For the first time in months there were small signs of a functioning government Wednesday as congressional leaders negotiated a Covid-19 relief package and millions of vaccine doses were shipped out under the watchful eye of officials with Operation Warp Speed in the midst of a winter storm.
The stimulus deal could still falter, but it was a glimmer of hope for progress after four years in which President Donald Trump has sowed dysfunction at every turn and completely abdicated his responsibility for stopping the terrifying spread of coronavirus.
Talks in Congress were still tenuous on Thursday and it looks increasingly likely that members would need to pass another stopgap funding measure to keep the government running until a deal for the Covid relief package is finalized.
“We face the prospect of the eleventh hour. A decision to finish the work we were elected to do or simply to delay the situation again,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin said in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday. “We need to do our job and we need to do it now. We need to pass our annual appropriations bills, and to keep the government running. I cannot imagine the unforgivable and embarrassing tragedy it would be if the government is shut down for our failure to reach a decision. We need to pass a Covid relief bill.”
Normally, the commander-in-chief would play an outside role in pushing those negotiations along to get a deal on such a critical piece of legislation. But despite the deepening Covid crisis gripping the country, Trump has stayed largely out of view at his White House lair, focused on burnishing his legacy and gaming out how he can reward his longtime loyalists on his way out the door.
On a day when the number of Covid-19 deaths and hospitalizations in the US both broke records – with 3,656 new deaths Wednesday – Trump was scrolling through a list of potential pardons; ignoring a massive hack of the US government tied to Russia; continuing to push for the appointment of special counsels to investigate his fictional claims of voter fraud and the business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of President-elect Joe Biden. In between floating false claims of voter fraud and lashing out at any Republican who dared to acknowledge Biden’s Electoral College victory on Twitter, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump managed to squeeze in a Cabinet meeting.
With the daily number of new cases in the United States nearing a staggering 250,000 and a troubling jobs report showing that 885,000 Americans filed for first-time unemployment benefits, Trump tweeted about positive news Thursday morning.
“All-time Stock Market high. The Vaccine and the Vaccine rollout are getting the best of reviews. Moving along really well. Get those “shots” everyone! Also, stimulus talks looking very good,” the President tweeted.
Though more evidence is emerging of the damage Trump has wrought by continuing to push his false election claims – namely the violence in Texas tied to a group that was trying to ferret out non-existent ballot fraud — Trump’s close ally, Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, carried on the President’s election charade during a controversial hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, a day after McConnell recognized Biden as the President-elect and privately told his GOP members it was time to move on.
Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, intended the hearing to focus on “voting irregularities” – though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the November election – but he and Sen. Gary Peters, the top Democrat on the panel, also tangled over the committee’s prior probe into Ukraine, accusing one another of spreading disinformation. Defending his decision to hold a hearing, Johnson made the upside down argument that it was about “getting information that we have to look at to restore confidence in our election integrity.”
It fell to Chris Krebs, the top election security official who Trump fired after he repeatedly disputed the President’s election fraud claims on Twitter, to try to convince senators of the dangers perpetuating Trump’s election myths. “We’re past the point where we need to be having conversations about the outcome of this election,” Krebs told lawmakers Wednesday, while offering a dark view of Trump’s impact on future contests.
“I think that continued assault on democracy and the outcome of this election – that only serves to undermine confidence in the process – is ultimately … corrosive to the institutions that support elections. And going forward, it will be that much harder,” Krebs said.
“This is not the America I recognize, and it’s got to stop. We need everyone across the leadership ranks to stand up,” the former top Homeland Security official for cybersecurity added. “I would appreciate more support from my own party, the Republican Party, to call this stuff out and end it. We’ve got to move on.”
Optimism about a coronavirus stimulus deal
Away from the pointless hearings into voting, which seemed designed mainly to mollify the President’s insatiable desire for more investigations, congressional leaders from both parties said they were making progress in crafting a Covid stimulus package after months of a stalemate.
McConnell said that leaders “made major headway toward hammering out a targeted pandemic relief package that would be able to pass both chambers with bipartisan majorities.”
“We agreed we will not leave town until we’ve made law,” McConnell said.
The two most controversial sticking points – Covid-19 liability protections for corporations and businesses and direct aid to state and local governments that are struggling with lost revenue and decimated budgets after this year’s closures – have largely been set aside from the main consensus package. That has allowed negotiators to focus on how much they should spend on direct payments to struggling Americans.
With an overarching price tag of around $900 billion, the package is expected to include an additional $300 a week in jobless benefits and $330 billion for small business loans, as well as for critically needed funds for schools and vaccine distribution throughout the country.
Trump White House
Members are weighing whether to issue a new round of stimulus checks to Americans, $600 per individual, an amount that some progressive members, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, view as insufficient.
Sanders, who wants to see $1,200 in stimulus checks, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Wednesday night that the overall $900 billion figure for the package is “much too low” and what is in the bill is “good, but it’s not enough.”
“When you ask people on the street ‘What is the most important thing the government can do in this terrible, terrible moment?’ They will say, ‘Give us some help. We need some help right now to pay the bills,’” Sanders said on “The Situation Room.” “That is what we are trying to do.”
The Vermont senator said members should not go home until the deal is completed: “We cannot go back to our families when so many families in this country are hurting right now. We’ve got to get this done.”
McConnell told his members during a conference call Wednesday they should be ready for weekend votes. It’s unclear when a vote would occur, but the hope has been that lawmakers will be able to attach the $900 billion relief plan to a $1.4 trillion spending bill that Congress must pass to prevent the government from running out of money Friday night.
Democrats are continuing to argue for more funding for cash-strapped state and local governments so those localities can avoid laying off essential workers, including firefighters and staff who will be needed to help with vaccinations, as they try to ramp up to vaccinate the entire population. But several Democrats have acknowledged that aid may have to wait until next year when Biden takes office and control of the US Senate is determined by the two runoff elections in Georgia.
“I can tell you in my state and in the city of Chicago, and other major municipalities in Illinois, they’ve taken a real beating,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin said on CNN Wednesday. “Revenues are down dramatically, and we know why. People don’t go out to eat anymore; they don’t shop in the neighborhoods as much as they used to.”
Operation Warp Speed briefing
With Congress focused on the economic concerns of Americans as more and more states are putting further restrictions into place to try to curb the spread of the virus, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, Gen. Gustave F. Perna, said during a briefing Wednesday that all deliveries of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine are still on track: “It is about a steady drum-beat cadence of delivery of vaccine out to the American people.”
With concerns surrounding the winter storm, Perna said he had been working closely with executives from UPS and FedEx to create contingency plans in case vaccine deliveries get held up either in the Northeast or as the storm moves out to the Northwest.
“They were making contact with customers – establishing rules saying that if somebody is not there because of the weather,” Perna said of the two companies. If delays occur: “We would retain the vaccine. It goes back, secure, and is delivered the next day.”
More vaccine doses could be available early next week if the US Food and Drug Administration issues emergency use authorization for the Moderna vaccine, which is widely expected.
As they did with the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, a key FDA advisory committee meets on Thursday to discuss the data and considerations for the Moderna vaccine. If they recommend emergency use authorization, the FDA will then decide whether to sign off.
The vaccine advisory panel to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will then meet to discuss whether the Moderna vaccine should be offered to Americans, and the CDC will act once they have that recommendation. Officials have said that some 6 million doses of the Moderna vaccine could be shipped out immediately, with Americans potentially getting that vaccine as early as Monday.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar was not able to estimate Wednesday how many people have been vaccinated so far with the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, but he said that the federal government is working on a dashboard to provide vaccine data and reporting that could be active within a week.
The rapid vaccine development reflects a much more hopeful and scientific approach to tackling the virus than the dangerous herd immunity strategy push by a Trump political appointee, which was newly revealed in internal emails obtained by the House Oversight Committee.
During the Operation Warp Speed briefing, Azar touted several new polls showing that more Americans are willing to take the vaccine. A poll from ABC/Ipsos this week said that more than 8 in 10 Americans plan to take the vaccine, while a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 70% of Americans said the same.
“Vaccine confidence is surging,” Azar said. “As the word gets out, as they talk to their friends, their colleagues, their neighbors, vaccine confidence in the United States will just increase by word of mouth, by trusted sources, every single day.”
Vice President Mike Pence is set to receive the vaccine Friday on camera, while Biden is expected to get vaccinated next week.
But even as vaccines are being deployed, the situation remains grim in states like California, which just activated its mass fatality plan, ordering 5,000 additional body bags and deploying 60 refrigerated storage units. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his state may have to consider another coronavirus shutdown in January.
Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the US Department of Health and Human Services, said he was “very confident” that the Moderna vaccine will receive authorization — a hopeful sign that more vaccine doses could soon be on the way – but he implored Americans to continue taking precautions during an appearance on CNN’s “New Day.”
He chided a newly elected Republican congressman for stating that the coronavirus is “a phony pandemic.”
“We have hundreds of thousands of dead Americans,” Giroir said. “This is not phony. This is not fake. It is serious.”
Giroir said Americans should avoid traveling for the holidays: “What people need to know is, we are still at a dangerous and critical part of this pandemic, and tens of thousands of American lives are at stake, really, every week, and we can flatten the curve.”