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Politics Updates: A Deeply Divided House Returns

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Aug. 23, 2021Updated Aug. 23, 2021, 10:56 a.m. ETAug. 23, 2021, 10:56 a.m. ETBiden faces growing pressure to extend the withdrawal deadline of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.Kamala Harris stresses Southeast Asia ties on an overseas trip, but the focus returns to Afghanistan.The surgeon general said misinformation on social networks is damaging Americans’ health.The F.D.A. grants full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.For voting protections, it may be Democrats vs. the Roberts court.New Congressional Black Caucus members are testing traditions that could alter the group’s trajectory.

Democratic leaders hope to pass a rule on Monday night for debating the budget measure, the infrastructure bill and an unrelated voting rights bill.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

House Democrats are ending their summer break on Monday, amid finger-pointing and rising tensions, to try to pave the legislative way for the most ambitious expansion of the nation’s social safety net in a half century.

But the divisions emerging over an arcane budget measure needed to shield a $3.5 trillion social policy bill from a filibuster are exposing deep strains in the Democratic Party over ideology, generational divides and the fruits of power and incumbency.

The stalemate by now is well known: Nine moderate or conservative Democrats have rebelled against their party’s leaders and say they will block consideration of the budget blueprint necessary to allow the social policy measure championed by the party’s left flank to pass this fall with only Democratic backing unless the House immediately votes on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill. A broader coalition of 19 Blue Dog Democrats also want the infrastructure vote to come as soon as possible.

The clamor for a quick victory on infrastructure, both for congressional Democrats and President Biden, has only grown louder amid the anguish over Afghanistan. Democratic leaders hope to pass a rule on Monday night for debating the budget measure, the infrastructure bill and an unrelated voting rights bill, with final votes scheduled for Tuesday.

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and dozens of progressive Democrats are equally adamant that the infrastructure vote will happen only after the Senate approves an ambitious bill that includes universal preschool, two years of free community college, paid family leave, federal support for child care and elder care, an expansion of Medicare, and a broad effort to convert the fossil fuel economy to one based on renewable, clean energy.

The left-right divide, however, oversimplifies the swirling undercurrents that are roiling the Democratic Party.

Some of the same Democrats confronting their leaders on the budget resolution have allied with them to fight off challenges from the insurgent Democratic left in the coming primary season. Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a leader of the recalcitrant nine, founded the Team Blue political action committee with Representatives Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and Terri A. Sewell of Alabama, to defend incumbent Democrats against primary opponents.

The efforts have left liberals feeling aggrieved and worried that the Democratic establishment is actually hurting the party — by sapping the vital energy of younger voters.

President Biden took questions on Sunday after delivering remarks on Hurricane Henri and the situation in Afghanistan.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

As the evacuation from Afghanistan plunged more deeply into chaos and violence, President Biden is considering extending the deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw, amid a groundswell of pressure from global leaders and veterans concerned that a security vacuum could risk lethal consequences.

Violent clashes at Kabul’s airport on Monday reinforced fears that the American withdrawal will aggravate the already precarious security situation. In recent days, the United States has scrambled to control the mayhem at the airport as thousands of Afghans try desperately to flee the Taliban, with surging crowds turning deadly. Britain’s Defense Ministry, which has troops at the airport, said on Sunday that seven Afghan civilians had died in the crowds, where people have been trampled to death, including a toddler.

Mr. Biden said on Sunday that his administration might extend his Aug. 31 deadline, and he pledged that all evacuated Afghan allies would be given a home in the United States after they are screened and vetted at bases in other countries.

American officials had estimated on Tuesday that 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. citizens were in Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. William Taylor of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff said on Saturday that about 2,500 Americans had been evacuated since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban took Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore holding a news conference in the Southeast Asian nation on Monday.Credit…Pool photo by Evelyn Hockstein

Facing rising pressure over the United States’ haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan, Vice President Kamala Harris said on Monday that the Biden administration was “singularly focused” on evacuating American citizens and Afghan allies.

Ms. Harris’s comments, at a news conference in Singapore, came at the start of her weeklong trip to Southeast Asia that is aimed at strengthening economic ties and countering China’s growing sway in the region.

Instead, her joint news conference with Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, was dominated by questions about the chaotic execution of the withdrawal, which has prompted criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and leaders from around the world.

“Right now we are singularly focused on evacuating American citizens, Afghanistan who worked with us and Afghans who are vulnerable, including women and children,” Ms. Harris said. “That is a singular focus at this time.”

The remarks came after the White House detailed a series of new agreements with Singapore to bolster partnerships to address climate change, cyberthreats and the pandemic. Ms. Harris has also said the administration is focused on working with Southeast Asian nations to address supply-chain issues, including a global shortage in semiconductors that are used to build cars and computers. More broadly, the trip is part of the Biden administration’s goal to refocus its national security strategy on competing with the rising influence of China.

Still, the beginning of her trip has been overshadowed by the widely criticized exit of American troops from Afghanistan. The military has evacuated tens of thousands of people from the Afghan capital since Aug. 14, although thousands of Americans and Afghan allies remain in limbo. Thousands of Afghans seeking to escape the Taliban have rushed to the airport amid violence and several deaths.

Standing alongside Mr. Lee, Ms. Harris said her presence in Singapore, as well as the agreements reached during the visit, should assure allies that the United States remains a credible partner.

“I am standing here because of our commitment to a longstanding relationship, which is an enduring relationship, with the Indo-Pacific region, with Southeast Asian countries and, in particular, with Singapore,” Ms. Harris said.

After the meeting with the two leaders, Mr. Lee said he had offered to send one of Singapore’s military planes to assist in the effort to evacuate Afghan interpreters, guides and others who assisted or worked for the United States. Ms. Harris said the United States would follow up on the offer.

“We hope Afghanistan does not become an epicenter for terrorism again, and post-Afghanistan in the longer term, what matters is how the U.S. repositions itself in the Asia Pacific, engages the broader region and continues the fight against terrorism,” Mr. Lee said.

In what is likely to be a reprieve for Americans living in Singapore and U.S. businesses looking to continue work in the region, Mr. Lee also said he was now able to “to contemplate vaccinated, safe, quarantine-free travel” with other nations and that would continue conversations with the United States on easing pandemic travel restrictions.

“It’s something which we have strongly in mind, because it’s important for Singapore as a hub to be able to reopen and to operate safely, and for people to travel back and forth to do business and to keep ourselves connected with the world,” Mr. Lee said. “And the U.S. is one of the countries which we will be pursuing these conversations with.”

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, has issued a formal advisory declaring misinformation an “urgent threat” to public health.Credit…Tom Brenner/Reuters

Dr. Vivek Murthy, President Biden’s surgeon general, renewed the administration’s attack on coronavirus misinformation of Sunday, two days after The New York Times reported that Facebook had shelved a study showing that its most-viewed link during the first three months of the year was to an article that suggested a link between a Covid-19 vaccine and a Florida doctor’s death.

“The speed, scale and sophistication with which it is spreading and impacting our health is really unprecedented,” Dr. Murthy said of coronavirus misinformation during an appearance on CNN on Sunday. “And it’s happening largely, in part, aided and abetted by social media platforms.”

The Biden administration has aggressively and publicly pressured social media companies such as Facebook to share more data about false and misleading information on their sites, and to tamp down its spread. Mr. Biden at one point accused Facebook of “killing people” by allowing false information to circulate widely, before later softening his position.

For his part, Dr. Murthy has issued a formal advisory in which he declared misinformation “an urgent threat” to public health.

Facebook — which has pushed back by publicly accusing the White House of scapegoating it — this week released its first public quarterly report about the most viewed posts in the United States, for the quarter that includes April, May and June.

But only after The Times reported on Friday that the company had prepared a similar report for the first three months of the year did the company produce that initial report.

The report showed that the most viewed link on the platform was a news story with a headline suggesting that a coronavirus vaccine was at fault for the death of a Florida doctor. Misinformation peddlers used the article to question the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines on Facebook. It also revealed that a Facebook page for The Epoch Times, which routinely spreads misinformation, was among the 20 most popular pages on the social network.

Dr. Murthy’s remarks on the issue of misinformation and its spread came after he was asked about reports of people taking an anti-parasite drug to treat Covid-19. “It is costing us in terms of people’s health,” he said.

Asked specifically about Facebook having disclosed the popularity of the news article that was seen to reduce confidence in the coronavirus vaccines, Dr. Murthy said it reinforced the fact that “there is a lot of misinformation circulating on these sites.”

“I will readily say that the sites have recognized that this is a challenge, and they’ve stepped up to do some things to reduce the spread of misinformation. And I credit them for that,” he said. “But it’s not nearly enough.”

“There are people who are superspreaders of misinformation,” he added. “And there are algorithms, still, which continue to serve up more and more misinformation to people who encounter it the first time. These are things that companies can and must change. And I think they have a moral responsibility to do so quickly and transparently.”

Executives at Facebook, including Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive, have said the platform has been aggressively removing Covid-19 misinformation since the start of the pandemic.

Pfizer said it presented the Food and Drug Administration with data from 44,000 clinical trial participants in United States, the European Union, Turkey, South Africa and South America.Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and older, making it the first to move beyond emergency use status in the United States.

The decision will set off a cascade of vaccine requirements by hospitals, colleges, corporations and other organizations. United Airlines recently announced that its employees will be required to show proof of vaccination within five weeks of regulatory approval.

Oregon has adopted a similar requirement for all state workers, as have a host of universities in states from Louisiana to Minnesota. The Pentagon has said it would mandate the shots for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops once the Pfizer approval came through.

The approval comes as the nation’s fight against the pandemic has intensified again, with the highly infectious Delta variant dramatically slowing the progress that the country had made over the first half of the year. The Biden administration hopes the development will motivate at least some of the roughly 85 million unvaccinated Americans who are eligible for shots to get them.

President Biden is planning to commemorate it in a speech urging vaccination scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Eastern time on Monday afternoon. “If you’re not vaccinated yet, now is the time,” the president said on Twitter.

“While millions of people have already safely received Covid-19 vaccines, we recognize that for some, the F.D.A. approval of a vaccine may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting F.D.A. commissioner, said in a statement. “Today’s milestone puts us one step closer to altering the course of this pandemic in the U.S.”

Pfizer said it presented the F.D.A. with data from 44,000 clinical trial participants in United States, the European Union, Turkey, South Africa and South America. The company said the data showed the vaccine was 91 percent effective in preventing infection — a slight drop from the 95 percent efficacy rate that the data showed when the F.D.A. decided to authorize the vaccine for emergency use in December. Pfizer said the decrease reflected the fact that researchers had more time to catch people who became infected.

A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking public attitudes during the pandemic, found that three of every 10 unvaccinated people said that they would be more likely to get vaccinated with a shot that had been fully approved.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will continue to be authorized for emergency use for children ages 12 to 15 while Pfizer collects the necessary data required for full approval. A decision on whether to authorize the vaccine for children younger than 12 could be at least several months away. So far, more than 92 million Americans — 54 percent of those fully inoculated — have gotten Pfizer shots. Most of the rest received Moderna’s vaccine.

Dr. Peter Marks, the F.D.A.’s top vaccine regulator, said that the Pfizer vaccine’s licensure followed a rigorous review of hundreds of thousands of pages of data and included inspections of the factories where the vaccine is produced. “The public and medical community can be confident that although we approved this vaccine expeditiously, it was fully in keeping with our existing high standards for vaccines in the U.S.,” he said.

Health experts and state officials welcomed the development. With the Delta variant driving up caseloads across the country, “full approval could not come at a more important time,” said Dr. Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Foundation and former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It is time for schools, businesses, health care facilities, and other indoor places where people congregate to mandate Covid-19 vaccines for admittance for all who are vaccine-eligible,” he added.

Some experts have estimated that full approval might convince just five percent of those who are unvaccinated to get shots. Even if that’s so, “that’s still a huge slice of people,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the chief health officer for Mississippi, a state that is particularly hard hit by the Delta variant. He said licensure will help “shake loose this false assertion that the vaccines are an ‘experimental’ thing.”

The F.D.A. is in the midst of a decision-making marathon related to coronavirus vaccines. The next major one looming for regulators is whether or not to authorize booster shots. The Biden administration said last week that pending the agency’s clearance, it will offer third shots to adults who got the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines eight months after their second injection, starting Sept. 20. Third shots are already authorized for some people with immune deficiencies, but the risk-benefit calculus is different for the general population.

Federal health officials said that both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccines, which rely on similar technology, wane in potency over time. That trend, they said, is converging with the rise of the particularly dangerous Delta variant, making those who completed their vaccinations at the start of the year increasingly vulnerable to infection.

Some health experts have challenged the decision to recommend booster shots as premature, saying the data shows that the vaccines are holding up well against severe disease and hospitalization, including against the Delta variant. Boosters would only be warranted if the vaccines were failing to prevent hospitalizations with Covid-19, some of those experts have said.

Regulators are still reviewing Moderna’s application for full approval of its vaccine. That decision could take several weeks. Johnson & Johnson is expected to apply soon for full approval.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has led the Supreme Court through rulings that have weakened the Voting Right Act.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

When Judge John G. Roberts Jr. faced the Senate for his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in September 2005, critics sounded the alarm about his longstanding skepticism toward the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which many view as crucial to the political gains of Black Americans over the last half century.

“I fear that if Judge Roberts is confirmed to be chief justice of the United States, the Supreme Court would no longer hear the people’s cries for justice,” Representative John Lewis, the civil rights leader from Georgia, said in urging the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject the nomination.

Judge Roberts was easily confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate despite pleas from Mr. Lewis and other civil rights activists. He went on to oversee the court in rulings that weakened the Voting Right Acts, compromising its decades-long role as a protector of minority access to the ballot box across much of the South. Mr. Lewis died last July, just months before Republican state legislatures enacted an onslaught of voting restrictions after the 2020 elections.

While Mr. Lewis may be gone, House Democrats hope to keep his spirit alive by passing a bill bearing his name next week that they hope will offset what Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called “disastrous” and “shameful” decisions undermining voting rights by the Roberts-led court.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is one element of a two-pronged legislative effort by Democrats to protect minority voting rights. A much broader bill, the For the People Act, would impose an array of requirements on states to expand voting by mail and early voting along with extensive provisions on ethics, campaign finance and redistricting. The bill named for Mr. Lewis is narrower and focuses on restoring the power of the Voting Rights Act. Both measures face a bleak future in the Senate, where Republicans are nearly unanimous in their opposition to them.

But Democrats, who control the evenly divided chamber with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote, say they have not given up. They are scaling back the broader bill to unite their party for coming votes. The Lewis measure already has the backing of all 50 senators who caucus with Democratic leadership and a lone Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — far from the minimum of 10 Republicans needed to overcome a filibuster.

The Lewis measure is aimed at reinvigorating the voting protections Democrats say were lost in two Supreme Court decisions that “gutted” the landmark underlying law — Shelby County v. Holder and Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee.

The Congressional Black Caucus is a firm part of the Democratic establishment, close to House leadership and the relationship-driven world of political consulting and campaigns.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

The Congressional Black Caucus is the largest it has ever been, jumping to 57 members this year after a period of steady growth. The 50-year-old group, which includes most Black members of Congress and is entirely Democratic, is also more diverse, reflecting growing pockets of the Black electorate: millennials, progressives, suburban voters, those less tightly moored to the Democratic Party.

But while a thread of social justice connects one generation to the next, the influx of new members from varying backgrounds is testing the group’s long-held traditions in ways that could alter the future of Black political power in Washington.

The newcomers, shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement rather than the civil rights era, urge Democrats to go on the offensive regarding race and policing, pushing an affirmative message about how to overhaul public safety. They seek a bolder strategy on voting rights and greater investment in the recruitment and support of Black candidates.

Perhaps more significant than any ideological or age divide, however, is the caucus’s fault line of political origin stories — between those who made the Democratic establishment work for them and those who had to overcome the establishment to win.

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, a Democrat and the most powerful Black lawmaker in the House, said in an interview that the group still functioned as a family. But that family has grown to include people like Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, an outspoken progressive who defeated a caucus member in a hotly contested primary last year, and Representative Lauren Underwood of Illinois, whose district is overwhelmingly white.

“There was not a single member of the caucus, when I got there, that could have gotten elected in a congressional district that was only 4 percent African American,” Mr. Clyburn said, referring to Ms. Underwood.

“We didn’t have people in the caucus before who could stand up and say, ‘I know what it’s like to live in an automobile or be homeless,'” he said of Ms. Bush, whose recent dayslong sit-in on the Capitol steps pushed President Biden’s administration to extend an eviction moratorium.

In interviews, more than 20 people close to the C.B.C. — including several members, their senior aides and other Democrats who have worked with the group — described the shifting dynamics of the leading organization of Black power players in Washington.

The caucus is a firm part of the Democratic establishment, close to House leadership and the relationship-driven world of political consulting and campaigns. However, unlike other groups tied to party leaders, the caucus is perhaps the country’s most public coalition of civil rights stalwarts, ostensibly responsible for ensuring that an insider game shaped by whiteness can work for Black people.

Today, the C.B.C. has swelling ranks and a president who has said he owes his election to Black Democrats. There is a strong chance that when Speaker Nancy Pelosi eventually steps down, her successor will be a member of the group. At the same time, the new lawmakers and their supporters are challenging the group with a simple question: Whom should the Congressional Black Caucus be for?

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