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Wake Up To Politics - April 15, 2021

Wake Up To Politics: The elephant in the Senate chamber
Wake Up To Politics - April 15, 2021

Good morning! It’s Thursday, April 15, 2021. Election Day 2022 is 572 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,300 days away.

The elephant in the Senate chamber

Late last month — after mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia — I asked in a Wake Up To Politics headline, “Will Congress act on gun control?” On Wednesday, I put that question to some of the top lawmakers working on the issue.

The lawmakers were gathered outside the Capitol to unveil a temporary memorial to gun violence victims: 40,000 flowers to represent the approximate number of lives lost to gun violence annually. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), who has slowly regained her speech since surviving a mass shooting in 2011, was there, along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), and others.

In their speeches, the lawmakers promoted two pieces of legislation: H.R. 8, a universal background checks bill, and H.R. 1446, which would extend the time given to the FBI to conduct background checks. Both have already passed the House but are facing an uphill battle in the Senate.

I asked Murphy, the Senate’s leading gun control advocate, how he felt about their odds. He told me that H.R. 8 “probably can’t get to 60 votes in the Senate,” the threshold needed to avoid a filibuster, but that he was engaged in conversations with Republican colleagues about a more limited proposal. “My belief is that we can find 60 votes to expand the number of sales that are subject to background checks,” he said.

When asked to specify on the details of a potential bipartisan measure, Murphy demurred. “I’m not going to negotiate in public,” he told me. (Clyburn, the sponsor of H.R. 1446, told me he had not held any negotiations with Senate Republicans on the measure.)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at the memorial unveiling on Wednesday, flanked by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, and other lawmakers. (Photo by Gabe Fleisher)

Both Murphy and Clyburn danced around the elephant in the Senate chamber: whether any progress on gun control would be possible with the filibuster intact. “Some of my colleagues in the Senate have a theory that the filibuster incentivizes bipartisan cooperation,” Murphy said. “Well, let’s put that theory to the test... If we can’t get bipartisan agreement with the existing rules on an issue that has widespread public support, then maybe it is evidence that the Senate can’t work under existing rules.”

But, for now, Murphy said: “My instructions are to find 60 votes.”

Asked if he believed his background checks bill would clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, Clyburn replied: “I have no idea.”

But gun control is far from the only issue being held up in the Senate by the filibuster. An inevitable clash over the chamber’s rules creeps closer every day, as the House continues to greenlight bills with uncertain fates in the Senate. The House will vote today on H.R. 7, an equal pay bill; the chamber is also expected to vote soon on H.R. 1333, which would prevent future presidents from re-issuing Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban,” and H.R. 51, which would admit Washington, D.C., into the union as the 51st state.

Many Senate observers expect the eventual filibuster showdown to come when the Senate takes up H.R. 1, the Democratic election reform package. When I mentioned the bill to Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, he grew more passionate. “No one should be able to filibuster my constitutional rights,” he said, reiterating his comment earlier this month that he was “insulted” by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)’s stance on the filibuster.

“I recognize that the filibuster is put in place in order to extend debate,” Clyburn told me. “You will not have that right when it comes to constitutional rights.”

But unless Clyburn can convince Manchin and the 49 other Senate Democrats of that position, little will matter in Congress. The House can continue churning out bills all they want, but their odds of Senate passage — from election reform to gun control — will remain slim to nonexistent.

What else you need to know

RUSSIA: “The Biden administration on Thursday imposed the first significant sanctions targeting the Russian economy in several years in order to punish the Kremlin for a cyberespionage campaign against the United States and efforts to influence the presidential election, according to senior U.S. officials.” Washington Post

VACCINES: “The U.S. government’s recommended pause on use of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine is unlikely to be lifted for at least another week or 10 days, after a committee of independent experts declined Wednesday to vote on whether use of the vaccine should resume.” STAT News

AFGHANISTAN: “U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Thursday to sell Afghan leaders and a wary public on President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops from the country and end America’s longest war.” Associated Press

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Afghanistan. (Sapidar Palace via AP)

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Legal Roundup
By Anna Salvatore

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled last Friday that California can’t ban private religious gatherings of more than three households. The justices wrote that California had gone too far in its COVID-19 restrictions, since the state allowed “comparable secular activities” like shopping or getting a haircut but restricted “at-home religious exercise.” California’s lawyers had argued that the restriction wasn’t discriminatory, since it “applies to gatherings for any purpose—secular or religious.” Chief Justice John Roberts agreed and joined the three liberal-leaning justices in dissent. The New York Times notes that last year, before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Roberts was the deciding fifth vote to allow states to restrict religious services. What a difference a justice makes.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a short opinion last week condemning the influence of Big Tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter. In his concurrence, which no other justices joined, he argued that the control of “so much speech in the hands of a few private parties” will soon force the Supreme Court to weigh in. Legal scholars predict that the Supreme Court will review and potentially roll back Section 230, a provision of federal law that gives social media companies broad authority to moderate their users’ speech. According to NYU Professor Paul M. Barrett, who spoke with CBS News, “Thomas’ not-very-veiled hostility toward big tech is absolutely another aspect of a more general conservative antagonism toward Silicon Valley.”

Federal prosecutors argued on Monday that Richard Barnett, one of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, should remain in detention until his trial begins. Many Americans will remember Barnett as the grinning man who put his feet up on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, left her a threatening note, and then bragged about “taking” her office to the media. But according to court documents, Barnett had a history even before the insurrection of “bringing dangerous weapons into violent situations,” such as when he brought a pistol and silencer to a Save the Children rally last September. Government lawyers warn that he will “incite others to violence” if released.

Richard Barnett at Nancy Pelosi’s desk on January 6. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

More legal headlines, via Anna:

  • On Tuesday, the 6th Circuit upheld an Ohio law that prohibits abortions because of fetal Down Syndrome. The ruling appears to challenge Roe v. Wade, a 1973 Supreme Court opinion that gives women wide latitude to abort in the early weeks of their presidency. An appeal of the 6th Circuit’s decision could very well reach the Supreme Court.
  • Over the objections of 14 Republican states, a federal judge ruled last week that the government can’t deny green cards to immigrants simply because they’ve used public benefits. (That type of denial was common during the Trump administration under the “public charge rule.”)
  • Can Connecticut ban prisoners from accessing Playboy magazine? The 2nd Circuit seemed skeptical during oral arguments, reports Courthouse News.
  • Cornell law professor Michael Dorf criticizes Biden’s new commission for Supreme Court reform, arguing that it “lacks authority to make recommendations and is (way) too large.”


All times Eastern.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 10:15 a.m. Then, at 12:30 p.m., they will have lunch together. At 2 p.m., they will meet with the executive committee of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold her daily press briefing at 12:30 p.m.

The Senate will convene at 10 a.m. and hold debate over S. 937, the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. At 12 p.m., the chamber will vote on a motion to advance the nomination of Vanita Gupta to be Associate Attorney General. After up to four hours of debate, the Senate will hold another procedural vote on the Gupta nomination.

The House will convene at 12 p.m. and hold an hour of debate on H.R. 7, the Paycheck Fairness Act, before holding a final vote on the measure. The chamber will then hold “suspension votes” on 11 pieces of legislation, which will require two-thirds support to pass.  

The House Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing at 9 a.m. on global threats, resuming an annual tradition that the Trump administration declined to participate in. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and other intelligence leaders will testify.  

The House Coronavirus Crisis Select Subcommittee will hold a hearing at 10:30 on “a science-driven approach to swiftly and safely ending the pandemic.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, and other public health officials will testify.

The House Administration Committee will hold a hearing at 1 p.m. on “preparations for and response to the attack of January 6.” U.S. Capitol Police inspector general Michael Bolton will testify.

The House Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing at 2 p.m. on the Transportation Department budget request for Fiscal Year 2022. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will testify.

The Supreme Court is not in session.

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