Politics

Critics say TSA is understaffed and ill-equipped for pipeline security mission

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(WASHINGTON) -- In addition to screening bags and patting down passengers at airports all over the country, the Transportation Security Administration has an additional little-known responsibility -- overseeing the security of the nation’s pipeline network, including the Colonial Pipeline targeted last weekend by a ransomware attack.

While the TSA employs nearly 50,000 transportation security officers to keep America’s skies secure, the number of TSA personnel devoted to securing 2.7 million miles of pipeline that crisscross the country is surprisingly small.

The agency has just 34 staff positions, including headquarters personnel, policy planners and field inspectors, to perform its pipeline and cybersecurity mission, according to a TSA official. Of those, only eight have attended any specialized cybersecurity training.

Critics in Congress say the TSA is understaffed and ill-equipped for the pipeline security mission.

"I don't think they have really the personnel or the expertise to do the job right now," Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., told ABC News. "We absolutely need more oversight on pipeline security and other areas of critical infrastructure."

Kiersten Todt, managing director of the Cyber Readiness Institute, echoed that sentiment.

"I don't think that TSA should be responsible for the cybersecurity of the pipelines," she told ABC News.

But House Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member John Katko believes oversight of pipeline security should remain with the TSA.

"Right now, we need to focus on building existing capabilities and resources while ensuring federal roles and responsibilities are clear," Katko said in a statement.

Katko is one of 12 bipartisan Homeland Security Committee members who introduced pipeline security legislation Friday, calling for the TSA’s pipeline security responsibilities to be codified into law and for the agency to be required to employ staff with cybersecurity expertise. The proposed "Pipeline Security Act" stops short of mandating any new security requirements for the pipeline industry.

The TSA’s tiny pipeline security division is considerably larger than it was just a few years ago. In 2019, TSA Surface Division Director Sonya Proctor testified that the agency’s pipeline security division had only five employees and none with cybersecurity expertise.

But the disruption caused by the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline has brought renewed attention to protecting critical infrastructure from crippling cyberattacks.

The TSA provides the oil and gas industry with physical and cybersecurity recommendations that pipeline operators "should" implement, but current and former Homeland Security officials tell ABC News that compliance with those security guidelines and practices is voluntary.

Colonial Pipeline's statement on its website says the company "complies with all guidelines established by [the TSA]," and "submits a risk-based security plan to the TSA for review on an annual basis."

While there are stringent regulations and safety standards for pipelines and the fuels and hazardous materials they carry, there are not comparable enforceable standards for securing those pipelines, according to industry observers.

Other parts of the U.S. energy infrastructure, like electric power grid operators, have far more significant security requirements, dedicated agencies that enforce them and face steep fines for failing to meet them.

"When you see a company like Colonial Pipeline, that is responsible for transporting 45% of the East Coast's gas and jet fuel not doing the basics when it comes to cybersecurity, that is all the more reason to look at ensuring that there are requirements for these companies," Todt said.

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Critics on left and right bash Biden's response to Israel-Gaza violence

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(WASHINGTON) -- Nearly a week into what has been getting close to all-out war between Israeli forces and Hamas, the terror group that governs Gaza, President Joe Biden is facing sharp criticism from Republicans and some Democrats at home for his response.

His administration has tried to show high-level involvement after criticism that Biden wasn't engaged on the issue, but his vocal support for Israel's government has now sparked condemnation from progressive lawmakers, even as it fails to ward off former Trump officials' criticisms, too.

"My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later," Biden told reporters earlier this week, adding the next day that he'd seen no "overreaction" in Israel's response so far and that he backs Israel's "right to self-defense."

Despite his administration's calls for "de-escalation," those comments appear to have been taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a green light for further military action.

After Biden and Netanyahu spoke Wednesday, Hamas rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes continued Thursday, and on Friday, Israeli ground troops deployed along the border, firing into the blockaded Palestinian territory from the Israeli side of the border while aircraft continued to strike targets.

In five days of bloodshed, 122 people, including 31 children, have been killed in the Gaza Strip, and least 900 others have been injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Seven people, including a 6-year-old, have been killed in Israel by rocket fire, with more than 523 others wounded, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Friday for meetings with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials in Israel and the West Bank, according to State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter.

Amr's trip comes after phone calls from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Netanyahu, as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has also spoken to his Israeli and Egyptian counterparts.

But the Biden administration has been criticized as flat-footed here, a charge they reject, because the White House has yet to nominate a U.S. ambassador to Israel or restore the U.S. consul general in East Jerusalem, a de facto envoy to the Palestinians. Unlike the Obama or Trump administrations, there is also no special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian issues. Amr, who served as President Obama's deputy special envoy, is the highest ranking official for the issue.

The Biden administration "didn't stumble blindly into ignoring the conflict. It was an affirmative decision, perhaps a calculated risk," said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, noting the "little political and foreign policy benefit to gain by investing significant capital" in addressing the decades-old conflict.

But while the U.S. didn't light the "fire," she added, "the U.S. by its actions can either be in the realm of ignoring, fueling -- and I think sometimes ignoring is fueling -- or fire-fighting, as it's having to do right now. If we don't want to find ourselves in that constant pendulum swing from fire-fighting to ignoring, I think we need to be in the business of active fire-proofing and that is going to be the question for the administration as it moves forward," she said.

To critics on the left, Biden has been setting his firehose on the wrong side, defending Israel's response and declining to call Palestinian leadership.

"This is not about both sides. This is about an imbalance of power," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., on the House floor Thursday. "The president and many other figures this week stated that Israel has a right to self defense ... But do Palestinians have a right to survive?"

In a letter this week, Ocasio-Cortez was one of over two dozen progressive lawmakers who urged the Biden administration to exert pressure on Israel to halt the potential evictions of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighborhood where they face pressure from Israeli settlers -- and to review U.S. assistance to the Israeli government.

The issue of evictions is pending before the Israeli Supreme Court, but has prompted protests from Palestinians in recent weeks -- along with the use of force against Palestinians at Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest site located in Jerusalem's Old City. Israeli forces stormed the building last week, saying Palestinians were stockpiling rocks and Molotov cocktails and sparking clashes that left hundreds injured.

While that violence precipitated this latest round of bloodshed, several Republican officials, have accused Biden of not standing strongly enough with Israel. They say his delay in calling Netanyahu after being sworn in or his resumption of U.S. financial assistance to the Palestinians helped spark the violence.

"A weak foreign policy emboldens terrorists and makes the world less safe. America's leaders must be clear: we stand unequivocally with our ally and friend, Israel," Mike Pompeo, Trump's Secretary of State and a likely 2024 presidential contender, tweeted Friday.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions Marjorie Taylor Greene's grip on reality following outburst

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(WASHINGTON) -- Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said she was concerned about Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's, R-Ga., "perceptions of reality" on Friday, following an episode in which Greene aggressively confronted Ocasio-Cortez, prompting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to suggest an Ethics Committee investigation into Greene's behavior.

The Washington Post first reported that Greene confronted Ocasio-Cortez Wednesday night during a vote, shouting her first name repeatedly and asking her why she supported Black Lives Matter and other "terrorists and antifa."

"Yeah, no it's--she does keep discussing this, but it's not a thing, and so I'm concerned about her perceptions of reality," Ocasio-Cortez said to reporters Friday.

Greene contends she simply wants to debate Ocasio-Cortez.

"I don't know why she needs security. She shouldn't have a problem debating," Greene said. "I was talking to AOC saying you need to debate me about the Green New Deal. She should be able to defend it to the American people."

"She doesn't need to file ethics violations or whatever she's doing, that's reacting like a child," Greene added.

But Pelosi called the outburst "beneath the dignity of a person serving in the Congress of the United States," saying "it’s causing fear and trauma among members."

Greene's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about Ocasio-Cortez's statement.

Shortly after taking office in January, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., said she repeatedly asked Greene to put her mask on, to which Taylor Greene and her staff responded by "berating" her, with one staffer yelling, “Stop inciting violence with Black Lives Matter."

Greene alleged she was actually the one who was "berated."

The episode prompted the Missouri Democrat to request her office be moved farther away from Greene's.

In another incident, Greene was stripped of her committee assignments after social media posts and videos from 2018 and 2019 showed her appearing to support violence against Pelosi in a post that is now deleted and suggesting that Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings were staged.

Greene has also sparred with Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., over rights for transgender Americans.

Newman accused Greene of making transphobic comments during debate on the House floor over the anti-discrimination Equality Act, when Newman referenced her transgender daughter. Newman then started displaying a transgender pride flag outside her office, across the hall from Greene's, who put up her own sign that read: "There are TWO genders: Male and Female "Trust the Science!""

Ocasio-Cortez has also been the subject of Republican outrage before. She was harassed outside the Capitol last year by former Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., who reportedly called her a "f***ing bitch" as they crossed paths.

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Liz Cheney says she regrets voting for Trump in 2020

ABC

(WASHINGTON) -- Rep. Liz Cheney on Friday said she regretted voting for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election given his efforts to overturn his defeat and sow doubt in the integrity of the process.

"I was never going to support Joe Biden and I do regret the vote," Cheney told ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl. "It was a vote based on policy, based on substance and in terms of the kinds of policies he put forward that were good for the country. But I think it's fair to say that I regret the vote."

Cheney, R-Wyo., also blasted House Republicans for elevating Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York to replace her in party leadership, calling it "dangerous" to promote yet another leader who has promoted former President Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election.

"What does it say about the party choosing somebody to replace you, who was effectively chosen by Donald Trump and saying what he's been saying - those very lies you were talking about?" Karl asked Cheney in the interview, which will air in full on "This Week" on Sunday.

"I think it's dangerous. I think that we have to recognize how quickly things can unravel," Cheney told Karl. “We have to recognize what it means for the nation to have a former president who has not conceded and who continues to suggest that our electoral system cannot function, cannot do the will of the people."

After an unsuccessful attempt in February, Republicans, with the backing of GOP leaders, removed Cheney from the No. 3 party leadership post in a closed-door vote Wednesday amid her repeated criticism of Trump and his comments about the 2020 election.

On Friday, the conference overwhelmingly appointed Stefanik, who was endorsed for the position by Trump, to fill her role. Stefanik has also promoted some of the unfounded conspiracy theories questioning the election results in Arizona and voted against the election results in Pennsylvania on the House floor on Jan. 6.

"Frankly, it's the same kinds of things that the Chinese Communist Party says about democracy: that it's a failed system, and America is a failed nation," Cheney said of Trump’s election comments promoted by many Republicans. "I won't be part of that. And I think it's very important for Republicans who won't be part of that to stand up and speak out."

Cheney’s leadership position was called into question earlier this year when she voted to impeach Trump following the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. She was one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to do so.

Since that attack, Cheney has been an outspoken opponent of Trump’s, blaming him for inciting violence that day and painting him as a threat to democracy.

"I think the issue really is Donald Trump and it really is the party and whether we're going to be a party that's based on the truth," Cheney said. "I think we've seen consistently since the election, certainly since Jan. 6 and in ways, it's increased since Jan. 6, the former president's willingness to be very aggressive in his attacks on democracy and on our electoral process."

The events of Jan. 6 remain a central focus for lawmakers in both chambers. After months of negotiations, a bipartisan pair of House lawmakers announced an agreement to form a bipartisan commission to investigate the Capitol attack and its aftermath.

While Democrats are expected to bring the measure to the House floor next week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters he had not reviewed the proposal.

Cheney: McCarthy 'absolutely' should testify about Jan. 6

Cheney told Karl that McCarthy "absolutely should" testify before any commission, and that she "wouldn't be surprised if he were subpoenaed."

"I think that he very clearly and said publicly that he's got information about the president's state of mind that day," Cheney said.

McCarthy spoke to Trump on Jan. 6, and reportedly told him to call off his supporters during the riot at the Capitol, according to a statement from Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who cited a conversation with McCarthy.

Herrera Beutler said Trump replied, "'Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election then you are.'"

McCarthy did not deny Trump’s comments but downplayed them when pressed in a Fox News interview, saying Trump was "engaged in the idea of making sure we could stop what was going on inside the Capitol at that moment in time."

"I would hope he doesn't require a subpoena, but I wouldn't be surprised if he were subpoenaed," Cheney said of McCarthy.

Aides to McCarthy, who had called for a panel to investigate political violence beyond Jan. 6, did not respond to a message seeking a response to Cheney’s comments.

"The elements of that commission are exactly as they should be. I'm very glad they rejected leader McCarthy's suggestions that somehow we should dilute the commission, it's really important that it be focused on just on January 6 and the events leading up to it," Cheney said.

Cheney's full interview with ABC News will air on "This Week" on Sunday morning.

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Gaetz ally expected to plead guilty, cooperate with investigators in sex-trafficking probe

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(WASHINGTON) -- A one-time close ally of Rep. Matt Gaetz, former Florida Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg, will plead guilty to multiple federal crimes including sex trafficking of a minor, and has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators, according to court papers filed on Friday.

Greenberg does not directly name Gaetz in the papers, but he admitted that he and others who are not identified in the document had paid a 17-year-old girl for sex and that he "introduced the minor to other adult men, who engaged in commercial sex acts."

Greenberg will plead guilty to six of 33 federal charges he was facing, but the government states they reserve the right to prosecute him on the other charges if he violates any terms of the cooperation deal. He will plead to charges of stalking, identity theft, wire fraud, and conspiracy to bribe a public official, as well as the sex trafficking charge, according to the documents.

Greenberg is set to appear at a "change of plea" hearing Monday morning in federal court in Orlando, Florida.

Gaetz has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, including having sex with an underage girl.

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Lawmakers announce long-sought deal on bipartisan commission to probe Jan. 6 riot

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(WASHINGTON) -- Lawmakers announced on Friday that after months of stalled negotiations they had reached an agreement on a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

While Republicans had called for the commission to also look into violence stemming from left-leaning groups, the legislation calls for an investigation only into the riot at the Capitol and "the interference with the peaceful transfer of power, including facts and causes relating to the preparedness and response of the United States Capitol Police... as well as the influencing factors that fomented such attack on American representative democracy."

Republicans also gained concessions in that Democrats and Republicans will get equal subpoena power on a body with an even partisan split.

A vote on the commission bill is expected on the House floor next week, but the timing for a vote in the Senate is still unclear.

"It is imperative that we seek the truth of what happened on January 6 with an independent, bipartisan 9/11-type Commission to examine and report upon the facts, causes and security relating to the terrorist mob attack," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

"Today a bipartisan agreement to form such a commission has been reached, with legislation to create it set to reach the Floor as soon as next week," the statement said.

The announcement of an agreement follows months of intense negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on the size and scope of the commission. It also comes as the facts about the Jan. 6 riot continue to be disputed by Republican members of Congress and just days after Rep. Liz Cheney lost her GOP leadership position in the House for speaking out against the "big lie" that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump -- the same baseless narrative that led to the Capitol insurrection over four months ago.

On Wednesday, during a hearing on the Capitol riot, Republican lawmakers floated various conspiracy theories about Jan. 6, including that those who stormed the Capitol weren't actually Trump supporters and that there was no "insurrection." Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga, compared the breach of the Capitol with a "normal tourist visit."

"We will find the truth," Pelosi responded during her weekly press briefing on Thursday, saying the comments "fell into the range of sick." "And we're hoping that we can do so in the most bipartisan way possible. I think that that's essential. But I think it's also important to the American people to have confidence in the results of such an investigation."

Earlier this month, Pelosi deputized House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., to finalize negotiations on the commission with ranking member GOP Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y.

The agreed-upon commission would include 10 members with significant expertise in the areas of law enforcement, civil rights, civil liberties, privacy, intelligence and cybersecurity. Current government officers or employees would be prohibited from appointment, according to the bipartisan duo, and each party would select five members to be on the commission.

The commission would have the authority to issue subpoenas as part of its investigation, but that would require agreement between the chair and the vice-chair, or a vote by a majority of commission members, according to the bill text.

The body would also be required to issue a final report with findings regarding the facts and causes of the attack, along with recommendations to prevent future attacks on American democratic institutions by the end of the year.

While Pelosi touted victory on Friday, her counterpart, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, said he still hasn’t looked at the details.

"I haven't looked all the way through it," McCarthy said, adding that he believes the commission should look at all political violence, instead of the narrower scope that Democrats have called for.

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House Republicans elect Elise Stefanik to leadership to replace Liz Cheney

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(WASHINGTON) -- House GOP members elected Rep. Elise Stefanik to replace Rep. Liz Cheney as the No. 3 House Republican during a party conference Friday.

The final vote count in the secret ballot was 134-46.

Her opponent, Freedom Caucus conservative Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, received 46 votes.

At a news conference afterward, Stefanik, from New York, said she wanted to thank President Donald Trump for his support and said the American people are "suffering" from what she called the "socialist, radical" policies of President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"He is a critical part of our Republican team," Stefanik said about Trump.

Within minutes, Trump released a statement praising her.

"Congratulations to Elise Stefanik for her Big and Overwhelming victory! The House GOP is united and the Make America Great Again movement is Strong!" Trump said.

Asked by reporters whether she thought Trump was the leader of the party, Stefanik said he was the one Republicans "look to."

"I believe that voters determine the leader of the Republican Party and President Trump is the leader that they look to," Stefanik said. "I support President Trump, voters support President Trump, he is an important voice in our Republican Party, and we look forward to working with him."

Asked whether there was room in the House GOP for Cheney, who has vowed to keep Trump out of the Oval Office, calling him a danger to the party and democracy, Stefanik said she wanted unity with both her and Cheney supporter Rep. Adam Kinzinger.

"Liz Cheney is a part of this conference, Adam Kinzinger is a part of this conference," Stefanik said. "They were elected and sent here by the people in their district they are part of this Republican conference, we are unified in working with President Trump."

Stefanik was elected behind closed doors this morning by a slew of GOP lawmakers representing the full breadth of the Republican spectrum. Moderate Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., who vote to impeach Trump, freshman Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Iowa, who Stefanik recruited and supported during her run for office, and Trump loyalist Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa.

"Republicans have a strong agenda for this country… We as a conference have a very important story to tell," Hinson said in remarks obtained by ABC News. "Elise is the right person to unify us so that we can best tell it to the American people. Let’s unite behind Elise and unite behind a goal I know we all share -- taking back the House in 2022."

The 36-year-old New York Republican's only competition was Roy, a conservative who has essentially said he is running because he doesn’t like the idea of Stefanik running for leadership unopposed.

Walking into the GOP conference meeting Friday morning, Roy told reporters he didn't have a "whole lot of time to whip" for votes. Despite some questions about how conservative Stefanik is, Roy said if Stefanik was chosen to succeed Cheney, the conference will be united.

"I am always going to try to be a voice for advancing the policies that I think are right and to try to make sure that we're representing the people, but we'll all be united," Roy said. "It's pretty easy to unite against the radical agenda of the current administration. I mean, we're seeing it play out right now in terms of energy prices. gas lines, people who don't have jobs because we're paying people not to work. There's businesses they want to hire them. So, we're gonna be united doing that."

Some conservative House members including Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., and Rep. Laura Boebert, R-Colo., will back Roy, preferring his conservative record.

House Republicans voted to remove Cheney from leadership Tuesday after repeatedly acknowledging that former Trump did not win the 2020 election and for condemning his actions during violent riots at the Capitol on Jan. 6

Cheney, despite being ousted from leadership, said she is "absolutely" running for reelection to the House in 2022, also said Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy "is not leading with principle right now," calling his example "sad" and "dangerous."

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Republicans optimistic they can strike a deal on infrastructure

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(WASHINGTON) -- Republican lawmakers left a meeting with President Joe Biden Thursday optimistic that an agreement can be reached on an infrastructure package, but lawmakers must act quickly if they hope to strike a deal before the president's fast-approaching deadline.

While Biden has long projected a desire to work across the aisle on an infrastructure plan, he's also been clear that Democrats will forge ahead without Republicans if bipartisan talks don't yield swift results. The White House wants to see "significant progress" on an infrastructure deal by Memorial Day and Biden is aiming for final passage by the end of the summer.

Republicans leaving the White House Thursday indicated that agreement was possible.

Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who is leading the Republican infrastructure effort, painted Biden as an "honest broker" and said that during Thursday's meeting, the parties laid out next steps for trying to bridge the substantive divide between their two infrastructure plans.

"He was very open to suggestions as were we. I think it's the beginning of -- a good jump-start I think," Capito said on Fox News. "We promised to come back with another offer that he will react to and counter offer. We did what we intended to do, which is get next steps, be very cordial and ready to deal."

The Republican counter-offer, which is expected to be a more detailed version of the framework they presented to Biden Thursday, could come as soon as early next week, said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, who also attended the meeting.

Biden is then expected to counter that offer.

"We all know we need to move pretty quickly here," Blunt said.

There's limited opportunity to make legislative headway in the summer months because the Senate leaves town for Memorial Day, Independence Day and the August recess. The highway system and surface transportation systems expires in September, compounding the need for lawmakers to act swiftly.

The central sticking point left to be resolved is how broadly infrastructure ought to be defined.

Biden has proposed two infrastructure plans totaling about $4 trillion that fund everything from roads and bridges to a boost in the power grid, electric-vehicle charging stations, in-home care and public buildings, such as schools.

The administration branded some items in the package, like childcare and home care as "human infrastructure." Republicans scoffed at that and offered a counter proposal, led by Capito, that focuses on "core" infrastructure. Their original framework would fund roads, bridges, ports, waterways, airports and broadband at about $568 billion.

Despite the substantive divide, following their meeting Thursday, Capito said Biden seemed to understand the narrower Republican approach.

"I'm not saying he agrees with it or with everything, that's the point of a negotiation here," Capito said. "He understands why we knocked some things out. If he wants to try to have us reconsider -- that's part of a negotiation. I think he got our point. He understands what we think modern infrastructure is."

To reach an agreement with Republicans, the White House is signaling it is willing to split its package and allow funding for traditional infrastructure to pass with some GOP backing.

It will then pursue use of a procedural tool called reconciliation to pass the more controversial aspects of the Democratic plan.

Biden used reconciliation, which allows the Senate to bypass the usual 60-vote threshold, to pass the $2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill down partisan lines in March -- a move that left some Republicans with a bitter taste after they said the president failed to negotiate with them in good faith.

Some were skeptical that infrastructure discussions would play out differently, but Capito signaled Thursday that if Biden chooses to use reconciliation to pass the more controversial aspects of his plan, it won't prevent Republicans from negotiating on a separate, more narrowly tailored traditional infrastructure bill.

Even if Biden musters a bipartisan success on "core infrastructure" it's not clear he'd have the support of all 50 Democrats needed to pass the "human infrastructure" aspects.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has said he supports a smaller, more narrowly tailored package, not unlike the one that Republicans are proposing. And he's said he'd like to try to find a middle ground between Capito's $568 billion plan and Biden's much larger proposal.

Price is not necessarily a sticking point for Republicans, there's wiggle room so long as the bill is tailored to traditional infrastructure.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell signaled earlier this week that the price tag could be as high as $800 billion.

"I made it clear that this was not a stagnant offer from us," Capito said after suggesting she was potentially open to raising the price of the bill. "I didn't want it to be perceived that way at all and I think that was clear. He made it clear that he's sincere in wanting to pursue this and in the end we agreed if it doesn't work, we'll walk away friends."

But while Republicans find cost negotiable, there are rigid lines on how to fund the bill.

Biden proposed funding his robust infrastructure plan by hiking the corporate tax rate, a non-starter for Republicans who see this as a referendum on the 2017 Trump tax bill, which some consider the most significant legislative achievement of the former president's tenure.

"We're not interested in re-opening the 2017 tax bill. We both made that clear to the president," McConnell said following a meeting at the White House between Biden and the four Congressional leaders. "That is a red line."

During their meeting Thursday Republicans tried to convince Biden that there are better ways to fund the package. They've proposed repurposing previously allocated unused money from the COVID-19 relief bills, as well as private-public partnerships and user fees, like tolls.

It's not yet clear whether Biden is receptive to these funding models, but Republican optimism is clear.

"I think we moved the ball forward today," Capito said.

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'A great day for America,' Biden says, touting CDC's eased mask guidance

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden on Thursday celebrated the federal government’s new guidance on mask-wearing as "a great milestone."

"I think it’s a great milestone, a great day,” Biden said during remarks after walking out into the White House Rose Garden not wearing a mask. "It’s been made possible by the extraordinary success we’ve had in vaccinating so many Americans so quickly.”

Biden spoke shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance saying fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear a mask indoors or outdoors.

"It’s a good day for the country," he said. "If you’ve been vaccinated, you don't have to wear your mask and you can shake hands. You can even give each other a hug.”

Vice President Kamala Harris also appeared outdoors without a face covering.

The CDC announcement came as they were meeting with Republican senators in the Oval Office, and according to one senator in the meeting, the president and senators took off their masks midway through the meeting.

The agency had faced questions in recent days about whether it was moving too slowly to issue guidance permitting fully-vaccinated people to forgo masks in more instances, especially as more evidence showed how effective COVID-19 vaccines were at protecting people from becoming infected or seriously ill.

The CDC had previously said it was OK for fully vaccinated people to allow face coverings outdoors, unless they were in large gatherings.

The White House has repeatedly said it would follow the advice of government scientists.

Biden reiterated CDC guidance Thursday that said unvaccinated people should still wear a face covering in many situations.

He told ABC News' Molly Nagle Thursday that the federal government would not mandate people wear masks.

"If you haven't been vaccinated, wear your mask for your own protection and the protection of the people who are also -- have not been vaccinated yet," he said after his Rose Garden remarks. "It’s not an enforcement thing. We’re not going to go out and arrest people. But the fact of the matter is, I still believe the vast majority of the American people care about the safety of their neighbors and care about the safety of their families."

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Cheney won't rule out running for president to stop Trump

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(WASHINGTON) — House Republicans were poised to gather behind closed doors Thursday evening to hear from candidates vying to fill the No. 3 role previously held by Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who signaled in an interview she might run for president in order to keep former President Donald Trump out of the White House.

GOP members are expected to meet behind closed doors Friday morning to elect a new conference chair, with New York Rep. Elise Stefanik remaining the leading candidate, despite some members not satisfied with her conservative credentials.

On NBC's "Today" show, asked three times if she would run for president to stop Trump from regaining the Oval Office and to "restore" the GOP, Cheney did not rule it out, saying only she would do "whatever it takes."

"I'm very focused on making sure that our party becomes again a party that stands for truth and stands for fundamental principles that are conservative," she said. "And I won't let a former president or anybody else unravel the democracy."

The daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who faced criticism from within her party for weeks for not furthering the Republican agenda by calling out Trump, tweeted a clip of the interview Thursday, but notably framed her agenda as an anti-Biden one.

"Our vision for the future has to be based on policy and substance, and to do that we must embrace the truth," the caption said.

The Wyoming representative, who said she is "absolutely" running for reelection to the House in 2022, also said Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy "is not leading with principle right now," calling his example "sad" and "dangerous."

"Leader McCarthy's visit to the former president, Mar-a-Lago, was really stunning given what the former president did," Cheney continued. "He provoked an attack on the Capitol -- an attack on our democracy -- and so I can't understand why you would want to go rehabilitate him.”

While Stefanik, who has pushed Trump's "big lie" and challenged results to the 2020 election, remains the frontrunner candidate to replace Cheney as the new conference chair, some conservatives critical of her record are pushing to delay the vote and find an alternative nominee with a less moderate history. Stefanik is meeting with members of the conservative Freedom Caucus Thursday in an attempt to address those concerns.

At least one conservative Republican, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, appears to be weighing whether he'll challenge Stefanik, with his team telling ABC News on Wednesday, "This must be a contested race -- not a coronation."

Any House Republican is allowed to enter the race, but already carrying Trump's support and the endorsement of GOP leadership, Stefanik has told Capitol Hill reporters she's confident she has the votes needed to be elected conference chair, even if someone else jumps in the race.

While McCarthy, who endorsed Stefanik on Sunday, has branded the removal of Cheney from her leadership post as an issue of unity, the party stripping her of the position may prove more ineffective in perpetuating that message -- as Cheney can now use her microphone to criticize Trump without the confines of a leadership position. She's expected to sit down for more interviews in the coming weeks.

Cheney's ousting and Stefanik's ascension come as it's more mainstream in the Republican Party -- though no less false -- to take up the view that the election was "rigged" and recast the Capitol attack as having nothing to do with the former president.

At a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill, the site of the insurrection, several congressional Republicans downplayed the threat of the Jan. 6 rioters in an attempt to rewrite history. Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde likened the event to "a normal tourist event" and Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, who has constantly promoted false claims the election was stolen, accused the Justice Department of "harassing peaceful patriots around the country."

Cheney, on Thursday's interview, expressed support for a commission to look into the events leading up to Jan. 6 and suggested those in the GOP who don't support one may be hiding something.

"That kind of intense, narrow focus threatens people in my party who may have been playing a role they should not have been playing," she said.

While Wednesday's hearing was underway, shortly after Cheney was ousted from leadership, McCarthy told White House reporters, "I don't think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. That's all over with.”

Asked by ABC News later if Trump is on that same page, given the statements he's released since leaving office challenging election fraud, McCarthy deflected, saying, "That's President Trump."

"Inside this conference, to do the conference chair job is about the messaging going forward. This has nothing to do about how somebody voted," he continued. "This is simply who's best at delivering the message."

Stefanik, likely to deliver that message, was among the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn election results and defended questioning results in a floor speech after the Capitol attacK. She has expressed full support for the controversial Republican-backed audit of election results in Arizona, which election experts have worried will further undermine confidence in the electoral process.

Notably, in Stefanik's public pitch to her colleagues for the position released Thursday, she made no mention of the former president or the 2020 election.

ABC News' Rachel Scott and John Parkinson contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Bill named after Vanessa Guillen to reform sexual harassment in military to be reintroduced

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(WASHINGTON) -- A bill named after Army specialist Vanessa Guillen, who was allegedly murdered at the Fort Hood Army base last year, will be reintroduced Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Guillen, 20, was allegedly killed by another soldier at the Killeen, Texas, base on April 22, 2020. Her family says she told them she’d been sexually harassed by a sergeant months before her death.

California Rep. Jackie Speier and Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin are championing the bipartisan #IamVanessaGuillen Act, which seeks to reform the way the military handles sexual assault and harassment cases.

California Rep. Jackie Speier and Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin are championing the bipartisan I Am Vanessa Guillen Act, which seeks to reform the way the military handles sexual assault and harassment cases.

Speier hosted a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol Thursday afternoon to call for the passage of the bill, which was first introduced last September in a previous session of Congress but was never voted on.

She was joined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Texas Reps. Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar and Rep. Adam Smith, chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

The bill would move sexual harassment prosecution decisions outside the chain of command to an Office of the Chief Prosecutor within each military service and create a confidential reporting process integrated with the Department of Defense’s Catch a Serial Offender Database.

It would also make sexual harassment a punishable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“We are here to ensure that Vanessa Guillen did not die in vain,” Speier said.

She said the Fort Hood Investigative Review Committee and the Army’s Command of Investigation reports, launched in the wake of Guillen’s death, found a "broken and toxic culture where sexual harassment and assault were rampant and tolerated” within the military.

"Specialist Vanessa Guillen reported to her command that she was being sexually harassed by her platoon sergeant, yet her command chose to do nothing to investigate the harassment," Speier said. "The platoon sergeant was moved to another unit where he could victimize others. We must act to restructure the Army's sexual harassment and assault response programs. We must act to assure no more soldiers meet the fate of Vanessa Guillen and no other families must face the incomprehensible pain and trauma her family has faced."

Pelosi offered her condolences to Guillen's family, adding that "Congress remains heartbroken."

"We are heartbroken and outraged of the murder of U.S. Specialist Vanessa Guillen," Pelosi said. "Justice is needed for Vanessa and for the many service members facing an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in our armed forces, too often in the shadows. That is why as speaker, I am proud to support Jackie Speier’s I Am Vanessa Guillen Act.”

Guillen's sisters, Mayra and Lupe, gave emotional speeches at the press conference.

"Just to think that Vanessa caused all this movement, caused all this change. It deeply saddens me that she’s not with us … but we’re here today and we’re here stronger than ever and I need justice to be served for my sister," Mayra Guillen said.

Added Lupe Guillen: “It’s hard for us to be here today standing and advocating for my sister. Women and men wearing a uniform shouldn’t be afraid of anything because they’re taking a bullet for this country ... this act will bring the help that my sister needed, the voice that my sister needed, because we must be a voice to the voiceless."

Natalie Khawam, the Guillen family's attorney, said the bill will save "thousands of lives."

"Passing the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act will let soldiers know that they are safe and they can come forward," Khawam said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Homeland Security secretary defends Biden administration's handling of conditions at border

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(WASHINGTON) — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the Biden administration's handling of a variety of immigration issues at a Senate hearing Thursday where the characterization of conditions at the border split largely along party lines.

Mayorkas repeatedly touted the progress made in reducing the number of children sitting in Customs and Border Protection custody and pointed out that the number has dropped in recent months.

The number of unaccompanied children taken into custody roughly doubled from February to March, accounting for about 18,890 individuals, according to officials. Fewer unaccompanied children crossed the border in April, according to CBP, and the number of unaccompanied minors in USBP custody dropped dramatically while the rate of transfer to better-equipped Health and Human Services facilities increased. The number of total arrests and detentions at the border, however, increased slightly to 178,622 in April.

Most migrants were sent back using a public health code U.S. Title 42, a controversial policy that facilitates the rapid removal or "expulsion" of migrants from the border. The Trump administration invoked "Title 42" last year, citing the global pandemic as the central reason behind turning people away quickly. The Biden administration has continued its use with the exception of children who were exempted from "Title 42" by a judge in November.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, remained critical of Mayorkas and the Biden administration and argued that the crisis is far from over, emphasizing the elevated levels of arrests and detentions at the border.

"These children have only been moved from one government agency to another," Portman said.

The Republican senator advocated for more Border Patrol agents, more technology and the completion of Trump's so-called "border wall," which the Biden administration continues to review.

Contrary to the advice of many humanitarian advocates, Portman insisted that decisions about entry and release into the U.S. should be made at the border. This implies the use of a rapid removal system that resembles the fast-track and asylum adjudication programs first rolled out under the Trump administration. Immigrant advocates have taken issue with asylum decisions made at the border and have criticized the practices for limitations they place on access to counsel for migrants.

Mayorkas urged caution and consideration of the dire situation facing children who cross.

"We are addressing the needs of unaccompanied children who arrived at our southern border without a parent or legal guardian," Mayorkas said. "Children who have fled torture, persecution, extreme violence and poverty."

He placed blame on the prior administration and the COVID-19 pandemic for creating "challenges" the Biden administration needed to overcome.

"They did nothing to facilitate addressing the surge. What they did was they dismantled the tools that we had to address it. And they tore down the programs that could have helped alleviate the pressure."

The secretary also acknowledged that under the Biden administration, too many children were placed in Border Patrol custody.

"A Border Patrol station is no place for a child," he said.

Mayorkas referenced the deployment of FEMA to assist in the effort to house children as well as the use of a volunteer Department of Homeland Security workforce.

"What we did was deploy experts in the vetting of individuals with respect to their identity and their qualifications, we took asylum and refugee officers who deal with these very issues in the hottest spots around the world, and apply their technical expertise and experience to the vetting of the sponsors, and we are working as hard as we can to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. We learn from mistakes and we move forward."

Mayorkas said the bottlenecks that resulted in overcrowded conditions at Border Patrol facilities in recent months could have been avoided if preventative measures had been taken. He proposed to the committee establishing "contracting architecture" to allow for the rapid deployment of resources to respond to surges in migration.

Pressed by Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., about the international agreements the Trump administration used to send Guatemalan asylum seekers to Honduras, Mayorkas simply answered that he believed the agreements were unsafe.

The Safe Third Country agreements, in my opinion, put children in harm's way," Mayorkas said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


'Don't panic,' Biden tells Americans facing gasoline shortages from pipeline attack

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(WASHINGTON) -- Hoping to ease concerns of millions of Americans experiencing gasoline shortages and rising prices following the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, President Joe Biden gave an update on the situation Thursday, looking to deal with a potentially damaging political problem and on the heels of his new executive order aimed to prevent future attacks.

He pleaded with Americans to be patient as the pipeline company returns to full operations.

"I want to be clear -- we will not feel the effects at the pump immediately," Biden said in remarks from the White House and carried on national television. "This is not like flicking on a light switch. This pipeline is 5,500 miles long."

Biden said that he expects to see a "region-by-region return to normalcy" starting this weekend and into next week, but told Americans not to be alarmed or hoard gasoline.

"Don't panic,” he said. "I know seeing lines at the pumps or gas stations with no gas can be extremely stressful. But this is a temporary situation. Do not get more gas than you need in the next few days … Panic buying will only slow the process."

Looking directly into the camera and leaning into the microphone, Biden warned gas stations against price-gouging, saying, "do not try to take advantage of consumers during this time."

"I'm going to work with governors in the affected states to put a stop to price gouging wherever it arises. And I'm asking our federal agencies to stand ready to provide assistance to state level efforts to monitor and address any price gouging at the pump. Nobody should be using this situation for financial gain."

Colonial Pipeline restarted its system late Wednesday afternoon and in a statement Thursday morning said it's "made substantial progress" and that "product delivery has commenced in a majority" of markets they service in the southeast.

In South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C., gas stations with fuel outages are over 50%, according to GasBuddy.

The president has been briefed on the incident every day since the attack happened Friday night by his counselor Steve Ricchetti and National Security Council chief of staff Yohannes Abraham, a source familiar with the matter told ABC News and first reported by Axios. Biden was also briefed by White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan twice on Sunday and again on Monday and Tuesday.

In sign of the political sensitivities involved, the sources made a point of noting it was clear from Biden's first briefing that he wanted to be regularly updated on the latest developments and, in particular, what was being done to respond.

The president Thursday reiterated that there was no evidence that the Russian government was behind the attack, but that those involved "are living in Russia."

He told ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Mary Bruce that he believes the FBI's assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not involved and that the United States would not be carrying out any kind of retaliatory cyberattacks to shut down the criminals involved.

"We have been in direct communications with Moscow about the imperative for responsible countries to take decisive action against these ransomware networks. We're also going to pursue a measure to disrupt their ability to operate."

There are few things more politically dangerous than high gas prices, and with the Memorial Day holiday around the corner, the president looked to tamper worries with his remarks and spoke directly to frustrated Americans, making the case that this issue will be short-lived.

His remarks came just hours after he signed an executive order to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity defenses with the goal of preventing similar attacks and after the White House has faced questions about why it wasn’t better prepared to protect its infrastructure.

Biden’s order mandates companies "doing business with the federal government" share information with it about hacks, but would have no implications for private companies that aren’t.The president acknowledged the restraints in his executive power, admitting “I cannot dictate that the private companies do certain things relative to cybersecurity.”

On Wednesday, a senior administration official said they “pushed the authority as far as we could,” in relation to the executive order and that “anybody doing business with the U.S. government will have to share incidents, so that we can use that information to protect Americans more broadly."

It will also require all software bought by the federal government to meet certain security standards within nine months and "creates a pilot program to create an 'Energy Star' type of label so the government -- and the public at large -- can quickly determine whether software was developed securely."

Another danger the Biden administration is now confronted with are concerns over inflation and rising prices on consumer goods, including gas prices which crossed $3 a gallon on Wednesday for first time in seven years.

Prices consumers pay for goods like food and gas went up 0.8 percent in April according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the last 12 months, the “all items index” increased 4.2%., which is the largest 12-month increase since September 2008. Prices for used cars and trucks rose 10% in April as well, making it the largest 1-month increase since the series began in 1953, and were a significant contributor to the broader increase.

All three major stock indices fell Wednesday as data indicated inflation was higher than expected in the month of April and investors seem to be nervous that it may be higher and more persistent than the Federal Reserve and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have been forecasting.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki this week said that the administration takes "the possibility of inflation quite seriously" but that there are "a range of factors" in play.

"There’s a couple of data points that are specific to this moment. And we knew, just as the -- as the economy, sort of, shrunk and shut down, that, as it’s turning back on, there would be some of these impacts."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Over 100 Republicans sign letter threatening to form third party

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(WASHINGTON) -- More than 100 Republicans, including some former elected officials, have signed a letter threatening to break from the GOP and form a third party, taking aim at the party's embrace of former President Donald Trump and his continued false claims that the 2020 election was "stolen."

"[W]hen in our democratic republic, forces of conspiracy, division, and despotism arise, it is the patriotic duty of citizens to act collectively in defense of liberty and justice," read the preamble to their letter released Thursday. "We, therefore, declare our intent to catalyze an American renewal, and to either reimagine a party dedicated to our founding ideals or else hasten the creation of such an alternative."

Naming the effort, "A Call for American Renewal," the group is calling for the Republican Party "to rededicate itself to founding ideals -- or else hasten the creation of an alternative."

Miles Taylor, the former Trump Department of Homeland Security official who anonymously wrote a book and New York Times op-ed criticizing the Trump administration, organized the effort, which includes former members of Congress, governors, ambassadors, Cabinet secretaries, state legislators and Republican Party chairs among the 152 signatories.

The initiative's website indicates it's an extension of Stand Up Republic and The Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform (REPAIR), another group organized by Taylor that calls for reforms to the Republican Party.

Though most are retired and haven't announced plans to run for office, notable names include former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former Transportation Secretary under George W. Bush, Mary Peters. Former congressional representatives include Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Reid Ribble of Wisconsin and Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma. Former Trump press secretary Anthony Scaramucci and official Olivia Troye also signed the statement.

The effort comes on the heels of House Republican leaders voting to remove Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from leadership because of her continued criticism of Trump and his baseless claims that the 2020 election was "stolen."

Cheney, in an interview with NBC's Today Show which aired Wednesday, warned that Republicans won't be able to convince voters to trust their agenda "if we are building our party on a foundation of lies."

The coalition teased more action to come including a town hall on "renewing America," saying it "cannot stay quiet in the face of rising political extremism."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Biden signs executive order to improve government response to cyber attacks

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(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden signed an executive order Wednesday aimed at modernizing the federal government's response to cyberattacks -- by "improving information-sharing between the U.S. government and the private sector on cyber issues," improving detection of hacks into federal systems, and creating a "standardized playbook" for how the government responds to attacks, according to the White House.

Facing questions about why the U.S. isn't better prepared to protect its infrastructure from hacks like the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline, the order seeks to bring the federal government more up to speed.

However, while it removes barriers to the private sector sharing info with the federal government about hacks, it stops short of mandating companies like Colonial Pipeline share information. A senior administration official clarified on a call with reporters that the federal government would mandate private companies "doing business with the federal government" share information with it about hacks.

"We pushed the authority as far as we could," the official told reporters, "and said anybody doing business with the U.S. government will have to share incidents, so that we can use that information to protect Americans more broadly."

“This executive order is about taking the steps necessary to prevent cyber intrusions from happening in the first place. And second, ensuring we're well positioned to react rapidly to address incidents when they do occur,” the official continued.

The Biden administration has been working on this executive order since its second week, the official told reporters, and it is expected to help address hacks similar to the one that hit the Colonial Pipeline.

"Colonial fundamentally was an IT incident, and this executive order will make IT software more secure," the official said.

The order will require all software bought by the federal government to meet certain security standards within nine months, the official said. And it "creates a pilot program to create an 'energy star' type of label so the government -- and the public at large -- can quickly determine whether software was developed securely," the White House said.

"We're working to bring visibility to the security of software," the official said, "akin to the way New York brought visibility and cleanliness to New York City restaurants by requiring restaurants to post simple ratings like A, B, C or D, regarding their cleanliness in their windows."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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