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Congress Faces Make-or-Break Week on Stimulus, Government Funding, and Defense Bill

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  • Congress is facing three major deadlines this week: the stimulus bill, the government funding bill, and a defense bill that provides troop raises. All three, however, remain up in the air.
  • Democratic leaders and key Republican senators have said they will support the bipartisan $908 billion stimulus bill, but Senate Majority Leader McConnell has refused to sign on.
  • If lawmakers don’t finish hashing out the final details of the $1.4 trillion government funding bill, the government will shut down on Friday.
  • Lawmakers have floated a one-week extension that would give them more time to debate the government funding bill and the stimulus package, which will likely be tacked on to the omnibus spending legislation.
  • While both chambers are set to approve the annual defense spending bill this week, President Trump has threatened to veto the bipartisan legislation that has been signed into law for 59 straight years unless it repeals Section 230, an entirely unrelated law that grants legal protections for social media companies.

Stimulus Package

Congress is headed for a busy and chaotic week as lawmakers near key deadlines to pass another coronavirus relief stimulus package, government funding legislation, and the defense budget bill. 

Members have recently made some of the most concrete strides towards the approval of a stimulus bill after a bipartisan group of senators announced a $908 billion stimulus proposal last week.

Among other things, that proposal includes an additional $300 a week in expanded unemployment benefits, $288 billion for loans to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program and other similar programs, $160 billion for state and local governments, $25 billion in housing assistance, and short-term federal protections for businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

While many senators have agreed to the idea in principle, the bipartisan group has not yet rolled out an official bill with formal language laying out these policies, though they are expected to do so by Monday night.

However, even if the group does reach an agreement among themselves, the question still remains: will leadership sign on?

Democratic leaders did throw their support behind the general bipartisan proposal last week, but they were careful with the phrasing of their endorsement. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-Ny.) both agreed to the plan as a basis for negotiations.

McConnell Refuses to Sign On

When it comes to the country’s top Republicans, it is a very different story. Even as more and more key rank and file Republican Senators have signaled their approval, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has still refused to embrace the bipartisan plan.

For months McConnell repeatedly claimed Democrats were the sole reason there was not a proposal because they would not compromise with Republicans. In reality, both sides were guilty of not budging from the plans they wanted.

Now that Democrats have agreed to make concessions and strike an agreement, McConnell is refusing to do the same. Still, the Senate leader continued to call for bipartisanship last week while also proposing his own plan that breaks drastically with top Democratic priorities.

McConnell’s plan, which is very similar to the previous bill he already brought to the floor in recent months that has now failed to pass twice, also lacks numerous provisions Democrats have made clear must be in any legislation they agree to.

Most significantly, McConnell’s proposal does not include any federal unemployment benefits, despite the fact that he knows that extending federal joblessness aid is a dealbreaker for Democrats.

Even more perplexing is the fact that extended joblessness is also something Republicans have generally agreed to, though they differ on how much benefits should be allocated.

Trump’s Role in Stimulus

Despite McConnell’s insistence, even some of the staunchest Republicans have said his plan is not a good idea.

On Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-Sc.) told reporters that while he would support what the leader wants to propose but, “it doesn’t have any Democratic support. I’m tired of doing show votes here.”

Graham also said that he supports the $908 billion bipartisan deal. and added that he has talked to President Donald Trump about the plan “extensively.” As for Trump, he has been largely quiet and uninvolved in the most recent round of negotiations.

He has largely delegated the process to McConnell, who has used the position to push for the proposal he wants, arguing last week that Trump would veto the $908 billion deal. However, McConnell’s claims seem to be at odds with comments from Graham and other key Republicans.

On Sunday, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of the lawmakers leading the bipartisan deal, told Fox News that Trump has in fact indicated he would sign onto the $908 billion proposal. 

Trump, for his part, has offered vague mixed messages to the public. When asked by a reporter Thursday if he supported “this bill,” Trump said he would, though it was not clear which proposal he meant. A spokesperson later clarified that the president had meant McConnell’s plan, that does not mean he would veto a bigger one if it was sent to his desk.

Government Funding Bill

While many have said this week is basically make-or-break for any hopes of a stimulus before Biden takes office, there have also been talks among leadership of tacking the bill onto the massive year-end spending package.

At the end of every calendar year, Congress must pass a bill to fund the government through the next fiscal year. If they do not pass that legislation by the slotted deadline, which this year is Dec. 11, the federal government will shut down.

Congressional leaders have agreed in principle to a massive $1.4 trillion omnibus bill, but there are still some details that are being worked out, including President Trump’s demand for the border wall funding and disputes over a Veterans Affairs health funding cap, among other things.

Notably, given the number of differences remaining on this spending bill as well as a coronavirus relief bill, it has been reported that members will likely pass a one-week stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown and give themselves another week to sort everything out.

Meaning that if the stimulus bill is incorporated into this much larger spending bill, Congress will also have another week to find common ground there as well. It’s unclear if an agreement will be reached after months of deadlock.

If they do not agree on something either this week or next week, assuming they approve this stopgap extension, it is almost certain there will not be another stimulus bill until president-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Biden has said it will be a priority of his to pass a stimulus package regardless of whether or not Congress approves this $908 billion one, that would still mean Americans would have to go more than a month without the desperately needed aid.

Unless federal unemployment programs and evictions moratoriums are extended, upwards of 12 million people are subject to lose all their benefits entirely by the end of the year, and as many as 6.7 million renter households — or roughly 19 million people — will risk being evicted in the coming months. 

Defense Funding Bill

While both the stimulus proposal and the government funding bill will likely be up in the air for another two weeks, there is at least one vote Congress is expected to hold soon, the annual bill that funds the Department of Defense.

That bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is set to be voted on by the House tomorrow and the Senate sometime later this week. While it is expected to pass both chambers with huge bipartisan majorities, the problem here lies with President Trump.

Despite the fact that the NDAA is a bipartisan bill that has been signed into law for 59 straight years, Trump has threatened to veto the $740 billion bill unless Congress agrees to repeal Section 230 — a completely unrelated 1996 law that gives social media companies the ability to moderate posts on their platforms without liability. 

Trump has recently argued that the section is a threat to national security. However, he has not provided any evidence for this claim. He also has not given any other reasons why he will veto the bill that funds the military and gives raises to troops and military readiness unless Congress repeals a totally unrelated legal shield for social media companies.

Many believe he simply is angry that Twitter has been flagging his tweets for spreading misinformation about the election, and as a result, no such repeal or amendment of the section is included in the current version of the NDAA set to be approved by both chambers this week.

Notably, if Trump does veto the bill, it is very possible he will be overridden. House Democrats have said they will have a two-thirds majority in the House to override the veto, and many Republicans in the Senate have also signaled they would vote to override.

Even if they fail to override the veto, the bill could easily be passed again when Biden takes office in January. Still, this will be a key moment to watch because if Trump’s veto is overridden, it would be a massive rebuke that comes right as he is no longer about to be president.

In addition to not including the Section 230 repeal, the bill contains other provisions that Trump has openly opposed. This is removing Confederate names from army bases — a measure Trump separately threatened to veto over in June but has not mentioned in recent months. The bill is also taking aim at other Trump policies like his troop withdrawals and border wall. 

Trump, for his part, has spent most of his free time railing against the election outcome and continuing to spread false claims, and it is currently unclear how he will ultimately fit into Congress’ schedule as it rushes to wrap up the session before the December holidays.

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

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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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