Fauci returns unmuzzled, while the Senate is stuck in slow motion. It’s Friday, and this is your politics tip sheet. Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday.
Where things stand
President Biden rolled out a raft of executive orders and directives yesterday to combat the coronavirus pandemic, promising “a full-scale wartime effort to address the supply shortages by ramping up production.”
He instituted a mask requirement for most major modes of interstate travel and put in place a policy requiring international travelers to quarantine after entering the United States.
He also instructed federal agencies to use the Defense Production Act to increase the nation’s supply of essential items like coronavirus tests and personal protective equipment. On the campaign trail, he had often criticized former President Donald Trump for failing to fully use the Korean War-era law to compel manufacturers to pitch in with the effort against the virus.
Biden said he was turning over a new leaf after the Trump administration and would rely on “science, not politics” as he confronts the pandemic. “For the past year, we couldn’t rely on the federal government to act with the urgency and focus and coordination that we needed, and we have seen the tragic cost of that failure,” Biden said.
But critics quickly pointed out that the effectiveness of Biden’s orders remains an open question. His quarantine requirement did not include a clear enforcement mechanism, and while he has promised to inject 100 million vaccines in his first hundred days, that is far below the number of doses that are expected to become available by then.
Biden has placed Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, at the center of his pandemic response team and restored many of Fauci’s duties after months in which the Trump administration had virtually banished him from the public eye.
At a White House news conference yesterday, Fauci acknowledged that he felt unmuzzled after a difficult few months. “There were things that were said, be it regarding things like hydroxychloroquine and other things like that, that really was uncomfortable because they were not based on scientific fact,” he said.
“You didn’t feel that you could actually say something and there wouldn’t be any repercussions about it,” Fauci added. “The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence, what the science is, and know that’s it — let the science speak — it is somewhat of a liberating feeling.”
At his confirmation hearing to become the secretary of transportation, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg told a Senate committee that he would use the post to enact a sweeping infrastructure overhaul, with an eye toward sustainability and racial justice.
“I believe good transportation policy can play no less a role than making possible the American dream,” he told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “But I also recognize that at their worst, misguided policies and missed opportunities in transportation can reinforce racial and economic inequality.”
While he avoided speaking in specific policy terms for most of the hearing, Buttigieg said he would “use all relevant authorities” to help enforce Biden’s executive order requiring masks for interstate travel. And he pledged to work closely with the nation’s state, local and tribal leaders.
If confirmed, Buttigieg would become the first openly gay cabinet secretary approved by the Senate and the youngest member of Biden’s cabinet.
After a delayed — and in many ways, deferred — presidential transition, the Senate has confirmed just one member of Biden’s cabinet, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence. Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army general, may soon join Haines in the administration, after the House and Senate voted to grant a waiver allowing him to become defense secretary.
Without a waiver, former military officials are barred from becoming defense secretary until they have been out of the service for at least seven years. Congress approved a similar measure four years ago for Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general.
The Senate is expected to vote on Austin’s confirmation this morning. And the Finance Committee will hold a meeting later today on Biden’s nomination of Janet Yellen to become Treasury secretary. While he awaits these and other confirmations, Biden has already named acting leaders for more than 30 federal agencies.
The Senate’s new Democratic majority is struggling to get out of first gear, as Senator Mitch McConnell grapples for leverage in his new position as the minority leader.
As the 117th U.S. Senate works to draw up the rules that will govern how it carries out business in the next two years, McConnell had offered to expedite the process of confirming Biden’s cabinet nominees in exchange for a guarantee from Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, that Democrats would not do away with the filibuster.
McConnell then submitted a request to delay Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, a move that he said was aimed at allowing the former president’s legal team time to assemble its defense. It would also threaten to keep the Senate at least partially distracted by the impeachment trial for a period of months — a prospect that Democratic leaders had hoped to avoid.
With Schumer and McConnell at loggerheads over the rules, the Senate remains unable to move forward with its basic duties, including organizing itself into committees and setting rules for getting virtually anything done.
Photo of the day
Biden signed executive orders on his administration’s coronavirus response yesterday as Vice President Kamala Harris and Dr. Fauci looked on.
Why corporate America is both hopeful and wary of Biden
Imagine, if you will, a president who lowers taxes on the wealthy, presides over a surging stock market and loosens regulation on businesses of all kinds — yet who is so enthralled by his ability to sow conflict that he alienates even the nation’s top business leaders. That about describes Donald Trump, who by the end of his tumultuous presidency had lost the support of such typical Republican stalwarts as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But does the business world’s exhaustion with Trump mean it will eagerly welcome Biden’s wide-ranging proposals, which include raising taxes on high-income Americans and tightening various regulations?
To the extent that Biden will enjoy any kind of honeymoon period, he’s in it right now. And business leaders’ response to his earliest executive actions has largely been positive. He drew praise from figures like Bill Gates and Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Alphabet, for pledging to rejoin the Paris climate accord, shielding “Dreamers” from deportation, and stepping up Covid relief.
But as our reporter David Gelles writes in a new article, there have already been stirrings of business opposition, particularly around his order to stop construction on the Keystone XL pipeline. In a statement, the Chamber of Commerce called the move “politically motivated” and said it would “put thousands of Americans in the building trades out of work.”
The biggest fights are expected to come up as Biden shepherds legislation through Congress, particularly around environmental regulations and corporate taxation. But some political and business observers say they may be willing to accept a little more taxation in exchange for less volatility.
“The markets are relieved to be on the other side of all the tumult and uncertainty that was Donald Trump,” Brad Karp, chairman of the law firm Paul, Weiss, told David. “You woke up in the morning and saw the president imposing tariffs, or closing borders, or retaliating against a company. Business needs predictability and certainty.”
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