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Sen. Elizabeth Warren calls out stalled housing program aimed to help hurricane survivors

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(WASHINGTON) -- With Hurricane Ian making landfall in Florida on Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D- Mass., and Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., pressed the Biden administration for details about a much-delayed housing program that they said was intended to be up-and-running by this hurricane season to help low-income people displaced by disasters, a letter obtained exclusively by ABC News shows.

The Disaster Assistance and Supportive Housing program, or DASH, was supposed to launch by March 2022 with the goal of subsidizing housing for people who lose their homes to hurricanes, wildfires or other disasters, and giving longer-term assistance in finding new housing in the aftermath.

But the program has yet to launch, Warren and Espaillat wrote in a letter to agency leaders, requesting an update.

"We are concerned that despite [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and [the Department of Housing and Urban Development]'s intention of making the program available for the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season, which is expected to produce above-normal storm activity, program implementation appears to have stalled," Warren and Espaillat wrote.

Asked about the program's delays and a timeline for the rollout, FEMA spokesperson Jaclyn Rothenberg said the agency was "reviewing the letter."

Warren and Espaillat called for an update from FEMA and HUD by mid-October.

"Year after year we are devastated by hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters and year after year we are ill-prepared to meet the needs of the affected communities," Warren said in a statement to ABC News.

"As we begin the 2022 hurricane season, I am urging FEMA and HUD to act quickly to implement the DASH program so that no families, no matter their income, fall through service gaps in existing disaster relief programs."

Warren and Espaillat said the new housing program has been deemed "essential" by housing advocates who say FEMA's existing programs have " left low-income survivors vulnerable."

Just last week, Hurricane Fiona left the entire island of Puerto Rico without power and killed at least four people, with more potentially killed by indirect effects of the storm. The devastation showed the remaining need for hurricane relief leftover from Hurricane Maria, which hit the island five years ago.

"We are living in a time where our communities are under-prepared when natural disasters strike as we recently witnessed with Hurricane Fiona—and this is completely unacceptable," Espaillat said in a statement to ABC News.

Warren and Espaillat also argued in the letter that other communities of color would become victims of more climate change-related natural disasters in the future, and that government assistance could alleviate the effects.

"Given that climate change is resulting in a rapidly increasing number of natural disasters, which disproportionately impact low-income communities of color, we are concerned that the delay in activating DASH will result in more harm and slower recoveries for marginalized communities," they wrote.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Biden, visiting FEMA in Ian's aftermath, says search and rescue critical


(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden on Thursday visited FEMA headquarters in Washington as search and rescue efforts were underway in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

Upon his arrival, Biden turned to FEMA personnel in the room and thanked them for their work during the historic storm.

Early assessments offer a devastating picture of the damage wreaked by the hurricane. Severe flooding and storm surges left people trapped in their homes, knocked out power to millions and destroyed at least two bridges in southwest Florida.

"This could be the deadliest hurricane in Florida's history," Biden said. "Numbers are still unclear, but we're hearing early reports of what may be substantial loss of life."

The president said he'll go to Florida once weather conditions allow to survey damage. He also said he intends to go to Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by Hurricane Fiona earlier this month.

"We're continuing to see deadly rainfall, catastrophic storm surges, roads and homes flooded," Biden said. "We're seeing millions of people without power and thousands hunker down in schools and community centers. They're wondering what's going to be left, what's gonna be left when they get to go home."

Before his visit to FEMA, Biden approved a major disaster declaration for the state, making federal funding available to impacted individuals in nine counties: Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hardee, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota.

Biden said the declaration means the federal government will pay for "100% of the cost" to clear debris and to save lives. The government will also cover a majority of the cost to rebuild public buildings ruined by the storm.

The president spoke with GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis again on Thursday morning, telling DeSantis that FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will travel to Florida on Friday to check in on response efforts.

DeSantis has thanked the administration for the resources provided so far, but said Thursday the state expects more disaster declarations as the storm continues to move across the state.

"I just spoke with the president this morning and he offered support. I told them that thanks for this but because the storm has moved inland and caused a lot of potential damage in the center part of our state, that we are going to be asking for those counties to be expanded and included there," DeSantis said at a press conference at 9 a.m. Thursday.

The White House said Biden and DeSantis, often political opponents, are "committed to continued close coordination."

Accompanying the president to FEMA on Thursday were Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and leaders from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and other officials.

Biden said search and rescue was critical, noting the Coast Guard's deployed 16 rescue helicopters, six fixed-wing aircraft and 18 rescue boats and crews.

"These are dangerous missions, and I'm grateful for the brave women and men in federal, state and local governments working as one team, risking their lives to save others," the president said.

Biden urged Floridians to continue to heed warnings from officials, and not to go outside unless they "absolutely have to."

"My message to people of Florida, to the country is at times like this, America comes together," Biden said. "We’re gonna pull together as one team, as one America."

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Ginni Thomas appears in person for interview with Jan. 6 committee

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(WASHINGTON) -- Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, appeared in person at the House Jan. 6 committee's offices on Thursday morning for a closed-door interview.

Cameras caught Thomas walking to the conference room around 9:30 a.m.

The select committee investigating the U.S. Capitol attack has sought to question Thomas over her efforts to push state officials to reject the outcome of the 2020 election. Thomas was also communicating with members of the White House, including former chief of staff Mark Meadows, about efforts to overturn the election.

Thomas's political activism has been under scrutiny given her close proximity to the U.S. Supreme Court. Records obtained by ABC News earlier this year showed Thomas emailed Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Arizona State Rep. Shawnna Bolick asking them to "fight back against fraud" in the days after the November 2020 election.

Sources had previously said that it was unlikely the Thomas interview would be played during the committee hearing originally scheduled for Wednesday, but since that is is expected to be rescheduled for a later date, it's possible clips from this interview could be played.

The committee hasn't formally announced a new date for the hearing, but the Chair Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., told reporters that he "doubts" it would be scheduled for next week. He said members would meet to discuss a new date this week.

Thomas' attorney, Mark Paoletta, had confirmed last week she would be sitting down with the committee.

"As she has said from the outset, Mrs. Thomas is eager to answer the Committee's questions to clear up any misconceptions about her work relating to the 2020 election. She looks forward to that opportunity," Paoletta said in a statement on Sept. 21.

The committee sent a letter to her requesting an interview in June, after revelations about emails sources said she exchanged with right-wing lawyer John Eastman, who the committee's described as a leader of the legal scheme to fraudulently overturn Donald Trump's election loss.

Committee vice-char Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., told CNN at the time the committee was prepared to consider subpoenaing Thomas for an interview. Thomas voluntarily agreed to the sit-down, her attorney said later.

The Jan. 6 committee is expected to release a final report of its findings and recommendations later this year.

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Biden admin: 300K barrels of diesel arriving to help power Puerto Rico after Fiona

DHS Photo by Benjamin Applebaum

(WASHINGTON) -- The Biden administration said Wednesday it had granted approval of a limited exemption in federal regulations on cabotage -- or the transport of goods -- in order to allow a foreign ship to bring 300,000 barrels of diesel to Puerto Rico days after Hurricane Fiona battered the U.S. territory.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement on Wednesday that the approval for the Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico was "in response to urgent and immediate needs of" the island as it recovers from Fiona, which officials have said killed multiple people there.

"I have approved a temporary and targeted Jones Act waiver to ensure that the people of Puerto Rico have sufficient diesel to run generators needed for electricity and the functioning critical facilities as they recover from Hurricane Fiona," Mayorkas said. "The decision to approve the waiver was made in consultation with the Departments of Transportation, Energy, and Defense to assess the justification for the waiver request and based on input from the Governor of Puerto Rico and others on the ground supporting recovery efforts."

On Tuesday, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi requested in a letter to President Joe Biden that the Jones Act be waived amid the emergency on the island after Fiona. Pierluisi warned that a shortage of fuel would have an impact on government operations, security and public health.

"Diesel supplies continue to decrease at a higher rate than previously anticipated, and shortages have been reported around the island," he wrote.

The Jones Act has been waived during previous hurricanes, such as Maria in 2017. This new waiver comes more than a week after Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico. (A separate hurricane, Ian, made landfall in Florida on Wednesday.)

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, best known as the Jones Act, requires that all goods transported to Puerto Rico and other American ports be aboard a ship built in the U.S., owned and crewed by Americans and flying the U.S. flag.

The Marshall Islands-flagged ship that is bringing Puerto Rico diesel was hired by British Petroleum. BP had applied for a Jones Act exemption since Sept. 20.

“When U.S. flagged vessels are not available to meet national defense requirements, the Department of Homeland Security may grant a waiver to the Jones Act if the proposed shipments are in the interest of national defense and after careful evaluation of the issue," according to DHS.

In his statement, Mayorkas noted that, despite waivers during emergencies, the Jones Act is vital to maintaining the strength of America’s shipbuilding and maritime industries.

The Biden administration previously committed its resources to assisting Puerto Rico during and after Fiona.

The island has still been recovering from the effects of Hurricane Maria almost exactly five years ago -- a disaster that led to intense scrutiny of the federal government's response under then-President Donald Trump.

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Biden coordinates with DeSantis and Fla. officials, warns oil companies as Hurricane Ian hits

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(WASHINGTON) -- As Hurricane Ian began barreling across Florida, President Joe Biden detailed his administration's efforts to prepare for the storm and warned residents to heed warnings from officials.

"It's life-threatening," Biden said of the Category 4 storm as he spoke at a White House conference on hunger and nutrition. "You should obey all warnings and directions from emergency officials. Don't take anything for granted. Use their judgment, not yours."

Hurricane Ian grew stronger overnight, nearing a Category 5, and was set to bring devastating floods, storm surges and winds to Florida as it made landfall on Wednesday afternoon.

Biden said he talked with GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis "for some time" on Tuesday evening, marking the first time the two leaders had spoken directly about the storm.

Biden said members of his team have been in constant contact with the governor "since the beginning."

"Message has been absolutely clear, is that we are on the alert and in action," Biden said Wednesday. "We've approved every request Florida has made for temporary assistance, emergency assistance and long-term assistance that I've received."

Later Wednesday, after Hurricane Ian made landfall, the White House said Biden made calls to several local Florida officials and was able to reach Fort Myers Mayor Kevin Anderson.

"They discussed Fort Myers’ ongoing needs including support for the elderly members of the community, families that live in mobile homes and other community members who are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the storm," the White House said.

The storm poses a major test for both Biden and DeSantis, often foes on numerous issues, just six weeks before the midterm elections.

When asked by ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega about the tone of the Tuesday conversation between Biden and DeSantis, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said it was about how the two can work as partners on the issue.

"There's no politics in this when we talk about extreme weather," Jean-Pierre responded.

Past presidents have faced political consequences over natural disasters. George W. Bush was widely criticized for his response to Hurricane Katrina, especially after he praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its work despite the agency being blamed for failing to act fast enough.

Biden said Wednesday the federal government will be "ready to help in every single way possible" during Hurricane Ian, noting he's developed and deployed a search-and-rescue team that's already on the ground, and to help Florida rebuild after the storm.

Biden also delivered a stern message to oil and gas companies, warning them not to raise prices amid the storm or else he'll ask officials to investigate any potential price gouging.

"Do not, let me repeat, do not -- do not use this as an excuse to raise gasoline prices or gouge the American people," the president said, noting experts told his administration only 2% of U.S. daily oil production will be impacted in the short-term from Hurricane Ian.

Biden will be visiting FEMA headquarters in Washington on Thursday, Jean-Pierre announced at Wednesday's press briefing.

Jean-Pierre also provided additional details on the administration's response, telling reporters: "We have more than 1,300 federal response workers on the ground in Florida. There are 3.7 million meals and 3.5 million liters of water pre-positioned in Alabama [and] 110,000 gallons of fuel and 18,000 pounds of propane are pre-staged for immediate deployment. Three-hundred Army Corps personnel are on the ground to support power and fuel assessments. Three-hundred ambulances are supporting local officials, and multiple federal disaster medical assistance teams are deployed to Florida and Georgia."

DeSantis, who's up for reelection in November and is widely considered to be a Republican contender for the 2024 nomination, took a moment this week to thank the White House for their assistance.

"The effects of this are going to be broad and we appreciate the Biden administration's consideration to the people of Florida during this time of need," DeSantis said at a press conference on Wednesday.

DeSantis warned Wednesday that millions will be without power as the storm hits and highlighted the 200 shelters open in southwest Florida for those who need a place to stay during the storm.

"This is going to be something that is going to be there for days and weeks and months and unfortunately, in some circumstances, even years," DeSantis said as he talked about the impacts of Hurricane Ian.

ABC News' Justin Gomez and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Biden appears to look for congresswoman killed in car crash: 'Where's Jackie?'

Yuri Gripas/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden on Wednesday asked about the whereabouts of an Indiana congresswoman who was killed in a car crash earlier this year, prompting reporters to ask the White House to explain why he appeared confused and not be satisfied with the answer.

The misstep happened as Biden spoke at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, where his administration pledged $8 billion in an effort to end hunger and decrease diet-related diseases by 2030.

As he often does at such events, Biden was thanking the lawmakers involved in the issue when he mentioned late Rep. Jackie Walorski, who represented Indiana's 2nd Congressional District as a Republican for nine years. Walorski and two of her aides were killed in a car crash on Aug. 3.

"I want to thank all of you here," Biden said, "including bipartisan, elected officials like representative of government Sen. Braun, Sen. Booker, Representative Jackie, are you here? Where's Jackie? I think -- she was gonna be here -- to help make this a reality."

It seemed like Biden perhaps realized mid-sentence, when he said, "I think -- she was gonna be here."

Walorski served as co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus, and worked with Sens. Cory Booker, Mike Braun and Jim McGovern to pass the bill to convene the White House conference on hunger -- the first in 50 years.

After her passing in August, Biden released a statement commending Walorski's work on food insecurity.

"We may have represented different parties and disagreed on many issues, but she was respected by members of both parties ... My team and I appreciated her partnership as we plan for a historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this fall that will be marked by her deep care for the needs of rural America," Biden said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was hit with repeated questions on Biden's mistake during Wednesday's briefing.

"What happened in the hunger event today?" ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Cecilia Vega asked. "The president appeared to look around the room for an audience member, a member of Congress who passed away last month. He seemed to indicate she may be in the room."

Jean-Pierre responded by saying Walorski was "top of mind" for Biden as he mentioned those in Congress who championed the effort to convene the second-ever hunger conference, and because Walorski's family will be at the White House on Friday to celebrate the bill signing in her honor.

"So, of course, she was on his mind," Jean-Pierre said, adding Biden looks "forward to discussing her remarkable legacy of public service with them when he sees her family this coming Friday."

"But he said Jackie, are you here?" Vega pressed. "Where's Jackie? She must not be here."

"I totally understand. I just explained, she was on top of mind," Jean-Pierre responded.

Several other reporters in the room also pressed Jean-Pierre on the error, with one reporter asking if the late congresswoman were "top of mind," why Biden appeared to think she may have been in the room. Jean-Pierre stuck to her answer that Walorski was top of Biden's mind. The apparent gaffe comes as some Republicans question Biden's mental acuity.

ABC News' Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.

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Migrant families suing after being separated under Trump should undergo more evaluation: Justice Department

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Justice Department is asking a federal judge to approve a psychologist for a new round of exams on migrant parents whose children were separated from them by the Trump administration.

The government's request, filed last week, is part of an ongoing lawsuit in Arizona federal court on behalf of five mothers who were separated from their kids under then-President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy which mandated prosecutions for all illegal border crossings. The mothers are now seeking compensation from the U.S. government for the emotional and mental damages they say they endured after their children were taken from them.

A lawyer representing the families said the women have already undergone psychological evaluations by experts they provided. But the Justice Department, in its court filing, said they would like their own expert, Dr. Ricardo Winkel, to make an assessment.

"Plaintiffs intend to support their claims of injury through expert testimony and have each submitted to multiple mental health evaluations by their own expert. It is standard practice for plaintiffs alleging severe emotional injury to be examined by the opposing party's expert," the Justice Department's filing states.

President Joe Biden condemned and campaigned against Trump's family separation policy, which Trump initially paused under intense backlash before a judge put an end to the program in June 2018.

Biden previously said he was in favor of compensating families separated at the border.

"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 in November. "What that will be, I have no idea. I have no idea."

Around the same time, however, settlement discussions between some of the migrant families and the federal government broke down shortly after Biden dismissed reports that his administration was considering payments of up to $450,000 for families, according to sources familiar with the situation.

"That's not going to happen," Biden said in November of that amount.

Government lawyers said in court filings that they hope the additional exams will "develop findings on each Adult Plaintiff's current psychological condition and prognosis, as well as on the cause or causes of each Adult Plaintiff's presentation, all of which are central issues in this litigation and matters on which Plaintiffs themselves intend to introduce expert testimony."

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt -- who is working with some other migrant families who were separated under Trump -- said he fears that subjecting them to more evaluations could be re-traumatizing. (The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on its latest filing.)

"The American Academy of Pediatrics called it child abuse. Reliving the events is triggering all that trauma, and the government knows that these families suffered severe trauma," Gelernt told ABC News. Gelernt is the lead counsel in several cases dealing with family separation, including Ms. L v. ICE which led to a court ordering the Trump administration to halt the practice and reunite families.

"This administration should not be hiring doctors to try to downplay the harm suffered by separated families under the Trump administration's cruel policies," Gelernt contended in a statement, "especially given that President Biden called those policies criminal and a moral stain on the nation."

The Justice Department proposed in its filing last week that its expert, Dr. Winkel, would conduct the additional examinations at a time and place "that is agreeable to all interested parties" and would consist of up to four hours for a clinical interview and four hours of testing. Parents would undergo personality and emotional functioning tests as well as trauma-specific exams.

The ACLU has been working with the Biden administration's Family Reunification Task Force to address the fallout from Trump's separation policy, but the ACLU says they're still searching for 151 families who are without their children.

Gelernt said it was clear that the reunited families continue to be traumatized by their experience, adding that some of his clients start crying when they talk about what they went through.

"There is such unbelievable guilt feeling like -- could they have stopped the separation? Of course they couldn't, but [what's] heartbreaking is to see their little children blame them for not doing more to stop the separation," Gelernt said. "In some cases, a child will say, 'Daddy, why didn't you stop them? Didn't you love me enough?'"

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White House: Nord Stream gas pipeline leaks 'apparent sabotage'

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(WASHINGTON) -- The White House said this week that large leaks in undersea gas pipelines running from Russia to Germany were the result of "apparent sabotage."

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday night that he had spoken with his Danish counterpart about the leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, which he labeled "apparent sabotage."

"I spoke to my counterpart Jean-Charles Ellermann-Kingombe of Denmark about the apparent sabotage of Nord Stream pipelines," Sullivan tweeted. "The U.S. is supporting efforts to investigate and we will continue our work to safeguard Europe's energy security."

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also said the leaks of the pipelines were the result of "apparent sabotage."

The pipelines, which run under the Baltic Sea, were not actually supplying gas to Europe at the time, although both did still contain gas.

"We have been in touch with our European partners there about the apparent sabotage of the pipelines," she told reporters. "We are supporting European efforts to investigate this. The investigation is still underway, and it could take some time."

Asked whether the United States would consider the leaks an attack on a NATO ally worthy of retaliation, Jean-Pierre said she wouldn't "get ahead of the investigation."

"We have to see who is behind this at this time," she said.

Some European leaders have gone further than U.S. officials have.

Denmark's prime minister said Tuesday that "it is the authorities' clear assessment that these are deliberate actions -- not accidents," although she added that "there is no information indicating who could be behind it," according to the Associated Press.

The Kremlin said accusations that Russia could be behind the leaks were "absurd," according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

"It is quite predictable and predictably ridiculous and absurd to make up such theories," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday, noting "this gas costs a fortune but it is now siphoning off into the air."

Poland's prime minister called the development "an act of sabotage," and Sweden's acting prime minister said "it is probably a case of sabotage," the Associated Press reported.

Experts told ABC News that only one country -- Russia -- stood to benefit from the pipeline leaks, although officials have yet to offer evidence Russia was behind them.

"No one aside from Russia stands to gain from sabotaging these pipelines," said Ben Cahill, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

An act of sabotage on this scale fits neatly into Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts "to sow confusion and panic in Europe and weaken European solidarity," Cahill said, but also carries tremendous risk for Moscow.

"If it is true that Russia is culpable, this is Putin cutting off his nose to spite his face," said Matthew Schmidt, director of the International Affairs program at the University of New Haven.

​​Also Wednesday, the United States announced $1.1 billion in new security assistance for Ukraine, including long-range missile systems, armored vehicles, radars and more.

ABC News' Matthew Seyler contributed reporting to this article.

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McConnell and Republicans back Senate's post-Jan. 6 election reform bill

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(WASHINGTON) -- A broad bipartisan group of senators who worked for months on legislation to reform the nineteenth-century law governing the Electoral College process and counting of votes after presidential elections scored two major victories on Tuesday.

First, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky threw his influential support behind their bill and then every member of the Senate Rules Committee -- except Texas' Ted Cruz -- voted to send it to the floor for consideration.

"I strongly support the modest changes that our colleagues in the working group have fleshed out after literally months of detailed discussions. I will proudly support the legislation, provided that nothing more than technical changes are made to its current form," McConnell announced in a floor speech, repeatedly calling the changes to current law "common sense" and "modest."

The rules panel -- meeting in a rare session on Tuesday to formally consider the proposed Electoral Count Reform Act (ECRA) authored by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., along with 18 other senators -- made a handful of changes to the bill that lawmakers hope will help ensure states, Congress and future vice presidents can never overturn presidential election results.

The legislation addresses a number of apparent loopholes and procedural vagueness in the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which prescribes how presidential electors are counted every four years.

The law was a major focus of then-President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn his 2020 defeat by Joe Biden, the House's Jan. 6 committee has said. Trump and his allies wanted his vice president, Mike Pence, to reject the electors for Biden and hijack what is historically a ceremonial role in overseeing the certifying of each state's slate of electoral votes.

The ECRA specifies the vice president's role in the certification is ceremonial.

The bill would dramatically raise the number of congressional objectors required to challenge a state's election results -- up from one lawmaker in each chamber to 20% of members in both the House and Senate.

The ECRA would also clarify that states may not select electors after Election Day, as Trump and his allies sought unsuccessfully to do, according to the Jan. 6 committee; and the legislation would dictate what happens if an alternate slate of electors is presented to Congress, which the Jan. 6 committee has said was another element of Trump's push to reverse his loss.

"These are provisions … that will achieve a strong bipartisan consensus, and we should be very proud of this bill," Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said alongside the panel's top Republican, Roy Blunt, a former Missouri secretary of state. The pair worked together to craft some additional changes to the Collins-Manchin bill that was approved Tuesday.

The original ECRA proposal struck a provision of the 19th-century law that could be used by a state to declare a "failed election." Instead, a state would have been permitted to modify the period of its elections only in the event of extraordinary and catastrophic circumstances. But Klobuchar and Blunt went further in their revisions.

The "failed election" provision would only be triggered by "force majeure events that are extraordinary and catastrophic," according to the newly approved legislation. Klobuchar and Blunt said in a statement that this would "ensure that only unforeseen emergencies trigger extended elections and guard against bad faith exploitation of the extended election provision for political reasons. While the original bill is a significant improvement on the 'failed election' provision in the current Electoral Count Act, this clarification provides an important safeguard against political gamesmanship through attempts to manipulate these provisions while ensuring states have flexibility to respond to genuine emergencies."

The Klobuchar-Blunt changes would also "prevent further delay in certification of elections by clarifying that each state governor must 'immediately' transmit a certificate of electors to Congress and the Archivist of the United States once the state's election is certified," according to the lawmakers' statement.

Not everyone was in agreement Tuesday.

"This bill is a bad bill. It's a bad bill, bad law and poses serious problems for democracy," Sen. Cruz, a committee member and constitutional lawyer, said during Tuesday's hearing. "It's exceptionally bad policy … This bill is all about Donald J. Trump."

Cruz argued the ECRA "enhanced the federalization of elections" and added, "I do not understand why Republicans support it."

But the bipartisan backing shown Tuesday points to a likely high GOP vote count when the upper chamber deals with the legislation later this year.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who chairs the intelligence committee and was part of the election reform working group, said he hopes lawmakers will consider future changes that take into account cybersecurity events.

Both parties have, in recent decades, sought -- largely through symbolic objections and speeches from lawmakers -- to use the country's arcane federal election law to partisan advantage in what is usually a simple, barely noticed ceremony at the heart of a peaceful transfer of power in the U.S.

The legislation approved in committee on Tuesday is designed to close the door on some of that.

The House voted out its own reform bill last week with nine Republicans supporting it, none of whom will be on the ballot in November after either choosing to retire or losing their primaries.

Of the seven Republican senators on the rules committee who voted for the bill Tuesday, only two -- Blunt and Richard Shelby of Alabama -- are retiring. Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith, who also backed the proposal in committee, was one of the GOP objectors to the certification of Biden's victory on Jan. 6, 2021.

McConnell made clear Tuesday that the House bill would go nowhere in the Senate.

"It's clear that only a bipartisan compromise originating in the Senate can become law," he said at the committee meeting. "We have one shot to get this right."

Lawmakers are expected to deal with the legislation when they return from the November midterm elections in a lame-duck session.

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White House announces over $8 billion in hunger and nutrition commitments

Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith

(WASHINGTON) -- Ahead of President Joe Biden’s conference Wednesday where his administration will call to end hunger and decrease diet-related diseases by 2030, the White House announced that the private and public sector are committing more than $8 billion to reach that goal.

“These range from bold philanthropic contributions and in-kind donations to community-based organizations, to catalytic investments in new businesses and new ways of screening for and integrating nutrition into health care delivery,” the White House said in a fact sheet released Wednesday.

The first White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health was held more than 50 years ago, according to the administration.

The White House noted that at least $2.5 billion will be used to back start-up companies finding solutions to hunger and food insecurity, while over $4 billion will go toward philanthropy that strengthens access to healthy food, encourages healthy choices and expands physical activity.

A senior administration official told reporters on a call that over 100 organizations “have committed to bold and, in some cases, paradigm shifting commitments that will meaningfully improve nutrition, promote physical activity and reduce hunger and diet related disease over the next seven years.”

Actions to achieve the president’s goal are spread across five pillars: improving food access and affordability, integrating nutrition and health, empowering consumers to make and have access to healthy choices, supporting physical activity for all and enhancing nutrition and food security research, according to the White House.

The administration announced that wholesale restaurant food distributor Sysco will give $500 million to advance healthy eating for its serving communities and Warner Bros. Discovery will give 600 million meals to children experiencing food insecurity.

Google will also introduce new features in its products to help people obtain public food benefits and health care services, it said.

Last year, 10.2% of American households experienced food insecurity at some point, the Department of Agriculture said.

The White House also announced that the National Restaurant Association will increase its Kids Live Well program to 45,000 more restaurants. Major fast-food chains, including Subway, Burger King and Chipotle, have already committed to the initiative, which helps restaurants create healthier meal choices for children.

Restaurants in this program commit to certain standards like only offering water, milk or juice for kids' meals, rather than soda, the fact sheet said.

For at least one million Americans at risk for a diet-related disease, MyFitnessPal will grant them free and premium-level membership on its app by 2030, White House said. The Special Olympics will also introduce an initiative that will, in part, increase SNAP-Ed benefits for people with intellectual disabilities.

Starting next year, the White House said the Rockefeller Foundation and the American Heart Association aim to mobilize $250 million in partnership with Kroger to build the first national “Food is Medicine Research Initiative” to integrate healthy food into the healthcare approach.

“The Biden-Harris Administration envisions an America where no one wonders whether they will have enough money to put food on the table, where the healthy food choice is the easier choice, and where everyone has the same opportunity to be physically active,” the administration said in an executive summary of the White House’s National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.

Some of the initiatives in the strategy, like expanding free school lunches, would require congressional cooperation, but that seems unlikely to happen in the near future.

In the summary, the White House noted “the rising prevalence of diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and certain cancers,” and how the consequences of them and food insecurity “disproportionately impact historically underserved communities.”

Obesity was more common in Black adults than other adult groups, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found last year, which increases their risk of serious diseases and health conditions.

Almost 50% of Black adults were obese, compared to 45.6% of Hispanics, 41.4% of Whites and 16.1% of Asians.

“Food insecurity and diet-related diseases are largely preventable, if we prioritize the health of the nation,” the White House said.

Held in the nation’s capital, the conference is expected to draw more than 500 attendees -- from farmers to business leaders and academics to activists.

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Government shutdown likely avoided after Sen. Manchin reverses course on energy permitting

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(WASHINGTON) -- An about-face from Sen. Joe Manchin on Tuesday evening helped to set the Senate on an unexpected glide path to averting a Friday night shutdown.

The funding bill, which will keep the government running through Dec. 16, easily earned the 60 votes necessary to clear a procedural hurdle during a Tuesday vote. Seventy-two Senators supported moving forward with the proposal.

It was not expected to be so easy.

For several weeks, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has been carefully balancing his promise to Manchin to include Manchin's permitting change proposal on a must-pass bill before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30 -- despite a growing coalition of members on both sides of the aisle vowing to block any short-term funding bill that included Manchin's changes.

Schumer gave assurances to Manchin in order to secure the West Virginia Democrat’s essential support for the party's major social spending and tax bill this summer, the Inflation Reduction Act.

As recently as Monday, Manchin was holding firm to that promise. He spent the weekend working the phones, rallying support and publishing op-eds extolling the benefits -- according to him -- that his legislation would heap upon both renewable and non-renewable energy sources, over cries from critics that it would support further fossil fuel development. He believed there was a path to 60 votes.

But then he relented.

In a statement on Tuesday just half an hour before the Senate was set to vote down a short-term funding bill that included permitting changes, Manchin announced that he had requested Schumer remove his language from the bill.

"It is unfortunate that members of the United States Senate are allowing politics to put the energy security of our nation at risk. The last several months, we have seen firsthand the destruction that is possible as Vladimir Putin continues to weaponize energy. A failed vote on something as critical as comprehensive permitting reform only serves to embolden leaders like Putin who wish to see America fail,” Manchin said in a statement. "For that reason and my firmly held belief that we should never come to the brink of a government shutdown over politics, I have asked Majority Leader Schumer to remove the permitting language from the Continuing Resolution we will vote on this evening.”

Schumer, in floor remarks moments later, said he would advance a short-term funding bill without Manchin's proposal.

"Senate Republicans have made clear they will block legislation to fund the government if it includes bipartisan permitting reform, because they’ve chosen to obstruct instead of work in a bipartisan way to achieve something they’ve long claimed they want to do," Schumer said.

Republicans were largely united in their intention to block a funding bill that included Manchin’s permitting language. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky actively whipped against it.

Though much of the GOP conference supports permitting changes, many saw this vote as an opportunity to push back on Manchin for what they saw as his betrayal when he pivoted from opposing the Democrats' sweeping climate and health bill to cast the deciding "yes" vote -- an unexpected reversal this summer that, until it was revealed, had lured some Republicans into backing a separate bill on domestic computer-chip manufacturing.

In floor remarks before Manchin’s call to remove his permitting language from the bill, McConnell called the inclusion of Manchin's proposal a "phony fig leaf."

"The poison pill is a phony attempt to address an important topic of permitting reform," McConnell said. "It is much too difficult to build things in America an unleash American energy. Liberal regulations are the problem."

But Republicans weren’t the only ones working to block the funding bill when it included Manchin's language.

Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders had vowed to vote against it too, citing concerns about the adverse environmental impact that speeding up permitting projects for non-renewable energies could have. In a scathing letter to his colleagues on Friday, Sanders urged Democrats to make what he called an environmentally conscious choice.

"In my view, the time has come for Congress to tell the fossil fuel industry that their short-term profits are not more important than the future of our planet," Sanders wrote.

He also found Schumer and Manchin's behind-the-scenes deal making on the IRA objectionable, branding the agreement that helped yield the Democrats' climate and health bill last year as a "disastrous side deal."

With permitting changes now sidelined, the Senate will likely pass a bill to fund the government as soon as Wednesday. The bill also provides emergency funding for a variety of bipartisan priorities.

Money to Ukraine in their fight against Russia's invasion remains a priority. There's a combined $12.3 billion in aid to Ukraine that includes $3 billion for security assistance, $4.5 billion in economic support and $3.7 in drawdown authority for weapons.

The funding bill would provide $35 million "to respond to potential nuclear and radiological incidents in Ukraine, assist Ukraine partners with security of nuclear and radiological materials, and prevent illicit smuggling of nuclear and radiological material."

This comes in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin last week suggesting that tactical nuclear weapons could be used to change the course of his invasion of Ukraine, groundlessly accusing the West of threatening Russia's territorial integrity.

But the funding bill also centers domestic aid.

Jackson, Mississippi, would see a $20 million influx of cash to assist with the ongoing water crisis that has left many of its citizens without clean drinking water for more than a month. New Mexico, ravaged by wildfires last year, would get $2.5 billion to assist in rebuilding efforts.

And, as conversations about the cost of energy swirl, there's language in the bill to provide $1 billion in low-income heating assistance.

The legislation also averts a potential funding crisis at the Food and Drug Administration by including reauthorization for FDA user fees. But Democrats' long sought COVID-19 priorities have once again fallen by the wayside.

The Biden administration wanted Congress to approve an additional $22 billion in funds to combat COVID-19 via vaccine research and additional testing. Republicans have blocked multiple efforts to secure these funds, arguing that there are still remaining monies yet to be utilized and questioning the necessity of additional spending.

GOP lawmakers once again prevailed in blocking COVID funds, this time by keeping supplemental funding off of the short-term bill.

During her weekly press conference on Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre vowed the administration will keep working to secure funds.

"We are not going to give up," Jean-Pierre said. "We need to protect and build on the progress we have made. We will continue that process."

Once the Senate passes the short-term funding bill, that legislation will need to pass the House before the Sept. 30 fiscal year deadline. The House could begin considering it as soon as Thursday.

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Jan. 6 committee postpones hearing because of Hurricane Ian

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(WASHINGTON) -- The House Jan. 6 committee scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed because of Hurricane Ian.

The storm is expected to make landfall in Florida at about the same time as the hearing was to take place.

"In light of Hurricane Ian bearing down on parts of Florida, we have decided to postpone tomorrow's proceedings," Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. 'We're praying for the safety of all those in the storm's path. The Select Committee's investigation goes forward and we will soon announce a date for the postponed proceedings."

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Democratic member of the panel, represents Florida's 7th Congressional District.

The committee was set to reconvene Wednesday after a two-month hiatus for a midday hearing.

But the rapid advancement of Hurricane Ian is now dominating airwaves, with the storm currently a Category 3 hurricane and expected to grow stronger.

Thompson previously told reporters that the committee would be airing "substantial footage" and "significant witness testimony" but didn't give any more details on what the public can expect to see or what the focus of the hearing would be.

Lawmakers held eight televised hearings from June to July detailing what they described as former President Donald Trump's "sophisticated" efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, which they said led to the events that took place on Jan. 6, 2021.

The hearings, two of which were held in prime-time, were produced to capture the public's attention more than a year and half after the riot.

At the last hearing on July 21, the committee focused on the 187 minutes that passed between Trump's speech at the Ellipse and his taped statement later that afternoon telling rioters to leave the Capitol. Using testimony from former White House officials, the committee said Trump resisted pressure to act as he watched the violence unfold on television.

"President Trump did not fail to act during the 187 minutes between leaving the Ellipse and telling the mob to go home," Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said. "He chose not to act."

Since then, the committee has requested information from several people with ties to election denialism and Trump, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has agreed to a voluntary interview with the committee, her attorney confirmed last week.

There's also the looming question of whether the committee will call former Vice President Mike Pence to testify before it wraps up the investigation.

Cheney told ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl that she hopes Pence will speak with lawmakers. The former vice president said he'd consider testifying if asked, but then implied that there could be constitutional constraints to any potential appearance.

Cheney also told Karl that she expects transcripts, records and other materials gathered by the committee over the course of its probe to be made public.

Wednesday's hearing was anticipated to be the last before the committee releases a final report of its findings and recommendations by the end of the year.

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South Carolina House rejects bill to ban abortions with few exceptions

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(COLUMBIA, SC) -- The South Carolina House rejected a bill Tuesday that would've banned nearly all abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected. The proposed ban would have made exceptions for when the mother's life or health is in danger, for fetuses with fatal anomalies and first-trimester pregnancies that are a result of rape or incest.

The bill was introduced by the state Senate in September after it rejected an abortion ban proposed by the House. The proposed legislation comes as the state Supreme Court blocked a six-week ban on abortion from going into effect amid ongoing litigation.

The bill failed with a vote of 95 to 11, as lawmakers remain at odds over regulating abortion in the state.

The bill would have made it illegal to perform an abortion or administer or distribute drugs that induce an abortion. A person found guilty of providing an abortion would have faced a fine of $10,000 and jail time of up to two years.

The proposed bill would have also required physicians who provide abortion services in line with the exceptions for rape or incest to report the procedure to their county sheriff's department within 24 hours of performing or inducing the abortion.

Physicians would have been required to report the name and contact information for the woman making the allegation and to preserve a DNA sample from the fetal remains and submit it as evidence to authorities.

The bill required abortion providers to add a note to the patient's medical records stating that the abortion was performed under one of the exceptions.

Under the bill, Planned Parenthood would've also been prevented from utilizing state funds for any purposes related to abortions.

In August, the state House passed a near-total ban on abortion which only provided exceptions for pregnancies that are a result of rape and incest. The state Senate rejected the bill, passing its own abortion bill and sending it back to the House.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster had signaled he would sign an abortion ban into law, telling ABC News in August that he would "carefully consider any legislation that ultimately reaches his desk, but he believes this is a good starting point for the Senate to begin its deliberations," referring to the first House bill.

McMaster also approved in February 2021 a package of bills banning abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected. The ban took effect after Roe was overturned, but is now blocked by the South Carolina Supreme Court while justices review a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood in July. The lawsuit claims that the ban is an invasion of privacy and violation of equal protection under the state constitution.

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How Arizona's abortion ban may affect the midterms

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(NEW YORK) -- The Arizona court ruling on Friday upholding the state's 1901 law banning abortions is rattling voters and elected officials.

The law provides no exceptions for rape, incest or fetal abnormalities and makes performing abortions punishable by two to five years in prison.

ABC News' Libby Cathey, who is covering the midterm elections in Arizona and one of the embeds featured on the Hulu show Power Trip, spoke with "Start Here" Monday about how this ruling, and the battle for abortion rights since the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade, will affect the races.

START HERE: So, first of all, can you just explain this ruling to me because we saw some states change their laws right after Roe fell, but this seemed to catch a lot of people way off guard.

LIBBY CATHEY: Yes. So, just to backtrack, there's this law on the books in Arizona dating back to 1864 that bans all abortions and dishes out two to five years of jail time for those who help with one, except to save a mother's life. And it feels like this law was really forgotten about. It dates back to before Arizona was even a state, but when the Supreme Court overturned Roe with the Dobbs decision in June, the Republican attorney general here, Mark Brnovich, said he will enforce this law. He will prosecute doctors who try to help women get an abortion.

So Planned Parenthood sued him, saying this was unconstitutional, this violates privacy rights, and the court had put an injunction in place that providers had hoped would stay. That did not happen. So on Friday afternoon, a state judge in Arizona reinstated this territorial era, near-total ban on abortion. And the timing was big too, because on Saturday, a ban on abortions after 15 weeks was set to go into effect. That was passed earlier this year by the legislature, signed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. And Ducey says this slightly less restrictive ban after 15 weeks is the law of the land.

START HERE: So it's about to be less restrictive and all of a sudden it's way, way, way more restrictive than anyone thought.

CATHEY: Right. So, and at the same time, the Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich, is saying that this more restrictive law is the law of the land. So you can have two conflicting statements here. And this all just happened over the weekend, and I think there's a lot of confusion about it.

START HERE: Yes. So as a result of this, what is the current rule in Arizona like? What can a pregnant woman do or not do? What can an abortion provider do or not do?

CATHEY: So the reality is abortion is illegal in the state of Arizona right now. If women want to get an abortion, they'll need to go to California or go to another state to get one. And Planned Parenthood clinics are still open. They can help point women to other resources and provide contraception. But medical abortions, essentially, medication given to end a pregnancy before ten weeks, oftentimes before women even know they're pregnant. All of those services have stopped.

I was at a press conference on Saturday where a doctor said all the chatter among her physicians, Facebook groups, [and] among doctors in Arizona is they feel their hands are tied. She used the words moral injury. And abortion rights supporters protesting outside the state capitol this weekend, they all say, point blank, women and girls will die because of this law. It will be like going back into a time when women resort to really desperate measures to end a pregnancy or women die themselves because of pregnancy complications, especially when doctors here can get two to five years of jail time for helping them.

START HERE: And just so I'm crystal clear, no exceptions at all?

CATHEY: There is no exception to rape or incest in either of those two abortion bans we just talked about. Both of them do have an exception to save the mother's life. But again, because of that, the prosecution -- and I think it scares a lot of people. So a lot of people will be having to go out the state or just not get an abortion at all. Democrats here say it's one of the more restrictive laws in the country. And Arizona is a very red state, or it has been…but this has the potential to change a lot of things.

START HERE: And that's what I'm wondering next, because I'm looking at Arizona's House races right now where they have nine House seats. FiveThirtyEight's forecast says at this moment, Republicans are expected to win five of those nine House seats like bare majority. Could something like this change the landscape of the midterms in a place like Arizona?

CATHEY: This has the potential to be a big game-changer. One Republican consultant told me that all the polling we've seen in Arizona that you've just mentioned here, it can be thrown out of the window. You have a Democratic candidate for attorney general here, Kris Mayes. She won't prosecute any abortion ban violations. She thinks all these bans are unconstitutional. You have Democrat Katie Hobbs. She's running for governor. She's been trying to get abortion at the forefront of the race for governor against Kari Lake. Lake is proudly against abortion. And so this ruling may very well help them here in a few weeks when ballots go out. I mean, Republicans want to be talking about inflation and immigration and crime, but now they're going to have to address this.

START HERE: Well, I don't think I quite understood this until now, that, like, normally you're voting because you think someone might affect abortion rights in your state. Say it really matters to you. Here you got the Democrats saying, "I will not enforce this law." You got the Republicans saying, "I will enforce this law." Hence, whoever votes for the attorney general or maybe the governor, you are deciding directly how abortion rights are about to be treated.

CATHEY: Exactly. And then that's what Democrats and their supporters are at least saying. And that's what they're trying to drive home with voters. The Republicans say they'd enforce these bans. The Democrats say they wouldn't. And to that, to that matter, to in the Senate race, you've got Blake Masters and Mark Kelly and you've got Democrats there saying that Blake Masters would support a total ban on abortion at a national level. So these are all issues that are being resurfaced because of this ruling. And while it's not like Kansas, where there's a literal initiative on the issue of abortion, Democrats and their supporters here say abortion is certainly on the ballot in Arizona.

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Biden's student loan forgiveness will cost $400B, new estimate says, as White House pushes back

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(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden's federal student loan forgiveness plan will cost $400 billion over 10 years, according to a revised estimate this week from the Congressional Budget Office.

That's a lower number than from one leading outside estimate, but the nonpartisan federal agency's projection drew quick pushback from the White House, which is sensitive to criticism it is growing rather than reducing the government deficit.

In a letter sent Monday to North Carolina Republicans Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Virginia Foxx following their inquiries into Biden's announcement last month to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loans, the CBO noted that the cost of pausing repayments through the end of 2022 will add an additional $20 million onto that $400 billion price tag.

That CBO estimate does not include the cost of another feature of Biden's plan: lowering the maximum amount a borrower can pay back to 5% of their income, down from 10%. The nonpartisan Committee for Responsible Federal Budget estimates that would tack on $120 million.

The CBO score, which the agency estimates is "highly uncertain" due to components that include projections dependent on future economic conditions and on how future terms of loans might be modified, is slightly less than the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School assessment that all three components of the forgiveness plan would cost about $605 billion.

Opponents of Biden's student loan program -- including some members of his own party -- have insisted that the plan is impractical during a time of historic inflation rates and high gas prices, though the many Democratic supporters of the plan say it helps addresses education's affordability issues.

The White House maintains that the cost of the student loan forgiveness plan pales in comparison to the president's ability to foster debt reduction elsewhere.

The estimated loan cancellation price comes in higher than the $300 million amount that the Biden-backed Inflation Reduction Act is expected to reduce the federal deficit by, however. (An administration official noted to ABC News that, overall, the cash flow impact of debt cancellation will be very small in 2023 -- about $21 billion.)

MORE: Biden's student loan forgiveness policy: How to apply, who qualifies, more
In a statement, a White House spokesman emphasized that the president is still likely to reduce the federal deficit this year, despite the outlay for debt forgiveness, and the spokesman compared that with a major tax cut under Biden's predecessor Donald Trump.

"The Biden-Harris Administration's student debt relief plan provides breathing room to tens of millions of working families. It gives people who have been struggling with student debt that shot they want at starting a business, buying that first home, or just having a slightly easier time paying the monthly bills," Abdullah Hasan said. "It's a stark contrast to the Trump tax bill, which ballooned the deficit by nearly $2 trillion and provided the vast majority of benefits to big corporations and the wealthiest individuals."

The White House also circulated a memo pushing back on the CBO estimate, noting that it assumed a 90% participation rate in the forgiveness program -- though similar, smaller-scale programs had much lower participation.

The White House memo challenged how the CBO arrived at $400 billion, suggesting that the agency's own logic pegged the number at around $250 billion.

The debt cancellation program is expected to open for applications in October.

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