WASHINGTON — Rep. Cori Bush spent three nights and three days on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, scoring a victory that may prove to be short-lived but that fellow progressives are hoping to turn into future wins.
In a Washington that has struggled to function, split not just along partisan lines but across a spectrum that has divided politicians into ever-shrinking silos, getting anything accomplished can often feel impossible.
But Bush, a Democrat from Missouri, tasted momentary victory this week when the White House relented and re-established the eviction moratorium. And progressives are using their newfound victory to push other issues, including the canceling of student debt. (On Friday, the administration announced another payment hiatus extension.)
Democrats heaped praise on Bush.
“I used to ask myself, ‘Does it matter that I’m here instead of somebody else?’ And you’ve now answered that question. It matters that you’re here, and not somebody else,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said.
Rich Luchette, a Democratic consultant and former congressional aide, said that Bush’s tactic was effective. He compared it to the sit-in on the House floor led by Rep. John Lewis over gun control after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
“She found an innovative way to draw attention to an issue that has not been tried before,” Luchette said, noting that a sit-in had never been conducted in a chamber of Congress before Lewis did it in 2016. “I think it’s clear that protests can be an effective tactic.”
But it might not work forever. The eviction moratorium could last only days. And it’s a tactic that may not be successful again. But even those whom she was working against offered congratulations.
“Thank you for your mobilizing. For making the issue better known so that’s, that’s part of our system so I thank her,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
An attempt at legislating
Bush had been homeless before she entered politics, and she knew firsthand what millions of Americans were facing. But she had been in Washington for just eight months, and like most freshman lawmakers, has little political capital.
She had immediately bonded with the original members of the “Squad” — six high-profile progressive women members — but her influence inside the corridors of power was limited. Like most people new to the job, she lacked understanding of the complex personal, political and strategic intricacies of passing legislation.
During her short time in Congress, Bush has tangled with fellow Democrats on multiple issues.
She supports defunding the police, a position her party’s leaders have rejected. She rankled fellow Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who say she didn’t warn them about an amendment on the George Floyd police reform bill that would have given prisoners the right to vote.
Bush’s legislative knowledge was tested on July 30, when the House adjourned for its scheduled seven-week recess without extending the eviction moratorium.
Pelosi, House Whip Jim Clyburn and Financial Services Chairman Maxine Waters and been working all day to round up the votes to pass an extension until October 18. It was a Hail Mary that was unlikely to work given the dynamics in the Senate.
As the day dragged on, it became clear that sufficient Democratic support would not materialize.
Some Democrats didn’t want to vote so quickly on a bill they didn’t fully understand. Others said they were being lobbied by landlord constituents to oppose an extension. Some didn’t want to vote on a measure that would most likely be blocked in the Senate without the support of 10 Republicans.
Democratic leadership had a backup plan. They called for a unanimous consent vote — a way to say Democrats are in favor of something without having to take a roll call and expose internal divisions. Republicans would have blocked it. And then Democrats could have tried to point the blame across the aisle.
But Bush was furious about the lack of a roll call vote. She met Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y., in the Women’s Caucus Reading Room off the House floor to strategize.
Bush tried to ask House floor staff to force a vote — a process she had never attempted — but it was too late, the House had already adjourned.
So instead, she turned to her activist roots.
Bush and Ocasio-Cortez broadcast an Instagram live to the New York Democrat’s 8.7 million followers. It launched a five-day marathon of sleeping on the Capitol steps, television interviews, planning with her colleagues, and attempting to influence decision-makers.
A switch to lobbying
By the third day, Bush was exhausted and physically sore from sleeping in a camp chair. But she was determined to stick it out.
She got word that Vice President Kamala Harris had a meeting in the Senate, and Bush went, uninvited, to see her.
At that moment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called her. It was the first time they had spoken since the House adjourned Friday night without passing an extension. Pelosi told Bush that she was doing a great job, but she wouldn’t reconvene the House to vote on a moratorium.
Pelosi, who confirmed talking with Bush by phone, says she told the congresswoman to stay hydrated but also that she wouldn’t call House members back. “We’re not calling members back,” she told her, adding that Bush needed to be focused on the White House. “I don’t go the floor and lose.”
Then Harris walked out of her office.
Bush walked up to her, looked her in the eyes, and asked, “How can you help me?” The vice president was noncommittal but thanked Bush for all the work she was doing drawing attention to evictions.
After the interaction, Bush was distraught, people close to her said.
The 30 minutes was pivotal for Bush, who had been using her activist instincts to try to bring change in a town that is rigid and often unresponsive to such tactics.
She left the Senate, feeling dejected. She had also been unable to meet with Schumer, and had had an unsatisfactory call with the speaker. She walked back to the Capitol steps.
Her staff told Pelosi’s staff they would like a unity message, and Bush was prepared to focus on pressuring the White House and CDC.
But then the tide began to turn.
Bush got word that Schumer was on his way outside to meet her on the Capitol steps. Then Pelosi’s office agreed to the unity message and the result was back-to-back messages urging the CDC to extend the moratorium.
“It was a perfect storm,” a senior Democratic aide said.
It took another night and day on the steps before the White House announced its new targeted guidelines for areas with high community transmission. The announcement came on the one-year anniversary of Bush’s defeat of 10-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay in the primary.
Waters said at the end of the day, the effort was about finding alternatives.
“And the alternative was, let’s put the pressure on the president and the CDC, which gave us an opportunity to say, “It is possible. We can get this done,” Waters said.
Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather
A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.
The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.
“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.
The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.
In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.
Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.
“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”
The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.
“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”
Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.
More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.
Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.
Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.
The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.
So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.
Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.
“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”
Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park
A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.
The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.
He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.
The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.
The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.
“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”
Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.
The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.
House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight
House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.
The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.
The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.
Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.
“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”
It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.
The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.
However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.
Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.
Haley Talbot contributed.
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