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D.C. Memo: Doused down and gridlocked out

COVID-19 hits the White House, Omar and Phillips team up against hate and a windfall of funds possible for Minnesota projects.

photo of sen amy klobuchar speaking at a rally
Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been focused on protecting voting rights.
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Hello and welcome back to the D.C. Memo. This week you can find me adjusting to my new schedule working full-time out of the Senate Press Gallery at the Capitol. They’ve finally released reporters from pandemic-era seating restrictions and I feel comfortable enough to finally work around a large group of people again. This week, we’re looking at: COVID-19 hits the White House, Omar and Phillips team up against hate and a windfall of funds possible for Minnesota projects.

COVID at the White House

Members of the media learned on Tuesday that there have been multiple positive COVID-19 cases among White House staffers, despite being vaccinated against the virus. Unfortunately for many White House staffers, this was news to them, too.

The White House doesn’t always notify all the people who work in the building when there is a positive test, POLITICO reports, because they say contact tracing is sufficient to stop the spread of the virus. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the positive individual did not have close contact with the president or other White House principals or staff.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office also confirmed that one of her staff members had tested positive after having contact with Texas lawmakers who are in Washington to prevent passage of a voting bill in their home state.

Through these announcements, the White House stuck to its message that vaccines and safety protocols would help Americans get through the next wave of infections as the delta variant moves through the country, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates. White House officials are now debating a masking push as infections spike.

Klobuchar fights for voting rights in Georgia

The Senate Rules Committee has been historically obscure, typically responsible for keeping the Senate running by handling disputes about Capitol office space and floor procedures.

But some recent developments have pushed the committee into the spotlight, thanks in part to Rules Committee Chairwoman Sen. Amy Klobuchar. In just the last six months, she has led the fight for a sweeping voting rights bill while her committee has investigated the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. The Committee was also in charge of staging President Biden’s inauguration, which came just two weeks after an insurrection at the Capitol and during a time when most streets in D.C. were barricaded and staffed by National Guard troops.

This week, the Senate Rules Committee was under the spotlight again: It held its first field hearing in almost two decades with a session in Atlanta on voting rights. Georgia lawmakers and voters warned the Rules Committee members that Georgia’s newly enacted restrictive voting law was undoing decades of progress.

“If you just stay in Washington and get doused down and gridlocked out by our archaic procedures in the Senate, you lose sight of what you are fighting for,” Klobuchar said at the hearing.

After huddling in the Capitol with Texas state lawmakers last week and partnerships with voting rights activists, Monday was the first time Klobuchar and the Rules Committee tried to make on-the-ground progress on one of over a dozen states that have adopted new voting restrictions.

Despite those efforts, though, it seems unlikely that the hearing will make a meaningful difference in the legislative debate in Washington, where Republicans called the hearing a stunt and boycotted it.

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Omar urges Biden to stand up to anti-Muslim hate

Rep. Ilhan Omar held a press conference to raise awareness about hate speech and assaults on religious and ethnic minorities in hopes of pushing the Biden administration to appoint a special envoy to monitor anti-Muslim hate in the U.S. and around the world.

Omar was joined by other Muslim members of Congress and Jewish and Asian-American lawmakers, including her colleague Rep. Dean Phillips, who earlier this year admonished Omar for comments her comparison of the human rights records of the U.S. and Israel with Hamas and the Taliban.

“As a young refugee who barely spoke English, the students mocked me, even going as far as putting chewing gum on my hijab,” Omar recounted during a press conference outside the Capitol.

Omar is one of the most highly visible members of Congress. She is one of the first two Muslim women elected to the House in 2018, and was the first to wear a hijab.

“At one point I was specifically attacked by a group of teenagers, because I didn’t bare my legs or arms during gym class. And this has followed me even as I ran for public office and represent my district in the United States Congress,” Omar said.

McCollum leads influx of cash for Minnesota projects

As the chair of the House Defense Appropriations Committee, Rep. Betty McCollum took the lead on advancing funding for dozens of priority community projects for Minnesota in appropriations bills.

“The Appropriations Committee is moving these critical bills forward to fund the federal government and at the same time, delivering for Minnesotans by investing in the priority needs of communities in districts represented by both Democrats and Republicans,” McCollum said.

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The funding for Minnesota projects runs at about $86 million, requested by individual members of the Minnesota delegation. This is the first time congressionally directed projects have been included in the appropriations bills since 2010, and all of McCollum’s requests were included in the FY 2022 budget.

Although McCollum and her colleagues in Minnesota’s congressional delegation are celebrating this as a win, the appropriations bills have only passed out of the Appropriations Committee and will still need to be approved by the full House before becoming law. A House vote is expected in the coming weeks.

To see if anything in your district made the list of approved projects, see McCollum’s press release.

It’s [finally] poutine time

On Monday, the Canadian government announced that conditional cross-border travel will be allowed for fully vaccinated American citizens and permanent residents beginning on August 9, 2021, at 12:01 a.m. ET. Minnesotans will be able to make the trek to the Northwest Angle for vacation, or reunite with family in Canada.

In response, Rep. Michelle Fischbach, whose district includes the Northwest Angle,  issued the following statement:

“The light at the end of the tunnel appears to be closer. After more than 16 long, arduous months, it is long past the time for these punitive restrictions to meet their end. Not only has the prolonged border closure affected the ability of Americans to travel, it has also impeded the ability of Americans to earn a living. The closure of the northern border has been particularly devastating for Minnesotans living in the Northwest Angle, and I am committed to doing all that I can to help their recovery.”

In April, Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar introduced legislation to provide relief to people hurt by COVID-19 travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada. Their measure would provide forgivable loans to small businesses in exclaves of the contiguous United States near the Canadian border.

“I’ve repeatedly pushed hard — both diplomatically and through introducing legislation — to get Canada to reconsider its restrictions and to take into account the Northwest Angle’s unique circumstances when applying travel restrictions,” Sen. Smith said. “Those restrictions have literally upended the lives and economic well-being of people living and working in the Angle by devastating tourism and other businesses, and splitting up families. As Canada eases restrictions, I’ll continue to work to ensure that the Northwest Angle can recover as quickly as possible.”

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What I’m Reading:

  • Watching the Watchmen, BuzzFeed News. If you still think of cat videos and silly quizzes when you think of BuzzFeed, I encourage you to look deeper: The publication won a Pulitzer prize this year, and their in-depth and investigative reporting is often eye-popping and so engaging to read. That includes this piece, which chronicles an attempt by a group of men to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that was thwarted by several members secretly feeding information to the FBI. The incident was a major test for the Biden Administration’s strategy for fighting domestic terrorism.

  • Spyware leak suggests lawyers and activists at risk across globe, The Guardian. A nonprofit organization called Forbidden Stories obtained leaked phone data from an Israeli-produced spyware called Pegasus. Forbidden Stories shared the data with a consortium of national media outlets, and reporters discovered that human rights lawyers, activists, dissidents and journalists from around the world were “selected as possible candidates for invasive surveillance through their phones.”

  • Nonprofit Explorer, ProPublica. Okay, I’ll admit this isn’t really a story. But ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer tool is insanely useful and interesting, both to journalists and the general public. Using this tool, you can find tax filings for most nonprofit organizations in the U.S. You can see how much key employees and officers make, and the numbers can be quite enlightening. Let me know if you find anything interesting.

That’s all from me this week. Thanks for reading! As always, please feel free to send any questions, comments or any Canadian vacation ideas to ahackett@minnpost.com, or find me on Twitter at @byashleyhackett.