An unprecedented December storm system spawned tornadoes and brought hurricane-force winds to a swath of the central United States Wednesday, with 100 million U.S. residents facing weather alerts. The system spawned massive dust storms in Colorado and Kansas, 100-mile-per-hour winds in Nebraska and Iowa, and, for the first time on record, December tornadoes in Minnesota. The extreme weather came as several states recorded monthly record high temperatures for December. It came less than a week after another storm system left 90 people dead and devastated parts of Kentucky and other states. On Wednesday, President Biden toured Mayfield, Kentucky, which was devastated by tornadoes last week.
The U.S. Senate has approved a sweeping military spending bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, that will see the Pentagon receive $778 billion in fiscal year 2022. Just three Republicans and eight members of the Democratic Caucus voted against the NDAA, which includes $25 billion more in Pentagon funding than requested by President Biden.
Progressives slammed the Senate for passing a record-shattering Pentagon budget without approving the Build Back Better Act to fund social programs and battle the climate emergency. Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal noted the U.S. is spending more than the military budgets of the next 11 countries combined. She tweeted, “Don’t tell me we can’t afford to fight poverty, cancel student debt, pass paid leave, and defeat the climate crisis.”
On Wednesday, Democrats said they may delay a vote on the Build Back Better Act until the new year, as West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin signaled he will oppose an extension of the expanded child tax credit. Unless the Senate acts soon, families will no longer receive monthly payments of up to $300 per child. The Center for Budget Priorities warns ending the credit would plunge millions of U.S. children back into poverty.
Calls are growing for Democrats to pass legislation protecting voting rights at a federal level without delay. While conservative Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia support the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, they have both come out against doing away with the filibuster in order to allow Democrats to pass either bill without a 60-vote majority. Democrats are still hoping they can find a workaround by persuading their colleagues to agree to a talking filibuster or a filibuster exception for the crucial legislation. In related news, family members of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent activists are planning a series of actions across the country around MLK Day in January to increase pressure on Congress and President Biden around voting rights.
Activists and a number of Democratic lawmakers are urging President Biden to reconsider his decision to restart federal student loan payments in February. The loans were suspended for nearly two years due to the pandemic. On Tuesday, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki about Biden’s campaign pledge to cancel $10,000 of student loan debt per borrower.
Reporter: “What is the message to those people who feel that he’s yet to follow through on that promise?”
Press Secretary Jen Psaki: “If Congress sends him a bill, he’s happy to sign it. They haven’t sent him a bill on that yet.”
A growing number of Democrats have backed debt cancellation of up to $50,000 per borrower. California Congressmember Ro Khanna said failing to act on student loans could harm Democrats in the midterms, and tweeted Wednesday, “Resuming student loan payments … could hurt our economic recovery and the effectiveness of the American Rescue Plan. Canceling student loan debt for the working and middle class isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s good policy.”
Physicians for Human Rights warns a decade of conflict has led to the systematic deterioration of the healthcare system in northern Syria. In a new report, PHR found years of attacks, neglect and lack of coordination have led to profound health disparities and inequities in access to care, effectively denying people’s right to medicine. Hardest hit have been women, girls and people with disabilities. Rights groups warn only one border crossing remains open between Turkey and rebel-held parts of northern Syria — and if the U.N. Security Council fails to reauthorize the crossing in January, some 6.8 million people who rely on humanitarian assistance could be cut off entirely.
In Mexico City, protesters gathered outside the National Institute of Migration Tuesday demanding Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government stop criminalizing immigration. The protest came less than a week after a truck carrying more than 160 migrants overturned in southern Mexico, killing 55 people and injuring scores of others. Advocates for the asylum seekers blamed the Biden administration and Mexico’s government for a crackdown on migrant caravans that’s driven asylum seekers to take increasingly dangerous measures to reach the U.S. border. This is immigration activist Irineo Mujica.
Irineo Mujica: “Migration has always existed. The thing is that the ways to which López Obrador has resorted to contain it hurts. The blood is felt. It is felt in our lives. And pleasing the interests of the United States has crushed us too much. It does not reflect the values of Mexico. It does not reflect the values of our society. And this really hurts everyone.”
Here in New York City, Mayor-elect Eric Adams on Wednesday introduced Keechant Sewell as his next police commissioner. She’s set to become the first woman to ever lead the New York Police Department and its 35,000 officers.
Meanwhile, two high-ranking NYPD officials were placed on modified duty Tuesday for submitting false COVID-19 vaccination cards in an apparent bid to circumvent New York’s vaccine mandate. NYPD Internal Affairs is reportedly investigating the officers and has stripped them of their guns and badges.
In Minneapolis, former police officer Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal charge of violating George Floyd’s civil rights. Chauvin had previously pleaded not guilty but changed his plea after he was found guilty of Floyd’s murder in a closely watched trial last spring. As part of his plea deal, Chauvin also pleaded guilty to violating the civil rights of a Black 14-year-old during a 2017 arrest. Chauvin grabbed the teen by the throat, hit him repeatedly in the head with a flashlight and pressed his knee into the boy’s neck while he was prone, handcuffed and not resisting.
In Texas, the county of Williamson announced a settlement of $5 million in the 2019 wrongful death of Javier Ambler. The 40-year-old Black man died after being repeatedly tasered by police during a traffic stop. As the officers attacked him, Ambler told them, “I have congestive heart failure” and “I can’t breathe.” The reality TV show “Live PD” caught the killing on camera but later destroyed the footage. “Live PD,” as well as the similar show “Cops,” went on to get canceled following public outrage over their glorification of police brutality.
The sex-trafficking trial of Jeffrey Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell continues in New York. Over the past two weeks, the court has heard damning testimony about how Maxwell for years recruited, groomed and herself sexually abused young girls. Four survivors testified, with one woman describing in detail how Maxwell and Epstein first spotted her at summer camp when she was just 14, and lured her in with the promise of a mentorship. Maxwell acted like an older sister, the woman identified just as “Jane” told jurors. She also said Maxwell at times participated in the sexual assaults. Prosecutors also called former staffers of Epstein and Maxwell to the stand, including a housekeeper and driver who testified Epstein sometimes received three “massages” per day. He also testified that he picked “Jane” up from school and her home and drove her to Epstein’s Palm Beach estate. The defense begins its case today.