The latest on Congress as GOP tensions rise

By Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Mike Hayes, Melissa Mahtani and Fernando Alfonso III, CNN

Updated 8:04 p.m. ET, February 3, 2021
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2:30 p.m. ET, February 3, 2021

White House press secretary says Space Force has "full support" of administration

From CNN's Allie Malloy

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the United States Space Force has the full support of the Biden administration, following criticism that she had mocked the service branch in her briefing Tuesday.

Psaki also told reporters that the administration is “not revisiting the decision to establish a Space Force.”

“The desire for the Department of Defense to focus greater attention and resources on the growing security challenges in space has long been a bipartisan issue,” Psaki said Wednesday.

Some background: In the briefing Tuesday, Psaki appeared to mock the Space Force telling reporters: “Wow, Space Force. It’s the plane of today." 

When asked whether she would apologize for her earlier comments, Psaki pointed to a tweet she sent Tuesday inviting the members of Space Force to the White House and briefing room.

2:21 p.m. ET, February 3, 2021

Trump's impeachment lawyer says he'll focus on "technical" defenses at trial

From CNN's Jeremy Herb

Former President Donald Trump’s impeachment lawyer Bruce Castor told a Pennsylvania radio station on Wednesday that he plans to focus on “technical” defenses of Trump during next week’s impeachment trial and will not make claims the election was stolen. 

Castor told KYW Newsradio that he was not pressured to try to defend Trump’s false and baseless claims about widespread election fraud, saying he made clear when he was vetted for the job that he “wasn’t interested in using anything other than technical defenses.”  

“There are plenty of questions about how the election was conducted throughout the country, but that’s for a different forum. I don’t believe that’s important to litigate in the senate trial, because you don’t need it,” Castor said. 

Of course, while the legal filing that Castor and David Schoen filed on Tuesday defending the President didn’t claim the election was stolen, it did embrace some of Trump’s false claims about the election.

The filing claimed that “insufficient evidence exists upon which a reasonable jurist could conclude that the 45th President’s statements were accurate or not, and he therefore denies they were false.”

Castor was named to Trump’s legal team on Sunday after five of Trump’s lawyers left the team the day before over a strategy disagreement after Trump wanted them to falsely argue there was mass election fraud. 

Castor said the impeachment defense plans to focus on the argument that the Senate doesn’t have jurisdiction to try Trump because he’s no longer in office, as well as that Trump’s speech on Jan. 6 ahead of the Capitol riots did not meet the criminal definition of incitement and was protected by the First Amendment. 

“Just because somebody gave a speech and people got excited, that doesn’t mean it’s the speech-makers fault – it’s the people who got excited and did what they know is wrong that are at fault,” Castor said. “That’s the focus that we’re going to take.” 

2:07 p.m. ET, February 3, 2021

White House press secretary suggests there's bipartisan agreement on funding for small business

From CNN's Betsy Klein 

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

CNN’s Phil Mattingly pressed White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on the space for bipartisan agreement in a Covid-19 relief deal as Republicans and Democrats appear to be far apart on a stimulus package during Wednesday's press briefing. 

Psaki initially cited small businesses before going on to claim that the “bill itself is bipartisan.”

“Well you know an area where there’s agreement is funding for small business, and that's something of course Democrats and Republicans want to do. Our view is that this bill itself is bipartisan. 74% of the public support it, Republicans and Democrats, independents across the country,” Psaki said. 

She continued, “And there is agreement that it's important to work with many Republicans and Democrats who fall in different parts of the political spectrum to put their ideas forward and consider them,” going on to say there’s “openness” to that at the White House. 

Mattingly also asked Psaki about reports of daylight between the President and his staff on negotiations, which she dismissed, calling some of the reports “ludicrous.”

“There is no one who's going to tell him what to do, or hold him back from his commitment to delivering relief to the American people,” Psaki said.

2:09 p.m. ET, February 3, 2021

Confirmation hearing for Biden's Office of Management and Budget nominee set for next week 

From CNN's Ryan Nobles

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate Budget Committee members have been given notice of the hearing for Office of Management and Budget nominee Neera Tanden for Feb. 10 at 10 a.m. ET, a senate aide familiar with the matter tells CNN.

Tanden is already scheduled to appear before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Feb. 9 at 9 a.m. ET 

Tanden is considered to be one of the Biden administration’s more controversial picks. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, described her nomination in November as “radioactive.” 

Tanden also has enemies on the Democratic side of the isle. She has, in the past, clashed with Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has yet to publicly comment on her nomination. 

Sanders is the incoming chair of the Senate Budget committee.

2:10 p.m. ET, February 3, 2021

Romney says no Republican will support the Covid relief bill without changes

From CNN's Nicky Robertson

Alex Edelman/Pool/AFP/Getty Images
Alex Edelman/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney says he thinks the coronavirus stimulus bill being offered by the White House could get support from some Republicans if there are changes, but that he does not believe any Republicans would vote for the current proposal. 

“Well if President Biden works with Republicans, and we make some modifications to his plan, it's entirely possible that there would be some Republican support. But if it goes forward without any changes from what was originally proposed. I would predict that not a single Republican will support the $1.9 trillion dollar plan,” Romney told reporters Wednesday.

Romney added that the main difference in the GOP and President Biden’s proposal is the difference in funding for state and local governments, and that there are some differences of opinions among Republicans on direct payments.

Here's a look at the key differences between Biden and the GOP's proposal.

1:25 p.m. ET, February 3, 2021

Democratic caucus chair weighs in on Greene: "Cancers need to be cut out"

From CNN's Aaron Pellish, Ryan Nobles and Daniella Diaz

House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries said Democrats are prepared to move forward with a vote on stripping Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments if House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy does not strip Greene off the committees himself. 

“The best thing that could happen at this moment is for Kevin McCarthy to make clear that she should not be on the Education and Labor committee,” Jeffries said at a news conference with reporters on Wednesday. “If he doesn't make that decision, I think as the Speaker and Steny Hoyer have indicated, we'll be prepared to move forward.” 

“Kevin McCarthy needs to clean that situation up if he expects the Republican conference to be taken seriously,” Jeffries continued. 

Jeffries criticized Greene as a symptom of a broader issue with the Republican party, calling Greene a “cancer” and saying “Americans should be concerned with that situation.”  

“The last time I checked, cancers need to be cut out and not allowed to metastasize,” Jeffries said. “And Kevin McCarthy has the ability to do the right thing, he should.” 

When asked by CNN’s Ryan Nobles if Democrats should go further and vote to remove Greene from Congress, Jeffries declined to go further, saying, “We have to take one step at a time.” 

“Let’s proceed with what’s in front of us right now, which is the outrageous decision to place her on the education committee,” Jeffries said.

1:25 p.m. ET, February 3, 2021

Schumer: "We cannot dawdle, we cannot delay, we cannot dilute" Covid relief

From CNN's Betsy Klein

Cheriss May/Getty Images
Cheriss May/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer briefly came to the West Wing stakeout camera with a group of Senate Democrats after a meeting with President Biden, and reiterated that the Covid-19 relief package needs to be “big” and “bold.”

Schumer said they met for an hour and a half and described the meeting as “long, serious, (and) substantive.”

“We discussed many of the details of the bill that we have to put together over the next few weeks,” Schumer said, adding that there is “universal agreement we must go big and bold.”

He referenced a painting of President Franklin D. Roosevelt hovering over the lawmakers as they met in the Oval Office, saying, “We are very much aware of that, it was alluded to a whole bunch of times.”

"We hope our Republicans colleagues will join us in that big, bold program that America needs. The vast majority of Republican voters support large parts of the program," Schumer said. He continued, "We want to do it bipartisan, but we must be strong. We cannot dawdle, we cannot delay, we cannot dilute, because the troubles that this nation has and the opportunities that we can bring them are so large," Schumer said. 

Democrats, Schumer said, “are united as one for a big, bold package, working with our Republican friends when we can.”

1:35 p.m. ET, February 3, 2021

GOP House members losing patience with McCarthy over Marjorie Taylor Greene

From CNN's Lauren Fox and Manu Raju

Republican members are losing patience with Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s lack of action on Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

After McCarthy’s hours-long meeting with the congresswoman last night, members are growing nervous that McCarthy’s lack of action could embolden fringe members in the conference, damage the party’s reputation and ultimately serve as a long-term distraction that will endanger their ability to win back the House in 2022.

“Either he is sh*tting the bed on this thing or he shows he’s gonna get us through this,” one Republican member said on the condition of background in order to speak freely about ongoing discussions. “We have to deal with our own House. We have to clean up the mess in our own House.”

The member argued if McCarthy doesn’t take decisive action, he will force his own Republican conference to walk the plank when Democrats force a resolution that would remove Greene of her committee assignments. It’s a tough vote and one that would force every single member to decide if they stand with Greene or not.

“It’s the job of leadership to protect our rank and file members,” the member said.

A senior Republican member told CNN “if he doesn’t act, he’s going to continue to look indecisive.” 

Still, McCarthy is walking a fine line, needing to strike a position on Greene that won’t alienate some of his most conservative members, unleash the ire of former President Trump or set a precedent that allows members to be pulled from committees for comments they made before they were in Congress.

One member argued that while Greene’s comments were “batsh*t crazy,” she made the comments before she was in Congress and that makes it harder for McCarthy to act.

“We need to be thoughtful. I’d like to see her be a productive member of Congress,” the person said before adding: “I don’t know if that is possible.”

Some background: When Greene was handed committee assignments weeks ago, the thinking among members and leadership was that it would provide the congresswoman a chance to prove she could do the work and move past her conspiracy-theory ridden past.

The thinking  — before it was uncovered she’d harassed a Parkland survivor on Capitol Hill and argued the shooting was a false flag event -- was that the education committee would put her under the tutelage of Rep. Virginia Foxx, a tough member with a reputation for running a tight ship and standing up against colleagues who step out of line. 

Greene was then put on Budget where the top Republican there, Rep. Jason Smith, had a reputation for helping new members understand the intricacies of how Congress worked. As more and more information about Greene’s past came out and as the congresswoman showed no remorse, the issue of keeping her on the committees became untenable.

Hear what GOP lawmakers are saying about Marjorie Taylor Greene:

12:52 p.m. ET, February 3, 2021

Incoming Senate Judiciary chairman wants to hold Garland hearing Monday

From CNN's Ted Barrett

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the incoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he wants to hold confirmation hearing for Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland on Feb. 8, a day before the impeachment trial of former President Trump begins in the Senate.

But he said he doesn’t know if Republicans on the committee would consent to allow it to happen without a one-week formal notification of the hearing, as committee rules require.

Durbin said he planned to talk Wednesday to Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who will be the top Republican on the committee, to see if they can reach an agreement to do it then.

The discussions come after an agreement was reached on an organizing resolution for the Senate, which should be officially adopted by the full Senate at some point Wednesday, that allows Democrats to finally take control of the committees even though they moved into majority control of the Senate back on Jan. 20.

Durbin, who is also the second-ranking member of the Democratic leadership, said he didn’t know if Republicans would agree to a one-day hearing for Garland instead of the customary two-day hearings for attorney general nominees. The outgoing chairman of the committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has been adamant this week that he wanted two-days of hearings, something that would not be possible with the impeachment trial starting Tuesday.

Asked about Graham’s concerns, Durbin said, “I had a conversation with him (Graham) that left that uncertain so I want to speak to Sen. Grassley directly.”

Durbin also rebutted criticism from Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, who said Democrats were to blame for not filling out Biden’s Cabinet quickly because they were putting Covid relief and the impeachment trial first.

“Of course we want the Cabinet in place,” Durbin told CNN as he left a memorial service of US Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who was killed during the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol that is the reason an impeachment trial is happening. “We cannot ignore what happened Jan. 6. This day more than others should be a reminder for every member of the Senate and House about what we lost that day and we just can’t ignore that reality and the impeachment that’s looming in the United States Senate.”

He also said it was critical to get Garland confirmed calling him, “The last major element of our national security team. It should be a high priority.”