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Politics

With leadership backing Stefanik, House Republicans poised to oust Liz Cheney from No. 3 spot

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(WASHINGTON) -- House Republicans are forging ahead this week with their plan to oust Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from her post as GOP Conference Chair, illustrating the tight grip former President Donald Trump continues to hold over the Republican Party exactly six months after the presidential election he continues to falsely claim was stolen.

Cheney's refusal to side with Trump and other Republicans on what she's called "the big lie" and her vote to impeach the former president for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack has made her an outlier in her party, and while it's not the first time this year she's faced an internal challenge, it will be the first time she's facing one without the support of Republican leadership.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy over the weekend publicly endorsed four-term New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, making all but certain Cheney will be stripped of her role as soon as this week. McCarthy follows the No. 2 House Republican Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana in voicing support for Stefanik.

Cheney has not responded to McCarthy, but least one House Republican who joined Cheney and eight other House Republicans in voting to impeach Trump, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, went after House leadership on Monday and said Cheney is being run out of her post for only one reason: because she is consistent in her message and refuses to lie about the truth.

"I think when it comes down to it," he told the National Press Club Monday, "what she is being removed for is making it uncomfortable and being consistent, and God bless her for having the consistency to tell the truth. Because history -- I'm going to tell you, in the longterm -- is going to write very well about her."

"She's being run out for one thing: her consistency. She said the same exact thing that Kevin McCarthy said on Jan. 6 which is Donald Trump is responsible," Kinzinger added.

In addition to describing McCarthy as hypocritical, Kinzinger said the Republican speaker dismissed his own warnings about violence in the days ahead of Jan. 6.

"I was very disappointed when my party's leaders -- Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise in particular -- decided that winning the next election or winning the majority was more important than a clear-eyed recognition of what happened on Jan. 6," Kinzinger said. "What happened on Jan. 6 is a lie led to violence."

Stefanik, poised to replace Cheney, was among the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn election results and defended questioning results in a floor speech after the Capitol attack and has expressed full support for the controversial Republican-backed audit of election results in Arizona, which election experts have worried will further undermine confidence in the electoral process.

Asked on Fox News' "Sunday Morning Futures" whether he supported Stefanik for the No. 3 House Republican position, McCarthy said, "Yes, I do," and pointed to what he said GOP messaging should be.

"Any member can take whatever position they believe in," McCarthy said, denying Cheney's ousting was based on her criticisms of Trump. "What we are talking about, it's a position in leadership. We are in one of our biggest battles ever for this nation and the direction of whether this century will be ours. As conference chair, you have the most critical jobs of the messenger going forward."

Republicans are expected to vote Wednesday during a House conference-wide meeting to remove Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and replace her with Stefanik, nearly 20 years her junior with a more moderate voting record than Cheney, who once avoided saying Trump's name but became one of his staunchest supporters.

As House Republicans dealt with internal drama over the potential ouster, the White House said Monday it wouldn't affect negotiations over President Joe Biden's agenda.

“The president knows that there is some introspection going on in the Republican Party right now, and a determination about who they're going to be, who they want to lead them, and what they want to represent moving forward. He's not going to focus on that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, denying that the situation would influence Biden’s thinking as he heads into his first in-person meeting Wednesday with McCarthy and congressional leaders.

Ahead of his weekend endorsement of Stefanik, McCarthy last week was overheard saying he has "lost confidence" in Cheney. The pair shared an awkward moment on Capitol Hill in late February when they disagreed responding to a reporters' question over whether Trump should speak at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Trump also weighed in last week from Mar-a-Lago -- the once "Winter White House" which has still seen prominent GOP figures visit since Trump left office, McCarthy included -- to criticize Cheney in a statement as a "warmongering fool who has no business in Republican Party Leadership" and endorse Stefanik as "a far superior choice."

Stefanik, in a recent interview with former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, took her own jab at Cheney, saying the House Conference Chair's job "is not to attack members of the conference and attack President Trump."

In February, when Cheney faced another challenge to boot her from the coveted leadership position due to similar circumstances, even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke up to defend the congresswoman as "a leader with deep convictions and the courage to act on them," and Cheney kept her role after a closed-door, secret-ballot vote: 145-61.

Now, although Cheney isn't backing down from the next imminent challenge, she is not openly fighting the move, either. Branding herself as an "unapologetic conservative," she has continued to warn there are consequences if the GOP continues to push Trump's big lie.

Late last Wednesday, she published an opinion piece in The Washington Post laying out her case, writing, "The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution."

"History is watching. Our children are watching. We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process. I am committed to doing that, no matter what the short-term political consequences might be," she said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Vaccinations are the 'end game' to the COVID-19 crisis in India: Fauci

Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — After President Biden set a new goal to administer at least one vaccine shot to 70% of American adults by July 4th, George goes one-on-one with Dr. Anthony Fauci about the shifting vaccination plan and the latest on vaccine approvals for children. Foreign Correspondent Maggie Rulli also reports from New Delhi on India’s devastating COVID-19 second wave. Plus, a special Mother’s Day panel will discuss the outsized impact the pandemic had on women in the workforce as the nation’s economy slowly recovers. And the Powerhouse Roundtable weighs in on the latest on the potential ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney from House GOP leadership and Republican-backed restrictive voting laws in Florida & Texas.

The Biden administration said last week it now supports waiving the intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, opening the door for their possible manufacturing by companies and countries around the world. The U.S. had opposed the waiver, along with pharmaceutical companies, which are concerned about the precedent it would set.

While some countries, including the U.K., European Union, Canada, Japan, Australia and Brazil, do not support waiving patent protections on vaccines developed in their countries, the World Health Organization has called the natural distribution of COVID-19 vaccines "a moral outrage.”

"You said the companies should be scaling up, but many of those companies say that President Biden’s plan to have these patent waivers is going to prevent them from scaling up -- it’s going to hamper the supply chain and actually set back the vaccine production effort," Stephanopoulos said.

"I don’t think that’s the case, George. They can scale up. They’ve done an extraordinary amount. You’ve got to give them credit. They’ve really just really done something that is really quite impressive in the way they’ve gotten their vaccine supply up and out for the rest of the world," Fauci replied.

"I think the waiving of the patents and the TRIPs is not going to necessarily interfere with that right now," Fauci continued, referencing the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement, which provide global patent protections.

"The endgame of this all, George, is going to be to get people vaccinated," Fauci said.

"India is the largest vaccine-producing country in the world. They've got to get their resources," Fauci continued. "That's the reason why other countries need to chip in to be able to get either supplies for the Indians to make their own vaccines."

India is currently experiencing a devastating surge of COVID-19 with record-breaking cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The country's health care system is teetering on the edge of collapse as hospitals are overcrowded and much-needed medical supplies are in low supply.

Last week, the U.S. government, non-profit and private sector organizations began sending shipments of aid to India.

Fauci also told Stephanopoulos that he has been in communication with his counterparts in India over the last several days, urging them to open more field hospitals and implement more stringent shutdowns.

"I believe several of the Indian states have already done that," Fauci said. "But you need to break the chain of transmission and one of the ways to do that is to shut down."

Back in the U.S., more than 151 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, prompting some criticism of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's indoor mask guidance, suggesting it's too stringent.

"You've had experts like the former head of the (Food and Drug Administration), Scott Gottlieb, say it's time to start relaxing the indoor mask mandates. Is he right?" Stephanopoulos asked.

"I think so," Fauci responded, adding that the CDC will be updating their recommendations and guidelines in real time.

"We do need to start being more liberal as we get more people vaccinated," Fauci said.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Bo, the Obama family dog, has died

ImageCatcher News Service/Corbis via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- Bo, the Obama family dog, has died, according to the former president.

The black and white Portuguese water dog, who joined the first family in the White House in April 2009, was the last presidential pet before President Joe Biden's dogs, Major and Champ, joined the White House earlier this year.

Barack Obama memorialized the pooch on Twitter, writing, "Today our family lost a true friend and loyal companion. For more than a decade, Bo was a constant, gentle presence in our lives—happy to see us on our good days, our bad days, and everyday in between."

He shared a few photos of Bo, including one of Barack running down the hallway at the White House.

Today our family lost a true friend and loyal companion. For more than a decade, Bo was a constant, gentle presence in our lives—happy to see us on our good days, our bad days, and everyday in between. pic.twitter.com/qKMNojiu9V

Bo, chosen for his hypoallergenic fur, was a gift from late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

The dog was about 6 months old in April 2009, according to reports at the time, meaning he was about 12 at the time of his death.

On election night in 2008, Barack Obama revealed he had promised daughters Malia and Sasha a dog if he was elected to the White House.

"Sasha and Malia, I love you both more than you can imagine," he said. "And you have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the new White House."

The Obamas added a second Portuguese water dog, Sunny, to the family in April 2013.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Biden to respond to disappointing jobs report

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

(WASHINGTON) -- With the April jobs report falling well below analysts' expectations, President Joe Biden on Friday faced both a challenge to answer why his enormous COVID-19 relief package hasn't created a bigger economic boost, and an opportunity to underscore the need to pass his equally massive jobs and infrastructure plans.

Biden is set to deliver remarks Friday morning addressing the economy, after spending much of the week traveling the United States to sell his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, which would pump nearly $4 trillion in government spending into the economy.

Many economists expected nearly one million jobs to be added to the economy in April, but the total was just 266,000, a disappointing slowdown in growth.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have pinned blame for slow job growth on Biden's COVID-19 relief benefits, including an additional $300 per week in unemployment, for disincentivizing workers from reentering the labor force.

"We have flooded the zone with checks that I'm sure everybody loves to get, and also enhanced unemployment," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday during an event in his home state of Kentucky. "And what I hear from businesspeople, hospitals, educators, everybody across the state all week is, regretfully, it's actually more lucrative for many Kentuckians and Americans to not work than work."

"Why is anyone surprised that the jobs reports fell short of expectations? I told you weeks ago that in Florida I hear from small business everyday that they can’t hire people because the government is paying them to not go back to work," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted Friday in reaction to the jobs report.

Democrats and others make the case that the reason, instead, is due to the pandemic -- lack of child care, schools either closed or only partially opened, and general health concerns over returning to a workplace setting.

The White House argues that despite rising vaccination rates and state and local governments lifting restrictions from businesses, the economic scarring of the pandemic will not be quickly reversed, and long term economic aid from the government will be necessary.

“We have learned from past crises that the risk is not doing too much,” Biden has said, referring to recovery efforts after the 2008 recession. “The risk is not doing enough.”

Biden has been working to convince Republicans lawmakers and voters alike to support his jobs and infrastructure plans. One of the two packages, the American Families Plan, focuses on subsidizing childcare and creating universal free pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds, efforts that could encourage parents who have dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic due to lack of childcare to get back to work. Women have disproportionately born the burden of this pandemic effect.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


An inside look at how Donald Trump's name came to appear on stimulus checks

U.S. Department of the Treasury

(WASHINGTON) -- Donald Trump has always liked to put his name on things -- in big letters -- on towers, hotels, golf resorts -- even steaks. As president, his black-marker signature was outsize and famously distinctive.

So, when questions were raised about whether he would want his name on millions of stimulus checks sent to Americans last year, it not only seemed plausible, it also unleashed a firestorm of criticism from Democrats.

Now, internal emails obtained by ABC News give an inside look at the scramble to add Trump's name just days before payments started going out in the middle of a presidential election year.

The documents provide a glimpse behind the scenes as the Trump administration sought to take credit for the payments. And for the first time, the government has released images showing versions of the checks that did not make the final cut -- including those with then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's name alongside Trump's.

In the end, "President Donald J. Trump" appeared below the words "Economic Impact Payment" on the memo line of the final version of the checks, which were sent to 35 million Americans.

Unlike Trump, President Joe Biden's name did not appear on a new round of stimulus checks that started going out this spring, although like Trump, Biden did sign a letter mailed to Americans to notify them about the payments.

The inclusion of Trump's name on the actual checks last year -- which experts believed was unprecedented -- sparked controversy as the president ran for reelection.

Critics accused Trump, who has made a career of branding businesses with his own name, of trying to take credit for an aid program Americans relied on amid an economic crisis.

At the time, Mnuchin said it was his idea to include the president's name, and when a newspaper report raised concerns the decision could delay payments, the Internal Revenue Service denied there was any holdup.

In fact, emails obtained by ABC News through a Freedom of Information Act request show that officials scrambled to generate mock-ups for what the checks would look like.

ABC News obtained the emails after suing the Treasury Department to speed up the release of communications related to the inclusion of Trump's name. The department provided some key emails just five days before Trump left office in January, while it shared the draft check images with ABC News only last week.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press represented ABC News in the lawsuit.

Appearing in some of the check image drafts was Mnuchin's name, alongside Trump's. Ultimately, the secretary's moniker did not make it to the final version.

But the Treasury Department has refused to share certain emails from top officials in which they discussed what would appear in the memo line.

Dozens of blacked-out portions hide key exchanges and even the names of those sending and receiving emails. The unredacted parts do not make clear whose idea it was to include Trump's name.

Several emails that the department did provide to ABC News showed the scramble unleashed by the decision to add the president's name.

Just days before payments were due to go out, a senior Treasury official, David Lebryk, requested a new mock-up. That day, April 9, 2020, another official thanked colleagues "for turning this around so quickly," while they emailed about font size.

Then, late the next day, Lebryk emailed the head of the Internal Revenue Service to tell him they had settled on the final language. The IRS, part of the Treasury Department, was in charge of distributing the payments.

"We got word from the Secretary that he would like the memo line on Economic Impact Payments to read consistent with the attached image," the official, David Lebryk, wrote to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig.

Rettig said that he needed formal confirmation before he could proceed; Lebryk replied the next afternoon that "this was a direct instruction from the Secretary."

Two days later, on April 13, Rettig again asked for confirmation that Mnuchin himself was instructing the IRS to include Trump's name on the memo line. Baylor Myers, who served as Mnuchin's deputy chief of staff, replied late that night, "Yes."

The next day, the department's Bureau of the Fiscal Service updated its mock-up to reflect the change.

In another email to Treasury officials, Rettig confirmed reporting by The Washington Post that he and other IRS officials had been "unaware" of the decision to put Trump's name on the checks until later in the process.

Amid the back-and-forth, late on April 14, the Post reported that the decision to include Trump's name would likely delay the checks going out; the paper cited unnamed officials.

That story ricocheted around the Treasury Department, with Mnuchin quickly emailing it to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Democrats on Capitol Hill blasted the administration, accusing Trump of hurting Americans in need and demanding more information.

The IRS quickly denied there would be any delay. Direct deposit payments started hitting bank accounts the next day -- April 15 -- and the checks with Trump's name followed later in the month.

It is unclear from the emails the Treasury Department provided to ABC News who exactly thought of including the president's name in the first place.

The Post reported, citing unnamed administration officials, that Trump had privately suggested to Mnuchin he wanted to formally sign the checks. But previous practice dictated that a civil servant sign them instead.

The president was asked about that report and denied he wanted to sign the checks.

"No. Me sign? No," he said at an April 3 news conference. "There’s millions of checks. I’m going to sign them? No. It’s a Trump administration initiative. But do I want to sign them? No."

Later, on April 15, he said he did not "know too much about" the decision to include his name.

"I don't know too much about it, but I understand my name is there," he said during another news conference. "I don't know where they're going, how they're going. I do understand it's not delaying anything. And I'm satisfied with that. I don't -- I don't imagine it's a big deal. I'm sure people will be very happy to get a big, fat, beautiful check and my name is on it."

Then, several days later, Mnuchin said he had thought of it.

"We did put the president's name on the check," Mnuchin said during an April 19 interview with CNN. "That was my idea. He is the president, and I think it's a terrific symbol to the American public."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Rep. Elise Stefanik on path to GOP leadership after aligning with Trump

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) -- In 2016, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., was one of a handful of prominent Republicans to skip the GOP convention in Ohio and later refused to mention former President Donald Trump’s name when asked if she would vote for him.

Four years later, after becoming one of his staunchest defenders, Stefanik delivered a keynote speech at the Republican National Convention, calling Trump "the only candidate who is capable of protecting the American dream," and voted to challenge the results of the election in two states on Jan. 6.

Now, she’s on the verge of joining Republican leadership, as a growing number of lawmakers call for Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., to be replaced as the No. 3 House Republican amid her repeated criticisms of Trump for falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen.

"My vision is to run with support from the president and his coalition of voters," Stefanik, 36, said Thursday of Trump in an interview with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

While allies say Stefanik’s relationship with Trump and position in the party is reflective of support for Trump among GOP voters and her district, some former colleagues don’t recognize the New York Republican today.

"It’s hard to square the two," said Barbara Comstock, a former Republican congresswoman from Virginia and an ABC News contributor. "Dealing for Trump was a challenge, and everyone had a different way of dealing with it."

Stefanik’s office declined to make her available for an interview or respond to messages seeking comment on the record.

"She's doing exactly what she is supposed to be doing as an elected official," Carl Zeilman, the chairman of the Saratoga County Republican Committee, told ABC News. "She's changed [with] the way the constituency wants her to represent the district."

A rising GOP star

After graduating from Harvard University in 2006, Stefanik, who volunteered for the state GOP party in high school, worked in former President George W. Bush’s White House, serving on the Domestic Policy Council and in the office of Josh Bolten, Bush’s then-chief of staff.

Several years later, she worked on Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaigns, crafted the party’s policy platform and led debate preparations for Romney’s running mate, former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. -- who would later call her the "future of the Republican Party."

She soon set her sights on Congress after moving back to New York and working in her family’s lumber and plywood business.

Local Republicans and political observers recall Stefanik outworking her competition in the 2014 GOP primary for New York’s 21st Congressional District, one of the largest in the eastern United States that was carried by former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

"She made a point to come and meet with each chairman and introduce herself and what she was running for. She attended large meetings, small meetings, firehouse meetings, whatever it was she made sure to be here," Fulton County GOP Chairman Susan McNeil told ABC News.

Pledging to bring fresh ideas and a new generation of leadership to Congress, Stefanik, with endorsements from Romney, Ryan and other GOP leaders, won her primary and easily defeated her Democratic opponent in November, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

A moderate wary of Trump

Beginning her career on Capitol Hill as a moderate, Stefanik initially endorsed and voted for former Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the 2016 GOP presidential primary. She later backed Trump for president as the GOP nominee against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

But Stefanik, like Romney and other prominent establishment Republicans, skipped the party’s nominating convention in Cleveland that summer, with her office saying she would remain at home to focus on constituent work.

She criticized Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016, but later confirmed she would support her party’s nominee for president, declining to mention Trump by name.

At the start of Trump’s term in office, Stefanik was a leader of the centrist GOP Tuesday Group caucus, voted against Republicans’ 2017 rewrite of the tax code and criticized Trump’s controversial ban on refugees from seven Muslim countries.

Like Cheney, she also criticized his posture toward Russia and NATO, and defended special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s "Trump Score," which tracked how often Republicans voted for the former president’s agenda, Stefanik scored a 77.7%, roughly 15 points lower than Cheney’s 92.9%.

"There are areas where I disagree with the president, but if there are areas I agree with, then I am going to work with him," she told the Post-Star newspaper of Glen Falls, New York.

Stefanik was among the Republicans who later stood on stage with Trump at Fort Drum -- the large Army installation in her district and the home of the 10th Mountain Division -- in August 2018 when he signed the annual defense policy bill into law.

"That was a pivot or fulcrum type moment," Jeff Graham, the former mayor of Watertown and a longtime Stefanik supporter, told ABC News.

Trump defender and top surrogate

The next year, Stefanik emerged as one of Trump’s staunchest defenders as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, working closely with conservative Trump allies such as Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, to rebuff Democrats’ impeachment investigation into whether the president improperly withheld foreign aid to Ukraine.

Stefanik later served as a top surrogate for Trump and spoke in prime time on the third night of the Republican National Convention in Washington in the summer of 2020.

“This district was considered for a long time a moderate district, filled with Rockefeller Republicans, but that seems to have changed,” former Rep. Bill Owens, a Democrat who retired in 2015 after representing the area, told ABC News. “It’s clearly moved far to the right, and she’s followed that trend.”

Stefanik has used her new platform and profile in Republican circles to help support and recruit GOP women to run for Congress -- an effort that grew out of frustrations following the party’s 2018 midterm losses.

With her political action committee, E-PAC, Stefanik raised millions of dollars for GOP candidates in 2020 and supported the record number of GOP women elected to Congress last year.

Challenging election results

Stefanik was among the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn the election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania on Jan. 6, after a mob of pro-Trump protestors stormed the Capitol in a clash that left several people dead -- and defended questioning the results in two other states in a floor speech after the riot.

Like other Republicans who baselessly challenged the election results, she faced calls to resign from Democrats and was removed from the advisory board of the Harvard University Institute of Politics for her comments about the election results.

On Thursday, one day after Cheney wrote a Washington Post op-ed calling for Republicans to reject Trump’s "cult of personality," Stefanik told Bannon she fully supported the controversial Republican-backed audit of election results in Arizona, which election experts have worried will further undermine confidence in the electoral process.

But she also said she would work on "sending a clear message that we are one team, and that means working with the president and working with all of our excellent Republican members of Congress."

House Republicans can vote to remove Cheney from their leadership team as early as next week and install Stefanik in her place in a subsequent vote.

While some conservative groups have questioned Stefanik’s voting record, a broad swath of the GOP conference -- a mix of freshmen and veteran lawmakers, as well as centrists and some conservatives -- has publicly endorsed her to succeed Cheney in the No. 3 leadership position.

More importantly, she has the support of Trump, who called her a "smart and tough communicator" in a statement on Wednesday.

Stefanik "is an ambitious politician who sees her future in the Republican Party in one leadership role or another and has worked out that the potential for the party to move in a more moderate direction is not there -- and given that, has thrown in with [Trump],” Tim Weaver, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Albany, told ABC News.

Assuming Stefanik can keep her seat through the upcoming redistricting cycle in New York -- controlled by Democrats in Albany -- her rise to House leadership with Trump’s support could put her "in a prime position" for a leading role in the party, he added.

Graham, the former Watertown mayor, praised Stefanik’s rise in Washington and her representation of upstate New York -- and said her relationship with Trump was reflective of her constituents and many GOP voters.

"Nobody quite knew where the whole Trump thing was going to go," Graham said. "She was cautious. As they say in politics, she evolved."

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


Virginia GOP to vote on nominee for governor in post-Trump era

quackersnaps/iStock

(RICHMOND, Va.) -- Virginia Republicans are set to pick a nominee for this year's gubernatorial election at a convention on Saturday, testing the lasting strength of Trumpism in a state that has deepened its blue hue during former President Donald Trump's tenure.

In a crowded race with no clear front-runner, ties to Trump and his stalwarts are shaping its contours. The Republican contenders have largely embraced him and earned endorsements from some of his close allies -- ostensibly hoping to reflect the zeal of his base to claim the GOP nomination for the commonwealth's top job.

The race features seven candidates but it has splintered into two tiers, with the upper echelon widely seen as narrowing to four: state Sen. Amanda Chase, state Del. Kirk Cox, entrepreneur Pete Snyder and former hedge fund investor Glenn Youngkin. The other three contenders are Sergio de la Peña, a former official in the Department of Defense under Trump, Peter Doran, a businessman and author, and Octavia Johnson, the former sheriff of Roanoke. And while none are disavowing Trump, the level of passion among the candidates towards him isn't quite the same.

"You could categorize them in the three silos: Trumpy, Trumpier and Trumpiest," said Larry Sabato, the founder and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

That dynamic has manifested perhaps most in the debate over election integrity, which has become a focal point in the contest after Trump claimed repeatedly and without evidence that rampant fraud cost him the presidency -- eroding confidence in the system.

Youngkin, who earned the endorsement of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz this week, formed an "Election Integrity Task Force" to "ensure election integrity." Snyder, who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2013 and scored the endorsement of former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in his current bid, outlined an election integrity plan. His proposal calls for tightening voter ID laws and implementing signature matching for absentee ballots to address perceived voter skepticism about the security of the electoral system. And Cox, a former state House speaker who acknowledged Biden's victory back in December, has also pushed for election reforms in Virginia.

Only one of the candidates has directly invoked Trump's unfounded allegations of election fraud in the campaign. According to Chase, a self-proclaimed conservative firebrand who labels herself as "Trump in heels," the last election was stolen from the former president.

"To this day, my president is Donald J. Trump," she said last month at a Florida rally headlined by Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who's also embraced Trump's election conspiracies.

Chase's penchant for inviting controversy has underlined her bid. The two-term state lawmaker attended the "Stop the Steal" rally ahead of the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. She was also censured by her colleagues in the state Senate for, in part, praising pro-Trump rioters inside the Capitol as "patriots."

Chase's claims of a rigged election also don't end with 2020. They extend to her own race, too.

The decision to move forward with a convention, in her telling, was a concerted effort to "sabotage" her nomination. The bar for success is higher in conventions than in primaries since a candidate must secure a majority of the vote, rather than a plurality, to emerge as the winner.

A spokesperson for the Virginia Republican Party declined to comment on Chase's accusations.

The bumpy road to the convention has also led other candidates to raise concerns about the integrity of the nomination process. Chase, Youngkin and Cox sent a joint letter to the state party expressing reservations about its plans for ballot security and vote counting.

"All elections must be free, fair, and transparent. The Republican Party—the party of election integrity—must lead by example as it prepares to conduct its May 8 nominating convention," the candidates and rivals wrote to the state party chair.

Despite the apprehension, the state GOP is expecting the convention to "go 100% smoothly," said John March, the communications director for the Virginia GOP.

"Our chairman and other folks have talked to (the candidates) to make sure everybody's feeling comfortable and everybody is on the same page," he added.

In the off-year contest, a first referendum on the Biden administration and Democratic control of Congress ahead of the 2022 midterms, Republicans see the race as an opportunity to reverse a string of statewide losses. And history is on the GOP's side, with Virginia typically electing governors from the party not in the White House.

But one candidate who defied that trend -- former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who narrowly defeated Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in 2013 -- is hoping to do it again. Virginia state law doesn't allow for sitting governors to seek back-to-back terms.

McAuliffe, the front-runner in the Democratic race, is competing against four other candidates for the party's nomination: state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and state Del. Lee Carter. Voters will elect a nominee in a primary set for June 8, which Sabato predicted will be McAuliffe -- although "strange things happen in the final days" of a campaign, he added.

He also warned that despite their gains in the last decade, Democrats shouldn't consider a win a foregone conclusion.

"If you think you can't lose, you're halfway to losing," he said.

Sabato called Cox a "credible candidate," noting his years in the legislature, and underscored Youngkin's personal wealth -- a mighty asset for gaining name recognition and criticizing an eventual opponent on the airwaves.

And being too Trumpy could ultimately prove detrimental down the line, Sabato argued.

Trump himself hasn't found success in Virginia, and neither have Republicans. Trump's losing margin in 2020 was the most significant for a presidential candidate in Virginia in three decades and voters in the state handed Democrats full control of governing in the Trump era.

"Donald Trump continues to dominate the stage," Sabato said. "(It's) impossible for people to separate the party from Trump. And that is going to hurt whoever emerges as the nominee. No ways about it."

Still, all four are betting on a pro-Trump strategy to propel them to the nomination, when nearly 54,000 delegates -- the party's faithful -- gather at more than three dozen voting locations across Virginia to pick the nominee.

The months leading up to the "unassembled" convention -- which Sabato called a "giant game" -- were marred by internal divisions within the state GOP, with party officials feuding over the format for selecting nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. The standoff simmered after the party's governing body approved rules for the convention, but some still pushed for a traditional primary up until the end.

The complicated convention process involves a smaller fraction of voters who were pre-approved by local GOP committees and ranked-choice voting. The delegates rank each of the candidates in order of preference on a ballot, which will be counted by hand at a central location starting on Sunday and could take multiple days.

"We are equipped to remain in place all the way through Thursday," Rich Anderson, the chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, told Virginia Scope. "We've planned toward the longest case scenario but my estimation is, hopefully, at the latest, will be done on Tuesday."

If there isn't a clear winner in the first round, there will be subsequent rounds of voting with second and third choices, or more, possibly coming into play until one candidate emerges with 50% plus one vote.

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Biden still 'ready to compromise' with GOP on infrastructure despite McConnell comments

Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

(WASHINGTON) -- Standing before an aging bridge in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Thursday afternoon, President Joe Biden once again said he's ready to work across the aisle with Republicans to pass his $2.3 trillion infrastructure-focused American Jobs Plan.

"I’m willing to hear ideas from both sides," Biden said. "I’m ready to compromise. What I’m not ready to do, I’m not ready to do nothing. I’m not ready to have another period where America has another infrastructure month and doesn't change a damn thing."

He will likely get his next chance when he's expected to meet with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy next Wednesday at the White House, along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The meeting would mark the first time he'll host the congressional GOP leadership, but recent McConnell comments suggest it could raise questions among congressional Democrats about whether Biden's willingness to compromise to get a deal done is misguided.

While McConnell on Thursday seemed slightly more open to working with the president, just the day before he said he was entirely focused on derailing Biden's agenda.

"My view at the moment is we need to turn this administration into a moderate administration," McConnell said Thursday in Kentucky. "I'm still hoping the administration will pivot to a more centrist position and that's where I'm spending my time and focus."

But on Wednesday he said that "100 percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration."

"I think the best way of looking at what this new administration is - the president may have won the nomination, but Bernie Sanders won the argument about what the new administration should be like. We are confronted with severe challenges from the new administration and a narrow majority in the House and a 50-50 Senate to turn American into a socialist country, and that's 100% of my focus," McConnell said.

His initial comments were dismissed and met with a laugh from Biden when he was asked to respond Wednesday afternoon, saying he’s been on familiar ground with McConnell.

"He said that in our last administration, Barack [Obama], he was going to stop everything, and I was able to get a lot done with him," Biden told reporters in the White House State Dining Room.

During the 2010 mid-term elections, McConnell said "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president" and often used the filibuster to block much of Obama's agenda.

The war of words between McConnell and Biden comes as the president, Vice President Kamala Harris and other high-profile administration officials are traveling across the country to sell the president’s American Jobs Plan and his American Families Plan.

Republicans have criticized the cost of the scope of Biden’s infrastructure proposal, costing $2.3 trillion alone, and his plan to pay for it with a corporate tax rate hike from its current 21% to 28% and also raising the capital gains tax for those making over $1 million to 39.6%.

The president’s plan to raise corporate taxes has also been met with opposition from within his own party. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has said he believes it should be raised to 25% instead, something Biden says he is willing to negotiate.

Republicans have proposed their own scaled down $568 billion infrastructure plan, something McConnell on Thursday branded as a “bipartisan alternative.”

"I think the administration will probably think of this as plan B," McConnell said, adding that he thinks Democrats will consider the proposal only if their attempts at using reconciliation to pass the larger package fail.

"I'm hoping that if the Democrats are unable to pass this new $4.1 trillion dollar bill they'll sit down with us and talk about passing an infrastructure bill," he said. "If they aren't able to get everybody behind this massive proposal than I think we've got a real chance to do something important on a bipartisan basis."

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GOP Gov. DeSantis signs Florida election bill into law amid new controversy

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(WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.) -- Gov. Ron DeSantis created new controversy around Florida's already controversial new election law Thursday, apparently giving exclusive access to the signing ceremony to Fox News and barring other media outlets from covering the event at the Hilton in West Palm Beach, according to reporters on the ground.

"In about an hour, behind this door at meeting facility at Airport Hilton in West Palm Beach, @GovRonDeSantis will sign law making it harder for some people to vote. No Florida reporters allowed in because he’s given an exclusive to cable channel Fox News for the bill signing," tweeted Anthony Man, the senior political writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

He said that "hundreds" of DeSantis' and former President Donald Trump's supporters were also allowed into the event.

"Not a single reporter is being let in. This in a 'sunshine' state that prides itself on open government," CBS12 reporter Jay O'Brien echoed.

O'Brien said his station was supposed to be a pool camera to feed the event to other affiliates across the country.

DeSantis' spokespeople did not respond to ABC News's inquiries about the event. ABC affiliate WPBF-TV said other outlets were allowed in after DeSantis signed the bill and made remarks, which happened live on Fox and Friends around 8:45 a.m.

"This keeps us ahead of the curve," DeSantis said. "We're proud of the strides that we've made. We're not resting on our laurels and me signing this bill here says, 'Florida, your vote counts. Your vote is going to be cast with integrity and transparency.'"

Democrats were united against the bill, saying it's unnecessary and meant to suppress the vote among historically disenfranchised communities. One Republican senator also voted against the bill. Craig Latimer, president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections Association, issued a statement after the bill passed saying while some of the "most disenfranchising" provisions were cut from the bill before passage, "this legislation still makes requesting Vote By Mail ballots and returning those ballots harder."

Florida's bill, SB 90, imposes new limitations on mail voting, including lessening the number of elections a single vote-by-mail application covers and restricting ballot drop boxes. Only drop boxes at main office locations, not the ones at early voting locations, can be open after regular hours but all drop boxes must be physically manned by an election worker when they are accessible to voters. While they did not require in person monitoring, drop boxes did have to be under constant video surveillance previously.

SB 90 also bars local agencies from accepting outside money for nearly all election-related expenses and from mailing unsolicited ballots to voters and imposes new voter ID requirements when applying for a mail ballot or updating one's voter registration record. The bill also bans what Republicans call "ballot harvesting" -- someone collecting and returning others' mail ballots -- by limiting voters to possessing ballots belonging only to members of their or their spouse's immediate family and a maximum of two other voters per election.

Just after DeSantis signed the bill, two lawsuits were filed challenging the new law. The first, filed against the secretary of state, attorney general and all 67 county election supervisors, states that the bill will "impede every step of the voting process in Florida," but that it will not impact the state's voters' equally.

"It is crafted to and will operate to make it more difficult for certain types of voters to participate in the state’s elections, including those voters who generally wish to vote with a vote by-mail ballot and voters who have historically had to overcome substantial hurdles to reach the ballot box, such as Florida’s senior voters, youngest voters, and minority voters," the complaint reads.

The plaintiffs include the League of Women Voters of Florida, Black Voters Matter and the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans. As relief, the plaintiffs request that several provisions of the bill, including the ones around drop boxes and vote-by-mail requests, are declared unconstitutional.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund also filed a lawsuit challenging the law, alleging it violates the Voting Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

DeSantis's reported media snub hearkens back to what unfolded in Georgia at the end of March, when Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp signed the Peach State's sweeping new election bill, SB 202 or "The Election Integrity Act of 2021," and ignited a nationwide outcry, marking the first significant battle in what's become a war over voting rights. Kemp signed the bill behind closed doors, later posting a photo of it to Twitter that enraged activists and Democratic lawmakers as one state representative, Park Cannon, was arrested after continuing to knock on the door where Kemp was delivering remarks to media after signing the bill, hoping to gain access. Six lawsuits have been filed challenging Georgia's law.

The effort to impose new voting restrictions following months of Trump and allies spreading conspiracies about a rigged and stolen election is not unique to Georgia and Florida. State lawmakers introduced hundreds of bills during the 2021 legislative session that would reduce access to the ballot and at least five other restrictive voting bills have been enacted in other states. Texas lawmakers are set to take up one of its omnibus elections bill, HB 6, for a floor vote Thursday.

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DHS secretary warns ransomware attacks on the rise, targets include small businesses

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(WASHINGTON) -- Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned that cyberattacks -- specifically ransomware attacks -- are on the rise and targets range from government agencies to small businesses.

"The threat is real. The threat is upon us. The risk is to all of us," Mayorkas said at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Now & Then Speaker series Wednesday. "Inform oneself. Educate oneself and defend oneself."

A ransomware attack is when hackers lock files on a device and demand a ransom be paid in order to unlock them, according to the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Mayorkas said that $350 million was paid out for ransomware attacks in 2020.

Most recently, there was a ransomware attack against the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., with a group demanding money for stolen files. The MPD has not provided an update as to what happened.

And the Illinois Attorney General's Office has been under attack since at least April 10, ABC News affiliate WLS-TV reported on Tuesday. The attorneys in the office are having to use their personal emails -- underscoring the threat that these attacks pose.

Mayorkas also stressed Wednesday that ransomware attacks against small businesses have been successful.

"As a matter of fact, small businesses comprise approximately one-half to three-quarters of the victims of ransomware," he said.

Overall, ransomware attacks have been up almost 300% in the past year, he said.

"The losses from ransomware are staggering and the pace at which those losses are being realized are equally staggering," he added.

Mayorkas announced an effort to speed up DHS' awareness on cyber -- one of four so-called "sprints" -- that will focus on hiring people with the right experience to work at the department.

A DHS spokesperson told ABC News that the department intends to hire 200 cyber personnel by July.

Mayorkas also said Wednesday that resources from Homeland Security and the Secret Service are available for businesses to take advantage of in an effort to combat and respond to ransomware attacks.

"We stand at the ready to provide education to provide vital information to assist you in navigating through what you perceive to be a threat to assist you in perhaps building the defenses," he said.

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Restrictive Texas voting bill advances to floor vote

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(AUSTIN, Texas) -- After weeks of debate and political maneuvering, the nation's next showdown over state voting rights lands in Texas on Thursday, when the Republican-backed House Bill 6 -- which seeks to revise the state's election laws -- heads to a floor vote.

As written, HB 6 states the path to ensuring "election integrity and security" will come through "increasing criminal penalties" and "creating criminal offenses," which Democrats and voting rights activists said amounts to voter suppression tactics that would disproportionately affect communities of color.

"We predict that if these provisions become law, that you're going to have Anglo-watchers-slash-vigilantes disrupting polling places in primarily places where people of color vote (from) inside the polling place, and that voters will feel so uncomfortable that they will simply leave without casting their ballot," said Nina Perales, who serves as vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, during a Wednesday press call.

In its current form, the bill makes it a state felony for election officials to send out mail-voting applications to voters if they did not individually request the forms.

HB 6 also requires people who help voters cast their ballots to submit documentation describing why the voter needed help, even if the voter needed assistance due to medical reasons. The person assisting the voter is also required to submit their own personal contact information and must include their relationship to the voter.

Additionally, the bill expands the access granted to poll watchers within polling places, and states that a poll watcher can only be removed "if the poll watcher engages in activity that would constitute an offense related to election fraud."

Voting rights advocates point to this provision as an example of how the bill would promote voter intimidation, and said it sets the bar very high for the expulsion of a poll watcher who could otherwise engage in unsavory behavior. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan, independent organization that analyzes election rules, the bill essentially limits "the ability of election workers to protect voters against illegal disruption and harassment by 'watchers.'"

"If a poll watcher starts screaming, yelling, (or) arguing with a voter, (or) laying down on the floor, (or) banging pots and pans -- poll workers would not be able to eject those individuals. That would be a crime. The only recourse for the poll worker would be to call the police and hope that the police would come," Perales said.

Thursday's vote is sure to set off a renewed round of backlash from prominent Democrats and voting rights activists who spent weeks decrying state Republicans' push to advance dual pieces of election legislation in both the House and the Senate. Former presidential candidates and Texas locals, Julian Castro and Beto O'Rourke, as well as voting rights advocate, Stacey Abrams, have all spoken out against the advancement of the bills.

In addition to high-profile political voices, corporate giants like American Airlines, Microsoft, Dell and Unilever weighed in with their opposition to the legislation, which began progressing through the Texas legislature on the heels of the fallout surrounding Georgia's revised election laws.

On Tuesday, more than 50 companies, business groups and industry leaders signed a letter calling on "lawmakers to uphold our ever elusive core democratic principle: equality."

"We stand together, as a nonpartisan coalition, calling on all elected leaders in Texas to support reforms that make democracy more accessible and oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters' access to the ballot," the letter said.

The state's top Republicans have repeatedly voiced their opposition to corporate giants weighing in on the progression of the bills, as many companies continue to dig in on their positions against the legislation. A Republican-backed proposal to financially penalize entities that "publicly threatened any adverse action" against Texas in their opposition to election legislation was even briefly debated during the state's budget debate in April.

Ultimately, the proposed amendment was not added to the budget, thereby upholding comments made by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in April when he was asked if companies who were critical of the state's election bills should lose financial incentives.

"This is not a quid pro, we don't punish people because they disagree with us," Patrick said at the time.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took a different approach by castigating what he called "watch-me-woke-it-up CEOs" and announcing he would "no longer accept money from any corporate PAC." He urged Republicans at all levels of government to follow suit.

"Enough is enough. Corporations that flagrantly misrepresent efforts to protect our elections need to be called out, singled out and cut off," Cruz said.

Across the aisle, in one of the state's most diverse cities on Wednesday, two of the region's top Democrats -- Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo -- refused to have their respective "state of the city" and "state of the county" events be produced by the city's chamber of commerce, the Greater Houston Partnership, over the ongoing voting rights debate.

The pair said the decision was in response to the organization's lack of expressed opposition to the advancement of the state's voting bills, including HB 6.

"There is nothing partisan in voting suppression ... when there are bills that engage in voter suppression, voter intimidation, restricting access to the polling place -- that's not partisan, that's just downright wrong," Turner said at a press conference, while urging business leaders to make greater strides in opposing the bill before it is enacted into law.

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Judge strikes down CDC's authority to uphold federal eviction freeze

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(WASHINGTON) -- ​A D.C. district judge ruled Wednesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not have the authority to uphold a federal eviction moratorium, which was put in place to prevent those behind on rent because of the pandemic from being evicted from their homes.

Judge Dabney Friedrich of the D.C. District Court ordered the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services to vacate the eviction moratorium, which has been in place since last year.

Though Friedrich, a Trump-appointed judge, acknowledged the "serious health crisis" presented by the pandemic, she ruled that the eviction moratorium went beyond the CDC and HHS's legal authority to control activities that could increase the spread of disease or infection.

"It is the role of the political branches, and not the courts, to assess the merits of policy measures designed to combat the spread of disease, even during a global pandemic," Friedrich wrote. "The question for the Court is a narrow one: Does the Public Health Service Act grant the CDC the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium? It does not."

It was not clear whether the freeze on evictions would be immediately reversed. The Department of Justice has already appealed the judge's decision and a spokesperson for the department said they'll seek to prevent the moratorium from being lifted pending a ruling on the appeal.

Late Wednesday, Friedrich put on hold her ruling pending the Justice Department's appeal. The judge gave those challenging the moratorium a week to file papers opposing the delay and the DOJ will have four days to respond to them.

Several courts have ruled on challenges related to the eviction moratorium with varying outcomes. In this case, an association of realtors brought their case against the CDC.

Diane Yentel, the CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said there are now numerous conflicting rulings related to the federal moratorium.

"While this latest ruling is written more starkly than previous ones, it likely has equally limited application impacting only the plaintiffs who brought the case or -- at most -- renters in the district court's jurisdiction," Yentel said.

While the legal battle continues, renters are stuck in the middle.

Homelessness and housing insecurity have been on the rise since the coronavirus pandemic left millions unemployed and unable to make rent. Some 10.7 million adults living in rental housing -- 15% of adult renters -- were not caught up on rent, according to data collected by the Center on Budget and Policy priorities in late March.

Congress took initial action to prevent evictions during the earliest stages of the pandemic, implementing an eviction moratorium as part of the massive bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill passed in March 2020.

Shortly after the congressional moratorium expired, the CDC stepped in, implementing their own freeze that kept renters housed through December. Congress extended that authority through January 2021 and the CDC has issued subsequent extensions since.

The federal eviction moratorium is currently set to expire on June 30, but the judge's ruling Wednesday throws that date into question.

The Biden administration has always touted the eviction moratorium as a major coronavirus relief effort. The court's decision would be a blow to their push to help disadvantaged communities.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the decision Wednesday.

"I understand the Department of Justice is reviewing the court's decision and should have more to say later today," Psaki said. "We also recognize of course, the importance of the eviction moratorium for Americans who have fallen behind on rent during the pandemic. A recent study estimates that there were 1.55 million fewer objections filed during 2020 than would be expected due to the eviction moratorium, so it clearly has had a huge benefit. We would expect that a response and any -- of course -- decision about additional action would come from DOJ and you may hear more from them today."

HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge said Wednesday morning, however, that the administration had no intention to extend the moratorium past the June 30 expiration. She said those who fell behind on their rent and mortgages should be getting back on their feet.

"The resources that we put in to stop evictions, and to stop -- I mean the moratorium on foreclosures on homes, we know that we have put enough money in the system through the Rescue Plan that people should come out of this June 30th at least current," Fudge said. "And so that in itself is going to allow us hopefully to keep people in their homes."

A reporter asked if that meant the administration would not extend past the June 30 expiration date and Fudge said, "As of this time I am not aware that we are."

Congress has passed several tranches of rent relief, but advocates said that those funds have flowed slowly to those most in need.

Vincent Reina, an associate professor and faculty director of the Housing Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, told ABC News that programs designed to distribute federal dollars are still finding their footing.

"In some places it's definitely flowing, in other places it just launched," Reina said Tuesday. "There's still no clear certainty about number of people served thus far."

That's why Yentel said the DOJ appeal of the judge's ruling is critical.

"The Biden administration should continue to vigorously defend and enforce the moratorium, at least until emergency rental assistance provided by Congress reaches the renters who need it to remain stably housed," Yentel said.

ABC News' Alex Mallin and Stephanie Ebbs contributed to this report

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In critical shift, US now backs patent protection waivers for COVID-19 vaccines

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Biden administration now says it supports waiving the intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, opening the door for their possible manufacturing by companies and countries around the world, beyond those that invented them.

It is a historic shift and one that advocates and aid groups say is critical for speeding up the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. had opposed the waiver, along with pharmaceutical companies like Johnson and Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer who are concerned about the precedent it would set and accused the administration of taking "an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety."

The World Trade Organization is holding negotiations on patent waivers for COVID-19 vaccine technology this week. In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tsai announced that the U.S. "will actively participate in text-based negotiations" at the international body "to make that happen."

"The extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," Tsai said. "The administration's aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible

Last October, India and South Africa first proposed that the intellectual property protections be waived, so that companies and countries wouldn't face litigation for producing vaccines patented by J&J, Moderna and others for themselves. The U.S., European Union and some other countries had opposed the idea.

With the Biden administration announcement Wednesday, that could shift rapidly, but Tsai's statement was clear in seeking a negotiation, not in endorsing South Africa and India's proposal.

Those negotiations could take weeks, and any final agreement would require a high level of support. But the countries involved understand the urgency, according to a WTO spokesperson, as the virus rages in countries like India, Brazil and elsewhere.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told the body's members Wednesday that it was "incumbent on us to move quickly to put the revised text on the table, but also to begin and undertake text-based negotiations."

If an agreement is reached, it would be a critical step forward -- but not the only one needed, according to Matt Kavanagh, a global health professor at Georgetown University.

While a WTO waiver, known as a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property or TRIPS waiver, would remove the threat of litigation, companies and countries would have to reverse engineer the vaccine technology unless the U.S. pharmaceutical firms shared their technology and "recipes" for vaccine production, according to O'Neill.

If those U.S. firms balked, the Biden administration could even compel them to share their technology and "recipes," using the Defense Production Act and other political, legal or even moral leverage, O'Neill explained.

"The Biden administration can compel Moderna and the others to teach other companies to make their technology or how to make their 'recipes,' so to speak, for COVID vaccines," he said. "That's what's needed to make this move fast."

That's a few steps ahead, but the industry has already made clear their opposition to Biden's support for TRIPS waivers.

"This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines," said Stephen Ubl, president and CEO of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry trade group.

In the meantime, aid groups and activists are urging the Biden administration to act more immediately by sharing doses of the COVID-19 vaccines it has purchased, as more than half of Americans have now received at least one shot.

"A TRIPS waiver is necessary, but not sufficient," said Keifer Buckingham, a senior policy adviser at the Open Society Foundations. "There are not enough vaccines going around. The solution inevitably has to be 'both, and'" -- expanding production through a waiver and providing more doses directly and through COVAX, the global mechanism that distributes vaccines to lower and middle income countries.

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Biden visits taqueria as 186,000 restaurants apply for federal aid from newly opened program

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(WASHINGTON) -- More than 186,000 restaurants flooded the federal government with applications for money in the first two days of a program set up to ameliorate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the White House said Wednesday.

President Joe Biden touted the high interest in the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, launched on Monday as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package he signed into law nearly two months ago, as an industry group warned the fund's popularity could cause it to quickly exhaust its $28.6 billion in funding.

"Whether it's our economy or our sense of community, we're relying on restaurants to play a big role in our recovery," Biden said at the White House Wednesday afternoon. "We want our economy to recover in a way that deals everyone in. Then our restaurants need a seat at the table, no pun intended."

The president said that the applications "all haven't been processed yet" but that "right now, it looks like we'll be able to provide help to about 100,000 restaurants and other eligible businesses."

"Restaurants are more than a major driver of our economy," he said. "They're woven into the fabric of our communities. And so for many families, restaurants are the gateway to opportunity, a key part of the American story."

The new program will provide grants of up to $10 million to restaurants, bars, food trucks, caterers, bakeries and other eateries.

"The question on the minds of many is what happens when applications outpace the available funds," the president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, Tom Bené, said this week.

Earlier Wednesday -- Cinco de Mayo -- Biden made an unannounced visit to a taqueria in Washington that had been awarded money from a pilot version of the restaurant fund, as well as from the Payment Protection Program -- the federal government's signature program for providing businesses with pandemic-related aid over the past year. He said he ordered tacos and enchiladas.

Severely impacted by the economic crisis unleashed by the pandemic and restrictions on businesses to mitigate the spread of the virus, restaurants have over the past year become primary beneficiaries of government grants and loans to businesses.

Accommodation and food services businesses were the No. 1 industry benefiting from the latest round of funding from the Payment Protection Program -- receiving 17%, or $40 billion, of the loans, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. They have received billions more from separate federal aid programs for small businesses.

The Small Business Administration, which administers the Payment Protection Program and the new restaurant fund, said Tuesday that the Payment Protection Program had finally run out of money -- four weeks earlier than expected -- as the government transitions to more targeted programs.

The same could happen with the restaurant fund, according to the National Restaurant Association's chief lobbyist, Sean Kennedy.

Kennedy told grassroots supporters in an email that the "the total number of applicants is going to exceed expectations – and may quickly exhaust the $28.6 billion in federal funding."

The White House on Wednesday noted that 97,600 applications came from businesses controlled by women, veterans, socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, and that 61,700 more were submitted by businesses making less than $500,000 annually before the pandemic -- "representing some of the smallest restaurants and bars in America."

Those applicants will be prioritized for the first three weeks of the program.

The businesses can use the grants for expenses like payroll and rent.

Franco's Ristorante in the Chicago area was one of the many restaurant groups that received forgivable loans both times they were made available through the Payment Protection Program.

Frank Ruffolo, a managing partner for the Italian restaurants, told ABC News that the loans allowed him to pay staff members across four locations, keeping around 95% of his team employed.

Franco's Ristorante has applied for funding from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund too, but the fact that the new program had so much less money behind it did not give Ruffolo hope.

"The funding that you had for the PPP loans compared to these grants -- it's much, much less," Ruffolo said. "So it doesn't really sound like there's enough out there for everyone."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the average turnaround time for applications for the program, "from submission to funding," will be up to two weeks.

Psaki said Biden was "open" to working with Congress to provide even more funding for restaurants in the future.

"There has already been a large interest in this program," Psaki said. "And there are great needs across the country from these small businesses, from these restaurants that are in communities across the country."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story initially misquoted Biden about the applications that had been submitted to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. He said they "all haven't been processed yet." The story has been updated.

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Cheney not fighting, but not backing down in face of Trump, Republican backlash

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(WASHINGTON) -- As House Republican leaders actively kept trying Wednesday to oust a member of their own leadership team – No. 3 Rep. Liz Cheney – the congresswoman wasn't backing down -- but she wasn't openly fighting the move, either.

The embattled Wyoming representative has told people she doesn’t believe it’s worth serving as the Republican Party’s conference chair if it requires lying about the election results, a source familiar with the congresswoman’s thinking told ABC News.

Cheney has angered her Republican colleagues in the days and weeks following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot by repeatedly calling out former President Donald Trump’s election lies, which she said she believes played a major role in inciting the insurrection.

In February, Cheney fought off a challenge to boot her from the coveted leadership position due to similar circumstances, though at the time she still had the support of top Republican leadership.

Cheney kept her leadership role after a closed-door GOP 145-61 vote with a secret ballot that required two-thirds support of the conference to remove her.

It's not clear whether that threshold or format will change in any upcoming vote. A spokesman for House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy did not respond to messages about the format of a conference vote.

And it’s unclear if Cheney can hold on to the spot this time around. Sources have told ABC News that a vote to boot Cheney could take place as soon as next Wednesday, during a House Republican conference-wide meeting.

Jeremy Adler, a spokesman for Cheney, signaled Wednesday morning that the congresswoman will not sit back quietly as the intra-party attacks continue.

“Liz will have more to say in the coming days,” he said. “This moment is about much more than a House leadership fight.”

Cheney is not actively whipping colleagues for their support to keep her in the position, a source close to Cheney said.

The congresswoman believes that evading questions about Trump and the election results rather than forcefully answering them -- as other GOP leaders have done -- is equivalent to "being complicit in the lie," the source said.

"If you let [Trump] bloviate, you get people attacking the Capitol and you get people attacking the very foundation of the Republic," the source said in explaining the thinking behind her repeated comments since Jan. 6.

On Wednesday, Trump himself weighed in to criticize Cheney as a "warmongering fool who has no business in Republican Party Leadership."

Trump has endorsed Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York in the race to replace Cheney.

“We want leaders who believe in the Make America Great Again movement, and prioritize the values of America First. Elise Stefanik is a far superior choice, and she has my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair. Elise is a tough and smart communicator!”

Stefanik has emerged as the apparent frontrunner should Cheney be ousted from her post, sources familiar with the matter told ABC News.

Stefanik, a prominent ally and defender of Trump, has been working the phones with her team in a bid for Cheney's spot, sources said.

In January following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government announced Stefanik was removed from the advisory board of the Harvard University Institute of Politics after her "public assertions about voter fraud in November's presidential election that have no basis in evidence, and she has made public statements about court actions related to the election that are incorrect."

McCarthy's team has begun whipping votes against Cheney and after McCarthy was caught on a hot mic in audio obtained by the Daily Caller saying he's "had it" with Cheney.

"I think she's got real problems. I've had it with ...I've had it with her. You know, I've lost confidence," McCarthy said in audio published by the Daily Caller.

Other Republican leaders have publicly weighed in to support Stefanik.

"House Republicans need to be solely focused on taking back the House in 2022 and fighting against Speaker Pelosi and President Biden’s radical socialist agenda, and Elise Stefanik is strongly committed to doing that, which is why Whip Scalise has pledged to support her for Conference Chair," a spokesman for Republican Whip Steve Scalise said in a statement provided to ABC News.

President Joe Biden offered his first reaction to House Republicans’ effort to oust Cheney, telling reporters Wednesday, "I don’t understand the Republicans."

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