Tuesday Reads

Good Morning!!

There’s a lot of news out there today and none of it is good. The press is still dumping on Biden for Afghanistan and his Covid response too. And so-called “centrist Democrats” are still trying to sabotage Biden’s infrastructure plans. And of course, the Covid-19 Delta variant is still spreading like wildfire. So this will be a mish-mash of reads. Before I get started with that, here’s one bit of good news from New York.

The New York Times: Kathy Hochul Is Sworn In as New York’s First Female Governor.

ALBANY, N.Y. — Kathy C. Hochul, a former congresswoman from Buffalo, became the 57th governor of New York early Tuesday, making history as the first woman to ascend to the state’s highest office.

She was sworn in at the State Capitol by the state’s chief judge, Janet DiFiore, in a private ceremony, capping a whirlwind chain of events that followed a series of sexual harassment allegations made against the outgoing governor, Andrew M. Cuomo.

Ms. Hochul, 62, assumes office three weeks after a state attorney general investigation concluded that Mr. Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women. A week later, Mr. Cuomo announced his resignation, bringing his 10-year reign to an abrupt end after rising to national fame during the pandemic last year.

Governor Hochul, a Democrat, has vowed to lead the state through a still surging pandemic and economic uncertainty, while ushering in a new era of civility and consensus in state government.

“I feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders and I will tell New Yorkers I’m up for the task,” Ms. Hochul told WGRZ-TV, a Buffalo-based news station, shortly after she was sworn in. “I thought about all the women that came before me, including my mother who was not there, but a lot of women through history, and I felt they passed the torch to me.”

Andrew Cuomo is gone for now. That’s one good thing that happened.

Afghanistan News and Opinion

The Washington Post: CIA Director William Burns held secret meeting in Kabul with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar.

CIA Director William J. Burns held a secret meeting Monday in Kabul with the Taliban’s de facto leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the highest-level face-to-face encounter between the Taliban and the Biden administration since the militants seized the Afghan capital, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.

The CIA declined to comment on the Taliban meeting, but the discussions are likely to have involved an impending Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. military to conclude its airlift of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies.

President Biden dispatched his top spy, a veteran of the Foreign Service and the most decorated diplomat in his Cabinet, amid a frantic effort to evacuate people from Kabul international airport in what Biden has called “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history.”

The CIA declined to comment on the Taliban meeting, but the discussions are likely to have involved an impending Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. military to conclude its airlift of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies.

For Baradar, playing the role of counterpart to a CIA director comes with a tinge of irony 11 years after the spy agency arrested him in a joint CIA-Pakistani operation that put him in prison for eight years.

Read more about Baradar’s history at the WaPo link.

Reuters: State Dept says U.S. will continue to help at-risk Afghans leave past Aug 31.

The United States’ commitment to at-risk Afghans extends beyond President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw from the country, a senior State Department official said, adding that the promise of safe passage did not have “an expiration date.”

“Our commitment to at-risk Afghans doesn’t end on August 31,” the official told reporters in a briefing, without elaborating how Washington could continue its efforts to help people leave the country if it withdraws completely from the country by the end of the month….

“We’ve heard from the Taliban … that they want a functioning airport well after the U.S. military has left … The Taliban has also agreed to permit safe passage to the airport and this commitment doesn’t have an expiration date on it,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

She added that even when U.S. military’s presence is gone the United States had every expectation that at-risk Afghans would have an opportunity to leave the country.

But the reports from the ground already show potential evacuees face a perilous journey to the Kabul airport and chaos at the airport gates before they can soldier on through the crowds onto an aircraft.

Raw Story: Adam Schiff reveals startling facts after classified Afghanistan briefing.

According to CNN’s Ryan Nobles, Schiff said that he doesn’t believe everyone will be out by the Aug. 31 deadline. The Taliban has said that the United States has until that deadline, and they’ll make no concessions for dates beyond that. Speaking to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Monday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said that it would ultimately end with a showdown between the U.S. and Taliban.

“Maybe we’re going to have to call the Taliban’s bluff,” said Murphy.

“Given the number of Americans who still need to be evacuated, the number of SIVs, the number of others who are members of the Afghan press, civil society leaders, women leaders,” Schiff began. “It’s hard for me to imagine all of that can be accomplished between now and the end of the month.”

He said that he’s also concerned about the safety and security for the airport in Kabul, saying that the “threat to the airport is very real and very substantial.” He even said that it could be a target for ISIS….

Schiff went on to say that the intelligence community was aware that the Taliban had the ability to take over the country. “The intelligence agencies’ assessments of the Afghan government’s ability to maintain itself became increasingly pessimistic over the course of the last six months. And there were any number of warnings that the Taliban might take over, and some that included a potential of a very rapid, the Afghan government enforces.” (sic)

Two good opinion pieces:

Michelle Goldberg at The New York Times: The Afghanistan War Was Lost Before Biden Ended It.

Andrew Latham at The Hill: The coming collapse of the Taliban.

Covid-19 News and Opinion

Eleanor Clift at The Daily Beast:  It’s the Virus, Not Afghanistan, That’s Dragging Biden Down.

For all of the media attention here on President Biden’s handling of Afghanistan, the latest poll numbers show that it’s his handling of COVID-19 that’s been most damaging to his standing with the American public— and that could get worse, fast, if the Delta variant disrupts the school year.

The American people are sick of the pandemic and they’re taking it out on Biden while a handful of red-state governors reap short-term political gains by blocking mask mandates and other public health measures, and allow the virus to spread.

Their intransigence in the face of a widening health crisis is costing Biden politically. On Monday, with the news that the Pfizer vaccine had gotten full FDA approval, he called on private sector companies to do what he has done with the military and federal health workers and make the vaccine mandatory or require frequent testing to employees who refuse it. “It’s your lucky day,” the president told the people who say they were waiting on the FDA.

There may be a relatively small number of people who wanted full clearance instead of emergency authorization before getting the jab, but the FDA’s move may motivate companies to take a more aggressive approach to protecting their workforces and facilities now that they may be on a legally sounder footing for doing so.

Biden had promised that the country could return to something resembling normal once 70 percent of the population was vaccinated, which he believed could be achieved by July 4, aptly named Independence Day. The numbers fell short but the new president was on a roll, and he and the first lady celebrated with a big party on the South Lawn, prematurely as it turned out.

Even before the authorization, vaccination rates have continued to tick up but not fast enough to beat the Delta variant into submission, and not fast enough to reclaim Biden’s standing.

Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic: This School Year Is Going to Be a Mess—Again.

Since early summer, three pandemic clocks have been ticking. The first pertains to the coronavirus’s Delta variant, which has sent daily case numbers soaring more than tenfold since June. The second clock is more predictable: The school year starts, as it always does, in late August or early September. The third clock counts down to the authorization of vaccines for children under 12, which was optimistically supposed to come this fall. After the FDA pushed for a larger trial to collect more safety data in kids, it will likely take longer.

These three timelines have now managed to converge in the worst way possible: Just as Delta is climbing to a new peak, millions of children who still cannot be vaccinated are going to spend hours a day indoors at school. And many of them will do so without masks, thanks in part to mask-mandate bans in some of the same states that are currently experiencing the worst outbreaks. “Are you allowed to use swear words?” is how Sean O’Leary, a pediatrician at the University of Colorado, replied when I asked him how he felt going into the school year.

This fall was supposed to herald the return of in-person classes everywhere. After the virus brought the 2020 spring semester to an abrupt halt, schools fumbled through another year with a mix of in-person and virtual learning. Now Delta threatens to wreak havoc on a third school year.

Read the rest at The Atlantic.

Infrastructure Bill News

The Guardian: Tensions flare in Capitol as moderate Democrats hold up Biden budget plan.

Confronting moderates, House Democratic leaders tried to muscle Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar budget blueprint over a key hurdle, working overnight to ease an intraparty showdown that risks upending their domestic infrastructure agenda.

Tensions flared and spilled into early Tuesday as a band of moderates threatened to withhold their votes for the $3.5tn plan. They were demanding the House first approve a $1tn package of road, power grid, broadband and other infrastructure projects that has passed the Senate.

Despite hours of negotiations at the Capitol, the House chamber came to a standstill and plans were thrown into flux as leaders and lawmakers huddled privately to broker an agreement. Shortly after midnight, leaders announced no further votes would be taken until Tuesday’s session.

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, implored Democrats not to miss this chance to deliver on the promises Biden and the party have made to Americans.

“Right now, we have an opportunity to pass something so substantial for our country, so transformative we haven’t seen anything like it,” Pelosi said, according to a person who requested anonymity to disclose the private comments.

Pelosi told the party it was “unfortunate” they were discussing the process when they should be debating the policy.

“We cannot squander this majority and this Democratic White House by not passing what we need to do,” she said.

An update from Politico: ‘Not that far apart’: Democrats near deal to break budget impasse.

Democratic leaders are finalizing a deal that would clear the way for passage of the $3.5 trillion budget framework and set a House vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill for Sept. 27, an offer they hope ends a weekslong standoff with moderates.

After several hours of furious negotiating Monday night, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her team are finishing the compromise, which they hope to put on the floor as soon as Tuesday afternoon. Democratic members believed a deal was imminent, based on Pelosi’s tone, but the caucus will meet Tuesday morning to discuss the contours of the agreement.

“I’m sorry that we couldn’t land the plane last night, and that you all had to wait. But that’s just part of the legislative progress,” Pelosi said Tuesday morning. “I think we’re close to landing the plane.”

Many rank-and-file members of the Democratic caucus are furious at Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and his group of centrists, who have halted progress on the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s social spending plans over their insistence the bipartisan bill receive a vote first. It’s unclear if the broader bloc of moderates has signed off on the emerging deal hashed out with Democratic leaders, as some of them are still trying to secure more assurances from leadership about the scope and details of the party-line budget framework.

That’s all I have for today. What stories are you following? Any good news?