Political News

Rep. Lauren Boebert issues apology for anti-Muslim remarks about Rep. Ilhan Omar

Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(COLORADO) -- Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) issued an apology on Friday for remarks she made that used anti-Muslim tropes to refer to Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democratic representative from Minnesota and one of only three Muslim members of Congress.

Later on Friday, Omar sent a tweet calling for House leadership to take "appropriate action."

Omar added that "normalizing this bigotry not only endangers my life but the lives of all Muslims."

In an undated video that went viral on Thursday, Boebert said that she was getting into an elevator with one of her staffers when a Capitol police officer rushed over to the elevator with "fret [sic] all over his face," trying to open the door as it was closing.

She then claimed that, upon seeing Omar to her left, she said: "Well, she doesn't have a backpack. We should be fine," implying that Omar could have been carrying explosives in a backpack -- an anti-Muslim trope.

Boebert also called Omar a part of a so-called "jihad squad" twice in the video.

"I apologize to anyone in the Muslim community I offended with my comment about Rep. Omar. I have reached out to her office to speak with her directly. There are plenty of policy differences to focus on without this unnecessary distraction," Boebert tweeted on Friday.

Omar said on Thursday that Boebert made up the story, and said that anti-Muslim racism should not be allowed in Congress.

"Fact, this buffoon looks down when she sees me at the Capitol, this whole story is made up," Omar tweeted on Thursday night. "Anti-Muslim bigotry isn't funny & shouldn't be normalized. Congress can't be a place where hateful and dangerous Muslims tropes get no condemnation."

Omar received support from some fellow representatives, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who called Boebert's remarks "shameful, deeply offensive and dangerous."

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), another Muslim member of Congress, wrote on Thursday night, "These pathetic racist lies will not only endanger the life of @IlhanMN, but will increase hate crimes towards Muslims. The continued silence & inaction towards this hate-filled colleague and others is enabling violence. It must stop."

One representative across the aisle, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois), retweeted the video with the comment, "Boebert is TRASH." Republican congressional leaders have not commented yet on Boebert's remarks.

Edward Mitchell, deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told CNN on Friday morning that Boebert's comments were "beyond the pale."

"You've gotta remember, Lauren Boebert is not some comedian at a club. She is a sitting member of Congress speaking to her constituents... I will say the more disturbing thing is that the audience applauded, and laughed, and that Republican leaders did not condemn this yet," Mitchell said.

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'They make me proud': Biden meets with Coast Guard after virtual meeting with service members


(Nantucket, MA) -- President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden spent the first part of their holiday hosting a virtual meeting with service members from around the world to wish them a happy Thanksgiving and thank them for their service.

From Coast Guard Station Brant Point in Nantucket, Massachusetts, the Bidens addressed members representing all six military branches -- the Marine Corps, Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Space Force.

After that, the president met outside with roughly two dozen members of the Coast Guard, shaking their hands and presenting them with challenge coins, which are historically collectible pieces.

The president said the "blessings of Thanksgiving are especially meaningful" this year after so many families and friends couldn't gather last year because of surging COVID-19 cases.

"We also keep in our hearts those who we've lost," the president said. "And those who have an empty seat at their kitchen table or their dining room table this year because of this virus, or another cruel twist of fate or accident, we pray for them."

Thanksgiving in Nantucket is a decades-long tradition for the Biden family. The first lady also confirmed that they would be taking part once again in the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony Friday afternoon.

"We're all going to be there," she said. "We're all going together."

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$25 million awarded in case against white supremacists responsible for 'Unite the Right' in Charlottesville


(CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.) -- Four years after "Unite the Right" was held in Charlottesville, Virginia, a federal jury has ordered the white nationalist leaders and organizations who backed the deadly rally to pay more than $25 million in damages to nine plaintiffs.

The rally began as a protest against removing a prominent statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and it turned deadly when James Alex Fields Jr., a self-proclaimed admirer of Adolf Hitler, drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring several others. Fields later was sentenced to life in prison.

The 11-person jury that announced judgment in the case of Sines v. Kessler did so on its third day of deliberations. Plaintiffs in the civil case initially had asked the jury to consider judgments ranging from $7 million to $10 million for physical injuries and $3 million to $5 million for pain and suffering.

Despite the $25 million judgment, the jury also announced it was deadlocked on the first two federal claims of the existence of a conspiracy possibly motivated by animus toward Black or Jewish individuals.

The two deadlocked federal claims in the civil lawsuit, which was filed in 2017, were based on a rarely used post-Civil War law, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The law allows private citizens to sue other citizens for civil rights violations and for conspiring to interfere with the civil rights of others. Some rally organizers and attendees have maintained that they merely were exercising their right to free speech.

Integrity First for America, a civil rights nonprofit that's supported the plaintiffs in their years-long legal battle, told ABC News that the battle isn't over.

"Our team is committed to holding these defendants liable," Executive Director Amy Spitalnick said in a statement Tuesday. "Our plaintiffs also secured default judgments against seven other defendants that we'll be pursuing."

Those potential defendants include: the East Coast Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights, Nationalist Front and Moonbase Holdings, LLC, Andrew Anglin and Augustus Sol Invictus.

Following the jury's decision, Roberta A. Kaplan and Karen L. Dunn, lawyers for one of the plaintiffs, said in a joint statement that the verdict "sends a loud and clear message that facts matter, the law matters, and that the laws of this country will not tolerate the use of violence to deprive racial and religious minorities of the basic right we all share to live as free and equal citizens."

Added Spitalnick: "At a time when extremism is on the rise and democracy is under threat, this case provides a model for accountability."


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Expanded benefits for vets exposed to burn pits coming, but for some it's too late

ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- Kate Hendricks Thomas deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a member of the Marine Corps. She said she knew that choice carried risks, but she says she didn't realize it would come back to haunt her nearly two decades later.

“I knew that deploying could cost me my life,” Thomas, now 41, told ABC News. “I didn't think it would be like this.”

Unknown to her at the time, she said, some of the air she was breathing while deployed was toxic, laced with thousands of chemicals.

The military used burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan as a way to get rid of trash. Regular household waste items were burned, such as food and clothing. But so were more toxic substances -- paint, metals, plastics, styrofoam, rubber and human waste. She said these burn pits smelled like exhaust and asphalt on a hot summer day. She said they smoldered, with billowing black smoke.

She wasn’t the only veteran exposed to these toxic fumes. Roughly 3.5 million veterans who deployed post 9/11 could have been exposed, concerned members of Congress say.

"When I checked in at Fallujah, I originally was housed in this area where everybody was cleaning their air conditioners all of the time," Thomas said. "And it was really as soon as I got there that I realized we were cleaning this chunky particulate matter out of the filters," she later continued.

Thomas left the Marine Corps in 2008. She went back to school, earned her Ph.D., married, and had a son. But in 2018, at the age of 38, she received shocking news: she had stage 4 breast cancer.

"They said it looked like I had been dipped in something," Thomas remembered. "I had metastases throughout my skeletal system from my skull to my toes."

According to a 2021 VA-funded research proposal, "there is a notably high incidence of breast cancer among younger military women (20% to 40% higher). The incident rate of breast cancer for active duty women is seven times higher than the average incident rate of fifteen other cancer types across all service members."

Kate says she's met "a ton" of other female veterans who have had breast cancer.

"I actually ran into the only other woman in my unit in Iraq," Thomas said. "And she and I started chatting, and the conversation turned to health. And it turns out, she has the exact same type of aggressive breast cancer that I do. And that's anecdotal data, it's anecdotal evidence, but to me, that felt like a big deal."

But many of the medical conditions allegedly caused by these toxins weren't recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Thomas immediately submitted a claim with the VA for coverage. She says she went back and forth with them for three years.

"They denied my claim, they denied appeals," she said. "They said, 'You know, we're not -- we're not approving claims for burn pits right now.'"

Since then, Thomas and her family have paid thousands of dollars every year for private health insurance to pay for her medical treatments not covered by veterans' benefits.

Expanding coverage

There are multiple ways to expand veterans’ benefits. The president can sign an executive order, Congress can pass legislation, which could then get signed into law, or the VA can choose to recognize more claims.

Last week, the Biden administration said it was establishing a new policy to help more veterans exposed to burn pits during their service overseas receive more benefits.

The Veterans Administration will now "create presumptions of exposure ... when the evidence of an environmental exposure and the associated health risks are strong in the aggregate but hard to prove on an individual basis," according to the White House. But veterans' claims take time to be approved, and once when they are recognized it can still take months before payouts begin, according to a press conference earlier this month with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough. The Military Times reported that it could be until May 2022 until checks are actually put in the mail.

Congress, which controls the purse strings, could also pass legislation.

"Congress sent us to war, and they need to understand that paying the full cost of war includes the health care [of veterans]," Tom Porter, the executive vice president at the IAVA, said to ABC News.

There are two bills being considered to expand benefits for veterans, one in the House and one in the Senate.

The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., told ABC News that he believes "2021 will be the year that we get a comprehensive toxic exposure bill done."

With little over a month left until 2022, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., a co-sponsor of the House bill and a veteran herself, believes that if passed, the measure could be expansive enough to give affected veterans what they need.

"This bill is very comprehensive," Luria told ABC News. "And it brings together about 15 different pieces of [previous] legislation that address all different aspects of toxic exposures." She later added that she believes this is "probably the largest veterans benefit bill of our generation."

While there has been bipartisan support for both of these bills in the House and the Senate, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, told ABC News there’s been some hesitancy over the cost.

"We have seen some push back by some of the Republicans that say we can't afford to do this," Tester said. "If we're not willing to take care of our veterans when they get back home, then we shouldn't send them off to war to begin with," he later continued.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., says he has been working with the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to make sure a full list of ailments is included in the bill.

"It is outrageous that the federal government has turned a blind eye to the men and women who honorably served their nation," Rubio told ABC News. "If our bill becomes law, the worst thing that can happen is someone who served our country receives treatment for a rare, debilitating illness."

While Congress negotiates, the VA is urging vets to file claims, even if they’ve been denied in the past.

"Don't wait for legislation to be passed," Ronald Burke, deputy under secretary for policy and oversight at the Department of Veteran Affairs, told ABC News. "Don't wait for a claim for an item to be listed as a presumptive condition. Yes, file your claim."

'Six weeks is an eternity'

In July, after three years of denials, the VA finally recognized Thomas' claim, acknowledging that her aggressive cancer was caused by exposure to toxic burn pits while she served overseas. But, the earliest appointment she could get was six weeks away.

"Six weeks is an eternity in the stage 4 setting," Thomas said.

Thomas made the decision to keep her private insurance so she could receive quicker treatments.

While the White House’s expansion of benefits will help veterans to come -- and the bills in Congress, if passed, would help too -- it’s too little, too late for Thomas. Her doctors gave her five years to live. It’s been three.

Thomas has never regretted serving.

"I love the Marine Corps so much," Thomas said. "It gave me so much -- opportunities to lead, opportunities to travel the world, a sense of purpose. I felt like my work mattered."

But she recognized there will come a time when there will be treatments she’s not willing to do.

"There will come a point where we say, 'Okay, we're going to have to let the cancer take its course,'" Thomas said. "But I'd really like my son to be a little bit older."

So, she said she’s holding out hope for more time. Her son, Matthew, is just eight years old. She said she’s worried about him losing his mom at such a young age.

"And it's interesting, because he knows," Thomas said of her son knowing she has terminal cancer. "The other day we were talking about Jesus and heaven. And he had all these questions. And then he got very still. And his eyes filled up with tears. And he looked at me and he said, 'Mom, it's gonna be so sad.'"

ABC News' Stephanie Ramos, Hannah Demissie, Tia Humphries, Luis Martinez and Nate Luna contributed to this report.

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To lower gas prices, Biden authorizes release from US strategic oil reserve

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden said Tuesday he is authorizing a historic release from the nation's strategic oil reserve to help offset a surge in gasoline prices.

Facing rising consumer discontent ahead of Americans hitting the road for the Thanksgiving holiday, Biden called it the "largest-ever release" when announcing the action in remarks Tuesday afternoon.

"The bottom line: Today we're launching a major effort to moderate the price of oil, an effort that will span the globe in its reach and ultimately reach your gas station," God willing, Biden said.

Other countries, including China and India will release their own reserves in concert with the U.S. move, he said.

"And while our ... combined actions will not solve the problem of high gas prices overnight, it will make a difference. It will take time, but before long, you should see the price of gas drop where you fill up your tank. And in the longer term, we will reduce our reliance on oil as we shift to clean energy," he said. "But right now, I will do what needs to be done to reduce the price you pay at the pump, from the middle class and working families that are spending much too much and it's a strain, and they’re -- you're the reason I was sent here, to look out for you."

The White House detailed the U.S. action in a statement earlier Tuesday.

"Today, the President is announcing that the Department of Energy will make available releases of 50 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to lower prices for Americans and address the mismatch between demand exiting the pandemic and supply," the White House said.

It said the Energy Department would make the release in two ways: 32 million barrels will be an "exchange" over the next several months, releasing oil that it said would eventually be returned to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and 18 million barrels that would be an acceleration into the next several months of a sale of oil that Congress had previously authorized.

It said Biden has been working with countries across the world to address the lack of supply.

"And, as a result of President Biden’s leadership and our diplomatic efforts, this release will be taken in parallel with other major energy consuming nations including China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea and the United Kingdom. This culminates weeks of consultations with countries around the world, and we are already seeing the effect of this work on oil prices. Over the last several weeks as reports of this work became public, oil prices are down nearly 10 percent," the White House said.

But Biden claimed the price drop wasn't showing up in gas prices.

"The fact is the price of oil was already dropping prior to this announcement and many suggest in anticipation of the announcement. The price of gasoline in the wholesale market has fallen by about 10% over the last few weeks. But the price at the pump hasn't budged a penny. In other words, gas supply companies are paying less and making a lot more. And they do not seem to be passing that on to the consumers at the pump," he said.

"In fact, if the gap between wholesale and retail gas prices was in line with past averages, Americans would be paying at least 25 cents less per gallon right now, as I speak," he continued. "Instead, companies are pocketing the difference as profit. That's unacceptable. And that's why I've asked the Federal Trade Commission to consider whether potentially illegal and anti-competitive behavior in the oil and gas industry is causing higher prices for consumers."

An industry spokesperson rejected the president's charge last week.

"This is a distraction from the fundamental market shift that is taking place and the ill-advised government decisions that are exacerbating this challenging situation. Demand has returned as the economy comes back and is outpacing supply," said Frank Macchiarola, API's senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs.

Experts said Americans will see a quick drop in prices almost immediately. But the larger impact won't hit for about two weeks, when gas stations across the nation lower prices.

It wasn't clear how the oil-producing nations of OPEC+, which the administration claims has been holding back supply, would respond to the U.S.-led effort by multiple countries to release oil from their reserves.

A senior administration official, citing a low global supply of oil that is contributing to driving up fuel costs, said the decision has been made to ease costs on everyday American consumers as pressures between demand and the easing of the pandemic create unique conditions.

"We think that this is an immediate challenge that we face as we are exiting the global pandemic and supply has not kept up,” the official told reporters Tuesday morning. "We think that this is exactly suited to that."

Biden also ticked through the other actions he’s taken to get disruptions in the supply chain under control, from actions at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, to appealing to the CEOs of Walmart, Target and other major corporations to ramp up operations.

Ultimately, he made the case that his actions have stemmed shortages, paving the way for a happy holiday season for all Americans.

"And so all of these concerns, a few weeks ago, there would be -- there would not be ample food available for Thanksgiving, so many people talked about that, understandably, but families can rest easy, he said. "Grocery stores are well stocked with turkey and everything -- else you need for Thanksgiving. And the major retailers I mentioned are -- have confirmed that their shelves will be well stocked in stores for this holiday season. That's good news for moms and dads who worry about whether Christmas gifts will be available," he assured Americans.

ABC's Jordyn Phelps contributed to this report.

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White House: 90% of federal workers, military have gotten at least one COVID shot

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White House: 90% of federal workers, military have gotten at least 1 COVID shot

Anne Flaherty

More than 90% of the nation’s 3.5 million federal workers have gotten at least one COVID-19 shot with the "vast majority” of employees fully vaccinated and another 5% either requesting an extension or exemption, the Biden administration announced on Monday.

Officials said the numbers -- which include civilian and military personnel -- show the government won't see disruptions this holiday season because of the mandate.

"We are successfully implementing vaccination requirements for the largest workforce in the United States with federal employees in every part of the nation and around the world," said Jeff Zients, the White House coordinator on COVID-19 response efforts.

While the overall number is generally good news for the White House, it’s still unclear how an estimated 350,000 federal workers still holding out on the vaccine shot might impact government operations. It's likely that vaccination uptake is higher in some agencies and parts of the country than others.

For example, White House staff, located in Washington, DC, are estimated to be nearly 99% vaccinated. But vaccine hesitancy is expected to be higher among border patrol units or federal prisons located in other parts of the U.S., raising questions about whether certain locations might experience staff shortages even if the government's overall rate of vaccine acceptance is high.

It also wasn’t immediately clear on Monday when those employees requesting extensions or exemptions would run out of options if denied, with agencies just now beginning the counseling process.

Officials said agencies are being given ample leeway to decide how to handle workers who refuse to get a shot.

"To be clear, the goal of vaccination requirements is to protect workers, not to punish them. So tonight's deadline is not an endpoint or a cliff," Zients said.

The White House Office of Management and Budget was expected to release more details on Wednesday, including a breakdown of vaccination rates by agency.

Overall, the White House says 95% of employees are "in compliance," meaning they either have at least one dose or have filed a medical or religious exemption or asked for an extension. That includes 93% of workers at the Transportation Security Administration; 99% at the Federal Aviation Administration; 99% at the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and 98% at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The mandate is the nation's first test of President Joe Biden's insistence that employer requirements work. Biden has proposed a separate Jan. 4 mandate that would apply to federal contractors and health care workers.

He also has proposed that businesses with 100 or more employees mandate vaccines or weekly testing; that regulation by the Labor Department is on hold pending a review by a federal appeals court.

Under Biden’s plan, more than 2 million civilian workers were supposed to have gotten their final vaccine dose two weeks ago so as to be considered "fully immunized” by Monday’s deadline. The White House has not released estimates yet on how many of those employees did so.

Military personnel face their own deadlines depending on their service branch.

ABC News' Luke Barr contributed to this report.

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First lady Jill Biden accepts White House Christmas tree

Alex Wong/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- First lady Jill Biden kicked off the holiday season in the nation's capital on Monday by accepting delivery of the official White House Christmas tree -- with all the sleigh bells and whistles one might expect.

This year's tree -- an 18.5-foot Fraser fir -- hails from Jefferson, North Carolina. The White House welcome event on Monday afternoon marked 56 years of the tradition.

The tree arrived at the White House Portico on an evergreen-colored carriage decked out in holiday greenery and pulled down the driveway by two Clydesdale horses -- Ben and Winston -- who were adorned with silver sleigh bells and with paper Christmas trees in their braids. A four-piece band played Christmas classics, including "O, Christmas Tree" and "O, Come All Ye Faithful," as the tree was delivered.

Wearing a red coat and a white dress, the first lady accepted the Christmas tree in apparent delight following a quick quality inspection.

"It's beautiful -- it's magnificent, actually," she told reporters when asked what she thought of the tree.

This tree will be on display in the Blue Room, where the chandelier will be temporarily removed to accommodate the full height of the tree, according to the White House.

Following the first lady's acceptance, the Christmas tree will be decorated for the holiday season.

In addition to the Estes family, which provided the tree after winning the National Christmas Tree Contest for their third year, the first lady also invited the Harrell Family to mark the occasion, to represent and honor the families of active National Guard members who are spending the holidays apart this year.

A National Guard mom herself, Biden intended to honor the role of the National Guard this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House said.

Biden's family was also on hand for the acceptance including son Hunter and his son, Beau Jr., whom the first lady handed a branch that she plucked from the tree.

The first lady has not yet announced the theme of this year's decorations at the White House, expected to be unveiled in the coming days.

She told reporters her message for service members this holiday season is to "be safe and have a happy, healthy holiday."

ABC News' Sarah Kolinovsky contributed to this report.

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Dozens in Congress still vote remotely as critics slam COVID policy


(WASHINGTON) -- Millions of American workers have returned to the office, and most children are back to in-person learning at schools, but dozens of members of the U.S. House of Representatives are still literally phoning in their votes to Washington, citing an "ongoing public health emergency."

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, House Democrats took the unprecedented step to establish rules allowing any lawmaker to vote by proxy if he or she could not attend proceedings in-person because of the pandemic.

As the virus recedes and most members of Congress are vaccinated, critics say some members of Congress are abusing a public health policy for personal convenience, politics or other family matters.

A total of 103 U.S. Representatives had active proxy letters filed with the House Clerk as of publication.

"We do want members to take seriously their responsibilities to participate in a legislative process, to cast votes on the floor of the House," said Molly E. Reynolds, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and expert on how Congress functions. "Figuring out how to prevent abuse of the practice while also making it available for people who need it is a real challenge."

Each time a proxy is used, a member of Congress must attest in writing to the House Clerk that they are "unable to physically attend proceedings" for health or safety reasons related to COVID-19. Enforcement is by the honor system.

"They don't want to come in unless they are vaccinated and unless others are vaccinated," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi explained in March.

At least 343 representatives -- Democrats and Republicans -- have filed a notice to vote remotely at least once this year, according to data compiled by Reynolds. The U.S. Senate did not enact a proxy system during the pandemic.

During Friday's major vote on Democrats' sweeping $1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan, 98 lawmakers who voted didn't show up in person, a review of voting records found.

"Graph the number of proxies, and look at how they increase exponentially on Fridays," said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., one of the most outspoken critics of proxy voting. "It's incentivizing the worst behavior among members, which is to say prioritizing fundraising and deprioritizing legislating."

Nearly all House Republicans opposed proxy voting when it began last year, but some have since taken advantage of the flexibility. In one of the most prominent examples, 13 Republicans voted remotely in February while attending the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference in Orlando.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., who was among the CPAC attendees, voted by proxy more than a dozen times this year, despite strong public opposition to the policy and criticizing Democrats who used it as "cowards" for not showing up.

Cawthorn declined comment to ABC News when approached on Capitol Hill. His office also did not respond to an email from ABC.

"I think it's a bad thing; personally, I don't think we need to be doing it at this point," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who has criticized proxy voting but also used it. "It's in the rules. You can use it."

Rule or not, Republican Party leaders have argued in court that proxy voting is outright unconstitutional. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has even appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to strike it down.

"I think people should be here to work to have to be paid when you don't. When you proxy vote, you're not here to debate the bill. You're not in committee [hearings]. It's wrong," McCarthy told ABC News in an interview.

McCarthy would not comment on why so many fellow Republicans have disregarded his admonishment and voted by proxy.

Democrats have voted by proxy more often than Republicans, according to data tabulated by Reynolds at the Brookings Institution. Sometimes for reasons clearly related to COVID-19, but sometimes for reasons that are less clear, she told ABC News.

Democratic Congressman Ron Kind, of Wisconsin, for example, voted remotely on seven bills in June while President Joe Biden was visiting his state. When approached by ABC News, he said that some of his recent proxy votes came after a positive COVID diagnosis for a member of his staff.

"It's a good thing when you have legitimate reasons to be away," said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. "I have two young girls… I used [proxy voting] when my daughter was born, for example, and I've used it when my daughter was sick just the week before last."

Members of both parties have used remote voting while caring for a sick or dying parent, or when flight delays have kept them stranded far from Washington. Each time, however, they officially attested to the Clerk that the "ongoing public health emergency" kept them from being unable to attend.

"My wife had our first child 16 months ago, I missed votes. But that's how it was," Gallagher said. "You missed votes for legitimate reasons, but proxy voting gets us closer to a nonessential Congress, or a Congress that's just, you know, zooming in to work every day."

Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who regularly casts votes for absent Democratic colleagues, told ABC News it's about time everyone gets back to debating and voting in person in Congress.

"The original purpose was just for people who either, where it just wasn't safe to fly or they had some preexisting condition, including being too old," Beyer said. "Now, when people start going to conferences or something, that's a little different."

Florida Democrats Charlie Crist and Darren Soto voted by proxy last year the same day as attending a planned SpaceX rocket launch in their home state, but told the House Clerk they couldn't vote in person because of the pandemic.

Several Republicans and Democrats have used the proxy system while attending political events outside Washington.

"That's something voters should be worried about," Reynolds said, "but I don't think they should automatically assume that just because their member has been voting by proxy, their member hasn't been working."

On Nov. 12, Pelosi announced an extension of proxy voting through the end of the year.

"While some have misused proxy-voting for non-pandemic reasons, it remains a vital protection for the health of Members who may be immunocompromised or be particularly at risk for life threatening complications from COVID," a House leadership aide told ABC News in a statement.

"All across the country, people are getting back to work or schools are opening up again. Congress ought to be working again," said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. Asked why so many of his GOP peers are still voting remotely, he replied: "Obviously every member has got to make their own choices while it's there as an option."

The option to participate in Congress remotely remains controversial and unprecedented. And as growing numbers of Americans return to in-person work, many may expect their elected representatives to do the same.

"Figuring out how to protect the process for people who genuinely need it, and while also preventing abuse is going to be a real challenge for an extremely polarized and partisan House of Representatives going forward," Reynolds said.

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'Democracy is on the line': Election officials face ongoing threats for doing their jobs


(WASHINGTON) -- Al Schmidt had a front-row seat to history when a batch of votes in Philadelphia tipped the state of Pennsylvania, and the 2020 presidential election, toward Joe Biden.

As Philadelphia's Republican city commissioner, Schmidt had been holed up for days in the convention center, making sure every vote, mail-in or in-person, was counted.

"For us, it's really never about who wins and who loses," Schmidt told ABC News. "It's really about counting, counting the votes."

He defended the vote count and integrity of the election -- only to find himself a target of former President Donald Trump. Four days after the race was called, Trump tweeted at Schmidt saying, without evidence, that he had refused to look at "a mountain of corruption and dishonesty."

Schmidt said that's when the threats against his life and his family started to ramp up.

"They became a lot more specific, a lot more graphic, largely targeted at my family, my kids," he said. "Mentioning my children by name, my address, pictures of my house. Like the people who sent them had clearly done their homework."

Schmidt is among a long list of state and local election officials facing increasing threats, fueling what some say is an unprecedented exodus.

A recent survey by the Brennan Center for Justice found 1 in 3 election officials nationwide feels unsafe at work. Nearly 1 in 5 called threats to their lives a job-related concern.

"There is, I'm sure, no election official in the country that when they ran for the job ... ever contemplated death threats, let alone death threats to their children as being part of that job description," Schmidt said.

In Pennsylvania, nearly half of county election directors have resigned since 2019, according to Lisa Schaefer of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. She said many others cite personal and violent threats.

"These are people who are getting called and yelled at constantly by their friends and their neighbors for things that are often out of their control," Schaefer said.

It's not just local election officials in swing states getting targeted.

Democrat Roxanna Moritz resigned in the wake of the 2020 election as the auditor and commissioner of elections in Scott County, Iowa, after more than a decade on the job. She cited a culture of bullying toward election officials, who often work long hours with little pay, because "we care about our democracy."

"The personal attacks on each and every one of us has made of us aware this maybe isn't where we want to be," Moritz told ABC News.

Election experts warn about the loss of institutional knowledge in this wave of resignations from roles that are historically above the political fray.

Another concern, according to Elizabeth Howard of the Brennan Center for Justice, is who will replace the officials who resign.

"We've seen, for instance, some candidates for secretary of state, which is generally the chief election official in the state, who have come out and said that they basically believe in the 'Big Lie,'" that Trump was cheated out of an election win, Howard said.

ABC News has previously reported on new state laws that shift election administration to highly partisan bodies, as part of a broader effort to shift power away from officials who refuted the "Big Lie." Some of these changes to election laws appear to be in direct retaliation of officials who defended the integrity of the 2020 results.

In Maricopa County, Arizona, Bill Gates is a Republican on the board of supervisors overseeing elections. His county has become a hotbed of election misinformation despite several recounts and audits confirming President Joe Biden's win.

"I have to plead with these folks to listen to me to the truth that I'm telling them, because they've been told lies for a year now, and they believe it," he told ABC News.

More than a year after the election, Gates said he's still targeted daily online, and called a traitor who should be jailed.

"There have been evenings where we have literally spent the night at an Airbnb because of threats," he told ABC News. "There are nights where we have slept with sheriff's deputies outside of the house because of these threats."

Gates and Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt both said fighting election misinformation is proving to be a critical test of American democracy.

"I think there is an additional obligation on Republicans like myself to speak the truth about the 2020 election and to stand up in the face of all of these lies, regardless of what the consequences are for any of us," Schmidt said. "With our democracy on the line, pretty much anything, it's worth it."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Family separated at southern border reacts to possibility of government payouts

Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project

(NEW YORK) -- Leticia works at a bakery helping to prepare the pastries that hungry New Yorkers order with their coffee in the morning. At first glance, she's like any other person in the city. But in 2017, she fled Guatemala with her son Yovany and made her way toward the border in Texas.

"At the moment we crossed, we were happy. We thought our lives were saved, that all the danger was behind us," she said in Spanish in an interview with ABC News' Zachary Kiesch. "We couldn't imagine that a greater pain, a stronger pain, was ahead of us."

Once they crossed, she and her son were detained by Border Patrol agents and quickly separated as they tried to submit an asylum claim. Leticia, whose last name is being withheld for privacy, was deported and Yovany was placed in foster care. They did not see each other for over two years.

They were among the first migrant families subjected to a pilot program for what later became the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy.

Leticia and Yovany could be one of the families qualifying for compensation if the Biden administration decides to make settlement payments to migrants who were separated from their children by the Trump administration.

Now reunited in the United States, mother and son continue to live in fear of being separated again while their asylum case is pending.

"It was a pain that I still carry with me. It's still hurting me," Yovany said in Spanish. "I continue living with that fear that I will be separated from her again."

The potential settlement payments, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, are part of an ongoing federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking damages for separated families. Earlier this month, President Joe Biden dismissed reports that payments of up to $450,000 were being discussed, but expressed his support for some kind of compensation.

"If, in fact, because of the outrageous behavior of the last administration, you coming across the border, whether it was legally or illegally, and you lost your child -- you lost your child -- it's gone. You deserve compensation no matter what the circumstance," Biden said. "What that will be, I have no idea. I have no idea."

In 2019, a federal judge ruled that Leticia's deportation had been unlawful because she did not voluntarily accept deportation and sign away her parental rights. Immigration officials did not provide her an interpreter or explain that they were separating her from Yovany.

"It was totally in English. I didn't know what I was signing," Leticia said. "Even today I still don't know what it is I signed."

The Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas this week, with support for the reported settlements appearing to fall along party lines.

ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said the reports about settlements have been politicized and that there is no time frame on when a decision will be made in regards to the amount of money families would receive and who would be eligible.

"This is not about whether we all agree on macro-immigration policy. This is whether the United States is going to make little children pawns in this political fight," Gelernt said. "These families, according to all of the medical experts, have suffered severe trauma -- literally being pulled away."

Leticia said she draws strength from her Indigenous roots, but her courage and faith were tested during those long months when she didn't know where her son was located. Despite the close bond they continue to share, she said there was some initial distrust when they were finally reunited.

"When I saw him, I noticed there was a feeling of 'Why would you leave me?'" she told ABC News. "He didn't tell me with his words but as a mother, I knew."

Fear of abandonment, depression and anxiety are just a few of the challenges families like Leticia's face when they're finally reunited.

"Money is not everything in the world," Leticia said of the possible payments. "It won’t return our happiness, it won’t return our health. But it can help start to remediate the trauma and the pain they caused us when they violated our human rights."

The Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project has been helping support her and Yovany while they wait for their asylum case to be heard.

"Reunification is truly only the first step that the government must take for these families. After they reunify, these families have to navigate a complex immigration system that is stacked against them in every way," said Leidy Pérez-Davis, policy director at the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project.

The Biden administration's reunification task force has found that more than 3,900 children were separated under by the "zero-tolerance" policy. Gelernt estimated that there are still over 1,000 families that have yet to be reunited and at least 270 that have not even been located.

"I hope this serves as an example for future governments to never repeat the same damage and trauma they've caused," said Leticia.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Biden gets first physical as president, power transferred to VP Harris

Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith

(WASHINGTON) -- It was a question that plagued Joe Biden's presidential campaign: Could a 77-year-old man -- who at age 78 would be the oldest person ever to assume the presidency -- handle the rigors of the job?

Candidate Biden acknowledged it was legitimate for Americans to question his fitness for office.

"The only thing I can say is watch. Watch! Check my energy level, determine whether I know what I'm talking about," he told voters during the 2020 campaign.

Now, on Friday, nearly a year into his term, Biden has gotten his first physical as president at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

It came the day before he turns 79.

After about five hours inside, Biden walked out giving two thumbs up.

"I'm doing great!" Biden told ABC News Correspondent Karen Travers, when asked how he was feeling. "I've had a great physical and a great House of Representatives vote. Good day," Biden said, referring to House Democrats passing his "Build Back Better" plan earlier in the day.

Shortly before he arrived, the White House revealed that for some of the exam he would be under anesthesia and would briefly transfer power to Vice President Kamala Harris.

"This morning, the President will travel to Walter Reed Medical Center for a routine physical. While he is there, the President will undergo a routine colonoscopy," press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

"As was the case when President George W. Bush had the same procedure in 2002 and 2007, and following the process set out in the Constitution, President Biden will transfer power to the Vice President for the brief period of time when he is under anesthesia. The Vice President will work from her office in the West Wing during this time," she said.

Around noon, the White House said it sent letters at 10:10 a.m. to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Patrick Leahy, president pro tempore of the Senate, to inform them Biden was going under sedation. The House speaker is second in line to the presidency after the vice president and the president pro tempore of the Senate is third in line under the 25th Amendment dictating the order of presidential succession.

Psaki tweeted that Biden had spoken with Harris and chief of staff Ron Klain at approximately 11:35 a.m., saying "@POTUS was in good spirits and at that time resumed his duties."

Letter to the Speaker of the House on the Temporary Transfer of the Powers and Duties of President of the U... by ABC News Politics on Scribd

Late Friday afternoon, the White House put out a promised detailed medical summary.

Biden is a 'healthy, vigorous 78-year-old man," who is "fit for duty" and "fully executes all of his responsibilities without exemptions or accommodations," the president's physician, Dr. Kevin O'Connor wrote.

While Biden got a mostly clean bill of health, O'Connor -- who has been Biden's doctor since 2009 -- noted two specific observations: his frequent throat clearing, and a stiffened gate, compared to last year.

"The president has exhibited increasing frequency and severity of "throat clearing" and coughing during speaking engagements," O'Connor wrote. "He has exhibited such symptoms for as long as I have known him, but they certainly seem more frequent and more pronounced over the last few months."

O'Connor noted that Biden being president and the increased attention could be playing into the perception of the symptoms, but required further investigation. Ultimately though, O'Connor said that his initial assessment that "gastroesophageal reflux" was to blame for the cough still stands.

Of his stiffened gate, O'Connor said Biden acknowledges that he is stiff in the morning, though it improves over time. O'Connor said that after a battery of tests, general "wear and tear" of the spine was partly to blame-- though no specific treatment was needed.

A new finding for Biden was a "mild peripheral neuropathy in both feet.”

"He did not demonstrative any motor weakness, but a subtle difference in heat/cold perception and great toe proprioception could be elicited," O'Connor wrote, noting this, along with the wear and tear could contribute to the stiffened gate, and "Physical Therapy and exercise prescription will continue to focus on general flexibility and proprioceptive maintenance maneuvers."

Biden's regular screening colonoscopy found a 3mm benign-looking polyp was identified in the in ascending colon, and was removed without difficulty, the report said.

To date, the most recent physical and medical report was one his campaign released in December 2019: a three-page summary that declared Biden "a healthy, vigorous, 77-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency."

At the time, Biden was said to be under treatment for four different conditions: non-valvular atrial fibrillation -- a type of irregular heart rhythm, hyperlipidemia -- higher concentrations of fats or lipids in the blood, gastroesophageal reflux and seasonal allergies.

The most notable health incidents in Biden's past were the two cranial aneurysms he suffered in 1988.

Since winning the presidency, Biden suffered a fractured foot after falling while chasing his dog Major at his Wilmington, Delaware, home last Thanksgiving. He had to wear a walking boot for the injury, and was said to be "healing as expected," according to scans from a follow-up appointment in December.

Biden named O'Connor as his White House physician shortly after taking office.

O'Connor has served as Biden's primary care physician and was appointed physician to the then-vice president in 2009. Biden chose him for the new role due to their long history and personal relationship, according to a White House official.

Questions about fitness for office are far from exclusive to Biden -- President Donald Trump, who was the oldest president elected before Biden, also faced questions about his mental and physical fitness.

Trump faced particular scrutiny for the first physical of his administration in January 2018, which his then-White House physician, Dr. Ronny Jackson, said went "exceptionally well."

He came under fire for his effusively rosy outlook on Trump's health while briefing reporters afterward.

In other recent administrations, physicals have generally been conducted within a president's first year in office.

President George W. Bush got a physical in August 2001, and was found to be "fit for duty" with "every reasonable expectation that he will remain fit for duty for the duration of his Presidency."

President Barack Obama received his first physical in office just over a year into his presidency, in February 2010. He also was found to be in "excellent health," although doctors told hi to stop smoking.

At her news briefing Friday, Psaki declined to detail any actions Harris took during her 85 minutes as "acting president," but observed the moment's historic nature.

"I will leave that to her team to characterize. I know that other people have been talking about this and a woman myself, I will note that the president, when he selected her to be his running mate, obviously knew he was making history that was long overdue in our view," she said.

"Part of that was selecting someone who would serve by your side as your partner, but also … step in if there was a reason to," Psaki said.

ABC News' John Parkinson contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Biden pardons turkeys Peanut Butter and Jelly ahead of Thanksgiving

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden issued the first pardons of his presidency Friday to some lucky turkeys named Peanut Butter and Jelly.

In a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, Biden spared the poultry pair from becoming Thanksgiving dinner this year.

Biden said the turkey pardoning tradition is meant to remind Americans at Thanksgiving to be grateful -- but also provides the chance to have "a little bit of fun."

"Turkey is infrastructure. Peanut Butter and Jelly are going to help build back the butterball," Biden said, in the wake of a big week for his infrastructure agenda.

"As a University of Delaware man, I'm partial to a Blue Hen," Biden joked about that college's mascot, later adding the two turkeys would be getting their booster shots soon.

"It's important to continue traditions like this to remind us how from the darkness, there's light and hope and progress -- and that's what this year's Thanksgiving, in my view, represents," he said.

With the National Turkey Federation pledging that there are plenty of turkeys to gobble up during this year's celebration -- when more Americans will gather than in 2020 -- Biden stuck to tradition, sparing two turkeys from the dinner table this year.

The White House selected the names Peanut Butter and Jelly from a list of options submitted by students in Indiana.

Peanut Butter, and his alternate, Jelly, traveled to the White House from Jasper, Indiana, early Wednesday, driven in a minivan outfitted as a "mini-barn" to the nation's capital.

The responsibility of deciding which farm will supply the birds each year falls to the chairman of the National Turkey Federation -- a process that Phil Seager, this year's chair, began in July, when he asked turkey grower Andrea Welp if she would accept the challenge.

"That turkey needs to kind of learn to sit, stay, and in a perfect world, kind of strut a little bit and look good for the cameras," Segar said.

Welp worked with a small flock to try to prep them for this process in the last six weeks, with Peanut Butter and Jelly last week being deemed the turkeys with the best temperament to handle the big moment, according to Segar.

Welp, a third-generation farmer from Indiana, said raising the presidential flock has been a lot of fun for her and her family and a highlight of her career.

"With another year of uncertainties with the pandemic, this project has really been something to look forward to, and has been a joy to be able to participate in. I know the kids have really had a lot of fun raising the birds, especially dancing to loud music to get them ready for all the media attention on the big day," Welp said at a news conference Thursday, where the turkeys were first trotted out before the public.

After arriving in D.C., the two turkeys spent the day ahead of the pardoning having their feathers fluffed at the nearby five-star Willard Hotel.

"We do some extra prep to the room to make sure it's comfortable for them, putting down shavings and making sure their food and water is accessible," Beth Breeding, the spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation, told ABC News.

"We do our best to make sure that we leave the room cleaner than we even found it. We clean up afterwards and then we also work with the hotel to make sure the room is cleaned," she added.

History of Poultry Pardons

The origin of the presidential turkey pardons is a bit fuzzy. Unofficially, reports point all the way back to President Abraham Lincoln, who spared a bird from its demise at the urging of his son, Tad. However, White House Historical Association Historian Lina Mann warns the story may be more folklore than fact.

Following Lincoln's time in office, the White House was often gifted a bird for the holidays from Horace Vose, the "turkey king" of Rhode Island, sending his top turkey to 11 presidents over four decades -- though these turkeys were already slaughtered and dressed for the president's table, Mann says.

The true start of what has evolved into the current tradition has its roots in politics and dates back to the Truman presidency in 1947.

"There had been this government-led initiative called "poultry-less Thursdays" to try and conserve various foods in the aftermath of World War II," Mann said.

"But the poultry industry balked because Thursday was the day of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, and those were the big turkey holidays. So, they were outraged," she added.

After the White House was inundated with live birds sent as part of a "Hens for Harry" counterinitiative, the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board presented Truman with a turkey to smooth the ruffled feathers and highlight the turkey industry -- although the turkey was not saved from the holiday fest.

Instead, President John F. Kennedy began the trend of publicly sparing a turkey given to the White House in November 1963, just days before his assassination. In the years following, Mann says the event became a bit more sporadic, with even some first ladies like Pat Nixon and Rosalynn Carter stepping in to accept the guests of honor on their husband's behalf.

The tradition of the public sparing returned in earnest under the Reagan administration, but the official tradition of the poultry pardoning at the White House started in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush offered the first official presidential pardon.

"Let me assure you and this fine Tom Turkey that he will not end up on anyone's dinner table -- not this guy," Bush said on Nov. 17, 1989.

"He's granted a presidential pardon as of right now and ... allow him to live out his days on a children's farm not far from here," he added.

In the 32 years since, at least one lucky bird has gotten some extra gobbles each year.

After they receive the first pardons of Biden's presidency, Peanut Butter and Jelly will head back to Indiana to live out the rest of their lives at the Animal Sciences Research and Education Farm at Purdue University.

"Those folks who are going to be the next generation of leaders in our industry, so we're really excited to partner with Purdue on that and to make sure that the turkeys have a home where they're going to receive the highest quality of care," Breeding said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

House Democrats pass sweeping social spending, climate policy package


(WASHINGTON) -- After months of wrangling, House Democrats managed a big win Friday, passing their roughly $1.75 trillion social and climate spending package despite a Republican effort to delay the final vote.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, wearing white, announced the passage of President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better Act," with the vote falling largely along party lines at 220-213.

As the count crossed the threshold to pass, Democrats on the floor applauded and chanted "Build Back Better!" and "Nancy! Nancy!"

"If you're a mom, a dad, a family caregiver or the rest -- this bill is for you," Pelosi said in a news conference minutes later. "If you care about the planet and how we pass it on to our children, this bill is for you."

The social spending measure would generate the largest expansion to the social safety net in 50 years and contains $555 billion for climate and clean energy investments. It would:

  • reduce the cost of some prescription drugs
  • extend the child tax credit
  • provide universal pre-kindergarten for 3-and 4-year olds
  • allow four weeks of paid family and medical leave
  • build affordable housing
  • expand Medicare coverage
  • create "clean energy" jobs

Biden called Pelosi from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where is undergoing a physical, including a routine colonoscopy, to congratulate her.

"Above all, it puts us on the path to build our economy back better than before by rebuilding the backbone of America: working people and the middle class," Biden said in a statement. "For the second time in just two weeks, the House of Representatives has moved on critical and consequential pieces of my legislative agenda," he said.

Now that it's passed the House, the Senate is expected to amend the proposal in the coming weeks after the Thanksgiving recess as Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin have not committed to the package in its current form.

Rep. Jared Golden of Maine was the only Democrat to oppose the package, signaling opposition to a provision to raise the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes that could benefit high-earning homeowners. Democrats could afford to lose three votes and still pass the legislation. Not a single Republican supported it.

Since Democrats plan to pass the measure through reconciliation, a lengthy budget process that would not require them to have any Republican support since Democrats have a narrow majority in both chambers, the legislation -- months in the making -- still has a long way to go, including back to the House, before it would even hit Biden's desk.

Overnight, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., took to the floor for more than eight hours to rail against the bill and Democrats' agenda, breaking a record previously held by Pelosi for longest House floor speech, knocking Democrats off their plans to approve the measure late Thursday evening, in a show to his conference that he's fighting for the GOP on his quest to become speaker.

"I know some of you are mad at me and think I have spoken too long, but I've had enough. America has had enough," he said, rallying his conference after a week of intraparty tensions over his leadership as the party seeks to recapture the House.

When Pelosi took the floor on Friday morning ahead of a full floor vote, she took a swipe at McCarthy's lengthy speech.

"As a courtesy to my colleagues, I will be brief," she said, wearing an all-white suit to mark the occasion. Pelosi said Democrats are "proud to pass this legislation under President Joe Biden."

Earlier Thursday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the total Democratic package would add $160 billion to the national deficit over the next 10 years, an assessment requested by some moderate Democrats ahead of any vote to send the Build Back Better Act to the Senate.

Democratic leaders, progressives and most moderates have rallied around the package they said would make historic investments in fighting climate change, lower prescription drug prices, expand Medicare coverage and provide universal pre-kindergarten.

"Those of us who serve on this date will be able to tell our children and grandchildren we were there when the Congress passed one of the most transformational bills in the history of the Congress," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on Thursday.

Republicans, meanwhile, assailed Democrats over the scope and cost of the package -- given Biden's initial pledge that it would cost "zero dollars" -- and predicted it would further fuel inflation ahead of Thanksgiving.

Speaking through the night on the House floor, McCarthy repeatedly likened Biden to President Jimmy Carter, the one-term Democratic president who presided over inflation and rising gas prices in the late 1970s. Republicans repeatedly said Democrats were overstating their mandate from the 2020 election and argued that a Republican victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race earlier this month signaled unease with Democrats' spending plans.

"Nobody elected Joe Biden to be FDR," McCarthy said.

"I did!" Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., shouted.

The tone of floor debate was acrimonious, with tensions between Republicans and Democrats still running high after Democrats voted to censure Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., for posting a provocative cartoon video showing him killing Ocasio-Cortez and attacking Biden.

McCarthy was heckled repeatedly by Democrats over the course of his speech, and lawmakers shouted at each other from across the chamber.

"No one's listening!" Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, shouted at McCarthy at one point.

As Republicans and Democrats flitted in and out of the chamber and wandered around to stretch their legs, McCarthy riffed on everything from foreign policy and not being able to afford a Tesla, to the 1984 film "Red Dawn" and China's development of hypersonic missiles. He also lamented that former President Donald Trump did not win a Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the Abraham Accords.

Democrats mocked McCarthy's speech on social media, while Republicans cycled in and out of the chamber to fill the seats immediately behind the California Republican in a show of support.

Pelosi at a press conference on Thursday expressed confidence that with control of Congress hanging in the balance ahead of the midterm elections less than a year away, Democrats will be able to successfully sell their work to the American people -- and do so more effectively than they did in 2010 after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, due, in part, to Biden using the "bully pulpit."

Democratic members of Congress are also planning to hold 1,000 events before the end of the year to make clear to Americans what's in Biden's infrastructure plans.

"The messaging on it will be immediate, and it will be intense, and it will be eloquent, and it will make a difference," Pelosi said.

Giving remarks in Woodstock, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, Biden endorsed Pelosi's timeline to pass part two of his infrastructure agenda this week.

"I'm confident that the House is going to pass this bill. And when it passes, it will go to the Senate," Biden said. "I think we'll get it passed within a week."

McCarthy blasted Pelosi at his press conference on Thursday and said the reconciliation bill will "be the end of their Democratic majority."

While the already-passed bipartisan infrastructure law itself and its individual components -- rebuilding and repairing bridges, ports and roads, expanding broadband internet, and more -- are widely popular, a new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Americans aren't giving Biden credit for championing the law and getting it through Congress. The president's approval rating is at an all-time low at 41%.

Pelosi on Thursday tried to defend Democrats' "Build Back Better" proposal from criticism over a key tax provision that has angered some in the caucus. Some moderates and leading progressives have criticized plans to undo a cap on the state and local tax (SALT) deductions -- a reversal of Republicans' 2017 tax law -- popular in California, New York and New Jersey, given that the change would benefit wealthy suburban property owners.

The change would allow taxpayers to deduct up to $80,000 in state and local taxes from their federal tax returns after Republicans imposed a $10,000 cap on federal deductions four years ago.

A recent analysis from the Tax Policy Center found the SALT cap increase would primarily benefit the top 10% of income-earning Americans. About 70% of the tax benefit would go to the top 5% of earners, who make $366,000 a year or more, the analysis said.

"That's not about tax cuts for wealthy people. It's about services for the American people," Pelosi said. "This isn't about who gets a tax cut, it's about which states get the revenue they need to help the American people."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at her briefing Thursday that the White House was "comfortable" with the SALT cap increase being included in the version of the "Build Back Better" bill on which the House is expected to vote -- but she wouldn't say the president's excited it.

"This is a part of the bill that the president -- that has been proposed, that is important to key members, as you all know," Psaki said. "That's why it's in the package. The president's excitement about this is not about the SALT deduction. It's about the other key components of the package. And that's why we're continuing to press for it to move forward."

ABC News' Trish Turner and Mariam Khan contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Rejecting environmentalists' pleas, Biden administration plows ahead with oil lease auction

Oleg Albinsky/iStock

(WASHINGTON) -- The Biden administration auctioned off large swaths of federally owned waters in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars from oil and gas companies eager to begin drilling -- while stoking the ire of environmental groups.

The auction was held less than two weeks after President Joe Biden pushed countries around the world to make collective sacrifices for the sake of the planet at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

The timing was not lost on environmental groups, who called for a halt to Wednesday's auction -- and are now slamming the Biden administration for allowing it to happen.

"Today I woke up enraged, but not surprised, that Biden would choose to cater to fossil fuel corporations over our futures," said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, an environment-focused political group. "It speaks volumes that days after COP26 ... he is approving major lease sales in the Gulf rather than doing everything in his power to stop extracting more fossil fuels."

Wednesday's auction yielded hundreds of bids from more than 30 oil and gas companies -- including ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron -- who collectively dished out nearly $200 million for drilling rights in 1.7 million acres of the oil-rich Gulf.

Fossil fuel extraction of this type contributes to toxic gas emissions that are responsible for climate change -- a reality at odds with Biden's pledge to halve U.S. emissions by 2030.

The situation has put Biden administration officials on the defensive. Earlier this week, Interior Department Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau spoke at a panel discussion sponsored by the University of Chicago and tried to deflect criticism of the auction, describing it as a legal requirement engineered by the Trump administration.

"The fact is, the upcoming oil lease sale ... is part of the legacy system that we're here to reform," he said Monday.

Beaudreau did not directly address a question about why the administration had not done more to prevent the auction from taking place, but instead sought to cast blame on the Trump administration, which initially scheduled the lease sale.

"The administrative process for that lease sale had been completed during the previous administration," Beaudreau said. "It is not the way that we would prefer to do business."

Biden promised to end new drilling on federal lands during his presidential campaign, and in his first week in office he issued an executive order pausing the lease sales, pending a review of their environmental impact.

In June, however, a federal judge ordered the resumption of the lease sales, siding with 13 states that sued the administration for overstepping its authority.

The administration appealed the judge's ruling, but environmental groups say the appeal came too late to impact this lease sale.

Beaudreau said the judge's ruling left the administration "in a situation of, while we are fully committed to reforming the oil and gas program ... we have to deal with the litigation, and we have to deal with the terms that we inherited from the previous administration."

"It's beyond frustrating that the administration is forced choose between two awful options: a massive court-mandated and climate-damaging lease sale or violating a court order and having a cabinet Secretary held in contempt of court," said Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. "We absolutely must accelerate reform of the leasing program."

Other environmental groups were not so satisfied with the administration's explanation.

On Monday, protesters in New Orleans gathered to voice their discontent with the sale. In Washington, D.C., activists projected messages onto the Interior Department building, including "The Gulf is Not For Sale" and "Biden: Keep Your Promise."

Environmental organizations also collected more than 100,000 signatures on a petition calling on Biden to uphold his commitment to ending new leasing for offshore oil and gas, which it planned to share with the administration.

A coalition of environmental groups is suing the administration to prevent the oil leases from taking effect, which the government said will occur on Jan. 1.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Republican governors embrace Youngkin playbook as winning model for midterms

Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

(PHOENIX) -- Republican governors are anything but "tired of winning," and in Phoenix at the annual Republican Governors Association conference, it became clear that may not be the only point on which the party and the former president diverge.

Fresh off a national upset win in Virginia and a near-miss in New Jersey, the group of high-profile Republican governors and their strategists are now tasked with replicating their momentum across the map in some of the most highly competitive midterm races in decades -- a goal actively complicated by former President Donald Trump's continued endorsement of primary challengers to incumbent governors who have fallen out of his personal favor. And plans on how they navigate the minefield of remaining undistracted by Trump while not alienating him or his supporters remain fuzzy.

Rather than embracing or denouncing the former president, the over a dozen governors present who spoke publicly at the conference stressed that their path to winning lies in drilling down on issues-based campaigning -- focusing on things like increasing police funding, combatting higher taxes, curbing immigration, ensuring election security, allowing parents a bigger role in public schools and other cultural issues like so-called "critical race theory."

And to the highly confident Republican Governors Association, there is no more perfect blueprint than freshly-elected Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, who pulled off a gubernatorial win in a reliable blue state in part by nationalizing local issues while keeping the former president, and his continued gripes surrounding the 2020 election, at arm's length.

"Before Glen Youngkin, there were 27 sitting republican governors. Today there are 28. We are the only majority Republican caucus in the country. Now, we certainly believe that the United States Senate at the House of Representatives can become majority institutions in 2022," said RGA chairman Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona. "We saw a road map in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And whatever happens after 2022 will be decided after 2022."

Ducey side-stepped questions of whether the association was concerned that incumbent candidates might lose their seats due to Trump's involvement.

"We believe that our incumbents across the country deserve reelection," he said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon. "Now ultimately, we may believe they deserve reelection, but that will be left to the people of fill in the blank, whatever state they are participating in."

Ducey himself has been a high-profile target of Trump's ire, despite being term limited. Trump has previously called Ducey an "unelectable RINO" and endorsed vocal Ducey-critic Kari Lake for Arizona governor. Ducey has not definitively shut the door on a run for Senate -- a move Trump would no doubt condemn -- though he previously said he had no intention of running. Trump has also endorsed GOP challengers in Idaho, Massachusetts and openly mocked sitting GOP Govs. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Brian Kemp of Georgia.

Still, Ducey declined to paint Trump's involvement as problematic to the RGA.

"We make decisions state by state, race by race," he said. "We don't fund landslides. We don't fund losers...I will also say the RGA follows the eleventh commandment: we do not speak ill of another Republican."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said it's a matter of contrasting with Democrats.

"The reasons why Republicans will win even more governorships in this next election cycle is because we will continue to show the contrast of where Republican governors stand versus the leftist progressive agenda that is espoused and promoted by President Biden himself," he said.

RGA executive director Dave Rexrode sees vulnerability among Biden's coalition, particularly among the blue collar electorate Biden championed during the campaign.

"More working-class democratic voters are souring on Biden and Democrats at a faster pace. We certainly saw that in Virginia -- that working-class Democratic group is working quickly against the president," Rexrode said.

Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting last week, former RGA chair Chris Christie stressed that turning away from Trump, and other 2020 baggage, is the only way the party can see massive gains.

"We can no longer talk about the past and the past elections. No matter where you stand on that issue, no matter where you stand, it is over. And every minute that we spend talking about 2020, while we're wasting time doing that, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are laying ruin to this country. We better focus on that and take our eyes off the rearview mirror and start looking through the windshield again," he said.

During a press conference Wednesday evening, a slew of Republican governors did not address whether Christie's stance is the right one.

Only Youngkin, the party's winning template, chimed in.

"I fundamentally campaigned on looking forward and not looking backward," he said.

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