Senate May Begin Stimulus Debate With Capitol on Alert for Attack

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A Capitol Police officer in the Rotunda on Wednesday. House leaders moved a vote on policing legislation from Thursday to Wednesday night so lawmakers could leave town early.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

The Capitol Police were on guard for another assault on the Capitol building on Thursday after obtaining intelligence of a potential plot by a militia group, even as the Senate was poised to possibly begin debate on President Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic stimulus plan.

The new potential threat comes two months after supporters of President Donald J. Trump stormed the Capitol building as Congress met to certify the 2020 election results.

Intelligence analysts have been tracking online chatter by some adherents of the pro-Trump conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Those adherents appear to have latched on to March 4 — the original inauguration date set in the Constitution — as the day Mr. Trump would be restored to the presidency and renew his crusade against the country’s enemies.

After being caught flat-footed by rioters on Jan. 6, the Capitol Police and some members of Congress appeared to be taking the warnings seriously. House leaders opted to move up a vote on policing legislation from Thursday to Wednesday night so lawmakers could leave Washington earlier than planned.

“It is heartbreaking that the United States Capitol continues to be a target — not by foreign adversaries — but by our fellow Americans,” Representative Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio and the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Capitol Police, said in a statement.

The Senate is still scheduled to meet on Thursday, as Democrats hope to push Mr. Biden’s aid package through the chamber by the weekend. Republicans promised to make efforts to slow the process.

Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said he planned to force a full reading of the legislation on the Senate floor — an hourslong process undertaken by journal clerks, not senators — and offer a slew of amendments to prolong what was already expected to be a marathon voting session, known as a vote-a-rama, of rapid-fire attempts to modify the bill.

“We need to keep this process going so we can highlight the abuse — obviously not Covid relief, obviously a boondoggle for Democrats,” Mr. Johnson told a radio station in Wisconsin.

As Democrats worked to hold their fragile coalition together in the Senate, Mr. Biden agreed on Wednesday to place stricter income limits on the next round of stimulus payments, making the latest in a series of crucial concessions to moderates. Mr. Biden cannot afford to lose a single Democratic vote in the chamber if Republicans are united in opposition to the stimulus plan.

It was unclear if the latest security concerns at the Capitol would affect Senate Democrats’ plans to advance the aid package. Some federal officials described the threats as more “aspirational” than operational. Even many influential QAnon followers, who believe the United States is dominated by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles, have cast March 4 as a “deep state” plot to incite the movement’s adherents and provoke a nationwide crackdown.

Since the riot, the perimeter of the Capitol has been ringed with new fencing, topped with razor wire. The Capitol Police said the agency was reaching out to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to prepare further for the possibility of another attack on Thursday.

Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, a senior Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, took the threat seriously enough on Wednesday to publicly argue that Mr. Trump should use his influence to keep it from happening.

“President Trump has a responsibility to tell them to stand down,” Mr. McCaul said on CNN. “This threat is credible. It’s real.”

Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.

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House Democrats Prepare to Pass Sweeping Voting Rights Bill

House Democrats are set to pass the largest federal expansion of voting rights in decades as Republicans try to limit ballot access in states across the country following the 2020 election.

“This is called the For the People bill, and in doing so we combat big, dark, special-interest money in politics and amplify the voice of the American people. We fight foreign interference in our elections. We expand voting rights, we fight political gerrymandering and we crack down on corruption.” “H.R. 1, the For the People Act, will put a stop to the voter suppression that we’re seeing being debated right now in Georgia by taking an aim at the institutional barriers to voting. H.R. 1 would also create a national standard for voter registration, because your ZIP code should not determine your access to the ballot box.” “After that enormous turnout, we saw Republican legislatures all over the country try and stop that voting, to stop the absentee voting, to impose barriers, to make it harder for Americans to vote. H.R. 1 would put a stop to that. And it’s absolutely essential because nothing else happens unless the people’s voices are heard.”

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House Democrats are set to pass the largest federal expansion of voting rights in decades as Republicans try to limit ballot access in states across the country following the 2020 election.CreditCredit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

House Democrats pushed through a sweeping expansion of federal voting rights on Wednesday over unified Republican opposition, opening a new front in a raging national debate about elections aimed at countering G.O.P. attempts to clamp down on ballot access.

The bill, adopted 220 to 210 mostly along party lines, would constitute the most significant enhancement of federal voting protections since the 1960s if it became law. It aims to impose new national requirements neutering restrictive state voter ID laws, mandate automatic voter registration, expand early and mail-in voting, make it harder to purge voter rolls and restore voting rights to former felons — changes that studies suggest would increase voter participation, especially by racial minorities.

But the measure, which is supported by President Biden, appears to be doomed for now in the Senate, where Republican opposition would make it all but impossible to draw the 60 votes needed to advance. Democratic leaders have vowed to put it up for a vote anyway, and progressives were already plotting to use Republican obstruction of the bill to build their case for jettisoning the legislative filibuster in the months ahead.

“Everything is at stake. We must win this race, this fight,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, said as Democrats rallied on the Capitol steps before the vote.

It was the latest bid by Democrats to beat back Republican efforts in statehouses across the country to enact new barriers to voting that would consolidate power for the Republican Party amid false claims of rampant election fraud heralded by former President Donald J. Trump and many of his allies in Congress.

The 791-page bill, designated H.R. 1 by Democrats to reflect its importance to their agenda, would also eliminate partisan gerrymandering, impose new transparency on dark money used to finance campaigns, tighten government ethics standards and create a public financing option for congressional campaigns.

H.R. 1’s voting provisions were originally drafted by Representative John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon who died last year.

If the bill were to become law, states would be required to automatically register eligible voters, hold at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections and provide drop boxes for absentee ballots like the ones Mr. Trump falsely claimed led to fraud. It would make it far easier to vote by mail and far harder to purge voters from the rolls.

The legislation also targets partisan gerrymandering of House seats, requiring states to use independent commissions to draw districts based on apolitical metrics rather than ones that would maximize the influence of one party over another. Both parties gerrymander, but the practice has benefited Republicans more over the last decade. With new districts set to be drawn this fall, Republicans are expected to make even greater gains.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator drone in the Persian Gulf region in 2016. Counterterrorism drone warfare has reached its fourth administration with President Biden.
Credit…John Moore/Getty Images

The Biden administration has quietly imposed temporary limits on counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional battlefield zones like Afghanistan and Syria, and it has begun a broad review of whether to tighten Trump-era rules for such operations, according to officials.

The military and the C.I.A. must now obtain White House permission to attack terrorism suspects in poorly governed places where there are scant American ground troops, like Somalia and Yemen. Under the Trump administration, they had been allowed to decide for themselves whether circumstances on the ground met certain conditions and an attack was justified.

Officials characterized the tighter controls as a stopgap while the Biden administration reviewed how targeting worked — both on paper and in practice — under former President Donald J. Trump and developed its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones, including how to minimize the risk of civilian casualties.

The Biden administration did not announce the new limits. But the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, issued the order on Jan. 20, the day of President Biden’s inauguration, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Counterterrorism drone warfare has reached its fourth administration with Mr. Biden. As President Barack Obama’s vice president, Mr. Biden was part of a previous administration that oversaw a major escalation in targeted killings using remote-piloted aircraft in its first term, and then imposed significant new restraints on the practice in its second.

While the Biden administration still permits counterterrorism strikes outside active war zones, the additional review and bureaucratic hurdles it has imposed may explain a recent lull in such operations. The United States military’s Africa Command has carried out about half a dozen airstrikes this calendar year in Somalia targeting the Shabab, a terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda — but all were before Jan. 20.

Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, acknowledged that Mr. Biden had issued “interim guidance” about the use of military force and related national security operations.

The Biden team is also weighing whether to restore an Obama-era order that had required the government to annually disclose estimates of how many suspected terrorists and civilian bystanders it had killed in airstrikes outside war zones. Mr. Obama invoked that requirement in 2016, but Mr. Trump removed it in 2019. The military separately publishes some information about its strikes in places like Somalia, but the C.I.A. does not.

Elaine Chao announced her resignation as transportation secretary on Jan. 7, the day after the Capitol riot.
Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

The Transportation Department’s inspector general asked the Justice Department in December to consider a criminal investigation into what it said was Elaine Chao’s misuse of her office as transportation secretary in the Trump administration to help promote her family’s shipbuilding business, which is run by her sister and has extensive business ties with China.

In a report made public on Wednesday, the inspector general said the Justice Department’s criminal and public integrity divisions both declined to take up the matter, even after the inspector general found repeated examples of Ms. Chao using her staff and her office to help benefit her family and their business operations and revealed that staff members at the agency had raised ethics concerns.

“A formal investigation into potential misuses of position was warranted,” Mitch Behm, the department’s deputy inspector general, said on Tuesday in a letter to House lawmakers, accompanying a 44-page report detailing the investigation and the findings of wrongdoing.

Ms. Chao, the wife of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, announced her resignation on Jan. 7, the day after the Capitol riot. At the time of her departure, an aide to Ms. Chao said her resignation was unrelated to the coming release of the investigation.

The investigation began after a 2019 report in The New York Times detailed Ms. Chao’s interactions with her family while she was transportation secretary, including a trip she had planned to take to China in 2017 with her father and sister. The inspector general’s report confirmed that planning for the trip, which was canceled, raised ethics concerns among other government officials.

Ms. Chao declined to respond to questions from the inspector general and instead provided a memo from September 2020 that described the importance of promoting her family as part of her official duties.

“Asian audiences welcome and respond positively to actions by the secretary that include her father in activities when appropriate,” the memo said.

The inspector general’s investigation detailed a series of instances where Ms. Chao directed her staff to spend federal government time and resources to help with matters related to the shipbuilding company and her father.

It found that Ms. Chao had used her staff to make extensive arrangements in 2017 for the planned trip to China, which had been scheduled to include stops at locations that had received financial support from her family’s company.

The investigators also found that she had repeatedly asked staff members to do tasks like editing her father’s Wikipedia page and promoting his biography.

Judge Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden’s pick to be attorney general, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on on February 22, 2021.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

As Judge Merrick B. Garland prepares to take over the Justice Department, officials have already begun to reverse Trump-era policies denounced by Democrats and restore what longtime employees described as a less charged environment where they no longer feared retaliation from the president or public criticism from the attorney general.

Judge Garland, who is expected to be confirmed as attorney general in the coming days with bipartisan support, emphasized in his confirmation hearing his experience as a former prosecutor and his commitment to protecting the department from partisan influence. His remarks gave many Justice Department officials the impression that he would be an evenhanded leader who would trust and respect them.

But the judge’s vow to be fair and apolitical will be immediately tested by politically thorny investigations, efforts to reverse Trump-era measures and the Biden administration’s aims to reinvigorate civil rights initiatives and combat domestic terrorism, including the sprawling investigation into the Capitol attack by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6.

Monty Wilkinson, the acting attorney general and a career law enforcement official, quickly began reversing the Trump administration’s signature initiatives last month, including some viewed with skepticism even by Republicans. He rescinded contentious guidance to prosecutors about voter fraud investigations and harsh sentencing, as well as the “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry into the United States from Mexico, which separated thousands of children from their families.

Since President Biden took office on Jan. 20, the department has also notified the Supreme Court that it would no longer challenge the Affordable Care Act, disavowing its position under the Trump administration. It withdrew a lawsuit that accused Yale of discriminating against Asian-American and white applicants, seen as part of a wider effort to dismantle affirmative action. And it retracted support for a lawsuit seeking to block transgender students from participating in girls’ high school sports.

Other moves by Mr. Wilkinson helped raise morale among employees who saw President Donald J. Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr as wielding the Justice Department for political gain, according to current and former employees. Most notably, Mr. Wilkinson asked a Trump-appointed prosecutor to stay on to oversee an investigation into Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter Biden; and he allowed John H. Durham, the special counsel, to continue his inquiry into the Russia investigation. Department officials viewed the decisions as an indication that facts, rather than political interests, would set the course.

Despite support from many Republicans on the committee, which voted 15 to 7 to advance Mr. Garland’s nomination, at least one objected to expediting his confirmation, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Wednesday. “It could be days, maybe even into next week, before he can take the job,” Mr. Durbin said in a speech on the Senate floor.

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