Hours after Florida installed a rash of new voting restrictions, the Republican-led Legislature in Texas pressed ahead on Thursday with its own far-reaching bill that would make it one of the most difficult states in the nation in which to cast a ballot.
The Texas bill would, among other restrictions, greatly empower partisan poll watchers, prohibit election officials from mailing out absentee ballot applications and impose strict punishments for those who provide assistance outside the lines of what is permissible. The State House of Representatives was scheduled to debate the measure late into the evening with the possibility that it would pass it and send it to the Senate.
Gov. Greg Abbott is widely expected to sign the bill into law.
Florida and Texas are critical Republican-led battleground states with booming populations and 70 Electoral College votes between them. The new measures the legislatures are putting in place represent the apex of the current Republican effort to roll back access to voting across the country following the loss of the White House amid historic turnout in the 2020 election.
Earlier on Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, with great fanfare, signed his state’s new voting bill, which passed last week. Held at a Palm Beach hotel with cheering supporters, the ceremony showcased Mr. DeSantis’s brash style; the governor’s office barred most journalists and provided exclusive access to Fox News.
“Right now, I have what we think is the strongest election integrity measures in the country,” Mr. DeSantis said, though he has praised Florida’s handling of last November’s elections.
Ohio, another state under complete Republican control, introduced a new omnibus voting bill on Thursday that would further limit drop boxes in the state, limit ballot collection processes and reduce early in-person voting by one day, while also making improvements to access such as an online absentee ballot request portal and automatic registration at motor vehicle offices.
Iowa and Georgia have already passed bills that not only impose new restrictions but grant those states’ legislatures greater control over the electoral process.
Republicans have pressed forward with these bills over the protests of countless Democrats, civil rights groups, faith leaders, voting rights groups and multinational corporations, displaying an increasing no-apologies aggressiveness in rolling back access to voting.
The efforts come as Republicans in Washington are seeking to oust Representative Liz Cheney from her leadership position in the House Republican caucus for her continued rejection of former President Donald J. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, and as Republicans at a party convention in Utah booed Senator Mitt Romney for his criticism of the former president.
Together, the Republican actions reflect how deeply the party has embraced the so-called Big Lie espoused by Mr. Trump through his claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Untrained citizens are trying to find traces of bamboo on last year’s ballots, seemingly trying to prove a conspiracy theory that the election was tainted by fake votes from Asia. Thousands of ballots are left unattended and unsecured. People with open partisan bias, including a man who was photographed on the Capitol steps during the Jan. 6 riot, are doing the recounting.
All of these issues with the Republican-backed re-examination of the November election results from Arizona’s most populous county were laid out this week by Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state, in a scathing six-page letter.
Ms. Hobbs called the process “a significant departure from standard best practices.”
“Though conspiracy theorists are undoubtedly cheering on these types of inspections — and perhaps providing financial support because of their use — they do little other than further marginalize the professionalism and intent of this ‘audit,’” she wrote to Ken Bennett, a former Republican secretary of state and the liaison between Republicans in the State Senate and the company conducting it.
The effort has no official standing and will not change the state’s vote, whatever it finds. But it has become so troubled that the Department of Justice also expressed concerns this week in a letter saying that it might violate federal laws.
The scene in Arizona is perhaps the most off-the-rails episode in the Republican Party’s escalating effort to support former President Donald J. Trump’s lie that he won the election. Four months after Congress certified the results, local officials around the country are continuing to provide oxygen for Mr. Trump’s obsession.
Republican state senators ordered the review in Maricopa County, whose 2.1 million ballots accounted for two-thirds of the entire state vote, in December, after some supporters of Mr. Trump refused to accept his 10,457-vote loss in Arizona.
The senators assigned oversight of the effort to a Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, whose chief executive had publicly embraced conspiracy theories claiming that voting machines had been rigged. Since then, supporters of Mr. Trump’s stolen-election story line have been given broad access to the site of the review, while election experts, the press and independent observers have struggled to gain access, sometimes going to court.
Ms. Hobbs’s letter to Mr. Bennett, the liaison, ended: “I’m not sure what compelled you to oversee this audit, but I’d like to assume you took this role with the best of intentions. It is those intentions I appeal to now: either do it right, or don’t do it at all.”
The United States and Iran could each come back into compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal within weeks, a senior State Department official said on Thursday, on the eve of what could be a final round of negotiations before an agreement is brokered.
The comments were an optimistic signal by the Biden administration that an American return to the accord between Iran and world powers could be within reach.
Briefing journalists on the condition of anonymity, the senior official described the likelihood of an agreement before Iran’s presidential elections in mid-June as both possible and doable. He did not rule out that it could come in the round of talks that begin on Friday in Vienna.
Still, the official cautioned that the United States and Iran continued to diverge on the extent to which each side needed to comply with the original terms of the 2015 deal — namely, unwinding economic sanctions by Washington in exchange for Tehran scaling back its nuclear program.
The Trump administration withdrew from the deal in 2018 to pressure Iran into a broader agreement that would have also limited its missile program and military activities across the Middle East. Later that year, the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran’s key financial sectors to try to force Tehran back to the bargaining table.
Instead, Iran accelerated its nuclear program, raising its prospects for building a weapon.
President Biden has pledged to rejoin the accord, but also called for a “longer and stronger” deal afterward to curb Iran’s missile program and its support for proxy forces in places such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
As American negotiators warned in recent weeks that an agreement on reviving the 2015 deal may ultimately be thwarted, Iranian officials cast the negotiations in a far rosier light.
In a twist on Thursday — and as the senior State Department official predicted a possible breakthrough on the horizon — Iran’s chief negotiator urged caution.
“We are in agreement on the path we have to take although we do have serious challenges. We have a long way ahead of us; it’s impossible to determine or predict a timetable,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi of Iran said in Vienna on Thursday. “The problems that remain are serious and must be resolved through negotiations.”
Representative Elise Stefanik, campaigning to oust Representative Liz Cheney as the Republican Party’s No. 3 leader in the House for calling out President Donald J. Trump’s election lies, pitched herself as an unshakable ally of the former president on Thursday, calling him the “strongest supporter of any president when it comes to standing up for the Constitution.”
Ms. Stefanik, of New York, gave a pair of interviews on Thursday with hard-right acolytes of Mr. Trump, her first public interviews since announcing she would run for Ms. Cheney’s post amid a drive by Republican leaders to force out the Wyoming lawmaker. She resurrected Mr. Trump’s false narratives, citing “unprecedented unconstitutional overreach” by election officials in 2020 and endorsing an audit in Arizona that has become the latest avenue for conservatives to try to invalidate the results.
“It is important to stand up for these constitutional issues, and these are questions that are going to have to be answered before we head into the 2022 midterms,” Ms. Stefanik told Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former strategist.
In a separate interview with Sebastian Gorka, a former adviser to Mr. Trump, Ms. Stefanik said it would be her job as conference chair to represent the majority of House Republicans.
“The vast majority of the House Republicans support President Trump, and they support his focus on election integrity and election security,” Ms. Stefanik said. The job, she added later in an unmistakable jab at Ms. Cheney, “is not to attack members of the conference and attack President Trump.”
Ms. Stefanik’s comments captured the contrast between her and Ms. Cheney, who has relentlessly criticized the former president for falsely claiming the election was stolen and beseeched Republican lawmakers — most recently in a scathing opinion piece on Wednesday — to excise him from the party before it collapses into irrelevance.
“Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law,” Ms. Cheney wrote. “No other American president has ever done this.”
Though Ms. Cheney beat back an effort in February to replace her as conference chair after her vote to impeach Mr. Trump, most Republicans — even her allies — expect her to be stripped of the position as early as next week. Top Republican leaders who backed her earlier this year have moved to support Ms. Stefanik.
And many of the party’s rank-and-file members, including some who agree with Ms. Cheney’s caustic assessments of Mr. Trump, say privately that they have grown weary of her determination to continue publicly repudiating his lies and rebuking members of her own party for their role in fueling the falsehoods that inspired the Jan. 6. riot at the Capitol.
The Federal Election Commission said on Thursday that it had formally dropped a case looking into whether former President Donald J. Trump violated election law with a payment of $130,000 shortly before the 2016 election to a pornographic-film actress by his personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen.
The payment was never reported on Mr. Trump’s campaign filings. Mr. Cohen would go on to say that Mr. Trump had directed him to arrange payments to two women during the 2016 race, and he apologized for his involvement in the hush-money scandal. Mr. Cohen was sentenced to prison for breaking campaign finance laws, tax evasion and lying to Congress.
“It was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light,” Mr. Cohen said of Mr. Trump in court in 2018.
But while the federal court case involving Mr. Cohen was resolved, the F.E.C. issued only an internal report from its Office of General Counsel on how to proceed in its review in December 2020. The office said it had found “reason to believe” violations of campaign finance law were made “knowingly and willfully” by the Trump campaign.
But the election commission — split evenly between three Republicans and three Democratic-aligned commissioners — declined to proceed. Two Republican commissioners voted to dismiss the case while two Democratic commissioners voted to move forward. There was one absence and one Republican recusal.
President Biden traveled to Louisiana on Thursday to pitch his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal and lash out at his predecessor, former President Donald J. Trump, in a state whose physical and political landscape has been defined by road, bridge and school projects.
“I’m not ready to do nothing,” Mr. Biden said while standing in the shadow of the I-10 bridge in Lake Charles, a sagging structure that was built to last for 50 years — in 1952.
“I’m not ready to have another period where America has another infrastructure month and doesn’t change a damn thing,” he added.
Venting frustration at Mr. Trump, he noted, “Last four years, how many times do you say this is going to be ‘Infrastructure Week?’ Well, I got so tired of hearing Infrastructure Week, nothing happened. Nothing has happened.”
Mr. Biden began his one-day trip by visiting conservative, industrial Lake Charles, which was inundated by Hurricanes Laura and Delta last year, to survey the rebuilding and to promote his plan to pump about $50 billion into projects that would fortify existing infrastructure against natural disaster.
He went on to New Orleans to tour the aging Carrollton Water Plant, which is responsible for water purification and flood management, to make the case for funding “storm-hardening” upgrades that will prevent the kind of environmental cataclysm that resulted from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“You are the first president who highlighted and elevated the water infrastructure as an issue for the whole country,” Ghassan Korban, the executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, told Mr. Biden as they began touring the water treatment facility.
At Lake Charles, Mr. Biden was joined by a Republican mayor and the Democratic governor of Louisiana, in an effort to demonstrate that his proposals have bipartisan support at the local level, if not in Congress.
In visiting Louisiana, Mr. Biden chose a state whose infrastructural legacy was defined by a very different leader — Huey P. Long, the state’s dictatorial governor in the 1920s and 1930s — who was equally intent on pushing it into prosperity through a massive government effort to build bridges, roads and schools.
Mr. Long, known as “The Kingfish,” died young with a tarnished legacy. But he left a record of accomplishment in infrastructure with few parallels in U.S. history, overseeing the paving of 2,301 miles of highway (only 331 miles were paved before he took office), while building 111 bridges, dozens of schools and a soaring State Capitol building in Baton Rouge.
In Mr. Long’s day, the working-class voters he wanted to attract were almost invariably Democrats. In contrast, in 2020, former President Donald J. Trump defeated Mr. Biden by nearly 20 points in the state.
But Mr. Biden is hoping to reclaim some of that lost political ground with those voters, while emphasizing his commitment to combating climate change for his party’s base. His trip to the Gulf Coast reflects a hybrid of the two political approaches.
President Biden’s plan to raise taxes on high earners and the wealthy is likely to entice more rich Americans to give property or other assets to charity before they die in order to avoid large tax bills, a top administration official told nonprofit leaders last week in a private conference call.
On the call, a deputy director of Mr. Biden’s National Economic Council, David Kamin, was asked how the president’s tax plans would affect charitable giving — in particular, his proposals to change the tax treatment of the capital gains income that high earners receive from selling assets that have gained value, like businesses or stocks.
The plan “actually increases the incentive to give to charity,” Mr. Kamin told the group. “And it basically says if you want to not pay tax on the gain, the way you need to do that is to give the property to charity.”
“We think it’s appropriate that no tax is paid at that point,” he continued. “But if you choose to give it to your heirs or you choose to use it for yourself, then you should be paying tax on those very large amounts of gains.”
The comments were an acknowledgment that Mr. Biden’s proposals would encourage the wealthy to find new workarounds to reduce the amount of tax they or their heirs pay, even as the president seeks to level the tax playing field between typical workers and the very rich.
Nearly one million Americans have signed up for Affordable Care Act coverage during the first 10 weeks of a special open enrollment period the Biden administration began in February.
A total of 940,000 people enrolled in Obamacare coverage between Feb. 15 and April 30, new data released Thursday by Health and Human Services shows. Of those new enrollees, nearly half bought coverage last month, after Congress added billions in subsidies included in the most recent stimulus package.
With that additional funding, the average monthly premium that Healthcare.gov consumers paid fell to $86 for those signing up in April, down from $117 in February and March (before the new subsidies).
The surge in sign-ups reflects a growing demand for health insurance. Many Americans have lost job-based coverage during the pandemic, and others who were uninsured before found themselves newly interested in coverage. The numbers undercount the overall new insurance sign-ups; they reflect enrollment only in the 36 states with marketplaces that the federal government manages.
The increase most likely reflects increased publicity about the opportunity, the availability of more financial help with premiums, and health fears related to the pandemic. The Trump administration made deep cuts in advertising and marketing for Healthcare.gov. The Biden administration reversed many of those changes, committing to spending $100 million to advertise this new enrollment period.
The new subsidies make a substantial difference in the affordability of insurance for many Americans. About four million who are currently uninsured can qualify for plans that will cost them no premium, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation (the government subsidy would cover the entire monthly cost).
Another group, higher up the income scale, qualifies for financial assistance for the first time. Some families will be eligible for discounts of more than $10,000 a year. Under the stimulus bill, these new subsidies will last until the end of 2022. But the president has said he will seek to extend them as part of his American Families Plan legislation.
Around two million Americans who were already enrolled in Obamacare coverage have returned to the marketplace to take advantage of new subsidies, according to the department. That number represents a fraction of those eligible for new discounts. Biden administration officials opted against an automatic update of subsidies, and have instead been trying to encourage consumers to come back and request them individually.
Everyone eligible for a new discount will get it eventually, but those who sign up now will receive monthly discounts on their insurance, while those who do not will get the money as a refund when they file their taxes next year.
Sign-ups for health plans in most states will remain open until Aug. 15 this year.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told Ukraine’s president on Thursday that the United States strongly backed his country’s sovereignty against Russia’s military aggression but also warned that the embattled country was under threat from “internal forces,” including powerful oligarchs who thrive on corruption.
Mr. Blinken also said that, despite Russia’s recently announced plans to withdraw many of the 100,000 troops it had built up along the border with Ukraine in an alarming show of force this spring, a clear military threat remained.
“Russia has pulled back some forces, but significant forces remain on Ukraine’s border,” Mr. Blinken noted. “And so Russia has the capacity on fairly short notice to take aggressive actions if it so chooses.” Mr. Blinken added that the United States was “watching this very, very carefully.”
Mr. Blinken spoke at a joint news conference with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who effusively thanked the first senior Biden official to visit Kyiv since the departure of President Donald J. Trump from office. The former president ensnared Mr. Zelensky in a global scandal that the Ukrainian leader clearly hopes to forget.
Asked whether efforts in 2019 by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, had “set back” efforts to drive corruption out of Ukraine’s political system, Mr. Zelensky boasted about his reform record, then indicated that he hopes the matter is finished.
“Let’s not talk about the past,” he said. “Let’s let bygones be bygones, and let’s discuss the future.”
That may be difficult, given an active F.B.I. investigation into Mr. Giuliani that culminated last week in a raid on his apartment and office. Federal agents were reportedly seeking evidence of his role in the May 2019 removal of the American ambassador to Ukraine, allegedly at the behest of Mr. Giuliani’s Ukrainian associates.
Mr. Blinken for his part maneuvered around a question featuring Mr. Giuliani, but reminded Mr. Zelensky — whose reform record has drawn mixed reviews — that “effectively combating corruption is one of the most important issues to the Ukrainian people, and is crucial to improving their lives.”
Gary Gensler, the newly installed chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, testified before the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday. He addressed the meme-stock volatility in January that led to trading restrictions and prompted an outcry about Wall Street’s relationship with retail investors.
“I think these events are part of a larger story about the intersection of finance and technology,” Mr. Gensler said in his prepared remarks, highlighting seven factors at play that also hint at his regulatory priorities in the months ahead:
Gamification. Fun features combined with predictive analytics on trading apps increase engagement. Watching a movie based on a streaming app recommendation, “we might lose a couple of hours,” Mr. Gensler said. “Following the wrong prompt on a trading app, however, could have a substantial effect on a saver’s financial position.” He suggested it may be time for new rules to address the practice.
Payment-for-order flow. Many retail brokers don’t charge fees for trades, earning money instead by directing customer orders to wholesalers to execute. More trades generate more payments, which raises questions about conflicts of interest, consumer protection and data aggregation, Mr. Gensler said.
Market structure. A few wholesalers account for a growing share of retail stock trading volume, with Citadel Securities particularly dominant. This concentration can “lead to fragility, deter healthy competition and limit innovation,” Mr. Gensler said.
Short-selling transparency. He wants to increase “transparency in the stock loan market.”
Social media. Investors exchanging views online is fine, but Mr. Gensler worries bad actors take advantage of legitimate debates. In particular, this risks sending false signals to algorithms that some investors use to gauge the “relationships between words and prices.”
Plumbing. When brokers restricted customer trading in meme stocks, they blamed clearinghouses and two-day settlement times. Mr. Gensler said same-day settlement is technologically possible and has asked for a draft proposal on speeding up settlement.
Systemic risks. The S.E.C. will issue a report over the summer, the chair said, examining what happened in detail during the meme-stock frenzy and considering “whether expanded enforcement mechanisms are necessary.”
The Federal Election Commission voted unanimously on Thursday to recommend that Congress ban political campaigns from guiding donors by default into recurring contributions through prechecked boxes, a month after a New York Times investigation showed that former President Donald J. Trump’s political operation had steered huge numbers of unwitting supporters into repeated donations through that tactic.
The bipartisan commission, which serves as the nation’s top election watchdog agency, is divided evenly between three Democratic-aligned commissioners and three Republicans, a composition that often leads to stalemate. But commissioners of both parties, including three Republicans appointed by Mr. Trump, came together on Thursday to ask Congress to strengthen campaign finance law to protect online donors.
“It’s important that donors be able to exercise their choices freely,” Ellen L. Weintraub, a longtime Democratic commissioner on the F.E.C., said in an interview. “If their money is being taken from them because of some reverse checkoff option they didn’t notice, then they are not giving their money freely.”
“It’s almost like theft,” Ms. Weintraub added. “I don’t want to see donors tricked.”
The Times investigation showed how the Trump operation, facing a cash crunch last fall, had deployed prechecked boxes to enroll every donor in weekly withdrawals — unless they unchecked the box. Then the Trump operation made the disclaimer that disclosed that fact increasingly opaque with extraneous text. The Trump operation also prechecked a second box, known as a “money bomb,” that doubled a person’s contribution.
Demands for refunds soared and credit card companies experienced a surge of fraud complaints, the investigation found.
In addition to the F.E.C.’s recommendation, Facebook said it was reviewing its policies for advertisers who link to prechecked recurring donation pages. Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, said that such tactics did not violate the company’s existing policies for political fund-raising but that “we’re taking a close look at how this fund-raising practice is used on our platform to ensure that we protect the people using our services.”
Americans have entered a new, hopeful phase of the pandemic. Buoyed by a sense that the coronavirus is waning, in part because of vaccinations, more people are venturing into restaurants and returning to their prepandemic routines.
Mayors, governors and other local officials — once the bearers of grim news about the virus’s toll and strict rules for businesses — have joined in the newfound optimism, rapidly loosening restrictions.
Public health experts remain cautious, but said that while they still expect significant local and regional surges in the coming weeks, they do not think they will be as widespread or reach past peaks.
“We’re clearly turning the corner,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
The nation is recording about 49,000 new cases a day, the lowest number since early October, and hospitalizations have plateaued at around 40,000, a similar level as the early fall. Nationwide, deaths are hovering around 700 a day, down from a peak of more than 3,000 in January.
In the past, lulls in the pandemic were short-lived. But now, there is one crucial difference: More than half of American adults — 148 million people — have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have also fallen at a time when the weather is getting warmer, allowing people to spend more time outdoors, where the virus spreads less easily.
The situation in the United States stands in stark contrast to other parts of the world, where many countries are still scrambling to secure access to vaccines. India remains in dire crisis, and thousands of people are dying each day in Brazil.
Even in the United States, there remain strong reasons for caution. Vaccinations are slowing, and experts now believe that herd immunity may not be attainable. More transmissible variants of the virus are also spreading.
A modeling study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, citing relaxed restrictions and a new, contagious variant, suggested that cases could tick upward again in the coming weeks, before a sharp drop-off by July.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the C.D.C., said, “We are not out of the woods yet, but we could be very close.”