Politics

Biden to hold rare solo news conference ahead of one-year mark in office

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(WASHINGTON) -- On the eve of the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, President Joe Biden is set to hold a formal news conference at the White House Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET, and is bound to face questions on waning public support for his handling of the pandemic, the economy and legislative agenda.

With Biden facing the limits of what he can accomplish with an evenly-divided Senate, unable to get either his signature social spending package or major voting rights reform through Congress in recent weeks, and with the pandemic still raging well into its second, President Biden's approval rating in polls has hit an all-time low. A Jan. 12 Quinnipiac poll found his approval rating to be 33%, a 3-point drop from November.

Still, Biden is expected at the news conference to tout his successes over the year, including administering more than 200 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, and hitting record-low unemployment rates in many states.

"You don't get everything done in the first year. But what we feel good about ... is that coming in to an incredibly difficult circumstance, fighting a pandemic, an economic a massive economic downturn, as a result, an administration that was prior to us that did not effectively deal with a lot of these crises, that there's been a lot of progress made," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.

"We need to build on that. The work is not done, the job is not done, and we are certainly not conveying it is, so our objective and I think what you'll hear the president talk about tomorrow is how to build on the foundation we laid in the first year," she added.

White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield cited the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law, the American Rescue Plan, and a major, bipartisan infrastructure package as two achievements Biden will highlight in an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Wednesday. But she also acknowledged the president can do more on other issues.

"He has been laser-focused on taming COVID and growing the economy. He would be the first to say we’re not where we need to be on those," Bedingfield said.

Wednesday's session marks just the second time Biden has held a solo formal press conference at the White House. The first such news conference was held March 25, 2021.

Since then, he held five news conferences on foreign trips, and three in partnership with other foreign leaders at the White House, for a total of nine news conferences. While Biden often answers questions shouted by the press at other events, his tally of formal news conferences is the lowest for any president since Ronald Reagan, according to data from University of California Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project.

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Senate braces for showdown over voting rights, filibuster rule

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(WASHINGTON) -- In a rare event, the Senate will convene on Wednesday morning with all Democrats instructed to be in their seats inside the chamber when the business begins as they try to move forward on voting rights legislation and a challenge a long-standing Senate rule, efforts poised to fail without the support of a single Republican and likely even some Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that Democrats will seek a carveout to the filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation by replacing the current 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster with an old-fashioned "talking filibuster."

"We feel very simply: on something as important as voting rights, if Senate Republicans are going to oppose it, they should not be allowed to sit in their office," Schumer said Tuesday following an evening caucus meeting. "They've got to come down on the floor and defend their opposition to voting rights, the wellspring of our democracy. There's broad, strong feeling in our caucus about that."

"To anyone who says, 'Oh, well you may not win.' Don't do it. Look at history," Schumer added, preemptively defending the effort as a moral win, if not a legislative one.

Under a talking filibuster, senators are required to "hold the floor" during debate, testing their stamina as they must stand and speak to block bills. Once a party runs out of steam and gives in, the chamber would then pass the bill that was filibustered by a simple majority. So, in theory, Vice President Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, would serve as a tie-breaking vote for Democrats to pass the once-filibustered bill.

But both Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have repeatedly made clear their opposition to changing the filibuster rule to pass voting rights, although they say they support the underlying legislation.

"I don't know how you break a rule to make a rule," Manchin told reporters Tuesday, shooting down the proposed talking filibuster.

And without the support of every single Democrat, it'll be a non-starter in the chamber.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell gave a highly critical speech on the floor Tuesday of the effort after weeks of warning of "scorched earth" if Democrats made a filibuster carveout.

"Does the Senate exist to help narrow majorities double down on divisions or to force broad coalitions to build bridges?" McConnell said. "This fake hysteria does not prove the senate is obsolete it proves the Senate is as necessary as ever."

Both parties have supported filibuster carveouts in the past decade for judicial nominees – first under then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who lowered the threshold for judicial nominees to 51 votes to make way for then-President Barack Obama's nominees in 2013. McConnell, as Senate majority leader in 2017, also used the so-called "nuclear option" to confirm then-President Donald Trump's first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

The Senate rules change vote is expected in the early evening.

Across Pennsylvania Avenue, President Joe Biden – one day shy of one year in office – will hold a press conference from the White House around the same time, where he'll likely take questions on his stalled legislative agenda.

The election reform bill at hand in the Senate would make Election Day a federal holiday, expand early voting and mail-in-voting, and give the federal government greater oversight over state elections. And would come at a time when nearly 20 states have restricted access to voting fueled by false claims in the wake of the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

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Biden's report card: One year in, accomplishments and stalled priorities

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(WASHINGTON) -- With the United States facing many of the same crises that Joe Biden took on when he took office one year ago, the president has been taking stock of his legislative accomplishments -- including major infrastructure and coronavirus relief packages -- and has stayed upbeat even as his popularity plummets and key priorities remain unmet.

"There's a lot of talk about disappointments and things we haven't gotten done," Biden said last week. "We're going to get a lot of them done, I might add."

From fighting the pandemic and rebuilding the economy, to dealing with racial strife and combating climate change, Biden faces a mixed report card of what he's been able to accomplish, as the limits of his office -- and political realities he's had trouble overcoming -- launch him into a challenging second year in the White House.

On COVID, shift to science gives way to 'reactive' policies

From his first day in office, Biden set a different tone on COVID-19 from his predecessor, President Donald Trump. He embraced science and his top medical advisers -- like Dr. Anthony Fauci -- donned face coverings, and expressed sympathy for lives lost to the virus.

Biden pushed a $1.9 trillion relief package through Congress, oversaw a testing program that ramped up exponentially in his first months in office, and encouraged or mandated masks where he could, including on planes and other public transport.

Sixty-three percent of Americans are now fully vaccinated and nearly all schools have in-person instruction. And while the Supreme Court this month blocked his administration from requiring large businesses to mandate their workers get vaccinated or test weekly, many companies have instituted vaccine and testing requirements regardless.

But after Biden predicted that the Fourth of July last year would "begin to mark our independence from this virus," the delta and omicron variants drove up cases, hospitalizations and deaths -- and overwhelmed U.S. hospitals.

Shifting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a testing shortage amid the omicron surge led public health experts to criticize his administration. A group of Senate Democrats said "far too many measures" his White House had taken "have been reactive, rather than proactive."

And fewer Americans than ever now approve of the way Biden is handling COVID.

"If you take a look," Biden said earlier this month, "we’re very different today than we were a year ago, even though we still have problems."

On Tuesday, a White House official said, the Biden administration would make 400 million non-surgical N95 masks available to Americans for free and a government website went live allowing them to order free at-home tests.

Economy surges, but inflation hampers economic recovery

Biden delivered on two key economic promises: a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law that passed with bipartisan support.

He presided over the economy's resurgence last year, with a record 6.4 million jobs created, rising wages and low unemployment -- dropping to just 3.9% in December.

But inflation was up a record 6.8% over the course of the year, outpacing wage growth for many Americans.

The White House initially labeled rising prices temporary in nature, and this month said they expected price jumps to moderate this year.

Global supply chain headaches have also led to shipping delays, although most packages reached consumers on time for the holidays.

Legislative priorities stalled

While his infrastructure bill marked a major win, Biden ended his first year in office with two top domestic priorities, his nearly $2 trillion "Build Back Better" social plan and a pair of voting rights bills, stalled in the Senate despite passing the House.

That's in large part due to the intransigence of two key Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

The pair's opposition to changing Senate rules -- over Biden's pleas -- has allowed Republicans to block legislation that would widen access to voting and federal oversight of elections.

Meanwhile, the president's negotiations with Manchin on the social spending plan -- which includes universal preschool, expanding the child tax credit, an historical investment in climate policies and more health coverage, among other policies -- hit a roadblock last month.

Biden had pledged to take on climate change and racial equity as key priorities, and while he has signed executive orders aimed at both, legislative pushes -- climate action in the "Build Back Better" bill, and police reform measures -- have failed to garner bipartisan support despite Biden's pledge to soften political divisions.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Biden would continue to "advocate for both" voting rights and the "Build Back Better" bill.

"You don't get everything done in the first year," she said.

'America is back'

The president traveled twice to Europe last year, declaring to allies that "America is back," reaffirming traditional relationships and returning the U.S. to international organizations and agreements like the World Health Organization and Paris climate accord.

Seeking to end America's involvement in Afghanistan, he withdrew troops from the country before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks -- but in the chaotic final days, a terror attack killed 13 American service members.

He has found it difficult to bring Iran back to the agreement over its nuclear program, which Trump scrapped, while North Korea has continued to test missiles despite U.S. misgivings.

As he juggles long-term competition with China and bringing about worldwide consensus on fighting climate change, Biden has in recent months found one of his most acute foreign policy challenges to be Russia's military build-up on its border with Ukraine.

Biden has threatened severe consequences -- economic and otherwise -- should Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to invade.

Hope of unity hits political reality

Just two weeks after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Biden stood on the building's steps for his inauguration and preached about the need for unity.

Biden predicted Republicans would have an "epiphany" after Trump left office, but that has not materialized. In an ABC News/Ipsos poll conducted in late December, 71% of Republicans said they sided with Trump's false claims that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 election.

Trump's lies about the election -- and politicization of the pandemic -- continue to guide Republicans, both in Washington and across the country.

And Biden this month used his strongest language yet to describe Republicans opposed to passing voting rights bills, comparing those opposed to his measures to notorious racial segregationists.

ABC News' Karen Travers contributed to this report.

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Jan. 6 committee subpoenas Rudy Giuliani, obtains phone records for Eric Trump, Kimberly Guilfoyle

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(WASHINGTON) -- The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack on Tuesday subpoenaed former Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell, who pushed unfounded claims of widespread election fraud and pushed to overturn the 2020 election results on former President Donald Trump's behalf.

"The Select Committee’s investigation has revealed credible evidence that you publicly promoted claims that the 2020 election was stolen and participated in attempts to disrupt or delay the certification of the election results based on your allegations," the panel wrote in letters to Giuliani, Ellis, Powell and Trump aide and attorney Boris Epshteyn.

Within the last week, the House Select Committee also subpoenaed the phone records of Eric Trump, former president Trump’s second eldest son -- a source with direct knowledge has confirmed to ABC News. The subpoena was sent to a cell phone provider of Eric Trump.

The group subpoenaed Tuesday worked with Trump to contest the results of the election in the fall of 2020, traveling to key states and huddling with Trump and other White House aides in the Oval Office as the president weighed how to overturn the results.

"The four individuals we’ve subpoenaed today advanced unsupported theories about election fraud, pushed efforts to overturn the election results, or were in direct contact with the former President about attempts to stop the counting of electoral votes," Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in a statement. "We expect these individuals to join the nearly 400 witnesses who have spoken with the Select Committee as the committee works to get answers for the American people about the violent attack on our democracy.”

Ellis also circulated two legal memos urging former Vice President Mike Pence to reject or delay the count of electoral votes on Jan. 6, the committee said.

Giuliani urged Trump to seize voting machines after being told the Department of Homeland Security lacked the authority to do so, the committee said, pointing to a report from the news website Axios and documents obtained by investigators.

The former mayor of New York City, a close Trump confidant, spoke at the Jan. 6 rally outside the White House, urging for "trial by combat" over the election results before Trump supporters marched to the Capitol.

Powell, according to the committee, reportedly urged Trump to seize voting machines to find evidence that foreign hackers had altered the election results.

Powell, Giuliani, Ellis and Epshteyn did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Dominion Voting Systems, a Colorado-based voting machine company, has filed defamation lawsuits against both Giuliani and Powell and is seeking billions of dollars in damages over their unfounded claims of election fraud. A federal judge denied both Powell and Giuliani's efforts to have the suits dismissed.

Giuliani's law license was also suspended in New York state last year over his claims of election fraud.

ABC's John Santucci, Olivia Rubin and Will Steakin contributed to this report.

 

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Senate begins debate on voting rights ahead of filibuster showdown

ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- For the first time this Congress, the Senate started debating voting rights legislation on Tuesday, a day after Democrats failed to meet their hopeful, symbolic, deadline to pass an election reform bill by Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer opened debate on the House-passed voting rights bill, a combination bill wrapping in both the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, on Tuesday afternoon.

But Democrats need 60 votes, or the support of 10 Republican senators -- which they don't have -- plus all 50 of their own, to overcome a GOP filibuster on the legislation and end debate, making way for the bill's final passage. All 50 Senate Republicans are opposed to the bill.

"The American people deserve to see their senators go on record on whether they will support these bills or oppose them. Indeed, that may be the only way to make progress on this issue," Schumer said on Tuesday. "And if Republicans choose to continue to filibuster voting rights legislation, we must consider and vote on rule changes that are appropriate and necessary to restore the Senate and make voting legislation possible."

The bill at hand would make Election Day a federal holiday, expand early voting and mail-in-voting, and give the federal government greater oversight over state elections. And would come at a time when nearly 20 states have restricted access to voting fueled by false claims in the wake of the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Quoting the late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Schumer acknowledged that Democrats have "an uphill struggle" to pass voting rights legislation but said they should "keep moving, keep fighting" in the face of the inevitable defeat this week.

"Win, lose, or draw -- members of this chamber were elected to debate and to vote, especially on an issue this vital to the beating heart of our democracy as voting rights. And the public -- the public is entitled to know where each senator stands on an issue so sacrosanct as defending our democracy."

He also seized the spotlight to slam Republicans for continuing to block Democrats from passing the legislation last year, and addressing the American people from the Senate floor, said the GOP has "regressed."

"The Republican Party used to be one that supported voting rights. Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush worked to renew voting rights bills," Schumer said. "Now, sadly, unfortunately, this is Donald Trump's Republican Party."

McConnell, on Tuesday, speaking first for Republicans, slammed his colleagues across the aisle for characterizing the Senate filibuster as a "Jim Crow relic" while, Democrats argue, the procedural tactic is being weaponized by Republicans to prevent federal voting protections largely to minorities.

"This is about one party wanting the power to unilaterally rewrite the rulebook of American elections," McConnell said.

"Democrats have been pushing the same policy changes in the same Chicken Little rhetoric since 2019," he added. "The Democratic leader's effort to break the Senate long predates the latest pretext."

"Too many of our colleagues across the aisle still want to respond to a 50-50 Senate with a rule-breaking power grab. Those voting to break this institution will not be a free vote or a harmless action, even if efforts fail," McConnell continued. "An unprincipled attempt at grabbing power is not harmless just because it fails. Voting to break the Senate is not cost-free, just because of a bipartisan majority of your colleagues have the wisdom to stop you."

To go it alone, Schumer said he will move to challenge the chamber's filibuster rule with a simple majority vote, and aides say that rules-change proposal will come as early as Wednesday. Schumer on Tuesday also filed cloture on the bill, setting up the 60-vote threshold filibuster vote for later this week.

It's still unclear exactly how Democrats intend to change the filibuster rule. Schumer didn't lay out specifics Tuesday on what his plans are on possible changes to the filibuster when Republicans block the voting rights bill as they're expected to do.

Senate Democrats are scheduled to meet Tuesday evening ahead of an expected vote Wednesday to try to change the filibuster rule.

Sen Tim Kaine, D-Va., a key negotiator in voting rights talks., told ABC News last week that it will likely amount to a one-time change to the rule, or carveout, by lowering the threshold to end debate on the legislation from 60 votes to 51 votes. In theory, Vice President Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, could serve as Democrats' tie-breaking vote -- both to quash the filibuster and, eventually, pass the voting rights bill.

Another option Democrats have looked into is reverting back to a talking filibuster, which would require 41 opponents of the bill to keep talking on the floor -- called "holding the floor" -- to test the opposition's stamina. If they run out of steam, there would be a 51-vote requirement for passage of the once-filibustered bill.

Sen. Joe Manchin made it clear Tuesday evening that he remains opposed to changing the filibuster rule to pass voting rights.

"I don't know how you break a rule to make a rule," Manchin said when asked about changing the rules.

Manchin shot down a possible "talking filibuster" proposal that would see senators debating legislation on the floor with a simple majority vote passing legislation once debate has concluded.

Democrats need the support of their entire caucus to change the rule in the chamber where they hold the slimmest of majorities. And conservative Democratic Sens. Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have made clear their opposition to changing the filibuster, even though both support the underlying legislation, so the effort is expected to fail -- a massive blow to Democrats as President Joe Biden approaches one year in office on Thursday.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s 13-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, called out Manchin and Sinema by name in demonstrations near Capitol Hill on Monday as activists took the street to demand action in the name of the late civil rights leader being honored across the nation.

"Sen. Sinema, Sen. Manchin, our future hinges on your decision, and history will remember what choice you make," she called out. "So join me in demanding action for today, tomorrow and generations to come."

After Biden took the national spotlight last Tuesday in Georgia to demand the Senate change its rules "whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking actions on voting rights," he met with Sinema and Manchin privately at the White House. As he headed to the Hill last Thursday to meet with lawmakers, Sinema stunningly took to the Senate floor and reiterated her opposition to what the president had just publicly called for.

Republicans, meanwhile, have argued Biden went too far in his attacks on the GOP, tying their obstruction on the bill to Jim Crow-era racism, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell slamming Biden's speech from the Senate chamber as "profoundly, profoundly un-presidential" and as a "rant" that was "incoherent, incorrect and beneath his office."

As activists continue to push for federal action, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said over the weekend he was never contacted by the White House to try and gain support for passing voting rights legislation.

"Sadly, this election reform bill that the president has been pushing, I never got a call on that from the White House. There was no negotiation, bringing the Republicans and Democrats together to try to come up with something that would meet bipartisan interest," he told NBC's "Meet The Press" on Sunday.

With the Senate finally taking up voting rights Tuesday, the president is scheduled to remain out of sight, according to his schedule, but at the White House for briefings.

Biden is scheduled to hold a news conference on Wednesday, one day before marking his first year in office, where he'll likely face questions on the issue of voting rights -- among other unfinished agenda items.

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You can now order your government-supplied free at-home COVID tests

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Biden administration launched COVIDTests.gov on Tuesday, the website Americans can use to request free at-home rapid COVID tests mailed to their doorsteps, one day ahead of its scheduled official launch.

The early launch is to prepare for a smooth debut on the day most Americans are expecting it, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday, and catch any issues with the site before its formal rollout.

Psaki called it "beta testing." But the website is still live for anyone who chooses to try it Tuesday and the orders will be processed.

People are able to order four tests per household through the website. They will be shipped out 7-12 days after they’re ordered via first class mail.

That means the first free tests won’t reach Americans until late January or early February, which will be too late to blunt the peak of omicron cases in many parts of the country. Still, the plan will allow Americans to have free tests on-hand in the coming weeks and months.

All that people need to enter on the site to receive a test is a name and an address. The White House will also launch a call line for people who don't have computer access.

Another 500 million tests will eventually also be available, bringing the total to 1 billion free at-home tests distributed to Americans, but the White House hasn’t announced a timeline for the second batch of tests.

And more immediately, starting last Saturday, people are also able to get up to eight tests per month reimbursed through insurance if they go out and purchase them on their own, either online or at stores.

"In the first couple of days, we're encouraging people to just make sure you keep your receipts as the systems are getting up online," a senior administration official said on Friday.

The White House is also incentivizing insurers to work with retailers and offer the tests for free up-front for people who show their insurance cards, similar to how prescriptions might be covered at the pharmacy. Those partnerships between insurers and retailers are still in the works.

This is on top of 50 million free at-home tests that have been doled out to community health centers around the country and 20,000 free testing sites.

Taken together, it all signifies a clear effort on behalf of the administration to increase the testing supply after omicron caught the government off guard.

The myriad testing options now in full swing will also likely take the pressure off the website as it officially launches on Wednesday, particularly as cases begin to fall in some northeastern areas.

Less demand will give the White House time to finish contracting all 500 million tests.

Currently, the White House only has tens of millions of tests on hand, a senior administration official confirmed Friday.

They’ve secured another 400 million or so that are still being manufactured and delivered.

But senior administration officials last week said they were confident they would be able to get tests sent out to any American who ordered one within their shipping timeline of 7-12 days.

"We're confident that with our contracting speed, which is very fast, with the ones we have on hand, and the timeline we're laying out today, that we can meet all of our timelines and get these to Americans that want them," a senior administration official said.

The tests will be sent via the U.S. Postal Service as first class mail.

The tests will not necessarily be of use to Americans who were exposed and want to take a test within the first 5 days of exposure, or come down with symptoms and want to test immediately, since they'll take more than 7-12 days to arrive.

But senior administration officials ran through the host of other testing options Americans can use in those scenarios and defended this program as one "​​designed to ensure that Americans have at-home rapid tests on hand in the weeks and months ahead, as they have a need."

The officials also said they were "ready" to meet demand and prevent any website crashes, as seen during former President Barack Obama’s launch of Healthcare.gov, which was overseen at the time by the current White House COVID Coordinator Jeff Zients.

"Of course, every website launch poses some risks, we are quite cognizant of that. But we have the best tech teams" across the administration, an official said. "So we're ready for this and we're ready for Americans to start ordering their tests on January 19."

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Supreme Court takes up dispute over Boston flagpole and Christian flag

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(WASHINGTON) -- A dispute over a Boston flagpole, the Christian flag and the First Amendment is testing the limits of free speech on government property.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear arguments over whether the city of Boston engaged in unlawful discrimination and censorship when it denied the request of a local civic organization to fly the Christian flag on a flagpole outside City Hall.

Designed in the late 1880s, the white banner with red Latin cross has been adopted by many American Protestant communities as a nondenominational symbol of their faith.

The city says its policies forbid promotion of religion on its flagpoles and that doing so would violate separation of church and state.

Hal Shurtleff, founder of the nonprofit group Camp Constitution, which brought the case, argues the flagpole was effectively treated by the city as a public forum open to all viewpoints for more than a decade.

"It's a public access flagpole," Shurtleff said in an interview with ABC News Live about his 2017 request to raise the flag at a planned Constitution Day event on City Hall Plaza.

"It's kind of ludicrous to think flying a flag on a flagpole for maybe an hour or two will somehow get people to think, 'Oh my goodness, look at the city of Boston now endorsing the Protestant or the Christian faith,'" he said.

City officials had approved 284 private flag-raising events over a dozen years, including flags to mark Veterans Day, Columbus Day, LGBTQ Pride Month and numerous ethnic and cultural communities across Boston.

Shurtleff's request was the first and only one denied, court records show.

"This is an 83-foot-tall flagpole in front of City Hall that's associated with the government. That's why, you know, this religious group wants to use it, because it carries with it some government imprimatur," said Patrick Elliott, senior counsel with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is backing Boston in the case. "So we say the city can control that."

In court documents, Boston lawyers also argue that approved private flag-raisings were almost always "in connection with publicly recognized days of remembrance" and that the city had "never flown a purely private flag on a random day."

Lower courts sided with the city, concluding that the flagpole was not public forum and that the city officials could exercise discretion in approving requests to raise flags on its flagpole.

"The city, for its own speech, does not want to get into the issue of religion," said attorney Doug Hallward-Driemeier, who is arguing the case for Boston. "It's said that it didn't want to fly a flag that was offered as 'the Christian flag,' because that wasn't the message that the city itself wanted to communicate."

Supporters of the policy say it also protects the city from unwanted association with divisive messages and, in this case, a flag that critics allege has been coopted by hate groups.

"The Christian flag is associated with Christian nationalism. This is the same flag that was used during the Jan. 6th insurrection," said Elliott, referencing publicly available images showing the flag being carried by some rioters as they stormed the U.S. Capitol last year. "So this is really akin to them trying to take over City Hall and saying, 'Hey, this is a Christian place.'"

Shurtleff dismissed the comparison and insinuation that the flag was a symbol of extremism.

"I don't know of any white nationalists carrying Christian flags. That may have happened, but I don't know. But this flag certainly represents Christianity and was designed by a couple of Sunday school teachers. Not exactly white supremacists," he said.

The Supreme Court has limited the display of religious symbols by governments on government property, but it has also said that public forums are different and that censorship of viewpoints there isn't allowed.

The ACLU is siding with Camp Constitution in this battle, saying a win for Boston would threaten free speech.

"When the government opens its public property for private speakers, it has to treat everybody equally," said David Cole, ACLU national legal director. "This case is really about private citizens' access to government property to express themselves. And that access is critical to our ability to speak to each other, to express our views and the like."

Boston insists it never intended to make the flagpole open to anyone, for any reason, telling the high court that if a majority sides with Camp Constitution, the city may end its flag-raising program altogether.

"We're optimistic that they will rule in our favor and that we will be allowed to raise the flag," said Shurtleff, "although I understand the city will most likely cancel its flag raising events. So we'll see what happens."

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Democratic Senate candidate smokes marijuana in new ad highlighting disparity and reform

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(NEW ORLEANS) -- Progressive activist and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Gary Chambers Jr. smokes marijuana in a field in New Orleans while talking about marijuana reform in his first campaign ad.

On Jan. 1, smokeable medical marijuana became legal in Louisiana under certain conditions. But the use of cannabis has been a question asked of politicians for decades.

The Democrat Party's position on marijuana use has shifted over the years.

President Joe Biden has publicly promised to automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions as well as decriminalize the use of cannabis. He said he supports the legalization of medicinal marijuana.

Five White House staffers, however, have been fired due to past drug use which included marijuana.

The Office of Personnel Management in 2021 released a memo stating past marijuana use should not be the sole reason a candidate for a government position should be deemed unfit.

The government’s shift on marijuana use follows the change in Americans' views on the drug. A Pew Research Center survey in April found that 91% of Americans believed marijuana should be legalized. Sixty percent told Pew that legalization should be for both recreational and medicinal usage.

Only 8% of respondents said it should not be legal for any adult use.

Chambers, who is Black, opens the new ad titled "37 Seconds" by lighting and smoking a joint as a stopwatch clicks in the background.

He says someone is arrested for possession of marijuana every 37 seconds.

“Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana laws than white people. States waste $3.7 billion enforcing marijuana laws every year,” he goes on.

In 2021, a Louisiana law decriminalized the possession of up to 14 grams of marijuana. The fine is now $100 or less and no jail time.

Also last year, the New Orleans City Council pardoned 10,000 cases of marijuana possession for anyone convicted after 2010.

Chambers, who has never been arrested, ended the ad saying, “Most of the people police are arrested aren't dealers, but rather people with small amounts of pot, just like me.”

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Bipartisan group of senators meet with Ukraine President Zelenskyy as Russian troops amass on border

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(NEW YORK) -- A bipartisan group of seven U.S. senators arrived in Ukraine Monday to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other officials in what they say is a show of commitment to the country as an "increasingly belligerent Russia" bears down on its border.

"Today, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) announced they are traveling to Ukraine this week to meet with President Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials to reaffirm the U.S.' commitment to Ukraine, which continues to face an increasingly belligerent Russia," said a statement released by the group Monday.

Shaheen said in a tweet the meeting was productive and made clear that "Putin will not be allowed to target our Eastern European partners and allies w/o consequences."

ABC News Senior Foreign Correspondent Ian Pannell met up with Sens. Shaheen and Murphy in Kyiv to discuss the purpose of their trip.

"I think the United States is interested, as we've heard from the officials we've met with today, that deterrence is much preferable to conflict. And so we are going to continue to do everything we can diplomatically to try and keep Russia at the table with Ukraine to see if there isn't some way to avoid a hot war here," Shaheen told Pannell. "But again, it can't come at the expense of the future of this country."

Shaheen called the situation critical, saying a Russian incursion could come soon.

"We're talking about weeks, maybe a month or two, but we're not talking about six months, years. We're talking about a short timeframe," she said.

On Friday a U.S. official said an invasion could come between now and mid-February and accused Russia of preparing to set a false pretext to attack.

Later that day, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby also accused Russia of planning a "false-flag" operation to make an invasion of Ukraine appear defensive rather than offensive.

"We have information that they've pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct what we call a false-flag operation – an operation designed to look like an attack on them or their people, or Russian speaking people in Ukraine, as an excuse to go in," Kirby said.

Murphy told Pannell he would not be surprised by such deception from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Anybody that's been paying any bit of attention to Vladimir Putin over the course of his career should know that he's an expert in false-flag operations and that he is willing to do anything and everything in order to avoid culpability for the actions that he undertakes," Murphy said. "I think we all need to be on the lookout for what may be a Russian instigated attempt to try to start a hot war very soon."

Murphy said he hopes to convey that despite division in Washington politics, Republicans and Democrats are united in support for "serious, unprecedented crushing sanctions on Russia" if it moves further into Ukraine.

"I think what we need to explain to Russia is that this is not going to be bloodless. This is not going to be without pain," Murphy said. "The United States people are going to support a Ukrainian population that's going to continue to fight back."

He continued, "This is going to be a Ukrainian people every single day scrapping for their very survival, and that is going to be something that the American public will want us as members of the United States Senate to support."

 

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


SCOTUS blocking of vaccine mandate 'a setback for public health': Vivek Murthy

Oliver Contreras/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court's decision to block the Biden administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large private businesses is a "setback for public health," United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told This Week co-anchor Martha Raddatz on Sunday.

"The news about the workplace requirement being blocked was very disappointing, Martha. It was a setback for public health. Because what these requirements ultimately are helpful for is not just protecting the community at large but making our workplaces safer for workers as well as for customers," Murthy said.

Raddatz reminded Murthy that before the omicron surge, he had said on This Week that the mandate "was necessary and appropriate."

"So, what is plan B?" Raddatz pressed.

Murthy did not outline an explicit alternate plan but noted, "there is nothing that stops workplaces from voluntarily putting reasonable requirements in place."

"Many have done so already," he said. "A third of the Fortune 100 companies have put these in place and many more outside have, so we are certainly encouraging companies to put these requirements in place voluntarily."

Some large companies, however, are changing their plans based on the decision. General Electric confirmed to ABC News last week that it would stop implementing a planned vaccine mandate after the Supreme Court ruling.

But Columbia Sportswear said in a statement that it is "disappointed in [Thursday's] Supreme Court ruling" because it would mean the company would have to deal "with a thicket of conflicting state and local regulations."

Murthy's comments come as President Joe Biden's administration continues to ramp up efforts to stop the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Senior White House officials said on Friday the administration will launch a new website Wednesday for requesting free at-home rapid COVID tests.

Raddatz pressed the surgeon general on the time it has taken to ramp up the availability of testing in the United States.

"Dr. Murthy, I know what you're doing now, but the question is, why wasn't it done sooner?" she asked. "You say you always hold out hope, but you plan for the worst. It doesn't sound like that happened."

"Well, there was planning, Martha, and there was execution on increasing the supply of tests," Murthy responded, and the omicron variant of the virus created "an extraordinary increase in demand, Martha, even beyond the incredible increase in supply that we had procured and secured during 2021. And so we have to close that gap."

Noting the high number of breakthrough infections amid the omicron surge, Raddatz asked Murthy what percent positive U.S. COVID cases, which are at record levels, are among the vaccinated or boosted.

While he didn't have a percentage breakdown for the current caseload, Murthy said being vaccinated and boosted vastly increases protection from symptomatic infection.

"What we've seen from our data, from the United States and from other countries, is that if you are vaccinated and boosted, your level of protection against symptomatic infection is in the around 75 to 80% range," he said. "So that's not 100%; it still means that they're about, is about 20% of possibility there in terms of positive cases, despite being, despite being vaccinated, compared to an unvaccinated population... that still shows a very strong efficacy overall against preventing symptomatic disease."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Clyburn asks senators 'which side are you on?' for voting rights

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., on Sunday asked his colleagues in the Senate who are set to vote on voting rights legislation Tuesday: "Which side are you on?" referencing the iconic union organizing song often sung during the civil rights era.

"You know, this is Martin Luther King Jr.'s weekend. I first met Martin Luther King Jr. back in 1960. And I can remember a song, if you think back, back then, 'Which Side Are You On?'" the majority whip told ABC This Week co-anchor Martha Raddatz. "That song comes to mind today when I look at these senators. Which side are you on?"

"So let's have the vote so we can get a definitive answer to the question," he added.

Despite the House passing voting rights legislation Thursday, the outcome of the effort is still a seemingly foregone conclusion with Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., opposed to removing the filibuster provision to pave a path for voting rights legislation to pass the Senate.

"Senators Sinema and Manchin have said 'no' to changing the filibuster rules. Do you have any hope things might change before Tuesday?" Raddatz asked.

"You know, South Carolinians live, by and large, by our state motto, 'As I breathe, I hope.' Yes, I do have hope," Clyburn said. "I know that these two Democrats have decided that it is much more important to them to protect the voting rights of the minority on the Senate floor than to protect the voting rights of minorities in this great country of ours, this great country, the minorities that made it possible for them to be in the position that they're currently in. So, I hope, but I don't think that we will change their mind. But we will see."

Clyburn told Raddatz he would support overhauling the Electoral Count Act but thinks voting rights is a more pressing issue given the immediacy of the 2022 midterm elections.

With his sinking approval rating at an all-time low, Raddatz pressed Clyburn, a close confidant to Biden, on how the president can turn the current political tide ahead of the midterms this year.

"You're credited with turning the tide for President Biden in 2020, but as he approaches this one year in office, his poll numbers are at an all-time low. A Quinnipiac poll recently showed a 33 percent job approval rating. How does he turn that around?" Raddatz asked.

"Now, if Joe Biden had quit after he lost those first two races -- three races, he would not be where he is today. I tell people all the time, 'three strikes and you're out' is a baseball rule and he -- he should not live by baseball rules. He didn't live by baseball rules then, he's now the president," Clyburn responded. "Keep pressing, and we'll get to where we need to be."

Biden delivered an impassioned speech on Tuesday, calling for a change to the Senate rules to pass voting rights legislation.

Raddatz asked Clyburn whether Biden's speech went too far.

"I want to go back to President Joe Biden. He got very serious pushback after his speech on Tuesday," Raddatz pressed. "Senator Dick Durbin said he took it 'a little too far' by comparing current voting restrictions to Jim Crow. Mitch McConnell called Biden 'profoundly unpresidential' for this divisive language. So, was that fierce tone counterproductive?"

Clyburn responded, "Absolutely not. I disagree with both of those statements. I know Dick; I like Dick a whole lot. But let me tell you something, that was what Jim Crow was all about."

Thirty-four new laws that restrict voting rights have been enacted in 19 states across the country in 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

"These are Jim Crow 2.0. That is one of the strongest points of the president's speech that I agree with," he added.

Raddatz also pressed Clyburn on the future of the Democratic Party ahead of the looming midterm election cycle.

"This is what Senator Bernie Sanders told The New York Times as we head into the midterms: 'I think millions of Americans have become very demoralized. They're asking what do the Democrats stand for? … Clearly, the current strategy is failing. And we need a major course correction.' Do you disagree with that?" Raddatz asked.

"Well, I don't know what he has reference to, but I think they'll be progressing forward on an agenda. What do we stand for? We stand for the American Rescue Act…. We stand for Build Back Better that we had passed in the House," Clyburn answered. "It is time for the senators to do what they need to do to get those bills across the finish line."

"Come on, Senate, step up. Stand to upend rules and get these bills passed," he added. "Everybody will know what we stand for."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Migrant's arrest under 'Operation Lone Star' ruled unconstitutional

Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images

(AUSTIN, Texas) -- The arrest of an Ecuadorian migrant under Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's initiative "Operation Lone Star" was ruled unconstitutional by a Texas county judge Thursday.

Some immigration advocates are hopeful the ruling by Travis County Judge Jan Soifer could potentially set a pathway for other migrants arrested under the controversial program.

Jesús Alberto Guzmán Curipoma, an engineer from Ecuador who hoped to submit a request for asylum, was arrested in September 2021 at a railroad switching yard in Kinney County on a criminal trespassing charge.

Guzmán Curipoma's attorneys, Angelica Cogliano and Addy Miró, argued that Operation Lone Star violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution which establishes that federal law takes precedence over state laws and therefore prohibits state laws form interfering with immigration enforcement by the federal government. Cogliano told ABC News that her client should have been able to submit a claim for asylum, but was instead arrested and detained for weeks.

The Travis County District Attorney's Office, which represented the state in the hearing, also agreed that Guzmán Curipoma's arrest violated the Constitution.

"After careful consideration, the Travis County District Attorney's Office agreed that Mr. Guzmán Curipoma's prosecution for criminal trespass as part of Operation Lone Star violates the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution and represents an impermissible attempt to intrude on federal immigration policy," said Travis County District Attorney José Garza in a statement. "In addition, DA's office concluded that based on the evidence, there were multiple ways in which the OLS program has failed to satisfy basic, fundamental, and procedural state and federal constitutional safeguards."

Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021, deploying thousands of National Guardsmen, Texas Department of Public Safety officers, and other state resources to the border and giving them the authority to arrest migrants under suspicion of criminal trespassing on private and state property.

Human rights organizations and the ACLU of Texas have called on the Department of Justice to investigate the program which they say sets up an alternative immigration system, one where migrants are arrested for faulty charges and detained for months without being given the chance to apply for asylum or seek representation. In December 2021, the ACLU of Texas and other civil rights groups filed a complaint with the DOJ and cited cases where migrants were allegedly lured onto private property by law enforcement agents so they could be arrested on trespassing charges.

"Operation Lone Star is a policy whereby they pretextually arrest people that they suspect of being here illegally, which is a fancy legal way of saying people that are brown on the border because there's no other way for anybody to try and determine if somebody looks like they could be illegal. That's not a thing you look like," Cogliano told ABC News "It's authorizing people to use that as a reason to arrest those people for certain offenses and detain them far longer than any U.S. citizen would be detained for that offense in Texas."

Kathryn Dyer, a clinical professor at the University of Texas School of Law, testified at the hearing on Thursday and spoke about her experience representing other clients arrested under the program.

"When you start taking away rights and building a separate legal system for people there's kind of no limit to it. This is concerning for immigrants and non-immigrants alike," Dyer told ABC News.

At a briefing in November, Texas DPS officials said there have been over 9,300 criminal arrests since Operation Lone Star's launch.

"These very serious constitutional issues have finally been heard and there's a judge that thinks that there were constitutional violations such that the case needed to be dismissed," Dyer said. "I do think that those issues and that ruling could open the door to other challenges."

A spokesperson for Gov. Abbott told ABC News in a statement that they expect the ruling will be overturned.

"The district court did not have legal authority to enter this flawed and collusive judgment without hearing from the Office of the Attorney General. There is no doubt that this will be overturned," said Nan Tolson. "In the meantime, Texas will continue to do what the Biden admin refuses to do: stepping up to secure our border and protect Texans from the catastrophic open border policies allowed by President Biden."

On Friday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a Tweet that he'd challenge the ruling.

"Lib Austin judge lets a Soros Travis County DA represent State of TX, then declares Op Lone Star unconstitutional. Ridiculous. Biden has FAILED to secure the border. Texas stepped in. We have the right to defend our border if the feds refuse. I'll fight this nonsense on appeal," he tweeted.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Oath Keepers leader makes 1st court appearance following arrest on seditious conspiracy charge

Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post via Getty Images/FILE

(WASHINGTON) -- The leader of the Oath Keepers militia group, who was indicted Thursday on a series of charges including seditious conspiracy in connection with the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, made his first appearance before a judge Friday in a federal courtroom in Texas.

Stewart Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and graduate of Yale Law School, could spend decades behind bars if convicted on all five federal counts he faces -- including the most serious seditious conspiracy charge, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

A lawyer for Rhodes told ABC News Friday that the allegations against Rhodes were "lies," and said that no members of the Oath Keepers ever "planned or conspired to attack the Capitol."

In his Friday court appearance, Rhodes responded "Yes" when asked by Magistrate Judge Kimberly Priest Johnson if he understood the charges against him. He then waived his right to have the full indictment read aloud.

Prosecutors asked that Rhodes be detained while he is awaiting trial, and the judge set a detention hearing for Jan. 20. Rhodes will remain in custody until then.

The indictment of Rhodes, along with 10 other alleged members of the Oath Keepers, signals a significant escalation in the Justice Department's sprawling investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack and its prosecution of members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, described by prosecutors as a "large but loosely organized collection of individuals" who "explicitly focus on recruiting current and former military, law enforcement, and first-responder personnel."

Prosecutors allege Rhodes and other Oath Keepers began coordinating as early as just after Election Day "to oppose by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of presidential power" between outgoing President Donald Trump and incoming President Joe Biden, according to court papers.

While Rhodes himself is not alleged to have entered the Capitol during the attack, prosecutors say he did enter the restricted area surrounding the building and coordinated with Oath Keepers who were part of a military-style "stack" formation seen walking into the building up the east side steps. Prosecutors said in their indictment Thursday that the members of the so-called "stack" were specifically searching for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but left after they couldn't find her.

In their 48-page indictment, investigators chronicled in detail Rhodes' alleged communications with members of the group over private and encrypted apps, and their alleged accumulation of heavy weaponry and tactical gear that the group is accused of storing just outside Washington at a hotel in Virginia, where on Jan. 6 prosecutors say a so-called "Quick Reaction Force" of militia members waited on standby in case they were called into the city.

Nine of those charged in Thursday's indictment had been previously charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack as part of what was already the Justice Department's largest and most complex conspiracy case tied to the insurrection.

In addition to Rhodes, 63-year-old Edward Vallejo of Arizona was arrested in Phoenix on Thursday and also charged with seditious conspiracy. Vallejo was allegedly part of the "Quick Reaction Force" that was lying in wait at the Virginia hotel.

After the riot, Rhodes and Vallejo allegedly met up at a restaurant where they "celebrated their attack" and discussed "next steps," according to the indictment. Vallejo allegedly sent a message to a Signal chat group the morning after Jan. 6 where he discussed making a "recon" trip to the Capitol to probe the "defense line" put up by law enforcement in the wake of the attack, court papers said.

Vallejo also made his first appearance before a magistrate judge in Phoenix on Friday afternoon, where a public defender representing him said he plans to plead not guilty to all charges against him. The judge set a detention hearing for next Thursday as the Justice Department seeks to keep Vallejo behind bars pending further legal proceedings in his case.

The deployment of the rarely-used seditious conspiracy charge will pose a major test for the Justice Department in its investigation into the Capitol attack and the prosecution of Rhodes as the founder and self-described leader of the Oath Keepers.

Only days after the Jan. 6 attack, the then-acting U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., Michael Sherwin, said prosecutors were considering the potential for seditious conspiracy charges against some of the most "heinous acts" that took place at the Capitol. But as the investigation crossed the one-year mark and the number of arrests stretched beyond 700, such charges had yet to materialize, with prosecutors instead opting to bring charges like conspiracy or obstruction of an official proceeding, which similarly carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Attorney General Merrick Garland appeared to foreshadow Thursday's charges last week in a speech marking the one-year anniversary of Jan. 6, when he addressed criticism of the department's handling of the investigation and the lack of charges to date against the more prominent figures believed to have coordinated the assault on Congress.

"The actions we have taken thus far will not be our last," Garland said. "The Justice Department remains committed to holding all Jan. 6 perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law -- whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy."

John Sandweg, a former acting general counsel at the Department of Homeland Security, told ABC News that Thursday's indictment "confirms that the attack on the Capitol was not just an impulsive act, but was part of a premeditated conspiracy to forcibly steal the levers of power."

"It also demonstrates that, while much of the focus has been on the prosecution of those on lesser charges related to storming the Capitol, DOJ has been actively investigating the root causes of the attack," he said. "The question remains how far up the food chain will the rest of the investigation lead, but this indictment significantly ups the ante."

ABC News' Juan Renteria, James Scholz and Mireya Villarreal contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Hamse Warfa makes US history as 1st Somali American presidential appointee

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- The White House announced this week that Hamse Warfa will join the Biden administration, making him the first Somali American presidential appointee in U.S. history.

He is currently a deputy commissioner for workforce development in Minnesota but will come on at the end of January as a senior adviser to the State Department on civilian security, democracy and human rights. In that role, he will help develop strategies for protecting and promoting democracy at home and abroad.

"My acceptance of this role is in direct response to President Biden's call to action to protect and promote democracy," he told ABC News.

Warfa's family fled Somalia after the country's civil war started in 1991 and lived in various refugee camps across Kenya, he said. After arriving in the United States as a teenager in 1994 alongside his family, he received a bachelor's degree in political science from San Diego State University and his master's in organizational management and leadership from Springfield College in the same city. He moved to Minnesota in 2012 after he was recruited by the state's largest philanthropic foundation, Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, he explained.

The 2016 election season inspired Warfa to become more active in civic engagement.

"The strong anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim policy and actions, motivated me to organize and get more involved at the state level," Warfa said. "Some of the Minnesota gubernatorial candidates talked about shutting down the refugee program, and in some cases, created fear about refugees in Minnesota, especially about Minnesota's Muslim, Somali community."

In 2019, the Minnesota governor's office appointed Warfa as deputy commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, making him the highest-ranking Somali American official in the state's executive branch, according to the department.

Warfa's list of accomplishments also includes being the co-founder of BanQu, Inc., a blockchain service created to broaden economic opportunities for low-income people across the globe, as well as the recipient of a 2016 Bush Fellowship, which is granted to help develop leadership skills, and an Ashoka Fellowship for social entrepreneurs.

During his time in Minnesota government, he "successfully advocated for the largest job bill in state history, supplying workforce training to youth and adults," according to his department.

He served as an economic adviser to the Biden campaign, helping develop the administration's plans to reverse the Muslim ban and increase refugee admission numbers.

"When we talk about democracy, I want to make sure we talk about inclusive democracy," he told ABC News. "I want to bring my both lived and professional experiences to help the administration expand access to those affected by government policies and actions."

"I want to see America live through its ideals in building multiethnic and multiracial democracy that protects everyone," he added. "I hope people see in my example -- from the refugee camp to representing America -- hope for democracy and value of everyone's voice and vote."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Advocates launch hunger strikes, hold events throughout US to push for voting rights

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Un-PAC

(WASHINGTON) -- Advocates are taking action across the country as they hope to pressure members of Congress to pass voting rights legislation by Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

One of the actions being taken right now is a hunger strike by individuals in different parts of the U.S. as a form of protest to get the legislation passed.

Rev. Stephen A. Green, chair of Faith for Black Lives, organized a hunger strike that included him and 24 other faith leaders from across the country prompted by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's "Dear collogues" letter released in early January.

"From Jan. 3, we noticed that there was a deadline or a date was identified for voting on or before Jan. 17," said Green. "And so, we decided to engage in this hunger strike to continue to apply pressure on the Senate to get it done on or before Jan. 17."

Green and the other faith leaders began their hunger strike on Jan. 6.

Un-PAC, a nonpartisan organization with a current mission is to get The Freedom to Vote Act passed, has restarted its hunger strike from last month and currently has members and allies protesting outside the U.S. Capitol.

"This is a last-minute push and a desperate plea because if this bill does not pass, by Martin Luther King Jr. Day or the end of January, it will be too late to implement many of the major facets of the bill [for the 2022 midterms]," said Callynn Johnson, a member of Un-PAC.

Last month, Un-PAC went on a hunger strike for just over two weeks outside the White House to push for voting rights legislation. The organization has more people joining them on their strike, including the faith leaders.

Another major event to support voting legislation will happen in Phoenix on Saturday, where there will be a voting rights mobilization.

"We will march over the 16th Street overpass here in Phoenix and march back to Eastlake Park," said Dr. Jannah Scott, a liaison and member of the leadership council with the African American Christian Clergy Coalition of Arizona. "Then, at the park part, we will have a program of speakers, of music, of people just coming together and giving their exhortation about why this is so important and about calling in Congress and the president to do what they need to do at this critical time in our history."

Eastlake Park has been a focal point for African American history. The park has traditionally been used for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration. The park has also held civil rights rallies, civil rights leaders' visits and is the starting point of all civil rights marches to the state Capitol.

Over the past year, the Arizona state legislature has passed state laws restricting voting access.

Arizona is also the home of Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., one of two key Democrats needed to end the filibuster and create a pathway for voting legislation. However, on Thursday, Sinema made it clear during her speech on the Senate floor that she does not intend to do that.

"There's no need for me to restate my long-standing support for the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation," said Sinema. "There's no need for me to restate its role protecting our country from wild reversals in federal policy is a view I've held during my years serving in both the U.S. House and the Senate and it is the view I continue to hold."

All these events lead up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday when over a 100 national and grassroots organizations will gather in Washington, D.C., for a march that will start at Potomac Avenue and end at Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. A press conference will follow where Martin Luther King III, Arndrea Waters King and other voting rights leaders and community organizers will speak on the urgency to pass voting legislation.

Even after discussions with President Joe Biden and other Democratic colleagues, Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., are still not agreeing to end the filibuster. Without their votes, there is seemingly no pathway for voting legislation to pass before or on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but that is not stopping protesters and voting rights advocates from taking action.

"We will escalate our mobilization if our demands are not met to have legislation passed by [Martin Luther King Jr. Day]," said Green.

"We will continue the calling for [voting rights]," said Scott. "We will not rest until this gets done."

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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