Appeals Court Weighs Trump Arguments to Withhold Records

A panel of judges on Tuesday questioned whether they had the authority to grant former President Donald Trump’s demands and stop the White House from allowing the release of documents related to the January 6 insurrection led by Trump’s supporters.

But the judges also noted that there may be times when a former president would be justified in trying to stop the incumbent from disclosing records.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments from lawyers for Trump and the House committee seeking the records as part of its investigation into the Capitol riot. Trump’s attorneys want the court to reverse a federal judge’s ruling allowing the National Archives and Records Administration to turn over the records after President Joe Biden waived executive privilege.

Trump supporters broke into the Capitol on January 6 after a rally near the White House where he made false claims of election fraud and challenged them to “fight like hell.” About 700 people have been federally charged. Nine people died during and after the rioting.

The National Archives has said that the records Trump wants to block include presidential diaries, visitor logs, speech drafts, handwritten notes “concerning the events of January 6” from the files of former chief of staff Mark Meadows, and “a draft Executive Order on the topic of election integrity.” 

Role of federal courts

Compared to U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, whose ruling Trump is contesting, the three judges on the appeals court spent relatively little time weighing the importance of the documents themselves. They instead focused most of the hearing Tuesday on what role federal courts should have when an incumbent president and former president are at odds over records from the former’s administration. 

The judges sharply questioned both sides and challenged them with hypothetical scenarios.

To Trump’s lawyers, Judge Patricia Millett suggested a situation where a current president negotiating with a foreign leader needed to know what promises a former president had made to that leader. The incumbent might seek to release a transcript of a phone call or other records from the previous administration for national security reasons, the judge said.

“To be clear, your position is a former president could come in and file a lawsuit?” Millett said. Trump lawyer Justin Clark responded, “That is our position.” 

To a lawyer for the House committee, Millett raised a scenario where a newly elected president might seek retribution against a disliked predecessor. The new president and a Congress led by the same party might declare that there was a national security interest in releasing all of the former president’s records, even at the risk of endangering people’s lives, she said. 

“Needless to say, the former president comes to court, (says), ‘Hang on,'” Millett said. “What happens?” 

She did not say she was referring to any president and rejected committee lawyer Douglas Letter’s response referencing a president who “fomented an insurrection.” 

“We’re not going to make it that easy,” she said.

Letter argued the determination of a current president should outweigh predecessors in almost all circumstances and noted that both Biden and Congress were in agreement that the January 6 records should be turned over.

“It would be astonishing for this court to override the current president and Congress,” Letter said.

Democratic presidents nominated all three judges who heard arguments Tuesday. Millett and Judge Robert Wilkins were nominated by former President Barack Obama. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is a Biden appointee seen as a contender for a Supreme Court seat should one open during the current administration. 

‘Balancing act’

Jackson said Tuesday that she questioned whether judges should intervene in a dispute where the executive and legislative branches agree but a former president doesn’t.

“The court swooping in to do some sort of balancing test … actually raises its own separation of powers concerns in terms of the power of the court to resolve or to second-guess what this executive is saying,” she said. 

Given the stakes of the case, either side is likely to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Despite Trump’s false claims about a stolen election, the results were confirmed by state officials and upheld by courts. The last attorney general appointed by Trump, William Barr, has said the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud. 

In explaining why Biden has not shielded Trump’s records, White House counsel Dana Remus has written that they could “shed light on events within the White House on and about January 6 and bear on the Select Committee’s need to understand the facts underlying the most serious attack on the operations of the Federal Government since the Civil War.” 

Trump and his allies have fought the committee in court and in Congress by claiming that the former president can still exert executive privilege to prevent cooperation. Their efforts have delayed for months the production of key information to the committee.

Former chief of staff Meadows and former adviser Steve Bannon have resisted efforts by the House panel to obtain documents and question them about possible meetings with Trump before the riot. The Justice Department has indicted Bannon on a contempt of Congress charge. Meadows, seeking to avoid the same, is now cooperating on a limited basis, the committee’s chairman said Tuesday. 

In their appeal to the circuit court, Trump’s lawyers said they agreed with Chutkan that presidents were not kings who must not be challenged. “True, but in that same vein, Congress is not Parliament — a legislative body with supreme and unchecked constitutional power over the operations of government,” they wrote.

Trump has argued that records of his deliberations on January 6 must be withheld to protect executive privilege for future presidents and that the Democrat-led House is primarily driven by politics. The House committee’s lawyers rejected those arguments and called Trump’s attempts to assert executive privilege “unprecedented and deeply flawed.” 

“It is difficult to imagine a more critical subject for congressional investigation, and Mr. Trump’s arguments cannot overcome Congress’s pressing need,” the committee’s lawyers said. 

 

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Ex-Trump Chief-of-Staff Meadows Cooperating with Jan. 6 Panel, for Now 

The House of Representatives committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot said on Tuesday that Mark Meadows, who served as former President Donald Trump’s chief-of-staff, has provided it with records and agreed to appear soon for a deposition. 

“Mr. Meadows has been engaging with the Select Committee through his attorney. He has produced records to the committee and will soon appear for an initial deposition,” Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House select committee, said in a statement. 

Thompson did not rule out future action against Meadows. Noting that the panel expects all witnesses to provide all the information requested that it is lawfully entitled to receive, Thompson said: “The committee will continue to assess his degree of compliance with our subpoena after the deposition.” 

Trump has urged his associates not to cooperate with the committee, calling the Democratic-led investigation politically motivated and arguing that his communications are protected by executive privilege, although many legal experts say that legal principle does not apply to former presidents. 

On Jan. 6, Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in a bid to prevent Congress from formally certifying his 2020 presidential election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. Shortly before the riot, Trump gave a speech to his supporters repeating his false claims that the election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud and urging them to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell” to “stop the steal.” 

‘An understanding’ 

Meadows’ lawyer George Terwilliger did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Terwilliger said in a statement to CNN that the two parties had reached an understanding on how information can be exchanged moving forward, stating that Meadows and the committee are open to engaging on a certain set of topics as they work out how to deal with information that could fall under executive privilege. 

Meadows was a Republican House member until he left in 2020 to join Trump’s administration. 

Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon already has been criminally charged with contempt of Congress, pleading not guilty, after defying a committee subpoena. The select committee is meeting  on Wednesday to consider seeking similar charges against Jeffrey Clark, who served as a senior Justice Department official under Trump. 

Meadows was called to appear before the committee this month, but did not do so. 

Agreeing to appear for a deposition does not guarantee that Meadows will provide all the information requested in the committee’s subpoena. Clark appeared, but committee members said he did not cooperate with investigators. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday that he expects the Democratic-led chamber to vote on Clark’s contempt recommendation this week, if the panel approves it as expected. 

 

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Why Trump Is Suing the ‘Nation’s Filing Cabinet’

Former President Donald Trump thrust the National Archives and Records Administration into the national spotlight after suing to keep the agency from releasing Trump White House documents to the congressional committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

A court is expected to hear the latest arguments in the case on November 30. 

Why are the call logs, drafts, speeches, handwritten notes and other documents from Trump’s term in office in the possession of the National Archives? 

“Presidential records are the property of the United States government and are administered by the National Archives,” says Meghan Ryan Guthorn, acting deputy chief operating officer of the agency. “So, all presidential papers, materials and records in the custody of the National Archives, whether donated, seized or governed by the Presidential Records Act, are owned by the federal government.” 

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 established that all presidential records are owned by the public and automatically transfer into the custody of the National Archives as soon as a commander-in-chief leaves office. All presidential libraries and museums are part of the National Archives. Former President Barack Obama’s presidential library will be the first to be fully digital. 

“The National Archives and Records Administration is the official record keeper for the United States government,” Ryan Guthorn says. “Only about one to 3% of the records are considered permanent records, and those are the documents that are essential to understanding the rights and entitlements of U.S. citizens, that hold our elected officials accountable for their actions, (and) document our history as a nation.” 

Presidential records weren’t always owned by the public. 

“From George Washington through Jimmy Carter, the papers of a presidential administration were considered the private property of a president to do with as they saw fit,” Ryan Guthorn says. 

Most commanders-in-chief have donated their presidential papers, a precedent started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. That continued until the 1970s when President Richard Nixon fought to destroy his records, including secret tape recordings, during the Watergate scandal that eventually led to his resignation from office. 

Congress suspected the tapes contained evidence that could incriminate the president. Lawmakers passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974, which applied only to Nixon’s presidential materials and instructed that materials related to Watergate be retained by NARA.

During his lifetime, Nixon fought to keep his presidential records private. NARA received most of the recordings related to Watergate, but not all. After Nixon’s death, his family donated his presidential papers and other materials. 

“Julie Nixon Eisenhower calls me, said she wanted to meet with me, said the family wanted to settle,” says John Carlin, who served as archivist of the United States from 1995 until 2005. 

Nixon’s daughter reached out to Carlin during his first week on the job in June of 1995, more than 20 years after Watergate. 

‘“You have to remember that in those days, the president’s records were personal,” Carlin says. “Nixon was going to keep them, and he had the law on his side. … And so, when she called that day and said, ‘We’re ready to settle,’ that was good news. …When he (Nixon) was alive, he fought it. I mean, tooth and toenail. There wasn’t going to be any settlement.” 

Carlin says dealing with Nixon’s papers consumed most of his decade-long term at the helm of NARA. But now, with the Presidential Records Act in place, he does not expect the same complications to arise with Trump’s records. 

“I’m not a lawyer, so take that into consideration, but I don’t think he has a leg to stand on,” Carlin says. “The law is on the side of the government. The law is clear. Those are government records, presidential records that the government controls and has access to.” 

Among those who access White House records are presidential scholars like Shannon Bow O’Brien who are interested in documenting history. 

“The public can start making requests through the Freedom of Information Act five years after an administration ends, but also the president can invoke certain restrictions for public access for up to 12 years,” says Bow O’Brien, a professor in the government department at The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts.

“If we don’t have access to this material, we don’t have access to the truth. We only have access to curated truths, in many ways, which is what people want to tell us, or what people want us to see, and that’s not always the most accurate.” 

Bow O’Brien sees an upside to Trump’s fight to keep his presidential records out of Congress’ hands. 

“If nothing else, this Trump administration might be giving us additional clarity on some areas of the law that have never previously been challenged,” she says. 

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January 6 Panel Sets Contempt Vote for Former DOJ Official

A House committee investigating the January 6 Capitol insurrection will vote Wednesday to hold a former Justice Department official in contempt, demanding criminal charges against a defiant witness for a second time as lawmakers seek answers about the violent attack.

The committee on Monday scheduled a vote to pursue contempt charges against Jeffrey Clark, a former Justice Department lawyer who aligned with former President Donald Trump as he tried to overturn his election defeat. If approved by the panel, the recommendation of criminal contempt charges would then go to the full House for a vote and then to the Justice Department.

Clark appeared for a deposition November 5 but told lawmakers that he would not answer questions based partly on Trump’s legal efforts to block the committee’s investigation.

The vote will come as the panel is also considering contempt charges against former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who was Trump’s top aide the day that hundreds of his supporters violently attacked the U.S. Capitol and interrupted the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory. Meadows was subpoenaed in September but has not yet sat for an interview with the committee.

Members of the panel have vowed to aggressively seek charges against any witness who doesn’t comply as they investigate the worst attack on the Capitol in two centuries, and the Justice Department has signaled it is willing to pursue those charges, indicting longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon earlier this month on two federal counts of criminal contempt. Attorney General Merrick Garland said then that Bannon’s indictment reflects the department’s “steadfast commitment” to the rule of law after Bannon outright defied the committee and refused to cooperate.

Clark’s case could be more complicated since he did appear for his deposition and, unlike Bannon, was a Trump administration official on January 6. Trump has sued to block the committee’s work and has attempted to assert executive privilege over documents and interviews, arguing that his conversations and actions at the time should be shielded from public view.

A report issued by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee detailed how Clark championed Trump’s efforts to undo the election results and clashed as a result with Justice Department superiors who resisted the pressure, culminating in a dramatic White House meeting at which Trump ruminated about elevating Clark to attorney general. He did not do so after several aides threatened to resign.

In a somewhat similar case, the Justice Department in 2015 declined to prosecute former IRS official Lois Lerner on contempt of Congress charges after Lerner delivered an opening statement at a hearing but then repeatedly declined to answer questions from lawmakers, citing her Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate herself.

This time, though, the Justice Department is considering the charges against a former administration official, not a current official. With little precedent to go on, it’s unclear what the department would do.

Clark is one of more than 40 people the committee has subpoenaed so far. The panel’s chairman, Mississippi Representative Bennie Thompson, wrote in Clark’s subpoena that the committee’s probe “has revealed credible evidence that you attempted to involve the Department of Justice in efforts to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power” and his efforts “risked involving the Department of Justice in actions that lacked evidentiary foundation and threatened to subvert the rule of law.”

After Clark refused to answer questions, Thompson said it was “astounding that someone who so recently held a position of public trust to uphold the Constitution would now hide behind vague claims of privilege by a former president, refuse to answer questions about an attack on our democracy, and continue an assault on the rule of law.”

Lawmakers on the committee have said that they will decide as soon as this week whether to hold Meadows in contempt, as well. Thompson said earlier this month that the committee “won’t rush the effort” to make it clear it has given the former North Carolina congressman multiple opportunities to cooperate.

Meadows’ lawyer has repeatedly made clear that he won’t comply with the September subpoena, arguing that Trump has said he will assert executive privilege over the testimony. The committee has rejected those arguments, especially as the White House has said that Biden would waive any privilege over Meadows’ interview and as courts have so far shot down Trump’s efforts to stop the committee from gathering information.

Members of the House panel have argued that they have questions for Meadows and Clark, as they did with Bannon, that do not directly involve conversations with Trump and couldn’t possibly be blocked by privilege claims.

In the committee’s September subpoena, Thompson cited Meadows’ efforts to overturn Trump’s defeat in the weeks prior to the insurrection and his pressure on state officials to push the former president’s false claims of widespread voter fraud.

Despite Trump’s false claims about a stolen election — the primary motivation for the violent mob that broke into the Capitol and interrupted the certification of Biden’s victory — the results were confirmed by state officials and upheld by the courts. Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, had said the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud that could have changed the results. 

 

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Deadlines Loom for US Congress to Act on Budget, Defense Spending

U.S. lawmakers have a busy month ahead as they face deadlines for major budget and defense actions, and what Democrats are hoping will be the completion of a $2 trillion collection of health care, climate and family services programs.

The most pressing issue for Congress is funding the federal government. A previous stopgap agreement in late September allowed government agencies to continue operating through December 3, but that means by Friday there needs to be a new deal in order to avoid a government shutdown.

Shortly after, Congress will need to address the debt limit by either raising the current level or suspending the cap on how much debt the Treasury Department is allowed to issue. Without any action, the government would have to delay payments or even default on some of its debt obligations, with potential complications for financial markets and the global economy.

The exact date of a debt limit deadline is hard to pinpoint because it involves balancing government spending commitments with the flow of money into the Treasury. But Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the debt limit could be reached by December 15.

Lawmakers are also working toward approving the annual defense spending bill known as the National Defense Authorization Act before the end of the year. The measure, which authorizes appropriations for the Department of Defense and sets Pentagon policies, has a long history of bringing Democrats and Republicans together, having been approved every year since 1961. This year’s version has a price tag of about $768 billion.

Democrats are also hoping to get one of President Joe Biden’s major policy initiatives through Congress in the coming weeks by earning Senate approval for the $2 trillion program that includes items such as a child tax credit, housing aid, incentives to combat climate change and efforts to limit prescription drug costs.

The Democrat-led House of Representatives approved the package without the votes of any Republicans. The measure faces more uncertainty in the Senate, where Democrats hold an even slimmer majority.

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Carrie Meek, Pioneering Black Former Congresswoman, Dies at 95

Carrie Meek, the grandchild of a slave and a sharecropper’s daughter who became one of the first Black Floridians elected to Congress since Reconstruction, died Sunday. She was 95.

Meek died at her home in Miami after a long illness, her family said in a statement. The family did not specify a cause of death.

Meek started her congressional career at an age when many people begin retirement. She was 66 when she easily won the 1992 Democratic congressional primary in her Miami-Dade County district. No Republican opposed her in the general election. 

Alcee Hastings and Corrine Brown joined Meek in January 1993 as the first Black Floridians to serve in Congress since 1876 as the state’s districts had been redrawn by the federal courts in accordance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

On her first day in Congress, Meek reflected that while her grandmother, a slave on a Georgia farm, could never have dreamed of such an accomplishment, her parents told her that anything was possible. 

“They always said the day would come when we would be recognized for our character,” she told The Associated Press in an interview that day. 

In Congress, Meek championed affirmative action, economic opportunities for the poor and efforts to bolster democracy in and ease immigration restrictions on Haiti, the birthplace of many of her constituents. 

She also was known for her liberal opinions, folksy yet powerful oratory and colorful Republican bashing.

“The last Republican that did something for me was Abraham Lincoln,” she told the state delegation to the 1996 Democratic Convention in Chicago. 

Meek joined her son Kendrick, a former state trooper and state senator, in a 2000 sit-in at then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s office to protest an end to affirmative action policies. She had long argued in favor of such policies, since earning her master’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1948. At the time, Blacks were not admitted to graduate schools in Florida. 

Meek decided not to seek a sixth term in 2002. Her son Kendrick succeeded in winning her heavily Democratic district, a seat he held for four terms before an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2010. 

After leaving Congress, Carrie Meek returned to Miami and created a foundation to work on education and housing issues. She was also criticized for some of her business dealings. 

She lobbied for a biotech park that was planned for Miami’s impoverished Liberty City neighborhood but never materialized. County authorities eventually started a criminal investigation, and the park’s developer was arrested in October 2009 on charges that he stole nearly $1 million from the project. 

Congressional records showed that Meek was paid while her son sought millions of federal dollars for the project. Meek said she was paid as a consultant, and both mother and son denied their efforts were linked. 

Before entering politics, Meek worked as a teacher and administrator at Miami-Dade College. 

She was elected to the Florida House in 1978, succeeding pioneer Black legislator Gwen Cherry, who had been killed in an auto accident. She became one of the first African Americans and the first Black woman to serve in the Florida Senate since the 1800s.

Carrie Pittman was born to Willie and Carrie Pittman in Tallahassee on April 29, 1926, and was the youngest of 12 children. Her father worked in nearby fields as a sharecropper and her mother took in laundry from white families. 

She graduated from Florida A&M University in 1946 with a degree in biology and physical education. The university named its building for Black history archives in her honor in 2007. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

She accepted a position at Bethune Cookman College as an instructor and became the institution’s first female basketball coach. In 1958, she returned to Florida A&M as an instructor in health and physical education. She held that position until 1961. 

Meek continued her teaching career at Miami Dade Community College as the first Black professor, associate dean, and assistant to the Vice President from 1961 to 1979. 

Then, she began her trailblazing political career, representing Florida’s 17th Congressional District as a Democratic Florida State House Representative.

In Congress, Meek was a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee and worked to secure $100 million in aid to rebuild Dade County as the area recovered from Hurricane Andrew. 

She retired in 2002 and shifted her focus to the Carrie Meek Foundation, which she founded in November 2001, to provide the Miami-Dade community with much-needed resources, opportunities, and jobs. Meek spearheaded the Foundation’s daily operations until 2015 when she stepped down due to declining health.

Meek is survived by her children Lucia Davis-Raiford, Sheila Davis Kinui and Kendrick B. Meek, seven grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and multiple nieces and nephews.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

In a statement, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava called Meek a “true trailblazer.”

“She was never afraid to use her voice to speak out against inequality or to fight for the disenfranchised and the vulnerable — and her towering legacy will continue to shape our community and the nation for generations to come,” Levine Cava said.

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Bidens Serve Up Meal Kits Before Thanksgiving Holiday

President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, served up turkey and sweet potatoes on Tuesday at the D.C. Central Kitchen, an organization that makes fresh food for schools and homeless shelters in Washington, ahead of this week’s U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. 

The Bidens were joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, who dished out green beans and gravy, respectively. The two couples, who were also joined by chef Jose Andres, were putting together Thanksgiving meal kits along with staff from the facility. 

Americans celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday with a traditional meal that often includes turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and other fixings. 

Asked what he was thankful for, Biden told reporters: “the people standing right next to me.” 

After their community service event, the Bidens headed to Joint Base Andrews for a flight to Nantucket, Massachusetts, where they are scheduled to vacation for the remainder of the week. 

 

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House January 6 Panel Subpoenas Alex Jones, Roger Stone 

A committee investigating the January 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection issued subpoenas Monday to five more individuals, including former President Donald Trump’s ally Roger Stone and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

The subpoenas include demands for documents and testimony from Stone and Jones as well as three people accused of organizing and promoting the two rallies that took place January 6.

“The Select Committee is seeking information about the rallies and subsequent march to the Capitol that escalated into a violent mob attacking the Capitol and threatening our democracy,” said Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chair of the panel. “We need to know who organized, planned, paid for, and received funds related to those events, as well as what communications organizers had with officials in the White House and Congress.” 

Stone was convicted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation of lying to Congress about his efforts to gather inside information about Russia-hacked Democratic emails that were published by WikiLeaks in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. He was subsequently pardoned by Trump. 

The House subpoena notes that Stone spoke at rallies on the day before the Capitol insurrection and used members of a far-right group, the Oath Keepers, as personal security guards while he was in Washington. 

The House panel also wants to hear from Jones, with Thompson saying that the conspiracy theorist and talk-show host helped organize the January 6 rally at the Ellipse before the insurrection. Thompson says that Jones repeatedly promoted Trump’s claims of election fraud, urged his listeners to come to Washington for the rally and marched from the Ellipse to the Capitol. 

The other three subpoenas were issued to Dustin Stockton, Jennifer Lawrence and Taylor Budowich for their alleged involvement in the promotion and organization of the series of rallies following the 2020 presidential election that promoted false information regarding the election results, including the Ellipse rally that preceded the violent attack on the Capitol.

The results of the election were confirmed by state officials and upheld by the courts. Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, had said the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud that could have overturned the results. 

The committee is seeking information from Stockton and his fiancee, Lawrence, who they say were involved in organizing some of the rallies. The committee alleges Stockton was concerned enough that the Ellipse rally would lead to “possible danger” that he escalated those concerns to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

The panel has already demanded documents and testimony from several other Trump advisers — some have cooperated and some have not. Steve Bannon, a longtime ally of Trump, was indicted November 12 on two counts of criminal contempt of Congress after he defied a subpoena from the House committee.

The subpoenas issued Monday are the latest in a wide net the House panel has cast in an effort to investigate the deadly day when a group of Trump’s supporters, fueled by his false claims of a stolen election, brutally assaulted police and smashed their way into the Capitol to interrupt the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s victory. 

The committee has already interviewed more than 150 people across government, social media and law enforcement, including some former Trump aides who have been cooperative. The panel has subpoenaed more than 20 witnesses, and most of them, including several associates who helped plan the massive “Stop the Steal” rally the morning of January 6, have signaled they will cooperate. 

 

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How a ‘Senate Hold’ Gives US Lawmakers Sway Over White House Nominees

When U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, put a hold on President Joe Biden’s nominees to serve as ambassadors to China and Spain earlier this month, he was making a move commonly used by American senators since the 1950s.

Rubio last week objected to R. Nicholas Burns and Julissa Reynoso Pantaleón, U.S. ambassador nominees to China and to Spain, on the grounds they each had conflicting interests in the countries in which had been selected to serve as representatives of the United States.

But what happens next with their nominations is anything but straightforward since the written rules – and unwritten expectations – for this informal procedure have changed over the years?

What is a Senate hold and how does it work?

The U.S. Senate is governed by parliamentary procedure. Before senators can vote on a presidential nominee or a piece of legislation, a motion must be made to bring that nominee or bill up for a vote on the Senate floor. Because the chamber deals with so much business, some decisions are effectively fast-tracked under a process called unanimous consent, bypassing that motion to proceed.

The Standing Rules of the U.S. Senate allow senators to express their preferences on whether to proceed to unanimous consent. Any senator can inform the Senate majority leadership that he or she objects to unanimous consent, holding up the process.

Holds are only allowed in the U.S. Senate – one of two chambers of Congress – and reflect the importance that body holds in the governance of the United States. A senator’s vote is recognized as having such importance that he or she has wide-ranging say in how the Senate operates.

What happens after a Senator places a hold?

Just as Senate rules recognize the importance of any one senator’s say in the business of the Senate floor, the rules also acknowledge that ultimately the Senate majority leader controls the schedule. 

The leader can choose whether or not to honor the hold request. Usually, the majority leader does honor the hold request because the senator (or senators) could filibuster in response. A filibuster is a means of taking up all the time on the Senate floor talking, debating or offering motions as a way of blocking action on any other matters. Since the U.S. Senate has so much business to conduct, the leader does not want this to happen.

In practice, the majority leader would rather negotiate with the senator to reach a satisfactory agreement and work on other Senate business in the meantime. In past decades, the procedures for Senate holds were much more permissive. At one time “secret” holds, or holds that were not publicly announced, were allowed. Senate rules also used to allow the minority leader much more power in determining Senate schedules, which allowed the leader to support senators in delaying certain matters for consideration.

How common is a hold? How often does it permanently obstruct a nomination?

The practice of placing holds is very common. Senators often use holds only temporarily as a way of drawing attention to their concerns or as a negotiation tactic for other legislation.

In the past, if the majority leader and the objecting senator (or senators) could not reach an agreement, there were two ways to proceed. The White House could withdraw a nomination and nominate someone else who will not receive an objection. Or the majority leader could decide the nomination is so important he or she will risk a filibuster – and all other Senate business – for a vote.

But holds became much less important after the U.S. Senate invoked the so-called “nuclear option” allowing nominees from the majority party to be passed with only 51 votes.

Democrats currently hold the thinnest of margins in the U.S. Senate. There are currently 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats serving as senators, along with two independents who usually vote with Democrats.

That leaves Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking 51st vote in her role as president of the U.S. Senate.

Despite Democrats’ ability to confirm Biden’s nominees so long as they maintain party unity in the Senate, Republicans retain the ability to slow the process down – and could block them entirely if they take control of the Senate in next year’s midterm elections. 

 

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Austin: US Commitment to Middle East ‘Strong and Sure’

“Let’s be clear: America’s commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Saturday at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain.

Officials in the region are concerned about the U.S. commitment to the region, especially since it is seeking to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran and after the dramatic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“But Iran’s actions in recent months have not been encouraging — especially because of the expansion of their nuclear program,” Austin added.

However, the defense secretary also said that “friends and foes both know” the capabilities that the U.S. can deploy.

Austin also asserted Saturday that the U.S. will likely look for a diplomatic resolution because in the Biden administration, diplomacy is “the tool of first resort.”

Quoting former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, Austin said, “arms alone can give the world no permanent peace.”

 

 

 

 

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Budget ‘Score’ Gave Moderate Democrats the Cover Needed to Pass Biden’s Signature Bill

President Joe Biden’s signature Build Back Better package of climate and social spending passed the House of Representatives on Friday morning, 220-213, less than 24 hours after the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) produced an analysis of the legislation finding that it would add a relatively modest $160 billion to the federal debt over the next 10 years.

The bill, which still must pass the narrowly divided Senate, dedicates more than half a trillion dollars to spending on measures to combat climate change, provides funding for universal pre-school, expands access to healthcare, and provides tax credits to families with children, among other things.

The rapid passage of the bill after the CBO announced the verdict on its costs underlines the importance of that agency to the legislative process in Washington, as well as lawmakers’ willingness to be flexible about how they read the agency’s analyses.

A significant number of Democrats  who represent contested districts – enough to scuttle the bill if they had voted against it – had been concerned about the political impact of Republican claims that the bill would greatly expand the federal debt. Last week, these mostly moderate Democrats told Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that they would not vote for the bill without a CBO analysis that showed it was fully paid for.

Detailed ‘budget score’

The CBO is a non-partisan federal agency within the legislative branch created in 1974 that is considered by many economists the gold standard for analyzing the budgetary impact of proposed legislation and its long-term impact on the federal debt.

On Thursday afternoon, the CBO began releasing its analysis of the bill, known as a “budget score.” It found that the combination of spending and tax breaks contained in the package add up to $2.4 trillion and that elements that would raise revenue or reduce spending add up to $2.27 trillion.

One element of the CBO report caused some confusion because of the way the numbers were presented. The official release said that the bill would result in a $367 billion increase in the debt over 10 years, because it did not account for the revenue effects of the increased IRS enforcement. In a different statement, the agency estimated $207 billion of increased revenue related to IRS enforcement, leaving the ultimate budget deficit increase at $160 billion over a decade.

A flexible reading of the CBO

In a political climate where Democrats and Republicans generally distrust each other, the CBO is still seen as above the fray, delivering non-partisan analysis. The agency’s judgment that the addition to the debt would average out to just $16 billion per year meant that the legislation does not officially pay for itself.

That’s where the flexibility in reading CBO analysis kicked in.

A key element of the bill is an $80 billion increase in funding for the Internal Revenue Service to enforce the nation’s tax laws. The White House and a number of outside groups, including a bipartisan coalition of former IRS commissioners, had projected that the investment would return $400 billion in increased tax revenue over a decade. But CBO only estimated a $207 billion return.

“CBO is notoriously cautious about predicting revenue increases from IRS enforcement,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies program.

“Estimating revenues from enforcement is an art not a science,” Galston said. “Bottom line, nobody knows for sure.”

It was that uncertainty, and the generally accepted understanding that CBO is very cautious about estimating tax revenue, that gave all but one of the moderate Democrats the wiggle room they needed to throw their support behind the bill.

“They took the position, after the CBO score came out, that it was good enough,” said Galston. “It enabled them to make a good faith claim that the bill was completely paid for.”

Republicans disagree

Not surprisingly, Republicans in the House chose to take a much more literal reading of the CBO’s analysis, and slammed the Democrats for passing a bill that will add to the national debt. 

“This is the single most reckless and irresponsible spending in the history of this country,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy declared.

McCarthy’s comment came during a marathon speech that stretched for more than eight hours, ending shortly before 6 a.m. on Friday. The overnight monologue took advantage of a loophole in House rules that allows the leader of either of the parties to take unlimited floor time, and forced Democrats to delay a vote they had hoped to take on Thursday.

CBO’s sway in the Senate unclear

The CBO score may have been enough to convince moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives to vote in favor of the bill, but the problems it faces in the Senate go deeper than the legislation’s effect on the federal deficit.

The Democrats have only 50 votes in the 100-seat Senate, and must rely on Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a vote in the event of a tie. That means Democrats cannot afford to lose any votes on the bill.

The most prominent member of the party likely to break from the pack is West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who has been publicly skeptical of specific parts of the bill, and has been more generally concerned that an increase in government spending will lead to further increases in inflation.

Manchin’s constituents tend to be older and more likely than most Americans to be on a fixed income. That makes them especially vulnerable to price inflation, which was recently measured at an annual rate of 6.2%, the highest in more than 30 years.

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Factbox: What’s in Biden’s $1.75 Trillion ‘Build Back Better’ Package?

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives on Friday passed President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion social policy and climate package, sending it back to the Senate where it is likely to be modified further.

 

Here is what the latest version contains, according to the White House:

 

FAMILY BENEFITS

 

  • Free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds  

  • Support for childcare costs: Families that earn less than $300,000 a year would pay no more than 7% of their income on childcare

  • Tax credits worth up to $300 a child per month

  • Bolsters coverage of home-care costs for the elderly and disabled through the Medicaid health program

  • Expands free school meals and provides $65 a month in grocery money during summer months for 29 million low-income children who are eligible for free lunches at school

 

CLIMATE

 

  • Rebates and credits to cut the cost of rooftop solar systems by 30% and American-made, union-made electric vehicles by $12,500

  • Incentives to encourage U.S. manufacturing of clean energy technology and shift other industries to reduce carbon emissions

  • Creates a 300,000-strong Civilian Climate Corps to work on environmental and climate projects

  • Creates a Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator to invest in climate-related projects, with at least 40% serving disadvantaged communities

  • New spending on coastal restoration, forest management and soil conservation

 

HEALTHCARE

 

  • Enables the Medicare health plan for seniors to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs that have been on the market for at least nine years  

  • Penalizes drug companies that increase prices faster than inflation

  • Caps out-of-pocket prescription drug prices at $2,000 a year and lowers insulin prices to $35 a month

  • Expands Medicare to cover hearing aids

  • Reduces Affordable Care Act premiums by an average of $600 per person a year

  • Expands Medicaid coverage to low-income people in the 12 states that have opted not to expand the program on their own

 

HOUSING

 

  • Expands affordable housing, public housing and rental assistance programs

  • Broadens down-payment assistance to bolster home ownership

  • Expands lead-paint removal efforts

  • Supports community-led redevelopment in low-income neighborhoods

  • Encourages local governments to ease zoning restrictions that limit housing density

 

EDUCATION

 

  • Increases Pell Grants for college costs

  • More aid for historically Black colleges and other minority-serving schools

  • Boosts the Labor Department’s job-training programs by 50%

 

IMMIGRATION

 

  • $100 billion in “immigration reform,” which is additional funding beyond the $1.75 trillion

  • Efforts to reduce backlogs, expand legal services and improve border processing and asylum programs

OTHER PROGRAMS

 

  • Expands a tax credit for low-income workers to cover those who do not have children

  • More money for rural projects

  • Supports community violence intervention

 

TAXES

 

  • 15% minimum tax on corporate profits for companies with more than $1 billion in profits

  • 1% surcharge on stock buybacks

  • 15% minimum tax on foreign profits of U.S. corporations

  • 5% surtax on personal income above $10 million

  • Additional 3% surtax on income above $25 million

  • Close loophole to prevent wealthy from avoiding 3.8% Medicare tax

  • Bolster the Internal Revenue Service to improve customer service and focus enforcement on wealthy tax evaders

  • Expands a deduction for state and local taxes that primarily benefits upper-income households in high-tax states. Republicans reduced that benefit in their 2017 tax-cut package.

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House Delays Vote on Biden’s $1.75 Trillion Bill

The vote on U.S. President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion social spending bill has been delayed until Friday in the House of Representatives, after Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy gave an hourslong speech.

The vote was originally scheduled for Thursday evening after the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a nonpartisan arbiter, released a cost assessment of the bill, which several moderate Democrats said they needed before they would vote.

But the vote was delayed until 8 a.m. (1300 GMT) Friday after McCarthy spoke – and often seemed to stray – from a thick binder of prepared remarks for more than four hours, at times shouting over Democrats in the House who were openly dismissive of his obstruction.

Democrats in the House were attempting to advance Biden’s $1.75 trillion domestic investment bill, despite the CBO’s finding that it would add to the deficit.

“I’ve had enough. America has had enough,” McCarthy said in his speech that cataloged a list of Republican grievances, some related to the bill and some not.

The House voted 220-211 to approve the rule for debating the measure, clearing the way for a vote on passage later in the night. No Republicans supported the move.

McCarthy was occasionally interrupted by Democrats.

Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described it in a video posted on social media as “one of the worst, lowest quality speeches” she had ever seen.

“It is stunning to me how long a person can talk (while) communicating so little,” she said.

Earlier, the CBO said the legislation would increase federal budget deficits by $367 billion over 10 years, although it acknowledged that additional revenues could be generated through improved Internal Revenue Service tax collections.

The CBO estimated that the new tax enforcement activities would generate a net increase in revenues of $127 billion through 2031. The White House estimates the changes will generate $400 billion in additional revenue and said the bill overall will reduce deficits by $121 billion over a decade.

Several of the moderate Democrats who had wanted to see the CBO “score” before voting said they accepted the White House’s math.

“We put in the work and look what we gota Build Back Better Act that’s fully paid for, reduces the deficit and helps American families,” said Representative Carolyn Bordeaux. “Now it’s time to pass it.

Representative Stephanie Murphy said she had reservations about the size of the legislation but there were “too many badly needed investments in this bill not to advance it in the legislative process.

If passed, the bill would be in addition to the more than $1 trillion infrastructure investment legislation that Biden signed into law this week.

The new bill provides free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, boosts coverage of home-care costs for the elderly and disabled, significantly lowers the cost of some prescription drugs such as insulin, expands affordable housing programs and increases grants for college students.

The two measures comprise the twin pillars of Biden’s domestic agenda and would be on top of the $1.9 trillion in emergency coronavirus pandemic aid that Biden and his fellow Democrats pushed through Congress in March over a wall of opposition from Republicans.

Democrat House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called the bill “transformational,” adding that its success “will be measured in the deep sense of hope that Americans will have when they see their economy working for them instead of holding them back.”

Republicans have vowed to withhold their support, leaving Democrats to employ a special “budget reconciliation” procedure that would allow them to ram the legislation through the Senate with a simple majority vote, instead of at least 60 votes in the 100-member chamber normally needed to advance measures.

Republican Representative Guy Reschenthaler said the bill will worsen inflation and hand tax breaks to the wealthy. He labeled it “the Democrats’ big government socialist spending spree.”

In addition to funding expanded social programs, the bill provides $550 billion to battle climate change.

If it passes the Democratic-controlled House, it would go to the Senate for consideration, where two centrist Democratic members have threatened to hold it up. Senators are expected to amend the House bill. If so, it would have to be sent back to the House for final passage, possibly around the end of December.

Democrats have a 221-213 majority in the House and can only afford to lose three Democratic votes on the bill since no Republicans are expected to vote for it. One Democrat said on Thursday evening he intended to vote against it, due to tax breaks that would favor rich Americans. 

 

 

 

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After Pledging to Lead on Climate Issues, US Sells New Oil Drilling Rights

In a move that has some environmental activists charging it with hypocrisy, the Biden administration has approved the sale of oil and gas drilling rights to more than 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico — an act it says was mandated by a federal court ruling.

The auction on Wednesday by an arm of the U.S. Interior Department resulted in leases for 1.7 million of the 80 million available acres, with Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. among the top buyers. Some 308 lots were purchased for a total of $191.7 million, though it is not certain exactly how much of that will ultimately be developed. 

The decision came just days after the close of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), at which President Joe Biden promised that the United States would be “leading by the power of our example” in the effort to achieve a zero-emissions future.

While some environmental groups accuse the administration of going back on its word, the Biden administration has said that it was forced to agree to the sale by a federal court ruling. 

Shortly after taking office in January, Biden announced a moratorium on new leases for oil and gas projects on federal property. Republican attorneys general in more than a dozen states filed lawsuits challenging the halt in lease auctions, and in June, a U.S. District Court judge in Louisiana issued an injunction instructing the Biden administration to resume selling drilling rights. 

At the time, a spokesperson for the Interior Department, which oversees the leasing of public lands for energy development, said, “We are reviewing the judge’s opinion, and will comply with the decision.” 

In 2018, a report from the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the operations of the fossil fuels industry — that is, the extraction, refining, and transportation of fuels, before they are actually used by the consumer — is responsible for about 23% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. The report is frequently cited by environmental groups opposed to the leasing of public lands for energy development. 

Wednesday’s auction took place despite a pending lawsuit filed in Washington by the climate activist group Earthjustice. The suit alleges that an environmental impact study conducted in 2017, which the Biden administration used to justify the auction, was flawed and cannot be relied on. 

Other options available 

Brettny Hardy, a senior attorney with Earthjustice, told VOA that Biden had several other options for preventing the auction of the new leases but chose not to exercise them. 

“The administration keeps saying that his hands were tied because of this Louisiana court ruling. But the administration has a ton of discretion under the underlying statute which is at play here, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.” 

She acknowledged that the administration is appealing the district court ruling but criticized it for not seeking a stay of the judge’s ruling while the appeal is decided.

Additionally, she said, the administration is aware of the failings of the environmental impact study underpinning the lease auction, pointing out that two other courts have already ruled that the greenhouse gas emissions model it used was insufficient. The administration could have used that knowledge to declare the auction illegal under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Energy industry pleased 

By contrast, the energy industry and its supporters in Washington cheered the move.

In a statement provided to VOA, Frank Macchiarola, American Petroleum Institute senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs, said: “U.S. oil and natural gas production on federal lands and waters delivers the affordable and reliable energy America needs while providing much-needed funding for conservation, education, infrastructure and other important state and local priorities.” 

“Notably, U.S. oil and natural gas produced offshore in the Gulf of Mexico is also among the lowest carbon barrels produced in the world, according to U.S. Department of the Interior analysis that shows emissions from international substitutions are more carbon intensive,” he added.

In a statement, Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group for the offshore energy industry, called on the Biden administration to offer more lease auctions in the future. 

“Continued leasing is critical to our energy future; good decisions today will benefit America tomorrow,” he said, adding that certainty about future leases “will advance climate progress, stimulate continued economic growth, support high-paying jobs throughout the country, and strengthen our long-term national security.” 

Lease extensions 

It will take between five and 10 years for actual oil production to begin on the new sites, but once a site is producing oil, the energy company running the drilling operation is typically allowed to extend the lease indefinitely. 

The Gulf of Mexico Outer Continental Shelf, a 160-million-acre expanse that includes the areas sold Wednesday, holds about 48 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 141 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. 

A ‘carbon bomb’ 

Environmental organizations said this week that they remain focused on pressuring the Biden administration to roll back the leases and reimpose the moratorium on additional auctions. 

“The Biden administration is lighting the fuse on a massive carbon bomb in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s hard to imagine a more dangerous, hypocritical action in the aftermath of the climate summit,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This will inevitably lead to more catastrophic oil spills, more toxic climate pollution and more suffering for communities and wildlife along the Gulf Coast,” she said. “Biden has the authority to stop this, but instead he’s casting his lot in with the fossil fuel industry and worsening the climate emergency.” 

 

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House Moves Toward OK of Dems’ Sweeping Social, Climate Bill 

A divided House moved toward passage of Democrats’ expansive social and environment bill on Thursday as new cost estimates from Congress’ top fiscal analyst suggested that moderate lawmakers’ worries about spending and deficits would be calmed, giving the bill the votes it needs for passage.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told lawmakers in a letter Thursday evening that the chamber would soon begin final debate on the sprawling legislation. That would put the House on the doorstep of approving the package, a top priority for President Joe Biden that would bolster child care assistance, create free preschool, curb seniors’ prescription drug costs and beef up efforts to slow climate change. 

“At the close of the debate, all that remains is to take up the vote — so that we can pass this legislation and achieve President Biden’s vision to Build Back Better!” Pelosi wrote, using Biden’s name for the measure.

An initial batch of key figures released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office showed that its projections were aligning closely with earlier estimates from the White House. That included tax credits to spur clean energy development, a new required paid family leave program, bolstered child care assistance and caps on seniors’ prescription drug costs.

Two weeks after centrists’ objections forced Democrats to delay the measure, the bill began moving amid optimistic signs from leaders and lawmakers that their divisions were all but resolved — for now. Facing uniform Republican opposition, Democrats can lose no more than three votes to prevail in the House. 

The CBO was expected to estimate that the bill’s overall cost would be modestly higher than the 10-year, $1.85 trillion price tag Democrats have been citing. It was also expected to project the measure would produce deficits of perhaps $200 billion over the coming decade.

Biden and other Democratic leaders have said the measure would pay for itself, largely through tax increases on the wealthy, big corporations and companies doing business abroad. Early signs were that CBO’s numbers were unlikely to derail the legislation, which exceeds 2,100 pages.

 

“Each of these investments on its own will make an extraordinary impact on the lives of American families,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth of Kentucky, ticking off the bill’s initiatives. Noting that savings would come from higher levies on the rich and corporations, he added, “It’s a helluva deal.” 

Republicans said the legislation would damage an economy racked by inflation, give tax breaks to some wealthy taxpayers and make government bigger and more intrusive. Missouri Rep. Jason Smith, the Budget Committee’s top Republican, used alliteration from Biden’s name for the measure — Build Back Better — to mock it. 

“Bankrupts the economy. Benefits the wealthy. And it builds the Washington machine,” Smith said. 

Biden this week signed a $1 trillion package of highway and other infrastructure projects, which he’s spent recent days promoting around the country. He’s been battered recently by falling approval numbers in polls, reflecting voters’ concerns over inflation, supply chain delays and the persistent coronavirus pandemic. 

After months of talks, lawmakers appeared eager to wrap it up, shelving lingering differences to begin selling the package back home. House Democrats said they were planning 1,000 events across the country by year’s end to pitch the measure’s benefits to voters. 

House passage of the social and environment bill would send it to the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats have zero votes to spare. Significant changes there are likely because of cost-cutting demands by moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. 

Senate talks could take weeks, and the prospect that Manchin or others will force additional cuts in the measure was making it easier for House moderates to back the legislation Thursday. The altered bill would have to return to the House before going to Biden’s desk.

Even as lawmakers debated the legislation, Democrats were set to change it before the House votes to make sure it doesn’t run afoul of Senate rules. Democrats are using special rules that would let the bill pass the Senate by a simple majority, not the usual 60 votes, but such legislation must follow certain budget constraints. 

When moderates delayed House passage of the bill two weeks ago, they said they wanted to make sure the CBO’s projections for its costs were similar to White House numbers, which showed the measure essentially paid for itself. 

Some differences, however, were expected between the CBO and White House estimates. 

A chief discrepancy was expected to be over a White House estimate that giving the IRS an additional $80 billion for stepped-up enforcement would yield $480 billion in new tax collections over a decade, a net gain of $400 billion. The CBO, using stricter estimating guidelines, was expected to envision half that amount in new revenue. 

The House’s addition of a paid family leave program was also expected to increase the legislation’s cost. That program faces objections from Manchin and seems likely to be dropped by the Senate. 

Some moderates have already said projections over IRS savings are always uncertain and would not cause them to oppose the measure. Others have said the measure’s roughly $555 billion in tax credits and other costs to encourage cleaner energy need not be paid for in the bill because global warming is an existential crisis. 

Critics have said the bill’s overall cost would exceed $4 trillion if Democrats hadn’t made temporary some of its programs they would actually like to be permanent. For example, tax credits for children and low-earning workers, top party priorities, are extended for just one year.

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