Live Updates: To Push Through Infrastructure Plan, Biden Tries to Redefine Bipartisanship

President Biden and his allies are barreling ahead with unapologetically bold, expensive measures, betting that they can build bipartisanship from voters nationwide rather than from elected officials in Washington. The president is set to speak soon about the latest jobs report.,

LiveUpdated April 2, 2021, 12:05 p.m. ETApril 2, 2021, 12:05 p.m. ET

President Biden and his allies are barreling ahead with unapologetically bold, expensive measures, betting that they can build bipartisanship from voters nationwide rather than from elected officials in Washington. The president is addressing the latest jobs report.

Two unaccompanied child immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande river from Mexico were detained by border patrol agents in Roma, Texas.
Two unaccompanied child immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande river from Mexico were detained by border patrol agents in Roma, Texas.Credit…Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The unaccompanied children and teenagers detained at the border nearly doubled in March compared with the previous month, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.

Altogether, border officials encountered more than 170,000 migrants in March, a nearly 70 percent increase from February and the highest monthly since 2006. Officials advised that the statistics are preliminary and an official count will likely be released next week.

More than 18,700 children and teenagers were taken into custody after crossing the border, including at port entries, in March, nearly double the roughly 9,450 minors detained in February. Just 3,490 minors crossed in February of last year.

Border officials also encountered more than 53,000 migrants traveling as families in March, up from roughly 19,250 in the prior month, according to the documents, even as the Biden administration struggled to safely process thousands of minors already held in border detention centers. The pace of crossings by migrant families is similar to numbers in 2019, when the Trump administration struggled to safely process a surge of Central American families fleeing poverty and persecution.

President Biden has left a Trump-era pandemic emergency rule in place empowering agents to rapidly turn away migrants at the border without providing the chance to ask for asylum, but the administration has not applied the sweeping restriction to unaccompanied minors. Faced with criticism from Republicans that Mr. Biden has not asserted control at the border, administration officials have repeatedly cited the use of the rule against single adults and families.

But a majority of the families crossing the border are now being taken into custody and subsequently released into the United States because of restricted capacity in facilities on both sides of the southwest border, according to government documents and homeland security officials.

To relieve overcrowding in border detention facilities, border agents are now releasing many families at bus stations along the border, including some without full information for their upcoming court appearances, according to officials.

The administration has attributed the inability to expel families to a change in Mexican law that prohibits the detention of small children. Authorities in Mexico have also refused the expulsions because of restricted space in shelters where they could house the families.

President Biden introducing his infrastructure plan on Wednesday. He is counting on voters' bipartisan support to overcome Republican objections in Congress.
President Biden introducing his infrastructure plan on Wednesday. He is counting on voters’ bipartisan support to overcome Republican objections in Congress.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

President Biden’s attempt to muscle through a $2 trillion plan to rebuild the country’s infrastructure — along with tax increases to pay for it — will be a defining test of his belief that bipartisan support for his proposals can overwhelm traditional Republican objections in Congress.

Instead of paring back his ambitions in an effort to limit opposition from Republicans in the Senate or appease moderate Democrats in the House, Mr. Biden and his allies on Capitol Hill are barreling ahead with unapologetically bold, expensive measures, betting that they can build bipartisanship from voters nationwide rather than from elected officials in Washington.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and other members of his party are working to brand the bill as a liberal wish list of wasteful spending and a money grab from a Democratic administration that will drag down the economy with tax hikes.

But Mr. Biden is predicting that the broad appeal of wider roads, faster internet, high-speed trains, ubiquitous charging stations for electric cars, shiny new airport terminals and upgraded water pipes will undercut the expected barrage of ideological attacks that are already coming from Republican lawmakers, business groups, anti-tax activists and former President Donald J. Trump.

In his first cabinet meeting at the White House on Thursday, Mr. Biden directed several of his top officials to travel the country during the next several weeks to sell the benefits of the infrastructure plan. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, also told reporters that the president would host Democrats and Republicans in the Oval Office to discuss the measure and their ideas.

“I hope and believe the American people will join this effort — Democrats, Republicans and independents,” Mr. Biden said in Pittsburgh on Wednesday as he formally announced his plan. He compared it to the popularity of the nearly $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that passed last month, saying, “If you live in a town with a Republican mayor, a Republican county executive or a Republican governor, ask them how many would rather get rid of the plan.”

But generating sustained support for the proposal is shaping up to be a major challenge for the White House. The business lobby is preparing to wage a full-scale campaign against the tax increases in the president’s plan, with influential groups like the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warning lawmakers against raising taxes as the United States emerges from a deep economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

At an event in his home state on Thursday, Mr. McConnell called Mr. Biden “a first-rate person” whom he liked personally. But he argued that the president was running a “bold, left-wing administration” and warned “that package that they’re putting together now, as much as we would like to address infrastructure, is not going to get support from our side.”

President Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $20 billion to “reconnect” communities of color to economic opportunity,Credit…Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com, via Associated Press

America’s most celebrated infrastructure initiative, the interstate highway system, rammed an elevated freeway through the center of Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans in the late 1960s.

It claimed dozens of Black-owned businesses, along with oak trees and azalea bushes that had shaded Black children playing in the large neutral ground in the middle of the street, eviscerating a vibrant neighborhood whose residents fought in vain to stop the construction.

More than a half-century later, President Biden’s $2 trillion plan to rebuild aging roads, bridges, rail lines and other foundations of the economy comes with a new twist: hundreds of billions of dollars that administration officials say will help reverse long-running racial disparities in how the government builds, repairs and locates a wide range of physical infrastructure.

That includes $20 billion to “reconnect” communities of color to economic opportunity, like the Black residents still living in the interstate’s shadow along Claiborne.

Mr. Biden’s plan, which he unveiled on Wednesday in Pittsburgh, is the first step in a two-part agenda to remake the American economy. The president and his advisers have pitched that agenda — whose total cost could reach $4 trillion — in the grand terms of economic competitiveness and the granular language of shortened commute times.

But they have also stressed its potential to advance racial equity and bridge gaps in economic outcomes.

In addition to dedicated funding for neighborhoods split or splintered by past infrastructure projects, the proposal also includes money for the replacement of lead water pipes that have harmed Black children in cities like Flint, Mich.; the cleanup of environmental hazards that have plagued Hispanic neighborhoods and tribal communities; worker training that would target underserved groups; and funds for home health aides, who are largely women of color.

Republicans have objected to the corporate tax increases Mr. Biden has proposed to fund this phase of his agenda, and they have accused the president of using the popular banner of “infrastructure” to sell what they call unrelated liberal priorities — including many of the programs White House officials say will advance economic opportunity for disadvantaged people and areas.

But liberal economists say the spending on transportation, housing and other areas of Mr. Biden’s initial plan could help advance racial equity, if done correctly.

“This is a promising start,” said Trevon Logan, an economist at Ohio State University whose work includes studies of how government spending projects, like the one that built the interstate highway system, have excluded or hurt Americans who are not white.

The U.S. jobs rebound picked up steam last month, fueled by the accelerating pace of vaccinations and a new injection of federal aid.

Employers added 916,000 jobs in March, up from 416,000 in February and the most since August, the Labor Department said Friday. The leisure and hospitality sector led the way, adding 280,000 jobs as Americans returned to restaurants and resorts in greater numbers. Construction firms added 110,000 jobs as the housing market stayed strong and activity resumed following winter storms in February.

The unemployment rate fell to 6 percent, down from 6.2 percent in February.

“March’s jobs report is the most optimistic report since the pandemic began,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist of the career site Glassdoor. “It’s not the largest gain in payrolls since the pandemic began, but it’s the first where it seems like the finish line is in sight.”

The report came one year after the pandemic ripped a hole in the American labor market. The U.S. economy lost 1.7 million jobs in March 2020 and more than 20 million in April, when the unemployment rate peaked at nearly 15 percent.

The job market bounced back quickly at first, but progress began to slow as virus cases surged and states reimposed restrictions on businesses. Over the winter, the recovery stalled out, with employers cutting more than 300,000 jobs in December.

Economists said the latest data marked a turning point. Last month was the third straight month of accelerating hiring, and even bigger gains are likely in the months ahead. The March data was collected early in the month, before most states broadened vaccine access and before most Americans began receiving $1,400 checks from the federal government as part of the most recent relief package.

“The tide is turning,” said Michelle Meyer, chief U.S. economist for Bank of America. The report, she said, “reaffirms this idea that the economy is accelerating meaningfully in the spring.”

The United States still has 8.4 million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic. Even if employers kept hiring at the pace they did in March, it would take months to fill the gap. More than four million people have been out of work for more than six months, a number that continued rising in March.

And the virus remains a risk. Coronavirus cases are rising again in much of the country as states have begun easing restrictions. If that trend turns into a full-blown new wave of infections, it could force some states to backpedal, impeding the recovery.

But few economists expect a repeat of the winter, when a spike in Covid-19 cases pushed the recovery into reverse. More than a quarter of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and more than two million people a day are being inoculated. That should allow economic activity to continue to rebound.

“This time is different, and that’s because of vaccines,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at the job site ZipRecruiter. “It’s real this time.”

President Biden wants to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, negotiated while he was vice president. His successor withdrew from the deal in 2018.
President Biden wants to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, negotiated while he was vice president. His successor withdrew from the deal in 2018.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Negotiations on how to bring both the United States and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will take place among all parties in Vienna next week, but there will be no direct talks between Iran and the United States.

How to sequence the return of both countries to the terms of the deal has been a complicated political and technical question, with both sides insisting the other move first. The Vienna talks, which will begin on Tuesday, will be the first serious effort since President Biden took office to figure out how that can happen.

Mr. Biden wants to return to the deal, negotiated while he was vice president, and which placed tough but temporary limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for lifting American and international sanctions on Tehran.

Indirect talks in Vienna between Iran and the United States, which the participants agreed in on Friday will be carried out in person through intermediaries, will seek to agree on a road map on how to synchronize steps to return to their commitments, including the lifting of economic sanctions, a U.S. official said. The United States would not seek to retain some sanctions for leverage, the official said, arguing that the previous “maximum pressure” campaign waged against Iran by the Trump administration had failed.

Once Iran and other signatories, including Germany, France, Britain and the European Union, as chair, work out the road map, the official said, then Iran and the United States would ideally meet to finalize the details to get to where both say they want to be.

President Donald J. Trump had pulled the United States out in May 2018 — calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated” — and restored and then enhanced harsh economic sanctions against Iran, trying to force it to renegotiate. Iran responded in part by enriching uranium significantly beyond the limits in the agreement and building more advanced centrifuges.

Mr. Biden’s team has said that once there is mutual compliance with the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Washington wants to negotiate further with Iran. Other goals include extending the time limitations in the deal and trying to limit Iran’s missile programs and military support in the Middle East for groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Shia militias, let alone for the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.

Both sides have been trying through the Europeans to find a way back to the agreement without causing political problems at home. Iran has a key presidential election in June and the government clearly wants to show some progress toward the lifting of punishing sanctions before then. Mr. Biden will likely be aiming not to give Republicans in the Senate, most of whom opposed the deal in the first place, any sense that he is giving in to Iranian demands.

But time is a factor for Washington, too: Iran is now thought to be only a few months away from having enough highly enriched uranium to create at least one nuclear weapon.

President Biden at his first formal news conference in the East Room of the White House last month.
President Biden at his first formal news conference in the East Room of the White House last month.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

More than two months into his presidency, President Biden may soon deliver an address to a joint session of Congress, a speech presidents usually deliver weeks after moving into the White House.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Biden was “definitely considering giving a joint session address,” but she did not provide a specific date.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday that the coronavirus pandemic had forced officials, including medical personnel at the Capitol, to assess safety precautions for attendees before moving forward with the address.

“We’ll wait on the advice of the Capitol physician, the sergeant-at-arms on how many people can be accommodated,” Ms. Pelosi said. “But whatever the number, we’ll be ready whenever the president is ready to come, which is tradition.”

The White House has adapted other traditional presidential events to move forward safely during the pandemic.

On Thursday, Mr. Biden held his first cabinet meeting in the East Room, a less-cramped space than the Cabinet Room, to allow for all of the attendees to abide by social distancing protocols. He also held his first formal news conference there last month, with a limited number of reporters allowed to fill seats that were widely spaced apart.

Voting in Arlington, Va., in November. Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation this week to recreate pivotal elements of the federal Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court.
Voting in Arlington, Va., in November. Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation this week to recreate pivotal elements of the federal Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court.Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Georgia has sharply limited voting access, making drop boxes less available and forbidding anyone to hand out water to voters in line. Florida and Texas are poised to advance similar legislation. Alabama’s strict voter identification law is being used as a template elsewhere.

But Virginia is bolting in the opposite direction.

The Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, this week capped a multiyear liberal movement for greater ballot access by signing sweeping legislation to recreate pivotal elements of the federal Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority in 2013.

Alone among the states of the former Confederacy, Virginia is increasingly encouraging its citizens — especially people of color — to exercise their rights. In the last 14 months, the state’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly and Mr. Northam have repealed the state’s voter ID law, enacted 45 days of no-excuse absentee voting, made Election Day a holiday and enacted automatic voter registration for anyone getting a state driver’s license.

Virginia, which for nearly 50 years had to get approval from the federal government for any election changes under the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirements, has now, in an extraordinary move, effectively imposed the same covenants on itself.

The new law approved on Wednesday, called the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, requires all local elections administrators to receive public feedback or advance approval from the state’s attorney general for changes like moving voting precincts, and allows voters and the attorney general to sue over voter suppression.

“I have an aunt who marched against the poll tax. My grandparents both had to pay poll taxes,” said Marcia Price, a Democratic state delegate who sponsored the legislation. “Just knowing that they lived under a system that was unfair and unequal, I learned very early that it was wrong, and that it needs to be changed.”

Republican state legislators all opposed the measure, arguing that it would inundate local election administrators with lawsuits and complicate routine changes to voting.

Mr. Northam’s career was nearly derailed by a blackface scandal in 2019. Since then, he has been at the forefront of many of the state’s racial justice initiatives and has enjoyed high approval ratings.

A line of voters outside a polling place in October in Austin, Texas.
A line of voters outside a polling place in October in Austin, Texas.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Lawmakers in Texas, a state that already claims the most onerous voting laws in the nation, on Thursday took a major step toward making it even tougher to cast a ballot, the latest in a bevy of Republican-backed efforts to restrict voting ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

The State Senate approved an overhaul of election law that would roll back many steps taken by counties last year to facilitate voting during the pandemic and impose new curbs in their place, including statewide limits on polling-place hours, a new formula for locating polling places and a ban on drop boxes that were widely used nationwide last year to assist mail-in voters.

The proposal also would ban anyone except the voter who filled out a ballot from dropping it in a mailbox or delivering it to an election official. It adds new paperwork requirements for voters who need help because of language problems or disabilities. And it would give so-called poll watchers — untrained monitors, usually chosen by candidates or party officials, who are stationed inside polling places — the right to videotape voters if they deem them suspicious.

The Texas measure comes on the heels of efforts in Iowa and Georgia, where lawmakers significantly tightened voting rules last month. The Georgia measure has been criticized by executives of several major companies with headquarters in the state. In Arizona, two Republican-backed bills that would erect roadblocks to voting by mail — the method used by eight in 10 voters — are approaching final votes in the State Legislature.

American Airlines, which is based in Fort Worth, said in a statement on Thursday that it was “strongly opposed” to the bill that passed the Texas Senate “and others like it.”

A similar bill moved through the Texas House’s elections committee on Thursday. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, made tougher voting laws a priority for the current legislative session after party leaders and some legislators embraced the baseless claim that a wave of fraudulent votes was responsible for President Biden’s election last fall. (Though President Donald J. Trump won Texas, drawing 52 percent of the vote.)

Despite no evidence of significant election fraud in Texas last year, supporters of the bills in both chambers say those and other measures are necessary to make the state’s elections more secure.

“This bill is designed to address areas throughout the process where bad actors can take advantage, so Texans can feel confident that their elections are fair, honest and open,” State Senator Bryan Hughes, a Republican from Mineola, about 100 miles east of Dallas, said during Senate debate on the measure.

But David Becker, an expert on election administration who directs the Center for Election Innovation and Research in Washington, said the legislation ultimately would make voting less secure by encouraging voters who would normally vote by mail or in person during early voting periods to vote on Election Day. What little fraud exists can often be spotted by analyzing the ballots cast before Election Day, he said, while fraud or cyberattacks are harder to detect and address in the crush of a big Election Day turnout.

Another provision would delay a statewide requirement to use auditable paper ballots until 2026, a move that would almost certainly make Texas the last state in the nation to carry out that basic security measure.

Critics of the Senate bill said most of its provisions were less about making voting secure than about making it harder, particularly for urban voters and minority voters, two groups that tend to vote for Democrats.

They called the clause allowing partisan monitors to videotape voters an invitation to intimidation, and noted that the voters most likely to be recorded — those with language problems who need assistance filling out a ballot — were disproportionately people of color.

Similarly, they said, clauses limiting voting hours to 6 a.m. to. 9 p.m., banning drive-through voting and changing the formula for allotting polling places in counties with more than one million residents would apply largely to counties with big cities like Houston, which expanded its voting hours and allowed for drive-through balloting in November.

The Senate bill was widely opposed by the state’s local election officials, including those in many of the biggest urban areas.

Stephanie Gomez, the associate director of the advocacy group Common Cause Texas, said in a video conference with reporters that the two bills were “weaponizing legislation to codify widespread voter intimidation.”

“If you want to know which state is going to be the next Georgia,” she said, “it’s Texas.”

Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, sent money to women using cash apps, receipts showed.
Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, sent money to women using cash apps, receipts showed.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

A Justice Department investigation into Representative Matt Gaetz and an indicted Florida politician is focusing on their involvement with multiple women who were recruited online for sex and received cash payments, according to people close to the investigation and text messages and payment receipts reviewed by The New York Times.

Investigators believe Joel Greenberg, the former tax collector in Seminole County, Fla., who was indicted last year on a federal sex trafficking charge and other crimes, initially met the women through websites that connect people who go on dates in exchange for gifts, fine dining, travel and allowances, according to three people with knowledge of the encounters. Mr. Greenberg introduced the women to Mr. Gaetz, who also had sex with them, the people said.

One of the women who had sex with both men also agreed to have sex with an unidentified associate of theirs in Florida Republican politics, according to a person familiar with the arrangement. Mr. Greenberg had initially contacted her online and introduced her to Mr. Gaetz, the person said.

Mr. Gaetz denied ever paying a woman for sex.

The Justice Department inquiry is also examining whether Mr. Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old girl and whether she received anything of material value, according to four people familiar with the investigation. The sex trafficking count against Mr. Greenberg involved the same girl, according to two people briefed on the investigation.

The authorities have also investigated whether other men connected to Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Greenberg had sex with the 17-year-old, two of the people said.

Mr. Gaetz, 38, was elected to Congress in 2016 and became one of President Donald J. Trump’s most outspoken advocates.

The Times has reviewed receipts from Cash App, a mobile payments app, and Apple Pay that show payments from Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Greenberg to one of the women, and a payment from Mr. Greenberg to a second woman. The women told their friends that the payments were for sex with the two men, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

Some of the men and women took ecstasy, an illegal hallucinogenic drug, before having sex, including Mr. Gaetz, two people familiar with the encounters said.

The F.B.I. has questioned multiple women involved in the encounters, including as recently as January, to establish details of their relationships with Mr. Gaetz and his friends, according to text messages and two people familiar with the interviews.

No charges have been brought against Mr. Gaetz, and the extent of his criminal exposure is unclear. Mr. Gaetz’s office issued a statement on Thursday night in a response to a request for comment.

“Matt Gaetz has never paid for sex,” the statement said. “Matt Gaetz refutes all the disgusting allegations completely. Matt Gaetz has never ever been on any such websites whatsoever. Matt Gaetz cherishes the relationships in his past and looks forward to marrying the love of his life.”

A lawyer for Mr. Greenberg, Fritz Scheller, declined to comment, as did a Justice Department spokesman.

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