February 23, 2021

Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Tuesday unveiled a plan to gradually raise the minimum wage to $10, rather than the $15 their Democratic colleagues are targeting. The reaction among conservatives was mixed.

Brad Polumbo, writing in The Washington Examiner, called the plan an "abandonment" of fiscal conservatism, likening it to "something out of" Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) office. The plan, Polumbo continues, "ignores everything conservatives are supposed to understand about economics and the perils of big government," asserting that while both Romney and Cotton market themselves as "pro-family social conservatives," their plan "would hurt working families if implemented."

At The National Review, however, John McCormack writes that research has shown the plan wouldn't cost any jobs at its median estimates, and high-end estimates point to around 100,000 losses. McCormack's colleague Robert VerBruggen thinks it will "resonate with the public" as a middle ground policy that comes attached to an immigration enforcement measure — in addition to the gradual wage increase, the Romney-Cotton plan would require businesses to use the "E-verify system" to ensure their employees are in the country legally and eligible to work.

At Bloomberg, Michael Strain, the director of of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, praised the Romney-Cotton plan for its patience, noting that it would delay the increase until after the coronavirus pandemic "is in the rear-view mirror," whereas the Democratic proposal backed by President Biden would start churning in June. But he doesn't believe it will prevent Democrats from continuing to lobby for further raises, and ultimately doesn't solve the fact that "Republicans would still be on the losing side of a popular issue." He is also skeptical of the immigration enforcement tradeoff. He described it as a "politically interesting pairing," but explained he'd "rather see a modest minimum wage increase paired with policies that would improve employment and skills." Tim O'Donnell

11:07 a.m.

Ali Shamkhani, Iran's top security official, said Saturday that the United States' airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria earlier this week will rejuvenate the Islamic State in the region, Reuters reports. "The attack on anti-terrorist resistance forces is the beginning of a new round of organized terrorism," an Iranian news agency quoted him as saying during remarks to visiting Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein.

Shamkhani reportedly went on to say Tehran "will confront the U.S. plan to revive terrorism" in the Middle East, but didn't elaborate. Later, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif condemned the U.S. strikes as "illegal and a violation of Syria's sovereignty."

The Washington Post, meanwhile, provided an in-depth of analysis of the strikes — which were carried out in response to several rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq — suggesting that whether Iran, which denies involvement in the attacks on U.S. targets, chooses to respond in a way that escalates the already-tense relationship hinges on further developments in the Biden administration's diplomacy.

"The administration’s actions and Europe’s support for U.S. decisions in response to Iran’s regional tests will determine whether Tehran believes it can be more aggressive regionally under Biden," Norman Roule, who previously served as the U.S. intelligence manager for Iran, told the Post. "But if the Iranians go up the escalatory ladder, we have no choice but to do the same in order to protect our forces and our partners."

Still, the sense among experts largely remains that President Biden's Iran strategy will be less bellicose overall than former President Donald Trump's. Read more at Reuters, The New York Post, and The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

8:19 a.m.

The House passed President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package in a 219-212 vote nearly along party lines early Saturday. Two Democrats, Reps. Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) voted against the bill with Republicans, who consider the package too expensive, taking particular opposition to measures like funding for state and local governments.

The legislation, which includes $1,400 direct payments for individuals earning up to $75,000 per year (as well as couples earning a combined $150,000) and extends enhanced unemployment benefits through August, will now head to the Senate, where its contents could change, The New York Times reports.

The bill includes a proposal that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025, but Democrats, who narrowly hold the Senate, are using reconciliation, a process that will allow them to pass the bill with a simple majority and avoid Republican obstruction. Reconciliation comes with strict limits on what can be included in a measure, and the Senate's nonpartisan parliamentarian ruled against the wage hike.

Several congressional progressives, who are prioritizing the increase, criticized the decision and called for Senate Democrats to move forward anyway, but the White House said Biden, while disappointed, respects the ruling. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his colleagues are exploring alternatives, including an escalating tax on the payrolls of large corporations whose employees earn less than a certain hourly wage. It's unclear if that will qualify under the rules of reconciliation. Read more at The Associated Press and The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

February 26, 2021

A number of Republican lawmakers have reportedly claimed to be unable to attend votes due to the COVID-19 pandemic — even though they're able to appear in person at CPAC.

Several allies of former President Donald Trump in the House of Representatives have "skipped Friday's votes and enlisted their colleagues to vote on their behalf," signing letters declaring they can't themselves attend due to "ongoing public health emergency," yet at the same time, they're expected to speak at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, CNN reported on Friday.

Among these lawmakers is reportedly Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who already spoke to CPAC attendees on Friday. But he's not alone, as CBS News' Rebecca Kaplan reports that a total of 13 House Republicans appearing at CPAC have made proxy voting requests, citing the pandemic as the reason.

Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) was another one of these lawmakers, and his spokesperson told CBS that he "was forced to proxy vote for the first time" after the "Democrats rearranged the House schedule with extremely late notice," adding that "mentioning the pandemic in the letter is the standard language that both parties are required to use to proxy vote." The spokesperson also said that Budd "remains philosophically opposed to proxy voting" despite plans to do so himself.

Notably, Kaplan points out, "among the votes they will miss tonight: one on the COVID relief bill." Brendan Morrow

February 26, 2021

Democrats are calling the Biden administration's airstrikes in Syria unconstitutional.

President Biden on Thursday ordered airstrikes against facilities in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed militant groups, his first military action since taking office. The strikes were in response to several rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq.

While Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the limited scope of the airstrikes "aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq," many Democrats expressed concerns on Friday that the move has done just the opposite, and argued it wasn't legally justified.

"Some Democrats said that Congress has not passed an authorization for the use of military force specifically in Syria," reports CNN.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said "there is absolutely no justification for a president to authorize a military strike that is not in self-defense against an imminent threat without congressional authorization ... we need to extricate from the Middle East, not escalate."

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) agreed, calling for an immediate congressional briefing and saying "offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances."

Republicans, however, were seemingly largely pleased with the move. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the U.S. response a "necessary deterrent" to tell Iran that attacks on U.S. interests "will not be tolerated," reports CNN. As Fox News notes, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), among others, also applauded the strike, calling it "proportional."

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki defended the action as "necessary," and said Biden "has the right to take action" as he sees fit. She said "there was a thorough, legal response" and the Defense Department briefed congressional leadership in advance. Summer Meza

February 26, 2021

Scientists say you can start getting optimistic about a summer with fewer pandemic restrictions — but maybe not too optimistic.

A report in The Washington Post goes so far as to say "there is a good chance that by summer ... many aspects of life will be reminiscent of a time before coronavirus." David Rubin, director of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's PolicyLab, says "the probability of a great summer is really increasing," and the article outlines a tantalizing array of activities that may soon be within reach: everything from family reunions to indoor dinner parties to even summer vacations.

Similarly, a USA Today op-ed heralds "the beginning of the end of the pandemic," attributing a major fall in infection rates largely to natural immunity following such widespread exposure to COVID-19. Vox describes epidemiologists with an attitude "of guarded optimism that the pandemic is entering its last stage," with one public health expert tentatively predicting a "normal-ish" summer.

"There are wild card factors that could change this, but I've been telling people if there are things you've been wanting to do, think July or late summer," Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious-disease expert at Columbia University told the Post.

But, of course, there are major caveats. Numbers were trending in the right direction for a few weeks, but have now plateaued or ticked back up, so we're not necessarily on a one-way path out of the woods. Experts offered a reality check in The Atlantic, saying "we still have a very long way to go." That's if we use annual flu hospitalizations and deaths as a benchmark for risk "largely considered acceptable by the public." But considering the flu kills an average of 55 to 140 Americans a day in recent years, our current COVID-19 toll of nearly 2,000 deaths per day is really far off, even if the "flu test" is "not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison," as the Atlantic writes.

Everyone is hesitant to make actual predictions at this point, and even the Post, after floating the idea of restaurants and game nights in our near future, notes CDC director Rochelle Walensky said stagnating infections numbers mark a "very concerning shift." "We may be done with the virus," said Walensky, "but clearly the virus is not done with us." Summer Meza

February 26, 2021

After blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration is announcing new sanctions against Saudi operatives, but not against the crown prince himself.

The U.S. on Friday declassified an intelligence report concluding that Mohammed bin Salman "approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi." Shortly after the report's release, Politico's Natasha Bertrand reported the U.S. Treasury Department is announcing new sanctions against General Ahmed al-Asiri, former deputy head of the Saudi intelligence services, as well as the crown prince's personal protective detail, over their alleged roles in the Washington Post journalist's killing.

However, according to Bertrand, "Crown Prince MBS will NOT be sanctioned," and Politico quotes a senior administration official as saying that the "aim is recalibration, not a rupture, because of the important interests that we do share" with Saudi Arabia. Similarly, The New York Times reports that President Biden "has decided that the price of directly penalizing" the crown prince "is too high" and that he's "simply too important to American interests to punish."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday did, however, also announce a new "Khashoggi Ban" policy, under which the State Department will impose visa restrictions on individuals "believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities" while "acting on behalf of a foreign government." Blinken also said the U.S. is now imposing visa restrictions against 76 Saudi individuals under this policy.

But a lack of direct punishment for the crown prince is likely to draw criticism, Politico's Nahal Toosi noted. "For activists, the WHOLE POINT was to punish MBS," Toosi said. "Will Biden's other new sanctions/policies appease them? Doubt it." And the Times writes that "in the end, Mr. Biden came to essentially the same place on punishing the young and impetuous crown prince as did Mr. Trump." Brendan Morrow

February 26, 2021

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's ... a brand new Superman reboot courtesy of Ta-Nehisi Coates!

The acclaimed author is set to write a new Superman film in the works at Warner Bros. from producer J.J. Abrams, Deadline and Shadow and Act revealed on Friday.

"To be invited into the DC Extended Universe by Warner Bros., DC Films and Bad Robot is an honor," Coates told Shadow and Act. "I look forward to meaningfully adding to the legacy of America's most iconic mythic hero."

While serving as national correspondent for The Atlantic, Coates' work included pieces such as "The Case for Reparations," and he has authored books including the National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me. Coates also has experience in comic book writing, having written Black Panther and Captain America series.

Further details about the new Superman reboot, including who might direct it, haven't been revealed. It's also not clear whether Henry Cavill, who played Superman in Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Justice League, could return.

Warner Bros. Pictures Group chair Toby Emmerich praised Coates in a statement to Shadow and Act, saying his book Between the World and Me "opened a window and changed the way many of us see the world," while Abrams promised, "There is a new, powerful and moving Superman story yet to be told." Brendan Morrow

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