2021-04-27 by W.M.
The case of Austin Tice, an American journalist kidnapped in Syria, presents a test for the White House.
President Biden is expected to propose giving the Internal Revenue Service an extra $80 billion and more authority over the next 10 years as he looks for ways to raise money to pay for his economic agenda, according to two people familiar with the plan.
Mr. Biden is expected to propose beefing up the I.R.S. to crack down on individuals and corporations that evade paying federal taxes. He will use the recouped tax funds to help pay for the cost of his American Families Plan, which he will detail before addressing a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.
Mr. Biden’s plan, which comes on top of a $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, is expected to cost at least $1.5 trillion and include funding for universal prekindergarten, federal paid leave, efforts to make child care more affordable, free community college and tax credits meant to fight poverty.
The plan will also call for tax increases, including raising the top marginal income tax rate for wealthy Americans and raising the rate that people who earn more than $1 million a year pay on profits earned from the sale of stocks or other assets. Mr. Biden is also expected to call for raising the rate on income that those earning more than $1 million a year get from stock dividends, according to a person familiar with the proposal.
The administration will portray these efforts, coupled with new taxes it is proposing on corporations and the rich, as a way to level the tax playing field between typical American workers and high earners who employ sophisticated efforts to minimize or evade taxation.
Administration officials have privately concluded that an aggressive crackdown on tax avoidance by corporations and the rich could raise at least $700 billion on net over 10 years. The $80 billion in proposed funding would be an increase of two-thirds over the agency’s entire funding levels for the past decade.
Previous administrations have long talked about trying to close the so-called tax gap — the amount of money that taxpayers owe but that is not collected each year. Earlier this month, the head of the I.R.S., Charles Rettig, told a Senate committee that the agency lacks the resources to catch tax cheats, costing the government as much as $1 trillion a year. The agency’s funding has failed to keep pace with inflation in recent years, amid budget tightening efforts, and its audits of rich taxpayers have declined.
A top House Democrat on Tuesday presented an expansive plan to broaden the social safety net for families, proposing to provide universal paid family and medical leave and expanded access to child care, as well as a permanent increase of the child tax credit.
Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, released his blueprint the day before President Biden was set to announce the second phase of his $4 trillion plan to rebuild the country’s aging infrastructure and reshape its economy.
Mr. Neal’s plan is expected to serve as a starting point as Democrats prepare to build out the legislative details of Mr. Biden’s proposals.
In an address to a joint congressional session on Wednesday, the president is expected to detail at least $1.5 trillion in spending for universal prekindergarten, free community college, tax credits, federal paid leave, and plans to make child care more affordable. The plan comes on top of a $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, and would be paid for largely with tax increases on corporations and the wealthy, in addition to cracking down on unpaid taxes.
While Mr. Neal did not say how he proposed to pay for his legislation, the plan would provide for 12 weeks of paid family leave, invest $15 billion in building and repairing child care centers, and provide refundable tax credits for child care providers, a benefit designed to help boost the wages of child care workers.
It would also expand the child tax credit to a regular benefit of $250 to $300 per child for most families, making permanent an increase that Congress approved through the end of the year as part of the nearly $1.9 trillion stimulus law enacted in March. Democrats have said that ensuring the permanence of that monthly benefit is a legislative priority, although Mr. Biden’s plan is expected to extend it only through 2025.
“Our economy is premised on the idea that some workers are worthy of ‘perks,’ like paid leave or affordable child care that works for their schedules, while the majority are forced to fend for themselves,” Mr. Neal said in a statement. “For our economy to fully recover from this pandemic, we must finally acknowledge that workers have families, and caregiving responsibilities are real.”
“It’s not enough to only focus on the roads that get Americans to work, we need to modernize the supports that get them through the day,” he added. “This is a time of great need, and we are ready to deliver.”
As chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Neal will oversee the writing of a large portion of Mr. Biden’s plan, including the tax credits aimed at further reducing poverty and any changes to the tax code to pay for the plan.
But other Democrats in both chambers have been outlining pet policy and project requests for what could be one of the most substantial legislative packages in recent history. On Tuesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts led a group of Democrats in introducing universal child care legislation, calling on Mr. Biden to sign off on $700 billion in child care funding.
President Biden plans to sign an executive order on Tuesday raising the minimum wage paid by federal contractors to $15 an hour, the latest in a set of ambitious pro-labor moves at the outset of his administration.
The new minimum is expected to take effect next year and is likely to affect hundreds of thousands of workers, according to a White House document. The current minimum is $10.95 under an order that President Barack Obama signed in 2014. Like that order, the new one will require that the new minimum wage rise with inflation.
White House economists believed the increase would not lead to significant job losses, a finding in line with recent research on the minimum wage, and that it was unlikely to cost taxpayers more money, two administration officials said in a call with reporters. They argued that the higher wage would lead to greater productivity and lower turnover.
The White House also contends that although the number of workers directly affected by the increase is relatively small as a share of the economy, the executive order will indirectly raise wages beyond federal contractors by forcing other employers to bid up pay as they compete for workers.
Several cities have a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour, and several states have laws that will raise their minimum wage to at least that level in the coming years. There is so far little evidence on how a $15 minimum wage affects employment in lower-cost areas of such states.
Two years ago, the House of Representatives passed a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, but the legislation has faced long odds in the Senate. Mr. Biden sought to incorporate such a measure in his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package so that it could pass on a simple majority vote, but the Senate parliamentarian ruled that it could not be included.
Mr. Biden’s executive order will also eliminate the so-called tipped minimum wage for federal contractors, which currently allows employers to pay tipped workers $7.65 an hour as long as their tips put them over the regular minimum wage. Under the new minimum, all workers must be paid at least $15 an hour.
The order will technically begin a rule-making process that is expected to conclude by early next year. The wage will be incorporated into new contracts and existing contracts as they are extended.
Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus no longer need to wear masks outdoors if they’re walking, running, hiking or biking alone, with members of their household, or if they attend small outdoor gatherings, federal health officials announced on Tuesday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped short of telling those people that they could shed their masks altogether in outdoor settings — citing the worrying risk that remains for transmitting the coronavirus, unknown vaccination levels among people in crowds and the still high-caseloads in some regions of the country.
Federal health officials and President Biden were announcing the updated advice on Tuesday, linking the news with the administration’s public campaign to get most American adults vaccinated by summer and trying to offer reassurances that some semblance of normal life can return.
But the C.D.C. is maintaining advice on other safety measures, saying vaccinated adults should continue wearing masks and staying six feet apart in large public spaces, like outdoor performance or sports events, indoor shopping malls and movie theaters, where the vaccination and health status of others would be unknown. And they still should avoid medium and large gatherings, crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, officials said.
“I welcome less restrictive guidelines about masking outdoors,” said Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech. “We know that transmission outdoors is much less likely to occur than indoors, because the virus cannot accumulate in the air outdoors. It’ll become rapidly diluted.”
But the guidelines themselves, which outline different masking recommendations for a variety of scenarios, seem overly complex, she said. “I can’t remember this. I would have to carry around a sheet of paper — a cheat sheet with all these different stipulations.” She added: “I worry that this is not as helpful as it could be.”
Americans have been whipsawed on the issue of mask-wearing advice since the beginning of the pandemic, when top health officials said people did not need them — in part because of severe shortages of protective gear for health care workers on the front lines.
And mask restrictions since then have been a patchwork from state to state, despite growing evidence of a mask’s protection for individuals and those around them. Many states have already lifted restrictions they had put in place for indoor and outdoor activities. Others like New York, however, have maintained mask-wearing requirements even for outdoor spaces, citing the threat of potentially more contagious variants.
But the pace of vaccinations has helped influence some easing of those limits. So far, about 42 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and 29 percent have received both doses of the two vaccines requiring double shots.
The vaccines are highly effective at preventing people from becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus. Early evidence also suggests that vaccinated people may be significantly less likely to transmit the virus, but the exact risks are not yet known.
But some experts also wondered if the new directives were confusing, by establishing different standards for those who are vaccinated and those who are not, even though it is impossible to know who is who.
The 2012 kidnapping of Austin Tice, a journalist who covered the war in Syria and became one of the longest-held American hostages abroad, has been an enduring frustration for government officials.
They had found glimpses of hope over the years. Mr. Tice briefly escaped captivity shortly after he was kidnapped, according to two people familiar with the episode — but he was recaptured. And during the Obama administration, the C.I.A. obtained a tantalizing piece of information: a Syrian document indicating that its government had been holding Mr. Tice, an admission Syrian officials have never made.
Former President Donald J. Trump was so focused on Mr. Tice’s safe return that the Syrian government had an incentive to cut a generous deal to free him before Mr. Trump left office. The C.I.A. formed a special cell to gather intelligence, a powerful Persian Gulf ally was enlisted to help and, among other highly unusual personal entreaties, senior officials traveled to Damascus to plead their case with Syria’s top spy. But none of it worked.
With Mr. Trump’s exit from office, hopes for Mr. Tice’s release have begun to fade. Now the disappearance of Mr. Tice presents a test for Biden administration officials, whose willingness to resolve the case could run up against their reluctance to wade into the sort of unorthodox diplomacy conducted by Trump national security officials.
“If the Syrians had Tice during the Trump administration, that was the time to give him up and get a lot in return,” said Andrew Tabler, who served as the director for Syria on the National Security Council under Mr. Trump and later as a senior adviser to the U.S. special envoy for Syria. Mr. Tabler declined to discuss the specifics of Mr. Tice’s case.
Biden administration officials said they were committed to finding and rescuing Mr. Tice. The State Department disclosed this month that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken had spoken with the Tice family and made clear that the department had “no higher priority” than seeking his release, a department official said.
After decades of failing to curb sexual assault in the armed forces, lawmakers and Pentagon leaders are poised to make major changes in military laws that many experts have long argued stand in the way of justice.
A bill championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, would remove military commanders from a role in prosecuting service members for sexual assault. It has gained support from scores of key members of Congress.
Among them is Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa and a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel, who said her own experience with assault and her daughter’s stories from West Point helped shift her views on the issue.
Ms. Ernst’s nod on a new bipartisan measure is likely to attract several other key lawmakers. Other senators — many of whom voted against the measure in the past — said in interviews that they had waited long enough for the military to solve the problem and agreed that Congress should step in.
“Adding Joni Ernst to this bill is the defining moment for passing it,” said Ms. Gillibrand, who has pressed her colleague on the issue for years.
Adding to the momentum, a panel appointed by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has made a similar recommendation, saying that independent judge advocates should take over the role that commanders currently play. These independent military lawyers would report to a special victims prosecutor, who would decide whether to court-martial those accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment or domestic violence. The responsibilities could also extend to those accused of hate crimes. The change to military law would require an act of Congress.
At a news conference scheduled for Thursday, Ms. Gillibrand is expected to announced her new compromise with Ms. Ernst, who has pushed for several additional components aimed at preventing assault, such as cameras in common areas and better training from the earliest entry points to the military.
“I have long said that by the time we have a survivor and a predator, we have failed,” Ms. Ernst said. “We’ve got to do more on prevention, and Kirsten agreed.”
The chairman of the Senate banking panel asked Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Tuesday for information about whether Credit Suisse continued to help rich Americans defraud the I.R.S. even after it signed a settlement agreement with the Justice Department vowing to stop the practice.
At issue is a retired professor named Dan Horsky, whom Credit Suisse helped to evade tax payments on $200 million in assets. A whistle-blower made federal prosecutors aware of Mr. Horsky’s account in the summer of 2014, and it clearly violated the terms of the settlement agreement that Credit Suisse had agreed to just weeks earlier.
But the Justice Department under the Obama and Trump administrations never punished Credit Suisse for violating the deal, even though the whistle-blower’s information led Mr. Horsky to plead guilty to tax evasion in 2016.
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, asked Mr. Garland for more information about the Horsky account and anything else that might show whether Credit Suisse executives made false statements to Congress, to the Justice Department and to the courts when it said it vowed to cooperate with U.S. government efforts to force the wealthiest Americans to pay their taxes. He requested a briefing on the case by May 11.
The scrutiny around Credit Suisse’s private wealth management practices comes at a sensitive time for the bank. Last week it reported significant losses because of loans it made to a collapsed investment firm and said that Switzerland’s financial regulator would investigate the bank’s risk management practices. Regulators are also investigating a spying scandal and the sale of billions of dollars worth of investments that were reminiscent of the shoddy subprime mortgage bonds that led to the 2008 global financial crisis.
A spokesman said that the Justice Department had received the letter, but had no immediate comment. A Credit Suisse spokeswoman said that since the 2014 settlement, the company “has cooperated fully with U.S. authorities and will continue to do so.”
In May 2014 Credit Suisse pleaded guilty to helping some American clients evade taxes and was fined a total of $2.6 billion. But it avoided even higher fines because it vowed to federal prosecutors that it had stopped the practice, would close “any and all accounts of recalcitrant account holders,” and would help the U.S. pursue other criminal investigations.
Jack Ewing contributed reporting.
John Kerry, a former secretary of state, said on Monday that he had never discussed covert Israeli airstrikes in Syria with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, contrary to Mr. Zarif’s claim in a leaked conversation.
Mr. Zarif and Mr. Kerry spoke constantly when the two were negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Iranian foreign minister said in the recording, reported by The New York Times on Sunday, that Mr. Kerry had informed him that Israel had attacked Iranian interests in Syria at least 200 times.
The claim sparked a furor on Monday among conservatives who accused Mr. Kerry, who was secretary of state in the Obama administration and now serves as President Biden’s climate envoy, of betraying Israeli secrets.
But in a tweet on Monday evening, Mr. Kerry denied the assertion and pointed to reports long in the public domain about Israeli strikes on Iranian assets in Syria.
“I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened — either when I was Secretary of State or since,” Mr. Kerry wrote.
I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened – either when I was Secretary of State or since. https://t.co/BTOdFE1khW
— John Kerry (@JohnKerry) April 26, 2021
Mr. Kerry’s denial came after multiple attacks from prominent Republicans. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, said that, if real, the remarks would amount to “catastrophic and disqualifying recklessness.”
Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska and a former State Department official under President George W. Bush, called in a speech on the Senate floor for Mr. Kerry to resign, saying he was “astonished” that Mr. Kerry “would reveal the secrets of one of our most important and enduring allies in the region to an avowed enemy, the largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
And Nikki Haley, who served as United Nations ambassador in the Trump administration, wrote on Twitter that the claim was “disgusting” and accused Mr. Kerry of “tipping off Iran.”
But it was not clear that the alleged disclosure would have revealed any secrets.
Israel has made little effort to deny years of strikes attributed to it by Syria’s government, news outlets and nongovernmental organizations tracking the Syrian conflict, whose chaos Iran has sought to use to establish a foothold that could threaten Israeli security.
A New York Times article from 2019 included similar information on the number of Israeli strikes. And Mr. Kerry’s tweet cited a Washington Post reporter’s tweet of a 2018 Reuters article, sourced to a senior Israeli official, reporting that Israel had mounted 200 attacks on Iranian assets in Syria.
The recording in question captures Mr. Zarif speaking for hours to an interviewer producing an oral history of the current Iranian administration.
“Kerry has to tell me that Israel has attacked you 200 times in Syria?” says Mr. Zarif, who complains in the recording that Iran’s military has long kept him in the dark on crucial matters. “You did not know?” the interviewer asks twice. Both times, Mr. Zarif replies, “No, no.”
In the recording, Mr. Zarif does not specify when Mr. Kerry was supposed to have made the comment.
A State Department official noted on Monday that Mr. Kerry had a record of supporting Israel’s security and that many of the Republicans outraged by Mr. Zarif’s remarks had said previously that his words could not be trusted.
Earlier in the day, the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, told reporters at a daily briefing that he would not comment on “purportedly leaked material” and could not “vouch for the authenticity of it or the accuracy of it,” or what motives might be behind its emergence.
Mr. Price did not specifically address whether Mr. Kerry had made such comments to Mr. Zarif, but implied that they would not have constituted an improper disclosure.
“I would just make the broad point that if you go back and look at press reporting from the time, this certainly was not secret,” Mr. Price said. “And governments that were involved were speaking to this publicly, on the record.”
President Biden will go to Philadelphia on Friday and Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Ohio to reiterate the themes Mr. Biden is expected to lay out in his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, including pushing for swift approval of his $4 trillion economic agenda.
The stops will be part of what White House officials are calling the “Getting America Back on Track Tour,” which will start on Thursday, with Mr. Biden in Georgia and Ms. Harris in Baltimore, and continue next week.
A White House official said Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris — along with their spouses and, next week, cabinet members — would use the public events to promote the administration’s early record on the economy and the pandemic. They will emphasize that the nation hit 200 million coronavirus vaccine shots in Mr. Biden’s first 100 days.
They will also stress the deployment of $1,400 direct checks to individuals, expanded tax credits for parents and support for small businesses, among other provisions in the $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan the president signed into law earlier this year.
The official said Mr. Biden, Ms. Harris and others would also push Congress to pass Mr. Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which he announced in Pittsburgh last month, and his American Families Plan, which he is set to describe before his speech this week.
Those plans are the two halves of Mr. Biden’s longer-run economic agenda, which totals $4 trillion in new spending and tax breaks, offset by higher taxes on corporations and the rich. They focus on physical infrastructure, like ports and bridges, along with what the administration calls human infrastructure: support for workers, students and families.
For a second year, the nation’s surveillance court has pointed with concern to “widespread violations” by the F.B.I. of rules intended to protect Americans’ privacy when analysts search emails gathered without a warrant — but still signed off on another year of the program, a newly declassified ruling shows.
In a 67-page ruling issued in November and made public on Monday, James E. Boasberg, the presiding judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, recounted several episodes uncovered by an F.B.I. audit where the bureau’s analysts improperly searched for Americans’ information in emails that the National Security Agency collected without warrants.
Those instances appeared largely to be additional examples of an issue that was already brought to light in a December 2019 ruling by Judge Boasberg. The government made it public in September.
The F.B.I. has already sought to address the problem by rolling out new system safeguards and additional training, although the coronavirus pandemic has hindered the bureau’s ability to assess how well they are working. Still, Judge Boasberg said he was willing to issue a legally required certification for the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program to operate for another year.
“While the court is concerned about the apparent widespread violations of the querying standard,” Judge Boasberg wrote, “it lacks sufficient information at this time to assess the adequacy of the F.B.I. system changes and training, post-implementation.”
Because of that, he added, the court concluded that “the F.B.I.’s querying and minimization procedures meet statutory and Fourth Amendment requirements.”
Over the past decade, the United States population grew at the slowest rate since the 1930s, the Census Bureau reported on Monday, a remarkable slackening that was driven by a leveling off of immigration and a declining national birthrate.
The bureau also reported changes to the nation’s political map. The long-running trend of the South and the West gaining population, and congressional representation, at the expense of the Northeast and the Midwest continued, with Colorado and Florida each gaining one seat and Texas gaining two. California, long a leader in population growth, lost a seat for the first time in history. New York lost a seat, coming up just 89 people short in the census data.
The census counted 331,449,281 Americans as of April 1, 2020. That was up by just 7.4 percent over the previous decade.
The data will be used to reapportion seats in Congress and, in turn, the Electoral College. The count is critical for billions of dollars in federal funding, as well as state and local planning around everything from schools to housing to hospitals.
The constitutionally mandated count of everyone living in the United States and the congressional reapportionment were hampered and delayed by Trump administration efforts to remove undocumented immigrants from the count, a shift that most likely would have increased the number of Republican-held districts in the next Congress.
Questions about the count’s accuracy are likely to surface when the Census Bureau releases detailed demographic files for each state later this year. Those files are the basis for redrawing electoral districts, a messy political process that is fought in statehouses across the country.
Releasing the census figures months behind schedule will leave less time for individual states to draw and debate lines for congressional and state legislative districts. Republicans control the redistricting process in far more states than do Democrats, a result of both G.O.P. dominance in down-ballot elections and Democratic efforts to establish independent redistricting commissions in states where they have controlled the government, including California, Colorado and Virginia.
Republicans have signaled for months that they will press their advantage once the new figures are released, aiming to maximize the number of seats they hold in Congress by drawing districts beneficial to their candidates. The delay in releasing the census figures will limit the amount of time available for court challenges of newly drawn maps before the 2022 midterm campaigns begin.