Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: February 19, 2021

Biden sends Texas aid and declares disasters in Oklahoma and Louisiana, NASA lands Perseverance rover on Mars, and more

1

Biden sends aid to Texas and declares disasters in Oklahoma, Louisiana

The Biden administration on Thursday sent generators, blankets, and other supplies to Texas to help people struggling without power or running water after a brutal blast of extreme winter weather. President Biden also approved declarations for Oklahoma and Louisiana, two other states hit hard by the storm, which has been blamed for several dozen deaths. "Jill and I are keeping Texas, Oklahoma, and other impacted states in our prayers," Biden tweeted. "Please heed the instructions of local officials and stay safe." The Federal Emergency Management Agency has delivered 60 generators to provide power at hospitals, water facilities, and other critical sites. Hundreds of thousands remained without power in Texas for a third straight day, and nearly half of the state's residents remained under boil-water notices or without running water as another storm affected the Plains and the East Coast on Thursday.

2

NASA lands Perseverance rover on Mars

NASA on Thursday landed its Perseverance rover on Mars, kicking off a new push to study the Red Planet to determine whether it ever supported life. The U.S. space agency has conducted other missions to Mars, but the work of the new $2.7 billion robotic explorer gives America a new set of tools with the most advanced capabilities the U.S. has ever had on the planet. Perseverance, which is about the size of a car, has sophisticated cameras and lasers that can analyze the chemical components of rocks, as well as ground-penetrating radar capable of identifying fossilized microbial life from an era when Mars had plentiful water. "It's an enormous undertaking that's in front of us, and it has enormous scientific potential to really be transformative," said Kenneth Williford, a deputy project scientist on the mission. "The question is, 'Was Mars ever a living planet?'"

3

U.S. ready for talks on restoring Iran nuclear deal

The Biden administration said Thursday that the United States was ready to start talks with Iran about reviving the 2015 deal to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal nearly three years ago, and reimposed sanctions. Iran has recently resumed uranium enrichment in violation of the landmark deal. "If Iran comes back into strict compliance with its commitments ... the United States will do the same and is prepared to engage in discussions with Iran toward that end," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a joint statement with his British, French, and German counterparts. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded in a tweet, saying that "instead of sophistry & putting onus on Iran," the U.S. and other world powers should abide by their "own commitments & demand an end to Trump's legacy of #EconomicTerrorism against Iran."

4

Democrats unveil Biden immigration overhaul

Democrats on Thursday introduced President Biden's immigration overhaul on Capitol Hill. The proposal includes a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. "We're here today because last November 80 million Americans voted against Donald Trump and against everything he stood for," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said. "They voted to restore common sense, compassion, and competence in our government. And part of that mandate is fixing our immigration system, which is a cornerstone of Trump's hateful horror show." The immigration reform push, based on a proposal Biden made on his first day in office, comes as Democrats also are trying to pass a new round of $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief, which the White House has identified as Biden's top priority.

5

Ted Cruz returns from Cancun after harsh criticism

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) faced an intense backlash on Thursday after photos that went viral showed him traveling with his family to Cancun, Mexico, while millions in his state were struggling for days without power or running water due to a brutal winter storm. Cruz returned to Texas after 11 hours in Cancun. He said he had gone to Mexico because after his family "lost heat and power too" his daughters "asked to take a trip with friends," and "wanting to be a good dad" he agreed, and accompanied them to Cancun. He reportedly had been scheduled to return on Saturday but caught a flight home on Thursday after an uproar from many Democrats as well as some conservatives. The state Democratic Party tweeted: "Texans are dying and you're on a flight to Cancun. #TedCruzRESIGN."

6

South Carolina governor signs controversial 'fetal heartbeat' abortion ban

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) on Thursday signed a restrictive "fetal heartbeat" abortion ban bill into law. The controversial legislation, passed by the state House a day earlier, requires doctors to search for a fetal heartbeat using ultrasound before performing an abortion, and outlaws the procedure if one is found, with exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, or in cases when the woman's health is in danger. Critics argued that the law won't give women enough time to decide whether to get an abortion after finding out they are pregnant, calling the legislation blatantly unconstitutional because it denies the right to an abortion before fetus viability, which comes at about 24 weeks of pregnancy. The right was established under the landmark Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision.

7

Biden pledges $4 billion for equitable global vaccine distribution

President Biden plans to announce Friday that he is giving U.S. support to a global effort to distribute coronavirus vaccines more equitably. Biden is scheduled to pledge $4 billion on Friday during a Group of Seven meeting with fellow leaders of the world's largest economies. An initial $2 billion will go to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, for use by the Covax Facility, according to administration officials. The U.S. then will provide another $2 billion over two years after other donors have honored their pledges. The administration of former President Donald Trump declined to participate in the project, partly due to Trump's feud with the World Health Organization. The money is expected to give a significant boost to the effort, which has struggled to come up with the funding it needs since it was announced last year.

8

U.S. officially rejoins Paris climate accord

The United States officially rejoined the Paris climate accord on Friday, 107 days after former President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the landmark treaty took effect. Trump ordered the U.S. pullout from the 2015 international agreement in 2019, but his decision didn't take effect until Nov. 4, 2020, the day after he lost his bid for re-election. President Biden told the United Nations that the U.S. wanted to return to the accord as soon as he took office. "A cry for survival comes from the planet itself," Biden said in his inaugural address. "A cry that can't be any more desperate or any more clear now." The Friday return was largely symbolic, but still important, said former United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres. "It's the political message that's being sent," said Figueres, one of the leaders who helped craft the accord's agreement on reducing greenhouse gases.

9

Bob Dole announces diagnosis with stage four lung cancer

Former Sen. Bob Dole, who was the GOP's 1996 presidential nominee, has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. He will start treatment next week. "While I certainly have some hurdles ahead, I know that I join millions of Americans who face significant health challenges of their own," Dole, 97, said in a tweet on Thursday. Dole entered politics after returning from World War II, where he lost most of the use of his right arm after being wounded in battle. In 1976, then-President Gerald Ford picked Dole as his running mate in his unsuccessful re-election campaign. Dole went on to serve as the top Republican in the Senate before winning the party's presidential nomination in 1996, but he lost to then-President Bill Clinton. In recent years, he has championed causes such as the creation of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall.

10

New Zealand announces plan to fight 'period poverty' in schools

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti announced Thursday that the nation's schools would offer free sanitary products to students starting in June. The policy expands on a 2020 pilot project aiming to begin fighting what is known as period poverty as part of the government's efforts to fight poverty and boost students' attendance and well-being. "Young people should not miss out on their education because of something that is a normal part of life for half the population," Ardern said. "Removing barriers to healthy, active, educational outcomes for children and young people is an important part of the Government's Youth and Wellbeing Strategy."

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