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Happy Wednesday morning.
The Senate Judiciary Committee kicks off Day Three this morning in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Today will feature another round of questions for Jackson from the panel’s 22 senators. We have lots more below.
But first, President Joe Biden heads to Brussels for what is the most critical overseas trip of his presidency. With the world on edge as Russia continues its deadly assault on Ukraine, all eyes will be on Biden as he reaffirms U.S. support for the NATO alliance and other European allies in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued aggression.
On Thursday, Biden will address an emergency NATO summit. He’ll then meet with leaders of the other G-7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom), followed by an address to 27 leaders of the European Union during a European Council session.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden and other allied leaders plan to announce further sanctions on Russia, coordinate “the next phase of military assistance” to Ukraine, discuss how to bolster NATO’s eastern flank and unveil additional U.S. humanitarian aid. The Wall Street Journal reported that Biden and U.S. allies will impose sanctions on hundreds of lawmakers serving in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.
“The president is traveling to Europe to ensure we stay united, to cement our collective resolve, to send a powerful message that we are prepared and committed to this for as long as it takes, and to advance our response on all three critical fronts that I’ve described: helping the Ukrainian people defend themselves, imposing and increasing costs on Russia, and reinforcing the Western alliance.”
Biden will fly to Warsaw on Friday and meet with U.S. troops who are helping defend Poland, a NATO ally. Biden also will speak with experts overseeing the response to the tidal wave of more than 3 million Ukrainians who’ve fled their embattled country since the Russian invasion began, many settling in neighboring Poland. Biden will hold a bilateral session with Polish President Andrzej Duda on Saturday before returning to Washington.
Biden’s trip is fraught with both risks and rewards. Ukraine’s defense forces – with help of the United States and NATO – have held off a far superior Russian army for nearly a month, inflicting a shocking setback on Putin, who envisioned a quick victory over his much smaller neighbor. Western sanctions have pummeled Russia’s economy, and the economic pain for average Russians is only going to get worse. Thousands of Russians have been arrested as they protest the war.
Yet with Russian forces unable to capture major Ukrainian cities including Kyiv and Kharkiv, they’ve battered them with waves of missiles and artillery barrages, rendering them uninhabitable and spurring the biggest refugee wave in Europe since World War II. The conflict has caused commodity prices – especially oil – to soar, which will have a big impact on Western economies in turn.
When not nuclear saber-rattling, Putin has turned to Xi Jinping for military assistance, raising the specter of a new cold war involving the one country that can challenge the United States both militarily and economically – China. And all this comes as a new Covid variant spreads across a homefront already suffering from deep pandemic fatigue.
We caught up with some key senators to find out what they’re hoping to see from Biden on the international stage.
Sen. Jim Risch (Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told us he “wouldn’t presume” to tell Biden what to say with the world watching. “[Biden] can talk to those people and I hope he listens as much as he talks or even more so,” Risch said.
More from Risch:
“Our objective is the same for everybody. How we reach that objective – when you’ve got 30 countries involved, you’re always going to have minor disagreements – I’m hoping that we keep those minor disagreements in the bottle and continue to keep our eye on the objective.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who led a bipartisan CODEL to Poland and Germany over the weekend, also stressed the importance of Biden listening to European leaders. “They are asking, ‘Enable us, enable the fight here.’ Hopefully he will hear that and he will recognize we need to speed up the aid that we are sending into Ukraine, particularly the lethal aid,” she said.
Ernst said Biden should not be deterred by Putin’s warnings that Ukraine and the West shouldn’t “escalate” the situation:
“We don’t want the president to be risk averse. …The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter what we or NATO partners do, President Putin is always going to claim that there is an escalation here. And if that’s what we are going to succumb to, we are going to let Ukraine fall. So we need to step it up.”
Democrats, for their part, say it makes no sense for Republicans to claim Biden has been slow on aiding Ukraine when GOP senators are the one blocking quick passage of a bill revoking preferred trade status from Russia and Belarus.
“This week is the most opportune time because the G-7 is meeting,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters of passing the bill to suspend trade relations. “Republicans in the past have complained we don’t do things quickly enough. We should pass this with a strong bipartisan vote this week while the president is at NATO.”
→ NYT: “Biden Plans Sanctions on Russian Lawmakers as He Heads to Europe,” by Michael D. Shear
→ NBC: “Biden may announce U.S. plans to maintain increased number of U.S. troops in NATO countries near Ukraine,” by Courtney Kube, Carol E. Lee, Kristen Welker and Josh Lederman
→ AP: “Biden seeks new sanctions, help for Ukrainians in Europe,” by Chris Megerian and Aamer Madhani
→ Politico: “Biden faces off against Putin. His other opponent is time,” by Christopher Cadelago and Jonathan Lemire
→ Bloomberg: “Biden Takes Tough-on-Putin Message to Allies Riven by Own Needs,” by Jordan Fabian, Josh Wingrove, and Alberto Nardelli
Also happening today: The House Republican retreat – put on by the Congressional Institute – begins this evening in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. And tomorrow evening at 5:30 p.m., Jake will interview House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a fireside chat. This event is open to all members of the Capitol Hill press corps and retreat attendees.
KBJ Day Three: What we’re watching
After spending more than 13 hours on Tuesday being grilled by senators, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is back in front of the Judiciary Committee today as she seeks to become the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
The big positive for Jackson? Senators will only have 20 minutes each in the second round of questions today versus 30 minutes on Tuesday.
Also, this is Jackson’s last day of testimony before the Judiciary panel. Tomorrow’s hearing will feature outside groups testifying on her nomination.
During yesterday’s marathon session, Jackson parried questions from Republicans on an enormous array of issues: whether she called former President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “war criminals” (she didn’t); is she “soft” on crime and individuals possessing child pornography; does she support expanding the Supreme Court; whether she agrees with Critical Race Theory and the “1619 Project”; whether she supports Supreme Court rulings on abortion and same-sex marriage; how many murders and rapes there were in the United States last year; and even what her defintion of the word “woman” is.
As with recent GOP Supreme Court nominees, Jackson declined to answer many of the controversial questions not related directly to her judicial history. At one point, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) pushed the 51-year-old appeals court judge to name the Supreme Court justice “she is closest to” or patterns herself after. Jackson responded that she is proceeding “from a neutral posture in every case.”
However, it was the child porn issue – an ugly topic that infuriated Democrats and progressive groups backing her nomination – that led to Jackson’s only really difficult moments. It’s likely to resurface again today, Republicans warned.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) first raised the topic during the hearing, breaking out a chart that he used to allege Jackson had repeatedly handed out lighter sentences than called for under federal sentencing guidelines in such cases. Jackson was able to deflect Cruz’s comments.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) – who initially raised the issue of Jackson and child porn cases last week – challenged her over a 2013 case in which Jackson had sentenced a then 18-year-old defendant to only three months in prison, far below what the guidelines and federal prosecutors sought. Hawley pressed Jackson repeatedly on why she’d given the defendant, Wesley Hawkins, that sentence, and the nominee seemed to struggle to rebut his inquiries.
It wasn’t that Hawley and Cruz seriously damaged Jackson’s chances of getting confirmed. They didn’t. If all 50 Democrats stick with her, Jackson will be confirmed.
The issue, though, is whether these attacks will make it harder for any Senate Republicans to back Jackson on the Senate floor, such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine or Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who voted in favor of Jackson’s appeals court nomination, sounds like a “No” at this point, although he told reporters to watch his comments today. Having Jackson confirmed with a bipartisan 51 or 52 votes is better for the White House than Vice President Kamala Harris having to cast the deciding vote to break a 50-50 tie.
It’s unclear whether the issue is resonating with the handful of Republicans who could potentially support Jackson.
“It struck me that it was off course, meaning the attacks were off course that came from some. And there is no there, there,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told our friend Paul Kane at the Washington Post. Murkowski declined to speak to reporters, while Collins was running around at committee hearings all day.
Democrats and the White House also pushed back hard on the Hawley and Cruz allegations. Democrats circulated fact checks refuting the claim that Jackson is lenient on child porn defendants. You can read some of them here, here and here. They also pushed out a Wall Street Journal editorial praising Jackson.
“It seemed like it was just continuing to go to sort of a salacious set of facts and [Jackson] had a perfectly legitimate explanation,” complained Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Whitehouse suggested the two Republicans “were grandstanding for right-wing media.”
Overall, Senate Democrats and the White House described themselves as very happy with Jackson’s performance. Jackson was poised and professional throughout the lengthy ordeal, starting almost every answer with “Thank you, senator,” no matter how brutal some of the questions were.
“I thought the judge did a remarkable job, showed strength all the way and grace under pressure many times,” Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin said afterward.
“The fact is that the overwhelming majority of people on the committee were not mean at all. They did their job in a respectful, professional way. There are always a few – and you know who they are – who are going to raise issues in a way that I think crossed the line. But that’s their business. They have that opportunity.”
Here’s a White House official on Jackson:
“She reinforced why the president picked her, displaying grace, intellect, and the value of her deep experience that has led respected conservative jurists and the biggest law enforcement groups in the country to endorse her. Senior Republican senators agreed that she acquitted herself well. And if this is a revelation to anyone, I’m surprised, but our strategy has never been predicated on the minority of members who are not seriously engaged in this process and are instead pandering to the rightwing fringe with misinformation in order to run for president.”
Republicans still want more info on Covid funding request
While the White House continues to push for billions of dollars in new Covid prep funding, Republicans insist the Biden administration still hasn’t accounted for the trillions already appropriated by Congress, or fully justified its request.
The standoff comes as a new Covid variant, Omicron BA.2, is sweeping through the nation, although it doesn’t appear to cause more serious illness. Most states are dropping their Covid restrictions at this point in spite of this latest development.
White House officials turned over information Tuesday to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the ranking member of the HELP Committee, on the current federal stockpile of tests, vaccines and therapeutics. Burr told us his staff was still analyzing the data, and he noted White House officials hadn’t projected how long those supplies would last.
“It looks like they’ve got enough vaccines,” Burr said, although he didn’t have a number available. “They didn’t provide any projections… You would think that would be useful from a standpoint on what we want to purchase.”
“I think we all agree they need money. They need money to make purchases. Whether they’re wise purchases, you don’t know until you get this information and you look at their projections… Are they basing this on worst-case scenarios? Are they basing it on the peak of Omicron surge or Delta surge? Are they going somewhere in between? You know, they gave me numbers, but they didn’t give me the rationale behind it. It’s very, very hard to look at it and say, ‘Well, that makes sense.’”
The White House requested $22.5 billion in new Covid prep funding as part of the $1.5 trillion spending package recently passed by Congress. Democrats pared that back to $15 billion, which would be offset by rescinding previous Covid funding.
But House Democrats – spurred on by their governors – rebelled at the offsets, forcing Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pull the Covid funding. And Senate Republicans won’t agree to declaring the new Covid funding an emergency that doesn’t need to be offset.
“If we need to have some legislation to make that possible, fine, but the offsets are going to have to come from what’s already been appropriated,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), said. “My colleagues are convinced that with that kind of investment, they ought to be able to find the $22 billion they’re looking for.”
So there’s a stalemate at this moment. The FY 2023 budget will be released by the White House next week, and we’d expect to see a lot more on the issue
Here’s Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer:
“This is really crucial and anyone who tries to block this – God forbid we have a second variant and we don’t have enough of the therapeutics, enough of the testing, enough of the vaccines, is going to regret it. The bottom line is we are trying to get Covid relief. I’m working with Sen. Romney and other Republicans in good faith to find some payfors that are acceptable to Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate. We hope to get it done.”
→ Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes is releasing a manufacturing policy plan today in his bid to claim the Democratic nomination for Senate in this critical swing state. Barnes, the son and grandson of Wisconsin factory workers, is pledging to bring manufacturing jobs back to the state after years of outsourcing.
The proposal from Barnes — a Milwaukee native — makes clear that he sees the strategy as an investment in both urban and rural areas of Wisconsin.
Here’s a statement from Barnes:
“As I travel across the state, I hear the same stories of outsourced jobs, rising prices, supply chain issues, and labor shortages due to a lack of child care. We have the opportunity to address these issues by restoring Wisconsin as the nation’s leader in manufacturing, while creating good-paying, family-supporting jobs in the process.
In the Senate, I will fight to make sure that the brightest days of manufacturing in Wisconsin are ahead of us, not behind us.”
Check out the plan here. Some notable tidbits:
→ Barnes seized on Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) statement last month that indicated he was fine with Oshkosh relocating manufacturing jobs out of Wisconsin.
“Mandela will continue the fight to reverse Oshkosh Corporation’s decision to send 1,000 jobs to S.C. instead of creating good-paying union jobs for Wisconsin workers,” according to the plan.
→ In the plan, Barnes name-checks and throws his support behind the CHIPS Act currently in front of Congress. Barnes also backs efforts to make semiconductors in America. Increasingly, these less eye-catching technology plans are becoming popular among Democrats nationwide.
→ Barnes trashes NAFTA as an “unfair trade deal,” a common rallying cry of both the populist left and right in recent years.
9:00 a.m.: President Joe Biden will depart Washington for travel to Brussels, Belgium. Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will gaggle aboard Air Force One.
10:30 a.m.: The Senate will take a procedural vote on the USICA bill.
12:00 p.m.: Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) will hold a press conference on gas prices.
3:00 p.m.: The White House COVID-19 Response Team will brief.
3:50 p.m.: Biden will arrive in Brussels.
→ “As Russia Stalls in Ukraine, Dissent Brews Over Putin’s Leadership,” by Anton Troianovski and Michael Schwirtz
→ “How Ukraine’s Outgunned Air Force Is Fighting Back Against Russian Jets,” by Maria Varenikova and Andrew E. Kramer
→ “Leaning on her Trump ties, Elise Stefanik plots future inside House GOP,” by Melanie Zanona and Gabby Orr
→ “Ukrainians Flee Mariupol as Russian Forces Push to Take Port City,” by Isabel Coles
→ “Ukraine says Russia seized relief workers in Mariupol convoy,” by Nebi Qena and Cara Anna
→ “GOP’s 2024 contenders leap into Supreme Court spotlight,” by Burgess Everett
→ “Dems start questioning Biden admin’s Iran nuclear talks,” by Andrew Desiderio
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