House Republicans pass marquee energy bill in rebuke of Biden

House Republicans passed a sprawling energy bill Thursday, delivering their biggest legislative win since they took control of the chamber in January and setting up a clash with Democrats by pitting fossil fuels against President Joe Biden’s climate change agenda.

The bill passed by a 225-204 vote, with four Democrats joining Republicans to pass the bill and one Republican legislator voting against. The energy package won’t advance in the Democratically controlled Senate, but Republicans can use it as a cudgel ahead of the 2024 election, furthering their accusations that Biden’s opposition to fossil fuels helped produce last year’s record spike in gasoline prices, stoked inflation and continues to threaten voters’ pocketbooks.

Republicans kept their slim majority together to marshal the legislation through, with a few House Democrats also voting in favor of H.R. 1 (118), enabling House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to tout the bill as bipartisan.

“This bill is able to lower global emissions, lower the price of energy, and make the world more secure and safe,” McCarthy said in a floor speech this week ahead of the vote.

Biden has vowed to veto the bill, known as the Lower Energy Costs Act. But elements of the bill, aimed at streamlining permitting rules for energy projects, could serve as the starting point for negotiations on that narrower issue with the Senate, where centrist West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin last year pushed his own plan to ease those regulations.

Republicans designed the bill to do two things at once.

First, they sought to deliver a blow against Biden by repealing provisions of Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, such as the $27 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to boost clean energy and a fee imposed on oil and gas methane emissions.

Republicans contend that the president is recklessly pushing a quick transition away from coal, oil and natural gas toward green-energy sources that China dominates, which would increase dependence on Beijing and other adversaries. The energy bill seeks to address some core Republican energy priorities from the past decade, from disapproving of Biden’s block on the Keystone XL pipeline to mandating more oil and gas lease sales and making it harder for states to block the construction of interstate pipelines that cross their borders.

But the House GOP also sought for the bill to represent an opening bid on the wonky issue of energy permitting — a rare policy area that both parties believe could lead to a bipartisan deal later on with the Senate.

“By showing our strong support, we give some of our Senate Democratic friends an idea of okay, we have a place to work the permitting space particularly,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Even if it’s not the whole package, these are smart policies whether you are trying to hook up offshore wind or trying to get a gas pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois.”

The GOP bill would overhaul rules for reviews conducted under the bedrock 1970 National Environmental Policy Act for energy infrastructure, ranging from pipelines to clean energy projects and mines, by setting a two-year deadline for major reviews and making it more difficult for environmentalists to sue to stop projects.

But most Democrats and the White House dismissed the Republican bill as doubling down on fossil fuel-centric policies that would benefit global rivals by keeping the U.S. out of the race to compete in industries of the future like electric vehicle manufacturing and clean energy development.

“None of it [the GOP energy agenda] makes sense in this moment,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “They ignore the fact it was the high fossil fuel prices that was the primary driver of inflation. What I hear from folks back home is they don’t want to be at the mercy of these gas and oil price spikes. They are looking towards the clean energy economy — greater independence and more money in their pocket.”

In its statement of administration policy opposing the bill, the White House noted that both domestic oil and gas production are set to reach record highs this year as companies have responded to last year’s high prices to bring more supply to the market. Gasoline prices have come down from record highs since the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year but they could be set to rise again this summer during peak driving season.

Republicans, though, counter that their agenda makes more sense in the current moment since Russia’s military aggression underscored the importance of maintaining ample supplies of oil and gas even as the world transitions off fossil fuels.

“It comes down to affordability, it comes down to cleanliness, and it comes down to security,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), who wrote many of the major permitting parts of the bill. “This administration has caused so many problems with their energy strategy, our solution fixes a lot of the problems.”

Play ball! Here are all the officials throwing first pitches on MLB's opening day.

Happy Opening Day! This day has seen its fair share of officials throwing out the ceremonial first pitch in previous years.

The first president to throw the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game was President William Howard Taft in 1910. Every president from Taft to John F. Kennedy threw a ceremonial first pitch at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Here’s a list of elected and appointed officials who are throwing out ceremonial first pitches of the 2023 MLB season:

Oksana Markarova

Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova is set to throw out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals' home opener against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday.

Markarova will be joined on the field by her daughter, Anna, as well as Oleksandr Rozhkov, Military Attaché at the Embassy of Ukraine to the United States.

“I am honored to start this Opening Day, and I am sincerely grateful to all Americans for standing with Ukraine as we fight for our homes, dignity, freedom, and independence. This war has already claimed the lives of hundreds of Ukrainian athletes and coaches, including one baseball player who fought within the ranks of Ukrainian armed forces,” Markarova said.

Markarova was appointed Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. in 2021.

Greg Abbott and George W. Bush

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and former President George W. Bush will join Lt. Reuben T. Mankin, who will throw the first pitch at Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Abbott threw out the first pitch in 2020 on video when fans were not allowed at games due to Covid-19. In 2021, Abbott backed out of an opening day first pitch with the Rangers over MLB’s decision to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta.

Before serving as governor, Bush served as one of the managing general partners of the Rangers. Bush, along with other partners, combined to buy the team in 1989 for $89 million.

Texas judge strikes down free HIV drugs, cancer screenings under Obamacare

A federal judge on Thursday struck down a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, jeopardizing free coverage of a wide range of preventive care services including cancer screenings and mental health checks.

District Court Judge Reed O’Connor, the author of several previous rulings against Obamacare, sided with a group of conservative employers in Texas who argued that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that made those requirements has been acting unconstitutionally since 2010 and blocking enforcement of the rules nationwide.

O’Connor, a President George W. Bush appointee to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, also ruled that the requirement to cover the HIV prevention drug PrEP violated the religious rights of the employers and could not be enforced against them.

The individuals had standing to sue, O'Connor wrote, because “compulsory coverage for those services violates their religious beliefs by making them complicit in facilitating homosexual behavior, drug use, and sexual activity outside of marriage between one man and one woman."

O’Connor had already sided with the challengers on these points back in September, but had not said whether his ruling would apply only to the people suing, to everyone in Texas, or nationwide, and requested a further briefing. O’Connor ultimately granted the pleas for a “universal” ruling, upending the national insurance market.

The Biden administration is expected to appeal.

Trump supporter protesting Manhattan DA probe charged with menacing, harassment

NEW YORK — A Trump-supporter who allegedly brandished a knife at passersby with children while she protested the Manhattan district attorney’s probe of the former president was charged and released without bail late Wednesday night in Manhattan Criminal Court.

“The defendant menaced the complainant with a knife, she felt threatened and the complainant is still in fear of the defendant,” said Assistant District Attorney Alexander Oltarsh.

Aurora Rucker, 39, was charged with menacing, criminal possession of a weapon and three counts of harassment for pulling a six-inch bladeon a family with two children Tuesday. The group bumped into Rucker while she stood outside the courthouse with a sign that read “I support Trump, do you?” according to eye-witnesses.

Rucker, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, does not have a prior criminal record. She is due back in court on May 17.

Rucker told officers she brandished the blade in “self defense,” according to Oltarsh. While she holds an Alaska driver's license it was unclear whether she lived in Colorado or Texas, Oltarsh told the judge. She was released under a court-mandated supervision program to ensure she does not flee the state.

The altercation came after Trump called on his supporters to protest the probe and predicted“potential death & destruction” if he is indicted for his alleged role in a 2016 hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels.

Wearing a white thermal long-sleeve undershirt, blue jeans, and blue sneakers, Rucker stood expressionless in court Wednesday night. She refused to speak with reporters after the arraignment.

Judge Michael Gaffey issued an order of protection for the family.

The foursome bumped into the Trump supporter while crossing the intersection of Hogan Place and Centre Street just after 4:00 p.m. Tuesday, three bystanders told POLITICO. Rucker began arguing with the couple before she pulled out the knife and waved it at the family, according to the bystanders.

Court officers, who were stationed outside the building, rushed over, pulled out their guns and ordered the woman to drop the knife, the bystanders said. She was arrested without incident.

Despite calls from the former president to protest a potential indictment, so far, significant support for Trump has failed to materialize. Rucker was the only protester present outside the courthouse Tuesday.

The grand jury hearing evidence in the case is not expected to meet over the next month largely due to a previously scheduled hiatus.

It's about to become harder to get a tax break for an electric car

The Biden administration is preparing to announce its most pivotal action to date in carrying out the president’s climate law — setting the rules for determining which kinds of electric cars and trucks can qualify for its $7,500 tax credits.

The outcome will have huge implications for the fight against climate change, trade friction with Europe, and President Joe Biden’s ability to wage a reelection campaign boasting that he created American clean-energy jobs while making electric vehicles less expensive for consumers.

Industries including auto manufacturing and mining also have billions of dollars at stake in the policy document that the Treasury Department is due to issue by Friday.

The Treasury guidance will address one of the fundamental questions underlying Biden’s climate policy — how zealously to enforce Congress’ demand that the tax credit go to vehicles made with parts and minerals from the United States and its closest trade partners. A lax approach to that mandate would make it easier for more vehicles to qualify for the full tax break, while assuaging European demands for a share of the incentives for their companies. But it wouldn’t create the homegrown clean-energy supply chain that Biden has promised.

Some lawmakers — including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who crafted the law’s content sourcing rules — say Biden is moving to allow too many of an electric vehicle's materials and components to be made outside North America.

“I think they’re going to try to screw me on this,” Manchin said Wednesday at a summit on electric-powered transportation. “And I'm willing to go to court.”

This is POLITICO’s guide to the upcoming announcement — and the most important issues to watch:

Automakers are bracing for bad news

Biden has set an ambitious target for a swift U.S. move to electric vehicles, calling for them to make up 50 percent of new U.S. car and truck sales by 2030.

But Manchin, who provided the crucial vote for Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, ensured that the law lays out a slew of requirements for electric vehicles to receive the full tax credit. That will make it difficult for most vehicles now on the market to qualify, depending on how much wiggle room the administration offers.

The law’s intent was to ensure that the U.S. doesn’t wean itself off Saudi oil only to become hooked on Chinese battery minerals.

Among other requirements, the law mandates that a certain percentage of the components of an electric vehicle’s battery must be sourced from North America, and its minerals must come from the United States or a country with which the U.S. has a free-trade agreement. (Canada and Mexico have such deals, but the European Union does not.) No battery content can come from China. The vehicle itself needs to be built in the United States.

The car also can’t sell for more than $55,000 (or $80,000 for vans and SUVs). And wealthy buyers need not apply — there’s an income cap of $150,000 a year for individuals, or $300,000 for joint filers.

The restrictions will probably disappoint consumers who have been eager to ditch their gas guzzlers, and could slow the effort to reduce the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas pollution.

They also create a predicament for automakers who are pouring huge amounts of money into producing more electric vehicles than ever — only to find that the tax credit that’s supposed to spur consumer demand might be largely unavailable. According to a Reuters analysis of 37 global automakers, the industry plans more than $1 trillion in electric vehicle investments by 2030.

Automakers were already preparing for continued uncertainty even after Treasury’s guidance comes out. For example, carmakers are still researching the origins of their own supply chains, and they may need more time before they can give Treasury a detailed accounting of the provenance of every piece of every vehicle.

On the other hand, Treasury indicated in December that it would give automakers a break on one arcane but crucial question — whether the metal powders inside a battery’s electrodes should be considered “critical minerals” or “battery components.” The department said it was open to classifying them as minerals, which increases the number of countries where the powders can come from.

What to watch: Automakers say they are playing the long game, hoping that consumers will realize that electric vehicles already compare favorably to gasoline-powered cars given their savings on fuel and maintenance, and will only become cheaper as more hit the market. The tax credit would help bring electric vehicles prices even closer to parity with traditional autos.

GM has said it thinks it’s “well-positioned” to take advantage of the tax credit “because we were already actively pursuing opportunities to localize as much of the supply chain as possible.” Some Tesla models could keep the tax credit because its vehicles and their batteries are built in the United States, and use minerals from countries that fit the IRA’s requirements.

No trade deal (yet) for Europe

European politicians — along with their automakers — have been incensed at the law’s domestic-content requirements, which have created a months-long rift in trade relations between the U.S. and its transatlantic allies..

Manchin has said he didn’t realize that the U.S. and EU don’t have a free trade agreement that would make it easier for minerals from Europe to meet the law’s domestic sourcing requirements. The administration has struggled with that gap ever since Biden signed the law in August.

This week’s Treasury guidance will not give Europe the relief it’s seeking, a senior administration official told POLITICO last week — but it will open the door to eventually including the continent in the law’s incentives.

The U.S. and EU are negotiating a mineral-specific trade pact that would give Europe the status of a free trade partner for the purposes of the climate law’s mineral sourcing provision. The U.S. and Japan signed a similar deal this week.

The vehicles themselves would still have to be built in the U.S. to qualify for the tax incentive. Critical minerals would also still be subject to tariffs, and the deal will probably contain commitments on labor and environmental sustainability.

What to watch: People following this issue closely say they don’t expect Treasury’s guidance to say anything explicitly about an EU trade pact. But European governments would be happy to see language alluding to possible future additions to the list of approved countries for mineral sourcing.

Mining industry needs a lifeline

The Inflation Reduction Act is a potentially powerful driver for mining companies — both domestically and globally — that provide the cobalt, nickel, lithium and other minerals that electric vehicles need.

China now dominates the global supply chain for those minerals.

U.S. mining companies have largely backed Manchin’s efforts to impose strict made-in-America requirements for batteries and other electric vehicle components. Relaxing those provisions, they warn, would deprive them of the customers they need to create the self-sustaining domestic industry that the climate law envisions.

The U.S. now has just one operating lithium mine in Nevada and a second, Thacker Pass, is ramping up after a lengthy legal battle. Other proposed mines around the country are facing objections from environmental groups and surrounding communities — and the uncertainty around the incentives creates another potential hurdle.

The U.S. is also launching efforts to secure minerals from other countries, such as those in Africa and South America, where it’s competing with China for influence. At the same time, Republicans and the U.S. mining sector argue that domestic mining offers a more secure source.

The European Union wants a piece of the action too. Earlier this month it unveiled a plan to ramp up domestic extraction and refining of raw minerals — mainly out of fear of China’s dominance.

More broadly, administration officials have been hinting that the U.S. can achieve its goal of reducing reliance on China by “friend-shoring” supply chains, not necessarily requiring all production to move to the U.S. immediately. That could also be good news for countries such as Chile and Australia, two of the top sources of lithium for electric vehicles.

What to watch: Treasury can’t change the critical mineral requirements tied to the tax credits, but hard rock miners are closely watching its language around what free trade agreements will be allowed and how that will affect domestic demand.

U.S. miners and unions are also watching how Treasury defines the “foreign entities of concern” that, starting in January, will not be allowed to provide any battery components for vehicles getting the tax breaks. The same rule kicks in for minerals the following year.

The miners’ and unions’ focus: Ensuring that nations such as Russia and China aren’t the ultimate sources of materials used to assemble EV batteries in other countries.

All eyes will be on Manchin — and other critics on the Hill

Treasury’s early decisions on the electric vehicle incentives have incensed Manchin, who went so far as to vote against Biden’s nominee to head the Internal Revenue Service over how the agency worked to implement the law. The senator has repeatedly made clear he sees the tax credits as a powerful tool for boosting U.S. manufacturing, not vehicles made overseas.

Much of Manchin’s ire has been directed at the IRS’ decision late last year to postpone some of the sourcing rules, while waiving the standards for some types of electric vehicles. Early this year, he unsuccessfully floated a bipartisan bill to stop the credit until the guidance and sourcing rules were in place.

He went even further at Wednesday’s electrification summit, accusing the administration of playing “games” and “catering to the far left” with an interpretation of the law that offers more flexibility to source parts from abroad. The White House, Manchin said, is “trying to implement a piece of legislation that they never passed.”

He said his concerns include the law’s definitions of terms such as “processing” and “manufacturing,” and how the administration intends to treat steps such as making powders and wafers for batteries.

On the other hand, Manchin said he supports the administration’s efforts to expand the list of countries from which automakers can source critical minerals — as long as those countries are “reliable trading partners.”

“Japan and all of them — the EU, our allies, they’re all reliable,” Manchin said.

But other lawmakers, including fellow Democrats, have blasted this week’s Japanese trade deal on minerals. That agreement is “unacceptable,” Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said in a statement Tuesday, objecting to its absence of enforceable environmental or labor protections. And they said the administration “does not have the authority to unilaterally enter into free trade agreements” without working with Congress.

Similar objections could greet any similar trade deal with the EU.

What to watch: Manchin has said he’ll examine whether the guidance allows countries beyond those with formal free trade agreements with the U.S. to meet the critical mineral standards.

Will consumers lose patience?

Sales of electric vehicles have been soaring in recent years, amid high gas prices and hype from automakers and the government. That surge continued last year as consumers sought to take advantage of the $7,500-per-vehicle tax credit before the domestic sourcing rules took effect.

Now, consumers who want to use the tax credit to buy an electric vehicle will probably have to wait for some time, as Treasury sorts out what cars are eligible and automakers retool their supply chains to qualify.

Those who want the tax break right away might have to lease instead of buying. Under Treasury’s interpretation of the law, leased cars and trucks will fall into a loophole for "commercialized” electric vehicles, which will qualify for the incentives no matter how much they cost, what a consumer’s salary is, or where they were made.

It’s still unclear whether dealers will pass along the entire $7,500 tax credit to consumers over the course of a three-year lease.

The lack of tax credits doesn’t necessarily dampen consumer demand. In 2019, the federal tax credit for Teslas disappeared – but that didn’t stop Tesla sales from logging a 50 percent jump over 2018 sales that year. And they’ve just kept growing since, with 2022 sales numbers nearly four times the 2019 number.

But Tesla owners are wealthier than the average American — earning about twice the median income — and so might be less sensitive to the savings provided by the tax credit than other buyers.

What to watch: When Treasury released its interim guidance in December, it released a list of qualifying car models along with it, including the Ford Mustang Mach-E and the Nissan Leaf. But that might not be possible this time, so the landscape for buyers could temporarily get even more confusing.

What will this mean for the Earth?

The main aim of this legislation, of course, was to lessen the greenhouse gas pollution that is driving the warming of the planet.

Numerous studies have found that encouraging drivers to switch to electric vehicles needs to be part of any strategy for lowering carbon emissions. The National Academies, for one, has concluded that making a net-zero energy system reachable by 2050 would require half of all vehicles to be zero-emissions by 2030, powered by battery-electric or fuel cells.

But it’s unclear whether the Biden administration can simultaneously meet its goals of creating a domestic clean-energy supply chain while ensuring that electric vehicles are affordable and widely adopted.

That’s on top of the environmental challenges that mineral mining poses — and the potential for conflicts with communities in the U.S. who don’t want those projects in their backyards.

What to watch: Climate goals sync well with automakers’ goals in this case. Anything that helps the carmakers sell more electric vehicles helps advance Biden’s climate agenda.

Timothy Cama, Antonia Zimmermann and Zi-Ann Lum contributed to this report.

Secret Pence ruling breaks new ground for vice presidency

A federal judge’s secret order on Tuesday requiring Mike Pence to testify about aspects of Donald Trump’s bid to subvert the 2020 election was also an unprecedented ruling about the vice presidency itself.

It is the first time in U.S. history that a federal judge has concluded that vice presidents — like presidents — are entitled to a form of immunity from prying investigators.

But unlike presidents, who draw all their power from the executive branch, vice presidents get their immunity from Congress, Chief U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg ruled. That’s because vice presidents — while commonly perceived as mere agents of the president — are constitutionally required to serve as president of the Senate. And officers of Congress, like lawmakers and their aides, enjoy immunity rooted in a provision of the Constitution known as the “speech or debate” clause, meant to safeguard Congress from law enforcement inquiries related to their official duties.

The vice president’s role as Senate president has become almost entirely ceremonial, with the occasional exception of casting tie-breaking votes and — every four years — presiding over the count of electoral votes after a presidential election. Vice presidents have long suggested they should enjoy the legal protections afforded to Congress, but Boasberg’s ruling is the first time a court has extended so-called speech-or-debate immunity to the vice presidency.

Experts say the ruling — which remains under seal but was described to POLITICO by a person familiar with its contours — is an important foray into thorny, unresolved questions about vice presidential power.

“Any such movement is significant, as it sets a precedent that potentially can expand at a later time, in a different circumstance,” said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University political scientist who specializes in executive power. “The vice president is now acknowledged to possess a form of privilege by virtue of his or her legislative role, something that a president cannot claim.”

The ruling is the latest example of how Trump’s multi-year stress test on the norms and mechanics of the federal government has forced courts to answer long-dormant questions about the separation of powers.

The immunity question arose from special counsel Jack Smith’s bid to force Pence to testify before a Washington D.C. grand jury investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Trump opposed the subpoena on executive-privilege grounds, a position Boasberg rejected.

Pence did not join Trump’s fight but mounted his own, claiming that his role presiding over Congress on Jan. 6 should afford him speech-or-debate immunity.

Boasberg, the chief judge of the federal district court in Washington, agreed with Pence, at least to a limited extent: Pence must testify, he ruled, but the speech-or-debate immunity may allow him to avoid answering questions about his legislative role on Jan. 6.

Pence praised the ruling on Wednesday, even as he is considering whether to appeal it for not going far enough.

”For the first time ever, a federal court has recognized that these protections extend to a vice president,” Pence told supporters in Iowa, acknowledging the sealed ruling but saying he was “limited” in how much he could say about it. “I am pleased that the judge recognized the Constitution’s speech and debate protection applies to my work as vice president.”

The drafters of the Constitution included the speech-or-debate clause to guard against executive-branch efforts to coerce lawmakers with the threat of investigation or compelled testimony. But until this week, a court had never decided whether vice presidents — who are not members of the Senate but are officers like the parliamentarian — are covered by the protection.

The Supreme Court has said that immunity under the speech-or-debate clause covers “legislative” activities, such as voting on bills and giving speeches on the floor of Congress. For decades, the courts — particularly in Washington D.C. — have interpreted the clause to cover a broad range of activities connected to those duties, including the actions of congressional aides and officers who help facilitate the work of lawmakers.

The immunity, however, does not extend to purely “political” activities. So while Boasberg’s ruling may allow Pence to avoid testifying about his presiding role on Jan. 6, he might still have to testify about conversations he had with Trump leading up to that day, and he has indicated he is willing to do so.

Before Jan. 6, Trump pressed Pence to use his perch as president of the Senate to refuse to count Joe Biden’s electoral votes, either declaring Trump the victor or sending the election back to the states — an action Pence viewed as unconstitutional and refused to abide. He later returned to the chamber to complete the count of electors, all but sealing the Biden presidency. Trump famously attacked Pence on Twitter amid the chaos at the Capitol, an escalation that Jan. 6 committee investigators cited as a dangerous turning point in the day’s violence.

Two of Pence’s top White House aides — chief of staff Marc Short and counsel Greg Jacob — testified to the grand jury in October after then-Chief District Court Judge Beryl Howell rejected Trump’s similar bid to block their testimony via executive privilege.

Although Boasberg’s precise reasoning remains a mystery because of the secrecy surrounding the grand jury proceedings, legal experts called it a precedent-setting decision that could reshape the understanding of the vice presidency.

“Without seeing the opinion, hard to say much about it beyond the fact that it is clearly in my view correct that the VP enjoys speech-or-debate clause immunity when acting in her capacity as president of the Senate,” said Josh Chafetz, a Georgetown University constitutional law professor. “It's also the case that the courts have consistently taken far too narrow a view, in my judgment, of what activities by members are protected under the clause, so I suspect that Boasberg ruled that Pence has to testify about some stuff that I would think ought to be privileged.”

Stan Brand, who helmed the House counsel’s office for Tip O’Neill and today represents top Trump aide Dan Scavino, said applying the speech-or-debate clause to a vice president for the first time is “a victory for the independence of Congress against an overreaching DOJ.”

The Justice Department has at least three times argued that vice presidents should enjoy speech-or-debate protection for their role presiding over the Senate — including in the context of Jan. 6, 2021, when the department adopted the position to fend off a lawsuit from then-Rep. Louie Gohmert and a separate Utah-based lawsuit filed in 2021.

The precise contours of the department’s position in the secret proceedings with Boasberg were not immediately clear.

The Pence immunity decision underscores the extraordinary volume of precedent-setting rulings that are being issued in secret — the result of the typical confidentiality afforded to the grand jury process in criminal investigations. Howell, whose seven-year term as chief judge expired on March 17, issued dozens of secret rulings in Trump-related matters that may have sweeping implications for the separation of powers.

Brand noted that some of the most significant rulings that have shaped the boundaries of the presidency, vice presidency and Congress have emerged in these sorts of proceedings as a result of national crises — from Watergate to Whitewater to the Vietnam War to Abscam.

“We are in the midst of another such episode,” he said.

Casualties reported after Army helicopters crash in Kentucky

Two Army helicopters crashed in southwestern Kentucky during a routine training mission, causing several casualties, military officials said.

The two HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, part of the 101st Airborne Division, crashed around 10 p.m. Wednesday in Trigg County, Kentucky, according to a statement from Fort Campbell.

The 101st Airborne confirmed the crash, saying on Twitter it resulted in “several casualties” but did not specify whether those were injuries or deaths.

“Right now our focus is on the Soldiers and their families who were involved,” it added.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear had said earlier that fatalities were expected, adding that police and emergency officials were responding.

The crash is under investigation.

“The crash occurred in a field, some wooded area,” Kentucky State Police Trooper Sarah Burgess said at a news briefing. “At this time, there are no reports of residence damage.”

Fort Campbell is about 60 miles (97 kilometers) northwest of Nashville.

Last month, two Tennessee National Guard pilots were killed when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed along an Alabama highway during a training exercise.

How TikTok built a ‘team of Avengers’ to fight for its life

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was certain to face a blistering onslaught when he testified before the U.S. Congress.

And so as he prepared to face the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chew enlisted all the right people to help him get ready.

The Singaporean executive was prepared by former committee staffers and aides to Speaker Kevin McCarthy and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He received counsel from Andrew Wright, former director of legal policy for the Biden-Harris presidential transition and now a partner at the well-connected law firm K&L Gates. Ahead of the March 23 hearing, Chew scheduled meetings on the Hill with help from several former lawmakers, including Republican Jeff Denham, Democrat Bart Gordon, a former E&C member, and Joe Crowley, who was once a senior member of Democratic leadership.

But despite hiring a large group of savvy friends, Chew and his company failed to win over the panel. The sheer number of seasoned Washington operatives and firms in TikTok’s employ was no shield against a barrage of bipartisan denunciations.

TikTok’s battle for survival has become a vivid study in how a wealthy, foreign-owned corporation can use its financial might to build an impressive-looking network of influence — and also in the limitations of what lobbying can do to protect a company at the center of a geopolitical firestorm.

The campaign to save TikTok has been years in the making. A POLITICO investigation revealed an effort by TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, dating back to at least 2018, long before concerns about TikTok’s Chinese ownership reached their current pitch. Interviews with more than two dozen people, including lobbyists and lawmakers, in the United States and Europe illuminated the architecture of a lobbying apparatus that has moved TikTok and its parent company closer to institutions of government, including European lawmakers, leaders of both American political parties and even the White House.

In 2019, one recruiter representing TikTok described the company’s goal in superheroic terms: The recruiter said it wanted to build a “Team of Avengers,” according to one Washington lobbyist approached for a job, who like a number of others was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations with a powerful company.

TikTok has tried to overcome some firms’ reservations with a willingness to pay handsomely. The company recently approached a second Washington lobbyist who works for Big Tech clients and, according to the lobbyist, asked flatly: “How much will it take?” The lobbyist declined the overture.

But that approach has worked on others in Washington, London and Brussels, where the company is facing serious though seemingly less existential regulatory threats than in America.

In Washington alone, about three dozen people lobbied the federal government for ByteDance and TikTok in the last quarter of 2022, including former senators and House members, according to disclosure reports.

Across the Atlantic, TikTok’s public affairs staff includes just under 40 people in Europe, spread between cities including Brussels, London, Dublin, Paris and Milan. To lead its European strategy, the company in late 2019 recruited Theo Bertram, a former top lobbyist for Google and a veteran adviser to the U.K. prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In the fall of 2020, it appointed Caroline Greer, a seasoned lobbyist with experience lobbying for telecom companies and U.S. cloud firm Cloudflare, to head its Brussels operation.

And in Washington in recent months, the company finally succeeded in hiring SKDK, the public affairs firm that boasts an imposing Democratic alumni network, including senior figures in the Biden administration. The firm turned down an initial overture from TikTok during the 2020 campaign, according to two people familiar with the firm who explained that the decision was due to concerns around the company’s ties to China. Now, in a moment of existential danger for TikTok, SKDK has agreed to help with communications on policy matters.

The company has also enlisted Michael Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as an important part of its legal team, according to four people familiar with the matter, including a TikTok spokesperson. Leiter, a partner at the law firm Skadden, is helping deal with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency board that recently told TikTok that it must separate from ByteDance if it wanted to avert an American ban.

The app remains a pervasive presence in the political world, even as the prospect of a U.S. ban grows more realistic by the week. Indeed, the app is so popular that the White House has repeatedly acknowledged it as an unavoidable channel for political communications.

Ahead of Biden’s State of the Union address in February, White House senior adviser Anita Dunn pointed allies toward the app as an influential messaging tool during a “Women’s Community Engagement Update” hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement. Dunn is a founding partner of SKDK and under the White House ethics policy, she is currently barred from participating in matters involving SKDK.

During the call, Dunn told participants that the White House wanted people to brandish the administration’s accomplishments on social media, according to two people on the call.

Of course the White House could not use TikTok, Dunn said. But she suggested that if people on the call were users of the app, then they should share parts of the president’s speech on TikTok.

Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, said there was nothing in Dunn’s remarks that did not reflect what the administration had openly maintained “for years: that we work with outside supporters to spread our message on the major social media platforms, including TikTok.”

The White House declined to address other questions about the administration and TikTok, including whether the administration believed TikTok was deliberately hiring advisers with links to the Biden operation and whether Dunn had been aware of SKDK’s decision to work for the embattled company.

The political tide is running against TikTok and ByteDance, both in the United States and in Europe. The company has not managed to assuage lawmakers’ worries that TikTok’s ownership could make American and European user data vulnerable to the Chinese Communist Party, a charge both the company and the Chinese government have denied. Last week, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, said the government had never asked companies to “collect or provide data, information or intelligence located abroad against local laws.”

Washington remains unconvinced. Momentum is building on Capitol Hill for legislation that could allow Biden to ban the app. In the European Union, company executives were blindsided by the news that TikTok had been banned from the work devices of EU Commission staff.

“At no point was it ever said that: ‘hey, we have this investigation going on, we’re looking into this, you might want to be aware, we’ll get in touch,’” Greer said.

In a statement to POLITICO, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said the company was “focused on educating lawmakers and stakeholders about our company and our service,” and pointed out that other tech companies spend far more on lobbying than TikTok does.

“We plan to continue briefing members of Congress about our company and about the details of our robust and comprehensive plans to address national security concerns,” she said. “We work to engage policymakers and stakeholders across the political spectrum on issues that are important to our business and to the diverse and vibrant community on our platform.”

In that endeavor, the company has one great advantage: the sheer popularity of its product.

A person familiar with TikTok’s strategy said that in conversations with Democrats on the Hill, the company has privately compared banning the app to “Prohibition,” the early 20th-century effort to outlaw alcohol — like TikTok, a highly addictive consumer product seen as dangerous by federal lawmakers. The ban on alcohol lasted about 14 years and generated enormous backlash from voters. Oberwetter disputed that this was an approved part of the company’s message.

But the implication seems clear enough: more than 150 million users in the U.S. enjoy TikTok’s hypnotic interface, and many could vote in 2024 when Biden and members of Congress are on the ballot.

TikTok and ByteDance have spent more than $16 million on federal lobbying in the U.S. since 2019, according to public disclosures. But the total that the company has expended to save its existence in the United States is almost certainly dramatically higher. That figure does not include lobbying at the state level, or the company’s spending on PR firms and in-house communications staff responding to its crisis.

TikTok and ByteDance’s registered lobbying spending is still dwarfed by that of Meta, a powerful competitor which has been lobbying in Washington for more than a decade. In 2022, TikTok and ByteDance spent just about $5.9 million compared with over $23 million for Meta (though both companies dwarf Twitter, which spent about $1.7 million).

But TikTok’s operation is only just reaching the rapid-growth phase. Getting its influence network to this point took years. The project began even before the app was called TikTok, when ByteDance realized it needed help from people who understood the inside of the government bodies that would soon be regulating it.

So the company set out on a recruitment drive in Washington. A job description from the time, obtained by POLITICO, noted that ByteDance was searching for someone who could “Source and manage outside counsels and lobbying firms,” among other responsibilities.

The qualifications for the job stated that “Experience in internet industry and regulatory bodies is preferred, e.g. EU Commission, FTC” and “Experience with NGOs, international organizations, industrial associations would be a big plus.”

In early 2019, TikTok brought on Eric Ebenstein as director of public policy. It may have been a telling choice for a company anticipating scrutiny of its ownership: Ebenstein previously worked for the Chinese drone manufacturer DJI and would have been familiar with some of the political challenges of operating in the United States. Before and after Ebenstein’s departure, DJI has faced criticism from U.S. officials, including allegations that it took money from the Chinese government and that its drones could be tools for spying. DJI has denied taking direct government funding and said it could not control how customers use its products.

But Ebenstein was only the start. In 2019, the company intensified its outreach to staffers across the tech sector, doing a combination of recruitment pitches and conversations that seemed more like intelligence-gathering. At a moment when other social media companies, including Google and Facebook, were many years into struggling with the federal government, ByteDance was doing research of a more basic kind, according to the first lobbyist, who heard the “Team of Avengers” sales pitch at the time.

“They were looking to understand how American tech companies were organized, what sort of consultants they hired, who controlled those consultants, how that reported up into the executive structure,” said the Washington lobbyist, who kept contemporaneous notes of at least one of the person’s conversations with the company.

In 2019, it was looking for someone who could “Build strong relationships with government officials,” according to the lobbyist’s notes of a conversation with a recruiter.

A series of high-profile hires showed the company was making headway. In 2020, it enlisted Michael Beckerman, a former congressional aide who led the Internet Association trade group, to take a leading role in building a Washington influence machine. The company also hired Crossroads Strategies, a D.C.-based bipartisan firm. Former senators Trent Lott, a Republican who was the Senate majority leader, and John Breaux, a conservative Democrat from Louisiana, would make the company’s case, among others. The firm has been paid $910,000 since 2020, according to public records.

With the 2020 election approaching, the company seemed to want to hedge its bets on the outcome. CFIUS had reportedly begun an investigation into the company. Early that year, ByteDance succeeded in hiring David Urban, a prominent Republican lobbyist who was also an adviser to Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign. Urban first worked as an outside consultant and then later as an executive vice president at ByteDance. (He is now an outside consultant again.)

But the company needed Democratic help, too, since the party figured to have significant power on the Hill after 2020 even if Trump were reelected.

Fears about TikTok’s foreign ownership were growing, not receding, as the campaign advanced. Not only did SKDK, the Biden campaign-linked firm, reject an overture to work for TikTok, but in the summer of 2020 it instructed employees to delete the app from their phones as a security precaution. Memories of foreign cyber-intrusion in the 2016 campaign, when Russian hackers breached the Democratic National Committee, were still fresh in the minds of Democratic campaign operatives.

Around 2020, the second Washington lobbyist, who was then in touch with the company, said that TikTok was in search of someone who could push back on the narrative that they were collecting data and giving it to China.

In 2021, a third Washington lobbyist, who is a Democrat, recalled being approached by a TikTok consultant with the message that the company was willing to put a lot of money on the table for Democratic talent.

Since the 2020 presidential election, TikTok has had considerably more success enlisting lobbyists and firms with close ties to the Democratic Party. In addition to SKDK’s recent about-face decision to work for TikTok, the company has enlisted FGS Global, another PR agency with ties to Biden’s political network. It also retained the public relations giant Edelman, a powerhouse firm with relationships across both parties. Jamal Brown, former national press secretary to the Biden campaign who more recently was deputy press secretary at the Pentagon, is now a company spokesperson.

Many of those working for TikTok and ByteDance, including SKDK, FGS, Edelman, Crowley, Denham, Gordon, and Leiter, the former counterterrorism official, did not respond to inquiries or declined to comment on the record.

ByteDance’s lavish spending goes beyond generous salaries and retainer fees for lobbyists. It also extends to schmoozing, particularly in Europe where there is less fear among politicians about being seen as cozy with Chinese companies.

Indeed, in Brussels, lawmakers in the European Parliament and officials of the EU Commission, the EU’s executive arm, describe TikTok’s team as articulate and ingratiating, and careful to strike a more conciliatory tone than the representatives of American companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google. They had an agenda to push, but they would not make aggressive threats about EU laws like the Digital Services Act.

“Their lobbying was not confrontational compared to American companies,” one official said. “They always said they wanted to cooperate.”

In Europe, at least, TikTok has used the aversion toward American Big Tech to its advantage. Bertram, the vice president of government relations and public policy for Europe, told POLITICO the question of TikTok’s ownership “feels like a red herring … As Europeans, I don’t think we share the belief that every big company needs to be a Silicon Valley tech company.”

Earlier this year, Chew, the TikTok CEO, appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos and toured Brussels to meet with European policymakers. In Belgium, he met with around two dozen European lawmakers and policy officials from the EU Commission in a closed-door session at De Warande, an elite members-only club located near Belgium’s Royal Palace and the American embassy. He snapped pictures with tech-focused politicians like Dita Charanzová, a vice president of the European parliament, and Andreas Schwab, a German member who negotiated the Digital Markets Act, a law to limit the market power of large tech companies.

The TikTok executive tried to send a reassuring message at the event. Even as the company has confronted growing political hostility in the U.S., many European lawmakers have continued to see the company in less adversarial terms — as a social media goliath that needs to be regulated, but perhaps not a uniquely problematic one.

Chew was “very clear about the strong concern in the U.S. about China,” said Schwab, adding: “They wanted to explain a bit about their legal structure, their precaution measures, knowing that there might still be doubts.”

After doing a speech about TikTok’s business model, the CEO wanted to listen, said Charanzová. “He wanted to understand concerns in Europe.”

Chew’s mission of reassurance seemed to go well, or at least that was the impression of TikTok’s lobbyists in Europe.

The company was stunned when scarcely a month later the EU Commission banned TikTok from the government phones of commission employees. The measure sparked a domino-like effect across Brussels where the EU Council — the institution representing the 27 EU governments — and the European Parliament quickly followed suit, along with national governments including those of Belgium and the United Kingdom.

TikTok’s team immediately contacted the EU institutions to try to understand what had happened and hopefully to reverse the policy. The company didn’t hear anything for several weeks before the Commission said in late March it had sent the company a letter and was open to a meeting. At the end of the month the device ban was still in place.

“We’ve been trying to reach out to the institutions to understand what the problem is and to see what we can do to mitigate it and to tell our story, as well as hopefully to get unbanned, since it has been presented as a temporary suspension,” said Greer, the Brussels lobbyist.

To address those concerns, the company unveiled a European plan that had been in the works for several months to secure European users’ data. TikTok said it would operate in the coming years three data servers in Ireland and Norway and work with a European security company to audit cybersecurity and data protection controls under “Project Clover.” The company sent its top executives to tour European capitals such as London, Paris and the Hague to present the plan, which mirrors a similar idea presented in the U.S. and branded “Project Texas.”

“We can’t control the geopolitical situation, but we can continue with the work that we have been doing to help bridge that trust deficit, if it’s there,” said Greer. “We’re not running away from this.”

But TikTok doesn’t seem to have an option. And the power of its lobbying, PR and legal operations is being put to the test in other, even more strenuous ways.

The Irish data protection authority is set to decide on its investigation on TikTok’s data transfers to China. TikTok will also have to open up about its recommendation algorithm and show the EU Commission how it limits a range of problematic issues like cyberbullying, disinformation and illegal content or face multi-million euro fines under the Digital Services Act as soon as this summer. The EU Commission could potentially order a large fine or a temporary banning of the app if it repeatedly and seriously infringes on its obligations.

For now, the company is projecting confidence that it can halt any broader ban in Europe — one that would disrupt its relationship with consumers and not just government employees. Bertram said using the app was a matter of “freedom of speech for the public.”

“You’d have to have a very strong legal basis to ban any app in any country in Europe,” he said in an interview.

In Washington, the company is trying to meet with a wide range of lawmakers to head off legislative action that would ban the app. But TikTok’s core strategy is in a precarious state. The company had been arguing that Congress should defer to the Biden administration and let the regulatory process take its course — a way of sapping momentum for potentially stronger congressional action.

But the CFIUS decree insisting on a separation between TikTok and its Chinese owners made plain that punting the issue to the executive branch would not necessarily guarantee gentler results for the company.

The company’s best hope in Washington at this point may be drumming up enough indignation from its vast horde of users to give pause to elected officials — maybe even including the president — about cracking down on a cherished app in the run-up to a national election. And there are Democrats who sincerely worry about enraging the young voters the party depends on.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, a progressive Democrat who opposes a TikTok ban, told reporters last week that the seemed driven by xenophobia and favoritism toward American tech giants. But he noted the political context, too: “Young voters were the reason why we were able to keep things decent, like almost even in 2022, in terms of the House.”

Those arguments have not resonated with the lawmakers most determined to eliminate the app from American life. When TikTok’s Washington team met recently with the leaders of the new House select committee on U.S.-China relations, it made no headway in convincing them that there were reasonable precautions it could take to protect Americans’ data from the Chinese Communist Party.

“The CCP ultimately having access to user data and control of algorithms and potentially content on the platform is deeply problematic,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, a Democrat who has introduced legislation to ban TikTok.

The company is still looking for more help, including a head of policy communications in Brussels. In the U.S., TikTok is recruiting public policy managers and ByteDance is currently accepting applications for a “Global Head of Policy Communications.” The person in that role will be charged with developing communications strategy for both policymakers and users. The gig, focused on government relations, requires “significant experience” on communications and with complicated regulatory, legislative, and policy matters.

That new head of policy communications must also have “significant experience” with “crisis issues.”

DeSantis’ pitch to New York donors: I’m not a chaos agent

New York’s political status as a deep blue state rarely deters Republican hopefuls from casting about for wealthy backers — and Ron DeSantis is no exception.

The Florida governor — who is expected to announce his presidential campaign following his state’s legislative session — has been privately reaching out in recent months to a bevy of potential supporters in the Empire State. DeSantis visited the Long Island estate of billionaire cosmetics heir and GOP donor Ronald Lauder several months ago, two people with direct knowledge of the sit down told POLITICO.

DeSantis’ message was simple: He is the only Republican who could defeat President Joe Biden in a general election.

In meetings with other wealthy businessmen, DeSantis has been even more explicit, portraying himself as an obvious choice for anyone frustrated by the former president Donald Trump’s legal troubles and antics.

In the case of Lauder, DeSantis’ audience was well-chosen. The businessman has not been shy about his frustration with Trump, whom he backed in past races.

Through a spokesperson, Lauder declined to comment.

DeSantis’ spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

“I’m no drama. I’m no chaos,” one New York businessman said in paraphrasing the pitch the Florida governor made to other well-heeled New Yorkers. “I’m calm, cool and collected. Very focused.”

That businessman, who continues to support the former president and counts him as a friend, said DeSantis has reached out to New York real estate moguls who own property in Florida. To that end, both DeSantis and Trump attended the wedding of real estate investor Steve Witkoff’s son in Palm Beach last year.

In meetings, DeSantis emphasizes his military background and his record of getting “points on the scoreboard” as governor of the increasingly Republican state, said the person — who was granted anonymity to share details of private discussions.

“From what I’ve heard, he does not say President Trump is drama and chaos. He just says he’s not. So, what is that implying?” the person said.

The message mirrors DeSantis’ comments in a recent interview with Fox Nation’s Piers Morgan, during which he questioned Trump’s style and said: “I have what it takes to be president and I can beat Biden.”

The outreach by DeSantis provides a window into the early calculations he and his team have made as they ready themselves for a presidential run. The governor has made a name for himself castigating corporate America, while also leaning on top finance figures for financial support. His team sees New York donors as prime turf, not only for their deep pockets but also because many of them backed Trump out of convenience rather than a shared ideology with his MAGA base.

“Governor DeSantis is a conservative who is widely viewed as being far more electable than Trump in a general election. Given that he has the conservative policy minus the baggage, minus the legal problems, it’s no surprise that he would find some success among New York’s most important conservative donors,” Jon Reinish, a Democratic political consultant, said in an interview.

DeSantis, who plans to deliver remarks on Long Island Saturday evening, has recently been struggling with sagging poll numbers, news cycles dominated by Trump and an initial statement casting skepticism on support for the Ukraine war that disappointed some Republicans.

Just how big a draw DeSantis is for the New York crowd could be revealed in upcoming filings of super PACs that are boosting his expected candidacy, including one chaired by former Trump official Ken Cuccinelli. A filing for that committee is expected next month.

Interviews with six people across senior levels of Wall Street’s biggest banks revealed an intense desire for a GOP candidate who could deny Trump the nomination. While the finance industry appreciated Trump’s tax cuts — partially designed by former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn during his time in Trump’s White House — they grew to loathe his protectionist trade policies, penchant for attacking individual companies and firing off market-shaking tweets. His unwillingness to forcefully condemn white nationalist groups further alienated him from the industry.

“Look there is no question that some of what he did was good for us,” a top executive at one of America’s largest banks said on condition of anonymity so as not to draw Trump’s fire. “But he’s bad for America. And ultimately that’s bad for us. And most of our employees can’t stand him.”

Ben White and Sam Sutton contributed to this report.

Sex ed, birth control, Medicaid: Republicans’ ‘new pro-life agenda’

Republicans in staunchly conservative states are championing some atypical legislation this session — promoting sex education, government welfare and more birth control.

The proposals are part of what some governors and lawmakers have referred to as a “new pro-life agenda” for the post-Roe era — one that is increasingly breaking with their party’s socially conservative approach to maternal and reproductive health in favor of one more commonly pushed by Democrats.

The flurry of legislation stands to extend health insurance to tens of thousands of low-income people, boost access to contraception and rethink how sex is discussed in public schools. And it could help Republicans soften their image with moderate voters now that abortion is illegal in nearly all circumstances in a quarter of the country and after the issue helped Democrats win several key midterm races.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is pushing legislation to allow pharmacists to dispense hormonal contraceptives without a prescription. Indiana and Oklahoma are advancing similar GOP-sponsored bills.

In Indiana and South Carolina, Republican lawmakers proposed lawmakers proposed bills that would require comprehensive, medically accurate sex ed to be taught in the states’ schools starting in grade 5 or 6 — instead of their current abstinence-based approach.

And in Wyoming and Mississippi — two of the 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid — Republican Govs. Mark Gordon and Tate Reeves recently signed 12-month extensions of Medicaid postpartum benefits into law, in what Reeves referred to as a “philosophically uncomfortable” move that overcame fierce conservative opposition to boosting government welfare.

“What I can tell you is that the governor was more vocal in his support for [postpartum extension] and was much more outwardly supportive of this idea in the wake of the Dobbs decision,” said Gordon spokesperson Michael Pearlman. “He is a pro-life governor and supports life, but Governor Gordon wanted to emphasize that being pro-life, to him, goes beyond simply being pro-birth.”

Some GOP-controlled states embraced these policies before the fall of Roe v. Wade last summer, and Republicans argue there isn’t anything inherently liberal about them.

“The most important thing for people to realize is we need to be pro-life and not just pro-birth. That means investing in our families. That means taking a more meaningful approach to policy and forget about the politics. Let that go out the window and let’s actually do things that help people have successful families,” said Oklahoma state Sen. Jessica Garvin, a Republican who sponsored two birth control bills this year that passed the state Senate last week. “If we’re going to say we can’t have abortion for women in Oklahoma, what are we going to do to help support these women that can’t have an abortion?”

Some Democrats chafe at Republicans for taking credit for proposals they have long supported, particularly those aimed at underserved communities.

“This has been a long time effort specifically led by Black women in the legislature,” said Florida Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani. “Republicans are trying to give off the impression that they’re championing issues for women and families while they strip away our bodily autonomy and rights.”

And while some maternal health advocates welcome the growing number of conservatives backing these policies, they also argue that these broader maternal and reproductive health policies can’t undo the harm being caused by the lack of abortion access in these states.

“In my career — I’m in my mid-40s — I can probably count on one hand Republicans that have been out in front on access to contraception,” said Jamila Taylor, president and CEO of the National WIC Association and a longtime women’s health advocate. “So yes, we are pleased with some of the progress that we’re seeing even in red states, but that’s never going to replace the need or, quite frankly, our fight to ensure abortion rights in this country.”

‘A good thing’

Anti-abortion groups said they are happy to see lawmakers introduce legislation focused on helping families and have endorsed some of these policies, such as postpartum Medicaid extension, alongside the usual types of bills that accompany abortion bans, such as funding for crisis pregnancy centers.

“This kind of legislation that protects pregnant women and new moms, this is one of our key focuses of 2023, and it’s been awesome to see momentum in a lot of pro-life states this year,” said Kelsey Pritchard, director of state public affairs for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “We’ve been really happy to see states step up the plate and say, ‘Yeah, we need to do more to help pregnant women and to help our new moms in the state.’”

Several female Republican lawmakers told POLITICO that while they’ve long understood the need to increase access to contraception, Roe’s fall provided an opening for them to talk with their male colleagues about the importance of such policies.

“It’s not necessarily that they’ve been against it. They didn’t know they needed to be for it because they didn’t know it was a problem,” said Garvin, the Republican state senator from Oklahoma.

Garvin’s two birth control bills — one that allows pharmacists to dispense hormonal contraceptives without a prescription and another that makes clear the state’s abortion law does not restrict access to contraceptive drugs — cleared the GOP-supermajority state Senate with significant support.

“I think the overturn of Roe v. Wade has forced the issue to become more of a dinner table conversation, and people are more open about sex and family planning, and I think those are becoming more of conversation pieces within families, and it’s a good thing,” Garvin said.

In Iowa, lawmakers are taking another shot at expanding access to birth control, something the governor has wanted to do since 2019. While Reynolds’ bill to allow pharmacists to prescribe hormonal contraception cleared the Senate that year, it did not receive a vote in the House that year.

“There’s some very, very far right conservatives that just really didn’t believe in birth control, period,” said Iowa state Sen. Chris Cournoyer, a Republican. Since then, “we’ve had more conversations about why it’s important and why it factors in not just for maternal health but also for women's health in general. I mean, there’s a lot of non-contraceptive reasons why you would get on birth control.”

A similar bill in Indiana also received enthusiastic support when it passed the House in late February.

“Allowing pharmacists to prescribe hormonal contraceptives is a simple, yet critical step to providing care to more Hoosier women, especially those who don't have a primary care doctor, or can't afford transportation to a different city or county,” said Indiana Republican state Rep. Elizabeth Rowray.

In two conservative states that have not passed Medicaid expansion, abortion helped Republicans who remain highly skeptical of anything that even vaguely resembles such a policy to pass legislation this year extending postpartum benefits from 60 days to a year after birth.

In Mississippi, Reeves, who is up for reelection this year, announced his supportfor the policy in February after months of opposition, calling it a part of the “new pro-life agenda” and saying that Republicans may have to do things that make them “philosophically uncomfortable” in the post-Roe era.

In Wyoming, legislation extending postpartum benefits passed by slim margins in the House and Senate — and legislative leaders in both houses attempted to kill the bill at multiple points during the session. Both GOP lawmakers supportive of the bill and the governor’s office pitched the proposal during hearings and debate on the bill as “pro-life.”

Exceptions to the rule

Not all of these proposals have reached a critical mass of Republican support. The two comprehensive sex ed bills introduced this year in Indiana and South Carolina — two states that have an abstinence-focused sex ed curriculum — have not received hearings.

But South Carolina Republican state Sen. Tom Davis said he is not giving up. He plans to bring his sex ed legislation forward as an amendment to another education-related bill.

“If we want to reduce unwanted pregnancies and, by that, reduce the number of abortions, we need to do a better job of providing factually correct scientific information that’s age appropriate,” he said.

And some Republicans are trying to separate maternal health from abortion. In Florida, for instance, the Department of Health requested more than $12.6 million in its budget this year for the Closing the Gap program, which became the centerpiece of a plan to expand telehealth postpartum services to people of color. The proposal received unanimous support from state lawmakers in 2021, and the department is now asking for a boost to its current $5.4 million budget to expand the pilot program.

But Joseph Ladapo, who oversees the state Department of Health, has emphasized that the increased postpartum funding predates the efforts pushed by Florida Republicans to tighten abortion controls. State lawmakers approved a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy last year, and they are now poised to pass a six-week ban by the end of this year’s legislative session in May.

“For the last two decades, they’ve been taking it more seriously and the Department of Health has been involved in that area for years,” Ladapo said.

Maternal health advocates said they struggle with the fact that these advances come hand-in-hand with anti-abortion laws, which they believe threaten to worsen existing maternal health disparities.

“We’re glad that more states are starting to pay attention, but in light of the maternal health crisis, the point really is that Rome is burning, and states are not centering the full range of reproductive health needs,” said Ben Anderson, director of maternal and child health initiatives at Families USA, a consumer advocacy group.

But advocates also welcome the growing bipartisanship on these issues.

“What I do see as a pattern is reasonable conversations about some of these safety-net programs that should have long been part of the overarching public health dossier of programs, Medicaid expansion being one of them,” said Terrance Moore, CEO of the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs. “I don’t want to go on a limb and say folks are all going in the right direction, but there’s been real education, deep education.”

Arek Sarkissian contributed to this report.

Opinion | Trump’s Huge Jan. 6 Mistake

The philosopher Eric Hoffer famously wrote, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

What he evidently didn’t count on was great outrages becoming causes.

From the perspective of the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6 it was hard enough to believe that Donald Trump would survive the event, let alone make it a plank in a powerful comeback bid just a few years later.

But there was Trump in Waco, Texas, opening his inaugural rally of the 2024 campaign with a recording of the song “Justice for All” that he performed with the J6 Prison Choir, with some scenes of Jan. 6 playing on the jumbotrons.

Among those favorably inclined toward it, the bloody riot at the Capitol has progressed from something to be minimized — and blamed on others, whether antifa or federal informants — to closer to something to be celebrated, almost, if not quite, Stop the Steal’s Bastille Day.

For Trump, a master at appropriating the catch lines and attacks of the other side, reversing the meaning of Jan. 6 would be his most audacious move yet. How long is it before that day, in an echo of the phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskyy that got him impeached, becomes “the perfect protest?”

This is a huge mistake in every way, most importantly on the merits, but also on the politics.

Yet Trump’s stance isn’t surprising. He still hews to the two premises of the Jan. 6 riot — that, as a general proposition, the 2020 election was stolen and, more particularly, former Vice President Mike Pence could have stopped the counting of the electoral votes if he weren’t so weak. This is why, in a contradiction, Trump blames Pence for an event that he also portrays as not so bad.

Trump has talked about pardoning the rioters, who are “great patriots,” and floated the idea of the government apologizing to many of them.

Now, it is true that the insistence by Democrats and the media on referring to Jan. 6 always and exclusively as “the insurrection” is tiresome and politically motivated. (Insurrection suggests a sustained campaign, whereas this was a one-time spasm of violence more appropriately referred to as a riot.)

The Justice Department has gone out of its way to run up the number of prosecutions to make a political point about the seriousness of the event, and defendants have been denied bail in a highly unusual manner — if we grant bail to mafia hit men, and we do, we should grant it to someone who punched a cop on Jan. 6.

And there is a rank hypocrisy in the treatment of political violence. The same people on the left who were willing to look the other way during the “mostly peaceful” riots after the killing of George Floyd are outraged by Jan. 6. (Of course, hypocrisy is a two-way street: If it’s wrong to burn down a gas station in the name of Black Lives Matter, it’s not any better to storm the Capitol in the name of Stop the Steal.)

All that said, making excuses for or valorizing Jan. 6 is deeply wrong.

First, there’s the matter of principle. Riots are bad and never justified (except in the rare case when they are a precursor of a just and well-founded act of revolution — for example, the American War for Independence). They hurt people and destroy property, while achieving nothing or setting back the cause they were supposed to advance.

Disorder at the heart of the U.S. government, disrupting a long-standing ritual connected to the peaceful transfer of power, is particularly egregious.

Second, justifying or excusing political violence has a deranging influence on the republic. The more reason both sides have to physically fear each other, the easier it is to justify extreme measures in response, in a widening gyre of escalation.

Third, it’s simply terrible politics. If the other side is desperate to portray you as in bed with fanatics and rioters, it’s best not to go out of your way to prove them right. It’s perverse for Republicans that just as the Jan. 6 Committee has been put out of business and is no longer in a position to constantly remind the public of Jan. 6, here comes Donald Trump to remind people of Jan. 6.

It’d be a little like Richard Nixon running for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, and campaigning with a barbershop quartet made up of the Watergate burglars.

Or Ulysses S. Grant deciding to run for third term while extolling the unappreciated virtues of the organizers of the Whiskey Ring scandal.

What Trump is doing flies in the face of the lessons of the midterms. Jan. 6 lent emotional power to the Democratic argument that democracy was under threat, and Stop the Steal candidates proved radioactive. Trump wants, in effect, to repeat November 2022’s failed political experiment on a larger scale in 2024.

On top of his natural inclinations, Trump may be making a calculation that in a primary race with Ron DeSantis to be the most MAGA Republican candidate, he can’t lose by staking out the most pro-Jan. 6 position. That’s not a crazy bet, but if Trump is going to be beaten it will probably be, in part, on grounds that he carries too much baggage and is an electability risk. By embracing rather than skirting one of his major vulnerabilities, he gives his adversaries more ammunition on both counts.

Jan. 6 is an outrage that shouldn’t become a cause.

Sinema can't quit the powerful online Democratic fundraising machine

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is no longer a Democrat. But her willingness to truly quit the party has its limits.

After POLITICO first reported that she's been deriding fellow Democratic senators in recent private fundraisers with Republican donors, the independent Arizona senator rolled out a new online fundraising page with Anedot, a platform that has also been used by Republican and third-party candidates.

But her ActBlue page is still active and in use by her campaign committee. The Democratic fundraising platform is the most important fundraising portal in all of politics, and access to it can mean a substantial small-dollar fundraising advantage.

Sinema's continued presence on the platforms shows the limits of her disdain for the Democratic Party: She might dislike sitting next to the party's senators during lunch, but she's still willing to take money from its small-dollar donors. Access to ActBlue could be hugely beneficial if Sinema runs for reelection — and in a three-way race in a state with a large independent vote share, Arizona's seat could well tip control of a closely divided Senate.

An ActBlue spokesperson confirmed this week that the Arizona senator is still eligible to use the site as an independent with a record of caucusing with Democrats. Sinema was a substantial fundraiser on ActBlue during her 2018 Senate campaign, bringing in more than $11.7 million via the platform that cycle, according to FEC data, although her small-dollar support has largely dried up in the past few years. Between her Dec. 9 announcement that she was leaving the Democratic Party and the end of the year, she had raised a bit shy of $25,000 via the platform.

ActBlue — which has long served candidates facing each other in primaries — has looked to position itself as a neutral actor within the party’s broader fundraising ecosystem. The Arizona senator, who has yet to formally declare a 2024 run, puts that to a new test.

“At the end of the day, ActBlue is an incredibly important technology platform inside an incredibly formidable big tent,” ActBlue CEO Regina Wallace-Jones said in an interview with POLITICO last month. A longtime tech executive and former city councilor from East Palo Alto, Calif., Wallace-Jones was named ActBlue’s new leader in January.

She added: “It would be inappropriate in any way for us to be first movers bearing who is on the platform versus not. And we do have partners inside that tent that we will be taking cues from. So I do not imagine that we will be making that kind of a statement, and I do know that we’re in deep communications with others who have decision-making authority.”

Adding a new fundraising platform is a sign that Sinema is preparing for the possibility of running for reelection, likely as an independent. A spokesperson confirmed Sinema’s campaign is currently using both Anedot and ActBlue, but declined to address what that could mean for her 2024 plans.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) announced his own Senate campaign in January, and is widely viewed as the likely Democratic nominee. No major Republicans have declared they are running, although former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has expressed interest.

ActBlue’s policies, which pre-date Wallace-Jones’ time at the head of the organization, say that independent or third-party incumbents can remain on the platform provided they have a “proven record” of caucusing with Democrats. Sinema no longer attends weekly caucus meetings, although she accepted Democrats’ committee assignments.

Sen. Angus King, another independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is permitted to use ActBlue under the organization’s policies. His campaign website links to the platform NationBuilder, although he also has an active ActBlue page. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent though also a former Democratic presidential candidate, is among ActBlue’s most prolific fundraisers.

Compared to other fundraising platforms, ActBlue is a unique tool in part because so many candidates use it, which allows campaigns to split donations with ease. For repeat donors, who make up a large share of the Democratic donor base, it saves credit card information, making transactions easier.

“So many times where we would test using one processor or another, and just every time ActBlue would raise more for a variety of reasons,” said Taryn Rosenkranz, a longtime Democratic fundraising professional and founder of New Blue Interactive. “We never found anything that could net more for folks.”

ActBlue also currently hosts Marianne Williamson in her longshot bid against incumbent President Joe Biden. In rare cases, the platform has kicked off candidates, such as Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) who switched to the Republican party in 2019.

ActBlue has grown exponentially since its launch in 2004. The platform, which hosts federal, state and local candidates as well as progressive-aligned committees and nonprofits, reported processing donations from more than 7.4 million distinct donors last cycle.

In the 2022 calendar year, ActBlue processed more than $1.4 billion for federal campaigns and causes. That’s more than twice the roughly $620 million raised at the federal level through WinRed, the Republican counterpart that launched in 2019, according to the groups’ filings with the FEC.

Fox poll shows Trump’s lead over DeSantis growing

A new Fox News poll released Wednesday showed former President Donald Trump widening his lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a hypothetical GOP primary race.

Trump was the top pick for 54 percent of respondents, who were asked to choose from a list of potential 2024 Republican presidential nominees. DeSantis — who has yet to declare his candidacy, though he is widely expected to — came in as a distant second pick, with 24 percent of the vote. It’s a slight drop in support for the Florida governor, who nabbed 28 percent to Trump’s 43 percent in a Fox poll conducted late last month.

The month-to-month gain for Trump comes at a time when some Republicans fear support for Trump’s expected leading challenger is faltering.

Trump has been ramping up attacks on the likely 2024 contender. On Wednesday, he posted three new videos on Truth Social, the social media company he helped found, criticizing the governor for both his past policy decisions and his falling poll numbers.

The Fox poll was one of a handful released in recent days that show the former president widening his lead over DeSantis. In a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday, Trump had the support of 47 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, well above DeSantis’ 33 percent. A Morning Consult survey from earlier this month showed Trump with a 54-to-26 percent lead over DeSantis among potential GOP primary voters.

Trump’s growing lead in the polls comes amid a flurry of news over a potential indictment of the former president in a case related to a $130,000 hush money payment made to porn actress Stormy Daniels in 2016. Though an indictment appeared imminent earlier this month, it was reported Wednesday that the Manhattan grand jury investigating the allegations isn’t expected to hear additional evidence in the case for the next month.

In the Fox GOP poll, former Vice President Mike Pence drew 6 percent, followed by former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at 3 percent each, with other Republicans trailing behind.

The poll also showed President Joe Biden with an approval rating of 44 percent, same as last month.

Fox polled 1,007 randomly selected registered voters from March 24 to March 27. The margin of error of the poll was plus or minus 3 percentage points, though that margin was slightly larger — plus or minus 4.5 percentage points — for the results of the Republican primary ballot.

Republican lawmakers override veto of transgender bill in Kentucky

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Republican lawmakers in Kentucky on Wednesday swept aside the Democratic governor’s veto of a bill regulating some of the most personal aspects of life for transgender young people — from banning access to gender-affirming health care to restricting the bathrooms they can use.

The votes to override Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto were lopsided in both legislative chambers — where the GOP wields supermajorities — and came on the next-to-last day of this year’s legislative session. The Senate voted 29-8 to override Beshear’s veto. A short time later, the House completed the override on a vote of 76-23.

As emotions surged, some people protesting the bill from the House gallery were removed and arrested after their prolonged chanting rang out in the chamber. The protesters, their hands bound, chanted “there’s more of us not here” as they waited to be taken away from the Capitol.

Nineteen people were arrested and charged with third-degree criminal trespassing, Kentucky State Police said. Officers gave each person “the option to leave without any enforcement action or be placed under arrest,” said Capt. Paul Blanton, a police spokesperson.

Republican House Speaker David Osborne later said it was a decision by state police to remove and arrest protesters.

“I think it’s unfortunate that it reached that level and certainly they were given, as I’ve been told since then, multiple opportunities to either quiet their chants or to leave voluntarily,” Osborne said.

The bill’s opponents framed the issue as a civil-rights fight. Democratic Rep. Sarah Stalker declared: “Kentucky will be on the wrong side of history” by enacting the measure.

The debate about the transgender bill will likely spill over into this year’s gubernatorial campaign, with Beshear’s veto drawing GOP condemnation as he seeks reelection to a second term. A legal fight also is brewing. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky reaffirmed that it intends to “take this fight to the courts” to try to preserve access to health care options for young transgender people.

“While we lost the battle in the legislature, our defeat is temporary. We will not lose in court,” said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization.

In praising the veto override, David Walls, executive director of The Family Foundation, said the bill puts “policy in alignment with the truth that every child is created as a male or female and deserves to be loved, treated with dignity and accepted for who they really are.”

Activists on both sides of the impassioned debate gathered at the statehouse to make competing appeals before lawmakers took up the transgender bill following an extended break.

At a rally that drew hundreds of transgender-rights supporters, trans teenager Sun Pacyga held up a sign summing up a grim review of the Republican legislation. The sign read: “Our blood is on your hands.”

“If it passes, the restricted access to gender-affirming health care, I think trans kids will die because of that,” the 17-year-old student said, expressing a persistent concern among the bill’s critics that the restrictions could lead to an increase in teen suicides.

Bill supporters assembled to defend the measure, saying it protects trans children from undertaking gender-affirming treatments they might regret as adults. Research shows such regret is rare, however.

“We cannot allow people to continue down the path of fantasy, to where they’re going to end up 10, 20, 30 years down the road and find themselves miserable from decisions that they made when they were young,” said Republican Rep. Shane Baker at a rally.

West Virginia governor signs ban on gender-affirming care

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday signed a bill banning gender-affirming care for minors, joining at least 10 other states that have enacted laws restricting or outlawing medically supported treatments for transgender youth.

The bill outlaws those under 18 from being prescribed hormone therapy and fully reversible puberty blockers. It also bans minors from receiving gender-affirming surgery, something physicians say doesn’t even happen in West Virginia.

Unlike measures passed in other states, however, West Virginia’s law contains a unique exemption: It permits doctors to prescribe medical therapy if a teenager is considered at risk for self-harm or suicide.

Under the law, which will take effect in January 2024, a patient can be prescribed puberty blockers and hormone therapy after receiving parental consent and a diagnosis of severe gender dysphoria from two doctors, including a mental health provider.

Gender dysphoria is defined by medical professionals as severe psychological distress experienced by those whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth.

Lawmakers in West Virginia and other states moving to enact bans on transgender health care for youth and young adults often characterize gender-affirming treatments as medically unproven, potentially dangerous in the long term and a symptom of “woke” culture.

Every major medical organization, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association, supports gender-affirming care for youths.

A 2017 study by UCLA Law’s The Williams Institute estimated West Virginia had the highest per capita rate of transgender youth in the country.

The rate of suicide ideation, or having suicidal thoughts or ideas, for transgender youth in West Virginia is three times higher than the rate for all youth in the state, according to West Virginia Youth Risk Behavior Survey data.

At least 11 states have now enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming care for minors: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah, South Dakota and West Virginia. Federal judges have blocked enforcement of laws in Alabama and Arkansas, and nearly two dozen states are considering bills this year to restrict or ban care.