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Senators Unveil $908 Billion Stimulus Proposal

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  • After months of stalled negotiations, a bipartisan group of senators put forward a new stimulus package proposal.
  • The plan, which the senators said was intended to be a framework for legislation both parties could agree to, includes an additional $300 a week in expanded unemployment benefits and $25 billion for housing assistance, among other actions.
  • Those two provisions are essential for continuing assistance to Americans struggling during the coronavirus pandemic, as both federal unemployment benefits and the federal eviction moratorium are set to expire at the end of the month.
  • If Congress does not act, upwards of 12 million Americans will lose their unemployment benefits by Dec. 26 and an estimated 19 million will risk losing their homes during the height of the pandemic in the coming months.

New Stimulus Plan

A bipartisan group of senators announced a new $908 billion stimulus proposal Wednesday, marking both the first time talks have restarted since the election and arguably the most concrete step towards a coronavirus relief bill that Congress has taken in months.

With negotiations on the much-needed stimulus package stalled this summer and again ahead of the election, the roughly half a dozen senators behind the new plan have been working for weeks to break the stalemate with a deal that seeks to find a middle ground on key issues.

In their announcement, the Republican and Democratic lawmakers framed the proposal as a template for the kind of legislation that both sides could pass before the new year.

Among other things, the working plan includes: $160 billion for state and local governments, $288 billion for loans to small businesses, $180 billion for unemployment insurance — which reportedly would come out to an additional $300 a week in expanded benefits — and $25 billion in housing assistance.

Those last two provisions are arguably the most important for the American people because there is a huge cliff at the end of the month when key unemployment benefits and major federal eviction protections are both set to run out. If Congress does not act, millions of Americans could lose absolutely essential lifelines at a time when many are already struggling financially.

Unemployment

On Dec. 26, both the federal programs that provide benefits for freelancers and allow unemployed workers to collect an extra 13 weeks of benefits are set to expire, leaving the vast majority of the 20 million Americans who were collecting benefits as of October (the most recent data available) with few stopgaps.

According to a recent study from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, 12 million of those workers will lose those benefits entirely when that deadline hits — and that is in addition to the roughly 4.4. million who will have already exhausted that aid before then.

Many people collecting unemployment insurance are still hurting. A report released Monday by the watchdog Government Accountability Office found the Department of Labor has been both under and overcounting the number of people collecting unemployment benefits and giving out less federal benefits than it should.

The report also stated that failure to extend these federal benefits will harm those people even more, and risk sending some households below the poverty line. 

Evictions

To that point, many struggling unemployed Americans who may have had trouble paying their rent are also at risk of losing their homes during the height of the pandemic when the federal eviction moratorium ends on Dec. 31.

The existing moratorium was imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in September after the federal ban on evictions passed under the CARES Act expired at the end of July and Congress failed to renew it.

Technically, the CDC could act again to extend it without Congress, but that would still leave some major holes.

First and foremost, the federal ban does not apply to all American renters, and while many cities and states imposed their own eviction bans and provided other forms of renter relief, many of those protections have already expired or will soon.

In fact, a new study by The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) estimates that as many as 6.7 million renter households — or roughly 19 million people — risk being evicted in the coming months. 

While an extension of the ban would definitely be a good thing, without any additional relief for renters, it would essentially kick the underlying issue down the road. The CDC moratorium just makes it so renters can’t be evicted if they do not pay rent while the policy is in place — but it does not mean they do not have to pay rent at all.

Once the ban is lifted, not only do renters have to start paying again, they also have to pay back all the rent they missed as well as any late fees they may have built up if their landlords decided not to waive them. If they do not pay their debts, they can be evicted.

In other words: many people will owe months and months of rent they cannot pay. Even if the CDC extends the moratorium so they will not have to pay in January, the CDC cannot legally allocate money for rent relief — at a federal level, that has to be done through Congress. 

Cities and states could continue to help their efforts to help out with similar programs, but the NLIHC estimates that $100 billion in emergency rental assistance is needed to avoid an eviction crisis, and with local governments already running of money because of the pandemic, they likely will not be able to do much without more money from another stimulus 

Future of Coronavirus Relief

However, the future of any stimulus bill before these deadlines hit still remains unclear. While the proposal announced today was drafted by senators from both parties, it is still uncertain if leadership will sign on.

For months the people at the very top have failed to compromise and refused to budge from their drastically different proposals. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) has pushed for a much more comprehensive $2.2 trillion package. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has insisted on a much smaller $500 billion bill that would not include money to state and local governments or another round of stimulus checks but would include sweeping liability protections for businesses so they could not be sued if an employee or customer got COVID because of their lack of safety precautions.

Those issues have been major points of contention between the two parties, and even when they agree on what should be included in the bill, they disagree on funding levels — with Democrats pushing for more and Republicans for less.

Notably, both Pelosi and McConnell have expressed optimism about coming to an agreement in recent days.

“I’m optimistic that we will have bipartisanship to put something together to go forward because I do believe that many of our colleagues understand what’s happening in their districts and want to make a difference,” Pelosi told reporters right before the Thanksgiving recess.

While speaking on the Senate floor just yesterday, McConnell also echoed those remarks, saying  “there’s no reason” Congress could not approve a “major” stimulus bill. However, he also blamed Democrats for refusing to compromise, saying they should consider smaller provisions.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-Ny.) responded by lobbing essentially the same accusations at McConnell, saying he had only advanced a Republican wish list rather than negotiating with Democrats, and arguing that “both sides must give.”

Clearly, there are still some major, lingering issues the parties need to resolve, but the clock is ticking. In addition to the key deadlines at the end of the month, Congress also must pass a spending bill to fund the government by Dec. 11 or risk a shutdown.

While currently separate from any proposed stimulus bill, some experts and congressional aides are pinning their hopes of COVID relief measures being rolled into the $1.4 trillion annual government budget.

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

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Republican Congressman Proposes Bill to Ban Anyone Under 16 From Social Media

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The proposal comes amid a growing push for social media companies to be stringently regulated for child and adolescent use.


The Social Media Child Protection Act

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Ut.) introduced legislation Thursday that would ban all Americans under the age of 16 from accessing social media.

The proposal, dubbed the Social Media Child Protection Act, would require social media companies to verify users’ ages and give parents and states the ability to bring legal actions against those platforms if they fail, according to a press release.

The legislation would also mandate that social media platforms implement “reasonable procedures to protect the confidentiality, security, and integrity of personal information collected from users and perspective users.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would be given the authority to enforce these regulations and implement fines for violations.

Stewart has argued that the move is necessary to protect children from the negative mental health impacts of social media.

“There has never been a generation this depressed, anxious, and suicidal – it’s our responsibility to protect them from the root cause: social media,”  he said in a statement announcing the bill.

“We have countless protections for our children in the physical world – we require car seats and seat belts; we have fences around pools; we have a minimum drinking age of 21; and we have a minimum driving age of 16,” the Congressman continued. 

“The damage to Generation Z from social media is undeniable – so why are there no protections in the digital world?”

While Stewart’s arguments are nothing new in the ongoing battle around children and regulating social media, his legislation has been described as one of the most severe proposals on this front.

The plan would represent a huge shift in verification systems that critics have long said fall short. Many social media sites like TikTok and Twitter technically ban users under 13 from joining, but there is no formal verification process or mechanisms for enforcement. Companies often just ask users to provide their birthdays, so those under 13 could easily just lie.

Backlash and Support

Stewart — who spent the weeks before the rollout of his bill discussing the matter with the media — has already gotten pushback from many who say the idea is too extreme and a bad approach.

Carl Szabo, the vice president and general counsel of the social media trade group NetChoice, told The Washington Post that such a decision should be left to parents.

“Rather than doomsaying or trying to get between parents and their families, the government should provide tools and education on how best to use this new technology, not demonize it,” he said.

Others have also argued that the move could cut off access to powerful and positive online resources for kids.

“For many kids, especially LGBTQ young people who may have unsupportive parents or live in a conservative area, the internet and social media are a lifeline,” Evan Greer, the director of the advocacy group Fight for the Future, told The Post. “We need better solutions than just cutting kids off from online community and educational resources.”

Lawmakers have also echoed that point, including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Ca.), who represents Silicon Valley. However, there also seems to be support for this measure. At least one Democratic Congressmember has told reporters they are open to the idea, and Stewart says he thinks the proposal will have broad bipartisan backing.

“This is bipartisan… There’s Democratic leaders who are actually maneuvering to be the lead co-sponsor on this,”  he told KSL News Radio, adding that President Joe Biden recently wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal that referenced similar ideas.

A Growing Movement

Stewart is just one among the growing number of lawmakers and federal officials who have voiced support for keeping kids and younger teens off social media altogether.

In an interview with CNN Sunday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy expressed concern regarding  “the right age for a child to start using social media.”

“I worry that right now, if you look at the guidelines from the platforms, that age 13 is when kids are technically allowed to use social media,” he said. “But there are two concerns I have about that. One is: I, personally, based on the data I’ve seen, believe that 13 is too early.” 

Murthy went on to say that adolescents at that age are developing their identity and sense of self, arguing that social media can be a “skewed and often distorted environment,” adding that he is also worried about the fact that the rules around age are “inconsistently implemented.”

His comments gained widespread backing. At least one Senator posted a tweet agreeing, and an FTC Commissioner also shared the remarks on the platform. Stewart, for his part, explicitly cited Murthy’s remarks in the press release announcing his bill. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (KSL News Radio) (CNN)

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Feds Investigate Classified Files Found in Biden’s Former Office

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The documents reportedly include U.S. intelligence memos and briefing materials that covered topics such as Ukraine, Iran, and the United Kingdom


What Was in the Files?

President Biden’s legal team discovered about 10 classified files in his former office at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington D.C., the White House revealed Monday.

The Department of Justice has concluded an initial inquiry into the matter and will determine whether to open a criminal investigation.

According to a source familiar with the matter who spoke to CNN, they include U.S. intelligence memos and briefing materials that covered topics such as Ukraine, Iran, and the United Kingdom.

A source also told CBS News the batch did not contain nuclear secrets and had been contained in a folder in a box with other unclassified papers.

The documents are reportedly from Biden’s time as vice president, but it remains unclear what level of classification they are and how they ended up in his office.

Biden kept an office in the. Penn Biden Center, a think tank about a mile from the White House, between 2017 and 2020, when he was elected president.

On Nov. 2, his lawyers claim, they discovered the documents as they were clearing out the space to vacate it.

They immediately notified the National Archives, which retrieved the files the next morning, according to the White House.

What Happens Next?

Attorney General Merrick Garland must decide whether to open a criminal investigation into Biden’s alleged mishandling of the documents. To that end, he appointed John Lausch Jr., the U.S. attorney in Chicago and a Trump appointee, to conduct an initial inquiry.

Garland reportedly picked him for the role despite him being in a different jurisdiction to avoid appearing partial.

Lausch has reportedly finished the initial part of his inquiry and provided a preliminary report to Garland.

If a criminal investigation is opened, Garland will likely appoint an independent special counsel to lead it.

The case mirrors a similar DoJ special counsel investigation into former President Donald Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified materials and obstruction of efforts to properly retrieve them.

On Nov. 18, Garland appointed Jack Smith to investigate over 300 classified documents found at Trump’s Florida residence, Mar-a-Lago.

Trump resisted multiple National Archives requests for the documents for months leading up to the FBI’s raid on his property, then handed over 15 boxes of files only for even more to be found still at Mar-a-Lago.

“When is the FBI going to raid the many houses of Joe Biden, perhaps even the White House?” Trump wrote on Truth Social Monday. “These documents were definitely not declassified.”

Rep. James Comer (R-KY), the new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told reporters he will investigate the Biden files.

Republicans have been quick to pounce on the news and compare it to Trump’s classified files, but Democrats have pointed out differences in the small number of documents and Biden’s willingness to cooperate with the National Archives.

The White House has yet to explain why, if the files were first discovered six days before the midterm elections, the White House waited two months to reveal the news to the public.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The New York Times) (BBC)

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Lawmakers Propose Bill to Protect Fertility Treatments Amid Post-Roe Threats

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The move comes as a number of states are considering anti-abortion bills that could threaten or ban fertility treatments by redefining embryos or fetuses as “unborn human beings” without exceptions for IVF.


The Right To Build Families Act of 2022

A group of Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday that would codify the right to use assisted reproductive technologies like in-vitro fertility (IVF) treatments into federal law.

The legislation, dubbed the Right To Build Families Act of 2022, was brought forward by Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Il) and Patty Murray (D-Wa.) alongside Rep. Susan Wild (D- Pa.). The measure would bar any limits on seeking or receiving IVF treatments and prohibit regulations on a person’s ability to retain their “reproductive genetic materials.” 

The bill would also protect physicians who provide these reproductive services and allow the Justice Department to take civil action against any states that try to limit access to fertility treatments.

The lawmakers argue it is necessary to protect IVF because a number of states have been discussing and proposing legislation that could jeopardize or even ban access to the treatments in the wake of the Roe v. Wade reversal. 

“IVF advocates in this country today are publicly telling us, ‘We need this kind of legislation to be able to protect this,’” Murray told HuffPost. “And here we are after the Dobbs decision where states are enacting laws and we have [anti-abortion] advocates who are now starting to talk, especially behind closed doors, about stopping the right for women and men to have IVF procedures done.”

Fertility Treatments Under Treat

The state-level efforts in question are being proposed by Republican lawmakers who wish to further limit abortions by redefining when life begins. Some of the proposals would define embryos or fetuses as “unborn human beings” without exceptions for those that are created through IVF, where an egg is fertilized by a sperm outside the body and then implanted in a uterus.

For example, a bill has already been pre-filed in Virginia for the 2023 legislative session that explicitly says life begins at fertilization and does not have any specific language that exempts embryos made through IVF.

Experts say these kinds of laws are concerning for a number of reasons. In the IVF process, it is typical to fertilize multiple eggs, but some are discarded. If a person becomes pregnant and does not want to keep the rest of their eggs. It is also normal that not all fertilized eggs will be viable, so physicians will get rid of those.

Sometimes doctors will also implant multiple fertilized eggs to increase the likelihood of pregnancy, but that can result in multiple eggs being fertilized. In order to prevent having multiple babies at once and improve the chance of a healthy pregnancy, people can get a fetal reduction and lower the number of fetuses.

All of those actions could become illegal under proposals that do not provide exemptions. 

“In my case, I had five fertilized eggs, and we discarded three because they were not viable. That is now potentially manslaughter in some of these states,” said Duckworth, who had both of her daughters using IVF.

“I also have a fertilized egg that’s frozen. My husband and I haven’t decided what we will do with it, but the head of the Texas Right to Life organization that wrote the bounty law for Texas has come out and specifically said he’s going after IVF next, and he wants control of the embryos,” Duckworth added.

In a hearing after Roe was overturned, Murray also raised concerns about “whether parents and providers could be punished if an embryo doesn’t survive being thawed for implantation, or for disposing unused embryos.”

Experts have said that even if anti-abortion laws defining when life begins do provide exceptions, it would be contradictory and confusing, so providers would likely err on the side of caution and not provide services out of fear of prosecution.

“[Abortion bans] are forcing women to stay pregnant against their will and are, at the very same time, threatening Americans’ ability to build a family through services like IVF,” Murray said in a statement to Axios. “It’s hard to comprehend, and it’s just plain wrong.”

The federal legislation to combat these efforts faces an uphill battle. It is unlikely it will be passed in the last few days of lame duck session, and with control of Congress being handed to Republicans come January, movement in the lower chamber will be hard fought.

Duckworth, however, told Axios that she will keep introducing the legislation “until we can get it passed.” 

See what others are saying: (Axios) (HuffPost) (USA Today)

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