President Biden: Live Updates on Stimulus, Navalny and FBI – The New York Times

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, has little room to maneuver as he seeks to advance President Biden’s stimulus bill, given the 50-50 split in the Senate.
CreditStefani Reynolds for The New York Times

President Biden is set to call into a meeting of Senate Democrats on Tuesday as he pushes for passage of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, the first major legislative undertaking of his presidency and one that will pose a high-stakes test of Democratic unity in the 50-50 Senate.

After the House approved the stimulus bill with no support from Republicans over the weekend, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, is planning for the Senate to take up the measure this week.

As Mr. Biden and Mr. Schumer press ahead, they are facing constraints both in terms of time and vote-counting math. Unemployment benefits are scheduled to begin lapsing on March 14, and the president and lawmakers from his party are determined to move quickly.

At the same time, Mr. Biden and Mr. Schumer have exceedingly little room to maneuver in the closely divided Senate, where they cannot afford a single Democratic defection if Republicans are united in opposition to the bill.

On Monday, Mr. Biden met virtually with eight Democratic senators and an independent who caucuses with them, Angus King of Maine. The group, according to a statement from the White House, “was united in the goal of quickly passing a significant package that reflects the scope of the challenges our country is facing.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Biden will again spend time with Democratic senators, this time by calling into their lunch.

One likely topic of discussion: Last-minute tweaks to the bill that centrist senators have been pushing party leaders to adopt. The bill is already on course to change from what the House passed, including striking an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which the Senate parliamentarian has ruled does not meet the requirements of the budget reconciliation process that Democrats are employing to allow the measure to pass with a simple majority.

Other potential changes include efforts to extend benefits for the unemployed by an additional month, compared with the House bill, and possible changes to the money the bill would send to state, local and tribal governments in order to make up for lost tax revenues amid the pandemic recession.

Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, during a court hearing in Moscow last month.
CreditMaxim Shemetov/Reuters

The Biden Administration declassified an intelligence finding on Tuesday that Russia’s F.S.B., one of its leading intelligence agencies, orchestrated the poisoning of Aleksei A. Navalny, and announced its first sanctions against the Russian government for the attack and the imprisonment of the opposition politician.

The sanctions closely mirrored a series of actions that European nations and Britain took last October and expanded on Monday. Senior administration officials said it was part of an effort to show unity in the new administration’s first confrontations with the government of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

But none of the sanctions were specifically directed at Mr. Putin, or the country’s intelligence chiefs or the oligarchs that support the Russian leader.

In announcing the role of the F.S.B., or Federal Security Service, in the poisoning, American intelligence officials were confirming the reports of many news organizations, some of which traced the individual agents who tracked Mr. Navalny and attacked him with Novichok, a nerve agent that Russia has used against other dissidents. It was unclear if the United States planned to release a formal report, as it did last week when it confirmed two-year-old findings on the role of the Saudi crown prince in the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or would simply summarize the key finding in the Navalny case.

The sanction actions were notable chiefly because they are the first Mr. Biden has taken in five weeks since he became president. While most past presidents have come into office declaring they would seek a reset of relations with Russia, Mr. Biden has done the opposite — warning that Mr. Putin is driving his country back into an era of authoritarianism, and promising to push back on violations of human rights and efforts to destabilize Europe.

One official told reporters on Tuesday morning that the administration was not seeking to reset relations, but also was not seeking to escalate confrontations. The test may come in the next few weeks, when the administration is expected to announce its response to the SolarWinds cyberattack, in which suspected Russian hackers bore deeply into nine government agencies and more than 100 companies, stealing data and planting “back doors” into their computer networks.

History suggests the new sanctions may have little effect.

In 2018 the Trump administration announced sanctions against Russia for the use of a nerve agent against a former Russian double agent living in Britain, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, and expelled dozens of Russian diplomats. But that proved little deterrent to the F.S.B. using the same technique against Mr. Navalny.

White House officials are expected to announce the sanctions later on Tuesday, and the Treasury Department will publish a list of the names of those under sanctions.

But a senior official conceded that the action was, in many ways, catching up to designations that the Europeans have already made. The official said the main effort was to assure that the U.S. and Europe were “on the same page” after several months in which European sanctions went beyond any imposed by Washington.

The European Union on Monday approved the imposition of sanctions on four senior Russian officials considered responsible for the prosecution and imprisonment of Mr. Navalny.

The decision, approved by the member states, will go into effect as early as Tuesday, when the sanctions are published, and is the first time the European Union has used new powers under its version of the Magnitsky act, which allows Brussels to sanction human rights violators worldwide.

The new sanctions are narrowly drawn to hit those directly and legally responsible for Mr. Navalny’s conviction in what appeared to be a show trial and subsequent imprisonment upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he recuperated from the poisoning.

The European Union has already sanctioned six Russians and a state scientific research center in response to the poisoning of Mr. Navalny.

These latest European sanctions, which are travel bans and asset freezes, cover four individuals: two prosecutorial officials, the head of Russia’s national guard and the head of Russia’s prison service.

They are Igor Krasnov, who became Russia’s prosecutor-general a year ago; Aleksandr I. Bastrykin, whose Investigative Committee handles investigations into major crimes and reports directly to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin; Viktor V. Zolotov, head of Russia’s National Guard and a former Putin bodyguard, who threatened Mr. Navalny in September 2018; and Aleksandr Kalashnikov, head of the federal prison service.

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Chris Wray, the F.B.I. director, will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for an oversight hearing focused on the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and other domestic terrorism threats.CreditCreditPool photo by Alex Brandon

The F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, began testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, where he is expected to face a barrage of tough questions about why the bureau failed to foresee the siege of the U.S. Capitol despite numerous warning signs.

The oversight hearing is the first time Mr. Wray has appeared before Congress to answer questions about what happened in the days leading up to Jan. 6, when a mob of Trump supporters protesting the election results stormed the Capitol, resulting in five deaths and scores of injuries to police officers.

The F.B.I. has defended the steps it took before the insurrection, saying it mobilized command posts, deployed tactical teams and shared intelligence with law enforcement partners such as the U.S. Capitol Police.

In his opening statement, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic chairman of the committee, said the riot demonstrated that “for far too long, our federal government has failed to address the growing terrorist menace in our own backyard.”

He accused the Trump administration of playing down the threat from white supremacists while stoking a narrative that left-wing anarchists were the greater danger to the country.

Listing a litany of mass shootings, Mr. Durbin added: “Let’s stop pretending that the threat of Antifa is equal to the white supremacist threat.”

The Capitol Police has largely shouldered the blame for the Jan. 6 attack on Congress, leading to the resignation of its chief, Steven Sund, whose requests for the National Guard were denied.

Yogananda D. Pittman, the acting chief of the Capitol Police, has told Congress that there was a “strong potential for violence” but that the authorities failed to do enough to thwart the “terrorist attack.”

Indeed, there were several signs of the potential for violence on Jan. 6. Federal law enforcement officials knew that members of militias such as the Oath Keepers and far-right groups such as the Proud Boys planned to travel the Washington, some potentially with weapons. Many adherents of QAnon, a dangerous conspiracy theory that has emerged as a possible domestic terrorism threat, were also expected to attend a protest rally where Mr. Trump spoke.

In addition, the F.B.I.’s Norfolk, Va., office produced a report a day earlier warning of possible war the next day. The report mentioned people sharing a map of tunnels at the Capitol complex. However, the information was uncorroborated and the portion that quoted “war” appeared to come from a single online thread.

The F.B.I. provided the report to the Capitol Police, although Mr. Sund said last week that he never saw it.

A gate to the Merck & Co campus in Linden, N.J., in 2018.
CreditBrendan Mcdermid/Reuters

The pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co will help manufacture the new Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine under a highly unusual deal, brokered by the White House. The move could substantially increase the supply of the new vaccine and ramp up the pace of vaccination just as worrisome new variants of the virus are taking hold in the United States.

President Biden is expected to announce the arrangement, first reported by The Washington Post, on Tuesday, according to two senior administration officials, who confirmed the arrangement on condition of anonymity to discuss a matter that has not yet been made public. It comes just days after the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Merck is an experienced vaccine manufacturer whose own attempt at making a coronavirus vaccine was unsuccessful. Officials described the partnership between the two competitors as “historic,” and said it harkens back to Mr. Biden’s vision of a wartime effort to fight the coronavirus, similar to the manufacturing campaigns waged during World War II.

According to one official involved, the administration has been scouring the manufacturing landscape for weeks, ever since it became evident that Johnson & Johnson’s was running behind on its manufacturing. But just how quickly Merck will be able to ramp up is unclear. It will take months for the company to be able to convert its facilities to manufacture and package a vaccine that it did not invent.

Under the agreement, Merck will dedicate two of its facilities to production of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which unlike the other two vaccines that have emergency approval in the U.S. requires only one shot.

One facility will provide “fill-finish,” the final phase of the manufacturing process during which the vaccine is placed in vials and packaged for shipping. The other will make the “drug substance” — the vaccine itself. Officials hope that by the end of the year, the arrangement will double the capacity of what Johnson & Johnson’s capacity could manufacture on its own — perhaps bringing the total number of doses to as many as one billion.

Officials are not identifying the facilities involved for security reasons, one said.

The president is invoking the Defense Production Act to help Merck retrofit its facilities to be able to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, one of the officials said. The company will be able to start the fill-finish process in about two months, this official said, and it will take longer than that to ramp up actual production of the vaccine itself.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine joins two others — one made by Pfizer BioNTech, the other by Moderna — that already have emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines performed slightly better in clinical trials, all are considered safe and effective and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has two advantages: it requires only one shot, and studies show it may curb spread of the virus.

Those earlier vaccines use a new technology called mRNA that needs freezers for long-term storage. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which uses viruses to deliver genes into cells, can keep for three months at normal refrigeration temperatures, making it easier to distribute and easier for pharmacies and clinics to stock.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida spoke on the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando last week.
CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times

For decades, the same ritual took place after Republican electoral defeats.

Moderate, establishment-aligned party officials would argue that candidates had veered too far right on issues like immigration and would counsel a return to the political center. And conservatives would contend that Republicans had abandoned the true faith and must return to first principles to distinguish themselves from Democrats and claim victory.

In the aftermath of 2020, that debate is scarcely taking place. Republicans have entered a sort of post-policy moment in which the most animating forces in the party are emotions, not issues.

Last weekend, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, there was vanishingly little discussion of why Republicans lost the presidency, the House and the Senate over the last four years, nor much debate about what agenda they should pursue to rebuild the party.

The absence of soul-searching owes in part to the denialism of many activists that they lost the White House at all, a false claim perpetuated with trollish gusto by former President Donald J. Trump himself on Sunday.

Beyond the former president, no two Republicans in attendance drew a more fervent response than Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota.

Neither sketched out a new policy agenda or presented a fresh vision for a party that has won the national popular vote just once in over 30 years. Rather, they drew repeated ovations for what they share in common: a shared sense of victimhood over media criticism for their handling of the coronavirus crisis and a pugnacious contempt for public health experts who have urged more aggressive restrictions in their states.

“I don’t know if you agree with me, but Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot,” Ms. Noem said in her remarks, referring to the country’s top infectious disease expert. The statement brought attendees to their feet, even as she glossed over her state’s high mortality rate during the pandemic.

Interviews with conference attendees suggested that many of them were drawn to the two governors primarily for their style.

Sany Dash, who was selling merchandise at a CPAC booth, explained that she liked Ms. Noem “because she fights back,” adding: “I feel like she’s a female Trump, except not crass or rude.”

“He’s got just the right amount of Trumpiness to him,” Brad Franklin, a recent college graduate, said of Mr. DeSantis.

Elaina Plott contributed reporting.

A congressional infrastructure tour held by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority included a section of the  Second Avenue Subway tunnel that was built in the 1970s.
CreditJames Keivom for The New York Times

As a candidate, President Biden promised to pass a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package intended to create jobs and help the United States compete with China. And if anything, his first month in office, in which a power crisis in Texas left millions of people in need of water and electricity, has underscored the urgency of upgrading the nation’s aging structural underpinnings.

But while the goal of addressing the United States’ infrastructure is bipartisan, the details are not. That includes how much to spend, what programs count as “infrastructure” and, most important, whether to raise taxes to pay for it.

Economists agree that government investments in infrastructure can help the economy run more efficiently, leading to stronger growth and faster wage gains for workers. That consensus has brought calls from a wide range of groups for lawmakers to pass a major infrastructure bill.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has given the country’s overall infrastructure a grade of D+, estimating that a funding gap of more than $2 trillion exists between needs and expected spending by all levels of government over the next decade. And the pandemic has put a spotlight on the poor quality of digital infrastructure in many parts of the United States, as more people are forced to work and attend school remotely.

“We’ve come to a point as a country where it’s very clear these needs can’t keep being deferred,” Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, said in an interview. “This crisis reflects that.”

Business groups and many Republicans have expressed a willingness to work with the administration to pass $1 trillion or more in infrastructure spending. Areas of agreement with progressives include spending on highways, bridges, rural broadband networks, water and sewer lines and even some cornerstones of fighting climate change, like electric-car charging stations.

But Republicans and business groups have made clear to the administration that some of Mr. Biden’s preferred policies — taxes, in particular — could scuttle any chance of a consensus deal.

“I’m optimistic and hopeful that there will be a meaningful bipartisan agreement here because the needs are clear,” said Aric Newhouse, the senior vice president for policy and government relations at the National Association of Manufacturers.

If Mr. Biden tries to pay for the plan by raising taxes on corporations and other businesses, Mr. Newhouse said, “that would obviously be a huge problem, and make this, instead of a bipartisan effort, a partisan effort.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.