Biden focuses on the economy on second day in office

By Meg Wagner and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 8:45 p.m. ET, January 22, 2021
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9:16 a.m. ET, January 22, 2021

Key events we're watching around Washington today

It is President Biden's second full day in office, and his administration is focusing on economic relief. Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats are working to confirm Biden's Cabinet nominees.

Here's a look at the key events we're watching today:

  • 10 a.m. ET: The Senate Finance Committee will have an open executive session to consider the nomination of Janet Yellen, Biden's pick for secretary of the Treasury.
  • 10:30 a.m. ET: The Senate will take up the nomination of Gen. Lloyd Austin to be Defense secretary.
  • 12:30 p.m. ET: White House press secretary Jen Psaki and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese hold a press briefing.
  • 2:45 p.m. ET: President Biden will speak about his administration’s response to the economic crisis and will sign executive orders.
9:29 a.m. ET, January 22, 2021

Democrats could use a rare legislative tool to pass parts of a Covid-19 relief bill 

From CNN's Lauren Fox

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Senate Democrats are laying the groundwork now to use a rare procedural tactic known as reconciliation to pass major parts of President Biden’s Covid-19 relief package if Republicans stand in the way, according to multiple Democratic aides.

While leadership has yet to give the go ahead and negotiations with Republicans are still getting started, aides tell CNN that the process is complicated and arcane, which is why they are getting ready now in case they have to use it. 

“You just can’t do this overnight,” one Democratic Senate aide said referring to why the process is already starting.

While the Biden administration’s first goal is to pass its nearly $2 trillion plan with bipartisan support through the regular Senate process, the odds are long for winning over enough Republicans to pass another massive stimulus bill just months after a more than $900 billion package passed the Senate in December. Already, many Republicans have signaled they think the package is too expensive or even unnecessary at this point.

“We just passed $900 billion worth of assistance why we would have a package that big now? Maybe a couple of months from now,” Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, said. “The needs will be evident, and we will need to do something significant. But I'm not seeing it right now.”

For their part, the Biden administration has started to meet with Republicans they’ve identified as potentially supporting the package in an effort to build support

“I had a pretty good walkthrough of their Covid proposal,” Murkwoski told reporters earlier this week. “It was an opportunity for me to ask some questions.”

But behind the scenes, lawmakers recognize time is of the essence and are preparing to work through reconciliation if they have to. Chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committee have not been shy about talking publicly about their plans. 

“The caucus would prefer this be done on a bipartisan basis. We haven’t made a decision yet to use reconciliation, but we are prepared to move very quickly if it looks like we can’t do it any other way,” Rep. John Yarmuth, the Chair of the House’s Budget Committee, said Thursday. 

Hours later, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, told Seth Meyers that the first goal was to try to reach out to Republicans, but he argued they couldn’t wait for them to come along. 

“I think we should reach out to Republicans if they choose not to come on board, which I suspect will probably be the case…we should use that majority in a very aggressive way,” Sanders said. ”It is my view we should make sure that we address the needs of the American people in that reconciliation bill, and if we pass it with 51 votes, we’ll pass it with 51 votes. 

The first step would be to pass a budget bill through committee to essentially unlock the process. Once that was finished, the Senate Democrats could rework Biden’s bill so it fit into a very specific framework of what is allowed under the process. Reconciliation requires that anything passed has a real impact on the budget and not just an “incidental” one. The process also requires that proposals have no impact on social security and that the impacts on the budget do not stretch beyond a 10-year window if the changes are permanent. Because the process requires jumping through so many hoops and consultation with the Senate’s parliamentarian, committee staff have been working for weeks now to make sure they understand and are ready for the process in case it has to be used. 

“There’s not much room for error,” another Democratic aide said noting that the committees will have to go point by point through Bidens proposal to see what can fit in reconciliation. 

The strategy has precedent: Republicans used the reconciliation process when they attempted to repeal and replace Obamacare in 2017 in the Senate. The GOP successfully used the process months later to overhaul the country’s tax code, which passed with just Republican votes. 

The conversations about reconciliation have been reinvigorated in recent days as Democrats have grown frustrated by the stalled negotiations to organize the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has dug in and insisted that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agree to preserve the filibuster for the next two years. The filibuster protects the minority party in the Senate by requiring that legislation meet a 60-vote procedural threshold before passing. Schumer has argued that policy has never been part of an organizing resolution before, but the issue has delayed the process of setting up committees and passing Biden’s nominees. 

There are still questions about what parts of Biden’s Covid-19 relief package would be allowed to advance under reconciliation. Some aides have identified that items like the $15 minimum wage could struggle to meet the criteria.

9:06 a.m. ET, January 22, 2021

Russia will be a complex issue for Biden to tackle

Analysis by Nathan Hodge

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting on economic issues via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting on economic issues via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo/AP

With the departure of Donald Trump from the White House, Russia-watchers can be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief: From the moment Russian President Vladimir Putin called Trump the front-runner for the 2016 Republican nomination, it's been near-impossible to look at Moscow through anything but the lens of Washington politics and scandal.

That doesn't mean President Biden can Make Russia Boring Again. Administrations may come and go, but the geopolitical challenge to the US from the Kremlin leader, it seems, remains constant. 

Let's begin with the obvious: US-Russia relations are at their lowest point since the end the Cold War. US agencies are still sorting through the aftermath of a massive cyber breach blamed on Moscow. Western governments are demanding answers from the Kremlin on the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. And the US has steadily stepped up sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine and Moscow's interference in the 2016 US presidential election. 

And as one of his first moves, Biden has ordered a sweeping intelligence review of suspected Russian mischief-making, from alleged bounties on US troops in Afghanistan to interference in the 2020 election. Biden's director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, will lead the effort, and the president's pick for CIA director, veteran diplomat William Burns, is also a Russia expert. 

But Russia – a country with a nuclear arsenal rivaling that of the US – can't simply be placed in the penalty box. Policy experts generally agree that the Russian government must play a role in responding to major world crises, from reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions to recently halting the brief, bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

And that means the Biden administration must deal with Putin in order to tackle a range of foreign-policy issues, particularly a proposed return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Russia is party to the deal, which Trump abandoned in 2018. 

Even some of the most outspoken US critics of Putin – such as Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia – acknowledge that the US must selectively engage Russia on pressing global issues such as pandemic response and climate change.

But the issue that is really driving the conversation around US-Russia relations is one of Russian domestic politics. The poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny in August reinvigorated the debate about how to deal with Russia, in a way that even Russian interference in the 2016 election failed to do. And Navalny recently upped the stakes with his dramatic return to Russia: Two days after his arrest at the Russian border, Navalny's investigative team dropped a massive online investigation into Putin's alleged personal wealth.

Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, called for Navalny's release following his arrest on arrival in Moscow. 

"Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable," Sullivan said on Twitter. "The Kremlin's attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard." 

Navalny shouldn't be mistaken for a traditional Western liberal: The anti-corruption campaigner has elements of populism and Russian nationalism in his politics, and he has shown a pragmatic willingness to ally with more pliant and generally pro-government parties to challenge Putin's ruling United Russia party in local elections. He even slammed Twitter's decision to ban Trump, calling it an "unacceptable act of censorship." 

As Navalny's moves show, who wins or loses Russia is a matter for Russians to decide.

Read Nathan Hodge's full analysis on the US-Russia relationship here.

8:44 a.m. ET, January 22, 2021

Biden confident Congress will pass a bipartisan Covid-19 relief package, White House says

From CNN's Kate Sullivan

The U.S. Capitol is seen through a display of flags on the National Mall, one day after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington.
The U.S. Capitol is seen through a display of flags on the National Mall, one day after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. Rebecca Blackwell/AP

White House Press secretary Jen Psaki said President Biden is confident Congress will pass a bipartisan Covid-19 relief package, but said the White House is not going to “take tools off the table.” 

“He thinks we can get to a bipartisan package. At the same time, we're not going to take tools off the table because addressing this is what he was elected to do, but we're going to start and we're going pursue a bipartisan package first,” Psaki told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Friday.  

Biden has outlined a $1.9 trillion emergency legislative package to fund a nationwide vaccination effort and provide direct economic relief to Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic. He has not detailed how he plans to move his massive proposal through a Congress, where Democrats will have narrow House and Senate majorities, but both congressional Democratic leaders pledged to shepherd Biden's vision into law.

Psaki said the Biden administration is confident they will reach their goal of 100 million vaccine shots, which is enough to cover 50 million Americans with vaccines that require two doses, in his first 100 days of office, and said they will then build from that goal. 

“When we reach that goal, and we're confident we will, we're going to build from there. So we're not we're not packing our bags at 100 million shots in the arms of Americans,” Psaki said. “But we want to make sure that people know that we're going to hold ourselves accountable and we're going to do everything to make sure we're getting as many people vaccinated as possible.”

8:35 a.m. ET, January 22, 2021

Congress approved a waiver for Biden's Defense secretary pick yesterday. Here's what comes next.

From CNN's Clare Foran

Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, a recently retired Army general, speaks during his conformation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington.
Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin, a recently retired Army general, speaks during his conformation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. Greg Nash/Pool/AP

Both chambers of Congress on Thursday approved a waiver to permit retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as secretary of Defense in the Biden administration.

Austin now faces a final confirmation vote from the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced yesterday that the Senate will vote to confirm Austin this morning.

Austin, who would be the first Black man to run the department, had to be granted a waiver from a law requiring a defense secretary to wait seven years after active-duty service before taking the job. The House passed the waiver Thursday afternoon, followed by Senate approval of the measure.

Ahead of the vote, Austin, who retired in 2016, had been reaching out to top House and Senate lawmakers who would need to agree to pass legislation to grant the waiver, something approved only twice before in history, including for James Mattis to run President Trump's Pentagon in 2017.

President Joe Biden's pick for defense secretary must, in effect, win two votes: one from both chambers of Congress to grant the waiver and another from the Senate to confirm him for the position, and Thursday's votes to green-light the waiver marked the first step in that process.

To win confirmation, Austin must overcome objections from some lawmakers to allowing a recently retired general to assume the top civilian post at the Pentagon.

He addressed those concerns directly at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week, saying, "If confirmed, I will carry out the mission of the Department of Defense, always with the goal to deter war and ensure our nation's security, and I will uphold the principle of civilian control of the military, as intended."

8:23 a.m. ET, January 22, 2021

Lack of candor and facts "likely did" cost lives last year, Fauci says

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks with reporters in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. 
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks with reporters in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington.  Alex Brandon/AP

The lack of candor and facts about the coronavirus pandemic during the Trump administration “likely did” cost lives last year, Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN Friday.

“There's no secret. We've had a lot of divisiveness, we've had facts that were very, very clear that were questioned. People were not trusting what health officials were saying … masking became a political issue,” he said. “That's the reason why we've really got to restore trust and restore a unified approach.”

Fauci also criticized the separation of federal and state response to the coronavirus pandemic during the Trump administration, saying a collaborative approach is the way to go.

“You don't want the federal government to do everything and you don't want the states to do everything. But what we saw a lot of was saying, ‘OK states, do what you want to do.’ And states were doing things that clearly were not the right direction. And that's unfortunate,” he said. 

He added that the federal government should help states with resources and planning, while respecting each state’s issues.

“Not ‘you're on your own, goodbye, see you around, later.’ That doesn't work and a lot of states did not like that. They want to have the capability of making their own decisions, but they also need resources and they need help.”

As the Biden administration aims to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days, Fauci said issues in states need to be figured out to overcome the lag in inoculations. About 70% to 85% Americans still need to be vaccinated for the US to reach herd immunity

Fauci added that he hopes the potential Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine's — which is currently undergoing Phase 3 trials — will have an efficacy "in the ballpark" of 94% to 95%.

"It's a single shot ... 10-14 days later, you're already starting to have a substantial amount of protection."

In the meantime, even as Covid-19 hospitalizations decline in the US, Fauci says there is a need to be careful with variants of the virus present in the country at the point.

8:18 a.m. ET, January 22, 2021

Biden to sign order that will lay groundwork for $15 minimum wage for federal workers and contractors

From CNN’s Tami Luhby

U.S. President Joe Biden signs an executive order during an event in the State Dining Room of the White House January 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. 
U.S. President Joe Biden signs an executive order during an event in the State Dining Room of the White House January 21, 2021 in Washington, DC.  Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Joe Biden is expected to sign two more executive orders today as he continues his swift efforts to overturn his predecessor's policies. 

The first executive order seeks to provide help to those who are struggling to buy food, missed out on stimulus checks or are out of work.

The measure builds on the President's $1.9 trillion relief plan that he outlined last week that would send another $1,400 in stimulus checks, extend unemployment benefits and nutrition assistance and provide more help to struggling renters and homeowners.

"The American people can't afford to wait," said Brian Deese, the National Economic Council director, noting that Census Bureau data shows nearly 30 million people don't always have enough to eat. "And so many are hanging by a thread. They need help, and we are committed to doing everything we can to provide that help as quickly as possible."

The other is geared toward improving the jobs of federal workers and contractors, which was among the President's campaign commitments. It lays the groundwork for requiring contractors to pay a $15 hourly minimum wage and to provide emergency paid leave by the end of Biden's first 100 days. It also directs agencies to determine which federal workers are earning less than that minimum and develop recommendations to promote bringing them up to $15 an hour.

Biden included a call to raise the national hourly minimum wage to $15 as part of the $1.9 trillion relief package he outlined last week before taking office. It is currently $7.25 an hour.

Biden has signed a raft of executive orders, actions and memorandums since being sworn in Wednesday, including immediate moves to help student loan borrowers and people facing eviction.

8:22 a.m. ET, January 22, 2021

Biden signed at least 10 executive actions on coronavirus yesterday. Here's what we know.

From CNN's  Betsy Klein, Veronica Stracqualursi and Kate Sullivan

President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus in the State Dinning Room of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. 
President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus in the State Dinning Room of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington.  Alex Brandon/AP

President Biden's first full day in office on Thursday focused on rolling out his national strategy to get the coronavirus pandemic under control and signing several executive actions, including ramping up vaccination supplies and requiring international travelers to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test prior to traveling to the US.

On his first full day in office, Biden signed at least 10 executive orders, memorandums and directives focused on tackling the pandemic.

"Our national strategy is comprehensive, it's based on science, not politics. It's based on truth, not denial, and it's detailed," Biden said, speaking from the White House. He said the 198-page plan is posted on WhiteHouse.gov.

Biden's plan starts with a national vaccination campaign in order to meet the President's goal of administering 100 million shots, which is enough to cover 50 million Americans with vaccines that require two doses, in his first 100 days in office.

He said the plan was developed with input from the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, among other advisers and experts.

Biden signed executive orders ramping up supplies for vaccination, testing and personal protective equipment and another boosting development of therapeutics to treat Covid-19.

Biden emphasized the need for Americans to wear face masks in order to stop the spread of the virus, saying masks are "even more important than the vaccines."

Following through on his campaign proposals, Biden also signed two executive orders creating a National Pandemic Testing Board to improve US coronavirus testing capacity and a Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force to ensure an "equitable" pandemic response and recovery.

Here's a look at some of Covid-19 executive orders he signed yesterday:

7:53 a.m. ET, January 22, 2021

Biden's focus today will be economic relief

From CNN's Betsy Klein

The Biden administration has an ambitious slate of actions for the first 10 days in office, many of which will roll back key policies established by former President Trump.

Each day through the end of the month, with the exception of this weekend, will center around a specific theme, with a set of corresponding actions and directives, according to a draft of a calendar document sent to administration allies and viewed by CNN.  

Yesterday's theme was coronavirus, and the theme today is "Economic Relief." Two executive order are expected. One directs agency action on Medicaid, Pell grants, SNAP benefits, and unemployment insurance.

The second executive order will restore collective bargaining rights to federal employees and initiates action to roll back Trump’s Schedule F executive order, which gave the United States Office of Management and Budget and federal agencies leeway to reclassify key roles.

Here's a look at the rest of the themes Biden will tackle this month: 

  • Jan. 25: Buy America
  • Jan. 26: Equity
  • Jan. 27: Climate
  • Jan. 28: Health Care
  • Jan. 29: Immigration
  • February: Restoring America’s Place in the World