Threats of US government shutdown and Biden impeachment inquiry loom over House’s return

The US health regulator on Monday authorized updated Covid-19 vaccines that closely match the Omicron variants that are circulating, starting the process to deploy the shots this month, Reuters reports.

The Food and Drug Administration authorized the shots, which target the XBB.1.5 subvariant, from manufacturers Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech SE, and US pharma company Moderna.

More details to follow.

Last year: Syringes with vaccines are prepared at the L.A. Care and Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plans' Community Resource Center where they were offering members and the public free flu and COVID-19 vaccines Oct. 28, 2022, in Lynwood, Calif. Updated COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be available in the US soon, following FDA approval of the latest version today.

There has been a late-summer uptick in Covid cases across the US.

Experts are closely watching two new variants, EG.5, now the dominant strain, and BA.2.86, which has attracted attention from scientists because of its high number of mutations.

Experts have said that the US is not facing a threat like it did in 2020 and 2021. “We’re in a different place,” Mandy Cohen, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC News last month.

I think we’re the most prepared that we’ve ever been.

Updated Covid-19 vaccine booster shots made by Pfizer and Moderna are expected to be available in the coming days, according to Moderna. A third shot, by the vaccine maker Novavax, is still under review by the FDA, according to the company.

Advisers from the US centers for disease and protection (CDC) are due to meet on Tuesday to recommend who should receive the shot. An endorsement by the CDC’s director should clear the way for millions of doses to be shipped nationwide within days.

As part of the FDA’s update, the original Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines are no longer authorized for use in the US.

The US health regulator on Monday authorized updated Covid-19 vaccines that closely match the Omicron variants that are circulating, starting the process to deploy the shots this month, Reuters reports.

The Food and Drug Administration authorized the shots, which target the XBB.1.5 subvariant, from manufacturers Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech SE, and US pharma company Moderna.

More details to follow.

Last year: Syringes with vaccines are prepared at the L.A. Care and Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plans' Community Resource Center where they were offering members and the public free flu and COVID-19 vaccines Oct. 28, 2022, in Lynwood, Calif. Updated COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be available in the US soon, following FDA approval of the latest version today.

A trial began Monday over a sweeping Texas voting law that sparked a 38-day walkout by Democrats in 2021 and were among the strictest changes passed by Republicans nationwide following former US president Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, the Associated Press reports.

The AP further notes:

The lawsuit was brought by a coalition of voting rights groups after Republican governor Greg Abbott signed the changes into law. The trial in San Antonio federal court could last weeks and it is unclear when US district judge Xavier Rodriguez might rule. Potentially at stake are voting rules Texas will use for the 2024 elections, although any decision is likely to be appealed.

The challenge, from the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU) the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and others, has not stopped the measures from taking effect, including a ban on 24-hour polling places and drive-thru voting.

Many changes targeted Harris county, which includes Houston and is where a slate of Republican candidates are challenging their defeats last year.

During the hurried rollout of the law last year, more than 23,000 mail ballots in Texas were rejected during the March 2022 primary elections as voters struggled to navigate the new rules. By November’s general election, the rejection rate fell significantly, but was still higher than what experts consider normal.

In August, Rodriguez separately struck down a requirement that mail voters provide the same identification number they used when they registered to vote.”

Joe Biden is up in the air literally and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s future as House Speaker is likewise, but metaphorically. It’s been a busy day in Vietnam for the US president post-G20, but he’s now on his way back to the US and is due to address the public during a stopover in Alaska en route to Washington, DC.

Here’s where things stand:

  • Mark Meadows, the former Trump White House chief of staff, appealed a judge’s ruling last Friday denying his bid to transfer his Georgia 2020 election interference case from state to federal court.

  • Jury deliberations for the impeachment trial of the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, could start late Thursday or Friday, according to the presiding officer Dan Patrick.

  • Kevin McCarthy, Speaker of the House, reportedly doesn’t have the votes to move forward with an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden being clamored for by the right wing of his House caucus.

  • Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican congressman, said that there was a “perfect storm” brewing in the House over government spending and on impeachment of the president that could pose a threat to Kevin McCarthy’s speakership. More on this by Politico.

  • Joe Biden will address the nation late on Monday afternoon on the 22nd anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. On Monday morning, US vice president Kamala Harris attended the annual memorial ceremony in New York at the spot where the al-Qaeda hijackers destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

In the months before the supreme court handed down Citizens United, the 2010 ruling which unleashed a flood of dark money into American politics, the wife of a conservative justice worked with a prominent rightwing activist and a mega-donor closely linked to her husband to form a group to exploit the decision.

So said a blockbuster report from Politico, detailing moves by Ginni Thomas – wife of Justice Clarence Thomas – and Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society chief who has worked to stock the court with rightwingers, leading to a series of epochal decisions, including the removal of the federal right to abortion.

Half a million dollars in seed money, Politico said, came from Harlan Crow, the Nazi memorabilia-collecting billionaire whose extensive and mostly undeclared gifts to Clarence Thomas have fueled a spiraling supreme court ethics scandal.

Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democratic senator from Rhode Island and champion of ethics reform, said the report laid out “the creepy intermingling of dark billionaire money, phoney front groups, far-right extremists and the United States supreme court”.

Politico noted that the ruling in Citizens United was widely expected after justices “took the unusual step of asking for re-arguments based on a sweeping question – whether they should overrule prior decisions approving laws that limited spending on political campaigns”.

Noting that conservative groups moved to capitalise faster than others, the site quoted an anonymous source as saying Ginni Thomas “really wanted to build an organisation and be a movement leader. Leonard was going to be the conduit of that.”

Ginni Thomas on Capitol Hill on 29 September.

The justice department has dropped its five-year-old criminal case against Bijan Rafiekian, a one-time business partner of the former national security adviser Michael Flynn who had been charged with illegally lobbying for Turkey during the 2016 US presidential election.

Rafiekian, who also goes by the name Bijan Kian, was indicted in 2018 on charges including failing to register as a foreign agent. Prosecutors had accused Rafiekian of illegally lobbying to have the cleric Fethullah Gülen extradited from the US to Turkey.

The move wraps up a long-running tangent of the Mueller-era Russia investigation that originally had been used as leverage to pressure Flynn, CNN reported. Prosecutors had planned on calling Flynn to testify against Rafiekian at his trial to solidify their evidence of a connection between Flynn’s lobbying group and the government of Turkey.

In 2019, a jury convicted Rafiekian on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent. But the judge who presided over the trial later set aside the verdicts, citing insufficient evidence. The case then went into appeals, hanging in the criminal justice system for years.

In a court filing on Monday, the justice department said it sought to dismiss the charges against Rafiekian. Prosecutors wrote:

After carefully considering the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision in this case and the principles of federal prosecution, the United States believes it is not in the public interest to pursue the case against defendant Bijan Rafiekian further.

Bijan Kian, whose full name is Bijan Rafiekian, pictuerd in Washington, 17 December 2018.

After defending the integrity of US elections from an onslaught of threats over the last several years, secretaries of state across the US are now turning to a new high-stakes question: is Donald Trump eligible to run for president?

Several secretaries are already working with attorneys general in their states and studying whether Trump is disqualified under a provision of the 14th amendment that bars anyone from holding public office if they have previously taken an oath to the United States and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same”.

That language clearly disqualifies Trump from running in 2024, William Baude and Michael Stokes Paulsen, two prominent conservative scholars, concluded in a lengthy forthcoming law review article. They write in the article:

If the public record is accurate, the case is not even close. He is no longer eligible to the office of Presidency, or any other state or federal office covered by the Constitution. All who are committed to the Constitution should take note and say so.

A flurry of challenges to Trump’s candidacy are expected – one was filed in Colorado on Wednesday – but the legal issues at play are largely untested. Never before has the provision been used to try to disqualify a presidential candidate from office and the issue is likely to quickly come to a head as soon as officials make their official certifications about who can appear on primary ballots.

Secretaries are studying who has the authority to remove Trump from the ballot and what process needs to occur before they do so. They also recognize that the issue is likely to be ultimately settled by the courts, including the US supreme court.

Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat in her second term as Michigan’s secretary of state, said she had spoken with another secretary of state about the 14th amendment issue “nearly every day”.

The north star for me is always: ‘What is the law? What does the constitution require?’ To keep politics and partisan considerations out of it. And simply just look at this from a sense of ‘what does the 14th amendment say?’ We’re in unprecedented, uncharted territory.

Read my colleague Sam Levin’s full report.

Past government shutdowns prove the widespread upheaval caused by lapses in government funding.

During the last partial shutdown, which ended in January 2019, roughly 800,000 federal workers went without a paycheck.

The Trump administration tried to keep national parks open with limited staff, resulting in damage to the grounds. Loan programs overseen by the Small Business Administration and federally funded research projects were also halted or delayed.

David Reich, senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said:

It’s very disruptive. Federal agencies spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out what they’re allowed to do and not allowed to do. It’s a total waste of effort and energy.

Even though history shows the fallout of government shutdowns, Gordon Gray, vice-president for economic policy at the center-right thinktank American Action Forum, still anticipates a lapse in funding – if not in October then later this year.

I could envision a brief [continuing resolution] – like two weeks – with some disaster supplemental funding in it. My expectation is that we’ll still have a shutdown this fall.

Mark Meadows, the former Trump White House chief of staff, appealed a judge’s ruling denying his bid to transfer his Georgia 2020 election interference case from state to federal court, according to a court filing reported by Reuters.

US district judge Steve Jones denied Meadow’s request on Friday, meaning the prosecution brought by the Fulton county district attorney Fani Willis stays in superior court in Atlanta, unless the US court of appeals for the 11th circuit approves Meadows’ appeal.

Last month, the Atlanta-area grand jury handed up a sprawling 41-count indictment against Donald Trump and 18 others, including Meadows, alleging that they violated Georgia’s state Rico statute in their efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 election.

Meadows had sought to remove the case to federal court arguing that the sprawling racketeering charges related to his normal work undertaken as a White House chief of staff, which gave him immunity from prosecution and prevented him from being prosecuted at the state level.

But the judge rejected his arguments in a detailed 49-page decision, determining that Meadows did not meet his burden to show that he was acting within his job description when he undertook efforts to benefit Trump as a political candidate rather than Trump as president.

Jury deliberations for the impeachment trial of the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, could start late Thursday or Friday, according to the presiding officer Dan Patrick.

Proceedings resumed this morning for the fifth day of Paxton’s trial – the first impeachment trial in modern Texas history. The ultra-conservative attorney general has a history of ethically questionable conduct that dates back to his first term in 2014, when he was fined by the Texas state securities board for violating financial laws.

The core of Paxton’s alleged wrongdoing involves his relationship with the Austin real estate developer Nate Paul. Paxton has been accused of illegally using his office to benefit Paul, who in return gave Paxton’s mistress, Laura Olsen, a job in his office. In early June, Paul was arrested on eight charges of making false statements to financial institutions. Also being scrutinized are allegations that Paxton wrongly fired former employees who blew the whistle to the FBI and other agencies.

At the end of the trial, it will be known if Paxton will be removed from office and if he can ever hold office again. Paxton has pleaded not guilty.

Lt Gov Patrick, who is presiding over the proceedings, said each side has so far used about half its allotted time for arguments and that the case could go to the jury later this week, AP reported. He also said there will be no more days off until the trial is resolved, raising the possibility that a decision could come over the weekend.

The Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, is flanked by his attorneys as the articles of his impeachment are read in the senate chamber at the Texas capitol last week.

A pro-gun group is suing the New Mexico governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, in an effort to block a 30-day emergency order suspending the right to carry firearms in public in Albuquerque’s Bernalillo county issued last week after a spate of shootings.

The governor announced open and concealed carry restrictions on Friday in a public health order relating to gun violence after the fatal shootings of an 11-year-old boy on his way home from a minor league baseball game last week, as well as the fatal shooting of a four-year-old girl in her bed in a motor home and a 13-year-old girl in Taos county in August.

Lujan Grisham said she expected someone to legally challenge her executive order, adding that she welcomed “the debate and the fight about making New Mexicans safer”.

That challenge arrived on Saturday when the National Association for Gun Rights said it would file a lawsuit in federal court against the governor, citing 2021’s BruenUS supreme court ruling easing gun restrictions.

The president of the pro-gun group, Dudley Brown, accused the governor of “throwing up a middle finger to the constitution and the supreme court”.

Her executive order is in blatant disregard for Bruen. She needs to be held accountable for stripping the God-given rights of millions away with the stroke of a pen.

The order calls for monthly inspections of firearms dealers statewide to ensure compliance with gun laws and for the state health department to compile a report on gunshot victims at hospitals that includes age, race, gender and ethnicity, along with the brand and caliber of firearm involved, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Lujan Graham said she issued the order to open up more resources to help New Mexico get the gun violence issue under control and called on the federal government for help.

“These are disgusting acts of violence that have no place in our communities,” Lujan Grisham said on Thursday, adding that Bernalillo county needed a “cooling off period” during an epidemic of gun violence.

Activists entered the speaker Kevin McCarthy’s office in the US Capitol demanding the reauthorization of the law governing US global Aids funding, Politico’s Alice Miranda Ollstein reports.

The President’s Emergency Program for Aids Relief (Pepfar), which has saved 25 million lives and stands as one of the US’ most successful foreign aid programs, is in danger of becoming a victim of abortion politics as it reaches its expiration date at the end of the month.

The speaker, Kevin McCarthy, doesn’t have the votes to move forward with an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden, according to the CNN report.

One moderate GOP lawmaker told the news channel there are as many as 30 Republicans who don’t believe there’s enough evidence yet for impeachment.

Republican congressman for South Dakota, Dusty Johnson, said:

There is a constitutional and legal test that you have to meet with evidence. I have not seen that evidence, but I guess I’m not suggesting it doesn’t exist. I do think the fact that the committees continue to ask for additional documents suggests that they don’t think their evidentiary record is complete yet.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right congresswoman from Georgia, told CNN she personally would like to see an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden happen this week.

Greene has made clear that her support for government funding is contingent upon the House GOP launching an impeachment inquiry into the president, among other things. She said:

Our conference needs to stop capitulating to the left, more members that are in blue districts. That’s not what the donors are donating money for. And we need to stop allowing Biden-district Republicans to hold up our agenda.

She added:

Put the vote to the floor, even if it fails. I guarantee you, if you put it back, it’ll pass because every single Republican that votes no to it will get destroyed by their districts.

Citing sources, the report says Donald Trump is set to forcefully weigh in on the looming government shutdown, the White House’s request for disaster relief and aid for Ukraine, and the growing calls on the right to impeach Biden.

The former president is likely to ramp up his calls to impeach Biden and come out strongly against Ukraine aid, further ratcheting up pressure on McCarthy as he plots his strategy for the treacherous month ahead.

All of this is expected to be discussed in a closed-door party meeting Wednesday, the first time House Republicans will huddle in person since before the six-week August recess. How McCarthy and his leadership team handles this critical month of governing will have major implications for both the country and his speakership.

Republican senator Bill Cassidy’s comments follow increasing speculation surrounding the mental competence of Capitol Hill leaders, including 81-year-old Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who appeared to freeze up in front of reporters during two separate instances this summer. Meanwhile, in March, McConnell received treatment for a concussion after he tripped and fell at a Washington DC hotel during a private dinner.

The most recent freezing episode occurred less than two weeks earlier in Kentucky. McConnell appeared to freeze for more than 30 seconds before being eventually escorted away by staff members.

Afterwards, the congressional physician, Brian P Monahan, conducted several evaluations on McConnell, including brain MRI imaging, an EEG study and consultations with several neurologists for a “comprehensive neurology assessment”, he said in a letter. He added:

There is no evidence that you have a seizure disorder or that you experienced a stroke, TIA [transient ischaemic attack or mini-stroke] or movement disorder such as Parkinson’s disease.

During Sunday’s interview, Cassidy praised McConnell, saying he “handled it perfectly”. “His doctor is releasing not just the tests but the results of the tests,” Cassidy said.

And with that, there is a transparency that allows people to move beyond a number – how old is the person – into ‘What is actually the kind of science, if you will, the medical science, of how to evaluate?’ And I think that should be the standard that folks are held to, and I think he’s responded.

Asked if he believed he had received enough information from McConnell, Cassidy said:

I do. The doctor is not lying.

Cassidy urged Joe Biden to also release similar records, calling on the president to “do what Mitch just did”.

Shouldn’t President Biden, for example, release a full kind of neurologic evaluation of his cognitive ability and whomever else?

Congress should have a rule requiring certain top federal officials to disclose medical records, the Republican senator Bill Cassidy said on Sunday.

Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press, Cassidy – a gastroenterologist who was elected as a US senator for Louisiana in 2008 – said that it “should certainly be a House rule” for elected officials to disclose their medical records.

I think if you want to be the president of the United States, or a senator or House member, then there is a responsibility over and above that of just offering yourself. It has to be that you can show that you have clarity.

On his last show hosting Meet the Press, Chuck Todd went on to ask Cassidy whether it would be a good idea to standardize both the disclosure of tax returns and medical records. Cassidy replied:

Actually, I think that would be reasonable, too. Because if the voter is going to make a decision, we need to give her as much information as we possibly can.

Joe Biden, in Hanoi earlier today, visited a memorial for his late friend and senator, John McCain, who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war.

Before departing Vietnam to return to the US, the president visited the John Sidney McCain III memorial near the site where a 31-year-old McCain was shot down and captured in 1967.

The harrowing incident began a more than five-year ordeal that became the defining moment for the future Republican senator from Arizona and two-time presidential candidate, according to AP.

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