Jake Johnson

Sanders says Manchin and Sinema are imperiling US democracy

Sen. Bernie Sanders said Friday that by vowing to uphold the archaic Senate rule standing in the way of voting rights legislation, his colleagues Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are putting "the future of American democracy" at risk.

"It is a sad day when two members of the Democratic caucus are prepared to allow the Freedom to Vote Act to fail," the Vermont senator tweeted. "I hope very much they will reconsider their positions."

Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Manchin's (D-W.Va.) opposition to weakening the 60-vote filibuster rule—a stance they reiterated Thursday—effectively tanks their party's hopes of passing voting rights legislation to thwart the GOP's mass disenfranchisement and election subversion efforts in states across the country.

Despite the likelihood of failure, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY.) said the Senate will debate the newly assembled Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act on Tuesday, a day after the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

"If Senate Republicans choose obstruction over protecting the sacred right to vote—as we expect them to—the Senate will consider and vote on changing the Senate rules, as has been done many times before, to allow for passage of voting rights legislation," Schumer said in a floor speech after Sinema made clear she would not back any such changes, intensifying calls for a 2024 primary challenge.

The support of every member of the Senate Democratic caucus and a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris would be needed to enact a rule change.

With federal action likely not forthcoming, local Democratic officials and activists "now say they are resigned to having to spend and organize their way around" the slew of fresh Republican-authored voting restrictions, the New York Times reported, "a prospect many view with hard-earned skepticism."

In a July letter to President Joe Biden, a coalition of 150 civil rights organizations wrote that "while we support the notion of a broad-based coalition of advocates, we cannot and should not have to organize our way out of the attacks and restrictions on voting that lawmakers are passing and proposing at the state level."

"Nor can we litigate our way out of this threat to democracy," the groups warned. "We must remember that at critical times in our history, one party has been forced to act alone in securing the fundamental democratic rights of American citizens, including Congress' passage of both the 14th and 15th Amendments. Any rule or procedure that functions to stop bills from ever being considered on the floor is not a procedure to promote debate; it is a procedure to promote gridlock."

'Shame on her': Sinema sparks fury by choosing the filibuster over democracy

Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was met with a torrent of outrage on Thursday after she delivered a floor speech reiterating her opposition to weakening the Senate's 60-vote threshold, striking a major blow to her party's plan to finally overcome Republican obstruction of voting rights legislation.

"While I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country," Sinema (D-Ariz.) said, referring to the Democratic leadership's plan to pursue changes to the 60-vote filibuster if GOP senators continue to block the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Sinema, long a vocal defender of the filibuster, claimed to be alarmed by the voter suppression legislation that Republicans are advancing along party lines at the state level nationwide, but she adamantly rejected the rule changes that would allow Senate Democrats to do something about the GOP's assault on the franchise and democratic institutions.

"Sinema says she strongly opposes state vote suppression laws and strongly supports the democracy reform laws. But she can't support those while supporting McConnell's veto of them," argued Ezra Levin, co-executive director of the progressive advocacy group Indivisible. "At the end of day, that puts you in McConnell's anti-democracy camp."

The Tempe, Arizona branch of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, for its part, slammed Sinema for prioritizing "Jim Crow relics instead of Arizonans."

Delivered to a Senate gallery consisting largely of Republican lawmakers, Sinema's speech came shortly after the House passed legislation that combines the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, part of a procedural maneuver that will allow Democrats to bring the measure to the Senate floor for debate without needing 60 votes.

In order to cut off debate and proceed to a final vote, though, Democrats will still need 60 votes or a change to Senate rules, which can be accomplished with a simple majority.

"Once again, we in the House have done our job—the fate of our democracy now rests in the United States Senate," Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) tweeted following the vote. "Time is running out. Reform the filibuster and pass the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act."

But Sinema's opposition to changing Senate rules means Democrats will need the support of at least 10 Republicans to pass legislation, an unlikely feat given the minority party's repeated obstruction of voting rights measures in recent months.

"She says she supports the voting rights bills but won't do anything to ensure that they pass. Shame on her," said MSNBC's Mehdi Hasan. "And if Democrats re-elect her in Arizona in 2024, shame on them."

Tré Easton, deputy director of the Battle Born Collective, said in a statement that "Sinema cannot credibly claim in one breath to 'share the concerns of civil rights advocates' and then ostentatiously protect the filibuster—the specific impediment to addressing their concerns."

"She cannot continue to cloak herself in her 'hero' the late John Lewis' legacy while spitting in the face of efforts to advance voting rights legislation—his life's work," Easton added. "If there were any questions remaining about what she truly prioritizes, Senator Sinema answered them emphatically today. In her quest to be the next John McCain, she crowned herself the modern-day Strom Thurmond. Arizonans truly deserve better."

In an indication of who benefits from Sinema's continued opposition to filibuster reform, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was quick to praise the Arizona Democrat's speech as a "conspicuous act of political courage."

Sinema "saved the Senate as an institution," McConnell gushed.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), another Democratic opponent of filibuster reform, also applauded Sinema's remarks, noting that they hit on "the points that I've been making for an awful long time."

"We need changes to make the Senate work better, not getting rid of the filibuster," Manchin added.

Jana Morgan, director of the Declaration for American Democracy, said Thursday that "if Sen. Sinema votes against restoring the Senate to protect the freedom to vote, she will go down in history as the senator who ensured the irreversible fall of American democracy."

"It will also enshrine her legacy as empowering Sen. McConnell to destroy American democracy for his own political gain," Morgan added. "Now is the moment to be on the right side of history."

Christina Harvey, executive director of Stand Up America, added that "Arizonans overwhelmingly support the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and they are counting on Senator Sinema to do the right thing and protect the freedom to vote."

"She is running out of time," Harvey said, "but she can still show she’s on the right side of history."

Report debunks Manchin's inflation argument against Build Back Better

To justify obstructing one of his party's top legislative priorities, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has repeatedly claimed that the Build Back Better Act would exacerbate rising inflation.

But a new report published Wednesday by the congressional Joint Economic Committee (JEC) argues that Democrats' 10-year, $1.75 trillion reconciliation package would actually relieve inflationary pressures on the economy by slashing the sky-high costs of child care, prescription drugs, housing, and other basic necessities.

"By addressing the threat of climate change," the report adds, "the bill would reduce the role of fossil fuel price spikes and extreme weather in driving future inflation, insulating the economy from key sources of price spikes that can lead to inflation—just as occurred in 2021."

The report goes on to argue that because its costs would be funded by tax hikes on rich individuals and large businesses, the Build Back Better Act "does not present the risk of economic overheating—a concern that was waved aside as previous administrations passed trillions of dollars in tax cuts that were never paid for."

The JEC released its analysis just as the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Wednesday that the Consumer Price Index—which measures the costs of consumer goods and services—has risen 7% over the past year, the sharpest increase in four decades.

"Very, very troubling," Manchin said of the new inflation figures.

But Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), chair of the JEC, offered a different perspective on the data. While acknowledging that rising prices are "straining household budgets"—particularly for those with low incomes—Beyer disputed the notion that the Build Back Better Act would make matters worse.

In fact, Beyer argued in a statement, "the House-passed Build Back Better Act would make crucial investments to lower inflation and cut household costs by investing in workers, boosting productivity and making healthcare and child care more affordable—all while being fully paid for by asking the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share."

"The economic recovery and the Federal Reserve's actions [on interest rates] will bring down short-term inflation in 2022, but the Build Back Better Act presents the best tool at Congress' disposal to reduce inflationary pressure long-term, build economic resilience, and promote economic growth that is stronger, stable, and more broadly shared."

Economists have also pushed back on the argument that the Build Back Better package would worsen inflation, which experts say has been fueled by a range of factors, from pandemic-related supply chain disruptions to corporate profiteering.

"There is also no good way to connect the dots between the Build Back Better agenda, which is currently being debated in Congress, and higher inflation," Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody's Analytics, wrote in a recent CNN op-ed. "The legislation provides support for public infrastructure and various social programs, and longer-term, it is designed to lift the economy's growth potential, which will ease inflationary pressures."

Despite its potential benefits for families, the economy, and the climate, the Build Back Better Act continues to languish in the Senate with no clear path forward as Manchin refuses to drop his objections to the expanded child tax credit (CTC), affordable housing investments, and other key provisions of the bill.

And as the Washington Post reported over the weekend, Manchin no longer even supports his own counteroffer to the White House, which excluded the CTC and other measures.

Nevertheless, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)—the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—said in a Wednesday appearance on CNBC that she believes Democrats will ultimately be able to pass some compromise version of the Build Back Better Act in the coming weeks.

"In the end, our view is that we can do Build Back Better, very close to the framework that Senator Manchin committed to the president on," Jayapal said, referring to a proposal the White House released in October. "Right now, we are in the midst of a big push on voting rights... As soon as that is done, probably next week, our attention will turn back to Build Back Better."

Biden under fire for resisting calls to distribute N95 masks to all

The Biden administration faced growing backlash Wednesday for resisting calls from public health experts and progressives to distribute N95 masks to all U.S. households to help fight the Omicron wave, which is pushing new coronavirus infections to record-shattering highs nationwide.

An unnamed senior administration official sparked outrage by claiming in an interview with Politico that because "half the country won't wear any mask," widespread distribution of high-quality face coverings would be pointless.

"It may be popular in certain corners of Twitter, but for masking to work as a public health tool, people need to actually wear them," the official said. "To prevent spread, the focus should be maximizing the number of people simply wearing a mask in the first place, not shifting the goalposts to urge everyone to go above and beyond to use high filtration masks to make it less likely they themselves will inhale particles."

The official's comment led New Republic contributing editor Osita Nwanevu to tweet sardonically that "the official policy on proper masks right now is, 'I dunno, see if you can find something that isn't counterfeit on Amazon.'"

Gizmodo's Matt Novak noted that even granting the unsubstantiated premise that half the country wouldn't wear freely distributed N95s, "the other half of the country, ostensibly Joe Biden's base, would like to avoid getting sick and potentially dying from Covid-19."

Public health experts have vocally argued in recent weeks that the Biden administration should promote the use of N95 masks to combat Omicron, given that cloth masks appear to be less effective at preventing transmission of the highly contagious variant.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), and other progressive lawmakers have echoed that message, demanding that masks be sent directly to households just as the administration is preparing to distribute hundreds of millions of rapid at-home tests.

With the Biden administration thus far declining to act, Sanders is expected to unveil a bill Wednesday that would ensure N95 masks are distributed to every U.S. household—a proposal that the Vermont senator has been advocating since the early stages of the pandemic.

"All Americans should have face masks that will keep them safe," Sanders tweeted Tuesday. "I will be introducing legislation tomorrow for N95 masks to be sent to every household in the country. This will save lives and reduce healthcare costs."

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that he will be introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

Politico reported Tuesday that some administration officials—including Surgeon General Vivek Murthy—and outside White House allies have pressured President Joe Biden to adopt the approach Sanders and others are pushing as the Omicron strain wreaks havoc across the country.

Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and former Covid-19 adviser to the Biden transition team, told Politico that she has called on the White House to "provide N95 and KN95 masks through the website" the administration is standing up as part of its plan to distribute at-home tests to any American who requests them.

With the White House deliberating its mask policies, the Centers for Disease Control is reportedly considering updating its guidance to recommend that all people—not just healthcare personnel—wear N95 or KN95 masks whenever possible.

Such guidance would be difficult for many to follow in the absence of coordinated federal policy aimed at distributing such high-quality masks nationwide. At present, N95 masks can be hard to find in the U.S., particularly amid the sea of fakes being sold by online retailers.

Last month, as Common Dreams reported, a coalition of public health experts and advocates launched a campaign urging the Biden administration to send "an ample and continuous supply of free rapid at-home tests and N95-quality masks to every household in America twice a month through May 2022."

Such high-quality masks, said the coalition, are "necessary to keep the virus at bay."

'What about the general public?' Members of Congress to get KN95 masks amid Omicron wave

With Capitol Hill—like much of the United States—experiencing a major spike in Covid-19 cases, members of Congress and their offices are reportedly set to receive KN95 masks to help stem the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The public, meanwhile, has largely been left to fend for itself as much of Congress and the Biden administration ignore calls for action to ensure widespread distribution of high-quality masks.

According to an email sent to House staffers last week and obtained by the Washington Post, "The Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) has updated its PPE monthly allotment program to include KN95 masks for all House offices" as experts warn that widely used cloth masks are less effective at preventing Omicron transmission.

"The Office of Attending Physician (OAP) supports CDC guidelines recommending the use of a face cover such as the KN95 mask when in public spaces, particularly when a six-foot separation cannot be maintained between two individuals," reads the email, which was sent after the U.S. Capitol's attending physician raised alarm over an "unprecedented" surge in coronavirus infections.

Under the new allotment program, each House office in Washington, D.C. will get 40 KN95 masks per month.

"This is so grotesque," said Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves. "Members of Congress (and White House staff) have full access to good masks (and I bet tests too!). The little people—meaning the rest of us—are on our own."

Abraar Karan, a physician and infectious disease expert at Stanford University, noted in response to the new House safety protocol that "there are unprecedented infections around the entire country!"

"What about the general public?" he asked.

The U.S. is currently averaging roughly 700,000 new coronavirus cases per day as the Omicron variant continues to rip through the population, pushing up hospitalizations and straining overburdened healthcare systems.

Capitol physician Brian Monahan wrote in a letter to lawmakers that, in order to combat the latest coronavirus wave, high-quality face coverings are "a critical necessity unless the individual is alone in a closed office space or eating or drinking in a food service area."

Monahan noted that based on a limited sample of positive tests on Capitol Hill, 61% of the cases were the Omicron variant.

Last month, as Omicron was detected in state after state across the U.S., Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) urged Congress to guarantee the mass production and distribution of N95 masks to all households.

In July of 2020, Sanders introduced legislation that would have required the federal government to manufacture and deliver high-quality masks to every person in the country—but the bill has gone nowhere.

The Biden administration is in the process of enacting a plan to distribute free at-home coronavirus tests to U.S. households that request them, but it has yet to take similar action on masks. In the absence of federal leadership, some local governments have begun handing out free masks to residents.

"With this variant, it's really good to have an upgraded mask," Nick Tomaro of the Milwaukee Health Department said as the city launched its mask distribution effort. "This is the opportunity to get it."

While N95 shortages are not currently as acute as they were in the early stages of the pandemic, genuine masks can often be difficult to find, particularly in an online marketplace still awash in counterfeits.

"Not all face masks are created equal," Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, tweeted Sunday. "N95 face masks are far more effective than cloth masks in preventing the spread of Covid. We must utilize the Defense Production Act to mass produce these masks and distribute them to every household in the country."

'It's a trap': Advocates warn against McConnell-backed election reform gambit

Since June, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican caucus have filibustered three separate Democratic voting rights bills, refusing to permit even a floor debate on the legislation as GOP-led states intensify their assault on the franchise.

But with Senate Democrats gearing up for yet another attempt to strengthen federal voter protections, McConnell is signaling a willingness to cooperate with the majority party on a far more narrow reform effort—one that would entail tweaks to the obscure Electoral Count Act.

"It obviously has some flaws," McConnell said Wednesday of the 1887 statute, which sets out procedures for the counting of electoral votes and gives members of Congress the ability to dispute the results of presidential contests. Nearly 150 Republican lawmakers voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election, just hours after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol last year.

Reforms to the Electoral Count Act are "worth, I think, discussing," the Kentucky Republican added.

Voting rights advocates immediately sensed danger—and urged Democrats not to play along with the GOP leader.

"It's a trap!" the progressive organization Indivisible warned in an email to supporters late Wednesday as momentum behind Electoral Count Act reform continued to build, fueled by the work of right-wing organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute and Cato.

Earlier Wednesday, both Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.)—whose refusal to support filibuster reform is a major reason for Democrats' failure to pass voting rights legislation—voiced support for the push to alter the Electoral Count Act.

Manchin, who is facing pressure from a McConnell-aligned dark money group to uphold the 60-vote filibuster, told Politico that nascent discussions on the 1887 law are "a good start."

"At least they've got people talking now," said the West Virginia Democrat. A bipartisan group convened by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has reportedly begun discussing a plan to reform the Electoral Count Act.

A spokesperson for Sinema, meanwhile, said the Arizona senator "continues to believe bipartisan action is needed to strengthen our democracy and has been in constant contact with colleagues in both parties on this and other potential areas of common ground."

But voting rights campaigners and experts fear that growing focus on the Electoral Count Act will distract from more fundamental efforts to end voter suppression, partisan gerrymandering, and other anti-democratic practices that Republicans are deploying in states across the country ahead of the pivotal 2022 midterms.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote in a series of tweets earlier this week that while changes to the Electoral Count Act are worth pursuing, they would be no substitute for the passage of robust federal voter protections.

"We must not deny the truth: that voter suppression schemes create obstacles designed to frustrate voting and drive down turnout among Black, Latino, Asian American, student, and disabled voters," wrote Ifill. "It is an affront to democracy and a denial of full citizenship that must be addressed."

Indivisible co-executive director Ezra Levin expressed similar concerns in a statement Wednesday evening.

"Who on this earth believes Mitch McConnell woke up this morning and decided to start caring about democracy? Nobody," Levin said. "McConnell is working to outmaneuver Democrats."

Reforming the Electoral Count Act "would do nothing to reverse or prevent gerrymandering or voter suppression," he continued. "If McConnell can convince Manchin and Sinema to go down this path, that would successfully sideline efforts to pass the big, consequential democracy bills that combat voter suppression."

"Our message to Senate Dems is simple: Don't get distracted!" Levin added. "Pass the damn Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis [Voting Rights Advancement Act], and don't fall for McConnell's tricks."

In a new petition, Indivisible urges Senate Democrats to "add reforms to the Electoral Count Act as an amendment to the Freedom to Vote Act to ensure these reforms are passed ALONGSIDE the other bills."

Thus far, it appears that the Senate Democratic leadership does not intend to back Electoral Count Act reform as a standalone alternative to the Freedom to Vote Act and other voting rights legislation.

“The Electoral Count Act [reform] says you can rig the elections anyway you want and then we'll count it accurately," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told Politico in an interview.

The Freedom to Vote Act, a compromise measure crafted after the GOP and Manchin obstructed the more sweeping For the People Act, has the support of every member of the Senate Democratic caucus.

If passed, the bill would establish Election Day as a legal public holiday, expand early and mail-in voting, prohibit partisan gerrymandering, and strengthen campaign finance regulations, among other reforms.

But because no Republicans support the bill, the legislation has failed to reach the 60-vote threshold required under the current filibuster rule.

While Schumer is vowing to pursue changes to the upper chamber's rules if Republicans filibuster the Freedom to Vote Act a second time, Manchin has declined to endorse specific filibuster reforms.

"Being open to a rules change that would create a nuclear option—it's very, very difficult," Manchin told reporters earlier this week, referring to the procedure by which Democrats could alter Senate rules without needing Republican votes.

"It's a heavy lift," he added.

Sean Eldridge, founder and president of Stand Up America, noted in response that "Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans reformed the filibuster to confirm three Trump Supreme Court nominees with simple majority votes."

"If 51 votes is good enough for a lifetime confirmation to the highest court in our land," Eldridge wrote on Twitter, "it should be enough to protect our freedom to vote."

'Pandemic profiteering — plain and simple': Walmart and Kroger hike prices for COVID tests

Walmart and Kroger are raising prices for one of the more widely used at-home coronavirus tests, leading critics to accuse the U.S. retailers of exploiting an Omicron-fueled surge in demand for the kits to pad their bottom lines.

The companies said Tuesday that they are moving to hike prices for Abbott's BinaxNOW tests following the expiration of a September deal with the White House under which they sold the kits at cost—$14. Abbott is the firm that, in mid-2021, instructed a factory assembling its tests to destroy millions of the products, citing then-dwindling sales.

Walmart will now offer the highly sought-after kits—which include two rapid Covid-19 tests—for $19.98 per box and Kroger will sell them for $23.99.

"This is pandemic profiteering, plain and simple," the Groundwork Collaborative, a progressive policy organization, said late Tuesday. "Shame on Walmart and Kroger for price gouging these essential tests during the height of the worst pandemic surge."

Critics also argued that the price hikes reflect the Biden administration's failure to use its authority to ensure the universal availability of at-home coronavirus tests, which have been expensive and often difficult to obtain in the U.S. over the course of the pandemic. In October, as Vanity Fair reported last month, the Biden White House rejected a plan that would have significantly ramped up test supply in time for the holidays.

Jeff Hauser, founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, demanded the firing of White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients, "whose failure to utilize the Defense Production Act for tests or [personal protective equipment] demonstrates a greater fealty to private profit than the public interest."

Attorney and healthcare advocate Matthew Cortland similarly warned that "the failure of the Biden administration to fully leverage the Defense Production Act and related legal authorities is costing American lives."

During a media briefing on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to say whether the administration is engaging with Walmart or Kroger in an effort to bring the prices for the BinaxNOW test back down.

"I can't give you an update on any conversations," Psaki said in response to a reporter's question about the price hikes. "I can tell you that our objective is, of course, to increase and scale up access to free tests."

To that end, Psaki said the White House is in the process of finalizing contracts for 500 million rapid Covid-19 tests that it intends to begin distributing to people who request them in the coming weeks—an idea Psaki mocked just a month earlier.

"When we have those deliveries in hand, we will put the website up, make it available so that people can order tests at that point in time," Psaki told the press on Tuesday.

Public health experts and progressive lawmakers have argued that the administration's plan—formally announced last month—is a welcome start but falls far short of what's needed in the face of the ongoing Omicron wave, which has helped push U.S. cases to record levels.

On Monday, the country officially tallied a million new coronavirus infections, a global record. By late Tuesday, nearly 860,000 additional new cases had been reported.

With infections mounting and hospitalizations also trending upward, campaigners are pressuring the Biden administration to respond by mailing an "ample and continuous supply" of free Covid-19 tests and high-quality masks to every household in the U.S. twice a month through at least May 2022.

"There are major steps we could be taking right now to ensure better access for all to both Covid-19 vaccines and tests," Olivia Alperstein, media manager at the Institute for Policy Studies, tweeted Tuesday after Walmart and Kroger announced the price hikes. "When we aren't proactive, this is what happens. Companies will not simply decide to take less of a profit during a health crisis unless we make them."

At present, the Wall Street Journal noted Tuesday, "the cost and availability of tests [vary] widely" in the U.S., which has long lagged behind other wealthy nations in establishing robust testing infrastructure and making at-home kits easily accessible.

"BinaxNOW tests are hard to find online for $24 but can be purchased for twice the price," the Journal reported. "At-home PCR tests are more readily available but generally cost close to $100 for a single test. Other rapid tests approved by the FDA for home use include the Ellume Covid-19 Home Test and the QuickVue test made by Quidel."

Paul Romer, a Nobel laureate and an economics professor at New York University, told Bloomberg in a recent interview that "the way to assess the degree to which we've failed in the U.S. is, 'How much time and money would someone have to spend to get a test right now?'"

"And it's just crazy compared to the rest of the world," said Romer, "and crazy compared to what it could be."

'Huge increase' in child poverty feared as tax credit expires amid omicron wave

The lapse of Democrats' expanded child tax credit program at the end of last month has progressive lawmakers and advocates vocally warning of a major spike in child poverty in the new year just as the Omicron variant wreaks havoc across the U.S., fueling a staggering rise in infections and hospitalizations.

While some research suggests the highly transmissible Omicron strain causes less severe disease than other mutations, the enormity of the current wave is driving fears of widespread and potentially sustained societal disruptions, with disproportionate impacts on families without the resources to weather more pandemic-induced economic chaos.

Approved as part of the coronavirus relief package that President Joe Biden signed into law in March 2021, the enhanced child tax credit (CTC) provided eligible families with monthly payments of up to $300 per child under the age of six and $250 per child between the ages of six and 17.

Recent survey data indicates that the payments brought millions out of poverty and helped many low-income families afford food, rent, medications, and other basic necessities.

But thanks to the opposition of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and every congressional Republican, the program expired at December's end, cutting off a key lifeline at what anti-poverty activists see as the worst possible moment. The sixth and final monthly CTC payments were distributed to the families of more than 61 million children on December 15.

"Yet another sign of the misaligned priorities of this country," the Rhode Island Poor People's Campaign said Monday in response to the CTC's expiration. "Programs of social uplift are sacrificed to the war economy and militarism."

The New York Times reported over the weekend that with Omicron surging, "economists warn that the one-two punch of expiring aid and rising cases could put a chill on the once red-hot economic recovery and cause severe hardship for millions of families already living close to the poverty line."

Anna Lara, a mother of two young children in Huntington, West Virginia, told the Times that without the boosted CTC, "it's going to be hard next month."

"Just thinking about it, it really makes me want to bite my nails to the quick," Lara said. "Honestly, it's going to be scary. It's going to be hard going back to not having it."

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wrote Monday that it is "totally unacceptable" for the Senate to let the CTC lapse. In November, the House of Representatives passed a version of the Build Back Better Act that would extend the enhanced CTC payments for another year.

"The Senate must act quickly to pass the Build Back Better Act and restore the child tax credit for millions of families who are counting on it," Jayapal wrote. "The pandemic isn't over—the relief to withstand it shouldn't stop."

More than a million people in the U.S. tested positive for coronavirus on Monday, a global daily record. The Washington Post reported early Tuesday that "more than 103,000 Americans were hospitalized with Covid-19 on Monday... the highest number since late summer, when the Delta variant of the coronavirus triggered a nationwide surge in cases."

Pediatric hospitalizations have also risen at an alarming rate during the Omicron wave.

According to a recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly 10 million children "are at risk of slipping back below the poverty line or deeper into poverty" if Congress doesn't extend the monthly CTC payments.

Without congressional action, the CTC will revert back to its previous—and far more exclusionary—form with yearly lump-sum payments.

The Senate Democratic leadership has vowed to move ahead with Build Back Better negotiations this month, but it's unclear how much progress will be made toward a final deal as Manchin continues to obstruct.

On Sunday, Axios reported that the corporate-backed West Virginia Democrat is "open to reengaging on the climate and child care provisions in President Biden's Build Back Better agenda if the White House removes the enhanced child tax credit from the $1.75 trillion package—or dramatically lowers the income caps for eligible families."

It's not clear whether progressive lawmakers would be willing to accept such a trade-off.

"I'm hoping that Senator Manchin will understand that his constituents, like many of mine, live below the poverty line and they need this child tax credit," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said Sunday.

In a Twitter post late Monday afternoon, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—chair of the Senate Budget Committee—noted that "the American Rescue Plan reduced childhood poverty in America by over 40% through the expanded child tax credit."

"It helped millions of families to survive," Sanders added. "Unless Build Back Better is passed, the expansion will end and we will see a huge increase in childhood poverty."

'It's taxes or pitchforks': 10 billionaires added $402 billion to their fortunes in 2021

The world's 10 richest billionaires added roughly $402 billion to their collective wealth in 2021, a year marked by continued suffering and economic dislocation fueled by the global coronavirus pandemic.

"Heading into 2022, the 10 wealthiest individuals in the world are all worth more than $100 billion," CNBC noted, citing the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, which tracks and ranks the fortunes of the planet's richest people.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Sunday that the staggering growth of billionaire wealth amid a worldwide public health emergency and economic crisis should compel Congress to finally redress the fundamental injustices of the U.S. tax system.

"In 2022," said Jayapal, "let's tax the rich and invest in our communities."

At the top of the Billionaires Index at the close of 2021 was Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who added over $121 billion to his wealth last year as the pandemic both took and completely upended lives, pushing tens of millions of people into poverty and intensifying preexisting inequities. Just behind Musk on the list was former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who tacked $5 billion onto his net worth in 2021, leaving him with a total fortune of $195 billion.

In November, the head of the World Food Programme (WFP) outlined a proposal by which Musk—now the richest man in the world—and other U.S. billionaires could donate just 0.36% of their pandemic wealth gains to help 42 million people facing starvation.

"The $6.6 billion required would help those in most need in the following way: one meal a day, the basic needed to survive—costing $0.43 per person per day, averaged out across the 43 countries," the WFP said. "This would feed 42 million people for one year, and avert the risk of famine."

The billionaires have not taken the WFP up on its modest plan to save millions of lives with a miniscule fraction of their pandemic profits.

The investigative outlet ProPublica reported in June that Musk, along with other U.S. billionaires, "paid $0 in federal income taxes" in 2018. Late last year, Musk garnered widespread publicity for selling off a portion of his Tesla stock, triggering a significant taxable event.

But as Bob Lord, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, observed in a recent blog post, Musk "has paid tax in 2021—lots of it—because doing so was by far his best option."

"Did he pay more tax than any American in history, as he claims? Probably," Lord wrote. "But he also received compensation of more than $20 billion, which almost certainly dwarfs the compensation any other CEO in American history has ever been paid, from a company with profits not remotely commensurate with that level of compensation."

The updated billionaire wealth figures come as Democrats in Congress are struggling to chart a path forward for their flagship social spending and climate legislation, which has been held up by corporate-backed Sen. Joe Manchin (D-Wa.).

The House-passed version of the Build Back Better Act includes a surtax on millionaires and other measures to help fund the bill's investments and reduce out-of-control inequality. According to the Washington Post, Manchin recently told the Biden White House that he would be willing to support "some version" of a tax targeting billionaires, an idea that the West Virginia Democrat criticized in October.

"While the specifics of what Manchin would support remain unclear, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has unveiled a tax aimed at the accrued wealth of America’s approximately 700 billionaires," the Post noted. "The measure is aimed at addressing the massive gains of the wealthiest Americans with a federal tax and probably would be unprecedented in how few people it affected... Congress' nonpartisan scorekeeper has estimated it could raise as much as $550 billion over 10 years, or pay for more than one-quarter of the Democrats' spending bill."

In a social media post on New Year's Day, the Patriotic Millionaires—a group composed of wealthy supporters of progressive taxation—warned that "history paints a bleak picture of what happens to extremely unequal societies."

"For the well-being of rich and poor alike, it's time to confront inequality and choose to tax the rich," the group wrote. "If you don't, then all the talk at Davos won't change what’s coming—it's taxes or pitchforks."

60 groups to Senate Dems: Drop the filibuster to 'safeguard Our democracy'

Dozens of progressive advocacy groups on Monday kicked off the New Year by reiterating with fresh urgency a demand they made to Senate Democrats throughout 2021: Reform the legislative filibuster to shield U.S. democracy from the increasingly authoritarian GOP.

In a new letter to members of the Senate Democratic caucus, 60 organizations led by Fix Our Senate implored the majority party to recognize the "need to pass federal democracy and voting legislation to safeguard our democracy," just as it acted in December to "extend the debt limit to avoid economic calamity."

"We thank you for your commitment to responsible governance and your rejection of Republicans' debt ceiling partisanship and obstruction," the letter reads. "Thanks to your resolve during both the October standoff and again this month, you were successful in staving off economic calamity while revealing [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell's animating priority: to maintain the filibuster and his ability to obstruct Democrats’ other essential priorities."

"Unfortunately," the letter adds, "while Senator McConnell and his Republican caucus allowed the filibuster to be eliminated for this latest debt limit extension, they remain committed to abusing the filibuster to obstruct democracy legislation, such as electoral college reforms, and voting rights legislation, such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act."

The new letter was sent as the U.S. Senate returned from holiday recess on Monday with eyes on the evenly divided chamber's Democratic leadership, which has vowed to pursue rule changes if Republicans filibuster another attempt to pass voting rights legislation.

"If Senate Republicans continue to abuse the filibuster and prevent the body from considering this bill, the Senate will then consider changes to any rules which prevent us from debating and reaching final conclusion on important legislation," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter to his fellow senators last month.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have thus far refused to agree to any changes to the filibuster rule, which would require just a simple majority vote. Last month, President Joe Biden endorsed a filibuster carve-out for voting rights legislation.

"You can think of January as a moment when two different forces are converging," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a long-time supporter of filibuster reform, told the Wall Street Journal on Monday. “One is the functionality of the Senate and the other is the functionality of our republic.”

Under current Senate rules, 60 votes are needed for most legislation to advance—a requirement that Republicans have used to stonewall several Democratic efforts to pass legislation that would combat voter suppression, partisan gerrymandering, and other anti-democratic tactics the GOP is pursuing at the state level nationwide ahead of the 2022 midterms.

Between January 1 and December 7 of 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 19 states approved 34 laws rolling back ballot access.

Meanwhile, Sean Eldridge of Stand Up America noted Sunday, "As we near the anniversary of a deadly insurrection at our nation's Capitol, not a single federal bill has been signed into law to protect our democracy and our freedom to vote."

"House Democrats have done their job and passed voting rights legislation—the Senate must act," Eldridge added. "Now."

Read the groups' full letter:

Dear members of the Senate Democratic Caucus,

On behalf of the millions of Americans we represent, we thank you for your commitment to responsible governance and your rejection of Republicans’ debt ceiling partisanship and obstruction. Thanks to your resolve during both the October standoff and again this month, you were successful in staving off economic calamity while revealing Senator Mitch McConnell’s animating priority: to maintain the filibuster and his ability to obstruct Democrats’ other essential priorities.

By initially insisting that Democrats raise the debt ceiling on their own while filibustering attempts to pursue a long-term extension, Senator McConnell and his Republican caucus created completely unnecessary economic uncertainty. It was a dangerous escalation in the already partisan and gridlocked Senate.

However, when it became clear that Senate Democrats were engaged in a serious conversation about Senate rules reform, Senator McConnell caved in October and helped pass a short-term debt limit extension, and then caved once again in December by negotiating a filibuster carve-out for the debt limit.

Unfortunately, while Senator McConnell and his Republican caucus allowed the filibuster to be eliminated for this latest debt limit extension, they remain committed to abusing the filibuster to obstruct democracy legislation, such as electoral college reforms, and voting rights legislation, such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.

Just as we needed to extend the debt limit to avoid economic calamity, we need to pass federal democracy and voting legislation to safeguard our democracy. And just as you had earlier been prepared to recognize that the U.S. economy is more important than the filibuster, we urge you to make a similar assessment when it comes to our democracy and our right to vote.

We commend your ongoing resolve and unity and thank you for your leadership and commitment to delivering on behalf of the American people.

Biden urged to mail 'continuous' supply of masks and tests to all US households

A new campaign led by public health experts and grassroots activists—including the daughter of a Covid-19 victim—is calling on the Biden administration to deliver rapid tests and high-quality masks to every household in the United States as the nation faces a tsunami of new infections.

"We are asking you to mail an ample and continuous supply of free rapid at-home tests and N95-quality masks to every household in America twice a month through May 2022, with additional supplies sent to first responders, healthcare workers, and public centers in our most impacted communities," reads campaigners' open letter to Jeffrey Zients, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator.

The new pressure initiative comes days after the Biden administration announced it would distribute 500 million free coronavirus tests to U.S. households that request them beginning in January, a plan that was criticized as inadequate to the task of combating the latest Covid-19 surge—which experts believe is largely attributable to the ultra-contagious Omicron variant.

On Thursday, the U.S. tallied more than 580,000 new Covid-19 cases, shattering the previous daily record set just 24 hours earlier. Columbia epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman stressed in an interview with The Washington Post Thursday that the official figures are likely a significant undercount.

"We're talking somewhere up to maybe 10 million people [infected in recent days," Shaman said. "Maybe not all of them are contagious yet. Crazy numbers. Crazy, crazy numbers."

In their open letter, leaders of the "Dear Zients" campaign argued that the White House's strategy in the face of Omicron is "not nearly enough" to solve the national shortage of test kits—which are more expensive in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries.

"Website-driven sign-ups place the burden on individuals and create unnecessary barriers and delays, often for those with the fewest resources (ie. people in areas lacking internet access, digital literacy, or language proficiency)," the letter reads. "The most efficient, equitable, and effective path requires removing all barriers to [test] access as quickly as possible."

The campaigners also emphasized the importance of high-quality masks in the fight against the heavily mutated Omicron strain, against which widely used cloth face-coverings appear to be less effective.

"High-quality masks are... necessary to keep the virus at bay," the open letter states. "We know that fully vaccinated and boosted individuals can be vectors, contributing to the infection of vulnerable community members and the evolution of new variants. Additionally, research demonstrates that vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals suffer from Long Covid, which can result in a lifetime of disability."

The ramped-up federal distribution of tests and masks, the letter continues, "must be accompanied by federal guidance on data-driven state and local mask and testing policies that mitigate risk from unavoidable gatherings and bolster the effectiveness of current vaccination efforts."

While research out of South Africa and other countries has provided some hope that the Omicron-fueled increase in cases will be less severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths than earlier spikes, healthcare workers and experts have warned that a massive rise in infections could swamp understaffed and strained hospitals.

Dr. James Phillips, chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University Hospital, told CNN on Wednesday that the Omicron wave is "unlike anything we've ever seen, even at the peak of the prior surges of Covid."

"What we're experiencing right now is an absolute overwhelming of the emergency departments," Phillips said.

Writing for the Post last week, Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves argued that a full-scale "national mobilization" is necessary "to put this pandemic behind us." Thus far, he argued, President Joe Biden has failed to deliver.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also come under fire for shortening the recommended isolation period for people infected with Covid-19—a move that businesses rushed to exploit.

"We already know vaccines alone will not solve this problem," Gonsalves wrote in his op-ed. "Public health experts called for more emphasis on a wider range of interventions, including rapid testing, masking, and environmental controls, such as the upgrading of ventilation systems in buildings across the country. Yet such measures remain underutilized here in the United States."

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tweeted Friday that "this is not complicated."

"Free at-home and in-person Covid-19 tests," Bush demanded. "Free N95/KN95 high-quality masks. For every person in our country. For whenever they need them. For the duration of the pandemic."

'We are in a climate emergency': Late-December wildfires ravage Colorado

Tens of thousands of Coloradans were forced to flee their homes Thursday as two fast-moving wildfires—whipped up by wind gusts reaching 110 mph—tore through communities just outside of Denver, engulfing entire neighborhoods in flames and destroying hundreds of buildings.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has declared a state of emergency to help aid the disaster response as officials characterized the late-December fire event as among the worst in the state's history.

"None of this is normal," said Colorado state Rep. Leslie Herod (D-8). "We are not OK."

Experts said the combination of months of unusually dry conditions, warm winter temperatures, and ferocious winds set the stage for the devastating blazes, which meteorologist Eric Holthaus viewed as further evidence that "we are in a climate emergency."

The Colorado branch of the Sunrise Movement agreed, writing on social media that the fires were "fueled by the climate crisis." A growing body of evidence has detailed the extent to which human-caused climate change is driving more frequent and intense wildfires in the U.S. and across the globe.

"People are losing their homes and running for their lives from a fire that started December fucking 30th," Sunrise Colorado tweeted before turning its attention to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and the Big Oil-friendly infrastructure law he helped craft.

"Sen. Manchin, your Exxon highway bill isn't going to save our homes or our lives," the group said. "Your greed and corruption is not only torching our future. It's burning our communities and destroying lives tonight."

Manchin, a close ally of the fossil fuel industry, is currently blocking progress on Democrats' Build Back Better Act, a $1.75 trillion reconciliation package containing hundreds of billions of dollars in climate-related investments.


Officially known as the Marshall and Middle Fork fires, the blazes have thus far torched nearly 600 homes and 1,600 acres in the Boulder County area. Avista Adventist Hospital, a 114-bed facility in Louisville, was forced to evacuate its intensive care units.

No deaths and several injuries had been reported as of late Thursday as firefighters worked to contain the damage, an effort they hope will be assisted by a forecasted New Year's Eve snowstorm.

Colorado Public Radio observed that while the exact cause of the destructive blazes is not yet clear, "early evidence suggests a sparking power line could have ignited the fires."

"Late-December wildfires aren't unheard of in Colorado, but the colder fall and winter months used to mean a break from the state's peak fire season," the outlet noted. "Scientists and fire ecologists say climate change, fueled by human-made carbon emissions, has added 78 days to the fire season since the 1970s."

Environmentalist Bill McKibben likened the horrific images emerging from Colorado to "when the comet hits in 'Don't Look Up,'" a globally popular new film satirizing climate denial.

"So look. Long and hard," McKibben said. "And then get to work breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry."

Biden faces calls to end Trump-era push to undermine Medicare

Calls are mounting for President Joe Biden to terminate an under-the-radar Trump-era pilot program that—if allowed to run its course—could result in the complete privatization of traditional Medicare by the end of the decade.

A petition recently launched by Physicians for a National Program (PNHP) has garnered more than 10,000 signatures as doctors and other advocates work to raise public awareness of the Medicare Direct Contracting program, which the Trump administration rolled out during its final months in power.

"Under this model," the petition warns, "the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) could move more than 30 million traditional Medicare beneficiaries into mostly commercial, for-profit plans called Direct Contracting Entities (DCE) without the enrollees' understanding or consent."

"In ways similar to commercial Medicare Advantage plans, DCEs have the potential to interfere with care decisions and waste taxpayer money when compared with the efficiency of traditional Medicare," the appeal continues. "The Biden administration is moving the DCE program forward, threatening the future of Medicare as we know it. We, the undersigned, demand that CMS immediately stop the DCE program to keep Medicare public and nonprofit for future generations."

Late last month, as Common Dreams reported, a group of physicians from across the U.S. traveled to the headquarters of the Health and Human Services Department in Washington, D.C. to demand that HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra halt the pilot program in its tracks.

The doctors were ultimately blocked from delivering a petition signed by around 1,500 physicians calling for an end to the privatization scheme, which inserts profit-seeking companies between traditional Medicare and healthcare providers.

"Just like corporate middlemen stand between patients and the healthcare they need, security staff stood between PNHP doctors and the policymakers who want to privatize Medicare," PNHP tweeted during the demonstration at the nation's capital.

Doctors to Wall Street: Hands off our Medicare! www.youtube.com

While the doctor-led protest was followed by a brief uptick in reporting on the obscure initiative, Biden's HHS has yet to act and few members of Congress have publicly spoken out against the Direct Contracting program despite the massive implications for the future of Medicare and its tens of millions of beneficiaries.

"People don't know that it's happening," Dr. Ed Weisbart, chair of PNHP's Missouri chapter, told Common Dreams in an interview last month. "Most people in Congress don't know that it's happening. We've started having some of these conversations with congressional staff... but it's not on their radar either."

One notable exception is Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Earlier this month, Jayapal penned an op-ed with PNHP president Dr. Susan Rogers urging Biden to stop the Direct Contracting program "while we have the chance."

According to PNHP, Jayapal is collecting signatures from fellow lawmakers' for a letter pressuring Biden to shut down the pilot, which sparked legal concerns and general revulsion among career CMS staff when it was launched toward the end of former President Donald Trump's White House tenure.

"This shit is so fucking gross," one staffer wrote in a group text viewed by The Intercept.

In their op-ed for The Hill earlier this month, Jayapal and Rogers warned that the Direct Contracting program "could radically transform Medicare within a few years, without input from seniors or even a vote by Congress."

"After our experience with commercial Medicare Advantage plans," they added, "we already know that inserting a profit-seeking middleman into Medicare ends up costing taxpayers more, with fewer choices and worse outcomes for seniors."

'Our governor is absent': Ron DeSantis is 'missing in action' amid Florida's omicron explosion, critics say

Local officials and public health experts are accusing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of abdicating his leadership responsibilities as the state faces a record-shattering spike in coronavirus cases, an increase believed to be fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

On Tuesday, Florida recorded nearly 47,000 new Covid-19 infections, shattering the state's previous daily record of 32,874 cases set on Christmas Eve. The day before Christmas Eve, Florida tallied 31,744 cases, then the highest daily case count since August 16.

As the latest coronavirus wave engulfs the state and threatens to overwhelm strained hospitals, DeSantis has disappeared from public view, a fact that has drawn the notice and ire of elected officials and others. The governor, who has previously come under fire for assailing common-sense public health measures, hasn't held a media briefing in nearly two weeks amid the Omicron surge.

The governor has also actively worked to tie the hands of local officials, making it more difficult for public institutions and private businesses to spring into action in response to rising infections. As the Associated Press noted Wednesday, "A new law signed by DeSantis last month prevents businesses from having vaccine mandates unless they allow workers to opt out, bars schools and governments from having vaccine mandates, and allows parents to sue schools with masking requirements."

Orange County, Florida Mayor Jerry Demings blasted Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this week, saying that "we have not received any assistance from the state of Florida at our testing sites."

"Our residents, all Florida residents, should be outraged," said Demings, "and they should ask the question, 'Where is our state? Where is our governor? Where is Ron DeSantis now?'"

Nikki Fried, Florida's agriculture commissioner and a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, wrote on social media Wednesday that "as Covid surges in Florida again, our governor is absent."

"So here I am doing his job and mine with an update," Fried added, posting a clip of Omicron-related comments she made to reporters earlier this week.

Much of the United States is currently in the grip of a coronavirus wave as the Omicron strain runs through the population, driving a record-breaking infection spike. On Wednesday, the U.S. recorded 488,000 new coronavirus cases.

A recent analysis of Johns Hopkins University data showed that the coronavirus is spreading faster in Florida than in most other U.S. states. Florida Today reported Monday that "weekly case counts rose in 63 counties from the previous week."

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and a senior fellow at the American Federation of Scientists, tweeted Thursday that "it's beginning to be suspicious how Florida's governor has not been seen for 12 straight days—all while Covid-19 cases spiked 1000% (all-time high) and hospitalizations surged."

"Florida’s leadership relying on mass-infection-herd strategy has been an abysmal failure," Feigl-Ding added. "After every wave, they thought they were at herd [immunity]. But new variants that evade past infection immunity have blown that strategy up. I worry hospitalizations will soon soar even more."

WHO chief decries 'moral shame' of vaccine apartheid amid omicron 'tsunami'

With the new year approaching, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Wednesday that the end of the coronavirus pandemic will remain out of reach as long as low-income countries are denied the ability to widely vaccinate their populations.

Tedros lamented during his weekly press conference that 92 out of 194 WHO member nations are set to miss the 40% end-of-year vaccination target established by the international agency due to "a combination of limited supply going to low-income countries" and donated vaccine doses arriving "close to expiry and without key parts—like the syringes!"

"Forty percent was doable," said Tedros. "It's not only a moral shame, it cost lives and provided the virus with opportunities to circulate unchecked and mutate."

Much of the world is now dealing with the consequences of Covid-19's mutations as the highly transmissible Omicron variant, first detected in southern Africa last month, drives record infection increases across the globe. Vaccine equity advocates have long warned that leaving much of the world without access to vaccines would provide ample opportunities for the coronavirus to mutate, prolonging the pandemic indefinitely.

As the Associated Press reported Wednesday "the number of Covid-19 cases recorded worldwide increased by 11% last week compared with the previous week, with nearly 4.99 million newly reported from December 20-26."

"New cases in Europe—which accounted for more than half of the total—were up 3% while those in the Americas rose 39% and there was a 7% increase in Africa," AP noted. "The global gain followed a gradual increase since October."

Though data out of South Africa and elsewhere has indicated that Omicron causes less severe disease than other coronavirus strains, Tedros cautioned Wednesday that the current "tsunami" of cases "will continue to put immense pressure on exhausted health workers and health systems on the brink of collapse."

"In the year ahead, I call for leaders of government and industry to walk the talk on vaccine equity both by ensuring consistent supply and helping to get vaccinations actually into people," Tedros said. "Vaccine supply, for now at least, is improving, although the emphasis on boosters in rich countries could cause low-income countries to go short again."

"I call on leaders of rich countries and manufacturers to learn the lessons of Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and now Omicron and work together to reach the 70% vaccination coverage," he continued. "This is the time to rise above short-term nationalism and protect populations and economies against future variants by ending global vaccine inequity."

Media briefing on COVID-19 www.youtube.com

In the year since the first coronavirus vaccine dose was administered outside of a clinical trial, more than nine billion Covid-19 shots have been given worldwide—but just 8.4% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, according to Our World in Data.

"Unless the world is vaccinated, the likelihood is there will be another variant that will be far more lethal."

Poor nations' inability to access Covid-19 vaccines has been attributed to a number of factors, from rich countries' hoarding of doses to the pharmaceutical industry's persistent refusal to share vaccine recipes that would allow developing countries to produce generic shots for their populations.

Wealthy nations—including the U.K., Germany, and Switzerland—have helped Big Pharma maintain its profitable stranglehold on vaccine production by stonewalling a proposed patent waiver at the World Trade Organization.

Advocacy groups, meanwhile, have accused the U.S. and other powerful countries of failing to adequately invest in global vaccine manufacturing. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimated earlier this month that it would cost just $50 billion to vaccinate the world—a fraction of the $778 billion that the U.S. Congress and President Joe Biden authorized for military spending in the coming fiscal year.

In a recent op-ed, Peter Geoghegan and Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy noted that "the moment credible vaccines were developed we were informed that, for them to work, everyone needed to have them."

"Leave the poor and the crowded unvaccinated, we were told, and new variants would mutate that would find their way around the protections against the old ones," the pair wrote. "Meanwhile up pops Omicron to say: 'Told you so,' and it proves itself to be vertically contagious."

"Universal vaccination could have prevented the viral reproduction of Covid that generates such variations," they argued. "Now, unless the world is vaccinated, the likelihood is there will be another variant that will be far more lethal."

Experts warn a new COVID pill could backfire and 'create breeding ground for mutant viruses'

Merck's anti-viral coronavirus pill has been heralded as a "gamechanger" in the fight against the deadly global pandemic, and the Food and Drug Administration decided last week to authorize the treatment on an emergency-use basis for certain segments of the U.S. population.

But public health experts in recent days have increasingly sounded alarm over the potential drawbacks of molnupiravir, including the frightening possibility that it could—in the words of one researcher—"create a breeding ground for mutant viruses," thereby prolonging the pandemic and adding to its grisly death toll.

"The problem with molnupiravir lies in its mechanism of action," Michael Lin, associate professor of neurobiology and bioengineering at Stanford University, wrote in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post. "Unlike any previous antiviral drug, molnupiravir does only one thing: It introduces mutations into the viral genome."

Lin noted that while "we are already familiar with the fact that viruses naturally mutate to evade immunity... molnupiravir relies on inducing even more mutations so that eventually the virus' proteins are damaged beyond function. That molnupiravir can mutate SARS-CoV-2 to death has been demonstrated in the controlled conditions of a petri dish and lab animal cages, leading Merck to test it in covid-19 patients in clinical trials."

"But people are not petri dishes or lab animals, and while molnupiravir works to some extent, it has not worked very well in Covid-19 patients," Lin observed, pointing to data showing that Merck's pill has proven far less effective in preventing hospitalization than Pfizer's, which the FDA authorized for emergency use last Wednesday.

"The worst-case scenario is worrisome," he continued. "As long as molnupiravir is in use somewhere in the world, it could generate repeated cycles of new variants, with people desperately taking the drug to fight the new variants it spawns, creating a vicious positive feedback loop while causing more suffering and deaths... The FDA and Merck have essentially engaged the public in a gamble without public debate."

Lin's concerns about molnupiravir's capacity to generate new coronavirus variants could hardly be characterized as fringe alarmism, given the chorus of expert voices raising similar objections to the treatment.

Dissenting members of the FDA's Antimicrobial Drugs Advisory Committee—which narrowly voted last month to declare that molnupiravir's potential benefits outweigh its risks—argued during a recent meeting that "the overall benefit-risk ratio" of the drug was "unfavorable," specifically citing the treatment's "potential to drive viral mutations" and its "mutagenicity risks."

"Dismayed that the FDA has now made the worst decision in its history."

European Medicines Agency similarly warned in its detailed assessment of the drug last month that available data "raises the question whether [the] virus that emerges during treatment and/or in subjects who fail treatment with molnupiravir could harbor mutations with significant consequences for the success of other products intended for prevention or treatment of Covid-19."

William Haseltine, a virologist renowned for his work on HIV and the human genome project, implored the FDA in a November 1 blog post to be circumspect in its handling of molnupiravir due to "the drug's potential to supercharge SARS-CoV-2 mutations and unleash a more virulent variant upon the world," along with other potential side effects.

"My biggest concern with this drug is much larger than the health of any one person, it is molnupiravir's ability to introduce mutations to the virus itself that are significant enough to change how the virus functions, but not so powerful as to stop it from replicating and becoming the next dominant variant," Haseltine wrote.

"The drug's manufacturers, Merck and Ridgeback, are entering into licensing deals that would allow the drug to be made and sold widely in more than 105 countries, which means that, if approved by regulators, we will soon have very little control over the drug’s administration and dosages delivered," he added. "We are potentially headed towards a world-class disaster."

Despite such fears from outside experts and members of one of its own advisory panels, the FDA announced on December 23 that molnupiravir can be used "for the treatment of mild-to-moderate coronavirus disease... in adults with positive results of direct SARS-CoV-2 viral testing, and who are at high risk for progression to severe Covid-19, including hospitalization or death, and for whom alternative Covid-19 treatment options authorized by the FDA are not accessible or clinically appropriate."

The Biden administration has already purchased millions of courses of the five-day treatment at a price point far higher than the cost of production. Merck, a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company, charged the U.S. over $700 per patient for the pills, which—according to one expert analysis—cost just $17.74 per regimen to manufacture.

Over a month before the FDA issued its emergency-use authorization, the U.K.'s medicines regulator approved molnupiravir, declaring that the drug is "safe and effective at reducing the risk of hospitalization and death in people with mild to moderate Covid-19 who are at increased risk of developing severe disease."

It was U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid who in November described the drug as a potential "gamechanger."

On Tuesday, India approved Merck's pill for emergency use, and the nation's health minister said the treatment will be manufactured by 13 companies.

France, however, publicly canceled its order for Merck's treatment last week, describing the company's latest trial data on the drug's efficacy as disappointing.

"The latest studies weren't good," said Olivier Veran, France's health minister.

The rush by some nations to greenlight coronavirus treatments comes in the context of a global surge in cases believed to be fueled by the heavily mutated Omicron strain, which was first detected last month in southern Africa.

In a series of tweets last week, Lin wrote that while he wants a "way out of this pandemic as much as anybody else," molnupiravir's approval and use across the globe risks imperiling rather than aiding that objective.

"Dismayed that the FDA has now made the worst decision in its history," Lin tweeted. "We cannot give up on raising awareness of the dangers of molnupiravir, and its poor efficacy. We must limit its use while we work on a worldwide campaign to reverse this."

Rep. Jayapal sends a warning to fellow Democrats about their biggest risk of failure in 2022

Rep. Pramila Jayapal warned her fellow Democratic lawmakers and President Joe Biden on Sunday that failure to deliver their promised social spending and climate agenda could have disastrous political consequences, feeding voter disillusionment and leaving millions of people without badly needed economic aid amid a deadly pandemic.

"The Omicron variant is surging as Covid-19 has once again disrupted people’s ability to work, care for children and elders, access medical care, and make ends meet. We simply cannot abandon our vision," Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post as Democrats' Build Back Better agenda hangs in the balance.

Just over a week before Jayapal's opinion piece was published, the U.S. Senate adjourned for the year having passed neither voting rights legislation nor the popular Build Back Better Act, key Democratic agenda items that have been imperiled by corporate-backed Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and other right-wing lawmakers.

Jayapal called Manchin's opposition to the Build Back Better package "a stunning rebuke of his own party's president," noting that the West Virginia Democrat had "committed to the president—who relayed that commitment to House members—that he would support the legislative framework unveiled on October 28."

On the basis of that commitment, Jayapal and a majority of the nearly 100-member CPC agreed to drop their demands for passage of the Build Back Better Act before a bipartisan infrastructure measure supported by Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

In doing so, according to outside critics and members of the so-called "Squad," the CPC gave up crucial leverage and gifted Manchin an opportunity to tank the Build Back Better Act once the $550 billion bipartisan legislation cleared the House.

But Jayapal argued in her op-ed that the decoupling of the two bills came only after most CPC members "believed we had reached our point of maximum leverage—and if we held up infrastructure again, Sen. Manchin would walk away from Build Back Better entirely and possibly even both proposals."

While Jayapal vowed to continue working to salvage the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act via the legislative process, she called on Biden to "use executive action to immediately improve people's lives." In the coming days, Jayapal wrote, the CPC will "release a plan for these actions, including lowering costs, protecting the health of every family, and showing the world that the United States is serious about our leadership on climate action."

"If we use every tool at our disposal to redouble our efforts to deliver for our communities, with the most urgent needs of the American people as our guide, success is possible," she wrote.

The specific elements of the CPC's plan remain to be seen, but progressive lawmakers have vocally pushed Biden since the start of his presidency to use executive action to cancel student debt, slash prescription drug prices, and advance other Democratic priorities. The American Prospect's David Dayen argued last week that Biden has significant leeway to accomplish progressive goals without needing a vote in the closely divided Congress.

"Biden could cancel student debt for 42 million borrowers. He could give millions more workers access to overtime pay," Dayen wrote, outlining just a handful of steps the president has yet to take. "He could deschedule marijuana from the list of controlled substances, effectively legalizing a burgeoning industry. His IRS could end the carried interest loophole that makes private equity so attractive and prohibit private equity management fees."

But Jayapal acknowledged Sunday that executive action won't be enough to accomplish every objective set out in the Build Back Better agenda. Extending the boosted child tax credit (CTC), for instance, will likely require legislation.

"We can't be naive about the difficulty of once again negotiating with someone who has not kept his commitments," Jayapal wrote, referring to Manchin, who reportedly wants to zero out the CTC expansion. "But legislation remains the best path for delivering enduring relief."

"Nor can we underestimate the urgency to act, especially as Covid is surging and so many constituencies—seniors, people of color, working and young people—are disillusioned," she added. "Democrats must prove that their voices and their votes matter, and that we can produce tangible economic assistance... This moment for the Biden administration and Congress can either lead to our greatest failure or our greatest success."

21 million+ going hungry in US as Manchin tanks expanded child tax credit

Data released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that more than 21 million people across the country live in households where there was "sometimes or often not enough to eat in the last seven days," a five-month high.

The new figures come as the expanded child tax credit (CTC)—a program that has helped millions of families afford food and other necessities during the pandemic—is set to lapse due to the opposition of Republican lawmakers and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who reportedly wants to remove the benefit from Democrats' Build Back Better package.

While Manchin has publicly claimed to support the CTC, HuffPost reported earlier this week that the West Virginia Democrat told his Senate colleagues behind closed doors that "he thought parents would waste monthly child tax credit payments on drugs instead of providing for their children"—a narrative that critics decried as insidious and false.

According to the new Census Bureau figures, 9.7% of U.S. households were food insecure in the period between December 1 and 13—a percentage that progressive lawmakers and advocates fear will rise sharply if Congress lets the boosted CTC expire at the end of the year. More than 10% of West Virginia households went without adequate food in early December, the data shows.

"Here's the reality of the situation: If expanded child tax credit payments stop going out, roughly 10 million children could sink into poverty," Friends Committee on National Legislation warned earlier this week. "We're going to keep pushing for an extension of the CTC until it happens. Child hunger is too high a price to pay."

After the first tranche of monthly CTC payments went out in July, the percentage of U.S. families with kids that reported not having enough to eat fell substantially, Census Bureau data showed at the time.

"Families received their sixth child tax credit payment last week, and they have come to depend on these payments to cover the essentials like rent, groceries, heat, and clothing for their children," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement on Sunday. "Food insecurity among families dropped by about 25% since these payments began. Child poverty has been cut nearly in half."

"This program is Social Security for our children," he added, "and Democrats must keep it going over the long-term."

The Treasury Department said on December 15—when the final scheduled monthly CTC payment went out—that the families of 61 million U.S. children have benefited from the program, which was implemented as part of the American Rescue Plan.

In its current form, Democrats' $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act would extend for another year the monthly CTC payments of up to $300 per child under the age of six and $250 per child between the ages of six and 17.

But the path forward for the social spending and climate legislation remains unclear after Manchin announced his opposition to the bill in a Fox News appearance on Sunday. Last week, Manchin reportedly presented a $1.8 trillion counteroffer to the White House, which declined to accept because the proposal left out the expanded CTC entirely.

The White House has ruled out attempting to extend the boosted CTC with standalone legislation, which would require the support of every Senate Democrat and at least 10 Republicans. Not a single congressional Republican has endorsed Democrats' expanded CTC program.

If Congress allows the current version of the CTC to expire, the program will revert to its previous form, which provided yearly lump-sum payments but excluded the poorest families with its regressive income phase-in.

Eugenia Harper, a 38-year-old mother of two children, told the Washington Post on Wednesday that the monthly CTC payments have "given us that extra help that we're not able to get from friends or family."

"I get child support and the child tax credit, and I've been able to manage on that," said Harper, who reduced her hours working as a home health aide due to coronavirus concerns. "There's no thrills and frills. We need this money just to survive."

Report spotlights massive GOP push to 'hijack elections in this country'

A detailed analysis published Thursday shines further light on the Republican Party's sprawling assault on voting rights and the democratic process nationwide, an effort that includes legislation that would "politicize, criminalize, and interfere" with elections.

Compiled by the States United Democracy Center, Protect Democracy, and Law Forward, the new report identifies at least 262 bills in 41 states that—if enacted—would "interfere with election administration." More than 30 such measures have become law in 17 Republican-led states.

"This is an all-hands-on-deck moment."

But the report makes clear that the intensifying Republican attack on democracy reaches far beyond the legislative process. "The nature of the threat," the authors warn, "has metastasized beyond proposing or passing bills."

"As we look toward 2022, we anticipate the anti-democratic strategy will consist of four key pillars: (i) changing the rules to make it easier to undermine the will of the voters; (ii) changing the people who defend our democratic system by sidelining, replacing, or attacking professional election officials; (iii) promoting controversial constitutional theories about our elections to justify partisan takeovers; and (iv) eroding public confidence and trust in elections," the analysis notes. "These four pillars are the foundation for election sabotage, contrary to the will of the voters."

Joanna Lydgate, CEO of the States United Democracy Center—a nonpartisan organization—said Thursday that "we're seeing an effort to hijack elections in this country, and ultimately, to take power away from the American people."

"The anti-democracy playbook is simple: change the rules, change the players, so they can change the outcome," said Lydgate. "These coordinated efforts are based on the same lies about the 2020 election that led to a violent insurrection. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for those who care about protecting our republic and free and fair elections."

The report cites a number of specific examples of the GOP's attempted election subversion, which could have major impacts on the 2022 midterms and beyond. Republicans need to flip just five Democratic-held U.S. House seats to take control of the chamber.

"In Michigan, in eight of the eleven largest counties in the state, county Republican parties have systematically replaced their appointees to county canvassing boards with election deniers who embrace conspiracy theories and lies about the 2020 election," the report observes. "In Pennsylvania, the state legislature threatened to impeach the members of two county election commissions who voted to count timely received mail-in or absentee ballots that lacked a date handwritten by the voter."

"At the Secretary of State level," the report continues, "a number of candidates running in 2022 are campaigning on radical positions that would undercut independent election administration. Indeed, former President Donald Trump has endorsed three candidates for Secretary of State who contend that he won the 2020 presidential election: Mark Finchem in Arizona, Jody Hice in Georgia, and Kristina Karamo in Michigan."

Mel Barnes, staff counsel at the Wisconsin-based litigation firm Law Forward, said in a statement that the new analysis "demonstrates how urgent the need is to focus on what's happening to our country's democracy and address it head on."

"State legislatures are rolling back voting rights and sabotaging elections at the same time—we cannot remain idle," Barnes added.

In the face of Republicans' coordinated push to suppress the vote in states across the U.S., Senate Democrats have failed to approve legislation that would negate draconian GOP laws and bolster the franchise at the federal level.

This past weekend, the Senate Democratic leadership ignored calls to work through the holidays and adjourned for the year without approving voting rights legislation.

Republicans in the upper chamber have repeatedly wielded the 60-vote filibuster rule to block Democratic voting rights bills, including a compromise measure backed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Despite the GOP's unceasing obstruction, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have refused to support changes to the filibuster rule.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden voiced support for a filibuster carve-out that would allow voting rights legislation to pass with a simple majority vote, a proposal that Manchin has thus far declined to endorse.

"The only thing standing between getting voting rights legislation passed and not getting passed is the filibuster," Biden told ABC News. "I support making an exception on voting rights for the filibuster."

As soon as the first week of January, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is expected to try once more to advance a voting rights bill in the upper chamber. If Republicans filibuster, Schumer wrote in a recent letter to colleagues, the Senate will "consider changes to any rules which prevent us from debating and reaching final conclusion on important legislation."

Sanders calls for DeJoy's resignation over Postal Service 'sabotage'

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday urged President Joe Biden to immediately request the resignation of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, citing the Republican megadonor's ongoing "sabotage" of the U.S. Postal Service and potential conflicts of interest.

In a statement, Sanders (I-Vt.) argued that "by any objective measure, Louis DeJoy, a top campaign contributor of Donald Trump, has been, by far and away, the worst postmaster general in the modern history of America."

Since DeJoy took charge of the USPS in 2020, Sanders said, "the quality of the Postal Service has been severely undermined"—a criticism that other lawmakers and advocates have leveled over the past year and a half as the postmaster general has rushed ahead with sweeping changes to mail operations nationwide.

"Tragically, the situation has only gotten worse since Mr. DeJoy began implementing his disastrous 10-year plan to substantially slow down mail delivery, cut back on post office hours, shut down mail processing plants, and dismantle mail sorting machines," the Vermont senator said Thursday. "Senior citizens have experienced massive delays in receiving the lifesaving prescription drugs they desperately need and working families have been forced to pay late fees because it is taking much longer than normal for the Postal Service to mail their bills."

Sanders went on to warn that the Biden administration's newly announced plan to distribute 500 million free at-home coronavirus tests could be undercut by "the deterioration of the Postal Service under Mr. DeJoy."

"How can anyone have confidence that these life-saving tests will be delivered to the American people in a timely and efficient manner? I think the obvious answer to that question is they cannot," said Sanders. "The United States Postal Service is a vital part of our economy and our way of life. We need a postmaster general who will strengthen and expand the Postal Service, not someone who continues to undermine and sabotage it. It is long past time for Mr. DeJoy to go."

Sanders' demand came weeks after Biden moved to replace Ron Bloom and John Barger, two DeJoy loyalists on the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors—the body with the power to remove the postmaster general.

If the Senate confirms Biden's nominees to replace Bloom and Barger, the president's picks will have a majority on the nine-member postal board and enough votes to oust DeJoy, who is reportedly under FBI investigation in connection to his past fundraising activities.

Despite the firestorm of criticism he's received over his performance as postmaster general and alleged financial conflicts, DeJoy has previously said he has no intention of leaving his position any time soon.

Asked during a February congressional hearing how long he plans to remain postmaster general, DeJoy responded: "A long time. Get used to me."

'We will bury neoliberalism': Global celebration follows leftist victory in Chile

Socialist Gabriel Boric's victory in Chile's high-stakes presidential election Sunday was hailed by progressives worldwide as an inspiring example of how a democratic groundswell can overcome deeply entrenched forces of reaction and chart a path toward a more just, equal, and sustainable future.

Riding a massive wave of anger at Chile's neoliberal political establishment and the economic inequities it has perpetuated, Boric—a 35-year-old former student activist—handily defeated José Antonio Kast, a lawyer and politician whom one commentator characterized as "easily as reactionary as far-right dictator Augusto Pinochet," the leader of the U.S.-backed military junta that ruled Chile with an iron fist for nearly two decades.

"At last. The specter of Pinochet is removed from Chile," declared former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, a co-founder of Progressive International, which sent members of its observatory to monitor the election and ensure fairness.

"Congratulations to fellow Progressive International member Gabriel Boric," Varoufakis added. "The hard work to redistribute wealth in Chile begins now."

The Peace and Justice Project, an organization founded by former British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, expressed hope that Boric's resounding win will usher in "a bright new dawn in Latin American politics."

Boric, who ran on the promise to undo the lingering vestiges of Pinochet's regime, will become the youngest president in Chile's history when he takes office in March. The transition of power comes amid national turmoil fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic and deep-seated economic and political crises that have made the South American nation one of the most unequal OECD countries.

Last month, Chileans voted by an overwhelming margin to rewrite the nation's Pinochet-era constitution, an indication of the widespread desire for systemic change.

"If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave. Do not be afraid of the youth changing this country," said Boric, who has vowed to cancel student debt, impose higher taxes on the wealthy, oppose environmentally destructive mining initiatives, and scrap Chile's private pension system—another leftover from the Pinochet regime.

"We are a generation that emerged in public life demanding our rights be respected as rights and not treated like consumer goods or a business," Boric said in his victory speech Sunday. "We no longer will permit that the poor keep paying the price of Chile's inequality."

Leftist leaders across South America—including Bolivian President Luis Arce, Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—celebrated Boric's win over his far-right opponent as a triumph for democracy.

"The victory you have achieved is that of the Chilean people and the Latin American peoples share it," Castillo tweeted late Sunday. "Let us continue fighting for the unity of our nations."

Progressive International member Convergencia Social, the left-wing political party led by Boric, said in a statement Monday that "for decades, our people have expressed their dreams and hopes on the streets and in the squares."

"Through creativity and hope, we have built the road to a new Chile, one that is more democratic, one with social rights and a new way of relating to the environment," the party said. "Now, we will travel down that road to a new Chile. Together, we will bury neoliberalism and rebuild the world."

Progressives demand floor vote to spotlight Manchin's 'contempt' for his constituents

Update:

In a letter sent to colleagues Monday morning, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that "the Senate will, in fact, consider the Build Back Better Act, very early in the new year, so that every member of this body has the opportunity to make their position known on the Senate floor, not just on television."

"We are going to vote on a revised version of the House-passed Build Back Better Act—and we will keep voting until we get something done," Schumer wrote.

Earlier:

Progressive lawmakers on Sunday urged Democratic leaders to immediately bring the Build Back Better Act to the Senate floor for a vote so Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia can go on the record opposing climate action, poverty-slashing child benefits, Medicaid expansion, and other popular proposals in the $1.75 trillion bill.

"The people deserve and demand a vote on the Build Back Better Act," Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) said in a statement after Manchin announced he would oppose the reconciliation package, even after it was dramatically weakened to assuage his cynical concerns about the bill's impact on inflation and the national debt.

Manchin's opposition alone is enough to tank the House-passed legislation, an outcome that could have major consequences for the economy and the planet.

"The Senate must return to session immediately and bring this historic and transformational bill to a vote so Senator Manchin—and every Republican who has opposed it from the very beginning—can demonstrate, on the record, the contempt they have for their constituents and for everyone who calls America home," Pressley added.

Other progressive members of Congress—including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.)—sent a similar message in response to Manchin's decision to block the Build Back Better Act, which he announced in a Sunday morning appearance on Fox News.

"If Joe Manchin wants to say he's a 'no' on the child tax credit, affordable housing, and protecting our climate, then let him vote no on the Senate floor—not on Fox News," Bowman wrote on Twitter. "Enough is enough."

Thus far the Senate Democratic leadership has not signaled any plans to bring the Build Back Better Act to the floor as long as it doesn't have the 50 votes needed to pass.

The upper chamber adjourned for holiday recess late last week, brushing aside calls for senators to work through the holidays on the reconciliation bill, voting rights, and other pressing agenda items.

Manchin's announcement Sunday came as little surprise to progressives, who had long argued that Democratic leaders should keep the Build Back Better Act tied to a bipartisan infrastructure bill that Manchin helped craft alongside Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and a group of Senate Republicans.

Last month, House Democrats—with the support of most members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—opted to pass the fossil fuel-friendly bipartisan bill first despite warnings that Manchin would be free to tank the Build Back Better Act once his favored legislation was signed into law, a scenario that now appears to be unfolding.

“There are six of us that have been saying this all along: Representative Ocasio-Cortez, Representative Pressley, Representative Tlaib, Representative Bowman, Representative Omar, and myself," Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said in an appearance on MSNBC Sunday. "We have been saying this, for weeks, that this would happen."

"Having those coupled together was the only leverage we had. And what did the caucus do? We tossed it," Bush lamented.

On top of the collapse of key child benefits and other safety-net policies that are popular in Manchin's home state of West Virginia and nationwide, the failure of the Build Back Better Act could also mean the death of a once-in-a-generation chance to make substantive investments in tackling the climate crisis, which is wreaking havoc and taking lives across the globe.

Manchin, a longtime ally of Big Oil and a coal profiteer, removed several of the legislation's more ambitious climate provisions during recent weeks of negotiations, but the measure would still have invested roughly $550 billion in renewable energy initiatives over the next decade—a crucial window for climate action as global temperatures continue to rise unabated.

"If the bill truly is a goner, it will be much more than a political setback for the Biden agenda," noted Vox's Rebecca Leber. "It will be a colossal tragedy for the planet and future generations, which are depending on the U.S. government to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels this decade with major legislation like this bill, to avoid the worst effects of climate change."

In a statement released Sunday, Sunrise Movement executive director Varshini Prakash argued that "we do not live in a democracy when Joe Manchin, a coal baron with clear conflicts of interest, can kill lifesaving climate legislation that is backed by the American people, President Biden, and 49 other senators."

"Let's be clear: the death of BBB isn't just Joe Manchin’s fault," said Prakash. "The failure of BBB passing is also on Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer. They had a moral obligation to play hard ball with Joe Manchin, and chose not to. History will remember Joe Biden and Democrats for failing to curb emissions and save working people when they had the chance."

"Our leaders have failed us," she added, "and we will replace you."

'Acting like Republicans': Sanders rips Manchin and Sinema for betraying US families

With Democrats' Build Back Better package hanging in the balance, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Thursday called out fellow Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for "acting like Republicans" as they continue to withhold support from their party's popular legislative agenda.

"You got 50 people in the Republican caucus," Sanders said in an appearance on MSNBC Thursday night, amid reports that the Senate GOP is "watching from the sidelines with glee" as Build Back Better talks falter.

"We have gotten no support from them to lower the cost of prescription drugs, to expand Medicare to include dental, hearing, eyeglasses," said Sanders. "No support from them for child care, for housing... No support to deal with the existential threat of climate change."

"You got 48 people in the Democratic caucus... and a president of the United States prepared to think big," the Vermont senator continued. "And you have two Democrats who, in my view, are kind of acting like Republicans."

Sanders, who helped craft the original $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan that has since been slashed in half by corporate Democrats, said that while he respects the alternative viewpoints of his colleagues, "I do not respect the arrogance of any member of the Senate who says, 'You know what, I'm going to torpedo this entire bill,'" which the Vermont senator noted is popular with the U.S. public, including 89% of Democratic voters.

"You got two people who say, 'You know what, hey if you don't do it my way—I don't care what the president wants, I don't care what 48 of my colleagues want—it's my way or the highway,'" Sanders said. "And that I regard as arrogance... You fight for your ideas, but you don't say, 'My way or the highway.'"

Manchin, who for months has been one of the chief obstacles to passage of the Build Back Better Act, threatened to derail the package once again this week by demanding—behind closed doors—that Democrats zero out the expanded child tax credit, which will lapse if Democrats don't approve the reconciliation package before the end of the year.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) noted in a recent analysis that Democrats' program "increased the child tax credit for more than 65 million U.S. children—roughly 90% of children." In its current form, the Build Back Better Act would extend the program for another year.

"An estimated 9.9 million children are at risk of slipping back below the poverty line or deeper into poverty if the expansion is not extended," CBPP warned.

Sanders told reporters earlier this week that if Manchin and other right-wing senators truly want to end the boosted child tax credit, "they've got to come forward to the American people and say, 'Hey, we don't think you need help.'"

"Let them tell the American people that," Sanders added.

'This is Manchin against us': Poor people's campaign targets corporate Democrats at DC rally

With the rallying cry "Get It Done in '21," low-wage workers, caregivers, and activists from across the country converged on Washington, D.C. Monday to demand that Sen. Joe Manchin and other right-wing Democrats stop stonewalling progress on the Build Back Better Act, voting rights legislation, and other urgent priorities.

Organized by the national Poor People's Campaign and other groups, the demonstration included West Virginians who joined a motorcade that began at Manchin's state office in Martinsburg and ended on Capitol Hill, where participants blasted corporate-backed Democrats for obstructing measures that would protect the franchise from the GOP's nationwide assault, fund green energy initiatives, and bolster the social safety net.

"We're gathered here today to declare our independence from corporate lobbyists, the money-grabbers, and those who control the narrative about what's possible here in the United States," Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, told rallygoers in a fiery speech. "They want to separate us. They want you to fight for voting rights over here, and fight for living wages over there."

"That's the Washington, D.C. two-step. We know what game you're playing, and you ain't dividing us no more, no how, no way," Barber continued. "We come to say, 'Get it done in 2021.' If you don't get it done in '21, we are coming double in '22, and '23, and '24, and '25."

The demonstration featured speakers from several states who traveled to the nation's capital on Monday to voice outrage over continued congressional inaction in the face of widespread poverty, voter suppression, and climate chaos, such as the deadly tornado system that ravaged parts of the South and Midwest over the weekend.

"I'm a working father of three from Arizona, and I'm joining sisters and brothers here today to demand a full Build Back Better plan and to protect and expand voting rights," said John Wessel McCoy, a member of the Poor People's Campaign. "And while you're at it, get rid of that racist filibuster."

Guadalupe de la Cruz of Florida called attention to the importance of the expanded child tax credit, a benefit that could lapse if Democrats don't pass the Build Back Better Act before the end of the year—potentially pushing 10 million children back into poverty.

"The CTC helped me find a way to catch a break," she said.

The event came as Democrats in Congress continued to iron out the details of their flagship social spending and climate legislation, which can pass only if every member of the Senate Democratic caucus votes yes.

But at least two Democratic senators, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have not yet committed to supporting the final $1.75 package, which right-wing Democrats cut nearly in half by slashing funding for some programs and entirely removing key provisions—from an ambitious clean electricity program to tuition-free community college to dental and vision benefits for Medicare recipients.

In West Virginia, as Kaiser Health News reported last week, "a quarter of people 65 and older have no natural teeth, the highest rate of any state in the country, according to federal data."

"Medicare doesn't cover most dental care, but consumer advocates had hoped that would change this year after Democrats took control of the White House and Congress," the outlet noted. "But those chances are looking slim because at least one Democratic senator—Joe Manchin of, yes, West Virginia—opposes adding dental and other benefits for Medicare beneficiaries."

To the dismay of progressives nationwide, Democrats have also made no discernible progress toward passing a substantive voting rights bill as state-level Republicans engage in aggressive partisan redistricting and push legislation that would suppress the vote on a massive scale.

Republicans in Congress have repeatedly filibustered Democratic efforts to start debate on several voting rights bills, obstruction that has fueled grassroots demands for filibuster reform or abolition.

But Manchin and Sinema have refused to alter the 60-vote rule.

"Fifty-two senators—50 Republicans and two Democrats—are blocking millions of people [from the benefits of the Build Back Better Act],” Barber said in an MSNBC appearance ahead of Monday's demonstration. "It is a form of abuse, political abuse. It is sinful, it is wrong, and so the people from 33 states—impacted people—are coming to say, this is not Biden against Manchin. This is Manchin against us.”

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, said in a statement Monday that "poor and low-income people are saying that we can no longer wait for voting rights, living wages, healthcare, immigration reform, and so much more."

"We also must take lifesaving action to compel Congress and the White House to defend our democracy and lift from the bottom so everyone rises," Theoharis added.

Sinema targeted over 'morally unforgivable' tax loophole for the rich

A group of wealthy investors and business leaders who support progressive taxation launched a campaign Tuesday aimed at pushing Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to back efforts to repeal the carried interest loophole, which allows rich private equity moguls to substantially reduce their tax bills.

According to Patriotic Millionaires, the organization behind the new effort, Sinema (D-Ariz.) is the only member of the Senate Democratic caucus opposed to eliminating the loophole, a longtime target of progressives.

Private equity interests, for their part, have aggressively lobbied Congress—and Sinema in particular—to keep the profitable carveout intact. Thus far their influence-peddling has succeeded in keeping any proposed repeal of the tax break out of Democrats' Build Back Better Act, which the Senate is expected to vote on before the Christmas holiday.

"The carried interest is the most intellectually indefensible, morally unforgivable loophole in the entire tax code, and Senator Sinema's defense of it is patently absurd," Erica Payne, president and founder of the Patriotic Millionaires, said in a statement. "Every Democrat in the Senate, even Joe Manchin, is on board with closing this ridiculous loophole except for Senator Sinema. It's time for her to decide who she works for: Arizonans, or private equity billionaires."

As part of the pressure campaign, Patriotic Millionaires members—including Karen Stewart of Arizona, a former Certified Financial Planner and finance professor—took out full-page ads in local newspapers and plan to hold demonstrations outside Sinema's regional office to demand that she change her stance on the loophole.

"Sinema's support for preserving the carried interest loophole for Wall Street elites comes at the expense of the tax-paying voters in her own backyard," said Stewart. "Special interests and wealthy lobbyists should not decide the future of our nation. What American families need right now are lawmakers willing to prioritize them over the millionaires and billionaires, not a mouthpiece for the already rich and powerful."

Sinema full-page ad

Carried interest refers to the portion of an investment firm’s profit that is paid to fund managers, who—under current tax rules—are allowed to treat the income as long-term capital gains, which are taxed at a lower rate than labor income.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that taxing carried interest as ordinary income would raise roughly $20 billion in federal revenue over a decade.

Despite broad support for such a policy change within the Democratic caucus, it is not among the tax measures in Democrats' $1.75 trillion reconciliation bill.

Sinema, a major obstacle to Democrats' plans to raise taxes on the wealthy, has recently held fundraisers with private equity interests that would be hit by repeal of the carried interest loophole. The Intercept reported in September that over "the past two years, Sinema has received tens of thousands of dollars in maxed-out donations from private equity partners... and investment firm CEOs."

In an open letter to Sinema published as full-page ads in local newspapers across Arizona, Payne, Stewart, and Patriotic Millionaires chair Morris Pearl argue that "closing tax loopholes for billionaires is the easiest, fastest, most productive way to 'pay for' new investments in the country and simultaneously unrig an economy that 70% of Americans think is rigged against them (Guess what? They're right)."

"Which leads us to the real question at the heart of all of this," the letter continues. "Who exactly are you working for, Senator Sinema: Arizonans or The Billionaires?"

'Maddening': White House dismisses idea of mailing out free COVID tests like other nations

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday rejected the idea of having the federal government mail free Covid-19 tests to households across the United States, a solution that has long been part of other nations' efforts to combat the pandemic.

During a press briefing, a reporter asked Psaki why the U.S. continues to lag behind the United Kingdom, Germany, South Korea, and other countries in making rapid Covid-19 tests easily affordable and accessible to all who want or need one—an objective that has gained importance amid fears of another winter surge fueled by the Omicron variant, which has been detected in at least 15 U.S. states.

Psaki responded by outlining a new White House plan under which Americans will be able to seek reimbursement from their private health insurers to cover the costs of rapid, over-the-counter coronavirus tests.

The plan—which likely won't take effect until mid-January—sparked immediate criticism when it was released last week, given that it will force people to navigate the byzantine private insurance system to get a refund on tests that remain expensive in the U.S. more than a year and a half into the pandemic.

"That's kind of complicated though," the reporter told Psaki on Tuesday. "Why not just make them free and give them out to—and have them available everywhere?"

To which Psaki replied, "Should we just send one to every American?"—seeming to dismiss the idea as ludicrous.

"Then what happens if you, if every American, has one test?" Psaki added. "How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?... I think we share the same objective, which is to make them less expensive and more accessible. Right? Every country is going to do that differently."

Watch:

The exchange angered public health experts who have long argued that the U.S. approach to testing is badly inadequate, hindering the nation's ability to detect and limit outbreaks of the virus. It is unconscionable, experts say, for a country as rich as the U.S. not to make rapid Covid-19 testing free and universally available.

"This answer was terrible, flippant, wrong," Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves wrote in a tweet directed at Psaki. "Rapid tests are hard to get, expensive, and could be a key intervention in fighting Covid-19. Other countries have figured out better ways to get these tools into the hands of their citizens. Do better."

Natalie Shure, a healthcare writer and columnist for The New Republic, called Psaki's comments "maddening."

"Of course the tests should be free, and all over the place!" Shure argued. "This is already happening elsewhere! It's gobsmacking how ill-prepared she was for this question, which suggests this isn't the urgent and overarching concern it ought to be in Bidenland right now."

In a report published last month, the Kaiser Family Foundation noted that several peer countries of the U.S. "have made rapid home tests widely available and at little or no cost."

"The U.K. government, for example, provides up to seven tests per day to those who cannot get tests from work or school and recommends each individual screen themselves twice weekly," KFF observed. "Providing up to seven tests per person allow one individual to collect tests for a whole household. Germany, until recently, made rapid antigen tests freely available as well (and tests can still be purchased for a few dollars in grocery stores)."

Last month, Germany moved to reintroduce free testing as coronavirus infections surged across the nation.

In the U.S., by contrast, "tests range from $9 each to $24 for a box of two (which are more commonly available)," Annalisa Merelli of Quartz reported last week.

"They are only sold in pharmacies," she added, "and hardly an everyday tool at the level of a mask, or hand sanitizer."

'Global empire of the US Christian right': Dark money fuels attacks on abortion rights worldwide

An investigation by the media outlet openDemocracy revealed Friday that the dark money groups masterminding the far-right assault on reproductive freedoms in the U.S. have also spent at least $28 million in recent years on efforts to roll back the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people worldwide.

The new analysis shows that prominent anti-abortion groups including the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Federalist Society, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the Family Research Council, and Focus on the Family and Heartbeat International have "been involved in recent efforts to limit reproductive rights in Europe and Latin America."

The organizations form what openDemocracy describes as "the 'dark money' global empire of the U.S. Christian right," which is exporting its legal strategy, army of lawyers, and resources overseas to forestall and reverse international progress on abortion access.

ADF, a far-right Christian legal advocacy group with ties to Justice Amy Coney Barrett, has spent years laying the groundwork for the draconian Mississippi abortion ban at the heart of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, a Supreme Court case that could imperil reproductive freedoms across the U.S.

But ADF's influence extends well beyond its home country. According to openDemocracy, the organization—whose global arm is called ADF International—spent $15.3 million between 2016 and 2019 on efforts to gut abortion rights overseas.

"The European offices of ACLJ and ADF have intervened in dozens of European court cases against sexual and reproductive rights," the outlet notes. "Last year, Poland's constitutional court voted to ban abortion in cases of fetal defects. [ACLJ] submitted arguments in favor of the new restrictions, condemned by the Council of Europe as a grave 'human rights violation.'"

"The European branch of ACLJ also intervened for the first time at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights," openDemocracy observes. "The government of El Salvador, where abortion is illegal in all circumstances, was sued for the imprisonment and death of a woman who had experienced a miscarriage."

As for the Federalist Society—of which all six current right-wing Supreme Court justices are either current or former members—"Europe was the main destination of foreign spending," openDemocracy finds.

"Europeans are too naive in thinking that achievements in women's rights and sexual and reproductive health are irreversible," said Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, told the outlet. "The anti-choice movement does not only have a lot of money, they also have a plan and the determination. Europe should wake up, and it should wake up fast."

While under U.S. tax law the far-right groups have largely succeeded in keeping their funding sources hidden from the public, openDemocracy examined "financial information disclosed by grantmakers" showing that the National Christian Foundation (NCF) and Fidelity Charitable donated $93 million to the organizations between 2016 and 2020.

openDemocracy graphic

Feminist researcher Sonia Corrêa of Sexuality Policy Watch said openDemocracy's report "exposes once again the long-running organic connections between anti-abortion forces in the U.S. and Latin America."

Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, similarly argued that the findings "further demonstrate the growing trend of religious extremists forging cross-border alliances to advance... pseudo-legal arguments and engaging in formal legal processes aiming to unstitch the fabric of human rights protection."

In an op-ed for the New York Times on Thursday, openDemocracy's Mary Fitzgerald argued that if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Mississippi's abortion ban and undercuts Roe v. Wade, the nation will "join of a small cadre of increasingly authoritarian countries that have become more restrictive on abortion in recent years."

Fitzgerald went on to cite specific examples:

Poland's constitutional tribunal ruled on a retrograde abortion ban last year which effectively banned abortion in all cases apart from rape, incest or threat of life or health to the mother, after the ruling Law and Justice party packed the court.
Hungary's Viktor Orban is ramping up its talk on "family values," and a 2016 United Nations report criticized the country for obstructing abortion access.
Vladimir Putin's Russia has just joined the misleadingly titled Geneva Consensus Declaration: a document co-sponsored by the United States under the Trump administration with repressive governments including Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Mr. Orban's Hungary, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's Egypt, and signed by dozens more of the world's most repressive regimes from Saudi Arabia to Uganda. (President Biden announced in January that the United States would withdraw.) The declaration's authors also claim that there is no international right to abortion.

"Later this month President Biden will host the Summit for Democracy, with a key focus on promoting human rights around the world," Fitzgerald noted. "But as U.S. courts continue to dismantle basic rights enjoyed in countless other modern democracies, the most pressing question must be: How can democracy do its job at home if only half the population is granted full human rights?"

'Entirely avoidable': Rich countries blamed as new COVID variant sparks global alarm

The detection of a new, heavily mutated, and potentially vaccine-resistant coronavirus variant in Botswana and other nations is sending shockwaves worldwide as public health officials rush to understand the strain and its possible impact on the global pandemic response.

For vaccine equity campaigners and epidemiologists, the emergence of another highly contagious coronavirus mutation is far from surprising given the massive inoculation gap between rich and poor countries, which has left billions of people across the globe without access to lifesaving shots—and kept the door open to variants.

Botswana, where the new strain was first identified earlier this month, has fully vaccinated just 20% of its population.

Tim Bierley of the U.K.-based advocacy group Global Justice Now said in a statement that the B.1.1.529 mutation is an "entirely avoidable" consequence of deliberate policy decisions by rich countries, which have hoarded vaccine doses and refused to force pharmaceutical giants to share technology with developing nations.

"The U.K. has actively prevented low and middle-income countries from having equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines. We have created the conditions for this variant to emerge," Bierley said, referring to the British government's opposition to a proposed patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines.

"For more than a year, South Africa, Botswana, and most countries have been calling for world leaders to waive intellectual property on coronavirus vaccines, tests, and treatments so they can produce their own jabs," Bierley noted. "It's a vital measure that will be discussed at next week’s World Trade Organization conference. But, so far, the U.K. and E.U. have recklessly blocked it from making progress."

“There have been countless warnings that super-variants could emerge if we do not remove artificial barriers to global vaccination," he continued. "If and when this new variant starts to tear through the world, remember that the British government has led opposition to the plan that could have stopped it.”

Srinivas Murthy, an infectious disease expert, echoed that sentiment.

"Allowing new variants to emerge and spread, 13 months into the vaccine era, is a policy choice by the rich world," he argued.

In marked contrast to their slow-walking of the proposed patent waiver, European countries sprang into action in response to the new variant, moving to impose fresh travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa as global markets tumbled.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said Friday that the body will "propose, in close coordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529."

"Rich nations are very quick to ban travel but very slow to share vaccines and know-how," said Madhu Pai, Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology and Global Health at McGill University.

Dr. Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, tweeted that the renewed push to cut off travel "was our greatest fear, and [we] were almost prophetic in predicting that the world would eventually shut Africa out having denied us access to vaccines."

At a press conference on Thursday, South African Health Minister Dr. Joe Phaahla said the B.1.1.529 variant—which has thus far been detected in Botswana, South Africa, and Hong Kong—may have been behind recent coronavirus outbreaks in the small South African province of Gauteng. (Update: The first case of the B.1.1.529 variant in Europe was identified in Belgium on Friday.)

"Rest assured that as people move in the next coming weeks, this [variant] will be all over," he warned.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, a renowned bioinformatician, told the media that in the B.1.1.529 variant, "what we see is this very unusual constellation of mutations."

"This is concerning," he said, "for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility."

As Nature reported, "The variant stood out because it contains more than 30 changes to the spike protein—the SARS-CoV-2 protein that recognizes host cells and is the main target of the body's immune responses."

"Many of the changes have been found in variants such as Delta and Alpha and are linked to heightened infectivity and the ability to evade infection-blocking antibodies," the outlet noted.

GOP offers taste of 2022 attack ads if Democrats approve tax cut for millionaires

The top Republican on the House Budget Committee offered an early look this week at the kind of attack ad that Democrats are sure to face ahead of the crucial midterm elections if they ignore progressives' warnings and keep a large tax cut for wealthy households in their Build Back Better package.

On Monday, Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) shared a 60-second spot lampooning House Democrats' plan to raise the cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions from $10,000 to $80,000 through 2026—a proposal that would predominantly benefit the rich. One recent analysis estimated that U.S. millionaires would receive an average tax cut of $16,760 from the provision.

The Missouri Republican's ad opens with a clip of President Joe Biden demanding in a speech before Congress that the "wealthiest 1% of Americans just begin to pay their fair share."

"Fair share? Let's talk about the wealthy's fair share in the Democrats' agenda," the ad's narrator interjects. "Let's talk about SALT... Basically, the Democrats' way of giving the rich a tax cut."

Smith's ad echoes recent—and, given their past support for massive tax handouts to the rich, cynical—attacks from the right-wing group Heritage Action and the Republican National Committee, messaging that came as no surprise to progressive commentators who've been warning that the SALT provision is both economically unjustifiable and politically toxic for Democrats.

"Democrats' SALT tax giveaway is handing Republicans a potent political weapon to crush Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections," The Daily Poster's David Sirota tweeted Monday, highlighting Smith's ad. "This is a preview of the campaign ad that Republicans are going to run all over the country if Democrats somehow insist on giving giant SALT tax breaks to a tiny handful of very rich people in affluent Democratic locales."

The SALT provision is the second most expensive component of the Build Back Better package that the House passed last week, with estimates indicating it would cost $285 billion over a five-year period. By comparison, the bill would invest just $235 billion in clean energy and climate resilience programs over five years.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—who has dubbed the SALT cap increase "bad politics" and "bad policy"—is leading an effort in the Senate to make the provision less favorable to wealthy households. Earlier this month, Sanders and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) put forth a compromise proposal that would eliminate the SALT cap for households making less than $400,000 a year and phase the cap in for rich households.

"In terms of SALT, we must protect the middle class from high local and state taxes," Sanders said last week. "But we cannot provide 39% of the benefits to the top 1%—as is in the House bill. At a time of massive income inequality, we must increase taxes on the 1%, not give them huge tax breaks."

Steve Wamhoff of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy applauded the Sanders-Menendez plan and noted that "an earlier ITEP report examined this compromise and found that it costs less than a third as much as repealing the cap fully and is much less regressive."

"The SALT cap is the only significant provision of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that limits tax breaks for the rich," Wamhoff observed, referring to the GOP's notorious tax law. "To be sure, Republicans included this revenue-raising provision in their bill because it mainly takes tax breaks from people living in high-tax states, which are mostly 'blue' states. This is clearly not a sound way to make tax policy."

"But the answer cannot be to simply repeal the SALT cap, as many congressional Democrats propose," Wamhoff added. "Estimates from ITEP show that the majority of benefits from fully repealing the SALT cap would go to the richest 1%."

In an op-ed for The Guardian earlier this week, Sirota warned that approval of the SALT provision in its current form is "a dream scenario for Republicans" hoping to take back control of Congress:

Ahead of the 2022 elections, the Republican Party seems to sense the opportunity already.

Senator Tim Scott, the Republican from South Carolina, recently tweeted, "The Democrats' SALT tax deduction is almost exclusively a tax cut for the rich. They're out here yelling 'tax the rich' while crafting handouts for the wealthy behind closed doors."

In October, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized "Democrats' obsession with the so-called SALT cap," saying: "Even as our colleagues draft the biggest tax hikes in half a century, they cannot resist the concept of special tax cuts for high earners in blue states."

"There is still an opportunity for Senate Democrats to block the most egregious of these tax breaks," Sirota argued. "But if Democrats instead advance their current proposal, the Republican rhetoric is likely a preview of what's to come in 2022—a redux of some of the Tea Party's most effective attacks during the 2010 midterms."

Right-wing Dems blasted for 'hypocrisy' as military budget far exceeds cost of Biden’s agenda

Right-wing Democrats who have spent the past several months griping about the cost of the Build Back Better Act—and lopping roughly $2 trillion off the bill's top line—are facing growing pushback from progressive lawmakers and analysts as Congress gets ready to approve a military budget that's far more expensive on an annual basis.

Stephen Semler, co-founder of the Security Policy Reform Institute, estimated Monday that projected U.S military budgets over the next decade will cost roughly $8.31 trillion—double the combined price tag of the Biden administration's big-ticket agenda items, which include the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure law, and the $1.75 trillion reconciliation package.

"Social spending bills—despite being more urgent/relevant for everyday security than military spending—will continue to bear the brunt of austerity politics," Semler wrote in a blog post.

The Senate is currently debating a sweeping $778 billion military policy bill that would allocate $768 billion to the Pentagon in Fiscal Year 2022, significantly more than the current budget approved under former President Donald Trump.

After President Joe Biden requested a $753 billion military budget earlier this year, committees in the House and Senate—both narrowly controlled by Democrats—proceeded to tack on $25 billion more. Over a decade, that increase alone would amount to more spending than all of the healthcare provisions currently in the Build Back Better Act.

In total, as HuffPost's Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported last week, the annual Pentagon budget "approves more than four times as much spending as Biden's Build Back Better Act."

"The National Defense Authorization Act would approve $778 billion in spending in 2022, compared to the approximately $170 billion in spending that Biden's social policy would entail next year," Ahmed added. "Hawkish Democrats worked with Republicans to ensure that the defense bill would be $25 billion greater than Biden's proposal for the military budget, and to quash progressive efforts to trim costs."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chair of the Senate Budget Committee, tweeted Monday that "my colleagues seem to be so concerned with the deficit when it comes to addressing the needs of working people, but all of a sudden forget about the deficit when we're talking about an annual defense budget of $778 billion."

"What hypocrisy," added the Vermont senator, who said he plans to vote against the NDAA.

Last week, in an effort to block the proposed $25 billion increase, Sanders and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced an amendment that would bring the proposed NDAA back down to what Biden requested in May.

"Let me be clear: this is not a radical idea, it is the military spending amount proposed by the president of the United States and the amount requested by the Department of Defense," Sanders said in a floor speech. "I should also point out that this extraordinary level of military spending comes at a time when the Department of Defense is the only agency of our federal government that has not been able to pass an independent audit, and when defense contractors are making enormous profits while paying their CEOs exorbitant compensation packages."

It's unclear whether the Sanders-Markey amendment will have any more success than other recent efforts to reduce the latest U.S. military budget, which have been defeated by Republicans and Democrats bankrolled by the defense industry.

Many of the right-wing House Democrats who have held up the Build Back Better Act over purported concerns about its costs—including Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Stephanie Murphy of Florida—voted with Republicans in September to tank an amendment aimed at reversing the $25 billion add-on.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the major obstacles to the Build Back Better Act in the upper chamber, voted to advance the full $778 billion NDAA last week without once complaining about its price tag. Over the past decade, Manchin—a self-styled enemy of "fiscal insanity"—has voted in favor of over $9 trillion in military spending.

The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill wrote Sunday that "while there is much media focus these days on the intensely polarized dynamic on Capitol Hill between Democrats and Republicans, as well as domestic legislative battles among Democrats, none of this has stopped the work of the empire from moving forward."

"Legislation aimed at increasing funding for social programs, education, and other public goods is consistently held hostage by politicians harping over the costs," Scahill noted. "This has been the case with Biden's Build Back Better legislation, which has seen some conservative Democrats join their Republican colleagues in gutting social spending in the name of fiscal responsibility."

"The original BBB 10-year projection was $3.5 trillion and has been steadily chiseled down to half that size to appease critics," he added. "Juxtapose this with the bipartisan 'defense' spending spree that has the U.S. on course to produce a Pentagon budget of more than $7 trillion over the next decade, and the priorities of this government's political class come into sharp focus."

Alarm grows as COVID cases spike in Europe and US deaths in 2021 top 2020’s toll

Europe is in the grip of a potentially devastating fourth coronavirus wave and the United States has now recorded more Covid-19 deaths in 2021 than it did in 2020, heightening alarm among public health experts who fear another brutal winter surge.

Dr. Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization's regional director for Europe, warned Saturday that the coronavirus could kill 500,000 more people in Europe by March if political leaders don't take immediate action to forestall the current spread and increase vaccine uptake, which has been lagging in parts of the continent due, in some cases, to anti-vaccine sentiment.

"Covid-19 has become once again the number one cause of mortality in our region," Kluge told the BBC.

In an effort to quell a major spike in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, the Austrian government announced Friday that it would institute a nationwide lockdown and soon mandate coronavirus vaccinations for its entire adult population. Thus far, around 65% of Austria's population has been fully vaccinated—one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

"The virus is back with new rigor in Europe again and new catastrophic waves are imminent in Africa and Asia," said Shailly Gupta, communications adviser with Doctors Without Borders' Access Campaign, pointing to regions that have been denied adequate supplies of vaccines and therapeutics. "Wealthy nations need to understand that unless everyone everywhere is vaccinated, the situation is not going to change."

"Countries need to stop hoarding tests, drugs, and vaccines and big pharmaceutical companies need to stop hoarding technology if they really want to control this pandemic," she added.

Austria's mandate, set to take effect in February, prompted immediate backlash. On Saturday, tens of thousands of people—including many aligned with the country's far-right Freedom Party—took to the streets of Vienna to denounce the public health measure, which Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said is necessary to break the nation's vaccination plateau and prevent further deaths.

"We have too many political forces in this country who vehemently and massively fight against this," he said in a speech Friday. "This is irresponsible. It is an attack on our health system. Goaded by these anti-vaxxers and from fake news, too many people among us have not been vaccinated. The consequence is overfilled intensive care stations and enormous human suffering. No one can want that."

The Associated Press reported that "demonstrations against virus restrictions also took place in Switzerland, Croatia, Italy, Northern Ireland, and the Netherlands on Saturday, a day after Dutch police opened fire on protesters and seven people were injured in rioting that erupted in Rotterdam."

"Protesters rallied against coronavirus restrictions and mandatory Covid-19 passes needed in many European countries to enter restaurants, Christmas markets, or sports events, as well as mandatory vaccinations," AP noted. "The Austrian lockdown will start Monday and comes as average daily deaths have tripled in recent weeks and hospitals in heavily hit states have warned that intensive care units are reaching capacity."

As The Week's Ryan Cooper noted in a recent column, "There is a clear inverse relationship between shots and spread" in Europe.

"The countries suffering truly galloping outbreaks—mostly places to the south and east like Greece, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Slovakia—are typically below 70% full vaccination, often quite far below. By contrast, there appears to be a rough breakpoint near 75-80% vaccination where the rate of case growth is much slower. It's surely not a coincidence Portugal and Spain are the most-vaccinated countries on the continent, and both have thus far mostly avoided a big resurgence."

In the U.S., meanwhile, data from the federal government and Johns Hopkins University show that the official Covid-19 death toll in 2021 surpassed 385,457 on Saturday, topping 2020 fatalities. The nation's total death count currently stands at 770,800—the highest in the world.

"The spread of the highly contagious Delta variant and low vaccination rates in some communities were important factors [this year]," the Wall Street Journal reported. "The milestone comes as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations move higher again in places such as New England and the upper Midwest, with the seven-day average for new cases recently closer to 90,000 a day after it neared 70,000 last month."

The surge comes as few public health restrictions remain in place across the U.S. Last week, the Biden administration suspended enforcement activities related to its vaccination and testing mandates for private businesses after a federal appeals court temporarily halted the requirements.

All U.S. adults are now eligible for booster shots, but public health experts have cautioned that the broad availability of third doses may not do much to stem the current spike in cases given that it's largely being fueled by the unvaccinated. Less than 60% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to the latest figures from Our World in Data.

A recent analysis by the Financial Times found that more booster shots have been administered in rich countries over a three-month period than total doses have been given in poor countries in all of 2021. The head of the WHO called for a moratorium on booster shots in August in an effort to bolster vaccination drives in poor countries, but the U.S. and other rich countries dismissed his demand.

Just 5% of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose.

"The evidence isn't there that a large rollout of boosters is really going to have that much impact on the epidemic," argued Ira Longini Jr., a vaccine expert and professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida.

Tom Philpott of Mother Jones wrote Saturday that "in the popular imagination, 2020 gets all the bad press, but this year has been no sunny day at the beach, either."

"Sure, several effective Covid-19 vaccines emerged, but so did the highly contagious Delta variant, as well as new, more virulent strains of anti-vax sentiment, tightly yoked to conservative political ideology," Philpott noted. "Worst of all, intellectual property hoarding has meant that the vaccines have so far largely bypassed low-income nations of the Global South, wreaking untold human misery and giving the virus ample opportunity to generate more contagious and/or more virulent strains."

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