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The most crucial week yet on Covid-19 relief begins

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By Lauren Fox, CNN
Updated 8:39 AM ET, Mon February 22, 2021

Washington (CNN) — This week is President Joe Biden’s first big test, as his massive relief Covid-19 relief bill comes together on the Hill with very little bipartisan support.

On the cusp of 500,000 deaths and nearly one year into the pandemic that has devastated the economy, spiked unemployment, shuttered businesses and shattered families, Democrats will try to remain united and pass one more massive $1.9 trillion relief bill testing the party’s ability to deliver for their new President and lead together.
Bottom line: The next three weeks will give an early glimpse into how the Democrats’ moderates and progressives work together, who is willing to make good on their threats to torpedo legislation and who is willing to set aside their political grievances in the name of the bigger picture.
The goal is to pass this bill and get it signed by March 14. Everything has to go smoothly for that to happen. One party having the House, Senate and White House is never as easy as it looks, and that’s true even when talking about legislation that is overwhelmingly popular with the American public. When you ask members on the fence why they are voting for a bill that includes provisions they may not be so keen on, their answer is simple: you cannot vote against Biden’s first big ask and you certainly can’t vote against it when it polls like this package does.

    What you’ll see in the House this week

    The House Budget Committee is going to meet at 1 p.m. ET on Monday to mark up their 591-page bill and work to pass it out of Committee. The markup will be an opportunity for Republicans to message against the bill, rail against the increase in health care subsidies, attack provisions that provide funding to humanities, the arts and the preservation of Native American languages — which they will argue have nothing to do with coronavirus — and rail against the overall price tag of the package. They’ll offer amendments that we don’t expect to pass and then, when everyone has had enough, there will be a vote to advance the bill out of committee and send it to the floor.
    The final vote on the package on the floor will be later this week likely Friday or Saturday.

    The dynamics for Pelosi

    Since taking the gavel in the 117th Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has led her narrow majority with precision. The next five days are going to be the highest-wire act of the new Congress yet. Pelosi has just about a five-vote margin. That means that she cannot afford to lose a group of progressives nor can she afford a moderate rebellion on this bill.
    There’s no sign that is coming, but a week is an eternity on Capitol Hill. Dynamics shift and the more time a bill sits out in public, the more time there is for scrutiny. Moderate lawmakers I’ve talked to have repeatedly hinted that Pelosi has made it clear to the caucus that this bill is a priority for the President and what’s in is a carbon copy of what he has asked House Democrats to deliver. In other words, there isn’t much room for changes at this point, and for most moderates that’s OK. Will they always go along this easily? Probably not. But this time around as one Democrat put it to CNN, the bill is popular and there’s no point in sinking it.
    “She is not fighting city hall here,” the Democratic moderate member told CNN. “There will be plenty of time for things to get more complicated on infrastructure and immigration.”

    The Republican offense

    Republican leaders in the House have made it clear to their members they don’t want them voting for Biden’s Covid relief package. They’ve urged a “no” vote, and are doing everything they can to ensure Biden’s administration doesn’t get the satisfaction of the legislation passing with bipartisan support. They want this to be a story about Biden promising unity only to ram his first big bill through without a single Republican vote.
    They want to make this a process argument, and that’s because as CNN reported over the weekend, it’s hard to launch a full-on campaign against a bill that provides direct checks, an increase in the child tax credit, expanded unemployment and more money for vaccines.
    For Republicans who do attack the merits of the bill, expect them to argue that the legislation includes provisions that aren’t at all related to coronavirus relief. Republicans are also blasting Democrats for changing the formula for state and local funding so that it is more heavily weighted toward states with higher unemployment rates. Those states tended to be places that had stricter coronavirus protocols and therefore are more likely to be controlled by Democratic governors. The formula before was a base of $1.25 billion for every state plus more money for every city in the state with a population over 500,000. That skewed in favor of bigger population states. This skews in favor of those who might have shuttered businesses longer to protect against the pandemic.

    What you will see in the Senate

    In the Senate, the work on the bill is going to be more behind the scenes, but it’s perhaps the more interesting story to watch this week as the events of the next few days may ultimately shape whether this bill can get through the Senate at all. As soon as Tuesday, Democratic and Republican staffers will sit down with Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough to hash out whether the $15 minimum wage is allowed under the budget reconciliation process.
    That process is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, you can pass a bill in the Senate with just 51 votes. On the other, you have to comply with a strict series of rules about what is allowed.
    You’ve seen Sen. Bernie Sanders and his staff expressing a lot of confidence that they are going to win this fight. A note of caution: it’s not up to them. It’s up to the parliamentarian. Yes, it’s true that the same parliamentarian allowed a provision to drill in ANWR to pass through this process during 2017, but every provision is unique, and given none of us are complete experts in Senate rules, it’s hard to predict which way this shakes out. As one aide put it to me last week when Democrats initially met with MacDonough, “she was stoic” in the meeting and didn’t tip her hand one way or the other.

    Let’s talk about the Byrd bath

    The meeting Tuesday is formally called a “Byrd bath” (in actuality there is more than one bath because Republicans and Democrats will hash out a series of issues in multiple meetings all week. But for the purposes of the minimum wage, the Byrd bath starts tomorrow.) The process is named after the late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd who established a set of rules that governed the budget reconciliation process. The rules were intended to ensure that the majority party didn’t just go and use reconciliation to pass any old thing through the Senate with just 51 votes. The rules include things like the provision has to have more than just an “incidental” impact on the country’s budget.
    The parliamentarian will use those guideposts as well as precedent to make a “ruling” about whether she thinks the minimum wage is allowed using this process. The ruling will likely be handed down via email hours or even days after the meeting. That means we could get a ruling as early as Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, but maybe later given it will be up to the committee to share it with us. Other items we expect to undergo strict scrutiny by the parliamentarian includes a multi-employer pension provision, potentially paid leave,

      Why it matters

      As arcane as a ruling from the parliamentarian might sound, this matters because it could ultimately determine if this bill will have the votes to pass or not. Two moderate Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have made it clear they can’t support the Covid-relief bill with the $15 minimum wage. Progressives are counting on it being included. Quietly, Democratic senators and aides CNN is talking to all over the caucus argue that the parliamentarian stripping it out may be the only way to avoid a major, intra-party schism on Biden’s first big piece of legislation.

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      Biden to take first limited steps on gun control, including on ‘ghost guns’ and pistol braces

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      By Kevin Liptak, CNN
      Updated 10:57 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

      (CNN) — President Joe Biden will take his first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, directing his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official.

      The steps — which also include nominating a gun control advocate to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — fulfill a commitment Biden made in the aftermath of two deadly shootings last month to take “common sense” steps right away to address gun violence.
      But they fall short of the sweeping actions Biden promised as a candidate that must be passed by Congress, including a ban on assault weapons or enacting universal background checks. Senior administration officials framed the upcoming announcements as initial steps that would be followed by additional actions later on, including applying pressure on lawmakers to act.
        Biden said last month following a mass shooting in Colorado, “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common sense steps that will save lives in the future.” But he has acknowledged that passing a massive new infrastructure plan — and not new gun laws — is his top legislative priority.
          Biden will make the announcements Thursday from the White House alongside his attorney general, Merrick Garland, whose Justice Department will be responsible for drafting the proposed rules.
              The announcements will come as the President is expected to nominate David Chipman as the next director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a White House official told CNN. Chipman is a former ATF agent who serves as senior policy adviser at Giffords, the organization led by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who became a gun control advocate after being shot in 2011.
              The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
              Biden also plans to announce new investments in intervention programs in violence-prone communities; a directive to the Justice Department to publish model “red flag” laws for states that allow the temporary removal of guns from people deemed at high risk of harming themselves or others; and a comprehensive report on firearms trafficking.
              Taken together, the actions amount to the first real steps by Biden’s administration to combat gun violence. Inside the White House, efforts to devise executive actions have been led by White House Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice and Office of Public Engagement Director Cedric Richmond, administration officials and gun safety advocacy groups told CNN.
              That included meeting with some of those groups and fielding ideas for steps that Biden could take on his own. Some advocates had been clamoring for steps earlier in the administration, pointing to Biden’s pledge to prioritize gun control during his campaign.
              But initial reaction from gun safety advocacy groups Wednesday evening was positive.
              “Each of these executive actions will start to address the epidemic of gun violence that has raged throughout the pandemic, and begin to make good on President Biden’s promise to be the strongest gun safety president in history,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement.
              “These much-needed executive actions will start saving lives right away, and our grassroots army of nearly 6 million supporters looks forward to standing behind President Biden as he urges the Senate to follow his lead and act,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement.
              While campaigning, Biden had said he would task his attorney general with instituting better enforcement of existing gun laws as a means of slowing gun violence. He also made a campaign pledge to send $900 million for community programs meant to combat violence, something the administration is sorting out how to fulfill.
              Following last month’s shootings, Biden called on Congress to take steps like reenacting an assault weapons ban, with Vice President Kamala Harris, who argued for executive actions on the campaign trail, telling “CBS This Morning” that “if we really want something that is going to be lasting, we need to pass legislation.”
              The Democratic-controlled House passed gun legislation that would expand background checks on all commercial gun sales last month, but the bills face tougher paths in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 50-50 majority and would need significant Republican support to overcome a legislative filibuster.
              Biden acknowledged during a news conference that his main legislative priority was passing an infrastructure package and that he believed careful timing was key to the success of any proposed bills.
              And he has acknowledged that his political capital is limited.
              “I haven’t done any counting yet,” he said in March when asked whether he believed he had enough votes to pass significant reforms.
              As the nation’s posture on guns has evolved, Biden has been front-and-center at most every stop along the way for more than three decades, from the triumph of a 10-year ban on assault weapons in 1994 to the disappointment of a failed push for universal background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
                Recent shootings in Georgia and Colorado had raised the question inside the West Wing over how much political capital Biden should expend on the matter, which has so often ended in frustration.
                This story has been updated with details about Biden’s executive actions and reaction to them.

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                Virginia lawmakers OK marijuana possession starting July 1

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                By Paul LeBlanc and Kay Jones, CNN
                Updated 9:45 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                (CNN) — The Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday passed a bill legalizing simple possession of marijuana, becoming the latest state to modify its laws around cannabis use and possession that disproportionately jailed Black people for nonviolent offenses.

                The new law, which goes into effect July 1, allows anyone in the state 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana. The law also “modifies several other criminal penalties related to marijuana, and imposes limits on dissemination of criminal history record information related to certain marijuana offenses,” according to a summary posted to the Legislature’s website.
                “Virginia led and made history once again today,” Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who cast the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate, said in a tweet.
                  “I was proud to cast the tie-breaking vote to legalize marijuana and bring long overdue justice, fairness, equity and opportunity to the people of our great Commonwealth.”
                    The bill had originally passed in late February, but Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam sent it back to the Legislature with a series of revisions, including a proposal to accelerate the timeline of its enactment to this July instead of 2024.
                        Still, the measure was met with fierce opposition from state GOP lawmakers Wednesday, including Del. Chris Head, who called it a “train wreck” during a virtual House floor speech.
                        “If this policy change is to be undertaken, it has to be undertaken prudently, and I understand the enormous pressure on the majority party to make this change right now. I understand that opposing immediate legislation and legalization is going to anger many of your constituents. And I understand that taking the time to do this right might possibly even lead to charges of racism,” he said.
                        “But we have to do this right. And doing it right takes time.”
                        Legalization advocates have long touted the righting of past criminal justice wrongs, eliminating illegal market activity and generating additional tax revenue when they’ve pushed for overhauling state cannabis laws.
                        “At the end of the day, economics talk and jobs talk,” Jessica Billingsley, chief executive officer of Akerna, which makes regulatory compliance software that helps states track cannabis sales from seed to sale, previously told CNN.
                          “I truly believe we’re going to see some very meaningful and important movement coming out of this as states and governors look for a way to bolster their economy.”
                          Cannabis sales in states that have legalized the plant for medical and recreational purposes totaled about $15 billion in 2019, and are expected to top $30 billion by 2024, according to data from BDS Analytics, which tracks dispensary sales.

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                          Biden’s planned pick for ATF director a fierce advocate for gun control

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                          By Paul LeBlanc, CNN
                          Updated 9:30 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                          Washington (CNN) — David Chipman, President Joe Biden’s planned nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, has a long history at the agency and sports credentials in gun control advocacy sure to excite firearm safety groups.

                          If confirmed, Chipman will lead the agency that enforces gun laws at a critical point in Biden’s early tenure, as the President looks to take fresh action on the issue in the wake of two deadly shootings last month.
                          “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future,” Biden said last month. The President plans to announce new executive actions on guns Thursday, a person familiar with the plans said.

                            Longtime ATF special agent

                              Chipman, if confirmed, would return to the agency where he worked for 25 years as a special agent.
                                He lists “Violent Crime Reduction Strategist,” “Certified Explosives Specialist” and “Interagency Liason Specialist” among his specialties on his Linkedin profile, and Giffords notes his expertise includes ghost guns, the gun industry, law enforcement and assault weapons.
                                In the President’s first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, Biden will direct his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official. Ghost guns are handmade or self-assembled firearms that don’t have serial numbers, and some can be fabricated in as little as 30 minutes using kits and parts purchased online.
                                The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
                                In recent years, the bureau has become most visible in the aftermath of mass shootings around the US and at other crimes involving firearms. But the agency has a broader scope than just guns.
                                According to its website, ATF “protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.”
                                “We partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public we serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology,” the bureau’s website states.

                                Gun control advocacy

                                After leaving the ATF in 2012, Chipman became a senior adviser at Everytown for Gun Safety, where he was “consulted frequently” by lawmakers considering gun control legislation, according to his Linkedin.
                                Chipman then served as senior vice president of Public Safety Solutions for almost three years before arriving at Giffords as a senior policy adviser in 2016.
                                It’s in these roles that Chipman’s voice as a fierce advocate for gun control was elevated, as he frequently wrote op-eds and made media appearances to advance the cause.
                                “As a former ATF special agent with more than 24 years of experience at the bureau, I know all too well how serious our gun violence problem is and how desperately the agency lacks for the law enforcement tools that are necessary to help curb this national epidemic,” Chipman wrote in a 2013 Politico op-ed.
                                The country’s gun safety laws, he wrote at the time, “make it all too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands — and since Congress has failed to address these gaps legislatively, ATF must chart a new course to combat the scourge of gun violence. This requires strong leadership.”
                                More recently, Chipman voiced support for limiting high-capacity magazines in a 2019 interview with PBS NewsHour.
                                “Talking to any gun owner, a 100-round magazine is just not traditional. It’s not normal. And I can’t think of a purpose, beyond killing a lot of people, for having it,” he said. “So if the debate is, should it be 10 or what have you, it can’t be 100. And so I think there’s room where we can have progress, although we will not have perfection.”
                                  And in light of FBI records last summer showing US firearm background checks having skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Chipman told CNN at the time: “My biggest concern involves the potential number of first time gun buyers who, before March, did not think they needed a gun.”
                                  This story has been updated with additional details Wednesday.

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                                  Andrew Giuliani, former Trump aide and son of Rudy Giuliani, says he plans for to run for governor of New York

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                                  By Devan Cole, CNN
                                  Updated 12:16 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                                  Washington (CNN) — Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, says he’s planning to run for governor of the heavily Democratic state next year.

                                  “I plan to run,” Andrew Giuliani, who served as an aide to former President Donald Trump, told the Washington Examiner in an interview published Wednesday.
                                  Giuliani’s gubernatorial bid could set up a high stakes, headline-grabbing showdown with Andrew Cuomo, should the embattled incumbent Democratic governor decide to seek a fourth term. But Giuliani would face a steep uphill battle in the heavily Democratic state, and his candidacy could help hand another win to the party as his proximity to Trump would likely be seen as a liability in a state where the former President is widely unpopular.
                                    “I believe I can win the race,” Giuliani told the Examiner. “I think I’m the right candidate, and this is the right time to help change New York State, and we’ve got a playbook that works.”
                                      “Outside of anybody named Trump, I think I have the best chance to win and take the state back, and I think there’s an opportunity in 2022 with a wounded Democratic candidate, whether it’s going to be Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo, whether it’s going to be a radical (attorney general), Letitia James, whether it’s going to be a no-name lieutenant governor, I think there’s a very, very real chance to win,” he said, according to the magazine.
                                            Asked if he expected Cuomo to seek reelection to a fourth term next year, Jay Jacobs, the state party chair and a close ally of the governor, demurred.
                                            “I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I think that he’s more focused on getting through his current troubles, then seeing where he’s going to go,” he said. “These investigations are going to be critical in all of that. It’s hard to tell. I’m sure that, given his druthers, he’d like to run for reelection.”

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                                            Stephen Breyer worries about Supreme Court’s public standing in current political era

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                                            By Joan Biskupic, CNN legal analyst & Supreme Court biographer
                                            Updated 9:07 PM ET, Tue April 6, 2021

                                            (CNN) — Justice Stephen Breyer, who may be nearing the end of his Supreme Court tenure, expressed concern on Tuesday about the standing of the high court and the possible erosion of public confidence in its decisions.

                                            In an expansive, two-hour lecture at Harvard Law School, Breyer bemoaned the common practice — by journalists, senators and others — of referring to justices by the presidents who appointed them and of describing the nine by their conservative or liberal approach to the law.
                                            “These are more than straws in the wind,” the 82-year-old Breyer said. “They reinforce the thought, likely already present in the reader’s mind, that Supreme Court justices are primarily political officials or ‘junior league’ politicians themselves rather than jurists. The justices tend to believe that differences among judges mostly reflect not politics but jurisprudential differences. That is not what the public thinks.”
                                              Breyer also warned against proposals to expand the size of the Supreme Court from its current nine members. Public trust was “gradually built” over the centuries, he said, and any discussion of change should take account of today’s public acceptance of the court’s rulings, even those as controversial as the 2000 Bush v. Gore case that settled a presidential election.
                                                “The public now expects presidents to accept decisions of the court, including those that are politically controversial,” he said. “The court has become able to impose a significant check — a legal check — upon the Executive’s actions in cases where the Executive strongly believes it is right.”
                                                  Some of Breyer’s most compelling opinions, it should be noted, have been written in dissent. In 2007, for example, he objected to an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts rejecting school integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. Roberts said districts could not consider a student’s race when making school assignments to reduce racial isolation throughout the school district.
                                                  “This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret,” wrote Breyer, whose father, Irving Breyer, was a long-serving school board member in San Francisco. Breyer still wears the wristwatch his father received upon his retirement from the district. Breyer said the Roberts opinion threatened “the promise of” the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
                                                  Breyer said Tuesday that differences with his colleagues were based on their distinct views of the structure of the Constitution or how they interpreted statutes. He did not refer to instances in which his colleagues themselves have publicly questioned each other’s motives.
                                                    Breyer did allow that sometimes justices weigh public opinion or the future ramifications of a decision. And he acknowledged that the nine are products of their individual backgrounds and experiences.
                                                    Still, he said, “judicial philosophy is not a code word for ‘politics.'”

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