House progressives isolate themselves with an ill-advised take on Ukraine
In a letter to President Biden, a group of 30 lawmakers called for a shift in US foreign policy. (It wasn’t received well.) Plus: Updates on Brittney Griner, student loans and the COVID vaccine.
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In today’s post, an update on the Biden administration’s student loan debt plan following an order from a St. Louis-based federal court pumped the brakes on the program in a ruling late last Friday. Plus, I unpack a devastating misjudgment on the war in Ukraine by a group of House progressives and preview the new actions President Biden will announce after he receives his updated vaccine.
But first, some terrible, albeit expected, news: Brittney Griner’s appeal against a nine-year sentence for possession of less than a gram of cannabis oil in February was rejected.
Griner is now expected to serve her time in a Russian penal colony where prisoners are exiled in a remote location from the general population.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the administration is aware of the news and that the White House has continued to engage with Russia through every available channel and make every effort to bring home Brittney as well as to support and advocate for other Americans detained in Russia — including Paul Whelan, another wrongful detainee.
“The president has demonstrated that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home, as his administration has done successfully from countries around the world,” Sullivan added. “The administration remains in regular touch with representatives of the families, and we continue to admire their courage in the face of these unimaginable circumstances.”
Although Griner’s sentence was upheld, the time she will have to serve will take her time in pre-trial detention into account: One day in pre-trial detention will be counted as 1.5 days in prison, which means she’ll have to serve close to eight years in prison unless she is released in a prisoner swap.
Griner’s wife Cherelle said to CBS’s Gayle King last month that Brittney has hit “rock bottom” of late but said she believes President Joe Biden is doing all he can to secure her release.
A senior administration official told me earlier this month that the White House an open line of communication with the families of wrongful detainees is critical.
“I can say in every case I have had involvement with, the families have been tireless advocates for their loved ones and doing what is best for their family member or loved one has been their paramount concern, the official said.”
White House takes a business-as-usual approach to its student loan debt plan
The Biden administration is charging full speed ahead in implementing its student debt relief plan within the guidelines of a ruling by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that prohibits the administration from canceling any student loan debt until the court rules on an emergency request by six Republican-led states to block the program.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday told reporters that despite the brief setback, the temporary order doesn’t prevent borrowers from applying for student loan relief. It also doesn’t reverse the lower court’s dismissal of the case or suggest that the challenge has any merit — it just prevents debt from being canceled until the court makes a decision.
The White House had indicated it would start canceling debt as soon as this past Sunday prior to the court’s ruling.
In the meantime, the Education Department is continuing to review the 22 million applications it has already received as of last Friday and preparing them for transmission to loan servicers. (The agency estimates more than 40 million Americans will be eligible to receive some amount of cancelation.)
“The president’s message to borrowers is to apply for student debt relief at StudentAid.gov if they haven’t already. He will continue to fight efforts by Republican officials to block relief from getting to middle-class families,” Jean-Pierre said. “It’s not going to stop our message. We know that there are opponents who don’t want us to help middle-class Americans. But that’s not going to stop us.”
In its lawsuit, Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas and South Carolina claims that the program is illegal because they will lose tax revenue from federal student loans that are held by state-based institutions.
The White House argues that a 2003 law known as HEROES Act gives the Education Department broad authority during national emergencies to take action like canceling student loan debt because millions of borrowers who had their payments paused during the pandemic would fall behind once the payment freeze ends in January.
Jean-Pierre declined to comment on whether President Biden is extending the pause on federal student loan payments, which expire at the end of the year.
“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. We have to see where the process goes,” she said. “So we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves from here.”
The court’s decision came hours after President Biden traveled to Delaware State University to promote his plan — and call out Republicans who oppose it.
“I will never apologize for helping working- and middle-class Americans as they recover from the pandemic, especially not to the same Republicans officials who voted for a $2 trillion tax cut [in 2017] that mainly benefitted the wealthy Americans and the biggest corporations that wasn’t paid for and racked up our deficit,” Biden said. “I don’t want to hear it from MAGA Republicans who had hundreds of thousands of dollars of debts, even millions of dollars in pandemic relief loans forgiven who now are attacking me for helping working-class and middle-class Americans.”
Biden also glowingly spoke about how he wanted to avoid the nightmare application process he and former President Barack Obama endured when the Affordable Care Act marketplaces opened up more than a decade ago.
“My commitment when I ran for President of the United States: that if I was elected, I’d make the government work and deliver for the people,” he said. “A simple application process keeps that commitment, just as I’m keeping my commitment to relieve student debt as borrowers recover from the economic crisis caused by the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.”
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House progressives go against US foreign policy in an unforced error
From the start of the war in Ukraine eight months ago, the message from the White House has been “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.”
Sure, the administration would provide the country with the military and economic assistance it needed to defend itself against Russia’s invasion and respond to the humanitarian crisis it’s caused. But as far as the terms and timing for which the war will end? That’s up to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine to decide as the leader of a sovereign nation.
In a letter to President Biden, 30 lawmakers, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who chairs the left-leaning Congressional Progressive Caucus, called on the administration to make future US military and economic assistance conditional with Ukraine entering peace talks with Russia — just weeks after Ukraine executed a successful counteroffensive that reshaped the contours of the war and days after Russia falsely accused Ukraine of preparing a dirty bomb in what the intelligence community views as a bad-faith pretext to escalate the war yet again.
The letter met swift resistance from the administration, members of Congress and pundits who viewed it as antithetical to US foreign policy and beneficial to both President Vladimir Putin of Russia who would want nothing more than to be bailed out for his battlefield miscalculations by a premature peace settlement and House Republicans who have indicated they’ll be more skeptical of future requests for aid to Ukraine if they reclaim the majority in two weeks.
Rep. Jayapal released a follow-up letter hours later attempting to clean up the mess but the damage had already been done. It’s too bad: The Progressive Caucus is coming off a two-year stretch during which it established itself as a legitimate governing body that could shape the Democratic Party’s agenda. Monday’s mishap not only pours cold water on this progress but also could complicate Jayapal’s pursuit of a loftier leadership position in the next Congress.
A spokesperson for the Progressive Caucus did not respond to a request for additional comment.
White House officials are frustrated because mixed messages like the one put forward in the letter only complicate the president’s high-wire act of unifying members of Congress and the American people in support of Ukraine at home while rallying a jittery coalition of international allies and partners against a conflict with what seems like no immediate end in sight.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby on Monday reiterated the administration’s position that the US would not have conversations with Russian leadership without the Ukrainians being represented and that while President Zelenskyy would like to find an end to the war, he doesn’t believe now is the time to negotiate with Putin.
“So we respect his opinion on that; he's the Commander in Chief. What we're going to stay focused on is making sure that he and his troops can succeed on the battlefield so that if and when it comes time to sit down at the table Mr. Zelenskyy can succeed,” Kirby said. “And Mr. Zelenskyy gets to determine when he thinks that's the right time, and Mr. Zelenskyy gets to determine because it's his country, what success looks like, what victory looks and what sort of terms you'd be willing to negotiate on. We're not going to dictate that.”
Biden to get another COVID boost
President Biden will receive his updated COVID vaccine this afternoon in what he hopes will serve as a signal to people that the free booster is safe, effective and widely available as more subvariants arise ahead of the winter.
The updated bivalent vaccine is designed to target both the original version of COVID as well as the Omicron variants that are currently circulating. Based on everything the White House says these updated vaccines should provide a much higher level of protection against infection, transmission, serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths.
Biden’s latest jab comes after he and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden were infected with the virus this summer. Public health officials recommend waiting three months after infection to receive an updated vaccine.
The president will also speak about his administration’s ongoing response to the virus and the work public health officials have put in to mobilize pharmacies to reach more Americans and encourage them to receive their updated COVID-19 vaccine in advance of the holiday season. The actions he’ll announce will include:
The #VaxUpAmerica Family tour, a new initiative from the Health and Human Services Department to encourage families to get the updated COVID-19 vaccine for maximum protection going into the winter.
A second email reminder to the 16 million people who have signed up to receive Medicare emails with information about the updated COVID-19 vaccines and how to get them.
A Walgreens partnership with Uber and DoorDash to provide free delivery of prescriptions of Paxlovid, an oral COVID-19 treatment, to Americans living in underserved communities.
Biden will be joined by leaders of Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid and Albertson’s, along with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Chief Medical Advisor to the President Dr. Anthony Fauci, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha.
A White House official said that Biden will also renew his call for business, educational and civic leaders to encourage their communities to receive their updated vaccines and keep their communities safe. The administration released a playbook with recommendations for businesses to manage the virus and keep their workers safe, including making the new vaccine accessible to their workforce, educating workers on COVID-19 treatment options like oral antiviral pills and how to get them, and improving air quality across buildings.
The public response to the updated vaccine was tepid when it launched early last month. But Jean-Pierre told reporters that the administration has seen encouraging trends: In the first three weeks the vaccine was available, about 7.5 million people got the shot; in the last three weeks, the number is up to 12 million, a nearly 60 percent increase. Half of the shots have gone to older adults with almost 10 million or nearly one-in-five who have already gotten the updated vaccine.
But this progress, the White House says, is unsustainable without additional funding from Congress. After the federal government’s winter campaign to promote the updated vaccine, the administration will run out of money. The administration has had an open request for $22 billion for COVID response and preparedness that congressional Republicans have overwhelmingly opposed and said it will continue to press Congress to approve more resources in future spending bills.
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