Aug 1, 2021

Axios Sneak Peek

Welcome back to Sneak. The infrastructure bill has finally dropped.

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Smart Brevity™ count: 1,759 words ... 6.5 minutes. Edited by Glen Johnson.

1 big thing: Obama plans birthday bash amid COVID concerns

President Obama waves while golfing on Martha's Vineyard in 2015. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Former President Obama is hosting a 60th birthday bash for himself and hundreds of guests on Martha’s Vineyard this coming weekend amid heightened public health concerns — locally and nationally — about the COVID-19 Delta variant, Axios' Sarah Mucha reports.

Why it matters: The recent breakthrough cases in nearby Provincetown, Massachusetts, after the July Fourth holiday showed the continued risk of spread even between vaccinated people — prompting new masking guidelines from the CDC.

  • "If you're talking about a small party like I might have at my house for six or eight people who are all fully vaccinated, I do not believe, at this point, we need to put masks on to be next to each other," Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."
  • While discussing generic masking protocols, not the Obama party itself, he added: "But if there were 100 people, and, of course, how are you really going to be sure about people's vaccination status?"

Among the safety measures said to be put in place: The party will be held outdoors and all guests are asked to be vaccinated. Invitees also must submit their negative test results to a COVID-coordinator within a certain time window before the event.

  • A party organizer also notes Martha's Vineyard does not qualify as areas of "substantially-high" risk, which was the target of the CDC recommendations.
  • Obama officials did not say whether guests will be required to wear masks.
  • Axios AM also reported Sunday about the extremely low rate of infection for people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine.

Between the lines: Axios' Margaret Talev was told by one person on-island the party will be held at the former first family's $12-million home, which sits on 30 oceanfront acres.

  • The party already is the talk of Uber drivers, hotel maids and check-in clerks.
  • One person with connections to Obamaworld said there were 475 confirmed guests — including friends, family and former aides — and 200-plus staff planning to work the party.
  • Steven Spielberg also was expected.
  • In lieu of gifts, one person familiar with the gathering said, "guests are being asked to consider giving to programs that work to support boys and young men of color and their families here at home in the United States, empower adolescent girls around the world, and equip the next generation of emerging community leaders."

What they're saying: A White House spokesperson said in a statement to Axios,"While President Biden is unable to attend this weekend, he looks forward to catching up with former President Obama soon and properly welcoming him into the over-sixty club."

  • The official did not address whether the White House harbored any public health concerns about the gathering.
  • One state official said Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, had no insight on the party. Calls placed and emails sent to local and other state officials by Axios also were not immediately returned.

Keep reading.

2. Gabby Giffords has a decade-old lament

Gabby Giffords (second from left) is seen in April amid a memorial to shooting victims placed on the National Mall. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Ten years after she returned to Congress, former Rep. Gabby Giffords tells Axios' Alayna Treene it's "a huge disappointment" the House and Senate have been unable "to pass even the most basic, commonsense gun safety laws."

Why it matters: In the decade since the Arizona Democrat and 17 others were shot — with six killed, including an aide — outside a supermarket in Tucson, there have been more than 200 mass shootings in the United States.

  • "Many people don’t know how dangerously weak our federal gun laws are," Giffords told Axios in an email interview. "Some people think that background checks are already required for every gun sale, which is not the case."
  • "It’s past time for Congress to find the courage to act on gun violence," she added.
  • Her attacker used a semi-automatic pistol with a 33-round magazine.

Between the lines: The push to strengthen the nation's gun laws was thrust back into the spotlight in March after a pair of mass shootings in Boulder, Colorado, and Atlanta.

  • Lawmakers scrambled to propose legislation that would enhance federal legislation.
  • But, as history has shown, changing federal gun laws is one of the most polarizing issues in America — even now, while Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House.
  • After weeks passed with no action, finding renewed urgency to galvanize votes in favor of substantial measures proved impossible.

Giffords, 51, was shot in the head at point-blank range and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Despite being near death, she staged a recovery and returned to Congress on Aug. 1, 2011, to cast a vote in favor of raising the debt ceiling.

  • She ultimately submitted her resignation during an appearance on the House floor on Jan. 25, 2012.
  • Giffords has since become a prominent gun safety advocate.

The former congresswoman blames the failure to tighten the nation's gun laws on the country's political polarization and misconceptions about what "gun safety" truly means.

  • Her husband, Democrat Mark Kelly, is now a U.S. senator from Arizona, and she says it's "scary" to see how partisan Congress is compared to when she was a member — pointing to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack as "the most obvious example."
  • Giffords remarked about how their roles reversed, with her being terrified for his safety nearly 10 years to the day after she was shot.

Keep reading.

3. Senate plans barrage on crime

Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are working to win Senate passage of a big criminal justice reform package this Congress, Axios' Stef Kight reports.

Why it matters: Crime is spiking in big cities. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is still working on a police reform measure. The bipartisan dynamic duo atop the Senate Judiciary Committee is stepping up, passing three piecemeal bills out of their committee.

  • Grassley and Durbin were the original cosponsors of the First Step Act — a sweeping criminal justice bill passed during the Trump administration.
  • The bills they passed out of committee this year would broaden its impact, make it easier for elderly incarcerated people to be released from prison, and prevent prosecutors from using actions for which defendants have been acquitted to win a longer sentence.

What they're saying: It's these three measures, Grassley told Axios, they "hope to package along with potentially other proposals to pass the Senate sometime this Congress."

  • Durbin told Axios in his own statement he's "committed to bringing these bills to the Senate floor this Congress."

What to watch: The final package also may include a measure for the thousands of inmates who were released to home confinement during the pandemic but will be forced to return behind bars when it's over, a Republican Senate staffer told Axios.

  • In addition, it may address sentencing disparities in crack and powder cocaine offenses.

One challenge will be the crime spike, which has the potential of sapping support from senators afraid of being branded soft on crime.

  • "Negotiations have always been an important part of enacting criminal justice reform, and this time will be no different, especially given the increase in crime we are seeing across the country,” Grassley said.

Between the lines: It's still early, but advocates said they need to take advantage of any opening they see for criminal justice reform — especially since police reform has stalled.

  • They pointed to the House Judiciary Committee recently voting out the bipartisan EQUAL Act. It would eliminate disparities in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine offenses — and allow some inmates to appeal their sentence.
  • Even normally critical Republicans like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) are cosponsors for the bill, which they take as a good sign.
  • That has supporters believing whatever emerges from the Senate can be packaged with House measures in conference committee and, ultimately, pass Congress.

Keep reading.

4. Key senator vows to pass infrastructure bill this week

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A 2,700-page bipartisan infrastructure bill was headed to Senate desks this afternoon with promises it will pass the chamber by the end of the week, Sarah also reports. A final version was promised after additional edits.

Why it matters: While that's progress for the president’s most prominent 2021 legislative goal, the House is shaping up as a potential obstacle before money starts flowing to build new roads, bridges and expand broadband access.

  • "These deals on infrastructure that have gone out are not just bipartisan, but they are also bicameral, " Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said on CNN's "State of the Union."
  • "That means House and Senate," she added.
  • "I respect that we have to get Sen. Sinema and Manchin's vote on reconciliation," Ocasio-Cortez added. "They should also respect that there's a very tight House margin, and that we have to be able to uphold our end of the bargain as well. And House progressives are also part of that majority."

Her comments highlighted concerns she and her fellow progressives harbor.

  • They want to ensure their wishes are fulfilled by a multi-trillion-dollar follow-up reconciliation bill if they're left out of the $1.2-trillion bipartisan bill.
  • Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) said last week she won't support a reconciliation bill totaling a reported $3.5 trillion, and another key Democratic moderate in the 50-50 Senate, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), has said he would only support a lower figure.

The timing: Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), told "State of the Union" it's her "expectation and hope" the bipartisan bill will pass this week.

  • She added that she believes there are at least 10 Republican votes for the bill, ensuring its passage as long as all 50 Democrats are on board.
  • "I believe that it will [pass]," she said. "This bill is good for America."
  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor this afternoon he believes all amendments will be considered "in a short period of time," and legislators will be able to finish the bill in "a matter of days."
  • The bill was printed and headed to senators for its first amendment discussion this afternoon when it was pulled back for final edits following a meeting for the Group of 22 senators, an aide familiar with the situation told Axios' Alayna Treene.

Schumer reiterated his pledge to also push through the reconciliation bill demanded by Ocasi0-Cortez, his fellow New Yorker.

  • "We know that this bill is not everything our country needs," Schumer said.
  • "Both tracks are very much needed by the American people, and we must accomplish both."

Keep reading.

5. Tweet du jour

An ace NBC Capitol Hill correspondent shows a Senate aide carrying a freshly printed copy of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

  • It was later called back for edits, highlighting the fluidity of the situation

Editor’s note: The 1big thing has been updated to correct that Pearl Jam will not play at the Obama party, and to reflect a person with knowledge of it saying guests will have to be COVID-tested.

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