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So much for Senate GOP plans to probe Biden's pandemic response

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/14/2022 Rachel Roubein, McKenzie Beard

Good morning to everyone, especially Congress, which is back after a lengthy break before the midterms. ☕

Today’s edition: Moderna says its new booster increases protection against omicron subvariants. A rundown of how state Supreme Court races fared and what it means for abortion access. But first …

Senate Democrats can avoid promised GOP covid investigations

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) speaks during a news conference celebrating her Senate win on Sunday. (Ellen Schmidt/AP) © Ellen Schmidt/AP Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) speaks during a news conference celebrating her Senate win on Sunday. (Ellen Schmidt/AP)

Democrats will retain control of the Senate, staving off Republican investigations into the Biden administration’s pandemic response in at least one chamber.

The blow to the GOP’s ambitions to control the Senate came Saturday night, when Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto was projected to keep her seat in Nevada. A day earlier, incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly (D) was projected to win reelection in Arizona, a pair of victories that secure Democratic control of the Senate even before a Dec. 6 runoff election in Georgia.

But for the second congressional session in a row, the party’s majority will be razor-thin. Democrats could have another 50-50 seat split with Vice President Harris serving as the tiebreaker. Or they would see a 51-49 majority if Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) wins in Georgia. (The House is still up in the air.)

Yet controlling the Senate comes with immense power — and is a win for President Biden.

For one: Democrats will be in charge of what legislation comes up for a vote on the Senate floor, as well as setting the agenda for committees. That prevents Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) from launching probes into the nation’s retiring top infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, and other aspects of the federal government’s covid response — a scenario Biden officials were dreading, as my colleague Dan Diamond and I reported this month. 

And second: A Democratic Senate will continue to confirm Biden’s picks for federal judges and nominees to lead key agencies and departments. This is crucial to confirming a new National Institutes of Health director and several other appointments, as well as if any federal health leaders leave, as some had previously suspected HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra might — a claim his spokesperson has rebutted as “untrue.” 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)

But what will get done?

This partly depends on whether Democrats or Republicans control the House. Neither party has secured the 218 seats needed to take the majority, and many of the uncalled races are in California, where ballots are valid as long as they’re postmarked by Election Day, The Post’s Amy B Wang, Liz Goodwin and Marianna Sotomayor reported yesterday. 

Democrats have a slim chance of keeping the House, though Republicans are still favored to take the majority, which means partisan gridlock would stymie much of Biden’s legislative agenda on Capitol Hill ahead of the 2024 presidential contest.

In particular, Democratic leaders had been telegraphing another run at an economic package — which could include major health policies — if Democrats picked up a few more seats in the midterms. Such a task will be impossible if the GOP retakes the House.  

On abortion, Biden had vowed to make codifying Roe v. Wade his first legislative priority if Democrats controlled Congress next year. But to do so, Democrats would not only need to keep the House, they would have also needed to pick up several seats in the Senate since Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have opposed overturning the 60-vote filibuster. The party has only flipped one seat.

  • Yet the victory in the Senate is a setback for the antiabortion movement, which had hoped defeating Democrats would embolden Republicans to move legislation limiting abortions through the chamber.

There could still be areas of bipartisan compromise in a split Congress, though more incremental than sweeping changes to the health system. For instance: Republicans and Democrats have recently come together to introduce legislation to expand telehealth and tackle the country’s mental health crisis.

The Post’s Amy B Wang:

Committee shuffle

Senate Democrats will maintain the top leadership spots on the chamber’s committees, but there still may be some shake-ups, particularly on one key health panel. 

The Senate HELP Committee: Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is the current chair of the panel, but some lobbyists and Hill staff expect her to instead take the top slot on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. That could open the door for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to chair the committee with sweeping health jurisdiction. 

On the Republican side, retiring Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) has served as the panel’s ranking member for the past two years. Paul could replace Burr or become the top Republican for the chamber’s chief oversight panel. Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.) is probably next in line for the health panel after Paul. (Murray’s office said there was nothing to announce now; spokespeople for Sanders and Paul didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.)

The Senate Finance Committee: The leadership of this panel — which has jurisdiction over major programs like Medicare and Medicaid — isn’t expected to change. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is the chair of the committee, and Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho) has been serving as its top Republican.


Moderna says its new shot boosts protection against omicron subvariants

New this a.m.: The vaccine maker announced that its omicron-targeted booster shot increases coronavirus-fighting antibodies the block BA.5. This subvariant dominated the country until recently and accounts for roughly a third of reported cases, our colleague Carolyn Y. Johnson reports.

In blood drawn from those who received the upgraded shot, omicron-blocking antibody levels were 15 times higher than their pre-booster levels, Moderna said in a news release. The findings haven’t been peer-reviewed, and come as just 10 percent of people 5 and older in the United States have received the bivalent booster.

The preliminary analysis with a small group showed that antibodies generated by the booster lost some potency against the growing BQ.1.1 subvariant, but could still block it. This subvariant accounts for about a quarter of the nationwide cases.

In the courts

State Supreme Court races were shaped by abortion rights

Trey Allen, right, defeated Associate Justice Sam Ervin IV in North Carolina. (North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts/AP) Trey Allen, right, defeated Associate Justice Sam Ervin IV in North Carolina. (North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts/AP)

Republicans in last week’s midterm elections claimed key victories in two state Supreme Court races, which could give them an upper hand in several looming abortion rights battles, the Associated Press reports. 

The expensive fights over court control in several states in Tuesday’s election highlight just how partisan the formerly low-key judicial races have become since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, as questions over abortion access head to judges at the state level. The contests drew in millions of dollars from local and national groups and are expected to have shattered campaign spending records.

One of the biggest players this election cycle was the Republican State Leadership Committee, which focused heavily on court races in North Carolina and Ohio because of redistricting fights in those states. 

In Ohio: Republicans kept their 4-3 majority on the state supreme court by retaining control of three seats, including a race for chief justice. The outcome could spell doom for abortion rights advocates challenging a ban on the procedure once a heartbeat is detected that may wind up before the state’s highest court. 

In North Carolina: Two Republican wins flipped the state’s highest court to a conservative majority. Abortion in the state is legal up to 20 weeks, and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper maintained his veto power over the state legislature. However, abortion providers have filed motions aimed at expanding the types of providers who can prescribe medication abortion, among other efforts.

Meanwhile, some Democratic groups that ramped up efforts to defend seats after Roe was overturned saw victories in several other parts of the country. In Illinois, which has abortion protections in place, Democrats held the court. The party also maintained its edge in Michigan and Kansas, though the elections are technically nonpartisan.

Michigan Planned Parenthood Advocates:

Republican State Leadership Committee:

Industry Rx

Fake Eli Lilly Twitter account claims insulin is free

The pharmaceutical giant halted ad spending after fake blue-check accounts went viral. (Darron Cummings/AP) © Darron Cummings/AP The pharmaceutical giant halted ad spending after fake blue-check accounts went viral. (Darron Cummings/AP)

No, Eli Lilly is not making insulin free, the pharmaceutical giant clarified last week after a parody Twitter account falsely claimed it would do just that, our colleague Drew Harwell reports in a story out this morning.

Here’s what happened: On Thursday, a Twitter account using the name and logo of the drugmaker tweeted that it was making insulin free. The tweet carried a blue “verified” check mark, a badge Twitter had used for years to signal an account’s authenticity — which the platform’s new billionaire owner Elon Musk recently opened to anyone, regardless of their identity, as long as they paid $8.

But the account, like the message posted by it, was fake. By the time Twitter had removed the tweet, more than six hours later, the account had inspired other copycats and been viewed millions of times. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and many others used the post to criticize the company for the drug’s sky-high prices. 

Inside the real Eli Lilly, the fake sparked a panic. Company officials scrambled to contact Twitter representatives and demanded they kill the viral spoof, but Twitter, its staffing cut in half, didn’t react for hours.

Eli Lilly: 

In other health news

  • On the move: Katie Keith will be joining the White House Gender Policy Council in a temporary role as a senior adviser for health policy. Keith has been serving as the director of the Health Policy and the Law Initiative at Georgetown Law’s O’Neill Institute.
  • The public health emergency status for the coronavirus pandemic will remain in place through at least mid-January, after the Biden administration didn’t notify state officials on Friday of any plans to lift the declaration, CNBC reports.
  • A federal judge in Texas ruled on Friday that the Biden administration had wrongly interpreted an Obamacare provision as barring health-care providers from discriminating against LGBT people, Reuters reports.


📅 The Senate and House are back after their long break before last week’s midterm elections. Here’s what we’re watching over the next few days:

Tuesday: A Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee is holding a hearing on the medical mistreatment of women in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention; a House Oversight and Reform subcommittee is meeting to discuss developments in state cannabis laws and marijuana reform at the federal level

Also on Tuesday … The Post is hosting a Global Women’s summit, which will feature a discussion about the mental health of young women and children with Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, among others. 

Wednesday: The Senate Special Committee on Aging is holding a hearing on promoting healthy and affordable food for older Americans; the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will examine the implementation of legislation extending disability benefits to service members exposed to toxic substances; the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will discuss a national aviation preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks.

Thursday: The Post is hosting a discussion focused on lessons learned during the coronavirus pandemic, specifically on how countries can be better prepared and ensure populations with fewer resources aren’t left behind in the development of treatments and vaccines.

Health reads

‘What if Yale finds out?’ Suicidal students are pressured to withdraw from Yale, then have to apply to get back into the university (By William Wan | The Washington Post)

Her Child Was Stillborn at 39 Weeks. She Blames a System That Doesn’t Always Listen to Mothers. (By Duaa Eldeib | ProPublica)

Abortion Politics Loom Over U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Vote (By Francis X. Rocca | Wall Street Journal)

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.


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