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The Morning Dispatch: Congress Returns
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The Morning Dispatch: Congress Returns

Plus, a vaccine temperature check and fun at the DIA.

Happy Wednesday! And a mea culpa: We saw your comments about the missing COVID graphs yesterday. There was an error in one of them, one we couldn’t fix easily before sending, so we held them. But we’re glad to know you missed them! They’re back today, and … check them out. Some positive trends!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 26,090 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, with 4.9 percent of the 537,577 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 433 deaths were attributed to the virus on Tuesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 189,639.

  • The NASDAQ fell again Tuesday as technology stocks continued to slide, with Tesla having its worst day in six months. 

  • Nine major vaccine manufacturers, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer, have signed a pledge promising to “uphold the integrity of the scientific process as they work towards potential global regulatory filings and approvals of the first COVID-19 vaccines,” amid concerns of rushed vaccine trials. 

  • AstraZeneca paused Phase III trials of its coronavirus vaccine after a possible serious adverse reaction in a trial participant. The company described the pause as a “routine action” to allow time for safety reviews.

  • The Justice Department moved Tuesday to take over President Trump’s defense in a defamation lawsuit brought against him by the writer E. Jean Carroll, who has accused him of raping her in 1996.

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate will vote on the GOP’s proposed coronavirus relief package. Democrats have said they consider the bill inadequate and will not support its passage.

  • A day after being seen bundled into a van by masked men in Minsk, Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova was involved in an altercation at the Ukrainian border. Conflicting reports suggest that government forces attempted to expel her and two colleagues from the country, but she tore up her passport to stop herself from crossing, possibly throwing herself from the car transporting her. 

Back to Work, Recess is Over

As the Senate returns from its August recess and the House prepares to reconvene next week, a question hangs over the capital: Will this session be characterized by the “phone it in and focus on campaigning” mood we usually get out of Congress in the months immediately before a major election, or will the ongoing damage of the pandemic and risk of economic backsliding produce action?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was quick off the blocks, signaling plans to hold a vote on a GOP coronavirus relief bill this week. Responding to pressure from conservatives in his conference, McConnell hopes to convince Democrats to accept a highly pared-down version of the massive relief plans they proposed earlier this summer. But Democratic leadership has already indicated its unwillingness to compromise on a plan that provides $500 billion-$700 billion to COVID-19 recovery, only a fraction of what they’d offered. 

After a tumultuous fight over the $1 trillion HEALS Act which never reached the floor during the Senate’s last session, McConnell may not have the 51 GOP votes he needs. Pragmatists and election-minded GOP senators have pushed their leadership to sign off on a bigger package and to give them something they can campaign on. But some conservatives are frustrated by the lack of real oversight of the first wave of coronavirus spending and skeptical of another high-dollar relief package. If McConnell does win over 51 Senators within his short timeline, Senate Democrats will likely filibuster the bill. 

If passed, the bill would extend an additional $300 weekly in unemployment benefits to workers through December, provide liability protections for businesses and schools, and allocate $258 billion to the Paycheck Protection Program and $47 billion to coronavirus vaccines and testing. Other stipulations include $105 billion for schools, $20 billion for farm assistance, $15 billion for childcare grants and $10 billion to the United States Postal Service. Democratic leaders accused the GOP of including “poison pills” in the legislation, designed to keep it from passing.

The estimated price tag of $500 billion to $700 billion is well short of the Democrats’ most recent proposal for a $2.2 trillion relief bill, down from their initial pitch: the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act. Senate Democrats and Republicans are also at odds with one another over the specific benefits and allocation of the relief money. The Democratic plan included an additional $600 in unemployment benefits per week, for example, and McConnell’s offers only $300. Another snag: Democrats sought nearly $1 trillion for state and local governments, a request that Republicans have denounced as an extraneous bailout. 

“Right now, the thing that’s the stumbling block is [aid] to state and local governments,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said in a Fox Business interview Tuesday. “The number that Speaker Pelosi puts forth is just not supported by the facts. So, we’re going to continue to negotiate on that.”

McConnell’s proposal also leaves out the additional stimulus checks to individuals requested by the White House. “Now, we have $300 billion in an account that we didn’t use—$300 billion,” Trump said on Friday. “I would be willing to release it, subject to Congress, and use that as stimulus money, and it would go right to the American people. So we have $300 billion sitting in an account that we didn’t need because things are going so well with the economy.”

The new bill plans to utilize the $350 billion in unused funds from the CARES Act to pay for other vital provisions of the relief package, a prospect with appeal to fiscal conservatives in Congress. McConnell had previously put forward a proposal including $1,200 checks to individuals and $500 for dependents, but dropped the provision following opposition from his own party. 

“It does not contain every idea our party likes,” McConnell said of the new plan. “I am confident Democrats will feel the same. Yet Republicans believe the many serious differences between our two parties should not stand in the way of agreeing where we can agree and making law that helps our nation.”

Congress is racing to avoid a shutdown that could come September 30. Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have begun work on a bipartisan stopgap, but gridlock over a stimulus bill threatens that effort. “The most important thing is to make sure at the end of the month, we don’t shut down the government and we get something past the election,” Mnuchin said.

Fast-Tracking Coronavirus Vaccines

Clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines are making progress at lightning speed as anxious Americans ring in their sixth month of coronavirus cabin fever. But even if a vaccine is available by the end of 2020, it will need to run a public-relations gauntlet on two fronts: bringing around those Republicans who have decided in advance not to get any COVID vaccine, and bringing around those Democrats who fear the Trump administration might be rushing the process to give the president’s November re-election a boost.

A Gallup poll that surveyed respondents between July 20 and August 2 reported that one in three Americans—and four in 10 nonwhite Americans—said they would not get a free, FDA-regulated COVID-19 vaccine if it were offered today. When broken down in partisan terms, 81 percent of Democrats said they would be willing to get a vaccine compared with just 47 percent of Republicans. 

According to Dr. William Schaffner—an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center—the first step is convincing doctors that the vaccine is safe for widespread use. “You first have to win over medical professionals,” Schaffner told The Dispatch. There are a lot of medical professionals who themselves are skeptical because frankly so much of the COVID response has been politicized.” 

“You hear national politicians talking about vaccine availability and making teasing statements about when it might be available,” he added. “It’s no wonder the doctors are saying, ‘Are these decisions going to be made because an election is coming up or because it’s based on science?’ ”

After preclinical testing, a vaccine must pass three stages of clinical development before it can win regulatory approval. Phase I tests small groups of people to prove basic safety and test basic immune response. Phase II tests the vaccine on individuals who exhibit characteristics and conditions for whom the vaccine is intended. And Phase III expands testing to thousands of people to see if the vaccine protects them from contracting the disease. According to the New York Times’ coronavirus vaccine tracker, 24 vaccines are in Phase I, 14 are in Phase II, 9 are in Phase III, and three have been approved for early or limited use. 

The government has awarded contracts to several promising vaccine trials—including those spearheaded by pharmaceutical giants Moderna and Pfizer—although it’s inevitable that some of these vaccines will fail in these clinical trials over the next few months. Just yesterday, AstraZeneca voluntarily halted its Phase III trials after a potential adverse reaction from a clinical trial participant in the United Kingdom. 

“It’s going to be as informative to know about the ones that fail as the ones that don’t fail, because that’ll tell us that whatever that response was was not either not sufficient or not correct in order to actually prevent both infection and disease,” said Dr. Diane Griffin, a professor in the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

According to Dr. Schaffner, public health officials have done a poor job reinforcing the fact that even when we get a vaccine, we will likely have to continue wearing masks and social distancing because the vaccine won’t be 100 percent effective. In fact, the CDC said in June that FDA-approved vaccines will be expected to “prevent disease or decrease its severity in at least 50% of people who are vaccinated.” A coronavirus vaccine will likely only be partially effective like the flu vaccine, meaning some individuals who have received it might still get sick and be able to transmit the coronavirus to others. 

“What all this means is that the day after you announced the vaccine, you can’t throw your mask in the trash,” Schaffner said. It will take a long time to deliver the vaccine to a large number of people—many of whom may be very reluctant to get the vaccine in the first place—meaning we may never get up to a level of herd immunity in which the risk of transmission really is very low. “You’ll be in better shape,” Schaffner said regarding individuals who choose to get vaccinated, “But you won’t be wearing a suit of armor.”

Many doctors worry that the general public is simply not prepared for the fact that we may have to continue wearing masks and maintaining social distancing for months after a vaccine is approved. “Heck, we can’t get people to wear masks today the way they should be doing it,” Schaffner said.

A Half-Baked Idea from the DIA

If officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) designed a program to lend credence to Donald Trump’s complaint about a Trump-hostile “Deep State,” they couldn’t have done much better than this. Over at the site today, Andrew has piece digging into a some weird “professional development” plans at one prominent intelligence agency. Why did the DIA invite a leftist activist—from Ben & Jerry’s, of all places—to give a speech to its employees on social justice and activism, then cancel it at the last minute? 

He cut his policy teeth as a staffer for then-Rep. Bernie Sanders before moving to Greenpeace, where he spent years directing its U.S. climate campaign. In his current role, his speaking bio says, he is tasked with “advancing social justice through the day to day operations of an ice cream company.” He is the driving force behind much of the company’s current aggressive social justice advocacy: the author, this summer, of its widely read “Silence Is Not An Option” statement following the death of George Floyd, which proclaimed that “we must dismantle white supremacy,” accused President Trump of “using his Twitter feed to normalize and promote” the “ideas and agendas” of the white supremacists and nationalists who support him, and called for Congress to establish a commission on reparations.

An internal DIA announcement about the event obtained by The Dispatch made it clear that these were the issues they’d invited Miller to discuss: “He will address Ben & Jerry’s current involvement and initiatives in combating inequality and pressing social issues.” In anticipation of the event, attendees were encouraged to watch a pre-recorded video “where he discusses the history and foundation of Ben & Jerry’s role in social justice issues” as well as the “Silence Is Not An Option” statement.

Miller argues that in fraught times such as these, no one has the option of sitting out politics or not taking sides. That’s the case he makes as a public speaker, arguing that it no longer behooves brands to attempt to remain ideologically neutral. “Grappling with issues of white supremacy, grappling with issues of slavery and legalized segregation … We need to dispense ourselves with the idea that there is a mushy middle here through which either individuals or companies and brands can thread some metaphorical needle,” he said in a June interview with advertising trade publication, The Drum.

All of which seemingly made Miller an odd choice for a government-sponsored lecture to an audience of the military’s top intelligence officials. Didn’t such an invitation run the risk of at least appearing to betray ideological bias among personnel at a key military agency? And wasn’t it strange to see that military agency openly promoting statements explicitly going after the commander-in-chief?

Read the rest of the piece here.

Worth Your Time

  • Remember those mysterious packages of seeds from China that inexplicably started showing up in peoples’ mailboxes in late July? We still don’t know the story behind where they came from. What we do now know, thanks to a slightly obsessive month-long FOIA odyssey from Motherboard’s Jason Koebler, is what happened to them. Despite USDA warnings, “According to documents obtained by Motherboard from state departments of agriculture, at least hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans planted the seeds.” 

  • As America begins slowly to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic in the months ahead, you can expect to see a lot more writing on the long-term effects we’ll be living with after it’s gone. One such effect, perhaps an unexpected one, concerns our teeth. According to this New York Times op-ed by dentist Tammy Chen, doctors in her profession are currently seeing an epidemic of grinding and cracks, seemingly brought about by a number of factors attributable to the pandemic: stress, working from home with bad posture, lack of adequate sleep. Fear not: She’s got solutions. If you’re dreading your post-pandemic return trip to the dentist, consider this piece a good place to start.

  • In the Wall Street Journal, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse examines the dysfunction of the U.S. Congress and offers several bold proposals to reform it, including a twist on term limits. “One of the biggest reasons Congress gives away its power to the executive branch is that it’s politically expedient for both parties to avoid the decisions that come from the work of legislating. Lawmakers are obsessed with staying in office, and one of the easiest ways to keep getting re-elected is by avoiding hard decisions. We ought to propose a constitutional amendment to limit every senator to one term, but we should double it from six years to 12. Senators who don’t have to worry about short-term popularity can work instead on long-term challenges.”

  • Ben Ginsberg is perhaps the best-regarded Republican election lawyer in the country. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, he criticizes President Trump’s frequent claims that election are “rigged” and blasts his call for Republicans to vote twice in the upcoming presidential contents. “The president has said that ‘the only way we can lose … is if cheating goes on.’ He has asserted that mail-in voting is ‘very dangerous’ and that ‘there is tremendous fraud involved and tremendous illegality.’ The lack of evidence renders these claims unsustainable. The truth is that after decades of looking for illegal voting, there’s no proof of widespread fraud. At most, there are isolated incidents — by both Democrats and Republicans. Elections are not rigged. Absentee ballots use the same process as mail-in ballots — different states use different labels for the same process. The Trump 2016 campaign, of which I was not a part, could produce no hard evidence of systemic fraud.”

Something Fun

We’ve changed our minds: TikTok is good now. 

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Yesterday’s Advisory Opinions had David and Sarah discuss the shifting electoral coalitions that may cause Biden to win Florida but lose Wisconsin, the suspicious numbers coming out of a New York Times report on the Trump campaign’s finances, and the President’s suggestion that voters attempt to commit voter fraud to test election security. Plus, they talk about why Minnesota is suddenly a pickup opportunity for Trump, and whether the three scheduled debates will be turning points in the race. 

  • Jonah has another episode of The Remnant out, with guest Iain Murray from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. They talk about how in modern politics socialism is less economic doctrine than moral system, how and why to refute socialist arguments, and Murray’s new book, The Socialist Temptation.

  • This week’s installment of The Sweep, from Sarah and Andrew, goes deep on the opportunity for Republicans in Minnesota, and then discusses how media prep works in modern campaigns.

  • On the site today, Jonathan Schanzer examines how a Biden administration might handle the ever-thorny situation in the Middle East, and he looks at whether Biden could overcome pressure from the far left of the party, which has antipathy toward Israel. If he can, Schanzer argues, there’s much to be said for the “outside-in” diplomacy that resulted in normalized relations between Israel and the UAE.

  • And, finally, if you missed it yesterday, we debuted Scott Lincicome’s new newsletter, Capitolism. If you don’t want to miss his weekly commentary on economic policy, trade, supply chains, basketball, and dad jokes, please check your account settings to make sure you’re set up to have it delivered.

Let Us Know

In light of Sarah’s campaign-prep questions in The Sweep we just mentioned: If you could ask one question of each presidential candidate, what would it be?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.