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With another trip to a swing district, Biden seeks to shore up his agenda and Democrats

President Biden listens to McHenry County College President Clint Gabbard while touring a manufacturing lab at the school Wednesday in Crystal Lake, Ill. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
President Biden’s visit to suburban Chicago on Wednesday was like a number of his recent trips — to a politically competitive district where he could promote both his domestic agenda and his party’s prospects in next year’s midterm election.

In Crystal Lake, Ill., a conservative enclave in the blue state, Biden toured a lab and day-care facility at McHenry County College and spoke to a couple hundred people about his proposed federal investments in workforce training, community college costs, and preschool and child-care subsidies. He also put in a plug for the area’s congresswoman, a top Republican target.

“This woman here, hang on to her,” Biden said, looking at his side to Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood.

This was Biden’s third such visit to a House battleground in eight days, as the White House has married the president’s summer sales pitch for his infrastructure plans in Congress to Democrats’ political spadework ahead of the 2022 election.

He traveled last week to La Crosse, Wis., represented by Rep. Ron Kind, one of just six Democrats to win last fall in congressional districts where former President Trump edged Biden. There he sought to build support for his bipartisan agreement with a group of Republican senators to invest $1.2 trillion over eight years in traditional infrastructure projects. And Biden spent Saturday celebrating the country’s progress against the coronavirus during a visit to a cherry orchard in Antrim County, Mich., in the district of Rep. Jack Bergman, a Republican whom Democrats would love to unseat after Biden fell just short of winning the area.

Former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015, said Biden’s broad appeal makes him a political asset for his party: “When I was chairman, we had some national Democrats we’d send to bright blue districts to rev up the base and others we’d send to purple districts to appeal to moderates. Biden was effective in both.”

Biden’s appearances in swing districts, in Israel’s view, are crucial for Democrats to retain control of Congress — but only if he succeeds in selling his agenda.

“Democrats are going to keep or lose the majority based on their ability to win in about 16 swing districts,” Israel said. “If a Democratic agenda is viewed popularly in those districts, they’ll hang on to the majority. Having a popular president with popular ideas appearing in those places is a win-win.”

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters Wednesday that the president’s visit to Underwood’s district was “in part because [she] is a registered nurse” and an advocate for the healthcare expansion Biden seeks as part of his second, “human infrastructure” proposal, which Republicans oppose.

In a speech at the college, Biden — “explainer in chief,” Psaki dubbed him — said the federal government, by subsidizing two years of both preschool and community college, would help working families and boost the economy in the long run.

“To truly deal everybody in this time, we need to invest in our people,” he said, drawing a contrast with the tax cuts under the Trump administration that mostly benefited wealthy households and corporations.

And he was blunt about the benefits of extending a new child tax credit: “You’ll get cash.”

Biden has emphasized his commitment to bipartisan lawmaking even as he seeks to preserve his party’s shaky grip on power. The president and his team figure that Biden, and Democrats more broadly, will benefit politically from both his apparent willingness to work with Republicans — a break from his predecessor’s hard-edged partisanship — and his ability to sell a sweeping progressive agenda.

“The things he’s talking about are already popular, and they’re even more popular when people don’t see them as being a ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ proposal,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Publicly, the White House has brushed aside questions about the midterm election, which typically doesn’t go well for a president’s party. When a reporter asked Tuesday whether gas prices could “become a political issue that could be damaging to the president and his party in the coming election,” Psaki scoffed. “In 18 months, 17 months?” she said. “OK.”

Yet the White House’s early focus on pushing policy in key House districts reflects Democrats’ confidence in the popularity of their agenda as well as their trepidation that losing control of Congress would greatly limit their power in the second half of Biden’s term.

“Most presidents don’t use the odd-numbered year, but Biden has changed the calendar,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who shares the concern that Republicans could triumph in 2022. “Democrats are going to have a very hard time holding the House and Senate, and there’s no time to waste.”

Republican consultant Alex Conant called the 2022 midterm election “a toss-up” and said Biden was smart to make early efforts in competitive districts. “I don’t think anyone can predict what the issues will be next year,” he said. For Democrats, he added, “their best hope of keeping their majorities is by getting started early.”

Jeremy Rosner, another Democratic pollster, agreed that forecasting the midterm election is harder than normal. He cited unprecedented factors such as the ebbing COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout of the Jan. 6 insurrection, as well as potentially strong economic growth — all of which could disturb the historical trend of presidents seeing their party lose ground in midterm elections.

Rosner said he’s not surprised that the White House is dismissing questions about 2022 politics. “To talk about it would be malpractice,” he said. Yet, he added, “To not think about it would be malpractice.”

Biden’s travel also suggests at least glancing attention to 2024 and his potential reelection bid. Saturday’s trip to Michigan was his third visit to the battleground state since taking office.

Staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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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.”

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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.

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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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