July 16, 2019

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has some steaming hot love for a microwaveable favorite.

In a Tuesday speech on the Senate floor, McConnell started to brief his colleagues on some international trade deal discussions slated for this week. He then zoomed in on one particular product from one particular country — Hot Pockets, a product of the Swiss company Nestle — and delivered a touching ode to the toasty treat.

"Practically every American is familiar with Hot Pockets," McConnell said, not adding how they're also familiar with how the pockets' cores remain impossibly cold while the breaded edge is scalding. "But not everyone knows that as of several years ago, every single hot pocket is cooked in Mount Sterling, Kentucky," creating about 1,000 jobs, McConnell added. That's why he's so adamant that senators vote to uphold a trade deal with Switzerland.

Now, without further ado, watch McConnell unfortunately not sing that iconic brand name on the Senate floor. Kathryn Krawczyk

September 26, 2020

President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court on Saturday, and the early reactions from the nation's political leaders are in.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is naturally at the forefront of the Senate GOP's push to confirm Barrett before the November election, was effusive in his response to the nomination. In a statement, he said Trump "could not have made a better decision" and called Barrett "an exceptionally impressive jurist and an exceedingly well-qualified nominee," leaving little doubt as to how he'll vote, assuming the nomination moves past the Senate Judiciary Committee, as expected. The committee chair, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), meanwhile, agreed that Barrett is an "outstanding" nominee, adding that he's committed to ensuring she receives a "challenging, fair, and respectful hearing."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wasn't quite so thrilled, expressing particular concern for the future of the Affordable Care Act. "If this nominee is confirmed," Pelosi said in a statement, "millions of families' health care will be ripped away in the middle of a pandemic that has infected seven million Americans and killed over 200,000 people in our country."

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, also focused on the ACA, which he helped usher in while serving as former President Barack Obama's second-in-command, stating that Barrett "has a written track record of disagreeing" with the high court's previous decisions to uphold the ACA. Biden made another call for the Senate not to vote on Barrett's confirmation and wait for the presidential election to pass before filling the vacancy. Tim O'Donnell

September 26, 2020

As expected, President Trump on Saturday officially nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, for the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week.

Speaking at the White House, Trump described the 48-year-old Barrett, who traveled to Washington, D.C., from her home in South Bend, Indiana, for the nomination, as "one of our nation's most gifted and brilliant legal minds" and a "woman of unparalleled achievement, towering intellect, sterling credentials, and unyielding loyalty to the Constitution."

During her own remarks, Barrett first paid tribute to Ginsburg, who she said "smashed" glass ceilings in the legal profession. She also paid homage to the late Justice Antonin Scalia — and his famed friendship with Ginsburg despite their fierce legal disagreements — whom she clerked for in the late '90s. Barrett, who is well-respected in conservative circles, said she shares the judicial philosophy of her mentor. Judges, she said, "must apply the law as written" while "setting aside any policy views they might hold."

Barrett must now be confirmed by the Senate in what is expected to be a contentious process. While Barrett's legal opinions likely won't appeal to several Democratic lawmakers, the circumstances surrounding her nomination are what make this a particularly controversial nomination. In 2016, the Republican-led Senate blocked then-President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, on the grounds that it was too close to that year's presidential election. There's actually an even smaller window between nomination and election this time around, but the GOP is ready to go through with the confirmation process, arguing the current situation differs from 2016 because the Senate majority and president hail from the same party. Tim O'Donnell

September 26, 2020

As Democrats try to beat the odds and prevent the confirmation of President Trump's Supreme Court nominee (almost certainly Amy Coney Barrett) before the November presidential election, some lawmakers and activists have suggested boycotting the Senate Judicary Committee hearings, which are tentatively scheduled for the middle of October. Just don't expect the idea to gain much traction, The Washington Post reports, especially among Democrats who sit on the committee.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has said he will forego the standard courtesy visit, in which the nominee meets with senators individually, but he does intend to participate in the hearings and he believes "all my Judiciary colleagues will."

The risks of skipping out on the hearings seem to outweigh the potential reward, per the Post. If Democrats don't go, Republicans would likely move swiftly though the questioning and toward a committee vote.

More specifically, though, a boycott could prevent Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who sits on the committee, from giving a jolt to her own vice presidential campaign, the Post notes. Harris, who is running alongside the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, has become well-known for her interrogations of Trump's nominees over the last few years, and there's a sense that she could enhance her ticket's chances during the hearings.

With all that in mind, it's more likely that Democrats will try to extend questioning as long as possible and make their case for why the nominee shouldn't be confirmed in a more traditional manner. Read more at The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

September 26, 2020

For the first time since June 5, New York state, the home of the United States' worst coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began earlier this year, reported just over 1,000 new COVID-19 cases in a 24-hour period.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Saturday that the Empire State crossed the quadruple-digit threshold, though he didn't specifically address the number, saying only that New Yorkers should continue to practice social distancing, wear masks, and follow other mitigation guidelines.

The state has seen a consistently upward trend in cases over the last week, which has prompted some concern as businesses and college campuses reopen, and officials have noted that spikes in some neighborhoods in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens are especially worrisome. But New York also continues to see a high number of daily tests. Data collected by the state shows the positivity rate has remained at 1 percent, or just a tick below, for some time now, indicating that the high volume of tests is a significant factor in the case increase.

A new study published by The Lancet on Friday that searched for COVID-19 prevalence in a large nationwide sample of patients on dialysis found that about one-third of those tested in New York showed signs of a previous coronavirus infection. In terms of the study, that's the highest of any state in the U.S. and while it's far from what experts have pinpointed as the target for herd immunity, those experts have also pointed out that numbers like that can still help slow the spread of the virus. Read more at Bloomberg and NBC New York. Tim O'Donnell

September 26, 2020

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has gone on record multiple times in the past to nix the idea of adding more seats to the Supreme Court. But, recently, in light of President Trump's plan to nominate a replacement for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — reportedly Amy Coney Barrett, who is well-respected by conservatives and would theoretically shift the high court to a 6-3 conservative majority — before the November election, Biden exhibited a slight change of tone.

When asked about court expansion earlier this week, Biden responded that it was a "legitimate question." He didn't elaborate, and there's no reason to believe he's drastically altered his view, but, as The New York Times reports, "that he would even publicly entertain the idea of adding justices as 'legitimate' is a telling signal of how far his thinking has traveled."

It also, per the Times, suggests that the way Biden views his old stomping grounds, the Senate, has shifted. The longtime senator from Delaware was a firm believer in the upper chamber's "culture of collegiality," the Times notes, which allowed him to strike up positive, friendly relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle back in the day. Now, though, that idealization may be fading as the Senate becomes more and more polarized, which may be swinging him toward positions he normally wouldn't espouse. "He's disappointed in a lot of the people in the Senate now and a lot of the people he knew — or thought he knew," Mike Gelacak, a former aide who has known Biden since law school, told the Times. "I think he has a hard time relating to it because that's not the way he operated, and it's not the way it used to be done. It's a different place." Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

September 26, 2020

Mustapha Adib, Lebanon's prime minister-designate, resigned Saturday after he was unable to form a non-partisan cabinet in the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion in August that killed around 200 people and left thousands homeless, prompting the last cabinet to step down amid accusations of corruption and neglect.

Even before the blast, Lebanon was struggling with ongoing political and economic crises. Adib, who was designated prime minister at the end of August, was reportedly trying to move away from Lebanon's sectarian-based system of government and "create a government of experts" to address the crises, but his efforts reportedly ran into trouble when two of Lebanon's dominant Shia parties, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, insisted "they wanted the finance minister portfolio."

Adib's resignation also hinders French President Emmanuel Macron's controversial efforts to break Lebanon's political stalemate. Macron's initiative gave the country's political parties 15 days to nominate a cabinet of independent experts, The Financial Times reports, and afterward, France would convene an international pledging conference in October. Paris' attempt to intervene in Lebanon was not well received by everyone, given that France ruled the country for around two decades after the Ottoman Empire fell, but Macron's plan does have support within Beirut's political system, and leading Sunni Muslim politician Saad al-Hariri said Saturday that "those who applaud" the initiative's collapse "will bite your fingers in regret." Read more at Al Jazeera and The Financial Times. Tim O'Donnell

September 26, 2020

Johnson & Johnson announced the start of phase three of its coronavirus vaccine trial this week, citing "positive interim results" from earlier stages of its study. Those were published Friday, and they were indeed promising.

The pharmaceutical giant reported that 99 percent of the participants between the ages of 18 and 55 in early-to-mid stage clinical trials developed neutralizing antibodies against the novel virus. The analysis also found that most of the side effects associated with the vaccine were mild and resolved within a matter of days.

It wasn't clear, however, whether participants over 65 were well-protected since immune response results were available for only 15 people in that demographic. Additionally, Reuters reports, the rate of adverse reactions — like fatigue and muscle aches — to the vaccine in that age group was just 36 percent, far lower than those seen in 64 percent of the younger participants. That might sound like good news, but it actually suggests the immune response in older people may be weaker.

One of the key aspects of Johnson & Johnson's trial is that just a single dose produced a strong immune response in participants. Other companies developing vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer are using a two-dose approach. If Johnson & Johnson's phase three trial, in which 60,000 volunteers will enroll across three continents, eventually proves the single dose is safe and effective, it could simplify distribution of the vaccine. Read more at Reuters and CNN. Tim O'Donnell

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