Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: February 2, 2021

Biden discusses coronavirus relief with Republican senators, McConnell calls "loony" conspiracies a "cancer" on GOP, and more

1

Biden discusses coronavirus relief with GOP senators

President Biden met Monday with a group of Senate Republicans to discuss his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, and their $618 billion counterproposal. "It was a very good exchange of views," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who led the group. "I wouldn't say we came together on a package tonight ... But what we did agree to do is follow up and talk further." Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) filed a joint budget resolution for the 2021 Fiscal Year on Monday in the first step toward the introduction of a Budget Reconciliation bill that would give Democrats, with their narrow majority in both chambers, a way to pass Biden's COVID-19 relief plan without GOP support.

2

McConnell denounces 'loony lies' as 'cancer' on GOP

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday said that "loony lies and conspiracy theories" were a "cancer" on the Republican Party. The remarks were interpreted as a rebuke of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). McConnell did not name Greene, but the reference to her was clear as he directly criticized several false claims she has embraced. "Somebody who's suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged, and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.'s airplane is not living in reality," McConnell said. House Republican leaders have remained mostly silent in the face of mounting pressure to censure Greene as her controversial social media posts and videos surfaced recently.

3

Coronavirus hospitalizations fall as pandemic's deadliest month ends

At the start of the new month on Monday, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States fell below 100,000 for the first time in two months as a post-holiday surge ebbed. The month of January, however, was the deadliest month yet of the coronavirus pandemic for the U.S. More than 95,000 people died in January, bringing the nation's coronavirus death toll to more than 440,000. Daily deaths are still averaging about 3,150, but that's down 200 from the mid-January peak. Deaths are a lagging indicator, because it can take weeks for someone hit with a severe case to die from COVID-19. Boston College epidemiologist Dr. Philip Landrigan said vaccines are helping, but so is the fact that the crisis is increasingly "depoliticized."

4

Biden administration has its 1st contact with Palestinian Authority

Hady Amr, the Biden administration's assistant secretary of state for Israel-Palestine, on Monday spoke by phone with the Palestinian Authority's Minister for Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh in the first publicly acknowledged direct contact between the two sides. The Biden administration announced last week that it was restoring relations with the Palestinians after the Trump administration slashed financial assistance to them, effectively shut down their diplomatic mission to the United States, and recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The call mostly covered the basics involved with re-establishing the relationship. The Biden administration is reportedly seeking to strengthen ties with Palestine and "maintain its steadfast support for Israel" to support a two-state solution.

5

U.S. economy expected to return to pre-pandemic level by mid-year

The U.S. economy should return to pre-pandemic levels by mid-2021 with or without additional federal relief money, according to Congressional Budget Office projections released Monday. The non-partisan research office said that it still could take years for everyone who lost work due to the coronavirus crisis to find another job. The new forecast takes into account increased growth attributed to the $900 billion coronavirus relief package Congress approved in December, which added an expected 1.5 percent to the gross domestic product level this year and in 2022. That legislation included $600 direct checks to individuals, as well as restored extra unemployment benefits. The CBO said it expected the economy, which contracted last year, to grow by 3.7 percent in 2021, and the unemployment rate to fall to 5.3 percent by the end of year. It had put the figure at 8.3 percent in July.

6

Biden threatens sanctions over Myanmar coup

President Biden on Monday threatened sanctions against Myanmar after its military took control of the government and arrested civilian leaders, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Biden called the coup in Myanmar, also known as Burma, a "direct assault on the country's transition to democracy and rule of law." Biden said the United States lifted sanctions on the country in the past decade because it was making the transition from military rule to democracy, but that "the reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action. The United States will stand up for democracy wherever it is under attack." Hundreds of lawmakers remained confined in their government housing on Tuesday.

7

Winter storm paralyzes much of Northeast with heavy snow

A major winter storm slammed into the Northeast on Monday, disrupting travel for millions and forcing public health officials to suspend coronavirus vaccinations in some places. More than 13 inches of snow had fallen on New York City's Central Park by early Monday afternoon, and the city was forecast to get up to two feet of snow by Tuesday, one of the biggest snowfalls in its history. "I want New Yorkers to hear me loud and clear — stay home and off the roads," Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said as he declared a state of emergency covering 44 counties. In addition to heavy snow, the storm brought wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour in some areas. More than 1,300 flights were canceled preemptively before the storm hit, and by Monday afternoon several hundred more were canceled, according to Flightaware.com.

8

Oregon becomes 1st state to decriminalize drug possession

Oregon on Monday became the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, LSD, oxycodone, and other drugs, as a ballot measure approved by the state's voters in November took effect. "Today, the first domino of our cruel and inhumane war on drugs has fallen, setting off what we expect to be a cascade of other efforts centering health over criminalization," said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which led the push for the ballot initiative. Voters approved the measure by a wide margin. Those found in possession of the drugs now could face a $100 fine and a health assessment, which could land them in addiction counseling. Two dozen district attorneys opposed the initiative, calling it reckless.

9

SpaceX announces plan for 1st all-civilian space mission

SpaceX plans to launch an all-civilian crew into orbit as early as this year, the company announced Monday. The mission would be the first of its kind. Entrepreneur Jared Isaacman will fund the trip, and said he will be joined by an employee of St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital and the winner of a contest he is running through Shift4Shop, his eCommerce platform. The group will travel to space aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told Isaacman that "wherever you want to go, we'll take you there." Isaacman said the flight crew might be able to start training within the next month, and will undergo the same regimen professional astronauts go through.

10

Actor Hal Holbrook dies at 95

Emmy- and Tony award-winning actor Hal Holbrook died last week, his former wife Carol Rossen confirmed Monday. He was 95. Holbrook was perhaps best known for his portrayal of Mark Twain in the renowned one-man show he performed for more than five decades. He developed the show Mark Twain Tonight! in 1954. The play, in which Holbrook portrays Twain reading some of his dramatic and comedic writing, premiered in Pennsylvania before moving off Broadway in 1959. It premiered on Broadway in 1966, and Holbrook won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for that performance. The next year he was nominated for an Emmy for a TV broadcast of the show. His films included Jonathan Livingston Seagull and All the President's Men. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2007's Into the Wild.

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