Filibuster Being ‘Abused,’ Biden Says, Signaling Openness to Changing It

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President Biden held his first news conference in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Biden said Thursday that the use of the filibuster in the Senate is being “abused in a gigantic way” and signaled that if it keeps him from advancing key elements of his agenda, he would be open to more aggressive steps to limit or abolish it.

Mr. Biden reiterated that his preference was a proposal that would require senators to keep talking in order to block legislation.

“I strongly support moving in that direction,” he said during his first formal news conference.

But he added that he has an open mind about changing the filibuster in order to pass parts of his agenda — including protecting the right to vote — that he called “elemental” to the functioning of democracy.

“If we have to, if there’s complete lockdown and chaos as a consequence of the filibuster, then we’ll have to go beyond what I’m talking about,” he said.

Mr. Biden is holding his news conference, against the stately backdrop of the White House East Room, to sell the benefits of his economic recovery efforts to the American people tout progress in vaccinations and respond to criticism about his handling of the migrant surge at the U.S. border with Mexico.

In an opening statement, Mr. Biden announced that he had doubled his original goal for vaccinations, promising to deliver 200 million shots by the end of April. He said that 100 million people have received $1,400 in relief payments. And he said that nearly half of the K-12 schools had reopened for in-person instruction, almost meeting his goal for reopening the majority of those schools during his first 100 days in office.

“So there are still too many Americans out of work, too many families hurting, and they still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “But I can say to the American people: Help is here. And hope is on the way.”

The news conference is Mr. Biden’s first high-stakes grilling by journalists since taking office more than two months ago. Since then, his advisers have carefully controlled his interactions with the press, which have included one-on-one interviews and some limited opportunities for reporters to ask questions during brief appearances.

A veteran politician with a long history of verbal gaffes during unscripted moments, Mr. Biden has entered the presidency with more than his usual amount of discipline about his message. But his decision to finally face reporters in a more formal way — a White House tradition for decades — is a test of his ability to maintain that discipline under pressure.

The president is following the routines established by previous presidents in both parties, picking the reporters he wants to call on. But he has no control over the questions they are asking, and his answers are being broadcast live, with little room for error as his adversaries — and the country — are watching.

In response to a question about his agenda, Mr. Biden said that Republicans in Congress will play a key role in determining whether he succeeds in making progress on his priorities beyond recovering from the pandemic, including gun control, climate change, immigration and voting rights.

“My Republican colleagues are going to have to determine whether or not we want to work together, or they’ve decided that the way in which they want to proceed is to just divide the country, continue the politics of division.”

Advisers to the president had delayed the president’s first news conference until after passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, hoping to use the highly-anticipated event as part of a victory lap for Mr. Biden as he promotes the benefits of the economic stimulus measure and tries to build support for even more spending.

But Mr. Biden’s appearance comes at a moment of national mourning over the mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia, and just hours after North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast — both of which serve as reminders that a president’s agenda can often be derailed or shifted by national or global events.

The president offered lengthy and detailed answers to questions about his administration’s policies on the surge of migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico, which have generated intense criticism, especially from Republicans. Mr. Biden campaigned on reversing former President Donald J. Trump’s immigration agenda, and he moved quickly to do so during his first hours in office.

“We’re building back up the capacity that should have been maintained,” by the Trump administration, Mr. Biden said. “It’s going to take time.”

Mr. Biden responded to several foreign policy questions, including repeating his earlier suggestion that it will be hard for the United States to meet the promise made by his predecessor to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May 1. He said he could “not picture” troops still in that country next year.

A polling place in Sullivan’s Island, S.C., in November.
Credit…Cameron Pollack for The New York Times

President Biden on Thursday offered blistering criticism of attempts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to impose new voting restrictions around the country, calling their efforts “un-American.”

“I’m convinced that we’ll be able to stop this, because it is the most pernicious thing,” Mr. Biden said at his first formal news conference. “This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle. I mean, this is gigantic, what they’re trying to do. And it cannot be sustained.”

He vowed to “do everything in my power, along with my friends in the House and the Senate, to keep that from becoming the law.”

At the news conference, Mr. Biden was asked whether he worried that Democrats could lose control of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections if they were unable to pass voting rights legislation.

“What I’m worried about is how un-American this whole initiative is,” Mr. Biden responded. “It’s sick. It’s sick.”

Coronavirus vaccines were administered at a drive-through site in Cleveland, Miss., on Wednesday.
Credit…Rory Doyle for The New York Times

President Biden, who said when he was inaugurated that he would have “100 million shots in the arms” of Americans by his 100th day in office, announced Thursday at his news conference that he is doubling that goal.

The moving target is in keeping with the president’s pattern: aim low, and when it is clear the initial target will be exceeded, adjust upward to another attainable goal.

The nation is on track to meet the 200 million figure already. As of Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a total of 130 million shots had been administered, and that 14 percent of the American population is fully vaccinated.

The White House is counting shots administered since January 20, when Mr. Biden took office; the nation hit that milestone last week, on his 58th day in office, the president said Thursday.

“We will by my 100th day in office have administered 200 million shots in people’s arms,” Mr. Biden said, announcing his new goal at the outset of his news conference. “That’s right — 200 million shots in 100 days. I know it’s ambitious, twice our original goal but no other country in the world has even come close.”

Vaccine makers are also hitting their stride. Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have promised enough doses to inoculate all the nation’s roughly 260 million adults by the end of May, as Mr. Biden promised. In June, the first vaccine producers, Pfizer and Moderna, are expected to deliver another 100 million doses — enough to cover another 50 million people.

The United States has been averaging about 2.5 million doses a day during the last week. If that pace continues, the nation would surpass the 200 million shots goal before Mr. Biden’s 100th day, April 30. The new goal was reported earlier by MSNBC and CNN.

Officials say the nation will soon reach a point where the supply of vaccine outpaces demand; when that happens, the chief concern will not be a shortage of vaccine, but convincing those who are skeptical of the vaccine to get the shots and deciding what to do with a growing stockpile. Vaccine hesitancy is particularly prominent among minorities, and also Republicans, who spent months last year listening to former President Donald J. Trump suggest that the risk of the virus was being exaggerated.

Earlier Thursday, White House officials said the administration would spend $10 billion on congressionally-appropriated money to expand access to Covid-19 vaccines and build vaccine confidence in the hardest-hit and highest-risk communities.

President Biden speaks about the stimulus plan in Columbus, Ohio, last week.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Biden used the opening remarks of his first formal news conference on Thursday to celebrate what he cast as encouraging signs for the American economy since the passage of his $1.9 trillion economic rescue bill, citing new forecasts that show economic growth for the year could reach 6 percent.

“Since we passed the American Rescue Plan, we have started to see new signs of hope in our economy,” Mr. Biden said. He pointed to economic forecasters raising their estimates for growth this year after the passage of the bill.

Mr. Biden also told reporters that his administration had now delivered 100 million direct payments of $1,400 per individual to low- and middle-income Americans, which were funded by the relief bill that he signed into law this month. The bill also included extended and expanded unemployment benefits, new tax credits for parents that are meant to fight poverty and money for vaccine deployment, school reopenings and Covid testing, among other provisions.

He cited news from the Labor Department on Thursday that initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell last week to 657,000, a decline of 100,000 from the previous week.

“That’s the first time in a year the number’s fallen below the prepandemic high,” he said.

The president stressed that the economy still had a long road of recovery ahead of it, and that there were “still too many Americans out of work, too many families hurting.”

But, he said, “I can say to you, the American people: Help is here and hope is on the way.”

Mr. Biden is set to travel to Pittsburgh next week to unveil the next phase of his economic agenda, a pair of infrastructure packages that could cost between $3 trillion and $4 trillion. Its details have not been finalized, but administration officials have settled on a strategy that breaks the effort into two proposals.

The first package will spend as much as $2 trillion on physical infrastructure development, according to documents and people familiar with the plans. It will center on the construction of roads, bridges, rail lines, ports, electric vehicle charging stations, and improvements to the electric grid and other parts of the power sector. It will also boost the development of clean-energy projects and projects in other “high-growth industries of the future” like 5G telecommunications, and it includes money for rural broadband, advanced training for millions of workers, and one million affordable and energy-efficient housing units.

The second package includes investments in what progressive groups call the nation’s human infrastructure, including education and caregiving. It would make community college free, create universal prekindergarten, seek to reduce the cost of child care, establish a national paid leave program and include home-based care assistance for older adults.

Mr. Biden’s aides have drawn up plans to offset the first package, at least in part, with corporate tax increases, including raising the corporate income tax rates and pursuing a variety of efforts to increase taxes on the income that multinational companies earn and book outside the United States. The plans to offset the second package include Mr. Biden’s proposals to raise the top marginal federal income tax rate from 37 percent to 39.6 percent, and other measures meant to increase taxes on people and households earning more than $400,000 a year.

A makeshift memorial at the King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo., where a mass shooting on Monday left 10 dead.
Credit…Stephen Speranza for The New York Times

While President Biden considers a gamut of executive and legislative actions on gun control in the wake of two mass shootings, the federal agency tasked with enforcing existing gun laws remains without a permanent leader and hobbled by restrictions on its enforcement power.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or A.T.F., has long been the target of a campaign by the National Rifle Association and its legislative allies to weaken oversight of gun purchases.

“It is hard to think of any federal agency that has been so completely handcuffed as the A.T.F. has been by the N.R.A. and its friends in Congress,” said Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law specializing in gun statutes at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Mr. Biden, who made an emotional appeal on Tuesday for Congress to enact gun control legislation, has not yet picked a nominee to lead the agency.

White House officials said they had no timetable for doing so, but two administration officials with knowledge of the situation said that several potential candidates were being interviewed — although no names have yet been floated on Capitol Hill or among advocacy groups, according to the officials.

“The administration is going to revitalize A.T.F. and ensure that our guns laws are vigorously enforced,” said Michael Gwin, a Biden spokesman.

One high-profile figure under early consideration, the former Houston police chief Art Acevedo, recently accepted an offer to run Miami’s police department.

One of the main problems in picking a director, according to two gun control activists in close touch with the administration, is that potential candidates are reluctant to sign on for a nomination likely to go down in defeat.

The delay is emblematic of the enormous practical and political challenges that come with efforts to make any significant changes at the agency.

Over the last two decades, Republicans, with the support of conservative Democrats, have embedded into spending bills riders intended to constrain the bureau, including limits on unannounced inspections of gun dealers, prohibitions on documenting the inventories of gun shops and an especially damaging provision that bars the agency from digitizing its records.

Gun rights groups say such steps are necessary to keep the A.T.F. from mounting an “assault” on the rights of gun owners. But critics consider it part of an effort to shield gun companies and owners from oversight and responsibility.

“What’s been done to the A.T.F. is systemic, it’s intentional, and it’s a huge problem,” said T. Christian Heyne of Brady: United Against Gun Violence, a gun-control group that has proposed a plan for executive action on the issue centered on stepped-up enforcement by the agency.

Mr. Biden is expected to roll out a series of executive orders related to gun violence in the coming weeks. Almost all of the orders require a significant expansion of A.T.F. enforcement. But even naming someone to lead the agency is a headache.

In 2006, N.R.A.-allied lawmakers enacted a provision making the position of A.T.F. director, which had previously been a political appointment, subject to Senate confirmation.

As a result, only one director has been confirmed over the last 15 years: the Obama nominee B. Todd Jones. Regina Lombardo, a well-regarded agency veteran who helped direct the federal response to the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando in 2016, has served as acting director since early 2019.

She got the job after former President Donald J. Trump, who ran on a defiantly pro-gun platform, withdrew the nomination of a former top police union official, Chuck Canterbury, after the nominee refused to entirely rule out expanding background checks and other safeguards.

Voting rights advocates protested in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Atlanta on Thursday.
Credit…Erik S Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Georgia House of Representatives on Thursday passed a sweeping bill to limit voting access in the state, clearing a major hurdle in the Republican-led effort to rewrite many of the state’s voting regulations after the 2020 election.

The bill imposes stricter voter identification requirements, limits drop boxes, strips the secretary of state of some authority, imposes new oversight of county election boards, restricts who can vote with provisional ballots, and makes it a crime to offer food or water to voters waiting in lines.

However, the bill did not include some of the harshest restrictions that had been introduced in its earlier versions, like a ban on Sunday voting that had been seen as an attempt to curtail the role of Black churches in driving turnout. And the bill now, in fact, expands early voting options in some areas. No-excuse absentee voting, in which voters do not have to provide a rationale for casting a ballot by mail, also remains in place, though new restrictions such as providing a state-issued identification card have been placed on the process.

While the passage of the bill in the House, in a 100-to-75 vote along party lines, was a major step toward the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, it still needs to go back to the State Senate for what is known as an “agreement” vote on the amendments added in the House.

The legislation was approved after an impassioned debate on the floor that lasted for just over an hour.

Erica Thomas, a Democratic state representative from outside Atlanta, recalled the memory of former Representative John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights leader who died last year, opening her remarks by quoting an old speech of his before voicing her personal opposition.

“Why do we rally, why do we protest voter suppression?” she said. “It is because our ancestors are looking down right now on this House floor, praying and believing that our fight, and that their fight, was not in vain. We call on the strength of Congressman John Lewis in this moment. Because right now, history is watching.”

Other Democrats said the bill was rooted in the lies and falsehoods about the 2020 election that have been spread by former President Donald J. Trump and his allies.

“Where is the need for this bill coming from?” said Debbie Buckner, a Democratic representative from near Columbus. “From the former president who wanted the election fixed and thrown out, even when Georgia leadership told him they couldn’t do it if they wanted to.”

Representative Zulma Lopez, whose district on the outskirts of Atlanta contains a majority of voters of color, said the bill would have an outsize impact on voters of color. In her district, she said, the number of drop boxes would be reduced to nine from 33. This was partly the result, she said, of Democrats’ being excluded from discussions.

“Close to 2.5 million Democrats voted in the general election in 2020,” Ms. Lopez said. “Yet Democrats in this House were left out of any meaningful input into the drafting of this bill.”

On Thursday, President Biden joined Georgia Democrats in denouncing Republican efforts to limit voting, calling conservatives’ efforts around the country “un-American.”

“I’m convinced that we’ll be able to stop this, because it is the most pernicious thing,” Mr. Biden said at his first formal news conference. “This makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle. I mean, this is gigantic, what they’re trying to do. And it cannot be sustained.”

He vowed to “do everything in my power, along with my friends in the House and the Senate, to keep that from becoming the law.”

Alan Powell, a Republican representative from northeast Georgia, defended the state’s bill, saying it would bring needed uniformity to an electoral system that was pushed to the brink last year.

“The Georgia election system was never made to be able to handle the volume of votes that it handled,” he said. (Multiple audits affirmed the results of Georgia’s elections last year, and there were no credible reports of any fraud or irregularities that would have affected the results.) “What we’ve done in this bill in front of you is we have cleaned up the workings, the mechanics of our election system.”

“Show me the suppression,” Mr. Powell said. “There is no suppression in this bill.”

Thomas Kaplan contributed reporting.

Michael R. Bloomberg’s gun control organization plans to spend at least $1 million on advertising next month.
Credit…Chet Strange for The New York Times

The gun control organization backed by Michael R. Bloomberg will soon begin a national advertising campaign aimed at pressuring Republican senators to support measures that would strengthen and expand background checks for gun buyers.

The campaign by the group, Everytown for Gun Safety, comes after two mass shootings in less than a week killed eight people at spas in Georgia and 10 at a supermarket in Boulder, Colo.

The organization’s political arm plans to kick off the campaign in April with $1 million to $1.5 million in television and digital advertisements.

John Feinblatt, Everytown’s president, said the ads would target Republican senators including Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins of Maine, who backed the failed 2013 effort to expand background checks, along with “a number of retiring senators” who have opposed new gun control measures in the past.

Mr. Feinblatt said the campaign was aimed at securing the 60 votes needed for the Senate to pass gun control proposals that have already passed the House, which include expanding federal background checks for new gun purchases. It will not ask Democratic senators to alter the filibuster rules to pass any measure with a simple majority vote.

“Every senator needs to know how urgent this matter is, and every senator needs to know we mean business about seizing the moment and getting the bills passed,” Mr. Feinblatt said on Wednesday. “This is about getting 60 votes, which we think is entirely possible because the political calculus has changed.”

Everytown has become the biggest player in gun control politics in recent years. The organization spent about $55 million backing Democratic candidates in 2020.

Mr. Feinblatt said the campaign would continue until the Senate sent the measures to President Biden, who called on Tuesday not only for background checks but also for an assault weapons ban. Such a ban has not received a serious debate in Congress, and Mr. Bloomberg’s organization is not pushing it at the moment.

“We will stick with this until there’s a vote,” Mr. Feinblatt said. “I don’t know when that vote will take place, but I know that we will spend what it takes for as long as it takes.”

Vanita Gupta rose to prominence in 2003 when she proved that dozens of men had been arrested on fabricated drug charges in Texas.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted to advance the nomination of Lisa Monaco to serve as the No. 2 Justice Department official, but was deadlocked on Vanita Gupta, President Biden’s nominee to serve as the agency’s third highest-ranking official, leaving it to Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, to bring her vote to the full Senate.

A bipartisan group of senators on the panel supported Ms. Monaco’s nomination to serve as deputy attorney general on a voice vote. Ms. Monaco, a longtime Justice Department veteran and respected national security expert, is expected to receive bipartisan support during her confirmation vote, and if approved she will run the department’s day-to-day operations and oversee the nation’s federal prosecutors.

But after nearly two hours of debate, the committee voted along party lines, 11-11, on Ms. Gupta’s nomination.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, the committee’s ranking Republican, expressed a desire from his party members for a second hearing to further question her about legal immunities for police officers, drug decriminalization, defunding the police and the death penalty.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the committee’s chairman, had denied on Wednesday the request for a second hearing, calling it a stall tactic to slow her confirmation.

Mr. Durbin said in a letter to Republicans that three of them had not shown up to her first hearing, and that of the eight who did attend, only five took the opportunity to ask a second round of questions. He also said that only two Republicans had been willing to meet with her.

He charged that Republicans repeatedly misrepresented Ms. Gupta’s views, particularly on policing, and he noted that a broad coalition of police and sheriffs groups had supported her nomination, recommending her to the committee.

Several Republicans gave lengthy comments opposing Ms. Gupta, including Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who called Ms. Gupta a liar for saying that she has never advocated for the decriminalization of all drugs. He pointed to a 2012 editorial in which she said that simple possession of drugs should be decriminalized.

Mr. Cornyn has a long history with Ms. Gupta, who rose to prominence in 2003 when she proved that dozens of men, almost all of them Black, had been arrested on fabricated drug charges in Tulia, Tex. The narcotics agent behind those arrests, Tom Coleman, was found guilty of perjury and Rick Perry, then the governor of Texas, pardoned 35 people as a result of Ms. Gupta’s work.

In 1999, Mr. Cornyn had presented Mr. Coleman with the Texas Lawman of the Year award for his work in Tulia.

Even though Ms. Gupta does not have the support of a majority of the committee, Mr. Schumer, as majority leader, has the right to bring any nominee he sees fit to the floor. In that case, Ms. Gupta will need the support all Senate Democrats and at least one Republican, or Vice President Kamala Harris, to be confirmed.

“Institutions that focus on diversity and do it well are the successful institutions in our society,” said Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair.
Credit…Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said on Thursday that the central bank was trying to make its economic employee base more racially diverse and he was not satisfied with its progress toward that goal so far.

“It’s very frustrating, because we have had for many years a strong focus on recruiting a more diverse cadre of economists,” Mr. Powell said while speaking on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” after being asked about a New York Times story on the Fed’s lack of Black economists. “We’re not at all satisfied with the results.”

Only two of the 417 economists, or 0.5 percent, at the Fed’s board in Washington were Black, according to data the Fed provided to The Times earlier this year. By comparison, Black people make up 13 percent of the country’s population and 3 to 4 percent of the U.S. citizens and permanent residents who graduate as Ph.D. economists each year.

Across the entire Fed system — including the Board of Governors and the 12 regional banks — 1.3 percent of economists identified as Black. The Fed has been making efforts to hire more broadly, Mr. Powell said, including by working with historically Black colleges.

“It’s a very high priority,” Mr. Powell said of hiring more diversely. “Institutions that focus on diversity and do it well are the successful institutions in our society.”

The Fed chair was also asked about how he would rate the central bank’s sweeping efforts to rescue the economy as markets melted down at the start of the coronavirus outbreak last year. In addition to cutting its policy interest rate to near zero and rolling out an enormous bond-buying program, the Fed set up a series of emergency lending programs to funnel credit to the economy.

Rolled out over a frantic few weeks, the programs included ones that the Fed had never tried before to backstop corporate bond and private company loan markets.

“I liken it to Dunkirk,” Mr. Powell said, referring to the rapid evacuation of British and Allied forces from France in World War II. “Just get in the boats and go.”

Despite the speed of the decision-making, Mr. Powell said that he looked back on the results as positive.

“Overall, it was a very successful program,” he said. “It served its purpose in staving off what could have been far worse outcomes.”

Kumasi Amin, 26, canvassing at the entrance to an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Ala., earlier this month. President Biden has expressed support for workers trying to unionize.
Credit…Bob Miller for The New York Times

Two months into the new administration, labor leaders are proclaiming Joseph R. Biden Jr. to be the most union-friendly president of their lifetime — and “maybe ever,” as Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in an interview.

Mr. Biden has moved quickly to oust government officials whom unions deemed hostile to labor, and to reverse Trump-era rules that weakened worker protections. He has pushed through legislation sending hundreds of billions of dollars to cities and states, aid that public-sector unions consider essential, and tens of billions to shore up union pension plans.

Perhaps most notably, the president appeared in a video alluding to a union vote underway at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, warning that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda” — an unusually outspoken move by a president in a standard union election.

Yet Mr. Rosenthal and other labor advocates confess to a gnawing anxiety: Despite Mr. Biden’s remarkable support for their movement, unions may not be much better off when he leaves office than when he entered it.

That’s because labor law gives employers considerable power to fend off union organizing, which is one reason that union membership has sunk to record lows in recent decades. And Senate Republicans will seek to thwart any legislative attempts — such as the PRO Act, which the House passed this month — to reverse the trend.

“The PRO Act is vital,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “But what happens now in terms of Republicans in Congress, the Senate filibuster, is anyone’s guess.”

Recounting ballots in Gwinnett County, Ga., on Nov. 13. Republicans in the state are pushing to increase their power over the administration of elections.
Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

In the turbulent aftermath of the 2020 presidential contest, election officials in Georgia, from the secretary of state’s office down to county boards, found themselves in a wholly unexpected position: They had to act as one of the last lines of defense against an onslaught of efforts by a sitting president and his influential allies to overturn the will of the voters.

Now state Republicans are trying to strip these officials of their power.

Buried in an avalanche of voting restrictions currently moving through the Georgia Statehouse are measures that would give G.O.P. lawmakers wide-ranging influence over the mechanics of voting and fundamentally alter the state’s governance of elections. The bill, which could clear the House as soon as Thursday and is likely to be passed by the Senate next week, would allow state lawmakers to seize control of county election boards and erode the power of the secretary of state’s office.

“It’s looking at total control of the election process by elected officials, which is not what it should be,” said Helen Butler, a Democratic county board of elections member. “It’s all about turnout and trying to retain power.”

It’s not just Georgia. In Arizona, Republicans are pushing for control over the rules of the state’s elections. In Iowa, the G.O.P. has installed harsh new criminal penalties for county election officials who enact emergency voting rules. In Tennessee, a Republican legislator is trying to remove a sitting judge who ruled against the party in an election case.

Nationwide, Republican lawmakers in at least eight states controlled by the party are angling to pry power over elections from secretaries of state, governors and nonpartisan election boards.

The maneuvers risk adding an overtly partisan skew to how electoral decisions are made each year, threatening the fairness that is the bedrock of American democracy. The push is intertwined with Republicans’ extraordinary national drive to make it harder for millions of Americans to vote, with legislative and legal attacks on early voting, absentee balloting and automatic voter registration laws.

“Republicans are brazenly trying to seize local and state election authority in an unprecedented power grab,” said Stacey Abrams, the Democratic voting rights advocate who served as the minority leader in the Georgia State House.

She added, “Had their grand plan been law in 2020, the numerous attempts by state legislatures to overturn the will of the voters would have succeeded.”

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While vaccination efforts have gathered speed and restrictions on activities have receded in many states, the job market is showing signs of life.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell last week to 657,000, a decrease of 100,000 from the previous week, the Labor Department reported Thursday. It was the lowest weekly level of initial state claims since the pandemic upended the economy a year ago.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, new state claims totaled 684,000.

In addition, there were 242,000 new claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program covering freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits, a decrease of 43,000.

Unemployment claims have been at historically high levels for the past year, partly because some workers have been laid off more than once. Much of the drop last week was accounted for by a decline in new claims in Ohio and Illinois, but economists said the overall trend was encouraging.

“This is definitely a positive signal and a move in the right direction,” said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics. “We would expect to see further improvements as vaccines roll out and restrictions are lifted.”

Between the state and federal programs, the total number of new jobless claims was just under 900,000 after being stuck above one million a week.

Although the pace of vaccinations, as well as passage of a $1.9 trillion relief package this month, has lifted economists’ expectations for growth, the labor market has lagged behind other measures of recovery.

Still, the easing of restrictions on indoor dining areas, health clubs, movie theaters and other gathering places offers hope for the millions of workers who were let go in the last 12 months. And the $1,400 checks going to most Americans as part of the relief bill should help spending perk up in the weeks ahead.

Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said she hoped for consistent employment gains but her optimism was tempered by concern about the longer-term displacement of workers by the pandemic.

“The numbers are encouraging, but no one is jumping the gun and hiring up for what looks to be a boom this spring and summer,” she said. “There is a reluctance to get ahead of activity.”

“We’ve passed the point where you can just flip a switch and the lights come back on,” she added. “We need to see a sustained increase in hiring, which I think we will see, but the concern is that it won’t be so robust. It takes longer to ramp up than it does to shut down.”

By extending the program, lawmakers gave both lenders and small businesses additional time to adjust to an abrupt overhaul to the program announced in late February.
Credit…Stephen Speranza for The New York Times

Congress gave final approval on Thursday to a two-month extension of the Paycheck Protection Program, a popular federal loan program for small businesses, as well as giving the Small Business Administration an additional 30 days to process loans submitted before the new May 31 deadline.

The House approved the extension on a 415-to-3 vote earlier this month, and the Senate on Thursday cleared the legislation on a 92-7 margin. The program was set to expire on March 31 without congressional action.

“It’s clear that the most vulnerable small businesses will need help beyond March 31, so we must pass this extension as quickly as possible,” said Senator Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland and one of the lawmakers who introduced the legislation. “This common sense, bipartisan bill will meet the continued demand for P.P.P. loans.”

By extending the program, which was first established in the $2.2 trillion stimulus law passed last March, through May 31, lawmakers gave both lenders and small businesses additional time to adjust to an abrupt overhaul to the program announced by the Biden administration in late February. The changes led to gridlock and uncertainty as self-employed people and the smallest of businesses raced to take advantage of more generous aid freed up by the overhaul.

“The Paycheck Protection Program has been instrumental in helping small businesses keep their doors open and continue paying their employees during the pandemic, but many small businesses need additional time to access this lifeline and have their loans processed,” Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said in a statement urging her colleagues to support the legislation earlier this week. “The nearly 100 groups that support our legislation agree that we need to extend this vital program. I urge our colleagues to support this bipartisan bill.”

Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, said he singled out several areas of the voting legislation where he believed the two parties could find common ground.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Democrats racing to enact the most significant federal election overhaul in a generation, including a major expansion of voting rights, ran into a familiar roadblock on Thursday: Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

A day after Democratic leaders used the first Senate hearing on the overhaul to propel the nearly 900-page behemoth to the top of their legislative agenda, Mr. Manchin, the most conservative Democrat in the chamber, called for the proposal to be sharply pared back and renegotiated with Republicans. He said there were “legitimate” concerns over some of its provisions.

“Pushing through legislation of this magnitude on a partisan basis may garner short-term benefits, but will inevitably only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government,” Mr. Manchin said in a lengthy statement. “We can and we must reform our federal elections together — not as Democrats and Republicans, but as Americans to restore the faith and trust in our democracy.”

With Republicans uniformly opposed to the bill — which would end partisan gerrymandering, restructure the Federal Election Commission, neuter state voter identification laws, expand early and mail-in voting, and curb the influence of dark money in politics — Mr. Manchin’s statement spelled considerable peril for its advocates.

The bill, called the For the People Act, already passed the House on party lines. Activists who have spent spending tens of millions of dollars lobbying Mr. Manchin and others for its adoption insist it cannot be broken up. One such group, Common Cause, said on Thursday that it would continue working with Mr. Manchin to address his concerns and that it was confident the bill’s backers would win his support.

To pass it in the Senate, the bill’s proponents have increasingly concluded they must persuade all 50 Democrats in the chamber to set aside earlier opposition and jettison the legislative filibuster to overcome Republican opposition. With Republican statehouses across the country moving swiftly to clamp down on ballot access after the 2020 election, they argue the stakes for American democracy and Democrats’ ability to win future elections are simply too high.

Mr. Manchin appeared to reject that thinking for now. A former West Virginia secretary of state, he indicated he shared concerns raised by state election administrators and Republicans in Washington that the bill’s requirements and changes would be too onerous to carry out and represented a misguided federal takeover of the election system currently overseen by states.

“I know firsthand the importance of local decision-making around voter accessibility and election security,” he said.

Mr. Manchin singled out several areas where he believed the two parties could find common ground, including ballot access, election security and campaign finance disclosure. He called for a national requirement that states hold at least 15 days of early voting to ease access to the ballot, said Congress should allocate more resources to make it easier for Native American and Alaska Natives to vote and mentioned a handful of modest election infrastructure and advertising transparency bills.

But those proposals are a far cry from the scope of the plans Democrats have spent significant political capital selling as a necessary tonic for a badly ailing democracy. Mr. Manchin’s suggestions would do little to blunt restrictions put in place by Republican states, stop the drawing of partisan congressional districts or meaningfully cut back the influence of dark money.

Nor was it clear, a day after a stinging partisan hearing over the For the People Act, that there was much room for the meaningful compromise he wants. Republicans flatly reject Democrats’ view of the election system, and their strategists have openly said their candidates suffer when more people vote.

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