The House voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, sending President Biden legislation to enshrine June 19 as the national day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
One day after the Senate rushed the measure through with no debate, the House approved it by a vote of 415 to 14, with 14 Republicans opposed. Mr. Biden is expected to sign it.
Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery and is also known as Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day and Juneteenth Independence Day. Its name stems from June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, issued General Order No. 3, which announced that in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation, “all slaves are free.” Months later, the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery in the final three border states that had not been subjected to President Abraham Lincoln’s order.
“Juneteenth celebrates African American freedom while encouraging self-development and respect for all cultures,” Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas and a lead sponsor of the legislation, said on the House floor, standing beside a poster of an enslaved man whose back showed the scars of whip lashes. “These are the brutal backs upon which the whip went over and over and over again.”
Representative Guy Reschenthaler, the Pennsylvania Republican who led the floor debate for his party, said he was supporting the bill as a way to carry on the tradition of American soldiers who fought in the Civil War to end slavery.
But many Republicans opposed it. Representative Matt Rosendale of Montana said the measure was an effort by “the left” to “make Americans feel bad and convince them that our country is evil.”
The push to designate Juneteenth as a national holiday had been building for years. But it came on suddenly in the Senate on Tuesday, when Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, who had been the lone impediment to passing the bill, dropped his objection.
The senator had raised concerns about the estimated $600 million cost of providing another paid holiday for federal employees and suggested ending an existing national holiday to make room for the new one. His move gained no traction, and he eventually relented.
Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, showing some flexibility on major voting rights legislation, indicated on Wednesday that he opposed the blanket prohibition on all voter identification laws in the Senate Democrats’ current version and would not support public financing of elections.
But he expressed support for statutory expansions of early and mail-in voting that would turn back dozens of voting restriction laws that have passed or are nearing passage in Republican legislatures in key states like Georgia, Florida and Texas.
He also suggested privately this week that he was working to alleviate pressure to end the legislative filibuster — a move that he has publicly promised to oppose — even though not even his version of a voting rights measure could overcome a Republican blockade.
For weeks, fellow Democrats have complained that Mr. Manchin would not say precisely what he needed — or needed to jettison — to get his signature as the 50th co-sponsor of the voting legislation, also known as S1. Instead, he simply said that he wanted a Republican to back the bill, thus making it bipartisan.
On Wednesday, he responded to that criticism with an exhaustive list of provisions for a voting rights, ethics and campaign finance bill that he could support. For Democrats, there was much to like. Mr. Manchin said he wanted Election Day to be a public holiday. He wants at least 15 consecutive days of early voting, including two weekends; a ban on partisan gerrymandering and the use of computer models to tailor House districts to a candidate’s political party; and a requirement that states send mail-in absentee ballots to eligible voters if they are unable to vote in person, among several other provisions to expand ballot access.
His provision would scale back the For the People Act’s mandated “no excuse” absentee ballot access, but remains broad.
On ethics, he would maintain many of S1’s efforts to address the abuses of President Donald J. Trump, including the mandatory release of presidential and vice-presidential tax returns, and the divestiture of all presidential business and financial interests within 30 days of taking office.
His campaign finance changes are not as far-reaching as those in the Democratic bill, but he would mandate disclosure of donors to “dark money” political committees and stronger rules to expose who is paying for social media advertising.
Together, Mr. Manchin’s proposals would make a significant bill, perhaps the biggest expansion of voting rights since passage of the Voting Rights Act.
“A good voting bill has to be accessible. It has to be fair and it has to be secure,” the senator told reporters on Wednesday.
But as long as 10 Republicans would be needed to break a filibuster, the Manchin version would have no chance of passage.
In a Zoom call reported by The Intercept, Mr. Manchin told the affluent financial supporters of the centrist group No Labels that he still hoped to preserve the filibuster, but that he needed some Republicans to help him prove that bipartisanship could still survive the toxic atmosphere in Congress.
Focusing on the filibuster of a bill to create a bipartisan commission to examine the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, he told the group he needed help persuading three more Senate Republicans to join Democrats to allow it to move forward. He appeared to suggest that some of the business people on the call dangle job opportunities before Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, who is retiring, to entice him to change his position.
“Roy Blunt is a great, just a good friend of mine, a great guy,” Mr. Manchin was heard saying. “Roy is retiring. If some of you all who might be working with Roy in his next life could tell him, ‘That’d be nice and it’d help our country,’ that would be very good to get him to change his vote. And we’re going to have another vote on this thing. That’ll give me one more shot at it.”
Efforts to strike a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure gained traction in Congress on Wednesday, as a group of 10 moderate senators announced that support had doubled for a framework they have not yet made public.
As those lawmakers rallied support for the unfinished plan — expected to total about $1.2 trillion over eight years for roads, bridges and other physical infrastructure, including roughly $579 billion in new spending — other Senate Democrats moved forward with a parallel effort to pass President Biden’s more ambitious proposals without Republican votes.
The two tracks, discussed in a series of meetings across Capitol Hill, will be critical as the administration and congressional Democrats work to enact Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda.
The 10 moderate senators — led in part by Rob Portman of Ohio and Mitt Romney of Utah, both Republicans, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, a Democrat — huddled with a broader bipartisan group on Wednesday. Soon after, the group joined five Democrats and six Republicans in professing support for “this bipartisan framework that provides an historic investment in our nation’s core infrastructure needs without raising taxes.”
They offered no details, though the plan is widely expected to address roads, highways, bridges, broadband and other areas that fit a more narrow definition of infrastructure than what the president proposed. How to finance it remains a hurdle.
“I know that my chief of staff thinks that there’s some room — there may be a means by which to get this done, and I know that Schumer and Nancy have moved forward on a reconciliation provision as well,” Mr. Biden told reporters, referring to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. “So I’m still hoping we can put together the two bookends here.”
Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council; Steve Ricchetti, a top adviser to President Biden; and Louisa Terrell, the director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, met with five Democratic senators to discuss the plan, a meeting that attendees described as positive.
“It was great,” Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said as he left. “Once again, maybe trying to prove conventional wisdom wrong.”
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the White House, said the administration officials had found the meeting “productive and encouraging” and would brief Mr. Biden on Thursday.
At the same time, Mr. Schumer hosted a separate meeting with the 11 Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee to discuss starting the fast-track budget process known as reconciliation, which shields fiscal measures from filibusters, allowing them to pass with a simple majority vote.
“We had a great first discussion,” he told reporters afterward. “I think there was universal agreement — we have a lot of things they have to do to help the American people, and we have to have unity to do it. Everyone has to listen to one another.”
Republicans largely oppose many of Mr. Biden’s infrastructure proposals, including tax increases, measures to combat climate change, and funds for child care and home care. Using reconciliation would require nearly every House Democrat and all 50 senators who caucus with Democrats to remain united, and some want the bipartisan process to play out.
“I do believe there has to be a reconciliation vehicle, but if there can be a bipartisan bill on some chunks of it, why not?” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, told reporters. “That would be great.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent in charge of the Budget Committee, and other liberal Democrats want to move forward with a sweeping package that would include more funding than Republicans are comfortable with.
“This is the moment that we have to start addressing issues that have been neglected for a very long time,” Mr. Sanders said before the meeting with Mr. Schumer, adding that Mr. Biden had “given us a very good framework with which to work.”
President Biden and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia emerged from their first in-person summit Wednesday and offered broad claims of good will, but it was clear that on issues ranging from cyberattacks to human rights, the two countries remain profoundly divided.
“There has been no hostility,” Mr. Putin said as he met with reporters after the summit in Geneva. “On the contrary, our meeting took place in a constructive spirit.”
For his part, Mr. Biden said, “The tone of the entire meeting was good, positive.”
But the tensions remained evident.
Mr. Putin denied that Russia has played a role in a spate of increasingly bold cyberattacks against U.S. institutions and said it was the United States that is the biggest offender.
The Russian leader also appeared to give short shrift to what Mr. Biden had said was a key objective of the talks: to establish some “guardrails” that would make some kinds of attacks on critical infrastructure off limits in peacetime.
Mr. Biden said that he had pressed the Russian president on a variety of issues — and that he would not stop doing so.
“I made it clear to President Putin that we’ll continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights,” he said.
“I did what I came to do,” Mr. Biden said.
He expressed optimism that Mr. Putin would not seek to escalate the tensions between the two nations.
“The last thing he wants now is a cold war,” Mr. Biden said, noting that “we have significant cyber-capabilities, and he knows it.”
The high-stakes diplomatic engagement came at the end of a whirlwind weeklong European tour for Mr. Biden in which he sought to rebuild the traditional alliances that often bolstered the United States’ position during the Cold War.
Mr. Biden has argued that the world is at an “inflection point,” with an existential battle underway between democracy and autocracy. But with Mr. Putin at the vanguard of the autocrats, the American leader faced criticism from some quarters for even taking part in the summit.
Sensitive to the dangers of appearing to embrace the Russian leader, the White House insisted that both men hold separate news conferences after the three-hour meeting. Mr. Putin spoke first.
There were signs of easing tensions.
Mr. Putin said the two nations had agreed that their ambassadors, who both returned to their home countries amid the tensions, should return to their posts in the near future. He said they would also begin “consultations” on cyber-related issues.
“We believe the sphere of cybersecurity is extremely important for the world in general — including for the United States, and for Russia to the same degree,” he said.
Mr. Putin, who flew in from Sochi, Russia, arrived first for the summit at an 18th-century Swiss villa perched above Lake Geneva. A short time later, Mr. Biden’s motorcade pulled up as Russian, American and Swiss flags waved in the breeze under a blue sky with the United States entourage.
The two leaders were greeted by President Guy Parmelin of Switzerland, who welcomed them to Geneva, “the city of peace.”
“I wish you both presidents a fruitful dialogue in the interest of your two countries and the world,” he said.
During the Cold War, the prospect of nuclear annihilation led to historic treaties and a framework that kept the world from blowing itself up. At this meeting, for the first time, cyberweapons — with their own huge potential to wreak havoc — were at the center of the agenda.
But Mr. Putin’s comments to the media suggested the two leaders did not find much common ground.
In addition to his denials that Russia had played a destabilizing role in cyberspace, he also took a hard line on human rights in Russia.
He said Mr. Biden had raised the issue, but struck the same defiant tone on the matter in his news conference as he has in the past. The United States, Mr. Putin said, supports opposition groups in Russia to weaken the country, since it sees Russia as an adversary.
“If Russia is the enemy, then what organizations will America support in Russia?” Mr. Putin asked. “I think that it’s not those who strengthen the Russian Federation, but those that contain it — which is the publicly announced goal of the United States.”
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland reversed on Wednesday Trump-era immigration rulings that had made it all but impossible for people to seek asylum in the United States over credible fears of domestic abuse or gang violence, marking one of the Justice Department’s most significant breaks with the previous administration.
His decisions came in closely watched cases where his predecessors, the former attorneys general Jeff Sessions and William P. Barr, broke with precedent to overturn decisions by immigration appeals judges that would have allowed such asylum claims.
The decisions — applicable to all cases in the system, including appeals — will affect tens of thousands of migrants. Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing gang extortion and recruitment and women fleeing domestic abuse have arrived in the United States since 2013, and many cases are still being adjudicated, given an enormous backlog in immigration courts.
In vacating the Trump administration’s stance, Mr. Garland said that the Justice Department should follow the earlier precedent.
In a closely watched case known as A-B for the initials of the woman seeking asylum. The department’s Board of Immigration Appeals found in 2016 that she was part of a particular social group, saying that the government of El Salvador does little to protect people in violent relationships. That assessment qualified the woman for asylum, but Mr. Sessions overruled the appeals board.
Attorneys general can overturn decisions made by immigration judges because immigration courts are housed under the Justice Department, not the judicial branch.
The move is one of the Justice Department’s most significant reversals of a Trump-era policy. Earlier it defended the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, a position that officials had abandoned during the previous administration. The department also sided with unions in a case that could affect restrictions on organizing workers.
Proponents of asylum seekers cheered Mr. Garland’s latest reversal.
“We’re really heartened by this decision,” said Karen Musalo, a lawyer representing one of the asylum seekers and a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. “It restores the possibility of protection to those whose very lives are in the balance.”
Mr. Garland has also continued some Trump administration policies and case positions, prompting some Democrats to criticize him as overly cautious.
Mr. Garland has defended those moves, saying that it was important to uphold Trump-era positions on cases if they reflected an impartial reading of the law.
Progressive groups are stepping up calls for Justice Stephen G. Breyer to “immediately” retire from the Supreme Court and allow President Biden to nominate a successor while Democrats control the Senate, which approves judicial nominees.
In an advertisement to be released on Friday, 18 legal scholars will describe Justice Breyer as “a remarkable jurist” but say “it is time” for him to announce his retirement. Another advertisement — endorsed by 13 progressive groups, including Black Lives Matter, Women’s March and Battle Born Collective — was released on Wednesday.
“President Biden must have the opportunity to nominate a successor without delay and fulfill his pledge to put the first Black woman on the Supreme Court,” that advertisement read.
At 82, Justice Breyer is the court’s oldest justice, and has served as a member of its liberal wing for nearly 27 years. He has thus far appeared to resist calls to step down from his life tenure, frustrating Democrats who argue that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a terrible miscalculation in deciding not to retire under President Barack Obama, when she was in her early 80s. Justice Ginsburg died in September, allowing President Donald J. Trump to name her successor and shift the Supreme Court to the right.
The ad campaigns — one appearing in the print edition of The New York Times and the other in Politico — came just days after Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, threatened to block any Supreme Court nominee put forth by Mr. Biden in 2024 if the Republican Party regains control of the Senate next year. Both were funded by Demand Justice, a progressive advocacy group that was created after the 2016 presidential election and the Republican stonewalling of Mr. Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee.
“Anyone who still doubted that Stephen Breyer not retiring could end in disaster should pay attention to Mitch McConnell’s recent comments,” said Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice. “If Republicans regain control of the Senate before Breyer’s replacement is confirmed, the court’s legitimacy and our democracy will be at even greater risk.”
Justice Breyer has been adamant that politics should play no role in judges’ work and recently suggested that it should also not figure into their decisions about when to retire.
“My experience of more than 30 years as a judge has shown me that, once men and women take the judicial oath, they take the oath to heart,” he said in a lecture at Harvard Law School in April. “They are loyal to the rule of law, not to the political party that helped to secure their appointment.”
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who announced last week a vague ambition to pick up where former President Donald J. Trump left off and complete the construction of a multibillion-dollar wall along the border with Mexico, revealed on Wednesday how he planned to pay for it: Donations.
Flanked by lawmakers at the State Capitol, Mr. Abbott, a Republican who has found himself defending his conservative credentials in recent months, encouraged people to donate on a state website to help fund the project. He also said he would set aside $250 million from the state’s general revenue as a down payment and hire a program manager who would determine the total cost of the project and the length of the wall.
But he was short on other details, saying they would emerge later, and his announcement was dismissed by critics and immigration advocates as political theater and an obvious attempt to appease right-leaning voters before his re-election campaign next year.
Right-leaning voters in neighboring border states, like Arizona, have pursued donation campaigns, but all previous efforts eventually went nowhere, including one in 2019 launched by an Air Force veteran that raised $25 million but ended in scandal.
Advocacy groups said legal challenges were likely if Mr. Abbott pushed forward.
Five years after a gunman attacked a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., killing 49 people and wounding dozens more, Congress has adopted legislation to formally designate the site as the National Pulse Memorial.
President Biden has said he plans to sign the legislation, “enshrining in law what has been true since that terrible day five years ago: Pulse nightclub is hallowed ground.”
The legislation, H.R. 49, named for the number of people killed in the rampage on June 12, 2016, is largely ceremonial and is part of an effort to transform the former site of the Pulse nightclub at 1912 South Orange Avenue into a permanent memorial that will feature a reflecting pool encircling the Pulse building and a nearby museum with vertical gardens, public plazas and a rooftop promenade.
The federal legislation specifies that the national memorial will not accept federal funds and will not be part of the National Park system.
“It is so meaningful to everyone here,” Barbara Poma, the former owner of the Pulse nightclub, said of the memorial designation by Congress. “This is such a huge, I believe, sign to the community, the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community, that what happened at Pulse matters and it will never be forgotten.”
The Justice Department has closed its criminal investigation into whether a disparaging memoir by President Donald J. Trump’s national security adviser John R. Bolton illegally disclosed classified information, and it is finalizing a deal to drop its lawsuit aimed at recouping profits from the book, according to two people briefed on the matter.
The agreement would end an effort that began under the Trump administration to silence Mr. Bolton and sue him over the book’s profits. Ending both the inquiry and the lawsuit is a clear rebuke by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland of the Trump Justice Department’s tactics in the matter.
Though the details of the agreement are unclear, it is likely to shield Trump administration officials from being forced to answer questions under oath about their time in office. A federal judge had given Mr. Bolton’s lawyer, Charles J. Cooper, approval to begin deposing those officials, but a settlement would end that litigation.
Relying on detailed accounts from Mr. Bolton’s tenure as national security adviser, his book depicted Mr. Trump as a corrupt leader who put his personal and financial interests above the country’s national security. Released last June, it immediately became a best seller and fed a damaging narrative about Mr. Trump during his re-election campaign.
The Education Department said on Wednesday that transgender students were protected under Title IX, a law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools, reversing a Trump-era policy that effectively had said the opposite.
“We just want to double down on our expectations,” Miguel A. Cardona, the education secretary, said in an interview. “Students cannot be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity.”
The decision was rooted in a Supreme Court ruling last year that determined that protections in the Civil Rights Act against discrimination in the workplace extended to gay and transgender people, and similar interpretations of the ruling have appeared in agencies throughout President Biden’s government. His administration has conducted a sweeping effort to rescind, revise or revoke a number of Trump-era policies that rolled back transgender rights.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services have all issued guidance affirming the rights of transgender Americans, using the court’s ruling as a template.
But the Education Department’s announcement does not change the process of reporting or investigating individual cases of discrimination, Mr. Cardona said. And it is unclear how far the new interpretation of the ruling will go to address legislative efforts to restrict rights based on gender identity. That includes dozens of bills introduced by Republicans across the country to bar transgender girls from playing sports.
“The reality is each case has to be investigated individually,” Mr. Cardona said. Schools, he added, should “not wait for complaints to come to address these issues.”
Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday met with Democratic members of the Texas Legislature who successfully staved off a voter restriction bill in their state last month, calling the group “American patriots” who had fought to preserve a fundamental democratic right.
“What we are seeing are examples of an attempt to marginalize and take from people, a right that has already been given. We are not asking for the bestowal of a right. We are talking about the preservation,” Ms. Harris told the group in remarks delivered in the Roosevelt Room. “That is the right of citizenship. And it’s that fundamental.”
It was the first high-profile meeting on the issue that Ms. Harris has hosted since President Biden named her the leader of the administration’s broad efforts to protect voting rights, an issue that Mr. Biden feels is central to his legacy. In a call with reporters before the meeting, three senior administration officials said the vice president was personally invested in the issue, and directly sees herself as a beneficiary of laws, including the Voting Rights Act, that have protected the right to vote.
The officials did not provide a concrete answer when asked how Ms. Harris’s convening of Texas Democrats could help the White House stake out a stronger position should Republicans in the state remain united to pass an election bill, as they have vowed to do this summer.
But the White House has repeatedly signaled that Ms. Harris will be using the “bully pulpit” of the vice presidency to bring attention to bills introduced in Republican-led statehouses across the country that are designed to eat away at voting protections. During a visit to Greenville, S.C., on Monday, Ms. Harris hosted a listening session with local activists to discuss what they are doing to get more people registered to vote, a key tactic that administration officials say will help counteract the restrictive laws at the local level.
“When we look at these attempts to infringe on people’s access to voting, we know that it is going to impact people,” Ms. Harris said in the Roosevelt Room. “Americans with disabilities, seniors, students, people of every walk of life.”
Two weeks ago, the Democrats in the Texas Legislature staged a dramatic, late-night walkout to force the failure of a sweeping Republican overhaul of state election laws. With two expansive pieces of voting-rights legislation facing bleak odds in the Senate, and Texas Republicans vowing to pass an elections bill anyway, the group has used the newfound attention to call for federal voting protections.
Yesterday, as part of a series of meetings designed to rally support for an expansive piece of federal legislation on voting, Senate Democrats invited the legislators to lunch to push for the bill. But a key invitee did not attend: Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who has disparaged the bill, called the For the People Act, as too partisan, skipped the meeting.
In her own meeting, Ms. Harris took issue with the criticism that protecting voting rights was a partisan endeavor.
“We’re not telling people how to vote,” Ms. Harris said. “And, frankly, this is not a Democratic or a Republican issue; this is an American issue. This is an American issue.”
The Federal Election Commission has dismissed a complaint by an ally of President Donald J. Trump accusing the Democratic Party and one of its former consultants of violating campaign finance laws by working with Ukraine to help Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign by damaging Mr. Trump’s.
A rare bipartisan decision, the commission voted against pursuing a complaint filed in 2017 by Matthew G. Whitaker, a former federal prosecutor and staunch defender of Mr. Trump, who was later appointed acting attorney general.
He filed the complaint after Mr. Trump and his White House began publicly calling for investigations of the Democrats’ outreach to Ukraine in an effort to deflect attention from revelations that Mr. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign advisers met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.
Mr. Whitaker claimed that the Democratic National Committee and a consultant, Alexandra Chalupa, violated a prohibition on foreign donations by soliciting damaging information and statements from Ukrainian government officials about Paul Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman at the time.
The commission’s general counsel recommended that commissioners find probable cause to support Mr. Whitaker’s allegation. But the commission, which is composed of three members selected by each party, voted 4 to 2 in April that there was not probable cause to believe that Ms. Chalupa and the Democratic National Committee broke the law, according to documents released Wednesday.
In a statement accompanying the decision, three Republicans who voted to dismiss the case added that they had “grave constitutional and prudential concerns” about the general counsel’s reading of the law, which they cast as an overreach. Ms. Chalupa’s communication with the Ukrainian embassy, they wrote, “did not ask that Ukrainian officials convey a thing of value within the meaning of a ‘contribution’ to the D.N.C.”
The United States averted the most dire predictions about what the pandemic would do to the housing market. An eviction wave never materialized. The share of people behind on mortgages, after falling steadily for months, recently hit its prepandemic level.
But a comprehensive report on housing conditions over the past year makes clear that while one crisis is passing, another is growing much worse.
Like the broader economy, the housing market is split on divergent tracks, according to the annual State of the Nation’s Housing Report released on Wednesday by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. While one group of households is rushing to buy homes with savings built during the pandemic, another is being locked out of ownership as prices march upward — and those who bore the brunt of pandemic job losses remain saddled with debt and in danger of losing their homes.
For the past year, lower-income tenants have relied heavily on government support to pay their monthly bills. These measures have helped — about a third of renters used unemployment or stimulus payments to pay rent at some point during the pandemic — but the majority of renters still had to borrow or draw on savings to cover bills.
As the U.S. job market recovers and businesses and schools move toward normal operation, political leaders are debating how fast to pull back emergency supports. That includes eviction moratoriums that, despite ample loopholes and patchy enforcement, were instrumental in keeping tenants in their homes.
At the peak last year, the majority of states and several large cities including New York, Los Angeles and Seattle had some sort of heightened eviction protection in place, though the degree of protection varied widely. Many of those safeguards have expired over the past few months, and the federal eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September is set to lapse at the end of the month.
Tenants’ rights groups have begun pushing the Biden administration for a one- to two-month extension of the freeze to account for widespread delays in the processing and distribution of federal aid.
“We’ve avoided some of the worst outcomes so far, but the crisis is not over,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “If the Biden administration allows the federal eviction moratorium to expire before states and localities can distribute aid to households in need, millions of households would be at immediate risk of housing instability and, in worst case, homelessness.”
The Education Department wiped out more than $500 million in student loans on Wednesday, in its first step toward unclogging a badly backed-up relief program for students who were scammed by their schools.
For the first time in more than four years, the department approved new grounds for claims through the so-called borrower defense program, canceling debts for 18,000 applicants who attended ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit chain that abruptly collapsed in 2016. The program allows students who were defrauded by their schools to have their federal student loans forgiven.
The new approvals involved applications from two groups of students: those who attended ITT between 2005 and 2016 and said they had been misled about their earning chances, and those who attended between January 2007 and October 2014 and said they had been misled about their ability to transfer credits to other institutions.
“Our action today will give thousands of borrowers a fresh start and the relief they deserve after ITT repeatedly lied to them,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said.
ITT students who attended during those time frames and were misled but who had not yet filed a borrower defense claim can now do so, citing the department’s decisions, and seek to have their loans discharged, a department representative said.
Eileen Connor, the legal director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, a group that has won court victories against the department over its handling of borrower defense claims, praised Wednesday’s announcement but said Mr. Cardona needed to go further.
“The department needs to address the more than 700,000 borrowers with over $3 billion in fraudulent debt from ITT,” Ms. Connor said. “We cannot ask these borrowers to wait another day or pay another dollar toward federal student loans that never should have been made in the first place.”
The borrower defense program had languished for much of the past four years. In January 2017, at the tail end of the Obama administration, the department granted claims from some students who attended ITT’s California campuses — a move that many hopeful applicants saw as a sign of relief to come.
But the relief program essentially stopped functioning for much of President Donald J. Trump’s administration. Betsy DeVos, his education secretary, denounced the system as a “free money” giveaway and repeatedly chipped away at the protections it offered. Then, in her final year in office, she rejected more than 130,000 borrowers’ claims after reviews lasting just minutes. Tens of thousands more claims languished for years.
Mr. Cardona has promised to reverse that tide. “Many of these borrowers have waited a long time for relief, and we need to work swiftly to render decisions for those whose claims are still pending,” he said.
Nearly 108,000 applicants who say they were defrauded by their schools are still awaiting decisions. The department has not yet announced whether it would take on the thorny question of revisiting Ms. DeVos’s denials.
The lawyer who led the inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks has quietly laid a foundation for a nonpartisan commission to investigate the coronavirus pandemic, with financial backing from four foundations and a paid staff that has already interviewed more than 200 public health experts, business leaders, elected officials, victims and their families.
The work, which has attracted scant public notice, grew out of a telephone call in October from Eric Schmidt, the philanthropist and former chief executive of Google, to Philip D. Zelikow, who was the executive director of the commission that investigated Sept. 11. Mr. Schmidt urged Mr. Zelikow to put together a proposal to examine the pandemic, which has caused nearly 600,000 deaths in the United States alone.
Now, with the nation beginning to put the crisis in the rearview mirror, Washington is taking up the idea of a Covid-19 commission. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate, and have the backing of three former homeland security secretaries — two Republicans and a Democrat — as well as health groups and victims and their families.
Unlike the rancorous debate that doomed the proposal for a panel to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, discussion of a Covid-19 commission has not produced partisan discord — at least, not yet. Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and a lead sponsor of the Senate bill, noted that its work would cover both the Trump and Biden administrations.
But a commission with subpoena power could be a hard sell to Republicans wary that such a panel would become an instrument to investigate former President Donald J. Trump.
In the meantime, the Covid Commission Planning Group directed by Mr. Zelikow with financial support from foundations, including one affiliated with Mr. Schmidt and another with Charles Koch, the conservative philanthropist, is forging ahead on a separate track that might, at some point, merge with a congressionally appointed panel.
In interviews on Tuesday, both Mr. Zelikow and Mr. Schmidt said that while they would like cooperation from Congress and the White House, their effort could proceed without it, though it might be handicapped without subpoena power and access to documents. Mr. Zelikow said there was internal debate in his group about which route was preferable.
Vice President Kamala Harris threw a private dinner party at the Naval Observatory on Tuesday night for the 16 Democratic and eight Republican women serving as U.S. senators, a gathering that came at a tense moment in negotiations on a number of the Biden administration’s biggest ambitions.
The bipartisan dinner was the first social event Ms. Harris had hosted since coming into office five months ago — her move to the official vice-presidential residence was delayed for three months because of renovations — and the outreach to her former Senate colleagues came as Ms. Harris has taken the lead on the administration’s push to pass voting rights legislation.
All 24 women in the Senate were invited, according to an administration official. All but three — Cindy Hyde-Smith, Republican of Mississippi; Cynthia Lummis, Republican of Wyoming; and Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona — attended.
Photos posted online after the event by Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, showed about 20 of the senators seated together.
Ms. Stabenow posted a photo that showed the vice president giving a toast to the group, flanked by Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, and Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington. She also shared a photo of cheese puffs that she said Ms. Harris, known for her love of cooking, made from scratch for the group.
Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, was scheduled to appear on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News directly after the dinner to give viewers an “inside look at the event,” Mr. Hannity tweeted.
With just six weeks left before Congress’s August recess, the Biden agenda appears to be stalled while Republicans try to derail the president’s economic plans and delay any Democratic changes past the point where they can be implemented before the 2022 elections.
There are intraparty fights to deal with, as well. Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, remains opposed to the voting rights legislation that Ms. Harris is championing for the administration and to ending the Senate filibuster, which could be used to derail Biden priorities.
Two Democrats invited to the dinner, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, are part of a bipartisan group of senators that is negotiating an alternative to the president’s infrastructure plan that does not address key Democratic priorities, like climate change. The plan does not have the support of a majority of Republicans, and progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, have already come out against it.
Ms. Harris has not been a key player in infrastructure negotiations and was not known for her close relationships with colleagues on Capitol Hill during her four years in the Senate, a chunk of which she spent running for president.
But as vice president — and the tiebreaking vote in the evenly divided Senate — she has taken on some of the administration’s most difficult goals. Besides the voting rights push, Ms. Harris has also been tasked with stemming the flow of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border by addressing the root causes in countries like Guatemala that push migrants north.
The Department of Justice filed a civil suit on Wednesday to block the proposed merger of Aon and Willis Towers Watson, arguing that combining two of the Big Three insurance brokers would create an anticompetitive “behemoth.”
Many observers thought the government would allow the deal. Regulators in Europe, where both companies also operate, had indicated that they were likely to approve the merger, which would create the world’s largest insurance brokerage.
The $30 billion transaction would “eliminate substantial head-to-head competition and likely lead to higher prices and less innovation,” the Justice Department’s complaint says. It says the companies dominate markets for risk and reinsurance brokering, health and pension benefits brokering, actuarial services for employer benefit programs, and private exchanges that offer retiree benefits.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement, “Today’s action demonstrates the Justice Department’s commitment to stopping harmful consolidation and preserving competition that directly and indirectly benefits Americans across the country.”
In a joint statement, the companies said the department’s assessment “reflects a lack of understanding of our business, the clients we serve and the marketplaces in which we operate.” They said they remained committed to the deal and were working with regulators internationally to make it happen.
The companies had tried to assuage the competition concerns of American regulators by selling off some of their businesses. The efforts came too late, however, and fell “way short,” said Richard Powers, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s antitrust division. The proposed divestitures involved only a small fraction of their businesses and a “handful of employees” and didn’t leave the companies free of entanglements, he said.
The government said the companies were aware they already operated in an oligopoly, adding in a statement: “If permitted to merge, Aon and Willis Towers Watson could use their increased leverage to raise prices and reduce the quality of products relied on by thousands of American businesses — and their customers, employees and retirees.”
The Justice Department worked on the case with regulators from around the world, including in Europe. A senior department official noted that the markets in Europe were different, especially the health benefits and pensions systems, and that the outcomes of the European merger reviews could be different.
Both companies are incorporated in Ireland, with headquarters in London. Aon has around 50,000 employees and offices in about 120 countries, including over 100 offices in the United States. It reported revenue of more than $11 billion last year.
Willis Towers Watson employs about 45,000 people in more than 80 countries, including over 80 offices in the United States. It reported revenue of more than $9 billion in 2020.
The action on Wednesday was the Biden administration’s first challenge to a potential merger. Coming on the heels of President Biden’s naming Lina Khan, a vocal critic of anticompetitive consolidation, as chair of Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday, it is a sign the administration will act on trustbusting promises made on the campaign trail.