Headlines: February 26, 2021
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President Joe Biden ordered U.S. airstrikes on Syria in his first military offensive since he took office. The strikes were aimed at buildings purportedly used by Iranian backed Iraqi militias in a nation that has experienced a decade of devastating war. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the strikes resulted in the deaths of, “22 militiamen of the Iraqi Hezbollah and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces,” as well as “three trucks carrying ammunition.” The UK-based group that has been tracking Syrian war casualties for years also reported that Russian fighter jets earlier this week dropped 250 bombs killing “nearly 35 ISIS members.” According to Associated Press, the U.S. air strikes on Thursday, “were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition troops.” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit.” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby called the strikes a “proportionate military response.” Mainstream media outlets like the New York Times were quick to characterize the air strikes as “a carefully calibrated approach” by the new president.
In other news, the Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough has ruled that a federal minimum wage increase to $15 an hour cannot be included in the current Democrat-backed $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill if it is to pass through a simple budget reconciliation process. While President Biden appeared to capitulate instantly saying he was “disappointed” by the decision but “respects” it, Senator Bernie Sanders, chair of the Senate Budget committee had a far different reaction. Sanders slammed the decision in a statement saying there was a clear case for economic stimulus impact through raising the wage. He pointed out, “it is hard for me to understand how drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was considered to be consistent [with the budget reconciliation rules] while increasing the minimum wage is not.” Congresswoman Ilhan Omar suggested firing the Senate Parliamentarian who is an unelected official —just as Republicans had once done so years ago. Omar also said the Senate needs to abolish the filibuster which is the reason why Democrats are forced to use budget reconciliation instead of a majority vote. The House is expected to pass the bill as is on Friday, keeping intact the wage increase.
GOP lawmakers continue to show hostility to transgender people. Just a day after Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene attacked trans-rights in the Equality Bill (which incidentally was passed by the House on Thursday), Senator Rand Paul aggressively questioned transgender nominee Rachel Levine with inappropriate and transphobic questions during her confirmation hearing. Ms. Levine is the top health official in Pennsylvania and was nominated for Assistant Health Secretary by President Biden. Senator Paul equating the practice of genital mutilation to hormone therapy that he claims transgender children receive. Levine did not take his bait but Senator Paul was widely denounced for his bigotry. Levine’s hearing overshadowed that of Vivek Murthy for surgeon general that took place on the same day. Murthy’s views on gun violence as a public health issue has drawn opposition from GOP lawmakers in the past. In general many of Biden’s non-white male nominees have faced aggressive questioning and opposition by GOP lawmakers.
In news from the coronavirus pandemic, new studies confirm the hypothesis that for survivors of the disease one vaccine dose rather than two are enough to offer the necessary protection from the virus. Meanwhile Germans are apparently rejecting the new Astra-Zeneca vaccine that studies show has lower efficacy than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. However Astra-Zeneca’s vaccines perform well above minimum standards for vaccine approval, is easier to manufacture, store, and distribute, and requires only one dose instead of two. The faster people are inoculated the faster the pandemic will end. One Harvard immunologist on Thursday said that in spite of the variants that are emerging, aggressive and comprehensive vaccines will overcome the spread of the disease. Dr. Galit Alter, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School said, “What we’re seeing is that these variants don’t seem to affect T-cell immunity all that much and they [the T-cells] seem to be as effective in recognizing these variants as they do the original virus…What that means is that we actually have very important backup mechanisms built into our vaccines that will continue to provide protection against these newly emerging variants.”
This week’s Conservative Political Action Conference has cancelled a speaker deemed to be too antisemitic even for American conservatives. A social media figure named Young Pharoah, known to have espoused anti-Jewish hate, was removed from the speakers’ list. CPAC organizers said, “We have just learned that someone we invited to CPAC has expressed reprehensible views that have no home with our conference or our organization.” In doing so the conference drew criticism for hypocrisy on so-called “cancel culture.” CPAC didn’t cancel many other speakers with extremist views: former President Trump is expected to overshadow the conference. A bizarre life-size golden statue of Trump wearing American flag shorts and flip flops was pictured being wheeled around at CPAC. Meanwhile Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, when asked if he would back Trump for President in 2024 said, “Absolutely,” even though he had strongly denounced the former president for inciting insurrection against the Capitol on January 6th. The NAACP meanwhile is suing Trump for “operating under a white supremacist doctrine” over the January 6th riot. The lawsuit relies on the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act.
An investigation by the Guardian Newspaper has found that 25 million Americans rely on poor quality drinking water and that Latinos are among the worst impacted. According to the paper, “Texas, where millions of residents lost access to water and power during the recent storm, has the most high-violation systems, followed by California and Oklahoma.” And, more than 300,000 people have signed petitions demanding that President Biden halt construction of the Line 3 pipeline and cancel the Dakota Access Pipeline. The environmental group 350.org delivered the petition to Biden as part of its “Build Back Fossil-Free” campaign. Meanwhile the United Nations released an analysis showing that national pledges to cut carbon emissions are far too modest to have an impact on catastrophic climate change. At the current rate, there will be only a 1% reduction in emissions by 2030. According to the Washington Post, “scientists have said that emissions must fall by nearly 50 percent this decade for the world to realistically have a shot at avoiding devastating temperature rise.”
Finally, the Biden administration just declassified an intelligence report produced by the U.S. CIA on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Al Khashoggi which confirms that Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman approved of the gruesome plan. The New York Times explained that the release of the report, “signaled that President Biden, unlike his predecessor, would not set aside the killing of Mr. Khashoggi and that the Biden administration intended to attempt to isolate the crown prince, although it will avoid any measures that would threaten to break ties to the kingdom.” President Biden spoke with Saudi King Salman on Thursday by phone in a conversation that the White House described only as a discussion on, “renewed diplomatic efforts” between the two countries.