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Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) brought food — upscale Italian takeout — and wine as he tried to triangulate between Mnuchin and Pelosi’s number, thinking he could get Republicans to settle for something north of $1 trillion. He found no takers on the Republican side: Collins and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) argued $900 billion was as high as Republicans would go. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) concluded that they could sell the deal as an emergency package.

What then followed was a series of back-and-forth discussions in the “908 Coalition.” Just before Thanksgiving, the senators reached out to members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus about working together.

A half-dozen members in the Problem Solvers, including Phillips and co-chairs Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), tried earlier in the fall to pressure leadership with their own $1.5 trillion bipartisan plan.

That effort didn’t succeed. But the caucus had its own framework to bring to the table when they began joint conversations with the senators via calls and Zoom meetings held during the Thanksgiving break. As those efforts merged, members pointedly refused to call themselves a gang, which in recent years became a moniker denoting failure in the Senate.

The coalition eventually grew to more than 10 senators, after Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) joined. Romney and other Republicans had met privately with McConnell to explain their proposal, and McConnell did not discourage or encourage the centrist group’s talks, Romney said.

Portman, who attends McConnell’s leadership meetings, stayed in touch with McConnell’s staff. He said he was seeking input, not permission.

“I was trying to be sure that we ended with a product that was going to be useful,” Portman said. “We needed to know how far we could go.”

Over the next few weeks, the senators texted hundreds of times and spoke via Zoom frequently. Some members expressed frustration that party leaders did not mention their work in floor speeches announcing a final coronavirus relief agreement on Sunday night, even though they argue their model could provide a blueprint for negotiations under a Biden administration.

“It’s fair to say that we may give ourselves more credit than we deserve,” Romney said. “But we’re happy to have a sense of having accomplished something significant in a very difficult time.”

Perhaps the one hurdle they had not foreseen was an explosive battle over the Federal Reserve. The dust-up froze negotiations for several days.

“I thought Wednesday night we were finished. This monstrosity reared its head the next morning,” Pelosi recalled.

The Fed fiasco

On Friday morning, staffers told Schumer that Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s effort to limit the central bank from creating similar emergency lending programs to those established in the spring was the primary impediment to a deal. Toomey had long advocated for such language and wanted to make sure the emergency lending facilities were shut down.

Schumer cranked up a messaging campaign by dialing 10 members of his caucus to explain what Republicans were up to and to fight back. Everything stalled out.

After two days of stalemate, Toomey went to the Senate floor on Saturday afternoon to implore Democrats to make him a counteroffer. Watching in his office, Chris Van Hollen picked up the phone.

The Maryland Democrat worked with Toomey on the deficit reduction supercommittee in 2011 and thought he could at least directly engage with him, something no one had done. Toomey did not dismiss him out of hand.

The two senators then gathered on the Senate floor surrounded by colleagues. Van Hollen and Warner filed into the Schumer’s office. Shortly after, they were followed by others including Toomey, Romney and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a Toomey backer.

“It was a wild Saturday,” Warner said. “People went from losing their temper to … who’s going to really say that $900 billion in assistance is going to depend upon something that is significant but esoteric?”

In the end, the discussions revolved around one word: “similar.” Democrats thought Republicans were trying to tie the hands of Biden by hamstringing the Fed’s ability to deal with a crisis; Republicans thought Democrats wanted to use the Fed as an end-run around GOP resistance to money for states and cities.

Toomey had one last discussion with Schumer, and shortly before midnight on Saturday, aides announced the impasse was broken. Instead of “similar,” the legislation would bar the Fed from restarting the “same” facilities. The conservative Toomey said he would vote for the bill.

Finishing touches

Even after Senate negotiators settled the Fed standoff, it took days for the House and Senate to vote.

In the meantime, lawmakers furiously lobbied to ensure their pet projects were included in a $2.3 trillion, 5,593-page coronavirus relief and government funding package.

One issue that increased in urgency was ensuring pandemic-related business loans were tax deductible. When House Republicans found out Sunday morning during a private conference call with Mnuchin that the fix was not going to be included, they were outraged.

Nearly a dozen members, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, made clear it was unacceptable. Mnuchin went back to the negotiating table, and hours later, word trickled down that the provision made the final cut.

“For many members, it was a deal-breaker,” Scalise (R-La.) said in an interview.

Pelosi, too, was busy closing things out. In a flurry of phone calls with Republican leaders on Sunday — two with McConnell, five with Mnuchin — she secured roughly $38 billion in worker-related tax credits, funding for water infrastructure projects and international vaccine distribution.

And while Congress finally passed a deal after months of delay, Democrats are vowing that this latest agreement will not be the last. McConnell, meanwhile, said he is taking a wait and see approach. But he expects to see another proposal from the Biden administration in the near future — and isn’t planning to give up his push for the liability shield that Democrats detest.

“I have no diminished desire to achieve that,” McConnell said. “I’m going to be taking the same view.”

Melanie Zanona and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)

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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers


Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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