Briefs: Republicans fighting new administration's cabinet picks

Associated Press

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet picks are quickly running into the political reality of a narrowly controlled Senate that will leave the new Democratic administration dependent on rival Republicans to get anything done. 

Under leader Mitch McConnell, the Republican senators will hold great sway in confirming Biden's nominees regardless of which party holds the majority after runoff elections in January. Biden will have little room to maneuver and few votes to spare.

As Biden rolled out his economic team Tuesday — after introducing his national security team last week — he asked the Senate to give his nominees prompt review, saying they "deserve and expect nothing less."

But that seems unlikely. Republicans are swiftly signaling that they're eager to set the terms of debate and exact a price for their votes. Biden's choice for budget chief, Neera Tanden, was instantly rejected as "radioactive." His secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, quickly ran into resistance from GOP senators blasting his record amid their own potential 2024 White House campaigns.

Even as most Republican senators still refuse to publicly acknowledge President Donald Trump's defeat, they are launching new battles for the Biden era. The GOP is suspended between an outgoing president it needs to keep close — Trump can still make or break careers with a single tweet — and the new one they are unsure how to approach. Almost one month since the Nov. 3 election, McConnell and Biden have not yet spoken.

"The disagreement, disorientation and confusion among Republicans will make them inclined to unite in opposition," said Ramesh Ponnuru, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, during a Tuesday briefing.

"They don't necessarily know what they're for, but they can all agree they don't like Neera Tanden."

A new president often runs into trouble with at least a few Cabinet or administrative nominees, individuals who rub the Senate the wrong way and fail to win enough votes for confirmation or are forced to withdraw after grueling public hearings. 

Republicans now hold a 50-48 advantage in the Senate, but if Democrats win both Georgia seats in the Jan. 5 runoff elections, they would wrest control, since the vice president, which will be Kamala Harris, becomes a tie-breaker.

China testing blunders stemmed from secret deals with firms

WUHAN, China — In the early days in Wuhan, the first city first struck by the virus, getting a COVID test was so difficult that residents compared it to winning the lottery.

Throughout the Chinese city in January, thousands of people waited in hours-long lines for hospitals, sometimes next to corpses lying in hallways. But most couldn't get the test they needed to be admitted as patients. And for the few who did, the tests were often faulty, resulting in false negatives.

The widespread test shortages and problems at a time when the virus could have been slowed were caused largely by secrecy and cronyism at China's top disease control agency, an Associated Press investigation has found. 

The flawed testing system prevented scientists and officials from seeing how fast the virus was spreading — another way China fumbled its early response to the virus. Earlier AP reporting showed how top Chinese leaders delayed warning the public and withheld information from the World Health Organization, supplying the most comprehensive picture yet of China's initial missteps. Taken together, these mistakes in January facilitated the virus' spread through Wuhan and across the world undetected, in a pandemic that has now sickened more than 64 million people and killed almost 1.5 million.

China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention gave test kit designs and distribution rights exclusively to three then-obscure Shanghai companies with which officials had personal ties, the reporting found. The deals took place within a culture of backdoor connections that quietly flourished in an underfunded public health system, according to the investigation, which was based on interviews with more than 40 doctors, CDC employees, health experts, and industry insiders, as well as hundreds of internal documents, contracts, messages and emails obtained by the AP.

Nurses wanted: Swamped hospitals scramble for pandemic help

OMAHA, Neb. — U.S. hospitals slammed with COVID-19 patients are trying to lure nurses and doctors out of retirement, recruiting students and new graduates who have yet to earn their licenses and offering eye-popping salaries in a desperate bid to ease staffing shortages.

With the virus surging from coast to coast, the number of patients in the hospital with the virus has more than doubled over the past month to a record high of nearly 100,000, pushing medical centers and health care workers to the breaking point. Nurses are increasingly burned out and getting sick on the job, and the stress on the nation's medical system prompted a dire warning from the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The reality is December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they are going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation," Dr. Robert Redfield said.

Governors in hard-hit states like Wisconsin and Nebraska are making it easier for retired nurses to come back, including by waiving licensing requirements and fees, though it can be a tough sell for older nurses, who would be in more danger than many of their colleagues if they contracted the virus.

Some are taking jobs that don't involve working directly with patients to free up front-line nurses, McMillan said.

Barr's special counsel move could tie up his successor

WASHINGTON — Outgoing Attorney General William Barr's decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate the handling of the Russia probe ensures his successor won't have an easy transition.

The move, which Barr detailed to The Associated Press on Tuesday, could lead to heated confirmation hearings for President-elect Joe Biden's nominee, who hasn't been announced. Senate Republicans will likely use that forum to extract a pledge from the pick to commit to an independent investigation.

The pressure on the new attorney general is unlikely to ease once they take office. With the special counsel continuing to work during the early days of the Biden administration, it may be tough for the Justice Department's new leadership to launch investigations of President Donald Trump and his associates without seeming to be swayed by political considerations.

Barr elevated U.S. Attorney John Durham to special counsel as Trump continues to propel his claims that the Russia investigation that shadowed his presidency was a "witch hunt." It's the latest example of efforts by Trump officials to use the final days of his administration to essentially box Biden in by enacting new rules, regulations and orders designed to cement the president's legacy.

But the maneuvering over the special counsel is especially significant because it saddles Democrats with an investigation that they've derided as tainted. Now there's little the new administration can do about it.

US lawmakers unveil anti-slavery constitutional amendment

NEW YORK — National lawmakers introduced a joint resolution Wednesday aimed at striking language from the U.S. Constitution that enshrines a form of slavery in America's foundational documents.

The resolution, spearheaded and supported by Democratic members of the House and Senate, would amend the 13th Amendment's ban on chattel enslavement to expressly prohibit involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime. As ratified, the original amendment has permitted exploitation of labor by convicted felons for over 155 years since the abolition of slavery.

The 13th Amendment "continued the process of a white power class gravely mistreating Black Americans, creating generations of poverty, the breakup of families and this wave of mass incarceration that we still wrestle with today," Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon told The Associated Press ahead of the resolution's introduction.

A House version is led by outgoing Rep. William Lacy Clay, of St. Louis, who said the amendment "seeks to finish the job that President (Abraham) Lincoln started." 

It would "eliminate the dehumanizing and discriminatory forced labor of prisoners for profit that has been used to drive the over-incarceration of African Americans since the end of the Civil War," Clay said.

Congress swats back Trump's veto threat of defense bill

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is closing out his relationship with Congress with one more power jab, threatening to veto a hugely popular defense bill unless lawmakers clamp down on big tech companies he claims were biased against him during the election.

Trump is demanding that Congress repeal so-called Section 230, a part of the communications code that shields Twitter, Facebook and others from content liability. His complaint is a battle cry of conservatives — and some Democrats — who say the social media giants treat them unfairly.

But interjecting the complicated tech issue threatens to upend the massive defense bill, which Congress takes pride in having passed unfailingly for half a century. Trump almost sabotaged the package with an earlier veto threat over plans to stop allowing military bases to be named for Confederate leaders.

It's another example of the president's brazen willingness to undercut Congress, even his allies, to impose his will in his final months in office.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan coalition of leaders on the House and Senate Armed Services committees said enough is enough.

In video, Trump recycles unsubstantiated voter fraud claims

WASHINGTON — Increasingly detached from reality, President Donald Trump stood before a White House lectern and delivered a 46-minute diatribe against the election results that produced a win for Democrat Joe Biden, unspooling one misstatement after another to back his baseless claim that he really won.

Trump called his address, released Wednesday only on social media and delivered in front of no audience, perhaps "the most important speech" of his presidency. But it was largely a recycling of the same litany of misinformation and unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud that he has been making for the past month.

Trump, who spoke from the Diplomatic Reception Room, kept up his futile pushback against the election even as state after state certifies its results and as Biden presses ahead with shaping his Cabinet in advance of his inauguration on Jan. 20.

Trump's remarks raised questions about how far he may be willing to go in his campaign to overturn Biden's win, including whether he might press Republicans in Congress to block certification of the vote, a move that's been floated by the president's allies.

Biden received a record 81 million votes compared to 74 million for Trump. The Democrat also won 306 electoral votes compared to 232 for Trump. The Electoral College split matches Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton four years ago, which he described then as a "landslide."

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