Politics Headlines

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty ImagesBY: BENJAMIN SIEGEL, ABC NEWS

(WASHINGTON) — Congress should hire more Capitol Police officers to boost the overstretched ranks of the department and provide them with better equipment, training and support, according to a study of Capitol security led by retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore released Monday.

Honore and his team on Monday were briefing rank-and-file House lawmakers on their findings and recommendations.

Republicans have criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's appointment of Honore to conduct the review, pointing to his increasingly partisan tone on Twitter and attacks against Republicans.

"While there may be some worthy recommendations forthcoming, General Honore's notorious partisan bias calls into question the rationality of appointing him to lead this important security review," House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a statement Sunday. "It also raises the unacceptable possibility that the Speaker desired a certain result: turning the Capitol into a fortress.”

The House is expected to incorporate Honore's findings into a new funding bill to boost security around the campus and pay for some of the expenses incurred after Jan. 6 -- such as the National Guard deployments and the cleanup and repair costs.

Here are six key takeaways from his report:

More Capitol Police officers

The report found that Capitol Police were "understaffed, insufficiently equipped, and inadequately trained" to secure the Capitol and members on Jan. 6. It suggested filling all existing vacancies on the force -- about 233 officers -- and adding another 854 officers in various roles, including as intelligence specialists, civil disturbance units and dignitary protection agents.

If enacted, the additions would make the Capitol Police force, which already has more than 2,000 officers, among the largest department's in the entire country.

To meet the security needs of the Capitol, officers worked nearly 720,000 overtime hours in Fiscal Year 2021, an "unsustainable" model for the department moving forward.

Additionally, the report recommended adding more explosive-sniffing K9 units to help Capitol Police scan for explosive devices on the Capitol complex, due the number of vacant units and "aging" dogs. It also suggested reestablishing the department's mounted unit -- which was disbanded in 2005 -- to serve as a "force multiplier" in high-trafficked areas to help control crowds.

The report also recommended better training for officers on policing tactics as well as more leadership development opportunities.

Honore's team recommended the use of body cameras "to improve police accountability and protect officers from false accusations of misconduct," and more intelligence support for the department.

New rapid response team

The report called for the creation of a permanent Quick Reaction Force to help Capitol Police and other DC law enforcement agencies respond to crises in the district and future emergencies on Capitol Hill -- comprised of federal law enforcement officers or a military police battalion under the command of the D.C. National Guard.

The report also recommended the creation of Civil Defense Units within the Capitol Police to be kept on standby when Congress is in session, and for all officers to be given civil disturbance training and their own riot gear to use in emergency situations.

MORE BARRIERS AROUND THE CAPITOL?

The report recommended a "mobile fencing option" that can be assembled and taken down quickly, in place of the temporary fencing currently surrounding the Capitol that requires a "significant" number of personnel to patrol.

A retractable fencing system and more integrated system of cameras, sensors and alarms could "enable an open campus while giving security forces better options to protect the complex and its Members should a threat develop," the review team wrote in the report.

Tweaking the chain of command

The report found that the Capitol Police Board's decision-making process "proved too slow and cumbersome" to effectively respond on Jan. 6, when National Guard troops took hours to arrive on the Capitol grounds to help police clear out the halls of Congress. It recommended allowing the Capitol Police chief to request the help of federal law enforcement and the National Guard in emergencies, without first needing the sign off of the board -- an opaque, four-person body that includes the chief, the architect of the Capitol, and the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, who are appointed by congressional leaders.

The report also recommended an "independent review" of the efficacy of the Capitol Police Board's "authority" over the department.

Background checks and harder access points

Honore's team recommended revamping the screening procedures used on campus for legislative staff and congressional employees.

"Requiring background checks for identification card holders and employing card readers more widely throughout the complex would decrease insider threat risks and enhance the safety of all Members, staff, and legislative employees," according to the report.

The report also suggested repairing and securing the doors and windows around the Capitol that were used by rioters to break into the building, and erecting screening portals for staff and visitors around the complex to make it easier for Capitol Police to monitor visitors seeking to enter the building.

Rethinking member security

Pointing to the increasing number of threats to members of Congress, the report recommended expanding the Dignitary Protection Division's ranks to better protect lawmakers at home and in Washington. Currently, only members of leadership have full-time security details.

The report also recommended the creation of a new office to "centrally manage" lawmakers' travel from their districts to the Capitol, in coordination with state and local law enforcement partners.

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Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesBY: MATT SEYLER, ABC NEWS

(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put the spotlight on two female generals who were recently promoted to head four-star combatant commands during remarks in honor of International Women's Day at the White House Monday.

Austin announced the promotions of Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson and Air Force Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost on Saturday, and both women flanked Biden at Monday's event.

"We need little girls and boys, both, who have grown up dreaming of serving for their country to know this is what generals in the United States Armed Forces look like," Biden said.

Richardson will be given her fourth star as she leaves her commanding role at U.S. Army North, in San Antonio, Texas, to lead U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in Doral, Florida.

Van Ovost will leave her post as commander of Air Mobility Command to take charge of U.S. Transportation Command, both located at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.

Harris called them both "the best of the best" and noted the short time that women have been able to officially hold combat roles.

"While it has only been five years since all combat jobs have opened to women, women have been in the line of fire, risking their lives to protect our nation, long before that," she said.

The New York Times reported last month that the Pentagon's most senior leaders agreed these two women should be promoted to elite, four-star commands, but that then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, worried that if they even raised their names the Trump White House would replace them with its own candidates before leaving office. The newspaper reported their recommendations were held until after the November elections.

"They were chosen because they were the best officers for the jobs, and I didn't want their promotions derailed because someone in the Trump White House saw that I recommended them or thought DOD was playing politics," Esper told The New York Times. "This was not the case. They were the best qualified. We were doing the right thing.”

"It's hard to be what you can't see," Biden said during his remarks in the East Room Monday afternoon. "We need the young women just beginning their careers in the military service to see it and know that no door will be closed to them."

At U.S. Army North, Richardson was responsible for all Title 10 troops along the Southwest border as well active duty service members assigned to the military's COVID-19 response efforts in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

In her new role at SOUTHCOM, Richardson will oversee more than 1,200 military and civilian personnel responsible for the regions of Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

Richardson is married to another general officer, Lt. Gen. Jim Richardson, the deputy commanding general of Army Futures Command. They have one daughter and a grandchild.

"Gen. Richardson and her husband Jim deployed to war together in 2003 as helicopter battalion commanders flying dangerous missions over Iraq," Austin said Monday.

As commander of Transportation Command, Van Ovost will be responsible for a large fleet of military and commercial planes, trains, automobiles and information systems.

During her more than 30-year career, Van Ovost has also "commanded an air refueling squadron, flying training wing and the Presidential Airlift Wing," according to her military bio. "She also served as the Director of Staff for Headquarters Air Force, Vice Director of the Joint Staff, the Director of Mobility Forces for U.S. Central Command and as the Vice Commander of the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center."

"Gen. Van Ovost was a pioneer in development of the rugged C-7 cargo plane, conducting dirt takeoff and landings and airdrops in this mammoth aircraft as one of its very first test pilots -- and becoming a test pilot she also achieved her dream of flying fighter aircraft, even though women were still barred from flying in combat," Austin said during his remarks.

Van Ovost graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1988 and logged more than 4,200 flight hours as command pilot for more than 30 aircraft.

ABC News' Justin Gomez contributed to this report.

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Derek Brumby/iStockBY: QUINN SCANLAN, ABC NEWS

(ATLANTA) — Overcoming universal Democratic opposition, Republicans in the Georgia Senate on Monday narrowly passed a sweeping elections omnibus bill that would eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, which was enacted by Republicans in 2005, just months after a record number of Georgians opted to cast ballots this way in the 2020 presidential election.

Four Republicans did not vote on the bill, which was approved 29-20.

The legislation, SB 241, would also change the absentee ballot verification process. Instead of using the subjective signature match process, voters would be required to include their driver's license or state ID card number when applying for and returning an absentee ballot. Voters without these forms of identification would have to submit a photocopy of another form of accepted ID, as well as provide the last four digits of their Social Security number and their date of birth.

Several Democrats spoke in opposition to the bill and urged lawmakers to vote against it.

"SB 241 creates unnecessary barriers and burdens on voters. It disproportionately impacts racial minorities, the elderly, those that live in rural Georgia, disabled and students," said Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan. "The motivations are really suspect because it's introduced immediately after voters of color dramatically increase their use of absentee voting this past year.”

Multiple Black Democratic lawmakers said they took personal offense to the piece of legislation, hearkening back to the Jim Crow-era and Black Americans' fight not just to earn the right to vote, but to eliminate barriers put in place to curtail it.

"This is not about the process. This is about suppressing the vote of the same group of people, especially me and people who look like me, and I take it personally. I am here in this chamber because of the Voting Rights Act," state Sen. Gail Davenport said. "Some good-hearted legislators want to please a former selfish, racist leader and his followers. Well, I tell you today, don't do it.”

The omnibus bill was one of dozens of pieces of legislation on the agenda for the state Senate to consider Monday, which is "Crossover Day" for the Georgia General Assembly. Bills that fail to advance through one chamber by this day are unlikely to become law this legislative session. About one third of the bills on the Senate's agenda for "Crossover Day" addressed election law.

Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the president of the Senate, did not preside over the body as SB 241 was debated because he doesn't support the bill.

"Lt. Governor Duncan has been crystal clear that he does not support the rollback of no-excuse absentee voting in Georgia, which currently is included in SB 241. He staunchly opposes that provision," Macy McFall, Duncan's deputy chief of staff and communications director, told ABC News.

According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, as of Feb. 19, more than 250 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 43 states. The organization described these bills as "grounded in a rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities."

Without evidence, former President Donald Trump claimed for months leading up to and following the general election that the presidential contest was "rigged," specifically targeting mail-in voting, falsely claiming it led to widespread fraud.

Georgia Democrats labeled Republican-sponsored legislation limiting voting as "voter suppression bills," claiming they offer solutions for problems that don't exist and will be challenged, and potentially invalidated, in court.

"This bill amounts to walking into your house, seeing a sink full of dirty dishes, loads of laundry to be done, a lawn to be mowed, a refrigerator that's empty, and then deciding that instead of getting to any of that, you're gonna go to the hardware store and start building a deck -- a deck you don't need," said state Sen. Sonya Halpern. "The house is on fire, and you all are building a deck."

But Republicans argued the bills' purposes are to reduce costs, ease county election officials' workload, bolster election security and restore faith in Georgia's elections.

"The two and a half million voters who voted in November who are Republican, who maybe have concerns ... they have a right to have their voice heard in this capitol," said Republican Sen. Jason Anavitarte, speaking in support of SB 241. "I'm sure, you know, I'll get more more tweets from LeBron James and other folks about how I'm suppressing votes, but at the end of the day, every vote should count in this state, and I pray over every single one of us as we move forward through this process ... that we find a way to make sure all Georgians trust the process."

Responding to Democrats' assertion that the bills are unnecessary, Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a Republican, went section-by-section explaining the reason each provision of SB 241 is necessary, and at one point, falsely claimed that the bill he co-sponsored "is not preventing anyone from voting by mail-in absentee," despite section six of the bill outlining the seven specific reasons a voter can be eligible to request a mail ballot.

When closing the debate, Dugan conceded there wasn't widespread fraud, but said, "To say that no adjustments need to be made to address some of the issues that we see coming forward in the state is inaccurate. You don't wait until you have wholesale issues before you try to meet the need. You do it beforehand."

Republican lawmakers' focus on election law follows bruising defeats for the state party in the 2020 election cycle, which the Republican secretary of state has repeatedly defended as secure, accurate and devoid of mass fraud.

"A defeated president to try to take his country down with him by spreading lies about voter fraud ... these lies are now stated as excuses for bills we are voting on today, bills that take voting options away and make it harder to vote," state Sen. Sally Harrell, a Democrat, said Monday, before the bills were taken up.

She added, "But lies can backfire ... these people, when they get mad -- they get organized."

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Official White House Photo by Lawrence JacksonBy MICHELLE STODDART, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden will make his first primetime address Thursday night to "to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown," White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced during a briefing Monday.

"He will discuss the many sacrifices the American people have made over the last year and the grave loss communities and families have suffered. The president will look forward, highlighting the role that Americans will play in beating the virus and getting the country back to normal," Psaki said.

The speech marking a year since the COVID-19 outbreak shut down many aspects of American life, will come after a House vote set for as early as Tuesday on Biden's $1.9 trillion relief plan. Once sent to the president's desk, he is expected to quickly sign it into law.

Among its provisions, the bill will provide direct relief payments, child tax credits for many Americans and funding for state and local governments.

When asked at Monday's briefing why the White House had such a focus on the pandemic this week, Psaki stressed the effects of the pandemic on American life.

"The American people know that the reason why we have a recession, the reason why so many families are concerned about putting food on the table, the reason why parents around the country are worried about the impact of closed schools on their kids' mental health and their learning because of the pandemic.

"And it is the number-one issue and priority on the mind of the president, the vice president and our entire team," Psaki said. "Of course, this week marks one year since the country was essentially shut down as a result of a pandemic, and it’s important to note, of course, what steps have been taken and what progress has been made."


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Alex Wong/Getty ImagesBy ALLISON PECORIN, TRISH TURNER and KENDALL KARSON, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- In an unexpected move, a top Senate Republican, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, announced Monday that he will not run for reelection in 2022.

Blunt, 71, has served in the Senate since 2011 and in the House of Representatives previously.

He's currently the No. 4 Republican in the Senate.

Blunt announced his plans in a two-minute video released Monday morning.

"After 14 general llection victories -- three to county office, seven to the United States House of Representatives, and four statewide elections -- I won’t be a candidate for reelection to the United States Senate next year," Blunt said in the video.

He didn't explicitly explain why he's chosen not to run again.

Blunt joins a growing list of veteran Republican incumbents who have announced they will not return the Senate in 2022. He joins Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Richard Burr, R-NC. who have all said they will not seek to keep their seats.

Taken together, the chamber will lose some of its most experienced Republicans next election cycle. Other incumbents up for reelection in 2022 are also being closely watched.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., has not yet announced whether he'll run to defend his vulnerable seat. And 86-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, also has yet to announce if he'll seek another term.

Blunt's planned departure comes as a surprise to many. In late January, Blunt told Politico he was still planning to announce a campaign.

"I’m still planning to run. But that will become official when I announce a campaign. And I’m not doing that yet,” Blunt said. “I really have not been thinking much about it to tell you the truth. ... I keep thinking there will be a little breathing space, so far it’s not happening."

As the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee and the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural ceremonies, Blunt had a busy start to 2021. He coordinated an Inauguration Day with heightened security concerns following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. In the weeks since, the Rules Committee has held multiple hearings examining Capitol security.

Blunt's exit from decades in politics is likely to set up a scramble for the soon-to-be open seat.

Among the Republicans considering a potential bid is Missouri's once-embattled Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned in 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

"I am evaluating right now what I’m going to be doing this year," Greitens told a local radio show on a possible political comeback in 2022, before he criticized Blunt for not more forcefully defending former President Trump.

Some of the other Republican state leaders speculated to be potentially eying a run are Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe.

On the Democratic side, Scott Sifton, a former state senator, and Timothy Shepard, an entrepreneur based near Kansas City, are currently competing for the nomination.

Meanwhile, Jason Kander, Blunt's 2016 Democratic rival who came within 78,000 votes that year, already took himself out of consideration.

"Regarding the Senate in '22: Always nice to be asked. Thanks," he wrote on Twitter. "My decision not to run was never about who I’d run against...I’ll campaign for the Dem nominee!"

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YinYang/iStockBy DEVIN DWYER, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with a former Georgia college student who sued his school after it prevented him from expressing religious views in a free-speech zone on campus.

The 8-1 decision, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, said that Chike Uzuegbunam -- who was silenced by Georgia Gwinnett College officials even after he had obtained a permit to proselytize and handout religious literature -- can seek nominal damages despite the fact that the school ultimately changed course and Uzuegbunam subsequently graduated.

In a very rare alignment of votes, Chief Justice John Roberts was the lone dissenting justice in the case.

"It is undisputed that Uzuegbunam experienced a completed violation of his constitutional rights when respondents enforced their speech policies against him," wrote Justice Thomas. "Because 'every violation [of a right] imports damage,' nominal damages can redress Uzuegbunam’s injury even if he cannot or chooses not to quantify that harm in economic terms."

Nominal damages -- even as little as $1, for example -- are awarded in cases where a person has been harmed by illegal conduct but not suffered significant financial loss. First Amendment advocates called the decision a win for free speech and religious expression.

“When public officials violate constitutional rights, it causes serious harm to the victims," said Kristen Waggoner, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Uzuegbunam in the case. "When such officials engage in misconduct but face no consequences, it leaves victims without recourse, undermines the nation’s commitment to protecting constitutional rights, and emboldens the government to engage in future violations. We are pleased that the Supreme Court weighed in on the side of justice for those victims.”

Justices Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor all joined Thomas in the opinion, which reversed two lower court rulings that agreed with the school in calling the case moot.

"I agree with the Court that, as a matter of history and precedent, a plaintiff’s request for nominal damages can satisfy the redressability requirement for Article III standing and can keep an otherwise moot case alive," Justice Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion.

Roberts argued that the courts had no place getting involved in the dispute because it was no longer an issue.

Uzuegbunam and a fellow evangelical Christian student suing the school, Roberts wrote, "are no longer students at the college. The challenged restrictions no longer exist. And the petitioners have not alleged actual damages. The case is therefore moot because a federal court cannot grant Uzuegbunam and Bradford any effectual relief whatever.'"

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drnadig/iStockBy BENJAMIN SIEGEL and ANNE FLAHERTY, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- House Republicans on Monday called on Democrats to launch a bipartisan investigation into the impact of school closures on children with disabilities, warning that they are in particular danger of falling behind with remote learning.

"We are hearing from parents across the U.S. whose children with disabilities are bearing the greatest burden as schools remain closed," Reps. Steve Scalise, R-La., James Comer, R-Ky., Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., wrote in a letter to the Democratic chairs of four House panels first obtained by ABC News.

"Many special needs children benefit from consistent and attentive, in-person instruction. Many special needs children also receive afternoon in-school therapy sessions. The lack of access to these services raises serious concerns about the impact on their mental health," the Republicans wrote.

With many schools closed for a year now due to the pandemic, the GOP letter was clearly a jab at Democrats and President Joe Biden on what’s become a partisan issue in the pandemic.

Previously, the Trump administration insisted that schools should reopen but offered no guidance on how to do so safely and never collected data on best practices. Instead, the Republican administration insisted that however schools reopen should be a local matter.

Under Biden, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention formulated the nation’s first federal standard for reopening classrooms. But those guidelines have been criticized by many parents and some health experts as too strict and likely to leave too many students stuck with online learning indefinitely.

The request for an inquiry comes as Republican governors, pointing to declining coronavirus cases, are loosening restrictions and mandating in-person schooling for students.

Last week, Arizona GOP Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order requiring schools to offer in-person instruction led by teachers by March 15, after spring break in the state.

Biden announced a new vaccine initiative to prioritize teachers and school workers for appointments at thousands of pharmacies across the country, in an effort to get every educator their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March and facilitate more in-person teaching.

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ABC NewsBY: LUIS MARTINEZ, ABC NEWS

(WASHINGTON) — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's extensive military career has not only prepared him for the roles diplomacy and deterrence play in American foreign policy, but for how to tackle head-on the issues of race and extremism in the military he said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday.

Overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate as President Joe Biden's defense secretary, Austin overcame initial concerns raised by members of Congress about the nomination of another recently retired military leader in the job.

But Austin said his 41 years in uniform have helped him not only appreciate "the complexities of combat," but the importance of diplomacy as well.

"We want to lead with diplomacy in every case," Austin told "This Week" Co-anchor Martha Raddatz. "But if deterrence fails, then you must fight. You fight to win."

"You want to make sure that that your troops are properly resourced, properly trained and focused the right way so that they can not only win, but win decisively," he said.

The historical significance of being the first African American to serve as defense secretary is not lost on Austin, who said he still recalls seeing segregated bathrooms at a bus station while growing up in the Deep South.

"That's kind of how I started as a child and to rise -- to be able to rise -- to a position of secretary of defense in my lifetime is quite incredible," said Austin. "But you have to ask yourself, you know, why it took so long to get to have an African American secretary of defense."

Austin said he will seek to create opportunities for African Americans and Latinos serving in the military so they can rise to the highest ranks and ensure "that I am not the last African American secretary of defense.”

Also key on his agenda is raising awareness within the military about the the issue of extremism in the ranks and stressing the constitutional ideals they are sworn to defend.

While he believes that "99.9% of our troops embrace those values and are focused on the right things and are doing the right things each and every day" a month ago he ordered American military units worldwide to take a day to discuss extremism.

Military leaders are already "having some really in-depth conversations with their troops on values, on the oath that we took, on the importance of unit cohesion," said Austin.

"This is not about, you know, political parties or political beliefs," said Austin. "This is behavior that can really tear at the fabric of our institution. And so we want to make sure that our troops are reminded of of what our values are, reminded of the oath that we took coming in.’"

On the world stage, Austin has already been called upon to provide Biden with his expertise in the Middle East as tensions have increased in Iraq with American forces coming under rocket attack from Shiite militias backed by Iran.

Last week, in the first military action of his presidency, Biden ordered a retaliatory airstrike on a facility in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias blamed for the rocket attacks on U.S. facilities.

But days later, 10 rockets were fired at the sprawling Ain al-Asad airbase in western Iraq that houses many of the 2,500 troops still in Iraq. No service members were injured in the attack, but an American civilian contractor died from a heart attack while sheltering from the incoming rockets.

Austin told Raddatz that the U.S. is still assessing who was behind the rocket attack against U.S. forces at Ain al-Asad airbase that took place days after the U.S. airstrike.

If the U.S. decides to retaliate again against the militias, Austin said that it would be "at a time and place of our own choosing."

"You can expect that we will always hold people accountable for their acts," said Austin. "We demand the right to protect our troops."

And Austin said that as the militia's main backers, Iran "is fully capable of assessing" and drawing its own conclusions about the intentions of the American airstrike.

"What they should draw from this again is that we're going to defend our troops," said Austin. "Our response will be thoughtful.”

"We would hope that they would choose to do the right things," he added.

Part of Austin's job description is engaging with the senior leaders of America's military allies and partners.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, that presents an interesting situation as the Saudi defense minister is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who last week was implicated by U.S. intelligence as approving the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"Our president has been clear that we'll have a different type of relationship with the Saudis going forward," said Austin. "It doesn't mean that it won't be a good relationship; I fully expect that it will be a good relationship, but it will be a bit different.”

Austin noted that while he understands the importance of working with Saudi Arabia as a key strategic partner in the Middle East "it doesn't mean that you can't hold them accountable for various things."

"We're going to lead with our values, but we're going to protect our interests," he responded when asked why the crown prince was not among the Saudis sanctioned by the Biden administration for Khashoggi's death.

Austin has described the coronavirus pandemic as a national security threat and made it a priority for the U.S. military to help civilian authorities.

In addition to thousands of National Guardsmen and active duty troops assisting in COVID-19 response efforts, Austin has authorized the use of 6,235 active duty service members to help with vaccinations at Federal Emergency Management Agency mass vaccination centers.

"The military has a significant capability, capacity, and we can add speed and scale to anything that we endeavor to take part in," said Austin. "I've been out to visit our troops that are out there vaccinating."

"It's really remarkable to see not only how our troops feel about what they're doing, but also how the American public responds to the interaction with our troops," said Austin. "It's just amazing, just fantastic."

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Justin Merriman/Getty ImagesBY: JACK ARNHOLZ, ABC NEWS

(WASHINGTON) — Despite an increase in the number of people who have received COVID-19 vaccines, Americans should not stop wearing masks, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday.

"With the vaccine, we're now on the offense, that's the great thing. But in Ohio, we can't give up the defense. We have found that these masks work exceedingly well. Schools are a prime example. We've seen it in retail ... we know that this makes a huge, huge difference," the Republican governor told "This Week" Co-anchor Martha Raddatz.

He said by the close of business Monday there will probably be over 2 million Ohioans who will have received their first vaccine dose and a million who have gotten the second dose.

"Every day gets better and better and better," he added.

Several GOP governors this past week began lifting mask mandates and further opening up businesses amid declining coronavirus infection rates, despite guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the Biden administration.

Raddatz asked DeWine if he thought Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had made a political decision when he lifted the mask mandate and reopened businesses.

"I don't know what's going on in Texas," he said. "I got one state to worry about, that's Ohio. And that's -- that's a full-time job."

Raddatz followed up, pressing the governor, "You have also faced pressure to end the mask mandate. You're a conservative. Your constituents know the risks now. What's wrong with the argument that people will make up their own minds?"

"Throughout (the pandemic), we've really learned a lot. You know, when this started a year ago, no one had a clue how effective these masks were," DeWine responded.

DeWine reversed an order requiring masks in businesses and retail stores a day after implementing the mandate in April.

"It became very clear to me after we put out the order that everyone in retail who walked into a store as a customer would have to do that, it became clear to me that that was just a bridge too far that people were not going to accept the government telling them what to do," he said on "This Week" May 5. "And so we put out dozens and dozens of orders, that was one that it just went too far"

DeWine instituted a statewide mask mandate in Ohio on July 23, after weeks of issuing county-level mask mandates for areas deemed to be in the “red” zone.

"When we put the mask order on and actually started enforcing it ... we saw a significant drop in cases, a slow down. So we've seen it throughout this last year, these masks really, really work," he said Sunday.

The governor has not outlined a date for when the state's mask mandate would be lifted, instead announcing Thursday that all Ohio health orders would end once the state gets down to 50 cases per 100,000 residents for two weeks.

As of Wednesday, the statewide average for COVID-19 infections was about 180 cases per 100,000 residents for the last two weeks -- less than half the average from early February.

To illustrate the effectiveness of mask wearing, DeWine also highlighted studies conducted in schools.

"Even when kids are closer than 6 feet apart in schools, when they're all wearing a mask -- virtually no spread in that school and that classroom," he said.

The governor's comments were reiterated by Brown University School of Public Health Dean Dr. Ashish Jha -- who appeared later on "This Week" and told Raddatz, "We have figured out how to make schools safe. And I think we have lots of evidence that with mask wearing and -- and reasonable ventilations, schools can be very safe places."

However, despite research demonstrating the safety of reopening schools in conjunction with mask wearing, the Cleveland Teachers Union voted this past week to continue remote learning, even though Ohio prioritized vaccinating educators who pledged to return to the classroom by March 1 and all teachers and personnel in this school district who wanted to be vaccinated have been.

"(Teachers) were given priority over others because of their jobs and yet still do not want to go back to the classroom. What are you doing to resolve that?" Raddatz asked.

"I think it's going to get worked out," DeWine said. "I like to look at the glass as 95% full because, you know, if you go back at the beginning of this year, half of our kids in Ohio were totally remote. Today, 95% of them are in class."

"We made a deal," he said explaining that if the schools would go back by March 1, "we will vaccinate everyone in your school that wants to. And it's worked exceedingly well."

"They need to go back," he added.

Jha agreed that most teachers should return to work.

"I've also advocated for teachers' vaccination as an added layer of protection. And I believe most teachers are going to be perfectly willing to go back. It's safe for them. It's safe for the kids. There may always be some outliers. But we have to deal with that," he said.

ABC News' Quinn Scanlan contributed to this report.

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ent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty ImagesBY: MEG CUNNINGHAM, ABC NEWS

(WASHINGTON) — Days after he held up the passage of President Joe Biden's coronavirus relief bill on the Senate floor, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Sunday that Biden will not have to cater to him in the evenly divided Senate as the president tries to enact his agenda.

"I didn't lobby for this position," Manchin told ABC's "This Week" Co-anchor Martha Raddatz. "I'm the same person I have been all my life. And since I've been in the public offices, I'm the same. I've been voting the same way for the last 10 years. I look for that moderate middle. The common sense that comes with the modern middle is who I am. That's what people expect -- my state of West Virginia -- they know me. They know how I've governed -- I tried to basically represent them and the best of my ability.”

Manchin said that lawmaking is more difficult when trying to push back against partisanship, but the middle ground is the best place to work from.

"You've got to work a little bit harder when we have this toxic atmosphere, and the divisions that we have, and the tribal mentality -- Martha, that's not to be acceptable. You've got to work hard and fight that fight against those urges," he added. "I always want that moderate middle to be able to work and that's where you govern from. That's where you run your life from.”

Raddatz pressed Manchin on his stance about unemployment benefits in the midst of a pandemic. The Department of Labor announced Friday that the unemployment rate dropped to 6.2%, falling by a fraction of a percentage. The pre-pandemic rate was 3.5%.

"Senator, you brought the Senate to a standstill for 10 hours on Friday, threatened to side with Republicans and did not budge until a call from the president and significant concessions were made. In the end you got $300 a month instead of $400 for benefits. So in this pandemic economy, you don't think people need more money?" she asked.

Manchin, a moderate Democrat who largely steered the debate surrounding the massive coronavirus relief plan, told Raddatz he was trying to find middle ground in an attempt to garner more bipartisan support for the plan.

"I didn't do anything intentionally whatsoever," Manchin said. "I did everything I could to bring us together so we'd have more support and the public would get the needed help, as needed. We have so many different ways that we're helping the public with this piece of legislation."

Manchin said dropping the amount down to $300 would allow for systems to stay in place so payments would not be interrupted and Americans wouldn't be without checks.

"Also, Martha, this was a targeted piece of legislation. It was because people need the help and we helped every scenario," he added.

Raddatz challenged Manchin on the idea of bipartisanship, given that the relief package passed the Senate Saturday afternoon along party lines.

"Senator, we know you are all about bipartisanship but President Biden did not get a single Republican vote for a relief package in the middle of a pandemic. So at this point doesn't bipartisanship seem like a false hope?" she asked.

"Not at all Martha," Manchin said. "We had an awful lot of input from Republican friends all through this process. A lot of the changes that we made that were basically brought into this process, came by working with my Republican and Democrat colleagues together. There were about 20 of us that worked continuously, so they had tremendous amount of input, they just couldn't get there at the end. And President Biden encouraged them to be involved, all the way through. He spoke to them all the way up to the end."

Manchin also said he knows in his heart that the president will continue to reach out to Republicans because "that's just who he is.”

Manchin has also been vocal about his resistance to raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, spearheaded by progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and supported by Biden. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week that the administration will continue fighting for that federal raise.

"We agree with Sen. Sanders and the president is going to be standing right alongside him fighting for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and he will use his political capital to get that done," Psaki said.

Raddatz challenged Manchin Sunday on the future of the federal minimum wage, given that he could bring that effort to a halt.

"You have your own proposal to increase the minimum wage to $11, so is Joe Biden wasting his political capital on you to get to $15?" she asked.

"Not at all. President Joe Biden knows how to get the deal done. And the bottom line is there is not one senator out of 100, that doesn't want to raise the minimum wage -- $7.25 is sinfully low, we must raise it. I agree with President Biden when he says, if you go to work every day you should be above the poverty guidelines," Manchin said. "Well, the poverty guidelines should be above that if you're going to work, and working full time -- should be at $11 base. That should be your base and then we index it with inflation, to make sure it never gets back in this political conundrum we have right now. It shouldn't be a political football."

Raddatz also asked Manchin, a former governor, about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is embroiled in a scandal amid allegations of inappropriate conduct and an ongoing investigation into how his administration handled nursing home COVID-19 death data. Cuomo is facing bipartisan calls to resign as the state attorney general leads an independent investigation into the sexual harassment claims that he has denied.

Manchin said it is too early to say whether the governor should resign.

"These are serious allegations. I understand there's an investigation and we should wait until the investigation is finished. I've seen a rush to judgment before. And I think the investigation should proceed and make a decision later and that's what I would hope everyone would do and allow this process to go through," Manchin said. "Allow the investigation to be completed. Allow the person to be defend themselves and tell their story, too."

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Samuel Corum/Getty ImagesBY: KENDALL KARSON, ABC NEWS

(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden retains broad support for his coronavirus response, though the country appears to be wary of aggressively loosening restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, according to a new ABC News/Ipsos poll.

On the cusp of scoring his first major legislative achievement, more than two-thirds of Americans (68%) approve of Biden's approach to the pandemic -- a consistent result since he took office in January. At a moment of deep political polarization, his steady approval is also reinforced by positive marks from 35% of Republicans, 67% of independents and an overwhelming 98% of Democrats in the poll, which was conducted by Ipsos in partnership with ABC News using Ipsos' KnowledgePanel.

The solid backing of the president's coronavirus response comes as Congress pushes forward on Biden's sweeping $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which passed the evenly divided Senate along a party-line vote on Saturday. The package, which will provide relief to lower-income Americans, small businesses, schools and state and local governments, must now pass the House before it heads to Biden's desk.

With Democrats controlling both chambers in Congress, the far-reaching federal measure is expected to be taken up by the House as early as Tuesday, despite strong Republican opposition. As Biden pushes to bolster the government's response to the health crisis and inject federal resources into the battered economy, some states are taking steps to rescind efforts aimed at combatting the health crisis, such as removing mask mandates and reducing capacity limits for businesses.

Republican state leaders in Texas and Mississippi announced plans earlier this week to end statewide requirements for masks and allow businesses to operate at full capacity, even as health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, cautioned against reopening too quickly.

"It is now time to open Texas 100%," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at a press conference Tuesday, even though the threat of the virus and highly transmissible variants persist in the state.

More Americans think loosening mask mandates and restrictions on public gatherings is happening too quickly, 56% and 50% respectively, compared to only about 1 in 4 who believe it's happening too slowly, 22% and 26% respectively. About 1 in 5 Americans view the loosening of mask mandates (21%) and public gathering restrictions (24%) as occurring at the right pace.

Unlike the gingerly approach to easing restrictions targeting the spread of the virus, the country is split over reopening businesses and schools. Roughly one-third of the country thinks that reopening businesses and returning to in-person learning is happening too quickly, one-third too slowly and one-third at about the right pace.

The views on the country's pace for both revoking restrictions and reopening fall sharply along party lines, with Republicans far more likely than Democrats and independents to see the approach as too slow.

While clear majorities of Democrats (87%) and independents (55%) think the loosening of mask mandates is taking place too quickly, only 25% of Republicans say the same. Republicans are less unified on this issue as Democrats, with 49% believing this is happening too slowly and only 4% of Democrats and 17% of independents agreeing. The results by partisanship are similar on the question of loosening restrictions on public gatherings.

Reopening schools, much like reopening businesses, creates more fractures within the political tribes. Most Democrats say schools are opening too quickly (56%), with 4% saying too slowly and 40% at about the right pace. Independents are divided between too quickly (27%), too slowly (37%) and at about the right pace (36%). Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of Republicans (64%) think schools are not opening fast enough, while only 14% say too quickly and 23% say at about the right pace.

The discord over reopening shuttered schools has underlined the complexities of outlining a safe pathway back to normal, with teachers and staff urging vaccinations and better mitigation protocols before opening up classrooms.

Nearly 3 in 10 Americans (28%) said they have already received at least one dose of the vaccine in the poll, which, similar to other recent surveys, likely slightly overstates the number of Americans who have been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most recent CDC report, which could lag actual vaccinations by a few days, shows that 22.5% of the adult population has received at least one dose.

More than half of those surveyed in the poll (55%) say they have not attempted to schedule an appointment to receive a vaccine, while 15% say they have tried but so far have been unable to secure one. Those who are unsuccessfully trying to obtain a vaccine, numerically, are more likely to be Democrats, more likely to be concerned about contracting the virus, and think reopening is happening too quickly.

Among those who have sought to get a vaccine appointment or have successfully been vaccinated, there is a near-even break in their view of the difficulty of the process: 51% view it as not difficult, while 48% say it is difficult.

Even with vaccine distribution underway, Americans are still similarly concerned about contracting the coronavirus as they've been throughout nearly a year of polling. Almost three-fourths of Americans (72%) are concerned that they or someone they know will be infected with the virus. However, high-level concern is down somewhat since the last time this question was asked in October. Now, 27% say they are very concerned compared to 36% in October.

Concern persists even among those who have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 84% still worried about the spread of the virus for either themselves or someone they know.

This ABC News/Ipsos poll was conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs‘ KnowledgePanel® March 5 to 6, 2021, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 521 adults. Results have a margin of sampling error of 4.8 points, including the design effect. Partisan divisions are 31-26-36%, Democrats-Republicans-independents. See the poll’s topline results and details on the methodology here.

ABC News' Dan Merkle and Ken Goldstein contributed to this report.

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Samuel Corum/Getty ImagesBy MOLLY NAGLE, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- After the Senate passed the American Rescue Plan Saturday afternoon, President Joe Biden took a victory lap celebrating being one step closer to signing into law his massive, $1.9 trillion COVID relief package -- his first legislative push as president.

The bill will now move back to the House, which is slated to vote on the Senate’s amended legislation Tuesday. But even as the White House celebrates the victory, the way the measure passed the Senate could be a bellwether for what's ahead for Biden.

The Senate passed the bill with only Democratic support, despite the president's hope the bill would earn bipartisan votes, as previous COVID-19 packages have, allowing him to follow through on a well-worn campaign pledge to work across the aisle.

And just getting all 50 Senate Democrats on board for COVID-19 relief proved to be a challenge after moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) put a nearly 12-hour delay on the Senate proceedings over an objection to the bill’s extended unemployment benefits.

There were attempts at earning bipartisan support for the bill. The president’s first Oval Office meeting was with 10 Republican senators who put forward a $600 billion relief counterproposal. Despite the meeting and the White House’s continued insistence that the administration was open to finding areas of compromise, Democrats moved forward with reconciliation to pass the bill, requiring only Democratic support for the legislation and dimming the prospects of major compromise.

The failure to win Republican support for the widely popular bill has also raised questions about the viability of Biden’s future legislative agenda and his ability to pass the bold policy proposals from his campaign, many of which will require the support of at least 10 Republican senators. On Saturday, Biden brushed off the concern.

“I’m going to succeed. We're going to succeed moving forward. Look, the American people strongly support what we're doing. That's the key here. And that's going to continue to seep down through the public, including from our Republican friends. There's a lot of Republicans who came very close, they’ve got a lot of pressure on them. I still haven't given up on getting their support,” Biden told reporters following his remarks.

Biden also bristled at the suggestion that progressive Democrats were frustrated by the compromises that were made to assuage moderates like Manchin, including reducing the weekly unemployment benefits that were included in the House version of the bill.

“They're not frustrated. Bernie Sanders said this is the most progressive bill he’s ever seen passed in this -- since he’s been there," Biden said.

“The end result is essentially about the same. And so, I don't think any of the compromises have in any way fundamentally altered the essence of what I put in the bill in the first place."

Still, Biden is likely to face familiar fault lines on policy within the party going forward, highlighted by the divide over raising the $15 minimum wage -- a measure Biden included in his initial relief proposal but not included in the Senate bill after the Senate Parliamentarian said could it not be included if passed by reconciliation.

Eight members of the Democratic caucus joined Republicans in voting against an amendment put forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to overrule the Parliamentarian’s decision.

“If any Senator believes this is the last time they will cast a vote on whether or not to give a raise to 32 million Americans, they are sorely mistaken,” Sanders warned in a statement after the vote on the amendment, previewing a legislative battle ahead for Biden.

The White House has remained tight-lipped about what its next legislative push will be after the relief package. Biden has already introduced a sweeping immigration proposal that would give 11 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship and has held bipartisan meetings on infrastructure.

But Biden has also previewed that the relief bill was just part one of his overall recovery plan for the country.

“In my first appearance before a joint session of Congress, I will layout my Build Back Better recovery plan. It will make historic investments in infrastructure, that Build Back Better plan. Infrastructure, manufacturing, innovation, research and development, and clean energy. Investments in a caregiving economy and skills and training needed by our workers to be able to compete and win in the global economy,” Biden said in January remarks announcing the American Rescue Plan prior to taking the oath of office.

In the weeks since Biden was inaugurated, the White House has been laser-focused on getting what would be one of the biggest stimulus plans in U.S. history through Congress, curating Biden’s public remarks and appearances to promote the plan that would give $1,400 direct stimulus checks to most Americans, allocate $130 billion to reopen schools and provide $160 billion for vaccinations and testing.

“When we took office 45 days ago, I promised the American people that help was on the way. Today, I can say we've taken one more giant step forward in delivering on that promise that help is on the way,” Biden said in remarks Saturday afternoon.

Biden also said he expects the direct payments to Americans to go out the door by the end of the month.

“Look, the bottom line is this: This plan puts us on a path to beating the virus. This plan gives those families who are struggling the most -- the help and breathing room they need to get through this moment,” Biden said.

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Official White House Photo by Adam SchultzBy MICHELLE STODDART and LAUREN KING, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- Friday is Day 46 of the administration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Here is how the day is unfolding. All time Eastern:

Mar 06, 12:21 pm
Senate passes COVID relief bill

The Senate has passed Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package along party lines after a floor vote.

The package includes direct payments to some Americans, an extension of unemployment benefits, funding for local and state governments, and funding for testing and vaccines.

By a vote of 50-49 #Senate passed H.R. 1319 American Rescue Plan Act, as amended.

— Senate Press Gallery (@SenatePress) March 6, 2021

In the evenly divided Senate, moderate Democrats won key changes to the House-passed legislation.

The bill will now head back over to the House, where several changes implemented by the Senate will need final approval.

Mar 06, 12:11 pm

Senate begins voting on coronavirus relief bill 

The Senate has finally started voting on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill after lawmakers debated and worked on amendments from Friday morning into Saturday.

Mar 06, 11:02 am

Biden pushes coronavirus relief bill, tells Americans, ‘I think we’re going to pass' it

Biden continued to push his COVID-19 rescue bill during his Weekly Conversation video shared on the White House’s social media pages Saturday.

This week, Biden spoke to Tammy, a health care worker and single mother of four in Michigan.

She said the $1,400 direct payment in the bill would help her pay off rent, water and gas bills and buy healthier food for her kids.

“I was one of the people who was trying to balance paying bills and feeding my kids, or you know, getting the healthier choices versus what they really gotta have,” Tammy said to the president. “Sometimes I have to put back a bag of apples versus getting the pack of meat because the funds wasn’t there.”

Biden responded with a message of hope. “I think you’re going to be in good shape," he said.

“I think we’re going to be able to pass the bill which will get you a check for $7,000 dollars,” Biden said, combining $1,400 for her and her four children to get the total.

“I hope that the help that’s on the way in terms of these direct cash payments, to food assistance and the rest -- I hope it helps,” he added.

-ABC News’ Molly Nagle

Mar 06, 1:47 am

Democrats' unemployment insurance plan passes on party line vote

The Democratic unemployment insurance plan has been agreed to on a party line vote of 50-49.

By voting to pass this amendment, introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrats have now superseded the Portman unemployment insurance amendment that passed Friday night.

-ABC News' Allison Pecorin

Mar 06, 12:33 am

Senate passes Portman unemployment insurance amendment 

The Senate has passed the Portman unemployment insurance amendment by a vote of 50-49.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was the only Democrat to vote with Republicans in favor of the amendment.

While the Portman amendment passed, it is expected to be superseded by the Democratic agreement on UI Saturday morning.

It's still unclear when Democrats intend to offer their superseding amendment.

-ABC News' Allison Pecorin

Mar 05, 8:26 pm

GOP senators make voices heard amid stall over unemployment provisions in COVID bill

Several Republican senators held a press conference Friday evening as the Senate entered its fifth hour of being paralyzed over how to proceed on amendments related to unemployment insurance. (It's now been about six hours since the last vote was called).

The Republicans said that a handful of moderate Democrats -- including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. -- are being "worked over" by Democratic leadership and told that they cannot vote with Republicans on Sen. Rob Portman's, R-Ohio, amendment that would reduce weekly jobless benefits to $300 and end the program in July. Democrats have their own amendment that would reduce the jobless benefit to $300 weekly but extend the program through September and make the first $10,200 paid out untaxable.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John Thune, R-S.D., both said they believe Biden is speaking with moderate members over the phone and pressuring them not to vote with Republicans -- though ABC has not confirmed that.

"It's now five and half hours actually since the last vote started. And because there was an amendment that we were prepared to offer that actually had bipartisan support, the Democrats have actually gone back behind closed doors and - as Senator Graham pointed out - tried to get the president on the line to try to pressure a couple of people not to work with Republicans," Thune said.

Graham said the stall makes Biden's call for unity on inauguration day "ring hollow" and that Democrats who may support the Portman amendment are being punished for bipartisanship.

"This break out of bipartisanship has lead to the Senate coming to a halt because they want it their way or no way," Graham said. "There is some bipartisanship we believe to change the bill, but apparently that's an unpardonable sin on the other side. We believe we have some Democrats who read the bill yesterday and found some things they didn't like, sat down with some Republicans to find a better way and the result is we've done nothing for four hours and 20 minutes to break somebody's political arm."

Thune, the Republican whip, conceded that he does not yet know if there would be enough Republican support on the Portman amendment to pass it, but he does believe there are several Democrats who might support it.

-ABC News' Allison Pecorin

Mar 05, 8:25 pm

Deal reached on unemployment benefits after 8 hours

After eight hours of inaction, Democrats have reached an agreement among themselves on how to proceed with jobless benefits with Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, on board.

Senate Democrats will now offer an amendment to extend the enhanced UI program through Sept. 6 at $300 per week, according to a Democratic aide. The House-passed bill was through Aug. 29.

The agreement also provides tax relief to workers who received unemployment insurance compensation by making the first $10,200 of UI benefits nontaxable for the first time to prevent surprise bills for the unemployed at end of year, which was not in the House-passed legislation. The provision applies only to households making under $150,000.

The agreement also extends tax rules regarding excess business loss limitations for one additional year through 2026.

-ABC News' Trish Turner

Mar 05, 5:41 pm
GOP senators make voices heard amid stall over unemployment provisions in COVID bill


Several Republican senators held a press conference Friday evening as the Senate entered its fifth hour of being paralyzed over how to proceed on amendments related to unemployment insurance. (It's now been about six hours since the last vote was called).

The Republicans said that a handful of moderate Democrats -- including Sen. Joe Manchin, . -- are being "worked over" by Democratic leadership and told that they cannot vote with Republicans on Sen. Rob Portman's, R-Ohio, amendment that would reduce weekly jobless benefits to $300 and end the program in July. Democrats have their own amendment that would reduce the jobless benefit to $300 weekly but extend the program through September and make the first $10,200 paid out untaxable.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John Thune, R-S.D., both said they believe Biden is speaking with moderate members over the phone and pressuring them not to vote with Republicans -- though ABC has not confirmed that.

"It's now five and half hours actually since the last vote started. And because there was an amendment that we were prepared to offer that actually had bipartisan support, the Democrats have actually gone back behind closed doors and - as Senator Graham pointed out - tried to get the president on the line to try to pressure a couple of people not to work with Republicans," Thune said.

Graham said the stall makes Biden's call for unity on inauguration day "ring hollow" and that Democrats who may support the Portman amendment are being punished for bipartisanship.

"This break out of bipartisanship has lead to the Senate coming to a halt because they want it their way or no way," Graham said. "There is some bipartisanship we believe to change the bill, but apparently that's an unpardonable sin on the other side. We believe we have some Democrats who read the bill yesterday and found some things they didn't like, sat down with some Republicans to find a better way and the result is we've done nothing for four hours and 20 minutes to break somebody's political arm."

Thune, the Republican whip, conceded that he does not yet know if there would be enough Republican support on the Portman amendment to pass it, but he does believe there are several Democrats who might support it.

-ABC News' Allison Pecorin

Mar 05, 5:12 pm
Biden holds roundtable with people who would benefit from relief bill

On Friday afternoon, Biden hosted three guests for a roundtable to discuss what the passage of the COVID relief bill would mean for them as well as for their communities.

The people Biden spoke with shared their personal stories of struggle during the pandemic as Americans wait to find out what additional aid will be coming their way.

"People in our country are hurting right now, with less than two weeks from enhanced unemployment checks being cut out, and seven million kids don't have enough food -- 13 million people are behind in their rent," Biden said.

"It's gonna provide immediate relief for millions of people that are going to be able to use it in a very constructive way, and also grow the economy in the process," Biden promised of the package, which hit a snag on Friday over unemployment benefits.

"It is clearly, clearly necessary, a lifeline for getting the upper hand against COVID-19 and getting it under control. That isn't some academic discussion, it's about you. It's about people like you and families I grew up with all over America," he said.

Alma Williams, a paratransit driver from Greenbelt, Maryland, told the president "it's just a hard time, financially, mentally, emotionally, like across the board for children, adults, you know."

George Kerr, a Navy veteran who lost his home in a fire last year, has experienced housing instability worsened by the pandemic. A member of the LGBTQ community, he spoke not only about his own challenges, but the importance of the mental health services provided in the bill for LGBTQ seniors who are feeling isolated.

"Mental health is just a real important, and I'm glad to see there's a lot of money in there for mental health services, because it's incredibly important," Kerr said.

Lyda Vanegas, who helps run Mary's Center, which provides health care, education and social services to 60,000 people in the D.C. area, referred to George Kerr's experience and related it to what her own community is facing.

"He just breaks my heart because it's the same situation, they're losing jobs, that's the main thing, you know that. And with that, they have unstable housing, food insecurity, searching, traveling long distances to go and visit this site, the food distribution side. And that's, every day, they do long lines and the next day they have to do the same," she said of her clients.

-ABC News' Sarah Kolinovsky

Mar 05, 4:34 pm
Biden to hold press conference 'before the end of the month': Psaki

Biden has yet to hold a formal press conference 45 days into his administration, despite 15 of his predecessors having done so within that time frame.

When asked about the delay, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a press conference would be held  “before the end of the month” and argued Biden’s focus was on the country.

-ABC News' Molly Nagle

Mar 05, 3:57 pm
COVID relief bill hits early snag over unemployment benefits


Senate Democrats have hit a snag early in the marathon voting session on the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief legislation, as moderate Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, W.Va., threatens to unravel an emerging agreement on how to handle jobless benefits in the package.

Democrats on Friday unveiled what they thought was an agreement on unemployment insurance, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., that would cut the weekly jobless benefit from the $400 allotment in the House bill to $300, while allowing the benefit to continue through September rather than through August. The agreement also included the first $10,200 paid out through the unemployment program being untaxed.

But Manchin, who has been urging his colleagues and the White House to further target the bill, isn't sold on the Carper proposal.

Further complicating matters for Democrats is an amendment expected from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, which would slim down the jobless benefits even more. Portman's proposal would also cut the weekly benefit to $300 dollars, but it would end the program in July, potentially appealing to Manchin.

The Senate was at a standstill as Democrats worked to smooth out the kinks.

-ABC News' Allison Pecorin

Mar 05, 3:54 pm
Biden expected to be 'on the phone' this weekend if necessary about COVID relief bill


White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing Friday that Biden was “deeply engaged” in getting the American Rescue Plan across the finish line and took “nothing for granted.”

"I fully expect him to be on the phone through the weekend with Democrats and Republicans as needed, answering questions, addressing needs," Psaki said.

When pressed on how big of a priority it was to get a Republican on board, Psaki demurred, arguing that there was bipartisan support outside of Washington.

Psaki also declined to say what the next legislative focus would be, despite Biden’s continued Oval Office meetings with bipartisan members of Congress on the issue of infrastructure, which many expect to be his next on his legislative agenda.

-ABC News' Molly Nagle

Mar 05, 3:33 pm
White House answers questions on unaccompanied minor policy


White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked during a press briefing Friday several rounds of questions focused on the growing number of migrant children coming to the U.S. southern border.

She was asked specifically if the president felt his rhetoric on the campaign trail had contributed to the current spike in activity.

Psaki stressed the administration has sought to clarify that "this is not the time to come," but said by virtue of taking a different approach and allowing unaccompanied minors to stay, it “mathematically” makes sense that there would be an increase.

Despite the increase, Psaki unequivocally said the administration was not rethinking its policy when it comes to unaccompanied minors at the border.

"I think this issue requires us taking a step back as human beings and as mothers, of which I am one," Psaki said.

"They go through the processing system that everyone goes through, but we want to ensure that that is done by treating them humanely and with respect," Pskai said. "Many of them will be sent back home eventually, but we are talking about how we treat them as they come in the country."

Earlier in the day, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent a letter to Biden expressing "great concern" with the administration's approach to the "crisis" at the border and requested a meeting with the president on the issue.

-ABC News' Molly Nagle

Mar 05, 3:10 pm
Biden cites jobs report in final COVID relief bill pitch


Biden sought to make a last-minute pitch for his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, currently under consideration in the Senate, during his briefing with economic advisers, pointing to February’s jobs report as evidence that the massive package is “urgently needed.”

“Our economy still has 9.5 million fewer jobs than it had this time last year," Biden said. "And at that rate, it would take two years to get us back on track.”

Biden said some of the growth last month came from the December COVID relief package, but said without additional resources the gains would diminish, highlighting that the expiration date for emergency unemployment benefit is less than two weeks away.

“We can’t afford one step forward and two steps backwards. We need to beat the virus, provide essential relief, and build an inclusive recovery. People need the help now. In less than two weeks, enhanced unemployment benefits will begin to expire for 11 million people,” Biden warned.

Biden did not take any questions from the press ahead of the weekly briefing, which is expected to include an update on the jobs numbers released today, along with an update on unemployment by race and women's labor force participation, according to the White House. Member of Biden's economic team, including Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse, were also in attendance.

-ABC News' Molly Nagle

Mar 05, 2:20 pm
Biden to travel to Baltimore next week


Biden will travel to Baltimore, Maryland, on Wednesday to hold an event with the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Merck in the wake of their historic partnership to produce more COVID-19 vaccines.

Earlier this week, Biden announced a partnership between the pharmaceutical giants to help produce J&J's newly authorized vaccine and said the partnership meant there would be enough vaccine doses for every American adult by the end of May.

Mar 05, 2:10 pm
Sanders' attempt to add $15 minimum-wage amendment to COVID relief bill falls flat


The first amendment proposed during the marathon vote-a-rama for the COVID-19 relief bill, an amendment brought by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to increase the federal minimum wage over to $15 an hour over five years, failed to be considered after a Senate procedural vote. Surprisingly, a whopping eight Democrats voted against consideration.

Though it was a procedural vote on whether to set the rules aside and approve the amendment, it was a good indication of where support stands in the caucus. The vote was 42-58, which fell far short of the 60 votes needed.

Though the "no" votes from some moderate Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., were unsurprising, "no" votes from five other Democrats, Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., Tom Carper, D-Del., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Sen. Angus King, D-Maine, and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., were unexpected.

"If any Senator believes this is the last time they will cast a vote on whether or not to give a raise to 32 million Americans, they are sorely mistaken," Sanders said in a statement after his amendment fell flat. "We’re going to keep bringing it up, and we’re going to get it done because it is what the American people demand and need.”

-ABC News' Trish Turner

Mar 05, 1:03 pm
House GOP Leader McCarthy wants to meet with Biden on crossings at the southern border


House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent a letter to Biden Friday expressing "great concern" with administration's approach to the "crisis" at the border, and requested a meeting with the president on the issue.

"We must acknowledge the crisis, develop a plan, and, in no uncertain terms, strongly discourage individuals from Mexico and Central America from ever making the dangerous journey to our southern border," McCarthy said in the letter.

Mar 05, 11:58 am
WH says Biden supports changes to unemployment benefits in COVID-19 relief bill


White House press secretary Jen Psaki weighed in on the change that would extend unemployment benefits through September at a reduced rate of $300 per week in a new Twitter thread, saying Biden supports the changes that together “would provide more relief to the unemployed than the current legislation.”

 

The President believes it is critical to extend expanded unemployment benefits through the end of September to help Americans who are struggling, as the President proposed in the American Rescue Plan.

— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) March 5, 2021

 

“The President believes it is critical to extend expanded unemployment benefits through the end of September to help Americans who are struggling, as the President proposed in the American Rescue Plan. The compromise amendment achieves that while helping to address the surprise tax bills that many are facing by eliminating the first $10,200 of UI benefits from taxation for 2020. Combined, this amendment would provide more relief to the unemployed than the current legislation,” Psaki said over two tweets.

Mar 05, 11:58 am
Senate begins voting on COVID-19 bill amendments

The Senate has begun voting on amendments to the COVID-19 relief bill as part of a vote-a-rama.

The first amendment up for voting, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour over five years. Senators will vote on whether to even consider the amendment in a process vote, after Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., raised an objection to the amendment saying it was out of order in this fast-track reconciliation process. It would take 60 votes in the Senate to consider the amendment, something not likely to happen with the narrow Democratic majority.

"If people here want to vote against raising the minimum wage they have that right. ... But we should not shuffle off that responsibility to an unelected staffer. That's wrong," Sanders said, referring to the chamber's parliamentarian ruling that a straight increase of the hourly minimum to $15 was out of bounds under reconciliation.

Republicans have offered 1,008 other amendments to the bill.

Mar 05, 11:44 am
Senate Dems agree to jobless benefits changes in COVID-19 relief bill


Senate Democrats have agreed to an extension in jobless benefits through September at a reduced amount of $300 a week in the COVID-19 relief bill, according to two Democratic aides. The House bill originally included weekly benefits of $400 through August.

The agreement also "provides tax relief to workers who received unemployment insurance compensation by making the first $10,200 of benefits non-taxable for the first time to prevent surprise bills for unemployed at end of year," according to a Democratic aide.

Mar 05, 10:47 am
Schumer says Senate will pass COVID-19 relief bill 'no matter how long it takes'


In advance of Friday's vote-a-rama on the COVID-19 relief bill, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats are prepared to press on without Republicans while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell continued to characterize the bill as a "liberal wish list".

"We are not going to be timid in the face of big challenges, we are not going to delay when urgent action is called for," Schumer said. "The Senate will move forward today with the American Rescue Plan."

Schumer set the stage for a long night but said the Senate will remain at it "no matter how long it takes." McConnell also hinted that it could take quite a while, with senators proposing various amendments, saying that Republicans "have many ideas to improve the bill, many ideas."

As he has in days past, McConnell again criticized Democrats for moving forward without GOP support.

"This isn't a pandemic rescue package, it's a parade of left-wing pet projects they're ramming through during the pandemic," McConnell said.

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drnadig/iStockBY: TRISH TURNER AND ALLISON PECORIN, ABC NEWS

(WASHINGTON) — After more than 25 hours of debate and votes, Senate Democrats passed a sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill Saturday aimed at helping lower-income Americans, small businesses, schools, the hard-hit hospitality and tourism industries, as well as state and local governments -- with aid also going to boost front-line pandemic work, vaccines, testing and tracing plans.

The bill passed on a party-line vote and will now head back over to the House, which will have to reconcile several key changes before it heads to President Joe Biden's desk just days before unemployment benefits expire for millions of Americans.

In the evenly divided Senate, moderate Democrats won key changes to the House-passed legislation, changes the White House says the president supports, following his personal involvement along with senior aides, in lobbying members to compromise.

Democratic leaders were forced to trim back weekly jobless benefits to $300 from $400 with the federal boost through Sept. 6. The first $10,200 of income for those jobless Americans making under $150,000 would be tax-free.

Debate over those jobless benefits paralyzed the Senate for hours Friday evening when moderate Democrat Joe Manchin threatened to upend an agreement among Democrats about how unemployment benefits should be handled in the bill. The final agreement got Manchin's support, passing on a party-line vote.

Another concession from Democratic leadership came on the $1,400 direct payments. Under the Senate bill, full payments will go out to individuals making under $75,000 and couples earning up to $150,000, but partial payments will only go to individuals making less than $80,000 and couples making less than $160,000. That means many who qualified for earlier rounds of relief payments won't be receiving one this time around.

Once this new package gets Biden's seal of approval, payments are expected to be distributed expeditiously. In previous rounds of coronavirus relief, people began receiving direct payments within days of the president signing the bill.

Democrats also agreed to require schools to establish a plan for reopening but beat back scores of Republican amendments aimed at forcing schools to reopen or lose precious federal aid.

Still, the final piece of legislation provides funding for many of Biden's key campaign promises around relief. The bill includes a child tax credit that gives families $3,000 per child per year, $350 billion for state, local and tribal governments, $50 billion for contact tracing, $16 billion for vaccine distribution, $130 billion for K-12 education, funds for rental and mortgage assistance, support for restaurants and bars, funding for nutrition programs and more.

Republicans were united in their opposition to the package. For weeks, Republicans have criticized Democrats for their unwillingness to work across the aisle to more closely target the spending in a bill they've called a "liberal wish list."

Heading into debate Friday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed that Republicans would put up a fight -- and they did -- offering dozens of amendments to the bill in a marathon overnight voting session.

Republicans aiming to take on Biden in 2024 took top spots offering amendments, as did those seeking to derail Democrats in tough races in 2022 -- provisions related to sanctuary cities, abortion, embattled Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom, opening schools, transgender students in sports, undocumented immigrants and more were offered.

Almost all GOP proposals failed on party-line votes. Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan was not in attendance during the vote series, alleviating Vice President Kamala Harris of her tie-breaking responsibilities.

Biden had asked Democrats to hang together and defeat "poison pill" amendments -- and for the most part, they did.

Manchin did vote with Republicans on an amendment from Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., that would have restricted relief funding from being spent on schools that allow transgender students to participate in girls' sports. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in a rare move, crossed party lines to oppose the amendment.

The House could take up the Senate-passed package as early as Tuesday next week.

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uschools/iStockBy ALLISON PECORIN AND TRISH TURNER, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — After a nearly 12 hour stall, the Democratic unemployment insurance agreement passed on a party line vote of 50-49.

The amendment, passed by Democrats in the early hours of Saturday morning, superseded an earlier Republican victory on unemployment insurance.

Democrats came to an agreement on unemployment benefits after initially hitting a snag early in the marathon voting session on the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief legislation. Democrat Joe Manchin had threatened to unravel an agreement on how to handle jobless benefits in the package, but after eight hours of discussions, he agreed to a new proposal.

Democrats on Friday morning unveiled what they thought was an agreement on unemployment insurance, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., that would cut the weekly jobless benefit from the $400 allotment in the House bill to $300, while allowing the benefit to continue through September rather than through August. The agreement also included the first $10,200 paid out through the unemployment program being untaxed.

But Manchin, who has been urging his colleagues and the White House to further target the bill, wasn't sold on the Carper proposal.

Manchin eventually agreed to a Democratic amendment to extend the enhanced UI program through Sept. 6 at $300 per week. The House-passed bill was through Aug. 29.

"The President supports the compromise agreement, and is grateful to all the Senators who worked so hard to reach this outcome," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement, of President Joe Biden's support. "It extends supplemental unemployment benefit into September, and helps the vast majority of unemployment insurance recipients avoid unanticipated tax bills. Most importantly, this agreement allows us to move forward on the urgently needed American Rescue Plan, with $1400 relief checks, funding we need to finish the vaccine rollout, open our schools, help those suffering from the pandemic, and more.”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters prior to the agreement he believed Democrats were working behind the scenes to keep their members united on some amendments.

"I just think that the Democrats right now are in a bit of a quandary," Thune said. "They've essentially stopped action on the floor so that they can try and persuade, I think, all their members to stay together on some of these votes. And I think they're afraid that they that they could lose on Portman."

The Senate is currently evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. To get Biden's signature piece of legislation passed into law, Democrats cannot afford to lose Manchin, or any other member of their caucus, on the overall vote. And if Manchin votes with Republicans on reducing the unemployment benefit, it risks upending support from progressives on the overall bill.

The balancing act has already required the administration to make other concessions.

Biden and Senate Democrats cut a deal Wednesday to lower the income threshold for who will receive partial direct payments. Individuals making under $75,000 and couples making under $150,000 will still receive a full direct payment, but partial payments will cap off at $80,000 and $160,000 respectively.

That deal appealed to Manchin and other moderate Democrats who hoped to see the direct payments given only to the most adversely impacted families and individuals.

If Democrats do manage to hang together, there is little Republicans can ultimately do to prevent the bill from passing. But that won't stop them from offering a laundry list of amendments to the bill in hopes of delaying a final vote.

The process could easily stretch into the morning hours of Saturday and beyond, depending on how motivated members are.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly coined the relief bill a "liberal wish list" said Friday morning that his members have "many ideas to improve the bill."

"We are about to vote on all kinds of amendments in hopes that some of these ideas make it into the final product," McConnell said.

Already, the process was stalled for several hours because of a request from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., that the entirety of the 600-page bill be read allowed on the floor. It took over 10 hours to complete the process.

Before the amendment process commenced Friday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer set the stage for a long night but said the Senate will remain at it "no matter how long it takes."

The first amendment considered this afternoon came from Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose proposal would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The House-passed version of the bill included the same proposal, but it was struck from the Senate bill after the senate parliamentarian ruled it out of bounds.

"Let’s be clear. This is the richest country in the history of the world," Sanders said. "We can no longer tolerate millions of our workers being unable to feed their families because they are working for starvation wages."

The Sanders amendment failed when eight Democrats joined with their Republican colleagues to kill the effort. Sanders said he'll continue fighting for a wage hike.

Many more amendments will be offered before the process concludes.

ABC News' Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

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