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Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

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Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Tax reform and the end of year spending deal will consume all of Washington's oxygen until the end of the year. But quietly, a potentially far more important, though far less sexy story is unfolding.

If Mitch McConnell's schedule goes to plan, the week after Thanksgiving the Senate Majority Leader will confirm his ninth federal judge. That would beat President Reagan's eight in his first year — the most in recent history. And it triples the three federal judges President Obama appointed in his first year in office.

Why this matters: The federal courts affect almost every area of policy: gun rights, presidential executive orders like Trump's travel ban, social policy issues like abortion and freedom of religion, and tensions between regulation, litigation and private enterprise. McConnell's judges — who passed through a well-funded and organized conservative pipeline — will shape the U.S. over many decades in ways we can't yet imagine.

  • Smart Democrats are deeply concerned about this trend, and understand that these lifetime judicial appointments will have a much greater impact on the future direction of this country than any short-term spending deal or policy.
  • Example: "This will be the single most important legacy of the Trump administration," Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Business Insider. If conservatives have their way, he said, the Senate would "put judges on circuit courts all over the country, district courts all over the country, that will, given their youth and conservatism, will have a significant impact on the shape and trajectory of American law for decades."
  • As Congress becomes more and more dysfunctional, and more and more power accrues to the executive branch, it's the judges who increasingly decide policy. It wasn't Congress that blocked Trump's travel bans. It was judges in states like Hawaii and Maryland.

Inside McConnell's head: Leonard Leo, a top outside adviser on judicial appointments for President Trump and Republican leaders, told me McConnell places "an enormously high priority on the confirmation of judges" and has throughout his career. "His thinking behind that is that the federal judiciary has an enormous impact on the future direction of our country in ways that many pieces of legislation and public policy initiatives don't."

Go deeper

Updated 6 hours ago - World

Biden in call with Netanyahu raises concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza

Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

President Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday and raised concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza and the bombing of the building that housed AP and other media offices, according to Israeli officials.

The big picture: At least 140 Palestinians, including dozens of children, have been killed in Gaza since fighting between Israel and Hamas began Monday, according to Palestinian health officials. Nine people, including two children, have been killed by Hamas rockets in Israel.

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

"Horrified": AP, Al Jazeera condemn Israel's bombing of their offices in Gaza

A ball of fire erupts from the Jalaa Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Associated Press and Al Jazeera on Saturday condemned the Israeli airstrike that destroyed a high-rise building in Gaza that housed their and other media offices.

What they're saying: The White House, meanwhile, said it had "communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility," according to press secretary Jen Psaki.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
7 hours ago - Health

The COVID lab-leak theory goes mainstream

The Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images The COVID lab-leak theory goes mainstream

A group of high-profile scientists published a letter calling for renewed investigation into the origins of COVID-19 — including the theory that it spilled out of a virology lab.

Why it matters: The possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a Chinese lab and accidentally escaped — rather than emerging naturally from an animal — was initially dismissed as a conspiracy theory. But the letter shows a potential lab leak is increasingly being taken seriously.

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