Biden due on Capitol Hill to sell multitrillion-dollar spending plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden heads to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to make the case for his sweeping, two-track infrastructure initiative, a day after leading Senate Democrats agreed on a $3.5 trillion plan billed as the biggest boost in decades for U.S. families.

Biden is due to attend a 12:45 p.m. (1645 GMT) lunch in the Capitol, where he is expected to urge his fellow Democrats in the Senate to back both a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal to rebuild America’s roads and bridges, and a larger reconciliation package that also addresses climate change and the need for stronger social services.

“The president looks forward to returning to Capitol Hill, a place he spent 36 years as a member of the Senate,” a White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He will continue making the case for the dual-track approach that will build the economy back better with key investments in not just our nation’s infrastructure, but our efforts to protect our climate, to prepare the next generation of workers and to support middle-class families.”

Democrats face a tricky path ahead in passing the two measures through a narrowly divided Congress. They will need the support of all 50 of their Senators – plus Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote to pass the $3.5 trillion over Republican opposition. Republicans in Congress have already warned that the separate Democrats-only plan could lead them to vote against the $1.2 trillion bipartisan plan.

Even if they pass the Senate, both measures would also need to make it through the House of Representatives before going to Biden’s desk.

The $3.5 trillion plan agreed to by senior Democrats and White House negotiators includes a significant expansion of the Medicare healthcare program for the elderly – a top goal of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, who joined Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in unveiling the deal Tuesday night.

Sanders’ support could help build support among progressive Democrats, some of whom had pushed for a bigger package.

Senate Republicans, who view Biden’s larger spending ambitions as wasteful and unnecessary, have voiced qualified support for the narrower $1.2 trillion plan, which includes $600 billion in new spending for roads, bridges, rail, public transit, water and broadband systems.

“You add that to the $600 billion in a bipartisan plan and you get to $4.1 trillion, which is very, very close to what President Biden has asked us for,” Schumer said, referring to the $3.5 trillion Democrats-only deal.

But Senate approval for both packages face hurdles, including possible reluctance by moderates such as Democratic Senator Joe Manchin to support the larger reconciliation agreement.

The Senate’s 50 Republicans are not expected to back the broader infrastructure effort, which would undo Republican then-President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts by raising taxes on U.S. corporations and wealthy individuals.

Asked about the Democrats’ deal on Wednesday, Republican Senator Mitt Romney said in a brief interview in the Capitol, it was: “Stunning. It’s a shocking figure, particularly at a time when the economy is already heating. It seems that our Democrat friends may have lost their bearings.”

Asked if it could pose a problem for the bipartisan infrastructure bill he is working on, Romney replied it was hard to predict. “But it obviously changes the dynamics.”

An absence of Republican support would leave Democrats to pursue passage on their own under a budget “reconciliation” process that sidesteps a rule requiring at least 60 votes to advance legislation in the 100-member chamber.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Trevor Hunnicutt and Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump faces Tuesday deadline to deliver formal response to impeachment as trial looms

By Richard Cowan and James Oliphant

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s unprecedented second impeachment trial takes shape this week, as Democrats outline their case.

Trump is due to file a response to the impeachment charge on Tuesday but replaced his lead legal counsel over the weekend.

His new team, led by lawyers David Schoen and Bruce Castor, will have just over a week to get ready before the trial begins Feb. 9.

Even so, Democrats seeking his conviction on one count of “incitement of insurrection” face an uphill climb.

They must convince at least 17 of the U.S. Senate’s 50 Republicans that Trump is guilty of inciting supporters to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in November’s presidential election.

As Trump left office on Jan. 20, a vote to convict would have little practical impact. But it could clear the way for a vote to prevent him from holding public office in the future.

House Democrats, who will be prosecuting the case in the Senate, will submit a pre-trial brief laying out their case against Trump. They are also due to indicate as soon as Tuesday whether they plan to call witnesses – a flash point in last year’s impeachment trial.

Trump’s response to the charge likely will indicate whether he will continue to argue that he lost the presidential election because of widespread voter fraud.

Most Republican senators now are lining up against conviction. Many argue that Congress does not have the power to impeach a former president. They also have maintained that another trial will hurt efforts to unify the country in the post-Trump era.

Republican Senator Rob Portman, who last week said he would not seek re-election amid the nation’s deep political divisions, signaled that it would not help Trump if his defense is simply reasserting the former president’s claims of election fraud.

“If the argument is not going to be made on issues like constitutionality, which are real issues and need to be addressed, I think it will not benefit the president,” Portman said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

Trump’s legal team could also argue that Trump was simply exercising his First Amendment right to free speech on Jan. 6 when he addressed his supporters outside the White House before they marched to Capitol Hill.

Schoen previously represented Trump’s longtime advisor Roger Stone, who was convicted in November 2019 of lying under oath to lawmakers who were investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump pardoned Stone in December.

Castor is a former Pennsylvania district attorney known for his decision to not prosecute entertainer Bill Cosby in 2005 after a woman accused Cosby of sexual assault. In 2017, he sued Cosby’s accuser in the case for defamation, claiming she destroyed his political career in retaliation.

Whichever tack defense lawyers take, the 100 Democratic and Republican senators who will serve as jurors are anticipating a trial of possibly only a few days, far shorter than Trump’s first trial, which lasted three weeks.

With the exception of Senator Mitt Romney, Republicans stuck with Trump during that trial. He was acquitted on charges of abuse of power and obstructing Congress stemming from his attempt to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden.

Trump labeled that episode a Democratic “witch hunt.” And while the circumstances were far different from this second impeachment, they share the same underlying accusations that Trump was resorting to extreme and impeachable actions to win re-election in 2020.

Last year, Republicans who then controlled the Senate blocked witness testimony or the introduction of additional evidence against Trump.

Democrats, who currently hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate, will have more say over how this trial will be conducted. But they are not expected to win enough Republican votes to secure Trump’s conviction.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, an ardent Trump supporter, said on Fox News last week that Republicans would prolong the trial for “weeks if not months” if Democrats called witnesses – which could impede Biden’s legislative agenda.

Some Democrats and Republicans have suggested the Senate should reprimand Trump, rather than convict him.

Republican Senator John Cornyn warned against that as well.

“It used to be that losing an election was considered to be punishment, at least in the political sense,” Cornyn told reporters last week.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and James Oliphant; Editing by Andy Sullivan & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Fed says Powell has been working from home, observing mask and distance protocols

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has been working from home while also following masking and social distancing protocols when in public, and has not felt it necessary to take a coronavirus test, the Fed said Friday in response to inquiries following the news that President Donald Trump has contracted COVID-19.

A Fed spokesperson said in addition that Powell had not been in contact with anyone known to have tested positive for the virus.

Fed officials have been working remotely since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but Powell has traveled occasionally to Capitol Hill, most recently last week, for hearings on Fed policy and the response to the health crisis.

He typically has worn a mask during those appearances, and Fed officials in general have urged people to do the same as a way to tamp the spread of the disease and allow economic activity to safely resume.

News that Trump, first lady Melania Trump, and others had been infected with the coronavirus touched off a wave of announcements from other officials about their health status.

Powell has met infrequently with Trump during his time as Fed chair, though he has been holding frequent talks during the crisis with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. A Treasury spokesperson said Friday Mnuchin had tested negative.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Obamacare supporters rally against congressional repeal efforts

Protesters demonstrate against U.S. President Donald Trump and his plans to end Obamacare as they march to the White House in Washington, U.S., March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Supporters of Obamacare staged rallies across the country on Thursday denouncing efforts by President Donald Trump and Republican congressional leaders to repeal the landmark law that has extended medical insurance coverage to some 20 million Americans.

Hundreds of demonstrators turned out in Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles marking the seventh anniversary of enactment of Obamacare, as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has become widely known.

Many talked about a very personal stake in the outcome of the healthcare debate roiling Capitol Hill.

“I feel sick today, but I came here because I’m terrified,” said Steve Martin, 27, an unemployed Los Angeles resident who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. “The legislators have the best healthcare in the world, and we deserve the same.”

The ACA, considered former Democratic President Barack Obama’s premiere domestic achievement, has drawn unrelenting scorn from Republicans, with promises to repeal and replace it a centerpiece of Trump’s presidential campaign.

Thursday’s rallies coincided with planned action in the House of Representatives on a Republican-backed bill to begin dismantling Obamacare, but the vote was indefinitely postponed as Republican leaders and the White House scrambled to muster enough votes for passage.

Many moderate Republicans as well as Democrats have raised concerns that repeal-and-replace would leave too many Americans without health coverage.

Supporters of the bill say it would lower premiums, but critics counter that those savings would in many cases be more than offset by higher co-pays and other out-of-pocket costs.

Obamacare backers also worry about the fate of millions who gained insurance under the bill’s major expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state program providing coverage for the needy, the elderly and the disabled.

In the nation’s capital, several hundred chanting protesters gathered at Freedom Plaza, a few blocks from the White House, carrying signs with slogans such as “We Fight Back” and “Keep America Healthy.”

Robinette Barmer, 61, a former seamstress and caterer from Baltimore now on a disability pension, said that without Obamacare she could not afford the various medications she takes for ailments such as asthma and high blood pressure.

“It’s co-pay this, co-pay that. I can’t pay that. I’m struggling as it is right now,” she said.

After the rally, protesters marched a block to the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, where several dozen sprawled on the sidewalk in a “die-in” symbolizing the effect of rolling back Obamacare. Some 24 protesters were arrested in front of the White House after they refused get off the ground, organizers said.

Protest organizers said smaller gatherings were also held outside the congressional district offices of various Republican lawmakers around the country.

(Additional reporting by Olga Grigoryants in Los Angeles and Robert Chiarito in Chicago; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Leslie Adler and Michael Perry)

Trump vows military build-up, hammers nationalist themes

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the American Conservative Union's annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. U.S., February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Emily Stephenson and Steve Holland

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md./WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said he would make a massive budget request for one of the “greatest military buildups in American history” on Friday in a feisty, campaign-style speech extolling robust nationalism to eager conservative activists.

Trump used remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an organization that gave him one of his first platforms in his improbable journey to the U.S. presidency, to defend his unabashed “America first” policies.

Ahead of a nationally televised speech to Congress on Tuesday, Trump outlined plans for strengthening the U.S. military, already the world’s most powerful fighting force, and other initiatives such as tax reform and regulatory rollback.

He offered few specifics on any initiatives, including the budget request that is likely to face a harsh reality on Capitol Hill: At a time when he wants to slash taxes for Americans, funding a major military buildup without spending cuts elsewhere would add substantially to the U.S. budget deficit.

Trump said he would aim to upgrade the military in both offensive and defensive capabilities, with a massive spending request to Congress that would make the country’s defense “bigger and better and stronger than ever before.”

“And, hopefully, we’ll never have to use it, but nobody is going to mess with us. Nobody. It will be one of the greatest military buildups in American history,” Trump said.

Appealing to people on welfare to go to work and pledging to follow through on his vow to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, Trump drew rounds of applause from the large gathering of conservatives, many of them wearing hats emblazoned with the president’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

His speech was heavy on the nationalist overtones from his campaign last year, focusing on promises to boost U.S. economic growth by retooling international trade deals, cracking down on immigration and boosting energy production.


Trump is looking to put behind him a rocky first month in office. An executive order he signed aimed at banning U.S. entry by people from seven Muslim-majority countries became embroiled in the courts and he had to fire his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, for Russian contacts before Trump took office.

With the federal budget still running a large deficit, Trump will have to fight to get higher military spending through Congress. In his speech, he complained about spending caps put in place on the defense budget dating back to 2011.

He also heaped criticism on what he called purveyors of “fake news,” seeking to clarify a recent tweet in which he said some in the U.S. news media should be considered an “enemy of the people.”

He said his main beef was the media’s use of anonymous sources. “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. Let their name be out there,” Trump said.

His comments came on the same day CNN reported that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asked FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to deny a Feb. 14 report in the New York Times that said Trump’s presidential campaign advisers had been in frequent contact with Russian intelligence officers. The request came after McCabe told him privately the report was wrong.

A senior administration official said on Friday that FBI Director James Comey told Priebus later that the story was not accurate. Priebus asked if the Federal Bureau of Investigation could set the record straight, but Comey said the bureau could not comment, the official said.

Trump has repeatedly chosen to make news media criticism a focus of his public remarks since taking office on Jan. 20.

The speech allowed Trump to put his stamp firmly on the conservative political movement, even as some activists fretted that his immigration and trade policies go too far.

With Trump in the White House and Republicans holding majorities in both houses of Congress, CPAC and the thousands of conservative activists who flock to the event each year from across the country are seeing their political influence rising.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Jonathan Oatis)

Capitol Hill Lawmakers Trying to Use Social Media Profiles in Visa Reviews

Lawmakers say they’re drafting new legislation that would tighten up the visa screening process and give officials the power to review an applicant’s social media profiles in background checks.

The House Judiciary Committee is currently working on the proposed bill, officials said Monday.

There has been widespread call for United States visa program reform in the wake of the Dec. 2 mass shooting that left 14 people dead and 21 more wounded in San Bernardino, California.

FBI officials have publicly said that the shooters, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook, were discussing jihad and martyrdom over the Internet in 2013, yet Malik was still allowed to enter the United States on a fiancee visa after these conversations. Malik was living in Saudi Arabia when she met Farook, a United States citizen living in California, on an online dating website.

President Barack Obama has called the shooting an act of terrorism.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) specifically mentioned the San Bernardino shootings in a statement announcing the proposed legislation, saying that more could have been done to check Malik’s background — including checking her social media pages.

ABC News reported that U.S. officials had a policy not to review applicant’s social media profiles during visa background checks because there were concerns about civil liberties. The news agency reported that immigration officials pushed early last year for social media profiles to be included in background checks, particularly as foreign terrorist organizations used social media to spread their message, but Homeland Security officials ultimately decided against a policy change because they feared there might be a negative public perception if a switch was disclosed.

Homeland Security’s social media posting policy is now under review, ABC News reported. While some pilot programs to review postings are in place, it’s still not a widespread practice.

In his statement, Goodlate mentioned published reports saying that Malik “posted her radical views on social media prior to obtaining a visa, yet it seems that the Obama Administration’s policies may have prevented officials from reviewing her account.” The proposed bill would now require officials to review social media profiles in background checks, as well as other changes.

“As terrorists continue to adapt and evolve in order to carry out their heinous plots, we have a duty to strengthen the security of our immigration system so that we keep bad actors out of the United States,” Goodlatte said in the statement, adding the bill would be introduced soon.