Nevada meltdown gives Iowa hope of saving first-in-the-nation fame

Iowa is on the verge of losing its first-in-the-nation status after botching its Democratic presidential caucuses last year.

But Nevada, which is bidding to supplant Iowa at the front of the 2024 primary calendar, could hardly be making a worse case for itself as a well-oiled alternative.

On Friday — as the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, signed legislation aiming to move Nevada’s 2024 nominating contest in front of Iowa and New Hampshire — longstanding fissures within the state Democratic Party had just erupted. Democrats in Washoe County, the state’s second-most populous, pulled what amounted to a party coup, wresting control of the state’s midterm campaign operation away from the state party.

The chair of the Nevada Democratic Party, Judith Whitmer, blasted the move as an “insurgency within our own party.”

Watching the Nevada fireworks explode from halfway across the country, Iowa Democrats glimpsed a flicker of hope. As the national party considers the 2024 calendar, Iowa — in comparison to Nevada — might not look so bad anymore. And that might assist their efforts to save their cherished place in the early state pecking order.

“Putting on one of these is a mammoth undertaking,” said Dave Nagle, a former congressman and former Iowa state Democratic Party chair. “And you can’t have the organizers in open warfare with each other.”

He said, “That’s never happened in our state.”

Or as Scott Brennan, an Iowa DNC member and a former state party chair, put it, “Their internal issues certainly create challenges that make it hard to see them moving forward successfully.”

Nevada’s bid for an earlier nominating contest was never grounded in the cohesiveness of the state party. Rather, it was a response to widespread complaints within the Democratic Party about the lack of diversity in Iowa and New Hampshire, two heavily white states. The technological issues that marred the Iowa caucuses last year — so severe the Associated Press was never able to call a winner — only added to Democrats’ complaints about the state.

But Democrats in Nevada are making a run on Iowa in terms of dysfunction.

This week, leaders of the Democratic Party in Washoe County, which includes Reno, moved to undercut the state party ahead of the midterm elections, voting to run the state’s 2022 coordinated campaign out of the county instead. The extraordinary move — which included statements of support from Sisolak, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Democratic state lawmakers, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Governors Association — came after a slate of Bernie Sanders allies endorsed by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America won control of the state party, a blow to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s vaunted organizing machine in the swing state.

Whitmer called the uprising “ill-advised and undemocratic.”

Even in the fractious world of state party politics, that’s an uncommon level of animosity to put on display — especially with Democratic National Committee members who will decide the nominating calendar as early as next year all watching.

And that’s just the Democrats.

Nevada Republicans may be in even worse shape, with state and local party officials in Las Vegas feuding over a faction of pro-Trump activists, including some with ties to the Proud Boys, trying to take over the local party in Las Vegas’ Clark County. And Republicans don’t even want to change the traditional nominating calendar at all.

Earlier this week, the state Republican Party chairs in all four early nominating states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — issued a statement calling for the existing calendar to be preserved.

“I think if Nevada can’t get its s–t together, that disqualifies them,” said Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist who organized fundraisers for Jaime Harrison, now the DNC chair, during his unsuccessful South Carolina Senate campaign last year. “If a state can’t work together, how are they going to operate a primary?”

At an event in Las Vegas on Friday, Sisolak signed legislation changing Nevada’s caucus system to a presidential primary and moving the contest to the first Tuesday in February, ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire. A cheer went up when Sisolak said Nevada was claiming “the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.”

Nevada — or some other state — may still unseat Iowa. The effort in Nevada has been championed by Reid, who remains influential in national party politics. Regardless of the contretemps within the state party, one prominent Democratic Party official said, “Harry Reid is still Harry Reid.”

Reid said Friday in an interview that infighting in the state party is “exaggerated,” and “the mere fact that somebody took over the state party, it happens all the time.”

“Nevada’s that kind of a state,” he said. “I’ve been to state party meetings where fist fights broke out, so we’re used to a little intrigue.”

Reid said he doubted the DNC would penalize Nevada for any of its internal machinations as it considers the 2024 calendar. In addition, the state — not political parties — will run the primary, relying less on the organizational strength of any party apparatus. Molly Forgey, a former state party staffer who now serves as spokesperson for the coordinated campaign run through Washoe County, said “the reasons we’ve expressed why we deserve to be first still remain,” including the state’s diversity and geographic foothold in the West.

Even Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said Friday that “whatever internally is happening in any state party, I don’t think has a significant influence” on how the calendar is set. He said he’s confident New Hampshire will “retain our historic spot.”

His confidence is based on years of successfully defending the state’s privileged position. New Hampshire and Iowa have long fought off efforts by other states to leapfrog them. New Hampshire’s secretary of state, Bill Gardner, has said he will follow a state law that requires New Hampshire to hold its primary at least seven days before any “similar election” in another state. And Nagle said that, if necessary, Iowa will hold its caucuses ahead of the 2024 election “in July of 2023 if we have to.”

For Iowans hoping to stave off another challenge to their first-in-the-nation status, the meltdown in Nevada is not a panacea. But even if it raises just a small level of doubt about Nevada in national Democrats’ minds, it could prove helpful to Iowa’s cause.

Asked if the infighting might affect Nevada’s bid to move forward in the process, Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic consultant, said, “Sure. Everything must align to make a big change.”

Fed explores ‘once in a century’ bid to remake the U.S. dollar

The Federal Reserve is taking what may be the first significant step toward launching its own virtual currency, a move that could shake up banks, give millions of low-income Americans access to the financial system and fortify the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.

The idea of creating a fully digital version of the U.S. dollar, which was unthinkable just a few years ago, has gained bipartisan interest from lawmakers as diverse as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and John Kennedy (R-La.) because of its potential benefits for consumers who don’t have bank accounts. But it’s also sparking strong pushback from those with the most to lose: banks.

“The United States should not implement a [central bank digital currency] simply because we can or because others are doing so,” the American Bankers Association said in a statement to lawmakers this week. The benefits “are theoretical, difficult to measure, and may be elusive,” while the negative consequences “could be severe,” the group wrote.

The explosive rise of private cryptocurrencies in recent years motivated the Fed to start considering a digital dollar to be used alongside the traditional paper currency. The biggest driver of concern was a Facebook-led effort, launched in 2019, to build a global payments network using crypto technology. Though that effort is now much narrower, it demonstrated how the private sector could, in theory, create a massive currency system outside government control.

Now, central banks around the world have begun exploring the idea of issuing their own digital currencies — a fiat version of a cryptocurrency that would operate more like physical cash — that would have some of the same technological benefits as other cryptocurrencies.

That could provide unwelcome competition for banks by giving depositors another safe place to put their money. A person or a business could keep their digital dollars in a virtual “wallet” and then transfer them directly to someone else without needing to use a bank account. Even if the wallet were operated by a bank, the firm wouldn’t be able to lend out the cash. But unlike other crypto assets like Bitcoin or Ether, it would be directly backed and controlled by the central bank, allowing the monetary authorities to use it, like any other form of the dollar, in its policies to guide interest rates.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Digital Currency Initiative are aiming next month to publish the first stage of their work to determine whether a Fed virtual currency would work on a practical level — an open-source license for the most basic piece of infrastructure around creating and moving digital dollars.

But it will likely be up to Congress to ultimately decide whether the central bank should formally pursue such a project, as Fed Chair Jerome Powell has acknowledged. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are intrigued, particularly as they eye China’s efforts to build its own central bank digital currency, as well as the global rise of cryptocurrencies, both of which could diminish the dollar’s influence.

Democrats have especially been skeptical about crypto assets because there are fewer consumer protections and the currencies can be used for illicit activity. There are also environmental concerns posed by the sheer amount of electricity used to unlock new units of digital currencies like Bitcoin.

Warren suggested the Fed project could resolve some of those concerns.

“Legitimate digital public money could help drive out bogus digital private money, while improving financial inclusion, efficiency, and the safety of our financial system — if that digital public money is well-designed and efficiently executed,” she said at a hearing on Wednesday, which she convened as chair of the Senate Banking Committee’s economic policy subcommittee.

Other senators highlighted the potential for central bank digital wallets to be used to deliver government aid more directly to people who don’t have bank accounts. A digital dollar could also be designed to have more high-tech benefits of some cryptocurrencies, like facilitating “smart contracts” where a transaction is completed once certain conditions are met.

Neha Narula, who’s leading the effort at MIT to work with the Boston Fed on a central bank digital currency, called the project “a once-in-a-century opportunity to redesign the dollar” in a way that supports innovation much like the internet did.

Still, there are a slew of unanswered policy questions around how a digital dollar would be designed, such as how people would get access to the money, or how much information the government would be able to see about individual transactions. The decision is also tied to a far more controversial policy supported by Democrats like Warren and Senate Banking Chair Sherrod Brown to give regular Americans accounts at the Fed.

“What problem is a central bank digital currency trying to solve? In other words, do we need one? It’s not clear to me yet that we do,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said. “In my view, turning the Fed into a retail bank is a terrible idea.”

And, “the fact that China is creating a digital currency does not mean it’s inevitable that the yuan would displace the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency,” he said.

For their part, banks fear a Fed-issued digital currency could make it easier for customers to pull out large amounts of deposits and convert them to digital dollars during a crisis — the virtual equivalent of a bank run — putting financial stress on their institutions and making less money available to provide credit for people, businesses and markets.

It could also potentially deprive them of customers, something the lenders say would interfere with lawmakers’ vision of increased financial inclusion.

“While it is true that deposit accounts are often the first step towards inclusion, the benefits of a long-term banking relationship go well beyond a deposit account,” the ABA said in its statement. “The same is not true of a [central bank digital currency] account with the Federal Reserve, which would not grow into a lending or investing relationship.”

The Bank Policy Institute, which represents large banks, has also argued that many of the benefits of a digital dollar are “mutually exclusive (because they are predicated on different program designs) or effectively non-existent (because the program design that produces them comes with costs that are for other reasons unbearable).”

“The decision on whether to adopt a central bank digital currency in the United States is appropriately a long way off,” BPI President and CEO Greg Baer said. “There are also complex and serious costs that will need to be considered.”

But many lawmakers think it’s worth the effort to look into it.

“The Federal Reserve should continue to explore a digital [currency]; nearly every other country is doing that,” Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) said at the hearing, citing the risk for the U.S. to lose its ability to deploy economic sanctions as effectively with decreased usage of the dollar.

Biden flourishes in Trump’s absence from the world stage

CARBIS BAY, England — Joe Biden had many messages for U.S. allies during his first foreign trip as president. But perhaps none were more pronounced than this: I’m not Donald Trump.

Biden’s predecessor spent four years disparaging world leaders — in public and on Twitter— accusing their countries of freeloading off the United States. He pulled out of international agreements, refused to sign others and scoffed at the trans-Atlantic alliances that served as a bedrock of U.S. foreign policy in the post-WWII era.

Three years ago in Canada, Trump famously stormed out of a meeting of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nations, a moment enshrined in a photo of him sitting with his arms crossed triumphantly as other leaders stood around him, either exasperated or appearing to implore him to act.

So many leaders at the latest G-7 meeting, including those from Germany, France and Canada, seemed simply eager to move past Trump this week; so much so that they greeted Biden like an old friend even when he wasn’t.

As the world leaders walked along St. Ives Bay just before the summit began, French President Emmanuel Macron, who had never met Biden before, put his arm around him and the two walked arm and arm. They engaged in a brief but animated conversation that included talking about ways to make democracies more effective for the middle class, one of Biden’s favorite topics.

“Being able to meet Joe Biden is obviously important because he stands for the commitment to multilateralism, which we were missing in recent years.” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of Trump’s favorite targets, just after she arrived at the summit Friday.

Even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, closer to Trump than any other G-7 leader, declared that everyone is “absolutely thrilled” to see Biden and called their meeting “a breath of fresh air.” Later when reporters asked if that comment was a criticism of Trump, the prime minister’s spokesperson said it was simply a reflection of their shared interests of security and climate change.

Some of the camaraderie in England could be chalked up to world leaders simply practicing the diplomatic art form of overt flattery. But much of it, experts say, is the outcome of international relations finally returning to a state of norm after four years of intense whiplash. The leaders may not have uttered Trump’s name out loud but his presence was felt.

“There’s no way of describing our friends’ relief at the change of administration. And not just because it isn’t Donald Trump anymore,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a former National Security Council and State Department official. “It’s that the alliance has a backlog of real problems to address. The Biden administration wants to talk about how to develop cooperative responses to them in a way that the Trump administration couldn’t ever be serious about.”

Biden arrived in England Wednesday to attend several meetings — the G-7, NATO and those with European Union and European Council leaders — and to discuss a host of issues, including Covid, the economy and the challenges posed by Russia and China. His final stop will be in Geneva, where he will speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a meeting for which Biden has already received criticism.

This week, the G-7 countries are expected to organize no less than eight committees to work on policy issues, including the corporate tax rate (an agreement was reached among the G-7 to implement a 15 percent minimum rate), technology, trade, travel and the pandemic. Those working groups generally didn’t happen when Trump was president.

Instead, Trump, who never held office before being elected to president, played the role of disrupter, scoffing at international institutions, undermining trade deals and questioning U.S. military commitments and bases overseas. He backed Brexit in part to delegitimize the European Union, constantly criticized countries for not spending enough on defense and lodged tariffs on European exports.

Biden, who spent decades both as member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and vice president, is perceived internationally as someone U.S. allies can work with on issues ranging from climate change to holding Iran accountable for its nuclear ambitions.

After Biden was elected, foreign leaders and diplomats quickly proclaimed the new American president would bring back something that had been missing for four years: normalcy.

“America is back. And we are happy you are back,” European Council President Charles Michel told Biden in March during a video summit.

Still, some leaders are skeptical that U.S. politics, with its deep partisan divisions, will remain stable enough for the country to return to its place as a reliable global power. Le Monde, a leading French newspaper, said in an editorial after the election that “Trumpism” was not an accident but a “lasting heritage of American politics.”

“The allies do have lingering doubts about the forces that produced Trump’s election in 2016 and are wondering whether those forces are gone for good, or that possibility that the US could shift back to a more contentious, more transactional approach to NATO in 2022, or 20 2024,” said Alexander Vershbow, former deputy secretary of NATO and former ambassador to South Korea and Russia. “I think this concern is real that, you know, the Trumpian trend tendencies in the U.S. could return full bore. And in the midterms, or in the next presidential election.”

But Vershbow, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, said European allies are adopting unique approaches to the U.S now that Biden is in office. Germany, for example, wants the U.S. to resume its place as a leader while France doesn’t think the U.S. can be trusted as much as it used to be. But Macron, who has tried to fill the leadership vacuum left by Trump, appeared to cozy up to Biden, so much so that their interactions sparked a flurry of social media attention and led the British media to dub it a budding bromance.

The two will meet formally Saturday.

Biden has tried to nurture that idea that he is Trump’s inverse on the global stage. Since he was sworn into office, he has rejoined the Paris climate accord, backed an attempt to revive the Iran nuclear deal and has spoken repeatedly about the importance of alliances, international diplomacy and emphasized America’s commitment to allies and partners. He has reassured leaders that the U.S. backs NATO’s doctrine of collective defense and would aid a member state in the face of Russian aggression.

But there are still some worries about America’s policies under Biden. Countries fret about the U.S. decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11; the lack of urgency over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline being built to bring gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea; and the ways the U.S. is approaching its economic rival China.

Johnson, who held a bilateral meeting with Biden on Thursday, supports Biden’s commitment to fighting climate change and the sharing of the Covid vaccine with poorer countries, which health officials say should have been done sooner. But he is still waiting for Biden to help push through a U.K.-U.S. trade deal.

Heather Conley, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration, said U.S. allies thought the Biden administration would be following their agenda, but instead it appears that Biden wants them to follow his.

Still, Conley said, it’s a marked shift from the Trump era in policy and tone. The leaders still may have their differences but they’ll air them behind closed doors or through diplomatic channels.

“There is no longer a feeling of complete dread before a NATO or G-7 summit or fearing that the meetings would upend U.S. policy,” said Conley, now a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There was much more energy devoted to managing or mitigating former President Trump before, during and after the summit than the actual summit agenda. This doesn’t mean U.S. allies agree with the Biden administration on their initiatives, but these meetings will be predictable, stable and possibly productive.”

Ryan Heath, Rym Momtaz and Esther Webber contributed to this report.

G-7 leaders fighting on 2 fronts

Welcome to Day 2 of the G-7 summit.

It’s Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken got in early, offering “best wishes” to Her Majesty for a “lifetime of leadership and dedication to service” that he called “an example for all nations.” Expect a flood of similar sentiments from other leaders throughout the day.

There’s been another positive Covid test at the summit — a police officer, housed with hundreds of others on a cruise ship just off Falmouth harbour — sending others into isolation.

In terms of serious summit business, the leaders will be talking about China today and, below the surface, it’s Brexit tensions that threaten to disrupt proceedings.

Let’s get into it.

What are the big topics, and most juicy one-to-one meetings today?

Anita Kumar

White House Correspondent & Associate Editor

I don’t know about “juicy” but the meeting I’m watching Saturday is between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron. Biden will have some other casual meetings (those are called “pull asides” in summit lingo) but his only formal bilateral meeting is with Macron. Some American diplomats wondered how much Macron, who tried to fill the U.S. leadership vacuum left when Donald Trump was president, would embrace Biden. But in their first meeting Friday, they locked arms during a walk and spoke animatedly to each other — an interaction that immediately led some British media to dub it a budding bromance.

Rym Momtaz

Senior Correspondent, France

Hands-down the bilat between Macron and Biden. Macron’s delighted the U.S. is back with its full weight behind multilateralism, but actually wants Biden to show him the money — in particular on lifting the U.S. export ban on Covid-19 vaccine components, and acknowledging what Macron sees as the great strides achieved by Europe in “strategic autonomy “ during the Trump years. Taken in the broad sense, that means progress on 5G, reshoring production capacities, leading on setting global climate standards, and of course defense. Macron also doesn’t share Biden’s focus on China as the central next big threat — that’s bound to be an animated discussion. Macron did manage to refrain calling the transatlantic Alliance “brain dead” at his presser on Thursday, but he did say it still needs “a big strategic clarification.”

David M. Herszenhorn

Chief Brussels Correspondent

While Anita and Rym train their telescope looking for signs of a Biden-Macron bromance (can’t imagine they’ll hold hands or blab as long as Trump and Macron did), I’ll be keeping a close ear on discussions among all nine leaders about foreign policy and health. China will be a major focus of the foreign policy session, as will Russia. But Ethiopia is also an increasing source of concern. On health, the leaders broadly share the goal of ending the pandemic by next year, but there has been barely disguised jousting over who should get credit for supplying vaccines to the rest of the world.

Things could get tense as they — or rather their “sherpas” behind the scenes — try to settle on specific language, including on vaccine donations but also the controversial topic of waiving patent protections (endorsed by Biden, but with the Europeans skeptical and demanding details).

Esther Webber

senior U.K. correspondent

Unsurprisingly, Brits are all waiting for the outcome of the bilateral between Johnson and Macron and any sign that the French president repeated in private what he has said publicly — namely that it is a firm “non” to any renegotiation of the post-Brexit trade mechanism in Northern Ireland. Johnson has sit-downs with Merkel and the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen later today. EU leaders are pretty chuffed that Biden has lined up behind them on this, and pressed Downing Street to change their approach to negotiations, and may hope to press home that advantage today. British papers go big today on the idea EU leaders will team up to declare a “trade war” in bilateral meetings with Johnson — or “sausage wars,” as it’s been dubbed by local media.

Why does Brexit keep coming up at the G-7, and do I need to care?

Herszenhorn: Just look around! This summit is happening in one of the most Brexity parts of Britain and the G-7 is the huge debut for Boris Johnson’s Global Britain after throwing off the yoke of the oppressive (yes, I’m being sarcastic) EU. There’s lingering ill-feeling between Brussels and London over the U.K. quitting the club, but also serious disputes over aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement and trade accord about future EU-U.K. relations. You need to care because the U.S.-U.K. relationship is also caught up in this, with Biden and Congress having warned repeatedly about concern for Ireland, and that any negative fallout for Dublin could sour relations between London and Washington.

Meanwhile, Canada, which has its own free trade agreement with the EU, is also eyeing the situation, wondering if the U.K. can set aside emotions and collaborate in areas where they might jointly nudge Brussels. So far, all signs point to Brexit remaining highly emotional, with U.K. ministers on international television talking about their emotional attachment to sausages.

Momtaz: Brexit sure came up this morning in the bilateral meeting between Macron and Johnson. Relations between the two countries have been downright nasty at times in recent months. Remember that standoff in Jersey with fishermen from both sides and naval ships? Macron told Johnson this morning he was ready for a reset of relations, because the U.K. and France agree on a lot of the big global issues on the agenda — climate, biodiversity, health, etc. There’s even consensus on the need for Europe to be an active party of any renegotiation of arms control agreements between the U.S. and Russia, according to an Élysée official, but that has to happen in the context of the U.K. keeping its word and commitments in the Brexit agreement.

Webber: Sick of hearing about Brexit? Welcome to my world! As David says, it’s inevitable that it would cast a long shadow with the U.K. hosting the first international summit of this kind since we quit the EU. For Boris Johnson, the G-7 was always going to be an opportunity to project that Brexit does not mean Britain turning its back on the world and that it still has a role on the global stage. However, the ongoing row about how the U.K. is implementing certain parts of the withdrawal agreement means that any hope of using the summit as a way to draw a line under the EU-U.K. animosity is kaput. And under Joe Biden, the U.S. has apparently decided to join the party. Come on in, it’s absolutely the worst!

What can we expect the G-7 to agree on China?

Kumar: Biden isn’t just pushing infrastructure at home. He’ll push it at the G-7 too. The administration wants countries to agree to create what the White House describes as a “higher quality” alternative to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure project. The global infrastructure program is — surprise! — called Build Back Better for the World, and would be funded in part with existing U.S. contributions to overseas infrastructure financing through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Momtaz: Other than Covid Covid Covid, it is China China China — here at G-7 and next week at NATO and at the EU-U.S. summit. Macron’s zinger about differences over the Chinese military threat will help set the tone: “For my part, China isn’t part of the Atlantic geography, or perhaps my map is off.” But France is also pushing back against China’s fait accompli policy in the Indopacific, the French Defense Minister Florence Parly told me in May.

Given the EU-China investment deal won’t be ratified any time soon, perhaps that’s an opening for a landing strip of agreement on some China language at this G-7. The other question is: will the leaders come up with new language on the investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak, that China has not been cooperating with?

Herszenhorn: Expect a chunky section of the communique on China to infuriate Beijing by referencing regional security issues, including concerns about Uyghurs, Hong Kong and Taiwan. We got a preview from the recent joint statement following a virtual EU-Japan leaders’ summit.

Ryan Heath

Global Translations author

The EU leadership and U.S. administration have real differences about how hard they are prepared to push back on Beijing, but at least they’ve started to use fairly similar language to talk about it. Leaders on both sides will tell you that China is a combination of collaborator, competitor and adversary. Together that pitches China as a systemic rival to democracies. Ultimately the G-7 members will have to pay for their policy: if they want to really start tipping the scales in the China relationship that means bigger investment in fundamental research, a real infrastructure alternative to Belt & Road, and coordination of retaliatory tariffs if Beijing bullies a democracy.

The G-7 commitment to deliver “one billion doses” of Covid vaccines to poorer countries is getting flak for not being enough: What’s the deal?

Carmen Paun

global health correspondent

I think leaders will brush it off and say this is just the beginning. One of Biden’s senior advisers already said Thursday that they are still planning to share some more excess doses, on top of the 580 million pledged so far. The EU is touting their help from the beginning of the pandemic, and is trying not to be upstaged by the U.S.The U.K. promised 100 million doses but, with what appears to be a worsening pandemic situation domestically, it’s hard to push them further. Timing matters more than the overall number of doses offered. UNICEF and others involved in the international vaccination effort are calling for doses now, especially in South America, Asia and Africa.

Kumar: The pandemic is part of everything at this G-7 (you should see what the testing is like for journalists attending!) but I agree with Carmen that the leaders will move on somewhat on Saturday. They’ll still talk about health care but they will also have sessions on the economy and foreign policy (read: China). Health organizations and human rights groups will push for more, but the commitments by the U.S. and other countries is a big step. Others are likely to follow.

Momtaz: The line out of the Élysée for the last week has been that this G-7 is the Health G-7; it’s all about agreeing to ramp up concrete ways to speed up vaccine solidarity and get the world at full speed. After talking with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Macron said that instead talking about total doses, it makes more sense to talk about the percentage of the population that gets vaccinated. An Élysée official said the goal must be to vaccinate 60 percent of the population of poorer countries — namely on the African continent — by March 2022.

Herszenhorn: The simple truth is rich countries should be ashamed, take to heart the criticism from leaders like Ramaphosa, and engage in some collective self-reflection. But let’s not hold our breath. As the rich countries jockey for credit over who’s doing more, what’s striking is how as a group, they simply haven’t done enough. A senior EU official on Friday said, “The EU is the pharmacy of the world, including for G7 countries” and noted that of 350 millions doses exported from the EU, which is roughly 50 percent of production, “almost half” went to non-G7 countries. Let’s reverse that statement: less than half of vaccine doses exported from the EU went to non-G7 countries. That mean more than 75 percent of total EU vaccine production went to the roughly 10 percent of human beings who live in the world’s richest democracies. Hmmm.

Anything else you’re looking out for?

Momtaz: I’m looking to the beachside informal BBQ dinner tonight — will leaders go barefoot at the beach? Will they be wearing their best bonfire chic? Who will take charge of the BBQ? Will Biden show Macron that France may have haute cuisine but America has charred meat? Will they dip their toes in the water? So many questions… alas this will all go down far far away from our curious and prying eyes.

And will there be a Royal sighting? I know. Another question about the Royals, but why not?

Kumar: Justin Trudeau met with the Queen already (via video). Biden saw her at a reception and will visit with her Sunday before leaving the country but I’m waiting to see who will be next. Jill Biden has another event separate from her husband Saturday. No Royals are expected at this one, but the first lady will meet with members of a local volunteer group that assists U.K. military veterans, first responders and their families. It’s an issue she champions at home too.

We’ll see you in a few hours to wrap up all the big news from Day 2. Send us any questions you want to see our roving (fenced-in?) band of reporters answer.

Iran and Venezuela are testing Biden with suspected weapons transfer

Last summer, a troubling report drew alarm in Washington national security circles: Venezuela was considering entering a new arms deal with Iran, one that could include long-range missiles capable of reaching the United States.

Venezuelan ruler Nicolas Maduro joked that such a purchase was a “good idea.” But the Trump administration warned Caracas to abandon it, threatening in particular to eliminate any long-range missiles.

Today, U.S. officials worry that two Iranian Navy ships slowly steaming across the Atlantic might be carrying the arms Venezuela was alleged to be eyeing a year ago. And now it’s the Biden administration warning Caracas to reject the delivery, saying ominously that the U.S. will take “appropriate measures” if needed.

“I am absolutely concerned about the proliferation of weapons, any type of weapons, in our neighborhood,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday in response to lawmakers’ questions about the ships, becoming the first Biden Cabinet member to speak publicly on the issue.

It’s not 100 percent clear what the Iranian ships are carrying — though there is some photographic evidence that the cargo may include fast-attack boats, which can be armed and which Tehran has frequently used to harass U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. Much of the cargo is covered up, leaving officials and analysts to speculate.

It’s also unclear how far the United States will go to stop the ships beyond pursuing quiet diplomacy in Latin America and issuing public statements. The closer the ships get, however, the more obvious it seems that Iran and Venezuela want to see how far they can push Joe Biden — even though the new president has signaled he may lift some sanctions on both countries, including through nuclear talks with Iran.

“They are testing the new administration to see what it does,” said Eddy Acevedo, a former Republican congressional aide who specialized in Latin American and Middle Eastern issues and is now with the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Iran is looking for leverage for nuclear talks, and the Venezuelan regime is trying to push the U.S. into providing sanctions relief ahead of talks with the Venezuelan opposition.”

What’s also clear, according to some analysts and former U.S. officials, is that Tehran and Caracas are continuing to expand their bilateral links and military cooperation in the face of U.S. hostility. In the long run, such cooperation by America’s adversaries — a group that also includes Russia and China — could weaken America’s ability to shape their behavior through sanctions and other means.

For Venezuela, whose economy under Maduro has largely collapsed, Iran is a helpful resource for everything from gasoline to groceries, as well as advice on how to dodge U.S. sanctions. For Iran, whose enmity with America goes back more than 40 years, the Venezuela connection is another way to defy Washington in its own hemisphere while promoting its Shia Islamist ideology beyond the Middle East. U.S. officials in recent years have grown increasingly concerned about influence in Venezuela of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Tehran-backed Shia Muslim militia Hezbollah.

“To send their Navy suddenly to the southern Atlantic — it’s basically saying [to the U.S.],‘You’ve been zipping up and down the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf for the past four decades. We’re going to do the same to you,’” said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow with the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

As of Friday, the Iranian ships appeared on course, heading northwest in the Atlantic, according to a defense official. The ships — the Makran, a former oil tanker converted to a forward staging base, and the Sahand, Iran’s newest frigate — are about 4,000 miles away from Venezuela, if that’s their destination. Iranian officials have confirmed the ships are in the Atlantic. The United States, meanwhile, is privately urging Venezuela, Cuba and other countries in the region to refuse the ships permission to dock, people briefed on the topic said.

In response to reporting from POLITICO, a senior Biden administration official indicated Wednesday that the U.S. believes the ships may be carrying arms agreed to in the alleged Venezuela-Iran deal last year. The official did not specify the types of weapons that may be on board or whether the U.S. considers fast-attack boats a “weapon.” The official also did not say whether the weapons pose a direct threat to the United States, but said they could be a threat to America’s partner countries in the hemisphere.

“The sale of the Iranian weapons happened one year ago under the previous [U.S.] administration, and like many situations related to Iran under the previous administration … we are working to resolve it through diplomacy,” the senior Biden administration official said. “We would reserve the right to take appropriate measures in coordination with our partners to deter the transit or delivery of such weapons.”

The White House on Friday declined to answer more than a dozen questions from POLITICO about the situation.

Former U.S. officials declined to delve into details of what the United States believed Iran and Venezuela were discussing in terms of an arms deal a year ago, some of which is classified. But they confirmed that there was alarm in Washington about the possibility of a transfer of missiles, especially long-range ones. Even if the fast-attack boats are the most important part of the deal, those still can be used in a weaponized way, former officials and analysts noted.

Some critics slammed the Biden administration for what they felt was a weak public response to the ships’ movements.

“This is clearly an escalation and it’s very public, and I think meant to publicly embarrass the Biden administration during [nuclear] negotiations,” said Simone Ledeen, who was responsible for Pentagon Middle East policy in the Trump administration. “Frankly, a lot of us are shell-shocked watching this take place. If we’re not going to respond to this, what are we going to respond to?”

A former U.S. diplomat familiar with the issue said Iran has on multiple occasions tried to send various types of military equipment, including possibly weapons, to Venezuela — sometimes by using aircraft. But the U.S. has tried different maneuvers to derail those transfers — such as by convincing other countries to temporarily bar the Iranian flights from their airspace — and it’s not clear how many have managed to get through or what exactly was handed over.

“It’s broadly unsuccessful,” the former U.S. diplomat said of the attempted Iranian military transfers to Venezuela.

Still, that didn’t stop some lawmakers from wondering how far Iran is willing to go. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) compared the situation to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, “though at a much-reduced level of threat.”

“The precedent of Iran being allowed to send arms to an adversary in this hemisphere is pretty alarming,” said Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wondering if Tehran is trying to see if it “can get away with it and make mischief.”

The United States has in the past stopped tankers believed to be carrying Iranian oil bound for Venezuela, as well as vessels alleged to be hauling Iranian weapons bound for the militia groups like Yemen’s Houthi rebels. But in those cases, the targeted ships didn’t belong to the Iranian Navy or even necessarily to Iran. In one case, the U.S. threatened a Greek shipping magnate with sanctions and legal penalties to gain access to the vessels.

A U.S. move on the high seas against the Iranian Navy could significantly escalate the long-simmering conflict between Tehran and Washington. But former officials and analysts say that, depending on what U.S. intelligence believes is on board and where the ships are located, as well as how U.S. officials interpret various international and American laws, there could be a legal basis for America to interdict the Iranian Navy vessels.

For instance, technically the United States doesn’t recognize the current Venezuelan regime of Maduro; former President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. recognition of Maduro in early 2019, saying he’d basically stolen an election. Instead, the United States officially considers Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the Latin American country’s interim president. Dozens of other countries, including many in Latin America, followed Trump’s move. In theory, if Guaido grants the U.S. permission to board the Iranian vessels as they reach Venezuelan waters, the United States could make a move.

That carries risks, including from Maduro’s forces. “I imagine they’d have a number of personnel who would try to respond, to say nothing of the threats against our personnel just from the Iranians,” the former U.S. diplomat said.

The U.S. has other options. It could use covert methods to destroy the cargo once it’s delivered, an option former Trump administration officials say the Biden team should strongly consider if long-range missiles are involved. If the items delivered are not as dangerous as American officials fear they could be, the Biden administration could also further ramp up economic sanctions on both countries over the delivery.

The Iranian Navy ships’ journey is striking in part due to its timing.

The Biden administration is in indirect negotiations with Iran’s Islamist government to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump quit in 2018. Should those talks pan out, the U.S. would lift many economic sanctions that have badly damaged Iran’s finances in return for major restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran stands to gain access to billions of dollars in much-needed funds.

The Biden administration also has sent cautious signals that it is open to forging a new path with Venezuela, perhaps even rethinking some of the numerous sanctions Trump imposed on Caracas. The administration, however, has made clear it is in no rush and that much would depend on Maduro’s willingness to negotiate with the Venezuelan opposition.

Analysts and former U.S. officials had various opinions as to why Caracas and Tehran might undertake a transfer of weapons now when the U.S. was sending positive signals, but generally the sense was that the two regimes saw the undertaking as offering them leverage.

Iran, for one, has engaged in numerous anti-American activities over the past four decades, including supporting militias in Iraq and imprisoning U.S. citizens on highly questionable legal charges. These activities have continued despite Iran’s willingness to agree to a nuclear deal after talks with the United States and other world powers.

Iran likely sees growing its presence in Latin America as part of a long-term ideological battle against U.S. hegemony, some observers said. The Islamist regime also needs cash, and the expiration of a U.N. arms embargo on the sale of Iranian conventional weapons means potential new income for Tehran. Furthermore, even if the nuclear deal is revived, Iran is not certain how quickly it will see meaningful economic benefits.

“It’s what they do,” Ottolenghi said of the possibility Iran is going through with an arms sale to Venezuela. “The [nuclear] negotiation does not suddenly make them a different regime.”

When it comes to Maduro, Washington’s “no rush” attitude toward the sanctions on his government could make him believe he has more to gain by pursuing stronger ties with Iran. According to two people familiar with the situation, Caracas has already been trying to use the Iranian Navy ships’ visit to pressure the U.S. to ease sanctions. Maduro also may feel emboldened as the Guaido-led Venezuelan opposition appears to be fracturing and growing weaker.

Analysts and former U.S. officials warned against overstating the extent of the Iran-Venezuelan relationship, despite evidence of enhanced ties, including on the military front.

The two countries have pledged to increase their links for many years, including during the reign of Maduro’s predecessor, socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez. But the agreements signed and promises made often resulted in relatively little substance, analysts and officials said.

Still, the U.S. break-up with Caracas has led other U.S. rivals, not just Iran, to see how they can take advantage. Russia and Cuba have offered support on the security front for Maduro; Havana is said to be especially active in aiding Venezuelan intelligence. China, too, remains an important economic partner for Caracas.

In a sense, the Iranian Navy ships’ voyage underscores how difficult it is for the United States to enforce sanctions on rival countries without substantial cooperation from other world powers, especially when those world powers see Washington as a threat, too.

Either way, the U.S. must be vigilant, said Annie Pforzheimer, a former senior U.S. diplomat now affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Venezuela and Iran having an unfettered exchange of anything isn’t great,” she said. “It empowers both of them, and we have reason to believe that both of them have aims that are against U.S. interests.”

Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.

GOP senators push for Hill veto power over a future U.S.-Iran deal

A group of Republican senators introduced a bill on Friday that would require President Joe Biden to secure congressional approval for any new diplomatic agreement with Iran to curtail its nuclear program.

The bill, led by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), would give the Senate veto power over any attempt by the Biden administration to reenter the 2015 U.S.-Iran nuclear deal — which was effectively dissolved when former President Donald Trump withdrew from the pact in 2018 — by deeming it a treaty, which mandates approval from the upper chamber.

The GOP proposal comes as top Biden officials are holding indirect talks with the Iranians in Vienna in a bid to revive the Obama-era deal, which Republicans uniformly opposed. GOP lawmakers have introduced several measures aimed at preventing Biden from lifting the biting sanctions that Trump imposed on Tehran as part of his administration’s “maximum pressure” doctrine.

“Any potential agreement with Iran involves risks that affect our entire nation. It is critical to the security of America and to world peace that any deal Biden negotiates with Iran be deemed a treaty requiring approval by the U.S. Senate,” Johnson said.

Republicans have been pushing for Biden to use the Vienna talks to pressure Iran over its non-nuclear malign activities, too; but Democrats say that approach would be a death knell to a new nuclear agreement.

The Biden team is already facing a number of challenges emanating from Iran, including its support for proxy militant groups in the region that have sought to undermine U.S. interests there. Earlier this year, the president ordered airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian proxies that had attacked U.S. troops.

Republicans’ new effort could further complicate the administration’s diplomatic efforts, since it’s aligned in spirit if not letter with a push that successfully afforded Congress veto power over the 2015 U.S.-Iran deal. The Johnson-led bill would subject any future agreement to a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate, an even higher hurdle than the 60-vote threshold the 2015 pact was subjected to.

Most recently, the U.S. has been monitoring Iranian navy ships that are making their way across the Atlantic Ocean, potentially for a weapons delivery to Venezuela. The Biden administration is pressuring the Venezuelan and Cuban governments to turn away the Iranian ships, and a senior administration official warned that the U.S. will take “appropriate measures in coordination with our partners to deter the transit or delivery of such weapons.”

Biden is facing skepticism from some top Democrats, too, over his push to reenter the 2015 accord. Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a recent interview that recently leaked comments from Iran’s foreign minister — in which he lamented the influence of his country’s more extremist elements — raised questions about whether the Iranians can be trusted.

“You’ve got to wonder, what is it that they can agree to and execute on?” Menendez said at the time.

Barr distances himself from Trump-era subpoenas of Democratic lawmakers

Former Attorney General William Barr on Friday distanced himself from reports that the Trump Justice Department seized communications records belonging to two prominent Democratic lawmakers who were spearheading investigations into then-President Donald Trump.

In a phone interview, Barr said he didn’t recall getting briefed on the moves.

Barr’s comments came after The New York Times reported that in 2017 and 2018, the Justice Department secretly seized the records of at least 12 people connected to the House Intelligence Committee, including its current chair. Barr became attorney general in 2019.

The Justice Department’s internal watchdog announced Friday it would open a review of the records seizures, and Democratic leaders are standing up their own probes. According to the Times, the leak investigation swept up the metadata of the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who has since become its chair, and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, another prominent Trump critic who sits on the panel.

Barr said that while he was attorney general, he was “not aware of any congressman’s records being sought in a leak case.” He added that Trump never encouraged him to zero in on the Democratic lawmakers who reportedly became targets of the former president’s push to unmask leakers of classified information.

Trump “was not aware of who we were looking at in any of the cases,” Barr said. “I never discussed the leak cases with Trump. He didn’t really ask me any of the specifics.”

The Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is launching a separate investigation. The department said on Friday that Horowitz’s review would center on “DOJ’s use of subpoenas and other legal authorities” to obtain records of lawmakers, journalists, and others associated with ongoing investigations into unauthorized leaks.

In a statement on Friday, Schiff applauded the Attorney General for requesting and Inspector General investigation into the matter but said it “will not obviate the need for other forms of oversight and accountability — including public oversight by Congress — and the department must cooperate in that effort as well.”

Democratic congressional leaders are already vowing to investigate the Trump Justice Department’s efforts to seize the communications records. And Barr’s comments are unlikely to quell their criticisms of his leadership at the department.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Friday called for Barr and his predecessor as attorney general, former Sen. Jeff Sessions, to appear before the Judiciary panel to answer questions about the secret efforts to subpoena Democrats’ communications metadata. The revelations about the Trump-era leak hunt have raised fresh questions about the former president’s use of his executive powers to monitor members of Congress who were investigating him.

“This appalling politicization of the Department of Justice by Donald Trump and his sycophants must be investigated immediately by both the DOJ Inspector General and Congress,” Schumer and Durbin, the top two Democrats in the upper chamber, said in a joint statement, adding that the Judiciary Committee “will vigorously investigate this abuse of power.”

While Democrats control the panel, a subpoena would require the support of at least one GOP member because the committee is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Barr said he installed Osmar Benvenuto in DOJ’s National Security Division in February 2020 to try to revive the leak investigations after Craig Carpenito, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, recommended him to Barr as “a very experienced prosecutor [who] could quickly sort out which of any of these cases merited further investigative steps and what could be done to bring them to resolution.”

“I was getting criticized by Cabinet members and members of the Intelligence Community about the department not having done anything on these leak cases, so I wanted to make sure they were being pursued,” Barr said.

When the subpoenas reportedly went out, Rod Rosenstein was the deputy attorney general. John Demers became the head of DOJ’s National Security Division, which handles leak probes, in February of 2018. Rosenstein has since left the department for private practice; Demers is still heading the National Security Division.

Mary McCord, a career attorney, headed the National Security Division before Demers’ Senate confirmation.

“All I can say is that any investigation involving an elected official would be considered a sensitive matter that would need high-level approval at the department,” she told POLITICO when reached for comment.

Both Schiff and Swalwell have been among Trump’s most vocal critics, and the former president frequently went after them on Twitter. Trump’s Justice Department sought communications records for Intelligence panel staffers and family members, including a minor, according to the Times.

Trump himself tweeted repeatedly that he believed Schiff was breaking the law by leaking classified material. The president’s missives would have presented major challenges for any prosecutor trying to bring charges against the lawmakers.

“Congressman Adam Schiff, who spent two years knowingly and unlawfully lying and leaking, should be forced to resign from Congress!” he tweeted on March 28, 2019. Twitter has since removed Trump’s account, and his tweets are archived separately.

But an unlikely pro-Trump ally came to House Democrats’ defense on Friday, as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — himself facing scrutiny from federal prosecutors in a sex trafficking probe — responded that “DOJ has a very nasty tendency to target its critics, Republican and Democrat.”

“The Schiff story reminded me of the DOJ’s threats to use criminal process against House staff exposing their misdeeds,” Gaetz said in a statement. “I stand against all of it, no matter how much I personally dislike Schiff.”

Coronavirus restrictions spark mutiny against GOP governor

BOISE, Idaho — Gov. Brad Little had only briefly traveled out of state to attend a Republican governors’ conference when his own lieutenant governor made him regret it.

Without warning, GOP Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin took advantage of Little’s absence in late May and issued a statewide order banning any local government from enforcing Covid-prevention mask mandates.

Little rescinded it the next day upon his return, swiping at McGeachin for her “irresponsible, self-serving political stunt.” But the lieutenant governor had already made her point: she would go to almost any length to defy the governor, when it comes to pandemic restrictions.

It’s another messy chapter in Idaho’s 2022 Republican gubernatorial primary, the only one in the nation in which a sitting governor is being challenged by a lieutenant governor of his own party.

What’s happening here isn’t simply about an overly ambitious second-in-command. In a deeply conservative state that’s a proving ground for feuding factions in former President Donald Trump’s GOP, the primary revolves around a derivative of Trumpism — resistance to coronavirus-related mandates and restrictions.

“Our party is struggling with its identity. It’s going to come to an ugly head,” said Kay Lynn Smith, the GOP chair in rural Butte County.

“We are so bipolar right now. We are one of the big strongholds for the ultra-conservatives and they’re looking to make this their kingdom,” she said. “Moderates and a lot of the people who had the money and the power are aging out and losing interest. They’re not interested in supporting a party with radicals.”

In Idaho, as in a handful of other states, the governor and lieutenant governor don’t run on the same ticket — they are separately elected. Little hails from an older establishment line of Idaho Republicans. McGeachin, by contrast, flourished as a new tea party conservative and gained more influence with the rise of Trump-era conservative populism, which went into overdrive during the pandemic.

By at least two key metrics, Idaho was a pandemic success story under Little: It has the sixth-lowest unemployment rate in the nation and ranks 41st in Covid death rate. With the good economy and Republicans largely in lockstep about low taxes, gun rights and fewer regulations, McGeachin’s campaign has instead centered around mask mandates, appeals to personal freedom and bashing the federal government — even when she benefited from coronavirus relief money.

Early on in the pandemic, McGeachin spoke at rallies protesting the governor’s brief stay-at-home order issued in the spring of 2020.

“The tension between the governor and the lieutenant governor is to be expected because they are of completely different political persuasions,” said Dean Mortimer, a Republican and former state senator and representative. “So we got a conservative lieutenant governor and a middle-of-the-road governor and there is going to be a difference of opinion.”

China Gum, who advised former GOP Rep. Raul Labrador’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign against Little, said the governor opened himself to a primary challenge because of what many conservatives saw as a heavy-handed approach to the pandemic. McGeachin, she said, is more of an heir to the brand of conservative politics practiced by the tea party, Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose laissez-faire approach toward keeping Florida open contrasted with Little’s policies in Idaho.

“A lot of people were saying he’s not DeSantis enough … DeSantis is a lot more symbolic of what Idaho Republicans want,” Gum said. “I don’t understand why Brad Little has been more California in his approach, more shut-down on this issue.”

DeSantis was the first governor in the nation to essentially ban local governments from implementing mask mandates, which McGeachin highlighted when she issued her short-lived mandate once Little stepped out of state. Local conservatives loved it.

“Half the party or more is on the DeSantis train. We would like a DeSantis,” said Boise County GOP Chair Eric McGilp.

Rebecca Crea, the GOP chair in Lewis County, said there’s a feeling among many in the party that Little was too strict with pandemic restrictions. She said Little was a RINO (Republican in Name Only) who won his office in 2018 thanks to slick ads and a crowded GOP primary that siphoned votes from the more conservative candidate, Labrador. Little beat Labrador in the primary by 37-33 percent.

“People are paying attention now,” she said. “You had people not paying attention [in 2018] and they vote for people simply because they have a cowboy hat, and Little is a rancher … We want him to be more of a governor than he is. Janice has been for the people all the time. She’s on the ground. She knows the people. And everyone loves her.”

An adviser to Little, who did not want to publicly weigh in on the divisive primary, said the governor’s team believes he’ll win because McGeachin represents a vocal minority. But the primary revealed how politics are changing in the state.

“Everybody says, ‘oh, it’s about the economy, about the economy, about the economy.’ Sure. But it looks as if the Republican Party is moving away from economic issues, because in a place like Idaho, it’s already so strong,” the adviser said. “So where do you go next? I mean, there’s been critical race theory discussions here in Idaho, discussions about diversity programs in Idaho. The conversations are starting to change in this Republican primary. The litmus test is no longer, ‘did you vote for a tax increase? Are you Pro Life? Are you Pro Gun?’”

McGeachin isn’t Little’s only challenger on the right — her message is amplified by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, a vigorous opponent of Little’s stay-at-home order and other Covid-related legislation.

Bundy gained a following after a 2016 standoff with federal agents at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and last year zip-tied himself to an office chair during a protest of coronavirus restrictions at the Idaho state Capitol. Police promptly wheeled him out; he has been banned him from the building for a year.

The state Republican Party has disavowed Bundy as too extreme, saying in a statement “we do not support his antics or his chaotic political theater.”

In a state with a robust militia movement, McGeachin has her own ties to radicals — and, indirectly, Bundy. In February 2019, she signaled support for a state Capitol rally organized by the Real III Percent of Idaho militia group protesting the conviction of a Bundy associate.

McGeachin was photographed making a heart symbol with her hands as she was flanked by two militia members flashing an “OK” hand symbol that some associate with code for “white power.” She posted the photo on her Facebook page but then took it down and issued a statement disavowing racism.

More than a month later at another militia rally, McGeachin administered an impromptu oath of office to members of the Real lll Percent of Idaho Militia that’s usually used to swear in a member of the state’s National Guard. At the time, Gov. Little was traveling out of state, leaving her in charge. McGeachin again took advantage of Little’s absence to issue the mask rule when he traveled to a Republican Governors Association meeting in Tennessee.

“The tension between some legislators and the governor has been there for a while,” said state Sen. Mark Harris, the Republican caucus chair, who worries about further division in the party as the primary races continue.

“It seems in years past if Republicans had a Republican governor, they came in and supported him,” Harris said. “This year is different in the fact that we have had a Republican lieutenant governor that has announced that she is going to run against the sitting Republican governor. And there is going to be a split in the party.”

Dan Cravens, GOP chair in Eastern Idaho’s Bingham County, pointed out that Idaho has had a recent history of far-right candidates, notably Rex Rammell, who won about one-quarter of the GOP gubernatorial primary vote in 2010 after touring the state with a giant inflatable dinosaur — designed to symbolize his intent to “take a bite out of the federal government.” He became politically active following a confrontation with state officials.

“There’s a greater populism and a greater activism in the party than in the last few years,” Craven said. “We have a profound split in Idaho. It’s our constant battle within the Republican Party between one faction and another.”

Congress’ most successful bipartisan gang lives in the House — not the Senate

A few dozen House members helped bring bipartisan talks back from the dead on a massive spending bill passed six months ago. Now they want to do it again — in President Joe Biden’s Washington.

The bipartisan 58-member coalition known as the Problem Solvers Caucus took something of a half-court buzzer shot this week by releasing its own version of an infrastructure deal, determined to keep talks alive between the president and Senate Republicans at least a bit longer before Democrats bound toward their own party-line bill.

By Thursday afternoon, the group of senators leading those bipartisan talks — and who have been privately sharing notes for months with the Problem Solvers — declared they had reached a deal similar to scope to their House counterparts. But the Senate group shared few details, and there are even fewer assurances that its cross-aisle framework could win enough support to keep talks going when Congress returns on Monday, with Democratic leaders under pressure from the left to move things along with the GOP.

That leaves a void for the Problem Solvers to fill as they try to help pry loose some kind of compromise, if you ask caucus leaders Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). Pollyannaish as it might seem, they insist that working from the ideological center can still pay off on infrastructure even if most of their colleagues in both parties think it’s a lost cause.

And the group, evenly split between both parties, has precedent for success — when the same band of centrists inserted itself into coronavirus aid talks last fall, its funding proposal ended up looking a lot like the final bill.

“People are eager to walk away. But why would you walk away when you still have an interest and both sides are at the same table?” Gottheimer said in an interview.

But a new president, a new Senate majority leader and an insurrection later, the Hill dynamics couldn’t look more different than they did when the Problem Solvers helped salvage the Covid bill. A deal that took place under a divided Congress and a lame-duck president won’t be the same as any deal — if there is one at all — under a fragile Democratic majority.

“The math always is, can we build a centrist enough bloc to overcome the wings? Whatever you lose on the left and right, can you make up through bipartisan numbers?” Fitzpatrick said in an interview.

They have plenty of skeptics. For starters, the group hasn’t yet addressed how to pay for the package — one of the biggest issues that tanked talks between Biden and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). Further complicating matters, the rank-and-file group doesn’t carry formal clout in either party, boasting no committee chairs or high-ranking leaders in their ranks.

One congressional aide compared the Problem Solvers Caucus to Washington’s cicada season: “They pop up every 17 weeks with a bill, but really they’re just part of nature and you should just ignore their noise.”

Many members of the Problem Solvers counter that their efforts are better than letting inertia take hold. They say their proposal doesn’t just have the endorsement of the 58-member group; it’s also been cross-pollinated with ideas endorsed by some of the most critical moderate voices in the Senate, such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.).

They’ve met both informally and formally on the subject for months, including an overnight summit at the governor’s mansion of renowned centrist Larry Hogan in Maryland this spring.

Fitzpatrick said it wasn’t easy to get their group to agree on a framework on infrastructure amid such intense partisanship, adding that “nobody was in love with it.”

But he argued: “We’re all going to get beat up over this infrastructure plan. A lot of Republicans think it’s too much, a lot of Democrats think it’s not enough. But we’re just trying to get to yes.”

Besides the raw politics of the situation, there’s also the tight timeline: According to the White House, the deadline for bipartisan talks is already several days past. Top Democrats are now preparing to move ahead without the GOP after Biden’s high-profile talks with Capito collapsed, despite the remaining Senate talks that are still clinging on.

And importantly, the math for any bipartisan deal might be as tough in the House as it is in the Senate.

The Problem Solvers can commit 58 votes in the House for their proposal, since the full caucus has agreed to vote for anything that’s endorsed by 75 percent of their caucus. That guaranteed bloc of GOP votes could be a big win for Democrats who have struggled to find cross-aisle support for even the least contentious bills this year.

But it doesn’t ensure passage. While support from a few dozen Republican votes would make up for some Democratic defections, it might not be enough if there is large-scale opposition on the left.

“I literally don’t see a path to getting 10 Republicans and not losing a whole bunch of Democrats,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

While Jayapal said she had not reviewed the Problem Solvers’ full infrastructure framework, she said any bipartisan deal must be accompanied by a sprawling Democrats-only bill passed using the filibuster protections of the budget process — with priorities such as climate change, housing and child care included.

“Those two things have to go together. We don’t necessarily know that the momentum would stay high for the rest of the package,” she said.

Since its founding in 2017, Problem Solvers members say they’ve heard their share of jokes about its name and mission.

For years, the group functioned mostly behind the scenes: The list of members wasn’t public online. The caucus had other rules, too: Members agreed not to campaign against each other in elections, and their meetings are strictly off the record, even among the most press-friendly members. There’s a strong emphasis on trust.

The group suddenly gained more clout in the fall of 2020, when the group put itself front and center in the lagging Covid aid talks between then-President Donald Trump and the Democratic-controlled House. While some party leaders have privately downplayed the role of the group, many on Capitol Hill say the caucus’ tactics helped reach a $908 billion deal.

Beyond the shifting climate in the capital, which has wrought dramatically escalating tensions in the House, the Problem Solvers also face a more complicated substantive case for their latest foray. A trillion-dollar-plus infrastructure bill — at a time of rising inflation and debt — is simply harder to sell in either party than an emergency measure intended to halt a deadly pandemic in its most dire months.

They decided to take the issue bit by bit: First, by defining “infrastructure” and then drafting a framework. Next, a working group will seek a compromise on pay-fors, in consultation with the Senate group, though it will almost certainly be the trickiest piece.

“You can’t jump to the last page of the book. It’s important to get agreement on the table of contents,” Gottheimer said.

Covid relief and infrastructure aren’t the only thorny issues the group is engaging on. Earlier this year, the group voted by secret ballot to support a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Of the 35 House Republicans who voted in favor of that commission — bucking Trump and their party leaders — the vast majority represented the Problem Solvers.

Gottheimer, Fitzpatrick and several other members have also taken part in some policing reform negotiations with Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). That involvement stemmed from an hours-long meeting with Bass, then the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, as she drafted the initial version of the House policing bill in the summer of 2020. They decided to keep talking.

They set up several meetings to go over the issue of qualified immunity and other parts of reforms, raising points that Bass would also bring to Scott to review and consider.

“When we get a bill to President Biden’s desk, these conversations will have been key factors to getting this done,” Bass said in a statement to POLITICO.

This spring’s cross-aisle discussions on infrastructure began in a similar way — out of personal ties between members from the conversations on coronavirus relief. After that deal, Gottheimer and then co-chair Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) were regularly invited to a bi-weekly lunch hosted by Manchin, where the group has talked at length about Biden’s infrastructure package. The conversations have continued despite Reed’s decision in March to step down from the caucus leadership role and to retire from the House in 2022 amid sexual misconduct allegations.

House Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth said he wished the Problem Solvers “the best” as they attempted to find a compromise but acknowledged Democrats’ narrow control of the House and Senate meant they had to make a deal that at the very least, would keep most of their own party aboard.

“[Losing] four or five in the House could tank anything. So we all have to have the attitude that we have to find something we can support, or else nothing gets done,” he said.

Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.

Jill Biden also has a message on a jacket. Will Europe get it?

The day Jill Biden departed with her husband for his first foreign trip as president, the first lady’s office sent out a picture that encapsulates how she Biden thinks about her new role. She’s sitting at a desk in a cornflower blue jacket, poring over a huge binder with stacks of papers all around.

The message: Jill Biden is not here to just focus on the frilly aspects of the first lady gig. She’s a woman of substance and wants the public to know it.

In some ways, the veteran political spouse is a return to more traditional, non-controversial first ladies after one — Melania Trump — who enjoyed celebrity status but spent most of her time as a partisan lightning rod. In other ways, however, she’s a trailblazer: For the first five-ish months of “Jill’s husband’s” administration, she has already made history as the only first lady to work full time. Her staff has a policy of rarely, if ever, commenting on what she’s wearing. However, she does, like most modern first ladies, sometimes use her clothing to make a statement.

Thursday in the U.K., she sported a jacket with a message notably different from the “I really don’t care, do u?” jacket Trump famously wore while visiting a detention center for migrant children in 2018.

For this first presidential trip abroad, the first lady is working on cementing her independent, “Jill from Philly” image by setting up her own schedule during the G-7 summit in Cornwall, England, primarily highlighting her main initiative on military families. She’s already hosted a roundtable with military spouses and met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new wife. On Friday, Biden is touring a preschool and participating in a roundtable on early childhood education with Duchess Catherine Middleton — an event that is sure to draw headlines on both sides of the Atlantic — and on Saturday will meet with a U.K. volunteer group that helps military vets deal with injuries.

Biden also gave remarks introducing her husband to U.S. troops stationed at an air base in Mildenhall, England on Wednesday. And she’ll accompany the president on his visit with the queen of England at Windsor Castle on Sunday.

“There are definitely those traditional aspects of the role that you will see on this trip,” an aide said.

But as the president brings a message of “America is back” to foreign allies during his trip, the first lady is bringing her own sense of normalcy and tradition, after four years of a first couple with a highly unconventional approach to the office.

Wearing a jacket emblazoned with the word “LOVE” on the back, Biden told reporters in Cornwall Thursday, “I think that we’re bringing love from America. This is a global conference and we are trying to bring unity across the globe and I think it’s needed right now, that people feel a sense of unity from all the countries and feel a sense [of] hope after this year of the pandemic.”

Aides say she’s “happy and honored” to handle those traditional duties most associated with being first lady: the dinners, standing beside the president at official events, etc. But she’s also working to modernize the role for both herself and future first ladies. The foreign trip is just the latest evidence of her focus.

“She doesn’t want to go over there and just have people write about her dresses and clothes. When she travels with her husband, she also wants to do substantive things on her own,” one aide familiar with her planning and thinking said. “She will play the ceremonial role but she has things she wants to do. She doesn’t want to just go and be arm candy.”

It’s the operating mantra of her office. Her first few months in office have been a flurry of activity proving that point. She’s gone on more than 20 trips, the vast majority of them solo, pushing the pandemic recovery message, visiting schools, talking up free community college and services for military families.

Taking office during a pandemic has actually fit Biden’s approach to the job. It has allowed her to dodge some of the more ceremonial aspects of being first lady, like hosting parties, and instead focus on policy. It has also allowed both her and the president to play the roles the Trumps notably didn’t: consolers in chief.

“I think we want somebody who’s real and can relate to us and to relate to the struggles that people face with the economy and Covid and everything. I think that that’s what she’s going to try to do: is bring that empathy,” Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies,” said.

That empathy is often on show during those trips. At a vaccine clinic in New Mexico in April, Biden thought a woman looked scared to get her vaccine so she walked over to her and put her arm around the woman’s shoulder as her shot was administered.

There’s also a sense that Biden is working to be a first lady that’s a bit more approachable than her predecessor.

“I think we do tend to look at the president and the first lady with this, usually with a sense of reverence and we put them on this pedestal. I think it helps that you had a sense of humor about yourself. Dr. Biden’s supposed to have a great sense of humor,” she said. On April Fool’s, Biden donned a short black wig, black face mask and a badge with the name “Jasmine” on her shirt and handed out ice cream bars to the press corps traveling with her until she laughed, revealing who she was.

That sense of normalcy is something she is cognizant of, an aide says, but it’s also just “Dr. B being herself.” An aspect of being herself is continuing to teach English and writing at Northern Virginia Community College while balancing her official duties.

Years ago, it would’ve been a risky move: a first lady working or wanting to hold more substantive events on a foreign trip with her husband or at all. Most famously, Hillary Clinton was hit over and over as first lady for stepping out of the expected bounds, most famously leading failed health care reform efforts. There are no signs that Biden is going to go as far as Clinton, who clearly had higher political aspirations. But her keeping her day job is still breaking the mold.

“It’s hard for me to think of it in historic terms,” she said before Inauguration Day, noting that she “taught all eight years while second lady,” from 2009 to 2016.

Biden may not cop to it publicly, but Brower said she is slowly changing the expectations for the role of first lady of the United States: not too serious, substantive on her own and independent. “I think she’s carved out this niche and probably because she’s been waiting to do this job for decades. So she kind of feels comfortable with it,” said Brower.

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