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Senate Unanimously Approves $2 Trillion Pandemic Relief Bill

As the nation confronted the worst economic decline since the Great Depression, the United States Senate approved an unprecedented $2 trillion relief bill late on Wednesday night, in an effort to soften the financial blow of the coronavirus pandemic. The legislation is by far the most expansive economic assistance ever passed by Congress and will go to the House on Friday morning, lawmakers said.

Approved by an extraordinary and rapid bipartisan vote of 96 to 0, the package will deliver checks to more than 150 million American households, establish multi-billion dollar loan programs for big and small businesses, add billions of dollars to make unemployment insurance more generous, vastly increase spending on the nation’s hospitals, and support city, state, and local governments.

The relief bill will provide $1,200 to most American adults and $500 for most children, along with a $500 billion lending scheme for large private firms, cities, and states and a $367 billion employee retention fund for small businesses. It will also deliver four months of additional unemployment payments and direct $130 billion to both public and private hospitals.

Deep concern about the perils to the health care system and the broader economy is shared by both liberal and conservative senators who overcame differences to back the enormous spending bill, which President Trump has already promised to sign.

Four senators were unavailable to vote because they are in self-quarantine. Just minutes before the vote, according to the Washington Post, a spokesman for Sen. John Thune (R-SD) disclosed that the Senate’s second-ranking Republican had returned to South Dakota feeling ill. Al;sop absent were Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has tested positive for COVID-19, and Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney of Utah, who self-quarantined because they had spent time with Paul.

McConnell Vows To Kill 395 Bills Passed By House

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed on Thursday that he is blocking about 400 pieces of legislation that have passed the House of Representatives, and made it clear that he intends to kill every one of them.

Speaking to Fox News, McConnell (R-KY), the self-proclaimed “Grim Reaper,” confirmed that he was holding up 395 pieces of legislation, which does not take into account the growing pile of bills that have made it to his desk since the start of the new year.

“It is true. They’ve been on full left-wing parade over there, trotting out all of their left-wing solutions that are going to be issues in the fall campaign,” McConnell replied. “We’re not gonna pass those.”

He admitted that there were “some things we can agree on” such as “infrastructure” and “parks.”

“It may not be a big bill, because that would require dealing with the revenue sources [and] both sides are nervous about raising the gas tax,” he said, referring to a potential infrastructure deal.

He added, “It’s not that we’re not doing anything. It’s that we’re not doing what the House Democrats and these candidates for president on the Democratic ticket want to do.”

When asked about a House-passed bill to lower drug prices, something Republicans have claimed is a priority, McConnell said simply the Senate was “wrestling with that.”

Since the start of 2019, McConnell and Senate Republican caucus have done almost no legislating. The vast majority of their 428 roll call votes last year were related to Donald Trump’s nominees to the courts or executive branch. Even several members of McConnell’s own caucus have criticized their leadership for focusing almost solely on nominations.

Some of the legislation McConnell is obstructing is indeed based on progressive ideas that he opposes, though most received at least some GOP votes in the House. These include bills to provide voter protections, prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, protect Dreamers, guarantee fair pay, mandate gun background checks, fight government corruption, and raise the federal minimum wage.

But many of the stalled measures are fairly non-controversial bills that easily passed the House, with overwhelming bipartisan support. Often, these bills were even authored by House Republicans.

They include:

  • The Global Hope Act, a bipartisan bill by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) to support global partnerships for the fight against childhood cancer. It passed with super-majority House support last month.
  • The Securing America’s Ports Act, a bipartisan bill by Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM) to ensure that all vehicles entering the United States at land ports of entry are scanned. It passed with super-majority House support this week.
  • The Unlocking Opportunities for Small Businesses Act, a bill by Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-MN) and Dwight Evans (D-PA) to make it easier for small business to compete for federal prime contracts by requiring contract officers to consider relevant past performance and subcontractor experience of companies. It passed with super-majority House support last month.
  • H.R. 5037, a bill to rename the Farmville, North Carolina, post office after the late Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-NC). Jones’ successor, Reg. Gregory Murphy (R-NC), authored the bill and every member of the state’s House delegation co-sponsored the tribute to the 12-term GOP lawmaker. It passed with super-majority House support last week.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

Despite Record-Low Approval, Trump Retains Some Support

Every week, it seems, a new poll shows President Donald Trump’s approval rating sliding further into uncharted lows, as the leader of the free world alienates allies, goads adversaries and challenges friends. Political commentators point out that no president in modern history has had approval ratings as low as Trump’s so early in his tenure. According to a CNN survey conducted in August, only 38 percent of voters approve of Trump’s performance.

Moreover, Republican leaders in Congress have turned their backs on him, openly defying his wishes and publicly criticizing his actions. The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a package of sanctions against Russia that the president didn’t want, and GOP stalwarts made it clear that they would brook no effort to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, despite Trump’s taunts of Sessions on Twitter.

Does that mean Trump’s presidency is collapsing after less than a year?

Not so fast. You’d never know the man is in trouble by witnessing a race in Alabama for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate, where the leading candidates are vying to see who can most tightly tie himself to Trump’s ankle. A few days ago, the incumbent, Luther Strange, won Trump’s endorsement. That may be enough for him to secure the nomination on Tuesday (Aug. 22) without a runoff, despite a crowded field.

Strange, who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general, has declared that he will “fight for President Trump’s agenda every day.” Strange says he will take federal funds away from so-called sanctuary cities and use the money, instead, to build Trump’s promised wall along the southern border.

(Strange also says that he’s “working with President Trump to drain the swamp” — Washington-ese for cleaning up corruption. That’s rich, since Strange’s ascension to the U.S. Senate has a strong whiff of corruption about it. As Alabama’s attorney general, Strange was supposed to investigate the misdeeds of then-Gov. Robert Bentley, who was accused of misusing his office to cover up a romantic liaison with a staffer. Instead, Bentley appointed Strange to Sessions’ old seat, which strongly suggests an unethical backroom deal.)

Another candidate for the GOP Senate nomination is Mo Brooks, a congressman from the northern part of the state. Once upon a time, way back in early 2016, Brooks told MSNBC: “I think what you are going to see 12 to 18 months from now is that a lot of people who have supported Donald Trump, they are going to regret having done so.”

But Brooks is apparently the one with regrets. He has spent this campaign running from those remarks, claiming, instead, to “support President Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda.” Like Strange, Brooks is now zealous in his support of the president’s xenophobic immigration policies, pledging to “fight every spending bill that doesn’t fund that wall.”

Here in the Deep South, the president is revered by many. This is indisputably Trumpland, a part of the world where enthusiasm for the president approaches the feverish adoration reserved for cult leaders, where supporters cheer his every bombastic pronouncement and dismiss any evidence of scandal or malfeasance. In August 2015, Trump filled a Mobile, Alabama, football stadium with 30,000 cheering supporters.

It would be wrong, though, to dismiss this as one more strange feature of Southern culture, one more indication of an odd land that never fully re-integrated after the Civil War. In fact, Republicans across the land are still solidly behind Trump; according to the latest CNN poll, 83 percent of Republicans approve of the job he’s doing, with 59 percent approving strongly.

Over the last several decades, the GOP has become increasingly flavored by the politics of the 11 states of the Old Confederacy — resentment of cultural change, suspicion of science, hostility toward the federal government. Trump didn’t create those resentments; he merely rode them to election.

And those resentments will linger long after he is gone.

Senate Democrats Amass Support For Gorsuch Filibuster

 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats on Monday amassed enough support to block a U.S. Senate confirmation vote on President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, but Republicans vowed to change the Senate rules to ensure the conservative judge gets the lifetime job.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-9 along party lines to send Gorsuch’s nomination to the full Senate, setting up a political showdown between Trump’s fellow Republicans and the opposition Democrats that appears likely to trigger a change in long-standing Senate rules to allow his confirmation.

Before the vote, Senator Christopher Coons, a member of the panel, became the 41st Democrat to announce support for a procedural hurdle called a filibuster requiring a super-majority of 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to allow a confirmation vote.

The Senate’s Republican leaders insist Gorsuch will be confirmed on the Senate floor on Friday regardless of what the Democrats do. Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate.

In the face of the filibuster, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would be expected to force a confirmation vote by having the Senate change its rules and allow for a simple majority vote for confirmation of Supreme Court justices, a move sometimes called the “nuclear option” that Trump has urged.

Judiciary Committee Republicans blasted Democrats for pursuing what they called the first “partisan filibuster” of a Supreme Court nominee – there was a successful bipartisan filibuster five decades ago against a Democratic president’s nominee – and said it would come to naught because of the threatened rule change.

But it was Senate Republicans who last year refused to even consider Democratic former President Barack Obama’s nomination of appellate judge Merrick Garland to fill the same high court vacancy that Trump has selected Gorsuch to fill.

“Democrats, including me, are still furious at the way Judge Merrick Garland was treated last year. But the traditions and principles that have defined the Senate are crumbling and we are poised to hasten that destruction this week,” Coons said.

Coons left room for a compromise, in which Democrats would allow the vote to go ahead in return for Republicans agreeing to a 60-vote threshold for the next Supreme Court vacancy.

“So for my part, I hope and pray that we can yet find a way together to find a solution,” Coons added.

Senate confirmation of Gorsuch, 49, would restore the nine-seat high court’s conservative majority, fulfilling one of Trump’s top campaign promises. Trump in January nominated Gorsuch, a conservative appeals court judge from Colorado, to the lifetime job as a justice. He could be expected to serve for decades.

Gorsuch was nominated to fill a vacancy created by the February 2016 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

Republicans control the White House and Congress for the first time in a decade. The inability of Senate Republicans to coax enough Democratic support to avoid the “nuclear option” reflected the intense partisan divide in Washington and the Trump administration’s failure to win the cooperation of the opposition party.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer accused Democrats of partisan obstruction that sets “a very dangerous precedent” and told a briefing that “we’re obviously disappointed that the overwhelming majority of them are still playing politics with the nation’s highest court.” Spicer said the decision on the “nuclear option” rested with McConnell.

The committee’s chairman, Republican Chuck Grassley, defended Gorsuch as a mainstream jurist worthy of confirmation. Committee Republican John Kennedy called Gorsuch “a legal rock star” and a “thoroughbred.”

Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, and Mark Warner, not a member of the panel, also announced opposition to Gorsuch on Monday and support for a filibuster.

The actual confirmation vote would be by a simple majority if the filibuster is stopped. To date, three Democrats have come out in support of Gorsuch, and the Republicans would have needed to secure eight Democratic votes to kill a Gorsuch filibuster.

With the failure of Republican healthcare legislation in Congress and with courts blocking the president’s ban on people from several Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, winning confirmation for Gorsuch has taken on even more importance for Trump.

Democrats have accused Gorsuch of being insufficiently independent of Trump, evading questions on key Supreme Court rulings of the past including on abortion and political spending, and favoring corporate interests over ordinary Americans.

Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, who represents the nominee’s home state of Colorado and introduced the nominee during his confirmation hearing, said he would oppose the Gorsuch filibuster effort but did not take a position on whether to vote in favor of the judge.

Feinstein said this was not a “routine nomination,” noting what happened to Garland.

“There was simply no reason that the nomination of Judge Garland could not proceed, other than to deny the then-president of the United States, President Barack Obama, the ability to fill the seat,” Feinstein said.

Feinstein criticized Gorsuch’s rulings against a fired truck driver and an autistic child and faulted his actions as a lawyer in Republican former President George W. Bush’s Justice Department regarding detainee interrogation techniques critics called torture.

Feinstein also said she was disturbed by the millions of dollars of “dark money” from anonymous donors backing advertising and political advocacy by conservative groups to help Gorsuch win confirmation.

The 60-vote super-majority threshold that gives the minority party power to hold up the majority party has over the decades forced the Senate to try to achieve bipartisanship in legislation and in presidential appointments.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican committee member, expressed regret that his party would be forced to change the Senate rules and said the “damage done to the Senate’s going to be real.”

“If we have to, we will change the rules, and it looks like we’re going to have to. I hate that. I really, really do,” Graham said.

Senator Orrin Hatch, a committee Republican, said Democrats were acting under pressure from “the radical left.”

While Gorsuch’s opponents would fight a Senate rule change, it was the Democrats who in 2013 changed the Senate rules to limit filibusters after Republicans used the procedure against Obama’s appeals court nominees. The Senate, then led by Democrats, barred filibusters for executive branch nominees and federal judges aside from Supreme Court justices. Even if Republicans do change the rules, legislation, as opposed to appointments, would still need to meet a 60-vote threshold.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Mohammad Zargham, Tim Ahmann and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Will Dunham)