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The Hills Morning Report - Democrats sense opportunity with SCOTUS vacancy

Welcome to The Hill’s Morning Report. It is Friday! We get you up to speed on the most important developments in politics and policy, plus trends to watch. Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver are the co-creators. Readers can find us on Twitter @asimendinger and @alweaver22. Please recommend the Morning Report to friends and let us know what you think. CLICK HERE to subscribe!

Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported each morning this week: Monday, 866,540; Tuesday, 868,512; Wednesday, 872,126; Thursday, 876,066; Friday, 878,476.

Within weeks, President BidenJoe BidenCourt nixes offshore drilling leases auctioned by Biden administration Laquan McDonald's family pushes for federal charges against officer ahead of early release Biden speaks with Ukrainian president amid Russian threat MORE says he will nominate the first Black woman to be a Supreme Court justice and set in motion what Democratic senators hope will be a speedy confirmation to succeed Justice Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerSupreme Court clears way for Alabama execution McConnell: I'm going to give Biden's Supreme Court nominee 'a fair look' Clyburn calls for full-court press on voting rights MORE when he retires in late June or early July.

The president, standing with Breyer at the White House on Thursday, said he’s in the early stages of considering female candidates and will cast a wide net before announcing the first high court nominee of his presidency. The White House, in fact, has been prepared well before Breyer’s private retirement alert to the president last week, and Biden has begun to review candidates’ opinions and weigh the process and politics that loom large this spring. 

“I’ve made no decision except one: The person I will nominate will be someone with extraordinary qualifications, character experience and integrity,” Biden said. “And that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court. It’s long overdue in my view. I made that commitment during my campaign for president, and I will keep that commitment” (The Hill). 

In his first year in office, the president nominated 62 women to the federal judiciary, including 24 Black women, a White House official told NBC. 

Breyer, 83, who has served on the high court for nearly 30 years, held his pocket copy of the Constitution aloft and reiterated that the survival of America’s experiment in democracy rests with the next generation. “Of course, I’m an optimist,” he said with a smile, implicitly acknowledging an increasingly partisan process that will seat a liberal woman on the bench who will be 30 or 40 years his junior. “I'm pretty sure it will” (The Hill). 

CNN: Democrats expect to hold hearings and votes on a justice-in-waiting before Breyer officially steps aside at the end of this term. 

FiveThirtyEight: Why Democratic Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOvernight Health Care — ObamaCare gets record numbers On The Money — Economy had post-recession growth in 2021 Progressives apply pressure on Biden, Senate to pass Build Back Better MORE (W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaClyburn calls for full-court press on voting rights Swing-state voters concerned about Build Back Better's impact on inflation: poll Voto Latino CEO: Sinema will have a 'very difficult pathway' in 2024 reelection MORE (Ariz.) in a 50-50 Senate will probably vote for Biden’s Supreme Court pick. 

BBC: The women in the running to replace Breyer. 

Robert Barnes, The Washington Post: Is Justice Breyer’s exit politics or pragmatism? 

Breyer’s departure has created a major opening for Senate Democrats, allowing Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBreyer retirement throws curveball into midterms Schumer vows to vote on Biden Supreme Court pick with 'all deliberate speed' Voting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? MORE (N.Y.) to go on offense after months of struggling to implement the Biden agenda.  

As The Hill’s Jordain Carney writes, the stakes are high for the New York Democrat, who is now tasked with shepherding Biden’s nominee through an evenly divided 50-50 upper chamber. But, in a break for the Democratic leader, judicial nominees have been easier unifiers for his caucus, starting him off on easier footing than fights over the Build Back Better package or trying to reform the filibuster. 

“It will be as much of a victory for Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerBreyer retirement throws curveball into midterms Schumer vows to vote on Biden Supreme Court pick with 'all deliberate speed' Voting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? MORE as it will be for Joe Biden. … Schumer’s got a difficult caucus, obviously, and this is going to be a historic nomination,” said Meagan Hatcher-Mays, Indivisible’s director of democracy policy. 

One source familiar with Schumer’s planning told The Hill that he is eyeing a similar timeline to the one Republicans used to confirm Justice Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettSupreme Court clears way for Alabama execution Manchin open to supporting Supreme Court pick more liberal than him Gary Peters details abortion story in defense of Roe v. Wade MORE in 2020. She was confirmed only 30 days after then-President TrumpDonald TrumpMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race Judge lays out schedule for Eastman to speed up records processing for Jan. 6 panel Michael Avenatti cross-examines Stormy Daniels in his own fraud trial MORE formally nominated her to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgHow President Biden can win back momentum on women's rights Manchin and Sinema must help Biden make the Supreme Court look more like America Breyer's retirement gives Biden, and progressives, a high court appointment MORE.

 

 

> Aisle crossing: Progressives have made their feelings known about Manchin in recent months. Now, Republicans are starting to do so with their checkbooks.  

Ken Langone, a billionaire GOP donor and founder of Home Depot, donated $5,000 to Manchin’s Country Roads leadership PAC, becoming one of the first Republican heavyweights to support the centrist Democrat. The total is the most an individual contributor can give to this type of political action committee in any single year.  

In early December, Langone, 86, told CNBC that he was hopeful to hold a fundraiser on Manchin’s behalf. The West Virginia lawmaker is up for reelection in 2024.  

“I don’t see leadership any place in this country. Thank God for Joe Manchin,” Langone said at the time. “I’m going to have one of the biggest fundraisers I’ve ever had for him. He’s special. He’s precious. He’s a great American.” 

NBC News: Activists are aiming at Sinema. But she's winning Republican friends.

LEADING THE DAY

ADMINISTRATION: Rolling waves of diplo-speak and Western entreaties to Russia appear, for the time being, to have created an uncertain pause in what had been American and NATO expectations that Russian troops would roll across Ukraine’s border at any minute. 

The outreach to Moscow is from a host of interested parties: French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronLook to the EU to understand the US border crisis  New French law bans 'conversion therapy' The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Russia attack 'would change the world' MORE today will speak by phone with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinYes, the US can legally intervene if Russia invades Ukraine Russia-Ukraine conflict threatens U.S. prestige China warns US to 'stop interfering' in Olympics MORE to urge more security talks (The Associated Press). 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday promoted the idea of more direct meetings with Moscow. “We have invited, I have, as chairman of the NATO-Russia Council, invited all 30 allies and Russia to a series of meetings where we are ready to sit down and to have substantive discussions on a wide range of issues,” he said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba predicted on Thursday that Russia is likely to remain on a diplomatic track with Kyiv and the West for at least two weeks ahead of a planned meeting in Germany, but he said Moscow will continue its efforts to destabilize Ukraine (Reuters). “The good news is that advisers agreed to meet in Berlin in two weeks, which means that Russia for the next two weeks is likely to remain on the diplomatic track,” he said.  

Responding to a hand-delivered written response from the U.S. and NATO to its demands, the Kremlin slammed the Biden administration and Western allies, complaining Russia’s views were not adequately considered. The Kremlin continues to deny Russia will order its more than 100,000 troops along the border to move into Ukraine (CNBC), while Biden continues to warn of the potential for a mid-February Russian attack against Ukraine (Bloomberg News and The Associated Press). 

Meanwhile, Germany under Chancellor Olaf Scholz remains focused on de-escalating tensions and was lampooned in Kyiv for offering 5,000 helmets for Ukraine’s defense, described by Kyiv’s mayor as “a joke” (CNBC).   

German economy minister Robert Habeck told Der Spiegel during an interview published on Tuesday that his government is intent on getting diplomacy back on track. 

“Russia knows that crossing red lines would immediately trigger painful sanctions that have already been prepared. And it is clear that Russia is heating and stoking this conflict,” he said. “But it isn’t enough to simply leave it at that. The efforts of Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to get diplomatic efforts back on track is absolutely vital. … It must be clear to the Russian regime: Russia has a lot to lose if it goes to war, and it can win if it pulls back its troops and de-escalates.”

The Wall Street Journal: Russia sends medical units to Ukrainian front. 

The Hill: With Russia-Ukraine tensions, the Biden administration risks another hit to U.S. prestige abroad. 

The Hill: Biden’s foreign policy experience is being tested by Putin, who thus far hasn’t seemed swayed by a U.S. carrot-and-stick approach. The U.S. president seeks to ward off a second Ukraine-Russia fight.

 

 

> Pentagon & civilian casualties: Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinPentagon chief orders closer focus on preventing civilian deaths in airstrikes Overnight Defense & National Security — Inside Austin's civilian harm directive Pentagon pauses civilian vaccine mandate after federal court ruling MORE and his senior advisers — under pressure from Congress following a series of investigations by The New York Times and outside reports including details of botched U.S. airstrikes that slaughtered civilians — on Thursday ordered an overhaul of policy rules and cultural norms to prevent civilian deaths and harm at the hands of U.S. military forces. The Pentagon’s challenge is whether a two-page directive from Austin can result in concrete changes in the field.

The New York Times reports that “the U.S. military has long been taught that the laws of war prevent intentionally targeting civilians or carrying out strikes where the anticipated scale of bystander deaths is disproportionate to the combat aim. Military leaders and presidents have long articulated a policy of minimizing or trying to prevent collateral damage. In recent years, a number of military officials said, loopholes in the regulations routinely allowed Special Operations forces to sidestep safeguards.” 

Austin’s memo directs Pentagon officials to take immediate action on the establishment of a standardized system for reports of civilian harm and the creation of the Pentagon center that would focus on how to prevent, mitigate and respond to civilian harm. The defense secretary also gave officials 90 days to develop what the Pentagon calls a “civilian harm mitigation and response action plan” to implement recommendations from recently completed Pentagon-commissioned studies, including a report from RAND, an inspector general’s inquiry into a drone strike in Kabul and a review of a 2019 airstrike in Syria. 

> Some student loan debts expunged: Student borrowers say they are in shock over sudden zero balances in their loan accounts after applying years ago and being rejected for help. Tens of thousands of teachers, health care workers, military members and other public servants have had their student debt erased or have qualified for debt forgiveness after the Biden administration overhauled the system last fall (NBC News). 

> Vice President Harris on Thursday arrived in Honduras to meet one-on-one with President Xiomara Castro as the democratic socialist was inaugurated by her countrymen. During an official meeting, the pair discussed additional COVID-19 vaccine donations by the United States and root causes of migration (The Hill). 

The Hill’s Rafael Bernal reports that Harris’s prominent diplomatic boost for Castro represents a bet on the Central American leader despite continued political instability.  

NPR: Harris flew thousands of miles looking for a fresh start on migration issues in Honduras. 

Reuters: Honduras inaugurates first female president; Harris vows closer U.S. ties.

 

 

> Feline politics: Cat lovers, your time has come: The White House officially has a cat in-house. First lady Jill BidenJill BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks Jill Biden adds to communications team in lead-up to midterm elections Harris invokes MLK in voting rights push, urges Senate to 'do its job' MORE this morning released pictures of Willow, a 2-year-old Tabby from Western Pa., who joins Major and Commander Biden in the world of presidential pets. 

IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES

POLITICS: It was a day of ups and downs on the polling scene for the president on Thursday as surveys showed him leading a pair of potential 2024 opponents, but that his standing in a key swing state has fallen precipitously over the past year, foretelling big problems for Democrats in 2022.  

On the bright side, a poll conducted by Marquette Law School found that 43 percent of adults nationally would support Biden compared to only 33 percent for Trump if the 2024 presidential election were held today. Sixteen percent of respondents said they would choose another candidate. Six percent said they would not vote. 

The margin tightens slightly if Biden is pitted against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantis Broward County Sheriff sacks deputy union head amid COVID-19 dispute Biden leading Trump, DeSantis by similar margins in new poll DeSantis leans into COVID-19 treatment fight amid 2024 chatter MORE (R), with the president raking in 41 percent, versus 33 percent for the Sunshine State’s chief executive (The Hill). According to the poll, 71 percent of those surveyed said they did not want to see Trump on the ticket. Just 29 percent of those polled said they want to see the former president run again. 

Houston Chronicle: Trump to headline rally in Conroe, Texas, on Saturday. 

 

 

However, Biden’s standing in Georgia is another matter and presents a dire situation for the party heading into the midterm elections. According to a new poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, only 34 percent of Georgia voters approve of Biden’s performance. Sixty-four percent of respondents disapprove.  

Biden’s dismal numbers are unsurprisingly rubbing off on two of the state’s leading Democrats. Stacey Abrams, the party’s likely gubernatorial nominee, trails in head-to-head matchups against Georgia Gov. Brian KempBrian KempBiden approval rating drops to 34 percent in Georgia: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Who will replace Justice Breyer? Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll MORE (R) (48 to 41 percent) and former Sen. David PerdueDavid PerdueBiden approval rating drops to 34 percent in Georgia: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Who will replace Justice Breyer? Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll MORE (R-Ga.) (47 to 43 percent). 

In the fight for the upper chamber, Republican Herschel Walker leads Sen. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockBiden approval rating drops to 34 percent in Georgia: poll Warnock outraises Walker in Georgia Senate race Herschel Walker reports .4M raised in latest quarter for Senate bid MORE (D-Ga.) with 47 percent to 44 percent for the incumbent senator. 

Hanna Trudo, The Hill: Left says they're not to blame for Biden's problems.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Kevin Nicholson joins the Wisconsin Republican primary for governor, compares himself with Trump.

The Hill: Former Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 The 10 races that will decide the Senate majority MORE (R-N.C.) to stay in North Carolina Senate race, bucking Trump, who had tried to push him to run for the House instead. 

Reid Wilson, The Hill: States dole out mega-subsidies in bid to lure companies.  

****** 

CORONAVIRUS: San Francisco announced on Thursday that effective Feb. 1, its indoor mask mandate will be rolled back at locales such as gyms and offices as case totals drop significantly after an omicron-fueled surge earlier in the month. 

In its place, the city is reimplementing the local mask exemption that was in place before omicron spread like wildfire. 

“As we come out of this latest surge and face a future in which COVID-19 will remain among us, San Francisco will take a balanced approach in our response to COVID-19 by aligning with state requirements and guidelines where we can do so safely,” said San Francisco Health Officer Susan Philip. “We also acknowledge areas where we can, San Francisco can be further ahead in easing restrictions, such as the indoor mask exemption for stable cohorts, given our highly vaccinated and boosted population” (The Mercury News).

The Wall Street Journal: COVID-19 curbs eased further in Europe as new version of omicron spreads in places.

The Morning Report is created by journalists Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver. We want to hear from you! Email: asimendinger@thehill.com and aweaver@thehill.com. We invite you to share The Hill’s reporting and newsletters, and encourage others to SUBSCRIBE!

 

OPINION

Putin is threatening to wreck Biden’s Asia strategy, by Josh Rogin, columnist, The Washington Post. https://wapo.st/3g5Gj7j  

Can Medieval sleeping habits fix America’s insomnia? By Derek Thompson, staff writer, The Atlantic. https://bit.ly/3KSfd1A

WHERE AND WHEN

The House meets at 9 a.m. for a pro forma session. 

The Senate convenes on Monday at 3 p.m.  

The president will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 10:15 a.m. Biden will travel to Pittsburgh, Pa., to discuss strengthening the nation’s supply chains.

Economic indicator: The Bureau of Economic Analysis will report at 8:30 a.m. on personal income and outlays in December, offering analysts a snapshot of recent consumer spending. On Thursday, the government reported that the 2021 gross domestic product grew at a brisk 5.7 percent on an annualized basis, the biggest surge since 1984 (The New York Times). 

Hill.TV’s “Rising” program features news and interviews at http://thehill.com/hilltv or on YouTube at 10:30 a.m. ET at Rising on YouTube.

ELSEWHERE

PLANET HEALTH: Every home cook and professional chef who favors natural gas cooktops because they heat quickly and with infinite culinary control may be startled to learn they harm the planet even when the appliances are turned off. Gas cooktops and stoves emit methane, a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, leading to the same effect in heating the planet over a 20-year period as half a million gas-powered cars, one study estimates (The New York Times). … Much like the situation involving Erin Brockovich and Pacific Gas & Electric Company in the 1990s, a statute of limitations can be a decisive factor when it comes to trying, or even taking on, a toxic exposure lawsuit. These restrictions, which vary in length and detail from state to state, are today playing a role in the litigation emerging following community exposure to “forever chemicals,” or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (The Hill). 

➜ SPACE JUNK: Look out, moon. On March 4 at 7:25 a.m., a hunk of Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskMusk says 'Canadian truckers rule' ahead of drivers' protest over COVID-19 vaccine mandate On The Money — Economy had post-recession growth in 2021 Hillicon Valley — Presented by Cisco — Feds forge ahead on internet 'nutrition labels' MORE’s SpaceX hardware (the upper stage of a Falcon 9 rocket that launched in February 2015) will slam into the moon and add to its junked-up surface. The impact will occur on the lunar far side, at about 4.93 degrees north latitude and 233.20 degrees east longitude (Space.com). 

 

 

THE CLOSER

And finally … An extended slow-clap for this week’s Morning Report Quiz winners who swished questions about the career of basketball’s Kobe Bryant, who died two years ago.  

Here are the puzzle champions who went 4/4: Patrick Kavanagh, Ki Harvey, Chuck Henry, Len Jones, John Donato, Michael Palermo, Pam Manges, Jack Barshay and Steve James. 

They knew that the only player to be named to more NBA All-Star teams than Bryant (18) is fellow Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19).  

Bryant’s “Dear Basketball” was awarded an Academy Award for “Best Animated Short Film” in 2018. 

Only one player in the past 30 seasons  — then-Houston Rockets star James Harden (36.1) in 2017-18 — topped Bryant’s 2005-06 single-season scoring high of 35.4 points per game. 

Finally, from our multiple-choice list, Bryant during his career never endorsed Gatorade. 

 

Tags Ruth Bader Ginsburg Amy Coney Barrett Charles Schumer Emmanuel Macron Raphael Warnock Vladimir Putin Kyrsten Sinema Stephen Breyer Chuck Schumer Ron DeSantis Donald Trump Lloyd Austin David Perdue Mark Walker Joe Manchin Jill Biden Brian Kemp Elon Musk Joe Biden Morning Report Russia-Ukraine tensions Ukraine call COVID-19 Biden agenda Supreme Court Breyer retirement

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