Live Updates: Biden Says Spending Program Will Give U.S. a Leg Up on China

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Biden justified his broad vision to remake the American economy as the necessary step to survive long-run competition with China, a foot race in which the United States must prove not only that democracies can deliver, but that it can continue to out-innovate and outproduce the world’s most successful authoritarian state.

His speech to Congress was laced with the themes of a new iteration of Cold War competition — more technological than military — without ever uttering the words “cold war.” America’s adversaries, Mr. Biden said, are looking at America’s deep polarization and the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol “as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy.”

“We have to prove democracy still works,’’ Mr. Biden said, repeating a rallying call he first used a month ago, and that aides say he often invokes in White House strategy sessions.

It was all part of Mr. Biden’s effort to lift his infrastructure and rebuilding plans to a higher plane, much as John F. Kennedy did in his “we choose to go to the moon” speech nearly six decades ago. But the history of more recent efforts by American presidents to revive that unifying national emotion is mixed at best; Barack Obama attempted it with his call to meet “our generation’s Sputnik moment” in his State of the Union address 10 years ago. It fell flat.

A decade later, the challenge is even more complex: America now faces a far more capable technological competitor, a far more complex military standoff, and a starker ideological conflict. “We’re at a great inflection point in history,” Mr. Biden said. In fact, he is facing the worst relations in two decades with very different superpower adversaries seeking to exploit America’s very visible divisions. And so he is making the case that the United States must compete with rising power in China, while containing a disrupter in Russia.

Whether he can turn both the country and America’s allies to that task, his aides acknowledge, may well define his presidency.

President Biden stopped to pick a dandelion for Jill Biden, the first lady, while departing the White House on Thursday.
Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

One day after President Biden’s big speech to a joint session of Congress where he called for a new era of government spending, he and Vice President Kamala Harris hit the road on Thursday to sell their agenda to the public, a campaign White House officials are calling the “Getting America Back on Track Tour.”

Mr. Biden spent his 100th day as president in Georgia, a state where Democrats picked up two crucial Senate seats in January, giving them a slim majority in that chamber. The Bidens arrived in Plains, Ga., for a private visit with former President Jimmy Carter and his wife.

They later spoke at a drive-in car rally in Duluth that drew about 315 cars. Along with pitching his two-part plan for longer-term investments in the economy to the crowd of cheering and honking supporters, the president promoted the $1.9 trillion economic aid bill he signed into law in March. His remarks were interrupted briefly by protesters calling on him to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The president thanked Georgia voters for electing two senators in January, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who tipped the balance of the chamber to Democrats and enabled him to pass a far more ambitious economic rescue package after taking office than would likely have been possible otherwise.

“We owe special thanks to the people of Georgia,” Mr. Biden said. “Because of you, the rest of the world — because of your two senators, the rest of America was able to get the help they got so far. The American Rescue Plan would not have passed. So much have we gotten done, like getting checks to people, probably would not have happened. So if you ever wonder if elections make a difference, just remember what you did here in Georgia, when you elected Ossoff and Warnock, you began to change the environment.”

Ms. Harris traveled to Baltimore to tour a vaccination site and to deliver a speech about what the administration has accomplished so far.

On Friday, Mr. Biden will travel to Philadelphia and Ms. Harris will go to Ohio.

The menthol flavor, the Food and Drug Administration says, makes it easier for those trying their first cigarette to become addicted and then tougher to quit.
Credit…Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday announced its long-awaited plan to ban the last flavor still allowed in cigarettes — menthol — and also said it would ban all flavors of mass-produced cigars, which are popular among youths. The ban would apply only to sales, manufacturing and imports — not personal possession.

“Together, these actions represent powerful, science-based approaches that will have an extraordinary public health impact,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, the F.D.A.’s acting commissioner, said in a statement on the agency’s website.

The menthol flavor, the agency says, makes it easier for those trying their first cigarette to become addicted and then tougher to quit.

Since the 1950s, menthol cigarettes have been aggressively marketed to Black smokers in the United States. Roughly 85 percent of Black smokers now use Newport, Kool and other menthol products, according to the F.D.A.

According to the F.D.A., one study found that a ban on menthol cigarettes could potentially save 633,000 lives by 2050.

Public health experts, who have been pushing for a menthol ban for many years, celebrated the news.

“We are thrilled that the F.D.A. is taking this important step to protect all citizens, but especially African-Americans, from the deadly impacts of menthol,” said Kelsey Romeo-Stuppy, managing attorney for Action on Smoking and Health, a tobacco control organization and a plaintiff in the lawsuit that helped lead to the proposed ban on flavored cigarettes and cigars. The plaintiffs sued the F.D.A. last year for inaction on menthol.

The tobacco industry and its allies were quick to criticize the F.D.A.’s plan.

“The published science does not support regulating menthol cigarettes differently from nonmenthol,” said Kaelan Hollon, a spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds, which makes Newport, the top-selling menthol brand in the United States.

The F.B.I. executed a search warrant at Rudolph W. Giuliani’s home in Manhattan on Wednesday.
Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Two years ago, Rudolph W. Giuliani finally got one thing he had been seeking in Ukraine: The Trump administration removed the U.S. ambassador there, a woman Mr. Giuliani believed had been obstructing his efforts to dig up dirt on the Biden family.

It was a Pyrrhic victory. Mr. Giuliani’s push to oust the ambassador, Marie L. Yovanovitch, not only became a focus of President Donald J. Trump’s first impeachment trial, but it has now landed Mr. Giuliani in the cross hairs of a federal criminal investigation into whether he broke lobbying laws, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

The long-running inquiry reached a turning point this week when F.B.I. agents seized telephones and computers from Mr. Giuliani’s home and office in Manhattan, the people said. At least one of the warrants was seeking evidence related to Ms. Yovanovitch and her role as ambassador, the people said.

In particular, the federal authorities were expected to look for communications between Mr. Giuliani and Trump administration officials about the ambassador before she was recalled in April 2019, one of the people added.

The warrant also sought his communications with Ukrainian officials who had butted heads with Ms. Yovanovitch, including some of the same people who were then helping Mr. Giuliani seek damaging information about President Biden, who was then a candidate, and his family, the people said.

At issue for investigators is a key question: Did Mr. Giuliani go after Ms. Yovanovitch solely on behalf of Mr. Trump, who was his client at the time? Or was he also doing so on behalf of the Ukrainian officials?

It is a violation of federal law to lobby the United States government on behalf of foreign officials without registering with the Justice Department, and Mr. Giuliani never did so.

Even if the Ukrainians did not pay Mr. Giuliani, prosecutors could pursue the theory that they provided assistance by collecting information on the Bidens in exchange for her removal.

One of the search warrants explicitly stated that the possible crimes under investigation included violations of the law, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, according to the people with knowledge of the matter.

Mr. Giuliani has long denied that he did work at the behest of the Ukrainians, or that he accepted any money from them, and he has said that he did not expressly urge Mr. Trump to fire the ambassador.

On Wednesday, Mr. Giuliani again denied any wrongdoing. He said the search warrants demonstrated a “corrupt double standard” on the part of the Justice Department, which he accused of ignoring “blatant crimes” by Democrats, including Mr. Biden.

Federal investigators on Wednesday seized cellphones and computers from Rudolph W. Giuliani’s home in Manhattan.
Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

President Biden said on Thursday that he was not told in advance about the F.B.I.’s execution of search warrants at Rudolph W. Giuliani’s office and home, citing his pledge not to meddle in law enforcement matters.

“I give you my word, I was not,” told of the search, Mr. Biden said in a taped interview with NBC at the White House early Thursday, before heading to Georgia.

“I made a pledge,” Mr. Biden said in the interview, which will air Friday morning on the “The Today Show.” “I would not interfere in any way — order or try to stop any investigation the Justice Department had in their way. I learned about that last night when the rest of the world learned about it.”

During his presidential campaign, Mr. Biden vowed to restore the independence of the Justice Department after years of Trump administration policies that led to allegations of political interference and retaliation.

Federal investigators on Wednesday seized cellphones and computers from Mr. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City who became President Donald J. Trump’s personal lawyer, stepping up a criminal investigation into Mr. Giuliani’s dealings in Ukraine.

“That’s not the role of the president to say who should be prosecuted, when they should be prosecuted, who should not be prosecuted,” Mr. Biden said. “That’s not the role of the president. The Justice Department is the people’s lawyer, not the president’s lawyer.”

Asked if he’s been briefed about any other investigations, Mr. Biden said, “No, and I’m not asking to be briefed.” He added that Mr. Trump “politicized the Justice Department so badly, so many of them quit, so many left.”

The president’s remarks came as his predecessor, Mr. Trump, told Fox Business that the search was “like, so unfair” and called Mr. Giuliani “a great patriot.”

“I don’t know what they’re looking for, what they’re doing,” Mr. Trump told Maria Bartiromo on Thursday. “They say it had to do with filings of various papers, lobbying filings.”

In December 2019, Mr. Trump was impeached, in part, for attempting to pressure Ukraine ahead of the U.S. election to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of his political rival, by threatening to withhold aid to the country.

The legislation would boost existing programs intended to improve water quality and set aside funding for small, rural and tribal communities.
Credit…Erin Kirkland for The New York Times

The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a $35 billion measure to clean up the nation’s water systems, offering a brief moment of bipartisan cooperation amid deep divisions between the two parties over President Biden’s much larger ambitions for a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package.

Republicans and Democrats alike hailed passage of the bill on an 89-to-2 vote as evidence that bipartisan compromise is possible on infrastructure initiatives, but lawmakers in both parties suggested that the spirit of deal-making could be fleeting.

Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders have said they want Republican support for a broad infrastructure package that aims to improve the nation’s aging public works system and address economic and racial inequities. But Republicans have panned those proposals, which are to be financed with tax increases on high earners and corporations, and Democrats have said they may have to move them unilaterally if no compromise can be reached.

“We’re trying to work in a bipartisan way whenever we can — and this bill is a classic example,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said of the water bill. “It doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to do the whole thing bipartisan, but we’ll do as much as we can.”

The legislation approved on Thursday would authorize funding to shore up the nation’s water systems, particularly in rural and tribal communities that have long been neglected and suffer from poor sanitation and unclean drinking water.

Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, said the lopsided vote on the water infrastructure bill, which she helped spearhead, was “definitely a major positive.”

Yet she cautioned that the moment of cooperation might not last long if negotiations faltered. Republicans have “made it clear that we don’t see the definition of infrastructure — physical core infrastructure — the same way” that Mr. Biden does, she said.

President Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress was on the screens at The Brig, a beer garden in in Washington, on Wednesday night.
Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Nearly 27 million people watched President Biden’s first formal address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, a large audience for television these days but a much smaller audience than similar speeches by other presidents, according to data from Nielsen.

Shown on all major networks and cable news channels starting at 9 p.m. Eastern time, the speech attracted a much larger television audience than Sunday’s Oscars telecast on ABC, which was watched by about 10 million people. But the audience was significantly smaller than the one for President Donald J. Trump’s first formal address to Congress in 2017, which drew 48 million viewers.

The television audience for Mr. Biden’s address also fell shy of those for equivalent speeches by other recent presidents. Barack Obama had an audience of 52 million in 2009; George W. Bush drew 40 million in 2001; and Bill Clinton’s first address was watched by 67 million in 1993.

Several factors contributed to the smaller ratings. Because of public health and security concerns at the Capitol, Mr. Biden’s speech came later in his presidency than those delivered by his recent predecessors, which all took place in February. There was also less pomp on Wednesday. Instead of an in-person audience of 1,600 senators, Supreme Court justices and other dignitaries seated cheek by jowl with House members, only 200 people were present because of social-distancing restrictions.

TV ratings, in general, have sunk in recent years, as more people have dropped cable subscriptions in favor of streaming, a shift that was accelerated by pandemic viewing habits. And the number of people watching television in the spring, compared with the winter, tends to be smaller.

ABC had the biggest audience for the address, with roughly 4 million viewers, according to the Nielsen, and MSNBC was right behind, with 3.9 million. Fox News and the Fox broadcast networks had the smallest audiences, with 2.9 million viewers (Fox News) and 1.6 million (Fox broadcast).

The Fox audience came out in force for the post-speech analysis by anchors and commentators and the Republican rebuttal from Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. In the 30 minutes after the address, Fox News was the only network to have a surge in viewers, with an average of 3.2 million people tuning in.

The analysis of the speech varied depending on the network. The Fox News contributor Ben Domenech said Mr. Biden’s speech was a “political blip” that would be “immediately forgotten.” (An earlier version of this item incorrectly stated that Mr. Domenech had called the speech a “tissue of lies.” That comment referred to Mr. Biden’s Inaugural Address.) On MSNBC, the anchor Brian Williams hailed the speech as “Rooseveltian in size and scope.”




Senators Unveil Bipartisan Law for Military Sexual Assault Cases

Lawmakers from both parties joined Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York in announcing a proposed bill to combat sexual assault in the military. The law would remove commanders from overseeing cases.

“Like so many other survivors, I made a tremendously difficult decision to report what happened to me because I knew that it was necessary to stop predators from victimizing even more servicemen and women. Instead of seeing my offender prosecuted, what I experienced after reporting was retaliation against my family, destruction of my husband’s military career and an attack on my character that resulted in us having to relocate to a different state so that we could begin to try to rebuild our fractured lives again.” “Sexual assault in the military is an epidemic. It has been for a very long time. The military has been keeping track of the numbers in very considerable detail since 2010. The most recent report from the Department of Defense found that almost 20,000, or estimated that almost 21,000 servicemembers were sexually assaulted in 2018. That number tells us that it makes them more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow servicemember than be shot by the enemy at war.” “Our bipartisan bill still makes modifications to the way that officers handle sexual assault cases by having a military prosecutor decide whether a case should be prosecuted. But we work together to tighten the language to ensure that commanders still know what’s going on in their units, and are able to keep good order and discipline.”

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Lawmakers from both parties joined Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York in announcing a proposed bill to combat sexual assault in the military. The law would remove commanders from overseeing cases.CreditCredit…Michael Reynolds/EPA, via Shutterstock

For nearly a decade, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has tried to pass legislation that would remove military commanders from their role in prosecuting service members for sexual assault.

On Thursday, Ms. Gillibrand was flanked by several lawmakers from both parties to announce her latest effort, which has attracted a new and wide array of support that greatly enhances its chances of becoming law.

“We owe it to our service members to do more to prevent these crimes and prosecute them when they occur,” said Ms. Gillibrand, whose bill would require specially trained military prosecutors to decide whether or not to try assault crimes in the military, taking that decision away from commanders.

Joining her were Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, both Iowa Republicans, as well as Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, and Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

“She is our leader. I try to help,” Mr. Grassley said. “If you are right, you eventually win out in the Congress of the United States. Sexual assault cannot be tolerated anywhere, but particularly in the military.”

Ms. Ernst pushed for numerous prevention efforts to be added to the bill before lending her name to the proposed legislation.

Those who bring their sexual assault accusations to commanders say they often face retaliation, and many also say that perpetrators often are not brought to justice. The number of sexual assault cases has remained high for years, according to military statistics.

“Like so many other survivors, I made the difficult decision to report what happened to me,” said Amy Marsh, a military spouse who was assaulted. She added that she and her family were repeatedly harassed.

Had there been a prosecution process outside the chain of command, Ms. Marsh said, “I might have had a shot at sharing my side of the story. My belief is that our armed forces cannot shy away from what is right.”

In 2019, the Defense Department found that there were 7,825 reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims, a 3 percent increase from 2018. The conviction rate for cases was unchanged from 2018 to 2019; 7 percent of cases that the command took action on resulted in conviction, the lowest rate since the department began reporting in 2010.

While military leaders and chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee have resisted the change for decades, members of a new panel reporting to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin II have made recommendations similar to the proposed legislation.

“I realized the huge responsibility on the shoulders of our Democratic majority, narrow though it is,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Biden laid out his ambitious vision for a post-pandemic America on Wednesday night. Now it is up to Senator Chuck Schumer to make it a reality.

Mr. Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, must navigate resistant Republicans suffering extreme sticker shock from more than $4 trillion in new Democratic spending proposals and Democrats insisting on a bipartisan approach to delivering the second monumental piece of legislation of his tenure.

He says he understands that some of his colleagues, like Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, won’t be rushed into pushing through the expansive approach outlined by the president over Republican howls of protest. Mr. Schumer is willing to give bipartisan efforts some time, but his patience extends only so far.

“Now look,” he said in an interview this week in his Capitol leadership suite, “there’s a number of people in our caucus who believe strongly in bipartisanship and want us to try that. And that’s fair. And we will. And we’ve made a good start.”

He pointed to some modest measures such as a water projects bill that is set to pass on Thursday with support from both parties.

But Mr. Schumer, in concert with Mr. Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, is not about to settle for modest achievements. “Big and bold” are his watchwords while Democrats control Congress and the White House, a circumstance that could end in 2022, when Republicans have the chance to reclaim House and Senate majorities.

The time will quickly come for Democrats to leave Republicans behind, he said, should their view of what’s needed fail to align with Mr. Biden’s and his own.

“If and when it becomes clear that Republicans won’t join us in big, bold action, we will move in that direction” without them, he acknowledged.

Like Mr. Biden, Mr. Schumer is celebrating his first 100 days in a new leadership position. And the majority leader and Democrats see themselves as having surpassed expectations with a broad $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill already on the books, confirmation of the president’s cabinet with only one candidate withdrawn and an impeachment trial that drew Republican support for conviction of Donald J. Trump.

“I never would have predicted this much success, simply because of my 10 years so far in the United States Senate, where we have been stymied at every turn by Republicans,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who credited Mr. Schumer for focusing on achievable goals.

“I think we’ve shown real momentum,” Mr. Schumer said.

Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, at her nomination hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Credit…Pool photo by Tom Williams

Democrats have begun advancing President Biden’s first judicial nominees through the Senate Judiciary Committee, taking a significant step to counter the influence President Donald J. Trump had in steering the federal courts to the right.

In a marked and intentional contrast to Mr. Trump’s picks, the two circuit court nominees and three district court candidates considered on Wednesday were all people of color with backgrounds that differed substantially from nominees traditionally chosen by presidents of both parties, including an emphasis on serving as a public defender.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the committee, noted that none of the 54 appeals court judges selected by Mr. Trump had been African-American. Mr. Biden’s nominees would orient the courts back to “even-handedness, fair-mindedness and competence” while improving racial and professional diversity, Mr. Durbin said.

“We need it on the federal courts,” he said.

Most of the focus on Wednesday was on two nominees to federal appeals courts — usually the last stop for major cases before the Supreme Court — Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, chosen for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago. Both are Black. Judge Jackson, currently a district court judge in Washington, is considered a potential future Supreme Court nominee by Democrats, and Ms. Jackson-Akiwumi would be the only Black judge on the Seventh Circuit.

The Biden White House and Senate Democrats are trying to move quickly to fill scores of federal court vacancies after Mr. Trump placed more than 220 conservative judges on the federal courts with the assistance of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who made judicial confirmations a high priority while he was majority leader. He said he was not surprised at the Democratic push.

“That’s what I would do if I were in their shoes,” Mr. McConnell said in a recent interview. “Pick as many outstanding liberals as you can, and try to get them confirmed as quickly as you can. I wrote the playbook on that. I can’t blame them for taking a look at how it was done. I think it was done very effectively.”

As more Americans become vaccinated, many economists expect a decline in new unemployment claims.
Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Initial jobless claims fell last week to yet another pandemic low in the latest sign that the economic recovery is strengthening.

About 575,000 people filed first-time claims for state unemployment benefits last week, the Labor Department said Thursday, a decrease of 9,000 from the previous week’s revised figure. It was the third straight week that jobless claims dropped.

In addition, 122,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that covers freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits. That was a decline of 12,000 from the previous week.

Neither figure is seasonally adjusted. On a seasonally adjusted basis, new state claims totaled 553,000.

“Today’s report, and the other data that we got today, signals an improving labor market and an improving economy,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist with the career site Glassdoor. “It is encouraging that claims are continuing to fall.”

Although weekly jobless claims remain above levels reached before the pandemic, vaccinations and warmer weather are offering new hope. Most economists expect the slow downward trend in claims to continue in the coming months as the economy reopens more fully.

But challenges lie ahead. The long-term unemployed — a group that historically has had a more difficult time rejoining the work force — now make up more than 40 percent of the total number of unemployed. Of the 22 million jobs that disappeared early in the pandemic, more than eight million remain lost.

“The labor market is definitely moving in the right direction,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at the online job site Indeed. She noted that job postings as of last Friday were up 22.4 percent from February 2020.

Still, she cautioned that industries like tourism and hospitality would probably remain depressed until the pandemic was firmly under control. She also stressed that child care obligations might be preventing people ready to return to work from seeking jobs.

“We still are in a pandemic — the vaccinations are ramping up, but there is that public health factor still,” Ms. Konkel said. “We’re not quite there yet.”

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