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Politics News: Biden’s Town Hall, Infrastructure Bill and More – The New York Times

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July 21, 2021, 8:28 p.m. ET

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Senate Republicans Block Infrastructure Debate

Republicans blocked a Senate vote to start debate on an emerging bipartisan infrastructure plan, pushing for more negotiation time. Senator Chuck Schumer forced the vote in a bid to increase pressure to resolve the talks.

“We are now in the fourth week of negotiations since the bipartisan group of senators reached an agreement with the White House on an infrastructure framework — four weeks. According to the negotiators spurred on by this vote this afternoon, they are close to finalizing their product. Even Republicans have agreed that the deadline has moved them far more quickly. Given the process of the bipartisan negotiations, I believe senators should feel comfortable voting to move forward today.” “These discussions have yet to conclude. There’s no outcome yet, no bipartisan agreement, no text, nothing for the Congressional Budget Office to evaluate. And certainly nothing on which to vote. Not yet. So obviously, if the Democratic leader tries to force a cloture vote on a bill that does not exist, it will fail.” “Is it the sense of the Senate that debate on the motion to proceed to H.R. 3684, an act to authorize funds for federal aid, highways, highway safety programs and transit programs, and for other purposes shall be brought to a close. On this vote, the yeas are 49, the nays are 51, three-fifths of the senators duly chosen and sworn not having voted in the affirmative the motion, the motion is not agreed to.” “President.” “Majority Leader.” “I enter a motion to reconsider the failed cloture vote.” “The motion is entered.” “Madam President, I just want to explain what happened on the floor very briefly. At the end of the vote, I changed my response to a no. So that I may move to reconsider this vote at a future time.”

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Republicans blocked a Senate vote to start debate on an emerging bipartisan infrastructure plan, pushing for more negotiation time. Senator Chuck Schumer forced the vote in a bid to increase pressure to resolve the talks.CreditCredit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Republicans on Wednesday blocked the Senate from taking up an emerging bipartisan infrastructure plan, confirming Democrats’ fears that they would balk at a major piece of President Biden’s agenda even as negotiations continued to cement an elusive compromise.

The failed vote underscored intense mistrust between the two parties that has complicated the effort to seal an infrastructure deal, even as Republicans and Democrats have come tantalizingly close to doing so. It left uncertain the fate of a nearly $600 billion package to fund roads, bridges, rail, transit and other public works, which could be the first major infusion of federal works spending since the 2009 stimulus law.

In a test vote of 49-51, with all Republicans opposed, Democrats fell short of the 60 votes that would have been needed to move forward with an infrastructure debate.

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, forced the vote in a bid to intensify pressure for a swift resolution to the infrastructure talks, acting over the pleas of centrist Republicans who said they needed more time to solidify their deal with Democrats.

“This is vote is not a deadline to have every final detail worked out — it is not an attempt to jam anyone,” Mr. Schumer said ahead of the vote, adding that negotiators would have “many opportunities” to add their agreement to the bill “even if they need a few more days to finalize the language.”

But Republicans said they were not ready to commit to considering an infrastructure measure, and warned that putting the matter to a vote risked scuttling a potential bipartisan breakthrough.

“There are a number of Republicans that want to be for an infrastructure bill, who are waiting for this process to conclude in hopes that it will be something that they can vote for,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican. “It’s a mistake for Schumer to try and rush this.”

All 50 members of the Democratic Caucus initially voted in favor of proceeding and all 50 Republicans opposed doing so, but Mr. Schumer switched his vote to enable him to bring up the measure again in the future.

It was an inauspicious beginning to what Democrats had hoped would be a season of intense activity on Capitol Hill, with action on a bipartisan infrastructure measure and a far more ambitious, $3.5 trillion budget blueprint that would include sweeping investments to address climate change, expand health care and education and broaden child care and paid leave.

Instead, senators spent Wednesday trading blame for their failure to begin debating the infrastructure plan.

Republicans, including the five negotiators who have been involved in discussions on a compromise, argued that Democrats had threatened their progress by rushing a vote on the package before the deal was ready. Democrats questioned why Republicans, many of whom have said they want a bipartisan infrastructure compromise, would be unwilling to simply allow a debate to move forward while the negotiations proceed.

Underlying the finger-pointing were longstanding worries by both parties about the political ramifications of a deal. Democrats, particularly progressives, have long been concerned that Republicans would drag out negotiations to force concessions and ultimately withhold their support.

Republicans, for their part, are wary of getting locked in to an agreement with Mr. Biden that members of their own party — many of whom are deeply opposed to costly federal spending packages — might reject.

Still, even as they voted unanimously against the maneuver, multiple Senate Republicans said they would be willing to support a rescheduled vote as early as Monday if a deal could be reached by then. Eleven Republicans — enough to overcome a filibuster if every Democrat and independent agreed — readied a letter to Mr. Schumer making that commitment, though it was unclear on Wednesday whether he had received it.

“We’re optimistic that once we get past this vote today, that we’re going to continue our work and that we will be ready in the coming days,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine and a key negotiator. She said members of the group “think that we will be largely ready on Monday.”

Mr. Schumer could move to force another test vote on the bill, though it was unclear whether he would do so.

For Republicans who have been negotiating the infrastructure deal with Democrats, voting “no” on Wednesday was a calculated gamble that they would be able to swiftly finish the text and it could be brought up for another vote. Should they complete the deal in the coming days, they would still have to persuade enough of their colleagues to support the measure for it clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold.

Twenty-two Republicans and Democrats released a statement after the vote declaring that they had made significant progress and were close to a final agreement.

“We appreciate our colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and the administration, working with us to get this done for the American people,” they said.

“The unprecedented nature of Jan. 6 demands this unprecedented decision,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Representative Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday pulled five Republicans from a select committee investigating the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol after Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the unusual step of barring two of former President Donald J. Trump’s closest allies in Congress from the panel, citing concerns that they would disrupt its work.

A visibly agitated Mr. McCarthy called a rushed news conference to condemn Ms. Pelosi’s decision and accused her of excessive partisanship. He pledged to carry out a Republican-only investigation into the events of Jan. 6 — and focus on whether Ms. Pelosi could have done more to protect the Capitol from violent supporters of Mr. Trump.

“Why are you allowing a lame-duck speaker to destroy this institution?” he asked.

Ms. Pelosi had said earlier on Wednesday that she was rejecting the appointments of Representatives Jim Banks of Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio based on their ties to Mr. Trump and comments they had made disparaging the inquiry.

She acknowledged that her move was “unprecedented” but called it necessary given the men’s actions related to the deadly events of Jan. 6, when supporters of Mr. Trump stormed the Capitol based on his lies about a stolen election, injuring dozens of police officers and delaying Congress’s official count of electoral votes to formalize President Biden’s victory.

“With respect for the integrity of the investigation, with an insistence on the truth and with concern about statements made and actions taken by these members, I must reject the recommendations of Representatives Banks and Jordan to the select committee,” Ms. Pelosi said. “The unprecedented nature of Jan. 6 demands this unprecedented decision.”

Mr. McCarthy had included the pair — two of Mr. Trump’s staunchest and most combative allies on Capitol Hill — among his five picks to sit on the committee, signaling that he was approaching the inquiry as a partisan battle. Both voted against counting electoral votes for Mr. Biden just hours after rioters ransacked the Capitol.

Ms. Pelosi said she had based her decision not on those votes but on concerns raised by Democrats, including members of the select committee who had discussed the possibility that obstruction from Mr. Banks and Mr. Jordan could derail their work.

Many Democrats hailed the move.

“There is no place on this committee for unserious members,” said Representative Mike Quigley of Illinois. “Speaker Pelosi absolutely made the right decision by rejecting G.O.P. members who have made it clear they would use this platform to grandstand and spew misinformation. In fact, Congressman Banks has already broadcasted his intention to sabotage the proceedings.”

Representative Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the chairman of the select committee, said he would “not be distracted by sideshows” and pledged to move forward with the committee’s work, including its first public hearing next week.

Ms. Pelosi had quietly debated her options with Democratic members of the panel, who expressed reservations about letting firebrands closely associated with Mr. Trump’s efforts to undermine the election serve alongside them.

“There are people who want to derail and thwart an investigation, and there are people who want to conduct an investigation,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and a member of the panel. “That’s the fault line here.”

Democrats got high-profile backup from Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Mr. McCarthy’s former No. 3, whom Ms. Pelosi appointed to the committee after Ms. Cheney was ousted from her leadership position this spring for criticizing Mr. Trump.

“The rhetoric that we have heard from the minority leader is disingenuous,” Ms. Cheney told reporters on the steps of the Capitol. “At every opportunity, the minority leader has attempted to prevent the American people from understanding what happened, to block this investigation.”

She said Ms. Pelosi had been right to reject Mr. Jordan and Mr. Banks. She called Mr. Jordan a potential “material witness” to the attempted insurrection and said Mr. Banks had “disqualified himself” with recent comments disparaging the committee.

Mr. Banks arranged for House Republicans to join Mr. Trump at a recent event at the southern border in which a participant in the Capitol riot at times served as a translator. Mr. Banks also released a combative statement Monday night in which he blamed the Biden administration for the response to the riot — which occurred under the Trump administration — and called the committee a creation of Ms. Pelosi’s to “malign conservatives and to justify the Left’s authoritarian agenda.”

At a news conference with Mr. McCarthy, Mr. Banks suggested Ms. Pelosi had failed to secure the Capitol.

“She knows we were prepared to fight to get to the truth,” he said. “She doesn’t want to go down that path.”

Capitol security is overseen by the Capitol Police Board, which has three voting members: the sergeants-at-arms of the House and Senate and the Architect of the Capitol. Paul D. Irving, the House sergeant-at-arms at the time of the attack, was hired in 2012 under Speaker John Boehner, a Republican. The Senate sergeant-at-arms at the time, Michael C. Stenger, was hired in 2018 when Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, led the chamber.

Mr. Jordan, who has called the committee a “political” attack on Mr. Trump, was among a group of House Republicans who met with the former president in December to help plan the effort to challenge Mr. Biden’s victory, and Democratic members of the select committee were considering calling him as a potential witness in their investigation. Ms. Cheney clashed with Mr. Jordan on the House floor on Jan. 6, blaming him for the riot, according to a new book by two Washington Post reporters.

“Speaker Pelosi just admitted the obvious, that the Jan. 6 select committee is nothing more than a partisan political charade,” Mr. Jordan said in a statement.

Ms. Pelosi said she would accept Mr. McCarthy’s three other nominees — Representatives Rodney Davis of Illinois, Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota and Troy Nehls of Texas — and encouraged him to offer new picks for the remaining spots. But those three said they would not participate given the rejection of Mr. Banks and Mr. Jordan.

President Biden will touch upon the many components of his broad economic agenda during his trip to Ohio on Wednesday.
Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

President Biden flew to Cincinnati on Wednesday to promote his economic agenda and participate in a town hall aired on CNN, even as a bipartisan infrastructure agreement he brokered failed its first formal test in the Senate.

Mr. Biden toured a union training center, the I.B.E.W./N.E.C.A. Electrical Training Center, where he was scheduled to give remarks making the case that his $4 trillion economic plan will create high-paying union jobs.

The president will then head to Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, where he will participate in the town hall airing at 8 p.m. Eastern. Mr. Biden will field questions about the impact of the $1.9 trillion economic aid bill he signed into law in March, White House officials said in guidance for reporters, and about the two legislative components of his broader economic agenda.

Those are the bipartisan agreement to spend nearly $600 billion to repair and build physical infrastructure like bridges and broadband internet, and a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint that Democrats in the Senate will seek to use to pass Mr. Biden’s plans to build affordable housing, spur low-carbon energy development, expand home health care for older and disabled Americans, and more.

While Mr. Biden was flying to the Kentucky airport that serves Cincinnati, senators voted on a motion to advance the bipartisan infrastructure framework, which is not yet finalized nearly a month after Mr. Biden and centrist lawmakers unveiled it at the White House. The vote failed, leaving Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, to schedule another vote next week in hopes of moving the agreement forward.

Administration officials have engaged in negotiations with Republicans and Democrats in recent days to finalize the deal, including how to fully pay for its spending. Even as those talks continue, White House officials have made clear in recent days that they supported Mr. Schumer’s attempts to push the bill on Wednesday.

“We understand this is a legislative process, and it’s ongoing,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said on Wednesday on the way to Cincinnati. She said the administration was heartened by a bipartisan statement from Senate negotiators indicating that a final agreement was within reach.

“We’re encouraged by the progress and grateful to the Democrats and Republicans involved,” Ms. Psaki said.

The construction site of the Nord Stream 2 project, near the town of Kingisepp, Russia, in 2019.
Credit…Anton Vaganov/Reuters

WASHINGTON — The United States has dropped its threat to block the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany, officials said on Wednesday, formally setting aside a yearslong disagreement with Berlin over an energy deal that critics have warned would allow Moscow to starve Ukraine of transit fees that are crucial to Kyiv’s economy.

The Biden administration’s decision was effectively an acknowledgment that the pipeline project was too far advanced to stop, and that relations with Germany, a crucial ally, were too important to jeopardize over the dispute.

But it infuriated Republicans and Democrats in Congress who have demanded the use of economic penalties to halt the pipelines, and on Wednesday accused the administration of being soft on Russia.

The pipelines, each about 750 miles long, run from Russia directly under the Baltic Sea to Germany, bypassing Poland and Ukraine and denying those countries some transit fees. They are being built by a subsidiary of Gazprom, the Russian company that is controlled by the Kremlin, and will roughly double the amount of gas that Russia can supply directly to Germany.

The $11 billion project is expected to be operational by the end of the year despite construction delays as investors grew wary of being targeted by U.S. sanctions.

The new agreement appears to be a way for President Biden to spin the inevitable completion of the pipelines as a kind of diplomatic victory and a defense of the interests of Poland and Ukraine, which could suffer financially. It calls for Germany to impose sanctions on Russia if it were to use its control over energy supplies to harm or endanger Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic nations or any other U.S. ally.

State Department officials who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity on Wednesday said the Biden administration continued to have “profound differences” with Germany over the project. But the officials also pointed to a $1 billion investment fund, to be administered by Germany, to help Ukraine to reduce its dependence on Moscow’s gas exports.

Germany will contribute an initial $175 million to the fund as Berlin and Washington each seek private investors to help Ukraine improve its energy efficiency and energy security, officials said.

The announcement followed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meetings in Washington last week with Mr. Biden, who said the two leaders had agreed that they were “united in our conviction that Russia should not be able to use energy as a weapon.”

White House officials said on Wednesday that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who has urged Congress to try to stop the project with sanctions, would visit in August.

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, called the agreement with Germany “a generational geopolitical win” for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and “a catastrophe for the United States and our allies.”

Mr. Cruz, whose constituents in Texas include key energy exporters, has held up the confirmation of several Biden administration officials over the last several months in his insistence that the United States stop the pipelines from being completed. “President Biden is defying U.S. law and has utterly surrendered to Putin,” he said in a statement. “Decades from now, Russian dictators will still be reaping billions from Biden’s gift, and Europe will still be subject to Russian energy blackmail.”

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, said she welcomed the diplomatic efforts with key European allies. But, she said, “I’ve long contended that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline should not be completed because it empowers the Kremlin to spread its malign influence throughout Eastern Europe, threatens the economic security of our European partners and puts our global stability at risk.”

“I continue to believe that,” she said.

The State Department officials bristled at the suggestion that the Biden administration had capitulated and noted that American sanctions related to the project had been imposed against 19 entities since Mr. Biden took office, compared with two during the term of President Donald J. Trump.

Derek Chollet, the State Department’s counselor, described the deal to senior Ukrainian officials in Kyiv on Tuesday and Wednesday and promised continued American support. He also asked the Ukrainian government not to lobby Congress for additional sanctions related to the project.

Germany and Russia have previously agreed to keep transit fees for natural gas flowing to Ukraine through 2024, and that is likely to be extended another year.

“For the German government it remains central that Ukraine should remain a transit country even after Nord Stream 2,” a government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, has said.

The pipelines have allowed Russia to divide Germany from its European allies and from the United States. But Mr. Biden, who says he continues to oppose the project, has made it clear that his priority is China, and getting German and European support for joint policies to restrain China and limit its economic and political influence is central.

Matthias Warnig, the managing director of Nord Stream AG, the company that is building and will operate the pipelines, said American sanctions and threats of sanctions had added at least 18 months and costs “well into the hundreds of millions” of euros.

“The U.S. sanction threats have made our work much more difficult in every respect, and this also applies to certification,” Mr. Warnig said in an interview published on July 11 in the German business newspaper Handelsblatt. “But we are working on solutions and are sure we will find a way.”

Lara Jakes reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels.

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Taliban Have ‘Strategic Momentum’ in Afghanistan, U.S. General Says

General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Afghan military forces had prioritized the protection of important cities, including Kabul, but that a “complete Taliban takeover” was possible.

The Afghan security forces have the capacity to sufficiently fight and defend their country, and we will continue to support the Afghan security forces where necessary, in accordance with the guidance of the president and the secretary of defense. The future of Afghanistan is squarely in the hands of the Afghan people. There clearly is a narrative out there that the Taliban are winning. In fact, they are propagating an inevitable victory on their behalf. They’re dominating a lot of the airwaves on that sort of thing. I would tell you that as of today, more or less, I guess it’s about 212, 213. It’s in that range, two hundreds, of the district centers are in Taliban control. It’s about half of the 419 that are out there. You’ve got 34 provincial capitals in Afghanistan. None of them have been seized, as of today, by the Taliban. Although the Taliban is putting pressure on the outskirts of probably about half of them, 17 of them, in fact. And what they’re trying to do is isolate the major population centers. They’re trying to do the same thing to Kabul. And roughly speaking, order of magnitude, a significant amount of territory has been seized over the course of six, eight, 10 months, sort of thing, by the Taliban. So momentum appears to be, strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban. The Afghan security forces, though, are consolidating their forces. So part of this is they’re giving up district centers in order to consolidate their forces because they’re taking an approach to protect the population. And most of the population lives in the provincial capitals, in the capital city of Kabul. There’s a possibility of a negotiated outcome. That’s still out there. There’s a possibility of a complete Taliban takeover or possibility of any number of other scenarios, breakdowns, warlordism, all kinds of other scenarios are out there. We are monitoring very closely. I don’t think the endgame is yet written.

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General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Afghan military forces had prioritized the protection of important cities, including Kabul, but that a “complete Taliban takeover” was possible.CreditCredit…Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The nation’s top military officer offered a glum assessment on Wednesday of the security situation in Afghanistan, saying the Taliban had seized “strategic momentum” over Afghan military forces who were falling back to prioritize the protection of important cities, including Kabul, the capital.

The comments by Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed mounting reports from the ground in Afghanistan. But his sober, almost clinical, account of recent Taliban gains hammered home the point.

“There’s a possibility of a complete Taliban takeover, or the possibility of any number of other scenarios,” General Milley said. “I don’t think the end game is yet written.”

The Taliban have taken control of more than 210 of Afghanistan’s roughly 420 districts in recent months, General Milley told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. They are also pressuring half of the country’s 34 provincial centers and are aiming to isolate Kabul and other major cities, he said.

“Strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban,” he said. “There clearly is a narrative out there that the Taliban are winning. In fact, they are propagating an inevitable victory on their behalf.”

But General Milley, who appeared alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III in their first joint news conference since May 6, sought to reassure the Afghan government that the United States would continue to provide humanitarian and security assistance from afar. All American forces have left the country, except for about 650 troops assigned to guard the U.S. Embassy and the Kabul airport.

Both General Milley and Mr. Austin put responsibility for the country’s fate on Afghans and their leaders, not the Biden administration. Mr. Austin said that American airstrikes after Aug. 31, the military withdrawal deadline, would be reserved for Al Qaeda and other terrorist targets, not Taliban fighters attacking Afghan forces.

“This is going to be a test now of the will and leadership of the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces and the government of Afghanistan,” General Milley said.

In response to the Taliban offensives, hundreds of Afghan troops have surrendered, giving up their U.S.-supplied equipment and fleeing, sometimes into neighboring countries. Afghan government counterattacks have had limited success.

General Milley said that many other Afghan troops were falling back to protect larger provincial cities. Violence has waned in the past few days with the beginning of the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha, he said, but the country could reach a turning point as fighting resumes.

Sayed Obaidullah Amin, who interpreted for the U.S. Marine Corps for two years, was denied a visa to the United States. He said this year that he believed it was because he once returned to duty late from a leave to deal with his father’s heart attack.
Credit…Kiana Hayeri for The New York Times

An additional 4,000 Afghans who worked with American forces, many of them interpreters, had been approved to relocate to the United States with their families in light of the withdrawal of U.S. troops, State Department officials said on Wednesday.

But officials added that evacuations were only taking place out of Kabul, the capitol, and any eligible Afghans in remote areas were on their own in figuring out how to make the difficult, and likely dangerous, journey if they wanted to take advantage of the offer.

“In order to come on an evacuation flight, they would have to get themselves to Kabul,” a senior official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss the plan in detail, said on a call with reporters. “Obviously, we don’t have extensive U.S. military presence. We don’t have the ability to provide transportation for them.”

“If they’re staying in the north of the country and they don’t feel safe staying in Afghanistan, they could go to a neighboring country” and finish their application process there, the official added.

The United States also will not provide security to applicants outside Kabul, many of whom are under direct threat from the Taliban for cooperating with coalition forces during the war.

With the American military in the final phases of withdrawing from Afghanistan, the White House has come under pressure to protect Afghan allies and speed up the process of providing them with special immigrant visas, and President Biden has vowed to do so. There have been about 20,000 applicants for the special visa program.

This month, 2,500 Afghans will be sent in stages to an Army base in Fort Lee, Va., south of Richmond, where they will wait roughly 10 days for final processing. The next 4,000 applicants, who need further approvals, will go with their families to other countries to complete the visa process before coming to the United States, the senior official said.

The official did not indicate which countries those applicants would be sent to complete the visa process.

The House is expected to pass legislation this week increasing the number of State Department special immigrant visas and streamlining the application process.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, has used the filibuster to block many Democratic priorities, including voting rights and a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol assault.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Hoping to build momentum for a change in Senate filibuster rules, more than 30 former chiefs of staff to Democratic senators have written an open letter calling for “repeal or reform” of the procedural tactic they say no longer serves its original purpose.

The 31 signers of the letter, who worked for more than 25 current and former Democratic lawmakers, conceded that they and their former bosses had embraced the filibuster in the past. But they argued that the maneuver is now being abused as a blunt-force instrument to stall most legislation.

“Over the course of the past 20 years, the filibuster has put a chokehold on the Senate,’’ said the letter, to be published on the website of the anti-filibuster group Fix Our Senate. “Legislation is now routinely filibustered, transforming the Senate from a place of meaningful debate and progress into a legislative graveyard.”

The letter also said that the main arguments typically cited for maintaining the filibuster — that it fosters bipartisanship, protects minority rights and prevents wild swings in policy with changes in power — no longer hold true.

The filibuster, once used sparingly, was never intended to be a way for the minority to routinely block legislation by preventing bills from advancing, they wrote.

“Many of us stood shoulder to shoulder with our former bosses when they filibustered legislation, and it was a valuable tool,” said Eric Mogilnicki, a chief of staff to former Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Paul Kirk of Massachusetts. “But it shouldn’t be that overwhelming the filibuster is the only way to pass legislation.”

Mr. Mogilnicki organized the letter along with Drey Samuelson, once the top aide to former Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota.

The former aides banded together on the issue after Senate Republicans in recent weeks blocked several top Democratic priorities through a filibuster, including a sweeping voting rights bill as well as bipartisan legislation to establish an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by supporters of Donald J. Trump.

Like many Democratic senators who have backed the filibuster in the past, the aides said their views had evolved as the tool was increasingly employed to thwart critically needed legislation supported by a majority of senators. They conceded that eliminating or weakening the filibuster could lead to enacting laws they oppose.

“We know that repealing or reforming the filibuster rule will someday lead to policy outcomes that we deeply dislike, and that might have been blocked under current Senate rules,” the letter states. “But we believe in a Senate where the people’s business can be done.”

While support has grown among Democratic senators for abolishing the 60-vote threshold for advancing legislation, filibuster opponents in the party currently lack the minimum 50 votes that would be required to overturn the rule.

The waiting room at Planned Parenthood Great Plains in Fayetteville, Ark., in 2018. U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker said the law would have caused “imminent irreparable harm” to doctors and their patients.
Credit…Nina Robinson for The New York Times

A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked Arkansas from enforcing a strict new law that would ban nearly all abortions, a decision that comes as many states with Republican-controlled legislatures are trying to force the issue before a newly reshaped Supreme Court.

Arkansas is one of several states that have passed abortion restrictions challenging the constitutional right to the procedure established in Roe v. Wade. Judges have temporarily blocked laws restricting abortions in states including Ohio, Arkansas and Texas.

If the Supreme Court overturned Roe, abortion would be likely to become illegal in 22 states. In May, justices agreed to hear a case concerning a Mississippi law in the court’s next term, giving the court’s conservative majority an opportunity to place new constraints on abortion rights.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker said that the Arkansas law, which would have banned abortions in all cases except to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency, would cause “imminent irreparable harm” to doctors and their patients.

Judge Baker wrote that the law would prohibit doctors from providing abortions “unless and until the patient’s condition deteriorates to such an extent that the very narrow ‘medical emergency’ exception is triggered.”

She wrote, “This would pose serious risk to the physical, mental, and emotional health of these patients.”

The decision, by the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Arkansas, was made in a case brought by Little Rock Family Planning Services, Planned Parenthood Great Plains and Dr. Janet Cathey, a gynecologist and obstetrician in Little Rock, who was representing her staff and her patients.

Just a day after the ruling, another federal judge temporarily blocked Arkansas from enforcing a ban on gender-confirming treatments for transgender youths, a first-in-the-nation law that passed as the legislature overrode Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s veto.

Hacks that were conducted by units of China’s People’s Liberation Army are now carried out by an elite satellite network of contractors.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

China has long been one of the biggest digital threats to the United States. But a decade ago, breaches were conducted via sloppily worded spearphishing emails by units of the People’s Liberation Army.

Now they are carried out by an elite satellite network of contractors at front companies and universities that work at the direction of China’s Ministry of State Security, according to U.S. officials.

On Monday, the United States again accused China of cyberattacks. The Biden administration’s indictment for the cyberattacks, along with interviews with dozens of current and former American officials, shows how China has reorganized its hacking operations, Nicole Perlroth reports for The New York Times.

“What we’ve seen over the past two or three years is an upleveling” by China, said George Kurtz, the chief executive of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. “They operate more like a professional intelligence service than the smash-and-grab operators we saw in the past.”

China’s new tactics include exploiting “zero-days,” or unknown security holes in widely used software like Microsoft’s Exchange email service and Pulse VPN security devices, which are harder to defend against and allow China’s hackers to operate undetected for longer periods.

China has clamped down on research about vulnerabilities in widely held software and hardware, which could potentially benefit the state’s surveillance, counterintelligence and cyberespionage campaigns. Last week, it announced a new policy requiring Chinese security researchers to notify the state within two days when they found security holes, such as the “zero-days” that the country relied on in the breach of Microsoft Exchange systems.

Representative Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, speaking on Tuesday. He has blamed President Biden for vaccine hesitancy.
Credit…Alex Wong/Getty Images

As the coronavirus surges in their states and districts, many congressional Republicans have declined to push back against vaccine skeptics in their party who are sowing mistrust about the shots’ safety and effectiveness.

They have instead focused their message about the vaccine on disparaging President Biden, characterizing his drive to inoculate Americans as politically motivated and heavy-handed.

On Tuesday, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican who said he had received his first Pfizer vaccine shot only on Sunday, blamed Mr. Biden and his criticism of Donald J. Trump’s vaccine drive last year for hesitancy.

Some elected Republicans are the ones spreading the falsehoods. Representative Jason Smith of Missouri, a Senate candidate, warned on Twitter of “KGB-style” agents knocking on the doors of unvaccinated Americans — a reference to Mr. Biden’s door-to-door vaccine outreach campaign.

Such statements, and the widespread silence by Republicans in the face of vaccine skepticism, are beginning to alarm some strategists and party leaders.

“The way to avoid getting back into the hospital is to get vaccinated,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and a polio survivor, pleaded on Tuesday, one of the few members of his party to take a different approach. “And I want to encourage everybody to do that and to ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.”

The political disparity in vaccine hesitancy is stark. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported at the end of June that 86 percent of Democrats had at least one shot, compared with 52 percent of Republicans. An analysis by The New York Times in April found that the least vaccinated counties in the country had one thing in common: They voted for Mr. Trump.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that the use of oversized, inflatable rats is a permissible effort to persuade bystanders. One of the rats was featured in a Labor Day parade in New York.
Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

It turns out that inflatable rodents may be as unstoppable as their living, breathing cousins.

On Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that unions can position large synthetic props like rats, often used to communicate displeasure over employment practices, near a work site even when the targeted company is not directly involved in a labor dispute.

While picketing companies that deal with employers involved in labor disputes — known as a secondary boycott — is illegal under labor law, the board ruled that the use of oversized rats, which are typically portrayed as ominous creatures with red eyes and fangs, is not a picket but a permissible effort to persuade bystanders.

Union officials had stationed the rat in question, a 12-foot-tall specimen, close to the entrance of a trade show in Elkhart, Ind., in 2018, along with two banners. One banner accused a company showcasing products there, Lippert Components, of “harboring rat contractors” — that is, doing business with contractors that do not use union labor.

Lippert argued that the rat’s use was illegal coercion because the creature was menacing and was intended to discourage people from entering the trade show. But the board found that the rat was a protected form of expression.

“Courts have consistently deemed banners and inflatable rats to fall within the realm of protected speech, rather than that of intimidation and the like,” the ruling said.

The rise of the rodents, often known as “Scabby the Rat,” dates to the early 1990s, when an Illinois-based company began manufacturing them for local unions intent on drawing attention to what they considered suspect practices, such as using nonunion labor. The company later began making other inflatable totems, like fat cats and greedy pigs, for the same purpose.

The labor relations board had previously blessed rats in a 2011 ruling. But seven years later, its general counsel, Peter B. Robb, sought to reopen the debate.

Mr. Robb, a Trump appointee, issued an internal memo in 2018 arguing that erecting a rat near an employer that was not directly involved in a labor dispute amounted to “unlawful coercion” — an attempt to disrupt the business of a neutral party. His office subsequently intervened on behalf of the companies in a handful of cases in which firms sought to block unions from deploying large inflatable paraphernalia close to their facilities.

One of those cases was dismissed, while a successor to Mr. Robb sought to dismiss another. (A judge has yet to rule on the motion to dismiss that case.)

In the case brought by Lippert, an administrative law judge ruled against the company in 2019, arguing that the rat did not amount to a picket or illegal coercion.

The judge noted that the rat and banners, which were erected by members of a local branch of the International Union of Operating Engineers, were stationary and did not create confrontation with passers-by. There was no evidence that the two union representatives present marched in front of the trade show or blocked people from entering, the judge wrote. They appeared to merely sit beside the rat.

The company appealed to the labor board in Washington, which solicited public comment last fall on whether it should modify or overturn the precedent.

But the board’s chairman, Lauren McFerran, a Democratic appointee, concluded that precedent required dismissing the complaint. Two Republican appointees indicated that they considered the precedent flawed but that banning inflatable rats would violate the First Amendment.

A lone Republican appointee, William J. Emanuel, argued that the precedent should be overturned.

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