Thursday's politics & policy stories

McConnell says he would fill Supreme Court vacancy if it opened this year

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News Thursday that he would fill a Supreme Court vacancy if it opened up this year, despite it being an election year.

Why it matters: Antonin Scalia died on this day in 2016. McConnell refused to hold confirmation hearings or a vote that year on President Obama's nominee Merrick Garland, arguing that that the Senate and presidency belonged to different parties and that the vacancy shouldn't be filled until the next president is inaugurated.

Los Angeles County to clear 66,000 marijuana convictions

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced on Thursday plans to dismiss almost 66,000 marijuana convictions.

The big picture: Lacey cited state legislation that allows the dismissal, per CNN. In 2018, California passed AB 1793, which requires the state Justice Department to look for marijuana-related convictions that are eligible to be wiped out or downgraded to misdemeanors.

Poll: Joe Biden loses status as most electable Democrat

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The share of Democratic primary voters who believe Joe Biden has the best chance out of any 2020 candidate to beat President Trump has dropped to 17%, down 12 points since the New Hampshire primary, according to a Morning Consult national poll.

Why it matters: Biden's electability pitch is widely considered his core appeal as a candidate.

Barr: Trump's Roger Stone tweets "make it impossible for me to do my job"

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Attorney General Bill Barr told ABC News in an interview Thursday that President Trump's "constant background commentary" about the Justice Department “make it impossible for me to do my job," adding, “I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases."

Why it matters: It's a rare public rebuke of the president by the attorney general, who has faced allegations of politicizing the Justice Department.

$3.83 billion from Pentagon budget to be diverted for Trump border wall

A section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Photo: Jinitzail Hernández/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.

The Department of Defense is rerouting $3.83 billion from its budget to fund President Trump's southern border wall, according to budget documents cited by the Washington Post.

Why it matters: The money is being pulled from other Pentagon budget items including aircraft, Army automobiles and miscellaneous equipment to fulfill Trump's campaign promise of a border barrier between the U.S. and Mexico. The reallocation is part of a larger effort to divert $7.2 billion in Pentagon funds this year for the project, per the Post.

Senate votes to curb Trump's war powers against Iran

Sens. Mike Lee (L) and Bernie Sanders. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Senate voted 55-45 on Thursday in favor of a war powers resolution curbing President Trump's ability to launch military action against Iran without congressional authorization.

Why it matters: It's a bipartisan rebuke of the president's foreign policy that passed even after the White House threatened to veto the resolution.

Go deeperArrowUpdated Feb 13, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Joe Biden: "I don't know what happened" to Lindsey Graham

In an interview on ABC's "The View" Thursday, former Vice President Joe Biden said "I don't know what happened" to Sen. Lindsey Graham, regarding his unwavering support of President Trump and investigation into Hunter Biden.

The big picture: Graham advocates for further reviews of Hunter Biden's business activities during the Obama administration. Attorney General Bill Bar confirmed the Justice Department received information on the Bidens from the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Graham called it a significant development and Hunter Biden's conflict of interest "legitimate."

House votes to remove Equal Rights Amendment deadline

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at a press conference before the House's vote to remove the ratification deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment on Feb. 12. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The House on Thursday voted to eliminate a 1982 deadline for the state ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to ban sex-based discrimination.

Yes, but: Three lawsuits have been filed to date over the ERA, per the Washington Post. The legal battle over the deadline is likely to persist, as the GOP-led Senate is not expected to approve the measure.

Ex-Trump aide John McEntee to lead White House office of personnel

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

John McEntee, President Trump’s former body man who was fired by former chief of staff John Kelly over security clearance issues and recently returned to the West Wing, is expected to lead the Presidential Personnel Office, according to two sources with direct knowledge.

Why it matters: Trump has increasingly become furious with what he sees as a federal government full of "never-Trumpers." Administration officials tell Axios Trump feels he’s surrounded by snakes and wants to clear out all the disloyal people.

Trump fires back at John Kelly: He "just can't keep his mouth shut"

Hours after former White House chief of staff John Kelly unleashed broad criticism of President Trump's policy decisions, the president fired back, saying that Kelly "misses the action" and "just can’t keep his mouth shut" in a pair of Thursday tweets.

The big picture: At a New Jersey event, Kelly said that Trump's decision to condition military aid to Ukraine to investigate political rivals overturned long-standing U.S. policy and bashed the president's recent moves on North Korea and immigration.

Gerrymandering documentary "Slay The Dragon" to hit theaters in March

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

"Slay the Dragon," which traces the real world impact of partisan gerrymandering for everyday Americans, will hit theaters in New York City, D.C. and L.A. on March 13.

The big picture: The film follows activists working to end the practice, including Katie Fahey, who led an anti-gerrymandering ballot measure campaign in Michigan, and a team of lawyers who brought a case to the Supreme Court.

Hope Hicks to return to White House

Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Former communications director Hope Hicks is returning to the White House as counselor to the president, an administration official confirmed to Axios.

Why it matters: Hicks was one of President Trump's closest and most loyal aides before she resigned in March 2018, working with Trump dating back to the launch of his campaign in 2015.

John Kelly unloads on Trump's foreign policy toward Ukraine, North Korea

John Kelly in 2018. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Pool/Getty Images

Former White House chief of staff John Kelly took aim Wednesday at President Trump's foreign policy during an event at New Jersey's Drew University, The Atlantic reports.

The state of play: Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, defended Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman's decision to testify during the impeachment inquiry and said Trump's decision to condition military aid to Ukraine to investigate political rivals overturned long-standing U.S. policy.

Mike Bloomberg embraces the meme

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Mike Bloomberg is working with Instagram meme influencers with millions of followers to help promote his presidential campaign in paid posts, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: It’s an innovative and fresh strategy that reflects the prowess of Bloomberg’s massive and well-funded digital operation — and it specifically targets Generation Z, a demographic that might know the least about the former New York mayor.

YouTube removes clip of Rand Paul reading alleged name of Ukraine whistleblower on Senate floor

Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

YouTube removed a video of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) reading the alleged name of the Ukraine whistleblower on the Senate floor as senators debated President Trump's impeachment earlier this month, Politico reports.

The state of play: The Kentucky senator has been at the forefront of the push to name the whistleblower for months — a fight that triggered a schism between Trump allies and moderates in the GOP.

How doctors have shaped the fight around surprise medical bills

Doctors' extensive lobbying on surprise medical bills is partly to blame for Congress' inaction on the issue, reports Kaiser Health News.

Why it matters: "As Congress begins its 2020 legislative session, there is evidence the doctors' message has been received: The bills with the most momentum are making more and more concessions to physicians."

Go deeperArrowFeb 13, 2020 - Health

Democratic establishment's angst over Sanders grows

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In a mirror image of the queasiness among establishment Republicans as Donald Trump gained momentum in 2016, Democratic insiders see an increasing possibility that Bernie Sanders — a democratic socialist who tied Pete Buttigieg in Iowa and edged him in New Hampshire — will be their nominee.

The state of play ... There are two groups of Democratic worry: those who think he'll be the nominee and can't get elected (and would risk taking the House with him), and those who think he'll be the nominee and can get elected — and would sink the economy and blow up health care.

Why Trump is very beatable

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

There is a growing sense among top Republicans and Democrats that President Trump is stronger than ever and very hard to beat this fall, but several data points suggest otherwise.

Why it matters: Amid record-high stock markets and record-low joblessness, Trump trails almost every 2020 Democrat nationally, and is in a statistical tie in swing-state polls.

Sanders calls former Clinton adviser James Carville a "political hack"

2020 candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on in Des Moines on Jan. 14. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders responded on CNN Wednesday after a former Wall Street chief claimed he'd "ruin the economy" if elected president and a veteran Democratic strategist said it'd be the "end of days" if he were the party's nominee.

Details: On "Anderson Cooper 360°," Sanders dismissed James Carville, a former adviser to ex-President Clinton, as a "political hack who said very terrible things ... against Barack Obama." Noting former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein had "attacked" him, Sanders said: "We are taking on the establishment ... [But] the grassroots movement that we are putting together of young people, of working people, of people of color, want real change."

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Warren: Barr should resign or face impeachment

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at her primary night event on Tuesday. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360°" Wednesday Attorney General Bill Barr should resign "or face impeachment" after President Trump acknowledged the AG overruled prosecutors to lower Roger Stone's sentencing recommendation.

The big picture: Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sent Barr a letter confirming he'll testify on March 31 on the intervention in the case of Trump's associate Stone, after Department of Justice prosecutors requested he serve 7–9 years in prison for crimes including obstruction of justice, lying to Congress and witness tampering. All four prosecutors resigned following the action.

Mike Bloomberg endorsed by 3 Congressional Black Caucus members

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg delivers remarks during a campaign rally in Nashville on Wednesday. Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg won the endorsements of Congressional Black Caucus members Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands) on Wednesday.

Why it maters: The backing comes a day after 2015 audio resurfaced of the former New York City mayor defending the stop-and-frisk policing policy that mostly targeted black and Latino people before it was ruled unconstitutional in 2013. In the audio, he said "95% of your murderers — murderers and murder victims —  fit one M.O. ... They are male minorities, 16 to 25." Bloomberg apologized for his support of the tactic in November. He expressed his regret again Tuesday.

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Marie Yovanovitch: The State Department is in trouble

Former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch speaks during a ceremony awarding her the Trainor Award for excellence in the conduct of diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Marie Yovanovitch, the retired former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, used an award acceptance speech at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Wednesday to criticize the Trump administration.

"Right now, the State Department is in trouble. Senior leaders lack policy vision, moral clarity, leadership. The policy process has been replaced by decisions emanating from the top with little discussion, vacancies go unfilled, and our officers are increasingly wondering whether it is safe to express concerns about policies even behind closed doors."

Voter turnout breaks New Hampshire Democratic primary record

Sen. Bernie Sanders rallies in New Hampshire on Feb. 11. Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

New Hampshire voters broke the state's 2008 record this week for the most votes cast in a New Hampshire Democratic primary election, the party announced Wednesday.

By the numbers: More than 300,000 Democratic votes were cast on Tuesday — easily breaking 2008's record of 288,000 votes — while roughy 156,000 Republican votes were cast, per New Hampshire's secretary of state.