was hit with chemical spray — with one of the rioters seen reaching in a friend’s backpack to retrieve what he called “bear spray.”
The officer, Brian D. Sicknick, who had been guarding the west side of the Capitol, collapsed later that day and died the next night. Little had been known about what happened to him during the assault, and the previously unpublished videos provide new details that clarify the confusing sequence of events.
Two men, Julian Elie Khater and George Pierre Tanios, were arrested on March 14 and charged with assaulting Officer Sicknick and two other officers with chemical spray. The investigation is continuing, and federal prosecutors haven’t ruled out pursuing murder charges.
Here’s what the videos show.
Mr. Khater and Mr. Tanios arrive near the police line on the west side of the Capitol at 2:09 p.m., more than an hour into the battle between rioters and police officers. Mr. Khater observes the fighting as tear gas and chemical spray waft through the crowd, then turns back toward where Mr. Tanios is standing.
At 2:14 p.m., he and Mr. Tanios huddle just a few yards from the police line, according to the F.B.I. Part of their conversation is captured in a separate video.
“Give me that bear shit,” Mr. Khater tells Mr. Tanios, most likely referring to a canister of bear repellent spray that prosecutors say Mr. Tanios purchased earlier that day.
He appears to retrieve something from Mr. Tanios’s backpack. After Mr. Tanios tells him to wait, Mr. Khater responds, “They just sprayed me.” He holds a white spray canister in his right hand.
On Monday, federal prosecutors alleged in court that Mr. Khater and Mr. Tanios were carrying Frontiersman bear spray, which can be many times more powerful than pepper sprays sold for self-defense and is not meant for use on humans.
By 2:20 p.m., six minutes later, Mr. Khater has returned to the police line, where Officer Sicknick and his colleagues are standing behind a row of bike rack barricades. He stands just a few feet from Officer Sicknick, who can be seen wearing a blue Capitol Police jacket, bicycle helmet and black coronavirus face mask.
At 2:23 p.m., Mr. Khater raises his arm over other rioters and sprays something toward Officer Sicknick.
A thin stream of liquid is visible shooting from a canister in Mr. Khater’s hand. It is unclear in the video what Mr. Khater is firing, and prosecutors have alleged that Mr. Tanios brought two smaller canisters of pepper spray to the Capitol in addition to two cans of Frontiersman bear spray.
Officer Sicknick reacts immediately to the spray, turning and raising his hand.
The last time Officer Sicknick appears in the videos or the photographs, he is bent over by the scaffolding erected for President Biden’s upcoming inauguration.
Americans who need health insurance will now have even longer to select a health plan for the rest of the year. The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it would extend enrollment for Obamacare plans sold on Healthcare.gov until Aug. 15, from a May deadline.
The change was announced on the 11th anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act, the law that established the markets where individuals could buy their own health insurance, and made plans available to shoppers regardless of pre-existing health conditions, among many other provisions.
“We have a duty not just to protect it but to make it better and keep becoming a nation where health care is a right for all and not a privilege for a few,” President Biden said at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital at the Ohio State University on Tuesday.
The stimulus bill signed this month expanded subsidies that help people buy such coverage, lowering the price of a typical plan to zero dollars for low-income families and offering financial assistance for the first time to households higher on the income scale. But it is taking time for the Department of Health and Human Services to implement the new provisions, and so far it has decided not to make the changes automatic. That means that even people who currently get coverage on the exchanges will need to go back to request new benefits. The extended enrollment period will give them more time to do that.
“Every American deserves access to quality, affordable health care — especially as we fight back against the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services. His statement encouraged uninsured Americans to sign up and current Obamacare customers to review new discounts.
The administration also announced that sign-ups for special subsidies for Americans who receive unemployment insurance this year will start July 1. Congress established a system for them to receive zero-premium health plans all year, but carrying out that provision quickly has proved complicated.
Enrollment in Affordable Care Act plans for most Americans is typically limited to a six-week period each year, as a means of encouraging people to enroll when they are healthy. But the Biden administration had already opened a second enrollment period this year, arguing that the pandemic and its economic effects presented an emergency that justified expanding options for coverage. The original special enrollment period had been set to expire in mid-May.
The changes apply in the 36 states that use the federal Healthcare.gov platform to manage their insurance marketplaces. But several states that run their own marketplaces have also extended their enrollment periods.
Mr. Biden, who wore a black mask throughout his speech in Ohio, said the extension would also benefit minority communities that “historically have gone without insurance at higher rates” and have been disproportionally impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Millions of families will be able to sleep a little more soundly at night,” the president said, “because they don’t have to worry about losing everything if they get sick.”
Under President Donald J. Trump, the federal government did little to gauge the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s education system. President Biden promised to change that, and on Wednesday, his Department of Education released the first federal survey of how American public schools have operated amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The results paint a picture of a school system that remained severely disrupted as the pandemic neared its first anniversary.
It found that in January of this year, three-quarters of school buildings were open at least partially for in-person learning in the fourth and eighth grades, the two grade levels examined by the survey. Nevertheless, 43 percent of fourth graders and 48 percent of eighth graders were learning fully remotely. Only 28 percent of eighth graders and 38 percent of fourth graders were attending full-time, in-person school; the rest were on hybrid schedules, receiving a mixture of in-person and virtual instruction.
Racial disparities were stark. The majority of Black, Hispanic and Asian-American fourth graders were learning fully remotely, compared to only a quarter of white fourth graders. About half the white fourth graders were in full-time, traditional school.
Children with disabilities were only slightly more likely to be learning in-person than others, despite schools reporting that they had prioritized this population for classroom time.
“It’s sobering,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research group that has spent the past year gathering its own, widely cited data on how school districts are functioning. “The data point us to the strong likelihood that the effects from lack of live instruction will add up to significant challenges for kids.”
In line with previous research, the survey found that urban schools, which serve large numbers of nonwhite students, were less likely to offer full-time, in-person schedules. But there is also evidence that significant numbers of nonwhite parents are opting for remote learning even when other options are available, in part because they are more concerned about the health risks of returning their children to school buildings.
The quality of remote learning varied widely, according to the federal survey. More than 1 in 10 students were offered less than two hours per day of live instruction from teachers. In some states, such as Oklahoma and Idaho, only a small percentage of remote learners received more than two hours of live teaching daily.
The survey is based on a representative sample of schools, and will be updated monthly throughout the academic year. Future surveys will look at additional grade levels.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, who helped found several health-related advocacy groups and later tackled the opioid epidemic and e-cigarettes as surgeon general during the Obama administration, was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday to reprise that role for President Biden.
The vote, 57 to 43, was a much smoother ride for Dr. Murthy than the first time he was confirmed, in 2014, when Republicans cast him as a politically connected supporter of President Barack Obama who would use his position to push for stricter gun control. The fight dragged on for months, leaving the country without a top doctor for more than a year.
When President Donald J. Trump was elected, Dr. Murthy was asked to resign. He refused and was fired, his wife, Alice Chen, said at the time.
Dr. Murthy will return as surgeon general at a critical moment, as the president tries to steer the nation out of the worst public health crisis in a century while expanding access to health care for millions of Americans. During his confirmation hearing, he told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that he would make ending the coronavirus pandemic his highest priority.
Dr. Murthy, 43, helped found Doctors for Obama, a group that worked to elect Mr. Obama and now works to expand health care access for Americans. It now goes by Doctors for America.
As an undergraduate at Harvard University, he helped found two nonprofits, one focusing on H.I.V./AIDS education in the United States and India, and the other to train women as community health workers in rural India.
A son of Indian immigrants and the first person of Indian descent to hold the surgeon general’s post, Dr. Murthy, 43, was born in England and grew up mostly in Miami, watching his parents in their own medical practice. He invoked them during his confirmation hearing.
“I have tried,” Dr. Murthy said, “to live by the lessons they embodied: that we have an obligation to help each other whenever we can, to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, and to give back to this country that made their lives and my life and the lives of my children possible.”
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