Biden Wants to Save Global Democracy. Here’s What He Can Actually Do.

Leaders from around the world are gathering (virtually) this week for President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy. The event was one of the earliest and most concrete foreign-policy promises Biden made during his campaign — and it represents perhaps the most tangible way in which he has sought to elevate democracy as a defining feature of his foreign policy.

But despite the many headlines the summit has generated, it’s still a gathering of politicians — which is to say, it risks being long on lofty promises and short on real reform. Biden’s summit has already been the subject of skeptical analysis pointing out that it will be hard to get countries to commit to more than sound bites, and that a summit is inadequate to the task of solving the real problems plaguing global democracy.

So the question is: What could actually work? What else can Biden do to bolster the cause of democracy around the world? We reached out to experts and activists in endangered democracies from Iraq to Poland to India, and asked them what they wish the U.S. would do to help democracy in their country. Some were skeptical that America could do much at all, while others offered ideas for specific policy moves or broader foreign-policy shifts. Once the Biden team logs off the final summit Zoom this week, here are 18 pieces of homework it can start on right away.

Russia Vladimir Milov

Vladimir Milov is a Russian opposition politician, economist and energy expert, and an economic adviser to opposition leader Alexey Navalny. He is the co-author, with the late Boris Nemtsov, of “Putin. The Results,” a critique of President Vladimir Putin’s policy.

Stop the attempts to “reset relations” or otherwise establish a “strategic stability dialogue” with the Russian dictatorship. U.S. dialogues with Putin are highly demoralizing to pro-democracy forces in Russia, inevitably producing a feeling of a trade-off behind closed doors, of the U.S. trying to trade the Russian people’s rights in favor of its preferred policy goals. Even if this isn’t the case, it appears this way to democracy activists, and bolsters the regime’s propaganda efforts. In the current environment, with political and civil liberties in Russia nearly totally destroyed, the position of the collective West has become extremely important for maintaining the morale of Russia’s pro-democracy forces.

The need for dialogue with Putin on global issues is understandable. But the following simple principles should be adopted: Dialogue should be conditional on Russia making progress on democracy and human rights; the U.S. should take care to avoid the appearance of one-way concessions; and dialogue should be reduced if progress is not made.

If the West proves that its declared principles really mean something and declines to engage in further “resets,” this alone would be tremendously emboldening for democratic forces in our country. If the U.S. does this, there will be little need for it to engage in specific democracy promotion policies in Russia — we’ll do the rest by ourselves.

Lilia Shevtsova

Lilia Shevtsova is the author of Putin’s Russia and a member of the Liberal Mission Foundation.

I am skeptical that the U.S. can help democracy in Russia through engaging robustly with Russian society, when any link with the West is liable to get the recipient of the assistance branded a “foreign agent.” However, the U.S. could be helpful in two other ways.

Firstly, it should address its internal problems and become a role model. Russians watching the rise of Trumpism, the apparent clumsiness of the U.S. lawmaking process and the country’s polarized conflicts hardly find American democracy attractive. Even for Russian liberals, it’s becoming easy to be skeptical of American democracy, as we read books about Trump’s “assault on truth” and watch the country’s democracy ranking slide down Freedom House’s list.

But Biden’s success with his domestic agenda — a form of “American perestroika” — could return the U.S. to its role of being the example to follow, at least among people with democratic convictions. He could appeal to the 40 percent of Russians who, despite confrontational relations between Russia and the U.S., have a positive view of America. Viewed by Russians as the leader of the Western world, America could either undermine or increase, in Russian minds, the attractiveness of democracy and trust in its ability to secure people’s well-being.

Nigeria Yemi Adamolekun

Yemi Adamolekun is executive director of Enough is Enough Nigeria, a nonpartisan network of individuals and organizations committed to building a culture of good governance and public accountability in Nigeria through active citizenship.

How do you fight for rights you do not know you have? Or how do you hold a governance system accountable if you don’t know you can? At the heart of any democratic society is understanding one’s rights and responsibilities within an ecosystem that supports freedom of speech, association and assembly with clear penalties when the rule of law is disregarded. This is not learnt by osmosis; it’s taught. Elementary school students in the U.S. know about the Constitution, can recite the famous “We the people” phrase and recognize its importance. That is not the case in Nigeria. Funding civic education is not sexy, so it tends not to get funded either by private donors or by government agencies like USAID. The Biden administration should fund Nigerian civil society organizations that teach citizens about their rights and responsibilities, especially at the elementary, middle and high school levels, so Nigerians grow up knowing how to function effectively within a democratic society.

India Debasish Roy Chowdhury

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is a journalist and co-author of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage To Despotism.

The India-U.S. relationship has never been about the sweet-sounding “shared values” of democracy, as both sides would like us to believe. It has always been shaped by geopolitics, and will be even more so in the coming years as the U.S.-China decoupling deepens. India has chosen to side with the U.S. in this great divide, incurring the considerable strategic risk of a more hostile China on its border. The last thing it will want in return is lectures on democracy and how to run our country.

But where the U.S. does have a legitimate right to interfere is in matters of civil society organizations operating in India that are linked to or funded by America and its Western allies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has gone to extraordinary lengths to coerce and curb NGOs, both local and foreign. The clampdown on these entities, which have traditionally played an important role in strengthening and upholding democratic rights, is a critical part of the democratic backsliding occurring in India. Modi’s government has severely restricted NGOs' ability to operate in India; it put the Ford Foundation on a watch list, forced Greenpeace to shutter offices in the country; and has gone after Amnesty International via court cases, funding freezes and hounding and harassment of employees. This is an area that is completely within the Biden administration’s rights to push back on, and America will do Indian democracy an immense favor if it does.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is Laurance S. Rockefeller visiting professor for distinguished teaching at Princeton University and senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research Delhi.

Friends of democracy should worry about the presumption that the U.S. can promote and strengthen democracy abroad at all. For Indians, the exemplarity of U.S. democracy has long mattered more than specific democracy-promotion tools. Even though America has always struggled to overcome the original sins of slavery and racism, it was thought of as an example of how to build successful institutions and a successful economy. American institutions were often reference points in thinking about how to develop Indian ones: Court cases routinely cited American Supreme Court precedents; lawmakers even looked with envy at congressional hearings as an example of open and public deliberation.

But advocates of democracy around the world no longer draw strength from these institutions. The failure to protect against the disenfranchisement of many voters; a broken congressional confirmation system; the violent assault on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6; and a racially polarized culture are not good advertisements for democratic institutions. The inspirational power of America’s example is at the lowest it has ever been.

Right now, Indian democracy is struggling, particularly when it comes to civil liberties and the rights of minorities. But these are struggles for Indians to take up. Overt U.S. judgments of Indian democracy will rally nationalist sentiment without achieving any of America’s aims. If democracy is seen as a tool of geopolitics, democracy stands discredited. America’s checkered track record of supporting unsavory regimes has left a distinct impression that U.S. democracy promotion is more about the projection of power. After the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, this hubris is even less defensible. The United States simply does not have the moral authority, power or sincerity of purpose to be a credible champion of democracy worldwide. The only thing it can do for democracy is, as Biden said at his inauguration, to use the power of its example.

Thailand Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

From Thailand’s military-backed royalist conservative regime manipulating the constitution to stay in power, to the Myanmar military’s brutal robbery of democratic rule from its people, to established and emergent authoritarianism around Southeast Asia, democracy in the region appears to be unmistakably in retreat. The best hope ahead is to support younger generations who demand basic rights and freedoms. Young people generally abhor top-down autocratic tendencies because their digitalized lifestyles and affinity for 21st-century upward mobility require self-determination and attendant liberties.

What the United States can do — apart from constantly nurturing and improving its own democracy — is to recognize and promote millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha by providing programmatic support and channels for youth movements to rise up for a better future. Washington should, for instance, support the Milk Tea Alliance, a transnational anti-autocracy movement led by young Asian activists. More generally, the U.S. can find ways to align itself with the young democrats in Thailand, Myanmar and elsewhere who have adopted the three-finger “Hunger Games” salute as a symbol of solidarity. While authoritarian pasts have come back to haunt many societies over the past three decades, the younger generations are the agents who can turn back the tide over the next 30 years. Theirs is a necessarily more open and pro-democracy future.

Brazil Maria Laura Canineu

Maria Laura Canineu is Brazil director at Human Rights Watch.

The United States should use its leverage to try and halt President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-environment policies. The Bolsonaro government has sabotaged the country’s environmental enforcement agencies by cutting budgets, hampering their law-enforcement capacity, and preventing the imposition of fines for environmental crimes. This has effectively given a green light to the criminal networks that drive deforestation (known as “rainforest mafias”) and threaten and attack local communities and authorities who attempt to defend the forests (including Indigenous people). Those responsible for these attacks are rarely brought to justice. The result is a climate of violence and impunity that is antithetical to democratic participation and the rule of law.

The Biden administration should indicate that its support for Brazil’s accession to the OECD and other areas of mutual interest will be tied to the government’s progress in substantially reducing deforestation, taking a clear stand to protect the country’s forest defenders and upholding the rule of law.

Turkey Suat Kiniklioglu

Suat Kiniklioglu is a former member of the Turkish parliament.

The most important thing the U.S. can do to help Turkey’s struggling democracy is not to do anything that could be interpreted as interfering in the domestic political process. Turkey’s political climate has become excessively paranoid and inward-looking. As in many authoritarian states, Turkey’s ruling coalition has succeeded in branding even the slightest foreign influence as a treacherous act, such as when candidate Biden made a seemingly benign reference to supporting the Turkish opposition. The U.S. should recognize that Turkish democracy will have to find its way out through its own internal dynamics, namely elections. No doubt the U.S. should reiterate the principles and norms it values and adheres to. That said, in no way should it be seen as helping or assisting one party or the other domestically.

The Turkish public continues to hold democracy dear, however imperfect our country’s democratic credentials may be right now. Democratic legitimacy only comes through the ballot box. The U.S. should insist on the basic principle of free and fair elections whose outcomes reflect Turkish popular opinion. After that, it is up to the Turkish electorate to decide the country’s future course.

Aslı Aydıntasbas

Aslı Aydıntasbas is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

One way the Biden administration can help Turkey’s democratic development is to be consistent in its messaging and in calling out human rights abuses. A sense of U.S. disregard for democracy during the previous administration has emboldened anti-democratic forces here. The four years under the Trump administration were basically wasted — and even today, despite the Biden administration’s commitment to advancing global democracy, the outreach seems selective and dependent on the temperature of the U.S.-Turkey relationship. The U.S. can — and should — be consistent about calling out Turkey’s flagrant violations, both in public and in private.

Washington should also present President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a reasonable offer that asks him to restore the democratic norms that have faltered in recent years while offering things like financial incentives, a solution to the dispute over S-400 misisles and an offer of NATO solidarity.

Finally, the U.S. cannot replace the Europeans on this matter. But it seems the EU has long given up on Turkey’s democracy. Getting the Europeans to engage seriously with Erdogan, such as on enforcing European Court of Human Rights decisions on the jailings of Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtas, is important but would require much more EU engagement with Ankara. The U.S. should use its leverage to push Europe to be more principled on Turkey — and not reduce human rights to virtue signaling from Brussels.

China Teng Biao

Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer, is currently a Hauser human rights scholar at Hunter College and Pozen visiting professor at the University of Chicago.

The West should stop providing technology to the Chinese censorship and surveillance system, and stop American companies’ complicity in forced labor, genocide and human rights violations in China. China’s internet censorship and control systems have benefited from the enthusiastic assistance of Western technology companies such as Cisco, Nortel, Motorola, Microsoft and Intel. Google tried to launch Project Dragonfly, a search engine complying with the Chinese government’s censorship. Fortunately, that project was canceled. Links to forced labor have been reported in the supply chains and products of Apple, Nike and numerous other Western companies. It is welcome news that the U.S. Congress is looking at legislation to stop Uighur forced labor. It would be greatly helpful for Congress to also pass a law or regulation banning Western companies from providing surveillance or censorship technology and equipment to authoritarian governments.

Ukraine Daria Kaleniuk

Daria Kaleniuk is the executive director of Ukraine’s Anticorruption Action Centre.

The best support the U.S. can provide to democracy in Ukraine, as well as in the world, would be blocking the flow of illicit funds through Western shell companies and forbidding kleptocrats, oligarchs and their associates from traveling to Western countries or accessing their financial systems. The U.S. can do this in two main ways. First, oblige professional services providers like real estate agents, investment fund managers, auditors and lawyers to conduct anti-money laundering due diligence on their clients. I am glad to see that the Biden administration’s recently announced anti-corruption strategy envisions steps precisely along these lines, and hope to see them implemented swiftly. Second, mobilize the U.K., Switzerland, EU members and other Western countries to impose coordinated visa and entry bans for corrupt officials and oligarchs.

When tycoons from Ukraine lose access to the Western financial system; when they can’t purchase expensive real estate in France, Austria and the U.S.; when they can no longer educate their kids in London or ski in Switzerland, the crooks will be forced to revisit their role in sustaining autocratic rule. Oligarchs undermine rule of law, buy politicians, bribe judges, attack democratic institutions, spread anti-democracy propaganda through national TV channels they control and rob the Ukrainian taxpayer through state-subsidized monopolies. Until they can no longer siphon proceeds of this robbery out of Ukraine, these elites will continue to indirectly assist Kremlin hybrid attacks on Ukraine and hold back democratic transformation in our country.

Saudi Arabia Madawi Al-Rasheed and Abdullah Alaoudh

Madawi Al-Rasheed is co-founder and spokesperson for Saudi Arabia’s National Assembly Party and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. Abdullah Alaoudh is the general secretary of NAAS and director of research for the Gulf Region at Democracy for the Arab World Now, which was founded to build on the vision of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The U.S. should, first, stop supporting, arming and protecting the Saudi dictatorship. The primary victim of this protection is the Saudi people — scholars, activists, businessmen and businesswomen, defenders of human rights for women. Second, Washington should open channels with Saudi civil society abroad. Too often, the United States government shapes policy based on manufactured, controlled assessments provided by authoritarian regimes, rather than including the voices of civil society. Since the public sphere in Saudi Arabia itself is completely shut down by the government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the most viable option is to listen to the diverse coalitions of Saudis in exile, who have more freedom to speak openly about the country’s problems.

In this spirit, we founded a political party to call for democracy in Saudi Arabia. We believe that without Western and American support for the tyrannical Saudi system, popular pressure for a more open and democratic country would have succeeded long ago — and will succeed in the future.

Pakistan Umair Javed

Umair Javed is an assistant professor in politics and sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Lahore, Pakistan. He is also a current affairs columnist for Pakistan’s most widely read English language newspaper, Dawn.

Among a range of tangible interventions that the Biden administration can undertake to strengthen Pakistan’s democracy, a particularly important one is providing technical assistance and support to the Election Commission of Pakistan. The ECP is a constitutional body mandated to implement and regulate Pakistan’s electoral laws at the national, provincial and local level. A functional and autonomous ECP is central to the improved health of Pakistan’s democracy and remains a viable defense against extra-constitutional interference in the electoral process — such as manipulation prior to, and on the day of, elections by powerful politicians and sections of the historically interventionist military establishment.

In recent years, the commission has made considerable progress in improving its own capacity to lead electoral reform in areas like inclusion and participation of marginalized segments, enhancing coordination with other parts of Pakistan’s government, and mainstreaming the use of technology for collating and reporting electoral data. There is plenty of room for the United States and international organizations to provide technical assistance to the commission to enhance its technological capacity (especially the use of electronic voting machines) and ensure that women and minorities are reliably able to participate in all stages of the electoral process.

Nicaragua Tamara Taraciuk Broner

Tamara Taraciuk Broner is deputy Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

The Biden administration has responded to the escalation of Nicaragua’s human rights crisis primarily through public statements of concern and targeted sanctions, including visa restrictions, on 36 government officials. These measures send an important message, but they have been insufficient to press Daniel Ortega’s government to make concessions.

For targeted sanctions to be effective, they must be used as a means, not an end. To encourage the Ortega government to release the more than 150 people perceived as regime critics who remain arbitrarily detained, the United States should consider expanding targeted sanctions to Ortega himself and to members of the Nicaraguan military.

The US should not act alone. The RENACER Act, which Biden recently signed into law, calls for increased coordination with other governments to monitor human rights in Nicaragua. The Biden administration should in particular engage governments with close links to Nicaragua, such as Mexico and Argentina, to push Ortega to release the detainees, restore fundamental rights, and hold free and fair elections. However, this collaboration will only be effective if all participants share an accurate assessment of Ortega’s abuses of power, open disregard for checks and balances, and attacks on human rights.

Tunisia Youssef Cherif

Youssef Cherif is a Tunis-based political analyst, director of the Columbia Global Centers | Tunis and a member of Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.

Few Americans realize the outsize role Facebook plays in transmitting information in Tunisia. Most Tunisian politicians prefer to write Facebook posts rather than op-eds to state their positions, and Tunisian ministries and other official agencies use Facebook as their main communication platform. Furthermore, a significant swath of the country’s population and, consequently, its ruling elite, take the news that circulates on Facebook pages and groups at face value. Yet as other examples around the world have repeatedly shown, social media platforms are inundated with misinformation and malign influence. Tunisia is no exception. Local and foreign groups use the platform for many misdeeds, including undermining democracy. Pro-authoritarianism Facebook pages portray human rights campaigners as terrorism advocates simply because they oppose torturing suspected extremists. Or, when democracy activists talk to foreign media about what they see as democratic backsliding, these pages often label those activists as foreign agents. Tunisia has also seen cases of major social media influence operations involving foreign actors attempting to manipulate the political process.

A few initiatives are trying to tackle these issues, but that is not enough. The Biden administration should work with Facebook and other American social media companies to counter this threat, tackle misinformation and foreign meddling, and secure democracy in Tunisia and around the world. This will have a more direct effect than broad statements or unpopular sanctions, because it will change the way the Tunisian people learn about what’s happening in the country.

Iraq Hassan Hadad

Hassan Hadad is the host of the Iraqi Voices podcast.

The one thing the United States can do to support Iraq’s nascent democracy, without costing the American taxpayer a single penny, is to stop supporting undemocratic political figures in Iraq. These politicians receive political or financial support from the United States under the pretext of countering Iran. Since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, the U.S. has consistently backed the Sadrist Movement, which makes up a part of the coalition government in Baghdad. It has also backed the two largest political parties that make up the Kurdistan Regional Government in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, both of whom are clear human rights violators and have little tolerance for dissent. Under the pretext of supporting Iraqi efforts to combat ISIS, the U.S. provided millions of dollars in aid to the political party -affiliated militias known as the Peshmerga. Meanwhile, the U.S. now sees the Sadrists as a group they can do business with.

This policy of supporting those who counter Iran, despite their own clear track record of working against the establishment of democratic institutions, is shortsighted. Moreover, it will stunt the growth of democratic cornerstones, like civil society organizations and a skeptical and free press. Most recently, we have seen the Peshmerga violently suppress protests in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Viewing Iraq from the angle of Iran, our neighbor and economic partner, is not helpful to Iraq or the region. Instead, America should invest in building democratic institutions working with genuine democratic actors.

Hungary Zselyke Csaky

Zselyke Csaky is Freedom House’s research director for Europe and Eurasia. These recommendations are adapted from the author’s testimony before the congressional Commission on Security in Europe in November.

First, the U.S. should make use of its historical ties and leverage in Central Europe and speak out firmly against the spread of autocracy, while maintaining dialogue with partners there. The United States should also support the European Commission’s efforts to address democratic erosion—such as the deployment of the “conditionality mechanism,” which links access to EU funds to respecting the rule of law.

Second, help foster resilience in the civic sector. A healthy civil society works as the first line of defense against autocracy. The United States should provide trainings on professionalization and sustainable business models; facilitate peer-to-peer learning between local and international civil society; and incentivize the philanthropic community to support civil society organizations, including with core funding.

Third, continue supporting free and independent media. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is doing vital work exposing underreported stories and explaining new developments in Hungary. The U.S. should also take steps to ensure that Hungary’s model for controlling the media does not take root in Poland and other countries that are vulnerable to authoritarian trends. This can be done through vocally defending media pluralism and by speaking out against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, which seek to censor, intimidate, and silence critical voices. Ultimately, it is up to the Hungarian electorate to change the situation, but the United States can be a force for good if it helps to reinvigorate support for fundamental values through a long-term, strategic commitment in the region.

United States Ambassador Nina Hachigian and Heather Hurlburt

Ambassador Nina Hachigian is the first deputy mayor for international affairs for the City of Los Angeles. Heather Hurlburt directs the New Models of Policy Change Initiative at New America.

Advocates and lawmakers are frustrated at how difficult it has been to shore up U.S. democratic institutions at the national level. While the federal effort to address voting rights, election administration and other challenges is vital, the Biden administration and friends of democratic institutions can use the president’s democracy summit as a chance to look beyond elections and take steps to rebuild the foundations on which democratic institutions rest — effective, representative governance in people’s everyday lives.

National governments are responsible for only a small fraction of the experience people have with democratic governance. City leaders are essential partners in consolidating and sustaining democracy, and serving as democratic reserves where authoritarianism is ascendant.

America’s cities have tasted this struggle. The last presidential administration rallied against cities, removed funding and put restrictions on key programs. But cities nevertheless handled the assault of Covid, implemented climate projects and welcomed international collaboration and visitors.

City governments can build relationships of trust with residents that can resist even the most deeply polarized national politics. When cities (and towns and counties) deliver what residents need in a transparent, accountable and efficient way, they demonstrate the benefits of democracy. To play this role, cities need resources like those in the Build Back Better package currently before Congress. They need technology and techniques for civic participation, like participatory budgeting, as well as networks to share best practices and resources and to build political power. The Biden administration should support America’s mayors in developing an explicit democracy agenda here at home; make it easier for city and community leaders to access and influence democracy programming; and open an office of City and State Diplomacy at the State Department to support local democracy globally.

Old foes thwart Biden’s foreign policy pivot

President Joe Biden wants to pivot U.S. foreign policy to the future but has not yet been able to shake the past.

Biden took office early this year promising a new era for the United States on the world stage, casting aside the tumultuous Trump years in favor of rebuilding alliances and, above all, proving that democracies could still deliver for their citizens and blunt the rise of global autocracies. His clear premise: That going forward, the United States’ foreign policy would be centered on competition with the world’s other superpower, China.

But the administration has had to contend with the world it inherited, a challenge underscored this week when it was forced to address saber-rattling by a longtime foe, Vladimir Putin. Putin’s emboldened aggression prompted Biden to stage a virtual meeting with his Russian counterpart in an effort to de-escalate the growing tensions at the Ukraine border.

Withdrawing troops from Afghanistan ended the nation’s longest war, one conducted by three U.S. presidents, but the military exit created harrowing images of violence and fear that shook the faith of allies and Americans alike in the administration’s competence. Efforts to restart the Iran nuclear deal, scuttled by Biden’s predecessor, are on the verge of collapse. And the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant that quickly raced around the globe underscored that the pandemic was as much of a national security crisis as a health one, restarting loud cries for the U.S. to step to the forefront in the effort to vaccinate the world.

“You can’t always get to determine what you focus on. You sometimes get to shape your agenda,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “but sometimes others get to shape it.”

The new president’s team has doggedly tried to push forth with its agenda: Biden has made a pair of trips to Europe to strengthen ties with allies and pledge cooperation to combat climate change. On Monday, the White House announced a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Olympics as a protest to human rights abuses in China. And the president on Thursday launches a two-day Summit for Democracy meant to rally free nations, which has already drawn the ire of Beijing.

But privately, White House aides have portrayed 2021 as a “rebuilding year,” a moment to repair the damage caused by former President Donald Trump’s agenda which prioritized competition with allies and often turned a blind eye to power grabs by autocrats.

"National security challenges and crises are inevitable in every administration. It’s how you deal with them that matters,” National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement. “That’s why we’ve spent so much of this first year investing in our sources of strength at home, repairing and renewing our alliances, and putting diplomacy back at the core of our foreign policy.”

Biden was vice president when then-President Barack Obama’s administration looked to “pivot to Asia,” and while Biden’s White House has chosen different nomenclature, it’s clear that it also wants to prioritize economic and strategic competition with China. With the Trump administration often choosing to pull back from the world, Beijing stepped into the void, shoring up economic ties with Europe and throwing tens of billions of dollars at a massive infrastructure outreach program across Africa and Asia.

Since Biden’s election, China has only grown as a threat both economic — complaints about the nation’s trade and intellectual property practices are a rare bipartisan activity in Washington — and political, with Beijing ramping up pressure on Taiwan and virtually eliminating any vestiges of independent democracy in Hong Kong. And China refused to initially cooperate with international scientists at the outset of the pandemic and later stonewalled U.S. efforts to investigate the origin of the virus.

White House aides and allies, however, point to a growing rift between Europe and China as proof that Washington's traditional alliances are healing.

“President Biden has made steady and substantial progress and has reversed a lot of the damage done by his predecessor,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and is a close Biden ally. “And importantly, he has rallied our allies together — allies that China does not have — which is why I like our chances this century.”

But Biden has not fully been able to focus on China as he hoped. The pandemic has curtailed his plans to travel overseas regularly. A possible trip to Asia this fall was scrapped due to the rise of the Delta variant, although Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin both traveled to Asia in the last month, and Vice President Kamala Harris did so over the summer.

Familiar rivals, Putin chief among them, have also returned once more as thorns in the United States’ side.

“President Biden came into office and the administration emphasized that finally the adults are in charge, but in geography after geography, we have seen nothing but challenges,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. “He has not inspired much confidence in our allies.”

White House aides had hoped they could dispatch with Putin at a summer summit in Geneva, where Biden, in a marked break from his predecessor, made clear that military aggression and election interference would not be tolerated. But the Russian leader has shown no inclination to curtail the ransomware attacks that often originate from his nation’s soil and in recent weeks has mobilized a surge of troops to the border of Ukraine, sparking fears of an invasion.

Biden warned Putin in a virtual summit on Tuesday that an incursion into Ukraine would result in significant economic sanctions on Moscow but said that sending U.S. forces to the region was “not on the table.” The two nations appear to be at an impasse, with little sign that Putin will withdraw the forces, guaranteeing that tensions would remain high at the border and sparking fears that a conflict could erupt accidentally.

To this point, Western leaders have stood in lockstep with Biden in the standoff. But Biden must convince other European capitals uncertain whether to believe his declaration that the United States is once more a reliable partner. With Trump pondering another campaign, it is not yet clear which president is the aberration.

The conduct of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan also strained traditional alliances in Europe.

Politicians in Britain, France and Germany all criticized the administration’s decision making and complained bitterly that they weren’t adequately consulted.

Biden’s decision to end the U.S. military presence by September, and his determination to stick to that timeline even after the country began to collapse, is reflective of the administration’s foreign policy mechanics, more broadly.

Ultimately, it comes down to Biden’s judgment. The president is supremely confident in his experience, after spending years traveling the globe while on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and overseeing a vast foreign policy portfolio as vice president. He still carries himself like a senator, surrounded by staffers not prone to challenging the boss.

On Afghanistan, Biden maintained what he had been arguing for a decade: The war’s primary mission — to rout al Qaeda — had been achieved and it would be wrong to ask another American parent to lose a son or daughter to that war. He overruled the concerns of Blinken and Austin, both of whom had counseled a slower drawdown.

Still, Horne said the experience of Biden’s senior foreign policy staff, many of whom served in the Obama administration, remains a major asset for the White House. “We’ve built a battle-tested national security team that has dealt with these kinds of crises for many years,” she said. “That’s why, when challenges inevitably arise, the Biden Administration is prepared to handle them effectively while also moving forward an ambitious national security agenda that advances America’s interests and defends our values.”

Progressives get rolled on Pentagon policy

Democrats had big plans this year when they took full control of Washington, D.C. — before political reality got in the way. For proof, look no further than this year's Pentagon policy bill.

The compromise National Defense Authorization Act that lawmakers are poised to send to President Joe Biden as soon as this week includes several wins for conservatives, and more than a few losses for the left.

Bipartisan provisions requiring women to register for the draft, cracking down on Saudi Arabia and imposing sanctions on Russia were nixed; legislation repealing outdated Iraq war authorizations fell by the wayside; reforms to the military justice system and efforts to combat extremism in the ranks were pared back; and a proposal to give Washington, D.C., control of its National Guard was dropped.

Democrats hold power in the House, Senate and White House for the first time in more than a decade, yet the high-profile defense bill got more GOP votes than from Biden’s own party. As progressive lawmakers made their dissatisfaction with the bill's high price tag clear, centrist Democrats knew they needed Republican support to pass the House and Senate.

That dynamic underscores the disconnect between the sky-high expectations for Democrats and the reality of their ultra-slim majorities in Congress, which have often required them to get buy-in from Republicans in order to approve high-profile legislation.

“Historically, the defense bill has not been a vehicle for progressive change. And I think that holds here,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the upper chamber’s chief deputy whip. “This is a function of the 50-50 Senate, and the filibuster existing.”

And the GOP is emboldened enough to dig in hard from the minority: Republicans blocked a package of amendment votes last week, forcing House and Senate negotiators to work out a consensus version of the defense bill to ensure it could pass by year’s end — a benchmark that Congress has almost always met.

Republicans were particularly elated that negotiators removed gun-control language from the bill, boosted the top-line spending number by $25 billion for a total of $740 billion for the Pentagon and prohibited troops from being dishonorably discharged solely for refusing the Covid-19 vaccine.

“There were several real sticks of dynamite that were defused,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), an Armed Services Committee member. “And I’m glad we substantially increased Biden’s defense proposal on a bipartisan basis.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who typically votes against the annual defense bill, slammed the compromise package for its “failure to include a robust response to sexual violence and to deal with extremism in the military.”

“And I’m concerned about what got left in, and that is an additional $25 billion in defense spending that the White House didn’t even ask for,” Warren said in a brief interview. “I think both of those are wrong.”

GOP lawmakers cheered the final product — namely what was dropped from the compromise.

“I worked closely with my colleagues to strip out several radical progressive priorities," said Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.).

And Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), a member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, applauded the GOP negotiators for their efforts to “remove the poison pills that, as a staunch conservative, I could never support.”

The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, touted that "there is much in this bill for conservatives."

The House passed the defense compromise late Tuesday in a blowout 363-70 vote, with 194 Republicans and 169 Democrats backing it. That’s over 90 percent of the GOP Conference and just three-quarters of the Democratic Caucus. It’s also a shift from when the House passed its own bill in September, when significantly more Democrats than Republicans backed the legislation.

Ahead of the bill’s passage in the House on Tuesday evening, Republicans cheered the exclusion of the draft expansion, a proposed Pentagon office to combat extremism and a “red flag” provision GOP lawmakers argued would threaten troops’ Second Amendment rights.

While many Democrats, particularly progressives, may have had higher hopes for their majorities shaping national security policy, the reality was much harsher. Democrats’ narrow majorities limited what they could ultimately get in a final defense agreement that could pass both chambers.

When asked about the criticisms from progressives, Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) replied: “I think it’s a great bill.”

House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) urged lawmakers to focus on the many provisions that made it into the bill rather than what didn't make the cut.

“It’s a good bill. It's not perfect. Every single person has something in it they don't like and something that didn't get in it that they wished had,” Smith said Tuesday. “And we managed to get a deal together that I think creates an outstanding piece of legislation that upholds our responsibility … as a Congress.”

With just an eight-vote majority in the House and a large group of progressives who vote against the legislation's high price tag each year, Democratic leaders needed GOP votes to clear their own version of the bill in September as well as the final agreement.

Republicans held an even bigger trump card in the 50-50 Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass legislation. That hurdle ultimately spelled doom for Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s efforts to pass the Senate’s own bill when Republicans stalled the legislation last week amid a dispute over amendment votes. Many of those amendments, if adopted, would have made the bill more amenable to progressives.

Progressive lawmakers in the House and Senate this year pushed to hold the line on defense spending and even exact cuts to the Pentagon budget and redirect the savings to other pressing needs.

Yet other Democrats sided with a Republican push to boost Biden’s defense request by $25 billion aimed at matching China’s military gains and outpacing rising inflation.

Advocates of more sweeping changes to the military justice system also felt left in the lurch. The final bill includes changes that would transfer decisions to prosecute sex crimes and related offenses — such as kidnapping, manslaughter and murder — to special prosecutors outside of the military chain of command.

But it falls short of the overhaul pursued by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would have transferred decisions involving all major crimes.

Gillibrand slammed Armed Services leaders for going against the lawmakers who backed the bipartisan proposal.

“The majority of our colleagues have recognized that our bill has the support of a bipartisan, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a majority in the House,” Gillibrand said. “But the will of those members was ignored in the NDAA, where committee leaders stripped out reforms from the bill behind closed doors, despite assurances that they would follow regular order.”

Even Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) — who successfully lobbied against the provision requiring women to register for the draft — lamented that the negotiators “stripped the guts out of the sexual assault provisions.”

“It’s amazing that you can have the kind of support for a provision that Kirsten has worked to get so hard, with bipartisan support, and yet DoD, every time, succeeds in just gutting it,” Hawley said. The Defense Department supported the narrower proposal.

Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), a House Armed Services Committee member, opposed the compromise bill after it dropped the wholesale military justice change and his proposal to establish a Pentagon office of countering extremism.

“At a time when Democrats control the House, the Senate and the Executive Branch, it is an unconscionable failure to deliver a National Defense Authorization Act that does not meet the values of equity and justice for which we have long strived or a bill that does not meaningfully protect the foundations of our democracy,” Brown said.

The sentiment was echoed by a trio of House Democrats spanning the ideological spectrum — Reps. Ro Khanna of California, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Gerry Connolly of Virginia — who came out against the final defense bill after several provisions taking aim at Saudi Arabia were left out. While the opposition from Khanna, a progressive, was not necessarily a surprise, Malinowski and Connolly trend more moderate.

The group took aim at “a small group of senators” whom they said “exercised a veto over these measures.”

"Our relationship with Saudi Arabia will not be improved if every time its rulers defy U.S. concerns, we take it upon ourselves to sweep those concerns under the rug; the burden of maintaining this relationship must be more equally shared," the three lawmakers said in a statement.

Jan. 6 investigators' new challenge: Trump allies pleading the Fifth

Witnesses seeking to evade testimony to the Jan. 6 committee may have landed on their most potent strategy: Pleading the Fifth.

In recent days, three witnesses with ties to Donald Trump have signaled they intend to invoke their constitutional right against self-incrimination. They include John Eastman, the attorney who helped lead a campaign pressuring Mike Pence to block Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory; Jeffrey Clark, the Justice Department lawyer whom Trump considered installing as acting attorney general to support his effort to subvert the election; and Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant.

Pro-Trump broadcaster and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones recently said on his web show that he’d likely plead the Fifth to the Capitol riot committee as well, though his attorney has repeatedly declined to comment on his plans.

Their assertions are the latest, and perhaps stiffest, test for the Jan. 6 committee as it seeks to penetrate the former president’s inner circle and piece together his actions during the chaotic closing weeks of his term. Eastman, Clark and Stone are among those who were closest to Trump as he sought to overturn the 2020 election, with some physically just blocks away as a mob of supporters overran Capitol Police and threatened the peaceful transfer of power.

Legal experts say the committee has few options once a witness pleads the Fifth — and the choices they do have are risky or impractical.

“It is a concerning development,” said Barb McQuade, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. “I think we are seeing more use of the Fifth Amendment privilege because it is an unqualified privilege. Executive privilege must yield to a greater national interest. Attorney-client privilege has an exception for communications made in the perpetration of a crime or fraud. The Fifth Amendment privilege does not have those exceptions.”

The Jan. 6 panel has threatened to hold Clark in contempt for his refusal to cooperate, and its chair, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), has suggested he’s doubtful Clark’s Fifth Amendment claim has merit.

“This is, in my view, a last-ditch attempt to delay the Select Committee’s proceedings,” Thompson said last week just before the panel voted to hold Clark in contempt of Congress. “However, a Fifth Amendment privilege assertion is a weighty one.”

But experts say the Justice Department is less likely to race to the committee’s rescue than when it indicted Trump ally Steve Bannon for contempt of Congress. Bannon refused to show up in response to a subpoena, claiming his testimony was barred by executive privilege; however, his claim was so dubious that prosecutors say it amounted to criminal defiance.

That’s a harder case to make when a witness shows up and asserts a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

“I actually think Bannon’s the only guy they’re going to end up indicting,” said Sol Wisenberg, a deputy independent counsel who worked on the Clinton-era Whitewater investigation, adding that an indictment after pleading the Fifth would be "frivolous."

For now, the committee has been content to emphasize Trump allies' extraordinary acknowledgment, by asserting their right against self-incrimination, that some of their actions related to the 2020 election may have crossed the line into criminality — even if it carries no legal weight.

“It’s remarkable that so many people in Donald Trump’s orbit apparently believe that if they testify they may expose themselves to criminal prosecution,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).

At its core, the Fifth Amendment is intended to protect witnesses who have a genuine fear they could be prosecuted for testimony they offer. Legally, courts have emphasized that pleading the Fifth is meant to shield innocent people as well as the guilty, so long as they have a legitimate basis to believe they could face prosecution.

In matters connected to the Jan. 6 committee, some experts say the reason for that fear is obvious: Eastman, Clark and Stone have been publicly accused of crimes by elected officials. All three have maintained their innocence, despite plans to plead the Fifth.

The committee’s options for circumventing a Fifth Amendment assertion are extremely limited. One path would involve offering a form of immunity that would prevent a witness’ testimony from being used by prosecutors in any future criminal proceeding. Thompson said Monday that immunity was among the tools the committee could consider to compel another former Trump aide, Mark Meadows, to provide information to the panel.

Legal experts say this is an unlikely path, though, since offering immunity could derail any investigation into criminal activity that the committee reveals.

“You’re basically insulating them from prosecution,” Wisenberg said.

That’s what happened when Congress allowed Oliver North, a key player in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra Affair, to testify with immunity. Although North was convicted of three felonies related to his role, an appeals court later vacated the verdict because judges found witnesses against him were influenced by his immunized testimony.

Another option for the Jan. 6 panel is to file a civil contempt lawsuit and seek a judge’s review of the witness’ claim, but that could be a protracted effort at a time the committee is racing against a dwindling calendar. And it might not work.

“Courts will be reluctant to order witnesses to testify … if there is any potential for prosecution,” McQuade said.

A third option that some committee members — and other House Democrats — have floated is the concept of “inherent contempt.” That’s a process by which Congress bypasses the Justice Department and simply arrests or fines any recalcitrant witness. But House General Counsel Douglas Letter has made clear for years that this option is not realistic to pursue. It hasn’t been deployed in a century and it could lend itself to dangerous abuses in a body that is inherently political.

One prominent Washington criminal defense attorney suggested that the committee maximize its leverage by making witnesses plead the Fifth in public.

“I suspect the specter of claiming the right against self-incrimination in a televised session would be a deterrent,” said William Jeffress, who represented Richard Nixon after he left the White House.

For now, lawmakers on the Jan. 6 committee emphasize that they’ve pieced together an intricate narrative about Trump’s actions even without the cooperation of his key allies, who were always likely to resist.

“For every one who may not want to talk to us, there are dozens [who do] and a lot of connections we continue to make in the investigation,” said panel member Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.).

The committee claims to have interviewed 275 witnesses and fielded willing cooperation from key aides to the former president and Pence. The panel has pieced together many of Clark’s movements through testimony from former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, whom Trump considered ousting from the Justice Department in December. Rosen sat down with the committee for an interview in mid-October.

Thompson’s comments on the Fifth Amendment caused a flare-up with Meadows, the former Trump chief of staff who has not asserted his Fifth Amendment rights. Speaking to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow about Clark last week, Thompson said that when a witness pleads the Fifth, “in some instances that says you are part and parcel, guilty to what occurred.”

Meadows’ attorney, George Terwilliger, cited Thompson’s comment as a basis for reneging on a cooperation agreement with the committee, saying it “calls into question for us what we had hoped would be the Select Committee’s commitment to fundamental fairness.” But Thompson pushed back in a letter on Wednesday, calling Terwilliger’s concern “not an accurate characterization” of Thompson’s position on the Fifth Amendment.

“The Select Committee is trying to ascertain facts that place the January 6th attack on the Capitol in context, not conduct a law enforcement inquiry,” Thompson said.

Another eye-popping inflation reading is ahead. Next year could look very different.

Republicans have pounded Democrats for months over spiking gasoline and grocery costs, a phenomenon they’ve dubbed “Bidenflation.” By the time next year’s elections roll around, that line of attack may lose its punch.

Prices of everything from oil and natural gas to wheat and corn have already started falling from their peaks earlier this year. That trend is likely to continue in 2022, lowering gas prices and stabilizing food costs for consumers, a potential boon for President Joe Biden’s party as it seeks to maintain control of Congress.

For now, consumer prices are still a hot issue, with the government on Friday expected to report another month of decades-high inflation — and the problem won’t disappear next year. Shipping delays that have driven up prices of products like cars and furniture, paired with slow-moving but longer-lasting cost increases such as rent, could spur the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates and curb economic activity. But the prices felt most acutely by voters could be telling a better story for Democrats heading into the midterms.

“The politically relevant part of inflation is almost the exact opposite of the economically relevant part that the Fed is focused on,” said Jason Furman, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School who was a top official in the Obama administration. “People care about the prices they pay, and especially the prices they pay most frequently and most transparently, which are gasoline and food.”

The White House has already started to seize on the sizable drop in crude oil prices that began in late October, sparked by a global boost in production and fears about the Omicron variant of the coronavirus that might dampen demand for travel. The administration has also cited its own decision to release 50 million barrels of oil from U.S. reserves.

“Gas prices are down somewhat,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain tweeted on Wednesday. “They are projected to come down more...”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration this week projected that gasoline prices will decline to an average $2.88 per gallon next year, down from $3.39 in November.

Still, Americans are growing increasingly worried about inflation, with 56 percent saying it’s causing them a financial strain and more than half citing food and gas costs, according to a Wall Street Journal poll this week.

Republicans have used that concern so relentlessly to criticize Biden’s big-spending plans — Sen. Rick Scott of Florida called the issue a “gold mine” for the party — that White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has accused them of “rooting for inflation.”

“Look at what inflation’s doing: It’s not hurting the rich, it’s hurting the poorest families when they’re struggling to fill up their cars, put food on the table, afford a house,” Scott said on Fox News this week.

The biggest factor that could prove Republicans right about overall inflation would be a renewed surge in energy prices next spring and summer that goes above the levels of recent months.

But oil prices have likely peaked, barring unforeseen shocks, said Al Salazar, vice president of intelligence at energy analytics firm Enverus. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is ramping up production, which will put downward pressure on prices, and major economies are turning to other energy sources to meet their heating costs for the winter, which could also be warmer than previously expected.

“We have all this supply coming online and demand seasonally gets weaker, and then we have Omicron on top of that,” Salazar said. “We’ll probably get some restrictions, in terms of travel, and that leads to a natural surplus.”

In the second half of next year, prices could come back up somewhat, but “I really don’t think you’ll have prices that are high” given how much supply there’s expected to be, including from U.S. oil producers, he added.

Crude oil was trading at about $72 a barrel midweek, down from its late October peak of $84, though still higher than the $59 price in December 2019 before the pandemic hit.

Salazar said he expects that prices next year could hover in the low $70 to upper $60 range, which would ultimately translate to a drop in the cost of gas; prices at the pump lag those of crude by no more than a month or two.

Greater production globally could also bring down the prices of key crops like corn and wheat. The U.S. is a major exporter of food, so the more other countries produce — or the more supply chain delays keep perishable goods in the domestic market — the more commodity prices drop.

“We had our strongest prices back in May, June, July of this year,” said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. “On the crop side, even as I look at the livestock side, we see prices easing there.”

Corn, for example, was trading around $5.85 per bushel midweek, compared to a high of $7.72 in May, though still much higher than the $3.66 price before the pandemic. But markets are betting on that downward trend to continue over the next couple of years.

The relief from those steady decreases might not be as dramatic for consumers. “Food prices are sticky, so they love to go up, but they hate to go down, whereas commodity prices can move very rapidly in both directions,” Hart said. He added that food prices also include costs from packaging and storing to shipping and marketing.

But lower crop prices could prevent grocery prices from rising much next year compared to sharp increases this year, he said.

A looming question, particularly for the Fed, is how much price spikes in other sectors of the economy will continue. Rent, the largest portion of most tenants’ monthly expenses, has begun pushing up overall inflation, and that dynamic is expected to persist for years. Meanwhile, central bank officials are also seeing businesses more emboldened to raise prices, reporting anecdotes where “strong demand generally allowed firms to raise prices with little pushback.”

Still, a decrease in commodity prices across the board — from steel to cotton — could help bring down overall inflation readings because they’re critical to so many goods.

Skanda Amarnath, executive director at the worker advocacy group Employ America, said the trend might also suggest other reasons to be optimistic about the outlook for prices, if it indicates that supply chain issues are beginning to get resolved.

“Next year, we’ll be more mature in the recovery with less fiscal boost,” he said. “Growth will be slower next year, and at the same time you’re seeing that there are pretty tangible pieces of evidence that production capacity, particularly in Asia, is likely to improve. The signals you’re getting from commodity prices seem consistent with the story of healing.”

Spanberger stranded as Virginia nears new congressional map

Virginia’s new potential congressional map would give Democrats a fighting chance to hang onto their current share of seven of the state’s 11 districts, but it erases the suburban Richmond district of one of the party's rising stars: second-term Rep. Abigail Spanberger.

The draft, crafted by two special masters appointed by the state Supreme Court and released on Wednesday, largely preserves Virginia's current political split. There still are four deep-red seats, six Democratic-leaning seats and one sharply contested swing district, currently held by Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria.

“It looks like a status quo kind of map, consistent with the partisan divide of the state,” said Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, the dean of the delegation, who represents Hampton Roads. “The lines look a little more compact and contiguous, so the numbers speak for themselves.”

The parties' fortunes likely won't change if these lines are adopted: Republicans will still be underdogs in a majority of the blue-leaning state's districts, except in a wave election. But some Democrats are frustrated with how the mapmakers handled the three women in the delegation: Spanberger, Luria and Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton.

Spanberger is the only incumbent left without a home. She currently represents the 7th District but was grouped with GOP Rep. Rob Wittman in the new, red-leaning 1st District. The new 7th District, meanwhile, heavily favors Democrats but is nestled in the suburbs of northern Virginia, roughly an hour or so north of Spanberger’s home in Glen Allen.

Walking to the House Chamber for a vote on Wednesday night, Spanberger declined to comment on the new map and said she was focused on serving her current constituents.

Besides Spanberger, the next most affected incumbents are Luria and Wexton, whose northern Virginia district would become significantly more competitive. It does still favors Democrats, though, according to an aggregation of election results over the past four years provided by the special masters. Wexton keeps her home county of Loudoun but picks up a huge swath of new territory to the south.

Luria, meanwhile, will have the most competitive district in the state, though her seat would get slightly less Democratic.

“I think the most obvious thing is it seems to be very hurtful for the three Virginia women,” said Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, reflecting on the map. “I know we're not supposed to have elected officials pick their voters, but it is unfortunate the way they're drawn that incumbents like Abigail Spanberger, who had a difficult district to begin with, is tossed in a completely different district.”

The map was drawn by two special masters, Sean Trende, the GOP’s pick, and Bernard Grofman, the Democratic choice. They submitted their plan to the state Supreme Court — which was charged with drawing the map after a newly created independent commission was mired in dysfunction — with a memorandum detailing their effort to operate in “an apolitical and nonpartisan manner.”

“These maps reflect a true joint effort on our part,” they wrote. “We agreed on almost all issues initially, and the few issues on which we initially disagreed were resolved by amicable discussion.”

If the court approves this map, it will lock in the House battlegrounds ahead of what is expected to be a hotly contested battle for the majority. Republicans would have two targets — the same number as under the old lines — though Wexton's district would come back onto the map.

Wexton currently holds a Northern Virginia seat that Joe Biden carried by 20 points, but the proposed new district takes in a swath of counties that previously fell in Spanberger’s district. That could earn her some of Spanberger’s current challengers, like state Del. Nick Freitas, who lost narrowly to Spanberger in 2020.

Wexton was first elected in 2018 after winning a crowded Democratic primary that perhaps proved more challenging than her landslide victory against then-GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock. Wexton is a member of the New Democrat Coalition, a moderate group.

But it’s Spanberger who finds herself in the trickiest spot. Without major changes to this map, she will have to choose between running against Wittman in a red seat or moving to the new 7th District. (She could also vie against Wexton for the new 10th District, which took in some of her turf.)

The new 7th District, anchored by Prince William County, would be significantly more Democratic than her current district. But it will also likely draw a slew of other interested Democrats who currently live within its boundaries. Democrat Ann Wheeler, who replaced firebrand conservative Corey Stewart as the chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, is interested in the district, according to a source familiar with her plans.

State Del. Elizabeth Guzman is also considering a run, according to a person close to her. She could be the first Latina to represent Virginia in Congress. Another possible candidate: state Del. Hala Ayala, who represents the county and recently lost a bid for lieutenant governor.

Spanberger splashed onto the political scene in 2018, beating Republican Dave Brat, a House Freedom Caucus member best known for felling then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor four years earlier. She quickly became a leading voice of the Democratic moderates — a faction that she watched shrink in the last election. A member of the Blue Dog Coalition, the Virginia Democrat has shown a willingness to buck party leaders over issues such as fiscal policy, immigration and national security.

As she works to protect swing seats like her own, Spanberger has also at times been a vocal critic of her own party’s messaging strategy. After more than a dozen of her centrist colleagues were wiped out last November, the Virginia Democrat critiqued her party’s direction on cultural issues, including the "Defund the Police" movement.

Republicans are ascendant in Virginia after the 2021 elections, winning the governorship and control of the state House. But Democrats would likely still have been able to draw the new congressional lines this year had they not ceded control to a redistricting commission.

That group, made of politicians and citizens, failed to produce a map and was rife with partisan bickering. Much of the Virginia Democratic delegation predicted that outcome from the start and warned that redistricting would then revert to the Republican-leaning state Supreme Court.

In an interview, Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) expressed hope that the court could still tweak the map. “I think there could be improvements,” he said, name-checking the new 7th District as well as the new version of seats held by Wexton and Luria. “I think they could be drawn better.”

McEachin, who is set to continue representing a Richmond-based seat under the new lines, said its a misnomer to suggest the state's Supreme Court skewed toward the GOP: "They're not partisan in nature. I mean, I know them personally."

Heather Caygle, Sarah Ferris and Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.

Senate issues rebuke of Biden's workplace vaccine mandate

The Senate issued a high-profile rebuke of President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate on large businesses Wednesday night, in a largely symbolic vote to get rid of a key component of the administration's Covid-19 response.

Democrats Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) joined all the Republicans present in the 52-48 vote after critics assailed the mandate as an example of federal overreach and dismissed its option of weekly testing for workers who refuse to get shots as an insufficient accommodation.

Lawmakers employed a mechanism called the Congressional Review Act that offers a fast track for wiping out administrative rules. A companion petition in the House is still short of the 218 signatures needed to force a floor vote, and the White House has already promised to veto any disapproval measure that clears Congress. However, Wednesday's vote highlighted the ongoing challenges the administration faces in its attempts to end the pandemic and the deep divisions on Capitol Hill and around the country on how best to do so.

The vaccine mandate on businesses with more than 100 employees is already being challenged in court, but Republicans said they wanted to use the legislative maneuver rather than let the judicial process play out. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), the leader of the Senate petition, called the Biden administration’s rule “government in overdrive,” while Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) likened it to “authoritarianism” — even as they and other Republicans stressed that they personally support getting vaccinated.

“Hi, I’m Mike and I’m pro-vaccine,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) joked to reporters at a Wednesday press conference. “But I’m anti-mandate because I’m pro-worker.”

Most Democrats blasted the repeal effort as “ridiculous” and “anti-science,” and warned it would prolong the pandemic and facilitate the emergence of new Covid variants.

“The biggest thing standing between us and the end of the pandemic is Americans who have refused to get vaccinated,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday. “The worst thing we can do is to tie our own hands behind our backs.”

Yet the Republican minority successfully forced the vote with the backing of Manchin and Tester, two centrist Democrats who expressed concern about the mandate’s impact on businesses back in their states.

The parallel House effort has the unanimous backing of the chamber’s Republicans. Rep. Fred Keller (R-Pa.), who is leading the petition, said the GOP caucus is confident it can peel off enough Democratic defections from lawmakers in swing districts and is aiming for a vote in January, though an aide for the New Democrat Coalition of House moderates said they know of no members who are considering backing the bill.

“This is a measure that has us standing with the American people,” Keller told POLITICO in a phone interview. “They’ve done the right thing during the pandemic and we trust they can continue to do that without a mandate.”

The Biden administration pointed to the recent success of mandates in the military, federal agencies and some large corporations in pushing vaccination rates well over 90 percent, and cited the backing of the Business Roundtable and several major labor unions.

Earlier this week, the White House poured cold water on the GOP gambit.

“If it comes to the president’s desk, he will veto it,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. She added of the rule in question: “It’s based on a 50-year-old law, and we are confident in our ability to implement it.”

No matter what comes of the effort, Republicans made it clear they will keep fighting the administration's Covid measures, despite mounting virus cases and predictions of a difficult winter.

Critics of the private sector mandate in particular argue it will hurt companies already struggling with worker shortages, mass resignations and other pandemic stressors.

“We've been hearing a lot from our businesses,” Tester said in an interview ahead of the vote. "I still think the [mandates for] the military, hospitals, government contractors — that's different."

Braun’s office said the senator has received more calls from constituents about this issue than any other from his two years in office.

Pointing to recent court rulings blocking other vaccine mandates imposed by the Biden administration, opponents of the rule also argue it’s unconstitutional.

“I agree with the 5th Circuit Court — the federal government doesn’t have the authority,” Keller said.

Defense team rests in Elizabeth Holmes fraud trial

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Fallen entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes has finished her attempt to persuade a jury that she suffered lapses in business judgment but never engaged in fraud while running blood-testing startup Theranos.

Her defense lawyers rested their case Wednesday shortly after she walked off the witness stand.

That gave Holmes the final say among the more than 30 witnesses who testified in a high-profile trial that began three months ago in the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s the same locale where Holmes became a media sensation before Theranos collapsed in ruins amid evidence that its ballyhooed blood-testing technology was dangerously flawed.

U.S. District Judge Edward Davila recessed the trial for a week to allow time for refining the instructions to the jury in a complicated case what began 3 1/2 years ago with Holmes’ indictment on multiple counts of fraud. If convicted, she could be sentenced 20 years in prison.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Dec. 16-17. Depending on the duration of those arguments, the jury could get the case late in the day of Dec. 17 and continue deliberations during the week of Dec. 20.

The abrupt end of the defense’s case came as somewhat of a surprise. Holmes’ lawyers had indicated that they might call on a psychologist to discuss the allegations of emotional and sexual abuse Holmes, 37, had raised earlier in her testimony against her former lover and business partner, Sunny Balwani, 56. Holmes was just one of the three witnesses to testify for the defense, but she spent more than 25 hours on the stand since she was sworn Nov. 19.

The decision to let Holmes herself have the last word was an indication that her lawyers believed she did a compelling job telling her story, said David Ring, an attorney who has represented victims of alleged sexual abuse and has been following the trial closely.

“You want to end on a good note, and it sounded like they felt like she was their best witness,” Ring said. “You also don’t want to risk having a lot of psychological gobbly goop get into the jury’s minds, so you can end with a bang, not a whimper.”

Holmes, Theranos’ CEO for 15 years, spent some more time Wednesday blaming Balwani for neglecting to fix the blood-testing problems that he had told her he would address as the company’s chief operating officer and her most trusted adviser.

She also made it clear that Balwani was a volatile man who she tried not to “ignite” whenever he would “blow off steam through texts.” She also emphasized she wasn’t responsible for all the key decisions at Theranos from 2010 until she dumped Balwani in 2016.

That six-year stretch spanned a period when Holmes was the subject of flattering articles portraying her as a tech visionary. But a series of explosive articles published in The Wall Street Journal beginning in late 2015 revealed that Theranos’ blood-tests were producing faulty results that misled doctors and patients. John Carreyrou, the reporter who wrote those pivotal stories, sat in the back of a packed San Jose, California, courtroom throughout Holmes’ testimony.

Before Theranos melted down, Holmes and Balwani raised more than $900 million from a list of billionaire investors that included media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the Walton family behind Walmart. That while assembling a board of directors that included former Cabinet members ranging from the Nixon to Trump administrations.

Jeffrey Coopersmith, Balwani’s attorney, has vehemently denied Holmes’ attempts to blame him for Theranos’ downfall, as well as the allegations of partner abuse. He told Davila that Balwani would exercise his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if he were called to testify during Holmes’ trial. Balwani is facing similar fraud charges in a trial scheduled to start next month.

But before that drama begins, a jury of 10 men and four women, including two alternates, will finally get their chance to determine if Holmes will be branded as a crook, instead of Silicon Valley sensation who revolutionized health care as she set out to do in 2003 when she dropped out of Stanford University to found Theranos.

North Carolina primaries delayed more than 2 months

North Carolina’s state Supreme Court ordered that the state delay all of its primaries for two months, cutting off candidate filing in a state that could have one of the most competitive Senate races next year.

The state Supreme Court ordered Wednesday that the March 8 primaries be pushed until May 17, as part of ongoing litigation about the state’s new congressional and state legislative districts. It also froze candidate filing across the state, although any candidate who has already submitted their paperwork since Monday, when the filing period opened, will not have to refile.

The ruling applies to all races — not just those affected by the new maps — and will freeze the contests for months.

It comes from a pair of cases from liberal-leaning groups challenging the new congressional and state House maps as partisan gerrymanders that violate the state's constitution.

The state Supreme Court ordered that lower courts “hold proceedings necessary to reach a rule on the merits” of the claims by Jan. 11, and for an expedited appeals process in front of the state Supreme Court for the lower courts’ decisions to make way for the later primary.

Long, litigious history of redraws: North Carolina is no stranger to court-ordered redraws of political boundaries. The state’s congressional districts were redrawn three times throughout the last decade, with the latter two redraws coming via court order.

The challenged congressional maps would likely lock in Republican dominance in the state’s federal delegation. Of the state’s 14 new districts, only two had a presidential margin within 10 points in 2020. Republicans would hold nine fairly safe red seats, and Democrats would be squeezed into two overwhelming blue districts, with the two competitive seats up for grabs.

Both parties have contested primaries for the Senate seat currently held by retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr. Those races will also be delayed until May.

Jury completes deliberations for day in Smollett trial

CHICAGO — A jury has completed deliberations for the day in the trial of former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett on charges he staged an anti-gay, racist attack on himself nearly three years ago and then lied to Chicago police about it.

The jury deliberated for about two hours Wednesday before breaking for the day after a roughly one-week trial. They will return Thursday morning.

During the trial two brothers testified that Smollett recruited them to fake the attack near his home in downtown Chicago in January 2019. They said Smollett orchestrated the hoax, telling them to put a noose around his neck and rough him up in view of a surveillance camera, and that he said he wanted video of the hoax made public via social media.

Smollett testified that he was the victim of a real hate crime, telling jurors “there was no hoax.” He called the brothers “liars” and said the $3,500 check he wrote for them was for meal and workout plans. His attorneys argued that the brothers attacked the actor — who is gay and Black — because they are homophobic and didn’t like “who he was.” They also alleged the brothers made up the story about the attack being staged to get money from Smollett, and that they said they wouldn’t testify against him if Smollett paid them each $1 million.

The jury on Wednesday asked Judge James Linn for a copy of a calendar that prosecutors displayed at trial that indicates relevant days, including the day of the attack, the day they say Smollett and the brothers had a “dry run.”

In his closing argument Wednesday, special prosecutor Dan Webb told the jury that what Smollett did caused Chicago police to spend enormous resources investigating an alleged crime that turned out to be fake. Smollett, who is Black and gay, told police someone put a noose around his neck and yelled racist and homophobic slurs.

“Besides being against the law, it is just plain wrong to outright denigrate something as serious as a real hate crime and then make sure it involved words and symbols that have such historical significance in our country,” Webb said.

He also accused Smollett of lying to jurors, saying surveillance video from before the alleged attack and that night contradicts key moments of Smollett’s testimony.

“At the end of the day, he lacks any credibility whatsoever,” Webb said

Defense attorney Nenye Uche said in his closing argument that the brothers are “sophisticated liars,” adding that during testimony last week one of the brothers “said ‘I don’t recall’ so many times, it is ridiculous.”

“The entire prosecution’s case, including the foundation of the case, is built like a house of cards,” Uche said.

Taking the witness stand this week, Smollett repeatedly denied the attack was a fake. He described how he was the victim of a hate crime while walking in his neighborhood early on Jan. 29, 2019.

Smollett testified that he was returning home from buying a sandwich around 2 a.m. when someone yelled a racist, homophobic remark that referenced the TV show “Empire.” The person also shouted something about “MAGA country,” an apparent reference to then-President Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” The slogan also had been scrawled on some hate mail, featuring a drawing of a stick figure hanging by a noose, that Smollett had received at the “Empire” set, he testified.

Smollett said when he turned to confront the person, a man hit him in the head and he fell to the ground, where he said another man kicked him before the attackers ran away. Smollett said he noticed a rope, like a noose, around his neck after the attack. When he returned home, a friend called Chicago police, something Smollett said he wouldn’t have done because as a Black man he doesn’t trust police.

Uche told the jury that one of the brothers, Olabingo Osundairo, posted homophobic slurs on social media. He also recalled that Abimbola Osundairo testified he went to a bathhouse with Smollett but denied any sexual relationship. Smollett later testified that the men performed sex acts together at the bathhouse. Uche suggested suggested Olabingo’s homophobia and Abimbola’s “self-hatred” were motives for their attack.

Another possible motive, Uche said, was that Abimbola Osundairo wanted to be hired as Smollett’s security.

“These guys want to make money,” he said.

House GOP jockeys for top panel spots after Nunes exit

The competition is already in full swing for the top GOP spots on two prominent House committees, 48 hours after Rep. Devin Nunes announced imminent plans to leave Congress.

The California Republican’s surprising departure leaves the House Intelligence Committee without a top Republican, but it’s also launched new jockeying among Republicans for the top spot on the House Ways and Means Committee come 2023. Nunes, who’s leaving to become the CEO of former President Donald Trump’s forthcoming media company, was previously viewed as a frontrunner to succeed the current top Republican on the tax-writing Ways and Means panel, retiring Texas Rep. Kevin Brady.

The next two most senior members on Ways and Means, Reps. Vern Buchanan of Florida and Adrian Smith of Nebraska, have already started talking to members of the Steering Committee — a little-known but highly influential GOP panel that decides committee assignments and leaders — about their interest, according to multiple lawmakers.

“Vern Buchanan has been running hard for the chairmanship. Adrian Smith has been laying the groundwork for his ideas and leadership,” Brady said in an interview. “What I'm excited about is, we have a terrifically talented Ways and Means Republican team. So we are going to end up with a first-rate leader as chairman.”

The race won’t come to a head until after the midterms, and the winner will ultimately be decided by the Steering panel, which is stacked with leadership allies. For now, House Republicans aren’t ready to declare a leading candidate to take what may well be the Ways and Means chairmanship in the next Congress, given their bright midterm prospects.

Buchanan confirmed in an interview that he's running for the party's Ways and Means top spot, saying that “I'll be the senior member, so I think I've got a good opportunity here.” Adding that he's chaired multiple subcommittees on the panel, Buchanan observed: "There's never been a Republican chairman on Ways and Means in Florida or in the South, ever. So that's historical.”

Smith confirmed his own interest in a statement: “I am hopeful we will regain majority in the House in 2022 and am eager to serve as the next Ways and Means Chairman and empower members to work as a team to stop Biden’s economic agenda, bring certainty to our tax code, and reconnect Americans on the sidelines with good-paying jobs."

But they aren’t alone.

“Anybody who says they're not interested is lying,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), a member of the highly sought-after committee who indicated he too is eyeing the Ways and Means role.

Naming Nunes' replacement as the next top Republican on the Intelligence Committee is a different story and a more pressing decision, one that falls exclusively to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy due to the panel’s select committee status. Reps. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), Chris Stewart (R-Utah) and Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) are all making their interest known.

Stewart, the third-most senior Republican on the committee after Turner and then Wenstrup, said he believes he is the “best qualified” for the role.

“Between my 14 years of military service and seven years on the committee, I strongly believe that I am best qualified for the position of ranking member,” said Stewart, a former Air Force pilot, in a statement. “I spent more time than anyone studying our enemies and the threats they pose. From China to the Ukraine, Africa to Afghanistan, I have seen firsthand the dangers we face.”

Wenstrup, an Army Reserve officer and Iraq War veteran, said it would be an honor to lead Republicans on the panel and help its “critical mission of keeping Americans safe in a dangerous world of emerging and evolving threats.”

And Turner simply told POLITICO he is “seeking the position.”

Turner had previously sought the top spot on the House Armed Services Committee but was passed over, most recently last year when the Steering panel picked Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) for the role.

Some GOP members wonder if this may be Turner’s moment for a top committee post. But whoever ascends to the position must be ready to take on the burden of a committee now known as a partisan battlefield, lawmakers say. Cross-aisle relations deteriorated during the Trump administration — when Nunes and now-Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) clashed over investigating former President Donald Trump's ties to Russia.

Privately, Republicans are betting McCarthy doesn't make a decision on the Intelligence panel spot this week or perhaps until after Nunes leaves, given the legislative pileup Congress faces ahead of the holidays. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole will also lie in state in the Rotunda on Thursday, adding to the packed Capitol schedule this week.

The final decision on the Ways and Means Committee's top spot, of course, won't come until after Brady finishes his final term next year. By then the lineup of the Steering panel may look somewhat different than its current makeup, although it's unlikely to shift enough to give one contender a serious leg up.

The tax-writing committee has a history of Republicans leapfrogging to get the top spot, making the leadership race even more complex.

Brady first sought the Ways and Means chairmanship in 2014, when he was the most senior member vying for the open role. But then-Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the third-most senior on the panel, ended up beating him out.

As one Republican member quipped, offering a forecast on condition of anonymity: “History, for the Ways and Means chair, is not the Rock of Gibraltar."

How Schumer and McConnell got the debt deal done

After receiving a rare request from Mitch McConnell to discuss the debt limit in November, Chuck Schumer dialed Nancy Pelosi but received no answer. Given the urgency, he rushed to a press conference she was giving and waited outside.

After she finished, Schumer walked her to her car and laid out a possible solution to a monthslong partisan standoff on the debt limit. McConnell wanted to give Democrats a quick vote to raise the debt ceiling on their own and finally take the debt limit imbroglio off the table, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Schumer and McConnell first met before the Thanksgiving break and then finalized their deal on Dec. 1, just off the Senate floor in the ornate Marble Room. For one time only, they agreed, the Senate Democrats could raise the debt limit on their own, with a little Republican help to get there. It was some of the most involved face-to-face negotiating the two Senate leaders conducted all year — and it surprised almost everyone.

“It’s so unlike him. I’m really glad he did it,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of McConnell. “What’s the old saying? One flowering rose doesn’t make a spring. But I’ll take what we can get.”

McConnell “feels like in this circumstance at least, that they both have been working in good faith,” agreed Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “The fact that they have been talking should be perceived by most to be a positive development.”

The debt deal comes on the heels of agreements between the Senate leaders to fund the government, complete a defense bill, pass a new infrastructure law and collaborate on a competitiveness bill. And it could mark the high point of Schumer and McConnell’s relationship. That says as much about the two pugnacious leaders as it does about the state of the Senate, which now sits leagues away from the days when the two party leaders met regularly.

Schumer’s tenure as majority leader began this year with McConnell’s refusal to give him an organizing resolution to run the Senate for weeks, the first in a series of McConnell’s challenges to Schumer’s leadership of a 50-50 Senate. But nothing rivaled the standoff that McConnell initiated this summer when he pledged that not a single Republican would vote to raise the debt limit.

That the dispute is ending with a deal between Schumer and McConnell to kick the issue past the midterms is nothing short of shocking for many in the Senate considering McConnell’s vows not to assist Democrats. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) helped grease the wheels, speaking to McConnell repeatedly and one day visiting Schumer and the GOP leader back-to-back.

“I’m encouraged,” Manchin said on Wednesday after complaining all year about how the brash New Yorker and the taciturn Kentuckian didn’t talk enough. “We’ve just got to work together.”

Some would like to see more. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has suggested to the White House that President Joe Biden regularly host congressional leaders in both chambers for weekly discussions, according to a source familiar with her request. That shows no signs of happening.

The talks between McConnell and Schumer on the debt ceiling were so delicate that even most senators experienced an information blackout. While lawmakers saw the mid-November talks as a positive sign, neither McConnell nor Schumer clued in their leadership team on the details until Tuesday. Hours later, the House approved a plan that allows Senate Democrats to raise the debt limit without Republican help. The Senate will take that up Thursday.

At first, congressional leaders wanted to fold the debt limit into the annual defense policy bill. After the second meeting with McConnell, Schumer warned Pelosi that the leading option at the time, combining the debt limit with a defense bill, would only work if the House sent over the legislation before Dec. 7. House GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s opposition put an end to that, so congressional leaders instead rolled the debt limit into legislation preventing Medicare cuts.

The agreement gives the leaders the ability to save face with their respective caucuses. Schumer can say that Democrats can now fully focus on clinching Biden’s agenda and resisted the GOP push to use the often convoluted process known as reconciliation to address the matter. During his talks with McConnell, Schumer reassured his members that he would not deviate from that position, according to a Democratic senator.

McConnell, meanwhile, can say Democrats lifted the debt limit by themselves and voted for an approximately $2 trillion increase, potential fodder for GOP campaign ads in the midterms. He's also removing a Democratic argument to change the legislative filibuster after the majority party threatened rules changes over the debt ceiling.

The politics for McConnell are more complicated. While he's confident he has the necessary 10 Republican votes to pass the measure, he won’t get the unanimous support that Schumer will receive from Democrats in Thursday’s critical procedural vote. After his party unanimously blocked a debt ceiling increase in September from coming to the Senate floor, the GOP enters Thursday’s vote divided.

“It’s a terrible deal,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “I don’t think Republicans should be in any way complicit in the Democrats’ reckless spending.”

And Democrats have plenty of questions about why this deal wasn't reached earlier to save several months of drama. Throughout the process, Pelosi mostly deferred to Schumer because the Senate was always the problem. But House Democrats vent that the bout between Schumer and McConnell required them to walk the plank and vote on debt ceiling legislation five times, according to Democratic sources.

The likely answer for the delay comes down to McConnell’s initial hard-line position and Schumer’s refusal to bow to his demands. In September, Schumer accused McConnell of “spinning a tale, a web of subterfuge, deception and outright contradictions” on the debt ceiling. McConnell in turn penned a letter to Biden in October after he helped raise the debt ceiling for two months, referring to a speech Schumer delivered as a “tantrum” that “encapsulated and escalated a pattern of angry incompetence.”

But recently the leaders are using a far more conciliatory tone. Schumer said Wednesday that he and the GOP leader had “fruitful, honest and good discussions” when it came to the debt limit, while McConnell said he and Schumer “reached a conclusion that I think worked for both sides.” It continued a pattern of fading personal animus, for the moment.

When members of McConnell’s caucus threatened to temporarily shut down the government over President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate or hold up the defense policy bill, Schumer opted to single out individual members rather than blame McConnell for their actions. Still, no one is expecting the good vibes between the two leaders to last.

With the debt limit out of the way, Democrats and Republicans will focus on Biden’s social spending bill — and what the two leaders have to say about each other's priorities probably won't be pretty.

“Robert C. Byrd one time said that the Senate is a place where you can be working with somebody one day,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a top McConnell deputy, “and fighting them tooth and nail the next.”

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

Meadows sues Pelosi, Jan. 6 panel members

Mark Meadows, facing an imminent threat of criminal contempt of Congress charges, is suing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of the Jan. 6 select panel.

The former White House chief of staff has filed legal action against Pelosi, according to court records. As the Jan. 6 select panel prepares to take action against him, Meadows has claimed he can’t discuss matters that could be covered by executive privilege.

But the panel has rejected that claim, noting that President Joe Biden has not asserted privilege to block Meadows’ testimony.

A spokesperson for the Jan. 6 panel declined to comment.

Biden nominates Meg Whitman as ambassador to Kenya

President Joe Biden on Wednesday nominated Meg Whitman, a business executive and onetime California gubernatorial candidate, to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Kenya.

Whitman, the former leader of Hewlett Packard and eBay, endorsed then-candidate Joe Biden at the Democratic National Convention in August 2020. She also endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 over Donald Trump despite her longstanding ties to the private sector and the GOP.

In 2010 Whitman ran for governor of California, losing to Democrat Jerry Brown by double digits despite spending $177 million — including $144 million from her vast personal wealth — on her campaign.

More recently, Whitman helmed the star-crossed video streaming platform Quibi, which was financially flush and launched with considerable fanfare in 2020, only to flame out within months. Quibi’s content library was sold off to Roku earlier this year.

Prior to Biden’s inauguration, POLITICO reported that Whitman’s name was one of several Republican backers floated for possible Cabinet roles in the new administration, though she was not selected for any such position.

Whitman’s endorsement of Clinton in 2016 came after she served as finance co-chair of then-New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie’s failed presidential campaign, but diverged from him and other Republicans over supporting Trump — whom she has likened to Hitler and Mussolini.

Over the summer Biden tapped another media executive, Comcast’s David Cohen, as the U.S. ambassador to Canada.

In addition to Whitman, Biden on Wednesday also announced the nominations of Constance J. Milstein and Alina Romanowski as ambassadors to Malta and Iraq, respectively.

Dem leaders considering anti-Islamophobia bill to answer Boebert-Omar controversy

Under rising pressure from the left, House Democratic leaders are eyeing several options to respond to Rep. Lauren Boebert's Islamophobic comments about Rep. Ilhan Omar — all of which fall short of progressives' demands.

Referring Boebert to the House Ethics Committee or calling up a measure tackling Islamophobia are among the actions being discussed by Democratic leaders to deal with the Colorado conservative, according to three people familiar with the matter. That might not be enough to satisfy progressives, who want their leadership to act and on Wednesday introduced legislation to boot Boebert from her committees.

"If leadership does not act accordingly, we are condoning that behavior. Not just here in Congress, but we are sending the message across the country, around the world, that anti-Muslim hate is OK," Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday.

Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) added that “we cannot be complicit as members of this body trample on the fundamental right of religious freedom and put people’s lives in danger."

Democratic leaders are in a growing bind over Boebert. They don’t want to let her Islamophobic comments about Omar go unaddressed and have struggled to explain to their members why Boebert’s behavior is different than their quick punishment of Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who lost his committees after posting an anime video depicting the killing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Gosar was the second member to be removed from his panels this year, after Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

But at the same time, Democratic leaders want House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to police his own conference and are leery of setting a precedent that they must respond to every objectionable remark by the GOP's right flank.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has privately told Omar that stripping committees is still on the table as recently as today, according to a source familiar with the situation, though few senior Democrats believe it is likely Pelosi will do so. Omar, for her part, has projected confidence Pelosi will move against Boebert.

Democratic leaders are specifically looking a bill drafted by Omar and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) that would create a special envoy within the State Department to monitor and combat Islamophobia worldwide. The bill is expected to soon be marked up in committee.

Republican leaders, however, have said they see the matter as settled since it happened several weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving.

"When a member apologizes, I think you ought to respect and appreciate that," Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said earlier Wednesday. Democrats say Boebert’s conversational contrition to Omar, described by the conservative as culminating in a separate demand that Omar apologize, was insufficient.

The intra-Democratic furor over Boebert’s remarks is the latest case of long-simmering divisions bubbling over between party moderates and progressives. The factions have sparred over the size, scope, and timing of President Joe Biden’s agenda, but the tension over Boebert and Omar has highlighted the limits of progressives’ ability to force action.

Further complicating the challenge that House Democratic leadership faces is the fraught relationship that some of their members have with Omar. Even voting on a measure calling out Islamophobia makes some Democrats uncomfortable, given that Republicans are likely to dredge up Omar's own record of divisive comments, including some that have been described by Democrats as anti-Semitic.

Moderates see the latest round of controversy as a distraction from keeping focus on their agenda. Punishing more Republicans, they contend, only rewards fringe members of the GOP conference who can put themselves in the spotlight, capitalize on their clashes with Democrats and fundraise off motivating their base.

Pelosi aired frustration about the matter in a private caucus meeting Wednesday morning, noting the majority of questions from reporters that morning were about Boebert and not ones of “substance.” She reiterated that critique at a press conference later in the day, telling reporters that “I don’t feel like talking about what the Republicans aren't or are doing about the disgraceful, unacceptable behavior of their members."

“When I’m ready to announce that [decisive action], I’ll let you know,” she said.

But progressives say the comments by Boebert — who suggested on two occasions, both caught on tape, that Omar was a terrorist who could threaten her colleagues' lives — aren't a mere distraction, but a danger to the safety of their own members.

“When we inconsistently apply consequences to bigotry, we invite more people to test these boundaries,” Ocasio-Cortez said Wednesday.

Crypto CEOs to Congress: We want regulation, our way

The U.S. cryptocurrency industry's top CEOs Wednesday pleaded with lawmakers to let their startups flourish without onerous regulations as Washington struggles to figure out how to police a decade-old digital asset market that's approaching $3 trillion.

The crypto leaders appeared at a House Financial Services Committee hearing that revealed an emerging ideological divide between the left and the right over how the government should oversee the industry. It's an increasingly urgent question for federal regulators and Congress with 16 percent of Americans saying they have used cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ether.

Top Democrats showed a clear skepticism toward the financial risks associated with crypto trading, while Republicans largely called for taking a cautious approach to enacting new laws. The executives, for their part, called for greater clarity and some showed a distaste for the approach the Securities and Exchange Commission has taken toward the industry.

“We need clear standards and the government's support to create a new, more secure, more competitive financial system," said Charles Cascarilla, CEO and co-founder of Paxos Trust Co., which provides financial services to crypto firms. "The benefits of getting this right are enormous — but so are the consequences of getting it wrong."

Here are key takeaways from the hearing.

Executives want a regulatory revamp and new legal definitions with limits

The leaders of the six crypto firms argued that the digital asset trading they facilitate is a global force for good that the U.S. should embrace.

They said it promises not just to speed up and cut the costs of financial transactions, but they also tried to convince lawmakers that the underlying blockchain technology is a revolutionary innovation in decentralization that would help individuals take back control of the Internet from giants like Google. The "Web 3.0" concept is a key part of the crypto lobby's pitch in Washington.

Coinbase, the most prominent U.S.-based crypto exchange, is leading a lobbying effort in support of a complete rewrite of financial regulations touching crypto. Several federal agencies oversee aspects of the industry — in addition to state-by-state regulation — and Coinbase argues that there should be new policies for digital assets and that a single agency should supervise.

One motivation for the industry's proposed regulatory rewrite is that Coinbase and other major crypto firms are clashing with the SEC, where agency chair Gary Gensler has tried to rein in digital asset activities because he says many of the products resemble securities or investment contracts that fall under his jurisdiction. Gensler says the crypto market today is the Wild West and that consumers lack adequate protections.

Coinbase Chief Financial Officer Alesia Haas and other executives showed a definite preference for a future in which the SEC would not be their regulator. Haas said her firm believes that blockchain tokens are not securities but rather digital property or a way to record ownership. She said, "it would benefit all of us in the ecosystem to have agreed-upon definitions."

"We do believe clarity is needed," Haas said.

Bitfury Group CEO Brian Brooks, who served as a top banking regulator during the Trump administration, described the SEC's approach as an impediment to crypto startups.

"What happens in the United States is you have a new crypto project and you walk into the SEC and you describe it in great detail and you ask for guidance and they say, 'We can't tell you,' and you list it at your own peril," he said.

The industry's perspective dominated the hearing testimony because no crypto critics were among the witnesses.

Ideological split means don't expect a new crypto law anytime soon

The hearing underscored a partisan divide over how to approach the industry, with Democrats also internally split over whether cryptocurrencies are good or bad for society. The rifts are a signal that it could take years for Congress to coalesce around major legislation revamping the regulation of digital assets.

Several Democrats focused on what they said are potential risks crypto products pose to the financial system, consumers and the environment, including intense price volatility, effects on the dollar, the fallout from fraud schemes and crypto's use in other financial crimes. Environmental concerns have arisen because of the computing power and energy consumption that crypto protocols require.

"The advocates of crypto represent the powers in our society," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the industry's most outspoken critic in Congress. "The powers in our society on Wall Street and in Washington have spent millions, and are trying to make billions or trillions in the crypto world."

But many House Republicans — who are poised to control the chamber in 2023 — signaled that they don't want to move quickly on a major revamp of crypto regulations and don't share the same concerns as Democrats about the risks from the industry.

"I'm in favor of what you do," Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said. "I'm not sure I want to go as far as you do on [the] robustness of how much oversight you really want."

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who is poised to chair the committee if the GOP wins back the House, said a priority was to ensure that the "cryptocurrency revolution" happens in the U.S. rather than overseas.

"This technology is already regulated," he said. "The regulations may be clunky. They may not be up to date. I ask my policymaker friends here on the Hill this question, do you know enough about this technology to have a serious debate?"

What you didn't see — banks lobbying for crypto rules

Bank lobbyists on the sidelines of the hearing used the opportunity to urge lawmakers to apply the same level of regulatory scrutiny to crypto startups as they do traditional lenders.

Bank Policy Institute President and CEO Greg Baer, who represents the nation's largest banks in Washington, said his group welcomed the hearing and its recognition that more work is needed on the rules for digital assets. The American Bankers Association said in a letter to the committee that firms offering bank-like services should receive bank-like regulation.

"Today, the largest players in the digital assets space operate largely outside the existing U.S. regulatory framework, with resulting risk for consumers and financial stability," Baer said in a statement. "Meanwhile, regulated banks continue to await clear rules from regulators about their authority to engage in digital asset-related activities, leaving the banking industry largely on the sidelines even though banks are best positioned to be the most responsible and trustworthy players in this market."