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Senate to Vote on 9/11 Victims Fund Bill

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  • Comedian Jon Stewart and Sen. Rand Paul took swipes at each other this week amid Paul’s efforts to stall a bill that would reauthorize funding for the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund (VCF).
  • The House passed a version of the bill July 12 after Stewart, a long-time advocate for VCF funding, gave testimony before a House committee that later went viral.
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand brought the bill to the Senate floor for a unanimous consent vote Wednesday
  • But the vote failed when Paul objected and argued that funding should be cut from other areas to offset the funding for VCF.
  • Another vote on the bill is set for early next week. 

Senate Vote Rescheduled

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and comedian Jon Stewart exchanged heated remarks this week after Paul blocked a bill that would reauthorize the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund from passing on Wednesday.

The VCF was originally formed by Congress after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in order to assist the families of people who died or were injured. Funding for the VCF was last reauthorized by Congress in 2015, with funds set to expire December 2020.

However, earlier this year VCF administrator Rupa Bhattacharyya announced that the fund did not have enough money to pay either existing or anticipated claims.

The House voted earlier this month, 402 to 12, to reauthorize the bill through 2092 after comedian and long-time VCF advocate Jon Stewart delivered a powerful testimony during a House committee hearing. 

Despite the overwhelming support in the House, many were concerned about objections from the Senate.

On Wednesday, Sen. Paul prevented the Senate from voting on the reauthorization by unanimous consent. Under Senate rules, any one Senator can purpose that a measure is approved by unanimous consent, but that request can also be rejected by a single Senator.

Paul argued that funding should be cut from other areas to offset the money that would be allocated to the VCF. He also added that he would be proposing an amendment. 

Sen. Mike Lee also placed a procedural hold on the bill.

Jon Stewart Responds

Paul and Lee’s efforts to stall the VCF reauthorization drew the ire of many, including Jon Stewart, who voiced his frustration on Wednesday while speaking to Fox News host Bret Baier.

“It’s absolutely outrageous,” Stewart said. “And you’ll pardon me if I’m not impressed in any way by Rand Paul’s fiscal responsibility virtue signaling.”

“Bret, this is about what kind of society do we have,” he continued. “At some point, we have to stand up for the people who have always stood up for us, and at this moment in time, maybe cannot stand up for themselves, due to their illnesses and their injuries. And what Rand Paul did today on the Senate was outrageous.”

“He is a guy who put us in hundreds of billions of dollars in debt,” he added, noting how Paul voted for President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut.

“And now he’s going to tell us that a billion dollars a year over 10 years is just too much for us to handle?

Rand Paul Responds

Paul responded to Stewart’s retorts while speaking to Fox News host Neil Cavuto Thursday.

“I know Jon Stewart, and Jon Stewart is sometimes funny, sometimes informed, but in this case, he’s neither funny nor informed,” the Senator said, going on to argue that he has spent his whole Senate career “putting forward “pay-fors anytime spending is expanded.”

“So he’s really not informed and his name-calling just sort of exposes him as a left-winger, part of the left-wing mob that really isn’t using his brain and is willing to call people names,” he continued. 

“Its really kind of disgusting, because see he pretended for years when he was on his comedy show to be somebody who could see both sides and see through the B.S. on both sides. Well, now he is the B.S.”

Proposed Amendments 

Both Paul and Lee argued that the reauthorization bill should be passed through an amendment vote and not a unanimous consent vote. 

“Not blocking the 9/11 bill – simply asking for a vote on an amendment to offset the cost,” Paul said in a tweet on Wednesday. 

An amendment proposed by Lee would give the VCF finite funding of $1 billion a year for 10 years, rather than providing indefinite funds through 2094, like the House bill.

“Since 2011, the 9/11 Victims Fund has always had finite authorizations, and by all accounts it has an excellent record avoiding waste and abuse,” Lee said in a statement on Thursday. “These two things are not coincidental. They go together.”

Others argue that the limited terms set out by Lee’s amendment would just set Congress up for another reauthorization debate in 10 years.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who brought the bill to the floor for the unanimous consent vote, the called Lee’s amendment “unbelievably callous.” She also told the Senators “to stop these political games and pass this bill now.”

Paul also proposed an amendment, though it is not immediately clear how it would change the bill, according to reports.

After negotiations, Gillibrand and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) made a joint announcement Thursday saying that the Senate is set to vote on the bill early next week.

They also said that they would oppose both of the amendments put forward by Paul and Lee. Both Senators expect the bill to pass before the Senate leaves for recess in August. 

“Senator Paul may have turned his back on our first responders today, but now we have a filibuster-proof bipartisan support of 73 cosponsors in addition to myself,” Gillibrand said.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Vox) (Fox News)

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Georgia House Passes Sweeping Bill To Restrict Voting Access

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  • The Georgia House approved an election bill Monday that would impose new restrictions on absentee voting and provisional ballots, cut weekend early voting hours, and limit physical access to voting options, among other measures.
  • Republicans proposed the bill after losing the Presidential and Senate races, arguing that it is necessary to restore confidence in the state’s elections and prevent fraud.
  • Democrats have condemned the proposed law, noting that Republicans created the distrust by spreading former President Trump’s false claims about election fraud even when top GOP officials in the state said there was no evidence. They also accused them of trying to suppress voters, particularly Black residents.

Georgia House Approves Election Bill

Republicans in the Georgia House passed a sweeping bill Monday that would significantly roll back voting access in the state.

The bill, which was proposed by Republicans who want to impose new restrictions after losing the election, was passed 97-72 along party lines. If signed into law, among other things, the legislation would:

  • Require a photo ID for absentee voting.
  • Cut the amount of time voters have to request an absentee ballot.
  • Restrict ballot drop box locations to inside early voting locations.
  • Shorten Georgia’s runoff election period.
  • Impose more strict regulations on provisional ballots.
  • Prevent the governments from mailing out unsolicited absentee ballot applications to registered voters.
  • Ban nonprofit organizations from helping fund elections.
  • Almost entirely cut early voting busses that are key to transport people to the polls.
  • Prohibit food and drinks from being distributed to voters waiting in long lines.
  • Limit early voting hours on weekends.

The last provision is one of the most controversial because it would include limiting the get-out-the-vote campaign known as “souls to the polls,” which is widely used by Black churches. That initiative has been credited with mobilizing Black voters all over the country since the Jim Crow era. The proposed law would limit events to just one Sunday during the early voting period, which would also be cut short.

Arguments For And Against The Bill

The Republicans who have pushed for the bill argue that it is necessary to restore public confidence in Georgia’s elections and help prevent fraud.

But Democrats, voting rights organizations, and protestors who have gathered in front of the capitol to demonstrate against the bill have pointed out that it was Republicans who hurt public trust in the state’s elections by repeating former President Donald Trump’s false claims about election fraud.

Meanwhile, numerous top Republican officials — including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger — have said time and time again that there was no evidence of fraud in the 2020 elections.

Though notably, many Republican state legislators who supported the former president’s false that massive fraud had occurred in their states never contested the results of their own elections, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Democrats have also said that the bill is just the Republican’s latest, transparent attempt to drive down turnout and suppress voters — particularly Black voters who helped Democrat’s wins in the state and take the Senate — rather than actually increase election security.

Next Steps

As far as what happens next, the bill will head to the state Senate, which is also Republican-controlled, and already considering its own elections bill that would end no-excuse absentee voting, among other things.

From there, it will go to Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who will likely sympathetic to the cause.

Notably, this legislation the only election bill like this being proposed in state capitols around the country or even in Georgia.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, legislators in 43 states are considering more than 250 bills that would create impediments to voting. Dozens of those proposals exist in Georgia alone.

See what others are saying: (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) (NPR) (The Associated Press)

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Second Former Aide Accuses N.Y. Governor of Sexual Harassment

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  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has been accused of sexual harassment by another former staffer, 25-year-old Charlotte Bennett, who first relayed the allegations to The New York Times on Saturday.
  • Bennett said Cuomo asked her multiple inappropriate questions about her sex life and told her he would be open to dating women in their 20s, which she interpreted as a request for a sexual relationship.
  • Bennett’s allegations come less than a week after another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, detailed years of sexual harassment from the governor, including an alleged non-consensual kiss, all of which Cuomo denied.
  • In a series of statements over the weekend, Cuomo said he never made advances towards Bennett, apologized to anyone who interpreted his comments as “unwanted flirtation,” and agreed to refer the matter to the state attorney general’s office.

Charlotte Bennett Claims Cuomo Sexually Harassed Her 

A second former aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has come forward with allegations of sexual harassment.

The news comes just days after another staffer, Lindsey Boylan, published a Medium essay accusing Cuomo of years of misconduct, including uncomfortable comments and an unwanted kiss.

In the essay, Boylan also said that Cuomo had created a culture of harassment and bullying in his administration. Allegations of hostility and a toxic work environment have also recently been echoed by numerous officials during the political fallout over the Cuomos administration’s failure to properly disclose COVID-19 related deaths in the state’s nursing home.

Now, the most recent accusations made by 25-year-old Charlotte Bennett, also support the same narrative. During an interview with The New York Times on Saturday, Bennett described a series of escalating interactions in which the governor asked her multiple questions about her personal life that she “interpreted as clear overtures to a sexual relationship.”

Bennett, who was hired for an entry-level position at Cuomo’s Manhattan office in 2019, said she and the governor became friendly shortly after she started. She said things started to escalate when she was moved to the Capitol office in Albany to work on the pandemic response in March.

She recounted several episodes where she said the governor asked her about her personal and romantic life in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. The most upsetting exchange she said she had was on June 5, during which Cuomo allegedly asked her a number of inappropriate questions, like whether she was monogamous in her recent relationships, if she believed age difference mattered, and if she had ever been with an older man.

Cuomo allegedly said he felt lonely during the pandemic and that he wanted a girlfriend, “preferably in the Albany area.” She claimed he also told her “age doesn’t matter” and that he was fine with dating “anyone above the age of 22.”

She said she then tried to shift the conversation, at one point telling him she was thinking about getting a tattoo, but said that Cuomo had suggested should put it on her buttocks so people would not see it when she wore a dress. 

Bennett told The Times Cuomo never was physical with her, though she believed that what he wanted from her was clear. 

“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared. And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”

Others Back Bennett’s Account 

Notably, Bennett also shared text messages she had sent friends and family after each interaction that were verified by The Times. Additionally, both her mother and a friend who was also a Cuomo official at the time confirmed that she had told them about the details of the June 5 interaction. 

Shortly after that incident, Bennett also disclosed what happened with Cuomo to his chief of staff, who she said was very apologetic, asked if she wanted to move jobs either inside or outside the executive branch, and ultimately helped her transfer to another job in a different part of the Capitol.

Towards the end of June, Bennett met with a special counsel to the governor — a fact that was confirmed to The Times by another special counsel to the governor — but she ultimately decided just to move on and not pursue an investigation.

Cuomo Calls for Investigation

Cuomo, for his part, told The Times in a statement Saturday that he believed he had been acting as a mentor and “never made advances toward Ms. Bennett, nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate.”

His special counsel also said later that day that the governor had tapped a federal judge to launch an independent investigation into the allegations.

That announcement, however, sparked backlash from top lawmakers who believed there needed to be a truly independent probe, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.), who called the allegations from both women “serious and credible.” 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also told reporters that President Joe Biden supported an independent review.

On Sunday, Cuomo reversed his position in a statement and said that he would refer the investigation to the New York attorney general. The governor also claimed that he “never inappropriately touched anybody” and “never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm,” but that he just liked to tease people about their personal lives.

“I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended,” he said. “I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NBC News) (CBS News)

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House Passes Equality Act Aimed at Preventing LGBTQ+ Discrimination

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  • The House voted Thursday to approve the Equality Act, which would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Democrats and civil rights groups have applauded the move, saying it is necessary to protect LGBTQ+ Americans from discrimination in employment, housing, education, and other public areas.
  • Republicans and conservative groups have opposed the bill, arguing it violates religious freedoms by forcing organizations that refuse to serve LGBTQ+ people to choose between operating on their beliefs.
  • The legislation faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where it will need 60 votes to avoid the legislative filibuster.

House Approves Equality Act

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act on Thursday, a broad measure that would greatly expand protections for the LGBTQ+ community.

The legislation would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity in numerous public areas such as employment, housing, education, credit, and jury service, among other places. 

The bill also would expand the 1964 act to cover other federally funded programs and “public accommodations” like shopping malls, sports stadiums, and online retailers. 

Currently, anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people fall under the umbrella of “sex,” a relatively new development that came last June after the Supreme Court ruled that gay, lesbian, and transgender Americans were protected under the Civil Rights Act on the basis of sex.

But the existing law still has many loopholes that have allowed for discriminatory practices against the LGBTQ+ community.

A person can still be denied housing due to their sexual orientation or gender identity in 27 states, according to a statement released by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the leading sponsor of the measure. They can also be denied access to education in 31 states and the right to serve on a jury in 41.

Support and Opposition

Many Democrats, civil rights organizations, and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have praised the House’s passage of the bill, which has been decades in the making, and which President Joe Biden had promised would be one of his top priorities during his first 100 days in office.

“Today’s vote is a major milestone for equality bringing us closer to ensuring that every person is treated equally under the law,” Human Rights Campaign president Alphonso David said in a statement. “Now, the ball is in the Senate’s court to pass the Equality Act and finally allow LGBTQ Americans the ability to live their lives free from discrimination.”

However, the legislation faces an uphill battle in the Senate, which previously blocked the legislation when the House initially passed in it 2019. While the Senate was controlled by Republicans at the time, the current 50-50 split still means that at least 10 Republicans will have to join all 50 Democrats to break the 60-vote legislative filibuster.

But Republicans in Congress have largely opposed the act. Only three GOP representatives voted in favor of the measure Thursday, just half of the number who voted for its passage in 2019.

Many Republicans have echoed the claims of anti-LGBTQ+ groups, arguing that the act will infringe on religious freedoms by forcing businesses and organizations that have religious objections to serving LGBTQ+ people to decide between their beliefs or continued operation.

Others have also said the bill that would roll back protections for women who were assigned female at birth by allowing transgender women to participate in women’s sports.

Shift in Public Opinion

Still, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday he will fight for the act in his chamber and condemned Republicans who have voiced their opposition to it.

“Their attacks on trans people in the transgender community are just mean,” he said. “And show a complete lack of understanding, complete lack of empathy. They don’t represent our views and they don’t represent the views of a majority of Americans.”

Several recent polls have found that Americans broadly support legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community.

According to the 2020 Public Religion Research Institute American Values Survey, more than 8 in 10 people said they favor laws that would protect LGBTQ+ people against discrimination in public accommodations and workplaces.

A 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found the number of Americans who support these laws to be slightly lower, roughly 7 in 10. Notably, that also included 62% of Republicans, which may indicate that the actions of GOP leaders in Congress do not represent the will of their voter base.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (CNN)

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