Supreme Court won’t block vaccine mandate for Maine’s health care workers

PORTLAND, Maine — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Tuesday to block a vaccine requirement imposed on Maine health care workers, the latest defeat for opponents of vaccine mandates.

It was the first time the Supreme Court weighed in on a statewide vaccine mandate. It previously rejected challenges of vaccine requirements for New York City teachers and Indiana University staff and students.

Justice Stephen Breyer rejected the emergency appeal but left the door open to try again as the clock ticks on Maine’s mandate. The state will begin enforcing it Oct. 29.

The Maine vaccine requirement that was put in place by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills requires hospital and nursing home workers to get vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.

Opponents tried to block the mandate, but a federal judge rejected the request Oct. 13. The judge said the record indicated regular testing alone wasn’t sufficient to stop the spread of the delta variant.

That decision set off a flurry of emergency appeals to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and then the U.S. Supreme Court.

Former Trump super PAC official testifies at trial of Giuliani associate

A top fundraiser for a major pro-Trump super PAC testified at a criminal campaign finance trial on Tuesday that he thought that hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to Republican political groups in 2018 by Lev Parnas was legal to accept at the time it came in.

Joseph Ahearn, who served as finance director of America First Action, testified as a defense witness at the federal trial of Parnas, a Florida businessperson and an associate of Rudy Giuliani, in New York after prosecutors scratched him from their witness list.

Parnas is accused of funneling money from a Russian businessperson into U.S. campaigns as part of an effort to get licenses to enter the legal cannabis business in several U.S. states.

Ahearn testified that a July 2018 article in the Daily Beast drew attention to a $325,000 contribution to the PAC America First Action that Parnas arranged through a largely unknown business called Global Energy Partners. That story triggered a formal complaint to the Federal Election Commission that the firm was essentially a shell company set up to make donations.

“I don’t remember specifically, but it was clearly an issue,” Ahearn said under questioning by Parnas’ attorney Joseph Bondy.

Bondy suggested to jurors that after the FEC complaint was filed, Ahearn suggested to Parnas that he go “full MAGA” over it. The defense lawyer asked Ahearn to elaborate on what that meant, but the judge sustained a prosecution objection to the question.

Ahearn said that at that time he thought that Parnas and associates were involved in the energy industry. “I believe I learned that they wanted to do something with natural gas in eastern Europe,” he said.

At the time Parnas and associate Igor Fruman were arrested in 2019, prosecutors alleged that their political largesse was linked to an effort backed by at least one Ukrainian official to oust the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Marie Yovanovitch. However, that allegation was dropped from a later version of the charges and prosecutors have not raised the issue in front of the jury.

Bondy tried to use Ahearn’s testimony to stress that Parnas was not an expert in campaign finance law, but the result was a mixed bag for the defense. The defense lawyer sought to contrast his client with Ahearn, who told jurors that he had a master’s degree in elections and campaign management from Fordham and took a course there in campaign finance.

“Did you ever see [Parnas] reading a book about election law or campaign finance?” Bondy asked.

“Ah, no,” Ahearn replied.

“You don’t recall having any discussion with him about the subject, do you?” the defense lawyer inquired.

“I don’t,” Ahearn said.

Later, Ahearn said he thought anyone throwing around the kind of money Parnas was would have known the rules.

“It’s my understanding that if you’re going to be writing large checks, you generally would have an idea of what the law is,” he said.

While Bondy focused on some complex aspects of campaign finance law, like the donation rules for joint fundraising committees and attribution of donations from partnerships, prosecutor Nicholas Roos called the foreign-money and straw-donation provisions at issue in the case “relatively basic.”

And although the defense has painted Parnas as naive, Roos got Ahearn to say that Parnas actually warned him against taking donations from another man who Parnas said was a front for a foreign oligarch.

Ahearn testified under an immunity order that prosecutors had arranged. Just before the jury was brought in, the fundraiser and political operative said he would potentially invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if questioned about his dealings with Parnas. U.S. District Court Judge Paul Oetken granted Ahearn immunity, meaning his testimony cannot be used against him in any future criminal proceedings.

“Because of where we are and the accusations being made, I thought immunity was a good idea,” said Ahearn, who has not been charged with a crime.

Ahearn’s current status with America First Action is unclear, but the group said in a statement that it began winding down earlier this year.

Ahearn may end up being the only defense witness in the case, with closing arguments likely to take place Thursday morning.

Bondy said Parnas was still considering whether to take the stand in his own behalf. That could be a risky maneuver since Oetken has ruled that prosecutors would be able to question him about a range of alleged misconduct not the subject of the current trial. That includes an alleged fraud scheme and his efforts, along with Giuliani, to get Ukrainian officials to announce an investigation that would be damaging to Joe Biden, who was considered a serious political rival to President Donald Trump at the time.

‘They rushed the process’: Vaccine maker’s woes hamper global inoculation campaign

The world’s vaccine distributor has been counting on U.S. companies to provide more than 2 billion doses to lower and middle-income countries by the end of 2022 — a crucial step in ending the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the campaign run by the international consortium known as COVAX, which has already been delayed significantly because of production lags, is now likely to fall short by more than 1 billion doses as a key supplier faces significant hurdles in proving it can manufacture a shot that meets regulators’ quality standards, according to three people with direct knowledge of the company’s problems.

The delay, which was confirmed by three other people familiar with the discussions between Maryland-based Novavax and the Biden administration, represents a major setback in the effort to vaccinate the world in the wake of new, more transmissible variants.

The U.S. government invested $1.6 billion in Novavax in 2020 — the most it devoted to any vaccine maker at the time — in hopes that it would offer the world another option for a safe and effective vaccine to help protect against Covid-19. But the company has consistently run into production problems. The methods it used to test the purity of the vaccine have fallen short of regulators’ standards and the company has not been able to prove that it can produce a shot that is consistently up to snuff, according to multiple people familiar with Novavax’s difficulties. All spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive company conversations.

Although Novavax recently attested to some of its analytics and testing issues in a quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company’s issues are more concerning than previously understood, according to two of the people with direct knowledge of the matter.

The Food and Drug Administration works out purity levels with each manufacturer according to June 2020 guidance for coronavirus vaccines, but it is generally understood that each vaccine batch should reach at least 90 percent. The company has struggled to attain anywhere close to that, one of the people with direct knowledge of the situation said. Another person familiar with the company’s manufacturing process said Novavax has recently shown purity levels hovering around 70 percent. Low purity levels increase the chance that contaminants or unnecessary substances are in the final product, rendering the vaccine less effective or introducing the chance that patients could react to unknown ingredients.

COVAX, which recently downgraded its 2021 goal from 2 billion to 1.425 billion doses, has already estimated that it faces a supply shortfall of as many as 1 billion doses in its effort to vaccinate the developing world. If Novavax falters, it could double the deficit through 2022, leaving hundreds of millions of people without immunity against Covid-19 and extending the pandemic.

“COVAX continues to be challenged for adequate supply … in that context, Novavax’s manufacturing challenges and delays have been massively disruptive,” said Krishna Udayakumar, director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

The global coalition is already behind on hundreds of millions of planned doses this month, having shipped just 371 million of its 700 million dose target for October. It is now also at risk of missing its already downgraded 2021 target.

Between Novavax and other manufacturers’ hurdles, “COVAX has had to scramble to revise its supply strategy significantly in real time,” Udayakumar said. As a result, global health groups are emphasizing more donations to cover immediate needs, he added.

In a statement, Novavax Senior Vice President of Investor Relations and Corporate Affairs Silvia Taylor told POLITICO that the company’s analytical testing methods have been “validated” — but did not answer questions about whether the FDA had signed off on them. The company still plans on filing an emergency use authorization by the end of the year, Taylor said.

“The vaccine development and regulatory submission processes are highly complex and often require years to advance to the point where we are now. We will fulfill all of our committed doses both in the US and globally,” Taylor said.

The White House and the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But three people familiar with the matter said they are not confident that the company has the resources needed to reproduce a high-quality vaccine on a consistent basis — a benchmark Novavax must meet before that time. Those same people said Novavax could potentially fix its manufacturing issues and reach full licensure by the end of 2022.

Novavax — which has never produced a vaccine before — declined to answer specific questions about its product’s purity levels and whether it had been successful in addressing its longstanding manufacturing issues.

Unlike Pfizer and Moderna, the first manufacturers to launch vaccines using rapidly produced messenger RNA, Novavax is employing the previously used but complicated approach of creating the key ingredient with bug cells. While the process, which involves infecting the cells to produce spike proteins, is familiar to scientists, it is difficult to scale.

The revelations about Novavax’s continued manufacturing problems come at a time when only 36 percent of the world is vaccinated and as leaders of developing nations continue to pressure the U.S. to deliver more doses. In Africa alone, only 4.4 percent of the population is vaccinated.

That includes some of the continent’s most populous nations, like Nigeria and Uganda, where about 1 percent of citizens are fully vaccinated.

Novavax is just the latest vaccine maker to run into core production problems after promising to serve as a major vaccine contributor to the developing world. In April, Johnson & Johnson halted work at a Baltimore facility run by contract manufacturer Emergent BioSolutions after it found that 15 million doses had been accidentally contaminated with ingredients from a separate Covid-19 vaccine.

J&J’s manufacturing process has been slow to recover, and to date it has produced just a fraction of the 200 million shots it initially pledged to COVAX by the end of the year, according to records kept by UNICEF.

“Overpromising and underdelivering is the name of the game for these manufacturers,” said Asia Russell, executive director of international advocacy group Health GAP. “And that’s the infrastructure of the global response, which is terrifying.”

Unlike Johnson & Johnson, Novavax is a novice in the vaccine world. It has never successfully launched a vaccine, and had struggled financially prior to the pandemic. After a string of drug development failures, it sold its manufacturing facilities in 2019 — a deal that also included parting with 100 employees. In May of that year, Novavax’s stock price dropped as low as 36 cents per share.

Yet the company’s fortunes shifted as Covid-19 took hold. Amid a scramble early in the pandemic to develop a range of vaccine candidates, the Trump administration awarded Novavax $1.6 billion to aid work on its Covid-19 shot — the largest deal given to any Covid-19 vaccine maker at that time.

The contract represented a major vote of confidence in Novavax’s capabilities — and a bet that appeared to pay off after late-stage trials showed the vaccine was 90 percent effective against the virus.

But even then, senior Trump administration officials on Operation Warp Speed — a group tasked with accelerating vaccine development — repeatedly warned the company that it risked running into problems in scaling up manufacturing of the shot, two people with direct knowledge of those discussions said.

In particular, they worried that Novavax would have difficulty ensuring that the vaccine consistently met the FDA’s rigorous quality standards once the vaccine went into mass production — the exact problem that has now stymied the company for months.

“They rushed the process,” one of the people with knowledge of the matter said. “It’s hard to make. And they can’t make it.”

Taylor, the Novavax spokesperson, said in a statement that it has incorporated feedback from regulators and has made “tremendous progress with the scale-up of our commercial manufacturing processes.” The company is still on track to produce 150 million doses a month by the end of the year, she said, and has stockpiled tens of millions of doses ahead of regulatory filings in the U.S. and internationally.

Company executives in recent presentations to investors have struck a similarly optimistic tone, downplaying the manufacturing snags and predicting it will soon be cleared to begin distributing doses. During a Sept. 29 investor event, Chief Commercial Officer John Trizzino said the company had “resolved” its problems and was close to submitting a final regulatory application.

“We’re really moving along with testing our lots now,” added Gregory Glenn, president of Novavax’s research and development, referring to batches of its vaccine. “We think that this is shortly going to come to a close.”

U.S. officials working with the company are not as confident, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. Novavax’s manufacturing problems are seen as far more difficult to fix than the sanitary and design concerns that halted production of J&J’s vaccine at the Emergent plant earlier this year, those people said.

And even as the company begins to seek regulatory approval in other countries, there remains doubt in the U.S. that it has solved the fundamental vaccine purity flaws that the people with knowledge said have affected its ability to make doses at plants around the world.

Several vaccine batches have already been discarded, and four people with knowledge of the matter say U.S. officials now no longer expect the company to win FDA sign-off on the vaccine until next year at the earliest.

“At some level, I think the efficacy was never going to outweigh the risk associated with the impurity that was in there,” said one of the people with knowledge of the matter. “I’m not surprised this is where we are.”

Opinion | Trump’s Post-Mortem Roasting of Powell Could Burn Him in the End

Of course Donald Trump rained on the Roman triumph parade the political establishment and the combined houses of major media convened this week to honor the memory and accomplishments of warrior, diplomat and leading citizen Colin Powell on the occasion of his death on Monday.

In a classic bit of counterprogramming, Trump took the position that no other prominent commentator wanted to go near. In Trump’s formulation, Powell wasn’t a hero, he was a fool. In one of the “statements” he issues in hopes it will be reposted on Twitter — from which he is permanently banned — and become Topic A in the media, Trump blistered Powell as a “classic RINO” who dragged us into the Iraq war and slagged the press for treating him in death “so beautifully.” Trump’s sulfurous elegy worked as designed, as the media chorus united to scold him for violating the no-speaking-ill-about-the-newly-dead conventions of modern manners and meta-analyses, like this one, assembled themselves to explain the former president’s strategy.

In Trump’s defense, the graveside broadside was at least consistent with his previous comments on Powell. In 2020, when Powell defected from his Republican Party colleagues to endorse Joe Biden for president, Trump called Powell “a real stiff who was very responsible for getting us into the disastrous Middle East Wars.” The only purely naughty thing Trump did was hit somebody who couldn’t hit back. It wasn’t as much a Trumpian low blow as a rabbit punch to a defenseless bunny.

If Trump had thought it necessary to justify himself, he could have claimed he was only telling the truth, adopting the position first articulated by I.F. Stone that “funerals are always occasions for pious lying.” But neither remaining consistent nor tweaking convention were Trump’s primary objective. After all, nobody needed Trump to remind them that Iraq was Powell’s great failure; it was one he had acknowledged himself. That corrective sentiment could be found in most of the ledes of the obituaries and assessments that came spilling out. The AP even moved a story that dealt exclusively with the special hatred Iraqis still harbor for Powell for his role in pushing the invasion.

So the post-mortem smear didn’t illuminate Powell. But it did help explain something true about Trump. Without Twitter, without chyron-to-chyron coverage from Fox News and without a pulsing presidential campaign to boost his messages, Trump depends on his shock-jock skills to elbow his way into the public sphere and onto the front page. Wicked mugging like this may look brainy and calculating, but it’s a good bet that, for Trump, swinging wildly when nobody pays attention to him has become his first instinct. Shouting through a megaphone to reach the cheap seats is also a technique he uses in court, too, filing ridiculous lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to overturn election results or to punish his niece Mary Trump. His grandstanding shouldn’t work after all this time, but it still does.

The Powell incident doesn’t mark the first time Trump has dug up a corpse and danced it around to win the spotlight and score a few political points. Trump continued to verbally assault political rival Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain for months after he died in 2018. In 2019, Trump suggested that the former Michigan Democrat Rep. John Dingell, then only 10 months dead, was “looking up” from hell. (Trump was irate about Dingell’s wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell, also a Michigan Democrat supporting the Trump impeachment even though he had approved the lowering of flags for the late member of Congress.) And he’s never been sentimental about America’s war dead. In 2020, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported that behind the scenes, Trump called them “losers” and “suckers.”

Trump seems to intuitively understand that these cheap shots don’t cost him with his base, which applauds his corrosive moxie. Given his history of explosive comments, he has set a baseline expectation for rude conduct that he must exceed to keep his fans entertained and to keep his critics appalled enough to drive his “statements” into the news. Truth be told, he probably didn’t care much one way or the other about Colin Powell, but, seeing the general’s death forming a news wave, he decided to paddle out and ride it to shore in hopes of getting noticed. But the downside for Trump — if downsides exist in Trumpworld — is that as he descends ever lower to hack his way into the news, he will end up sending the equivalent of an audition tape to the social media outlets that have only suspended him (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitch), that they should never let him return.

That leaves Trump standing there, smoldering, lacking enough rhetorical fuel to reach political liftoff and waiting for his next countdown.


The Trump obituaries will be fantastic. Imagine a lede and send it to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts read the Irish sport pages first thing each morning. My Twitter feed imagines that few flags will be lowered when Trump expires. My RSS feed seeks only to outlive him.

Dems scramble for climate Plan C as Manchin dashes their dreams

Joe Manchin is hearing a dire pitch from his colleagues: Don’t blow our chance to save the world.

After Manchin rejected a centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s climate plan and rebuffed a separate carbon tax Tuesday, Senate Democrats are urgently pressing their West Virginia colleague for an alternative. Biden and Democrats are trying to clinch a deal on Biden’s larger social spending bill, but the climate plank has become a serious question mark due to Manchin. And some progressives are reiterating they won't support any bill that doesn’t have a strong climate component.

Manchin is reluctant to embrace anything that could significantly disadvantage West Virginia’s gas and coal industry. Though he is endorsing some lower-tier clean energy investments, those fall far short of the two big ideas his colleagues have championed: a program encouraging utilities to cut emissions and a carbon tax. Now, there’s enormous pressure on Democrats to get Manchin on board with what could be Democrats’ only chance in a decade or more to enact consequential climate policies.

“Sen. Manchin has to balance the fact that he may have certain opinions, but he also has a responsibility as a chairman in the Democratic caucus, of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who spoke privately with Manchin after his declaration on Tuesday that the carbon tax was “off the board.”

“So he has to be both true to his positions and his own state, and also take that responsibility to the caucus seriously,” Heinrich added.

For Manchin, the moment is a culmination of his career as a stick in the mud for his party’s climate policies — a position that’s helped him win reelection. After all, he literally shot a hole through Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill in 2010 in one of his ads. The Senate is evenly split, so Democrats need him to advance their legislation, but some fear he’s intent on whittling down the climate component too much for them to stomach.

Democrats don’t have a lot of time to continue debating as Biden and party leaders seek an agreement with Manchin by the end of the month. Whatever Democrats can get through Congress on climate will be far more durable than anything Biden can do through executive action, so lawmakers are determined to convince Manchin now, before they could lose their majorities.

“Of course, it’s frustrating. But it’s also just part of negotiation,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) of the state of talks with Manchin.

Manchin is aware of how sensitive the issue is for his colleagues. After his conversation with Heinrich, Manchin initially demurred: “The more I talk, the more everyone gets pissed off. So I’m going to quit talking.” But later, when approached in the Senate basement, Manchin rebuffed any suggestion that he’s trying to sink the climate change component of his party's bill.

“My God, absolutely. Criminy,” Manchin said of whether he wants a strong climate component. “The bottom line is, and I’ve been saying from day one: Innovation, not elimination.”

He went on to say that because of a rise in emissions worldwide and continued construction of power plants outside the U.S., the Senate has “got to find an answer for carbon capture in some way, shape or form.” Currently, carbon capture technology is expensive and unproven to work at the scale necessary to put a meaningful dent in the nation's emissions footprint.

Beyond the $150 billion proposal to pay utilities to transition their energy sources and punish utilities that do not, dubbed the Clean Energy Performance Program, Democrats want to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into addressing climate change in their bill. The biggest bulk of emissions reductions they envision would come from tax credits to help deploy wind, solar and other clean energy sources, as well as electric vehicles.

They also want to fund a civilian climate corps to deploy young people in environmentally friendly projects. Other desired climate action provisions include a methane fee and massive investments in energy efficiency improvements.

“I’m disappointed he’s not agreeing to the biggest game-changer for climate change. But there are about $300 billion in other provisions,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said of Manchin. She added that “I think he will support some of the other provisions, maybe not to the extent” that his Democratic colleagues want.

Worsening scientific warnings of climate change's toll are driving the urgency among the Democratic rank-and-file. A United Nations report this summer, dubbed a code red for the planet, found a 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming already baked in since the pre-industrial era due to burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil.

Many Democrats remain doubtful that they'll ultimately be able to get Manchin on board with the scale of climate investments they want. Majority Whip Dick Durbin said Tuesday he was unsure of how the party-line bill would treat climate change.

“I hope that there are areas — I think there are areas — where we can find some agreement,” Durbin told reporters. “There are some things he doesn't agree with — clean electricity is one of them.”

Privately, Democrats are scrambling to produce something big that can win Manchin's vote. One environmental advocate close to the negotiations told POLITICO a “Plan C” on climate change could involve pouring tons more money into grants, loan guarantees and other programs aimed at curbing emissions.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said that plowing more money into research and development could do the trick: “There are things that make a big difference that Joe would agree to.” And Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said that increasing energy storage could be feasible to Manchin.

“He’s been more receptive to climate-related legislation this year than I expected given [he’s from] a coal state and all that history,” King said.

That still leaves Democratic leaders with a dilemma, since backing a deal that leans heavily on voluntary and research programs almost surely will disappoint climate advocates on and off the Hill. Dozens of Democrats have vowed for months to oppose legislation insufficiently strong on climate provisions under the tagline of “no climate, no deal."

Beyond the scientific realities, though, lie political ones. Democrats are anxious for Biden to show up at global climate negotiations in early November with proof the U.S. can be counted on to follow through on its emissions-combating commitments. The fear is that, without a national program for clean electricity or an economy-wide carbon tax, other nations won’t buy the president's rhetoric.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said this week that he can’t support a reconciliation bill without a climate component. But he contended that his party can still go big without a carbon tax or a new major clean energy transition program, by increasing tax incentives for clean energy and using “other taxing powers beyond a broad carbon tax.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who co-chairs the bipartisan Senate Climate Solution Caucus, said that Democrats are having "purposeful conversations this week" aimed at hashing out "the most possible path forward."

Manchin has been urging the House to pass the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure bill, which pours billions into climate resiliency. He says if that can pass before Biden heads to the Glasgow climate talks, it will demonstrate to the world that the U.S. is serious.

But many Democrats say that’s not enough.

“Resiliency is not a solution; resiliency is treatment. If you have heart disease, yes, you need treatment for that. But it’s better off to have a healthy heart," Heinrich said. "And that’s what climate policy is about."

Nebraska GOP Rep. Fortenberry indicted

A federal grand jury indicted Rep. Jeff Fortenberry on Tuesday, alleging that the Nebraska GOP congressman concealed information and made false statements to authorities.

The Justice Department said that Fortenberry repeatedly lied to and misled authorities during an investigation into illegal contributions to his re-election campaign that were made by a Nigerian-born billionaire, Gilbert Chagoury. He is charged with one count of scheming to falsify and conceal material facts and two counts of making false statements to federal investigators.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas tests positive for Covid

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, tested positive for Covid-19 on Tuesday, according to a DHS spokesperson, who said he was fully vaccinated.

“Secretary Mayorkas tested positive this morning for the COVID-19 virus after taking a test as part of routine pre-travel protocols,” spokesperson Marsha Espinosa said in a tweet. “Secretary Mayorkas is experiencing only mild congestion; he is fully vaccinated and will isolate and work at home per CDC protocols and medical advice. Contact tracing is underway.”

He is the first Cabinet secretary in the Biden administration to test positive.

Breakthrough infections for fully vaccinated people are rare, and those cases have much lower rates of serious illness, hospitalization and death from Covid. People who are unvaccinated are 11.3 more times as likely to die from the disease than those who are vaccinated, according to CDC data from August.

Mayorkas was supposed to travel to Colombia with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, but will now be working from home, according to CNN.

USDA looks to cut salmonella contamination in poultry after repeated failures

The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service announced Tuesday that it is kicking off an effort to substantially reduce the number of people each year who get sick from poultry products contaminated with salmonella.

The context: The move comes after consumer advocates have repeatedly pressed the department to take a more aggressive approach to reducing salmonella in various chicken and turkey products. The country failed to meet its 2020 goals for cutting salmonella infections, although some testing data has suggested poultry products are less contaminated than they were previously.

USDA said that about 1 million American consumers get sick from salmonella each year. More than 23 percent of those illnesses are estimated to be tied to chicken and poultry products.

What’s new: FSIS said Tuesday it’s “initiating several key activities to gather the data and information necessary to support future action” with the aim of getting closer to the government’s overall goal of cutting salmonella illnesses by 25 percent by 2030. Health officials had previously set 2020 as the deadline for that same level of reduction but failed to reach it.

The agency is asking for feedback on how best to control and measure salmonella. Officials are launching new pilot projects in poultry slaughter and processing plants. They are also suggesting a new focus on certain strains of salmonella that are particularly virulent and are causing the most illnesses.

“We have consistently missed our goal of reducing salmonella infections linked to FSIS-regulated products set by every healthy people initiative over the past number of decades,” Sandra Eskin, deputy undersecretary for food safety at USDA, said during a recent speech at the National Food Policy Conference in Washington. Eskin was previously the head of food safety at Pew Charitable Trusts, where she played a key role in advocating for the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Various input: Eskin said FSIS would be taking suggestions from industry, consumer groups and researchers. The North American Meat Institute said it welcomed the plan and would work with the agency.

“The industry has significantly improved efforts to reduce incidence of salmonella, and we will continue to work with USDA to do all we can to detect and deter incidents of salmonellosis, especially by coordinating with partners in the supply chain on best practices and research,” Julie Anna Potts, president and CEO of the Meat Institute, said in a statement.

Eskin recently nodded to several of the ideas that consumer groups have advocated. For instance, FSIS is examining ways to cut down on contamination coming into plants, such as potentially looking at on-farm practices.

“Even though FSIS does not have regulatory authority on the farm, we are thinking about how we can factor in the use of pre-harvest interventions at a point where FSIS jurisdiction begins, when the birds are presented at slaughter,” Eskin said in the recent speech.

“We know that most salmonella contamination enters the facility with the birds, and the more we can do to reduce contamination at the point of slaughter, the less contamination and cross-contamination we’re going to have in an establishment,” she added.

Status quo fail: “I think we can all agree there is a need for change, that we can’t keep going in the same direction and expect to see the public health impact we want,” Eskin said.

What’s next: The USDA also announced on Tuesday the appointment of several new members of the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, a key outside panel to help the government on food safety. The committee plans to meet Nov. 17-19 to talk about salmonella as well as Cyclospora contamination.

Cruz puts hold on Biden’s pick for Middle East lead at State

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has put a hold on President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the State Department’s Middle East bureau, according to an email obtained by POLITICO, escalating the Texas Republican’s battle with the administration over diplomatic nominations and opening a sensitive, new policy fight.

In the email, Cruz’s team explained to Senate Foreign Relations Committee GOP offices why the lawmaker was seeking to delay the panel’s approval of Barbara Leaf, a top Middle East National Security Council official nominated to be the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs.

According to the email, Leaf didn’t answer three of Cruz’s written questions to the senator’s satisfaction, and in one case Cruz’s team claims the NSC official lied.

Cruz asked Leaf to detail any “arrangements, deals, or agreements that are being contemplated by the Biden administration to reduce pressure on Iran” instead of a return to the 2015 nuclear deal. “There have been no such arrangements, deals, or agreements contemplated to reduce pressure on Iran,” Leaf responded.

“That testimony is false,” reads a two-pager Cruz’s team attached to the email. In the footnotes, Cruz’s team cited two Reuters stories reporting the U.S. considered taking small steps with Iran as a confidence-building scheme, and another about American officials pondering a “less for less” alternative, which would require fewer restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear work in exchange for fewer lifts on sanctions. Neither story says the goal of those other arrangements were expressly to “reduce pressure on Iran,” but rather reports on ongoing diplomatic discussions and considerations between Tehran and Washington.

The senator also asked to see internal State Department documents instructing staff to refer to Israel’s deals with Arab nations as “normalization agreements” and not the “Abraham Accords” — though the Biden administration still uses the Trump-era term. Leaf said she was “not in a position” to share such documents as a nominee, but said she would “respond to your concerns” once confirmed by the full Senate.

The State Department’s long-standing view is that it's not within a nominee's authority to hand over documents to a Congressional committee. Only the agency can do so.

Cruz also asked three questions about Egypt, but his main one was about the 16 individuals detained by Egypt in what the U.S. has flagged as a gross human rights violation. He wanted to know if the $130 million the U.S. is withholding from security aid to Cairo is contingent on their release, as well as the names, affiliation and specific charges against those individuals. Furthermore, he’d like to know if any of the 16 people are members of Islamist groups and whether the administration intends to grant them U.S. visas if they were to be released.

Leaf’s long answer to those queries didn’t please Cruz’s team — and neither did any of her answers overall. “Leaf wrote back responses running to almost a thousand words. She answered 0 of the questions,” notes the two-page document.

“We asked the State Dept. to have her take another run at the questions — the point was to get answers, not do gotchas. They didn’t respond for a couple weeks, and then after Leaf was cleared they sent us an email saying that if we wanted rewrites my boss should lift his Nord Stream 2-related holds,” read the email from Cruz’s staff to Senate allies.

As a result, Cruz will hold Leaf’s nomination, forcing the administration to either explain its Middle East policy more fully, put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to spend precious floor time blowing past the hold, or pull her nomination altogether.

Leaf didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Cruz’s move tightens his vise grip on Biden’s diplomatic nominations during a time when the Iran nuclear deal is falling apart, tensions with China are ramping up, refugees want out of Afghanistan and sensitive climate change negotiations are coming to a head.

At the same time, Cruz is signalling a willingness to allow other largely non-controversial State Department nominees to sail through without additional hurdles. The Foreign Relations Committee, of which Cruz is a member, is slated to advance dozens of nominations later Tuesday, including ambassadorships for former Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.), as well as Cindy McCain and Julianne Smith, Biden’s pick to represent the U.S. at NATO headquarters. Leaf’s nomination is the only one that will be delayed during Tuesday’s markup.

But it also opens a new front in Cruz’s policy fights with Biden. The Texas senator’s holds on nominees began as a protest against the administration’s decision to waive mandatory sanctions on the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. Cruz and many critics believe that was a strategic blunder, as it will give Moscow more influence in Europe.

Now the Texan is taking on the administration’s handling of the Middle East. Cruz is a longtime critic of the Iran deal and would prefer the U.S. remain out of the pact, while he also remains a supporter of the Trump-negotiated Abraham Accords between Israel and Morocco, Sudan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

It’s expected that Cruz will now bring up his misgivings with Biden’s Middle East policy during Foreign Relations Committee meetings this week, escalating already high tensions between the lawmaker and the administration.

Key Democrat voices concern over Biden bank cop pick, signaling trouble

A key Senate Democrat has voiced misgivings about President Joe Biden’s nomination for a top job overseeing the nation's banks, creating a new potential obstacle in a bruising confirmation fight that has separately been marked by charges of racism and xenophobia against some Republicans.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a member of the Banking Committee that will vet the nominee, said he has “concerns” about Saule Omarova as comptroller of the currency, an ominous sign for a candidate who will likely need party-line support in an evenly split Senate. Omarova has gotten fierce pushback from Republicans for wanting to allow the Federal Reserve to provide bank accounts for Americans, rather than private institutions, a move that she says will "'end banking' as we know it."

Tester, a moderate who has often gone to bat for community banks, didn’t suggest outright opposition at this point. “I want to give her a fair shake, but I do have concerns,” he told POLITICO Monday evening. He declined to be more specific: “I will hold off until after I meet with her.”

Omarova, a professor at Cornell Law School, is one of a number of progressive-backed nominees whom Biden has tapped to become regulators, including the heads of the SEC, the FTC and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But her nomination has been the target of especially scathing attacks over her views that the government should play a greater role in the financial system, including rare opposition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which generally stays out of confirmation battles.

“Dr. Omarova would relegate community banks to ‘pass through’ entities that hold their deposits on behalf of the Federal Reserve, effectively eliminating the community banking model that not only provides the U.S. the most diverse and competitive banking system in the world, but also meets the unique and evolving needs of small businesses and consumers in communities across the country,” American Bankers Association President Rob Nichols said in a speech this week.

Omarova would not have the ability, legally or practically, to implement customer accounts at the central bank, which is an entirely separate agency from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. But she would bring to the job a deep skepticism about the country’s megabanks and their role as dominant players in financial markets. She has suggested that the current regulatory framework is too slow-moving to properly oversee those firms.

She has also suggested that advocates of financial technology and cryptocurrency — often touted as the wave of the future for finance — have overstated the benefits of those developments for consumers.

The OCC, which has at times been accused of being too cozy with the banks it oversees, is responsible for supervising national banks. The next comptroller would grapple with how to reduce the number of people who are shut out of the financial system and how to regulate the national banking system at a time of technological upheaval, with traditional lenders confronting both competition and business opportunities from upstart online lenders and financial apps.

Omarova has received strong support from Senate Banking Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), while Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told reporters he was “very favorably inclined” toward her. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), another moderate on the banking panel, hasn’t given any inclination as to his stance: “I haven’t had a chance to meet her,” he said in an interview.

But the nomination process has become increasingly tense as it relates to her ideology.

Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Banking Committee, has pressed Omarova, who grew up in the then-Soviet state of Kazakhstan, to release her undergraduate thesis on Karl Marx. Toomey said in a speech on the Senate floor earlier this month that he didn’t think he’d seen “a more radical choice for any regulatory spot in our federal government.”

“Where would a person even come up with these ideas? How does it even happen that it occurs to someone to think of these things?” he said. “Maybe a contributing factor could be if a person grew up in the former Soviet Union and went to Moscow State University and attended on a V.I. Lenin academic scholarship.”

Her defenders, including Brown, have criticized the move as an unfair effort to paint her as a communist, while Omarova herself recently suggested that some of the resistance to her might be motivated by racism. If confirmed, she would be the first permanent comptroller who is not a white man.

“I am an easy target: an immigrant, a woman, a minority,” Omarova told the Financial Times last week. She also said there was “no academic freedom” in the USSR, adding that her thesis was “a mandatory assigned topic.”

Asked by the FT if she thought some of the criticism of her was racist, Omarova said: “I think that is true.”

In the same interview, she said her grandmother had been orphaned by the government of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, which “sent her entire family to Siberia and they died there.”

“Her family was destroyed because they were educated Kazakhs who didn’t join the party,” she added.

Toomey rejected the idea that Omarova's background was a factor in his opposition to her.

“That fact of her background has no bearing whatsoever on my judgment about how profoundly misguided the policies she has advocated are and it is perfectly appropriate for us to examine those policies,” he said at a recent hearing.

Biden bets his agenda on the inside game

Before Joe Biden can fully pitch the public on his solutions to a lingering pandemic and economic rockiness, he’s got to finish the sale to his own party’s lawmakers.

As Democrats on Capitol Hill brace in anticipation of a brutal midterm, Biden is spending an extraordinary amount of time and political capital behind the scenes to convince them to rally around a common framework for social and climate spending. His congressional huddles have accelerated, from phone calls on the White House veranda to one-on-one and group meetings — including two high-stakes Tuesday sit downs with moderates and progressives. He’s dialing up old friends to take their temperature about how his presidency is really fairing far beyond the Beltway.

White House aides, in their own recent conversations with nervous allies, have repeatedly cited the flurry of presidential calls as a sign itself of Biden's commitment to getting the bills over the finish line, at times bristling at claims that he hasn't been involved enough.

But Biden’s hours and hours of meetings don’t just reflect the precarious moment in which his presidency finds itself. They underscore the heavy reliance his White House has placed on an inside game, rather than the bully pulpit, to dislodge recalcitrant holdouts and move their agenda.

"The president is a longtime policy guy and relationship guy. So he brings both kinds of skills to his work" to corral his party behind a trillion-dollar-plus package of progressive priorities, said Biden's former primary rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Warren acknowledged, however, that Biden's level of influence over Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — both of whom met with Biden on Tuesday — remains to be seen: "We'll know the answer to that when we make it across the finish line and assess what we’ve got."

Biden will also meet Tuesday afternoon with Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), along with House progressives and moderates.

“I’m going to be pushing the president to try to get it done from his side sooner rather than later,” Tester said ahead of the meeting. He added that Biden doesn’t necessarily have to be the one to close the deal but he “certainly is a big part of it.”

As Biden has worked on lawmakers in private — sometimes not putting a hard stop on his schedule so as not to stifle progress — he’s largely, though not entirely, resisted riskier public pressure campaigns that could backfire and are viewed as against his nature.

Often, Biden has had just a single public event each day. Occasionally, there’s been no public interfacing at all. Eight times since Labor Day, the daily guidance issued by the White House has included only private meetings with Biden.

A planned barnstorming of the country to sell the Build Back Better platform this summer was overshadowed by the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. And congressional uncertainty amid infighting among Democrats on opposite poles of the party has overshadowed continuing trips by Cabinet officials and commandeered the media narrative in Washington.

While Biden has held public events around the agenda, he has not done a formal press interview on it since Labor Day.

That approach is starting to change as the party’s self-imposed Oct. 31 deadline for moving the infrastructure and reconciliation bill nears. On Wednesday, he will take a trip to his hometown of Scranton, Pa., to discuss the benefits of the legislative proposals, and on Thursday he will participate in a town hall broadcast on CNN.

Over the weekend, Biden called Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) to discuss the upcoming trip, according to the senator, who is working on expanding care for older people and people with disabilities.

“He wanted to get some suggestions about issues we should focus on, while we’re there,” Casey said.

Still, inside the White House, the lower-key strategy has been seen as a necessity: Democrats have such slim congressional majorities that Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have essentially no margin for error. That has put far more of the president’s focus on convincing a relatively small number of lawmakers to agree to details of the package, rather than using his time to sell policies that the general public supports.

Chief among that small number of lawmakers are Manchin and Sinema, who remain resistant to the range of $1.9 trillion to $2.2 trillion that Biden and progressive lawmakers have discussed as a compromise top line for the social spending bill.

"I'm told that they've given signs on the parking spaces for these two senators at the White House, that they're there so often,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of Manchin and Sinema. “This president has been engaged from the start, in working with all the leaders, and particularly with those two senators."

As he does that, Biden has labored to project a sense of optimism about his progress. White House officials say they’re encouraged by what they described as the accelerated pace of the talks, even as the Oct. 31 timetable appears exceedingly ambitious.

Another explanation for the approach was baked in long ago. Biden is a 36-year veteran of the Senate with a heightened sense of his own negotiating instincts and abilities to move major legislation through the chamber. A self-admitted schmoozer, he has avoided doing much to shame Manchin and Sinema, preventing many details from their conversations and about his own preferences from spilling into public view.

“There’s a lot of complaining about what the message has been on this package, but when you’re trying to fight for every vote, the coverage inevitably becomes about the process and numbers,” said John Podesta, a top aide to former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and a major climate activist. “When you are inside talking one-on-one to members trying to convince people to stay with you or come on board it’s very hard to create a press environment which is different from what they’ve got.”

Biden has resumed his in-person meetings with Congress’ return to Washington, including Tuesday sit-downs that also involve Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. There's a deepening acknowledgment that he has to hurry.

“They really are now in a circumstance where they will take on more and more water unless they can close the framework,” Podesta added. “I think they’ll do it. But it’s not like they have forever. We’re talking about this week or next week.”

In his meetings, Biden has spent a considerable amount of time in meetings on the party’s collective sense of urgency, aides and allies said, telling members of his party that they simply have to deliver. The conversations have at times been crisp, with Biden telling some Democratic skeptics that in order to be part of the negotiating process, they need to articulate policies that they are for and not just what they oppose — a message similar to the one Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has delivered to Manchin and Sinema.

Biden’s goal has been to help establish broad areas of agreement before filling in the specifics. At the same time, Biden has repeatedly cautioned his senior aides and officials not to rely on generalizations, and to prepare recommendations based on data and input from the lawmakers about their states and districts.

He has stolen bits of face time with lawmakers wherever he can, keeping members back after bill signings, for example, to sound them out, and gathering with them in their districts when he’s been on the road. Moving beyond sticking points has been a challenge, and Biden is known to implore lawmakers to step back and ignore a particular area and to temporarily focus on others where they might be able to make progress.

“When you see him artfully and deftly manage these hard conversations with members and guide them into a productive place, it helps remind you there is room for optimism and there is a pathway here,” said Louisa Terrell, director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

House prepares to deploy contempt against Bannon — but it won't be easy

The House's push to prosecute Steve Bannon for defying its Jan. 6 investigators relies on a law that hasn't produced a conviction in decades and could take years to litigate.

Welcome to criminal contempt of Congress. It's going to be messy.

Contempt is one of the House’s only tools to punish witnesses who refuse to cooperate, but it’s riddled with legal loopholes and ambiguities that could allow Donald Trump’s allies to bury the Jan. 6 select committee in Byzantine court challenges — without ever producing new evidence about the former president’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.

“The committee has a tough road to hoe,” said former House counsel Stan Brand, who helped orchestrate the referral of the then-EPA chief to the Justice Department for criminal contempt of Congress in 1982. “You have no clear, easy path to compliance.”

Advocates for criminal contempt say that its successful use isn’t measured in completed prosecutions, but rather in its ability to persuade a target to cooperate. For example, congressional Democrats say the threat of contempt helped bring former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Attorney General William Barr to the negotiating table last year, after they initially refused to provide documents and testimony to the House in separate investigations.

But coaxing cooperation will get complicated with Bannon, whom Jan. 6 investigators say had crucial communications with Trump in the run-up to the attack on the Capitol. Bannon has lodged a claim of executive privilege that, no matter how flimsy, is likely to force the committee into possibly yearslong litigation — that itself would become intertwined with Trump’s own lawsuit aimed at quashing the select panel's authority. And Bannon indicated no willingness to deal with the panel until those legal matters are sorted out.

“There's not really any way to get this resolved in litigation on the timeline the committee is operating on,” said Lisa Kern Griffin, a Duke University criminal law expert.

Once the House holds Bannon in contempt — a vote aides say would likely occur before Thanksgiving — DOJ will take over. Jan. 6 committee members have uniformly expressed hope that Attorney General Merrick Garland will share their urgency in holding Bannon accountable for his defiance of their subpoena.

Biden added to Hill Democrats' excitement when he responded to a reporter’s question Friday saying those who defy the select committee should be prosecuted. DOJ quickly issued a statement emphasizing that prosecution decisions would be made independently of the White House.

And, indeed, despite the left's elation at potential accountability for Bannon, legal experts say prosecution for contempt is a much tougher call than it appears.

“Since at least the Reagan Administration, there has not been a successful prosecution under the criminal contempt statute,” said Thomas Spulak, another former House counsel. “Although there may be political alignment, there are institutional considerations involving DOJ, one of which is whether Garland wants to be drawn into a continuation of the Trump Administration subpoena battles.”

The Jan. 6 committee laid out its case for criminal contempt of Bannon in a 26-page report issued Monday night.

“[T]here is no reasonable argument that Mr. Bannon’s communications with the President regarding January 6th are the type of matters on which privilege can be asserted,” the panel wrote. “Also, the Select Committee is confident that no executive privilege assertion would bar Mr. Bannon’s testimony regarding his communications directly with the President regarding January 6th — because the privilege is qualified and could be overcome.”

Some legal experts who helped House Democrats argue against criminal contempt charges for then-IRS official Lois Lerner in 2014 said Bannon’s case is so clear-cut that it’s worth bringing sanctions against him — even if it doesn’t result in getting the testimony they’re seeking.

“If such conduct is not responded to, then what incentive does anyone have ever to obey a lawful order?” said Sam Buell, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the government's case against energy giant Enron.

Griffin, the Duke legal expert, noted that criminal contempt charges could move forward even if the Jan. 6 committee disbands after the 2022 elections. Though that move wouldn’t yield testimony, it could still send a message that defying congressional subpoenas has consequences.

The history of congressional contempt proceedings is replete with cases that landed on DOJ'’s doorstep only to be rejected. A Republican-led House’s contempt referral against Attorney General Eric Holder got refused in 2012, and in 2008 DOJ argued on behalf of two Bush White House officials fighting a congressional demand for information.

Brand was House counsel when lawmakers pursued documents and testimony from then-EPA head Anne Gorsuch Burford, the mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. But DOJ argued against the subpoenas on her behalf. The fight ultimately led to her resignation, after which she cut a deal with the House.

The most recent charged and convicted criminal contempt of Congress cases occurred in the 1970s, when Watergate scandal figures G. Gordon Liddy and Richard Kleindienst were convicted and pleaded guilty, respectively, for refusing to answer congressional questions. Former CIA Director Richard Helms was given a suspended sentence and fined $2,000 under the same statute in 1977. Before that, many of the contempt cases arose from the House Un-American Activities Committee — and several convictions stemming from those cases were later overturned because of procedural failures.

Democrats say Bannon’s conduct is particularly brazen because he is refusing to answer any of the committee’s questions. Indeed, he declined to show up at all to his Oct. 14 deposition.

In that respect, his actions parallel claims from Trump and George W. Bush White House officials who insisted they had absolute immunity from congressional subpoenas and did not even have to turn up.

Lawyers say the Supreme Court’s decision last year over a House demand for Trump’s financial records has undercut the sweeping privilege claims Trump and Bannon are making. In that case, the justices unanimously rejected Trump’s claim of absolute immunity. However, they also set up a complex test for the courts to apply in congressional subpoena cases — one Trump has already leaned on to bolster his own lawsuit against the Jan. 6 committee.

Democrats contend that Trump’s departure from office and the fact that Bannon was only an informal adviser to Trump on Jan. 6 further undercut the executive privilege claims, but the courts have not indicated that either of those facts is fatal.

If Bannon were charged under the misdemeanor contempt statute, prosecutors would have to prove that Bannon “willfully” defied Congress. That could be difficult to show since he appears to have legal advice from his own attorney and Trump’s lawyers that he has valid legal arguments against the subpoena. His lawyer has said Bannon would comply if ordered to by a court.

Those mitigating factors could also prompt DOJ to decline to charge him in the first place.

“The criminal statute requires proof of the elements of the offense, each and every one of them, beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Brand. “They're going to have some interesting conversations inside the U.S. attorney's office. I don't know which way they'll go.”

On the other hand, Bannon's privilege claim covering personal and political activities without any connection to Trump appears particularly flimsy. Prosecutors might consider Bannon’s refusal to answer those questions so unwarranted that it invites the criminal charge.

Some experts — and members of Congress themselves — have looked at the legal landscape and wondered if it’s time for lawmakers to dust off their most severe power: inherent contempt. That process allows the House to directly arrest and fine recalcitrant witnesses, at least initially bypassing the judiciary and taking matters into their own hands.

Several Jan. 6 committee members have noted that inherent contempt is on the table, even though House lawyers have been reluctant to consider it because of the extreme conflict it would provoke.

“That hasn’t happened in over 80 years,” said Spulak. “Maybe it’s time to revisit it.”

Democrats pare back proposed IRS bank reporting requirements

The Treasury Department officially announced Tuesday that Democrats were narrowing the scope of a controversial proposal that would force banks and credit unions to give more account information to the IRS to help boost tax compliance.

President Joe Biden’s original proposal, designed to raise money for his sprawling social spending plan and touted as a way to combat tax dodging by the wealthy, would have made financial institutions give the IRS an annual figure for money going both in and out of any account that had at least $600 worth of deposits and withdrawals.

But even some Democrats believed that proposal wasn’t focused enough on the rich and would affect too many workers of more modest means. And Republicans have used it to bash Biden's plan as an invasion of privacy.

Higher threshold, exemptions: The new plan sets the threshold at $10,000, after discussions between congressional Democrats and the Biden administration, and would exempt certain income from wages or federal programs like Social Security.

“Today’s new proposal reflects the Administration’s strong belief that we should zero in on those at the top of the income scale who don’t pay the taxes they owe, while protecting American workers by setting the bank account threshold at $10,000 and providing an exemption for wage earners like teachers and firefighters,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who is holding a news conference on the proposal this afternoon, will note that the proposal will also include an exemption for large purchases — like a down payment for a house.

Will it make the cut: House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) announced the general contours of the new plan during his committee’s markup of tax increases last month, in a sign that some Democratic lawmakers were uncomfortable with the proposal’s original details.

The banking lobby has been mobilizing against the proposed IRS reporting requirements for months now, and has stressed that financial companies oppose the idea no matter how many accounts might be exempted.

Republicans are increasingly going on the attack now, too — calling the Democrats’ plan an unneeded intrusion into everyday people’s financial situations.

Tax dodging argument: Treasury officials and other key Democrats have argued that the plan confronts a key inequity in the tax system — that it’s far easier for higher-earning people to dodge taxes, particularly by low-balling or not reporting private business income, than it is for workers who have their wages reported on a W-2 form.

And top Democrats have made it clear that they want the reporting mandate to be included in the social spending package that they’re trying to pass, despite the industry opposition and questions among their own lawmakers.

“The IRS would not know what any taxpayer is purchasing,” Wyden plans to say today, in pushing back on both the GOP critics and the banks. “The idea that adding two boxes to a form they already send to the IRS would end western civilization just doesn’t hold up.”