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White House considering vaccine mandate for federal workers

White House considering vaccine mandate for federal workers

WASHINGTON — The White House is strongly considering requiring federal employees to show proof they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or otherwise submit to regular testing and wear a mask — a potentially major shift in policy that reflects growing concerns about the spread of the more infectious delta variant.The possible vaccine mandate for federal employees — regardless of the rate of transmission in their area — is one option under consideration by the Biden administration, according to a person familiar with the plans who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations that have yet to be made public. The White House is expected to announce its final decision after completing a policy review this week.According to an analysis from the federal Office of Management and Budget, in 2020 there were more than 4.2 million federal workers nationwide, including those in the military.President Joe Biden suggested Tuesday that expanding that mandate to the entire federal workforce was “under consideration,” but offered no further details. The Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday became the first federal agency to require vaccinations, for its health workers.The broader requirement under consideration would be the most significant shift by the Biden administration this week as the White House grapples with a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations nationwide driven by the spread of the delta variant and breakthrough infections among vaccinated Americans.On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its masking guidelines and said that all Americans living in areas with substantial or high coronavirus transmission rates should wear masks indoors, regardless of their vaccination status.And just like that, masks were back at the White House.By Tuesday afternoon, when the latest CDC data found that Washington, D.C., is facing substantial rates of transmission, White House staff were asked to begin wearing masks indoors starting Wednesday. Press were asked to follow suit, and those staff and reporters remaining in the White House were already masking up.An aide for Vice President Kamala Harris passed out masks to the reporters covering her events earlier that day, asking them to put them on before walking in to her meeting with Native American leaders on voting rights.Masks will also be required again at the U.S. House.Citing the new CDC guidance, the Capitol’s Attending Physician Brian P. Monahan issued a memo late Tuesday reinstating the mask requirement for all individuals, vaccinated and not, when entering the House chamber or other interior spaces in the complex when others are present. Fines that had been established under previous House rules can be imposed for offenders, though exceptions will be allowed when lawmakers are recognized to speak during proceedings.For the Senate, with far fewer members, the masks are being recommended but not required for the chamber and other indoor spaces.“All individuals should wear a well-fitted, medical-grade filtration mask,” Monahan wrote in a similar letter obtained by The Associated Press.Biden dismissed concerns that the new masking guidance from the CDC could create confusion among Americans, saying those who remain unvaccinated are the ones who are “sowing enormous confusion.”“The more we learn, the more we learn about this virus and the delta variation, the more we have to be worried and concerned. And there’s only one thing we know for sure — if those other 100 million people got vaccinated, we’d be in a very different world,” he told reporters after speaking to intelligence community employees at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Tuesday.But the whiplash on masking and vaccinations — just the day before, White House press secretary Jen Psaki had avoided questions over why the administration had yet to require vaccines for federal workers — reflects the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus.Various state and local governments, private companies, hospital administrators and universities across the nation have reverted to indoor mask mandates and instituted vaccine mandates in recent months, but just 60% of American adults have been completely vaccinated, and the latest wave of the coronavirus is hitting those communities with low vaccination rates particularly hard. The nation is averaging more than 57,000 cases a day and 24,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations.But the Biden administration had thus far avoided embracing a vaccine mandate for its own employees — in part because officials are wary of further politicizing an already fraught issue by coming down too hard on the side of vaccine mandates.Psaki acknowledged Tuesday that administration officials are aware of the risk that Biden’s support for vaccine mandates could harden opposition to vaccines among his detractors.“The president certainly recognizes that he is not always the right voice to every community about the benefits of getting vaccinated, which is why we have invested as much as we have in local voices and empowering local, trusted voices,” she said.——Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

Hunter Biden paintings pose ethical challenge for president

Hunter Biden paintings pose ethical challenge for president

The White House has established an arrangement that would allow President Joe Biden’s son Hunter to sell his artwork for tens of thousands of dollars without knowing the identity of the purchaserBy ALEXANDRA JAFFE Associated PressJuly 9, 2021, 11:35 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleWASHINGTON — The White House has established an arrangement that would allow President Joe Biden’s son Hunter to sell his artwork for tens of thousands of dollars without knowing the identity of the purchaser, an agreement established in attempt to avoid any potential ethical concerns surrounding his sales.Under the arrangement, a private art gallery owner will set prices for his work and will handle all bidding and sales, but will not share any information about buyers or prospective buyers with Hunter or anyone in the administration. The deal was first reported by The Washington Post.White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the gallerist would reject “any offer out of the normal course” and that the administration believes the agreement “provides quite a level of protection and transparency.” A person familiar with the arrangement noted that it requires the art dealer selling Hunter’s work to turn down any buyer or offer that seems out of the ordinary, including any that comes in above the asking price. The person was not authorized to discuss the arrangement publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.“After careful consideration a system has been established that allows for Hunter Biden to work in his profession within reasonable safeguards,” Psaki told reporters.“Of course he has the right to pursue an artistic career, just like any child of a president has the right to pursue a career.”It marks one of the first high-profile tests of the president’s commitment to much more stringent ethics rules for his family and administration officials than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who had a daughter and son-in-law working for him in the White House and often spent taxpayer dollars at his own properties. On his first day as president, Biden signed an executive order requiring stricter ethics commitments from all administration personnel, but Hunter’s private dealings have drawn scrutiny in the past, with some critics expressing concerns that he sought to profit from the use of his father’s name during his lobbying work and work with a Ukrainian energy company.Hunter Biden has now shifted his focus to the art world. According to an interview in Artnet, Georges Bergès, the art dealer that will sell his work, plans to host a private viewing for the president’s son in Los Angeles and an exhibition in New York. The paintings cost anywhere from $75,000 for a piece on paper to half a million dollars for large-scale paintings, the dealer said.That’s considerably more than a typical up-and-coming artist without much experience or many sales under his belt, and it’s one of the reasons Richard Painter, a White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, says he’s uneasy about the arrangement.“I’m baldly surprised at the pricing,” he said. “That’s part of the appearance problem.”The concern, he said, is that regardless of who purchases the paintings, such high prices suggest Hunter Biden is profiting off his father’s name. Painter worried that foreign governments could fund the purchase through a buyer, or lobbyists could purchase the painting to win favor with those in Biden’s orbit, even if Hunter and his father don’t know the buyer’s identity.Painter said ideally, Hunter would have waited to sell his paintings until his father left office, to avoid any appearance of impropriety — but since he’s turning to this avenue to make a living, the buyers and prices for each painting should be disclosed and recused from any work with the administration.“I would not have chosen the secrecy route. I would have gone with the transparency route,” he said.The executive order Biden signed reestablished and expanded on many Obama-era ethics rules. It restored a two-year ban on departing senior appointees communicating with their former agency and expanded that ban to include communications with senior White House staff. It also reestablished the Obama-era two-year ban on lobbyists working on the issue they lobbied on within the administration, among other things. He also committed before taking office that none of his family members will work in his administration.Painter said that while the agreement concerning Hunter Biden’s paintings are not ideal, the administration overall has displayed a marked improvement on ethics matters over Biden’s predecessor.“It’s minimal compared with Trump,” he said. “We definitely have far fewer problems with Biden.”

Hunter Biden paintings pose ethical challenge for president

Hunter Biden paintings pose ethical challenge for president

The White House has established an arrangement that would allow President Joe Biden’s son Hunter to sell his artwork for tens of thousands of dollars without knowing the identity of the purchaserBy ALEXANDRA JAFFE Associated PressJuly 9, 2021, 8:44 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleWASHINGTON — The White House has established an arrangement that would allow President Joe Biden’s son Hunter to sell his artwork for tens of thousands of dollars without knowing the identity of the purchaser, an agreement established in attempt to avoid any potential ethical concerns surrounding his sales.Under the arrangement, a private art gallery owner will set prices for his work and will handle all bidding and sales, but will not share any information about buyers or prospective buyers with Hunter or anyone in the administration. The deal was first reported by The Washington Post.White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the gallerist would reject “any offer out of the normal course” and that the administration believes the agreement “provides quite a level of protection and transparency.”“After careful consideration a system has been established that allows for Hunter Biden to work in his profession within reasonable safeguards,” she told reporters. “Of course he has the right to pursue an artistic career, just like any child of a president has the right to pursue a career.”It marks one of the first high-profile tests of the president’s commitment to much more stringent ethics rules for his family and administration officials than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who had a daughter and son-in-law working for him in the White House and often spent taxpayer dollars at his own properties. On his first day as president, Biden signed an executive order requiring stricter ethics commitments from all administration personnel, but Hunter’s private dealings have drawn scrutiny in the past, with some critics expressing concerns that he sought to profit from the use of his father’s name during his lobbying work and work with a Ukrainian energy company.Hunter Biden has now shifted his focus to the art world. According to an interview in Artnet, Georges Bergès, the art dealer that will sell his work, plans to host a private viewing for the president’s son in Los Angeles and an exhibition in New York. The paintings cost anywhere from $75,000 for a piece on paper to half a million dollars for large-scale paintings, the dealer said.That’s considerably more than a typical up-and-coming artist without much experience or many sales under his belt, and it’s one of the reasons Richard Painter, a White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, says he’s uneasy about the arrangement.“I’m baldly surprised at the pricing,” he said. “That’s part of the appearance problem.”The concern, he said, is that regardless of who purchases the paintings, such high prices suggest Hunter Biden is profiting off his father’s name. Painter worried that foreign governments could fund the purchase through a buyer, or lobbyists could purchase the painting to win favor with those in Biden’s orbit, even if Hunter and his father don’t know the buyer’s identity.Painter said ideally, Hunter would have waited to sell his paintings until his father left office, to avoid any appearance of impropriety — but since he’s turning to this avenue to make a living, the buyers and prices for each painting should be disclosed and recused from any work with the administration.“I would not have chosen the secrecy route. I would have gone with the transparency route,” he said.The executive order Biden signed reestablished and expanded on many Obama-era ethics rules. It restored a two-year ban on departing senior appointees communicating with their former agency and expanded that ban to include communications with senior White House staff. It also reestablished the Obama-era two-year ban on lobbyists working on the issue they lobbied on within the administration, among other things. He also committed before taking office that none of his family members will work in his administration.Painter said that while the agreement concerning Hunter Biden’s paintings are not ideal, the administration overall has displayed a marked improvement on ethics matters over Biden’s predecessor.“It’s minimal compared with Trump,” he said. “We definitely have far fewer problems with Biden.”

Harris heads to border after facing criticism for absence

Harris heads to border after facing criticism for absence

WASHINGTON — Kamala Harris faces perhaps the most politically challenging moment of her vice presidency Friday when she heads to the U.S. southern border as part of her role leading the Biden administration’s response to a steep increase in migration.While in El Paso, Texas, she will tour a Customs and Border Patrol processing center, hold a conversation with advocates from faith-based organizations as well as shelter and legal service providers and deliver remarks.The vice president has faced months of criticism from members of both parties for declining to make the trip thus far and for her muddied explanations as to why.Republicans have seized on the absence of both Harris and President Joe Biden from the border to paint the administration as weak on border security, seeking to revive a potent political weapon against Democrats in time for the 2022 midterm elections. With former President Donald Trump visiting the area less than a week after Harris, Republicans will be watching the vice president’s visit closely for fodder for further attacks.While various administration officials have made multiple visits to the border, the absence of Biden and Harris has left some Democrats worried that damage already has been done.“The administration is making Democrats look weak,” said Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’ve heard, from Democrats and Republicans in my area, what the heck is going on with this administration?”Cuellar’s district spans from south of San Antonio to the U.S.-Mexico border, and last year he won reelection by the slimmest margin of his nearly two-decade-long career. While he says he’s not worried about his own reelection fight, he adds, “I worry about my colleagues.”Cuellar’s comments reflect a broader concern among some Democrats and immigration activists that the Biden administration has ceded the border security debate to Republicans.Biden’s first few months in office have seen record numbers of migrants attempting to cross the border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded more than 180,000 encounters on the Mexican border in May, the most since March 2000. Those numbers were boosted by a coronavirus pandemic-related ban on seeking asylum, which encouraged repeated attempts to cross the border because getting caught carried no legal consequences.Republicans have seized on those figures to attack Biden and Harris as weak on border security, a message the GOP used with success during the 2020 campaign.Administration officials, including Harris, have sought to push back against that perception, with Harris repeatedly sending the message to migrants during her recent visit to Guatemala: “Do not come.”But those comments drew fire from some progressives, most notably New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who called the message “disappointing.”It was an incident that underscored the political no-win situation Harris finds herself in, taking on an intractable problem that’s bedeviled past administrations and been used by both parties to drive wedges and turnout during campaign season. If Biden chooses not to run for a second term, Harris will be seen as the leading contender to replace him, and the immigration issue could become either a chance for her to showcase her accomplishments or an albatross.Indeed, Republicans preemptively hammered Harris over her border visit, with Trump claiming credit for her decision to go.Harris advisers have been careful to emphasize that her main focus related to immigration is addressing the root causes of migration. She has been seeking economic and humanitarian solutions to improve conditions for residents of Central and North American countries who flee to the U.S. Her aides framed her trip to the border as part of an effort to better understand how to solve the problem.“What happens at the border matters, and is directly connected to what is happening in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras,” said Harris spokeswoman Symone Sanders. “It is directly connected to the work of addressing the root causes of migration.”Harris was being joined on the trip by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents the district there.Harris had no plans to visit the migrant detention facility at the Fort Bliss military post, which has drawn criticism from advocates who have described unsafe conditions and allegations of abuse toward some of the thousands of children housed there. Cuellar called her decision to visit El Paso “politically safe,” because, he said, most of the activity at the border happens farther south.Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino civil rights organization, expressed concerns that Harris’s visit was “a day late and a dollar short.”“It almost feels like they’re being kind of forced into it by the local communities, as well as the Republicans’ political attacks from the right,” Garcia said.But, still, Garcia said he was glad she was going, and expressed optimism that her visit could help the Biden administration correct its course on the immigration issue and show a contrast to the Trump administration’s hardline stance on border security.“They should own this, and they should solve it, because it does need a bipartisan solution,” he said.

VA moves to offer gender confirmation surgery to vets

VA moves to offer gender confirmation surgery to vets

The Department of Veterans Affairs is moving to offer transgender veterans gender confirmation surgeryBy ALEXANDRA JAFFE Associated PressJune 20, 2021, 1:59 AM• 2 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleWILMINGTON, Del. — The Department of Veterans Affairs is moving to offer transgender veterans gender confirmation surgery, Secretary Denis McDonough announced at a Pride Month event in Orlando Saturday.McDonough said in prepared remarks that the move was “the right thing to do,” and that it was part of an effort to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination against LGBTQ service members. The move is just the first step in what’s likely to be a yearslong federal rulemaking process to expand VA health benefits to cover the surgery, but McDonough said the VA will use the time to “develop capacity to meet the surgical needs” of transgender veterans.The decision, he said, will allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side.” McDonough also referenced what he said were higher rates of mental illness and suicidal thoughts among LGBTQ veterans, and a fear of discrimination that prevents those veterans from seeking care.“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he said.McDonough said the decision was based on the “recommendation of our clinicians, so this is a health care decision that has very real physical health care impacts as well as significant mental health impacts.”The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that there are more than 134,000 transgender veterans and over 15,000 transgender individuals serving in the military today.McDonough’s announcement is the latest in a series of moves by the Biden administration to expand protections and benefits to transgender individuals in the military.Just days into his term, President Joe Biden signed an executive order overturning a Trump administration ban on transgender individuals serving in the military. And in February, McDonough ordered a review of the department’s policies to “ensure that transgender Veterans and employees do not face discrimination on the basis of their gender identity and expression.”

Harris announces $1.25 billion for community lenders

Vice President Kamala Harris has announced that the Biden administration is distributing $1.25 billion to hundreds of community lendersBy ALEXANDRA JAFFE Associated PressJune 15, 2021, 6:37 PM• 3 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleWASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris announced Tuesday that the Biden administration is distributing $1.25 billion to hundreds of community lenders in an effort to help boost the economic recovery from the coronavirus for small businesses and disadvantaged business owners.“President Joe Biden and I knew that more than repair, we must re-imagine our economy,” Harris said during an event at the White House. “Small businesses, of course, are at the center of this re-imagining.”The funds are going to more than 860 community development financial institutions, or CDFIs, around the country. CDFIs offer loans to small businesses and those who may be turned down for loans from major banks, a problem that studies have shown particularly plagues minority business owners.Harris has focused on small businesses from the start of her vice presidency, and has emphasized in particular the need to support minority- and female-owned small businesses as key to a robust economic recovery.On Tuesday, she lamented that “traditional banks have not always seen or understood the vision of women, small business owners, small business owners of color, small business owners who serve low income communities.” CDFIs, she said “add value to those communities, and by extension, to our entire nation.”This fund in particular comes from work she did as a California senator. The funding for the program comes from $12 billion provided for community lenders in the 2020 stimulus that was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump last December. At the time, Harris pushed to include funding for CDFIs in the final package, along with Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, and House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, both of whom joined her at Tuesday’s event.Harris praised their work, along with the support of a number of other senators, calling it a “full team effort” to get the funds into the final bill.Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also joined Harris at the event, and said that the CDFI fund delivered on Biden and Harris’ campaign-trail promise to tackle systemic racism and build an economy “that works for everyone.”CDFIs, she said, are “exactly the right place to focus our attention, because these questions — who can access credit and capital and who can’t — those questions are at the root of many long-term structural problems in our economy.”