High-stakes relief talks could preview Congress's tone in the Biden Era

WASHINGTON — The fate this week of the compromise $908 billion coronavirus-relief bill will likely tell us a great deal about how Congress will operate in the Biden Era, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate.

Either it passes, and serves as a template for how other legislation can clear Congress — i.e., a bipartisan working group (Joe Manchin, Angus King, Mark Warner, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, Bill Cassidy) reaches a deal, and Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats and Joe Biden get behind it.

Or it ultimately goes nowhere, and serves as a stark warning that little is happening legislatively in divided Washington — unless Democrats can win control of the Senate in next month’s Georgia runoffs.

“What we did as a group, we came together and said, ‘Listen, we have got to do something,’” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., said on “Meet the Press” yesterday.

“We looked at basically everything that was going to terminate at the end of December … And we said, ‘That can't be done. We cannot allow this to happen.’ Democrats and Republicans came together. And we're moving forward.”

The bill provides $300 per week in unemployment benefits for about four months, $160 billion for state and local governments, $288 billion for small businesses — as well as additional funds for schools, vaccine distribution, transportation entities and child care.

Yet some of the sticking points include liability protections for businesses and the bill’s lack of $1,200 direct payments to Americans.

Progress — even if it’s not as much as many Democrats want?

Or continued stalemate?

We’ll likely get an answer this week.

Of course, it’s always easier to pass legislation when Congress faces deadlines during lame-duck sessions.

But we’ll see if this group of bipartisan senators has success in breaking this — as well as future — logjams.

Birx and Barr declare their independence from Trump?

Also on “Meet” yesterday, Dr. Deborah Birx went about as far to distance herself from President Trump as we’ve seen her.

Wearing a mask while indoors, Birx said, “So I hear community members parroting … back that masks don't work. Parroting back that we should work towards herd immunity. Parroting back that gatherings don't result in superspreading events. And I think our job is to constantly say, ‘Those are myths, they are wrong and you can see the evidence base.’”

She added, “This is not just the worst public health event. This is the worst event that this country will face, not just from a public health side. Yet, we know what behaviors spread the virus and we know how to change those behaviors to stop spreading the virus.”

In addition to Birx’s comments on “Meet” yesterday, The Washington Post reports that Attorney General Bill Barr is considering departing the Trump administration before Inauguration Day.

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

14,826,735: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 619,973 more than Friday morning.)

283,163:The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 6,289 more than Friday morning.)

204.06 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

101,487:The number of people currently hospitalized with coronavirus.

12.5 percent: The remaining intensive care unit capacity in Southern California.

As many as 24 million: The number of people who could receive a vaccine by mid-January under an aggressive federal timetable.

7,062,213: Joe Biden’s lead in the popular vote at the time of publication.

29: The number of days until the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs.

44: The number of days until Inauguration Day.

Here's Biden's health team

This morning, per NBC’s Mike Memoli, President-elect Joe Biden officially announced that he was nominating/appointing California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as his HHS secretary, Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General, Dr. Rochelle Walensky as CDC director and Jeff Zients as Covid czar.

Regarding the Becerra pick, Team Biden showed during the 2020 campaign that it was always eager to respond to the Washington chatter.

And so when Latino Democrats began expressing frustration that they weren’t being represented by Biden’s first Cabinet picks (outside of Alejandro Mayorkas at DHS), you get Becerra as HHS secretary.

Biden Cabinet/Transition Watch

State: Tony Blinken (announced)

Treasury: Janet Yellen (announced)

Homeland Security: Alejandro Mayorkas (announced)

HHS: Xavier Becerra (announced)

UN Ambassador: Linda Thomas-Greenfield (announced)

Director of National Intelligence: Avril Haines (announced)

Defense: Michèle Flournoy, Jeh Johnson, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Rt. Gen. Lloyd Austin

Attorney General: Doug Jones, Sally Yates

Interior: Deb Haaland

Agriculture: Heidi Heitkamp

Labor: Andy Levin, Bernie Sanders, Marty Walsh

Education: Lily Eskelsen Garcia, Randi Weingarten. Sonja Santelises, Linda Darling Hammond

OMB Director: Neera Tanden (announced)

CIA: Michael Morell

Small Business Administration: Keisha Lance Bottoms

Covid-19 Czar: Jeff Zients (announced)

Chief of Staff: Ron Klain (announced)

National Security Adviser: Jake Sullivan (announced)

Climate Envoy: John Kerry (announced)

National Economic Council Director: Brian Deese (announced)

Surgeon General: Dr. Vivek Murthy (announced)

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Dr. Rochelle Walensky (announced)

White House Communications Director: Kate Bedingfield (announced)

White House Press Secretary: Jen Psaki (announced)

VP Communications Director: Ashley Etienne (announced)

VP Chief Spokesperson: Symone Sanders (announced)

Georgia Runoff Watch by Ben Kamisar

Sunday was debate night in Georgia, and today’s runoff watch is here for those who couldn’t catch it.

Only Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rev. Raphael Warnock squared off at last night’s debate, with Jon Ossoff debating an empty podium because Sen. David Perdue chose not to attend.

The Warnock and Loeffler event typified the dynamics in their race.

Loeffler defended President Trump’s push to challenge the election by arguing he has “every right to every legal recourse,” tried to thread the needle on arguing for the high stakes of her race without acknowledging directly that Trump lost, and deflected the question about whether members of Congress should be barred from trading stock.

And she spent much of the debate referring to her opponent as “Radical Liberal Raphael Warnock,” as the Democrat defended himself from a slew of opposition research hits from the GOP — including on rhetoric from his sermons and whether he’d support defunding the police (he said he wouldn’t). Warnock also deflected the question of whether he’d support packing the courts.

The two also discussed their approaches to the coronavirus, aid, and the forthcoming vaccine.

The Lid: Opposites attract

Don’t miss the pod from Friday, when we looked at how Biden has kept the streak alive of incoming presidents being the polar opposites of the person they’re replacing in the White House.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

At least so far, Biden’s Cabinet picks are keeping progressives from a revolt.

Here’s the latest on Congress’s huge to-do list.

Dr. Deborah Birx told one of us that health officials are still fighting “myths” about the virus.

In its last weeks in the White House, the Trump administration is trying to lock in its legacy with staffing and policy changes.

Michigan’s secretary of state says that armed protesters gathered outside her home.

The demand for Covid vaccines may get very high, very fast.

The head of Trump’s Operation Warp Speed team says Biden’s 100-day mask plan is a good idea.