Biden Says US Will Have Enough Vaccine for Every Adult by End of May
President Biden on Tuesday announced that drug giant Merck will help manufacture the newly approved single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. “Two of the largest health care and pharmaceutical companies in the world, that are usually competitors, are working together on the vaccine,” Biden said. “This is the type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II.”
Biden also said that Johnson & Johnson manufacturing facilities will begin to operate around the clock and that he invoked the Defense Production Act to equip two Merck facilities to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well.
“We are now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May,” Biden said. That’s two months earlier than the timeframe the administration had laid out just weeks ago.
The White House also said Tuesday that it will boost the number of vaccine doses being sent to states each week from 14.5 million to 15.2 million, up from 8.6 million when President Biden took office in January. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that states are also receiving 2.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week, bring the total to 18 million doses.
Biden said the increased vaccine supply would help reopen schools safely and directed all states to prioritize vaccinations for pre-K to 12th grade teachers, challenging them to deliver at least one shot to every teacher, school staff member and child care worker by the end of March.
Biden urged all Americans to stay vigilant against the virus. “Now is not the time to let up,” he said. “Now is not the time to let our guard down.” And he called on the Senate to pass his Covid relief plan. “Despite the optimism, without new resources, our entire effort will be set back,” he said. “The bottom line is we need the American Rescue Plan now.”
Senate Democrats Still Debating Key Elements of Covid Rescue Plan
Democrats remain divided over some elements of the $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan, with centrists including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire looking to cut back enhanced unemployment benefits in the proposal.
“Some moderate Democrats are calling for more narrow targeting of the aid bill's unemployment benefits and stimulus checks, including cutting the weekly federal benefits the bill would add from $400 to $300 — while extending that money over a longer period of time. That debate is taking place roughly 24 hours before party leaders want the bill on the floor.”
Manchin told reporters he’s concerned that the increased benefits may give workers incentive to stay away from their jobs. “We want people to get back to work,” he said, according to Bloomberg News. We’re going to have a hard time getting people ready to go back in and keep the economy going. It would be awful if we open the doors and we have no one working.”
Other Democrats are reportedly pushing back on the proposed changes, and President Biden on Tuesday urged Democrats to stick together and pass the relief package, telling senators that they may have to accept some provisions they don’t like — though he reportedly is leaving it to the lawmakers to iron out their differences over policy details.
“One solution to the argument over unemployment benefits could be to extend the length of time for benefits using money saved by reducing the weekly benefit supplement,” Bloomberg’s Erik Wasson, Steven T. Dennis and Laura Litvan report.
Other issues reportedly being discussed include income thresholds for those receiving $1,400 direct payments, the proper amount of aid for state and local governments and the idea of repurposing some of the proposed state aid toward broadband investments.
“My guess is it’s probably going to change, but pretty modestly. That’d be my guess,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) said Monday evening, according to Politico. And Sen. Angus King (I-ME) said Monday that the overall size of the package isn’t being disputed much: “The question is whether it can be targeted in such a way as to better serve the people who need the most and perhaps free up funds for other priorities.”
Billions Wasted on Buildings and Vehicles in Afghanistan: Watchdog
The federal watchdog monitoring U.S construction projects in Afghanistan has documented enormous waste in the war-torn country over the last decade and a half, including U.S.-financed hospitals that somehow went missing, a single natural gas fueling station that cost $43 million and luxurious villas that were built for the exclusive use of private security forces.
The latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) examines the current state of $7.8 billion worth of U.S.-supplied vehicles and buildings constructed in the country since 2008 and finds that a significant portion is damaged, destroyed or being used for other purposes.
“Of the nearly $7.8 billion in capital assets reviewed in its prior reports, SIGAR identified about $2.4 billion in assets that were unused or abandoned, had not been used for their intended purposes, had deteriorated, or were destroyed,” the report says. “By contrast, SIGAR found that more than $1.2 billion out of the $7.8 billion in assets were being used as intended, and only $343.2 million out of the $7.8 billion in assets were maintained in good condition.”
For the most part, Afghan beneficiaries were unable to maintain the assets provided by the U.S. because they “lacked the resources or capabilities to do so,” the report says.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), chairman of the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security, said the report “exposes serious gaps in planning and contract execution” in Afghanistan and called for better oversight to ensure that “U.S.-taxpayer resources” are not wasted.
“Today’s report from the Special Inspector General demonstrates that the United States has spent billions of taxpayer dollars on reconstruction projects that were either not needed or unwanted by the Afghan Government,” Lynch said in a statement Tuesday. “Similarly, many of the capital assets provided to the Afghan Government have already fallen into disrepair or have rapidly deteriorated due to the inability of the Afghan beneficiaries to maintain those assets.
No surprise? America and its allies have long overestimated the capabilities of the Afghan government and underestimated the extent of corruption in the country — a situation made worse by a tendency to throw money at problems with little or no follow-up, analyst Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal told the Associated Press. “[T]he West has wildly underestimated the impact of Afghan corruption and in many cases incompetence. It was always a recipe for failure,” Roggio said.
Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan government adviser, said the U.S. routinely operated without consulting local stakeholders, reducing the odds that a project would be successful. “Consult with the locals about their needs and sustainability of the project once the project is complete,” Farhadi told the AP, offering advice on how the U.S. could do better. “Supervise, supervise, supervise project progress and implementation and audit every single layer of expenditure.”
USPS, Census, Small Business Loans on ‘High Risk’ List: GAO
The U.S. Postal Service, the Census Bureau and the Small Business Administration face serious challenges that need to be addressed by Congress and executive leadership, according to the latest “High-Risk” report from the Government Accountability Office, released Tuesday.
Issued since the 1990s, the biannual report focuses on “government operations with greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or that are in need of transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges.” In addition to identifying problem areas, the GAO provides recommendations for how to reduce the risks associated with them.
Here’s what the report had to say about three of the 36 problem areas it identified:
USPS: Lacking a financially sustainable business model, the U.S. Postal Service needs reform in order to stay solvent, GAO said. According to the report, “USPS expenses exceeded revenues by $18 billion in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 as its labor compensation costs continued to increase while the volume of its most profitable mail products continued to decline.” While the agency appeared to be making some progress in 2019, it regressed in 2020, according to GAO criteria.
Census: The Census Bureau also faces serious challenges, and GAO said that leadership during the Trump administration was part of the problem. The Department of Commerce asked the Census Bureau to “shorten data collection time frames and response processing of census data in an effort to meet the apportionment deadline of December 31, 2020, even though COVID-19 had forced the Bureau to pause field data collection operations for approximately 3 months. Compressing the time frame to collect data and process responses has increased the risk of compromised data quality.”
Small business loans: The Covid-related emergency loan programs run by the Small Business Administration are another area of concern. Since March, the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program have issued loans and grants totaling about $744 billion, a volume that far exceeds the typical annual operations of the SBA.
“While millions of small businesses have benefited from these programs, the speed with which they were implemented left SBA with limited safeguards to identify and respond to program risks, including susceptibility to improper payments and potential fraud,” the report said. “Since June 2020, we have reported on the potential for fraud in both PPP and EIDL. As a result, we have determined that these programs are high risk because of their potential for fraud, significant program integrity risks, and need for much greater program management and oversight.”
The SBA has failed to provide all of the requested documentation, the GAO said, and remains at high risk of potential fraud.