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DeSantis builds conservative resume with new $114B-plus budget

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Ahead of his likely 2024 presidential bid, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing a nearly $115 billion budget that funds some of his most politically divisive policies — including millions of dollars for election police and more state funds to transport migrants from the southern border to blue strongholds.

DeSantis’ budget, which he released Wednesday, also requests $15 million for New College, the small public liberal arts college that the governor is trying to transform into a conservative learning institution. He also wants to remove sales taxes on purchases of gas stoves, a nod to the GOP outrage over some liberal cities pushing to ban gas stoves in new construction.

Taken together, the proposed budget outlines conservative themes and priorities that DeSantis routinely uses to excite the GOP base in Florida — but with an eye toward the Republican voters nationally.

“If we were here four years ago and people said we would be able to propose what we are proposing today, most people probably would have said that would not have been possible,” DeSantis said Wednesday during a press conference at the state capitol.

“But if you told them everything that happened in the last four years, they definitely would have said it would not have been possible,” he said.

The Florida Legislature has the ultimate authority to write the state budget, but DeSantis’ growing clout within the national Republican Party has given him great power over the GOP-dominated Legislature, which in recent years has generally handed him everything he wanted. Any budget wins will give DeSantis more talking points if he jumps into the 2024 presidential race, further fueling the impression that he can use public funds to enact a conservative agenda.

Before the Wednesday press conference began, an administration staffer told state workers at the event to applaud and be “high energy.” Moments later, they cheered and clapped loudly when DeSantis entered the Florida Cabinet room, where he announced the budget plan. The workers broke out into applause three times during DeSantis’ presentation.

DeSantis framed much of his remarks around not just a single-year budget proposal but rather a recap of his entire first term. He compared the state of Florida’s overall economy with four years ago when he first took office. During that time, Florida’s main state reserve fund increased by $12 billion, the unemployment rate has dropped to 2.5 percent, and Florida has become the fastest-growing state in the country — changes that occurred while the state was grappling with a global pandemic that helped make DeSantis a national star with the conservative base.

Some of the governor’s more controversial programs would get significant increases if ultimately approved. DeSantis wants $31 million and 27 positions for the Office of Election Crimes and Security, which he created last year to investigate election fraud. DeSantis lauded the office and, in August, held a high-profile press conference highlighting 20 arrests made by his agents. Several of those defendants, however, had the charges against them dropped, and the office has yet to secure a conviction.

The governor is also seeking another $12 million for his controversial program that uses state funds to transport asylum-seeking migrants from the southern border to other parts of the country,

The program drew swift backlash when, in September, DeSantis transported 50 mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts, a move he said was done to highlight the Biden Administration’s border policies. Democrats, including President Joe Biden, widely condemned the flights.

“We have had a deterrent effect, and people are sick of having an open border with no rule of law in this country,” DeSantis said Wednesday when asked about the funding.

The migrant flight program is facing several lawsuits, including from state Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami), who argued that the DeSantis administration violated state law because the original funding was earmarked to remove “unauthorized aliens from this state” while the September flights originated in Texas. This year’s proposed budget broadens the scope of the language to say the funds would be used to remove “unauthorized aliens within the United States.”

House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell approved of some budget proposals, like making diaper purchases tax-free, but said that, overall, it represents a political stunt.

“Governor DeSantis’s budget proposal is a financial wish list of recommendations to influence decisions made in the Capitol,” she said in a statement. “While I am encouraged to see recommended allocations that will benefit Floridians … I am also concerned to see troubling recommendations like the ‘Unauthorized Alien Transport Program,’ which I worry could lead to further political stunts like when the Governor previously used taxpayer dollars to lure unsuspecting individuals seeking political asylum from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.”

Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book (D-Plantation) took a slightly different tone, saying the “devil is in the details,” but praised tax breaks in the plan and said she sees “much common ground at first glance.”

DeSantis’ proposal also relies on more than $400 million in Biden administration Covid-19 aid money. The biggest single chunk from that funding is $220 million to pay for $1,000 bonuses for first responders. Over the past two years, state budgets have included nearly $10 billion from the federal pandemic assistance, money that has been used to pay for some of DeSantis’ most politically divisive proposals heavily criticized by Biden and other Democrats, including the migrant flights.

Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott last month sent a letter asking state leaders to return their pandemic relief money in order to help pay down the federal debt. DeSantis said, however, that returning the money would not have a huge impact on the nation’s debt.

“If you look at how much money that is … it’s like $100 million, $200 million, a few hundred million,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “How much dent would that make in the debt?”

DeSantis also wants $2 billion in tax cuts, including permanently removing state sales taxes on baby and toddler necessities like cribs and strollers — as well as for gas stoves. Gas stoves have become the newest wedge issue after some liberal cities have sought to ban them in new construction to reduce carbon footprints and for health reasons. The Biden administration does not support banning gas stoves.

“They want your gas stove, and we are not going to let that happen,” DeSantis said.

Other provisions in DeSantis’ proposal:

  • $65 million for a state worker pay increase, including a 5 percent across-the-board increase and 10 percent increases for positions deemed “hard to hire" for.
  • The budget unveiled Wednesday by DeSantis would put a record $25.9 billion in the Florida Education Finance Program, the state’s central pot of education funding, which represents an increase of $1.4 billion, or 5.8 percent, compared with current-year spending.
  • On the environment, the governor said his proposed budget provides $1.1 billion for Everglades restoration and water quality programs, including $200 million for replacing septic tanks with sewer system hookups. And he said the proposal includes $406 million for coastal resiliency projects and planning. And it includes $75 million for land acquisition at the Department of Environmental Protection in addition to $25 million for local park grant programs through DEP. The budget proposal does not include money through the agriculture department for conservation easements.
  • The proposal also calls for a health care budget of $47.3 billion, which is a decrease from the $48.9 billion budget that took effect in July. 

Taken together, the proposed budget outlines conservative themes and priorities that Gov. Ron DeSantis routinely uses to excite the GOP base in Florida.

Biden administration is caught between California and its neighbors in Colorado River fight

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, California has an answer to six other western states sharing the Colorado River: Get lost.

The proposal California offered Tuesday makes no significant concessions to demands from its neighbors — asserting higher priority senior water rights to the largest share of the river that have been enshrined in an agreement dating back decades.

That leaves it to the federal government to try to find a resolution.

“The states are not going to reach an agreement. We are just too far apart,” said Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), who represents the Phoenix area. “Now is the time that we need this administration to come up with a solution to this dilemma, and we need it now.”

California is insisting on its legal claims under a compact dating back to 1922 as the river faces unprecedented strain because of climate change and population growth in the Southwest. The standoff thrusts the Biden administration into the position of deciding how to resolve competing claims on water shared among 40 million people from Wyoming to Mexico.

The Interior Department, which asked the states to come up with a joint plan to reduce use by roughly 30 percent, is expected to impose cuts as early as this summer.

On one side are six states, including Arizona and Nevada, where growing cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix are in an existential battle to avoid exhausting their supplies from the Colorado River. On the other is California, where farmers could go to the courts to protect their water rights.

Decisions taken by California in this most sensitive of battles could one day hurt Gov. Gavin Newsom if he runs for president and needs political support in Nevada and Arizona, two battleground states.

A bipartisan group of Western representatives, excluding officials from California, urged President Joe Biden to support the proposal offered by the six states in a letter Wednesday morning.

California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, a Newsom appointee, as well as the state's two senators have criticized the six-state plan, saying it would disproportionately burden California cities and farmers.

Western senators are planning to meet to discuss the issue Thursday.

The Interior Department is keeping up talks with states and tribes and wants “as much support and consensus as possible,” said a spokesperson on Wednesday.

The proposal from the six states would impose additional cuts to every user, including California and Mexico.

Their plan relies on a new tool to preserve some water for Arizona and Nevada users by accounting for evaporation and leaks along the river as it flows downstream to California.

That infuriated California’s farmers, who see the concept as a way to cut into their legal claims to the water.

Instead, California’s proposal would alter operations at the river’s two main dams, forcing states to take modest cuts to which they’ve already agreed. If that’s not enough it would then force cuts using the priority system, effectively drying out central Arizona cities and tribes before the Golden State takes additional mandatory cuts.

“We agree there needs to be reduced use in the Lower Basin, but that can't be done by just completely ignoring and sidestepping federal law,” said J.B. Hamby, the chair of the Colorado River Board of California and an Imperial Irrigation District director.

California, he said, already volunteered additional reductions back in October to ease the burden on other states.

The Interior Department said it plans to release a draft analysis of the options it is considering this spring. It could step in as soon as this summer to slash deliveries.

Water flows along the All-American Canal Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022, near Winterhaven, Calif. The canal conveys water from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley.

New York's massive budget surplus gives Hochul money to spend

ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Kathy Hochul kicked off her first term with a $227 billion budget proposal that she says will prep New York for an economic revival, thanks to a budget surplus and an aim of building more affordable housing in the New York City suburbs.

There will be no “whimpering and complaining” about the way things are, the newly elected Democrat said during an address Wednesday at the state Capitol, in which she acknowledged that barriers to housing, health care and public safety are causing New Yorkers to question the viability of living in the state — which leads the nation in population loss.

“We make progress by implementing ideas,” she said, in reference to a quote from the first Black woman elected to U.S. Congress, Shirley Chisholm.

“This is a pivotal moment for our state,” Hochul said. “We can’t just sit on the sidelines and wish things were different. If we want to make real progress for our people, we can.”

She described the nuts and bolts of a series of proposals aimed at achieving the New York Dream that were broadly outlined in her State of the State address last month. And she's benefiting from an $8.7 billion surplus thanks to higher-than-expected tax revenue to fund projects and programs to appease a wide variety of constituencies.

Hochul wants record increases in education and Medicaid spending — to $34.4 billion and $27.8 billion respectively. Hochul’s plan would set aside more than $1 billion to help New York City pay some costs of providing social services to new asylum seekers.

She proposed new funding streams for the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority, including raising payroll taxes on downstate businesses, using revenue from planned casinos and setting aside $300 million in one-time aid. She also rejected any income tax increases.

She laid out various provisions of her plan for 800,000 new homes over the next decade, which would require municipalities around the state to meet housing production targets or make zoning changes.

And she announced a four-year extension for completing projects covered by the expired 421-a tax break, but did not suggest a specific replacement for the incentive program that builders say will be necessary for the kind of housing growth she is seeking.

Many of Hochul’s ideas carry broad conceptual support among Democrats looking to expand opportunities for communities that have historically been passed over, and Hochul will spend the next two months attempting to build consensus among members of the state Legislature for the fiscal year that starts April 1.

But she begins that process on rocky terms, at least in the Senate, where she’s threatened legal action after a Senate panel rejected her pick for chief judge last month. Leaders are downplaying any potential stalemates amid the acrimony. Hochul made a point to greet just two people — both Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — before taking the podium Wednesday.

She also cracked open the door to some historically contentious debates in the Legislature, including permitting more charter schools across the state by lifting a regional cap in state law and expanding the amount of discretion that judges would have to set bail for more serious offenses.

She characterized both bail and charter school expansion as measures to provide clarity in otherwise odd implementations of the current status quo, rather than the political grenades they’ve become. Much of her election battle last year centered on rising crime and criticism of the state's bail laws.

“Let’s just simply provide clarity,” she said of her bail law proposal. “Let's ensure judges consider factors for serious offenders. And let's leave the law where it is for low level offense and move forward to focus on two other public safety challenges.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, during an availability with reporters following Hochul’s address, said he was briefed the previous evening but was still, “wrapping his arms around” Hochul’s proposals.

He did note that charter school expansion has typically been “tough” for his conference; the powerful teachers unions oppose an expansion. And he’s skeptical of any suggestion that the state’s bail laws are the solution to increases in crime, instead suggesting that the Legislature should take a more holistic approach.

“We’ve got to get off that focus on those four letters [B.A.I.L] and start looking at the entire totality of public safety,” he said.

The state is on sound financial footing this year, and officials project the $8.7 billion surplus can be used to help the state build its reserves to 15 percent of state operating funds by 2025.

Progressive groups analyzing Hochul's proposal were quick to point out what they saw as missed opportunities when the state has the cash to take aggressive action, including affordable housing advocates who say tenants rights should take precedence in trying to make New York more affordable.

“Governor Hochul’s plan prioritizes deregulation and luxury housing production. It is for real estate moguls, not working families,” tenants rights activist Cea Weaver said in a response from the Housing Justice for All coalition she represents.

Hochul said that political dynamics surrounding her election and legislative relationships did not play into how she chose to craft the budget proposal when asked about a proposed expansion of an MTA payroll tax that would affect suburban counties. She did not largely do well in the suburbs last November.

“Nothing I do in the budget is driven by politics, elections, outcomes," she said. “I'm guided by what is best for New Yorkers.”

Kathy Hochul presents her executive state budget in the Red Room at the state Capitol Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023.

House Dem laments ‘friendly fire’ after losing a plum panel seat

Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell got evicted from the House Intelligence Committee by the GOP. Their fellow Democrat Mike Quigley lost his perch there thanks to his own party.

The Illinois lawmaker, who has served on the panel’s Democratic roster since 2015, said he found out Wednesday that he did not make the cut. While he indicated in an interview that he was “honored to have served on the committee,” Quigley admitted he was “disappointed to be hit by friendly fire.”

Quigley’s loss of his intelligence panel seat comes as House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries named Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes as its new top Democrat to replace Schiff (D-Calif.), whose appointment had been blocked by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, along with Swalwell’s (D-Calif.).

A Jeffries spokesperson noted that Quigley had already served for four full terms on the Intelligence Committee, but otherwise declined to comment.

The Intelligence Committee limits members to four terms on the panel, though members can receive waivers. Chairs and ranking members are exempt from the term limit.

Quigley’s exit also follows that of several other senior Intelligence Committee Democrats due to retirement or election to higher office, such as Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). That turnover is leading some Democrats to worry about a loss of expertise — among them former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), spotted speaking to Jeffries on the House floor Wednesday evening about the need to maintain institutional knowledge on the panel through its longer-serving members like Quigley.

Asked Wednesday about Quigley, Pelosi said she “thought there was still an opportunity” for him to serve on the panel.

Another wrinkle to Quigley’s intelligence panel departure stems from Jeffries’ ascension atop the caucus. Quigley had privately backed Schiff when he was sounding out a potential leadership bid that would have pitted him against Jeffries, prompting some Democrats to theorize that Quigley’s removal from the committee was linked to leadership maneuvering. Schiff ultimately decided against running for leadership in favor of pursuing a Senate bid, and Jeffries ran unopposed for minority leader.

As the minority party, Democrats’ allotted number of seats on the committee shrank, forcing tough choices about appointments to the sought-after panel. To replace departing members, a half-dozen Democrats were added to the Intelligence Committee, including Reps. Ami Bera of California, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, though several members of the panel who’d served on it in previous Congresses returned, including Reps. Andre Carson of Indiana and Joaquin Castro of Texas.

Mike Quigley lost his perch on the House Intelligence Committee thanks to his own party.

Drone maker offers to sell 2 Reapers to Ukraine for $1

California-based drone maker General Atomics has offered to send two Reaper drones to Ukraine for $1 and is waiting for the U.S. government’s approval, the company’s CEO confirmed Wednesday.

The announcement from the firm’s CEO late on Wednesday comes after months of talks between Kyiv, the Biden administration and the company over providing Ukraine with the long-duration drones operated by the U.S. Air Force. But the issue has remained in limbo due to concerns over transferring sensitive technologies to Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the latest offer, noting that Kyiv would still need to spend $10 million to physically transfer the drones and another $8 million annually for maintenance and sustainment.

The Ukrainian government had recently renewed its push for the drones, which can fly farther than 1,100 miles while carrying laser-guided munitions and advanced optics for long-range surveillance.

Despite General Atomics’ offer to transfer the two drones, “there are limits to what an American defense company can do to support a situation such as this,” CEO Linden Blue said in a statement. “From our perspective, it is long past time to enable Ukrainian forces with the information dominance required to win this war.”

Blue indicated some frustration with the refusal of the U.S. to greenlight sending the drones, which POLITICO had previously reported had already won approval from the Air Force.

“We have offered to train Ukrainian operators on these systems at no cost to U.S. taxpayers or the Ukrainian government,” Blue continued. “We have offered flexible options and recommendations for delivery. We have discussed the situation endlessly at every level of the U.S. federal government, and with many international partners.”

A spokesperson at the Pentagon did not immediately return a request for comment.

The Air Force first floated the idea of transferring some of its repairs about a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and there have been some discussions over sending the Army’s version, the Gray Eagle, as well.

The Air Force has been trying to scrap older versions of its Reaper fleet for years in order to redirect money to buy and operate more cutting-edge technology, but Congress has rejected the proposal each time.

The Air Force is already operating the aircraft in Europe. Last year, the Air Force began flying Reaper missions from Romania.

A person familiar with the negotiations said Ukraine had offered to share the intelligence it gathered from Reaper flights with the U.S., as well as any battle damage assessments after strikes, to no avail.

Despite General Atomics’ offer to transfer the two Reapers, “there are limits to what an American defense company can do to support a situation such as this,” CEO Linden Blue said in a statement.


Jan. 6 defendant who sprayed line of police sentenced after tearful apology

A Jan. 6 defendant who sprayed a chemical irritant at about 15 police officers — and later bragged about it in a video interview — was sentenced Wednesday to 68 months in prison. This is one of the stiffest Jan. 6 sentences handed down to date.

Daniel Caldwell, a 51-year-old Marine Corps veteran, delivered a tearful apology in court to the officers he sprayed, expressing remorse for his actions that day and pleading with U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly for mercy.

But Kollar-Kotelly repeatedly described Caldwell as an “insurrectionist” and noted that his deployment of chemical spray at officers created such an intense cloud that it nearly broke the depleted police line by itself. Though no officers directly attributed their injuries that day to Caldwell’s actions, Kollar-Kotelly said his actions undoubtedly contributed to their physical and psychological trauma.

“You’re entitled to your political views but not to an insurrection," the judge said. “You were an insurrectionist.”

Caldwell has remained in pretrial custody since Feb. 10, 2021 — 721 days, he noted — and was one of the earliest charged with a direct assault on police that day.

But Caldwell’s hearing was most notable for the extensive expression of remorse, delivered almost entirely through tears, to a nearly empty courtroom.

“I must face my actions head on,” he said, before delivering a voluminous apology to the officers he attacked. “I hope that you and our country never have to face another day like January 6th.”

Caldwell said he spent the days immediately after the attack rationalizing what he did and looking for validation from family, friends and his attorney. He said he now looks back at his actions and “it literally floors me.”

He described himself as “ashamed” and “embarrassed” about his conduct and described efforts to better himself while in custody, reading self-help books and reflecting on how he became a catalyst of violence that day.

“I clearly let my emotions take control,” he said. “Being a Marine, I should have known better. … I wish I could take it back, but I can’t.”

As his sister, one of his daughters and her husband looked on, Caldwell lamented that he’d likely miss the birth of his first grandchild while incarcerated and was unable to repair a “broken relationship” with his biological mother, who passed away while he was in pretrial incarceration. He expressed regret that he’d miss his middle child’s military deployment and would be unable to be there for his aging father, who is battling cancer. His youngest son told family members that he felt like his “dad died,” Caldwell recalled. Caldwell’s wife, now the sole provider for the household, was struggling to get by.

“Knowing their pain is crushing my heart,” Caldwell said. “I have paid a high price, and I accept that I still have to pay more.”

Kollar-Kotelly said she appreciated his statement of apology to the officers, but as a Marine, he should have directed his apology to the whole country.

She described in detail his attack on officers, noting that one officer who he sprayed began to “vomit uncontrollably.” The air was so thick with chemicals that it wasn’t clear whether the officers he hit were injured by him directly or by a combination of factors. No victims delivered statements to the court ahead of sentencing.

Kollar-Kotelly also put his involvement in the broader Jan. 6 attack in the context of previous challenges to the United States government. She said it was crucial for her sentence to “fortify against the revolutionary fervor that you and others felt on Jan. 6 and may still feel today.”

“Insurrection is not,” she said, “and cannot ever be warranted.”

Daniel Caldwell, a 51-year-old Marine Corps veteran, delivered a tearful apology in court to the officers he sprayed, expressing remorse for his actions that day and pleading with U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly for mercy.

Dems name former Trump impeachment officials to GOP investigative panel

House Democrats have tapped a former Donald Trump impeachment manager to lead their counterattack to Republicans’ sweeping investigative panel.

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries announced his picks to sit on the select subcommittee on the “weaponization” of the federal government, which will be the home of several high-profile, controversial Republican probes — including a broad dive into the FBI and Justice Department.

Jeffries, in a letter to his colleagues, named Del. Stacey Plaskett, a Democrat who represents the Virgin Islands, as the party’s top member on the panel, putting her at the forefront of the party’s efforts to push back on the GOP investigations. Plaskett was part of House Democrats’ impeachment team during the 2021 Senate trial in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack, when a mob of the former president’s supporters breached the Capitol in an effort to subvert President Joe Biden’s Electoral College win.

Plaskett, a former prosecutor, made history in the role as the first delegate to serve as an impeachment manager. Fellow impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), now the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, was once her law professor at American University.

Jeffries also nominated three members of the Oversight Committee for the select panel: Reps. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.). Connolly and Lynch ran against Raskin for the top spot on that panel but fell short. And Goldman, a freshman, previously served as counsel for House Democrats during Trump’s first impeachment trial.

Democratic Reps. Linda Sánchez (Calif.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), John Garamendi (Calif.), Colin Allred (Texas) and Sylvia Garcia (Texas) also got seats on the select subcommittee. Technically, McCarthy appoints all members of the panel, meaning he’ll need to sign off on the Democratic picks, but the California Republican has said he would let Democrats name their own members for the subcommittee.

Jeffries, in the letter to his colleagues, said that the Democrats leading their party on the committees would need to “stand up to extremism from the other side of the aisle.” In addition to picking Plaskett as the top Democrat on the weaponization subcommittee, Jeffries also picked Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) to be the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee after McCarthy blocked Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the longtime lead Democrat, from serving on the panel.

The minority leader also tapped Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) to head Democrats on a select committee on strategic competition between the United States and China and Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) to be the party’s top official on a subcommittee on the coronavirus pandemic.

“It remains my goal to prioritize and value input from every corner of the Caucus so we may unleash the full potential of our team. The members of the select committees reflect the tremendous experience, background and ability of the House Democratic Caucus, and authentically represent the gorgeous mosaic of the American people,” he added.

Under a fix passed by the House earlier Wednesday, the select panel members were expected to include Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who serve as chair and ranking member of the full Judiciary Committee, as well as an additional 19 lawmakers — no more than eight of whom would be Democrats. But Jeffries, in his announcement, said that Nadler would instead serve as an ex-officio member. The overall break down of the panel is 12 Republicans to 9 Democrats.

Democrats on the subcommittee will be tasked with finding an offensive lane to counter the GOP investigations, with Republicans on the panel expected to expand the scope of their probes to include the intelligence community, the Department of Education, big tech and other targets.

The minority party largely avoided naming any bomb throwers to the subcommittee, but their members are well-steeped in investigative tactics and procedural mechanisms Republicans may choose to deploy as they pursue their own favored probes.

In addition to serving as an impeachment manager, Plaskett was also on the Ways and Means Committee in the last Congress, which was at the center of the fight for Trump’s tax returns. Sánchez is also a member of the tax writing committee.

Connolly, in particular, also has a long history of tangling with Jordan and other GOP members of the panel through their time on the Oversight Committee.

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries named Del. Stacey Plaskett, pictured, as Democrats’ top member on the investigative panel.

Harris at Tyre Nichols’ funeral: This isn't public safety

The funeral of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who died after being beaten by police officers in Memphis, Tenn., was marked by emotion, music and a renewed call for justice on Wednesday, including by Vice President Kamala Harris.

“This is a family that lost their son and their brother through an act of violence, at the hands and the feet of people who had been charged with keeping them safe,” Harris said at the service in Memphis.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) plans to reintroduce after next week’s State of the Union speech the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act with a “Tyre Nichols Duty to Intervene” provision added, Nichols family attorney Ben Crump said at the service.

With the families of other victims of police violence in attendance, Harris and several other speakers called for passage of the police reform bill, which stalled after passing in the House in 2021. The content of the addition named after Nichols was not outlined at the service.

“This violent act was not in pursuit of public safety. … When we talk about public safety, let us understand what it means in its truest form,” Harris said of the police action that killed Nichols. “Tyre Nichols should have been safe.”

Harris traveled to Memphis for the funeral, which was held at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church. She was not listed as a speaker on the program, but was invited up by civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton during the service.

“They told her she shouldn’t be here today, but the snow backed up, and she’s here,” Sharpton said of Harris at the funeral, to applause.

The Rev. Dr. J. Lawrence Turner, pastor at the Memphis church, also called for lawmakers to act as he opened the speaking portion of the program.

“We have come with heavy hearts that can only be healed by the grace of God, full transparency, accountability and comprehensive legislative reform,” Turner said, noting that Wednesday marked the first day of Black History Month.

Former Atlanta Mayor and White House adviser Keisha Lance Bottoms, Jackson Lee and Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat who represents Memphis, were also present, Sharpton said.

The families of many other Black victims of police killings, including loved ones of George Floyd, Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor, came to the funeral as well, Sharpton said.

Nichols’ parents arescheduled to attend President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address next week. The Congressional Black Caucus will meet Thursday with Biden and Harris.

Nichols’ parents both called for legislative reform in their emotional remarks.

“We need to get that bill passed, because if we don’t, that blood, that next child that dies — that blood is going to be on their hands,” Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, said.

Biden previously said he was “outraged” watching the video of the police violence that led to Nichols’ death. In it, Nichols called out for his mother and asked to go home.

The 29-year-old father liked skateboarding and photography. He died three days after the brutal police beating on Jan. 7.

While lawmakers, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) called for reform in the wake of the attack, Republicans, including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)have actively resisted doing the same.

Five police officers were fired and charged with murder after Nichols’ death, and the officers’ specialized unit was disbanded. Two more officers were suspended, and three Memphis emergency workers were also fired.

At the funeral, Nichols’ mother said she was grateful for swift action against the officers.

Sharpton lamented that the five officers charged with killing Nichols were Black, in the city where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

“In the city where the dreamer laid down and shed his blood,” Sharpton said, “you have the unmitigated gall to beat your brother, chase him down and beat him some more.”

Feds probing Santos’ role in service dog charity scheme

NEW YORK — FBI agents are investigating Rep. George Santos’ role in an alleged GoFundMe scheme involving a disabled U.S. Navy veteran's dying service dog.

Two agents contacted former service member Richard Osthoff Wednesday on behalf of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York, he told POLITICO.

Osthoff gave the agents text messages from 2016 with Santos, who he says used his plight to raise $3,000 for life-saving surgery for the pit bull mix, Sapphire — then ghosted with the funds, as first reported by Patch.

“I’m glad to get the ball rolling with the big-wigs,” Osthoff said in an interview Wednesday. “I was worried that what happened to me was too long ago to be prosecuted.”

The alleged fundraising scheme is one of many scandals plaguing the freshman Republican, who has refused to leave office despite a series of allegations of lying and fraud that first came to light in December shortly after he won a swing seat on Long Island.

New York Democratic Reps. Ritchie Torres and Daniel Goldman, who called for a Federal Election Commission investigation into Santos’ campaign finances last month, welcomed the news that the Eastern District investigation is proceeding at a serious clip.

“Only the U.S. attorneys are capable of moving at the speed that’s necessary,” Torres said in an interview.

“There’s no one that poses a greater threat in Congress than Santos. It’s undeniable that he’s broken the law. We have to protect Congress from George Santos, who threatens it from within,” Torres said.

Goldman, an ex-federal prosecutor who has a seat on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, echoed Torres’ comments in a separate interview.

“Given that a serial liar like Santos is still walking the halls of the Capitol, it is imperative that the Justice Department move quickly to determine whether an indictment is appropriate.”

On Tuesday, Santos stepped down from his Congressional committee assignments, telling colleagues he was trying to avoid becoming a further “distraction” for House Republicans. The announcement followed a meeting a day earlier with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who declined to disclose the reason for the discussion.

McCarthy made his strongest statement yet on Santos last week. He told Capitol Hill reporters that if Santos is found to have broken the law by the House Ethics Committee he will be removed from Congress.

Joshua Schiller, a senior trial lawyer who has practiced in the Eastern District, said the veteran’s encounter with Santos could offer prosecutors a quick way to hit the Republican congressman with criminal charges even though they’re also investigating heftier possible financial crimes.

“I think there is an urgency here because Santos is currently in a position to make laws,” Schiller said. “I can think of examples where the government used a lesser indictment to seize assets and try to cause the defendant to plea to a deal before bringing a second or third indictment on more serious charges, and I bet that is the case here.”

Santos’ attorney, Joseph Murray, declined to comment. Santos has previously said he merely exaggerated portions of his resume and denied that he broke any laws.

Spokespeople for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of New York and the FBI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Osthoff was sleeping in a tent on the side of the road in New Jersey in 2016 when a veterinary technician connected him with a pet charity. Anthony Devolder, who ran Friends of Pets United, promised to help Osthoff get a tumor removed from his dog’s stomach, the veteran said.

Devolder, a version of Santos’ full name he used before entering politics, set up the GoFundMe account and promoted it on social media saying, “When a veteran reaches out to ask for help, how can you say no?” according to screenshots of the postings.

When the account had reached its $3,000 goal, Devolder gave a series of excuses about why he couldn’t help Sapphire get treatment, then became difficult to reach, text messages between the two show.

Osthoff says Santos deliberately used his story of being a homeless disabled veteran with a sickly service dog to extract donations, then took off with the funds, leaving him unable to afford Sapphire’s surgery.

Osthoff said the experience was so traumatic it prompted him to contemplate suicide. Sapphire died from the tumor in 2017.

Friends of Pets United was not a registered charity, The New York Times reported in December when it first broke the story that Santos had fabricated much of his campaign biography.

Schiller said the GoFundMe allegations could result in several types of charges, including wire and mail fraud as well as bank fraud. Santos could have also committed tax crimes if he claimed exemptions for an unregistered charity, Schiller said.

CBS News first reported that federal investigators in New York were“looking into” Santos following the Times articles and other reporting that raised more questions about his background and how he funded a successful run that flipped his Long Island district from blue to red in November.

Last week, the Department of Justice asked the FEC to pause any enforcement action against Santos as the department worked on its own case, according to a report last week in the Washington Post.

Over $700,000 Santos initially listed as a personal loan to his campaign may have been an illegal straw donor scheme, according to FEC complaints.

The New York Attorney General’s office, as well as the Queens and Nassau County district attorneys, are also probing Santos.

Osthoff said the New York Attorney General’s Office Public Integrity Bureau, which handles fraud and criminal inquiries into elected officials, began investigating the GoFundMe drive last month.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Tish James said on Dec. 22 that her office was “looking into” several issues surrounding Santos, but did not get into specifics. The Attorney General’s office did not reply to questions about the status of its GoFundMe inquiry.

A spokesperson for GoFundMe declined to comment on specifics, but indicated the company has been cooperating with ongoing investigations.

Joe Anuta contributed to this report.

The alleged fundraising scheme is one of many scandals plaguing Geroge Santos, who has refused to leave office despite a series of allegations of lying and fraud that first came to light in December.

Fed's Powell warns of more pain ahead: Key takeaways

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Wednesday welcomed signs that inflation has been steadily cooling, but he had a stark warning for Americans: It's still way too hot.

In a press conference after the Fed raised interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point, Powell said the central bank’s nearly year-long rate hike campaign isn’t over yet, despite six straight months of easing consumer prices.

The U.S., he said, is merely in the early stages of disinflation, and more belt-tightening is likely in store even after eight consecutive rate hikes by the central bank. And he said Fed officials plan to hold rates at punishingly high levels until price spikes have faded much more extensively.

“We have more work to do,” he said. “We’re going to be cautious about declaring victory and sending signals that we think the game is won.”

Still, Wednesday’s move, the smallest rate increase since last March, brings policymakers another step closer to an expected pause in their inflation fight sometime this year — and stock markets rose on the day. The Fed's main borrowing rate now sits between 4.5 percent and 4.75 percent, up from near zero early last year.

Unemployment is still at modern lows, even after all the aggressive rate hikes, feeding hopes that the U.S. may be able to avoid a recession — a crucial goal for President Joe Biden before the 2024 election. But that will hinge on how much more the central bank increases rates and then how long it waits to lower them again.

Powell gave some hints on what the Fed might do. Here are some key quotes from the Fed chief and what he meant:

“We are not yet at a sufficiently restrictive policy stance, which is why we say that we expect ongoing hikes will be appropriate.”

The central bank has raised interest rates high enough to bite into economic growth, but Powell says it needs to go further to bring inflation to heel. The key word here is “ongoing,” which suggests it will be more than one additional increase. He later signaled that could mean “a couple more” — which would be consistent with what officials had forecast in December.

According to those forecasts, the Fed expects to raise rates to about 5 percent before stopping, but that will depend on whether inflation continues its downward trend. Powell also held open the possibility that rates could rise even more if incoming data starts to look worse.

“Finding out in six or 12 months that we actually were close but didn't get the job done, inflation springs back and we have to go back in ... This is a very difficult risk to manage.”

The message here is that it’s better to err on the side of whipping inflation a little too soundly — even if it means throwing the economy into a painful recession — than risk that the price surges come roaring back. But his best guess right now is that no downturn is in store — a view that clashes with that of many economists and Wall Street CEOs.

The economy grew at a healthy 2.9 percent annualized pace in the last three quarters of the year, suggesting the U.S. is still far from dipping into a recession. But there's always a lag in the impact of monetary policy, and growth could slow further as the Fed's rate moves feed through to economic activity.

A closely watched survey on Wednesday showed that manufacturing is contracting, and the housing market has been hammered for months by high mortgage rates, though the job market has remained resilient.

“Generally, it is a forecast of slower growth, some softening in labor market conditions and inflation moving down steadily, but not quickly. And in that case, if the economy performs broadly in line with those expectations, it will not be appropriate to cut rates this year.”

Powell and his fellow officials have been struggling to convince markets that rate cuts are unlikely later this year. This matters because the Fed wants market-set rates to remain high and stock prices to stay muted, as part of its efforts to restrain spending and investment. Investors haven’t bought into that message though and are overwhelmingly betting on rate cuts in 2023.

Here he seems to be striking a balance by saying that he expects inflation to come down only slowly, which will mean holding rates higher for longer. That could also come alongside fewer job openings, slower wage growth and higher unemployment — euphemistically called “softening in labor market conditions.”

But he also left the door open to rate cuts if inflation comes down more quickly.

“We are neither pessimistic nor optimistic.”

Powell repeatedly acknowledged that inflation is coming down but also said the fight isn’t over. The prices of goods like furniture and cars have dropped, he said, while there are signs that rents may be slowing their ascent. But surging prices are still a concern in core services sectors, where labor costs are often the biggest expense.

Here he is saying that Fed officials are trying to watch how the economy evolves and not assume how close they are to beating inflation yet.

Unemployment is still at modern lows, even after aggressive rate hikes for the past year by the Fed, feeding hopes that the U.S. may be able to avoid a recession — a crucial goal for President Joe Biden before the 2024 election.

Guns in the House? A raucous Natural Resources panel debate

House Natural Resources Committee Republicans on Wednesday defeated Rep. Jared Huffman's (D-Calif.) push to reinstate an explicit ban on carrying firearms to the committee room after a lengthy and occasionally heated debate.

The panel's chair, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), repeatedly declined to clarify, under questioning from Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Huffman, whether he interpreted House rules as barring firearms from committee rooms. Multiple Democrats contended that different members have various interpretations of the House rules, but Westerman referred their questions to the Administration Committee, which sets the chamber's internal standards.

At one point, Huffman asked his colleagues for a show of hands to reflect who among them were currently not carrying a weapon — a question many Republicans declined to answer. He then asked how many lawmakers felt like they would need a weapon in the committee room.

"I feel I need one everywhere here. There are often times we are harassed in the hallways. We walk alone," Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) replied, underscoring that it would "not be an unloaded weapon."

But the California Democrat defended his push for the amendment: "We can have our political disagreements, and they will be spirited. But no one should have to worry about members of the other side of the aisle — let alone members who have incited political violence — bringing weapons, in violation of House rules, into our committee room."

While they held the House majority in 2021, Democrats added an explicit prohibition on bringing firearms to the committee room "in the wake of the Jan. 6" Capitol attack, ranking member Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said. That move also responded to an attempt at the time by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) to bring a firearm onto the House floor, a move that further exacerbated security concerns.

Members of Congress are afforded certain carve-outs to the otherwise outright ban on firearms on the Capitol complex: They are permitted to keep guns in their offices and transport them, if they are unloaded and securely wrapped. Guns are explicitly forbidden on the House and Senate floors, as well as certain nearby areas.

Panel Republicans repeatedly called the amendment unnecessary and argued they should not be viewed as safety threats by their colleagues.

"Do you think we're going to hurt you? We would never hurt you. I would use my firearm to defend you. Just to be clear," Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.), a freshman, said.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) asked Ocasio-Cortez whether she thought any committee member was a "homicidal maniac," challenging her to "name the names and present the evidence."

Ocasio-Cortez replied that she was not trying to "impugn the character of any individual member of this committee" but that "from what I've witnessed, the competence of some members may be something that I would be willing to question."

Democrats, for their part, repeatedly pressed Westerman to answer how he interpreted the existing House rules for gun possession.

"When you have reason to believe committee members, right here, intend to bring weapons into this committee room ... we're entitled to your interpretation of the House rules," Huffman said. "You need to tell them that that's either okay or not for the safety and security this committee."

His push was ultimately unsuccessful though, as the amendment fell 14-25. Huffman is, however, also collecting signatures on a letter to congressional leadership seeking information on security preparations ahead of the State of the Union address next week.

Nancy Vu contributed to this report.

Black caucus presses Biden to use the bully pulpit to push for police reform

When Rep. Steven Horsford heads to the White House to meet with President Joe Biden this week, he will bring a message directly from the family of Tyre Nichols: Act now.

“They want action,” the Nevada Democrat and Congressional Black Caucus chair said of his conversation with Nichols’ parents. “The action is legislative action; that's here in Congress and at the state and local level, they want executive actions that still can be taken by the president and his administration.”

Horsford and the CBC will sit down Thursday with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. But it’s unclear how they will produce the action that Nichols’ family wants following last week’s release of the video that captured the beating death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis, Tenn., police officers.

The White House and the Black community find themselves at another tragic and all-too-familiar inflection point: eager to respond to another police killing of a Black man that has captured the nation’s attention but with limited capacity to do so. Horsford and the Black caucus plan on leading a full court press to show the country that D.C. isn’t completely toothless when it comes to this issue — that this time should be different. But those calls come in the shadow of a lack of movement on police reform. And even reform’s biggest boosters aren’t bullish on that shadow lifting.

“I'm not optimistic. I'm not confident that we are going to be able to get real police reform,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who will attend the White House meeting. “I approach working on this issue as a responsibility that I have to do, that we must try.”

Faced with the likelihood of legislative inertia, lawmakers and advocates have looked for solutions — even incremental ones — elsewhere.

In a CBC meeting Tuesday night, lawmakers zeroed in on their first and biggest request of Biden: a commitment to talk about policing in his State of the Union next week. They also discussed using the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act as a starting framework for legislation to present to Biden — knowing that lawmakers would need to scale back the bill to open up the possibility of passage.

On Tuesday, Horsford met with Susan Rice, the director of the Domestic Policy Council, to preview requests the CBC will present to the president — including executive actions for changes to criminal justice laws. He said Rice appeared “open to hearing further recommendations for areas that may be things that the executive branch can do.”

More broadly, lawmakers, civil rights leaders and criminal justice reform advocates are pushing for Biden to use the bully pulpit to gather support to pass legislation, however it is shaped.

“The president has unique powers in the office of the presidency. He's committed to this issue,” Horsford said. “He can use his position to help, just like he did by getting the [Bipartisan] Safer Communities Law across the finish line. Just like he did with getting the infrastructure law across the finish line, just like he did getting the CHIPS and Science law across the finish line.”

On both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, the death of Nichols has led to a sense of political agony and déjà vu. Lawmakers recognize they’ve been in this place before, as do White House officials. But there is also the feeling that little is left to do but run the same playbooks.

The last round of negotiations failed in September 2021 after a flurry of finger pointing and general disagreement over the issue of qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that protects police officers from lawsuits. Advocates say that this time around, they hope that a more consistent message from Biden — not just calling for one piece of legislation and stepping away to let members of Congress hash it out — can move the bill along. But those calling for action are also clear-eyed that Republicans now control the House of Representatives and that nine GOP votes are needed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.

The White House has taken steps to show it’s invested in the issue. After the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act failed to get a Senate vote in 2021, Biden eventually signed an executive order that created a national database of police misconduct, mandated body-worn camera policies and banned chokeholds from federal law enforcement agencies.

After Nichols’ death, the administration has taken additional steps to show that it is eager for action and attuned to the anguish felt by the Black community. When the video of Nichols’ death was released, both Biden and Harris reached out to his family to send their condolences. While speaking with Nichols’ mother and stepfather, Harris was invited to attend Wednesday’s funeral in Tennessee and accepted.

The White House has again called for Congress to pass the police reform bill but Biden has also consistently alluded to a lack of executive power left in his toolbox. “I can only do so much,” the president told reporters Friday.

“The president will continue to do everything in his power to fight for police reform in Congress,” a White House official said, “but it is Republicans in Congress who need to come together with their Democratic colleagues to ensure our justice system lives up to its name.”

Whether that will be enough for those looking to the White House for action is doubtful. Advocates praise the White House for doing what it can, often calling attention to the work of the Justice Department to be more aggressive in addressing policing and shootings involving officers. But how the next few days and weeks go will give the country an early indication of the ways in which the president plans to operate during major national crises without the power of both chambers of Congress.

Next week’s State of the Union address will provide Biden with his biggest audience. Members of the Nichols family will be attending the speech as guests of Horsford. Their presence, one Hill aide said, “means the president will all but have to speak to the issue.”

“Good politicians are able to adapt to the weather, the political weather. So if it's raining, you go out with an umbrella,” said Maurice Mithchell, the national director of the Working Families Party. “We're counting on his ability to address this in the shadow of this horrific murder that the political climate has shifted. And so that requires a different type of politics, not the politics of two weeks ago or the politics of a year ago.” 

But activists are also going to be looking at how the White House operates outside the bright lights of next week’s State of the Union.

Marc Morial, the National Urban League president who has met with Biden multiple times over the administration, said the president has “expressed to us in some meetings before [that he] could get out there and talk about this every day, but then sometimes that undermines the ability to get it done.”

But Morial, who has commended the administration for its executive orders and work using the Justice Department to address policing, added that on issues like criminal justice reform, the administration needs to be “showing efforts.”

“People will read that if you don't talk about it, you don't care. Because the way people define the presidency is by the bully pulpit,” Morial said. “They're not in the meetings with members of Congress. They're not in the telephone conversations. They don't see the staff work all the time. And that's the tension that the White House has got to figure that out.”

“The president has unique powers in the office of the presidency. He's committed to this issue,” said Rep. Steven Horsford.

Opinion | Trump’s Most Brazen Attack Yet?

Donald Trump hasn’t been impressing anyone with his political acuity lately, but at least he is fully aware of one of his own vulnerabilities.

His early attacks on the Covid record of Ron DeSantis, who looks at this juncture to be his most formidable potential rival, show that he knows the Florida governor has outflanked him on the populist right — indeed, outflanked him in general — on one of the most central issues of the last couple of years.

In typical style, Trump isn’t tiptoeing around the issue, or subtly trying to minimize the credit DeSantis gets, but driving right at the governor in an attempt to undercut one of his foremost strengths.

The “free state of Florida”? No, despite what you might recall, or have experienced at the time, or find when looking up the record for yourself, it was really the “shut down Sunshine state.”

“Florida was actually closed, for a great, long period of time,” Trump told reporters during his first campaign swing. “Remember, he closed the beaches and everything else? They’re trying to rewrite history.”

He followed up with a Truth Social post touting “the revelations about Ron DeSanctimonious doing FAR WORSE than many other Republican governors, including that he unapologetically shut down Florida and its beaches, was interesting, indeed.”

The supposed revelations were, of course, the dubious things that Trump himself had said.

This is brazen even by Trump’s standards. It will take all of his powers as a political sloganeer, marketeer and wrecking-ball to counter the DeSantis brand on Covid, which has the advantage of being grounded in reality.

For Republicans, DeSantis’ approach to the pandemic of getting out of shutdowns as soon as possible and resisting mandates and restrictions has been vindicated and has appeal to nearly all factions of the party.

For populists, he resisted the elites and self-appointed experts. For limited-government conservatives, he (although this is complicated) lightened the heavy hand of government. For everyone right of center, he forged his own path in the face of conventional wisdom and got attacked for it in the media and by the left — demonstrating the paramount GOP virtues of having courage and the right enemies.

DeSantis would have much to brag about in his record in Florida absent Covid, but it is his response to the pandemic that sets him apart and makes him, for the moment, a near-legend for many Republicans. There’s no wonder that Trump feels compelled to try to deny him this foundational strength.

Trump is correct that DeSantis issued shutdown orders like nearly everyone else at the outset of the pandemic. In March 2020, the governor issued statewide restrictions and then more far-reaching measures in Palm Beach and Broward counties. Beaches, as Trump said, were shut down.

The trouble Trump has is that DeSantis was initially acting in keeping with the guidance of the federal government that Trump led. Trump’s argument amounts to a version of the famous Flounder line from Animal House — DeSantis fucked up, he trusted us.

Despite Trump’s occasional grousing, he had at his right hip during the entire pandemic the man that has come to represent for Republicans all that was wrong with the pandemic response: Anthony Fauci. If Trump had a tense relationship with the long-time federal official, he largely went along with Fauci’s advice.

It tends to be forgotten, but Georgia went first in re-opening in late April 2020, and Trump hit GOP Gov. Brian Kemp for it.

At one of his signature coronavirus briefings, Trump said, “I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities.” Trump opined that Kemp had moved “just too soon,” and was “in violation” of step one of his administration’s phased re-opening plan. He urged Georgians to “wait a little bit longer, just a little bit — not much — because safety has to predominate.”

When DeSantis, too, moved to re-open, Trump’s coronavirus adviser, Fauci, attacked the state for moving too quickly. “Certainly Florida I know, you know, I think jumped over a couple of checkpoints,” Fauci told the 538 podcast. He said that the state needed to shutter bars and prevent crowds.

By May 2020, Florida had a clearly distinguishable approach to the pandemic. I interviewed DeSantis then, and he already was skeptical of shutdowns and focused on protecting the most vulnerable rather than population-wide measures.

Florida had begun easing restrictions, cautiously and on a phased basis at first, but more rapidly than in almost all other states. In September 2020, DeSantis lifted capacity limits on restaurants, arguing that the experience of Miami-Dade, which closed restaurants, and Broward, which didn’t, showed they were ineffectual.

Crucially, the state was absolutely insistent that schools return to in-person instruction. Now there’s a consensus that remote learning was largely a debacle, but at the time DeSantis was believed to be making a risky choice. As the Washington Post reported in August 2020, “Florida is making a high-stakes gamble on school openings, with superintendents pressured into decisions that some fear will result in coronavirus outbreaks.”

The state had to bludgeon some counties to go along, and fight off a lawsuit from the Florida Education Association.

Another problem that Trump has is that during this period he was lavishing Florida with praise for its emphasis on re-opening. In July 2020, he enthused, “Look at what’s going on in Florida, it’s incredible,” and at an October campaign rally in Florida he called DeSantis “one of the greatest governors in our country,” specifically citing how “you’re open and you didn’t close, and you’re just amazing.”

Trump is endlessly flexible and can try to talk his way out of anything, but un-ringing this bell is likely going to be beyond even his powers.

Over time, DeSantis shifted into a different mode, using the power of his office and the state to block further Covid restrictions by localities, school boards and private businesses. He kept localities from obstructing businesses from opening or fining people for violating mask ordinances. He forbid vaccine passports. He prevented schools from forcing parents to mask their children.

All of this was a frank use of state power, although toward the goal of allowing as much individual discretion in reacting to the virus as possible.

DeSantis began talking of choosing freedom over Faucism and of his opposition to the “biomedical security state,” capturing and leading conservative sentiment that had lost all patience with anything associated with the sense of emergency around the pandemic. He took particular aim at vaccine mandates, and called for an investigation of alleged misinformation around the vaccines.

While DeSantis was a sitting governor who could take concrete and symbolic steps to advance a wholly anti-Fauci perspective, Trump, by this point, was out of office and powerless to revise what had been his partnership with Fauci or take measures more in keeping with the Republican mood in April 2022 as opposed to April 2020.

DeSantis’ response to Covid isn’t going to be decisive in a prospective 2024 primary battle with Trump. It is, however, what has put him in the game. It also is a large part of the reason that Republicans feel vested in and defensive of the governor, making it harder for Trump to mock and belittle him — not that he isn’t going to try.

Trump accuses DeSantis of disloyalty. If developing a record on covid that is going to be almost impossible for Trump to counteract counts, he’s guilty as charged.

Donald Trump’s early attacks on the Covid record of Ron DeSantis, right, show that he knows the Florida governor has outflanked him on the populist right.

Biden and McCarthy hold ‘first good’ meeting on debt ceiling, but ‘no agreements, no promises’

President Joe Biden met Wednesday with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in search of a path to lifting the nation’s debt ceiling — and averting the potential for an economic catastrophe.

They emerged from the hourlong session agreed on at least one thing: It could've gone worse.

"The president and I had a first good meeting — I shared my perspective with him, he shared his," McCarthy told reporters afterward. "No agreements, no promises, except that we would continue this conversation."

In a statement, the White House called the meeting a “frank and straightforward dialogue” that represented the first of many conversations.

“President Biden made clear that, as every other leader in both parties in Congress has affirmed, it is their shared duty not to allow an unprecedented and economically catastrophic default,” the White House said. “It is not negotiable or conditional.”

The White House has insisted that it will not negotiate over the debt ceiling, warning that an extended stalemate could spark a financial crisis and push the U.S. to the brink of default.

But Republicans view the debt ceiling as an opportunity to extract concessions from an administration dealing with a divided Congress for the first time in Biden’s presidency. While those stances did not appear to change during their closed-door meeting, McCarthy expressed newfound optimism that the two would eventually be able to clinch a deal.

"I would like to see if we can come to an agreement long before the deadline," he said. "We have different perspectives. But we both laid out some of our vision of where we want to get to, and I believe after laying both out, I can see where we can find common ground."

McCarthy declined to detail what specific proposals he discussed with Biden, outside of saying he believes the pair can eventually strike a potential two-year funding deal.

But he reiterated the GOP is determined to rein in government spending as part of an agreement to raise the debt ceiling.It remains unclear what programs McCarthy proposes targeting for funding reductions, and the White House has shown little willingness to enter formal negotiations until he does so.

Biden officials in the run-up to the meeting privately discussed the potential for a compromise that heads off a debt ceiling crisis while separately granting McCarthy small concessions that would allow him to save face with his party — such as creating a commission to study and propose future spending reforms.

But the White House is unwilling to touch entitlement spending or gut programs central to Biden's agenda. And while McCarthy has tamped down early talk of cuts to Medicare and Social Security, he acknowledged that the two sides remain far apart and appeared to dismiss the idea of a commission.

"I don't need a commission to tell me where there's waste, fraud and abuse," McCarthy said. "We don't need a commission to tell us to do our job that the American public elected us to do."

That means that any agreement the White House might consider supporting at this early stage is unlikely to appeal to the GOP.

“Every indication is that absent radical budget cuts and slashing some of the programs that Biden championed, the right wing of the House Republican caucus is not going to go along,” said one Biden economic adviser. “McCarthy has not yet demonstrated that he can get the maximalists in his party to agree to anything other than the maximal position."

Key to the discussions, the White House believes, is establishing some sort of baseline about what type of bill McCarthy could actually get through the House. The GOP has yet to consolidate behind a set of demands, and the White House is reluctant to lend McCarthy any pre-emptive help as he tries to wrangle his fractious caucus.

Biden officials have gleefully seized on signs of discord among House Republicans,highlighting GOP lawmakers' own frustration with the party's lack of a concrete plan.

“We can’t negotiate with ourselves,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), a member of GOP leadership, even as other Republicans have pressed for more clarity on the conference’s strategy. “The president has to negotiate with us.”

The White House also viewed this initial meeting as the first of many over the next several months; an opportunity for both sides to size each other up and establish a starting point for talks that could drag well into the spring and summer.

Though Biden and McCarthy talked occasionally during the Obama era, the two men are not close. The early sitdown, some aides suggested, is part of an effort by Biden to build a relationship with a House speaker he'll need to work with on an array of priorities over the next two years.

"What you're not going to see is either party move their position," the Biden adviser said. "This is the meeting where folks scope things out and get a sense of where everybody is."

Senior White House officials sought to reinforce their position ahead of time, writing in a memo Tuesday that Biden would press McCarthy to commit to avoiding a debt default and to releasing a budget showing where the GOP wants to rein in funding.

“Any serious conversation about economic and fiscal policy needs to start with a clear understanding of the participants’ goals and proposals,” top economic adviser Brian Deese and Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young wrote.

The White House plans to release its budget proposal on March 9, offering what officials hope will provide a clear contrast with Republicans’ demands and sharpen the public debate over lifting the debt ceiling.

The government hit its borrowing limit in January, and estimates it may only be able to pay its bills into June without an increase. The U.S. has never intentionally defaulted, and Congress in recent years routinely voted to increase its borrowing limit under both the Trump and Biden administrations. Pointing to that track record, Democrats have insisted on passing a clean increase yet again, arguing the need to avoid economic catastrophe is too great to haggle over the debt ceiling.

The last time the U.S. came close to default, in 2011, the standoff rattled global financial markets and prompted a downgrade of the country’s credit rating. Should the government breach the debt ceiling this time, economists predict it would trigger an immediate recession and tank the stock market.

Still, House Republicans have relished a fight over the debt ceiling, fueled by a conservative faction that blocked McCarthy’s path to the speakership until he made a series of commitments that included using the debt ceiling to force spending cuts.

That stance has unnerved Democrats, who question McCarthy’s ability to negotiate on behalf of a GOP majority that includes lawmakers who have already indicated they won’t agree to raise the debt limit no matter what deal the two sides strike.

“I have a pretty strong suspicion that once the American people see what the Republican MAGA fringe is up to here, and what their hostage-taking demands are, there will be a sudden collapse [in support],” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who chairs the chamber’s budget committee.

Sarah Ferris contributed to this report. 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks with reporters at the Capitol upon returning from a meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House on Feb. 1, 2023.

FBI searches ​​Biden's beach home in Delaware

Federal investigators conducted a search Wednesday of President Joe Biden’s vacation home in Rehoboth, Del., as part of their ongoing probe into his handling of classified documents, officials said.

Bob Bauer, Biden’s personal lawyer, said in a statement that the president’s team did not seek to provide advance notice of the operation. But he confirmed the search by the Department of Justice was taking place after it was reported by CBS News, which, along with other television outlets stationed outside of the president’s home, observed black vehicles arriving mid-morning.

Federal agents searched the home from 8:30 am to noon, Bauer said.

“No documents with classified markings were found,” he said in a statement. But, as with a similar search at Biden’s other Delaware home, “the DOJ took for further review some materials and handwritten notes that appear to relate to his time as Vice President.”

The search is part of a special counsel investigation into Biden’s handling of the classified materials found in November at his office in Washington and in December and January at his home in Wilmington. In late January, a 13-hour search of Biden’s home recovered additional classified items.

"We have been pretty transparent from the beginning with providing information as it occurs throughout this process," Ian Sams, a spokesperson for the White House counsel's office, told reporters outside the White House on Wednesday afternoon. "We have released probably thousands of words of statements from the president's personal attorney and the White House counsel’s office about the process that has been undertaken."

He added that Biden has been fully cooperative with investigators. "He believes in giving them the space to conduct a thorough review, and to conduct that review efficiently. That’s why he's moving quickly to give them the access to his home in Wilmington, to give them access to his home in Rehoboth so they can do a full search, so they are able to get access to the information to move ahead in their review.”

The drip of new information has widened the scope of the probe into Biden and raised fresh frustration among some Democrats over why the searches weren’t conducted sooner and more thoroughly. Late last month, however, former Vice President Mike Pence revealed a search of his home in Indiana also had resulted in the finding of some classified information.

There is also a separate special counsel investigation into former President Donald’s storage of a far larger cache of classified documents at his private Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

The Bidens bought the beach house after his time as vice president, and his family visits the property occasionally on weekends. Biden’s lawyers said previously that they had searched the Rehoboth home and turned up no classified materials.

The latest search comes as the special counsel in the investigation, Robert Hur, formally begins his work on the case.

U.S. Secret Service agents are seen in front of Joe Biden's Rehoboth Beach, Del., home on Jan. 12, 2021.

Election officials ready themselves for the next wave of Trump followers

Hundreds of local election officials across the country are about to confront a political challenge putting their management skills and their campaign chops to the test: Administering the 2024 presidential vote while running for reelection themselves.

Donald Trump acolytes galvanized by the former president’s false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from him piled into last year’s campaigns for state election officer positions. And although Democrats and mainstream Republicans defeated all of those candidates in key battleground states like Michigan, Arizona and elsewhere, far more races for local election positions there and in other states will be up for grabs next year.

The slate of below-the-radar campaigns will test how much money and attention will be available for these critical roles in the midst of a presidential race.

“The concerns about being primaried is absolutely on the mind of very dedicated and very middle-of-the-road, nonpartisan-functioning” election officials in Florida, said Mark Earley, the election supervisor in Leon County, Fla., a blue-leaning county in the state’s deep-red Panhandle.

One of the biggest flashpoints ahead may emerge in one of the biggest counties in the country: Maricopa County, Ariz., where a handful of election administration roles are up in 2024.

The swing county is dominated by the GOP at the local level — the recorder and four of the five members of its board of supervisors are all Republican. But it has been in the center of an elections administration maelstrom since President Joe Biden narrowly won the county and Arizona in 2020.

Local and state-level Republican party committees have repeatedly targeted Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer and the GOP board members after they resisted an amateurish election review pushed by Republican state lawmakers and defended their own oversight of the 2022 election. The Maricopa County GOP committee voted overwhelmingly to censure all five of them last month, ending the measure by encouraging “all registered Republicans to expel them permanently from office.”

Maricopa is just one county out of the hundreds if not thousands of jurisdictions that will elect election administrators over the next couple years and give the country a taste for how much more drama voters should expect over their ballots.

Earley, a Democrat and the president of his state’s association of local election officials, said in an interview that the hotter political environment is “built into the fabric” of races for election administrator positions now.

The threats posed by having a local election clerk swept up in conspiracy theories are not far-fetched, because we’ve already seen them come to life. Tina Peters, once the clerk in Mesa County, Colo., was indicted last year after allegedly helping orchestrate a breach of election equipment in the county. Local election officials elsewhere have also assisted unauthorized reviews of election equipment.

Peters, who unsuccessfully ran for the GOP nomination for Colorado secretary of state last year, has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the alleged breach.

The scope of local election officials’ jobs are also wildly different from that of secretaries of state, which hadn’t garnered much attention themselves until the most recent election cycle.

County and municipal election officials serve anywhere from millions of voters to just a few hundred. Some are appointed to their positions, while others are elected. And the financial and logistical challenges of mounting a serious campaign on the local level are far smaller than running for secretary of state.

Republican Jodi Fetting — the clerk of Tuscola County, Mich., a red-leaning area in the state’s “thumb” — said she expects her 2024 race to look “a little bit differently than it did” when she was last on the ballot in 2020.

“We definitely have people that believe the 2020 election was stolen,” she said.

Fetting said she and other county clerks in the state will likely face questions about election procedures once they are on the ballot themselves. While she welcomes those questions, she said, it is a “daunting task when you know that you’re not going to change that person’s mind.”

Other local election officials are anticipating a wave of Trump supporters running for local election offices, especially challenging Republican incumbents who have not supported Trump’s stolen election mythology.

Many GOP election officials didn’t respond to requests for interviews, but Dane County, Wis., Clerk Scott McDonell, a Democrat, said that some of his Republican colleagues are preparing for primary challenges from people who have pushed narratives of fraud in public meetings and advocated for policies like the hand counting of ballots — a slower and less accurate way of counting votes that has nevertheless gained a following on the right.

There is expected to be a more intentional recruiting effort from national organizations focused on election clerks and other similar positions this cycle, in an effort to counter a potential wave of MAGA-like candidates running for those under-the-radar positions.

Run for Something, a liberal organization founded after Trump’s election focused on lining up candidates to run for office across the ballot, launched “Clerk Work” last year to recruit candidates for local positions in the election process. It covers everything from county clerks to boards of supervisors.

The group had a hand in recruiting more than 220 candidates in the midterms for voting-related positions, Run for Something co-founder Ross Morales Rocketto said in an interview. That included 32 top-tier candidates, with a focus on county clerk positions in states like Colorado and California and county commissioners in Nevada. The group said 20 of them won their contests, including 10 of the 13 who were running against candidates Run for Something identified as an “election denier.”

“The thing that keeps me up at night isn’t whether we can beat most of these folks — I think we can beat them in most places — it’s actually whether we get people on the ballot to run against them,” Morales Rocketto said. “And that to me is actually the harder challenge in all of this.”

Over the next two years, the group is focusing in on a handful of states — including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas and Michigan — as top priorities to recruit election officials.

Keep Country First Policy Action, a group founded by allies of former Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), also launched an effort last year to recruit “pro-freedom, pro-democracy” candidates for office, with a focus on local election positions.

In interviews, local officials who will be on the ballot in 2024 said they expected it to be a challenging election, with the added attention on both the official side of the job, as they prepare their offices for a busy presidential election year, and on their own individual campaigns.

“Being on the ballot and running the election, it just adds to the stress,” said Ingham County, Mich., Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat. “You're working day and night to make sure every qualified registered voter exercises their right to vote. And then when you're not working your job, you're out campaigning for yourself.”

Officials were quick to note that their offices had safeguards in place to prevent clerks from influencing their own elections, from handing over certain duties to staff members and recusing themselves from some decisions in the office while they’re running.

Those contests also come amid concerns of a persistent brain drain in the sector, as a number of local local election officials retired following the 2020 election. And while the decentralized nature of America’s election system makes retirements hard to track, experienced local officials pointed in interviews to a number of their colleagues leaving, with fears that that could continue ahead of the 2024 election.

A recent survey from the Democracy Fund/Elections & Voting Information Center at Reed College of local election officials found as many as 18 percent planned to either retire or otherwise leave their position within the next two years. That is a bit lower than the 21 percent who indicated as much on a similar survey around the 2020 election.

“I think there’s going to be a surprising number [of supervisors] that decide not to run again,” Earley, of Florida, said. “And it’s already happening in staff too. It’s not just the elected officials.”

local officials illo.jpg

Arizona Republicans fear they may blow it again

Kyrsten Sinema’s defection from Democrats should be a golden opportunity for the GOP. But two high-profile 2022 election losers in Arizona are eyeing Senate runs in 2024, sparking angst among Republicans that they will blow an increasingly winnable race.

Republican Blake Masters, who lost his Senate bid last year by 5 percentage points, is setting himself up for another potential run, talking to consultants and making calls about the contest. Some Arizona GOP strategists are treating it as a foregone conclusion that he’ll jump in, although a person familiar with his moves said he is truly undecided at this point and just testing the waters.

Kari Lake, the unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, is also considering a Senate campaign, but any decision is expected to come after her legal challenge alleging false claims that her 2022 election was stolen is completed, according to a person close to her.

The possibility of Lake and Masters entering the political waters once more is complicating the newfound optimism GOP officials felt about capitalizing on Sinema's recent party switch to independent. With Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego already in the race, Republicans see a prime opportunity to win the election with a plurality of the vote.

Now there are new fears that they’d fumble the opportunity by putting forth a candidate who remains aligned with former President Donald Trump or fixated on election denialism. Lake’s protests about her gubernatorial loss have particularly raised eyebrows in the party after she was narrowly defeated by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs.

“Any candidate in ’24 that has, as their principal campaign theme, a stolen election, is probably going to have the same issues that some of the ’22 candidates had,” said Sen. John Thune, the Senate GOP’s No. 2 leader. “I just don’t think that's where the American public is. It’s a swing state — we need to have a good Republican nominee, obviously. You know, whoever gets in, I hope they focus on the future, not the past.”

Far from being bowed by what happened in 2022, the MAGA set in Arizona appear further emboldened to try for office. Caroline Wren, a senior adviser to Lake, shot back that Thune is “everything wrong with the Republican establishment” and that the “Washington cartel” is “signaling that they’re willing to hand an Arizona Senate seat to the radical left.”

Few, if any, states in the country present as clear a testing ground for the future of the Republican Party as Arizona. For decades a bastion of conservatism and libertarianism, the state is drifting leftward. Democrats have won three straight Senate races, the last governor’s race and the presidential race in 2020. What’s more, primaries are typically held late in Arizona, making it tougher for challengers to consolidate support before the general election.

“Just look at what happened in the last two elections. You in no way have to guess what happens when MAGA candidates ignore bread-and-butter issues that Arizonans care about,” said Barrett Marson, an Arizona-based GOP strategist. “Kari Lake is not governor. Blake Masters is not senator. Republicans have to get back to basics.”

The trends have alarmed more establishment Republicans, who are privately discussing ways to head them off. GOP consultants have gone so far as to encourage Masters to run for the House instead of the Senate due to his high unfavorability ratings and the exorbitant amount of money it would take to rehabilitate his reputation in a statewide race, according to a person familiar with the conversations. Republicans believe Lake and Masters are unlikely to run against each other.

There are rumors that Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) could retire, opening up a safe red seat and helping ease what could be a crowded field in the contest. Gosar batted down that speculation in a brief interview with POLITICO: “No, I’m not leaving. I still think I’d like to see this majority go to the White House and the Senate.”

Sen. Steve Daines, chair of the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, said in an interview that “it’s early” but “I want to see a candidate who can win a general election.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) put it this way: “I want to win it to get the majority, And I’ll let Arizonans decide who the nominee is going to be. And I think somebody who can win should be the presiding factor. They didn’t win before, so I think that makes it difficult.”

After so much focus on whether they’ll support Sinema or Gallego, Democrats are happy to talk up the GOP’s problems.

“In Arizona Republicans are stuck with a ragtag band of failed candidates,” said Nora Keefe, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We are confident we will stop Republicans in their effort to take this Senate seat.”

Asked about Lake’s interest in a Senate run, Wren said that “her focus right now is the lawsuit — that hasn’t changed.” A person close to Lake characterized her position as “the door’s not being closed” to a Senate campaign.

Other potential candidates for Senate include Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, Rep. Juan Ciscomani, unsuccessful 2022 Senate candidate Jim Lamon, and businesswoman Karrin Taylor Robson, who lost to Lake in last year’s primary.

Establishment Republicans have shown particular interest in trying to get Robson and Ciscomani into the race, eager to avoid a repeat of 2022, when expectations of a red wave ended in a net Democratic gain in Senate races. Robson, a self-funder, contributed millions of dollars from her own bank account to her gubernatorial campaign last year, only to lose to Lake in the primary.

A person close to Robson said she had not ruled out a Senate run, describing her mindset as: “A lot of people voted for me and I don’t take that for granted. Maybe this is the moment.”

Ciscomani, who was just sworn into office after winning a competitive congressional seat, was a prized GOP recruit in 2022. Steven Law, CEO of the GOP Senate super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, tweeted recently that Ciscomani is a “[f]antastic new addition to the House,” raising eyebrows in the GOP. But launching a statewide bid from his Tucson-based district could be difficult for Ciscomani, particularly in a field of candidates who just wrapped up statewide races.

The ultimate dream candidate for traditional Republicans is former Gov. Doug Ducey, though few think that is a possibility after he passed on a Senate campaign last year, and clashed with Trump over the 2020 presidential election.

“He’s made it pretty clear he’s not interested, but he’d be a great option,” Thune said.

Lamb, like Masters, is a Lake ally. Lamb is speaking with consultants, sources said, and is expected to make a decision early this year. Lamb spokesperson Corey Vale said he is “seriously considering running for the United States Senate.”

Lamon spokesperson Stephen Puetz said that “[i]f a winning candidate emerges, he will strongly back that person — if not, Jim will run in 2024.”

One candidate who has ruled out a run is Kelli Ward, former chair of the Arizona Republican Party. She told POLITICO she was not looking at another Senate bid — she ran in 2016 and 2018 — or a run for the House. The state party is now run by Jeff DeWit, who helped Trump with his 2020 run. The Arizona GOP did not respond to requests for comment.

Though Lake’s advisers insist that she is currently dialed in on her lawsuit to reverse the election, she found time to mention Gallego at a rally Sunday that was otherwise focused on her legal efforts, referring to him as “the AOC of Arizona.”

Lake remains popular within the GOP rank-and-file in Arizona. She appeared to cheers at the state party’s convention in Phoenix on Saturday and drew a large crowd at her rally the following night.

Lake had “supporters show up on a Sunday night in January of the odd year to simply hear her speak,” said Brady Smith, an Arizona-based GOP strategist and former Lake aide. “She’s demonstrated that she still wields the loyalty of the GOP base; anyone eyeing the Senate race has to factor that into their calculus.”

David Siders contributed to this report.

Arizona Republicans Kari Lake (left) and Blake Masters (right) raise their arms during a campaign rally on Nov. 7, 2022, in Prescott, Ariz.


Opinion | We Already Have 18 Intelligence Agencies. We Still Need 1 More.

Figuring out what, exactly, China is up to is one of the intelligence community’s top priorities. Countering Beijing also happens to be a rare instance where there’s bipartisan support in Congress.

But what new lawmakers will quickly discover — especially those joining the House and Senate Intelligence Committees — is that a glaring gap exists that will impact Congress’ efforts to do so. The U.S. cannot adequately address its national security challenges related to China, which are increasingly driven by technology, without the help of a potentially surprising partner: the Department of Commerce.

Unfortunately, the department itself lacks the critical support needed for these efforts. Most crucial: Commerce needs its own intelligence agency.

My last job in the U.S. government was overseeing the intelligence community’s role in the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), along with an interagency group formerly known as Team Telecom, and being responsible for the intelligence community’s engagement with our foreign allies’ own investment security efforts. The cases that come before CFIUS are privileged and not publicly disclosed. But I can say this: The most challenging ones usually revolved around issues of advanced or dual-use technology, an area in which the Department of Commerce plays a critical role given its international trade and export control responsibilities.

Today, the Department of Commerce is an agency unexpectedly on the frontlines of vital U.S. national and economic security challenges, most prominently demonstrated by its leading role on ensuring critical access to semiconductors, and as evidenced by the CHIPS Act and recent rules promulgated by the department to protect against even knowledge transfers between the United States and China.

But these efforts are certain to be a beginning for Commerce, not an end. And a dedicated in-house intel agency can better identify emerging threats and challenges from China that Commerce needs to tackle, including potential spyware and other intrusions embedded in foreign technology. For instance, in late November, the U.S. issued a ban on new Huawei and ZTE equipment — along with that of three other Chinese companies — for fear it would be used to spy on Americans. Last month, Congress proposed limiting U.S. exposure to Chinese 5G leaders, including Huawei, by restricting their access to U.S. banks, adding them to Treasury’s Specifically Designated Nationals List.

In fact, Commerce’s current position is not unlike that of the Treasury Department’s in 2004.

That year — as part of the Intelligence Authorization Act — Congress established the current iteration of Treasury’s intelligence agency, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and formally made it part of the broader intel community. Since then, OIA has played a critical role for almost two decades combating terrorist financing, helping support sanctions efforts and providing financial intelligence to Treasury policymakers.

OIA’s successes would simply not have been possible without it being a full, integrated member of the intelligence community. Indeed, its assessments often find their way to the White House and to other senior policymakers across town, even as its primary focus is supporting the Treasury Department.

In the same way, the Commerce Department cannot be expected to play a more fulsome role in U.S. national security if its leaders are not fully informed of the strategic goals and illicit tactical efforts of U.S. adversaries. To meet that expectation, requires the launch of a new, 19th intel agency to be housed at the department.

Most Americans think of intelligence and by default conjure up images of the CIA. But there are 18 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, most housed in various departments or military services, and dedicated to providing the kind of intelligence support to a secretary or commander, that CIA continues to lead the way in providing to the White House.

Members of Congress who for the first time are serving on the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Armed Services or other prominent national security-related committees and sub-committees, may be surprised to learn that despite what they may have gleaned from the media, the intel community does not actually make predictions; it makes judgments. The difference is critical.

Predictions are generally fleeting: right and wrong, winners and losers, black and white. Judgments are far more complicated. They address the likelihood of events and emergence of prospective capabilities; the potential follow-on implications and challenges from an event occurring — or not; and the associated risks and opportunities for U.S. national and economic security.

These conclusions are what the intelligence community informs policymakers of, to help them make the best decisions possible.

Not only would Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo benefit greatly from having her own intel agency providing these types of assessments directly to her, but so too would the rest of the department, including the Bureau of Industry and Security, which is responsible for export controls, and the International Trade Administration, which defends U.S. industry against unfair trade practices of foreign allies and adversaries.

In creating the new agency, the Director of National Intelligence and Congress must ensure it does not simply result from merging together overworked and under-supported disparate parts of the department that seem to fit. Less than two years ago, Commerce’s national security work was overshadowed by a rogue and illegal security operation at the department — and neither it nor the U.S. government can afford a repeat.

Rather, a new agency must be stood up and staffed by leaders and analysts who are intel community professionals that know how to blend complex analytic efforts with the priorities of the department. Having this type of experienced leadership will ensure the development of novel and Commerce-centric analysis, all while adhering to intelligence tradecraft and community standards.

A new intel agency at the Commerce Department won’t end the national security challenges the U.S. faces from China; but it will help policymakers mitigate and overcome them.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the intelligence community, or any other U.S. government agency.

The American and Chinese flags wave.

House GOP leaps headlong into divisive Mayorkas impeachment debate

The new House GOP majority is taking its first step Wednesday toward a goal that’s openly dividing its members: booting DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas from office.

Republicans started laying the groundwork on two tracks this week to potentially impeach Mayorkas over his handling of the border — a historically rare step that hasn’t been used against a Cabinet member since 1876. Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who would lead any impeachment inquiry, held what he promises will be the first in a series of hearings on the border on Wednesday, while Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) plans to launch his own opening salvo next week.

And while one group of Republicans begins to make their case, another is ready to start impeachment immediately. The House GOP’s right flank has already filed an impeachment resolution and Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) rolled out his own proposal Wednesday. Meanwhile, centrists are warning they aren’t on board and recent polls have suggested the public is wary of an excessive focus on investigations.

It marks another test for House GOP leaders, as they try to balance the demands of more moderate members and a base that’s eager to go scorched-earth against President Joe Biden and other administration officials. Not to mention that Republicanswillhave to navigate a barrage of criticism from Democrats and their allies, who accuse the GOP of using the border as a wedge issue to enact political revenge over policy differences.

Republicanswhowantto impeach Mayorkas acknowledge they haven’t reached a critical mass within their own conference, though Republican Study Committee Chair Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) predicted that there would be “a lot of sentiment” among GOPlawmakers to remove the DHS secretary. Ifaresolution came to the floor, Republicans could only afford to lose four votes within their own party.

“I think when you lay the case out as any impeachment happens, I think [support] grows. Obviously, it’s not going to happen instantaneously,” Hern said when asked if the conference should move toward impeachment without the votes locked down.

Yet other leadership allies are warning against officially moving forward with impeachment without a baked-in result. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), part of a shrinking pool of House GOP pragmatists, warned against forcing members to stake out a stance on a controversial topic if it's not guaranteed of success.

“I just don’t think it’s helpful to put people in that position,” he said.

The eager-to-impeach right flank has so far largely lobbed two broad arguments against Mayorkas: That he’s lost operational control of the border, and that he lied under oath when he told Congress the border was secure. And while their early hearings are focused on the border broadly, GOP lawmakers have signaled they will try to use the bully pulpit of their majority to demonstrate that the administration hasn’t complied with the law.

The administration and congressional Democrats, meanwhile, argue Republicans are overstating what amounts to policy differences over the handling of the border. Democrats, and even some Republicans, are quick to point out that is a far cry from the high bar for impeachment of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Mayorkas has repeatedly defended his handling of the border, signaling he has no intention of giving into the GOP calls for his resignation. Asked during an MSNBC interview on Tuesday about the House GOP impeachment articles, Mayorkas urged Republicans to take up legislation that would fix what he called a “terribly broken” and “outdated” immigration system. The party has attempted sweeping changes to immigration law and border security multiple times in the last decade, to no avail.

“We are doing everything that we can to increase its efficiency to provide humanitarian relief when the law permits and to also deliver an enforcement consequence when the law dictates,” Mayorkas said.

Hill Democrats are privately betting that conservatives’ impeachment pledge will put its moderates in a bind. A House aide, granted anonymity to speak frankly, predicted that “those members are going to start getting real antsy real fast,” as others try to get into “crazy, wacko border security stuff.”

And it’s more than members in purple districts who may feel squeezed by impeachment talk. Republicans will also be playing defense in a cache of blue-leaning seats come 2024 when their thin majority is on the line. Some GOP members in those districts, even if they strongly disagree with Mayorkas’ handling of the border, are openly skeptical their voters want to see him removed.

“I do think what’s going on at the border is negligence, dereliction of duty, but I’m not convinced that impeaching Mayorkas is going to solve the problem. I think we need the election in 2024 to change the White House,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said, though he cautioned that hearings could give a better sense of how voters feel about the issue.

Others, including Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), have warned that they think the party needs to focus on policies like fighting inflation. And then there's border Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas), emerging as a vote to watch in the GOP-controlled House, who is viewed as an impeachment skeptic after describing it in January as a “in case of emergency break glass” option.

Gonzales reiterated during a sit-down interview with POLITICO on Tuesday that he wasn’t going to get ahead of any potential proceedings.

A recent spate of polling offers its own cautionary tale for Republicans. Fifty-five percent of respondents to a recent NBC News poll said they expected Republicans leading investigations into Biden and the administration “will spend too much time on the investigations and not enough time on other priorities.”

Nearly three-fourths of respondents to a separate CNN poll said they thought Republicans hadn’t yet paid attention to the country’s “most important priorities.” Nearly half named economic issues as the most important topic, compared to 11 percent listing immigration.

So far, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is only pledging an investigation. Asked recently about his November remarks calling for Mayorkas to resign, the California Republican told reporters that the House GOP will conduct their probe and said that could lead to an impeachment inquiry. But he wouldn’t pre-judge an outcome, as many top Republicans hope the case made in committee hearings will win over enough wary colleagues and disinterested voters.

“If a person is derelict in their duties and they are harming Americans and Americans are actually dying by the lack of their work, that could rise to that occasion,” he told reporters.

But supporters of impeaching Mayorkas believe they’ve moved him. Biggs said Wednesday that he was “hopeful” that McCarthy will “be fully on board” by the time any proceedings got under way in the Judiciary Committee.

The panel held a hearing Wednesday that focused on testimony from non-administration officials: Brandon Dunn, the co-founder of Forever 15 Project, a group that tries to raise awareness about Fentanyl poisoning; Dale Lynn Carruthers, a county judge in Texas; and Mark Dannels, a sheriff in Arizona. The latter two have both been critical of Biden’s border policies. It offered few policy surprises, with Republicans driving home their well-established views on border security and immigration.

Over on the Oversight Committee, Comer will hold a hearing next week with Gloria Chavez and John Modlin, two chief Border Patrol agents.

Neither of the two GOP chairs are ruling out using subpoenas to try to get witnesses and documents they want. Their panel members have backed up that strategy.

“We’re going to use the power of subpoena,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said. “And we’ve got to use the power of subpoena to haul Mayorkas in front of the Judiciary Committee.”

Republicans will start laying the groundwork on two tracks this week to potentially impeach Alejandro Mayorkas over his handling of the border.