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Biden says he's willing to negotiate on infrastructure, but some Republicans aren't buying it

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden kicked off the brokering process on his more than $2 trillion infrastructure bill Monday, meeting with bipartisan members of the House and Senate at the White House.

But after Biden's failure to secure any bipartisan support on his COVID-19 relief package, GOP lawmakers are expressing skepticism that offers of compromise are genuine.

"I'm prepared to negotiate ... the extent of the -- of my infrastructure project, as well as how we pay for it. But I think we need to get into a serious conversation about how we do that," Biden said at the beginning of the Monday meeting, conveying that he is willing to compromise on what the bill contains.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was not among the invited guests at the White House Monday, questioned whether such promises are mere lip service.

"The question before us is this: is this outreach the beginning of a true negotiation or is the administration so wedded to the details of its plan, including its exorbitant top line, that these are just courtesy briefings?" Collins said in a statement.

Collins was one of 10 Republican senators who met with Biden to negotiate the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package earlier this year. Biden hosted that group for his first Oval Office meeting, receiving a COVID-19 relief counter-proposal about one-third as big as the White House's package. The smaller package got little traction after the initial meeting.

Now, the White House hopes to kick off a more productive negotiation process on infrastructure, aiming to find middle ground on an expansive plan that has drawn Republican criticism for being a progressive wish list.

"It's going to get down to what we call infrastructure," Biden said Monday.

"I think broadband is infrastructure. It's not just roads, bridges, highways, et cetera. That's what we're going to talking about, and I'm confident everything's gonna work out perfectly," he added with a laugh.

On the campaign trail, Biden pitched himself as a bipartisan dealmaker capable of striking deals to earn support from members of both parties. However, Biden failed to win the support of any Republicans on his first legislative undertaking, pushing his massive $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package through Congress without a single Republican vote.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday insisted Biden's stated willingness to negotiate is genuine, despite forging ahead without any bipartisan support on COVID relief.

"You don't use the president of the United State's time, multiple times over, including two infrastructure meetings -- bipartisan infrastructure meetings he's already had or the meeting today -- if he did not want to authentically hear from the members attending about their ideas about how to move forward this package in a bipartisan manner," Psaki told reporters.

Biden also dismissed the criticism ahead of the meeting, saying "I'm not big on window dressing."

While the White House has sought to assure Republicans their commitment to negotiating is real, the administration has also made it clear they intend to move on the package without Republican support if needed.

"The president has said, we have to get this done. So inaction is not an option. But there is a strong preference for the president, the administration, certainly for me to do these things in regular order," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Sunday.

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Biden calls for investigation into Minnesota police shooting

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden said that the police shooting of Daunte Wright in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota on Sunday was a "really tragic thing that happened" and called for an investigation into the incident.

"The question is: was it an accident? Was it intentional? That remains to be determined by a full blown investigation," Biden said.

The incident unfolded Sunday afternoon, when officers initiated a stop for an expired registration tag on a vehicle in Minnesota's Hennepin County, about 10 miles northwest of Minneapolis. During the traffic stop, the officers determined that the driver of the vehicle had an outstanding gross misdemeanor warrant, according to Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon. At a news conference Monday afternoon, Gannon said he believes the female officer intended to deploy a stun gun when she "accidentally" shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright.

Body camera footage of the incident was released Monday afternoon by the police department, a few hours before Biden spoke to reporters in the Oval Office.

Biden asked protesters to maintain "peace and calm" and cited calls from Daunte Wright's mother, Katie Wright, to maintain peace in the city.

"We're calling for peace, calm -- and we should listen to Daunte's mom, who is calling for peace and calm," he said.

He acknowledged the "anger, pain and trauma" in the Black community -- which saw a racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd by police in the summer of 2020 and is in the midst of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derick Chauvin, who is charged with murder -- but Biden said, "I want to make it clear again, there is absolutely no justification -- none -- for looting."

"No justification for violence," he continued.

The president said he has been in touch with local officials and Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott tweeted a photo of himself on the phone on Monday, after he said he had just gotten off the phone with Biden.

"Let me first say we are incredibly saddened to hear about the loss of life at the hands of law enforcement in Minnesota yesterday," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said about the incident Monday afternoon.

"I would say it is a reminder of the pain, the anger, the trauma, the exhaustion that many communities across the country have felt as we have seen these incidents continue to occur within just a few miles of where the tragic events happened just a year ago," Psaki said.

This comes on the same day that the White House announced that it was abandoning the initiative to create a police oversight commission, which was one of Biden's policy promises. Psaki emphasized that activist groups supported the move away from the commission.

"The strong consensus from all of these groups is that the work should be focused on trying to pass the George Floyd Act and the commission would not be the most constructive way to deliver on our top priorities, so we are working together collectively to do exactly that," Psaki said.

Instead, the White House said they would focus on the passage of the George Floyd policing Act in Congress. Psaki emphasized that "addressing racial equity" and putting into place reforms is a priority, but didn't give specifics about efforts to move the bill ahead.

"It is something he looks forward to continuing to discuss with members of Congress. He believes that there is a path forward, that this piece of legislation offers that path forward and he has certainly will use the power of his presidency to move it forward," Psaki said.

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Boehner lashes out at Trump, saying he 'abused' voters' trust

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(NEW YORK) -- Former House Speaker John Boehner on Monday kept up his harsh criticism of former President Donald Trump's role in the Jan. 6 riots, saying he "abused" the trust voters placed in him.

Boehner, who resigned his post in 2015 citing turmoil in the Republican Party, has repeatedly criticized Trump and fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in recent appearances promoting a new book, including Monday on ABC's The View.

"I watched before the election, hearing the president talk about the election going to be stolen from him, then when we get into the post-election months and he kept talking about how the election was being stolen. I kept looking for facts," Boehner said. "Unfortunately I never saw any facts, I don't think the American people ever saw any facts. The saddest part is the president abused the loyalty and the trust that voters placed in him by perpetuating this noise. It was really one of the sadder things I've seen in the last 40 years in politics."

Boehner has not been silent about his dismay over the events on Jan. 6, as stated in a tweet the day after the riots.

"The invasion of our Capitol by a mob, incited by lies from some entrusted with power, is a disgrace to all who sacrificed to build our Republic," Boehner said at the time.

A spokesman for Trump, Jason Miller, responded to attacks from Boehner in the New York Times saying, "Was he drinking when he made this statement? Just another RINO who couldn’t do the job!"

Speaking on The View about his new book, On the House: A Washington Memoir, which chronicles his four years as House speaker and shows him with his trademark glass of merlot wine on the cover, Boehner was asked about far-right factions growing in the Republican Party, with The View host Sunny Hostin citing Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.

"I should say that 90% of the members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are really good decent people trying to do the right thing for the American people every day. There's a fringe in both parties that make it difficult for the leaders, frankly, to lead," Boehner said. "These days both parties are being held hostage by the loudest voices in their parties."

Boehner also took swipes at Sen. Cruz, R-Texas, calling him "Lucifer in the flesh," and criticizing what he called Cruz's meddling with GOP House members during his time as speaker.

"He's coming over to the House side of the Capitol stirring up some of my knuckleheads and pushing them to do things that were the dumbest thing I've ever seen in my life. He was not even a member of our caucus," Boehner said. "Just a bit bizarre that I've never seen happen before or since like the activities of Ted Cruz."

Cruz has recently responded in their ongoing political feud, saying, "If you don’t speak Swamp-creature, here’s the translation: 'stirring up some of the crazies of my own caucus to cause all kinds of problems' means, 'encouraging elected Members of Congress to actually honor the promises they made to the voters & DO WHAT THEY SAID THEY WOULD DO.'"

Boehner was also asked about President Joe Biden's willingness to work across the aisle, especially after Biden has faced criticism from Republicans for achieving his agenda without input from Republicans.

"He's a traditional Democrat, what he's trying to do is hold his party together. There's a skirmish going on between the progressive wing of the Democratic party and the traditional west wing of the Democratic party. Up to this point, President Biden has been keeping close to the progressive wing at the expense of working with Republicans to work in a bipartisan way. He's got a very difficult job in his party these days. He's got a very difficult job as it is being president. I'm hopeful that here in the coming weeks we'll see President Biden reaching out," the former House speaker said.

Boehner also said the book, which will be released Tuesday, is a reflection of his time in one of the nation's highest offices.

"After I retired, I thought I had a pretty interesting life, very interesting career. I have a few stories and people might find it interesting. Then you take a couple years to get around and then putting the book together, and we finally got there. There was no intent to delay or no intent to wait," Boehner said. "Once you get out of office, I've been out of office five years, you have a little time to reflect."

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Biden picks 1st woman to be Army secretary

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(WASHINGTON) -- In a historic nomination, President Joe Biden has nominated Christine Wormuth to serve as the secretary of the Army.

If confirmed by the Senate, Wormuth -- who once served as the Pentagon's top policy official in the final years of the Obama administration -- would be the first woman to serve in the position.

Also nominated to two other top Pentagon posts were former California Rep. Gil Cisneros to be the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Susanna Blume to serve as the director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE).

A veteran national security official with previous experience at the Pentagon, Wormuth also served at the director for defense policy at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

Wormuth has most recently worked as the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation and was an influential player in the Biden transition team at the Pentagon where she headed the Biden-Harris Defense Agency Review Team.

"Christine is a true patriot with a dedicated career in service to America and our nation's security," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement issued while he is traveling in Berlin.

"As the former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Christine advanced the department's counter-ISIS campaign and the rebalance to Asia, and her deep expertise will be critical in addressing and determining today's global threats, including the pacing challenge from China and nation-state threats emanating from Russia, Iran, and North Korea," said Austin. "I have no doubt that, if confirmed, she will lead our soldiers and represent their families with honor and integrity as the Secretary of the Army."

The Biden administration has lagged in naming top officials at several national security agencies, particularly at the Pentagon where career civilians have been working in positions that normally require Senate confirmation.

Until Wormuth's nomination this week, none of the civilian heads of the military services had been nominated by the White House.

The three Pentagon nominations on Monday were included among almost a dozen national security nominations that included Christy Abizaid to be the next director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

"Defending our nation from enemies foreign and domestic requires a deeply experienced and capable team grounded in a commitment to our nation's ideals and a keen understanding of the sweeping challenges facing our arm forces today," said Austin. "The president's nominations today will help us build that team."

"Christine Wormuth, Gil Cisneros and Susanna Blume represent decades of combined expertise in national security, and we are positioned to take on the crises we face in the current moment and prepare ourselves for the threats of tomorrow," he continued. "I urge the Senate to confirm them soon, so that they can take up this critical work."

Cisneros was a one-term Democratic congressman who represented California's 39th Congressional District before losing his re-election bid in 2020.

During his time in Congress, the 50-year-old Cisneros served on the House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committee. After the death of Army Spc. Venessa Guillen, Cisneros participated in discussions on the status of Latinos in the Army and helped introduce the I Am Vanessa Guillén Act that would make sexual harassment a crime within the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

He became a philanthropist in 2010 after he won a $266 million Mega Millions jackpot shortly after he had been laid off from a manager's position at Frito-Lay.

Prior to her nomination, Blume has already been performing the duties of the director of CAPE. She has held multiple policy and budget positions at the Pentagon and was most recently the Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

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Dwayne Johnson reacts to new poll finding Americans would vote for him for president

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(NEW YORK) -- Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was very flattered to find that one poll result showed nearly 50% would apparently support his political aspirations should he ever decide to run for president.

Last week, a poll from Piplsay, which surveyed over 30,000 people, found that 46% of Americans want the upcoming Black Adam star to run for the highest office in the nation.

Over the weekend, Johnson reacted to the shocking report and joked over the possibility of adding the country's top job to his already extensive resume.

The former WWE star said he found the results "humbling" and added, "I don’t think our Founding Fathers EVER envisioned a six-four, bald, tattooed, half-Black, half-Samoan, tequila drinking, pick up truck driving, fanny pack wearing guy joining their club."

Interestingly enough, Johnson didn't rule out a potential run for president in the future, but closed out his post by declaring, "If it ever happens it’d be my honor to serve you, the people."

Johnson's more than 228 million Instagram followers applauded the possibility of voting for him, with some even asking the 48-year-old what could be stopping him from jumping into politics.

As for whether or not Johnson is actually serious about pursuing a career in politics, only time will tell.

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GOP willing to negotiate on infrastructure but wants improvement from COVID talks: Wicker

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(WASHINGTON) -- Despite many Republicans signaling they do not support President Joe Biden's infrastructure proposal, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said on ABC's "This Week" that the GOP is willing to negotiate on a smaller package.

"I'm meeting with the president tomorrow," the senator told "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, referring to Biden's meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

"We are willing to negotiate with him on an infrastructure package. And this trillion dollar number is way too high for me -- I'll just say -- but negotiation has to be something different from what we had on the rescue plan," he continued.

Wicker's comments to Stephanopoulos echo the sentiment of 10 moderate Senate GOP lawmakers who signed a joint statement on Thursday, accusing Biden of "roundly dismissing" bipartisan talks during his last bipartisan meeting on the COVID relief bill.

"The administration roundly dismissed our effort as wholly inadequate in order to justify its go-it-alone strategy," the statement read. "Fewer than 24 hours after our meeting in the Oval Office, the Senate Democratic Leader began the process of triggering reconciliation which precluded Republican participation and allowed for the package to pass without a single Republican vote."

Stephanopoulos asked Wicker to respond to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who appeared in an earlier interview on "This Week.”

"You just heard Secretary Granholm, right there, said the only way America is going to win is if they pass this package now," Stephanopoulos said.

"Well, listen, we're willing to negotiate a much smaller package," Wicker said. "Americans voted for a pragmatic moderate that they thought Joe Biden was. Where is that centrist candidate they thought they were voting for back in November of last year?"

Biden has said that he welcomes debate on his $2 trillion plan but added that a narrowly focused infrastructure bill proposed by the GOP "is just not rational."

Wicker explained why the GOP wants a smaller infrastructure package.

"You've got a proposal here of the $2.3 trillion, 70% of which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called infrastructure," Wicker said.

"This is a massive social welfare spending program combined with a massive tax increase on small business job creators," he continued. "I can't think of a worse tax to put on the American people than -- than to raise taxes on small business job creators, which is what this bill would do."

Stephanopoulos pressed Wicker on why the GOP is not reconsidering its opposition to a corporate tax increase to fund infrastructure after some of America's biggest corporations expressed support for it, even to a level lower than it was before former President Donald Trump's tax cuts went into effect.

The corporate tax rate stood at 35% prior to the Trump administration's tax cuts that dropped it to 21%. Biden's proposal will raise the rate to 28%.

"The evidence that those tax cuts actually increase any kind of investment is minimal," Stephanopoulos said.

"Well, I totally disagree," Wicker responded. "Back in February of 2020, before the COVID recession hit us, unemployment rate was 3.5%, an unheard of low amount."

"I think the tax package of 2017 really was our signature accomplishment, and it ushered in -- and was about to usher in before the pandemic took over -- it was about to usher in even greater economic growth," he continued.

Although it appears a corporate tax increase is a non-starter for Republicans, Wicker said they are still willing to go big on infrastructure.

"I think we can get somewhere and have a much bigger infrastructure package than we were able to do under the last administration." Wicker said.

"I'm in favor of that, and I think the majority of Republicans are, and we can get a lot of Democrats to help us on that," he added.

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Michigan's COVID cases surge to alarming levels, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rejects new mandates

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(WASHINGTON) — With her state battling the biggest surge of new COVID-19 cases in the nation, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she will not issue new mandates to blunt the outbreak, relying instead on the common sense of a citizenry now experienced in struggling with the deadly virus for over a year.

Data from state health officials shows Michigan has surpassed 100,000 active COVID-19 cases in the last week, the highest number since mid-November. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks the Wolverine State's COVID-19 infection rate as No. 1 in the country with 492.1 positive infections per 100,000 people.

The disturbing rise in cases appears to stem from the spread of the B-117 variant, also known as the U.K. variant, a more deadly and transmissible mutant comprising 70% of new coronavirus cases in Michigan, according to state and CDC data. The state has the highest number of U.K. variant cases in the nation, according to the CDC.

Hospitals throughout Michigan are also reporting a 30% increase in hospital admissions over the past week.

"We really have a race between the vaccination, which is coming and we're getting a lot more of it, and the infections which are right now ... in a fourth surge," said Dr. Ora Pescovitz, a pediatrician and the president of Oakland University, told ABC affiliate station WXYZ in Detroit.

Despite the startling stats, Whitmer, who has previously come under attack for her stringent stay-at-home orders and was even the target of a foiled kidnapping plot, says she is not planning to roll back already loosened regulations for reopening the state, which now allows for 50% in-door dining at restaurants and public schools to reopen for in-classing learning.

During a news conference on Friday, Whitmer urged residents to avoid indoor dining for two weeks and for high schools to consider going back to virtual learning for two weeks. She also wants to hit pause on organized youth sports.

"To be very clear, these are not orders, mandates, or requirements. A year in, we all know what works and this has to be a team effort. We have to do this together. Lives depend on it," Whitmer said. "There's light at the end of this tunnel, but the recent rise in cases is a reminder that we are still in the tunnel. That's the nature of this virus, the second we let our guard down it comes roaring back."

Whitmer said she asked President Joe Biden on Thursday to ramp up the supply of Michigan's COVID-19 vaccine allocations, specifically, the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot, saying it's essential to efforts to combat the outbreak hitting her state.

White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said at a news conference on Friday that the Biden administration has no plans to redirect vaccine doses from other states to ones like hard-hit Michigan, saying, "There are tens of millions of people across the country in each and every state and county who have not yet been vaccinated."

"The fair and equitable way to distribute the vaccine is based on the adult population by state, tribe and territory," Zients said. "That’s how it's been done, and we will continue to do so. The virus is unpredictable. We don’t know where the next increase in cases could occur.”

As of April 7, roughly 39% of Michigan residents age 16 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine and about 24.4% are fully vaccinated, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

Regardless of its efforts to inoculate its residents, the state has seen its daily confirmed COVID cases dramatically rise by 415% since Feb. 19 among people 20 to 29 years old, according to Michigan Medicine, formerly known as the University of Michigan Health System.

The state recently announced it is teaming up with 26 colleges and universities in an effort to vaccinate students before they head home for summer break. On Thursday, the state said nearly 16,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses are being shipped to the health departments of those colleges and universities to administer.

"Vaccinating this group of the population right now makes a lot of sense as thousands of college and university students near the end of their academic year and are preparing to travel back home, start new jobs, take summer vacations, and interact with their family and friends," Northern Michigan University President Fritz Erickson said in a statement.

"We appreciate this initiative by the state to keep college students safe," Erickson added. "This effort will protect not only the age group that is now seeing a higher rate of infection than before, but it protects communities and families across the state from the spread of the virus due to the mass movement of college students that takes place over the next few weeks.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the state's immediate goal is "vaccinating at least 70% of Michiganders age 16 and up as quickly as possible."

Dr. Aimee Gordon, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told WXYZ that while the U.K. variant appears to be raging across the state, it is not the only reason the contagion is out of control. She said COVID-19 fatigue has also set in across the state, prompting residents, particularly younger people, to let down their guard when it comes to mask-wearing and social distancing.

"I think in general people are getting exhausted," Gordon said.

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Biden willing to negotiate aspects of $2 trillion infrastructure plan: Energy Secretary Granholm

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(NEW YORK) — President Joe Biden could alter some terms of his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal and may be open to breaking it up into several smaller packages, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

"The president is willing to negotiate what this looks like," Granhom told "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos. "He knows that his current plan is going to be changed. That's the nature of compromise, so whether it is in one big package or several packages, he wants to talk to Republicans.”

Given the bipartisan interest in adopting new infrastructure and updating old technology, Granholm said Biden wants to achieve bipartisan support.

"A lot of the Republicans that he's talking to have actually introduced bills that are consonant with what's in this package," she said. "These are things that Democrats and Republicans know need to happen. It's just a question of the process to be able to get to the finish line."

Biden is set to meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers Monday to discuss his infrastructure plan. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., told Stephanopoulos in a separate interview that he's going to be at the meeting and said the infrastructure negotiations have "to be something different from what we had on the rescue plan."

Stephanopoulos pressed Granholm on the potential timeframe to negotiate before pursuing an alternative path.

"How much time is the president willing to give the Republican Party to see if there really can be bipartisanship, before he goes for Democrats-alone strategy on reconciliation?" he asked, referring to the process where the proposal could pass the narrowly held Democratic Senate with a simple majority.

Granholm said the plan was a top priority of Biden's, adding "not doing something is not an option."

"I do think the president wants to give it the time necessary to see if he can achieve that bipartisan support. So, you know, hopefully there will be progress by Memorial Day. I know that he wants to get this done by summer," she added. "We are still 8.4 million jobs in the hole.”

Republicans aren't the only members of Congress resisting Biden's plan. Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, who has shown opposition to Biden's plan and proposed corporate tax hike.

Granholm argued Manchin, whose state relies on the coal industry, should back the proposal for creating clean-energy alternatives for coal mining jobs.

"Republicans and Democrats agree -- agree upon the importance of not leaving communities behind where the market has moved in a different direction, like in coal," Granhom told Stephanopoulos. "And so this will help to train people who are in that industry to move to these new technologies, that are not a whole lot different from the skills that they may be using in mining coal. It will help to make sure that these industries are able to remove carbon from their emissions.”

Stephanopoulos challenged Granholm on the perceived necessity of economic recovery.

"We are still in the hole, but the economy is starting to grow at a rapid clip. Do you think that's going to be make it more difficult to get the support you need right now?" he asked, referring to the process where the proposal could pass the narrowly held Democratic Senate with a simple majority.

Granholm credited the Biden administration's vaccine rollout.

"Even though the economy is growing, it's growing because of the excellent execution that this administration has made on getting shots in arms, and in getting checks in people's pockets. This is actually recovery," she said of the infrastructure proposal.

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House Ethics Committee opens investigation into Rep. Matt Gaetz

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(WASHINGTON) -- The House Ethics Committee has opened a bipartisan investigation into the wide-ranging allegations against Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., as he grapples with a Justice Department investigation into alleged sex trafficking, the panel said in a statement Friday.

The inquiry, according to a statement from the panel's Democratic and Republican leaders, will review allegations of sexual misconduct, illegal drug use, misuse of state identification records and campaign funds, and whether the congressman accepted a bribe or gift in violation of House rules.

Gaetz will also be investigated over allegations that he shared photos and videos of naked women with other members of Congress on the House floor, claims first reported by CNN and confirmed by ABC News.

Gaetz, who has not been charged in connection with the probe, has denied any wrongdoing.

"Once again, the office will reiterate, these allegations are blatantly false and have not been validated by a single human being willing to put their name behind them," his office said in a statement Friday.

Gaetz was defiant in a speaking appearance at the "Save America Summit" fundraiser at Trump Doral on Friday night.

"The smears against me range from distortions of my personal life to wild -- and I mean wild -- conspiracy theories," he told the audience. "I won't be intimidated by a lying media, and I won't be extorted by a former DOJ official and the crooks he is working with. The truth will prevail.”

The House Ethics Committee can recommend action to the full House, including a reprimand, censure or expulsion. The first two require a simple majority, but expulsion requires a two-thirds vote of the chamber.

It can also make criminal referrals to the Justice Department, which can still ask the panel to defer its investigation amid its ongoing criminal inquiry based in Florida.

The committee does not have jurisdiction over former members of Congress, so the investigation would be closed if Gaetz were to resign. Gaetz on Monday said that he will not leave Congress.

Gaetz on Friday announced the hiring of defense attorneys Marc Mukasey and Isabelle Kirshner, one day after federal prosecutors signaled that his associate Joel Greenberg is considering taking a plea deal as he faces sex trafficking charges.

Mukasey, the son of former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, has worked as an attorney for former President Donald Trump, and currently serves as the lead attorney for the Trump Organization as it faces investigations from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the New York State Attorney General.

On Friday, the House Ethics Committee also announced that it would investigate allegations that Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., groped a female lobbyist in 2017. Reed has apologized for his actions and has said he will not seek reelection or run for governor of New York next year.

"We have already publicly addressed this situation and consistent with that are cooperating with the House Ethics Committee to bring this matter to conclusion," Reed said in a statement Friday.

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Biden appoints commission to study adding seats, term limits for Supreme Court

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(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden will create a commission to study possible changes to the Supreme Court, including adding seats or instituting term limits, the White House announced Friday.

The establishment of a commission to study the issue was a campaign promise from Biden, who has never explicitly said if he supports court packing or instituting term limits.

But Biden has indicated that he believes the court should not be subject to the political swings of the electoral cycle.

"The last thing we need to do is turn the Supreme Court into just a political football, whoever has the most votes gets whatever they want," Biden told the CBS News program 60 Minutes in October 2020. "Presidents come and go. Supreme Court justices stay for generations."

The 36-person commission is set to study debate for and against making changes to the court, hold public meetings to solicit opinions from outsiders, and provide a report to the White House after 180 days. It is unclear if the commission will provide recommendations to Biden, or simply analysis of the arguments for and against reform.

Biden has been under pressure to add seats to the bench to compensate for a right-ward political shift after former President Donald Trump appointed three nominees.

One of those appointees, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, filled an Obama-era vacancy after then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delayed the confirmation process in the Senate through the 2016 election. The third appointee, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, filled the vacancy left by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death in the final months of the Trump administration. Six of the nine current Supreme Court Justices were appointed by conservative presidents.

The commission will have 36 members, some of them prominent names. Legal adviser to Biden's campaign Bob Bauer and Yale Law School professor Cristina Rodriguez will serve as chairs of the commission. Among the commissioners are renowned constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, NAACP President Sherrilyn Ifill, Brennan Center for Justice President Michael Waldman, and voting rights expert Michael Kang.

Liberal activist groups see Biden's appointment of the commission as merely delaying a decision on whether to add seats to the court.

“This White House judicial reform commission has a historic opportunity to both explain the gravity of the threat and to help contain it. But we don’t have time to spend six months studying the issue — especially without a promise of real conclusions at the end,” said Aaron Bellini, director it Take Back the Court, a group pushing for more justices on the bench.

Justice Stephen Breyer, the court's most senior liberal, warned Tuesday against partisan proposals to expand the court and the branding of its current makeup as "conservative."

"It is wrong to think of the Court as another political institution," Breyer said in remarks prepared for delivery at Harvard Law School. "And it is doubly wrong to think of its members as junior league politicians."

"Structural alteration motivated by the perception of political influence can only feed that perception, further eroding that trust," he said.

Congress would have to approve any changes to the court Biden might propose, and he would be sure to face strong opposition from Republicans. There have been nine justices on the bench since 1869.

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Some states work to expand voting rights for people with felony convictions

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(NEW YORK) -- For Tarra Simmons, a representative in the Washington legislature, Wednesday was a "full-circle moment."

After initially failing in 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee restored voting rights to more than 20,000 people with felony convictions who are out of prison, but still under community supervision.

Simmons, one of the bill's sponsors, knows the impact of disenfranchisement firsthand. After being "born into generations of addiction and incarceration and poverty and violence," Simmons was sentenced to prison in 2011 for selling a small amount of prescription drugs to financially fuel her own drug addiction, which she said resulted from trying to suppress the post-traumatic stress of her childhood.

She served 16 months, spent another four on work release and lost her right to vote through it all.

"Your life is just destroyed," Simmons told ABC News, explaining the barriers people with felony convictions face trying to rejoin their communities, like finding a job, paying fines and navigating child custody battles. "I see why it sends people back to prison."

Simmons did not go back to prison; she went to law school and became a civil rights attorney -- but only after she won a unanimous opinion from the Washington Supreme Court, which ruled the state's Bar Association could not prevent her -- or anyone else -- from taking the exam because of her past conviction.

She remarried seven years ago, adding a step-daughter to her family. Her youngest of two sons turned 18 on Tuesday; the older is 28. The whole family gets together for dinner at least once a week in the home they own.

"And now here I am, a freshman -- only been on the job for two months -- and the governor is signing my first bill," she said.

The sweeping, nationwide effort to enact legislation with restrictive voting provisions has overshadowed an even greater endeavor to do the opposite. While lawmakers in 47 states have introduced 361 restrictive voting bills as of the end of March, proposed bills expanding voting outnumber that figure by more than twofold, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

In several states, these expansive bills tackle felony disenfranchisement, which, according to the Brennan Center, disproportionately impacts Black Americans.

"The movement that we're seeing this year is fantastic. It's also a part of a trend that's been going on for a number of years now," said Sean Morales-Doyle, the deputy director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the New York-based think tank. "We still have a long way to go, but the fact that we're seeing all this movement ... helps me think that maybe we will get where we need to go soon."

Last month, Virginia's governor used his executive authority to return civil rights, including voting eligibility, to people who have completed their incarceration sentence. In November, California voters approved Proposition 17, restoring voting rights to those who have completed their prison terms. In 2019, Colorado, New Jersey and Nevada enacted similar legislative reforms.

Though financial hurdles still exist, Florida voters approved an amendment in 2018 ending permanent disenfranchisement for people convicted of felonies, excluding murder and sex crimes. Kentucky and Iowa's governors, Democrat Andy Beshear and Republican Kim Reynolds, issued executive orders in 2019 and 2020, respectively, ending most permanent felony disenfranchisement in their states as well. The District of Columbia has taken the most significant step, beginning in 2020 to restore voting rights to people still incarcerated. Just two states, Vermont and Maine, allow people in prison to vote.

"There's a lot of momentum here, and I think it's really a policy that lawmakers are realizing is popular with voters across the political spectrum," Morales-Doyle told ABC News. "Everyone believes in forgiveness and second chances."

New York is expected to follow in Washington's footsteps by codifying voting eligibility for people with felony convictions who are on parole, and a similar bill has been introduced in Connecticut.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order in 2018 restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions who are on parole. However, like any executive action, it's not permanent, and for this specific issue, governors must use their executive pardon authority, which is cumbersome and can lead to weekslong delays in restoring voting eligibility, according to Morales-Doyle.

In Virginia, the legislature is trying to amend the state constitution to permanently restore voting rights to people with felony convictions, post-incarceration. It passed both chambers this year and must again in 2022's session before being on the ballot for voters to decide that November.

Daniel O'Donnell, who has represented a district on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the New York Assembly since 2002, has been trying to expand voting rights to people on parole in his state for the past five years. He's driven by his experience chairing the Corrections Committee while in office and his work as a public defender before that.

He said at the core of this fight is a decadeslong misunderstanding of what community supervision, like parole, means.

"In their minds, parole means 'get out of jail free,' when actually what parole means is you get supervised, and people don't realize how strict that supervision is," O'Donnell told ABC News. "If you are successfully on parole, you're living a very restricted life -- and you're living a very restricted, law-abiding life because even the most minor infraction could end up (with) you getting off parole."

Like Washington state's bill, New York's includes a provision that requires notifying people with felony convictions that they will regain their right to vote upon release from prison and assisting them with re-registration. O'Donnell described this as an essential step in the process, since re-assimilating into society is critical to prevent people from reoffending.

"If we keep on treating people as the other, they're going to behave like the other," O'Donnell said. "What they need is incentives to not commit again. So the better their life is, the more they feel connected to their neighborhood, and their neighbors and their community, the less likely they are to recommit."

Simmons, the Washington lawmaker, echoed that sentiment.

"When you are told that you are not worthy of being a part of that collective decision making, it's like another layer of stigma that you walk through the world with, and that internalized message that I am not worthy ... that this community doesn't want me here is what leads people to being isolated," she said. "In that isolation, people are more likely to relapse with their substance use disorder or commit a new crime because they're not connected."

She believes part of the problem is "people mistake punishment with reentry."

"The years of time that people spend in prison is a sufficient deterrent, is a sufficient punishment," Simmons said. "When we over punish people, when we saddle them with thousands of dollars of court fines and fees and we take away the right to vote and we tell them that they can't get a job or a place to live -- all of that is actually harming all of us because that's creating more crime."

O'Donnell said he expects New York's bill, which has already passed the state Senate, to pass in the assembly later this month or in early May, which would send it to Cuomo's desk.

Morales-Doyle stressed that while the recent progress is commendable, the work is not finished.

People think of Washington, New York and California as "progressive, blue states," he said, but the fact that those states have progressed on this issue in just the last six months "shows that there's a lot of room for progress in almost every part of the country."

And the "fight" should not stop there, he added.

"Just giving people the right to vote back doesn't mean that people appreciate and understand they have that right, and that they're being encouraged to exercise it and really (that) we have an inclusive democracy that welcomes people to the table," he said. "And I think we have work to do there even after people get the right to vote legally."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Civil rights leader Ben Jealous endorses Jennifer Carroll Foy in Virginia governor race

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

(RICHMOND, Va.) -- Ben Jealous, a prominent civil rights leader who helmed the NAACP for five years, is endorsing Democrat Jennifer Carroll Foy in the race to be Virginia's next governor -- handing the former state delegate a significant boost one day after her rival, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, secured a high-profile endorsement from Gov. Ralph Northam.

In endorsing Carroll Foy, Jealous invoked her "lived experiences" to argue that she is both prepared to meet the moment and be a strong steward of the commonwealth's future.

"Jennifer Carroll Foy's commitment to justice and equity stands head and shoulders above the crowd," said Jealous, who currently serves as the president of People For the American Way. "As a public defender, she saw the two-tiered criminal justice system up close: one that's left Black Americans behind and one that works for everyone else. As a leader in the legislature, Jennifer took on tough fights for justice -- and she won."

"Her proven track record, and plans for Virginia, rooted in her lived experiences as a working mom and someone who has struggled herself, make her uniquely qualified to be Virginia's next governor. She's a fresh leader ready to lead the fight for a more just Virginia where no one gets left behind," he added.

Jealous pursued a campaign to become Maryland's first Black governor in 2018, but was unsuccessful. He rarely wades into primaries but is supporting Carroll Foy's bid, seeing her as aligned with his views and with the might to win, according to a source familiar with the endorsement.

Carroll Foy said she is "proud" to have his support, and that of the group he leads, and assured that she is committed to building a more equitable commonwealth.

"I am proud to be on the front lines fighting for justice for all Virginians because I know what it's like to make impossible decisions just to survive. I'm dedicated to moving Virginia forward so that everyone has the opportunity to thrive," she said in a statement.

The move by Jealous, once the youngest president of the NAACP in its history, underlines a tricky intraparty clash over the politics of race that has been an undercurrent in the contest -- two years after Northam came under intense pressure to resign, including from McAuliffe, when a racist yearbook photo of him from the 1980s emerged.

For Carroll Foy, earning Jealous' backing counters the snub from the state's top Democrat. Northam decided to support McAuliffe as his successor over any one of the diverse, and potentially historic, candidates on the Democrats' deep bench.

Carroll Foy and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan are both competing to be the first Black female governor in the nation's history. Northam also chose McAuliffe over his own deputy, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, only the second African American elected statewide in Virginia, who also became embroiled in controversy over sexual assault allegations which he denied.

Some Democrats see McAuliffe, who is white, as potentially impeding history in Virginia. He is the apparent front-runner in the race, with widespread name recognition, fundraising prowess and a slate of Democratic leaders in the state lining up behind his bid, including more than 150 Black leaders from across the commonwealth.

But Carroll Foy is proving to be a formidable contender, raising $1.8 million in the first three months of the year and ending the quarter with $2.3 million in the bank. And she isn't the only one answering Northam's endorsement of McAuliffe.

McClellan, who played a key role in recently passing a sweeping voting rights bill for the commonwealth, contended that "Virginia has the worst record of electing women in America" and made clear she is hoping to change that.

"It's no surprise to see one governor endorse another. But this election is up to the voters of Virginia. Virginians aren't looking backward; they're looking forward," she said in a statement hours after Northam's endorsement. "Virginians are looking for a new perspective: the perspective of a mother, a Black woman and a leader driving progress for 15 years in Richmond."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Civic groups file lawsuit challenging absentee ballot provisions in Georgia's election law

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(ATLANTA) -- A coalition of civic participation groups have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the provisions of Georgia's new election law that dictate how and to whom non-government entities can mail absentee ballot applications.

The plaintiffs -- VoteAmerica, Voter Participation Center and Center for Voter Information -- allege in the complaint filed Wednesday evening by the Campaign Legal Center that the new requirements are "unconstitutionally vague and overbroad" and violate their First Amendment and due process rights.

They are asking for the provisions to be declared unconstitutional and blocked from being enforced.

This is the fifth lawsuit filed targeting the Peach State's sweeping election overhaul, which Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law March 25. Democrats and voting rights activists have blasted the bill as "Jim Crow 2.0," but Republicans have rejected that characterization and defended the bill amid backlash that's advanced beyond the political realm. Corporate leaders have spoken out in opposition, and the MLB decided to move its 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver in protest of the new law -- SB 202, the "Election Integrity Act of 2021."

Under the law, third-party groups are still allowed to mail absentee ballot applications, but the rules for doing so have changed.

The bill bans anyone except the secretary of state and local election officials from sending absentee applications to voters who've already requested or received an absentee ballot, or voted. Every duplicate ballot application sent is subject to a $100 fine from the State Election Board, whose members, along with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, are the defendants in the case.

It's also now illegal for third-party groups to send voters applications with their information already filled out.

"These new requirements are not only costly and burdensome on nonprofit organizations who work to encourage political participation and facilitate access to absentee voting for Georgians — in some cases they are impossible to comply with or would present such prohibitively expensive financial burdens that some groups, like (the) Plaintiffs ... may have no choice but to cease their operations in Georgia altogether," the complaint stated.

Several voter engagement organizations mass-mailed applications to Georgia voters ahead of the November election and January runoff, and voters complained about the volume as well as receiving applications after they had already submitted one.

In the weeks leading up to an election, the secretary of state's office publishes and regularly updates absentee voter data spreadsheets, which lists every voter who has already requested an absentee ballot or cast a ballot, either by mail or early in person. This information is publicly available, and organizations sending applications would need to compare these spreadsheets to their list of registered voters.

Applications from a non-government entity also must now "prominently display a disclaimer" on the application that states, "This is NOT an official government publication and was NOT provided to you by any governmental entity. It is being distributed by [insert name and address of person, organization, or other entity distributing such document or material]."

The complaint alleges this provision is "compelling them to engage in misleading and confusing speech mandated by the Government, and limiting their right to freely associate with others."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Florida suing CDC, federal government over 'cruise shutdown'

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(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that the state is suing the U.S. government in an attempt to resume cruising in the U.S. after more than a year of the industry being shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have tens of thousands of Floridians -- not just in this county alone but throughout the state -- who depend on the viability of our cruise industry for their livelihoods, for their jobs, for their ability to feed their families," the Republican governor said at a press conference in Miami-Dade County on Thursday.

Since March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has blocked cruise ships that carry more than 250 people from sailing in U.S. waters.

Last week, the CDC issued a "Conditional Sail Order," in an effort to "establish agreements at ports where they intend to operate, implement routine testing of crew, and develop plans incorporating vaccination strategies to reduce the risk of introduction and spread of COVID-19 by crew and passengers."

DeSantis called the CDC's order "unreasonable" and "not rational" saying, "people are going to cruise one way or another, the question is are we going to do it out of Florida, which is the number one place to do it in the world, or are they going to be doing out of the Bahamas or other locations."

During the first six months of the pandemic the cruise hiatus caused Florida to lose an estimated $3.2 billion in economic activity, including 49,500 jobs that paid $2.3 billion in wages, according to a report from the Federal Maritime Commission.

"Florida is fighting back," Desantis said, insisting that they will win in court. "We don't believe the federal government has the right to mothball a major industry for over a year based on very little evidence and very little data."

DeSantis said "there's really just no end in sight" for the cruise lines because even if the CDC approves cruise ships to sail in U.S. waters he believes the agency will "probably" make it "cumbersome."

The CDC's return to sailing framework has required cruise lines to submit lengthy, detailed plans on how they would handle a positive case on board, identify appropriate quarantine locations, as well as making them conduct test cruises with volunteer passengers.

Major cruise lines have said they will require future guests to be fully vaccinated.

Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Norwegian are resuming North American cruises this summer with ships sailing out of the Caribbean. Since their voyages won't involve departures or stops at any U.S. ports, they don't need approval from the CDC. They only had to obtain officials' approvals at their planned destinations.

The CEOs of the cruise lines referred to vaccines as "key" and a "game changer" in allowing them to end the cruise lines' yearlong halt of operations.

The Cruise Lines International Association said in a statement that it is "grateful for Governor DeSantis' support of the cruise community and we appreciate his efforts to restart cruising safely."

"Tens of thousands of Floridians rely on cruising for their livelihoods, including longshoremen, taxi drivers, travel agents and tour operators, ports, and numerous suppliers and vendors that make the cruise industry work," the statement continued. "Ultimately, the CDC and the entire U.S. cruise community want the same thing -- the responsible resumption of cruising from the U.S. this summer."

After the CDC announced last week it is safe for vaccinated individuals to travel, cruise lines thought their vaccination requirements would be enough to resume cruises, however, the CDC is still recommending against all non-essential travel.

The CDC did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Manchin's firm stance on filibuster, reconciliation threatens ambitious Biden agenda

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(WASHINGTON) -- Moderate Democrat Joe Manchin reaffirmed that he will not back proposed changes to the Senate filibuster rule or support "shortcutting the legislative process through budget reconciliation," dealing a possible blow to President Joe Biden's agenda.

Manchin, who has been trumpeting the need for bipartisanship for months, said in a Washington Post op-ed published Wednesday evening that he will not support any effort to overturn the rule that requires 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate.

"I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster," the West Virginia Senator wrote.

In the evenly divided Senate, overturning the rule would require the support of all Democrats. Without Manchin's backing, Biden may have to trim some of his most ambitious legislative efforts or abandon them entirely.

Chief among Biden's priorities are two multi-trillion dollar infrastructure proposals and a bill that would implement major voting reforms.

"There's a real long laundry list of things that I think many Democrats would like to get though the House and the Senate," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball at the UVA Center for Politics. "For Democrats on certain things they are stuck."

Democrats currently hold the House and Senate by razor-thin margins, which Kondik said could easily slip during the 2022 midterm elections.

"The clock is ticking here," Kondik said. "If I was in the Democratic majority in the House and the Senate I would look at this and say 'boy if we are going to act on things we need to act now.'"

Eli Zupnik, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide and spokesperson for Fix Our Senate, a progressive group that says its "highest priority is the elimination of the filibuster" said Democrats owe it to voters to act swiftly.

"If the filibuster is allowed to remain as a partisan weapon that Sen. (Mitch) McConnell can use to continue his gridlock and obstruction, then Democrats will be blamed for breaking their promises on voting rights, raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, gun safety and so much more," Zupnik said.

The most pressing roadblock comes as Biden looks to move forward on the first phase of his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal. The proposal would provide billions to expand broadband internet, replace lead pipes, repair highways and bridges. Businesses and large corporations would see a bump in their tax rate to fund it.

The tax hike is a non-starter with Republicans.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to fight the Biden proposal "every step of the way" during a press conference in Kentucky. He's called the package a "Trojan horse" for Democratic priorities unrelated to infrastructure, and said he does not believe it will get support among his conference, making sixty votes seem all but impossible.

Majority Leader Schumer was dealt an early win on Biden's infrastructure proposal this week when the Senate parliamentarian ruled that he could utilize budget reconciliation, a procedural tool that allows him to bypass the 60-vote threshold, to move the bill.

Democrats already made use of this tool once this year to pass Biden's $2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill down strict party lines in March. Schumer has not yet said whether he intends to use it again.

Even if he tries, he would need the support of all 50 Senate Democrats. It's not clear he has it.

Manchin said, in a radio interview on Monday, that he opposes the Biden tax hike and doesn't favor use of reconciliation to pass the larger proposal. He also said six or seven other Democrats agree with him, giving them considerable "leverage" in negotiations over the bill.

In his Washington Post op-ed, Manchin said he was "alarmed" by the use of the process to snake around the 60-vote threshold.

"I simply do not believe budget reconciliation should replace regular order in the Senate," Manchin wrote.

"Republicans, however, have a responsibility to stop saying no, and participate in finding real compromise with Democrats," he continued.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close Biden ally, set the stage early on Wednesday for a likely compromise.

"It's more likely that we'll have a package that's not paid for" and that is "less robust", Coons said during a Punchbowl News forum.

Biden has other priorities -- including voting rights -- that will also be hampered by Manchin's resolve on the filibuster rule. Since voting reform likely wouldn't qualify under reconciliation, Democrats will have no choice but to try to cobble together 60 votes.

If they can't, then Kondik suggests that the $2 trillion COVID bill passed earlier this year could end up being Biden's signature legislative accomplishment despite unified government control.

"It's reasonable to wonder is this going to be the big piece of legislation that comes out of Biden's first two years," Kondik said. "And maybe it is, maybe that's the high point."

ABC News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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