February 23, 2021

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn't exactly hide his pleasure that former President Donald Trump is no longer leading his southern neighbor, at least on matters that have to do with climate change, when he met virtually with President Biden on Tuesday. Although Trudeau was the first world leader to call and congratulate Biden on winning the presidential election, the Tuesday exchange was the first official meeting between the two since Biden assumed office last month.

Trudeau thanked Biden "for stepping up in such a big way on tackling climate change," adding that "U.S. leadership has been sorely missed" in recent years. "As we're preparing for the joint rollout and communique from this one, it's nice when Americans aren't pulling out all references to climate change and, instead, adding them in," he said, apparently referring to the Trump administration's attitude toward climate policy.

Biden is expected to enjoy a warmer relationship with Trudeau than his predecessor, although it won't be seamless — there's already been friction over Biden nixing the expansion Keystone XL pipeline, a project favored by both Trump and Trudeau. Tim O'Donnell

March 6, 2021

President Biden was unsurprisingly pleased after the Senate passed his administration's COVID-19 stimulus plan Saturday, but the final version of the bill — which will be up for one more House vote next Tuesday before it reaches Biden's desk — looks a little different than the initial proposal. There's a lower cap on direct payment eligibility, and $300 weekly jobless benefits, rather than $400. Plus, a gradual minimum wake hike is absent. Biden, though, told reporters Saturday that he doesn't think those compromises "fundamentally altered the essence of what I put in the bill in the first place."

The president said he also doesn't believe congressional progressives are "frustrated" with scaling back parts of the bill, pointing out that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called the plan "the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working people in the modern history of this country." Biden didn't go into detail about why he's ok with all of the changes, but he did argue that the smaller weekly unemployment payments even out because they were extended further into the year. Tim O'Donnell

March 6, 2021

It's difficult to tell exactly how many cases of the so-called U.K. variant of the novel coronavirus, or B.1.1.7, are in the United States because the country hasn't conducted enough genomic sequencing yet to get a real read. But data analysis from Helix, a lab testing company, estimates B.1.1.7 accounted for more than 20 percent of new cases in the U.S. this week, The New York Times reports. That's concerning because the variant is highly transmissible, but scientists are fairly encouraged by what they're seeing so far.

Take Florida, for instance. The Sunshine State is believed to have the highest share of B.1.1.7 COVID-19 cases at an estimated 30 percent. Yet, Florida has not experienced a resurgence in overall infections. "I am encouraged by the declining case counts in the most heavily affected states," Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins University, told the Times. "I've been watching Florida closely, which has the highest share of B.1.1.7. Case counts have plateaued there in recent days, but are not resurging. The longer we can hold the line, the more time we have to roll out vaccines, which will protect individuals, particularly those at highest risk of severe illness, and slow transmission overall."

That doesn't mean the U.S. is in the clear. There's concern that some states are easing their coronavirus restrictions too quickly, and the U.K. variant isn't the only variant in the U.S. (though it's by far the most common), but there is hope that a combination of increased vaccinations, higher levels of natural immunity, and other mitigation efforts will help the country avoid a sharp spike like the U.K. saw at the end of 2020. Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

March 6, 2021

President Donald Trump is not pleased with Republican fundraisers who are using his name and likeness without his permission, and his lawyers are taking action, Politico reports.

The Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee all received cease-and-desist letters from lawyers Friday representing Trump for using his name and likeness in fundraising emails and merchandise. Per Politico, Trump has always been sensitive about how his name has been used in relation to other political candidates, but it appears to have ramped up in this case because he doesn't want to be associated with Republicans who voted to impeach him.

This doesn't change the fact that Trump "remains committed to the Republican Party," an adviser told Politico, but "that doesn't give anyone — friend or foe — permission to use his likeness without explicit approval."

The committees didn't respond to Politico's request for comment, but GOP campaigners have reportedly said privately that it's incredibly difficult to refrain from using Trump's name because of his popularity, and they believe he should be more generous. Read more at Politico. Tim O'Donnell

March 6, 2021

President Biden is another step closer to signing his administration's COVID-19 relief bill into law.

The Senate on Saturday passed the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan along party lines with a 50-49 vote. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) was absent, so Vice President Kamala Harris was not needed to cast the tie-breaking vote on behalf of the Democrats, as expected. Democrats, despite having only a narrow majority in the upper chamber, were able to push the bill through thanks to a procedural tool called budget reconciliation, which allowed them to avoid Republican filibusters and pass the legislation with a simple majority.

The best chance for a surprise vote disappeared after Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of the most moderate voices in the GOP Senate, stood with her Republican colleagues and voted against the bill.

Because the Senate amended the package, it will now head back to the Democratic-majority House, where it's likely to get a second stamp of approval, before it gets to Biden's desk. Despite the extra step, it's on pace to get there before March 14, when the current iteration of enhanced unemployment benefits expires. Read more at The Washington Post and NPR. Tim O'Donnell

March 6, 2021

In a historic meeting, Pope Francis on Saturday sat down with Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in the country.

Al-Sistani doesn't often appear in public, but when he does, his words have reverberated across Iraq, The Associated Press notes. So there's a sense that his statement following a "very positive" conversation with Francis calling on Iraq's religious authorities to help protect the country's Christian minority, who he said "should live like all Iraqis, in security and peace with full constitutional rights," could go a long way. Francis, who traveled to Iraq to show support for its dwindling Christian community, thanked al-Sistani for raising "his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted."

When Francis arrived at al-Sistani's home, the cleric reportedly stood to greet the pope. Al-Sistani reportedly normally remains seated for visitors, so the gesture appears to be significant.

In response to the interfaith meeting between the two religious leaders, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced that March 6 is now a National Day of Tolerance and Coexistance in Iraq. Read more at The Associated Press. Tim O'Donnell

March 6, 2021

After nine hours of negotiations, Senate Democrats reached a compromise on the enhanced unemployment payments in President Biden's COVID-19 stimulus plan, setting it up for passage perhaps as early as Saturday.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a crucial moderate vote on the Democratic side in the 50-50 Senate, had expressed concern about raising the existing $300 per week benefit (which is set to expire on March 14) to $400 per week, but he came around on a new deal that kept the payments at $300 while extending them until early October. Additionally, the bill now forgives $10,200 in taxes on unemployment benefits received in 2020. The compromise was actually reported earlier in the day, but Manchin took several hours to sign off on it.

With the agreement in place, and Manchin and other centrist Democrats seemingly on board, the stimulus package is on track to pass with a simple majority vote since Democrats are using budget reconciliation which allows them to avoid Republican filibusters. It won't, however, include a gradual $15 per hour minimum wage hike. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) led a push to add that to the bill, but eight Democrats joined Republicans in voting against it. Read more at The New York Times and NBC News. Tim O'Donnell

March 5, 2021

Two top female aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) are reportedly departing his administration as the governor continues to grapple with two growing scandals.

Press secretary Caitlin Girouard and interim policy adviser Erin Hammond have both left Cuomo's administration, Bloomberg reported on Friday.

Their departures came after senior adviser Gareth Rhodes and first deputy press secretary Will Burns also announced they'd be leaving the Cuomo administration, though the governor's office has said these were previously planned, Bloomberg notes. They also said Hammond had been set to leave for several months to "focus on her family," and Girouard says she accepted another job in January, according to The Hill.

But the departures come as Cuomo is facing growing criticism and calls to resign in the wake of three allegations of sexual harassment, including from two former aides. He's also under fire for his handling of data on COVID-19 nursing home deaths, with The New York Times reporting on Thursday that Cuomo aides rewrote a report to take out the number of New York nursing home residents who died from COVID-19.

Girouard, Bloomberg points out, had issued the statement last week denying former aide Lindsey Boylan's sexual harassment claims, as well as the statement in December saying there is "simply no truth to these claims."

Cuomo earlier this week apologized over the sexual harassment allegations, saying he didn't intend to act "in a way that made people feel uncomfortable" while denying that he ever "touched anyone inappropriately." However, Cuomo said he will not resign from office. On Friday, according to CNBC, state lawmakers moved to strip Cuomo of COVID-19 pandemic emergency powers. Brendan Morrow

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