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Senate Passes $1.9 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Package

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Senate Passes $1.9 Trillion Coronavirus Relief Package

President Biden speaks at the White House about efforts to combat COVID-19 on Tuesday.

Evan Vucci/AP

Evan Vucci/AP

Updated at 12:56 p.m. ET

The Senate approved President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan Saturday, securing additional aid for American families, workers and businesses — and a legislative victory for the Biden administration.

After more than 24 hours of debate, the evenly divided Senate voted 50-49 to approve the measure. Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaksa was absent because he was in Alaska for a family funeral.

The package delivers a new round of financial assistance to Americans grappling with the impact of the pandemic, including $1,400 direct payments, an extension of supplemental unemployment benefits and an increase to the child tax credit.

Individuals earning up to $75,000 and couples earning up to $150,000 would receive the full direct payments of $1,400 per person. But those payments would phase out for individuals and couples who make more than $80,000 and $160,000, respectively.

The income cutoff was lowered after moderate Democrats demanded that the latest round of checks target lower-income families.

Federal unemployment benefits would be extended through Sept. 6 at the current rate of $300 per week and the first $10,200 of those benefits would be tax-free for households that earn $150,000 or less.

Democrats were under pressure to get the bill to Biden’s desk before current federal unemployment benefits expire on March 14. The budget reconciliation process allowed them to act without Republican backing, requiring only a simple majority to pass the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., signaled Tuesday that Democrats had the support they needed to move forward with the vote. But debate on the Senate floor was delayed when Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., indicated Wednesday that he’d require Senate clerks to read the more than 600 page bill on the floor, pushing the vote by several hours.

“We need to highlight the abuse,” Johnson said in a Tweet. “This is not a COVID relief bill. It’s a boondoggle for Democrats.”

I’m going to make the Senate clerk read the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion bill. All several hundred pages of it.

Then I’m going to offer amendments. Many amendments.

We need to highlight the abuse.

This is not a COVID relief bill.

It’s a boondoggle for Democrats.

— Senator Ron Johnson (@SenRonJohnson) March 3, 2021

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday accused the Biden administration of trying to “jam” Republicans on the legislation.

“It is my hope that in the end Senate Republicans will unanimously oppose it, just like House Republicans did,” McConnell said to reporters.

House Democrats’ version of the bill originally included a provision to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025, but the Senate parliamentarian decided the provision did not fit the rules that govern budget bills in the Senate.

The House will need to revote on the final version of the bill before it can be signed into law. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement Saturday that the House will vote on an identical measure on Tuesday.

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California Set To Open Ballparks, Arenas And Theme Parks In April

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California Set To Open Ballparks, Arenas And Theme Parks In April

Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif., September 2020. California announced theme parks, sports arenas and stadiums will be allowed to open on April 1 if they meet health requirements at the county level.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The state of California updated its plans Friday to allow outdoor events at stadiums, ballparks and theme parks to begin to reopen April 1.

Sports facilities and amusement parks will reopen at reduced capacity, contingent on county-level infection rates. The California Department of Public Health released its Blueprint for a Safer Economy guidelines last August, which has dictated the opening and closing of businesses at the county level ever since.

For counties in the state’s most restrictive Purple Tier, outdoor sports and live performances will be limited to 100 people or less and attendees must live in the region. Reservations will be required and concessions sales won’t be available, a CDPH statement said. Attendance is capped at 20% in the Red Tier and 33% in the Orange, both of which can welcome in-state visitors.

A similar standard will be applied to amusement parks. Venues in the Red Tier can reopen at 15% capacity, but more in-state guests will be allowed to visit as infection rates drop, the CDPH said. Masks will still be required for attendees.

“With case rates and hospitalizations significantly lower, the arrival of three highly effective vaccines and targeted efforts aimed at vaccinating the most vulnerable communities, California can begin gradually and safely bringing back more activities, especially those that occur outdoors and where consistent masking is possible,” secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency Mark Ghaly said. “Even with these changes, California retains some of the most robust public health protocols in the country.”

As of now, 87% of Californians, about 35 million people, fall within the state’s Purple Tier, as do many of the state’s top amusement parks. Disneyland Resort and California Adventure, Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Sea World and Universal Studios Hollywood are all located in Southern California Purple Tier counties.

However, cases in Los Angeles County, the most populous area in the state, have been on a downward trend since peaking in early January. The county could enter the Red Tier next week, CDPH said, but it has to remain there for two weeks before restrictions are eased.

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Pope Francis Welcomed With Red Carpet And Military Band On First Ever Trip To Iraq

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Pope Francis Welcomed With Red Carpet And Military Band On First Ever Trip To Iraq

The Vatican has sought to make a papal trip to Iraq, the traditional home of Abraham and now a shrinking Christian minority, since 2000. Pope Francis ended his first day there with religious leaders.


MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After more than a year of staying home at the Vatican, Pope Francis landed today in Baghdad, his first international trip since the start of the pandemic. It’s an unusual visit, not just because of the timing with COVID cases on the rise in Iraq, but also because despite the country’s rich biblical history, despite its shrinking but significant Christian minority, a pope has never visited Iraq before. Well, NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli is traveling with the pope. She joins us now from Baghdad. Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: How’s Day 1 of this trip gone so far?

POGGIOLI: It’s been quite something. It’s a long day. But in any case, at the airport, Pope Francis was given a really big, red-carpet reception with military band, all the works. His first stop was at the presidential palace. Lots of pomp and circumstance there, although not many people were wearing masks, and there wasn’t much social distancing, which the Vatican had insisted that, you know, all precautions would be observed.

In any case, in his speech there, he urged Iraqi leaders to treat Iraqi Christians – you know, it’s a community that’s lived here in Iraq since the time of the apostles – to treat them as a precious resource and not what he called an obstacle to be eliminated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Non-English language spoken).

POGGIOLI: He said, and quote, “the age-old presence of Christians in this land and their contribution to the life of the nation constitute a rich heritage that they wish to continue to place at the service of all.”

KELLY: What kind of reception is he getting? You said people aren’t wearing masks. Are many people turning out, though, to greet him?

POGGIOLI: Well, look, on the road from the airport to the city, there were clusters of people. They were waving Iraqi and Vatican flags, but there were also long stretches with no one on the streets except heavily armed police. At the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, however, the mood was jubilant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

POGGIOLI: Now, keep in mind that this is the church where there was a devastating massacre in 2010, in which some 50 people were killed. The pope recalled that attack in his speech to religious leaders, the priests and nuns who were there. And he again stressed the multi-confessional history of Iraq. And he had a very nice metaphor for this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCIS: (Non-English language spoken).

POGGIOLI: He said, here, I think of the familiar image of a carpet – that different churches present in Iraq, each with its age-old historical, liturgical and spiritual patrimony, are like so many individual colored threads that, woven together, make up a single, beautiful carpet.

KELLY: You’re in Baghdad now. Where else is he headed?

POGGIOLI: Tomorrow he goes to the holy city of Najaf, where he’ll have a really, truly historic encounter with one of the world’s top leaders of Shia Islam, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. And he rarely meets foreign visitors. You know, Francis has pursued interreligious dialogue with Muslims throughout his papacy, but this is the first time he’s going to meet a top Shiite leader.

Then on Sunday, he travels to northern Iraq, where most of the Christian communities live. That’s the area that was devastated by a brutal three-year rule of ISIS. And then later, he will celebrate mass in Erbil Stadium.

KELLY: And one question on timing, Sylvia. We mentioned COVID is bad right now in Iraq. You’re telling us about the crowds coming out to see him, crowds that are not socially distancing. What is the thinking behind why make this visit now?

POGGIOLI: That’s what a lot of reporters have been wondering. Francis says he’s wanted to visit Iraq for a long time, as did his predecessor, John Paul II. But that time, negotiations fell apart with Saddam Hussein. He very – cares very much about those he called Christians on the peripheries, not the so-called first-world European or North or South America. He wants to be close to them. And the visit is not aimed just at Christians in Iraq, but in the Middle East as a whole. So apparently, he even went against the advice of some of his people in the Vatican. He insisted on going. You know, he just might be an old man in a hurry.

KELLY: NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli reporting today from Baghdad. She’s traveling with the pope. Thank you, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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NFL Names Its First Black Female Official

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NFL Names Its First Black Female Official

Maia Chaka, shown here officiating an Alliance of American Football game in 2019, has been named the NFL’s first Black female official.

Denis Poroy/AAF/Getty Images

Denis Poroy/AAF/Getty Images

The NFL has named a Black woman as an official for the first time.

Maia Chaka, a health and physical education teacher in the Virginia Beach area, has participated in the NFL’s officiating development program since 2014 while also refereeing at the college level.

Next season, she will make history when she takes the field in an NFL game.

“I am honored to be selected as an NFL official,” Chaka said in a statement. “But this moment is bigger than a personal accomplishment. It is an accomplishment for all women, my community, and my culture.”

As of last November, 40 of the NFL’s 121 game officials are Black men.

We welcome Maia Chaka to the 2021 roster of game officials!

Maia makes history as the first Black woman to officiate at the @NFL level. https://t.co/1NHls98Lwi pic.twitter.com/ycOxc6Cq1t

— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) March 5, 2021

The NFL hired its first Black official, Burl Toler, in 1965 and its first full-time female official, Sarah Thomas, in 2015. The NFL has not announced what officiating position Chaka has been hired for.

“Maia’s years of hard work, dedication and perseverance — including as part of the NFL Officiating Development Program — have earned her a position as an NFL official,” Troy Vincent, Sr., NFL executive vice president of football operations, said in a statement. “As we celebrate Women’s History Month, Maia is a trailblazer as the first Black female official and inspires us toward normalizing women on the football field.”

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9 Things To Know About The Unfolding Crisis In Ethiopia’s Tigray Region

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9 Things To Know About The Unfolding Crisis In Ethiopia’s Tigray Region

Women mourn the victims of a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Eritrean soldiers in the village of Dengelat, north of Mekele, the capital of Tigray.

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

For months, a conflict in Ethiopia between the government in Addis Ababa and a defiant region has cost thousands of lives and displaced at least a million people.

Despite the increasing brutality of the conflict in Tigray, until now, it has been largely overlooked by the outside world. But attention and concern is growing with news of alleged atrocities and a worsening refugee crisis.

We’ve put together nine things you should know about the situation in the Horn of Africa.

Where is Tigray and what is going on there?

Tigray is Ethiopia’s northernmost region. Bordering Eritrea, it is home to most of the country’s estimated 7 million ethnic Tigrayans. The ethnic group, which accounts for about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, have had an outsized influence in national affairs.

A map showing Ethiopia’s Tigray region, highlighting key cities.

Associated Press

Associated Press

In early November, the regional government — controlled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a leftist political party — launched a full-scale siege of a key Ethiopian military base at Sero, using tanks, heavy guns and mortars.

Calling the TPLF assault a “treason that will never be forgotten,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a federal offensive against the region, setting off the conflict.

A damaged tank stands on a road north of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, last month.

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

How bad is the humanitarian crisis?

Bad. But the scope of the problem is still unclear. The United Nations says the humanitarian community has been largely unable to get outside the major cities, such as the regional capital of Mekele, to see what’s happening in the countryside.

So far, the conflict has killed thousands of people, many of whom allegedly died as a result of indiscriminate shelling of cities in Tigray by Ethiopian forces. A local official told Reuters in January that more than two million people have been displaced by fighting, far exceeding previous estimates. The conflict also threatens a regional humanitarian disaster.

In January, the U.N. refugee agency said some 56,000 people had fled the fighting in Tigray, many of whom have ended up in neighboring Sudan.

Last month, The New York Times published a story citing an internal U.S. government report that described a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray.

Fighters supporting Addis Ababa’s side in the conflict were “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation,” the Times quoted from the report, which also said that, “Whole villages were severely damaged or completely erased.”

Tigrayan men sit atop a hill in Ethiopia overlooking part of the Umm Rakouba refugee camp in neighboring Sudan, where many people who fled the ongoing conflict have gone for refuge.

Nariman El-Mofty/AP

Nariman El-Mofty/AP

What is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front?

The TPLF originally formed in the 1970s to push for Tigrayan self-determination, a goal it later moved away from. In a remarkable twist, it eventually found itself at the center of national politics. It became the dominant player in a coalition of ethnic political parties known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, which led Ethiopia’s government for nearly three decades.

Abiy came to power in 2018 as the head of the EPRDF. But a year later, he dissolved the party, saying he hoped to put the party’s history of ethnic divisiveness behind it. Instead, Abiy sought to fold the EPRDF’s constituents into a new political party. But the TPLF refused to go along, instead retreating to its power base in Tigray, where it enjoys widespread support.

What led up to the current conflict?

After it was sidelined at the national level, the TPLF was accused by Abiy’s government of seeking to destabilize Ethiopia by orchestrating ethnic violence across the country.

Abiy had promised to hold the country’s first truly democratic elections last summer. However, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, he postponed them.

The TPLF said that delaying the vote amounted to an unconstitutional extension of Abiy’s presidential term. The group then held its own regional elections anyway, claiming a decisive win. Abiy’s government subsequently declared the Tigray elections invalid.

The two sides called each other illegitimate in the lead-up to the TPLF attack on the Sero base. In response, the government sent the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, backed by soldiers from the Amhara region, which borders Tigray.

Who has the upper hand in the fighting?

After fighting commenced in November, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces quickly captured many of Tigray’s main cities, including the regional capital, Mekele, with approximately a half-million people. Abiy declared the main phase of the conflict over; however, the TPLF still controls large swaths of Tigray. Ethiopia has said it is waging a “final offensive” against the group.

What role has Eritrea played?

Eritrea, which was once part of Ethiopia, fought and won a brutal, decades-long war of independence that ended in 1991. The two countries went to war again in 1998 in a territorial conflict that ended inconclusively in 2000, claiming an estimated 100,000 lives.

However, shortly after taking office, Abiy reached out to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, and the two forged a historic peace accord aimed at putting the countries’ mutual enmity in the past. Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to resolve the long-standing conflict.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (right) welcomes Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki upon his arrival at the airport in Gondar, for a visit in Ethiopia, in November 2018.

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Abiy appears to have won a staunch ally in Isaias. Eritrean forces are reportedly engaged in the Tigray fight, backing Ethiopia. The Associated Press reported that Eritrean soldiers were involved in a massacre of civilians in the town of Axum in the early days of the conflict. Amnesty International has also blamed Eritrea for the mass killing at Axum. Eritrean forces also reportedly carried out a similar attack on civilians at a church in the Tigrayan town of Dengelat.

Both governments have denied that Eritrean troops are even in Ethiopia. In an interview with state media last month, Isaias didn’t comment on the presence of Eritrean forces in Tigray, but he appeared to hint at it. He expressed concern over the Tigray situation and said Eritrea was “trying our level best” to help Ethiopia “in accordance to our obligation,” the BBC reported.

Abiy, speaking to parliament in November, called the Eritrean people “our brothers,” and friends “who stood by our side on a tough day.”

What does the U.N. say?

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has asked Ethiopia for access to Tigray to investigate possible war crimes there, after reports of extrajudicial killings and sexual violence.

Bachelet says her office has verified some atrocities in Tigray, including ones committed by Eritrean forces, as well as the “indiscriminate shelling in Mekele, Humera and Adigrat towns in Tigray region.”

What has the U.S. said?

The Biden administration describes the situation in Tigray as “a deepening humanitarian crisis.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, citing “credible reports” of human rights abuses, has pressed Addis Ababa to end the conflict, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

“The secretary urged the Ethiopian government to take immediate, concrete steps to protect civilians, including refugees, and to prevent further violence,” he said in a statement.

The Biden administration has repeatedly called for the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean soldiers and Amhara regional forces. It has also asked for the African Union to help resolve the crisis.

Echoing comments made by Blinken, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said “The onus to prevent further atrocities and human suffering falls squarely on the Ethiopian government shoulders.”

“We urge the Ethiopian government to support an immediate end to the fighting in Tigray,” she said. “To that end, the prompt withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara regional forces from Tigray are essential steps, and we urge the broader region to work fast and together toward a peaceful solution.”

An Ethiopian child is seen at Um Rakuba refugee camp in February as those fleeing the conflict in Tigray continue to live under harsh conditions.

Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

What is at stake in the conflict?

With the apparent involvement of Eritrea, and a flood of refugees into Sudan, the situation threatens to become both a wider conflict and a deepening humanitarian crisis in a part of the world that has seen more than its share of human misery in recent decades.

For Abiy, the Nobel laureate, and Eritrea’s Isaias, their reputations as peacemakers have taken a severe hit. Allegations of atrocities and possible war crimes could effectively end whatever international good will they enjoyed.

Meanwhile, for President Biden, the conflict could prove a difficult balancing act.

On the one hand, the Biden administration has shown an eagerness to reassert the U.S.’s role as an international champion of human rights, after such considerations took a back seat under former President Donald Trump.

But by shunning Addis Ababa, the administration would risk decades of close U.S.-Ethiopia ties and cooperation in fighting regional terrorism. Since the end of its conflicts with Eritrea, Ethiopia has played a stabilizing role in the Horn of Africa region — most notably making up the backbone of the African Union Mission in Somalia, where peacekeeping forces have sought to tamp down a resurgence of the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab.

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Got Questions About Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 Vaccine? We Have Answers

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Got Questions About Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 Vaccine? We Have Answers

A medical worker at South Shore University Hospital gets ready to administer the newly available Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Bay Shore, N.Y., Wednesday. Clinical research found it to be 85% effective in preventing severe disease four weeks after vaccination, and it has demonstrated promising indications of protection against a couple of concerning variants of the coronavirus.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This week, health care providers began administering the first doses of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. — the third vaccine authorized by the Food and Drug Administration to help stop the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s welcome news in a country that still faces high levels of circulating virus in most regions, and a demand for vaccine that still far outstrips supply.

The J&J vaccine has some significant advantages, health officials say. Unlike the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, it can be stored for up to three months at regular refrigerator temperatures, so it’s easier to distribute to more places. And you’re fully vaccinated after just one dose — a welcome convenience for many recipients who dread the two-shot regimen of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor at George Washington University, says that’s a big plus for the J&J vaccine.

“If there are individuals who may not like needles, who may have concerns about returning for a second shot, who may not want the inconvenience of scheduling a second appointment, or who may be concerned that there isn’t enough supply of the vaccine at the moment for a second shot — for those individuals, that convenience of being done [after one dose], fully vaccinated, is really important,” Wen says.

Still, the J&J vaccine is a little different from the others. Here’s what you need to know.

How does the Johnson & Johnson vaccine work?

The J&J shot is based on a different technology than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Those use mRNA, or messenger RNA, to deliver bits of genetic code to cells. This code serves as a sort of instruction sheet — telling cells how to make a harmless piece of the spike protein that sticks out of the surface of the coronavirus. The immune system then learns to recognize the spike protein and fight it.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, by contrast, is what’s known as a viral vector vaccine — the same technology that’s been proven safe and effective in creating an Ebola vaccine and others currently in the works. Basically, Johnson & Johnson started with an adenovirus, which causes the common cold, and inactivated it so it can’t make anybody sick. They then used this harmless cold virus to deliver the genetic blueprint of the protein spike to cells, so the immune system will learn to recognize that spike when it runs into the coronavirus.

To be clear, the J&J vaccine “can’t give you the cold virus, and it definitely cannot give you COVID,” says Dr. Cassandra Pierre, an infectious disease specialist and acting hospital epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center.

Who should get the J&J vaccine?

The vaccine is authorized for people age 18 and older.

How long does it take for protection to kick in?

With all three vaccines, immunity builds over a few weeks after immunization. Data from Johnson & Johnson show that most vaccinated trial participants had a robust immune response 15 days after getting the shot, with significant protection reached by day 29.

Will I be as well protected against getting super sick with COVID-19 if I get the J&J shot as if I get a two-dose version from Pfizer or Moderna?

“When we look at the thing we probably care about most — making sure that we don’t end up in the ICU or dying — the efficacy of the three vaccines is virtually identical,” says Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco.

The perception that some vaccines may be better than others has to do with the topline numbers from efficacy studies. The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were both found to be about 95% effective against preventing symptomatic COVID-19 after the second dose. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, by contrast, was found to be 66% protective against moderate and severe disease overall worldwide, and 72% protective against such cases in the U.S.

But you can’t really compare those numbers head to head, says Pierre, because “these were different trials in different places at different times,” and the strains of the coronavirus running around were likely somewhat different. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested more recently, including in South Africa and Brazil, at a time when more contagious variants of the coronavirus were widely circulating in those countries. The Moderna and Pfizer clinical studies, meanwhile, were started earlier, before such variants had become widespread.

Given those differences, Bibbins-Domingo says “the number you should probably compare is 85%” — that’s how effective the J & J vaccine was found to be at preventing severe disease four weeks after immunization.

Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, agrees that the J&J vaccine seems to be “terrific” at saving lives. He tells NPR he’s advising his family members to take whichever vaccine comes their way first.

Which vaccine offers the best protection against the worrisome coronavirus variants?

We can’t compare the vaccines head to head on this question, Pierre says, because the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines haven’t been subjected to rigorous clinical trials in places where these variants are widespread. But we can say that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine performs well against the variants first detected in Brazil and South Africa, because it was tested in both countries at a time when the variants were already rampant there. And in both countries, the J&J vaccine was still shown to be highly effective against severe disease, according to an analysis posted by the FDA.

“What we see is that we still have good efficacy with this vaccine regardless — even in these areas where the variants were highly prevalent,” Pierre says. “And I think that’s really a fire-tested way to say that this particular vaccine is unequivocally good.” She notes that preliminary data also suggest the J&J vaccine might offer protection against asymptomatic infection.

Why shouldn’t I just hold out for the vaccine with the highest efficacy rate?

Get whichever vaccine you can as soon as you’re eligible, Pierre, Jha and other infectious disease experts urge. The longer you go unvaccinated, the longer you’re at risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection that potentially could kill you.

“I view it as a race against time,” Pierre says, based on the data and her own experience with her mom. Pierre scrambled to schedule an immunization appointment for her mother as soon as the older woman became eligible. But before she could get immunized, she was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Pierre’s mom recovered from that infection, but more than 500,000 other Americans have not been so fortunate.

Any particular safety or efficacy concerns that people with underlying conditions should worry about with the J&J vaccine?

The CDC says any of the three COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. can be given to people with underlying medical conditions, as long as they don’t have contraindications, such as a history of severe allergic reaction to a previous dose of a vaccine or any of its components.

Medical specialists who care for people with diabetes, cancer, coronary artery disease or other conditions that put them at increased risk of severe disease if they get COVID-19 are encouraging their patients to get vaccinated.

The guidance for anyone pregnant or breastfeeding is more nuanced: The CDC and groups such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say all three vaccines should be made available to those who are pregnant, but they leave the choice about whether to get vaccinated up to each individual. That’s because pregnant people were excluded from the initial clinical trials for all three vaccines, so there’s no firm direct evidence yet on how the vaccine will perform in this group.

That said, taking into account work with other vaccines and animal data, the CDC says that “based on current knowledge, experts believe that COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to pose a risk to the pregnant person or fetus.” Meanwhile, getting COVID-19 can pose a significant risk: Research from the past year has shown that those who are pregnant are at higher risk of a severe case of the disease if they get infected.

Pfizer has recently started a large trial of its vaccine among those who are pregnant, and J & J says it also has plans for such a trial, so more direct evidence about efficacy in that group is on the way.

Though it’s not yet known whether the COVID-19 vaccines will be as effective among patients who are immunocompromised as they are in other people, the vaccines are safe for that group, and “it is recommended that people who are immunocompromised can get this vaccine,” says Dr. Kathleen Mullane of the University of Chicago School of Medicine. She’s an expert in the treatment of infections in immunocompromised patients — such as organ transplant recipients — and served as an investigator in clinical trials for both the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines.

Mullane advises that no matter which COVID-19 vaccine an immunocompromised patient signs up for, they should talk to their doctor ahead of time. There’s a chance their doctor may adjust the patient’s usual medication or treatment schedule ahead of the shot in order to boost the vaccine’s effectiveness. Your own medical team knows your situation best, and is your best guide in this case, Mullane says.

What kind of side effects should I expect with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

Just as with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the most common side effects are pain and redness at the site of injection, chills, headaches, nausea, body aches, fatigue and fever for a day or two. But many people who get these vaccines don’t experience any side effects. If you do feel achy or feverish after the shot, it’s fine to take a painkiller like Tylenol or ibuprofen, but don’t take it beforehand — that might blunt the immune response, Pierre says.

Side effects tend to be more common in young people because they have more robust immune systems, so it’s just a sign that the vaccine is doing its job, Bibbins-Domingo notes. If you don’t experience side effects, don’t worry either, she says — there are plenty of vaccines “where the most you might feel is a little bit sore at the injection site.”

As with any of the COVID-19 vaccines, there is a remote chance that you could experience a severe allergic reaction, according to the FDA; this would most likely occur within a few minutes to an hour after getting the shot. That’s why vaccinators ask people to stick around for 15 or 30 minutes after getting the shot so they can be monitored and treated if that extremely rare event happens.

But all the experts NPR spoke with say the bottom line is that all three vaccines the FDA has authorized for used against COVID-19 are safe and highly effective. “I would choose any of the three,” Pierre says, “because I know that they will work and they will protect me and they will protect my family.”

As Wen says, “We also want to put an end to this pandemic as soon as we can. And that means getting some level of immunity into as many people as possible and as quickly as possible.”

NPR’s Selena Simmons-Duffin contributed reporting to this story.

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U.N. Official: Biden Plan To Boost Refugee Resettlement ‘Sends Important Signal’

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U.N. Official: Biden Plan To Boost Refugee Resettlement ‘Sends Important Signal’

Kelly Clements, United Nations deputy high commissioner for refugees, says that the Biden administration’s promise to welcome more refugees into the U.S. sets an important tone on the international stage.

Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

The number of refugees has soared over the past four years, with more than 26 million refugees worldwide as of mid-2020, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Yet the number of refugees who have resettled in the U.S. has plummeted to a record low of about 12,000 last year, from 85,000 a year at the start of the Trump administration.

President Biden wants to reverse the trend set by his predecessor, with a pledge to raise the cap on refugees in the U.S. up to 125,000 per year. That number does not include asylum-seekers.

Kelly Clements, U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees, says Biden’s interest in bolstering the country’s resettlement program “sends a very important signal” to the international community.

“When the U.S. says ‘We’re back, we want to restart, rebuild an important and robust resettlement program,’ we are absolutely ecstatic,” Clements says in an interview with All Things Considered. “It sends the world an important message and it really sets a signal and a tone for engagement and this important way to change people’s lives quite literally.”

Clements spoke more about what the new administration’s pledge means after former President Trump’s hard-line policies on refugees, as well as her hope to see Trump’s pandemic-era restriction on asylum-seekers overturned.

The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

Can [President Biden] flip the message just by flipping a switch like that? Or after four years of the U.S. saying, “America first,” “Refugees are dangerous” — does that message linger?

I’ve just come from California, actually, and discussions with resettlement agencies. And, while it will take some time to rebuild this program that has been really decimated over the last few years, there is a strong team at the local level, community level — very welcoming communities like San Diego, where I just was — that have strong and important partners that are ready to re-engage and ready to rebuild. Some of these resources have been dedicated to other purposes during the intervening period — in other areas, we’ll quite literally have to rebuild.

I understand your U.N. refugee agency is playing a role in the Biden administration’s effort to unwind the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program. Tell us about what’s happening.

Yes, in fact, we were asked by the United States but also by Mexico to engage with regard to what they call the “MPP unwind” [“MPP” refers to the formal name of the Trump program, Migrant Protection Protocols]. This is a caseload of individuals, families that have been waiting — some for two years. And we had a chance, in fact, a couple of days ago, to talk to some who had already crossed the border.

There are about 26,000 [individuals] that we estimate that are in need of this kind of processing — about half of which, actually over half, we have already registered. And by the end of [Thursday], we will probably see about 1,000 who have crossed into the United States.

The Biden administration has left in place a Trump policy that lets the U.S. turn away migrants due to the pandemic. Does that mean people are going to remain stuck living in dangerous conditions in Mexican border cities?

Obviously, nations have an obligation to protect health. And there are all kinds of challenges that are involved with this. But, you know, we have 70 years of experience working with big health emergencies like Ebola and SARS. And it is possible to both protect health and protect the right for individuals to seek asylum. So this is something obviously we would like to see lifted as quickly as possible so people can actually make their claims directly.

Connor Donevan and Christopher Intagliata produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

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How China’s Massive Corruption Crackdown Snares Entrepreneurs Across The Country

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How China’s Massive Corruption Crackdown Snares Entrepreneurs Across The Country

The front gate of Juxin Mining Co. It remains shuttered after its chairman, Zhang Zhixiong, was sent to prison in 2018 on a 25-year sentence accused of leading a “gang-like” organization.

Emily Feng/NPR

Emily Feng/NPR

LULIANG, China — The meteoric rise of aluminum executive Zhang Zhixiong transformed his rural Chinese hamlet into a lucrative mining community. But his fall from grace was even more dramatic.

In March 2018, he and 10 others were sentenced to harsh prison terms for supposedly forming a criminal organization and illegal mining, among other crimes. Zhang, chairman of Juxin Mining Co., was accused of being a crime boss and received a 25-year prison sentence. He denies the charges.

Chinese state media branded him “an evil leader disguised in red clothes” — a kingpin pretending to be an upright communist citizen — and a high-profile target in a sweeping anti-corruption campaign.

President Xi Jinping launched the campaign in 2018 with the slogan “Saohei chu’e,” meaning “sweep away black and eliminate evil.” After three years, the initiative concluded last year. China’s legislature, which is convening this week, will likely hail the campaign as a smashing success: nearly 40,000 supposed criminal cells and corrupt companies busted, and more than 50,000 Communist Party and government officials punished for abetting them, according to official statistics. Now Beijing is signaling it will continue elements of the campaign.

Successive Chinese leaders have long fought against corruption. And, with the second-biggest economy, China does have its share of it, though the country’s ranking improved in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index from watchdog Transparency International.

But in many cases, legal experts say, the latest campaign has served another function: enabling officials across China to lock away entrepreneurs and other citizens whom they perceive to have gained too much wealth or influence independent of the party.

The families of some of those imprisoned — including Zhang’s — say the campaign netted mostly innocent people charged with crimes that they either did not commit or were exaggerated to fulfill prosecution quotas and a political mandate.

“This campaign is going after organized obstructions to party rule from alternative power bases,” says Jeremy Daum, a legal scholar at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Center who reviewed several cases with NPR. “This campaign is trying to root out the people who aren’t faithfully implementing the direction of the party or are obstructing its implementation at the lowest levels.”

Zhang’s troubles

Zhang Zhixiong’s troubles began with a fistfight in his hometown of Gaojiagou village, in northern China’s Shanxi province.

The price of bauxite, used to make aluminum, was rising and so were Juxin Mining’s fortunes. Prosperous, Zhang became obsessed with improving the village, according to his sister, Zhang Zhaohui.

Zhang Xiaohui, the sister of Zhang Zhixiong, in front of Juxin Mining offices. The building and much of the mine collapsed because of tunneling from nearby mines.

Emily Feng/NPR

Emily Feng/NPR

He set out to widen Gaojiagou’s main road, shore up a canal and build new apartment buildings as part of a Communist Party “beautiful countryside” program, according to a 2015 official notice.

Except the canal ran through land on which another entrepreneur, Bai Sisi, hoped to build a cement mixing plant. In August 2014, men allied to the two entrepreneurs — mostly from Gaojiagou village — traded a few blows.

“We went to watch the excitement. Village life is otherwise boring,” says Zhang Ruqing, who worked at a nearby gas station at the time. (Many residents of the area have the family name Zhang and are loosely related through generations of marriage, a common occurrence in China’s countryside.)

Zhang Ruqing served 4 1/2 years in prison for supposedly taking part in a brawl. He says he merely witnessed the fight, which broke out near the gas station where he worked.

Amy Cheng/NPR

Amy Cheng/NPR

That December, Zhang Zhixiong, his three brothers and a Juxin Mining manager were detained for “provoking troubles” stemming from his fight with Bai — a common criminal charge often used to detain activists, writers and other political irritants.

“Our lawyers, and the courts, all told us they would be out soon,” says Zhang Xiaohui, the sister. “None of us realized at the time how big the case would become.”

In 2016, China’s state news agency revealed Zhang Zhixiong and his associates had been charged with an additional crime of “gang-related activities.” Suddenly, Zhang was facing decades behind bars. Even then, lawyers were hopeful they could overturn the charge, according to one person involved with the case. They requested anonymity because lawyers can be disbarred for speaking to reporters about sensitive cases.

Then, in January 2018, China’s cabinet-like State Council formally announced the start of the nationwide saohei campaign.

Within days of that announcement, Zhang Zhixiong and 24 of his family members, employees of Juxin Mining, and local officials who had allegedly shielded him were brought to trial and sentenced, after languishing in detention for more than two years. When Zhang’s legal team appealed, the court gave them only three days to prepare, and told them ahead of time that his sentence would be upheld, according to a lawyer on the case.

Infuriated, Zhang’s legal team handed in an appeals request printed with only one word: “injustice.”

According to Zhang Zhixiong’s family, Juxin Mining Co. paid for several village infrastructure projects, including building new apartment complexes for local residents. The buildings were weeks away from completion before Zhang was arrested and now stand abandoned in the middle of the village.

Emily Feng/NPR

Emily Feng/NPR

Case inconsistencies

Juxin Mining case documents presented by both the prosecution and defense show significant factual discrepancies, according to a review by NPR and experts in Chinese law.

Prosecutors relied on the 2014 fistfight and other altercations that had already been litigated in civil court years ago, and wrapped those cases into saohei criminal charges. That was questionable, says Chi Yin, a comparative law researcher at New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute and former judge in China.

“Like many campaigns in the Chinese Communist Party’s history, this [one] is ad hoc in nature and not a systemic legal reform,” says Yin, who reviewed the Juxin Mining files and another case with NPR. “It’s not a way to administer criminal justice in accordance with the spirit of rule of law.”

The illegal mining charge cited conflicting figures, doubling the size of unapproved tunneling. The prosecution also appeared to portray Zhang’s village improvements as unlawful personal projects.

“Sweep away the black is a political campaign, so the cases are not decided according to the evidence,” says Li Jinxing, a defense attorney who has worked on Zhang Zhixiong’s case and two dozen other “sweep away black” cases. “Cases like these are [decided] so they fulfill the campaign’s quotas.”

In order to bolster the prosecution’s case that Zhang ran a criminal syndicate, nearly a dozen low-level Juxin Mining employees were also tried as gang members and sentenced for a variety of charges that legal experts consider thinly supported.

For example, in 2014, many Gaojiagou villagers rallied to help vacate furniture from a soon-to-be demolished restaurant. Three years later, authorities decried the act as “illegal demolition” and arrested only six people — all relatives of Zhang’s.

Three of those men would also eventually be sentenced for taking part in the fight between the allies of the mining and cement entrepreneurs. The gas station worker, Zhang Ruqing, served 4 1/2 years in jail but says he merely was a witness to the brawl.

Zhang Shuangshan, a former Juxin Mining security guard, was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for gang activities, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — because he and another distant relative of Zhixiong had “severely affected villagers’ physical and mental health” by dumping garbage near their houses, according to the court sentencing document. Yet the same villagers signed an affidavit seen by NPR that refuted the account.

Zhang Shuangshan, a security guard at Juxin Mining. He was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison. He alleged local police repeatedly beat him during an interrogation to force him to testify against his old boss, Zhang Zhixiong.

Emily Feng/NPR

Emily Feng/NPR

While he was detained in December 2014, Zhang Shuangshan says, two police officers repeatedly kicked his torso and head because he refused to confess that Zhang Zhixiong had ordered him and other workers to demolish village houses and rough up opponents. “They did not record anything I told them, only what they wanted to write, and when you did not say what they wanted, they beat you,” he says. “Strangely the police never asked about my alleged crimes [dumping garbage]. They only asked about Zhang Zhixiong.”

Shanxi’s government did not respond to NPR’s request for comment.

Zhang Zhixiong was also accused of bribing two low-level village party officials. A key provision of the “sweep away black” campaign is that the guilty curry favors and protection from government officials.

One of the two officials was Zhang Junhai, who had just been named interim party secretary in a nearby village. He was accused of fighting on behalf of Zhang Zhixiong when the brawl broke out over the demolition of the cement plant in August 2014.

“I was not even at the canal when the fight happened; I was at a friend’s wedding,” says Zhang Junhai, a former soldier and Communist Party member who served 3 1/2 years in prison for allegedly partaking in the fight, and therefore belonging to a gang.

Big stick for regional officials

Modern Chinese history is punctuated by multiple rounds of political purges. The recent “sweep away black” campaign draws inspiration from another anti-graft initiative launched in the early 2000s by now-disgraced politician Bo Xilai.

After his highly publicized campaign against the mafia, Bo, the former party secretary of the powerful Chongqing municipality, was himself sentenced to life in prison in 2013 for a litany of crimes including embezzlement and abuse of power. Political analysts say that paved the way for Xi Jinping to become the head of the Communist Party. But Bo’s ideas remain influential.

A screen shows the picture of the sentence of Chinese politician Bo Xilai (second right) on Sept. 22, 2013, in Beijing. Bo, who launched an anti-corruption campaign, embezzlement and abuse of power.

Feng Li/Getty Images

Feng Li/Getty Images

Under Xi’s “sweep away black” campaign, province-level officials acquired wide discretion to prosecute local crimes with state backing.

“That decentralization then creates the conditions for officials to use the campaign as a pretext for arresting individuals who may not have anything to do with thuggery,” says Yuen Yuen Ang, a political science professor at the University of Michigan who has written a book about corruption in China.

In Shanghai, for example, those who establish nongovernmental organizations can be prosecuted for conducting gang activities.

In Shaanxi province, authorities arrested an environmental activist, Li Sixia, in 2018 for being an “evil force”; she had repeatedly reported two local quarries for damaging village roads, illegal mining and pollution. Her verdict ultimately was overturned.

The region of Xinjiang, where authorities have detained hundreds of thousands of people belonging to historically Muslim ethnic minorities, decreed that religious or ethnic lectures can be considered organized crime. Tibet considers those who support the Dalai Lama, or liaise with hostile foreign entities, to be engaging in an “underworld” activity. Religious schools and groups across northwestern and central China came under pressure to disband from the anti-corruption campaign, NPR found in 2019.

The saohei campaign has also overlapped with an unusual number of arrests of wealthy businessmen. Last year, China sentenced to life in prison a prominent real estate developer and political critic. Xi reportedly personally ordered the regulatory shake-up against Jack Ma, China’s best-known entrepreneur. And a utopian agriculture magnate, Sun Dawu, is in detention and his businesses were put under state management after feuding with a state firm.

Saohei is a very capacious, very broad category that is also a little bit ambiguous and maybe even strategically ambiguous,” says Ryan Mitchell, an assistant law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Officials are also encouraging citizens to report each other for potential saohei offenses. By October 2020, a public hotline used to report potential organized crime had received more than 15,000 anonymous tips. Several hundred tips, almost 4%, led to investigations, according to authorities. “Reporting someone only takes three minutes,” the Communist Party paper People’s Daily advertised.

From loan to lockup

The decentralized model also could give local political factions a way to avenge personal disputes through “sweep away black” prosecutions.

One such case appears to be that of Liu Lijun, a successful real estate magnate in the northern city of Yushu, in Jilin province — so successful that in 2015, Liu decided to lend 28 million yuan ($4.28 million) to the chairman of an agricultural company, Zhang Ping.

Zhang put down a Yushu property as collateral for the loan — but the building, unbeknownst to Liu, was already collateral in 13 separate lawsuits on debts Zhang owed. Liu never got his money back. The building is currently being auctioned on Taobao, an e-commerce site, as part of Zhang’s foreclosure proceedings.

In an effort to reclaim his sizable loan, Liu and his family paid an unannounced visit to Zhang’s company, Pingan Seed Co., in December 2016 to confront him, and hung signs asking for their money.

Zhang didn’t take kindly to the prodding.

“Zhang Ping’s people told us that if we kept asking for our money, Zhang had friends in the police force and our entire family would be killed,” says a relative of Liu who asked to remain anonymous because they are routinely threatened and surveilled by local law enforcement and face legal consequences for speaking to a foreign reporter. Soon after these threats, Zhang Ping reported Liu to police, alleging he was running a criminal gang and carrying out violent debt collection; Liu was arrested shortly after.

Zhang declined to comment when reached by phone. Jilin’s government did not respond to a request for comment.

In October 2020, Liu was sentenced to 25 years in prison, in part for allegedly leading a gang. But he was also convicted of murder. That was a significant twist: Liu had previously testified as a witness in the stabbing he is now accused of committing — one for which another man had confessed to the killing and served 25 years in prison. The murder had occurred in 1993, well beyond China’s 20-year statute of limitations.

Liu’s family says the charges are fabricated, and that the murder charge is based on tampered evidence and forced confessions.

In phone recordings obtained by NPR, Yushu law enforcement can be heard pressuring the originally convicted killer, An Hongchen, to change his murder confession and blame Liu instead.

“You want me to lie, but how can I lie? You want me to say I saw [Liu Lijun] do it and you ask what my demands are in return [for changing my confession], but how can I have demands when I did not see that happen?” says a frustrated An on the call.

NPR could not independently verify the recordings, but their contents appear to be damning.

The Liu family says the judge ruled that the audio could not be played in court, because An was considered an unreliable witness. Chi Yin, the NYU researcher and former judge, says the audio should have been allowed and An should have taken the stand: “This would have been a perfect moment to explore the question [of An’s credibility] through cross examination,” Yin says.

Families of those convicted in the anti-corruption drive harbor some hope as some provinces begin to push back against overly harsh sentences or even overturn verdicts meted out during the campaign.

Several law enforcement officials were fired last year in Inner Mongolia, and a prosecutor remains in detention for “violations of discipline,” including for allegedly demanding bribes to lessen corruption charges. The defendant, Wang Yongming, is set to have a new trial this year.

However, Wang’s relatives say they and their legal team continue to be obstructed from mounting a robust defense. “The prosecution is rushing through their new investigation because they are eager to notch up another victory for their end of year reports,” says one family member who asked to remain anonymous as they are under strict police surveillance during preparations for the new trial.

The Communist Party has ousted several top police chiefs and state security officials while placing Shanghai’s public security head under investigation. The shake-up heralds a new phase in Xi’s anti-corruption crackdown, this time targeting law enforcement and justice organs.

This month, security and law officials across the country will undergo mandatory education sessions to “rectify” their political thinking to be more in line with the Communist Party.

Meanwhile, a proposed law would formalize aspects of the saohei campaign and would give the state extra power to prosecute organized crime.

In December, China’s central government gave orders suggesting the crackdown could carry on indefinitely: “Increase society’s sense of safety … and promote the normalization of ‘sweep away black.'”

Amy Cheng contributed research from Shanxi province and Beijing.

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House Approves Major Election And Campaign Finance Reform Bill

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House Approves Major Election And Campaign Finance Reform Bill

Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., pictured in May 2020, reintroduced legislation on voting and campaign finance this year, in hope it can now become law with Democrats’ control of Congress.

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The House has once again passed a bill aimed at voter reform and campaign finance overhaul. The Wednesday night vote was 220-210.

Democrats reintroduced the bill in January, after passing it in 2019, banking on the party’s narrow majority in the Senate to get it passed through both chambers this cycle.

The bill seeks to “to expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy, and for other purposes.”

The bill’s language calls for a complete overhaul of the current system, which varies widely by state and which critics say promote unfair barriers to voting. Included in the act is mandatory automatic voter registration, restoring voting rights to people with completed felony sentences, and a reversal of state voter ID laws that would allow citizens to make a sworn statement affirming their identity if they are unable to produce an ID.

The 2021 “For the People Act” is a reboot of a 2019 bill of the same name. At the time, the House passed the bill along party lines, but it never had a chance to move forward in the Senate, which was controlled then by Republicans.

In addition to revamping voting laws, the bill also takes aim at “dark money” in politics by requiring organizations to disclose large donors and creates a matching system for small donations.

“Our democracy is in a state of deep disrepair. During the 2020 election, Americans had to overcome rampant voter suppression, gerrymandering and a torrent of special interest dark money just to exercise their right to vote. Across the country, people of all political persuasions – including Democrats, Independents and Republicans – are profoundly frustrated with the chaos, corruption and inaction that plague much of our politics,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Administration Chair Zoe Lofgren and Rep. John Sarbanes said in a joint statement earlier this year.

“That’s why House Democrats are doubling down on our longstanding commitment to advance transformational anti-corruption and clean election reforms by again passing H.R. 1, the For the People Act.”

House Democrats have fresh motivation to pass the bill. In the most recent election cycle, Senate Democrats were able to capture 50 of the 100 seats. Vice President Harris casts the final vote in the event of a tie, effectively giving Democrats a slim majority in the chamber.

Republicans, however, are fighting against efforts to simplify the voting process, and GOP-led state legislatures are in fact seeking to make it more difficult in a dozens of states after the party’s 2020 election losses.

GOP lawmakers cite election security as cause for the efforts to tighten voter laws, but claims of widespread voter fraud are rooted in disinformation.

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‘No Remorse’: Toronto’s Van Attack Killer Found Guilty Of 1st Degree Murder

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‘No Remorse’: Toronto’s Van Attack Killer Found Guilty Of 1st Degree Murder

Survivors of the 2018 van attack in Toronto were joined by friends and families of the victims outside the courthouse in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The 28-year-old man responsible for the attack was found guilty Wednesday morning.

Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images

Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images

Twenty-eight-year old Alek Minassian was found guilty on 26 charges that include murder and attempted murder Wednesday for purposefully driving a van through a crowd in Toronto nearly three years ago.

On April 23, 2018, the man drove a white rental van onto a crowded sidewalk and plowed into pedestrians, killing 10 people and wounding another 15. Defense attorney Boris Bytensky argued his client’s autism disorder rendered him incapable of developing empathy and therefore unaware of the consequences of his actions, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation reported. Justice Anne Molloy immediately dismissed that as a defense. She found Minassian guilty of 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. Lack of empathy, she said, was not a defense.

“He freely chose the option that was morally wrong, knowing what the consequences would be for himself, and for everybody else,” Molloy said. “It does not matter that he does not have remorse, nor empathize with the victims.”

While announcing her decision, Molloy read the name and age of each of the victims. She also listed the injuries and life-altering circumstances of the survivors. Additionally, the judge refused to use the defendant’s name, denying him the notoriety he sought through his crimes, CBC reported. Murder in Canada carries a life sentence and those found guilty must serve at least 25 years before being considered for parole.

Minassian told police he acted on behalf of the “incel” movement — a group of predominately white, heterosexual men online who want to find somebody to love, yet remain involuntarily celibate. A 17-year-old boy accused of stabbing a woman to death last year, also in Toronto, faces terrorism charges after police determined his actions were inspired by the incel movement, CBC reported.

The Ontario Autism Coalition released a statement following Molloy’s verdict, applauding the judge for rejecting the attempted autism defense. “Violent traits have no connection to autism; in fact, people on the autism spectrum are far more likely to be victims as opposed to perpetrators of violence,” the statement said.

My statement on today’s verdict in the Yonge Street Tragedy trial pic.twitter.com/FYnl1lYc1r

— John Tory (@JohnTory) March 3, 2021

Toronto Mayor John Tory attributed the attacks to the murderer’s hatred of women and applauded Molloy’s ruling. “Since that day we have been working to help the survivors heal and move forward and to support the families as they mourn,” Tory said in a statement. “I truly hope that for the victims and their families and friends, today’s verdict will help.

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