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Democrats slam McConnell over debt limit timebomb



The United States runs out of power to keep borrowing money in 10 days. If Congress doesn’t act fast to handle the debt limit in the weeks that follow, Democrats say the fallout will be Mitch McConnell’s fault.

Top Senate Democrats accused the minority leader Wednesday of plotting to hold the economy hostage after McConnell said he doesn’t expect any Republican senators to vote to prevent the U.S. government from defaulting on its loans in the coming weeks. Unless Democrats can corral the support of at least 10 senators from the other side of the aisle, they will need to raise the debt limit in a package with their $3.5 trillion partisan plan to enact President Joe Biden’s social welfare and family aid proposal.

That package might not pass in time to remedy the debt issue and could force the majority party into a trickier vote on a new maximum for the $28 trillion national debt. So any solution could cut perilously close to the ultimate debt cliff — a moving deadline that could creep up as soon as next month, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned. The Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday that Treasury could run out of cash in October or November.

“This debt is Trump debt. It’s Covid debt,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor. “And the bottom line is that leader McConnell should not be playing political games with the full faith and credit of the United States. Americans pay their debts.”

Schumer met with Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to debrief on the issue Wednesday morning, after McConnell told Punchbowl News that he “can’t imagine a single Republican” voting to raise the debt limit amid Democrats’ “free-for-all for taxes and spending.”

Congress has averted default on the nation’s finances more than two dozen times over the last three decades. With a particularly uncertain deadline this time, however, a failure to act quickly could create turmoil for financial markets, increase costs for U.S. borrowers and smack the government’s credit rating at a time when the Biden administration is focused on making a full economic recovery.

Senate Republicans have signaled for months that they likely lack the support to suspend the debt limit without some spending concessions from the majority party, raising the possibility of another high-stakes standoff. A group of GOP senators held a press conference on Wednesday to rail against Democrats’ “tax and spending spree,” warning of skyrocketing inflation and strained economic growth.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, said he would have more to say about the debt limit next week. Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said there’s no appetite among Republicans for a big debt hike when Democrats are piling onto that figure.

But Warren insisted Wednesday that, “there is no compromising,” noting Democrats voted three times during Donald Trump’s presidency to avert a debt limit crisis.

“We don’t compromise with America paying its bills,” she said. “The Republicans are trying to extract something and say that their leverage is they will have the United States default on its legal obligations.”

Wyden and Warren skirted questions Wednesday about whether they will try to raise the debt limit through the massive spending package Democrats are attempting to pass without Republican support or work with the GOP to suspend the limit until a later date.

“We just want to get it done — period,” Wyden said.

Two years ago, Congress struck a budget deal that suspended the debt ceiling through July 31 of this year. After that, the Treasury Department can deploy a number of tactics to delay the real deadline and keep paying the nation’s bills on time. But Yellen and economic experts have warned that those tactics might run out sooner than expected.

It has been particularly difficult this year to pinpoint the actual “X date,” or the official deadline for when the U.S. defaults on its financial obligations, due to uncertainty over pandemic-related spending.

The last time McConnell and his Republican colleagues made debt limit demands of a Democratic president — almost exactly a decade ago — the nation’s credit rating was downgraded for the first time in U.S. history. Democrats now say they will not relive that 2011 standoff that spooked financial markets when then-President Barack Obama was in the White House.

“We saw what the Republicans did to Barack Obama on exactly this issue. It’s not going to happen again on our watch,” Wyden said. “Mitch McConnell apparently thinks that unless he gets this political agenda — in other words, his particular priorities — we’re going to hit the American economy. It’s not going to happen.”

Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told reporters on Wednesday that he’s still working to get all 50 Democratic senators on board with a budget resolution, which will unlock the privileged reconciliation process for party-line passage of Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending bill. It‘s unclear if the caucus will coalesce around a debt ceiling increase in agreeing to that budget framework.

Moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) have previously opposed a debt ceiling suspension — let alone an increase — citing runaway spending. Tester told POLITICO last month that he would prefer to work with Republicans on a debt ceiling deal, rather than pursue a one-party approach.

Burgess Everett and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.


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VA sets vaccine requirement for frontline health care workers



The Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday it will require front-facing health care workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus by the fall, the first federal agency to mandate inoculations.

The mandate includes physicians, dentists, nurses, physician assistants and other frontline medical staff at VA facilities across the country. These employees will have eight weeks to become fully vaccinated.

The rule is “the best way to keep Veterans safe,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a news release announcing the move.

“Whenever a Veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19.”

Roughly 115,000 employees will fall under the VA’s mandate, according to the New York Times, which first reported the decision.

“I am doing this because it’s the best way to keep our veterans safe, full stop,” the secretary told the Times.

The Biden administration has been grappling with how best to push up vaccination rates, which have stagnated in parts of the country despite a surge in cases tied to the highly contagious Delta variant.

Thus far the White House has been wary of top-down approaches, preferring instead to encourage local governments and private businesses to set their own rules around vaccinations.

The VA said four employees have died in recent weeks because of Covid. All of the workers were unvaccinated and at least three died because of the Delta variant. In addition, an outbreak occurred at the VA Law Enforcement Training Center, the third of its kind during the pandemic.

Last week the NFL said that teams experiencing an outbreak among unvaccinated players could be forced to forfeit games, placing a multimillion-dollar financial incentive on teams and their players to get vaccinated.

Also on Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio separately announced that all municipal employees will have to either be vaccinated or undergo weekly Covid-19 testing. That rule goes into effect citywide on Sept. 13, though it kicks in earlier for public health workers and staff in congregate living facilities.

Similarly, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that all state employees and health care workers will be required to be vaccinated or face regular testing.

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Cheney-McCarthy war of words heats up over Jan. 6 investigation



Liz Cheney is already taking public heat from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — and dishing it back — over her Democratic appointment to the select panel investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

The relationship between McCarthy and Cheney has steadily deteriorated throughout the year, with an apparent peak coming when the California Republican helped oust Cheney from the House GOP’s No. 3 leadership spot. But tension is spiking again now that Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger — Donald Trump’s two most vocal GOP critics in Congress — are serving on the select panel thanks to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. McCarthy dubbed Cheney and Kinzinger “Pelosi Republicans” on Monday.

Cheney, as she walked into a prep session meeting with her fellow committee members shortly after McCarthy’s remark, told reporters she found it “pretty childish.”

“We’ve got serious business here. We have important work to do,” she added.

The back-and-forth comes after a series of clashes last week following Pelosi’s veto of two of McCarthy’s GOP picks to serve on the Jan. 6 investigation: Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio, both of them avid Trump defenders. The move prompted McCarthy to withdraw all of his appointees to the select committee in protest, describing the investigation as a partisan effort designed to hurt Trump and the party ahead of next year’s midterms. Republicans, however, largely opposed a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission earlier this year.

Cheney was part of Pelosi’s initial wave of names tapped to serve on the panel that will examine the deadly events of Jan. 6, when Trump supporters breached the Capitol in an attempt to disrupt certification of the ex-president’s election loss, forcing lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence to flee.

Following the GOP boycott, Pelosi on Sunday named Kinzinger to the Jan. 6 committee, giving Democrats two House Republican members who they say boost their panel’s bipartisan credibility.

Kinzinger, wearing a tie patterned with elephants, also called McCarthy’s comments “childish” during a break in the select panel prep session.

“He can call me whatever names he wants,” Kinzinger said, adding that the bottom line is “I’m a Republican.”

Still, McCarthy’s jab signals a remarkable shift from earlier this year. Cheney once served as his leadership partner before her frequent Trump criticisms prompted her colleagues and fellow leaders to eject the Wyoming Republican from a role that is responsible for the conference’s messaging.

These days, some of Cheney and Kinzinger’s fellow Republicans are openly speculating about their future in the House GOP conference. Asked whether the duo should face sanctions from their party for accepting Pelosi’s appointment to the inquiry, McCarthy said only that “we’ll see.”

But Kinzinger shrugged off the subtle threat on Monday: “If the conference decides” to punish him and Cheney, he said, it “says more about them than it does about us.”

Kinzinger also didn’t rule out calling his fellow Republican members to testify before the select panel, saying it was “important” to hear from them if they had relevant information. Discussions are still ongoing about the scope of Republican staff for the inquiry, he added, but he lauded former Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) as a model for those hires.

No matter how actively McCarthy tries to tether Cheney and Kinzinger to Pelosi, who frequently appears in GOP attack ads, they both have strong conservative voting records to counter his attacks. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer noted as much, while arguing Monday that Cheney and Kinzinger are “real Republicans.”

“If anybody looks at the voting records of Mr. Kinzinger and Ms. Cheney, they will know that they haven’t voted with Speaker Pelosi except on the most bipartisan of bills,” Hoyer said. “These are people who come from conservative Republican districts who have represented Republican values. The difference is, and this is the key, they both believe in the truth. That ought not to be a partisan issue.”

Nick Niedzwiadek contributed to this report.


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Bipartisan infrastructure talks in dire state ahead of pivotal week



The bipartisan infrastructure negotiations entered their darkest phase in more than a month on Monday, with the parties openly feuding over policy and former President Donald Trump urging Republicans to drop the effort altogether.

Democrats and the White House on Sunday night offered a proposal to Republicans proposing a deal on highway and public transit funding, as well as several other unresolved areas. That offer was intended to address all outstanding disputes — and was immediately rejected by Republicans.

The GOP sent out a list of areas where that Democratic offer broke from previous agreements among the bipartisan senators writing the bill on Monday afternoon, the latest in a running list of bleak sign for the talks ahead of another pivotal week of negotiations in the Senate.

The comprehensive offer “we received from the White House and [Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer was discouraging since it attempts to reopen numerous issues the bipartisan group had already agreed to,” said a GOP source familiar with the negotiations. “If this is going to be successful, the White House will need to show more flexibility as Republicans have done and listen to the members of the group that produced this framework.”

Two additional sources close to the talks, one in each party, confirmed the dire state of negotiations on a signature priority of President Joe Biden. Each blamed the other side for reopening debate on items once considered settled.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she is “confident” an agreement can be reached. But many struck a more dour tone in private. And Democrats said the frantic past few days was kicked off by Republicans rejecting an increase in IRS enforcement to pay for the bill.

“It takes a lot of chutzpah for Republicans to make accusations about keeping words when the biggest hole blown in the [financing] was made by them reneging on their agreement about enforcing the law on wealthy tax cheats,” said a Democrat familiar with the negotiations.

The talks seem in danger of collapse given the public acrimony and finger-pointing on Monday, after a fruitless weekend of discussions. The group of 10 senators leading the talks will huddle again on Monday evening, in an attempt to rescue the fragile negotiations.

The bipartisan group of lawmakers hoped to reach a final agreement by early this week after a vote to advance undrafted legislation failed last week. But that appears unlikely, with several issues outstanding. Among the biggest sticking points is transit, but broadband has also become a point of contention. The bill’s finances are also viewed as shaky.

A Democratic source familiar with the bipartisan discussions said that Democrats’ counteroffer included accepting the GOP proposal for highways in exchange for the Democratic proposal on transit. But Republicans dispute that characterization. A GOP source familiar with the negotiations said the choice isn’t binary and that the GOP offer on transit “was met with silence for three days.”

Funding for water infrastructure also remains unresolved, according to a Democratic source familiar with the talks, who accused Republicans of backing away from the original agreement. That source said that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) had reneged on a deal and “proposed something completely unworkable.”

A spokesperson for Romney called that “laughably false” and said Schumer is seeking $15 billion more than a previous agreement.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) both raised concerns about the funding last week, with Carper suggesting he would have a hard time supporting the package unless certain funding conditions were met. The snafu illustrates the tricky challenge the group of rank-and-file senators led by Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has in navigating around committee chairs.

As bipartisan negotiators aim to finalize an agreement, Trump said that Senate Republicans “are being absolutely savaged by Democrats on the so-called ‘bipartisan’ infrastructure bill’” and urged them to wait until they take back the Senate in 2022 to “regain a strong negotiating stance.” Trump tried unsuccessfully to cut a deal with Democrats on infrastructure, sidelining negotiations once his impeachment investigation began.

Although the bipartisan group and the White House announced an agreement last month on a bipartisan framework, translating it into legislative text is proving difficult. Schumer wants to pass the bipartisan bill and begin the process for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social spending package before the Senate leaves for the August recess.

Eleven Senate Republicans wrote Schumer last week to tell him they’d be ready to move forward as soon as Monday, provided the bill was mostly completed and its finances were in order. Neither condition was met as of midday, with senators convening late in the afternoon.


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