Wednesday Roundup

Politics

CALIFORNIA LEGISLATURE APPROVES $7.6 BILLION COVID RELIEF PACKAGE AND $600 STIMULUS CHECKS

Gov. Gavin Newsome signed into a law Tuesday a coronavirus economic relief package that will give $600 stimulus checks to at least 5.7 million people and $2 billion in grants to struggling small businesses.

“The backbone of our economy is small business,” Gov. Newsome said at the bill-signing ceremony. “We recognize the stress, the strain that so many small businesses have been under. And we recognize as well our responsibility to do more and to do better to help support these small businesses through this very difficult and trying time.”

Businesses with annual revenues between $1,000 and $2.5 million will be eligible for the money, with priority given to women- and minority-owned businesses and businesses in areas with high unemployment rates.

California’s relief package is independent of the federal relief package currently under consideration in the House.

TOM VILSACK CONFIRMED AS AGRICULTURE SECRETARY

The Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary Tuesday by a vote of 92-7, sending the former Iowa governor to the same Cabinet position he held for the entirety of the Obama administration. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders joined six Republicans in voting against the nomination.

“I think we need somebody a little bit more vigorous in terms of protecting family farms and taking on corporate agriculture,” Sanders told reporters. “I think he’ll be fine, but not as strong as I would like.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield was also confirmed Tuesday as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and the Senate is set to take up the nomination of education secretary nominee Miguel Cardona next.

Meanwhile, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Budget committees sent out notices Wednesday saying that their slated votes on Neera Tanden’s nomination would be delayed.

Should Tanden fail to gain the requisite support, look for Shalanda Young, the former clerk and staff director for the House Appropriations Committee, to secure the nomination.

BIDEN ADMINISTRATION CHANGES RULES FOR PAYCHECK PROTECTION PROGRAM

The Biden administration is changing the way that loans are calculated for sole proprietors and independent contractors and introducing a 14-day exclusive application window for businesses with fewer than 20 employees.

Prior to the change, loans were based on the net profit reported on annual taxes, which automatically disqualified unprofitable businesses and limited the size of the loans available. Under the new rules, loans will be based instead on gross income, which will allow unprofitable businesses to qualify and allow many to collect larger loans.

Additionally, those with recent felony convictions not tied to fraud and those who are not United States citizens but are lawful residents will now be eligible to apply, as will those who are delinquent or in default on federal student loan debt.

Proponents of the changes are optimistic that the new rules will bring more small businesses into the fold; critics, however, think that they threaten to throw the program into chaos, as banks and lenders struggle to adapt.

The new rules will go into effect early next month.

BIDEN SIGNS EXECUTIVE ORDER ON SECURING CRITICAL SUPPLY CHAINS

Emphasizing the need for U.S. supply chains to be “secure and reliable,” President Biden signed an executive order on Wednesday directing federal agencies to conduct a 100-day review to address vulnerabilities in the supply chains for critical goods, including semiconductors, key minerals and materials, pharmaceuticals and their ingredients, and advanced batteries like the ones used in electric vehicles. 

“It’s about resilience, identifying possible points of vulnerabilities in our supply chain, and making sure we have the backup alternatives or workarounds in place,” Biden said. “Remember that old proverb, for want of a nail, the shoe was lost? For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. And it goes on and on and on until the kingdom was lost, all for the want of a horseshoe nail. Even small failures at one point in the supply chain can cause outsized impacts further up the chain.”

BIDEN ADMINISTRATION OPENS MIGRANT FACILITY FOR CHILDREN

The Biden administration is facing criticism from some Democrats in Congress after it opened a facility located in Carrizo Springs, Texas, which will be used to hold children ages 13 to 17.

“This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay – no matter the administration or party,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “It’s only 2 mos into this admin & our fraught, unjust immigration system will not transform in that time.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki defended the move as a temporary measure made necessary by the pandemic, saying, “It’s a temporary reopening during COVID-19, our intention is very much to close it, but we want to make sure we can follow COVID protocols.”

The facility, which can hold up to 700 teenagers, will not be used as a tool to separate families but will house children who crossed the border unaccompanied by a parent. HHS says that the facility will provide immigration officials with the beds necessary to transfer children out of Border Patrol stations and eventually place them with sponsors.

BIDEN LAUNCHES CLASSIFIED REVIEW OF RAIDS AND DRONE STRIKES; HOUSE DEMOCRATS ASK BIDEN TO RELINQUISH SOLE NUCLEAR AUTHORITY

President Biden has placed lethal U.S. counterterrorism efforts under review, issuing classified guidance for the interim. While the classified guidance is, well, classified, its purpose is to provide Biden with “full visibility on proposed significant actions,” as Biden looks to end the “Forever Wars.”

Meanwhile, three dozen House Democrats called on Biden to relinquish his sole authority to launch nuclear weapons.

“…Vesting one person with this authority entails real risks,” states a letter written by Rep. Jimmy Panetta. “Past presidents have threatened to attack other countries with nuclear weapons or exhibited behavior that caused other officials to express concern about the president’s judgment.“ 

“While any president would presumably consult with advisors before ordering a nuclear attack, there is no requirement to do so. The military is obligated to carry out the order if they assess it is legal under the laws of war. Under the current posture of U.S. nuclear forces, that attack would happen in minutes.”

Democrats offered a series of alternatives to reform the command-and-control structure, including requiring the approval of other officials in the line of succession, such as the vice president and the speaker of the House, “neither of whom can be removed by the president if they disagree.”

MARICOPA COUNTY AUDIT SHOWS NO EVIDENCE OF FRAUD OR OTHER IRREGULARITIES

A forensic audit requested by Republicans of vote tabulation equipment in Arizona’s largest county uncovered no evidence of fraud or “vote-switching,” according to a report released by officials Wednesday.

According to a summary of the audit results, certified outside firms found that the tabulation system and equipment were using certified software, with no malicious hardware and software identified; that the equipment in question was not connected to the internet; and that the machines were producing accurate numbers, based on a Logic and Accuracy Test that was conducted. 

“The combination of these findings, along with the pre and post Logic and Accuracy Tests performed by the Arizona Secretary of State, the post-election hand count performed by the political parties, and the many security protocols implemented by the Elections Department confirm that Maricopa County Elections Department’s configuration and setup of the tabulation equipment and election management system provided an accurate counting of ballots and reporting of election results,” the statement read.

NEW YORK SENATE PASSES BILL TO RESTORE VOTING RIGHTS

The New York Senate passed a bill Wednesday to restore the right to vote to formerly incarcerated individuals. The bill had passed the Senate Corrections Committee on Monday.

Said Nick Encalada-Malinowski, Civil Rights Campaign Director of VOCAL-NY, “It’s a bit alarming that a simple bill seeking to chip away at Jim Crow-era voter bans has not yet passed the New York State Assembly. In this moment of heightened awareness of explicit voter suppression tactics across the country, New York lawmakers must do everything in their power to expand the franchise and ensure that everyone has the right to vote and is able to exercise that right.”

FBI SEIZED CONGRESSIONAL PHONE RECORDS PURSUANT TO CAPITOL RIOT

Using special emergency powers, the FBI seized thousands of phone and electronic records connected to people at the scene of the Capitol riot. While much of this information was previously known, the fact that the cellphone data obtained included records from congressional members and their staff is new.

The Department of Justice has publicly said that its task force includes senior public corruption officials, which “indicates a focus on public officials, i.e. Capitol Police and members of Congress,” according to a recently retired senior FBI official.

While the Constitution’s speech and debate clause shields the legislative work of Congress from executive branch interference, these privileges have been narrowly construed when asserted in the context of a criminal investigation.

While the FBI declined to comment on specific investigative tools, the bureau released a statement, saying, ““As with all our operations, the FBI conducts itself according to our legal requirements and established policies.”

CPAC SPEAKER PULLED FROM LINEUP DUE TO ANTI-SEMITIC COMMENTS

Young Pharaoh, a hip-hop artist and online commentator who was slated to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference this week, has been pulled from the lineup after tweets resurfaced in which he said that Judaism is a “complete lie” and “made up for political gain,” that Jewish people are “thieving fake Jews,” and that “all the censorship & pedophilia on social media is being done by Israeli Jews.” Young Pharaoh has also promoted the QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy theories and falsely claimed that coronavirus vaccines will “alter your DNA.” 

In a statement released to Twitter, CPAC organizers said, “We have just learned that someone we invited to CPAC has expressed reprehensible views that have no home with our conference or our organization. The individual will not be participating at our conference.”

CPAC has titled its event “America Uncanceled,” in a nod to right-wing complaints about “cancel culture.”

Coronavirus

FDA: JOHNSON & JOHNSON SINGLE-SHOT VACCINE IS SAFE AND EFFECTIVE

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a review on Wednesday finding Johnson & Johnson’s single dose vaccination to be safe and approximately 66 percent effective in preventing moderate to severe coronavirus cases.

According to data provided to the FDA, the vaccine was 72 percent effective in the United States and prevented 100 percent of hospitalizations and deaths.

The FDA’s staff endorsed the vaccine for emergency use, and their Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee will meet Friday to review Johnson & Johnson’s request for emergency use authorization.

If approved, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine would become the third COVID-19 vaccine to be authorized for use in the United States and the first available single-dose vaccine.

WHITE HOUSE TO SEND 25 MILLION MASKS TO FACILITIES IN NEED

The White House announced Wednesday that it will send 25 million masks to 1,300 community health centers and 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens across the country.

The masks will be available between March and May, are expected to benefit between 12 and 15 million Americans, and will be American-made.

VACCINE ACCESS CODES MEANT FOR UNDERSERVED GROUPS SPREAD AND MISUSED BY OTHERS

A California program designed to improve vaccine accessibility and equity is being misused by outsiders who are improperly taking appointments reserved for residents of underserved Black and Latino communities.

Special access codes — which enable people to make appointments on the scheduling website and were provided to community organizers to distribute to vulnerable, hard-hit areas — have been circulating amongst those in more affluent social and professional networks, amid people who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

“People are getting greedy and butting in line, coming to to be first in line and pushing out those who are dying and in most need,” said Dr. Don Garcia, medical director at Clínica Romero.

California is working to address the issue by improving its auditing and monitoring processes.

CALIFORNIA’S DOMINANT STRAIN MAY BE EXCEEDINGLY DANGEROUS

Researchers say that a coronavirus variant, first identified last May and now the dominant strain in California, spreads more readily than its predecessors, evades antibodies generated by COVID-19 vaccines or prior infection, and is associated with severe illness and death.

Scientists at University of California, San Francisco say that the mutations make the strain a “variant of concern” on par with those from the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil.

“It remains critically important that we actively sequence the virus as cases are diagnosed in our state,” said infectious disease expert Dr. Marc Suchard. “I am glad to see such a collaboration between academics and public health departments in California to identify the emergence of a previously unidentified lineage.”

National News

NEW JERSEY LEGALIZES RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA

Gov. Phil Murphy signed into a law a series of bills approved by the New Jersey state legislature regulating the sale of cannabis to anyone over the age of 21. Voters had overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure last November, 67 percent to 32, to add an amendment to the state constitution allowing for legalization.

“This legalization will establish an industry that brings equity and economic opportunity to our communities while establishing minimum standards for safe products and allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on real public safety matters,” Gov. Murphy said in a statement.

New Jersey is now the fourteenth state, along with D.C., to have legalized marijuana.

VIRGINIA TO ABOLISH THE DEATH PENALTY

Virginia lawmakers voted Monday to approve a death penalty abolition bill, making Virginia the first southern state and 23rd state overall to ban capital punishment.

The death penalty, Democrats argued, has historically been applied disproportionately to people of color, the mentally ill, and the indigent, making it an ineffective tool to achieve equal justice.

“It is vital that our criminal justice system operates fairly and punishes people equitably. We all know the death penalty doesn’t do that. It is inequitable, ineffective, and inhumane,” Gov. Ralph Northam, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said in a joint statement after the vote.

While only two men remain on Virginia’s death row, the state has used the death penalty more than any other in history, executing nearly 1,400 people since its days as a colony.

Though Republicans argued that the bill would deprive victims of justice, one Republican state senator and two Republican state House members ultimately joined Democrats in the vote.

ANDREW CUOMO FACES SEXUAL HARASSMENT ALLEGATIONS

The former Chief of Staff at New York’s state economic agency has accused New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of intimidation and sexual harassment, writing in an essay on Medium that the governor went “out of his way” to touch her “lower back, arms and legs” and kissed her during a one-on-one meeting. 

“My boss soon informed me that the Governor had a ‘crush’ on me,” Lindsey Boylan wrote in her essay, saying she was informed by the Director of the Governor’s Offices that Cuomo suggested she “look up images of Lisa Shields — his rumored former girlfriend — because ‘we could be sisters’ and I was ‘the better looking sister.'” 

Cuomo, for his part, denies the allegations. “As we said before, Ms. Boylan’s claims of inappropriate behavior are quite simply false,” press secretary Caitlin Girouard said in a statement.

Girouard said Boylan’s presentation of a 2017 flight on the governor’s jet, on which she alleged he suggested playing strip poker, could not be true because the flight logs do not match her account of the passengers onboard. 

Girouard shared what she said was the governor’s schedule from October 2017, which lists every passenger on his flights, as well as a statement from other aides on the trips. “We were on each of these October flights and this conversation did not happen,” senior advisor to the governor John Maggiore, president and CEO of Empire State Development Howard Zemsky, Cuomo’s former director of communications Dani Lever, and former press secretary Abbey Fashouer Collins said in a statement. 

In response to Boylan’s claims, GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik called for Cuomo to resign. “Sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the workplace is not a political issue, it is about right and wrong. Governor Cuomo must immediately resign,” Stefanik wrote in a statement, adding, “Any elected official who does not immediately call for his resignation is complicit.”

WIFE OF EL CHAPO ARRESTED IN VIRGINIA

Emma Coronel Aispuro, the 31-year-old wife of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was arrested by U.S. federal authorities at Dulles International Airport on Monday and charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana in a single-count criminal complaint. Coronel is also accused of helping her husband escape from a Mexican prison in 2015 and participating in the planning of a second prison escape before Guzman was extradited to the U.S in 2017.

During his 25-year reign, Guzman served as Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, running a cartel that smuggled drugs and kept an “army of sicarios” on standby, under orders to kidnap, torture and kill anyone who proved to be an obstacle.

Guzman is currently serving a sentence of life in prison.

GRAND JURY VOTES NOT TO INDICT OFFICERS IN DEATH OF DANIEL PRUDE

New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced Tuesday that a grand jury voted not to indict Rochester police officers on charges related to the death of Daniel Prude.

Prude, a Black man who was in the midst of an apparent psychotic episode, died last March after police officers placed a mesh hood over his head and pushed it into the pavement, until he eventually lost consciousness.

While police spent months trying to suppress video footage of the encounter and presented the death as a drug overdose, the medical examiner ruled Prude’s death a homicide caused, at least in part, by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”

“The criminal justice system has demonstrated an unwillingness to hold law enforcement officers accountable in the unjustified killing of unarmed African-Americans,” Ms. James said at a news conference following the grand jury’s decision. “What binds these cases is the tragic loss of life in circumstances in which the death could be avoided.”

In related news, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the three men accused of killing her son, on the one-year anniversary of his death. Arbery was killed last February while on an afternoon jog when he was confronted and shot by one of three white men who had followed him in their trucks. Two of the men, Travis and Gregory McMichael, were charged with murder and aggravated assault, and the third, William “Roddie” Bryan, was charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

All three have pleaded not guilty and will face trial later this year.

FED CHAIR POWELL PLEDGES CONTINUED LOW INTEREST RATES

Testifying before the Senate Banking Committee, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell suggested that the Fed has no plans to alter its ultra-low interest rates anytime soon.

“The economic recovery remains uneven and far from complete, and the path ahead is highly uncertain.” Powell said. “As with overall economic activity, the pace of improvement in the labor market has slowed. Although there has been much progress in the labor market since the spring, millions of Americans remain out of work.”

The Fed cut its benchmark short-term borrowing rate to nearly zero last March in response to the pandemic, and Powell’s remarks signal a reluctance to pull back on efforts to boost economic growth and hiring. The Fed, Powell said, will continue with its monthly bonds purchases until “substantial progress” toward low unemployment and 2 percent annual inflation is made.

“Fully realizing the benefits of a strong labor market will take continued support from both near-term policy and longer-run investments so that all those seeking jobs have the skills and opportunities that will enable them to contribute to, and share in, the benefits of prosperity,” Powell said in prepared remarks.

NASA RELEASES NEW PHOTO OF JUPITER

NASA recently released an image of Jupiter taken by the spacecraft Juno on December 30.

Coming up on the fifth anniversary of its arrival, Juno captured the photograph, which displays the planet’s jet streams, on its JunoCam camera during its 31st close flyby.

Data from the probe has allowed scientists to discover that these massive jet streams extend deeper into the planet than previously known. “Evidence from Juno shows the jet streams and belts penetrate about 1,800 miles (3,000 kilometers) down into the planet,” NASA said in the announcement.

Check out the stunning image gallery here.

World News

DUKE OF EDINBURGH STILL IN HOSPITAL

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband to Queen Elizabeth II, remains at a London hospital and is being treated for an infection, Buckingham Palace said. The duke, who is “comfortable and responding to treatment,” is not expected to leave for several days.

Philip, who turns 100 in June, has received treatment for various health conditions in the past, including a blocked coronary artery in 2011, a bladder infection in 2012, and exploratory surgery on his abdomen in June 2013.

Sports

TIGER WOODS INVOLVED IN ROLLOVER CRASH

Golf legend Tiger Woods was driving through coastal Los Angeles when his SUV struck a raised median, crossed into oncoming traffic, flipped several times, and careened downhill, before landing on a hillside.

Though the crash caused significant damage to Woods’ right leg, ankle, and foot — requiring a “long surgical procedure” and a rod, screws, and pins to repair — he remained conscious, calm, and lucid throughout his extraction from the vehicle and exhibited no obvious signs of impairment.

“We don’t contemplate any charges whatsoever,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told reporters. “This remains an accident; an accident is not a crime. They do happen, unfortunately.”

And they happen fairly regularly, as it turns out. Since last January, there have been 13 accidents on the same stretch of road.

See the state of Woods’ car in the aftermath of the accident below:

Pop Culture

SHAILENE WOODLEY CONFIRMS AARON RODGERS ENGAGEMENT

In an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, “Big Little Lies” actress Shailene Woodley confirmed her engagement to NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, revealing that the two have actually been engaged “for a while.” Shailene went on to admit that, prior to meeting Rodgers, she had never even seen a football game and, thanks to COVID-19, still has yet to attend one.

Watch her appearance below:

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