Today's news hit like a firehose, which is to be expected after the Thanksgiving holiday. This year, though, that normal firehose is intensified by the news of the new Omicron COVID variant that the World Health Organization has labeled a "variant of concern."
Epidemiologists in South Africa first identified Omicron on Wednesday, November 24, but the variant did not necessarily originate there: South African doctors were simply the first to identify it. The variant has since been detected in at least 14 countries, including Canada, where doctors have already found five cases.
Former Food and Drug Administration head Dr. Scott Gottlieb told "Face the Nation" Sunday that Omicron is "almost definitely" already in the United States. President Joe Biden today urged Americans not to panic about the variant as scientists work to figure out how threatening it is, but absolutely to get vaccinated and to get booster shots. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, today urged everyone over 18 to get a booster shot. The Biden administration has restricted flights from 8 countries in southern Africa to buy time for more Americans to get vaccinated. It will not call for a return to lockdowns.
Upon announcement of Omicron, Representative Ronny Jackson (R-TX), former White House physician for Trump, tweeted that the news was manufactured by Democrats to enable them to "push unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots. Democrats will do anything to CHEAT during an election—but we're not going to let them!" he concluded.
There were no COVID-related deaths yesterday in New York City, where the vaccination rate is 90%. For adult Democrats the vaccination rate is about 90%, while the vaccination rate for adult Republicans hovers around 60%. Counties that went strongly for Trump have a death rate three times that of counties that voted heavily for Biden.
The Senate was back in session today after the Thanksgiving break. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is currently focused on several revenue measures. First, Congress needs to fund the government, which will run out of money on Friday after an earlier agreement with Republicans that extended funding to then and no further.
Second—and crucially important—Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling to pay for measures already passed. Although raising the debt ceiling will cover only measures for which Congress has already appropriated the money and not new ones, and although Republicans added $7.8 trillion to the debt during Trump's term, Republicans now say they will not help to raise the ceiling and that the Democrats must do it on their own. If the ceiling is not raised, the country will default on its debt for the first time in history, which will do profound damage to the economy and our international standing.
Third, Congress needs to pass a defense authorization bill to fund the military. So far, this has always passed—although Trump tried to kill it last year—meaning that sometimes it can carry through other measures piggybacking on it.
Fourth is the Build Back Better Act that the House has already passed in tandem with the bipartisan infrastructure measure signed into law on November 15. Schumer told reporters that he wants to pass Biden's popular social spending package by Christmas, expecting that it will ease inflation.
Congress's focus on imperative fiscal measures means that the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act are not on the table this week.
This is problematic. Federal protection of our voting rights underpins everything else. On November 22, more than 150 political scientists signed an open letter to Congress warning that the opportunity to save our democracy is closing, and imploring it to pass the Freedom to Vote Act.
"If Congress fails to pass the Freedom to Vote Act," the scholars wrote, "American democracy will be at critical risk. Not only could this failure undermine the minimum condition for electoral democracy—free and fair elections—but it would in turn likely result in an extended period of minority rule, which a majority of the country would reject as undemocratic and illegitimate. This would have grave consequences not only for our democracy, but for political order, economic prosperity, and the national security of the United States as well."
The Freedom to Vote Act would standardize elections and make it easier to register and vote, and it would overturn the laws passed since January 2020 by Republican-dominated legislatures to replace nonpartisan election officials with partisans. It would also end partisan gerrymandering, stopping the extraordinary maps Republican-dominated states are creating to give themselves commanding majorities of their states' legislatures and Congressional delegations regardless of what the voters want.
Protection of our elections is imperative as Trump and the Republican radicals in Republican-dominated states are cementing their hold on election systems, making it virtually impossible for Democrats to win.
In Michigan, for example, where courts, election officials, and the state senate all confirmed Biden's 2020 win, Trump has endorsed candidates for attorney general and secretary of state—both of whom are crucial to election counting—as well as two congressional candidates and seven candidates for seats in the legislature. All of them have called for investigations into the 2020 election and changes to election laws; one has said that anyone engaged in "election fraud" should face a firing squad. "Michigan needs a new legislature," Trump said. "The cowards there now are too spineless to investigate Election Fraud."
In April 2021, Nathaniel Rakich of FiveThirtyEight noted that "Of the 293 Republicans who were serving in the Senate or House on Jan. 20, 2017—the day of Trump's inauguration—a full 132 (45 percent) are no longer in Congress or have announced their retirement or resignation." Under pressure from the former president, the party continues to radicalize, with firebrands like Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), and Gosar gaining influence.
Republican leadership has refused to call out Representative Lauren Boebert (R-CO) for recent Islamophobic statements aimed at Boebert's colleague Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) suggesting she was a terrorist. This, coming on top of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's (R-CA) support for Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) after he released a video illustrating himself killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and slashing at the president, indicates either that McCarthy has lost control of his caucus or is afraid of it, or both.
Recently, Salon columnist Chauncey DeVega conducted an interview with Miles Taylor, the chief of staff to Trump's Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen who published a New York Times op-ed in 2018 as "Anonymous" claiming that he was part of a resistance movement in the Trump White House. Taylor told DeVega that Republican congresspeople are worried they will be attacked if they cross Trump. "I'm talking about former Cabinet secretaries, sitting members of Congress and others who personally confessed to me, 'I don't think I can join you in rising up against this guy because I've got to worry about my family's safety.'" Taylor said. "I didn't anticipate how much I was going to hear that as a response. They would say to me, "Look, I've got kids and this is too crazy right now."
But if Trump is permitted to hand over control over the machinery of our elections to his loyalists, today's "crazy" is going to look quaint.