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Some state lawmakers focusing on abortion access amid challenge to Roe v. Wade

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(WASHINGTON) -- Several state lawmakers are looking to expand abortion access this legislative session while a challenge to Roe v. Wade is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two bills out of Maryland and Washington aim to increase the pool of abortion providers operating in the states, which will likely see an increased demand for the service should the conservative-leaning high court overturn or limit Roe in the coming months through its decision on the Mississippi case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.

Washington state Sen. Emily Randall, the majority whip for the Senate Democratic Caucus, is the lead sponsor of a bill under consideration this session that would expand abortion providers recognized under state law to include physician assistants and advanced registered nurse practitioners, in addition to physicians.

"Abortion providers in Washington are rapidly preparing for the increase in women and people ... who will drive hundreds of miles to Washington's borders from our neighbors in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Nevada, depending on what type of ban the Supreme Court institutes," Randall said during a media briefing Thursday with the State Innovation Exchange, a strategy center that supports state legislators nationwide in advancing progressive policies. "That's why this policy is more important than ever."

Democratic Maryland Del. Ariana Kelly, a former executive director at NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, also plans to introduce legislation this session that would expand abortion access in the state by allowing qualified health care providers such as midwives and nurse practitioners to provide abortions and increase access to training for abortion providers. The so-called Abortion Care Access Act would also ensure Medicaid covers abortion procedures and eliminate copays and deductibles on abortion care.

"What we want to do is address what we see as a critical provider shortage and also affordability issues," Kelly said during Thursday's briefing, held two days before the 49th anniversary of Roe. "As we're seeing an increased wait time for appointments, we can recognize that there's a shortage of providers. In today's climate, six months from now, I think we're only going to see this getting worse."

Kelly said that two-thirds of Maryland counties do not have abortion providers, particularly in rural areas, while the state is also seeing increased demand -- including from patients flying in from Texas in the wake of a state ban on abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. Helping Maryland residents access abortion care "more efficiently and effectively" may also help providers care for those coming from out of state, Kelly said.

Georgia Democratic state Rep. Park Cannon said she plans to introduce a resolution next week that addresses abortion access in the state, including for women of color, while a law that would ban abortion as early as six weeks in the state is being challenged in court.

"We need to resolve measures that say that Georgia has a strong commitment to the protection of reproductive health, rights and justice, which of course includes the right to safe and legal abortion care, but also the right to make reproductive decisions on your own," Cannon said during the briefing.

Other states moving to protect abortion rights while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to uphold the Mississippi abortion ban include New Jersey, which last week enacted a bill that codifies the right to an abortion into state law.

The Vermont state legislature is also considering Prop 5, an amendment that would enshrine "reproductive autonomy," including abortion, in the state constitution. If ultimately passed, the proposal could go before voters in November.

Meanwhile, states looking to restrict abortion rights include Florida, where state legislators are considering a bill that, like the Mississippi law before the Supreme Court, would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Washington state Republicans have also introduced legislation this session that would roll back abortion access, including a bill that would make providing medical abortion methods a felony.

Additionally, voters in Kansas and Kentucky are expected to decide this year whether to amend their state constitutions to say there is no right to an abortion.

Last year, 108 abortion restrictions were enacted in 19 states, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights research organization. That's the highest total in any year since 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion with its decision in Roe v Wade, the organization said.

After hearing arguments last month over the Mississippi law, the Supreme Court's conservative majority appeared inclined to scale back abortion rights. A decision on the case is expected by the end of the court's term in June.

Should the court overturn Roe, leaving the right to an abortion decided on a state-by-state basis, 26 states are "certain or likely" to ban abortion, according to a report published in October by the Guttmacher Institute.

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CIA says foreign actor may be behind some Havana syndrome cases

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(WASHINGTON) -- The CIA has assessed that the "majority" of reported cases of unexplained medical symptoms known as "Havana syndrome" can be "reasonably explained by medical conditions or environmental and technical factors," a senior CIA official told ABC News.

The spy agency has assessed it's "unlikely that a foreign actor, including Russia, is conducting a sustained, worldwide campaign harming U.S. personnel with a weapon or mechanism," they added.

But they left the door open to the possibility that some personnel have been attacked by a still-unknown actor or device, saying a foreign actor's role has not been ruled out "in specific cases. We're still looking."

The issue has vexed U.S. officials for over five years now after the first incidents were reported by personnel at the U.S. embassy in Cuba. Since then, scores of cases have been reported on nearly every continent in over a dozen countries, especially after the CIA and State Department urged employees to come forward if they experienced symptoms. But it was never clear how many of those reports were later confirmed as medically diagnosed cases.

In a rare statement, CIA Director Bill Burns said those symptoms are "real," his agency's commitment to providing care for officers is "unwavering" and its investigation is "not done."

"We are pursuing this complex issue with analytic rigor, round tradecraft, and compassion and have dedicated intensive resources to this challenge," he said. "While underlying causes may differ, our officers are suffering real symptoms."

In a note to all staff obtained by ABC News, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also offered strong support for employees and encouraged diplomats and their families to continue reporting potential incidents.

"Those who have been affected have real stories to tell -- their pain is real. There is no doubt in my mind about that," he wrote.

But many of the affected personnel are outraged or upset by the CIA's assessment, with some like Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA agent who was affected while on assignment in Moscow, fearing they will not be believed or will be "mocked and vilified."

"I remain grateful of the health care that Director Burns has agreed to provide for those who have been impacted, but now victims are being shamed and mocked," Polymeropoulos said, calling it "a return to the early days of Havana where officers were not believed."

A declassified internal government watchdog report found that the State Department moved too slowly to address the issues when personnel first reported incidents and symptoms in November 2016. Symptoms have included headaches, dizziness, cognitive difficulties, tinnitus, vertigo and trouble with seeing, hearing, or balancing. Many officials have suffered symptoms years after reporting an incident while some have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries.

Beyond Cuba, cases of what the Biden administration has called "anomalous health incidents," or AHI's, have been reported in China, Austria, Germany, Vietnam, India, Uzbekistan and Colombia, among other countries. There have even been reports of incidents in the U.S., although the White House said the vast majority are overseas.

But the CIA assessment found that "previously undiagnosed illnesses, environmental factors, reporting out of an abundance of caution" led to the majority of the cases, the senior official said.

"Many of the reports came in following growing workforce awareness of AHI's - after requests by departments and agencies for personnel to come forward," they added. "This finding doesn't call into question at all the fact that our officers are reporting real symptoms and experiences. It's just that there's not one single cause that can be explained."

But after media reports emerged, some critics cast doubt again on whether U.S. personnel experienced anything at all, sparking anger in other corners that the CIA had undermined its personnel and those from other agencies.

"The CIA's interim conclusions are incredibly disappointing, insulting to those who are suffering, and highly suspect," whistleblower attorney Mark Zaid, who represents over a dozen affected employees, said in an email to ABC News. "Once again, it is demonstrated that the failure of the government to produce a uniform, expert report only causes further controversy rather than resolution."

Zaid said the agency was "more likely" issuing it "to allay a workforce which in recent months has been refusing overseas assignments in the wake of an overwhelming number of reported new cases among its ranks."

"Other agencies [are] furious no coordination occurred & they disagree," he added in a tweet, calling the interim report "disinformation."

"It's not disinformation. That's absurd," the senior CIA official said in response, adding the assessment was conducted "with the normal partners" and through "the intelligence community process."

Blinken also tried to address personnel's concerns about being believed. While he declined to address the assessment during a press conference in Berlin on Thursday, he told reporters employees "have had real experiences, real symptoms, and real suffering, and we are going to continue to do everything we can with all the resources we can bring to bear to understand, again, what happened, why, and who might be responsible."

What is clear is that the report is preliminary. Lawmakers called for the CIA to continue to probe the issue, especially those cases that remain unexplained.

"Today's assessment, while rigorously conducted, reflects only the interim work of the CIA task force," said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., chair of the Senate intelligence committee, which "will continue pressing for answers on a bipartisan basis," he added.

His Republican counterpart, ranking member Marco Rubio, R-Fla., reiterated that, saying the CIA "must continue to make this issue a priority and seek answers to the causes of mysterious symptoms, including brain injury, and whether they can be attributed to the work of a foreign government or a specific weapon or device, particularly in a core group of cases."

It's unclear exactly how many cases are in that "core group" that remains under active investigation. The senior CIA official said that it numbers around a "couple dozen" and that it could still involve a "foreign actor."

"We're not ruling it out in specific cases. We're still looking," they said, but added, "There are no patterns or linkages at this stage."

Russia had long been suspected in some circles as being behind the incidents, but it's unclear how or with what device such an attack would be possible. Blinken said last week that he and other U.S. officials have raised the issue with the Russians even without clear attribution.

Asked whether he would raise the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when they meet Friday, Blinken declined to comment Thursday.

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Supreme Court deals another blow to Texas abortion providers that want new law blocked

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court's conservative majority on Thursday -- over the furious objections of their liberal colleagues -- dealt another blow to Texas abortion providers' quest to challenge SB8 in federal court.

SB8, which took effect Sept. 1, banned most abortions in the nation's second-most populous state, despite longstanding legal precedent protecting access to the procedure.

The majority has now rejected a "petition of mandamus" from the providers who wanted the justices to order the case immediately sent to a trial judge so that proceedings could get underway.

The conservative justices did not elaborate on their decision.

The providers argued that the 5th Circuit panel, one of the most conservative in the country, has been holding up the process, flouting the judgment of the high court, which last year voted 8-1 to allow a narrow suit against several Texas medical licensing officials who have a role enforcing the law.

Instead, the appeals court sent the matter to Texas state Supreme Court for a procedural analysis -- a process that will delay the providers' challenge for some time and effectively freezes any hope for relief.

"This court was clear," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent. "When the mandate issued, I had thought the Court of Appeals would quickly remand the case to the District Court."

In a separate blistering dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: "This case is a disaster for the rule of law and a grave disservice to women in Texas, who have a right to control their own bodies. I will not stand by silently as a State continues to nullify this constitutional guarantee."

While the move by the Supreme Court is another setback for Texas abortion rights advocates, many have acknowledged openly that the narrow suit was unlikely to restore full abortion access in the state even if they prevailed.

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Bipartisan senators turn to reforming Electoral Count Act now that voting rights standoff over

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(WASHINGTON) -- With voting rights reform now firmly in the rear view mirror, negotiations to reform the Electoral Count Act have ramped up, but it remains far from certain that the talks will bear fruit despite the growing bipartisan interest.

The obscure 19th century law that governs the counting of each state's electoral votes for president, a process then-President Donald Trump and his allies sought to exploit to secure a victory not won at the ballot box, has long been the subject of bipartisan ire.

The law allows one congressman paired with one senator to object to the results submitted by each state, something both parties have done previously, although Trump allies in 2020 attempted to block the decision of far more states than ever before.

The vice president's role in what usually is a perfunctory proceeding -- counting and announcing the votes -- is also extremely unclear, and Trump and his team attempted, in an effort to overturn the election, to exert pressure on then-Vice President Mike Pence to declare some states' slates of electoral votes in question, pressure that led to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"I've always thought we should just repeal it," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a former secretary of state, said Thursday. "If you can't replace it, I'd be just for repealing it. I think it creates more problems than it creates solutions. And so I think there's a lot of interest in doing something about that. And my guess is that the majority of Republican senators would agree with that."

But therein lies the problem for Democrats, unsure if GOP interest in electoral law changes is real after the party's unified, high-profile opposition to federal voting law changes. Republicans are, likewise, suspicious of Democrats whose leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, recently lambasted attempts to reform the ECA as "offensive."

"If you're going to rig the game and say, 'Oh, we'll count the rigged game accurately,' what good is that?" Schumer recently scoffed when asked about budding ECA reform efforts. Branding those efforts "the McConnell plan," since the GOP leader – Mitch McConnell of Kentucky -- has expressed an openness to reforming the law, Schumer added, "It's unacceptably insufficient and even offensive."

Despite the lack of trust among the parties, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has led bipartisan talks behind closed doors for the past three weeks to try to reform the law, with interest in those negotiations growing "big time" in the wake of the Democrats' failed effort at broader electoral reforms, according to a Senate aide with knowledge of the matter.

"We're going to be working hard over the recess," Collins told reporters. "I'm very encouraged at the amount of interest that there is from both sides of the aisle."

For his part, McConnell reiterated his support for possible ECA reform and the Collins talks Thursday, but went a bit further, telling ABC News, "I think it needs fixing, and I wish them well, and I'd be happy to talk a look at whatever they can come up with." Asked for any red lines in those negotiations, the leader said, "I just encourage the discussion, because I think (the ECA) is clearly is flawed. This is directly related to what happened on January 6th, and I think we ought to be able to figure out a bipartisan way to fix it."

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, an early member of the group, told ABC News, "There are about 10 Republicans and maybe four or five Democrats that are working on it. We exchanged a list of things that we thought ought to be included in an election reform package -- some items related to making sure that election officials were not harassed, others related to how elections are certified, others related to what the role of the Vice President is in the electoral accounting process, how you would deal with an objection to a slate of electors."

The details around how to implement each of these items would be complex, and the negotiation is "just now beginning to talk about which of these we'll find sufficient support for in a bill," said Romney.

Both conservative Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona -- who refused to support changing the Senate rules to pass their party's sweeping voting rights legislation -- are working with Collins on ECA changes, along with GOP Senators Thom Tillis, Lisa Murkowski, and Roger Wicker, among others. Some senators, like Blunt, Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., have shown interest, according to aides involved in the talks, but have yet to commit to being a part of the group.

Manchin, speaking with reporters about the talks, said he was particularly focused on violence and threats against poll workers which have ramped up in recent years in particular in the wake of Trump's so-called "big lie" that he won the 2020 election but it was stolen from him by fraud.

"They're scared now, because of the highly charged political atmosphere. We do want to make sure that we can raise this to the level of a federal crime if you accost, if you threaten anyone who works at the polls, you'll be dealt with with the harshest penalties," said Manchin, who is leading the talks for Democrats. "You're not going to fool with the count and our voting people."

The Collins-Manchin group plans to meet by Zoom in the next few days, with an eye toward potentially producing a legislative proposal at the end of next week's recess, according to Romney, though Collins offered a more sober estimate. "I think we don't know how long it's going to take. We've done a lot of research. We've talked to election experts, professors, the election assistance commissioners, all sorts of people to make sure we get this right."

Collins said the scope of her group's work will go beyond just the 150-year old Electoral Count Act, like additional grant funding for states to improve the quality of their voting systems, and that she was encouraged by President Joe Biden's comments expressing a willingness to work with Republicans to get this done.

A parallel effort is happening among a group of senior Democrats, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Angus King - - led by Schumer's number two, Dick Durbin of Illinois. Durbin said he planned to talk to Sen. Collins about her efforts to see what might be done together.

"We wouldn't necessarily merge our efforts, no. We just want to see what they are doing and talk it through," Durbin told reporters this week.

In the House, a staff report from the Administration Committee, outlined in a 31-page report potential changes to the law which the group says is "badly in need of reform." Their proposal could provide a foundation for the special committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks from which to recommend legislative changes, the panel's chair, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., told NPR.

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Biden nominee would be 1st Muslim woman to serve as federal judge

ACLU Illinois

(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden announced the nomination of Nusrat Jahan Choudhury to the federal judiciary Wednesday, who, if confirmed by the Senate, would become the first Muslim American woman to serve as a federal judge. She is also the first Muslim American woman to be nominated to the federal judiciary.

Choudhury was nominated to sit on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York and is also the first Bangladeshi American to be nominated to the federal bench. She would be the second Muslim American appointed to a federal judgeship, according to the White House announcement.

"These choices also continue to fulfill the President's promise to ensure that the nation's courts reflect the diversity that is one of our greatest assets as a country," the statement read.

Choudhury is currently the legal director at the Illinois division of the American Civil Liberties Union and previously served as the deputy director of the national ACLU Racial Justice Program. She is a graduate of Yale Law School, Columbia University and Princeton University.

The other nominees include Arianna Freeman, who would be the first African American woman to serve on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals; Ana Isabel de Alba, who would be the first Latina to serve on the Eastern District of California; and Nina Nin-Yuen Wang, who would be the second Asian American to serve the United States District Court. Tiffany Cartwright, Robert Steven Huie, Natasha Merle and Jennifer Rearden round out the president's first set of nominees for 2022 and the 13th of his presidency.

The selections align with Biden's goal of nominating more women and people of color to serve on the bench, jobs that come with a lifetime appointment. The trend is in stark contrast to his predecessor.

Former President Donald Trump's nominees were 85% white and 76% of them were men, according to the Alliance for Justice advocacy group. To date, 78% of Biden's confirmations have been women and 53% have been people of color, according to the White House.

Democrats have pushed Biden to make federal court nominations a priority after Trump and former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a concerted effort to shape the nation's courts.

Over the course of one term, Trump had 245 judges confirmed compared with Former President Barack Obama's 334 confirmed judges across two terms according to the United States Courts.

As of Jan, 1, however, Biden had gotten the most federal judges confirmed in a president's first year in office since former President Ronald Reagan.

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Georgia prosecutor requests special grand jury in probe of Trump's efforts to overturn election

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(ATLANTA) -- A Georgia prosecutor investigating possible criminal behavior by former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election has officially requested to seat a special grand jury, according to a letter obtained by ABC News.

The development is a major step forward in the only publicly known criminal investigation into Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

In a letter Thursday to Fulton County Chief Judge Christopher Brasher, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis wrote that the move is needed because "a significant number of witnesses and prospective witnesses have refused to cooperate with the investigation absent a subpoena requiring their testimony."

Willis officially launched the probe last February, after Trump was heard in a recorded phone call pushing Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help him "find 11,780 votes," the exact number Trump needed to win Georgia in the 2020 presidential election.

Willis says that Raffensperger is one of those who will not comply with the investigation without a subpoena, based on comments he made in an interview with NBC.

In response to Willis' request, Trump, in a statement, said, "My phone call to the Secretary of State of Georgia was perfect, perhaps even more so than my call with the Ukrainian President, if that’s possible." The reference was to the phone call Trump made to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of the 2020 election asking him to dig up dirt on his political rival Joe Biden; Trump was ultimately impeached for that call, but the Senate did not convict him.

"I didn’t say anything wrong in the call," Trump said of his call to Raffensperger. "No more political witch hunts!"

If empaneled, the special grand jury will not have the authority to return an indictment, according to the Willis' letter. Instead it may "make recommendations concerning criminal prosecution as it shall see fit," the letter said.

A majority of the judges on the Fulton County Superior Court will have to vote to approve the request in order for the special grand jury to be seated, according to Georgia state law.

Describing his Jan. 2 call with Trump in an exclusive interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos last year, Raffensperger said that Trump "did most of the talking."

"We did most of the listening," Raffensperger said. "But I did want to make my points that the data that he has is just plain wrong."

ABC News' Steve Osunsami and Brandon Baur contributed to this report.

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US escalates pressure on Russia, approving new arms and accusing it of plot against Ukraine

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(WASHINGTON) -- Ahead of a key meeting on Friday between the U.S. and Russia, the Biden administration on Thursday pushed a full-scale campaign to pressure Moscow as Russian leader Vladimir Putin weighs a possible attack on its neighbor Ukraine.

The U.S. approved its NATO allies in the Baltics to provide additional arms to Ukraine, including critical anti-aircraft missiles that escalate U.S. support. The U.S. Treasury sanctioned four Ukrainian officials it accused of working with Russian intelligence, including to form a new government backed by Russian occupying forces. The State Department blasted a Russian disinformation campaign it said was part of its "pretext" to invade Ukraine and "divide the international reaction to its actions."

One day before his sit-down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to push back on Russia's narrative and make clear just how high the stakes are in the standoff.

"It's bigger than a conflict between two countries. It's bigger than Russia and NATO. It's a crisis with global consequences, and it requires global attention and action," the top U.S. diplomat said in Berlin, hours after meeting his German, French, and British counterparts to coordinate a response.

That coordination has had tremendous doubt cast on it after President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the NATO alliance was not united about how to respond to aggression from Russia that fell short of an all-out attack on Ukraine -- an uncomfortable truth that U.S. and NATO officials have tried to paper over for weeks.

After the White House scrambled to clean that up, Biden himself clarified on Thursday, "If any -- any -- assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion. But -- and it will be met with severe and coordinated economic response that I've discussed in detail with our allies."

But the challenge remains of what the U.S. and its allies will do if Russia attacks Ukraine with the same gray-zone tactics it has used for the last eight years, as it annexed Crimea, launched a war in eastern Ukraine, and began a slow-motion annexation of those provinces.

That war, which has killed approximately 14,000 people, rages on in fits and starts on the frontlines -- and in cyberspace. Ukrainian government websites were hacked in ""the largest cyberattack on Ukraine in the last four years," a Ukrainian cyber official said Wednesday, and Moscow has launched a "disinformation storm" portraying Ukraine as the aggressor and trying to "build public support for a further Russian invasion," a senior State Department official said Thursday.

The Kremlin's campaign to destabilize its smaller, democratic neighbor allegedly includes spies on the ground, collecting information and even plotting to form a new Ukrainian government.

"Russia has directed its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to take over the government of Ukraine and to control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with an occupying Russian force," the U.S. Treasury said in a statement.

The U.S. has sanctioned two sitting members of Ukrainian parliament, Taras Kozak and Oleh Voloshyn, who it accused of furthering a plot by the FSB, Russia's main security agency and the successor of the KGB. The agency, which Biden said Wednesday has forces on the ground in Ukraine, is "destabilizing the political situation in Ukraine and laying the groundwork for creating a new, Russian-controlled government in Ukraine," Treasury added.

In the face of that effort, the U.S. is hoping that transparency can undercut any pretext Russian operatives or their Ukrainian colleagues may create -- just as the White House last week accused the Kremlin of positioning operatives trained in urban warfare and explosives and planning a possible "false-flag" operation.

Russia has denied that, calling it "complete disinformation." It has said repeatedly it does not plan to attack the former Soviet state, even as Putin warned that his demands, including barring Ukraine from joining NATO, be met or Russia will take "military technical" measures.

The U.S. is taking its own military measures, approving the transfer of more weaponry to Ukraine -- this time from Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, a State Department spokesperson confirmed, while declining to say what weapons exactly.

But a Lithuanian Ministry of Defense source told ABC News the country was given the green light to transfer to Ukraine Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger portable surface-to-air missiles. The Baltic state wanted to send the weapons even earlier, but because they were originally U.S. provided, it needed American approval, which only came during consultations Wednesday, the source said.

Stingers are a kind of man-portable air-defense system, or MANPAD, where an individual soldier can carry the weapon and use it to down fighter aircraft. Javelins, which the Trump administration provided after the Obama administration had refused, have become an important weapon for Ukraine to pierce Russian-made tanks, which could come rolling across the border in an invasion .

Ukraine's military capacity still pales in comparison to Russia's overwhelming military superiority, and it's unclear how many missiles are being provided. Lithuania has only 54 of the missiles in its inventory and only eight launchers from which to fire them from, meaning the amount provided to Ukraine will likely be even lower.

Still, Stingers in particular represent a symbolic threshold that previous administrations had not crossed. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who was in Kyiv earlier this week as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation, warned Thursday that in this "very fragile time... it would not be helpful to give Putin an excuse to invade Ukraine, so I think we've got to be very thoughtful about how we address some of these issues like a missile system."

Russia has already warned that it sees any Western weapons provided to Ukraine as a threat, especially after the U.S. announced $200 million in new military aid ($650 million total over the last year) and the United Kingdom announced it provided anti-tank missiles.

Russia, however, has warned that it sees any Western weapons provided to Ukraine as a threat.

"We underline the necessity of ceasing boosting the war-like Ukrainian regime with arms deliveries ... and a lot else that represents a direct threat for us," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Wednesday.

But Blinken pushed back on that Thursday in a major speech, disputing the Russian narrative and making clear Moscow is the aggressor.

"On its face, that’s absurd. NATO didn't invade Georgia, NATO didn't invade Ukraine - Russia did," he said, adding NATO neighbors account for six percent of Russia's borders and have 5,000 allied troops in those countries, while Russia has massed 20 times that around Ukraine.

There has been tense speculation about whether Putin will attack Ukraine, with Biden saying Wednesday he believes the strongman leader will "move in." But Blinken said Thursday the U.S. still believes he has not made up his mind yet, but added his animus towards Ukraine has long been known.

"He's told us repeatedly - he's laying the groundwork for an invasion because he doesn't believe that Ukraine is a sovereign nation," Blinken said.

That argument has been a key part of Russia's disinformation ecosystem, which has been in overdrive in recent weeks, according to senior State Department officials.

Russia's military and intelligence entities have deployed 3,500 posts per day in December -- an increase of 200 percent from November -- as they seek to "create conditions conducive to success of attempted aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere and to divide the international reaction to its actions," a senior State Department official told reporters.

"These are not just public statements from Russia's MFA accounts ... These are broader campaigns using shell companies, false names, and layers to conceal the real backers and their intentions," a second senior State Department official said, calling it "a war on truth."

Russia must pull back its propaganda campaign in addition to its troops on Ukraine's borders, the official added, echoing previous U.S. calls for de-escalation to give diplomacy a shot.

Whether or not diplomacy has a shot will be tested again Friday in Geneva, where Blinken and Lavrov will meet. A senior State Department official said earlier in the week that the meeting itself is a sign the door to diplomacy remains open, but the two sides continue to talk past each other.

The two diplomats will "discuss draft agreements on security guarantees," Russia's embassy in Washington tweeted Thursday - a reference to its demands that NATO bar Ukraine from joining and pull back forces from Eastern European member states. But U.S. officials have repeatedly called those "nonstarters," and Blinken said Wednesday in Kyiv he would not be "presenting a paper" to Lavrov in response.

That has raised fears that Moscow is simply using diplomatic talks to see them fail - yet another pretext before an attack. But regardless of whether there's a full-born assault, Russia has now effectively shaken Ukraine once again. Its president Volodymyr Zelenskyy tried to reassure the nation late Wednesday, even pushing back on the U.S. warnings that the threat is more urgent.

"These risks have been there for more than one day, and they haven't grown nowadays - there is just more buzz around them," he said in a televised address.

ABC's Dada Jovanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia, Patrick Reevell from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Luis Martinez from the Pentagon.

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Biden clarifies comments on Ukraine, says any Russian move across border would be an 'invasion'

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(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden on Thursday sought to clean up his comments on Ukraine made during his marathon news conference Wednesday, making it "absolutely clear" that any Russian move into Ukraine would be seen as an "invasion."

"I've been absolutely clear with President Putin. He has no misunderstanding. If any, any, assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion. But -- and it will be met with severe and coordinated economic response that I've discussed in detail with our allies, as well as laid out very clearly for President Putin," he told reporters.

"Let there be no doubt at all: If Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price," Biden added.

The clarification comes after he seemed to throw into question how the U.S. and NATO would respond if Russia did take action against Ukraine -- in the case of what he called a "minor incursion."

"It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera," Biden said Wednesday.

"But if they actually do what they're capable of doing with the force they've massed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia if they further invade Ukraine."

Wednesday evening, shortly after his news conference, White House press secretary issued a statement attempting to clarify Biden's suggestion the NATO alliance might be divided, saying, in part, "If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that's a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Berlin meeting with Germany's Chancellor Scholtz ahead of his talks Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said, "We have been very clear throughout -- if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border and commit new acts of aggression against Ukraine, that will be met with a swift, severe, united response from the United States and our allies and partners."

Vice President Kamala Harris, in several network morning show appearances Thursday, also tried to clean up the president's comments.

"We will interpret any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity by Russia and Vladimir Putin as an aggressive action, and it will be met with costs, severe and certain," Harris told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "Good Morning America."

Biden's initial comments were quickly met with criticism from Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Rob Portman, who was part of a congressional delegation that traveled to Ukraine earlier this week. Portman tweeted he was "deeply troubled" by Biden's remarks, adding "any Russian military incursion into Ukraine should be viewed as a major one that could likely destabilize Ukraine and Europe."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was also critical, saying Biden's news conference was "a bizarre and devastating performance, especially -- I would add -- for our friends on the front lines."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seemed to issue his own rebuke of Biden's comments in a pointed tweet Thursday morning.

"We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power," Zelenskyy said.

ABC News' Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

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FBI conducts 'law enforcement activity' at home, campaign office of Rep. Henry Cuellar

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(LAREDO, Texas) -- Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar's Laredo home and campaign office were the subject of FBI activity Wednesday evening, according to an FBI spokesperson.

"The FBI was present in the vicinity of Windridge Drive and Estate Drive in Laredo conducting court-authorized law enforcement activity," FBI spokesperson Rosanne Hughes told ABC News. "The FBI cannot provide further comment on an ongoing investigation."

Local news reports showed members of the FBI's Evidence Response Team at Cuellar's campaign office as well.

The FBI declined to provide specifics about the investigation. Local news reports say that boxes were seen being taken from the home.

"Congressman Cuellar will fully cooperate in any investigation. He is committed to ensuring that justice and the law are upheld," a Cuellar aide told ABC News in a statement.

Cuellar, who represents Texas' 28th Congressional District, which extends to the U.S.- Mexico border, has been in Congress since 2005.

At times, Cuellar has been an outspoken critic of the Biden administration's border policies.

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Psaki, Harris argue Biden wasn't saying 2022 election results might not be legitimate

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Sarah Kolinovsky, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- One day after President Joe Biden appeared to cast doubt on whether the midterm election results will be legitimate without the passage of a new voting rights law, his vice president and press secretary worked to dispel any mistrust in the integrity of the vote.

"Speaking of voting rights legislation, if this isn't passed, do you still believe the upcoming election will be fairly conducted and its results will be legitimate?" a reporter asked Biden Wednesday at a lengthy press conference marking the end of his first year in office.

"Well, it all depends on whether or not we're able to make the case to the American people that some of this is being set up to try to alter the outcome of the election," Biden said.

"I'm not saying it's not going to be legit, it’s the increase in the prospect of being illegitimate is in direct proportion to us not being able to get these, these reforms passed," Biden told another reporter who followed up on his assertion that the integrity of the results "depends" on passing voting rights legislation.

Early Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted, refuting the notion Biden believes there's a possibility the election results will be questionable.

“Lets be clear: @potus was not casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2022 election. He was making the opposite point: In 2020, a record number of voters turned out in the face of a pandemic, and election officials made sure they could vote and have those votes counted," she said.

“He was explaining that the results would be illegitimate if states do what the former president asked them to do after the 2020 election: toss out ballots and overturn results after the fact. The Big Lie is putting our democracy at risk. We’re fighting to protect it.”

Psaki also appeared on Fox News, saying directly that Biden "was not making a prediction" about the legitimacy of the results.

"I talked to the president a lot about this and he is not predicting that the 2022 elections would be illegitimate," Psaki said on "America's Newsroom." "... The point he was making the former president asked seven or more states to overturn the outcome of the election. Now obviously if there is an effort to do that we have to fight against it. That's what our commitment is to doing, but he was not making a prediction. He has confidence in the American people and do everything we can to protect people's rights."

But a major Biden ally, Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., whose support for Biden in the critical primary state of South Carolina changed the trajectory of the 2020 primary, expressed agreement on the idea that the 2022 results could be questionable in a CNN interview Thursday.

"Are you concerned that without these voting rights bills the election results won’t be legitimate?” CNN's Kasie Hunt asked Clyburn.

“I’m absolutely concerned about that," Clyburn said.

Vice President Kamala Harris, appearing on all three broadcast network morning shows Thursday to dispel confusion over several comments from the press conference, argued the attention should remain on protecting the right to vote, dismissing questions surrounding election integrity.

"Let's not conflate issues. What we are looking, and the topic of so much debate last night, was that we as America cannot afford to allow this blatant erosion of our democracy, and in particular, the right of all Americans who are eligible to vote to have access to the ballot unfettered. That is the topic of the conversation. Let's not be distracted by the political gamesmanship," Harris said on NBC's "Today" program.

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One year in, Biden's climate record is a mix of progress and inconsistency


(WASHINGTON) -- President Joe Biden arrived in office with lofty expectations from environmentalists who hoped that his ambitious campaign rhetoric would translate into an aggressive climate platform to match.

One year into his tenure, advocates credit Biden for setting an historically bold agenda, taking important steps to undo Trump-era rollbacks, and enacting a whole-of-government approach to combat climate change.

"President Biden is delivering," said Margo Oge, the former director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, and current chair of the International Council on Clean Transportation.

But for others, the honeymoon has ended. Inconsistencies and broken pledges have frustrated some, and the fate of Biden's ambitious Build Back Better proposal -- which would commit $550 billion toward addressing climate change -- remains in congressional purgatory.

His most fervent critics say he is failing.

"While Biden started off the year strong by undoing most of Trump's anti-climate executive orders, Biden has stopped leading and is instead feeding us empty promises without delivering on a bold climate agenda," said Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, an advocacy group that supports political action on climate change.

The mixed reviews reflect a larger dispute within the environmental community as to what constitutes success. Pragmatists see Biden's climate change efforts as crucial momentum in what Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce calls the "incredibly plodding, deliberative pace of administrative rulemaking." But more progressive groups like the Sunrise Movement see it differently. Biden, says Prakash, is "refusing to meet the moment we're in right now."

Indeed, as the Biden administration embarks on its second year in power, important climate change metrics continue their dire trend. European scientists recently concluded that the past seven years have been the hottest on record "by a clear margin." And in 2021, America's greenhouse gas emissions rose by more than 6%, according to the Rhodium Group global research institute.

Experts warn that the political outlook for the coming year may shrink Biden's window for a legislative victory. Congressional gridlock shows no sign of letting up, looming midterm elections may soon complicate efforts to take bold action, and Biden's approval rating remains on a downward trend, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.

And if Democrats lose control of Congress in November's midterms, or the White House in 2024, advocates fear the next few months may end up being the last chance for environmentalists to see major legislative action for a decade.

On Wednesday, Biden said he remains "confident [the administration] can get pieces -- big chunks -- of the Build Back Better law signed into law" before the midterm elections.

"Now is the time for the Biden administration to build on and accelerate the progress made in their first year," said Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental group.

'Come out swinging'

For environmentalists, Biden's very presence in the White House marked an important turning point in the climate fight. His predecessor, former President Donald Trump, sought to dismantle the federal government's ability to address climate change and took a series of executive actions in line with that philosophy, including removing the U.S. from Paris Climate Accord -- a move that Biden reversed on his first day in office.

Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency also took steps to loosen emissions standards put in place during the Obama administration -- another measure that Biden has since reversed.

"We were super excited for President Biden -- who ran on what was the most aggressive and ambitious climate agenda ever -- to come out swinging," said Pierce. "The level of ambition, scope, and breadth of what he was tackling was extraordinary."

Before even setting foot in the Oval Office, Biden signaled his intent to prioritize climate issues. He committed to making the U.S. government carbon neutral by 2050, and placed fighting climate change in his pantheon of top priorities alongside strengthening the economy, ending the coronavirus pandemic, and battling racism.

The emphasis on climate reached the far corners of Biden's transition process. A former member of Biden's intelligence transition team told ABC News that their mandate was to focus resources toward combatting "the three C's" -- COVID-19, China, and climate change.

"Climate science demands this 'whole of government' approach that pursues every opportunity," said Chase Huntley, the vice president of strategy at the nonprofit Wilderness Society.

Once in office, Biden took several organizational and bureaucratic steps to pivot away from Trump's policies. He launched a White House Climate Policy Office to coordinate an administration-wide response to climate change, and established the White House's first Environmental Justice Advisory Council to ensure that at least 40% of the benefits of climate investments go to communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution.

Then came the executive actions, which environmentalists lauded for their sweeping reversal of Trump's rollbacks. A Washington Post analysis found that Biden targeted half of the Trump era's energy and environmental executive actions. A White House spokesperson highlighted Biden’s efforts to restore U.S. climate leadership abroad, jump-start electric vehicle development, and accelerate clean energy initiatives.

But since those early days of the Biden administration, his climate victories have been blunted by setbacks.

Two steps forward, one step back

While experts say the Biden administration has made meaningful progress on climate issues ranging from emissions standards to fossil fuel extraction, environmentalists also see inconsistencies -- actions from the administration that seem to undermine the president's own pledges and rhetoric.

On the use of federal lands and waters, for example, the administration garnered praise from environmentalists when the Department of Interior suspended its controversial oil and gas leasing program in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the summer of 2021. And just last week, the White House announced plans to open up large swaths of New York and New Jersey coastal waters for renewable wind infrastructure, which experts say will eventually produce enough energy to power two million homes.

But those developments have been overshadowed by the Biden administration's auctioning off of large swaths of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico for oil drilling, a decision that will serve to "perpetuate climate pollution from public lands instead of reduce it," according to Huntley.

Biden pledged to end new drilling on federal lands during his presidential campaign, and just days before the lease sale in November, he encouraged every nation at the Glasgow COP26 Climate Conference to "do its part" to solve the climate crisis.

"It's hard to imagine a more dangerous, hypocritical action in the aftermath of the climate summit," said Kristen Monsell, a lawyer for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

Administration officials justified the decision to move forward with the lease sale by citing a court order to do so, despite claims from environmentalists that they were under no such obligation. On Wednesday, environmental groups sent a legal petition calling on the administration to cease oil and gas production on public lands by 2035. The Department of Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Vehicle emissions have also emerged as a source of contention. The EPA under Biden recently proposed the most aggressive limits on pollution from cars and light trucks in history, mandating higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles starting in 2023. Experts welcomed the measure and took stock of its significance.

"Given that transportation is the number-one greenhouse gas contributor in the U.S., that was a pretty big deal," said Oge.

But Biden refused to sign on to a multi-country commitment to take similar steps for buses and large trucks -- some of the highest-polluting vehicles on the road. After the COP26 summit in Glasgow, 15 countries signed a pledge to make all new commercial trucks electric by 2040. The U.S. was not one of them.

"I was disappointed," Oge said. "But it does not mean the administration can't still take steps to reduce those emissions."

The administration also scored points with activists when it stepped in to halt the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. But Abigail Dillen of Earthjustice points out that it failed to take action against the Line 3 pipeline, which, "from a climate standpoint, [is] equally harmful," Dillen said.

"The Biden administration has clear authority to take back the Line 3 permit," said Dillen. "The real difference between these two pipelines appears to be a political calculus. The Biden administration encountered unsurprising blowback in some quarters for its Keystone decision."

Several environmentalists speculate that the Biden administration has sought to use its executive authority sparingly -- doing enough to strengthen major climate priorities, but not so much as to put off moderate legislators whose votes will be needed to pass Build Back Better.

Despite those apparent contradictions, Biden's political allies remain in his corner -- particularly when his environmental record is held up against Trump's -- but they say they're looking forward to additional progress in the coming year.

"Compared to Trump, the Biden administration has done a good job," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. "But we must hold our government to a higher standard than President Trump and his cronies if we are going to be serious about taking on climate change."

Hope and headwinds

Environmentalists and industry leaders view the next few months as crucial to Biden's climate legacy, even as he faces political headwinds. Many seem inclined to be patient with Biden and his team, in light of their progress and pledges to date, and point to several areas where Biden can put points on the board.

Advocates say the administration can take additional executive actions, such as encouraging federal agencies, including the Pentagon, to turn toward electric vehicles for its fleets. The EPA has also signaled that it may propose tighter greenhouse gas emissions for heavy-duty vehicles starting in 2027 -- which Oge said she hopes will include "strong and ambitious requirements for buses and delivery vans to be electric."

"Looking ahead, this administration needs to be turning all the knobs under their control as far as they can go, for the sake of climate," Huntley said.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in February in a case brought by Republican-led states that could curb the EPA's authority to regulate carbon emissions standards.

The most pressing issue, however, remains Biden's signature Build Back Better plan -- an enormous package that experts believe will make or break Biden's environmental ambitions. The plan is universally opposed by congressional Republicans.

The plan is universally opposed by congressional Republicans, who have expressed concern over what its $1.7 trillion price tag would do to the national debt, and a pair of moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who are advocating for a pared-down version of the bill.

But the White House indicated this week that it will press forward, even as other legislative priorities take center stage.

"Yes, there is a lot one can do under executive order -- but a really large portion driving the kind of investments to tackle climate change has to come from Congress," said the Sierra Club's Melinda Pierce. "When you look to measure what was done in Year One, clearly the piece that has to be achieved legislatively is incomplete."

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Senate fails to change filibuster rule for passage of voting rights legislation

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Senate on Wednesday night failed to change the filibuster rule to allow voting rights legislation to pass with a simple majority.

The rule change would have required 51 votes to pass but did not have the support of all Democrats, whose leader had pushed for it. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., joined all Republicans in opposing the change.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said prior to the vote that the Senate would be "saved" by the opposition.

"Tonight, for the first time in history almost an entire political party will write in permanent ink that they would shatter the soul of the Senate for short-term power," McConnell said. "But the brave bipartisan majority of this body is about to stop them."

President Joe Biden said in a statement following the defeat: "I am profoundly disappointed that the Senate has failed to stand up for our democracy. I am disappointed -- but I am not deterred. We will continue to advance necessary legislation and push for Senate procedural changes that will protect the fundamental right to vote."

Earlier in the evening, the Senate was unable to end debate on voting rights legislation -- something that would have required 60 votes to move toward final passage.

That vote was 49-51.

"This is about the fundamental freedom to vote and what should be an unfettered access to the ballot. I am here to make a very strong statement that this is: Whatever happens tonight in terms of the outcome of this vote the president and I are not going to give up on this issue this is fundamental to our democracy and it is non-negotiable," Vice President Kamala Harris said after the first vote.

In a rare event, the Senate convened on Wednesday morning with all Democrats instructed to be in their seats inside the chamber as they tried to move forward on voting rights legislation and on a challenge to a longstanding Senate rule.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., was one of the last to speak before the voting began.

"Jan. 6 happened, but here's the thing, Jan. 5 also happened. Georgia, a state in the old confederacy, sent a Black man and a Jewish man to the Senate in one fell swoop," he said. "Our nation has always had a complicated history, and I submit to you that here's where we are -- we're swinging from a moral dilemma. We are caught somewhere between Jan. 5 and Jan. 6. Between our hopes and our fears. Between bigotry and beloved community. And in each moment we the people have to decide which way are we going to go, and what are we willing to sacrifice in order to get there. The question today is are we going to give in to a violent attack, whose aim is now being pursued through partisan voter suppression laws in state legislatures?"

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that Democrats would seek a carveout to the filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation by replacing the current 60-vote threshold needed to break a filibuster with an old-fashioned "talking filibuster."

"We feel very simply: On something as important as voting rights, if Senate Republicans are going to oppose it, they should not be allowed to sit in their office," Schumer said Tuesday following an evening caucus meeting. "They've got to come down on the floor and defend their opposition to voting rights, the wellspring of our democracy. There's broad, strong feeling in our caucus about that."

"The eyes of history are upon us," he said to open debate Wednesday, preemptively defending the effort as a moral win, if not a legislative one. "Win, lose or draw, we are going to vote, especially when the issue relates to the beating heart of democracy."

Schumer called out McConnell directly in his speech, who has led his party to block Democrats' election reform efforts five times in the last year, blasting him for falsely claiming that red states haven't changed laws restricting voter access.

"Just as Donald Trump has his "big lie," Mitch McConnell now has his: States are not engaging in trying to suppress voters whatsoever," Schumer said.

He also addressed two Democratic senators who hold what Schumer thinks is a false view that the chamber's filibuster brings greater bipartisanship -- and he countered in his remarks: "Isn't the protection of voting rights -- the most fundamental wellspring of this democracy -- more important?"

McConnell, in another blistering speech, said a rule change would "destroy the Senate" and warned of a "nuclear winter" if Democrats get their way and "blow up" the chamber's rule to pass voting rights legislation, which he called a "partisan Frankenstein bill."

"This is exactly the kind of toxic world view that this president pledged to disavow, but it is exactly what has consumed his party on his watch," McConnell said, building on days of swipes at President Joe Biden.

McConnell accused Democrats of trying to "smash and grab as much short-term power as they can carry," and said, "For both groups of senators, this vote will echo for generations."

When Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., tried to ask McConnell a question after his speech and get him to engage in debate on the issue, the Republican leader walked away.

"I'm sorry he did not stay for the question," Durbin said to the chamber. "Does he really believe that there is no evidence of voter suppression in the actions of 19 states?"

Democrats' election reform bill comes at a time when 19 states have restricted access to voting fueled by false claims in the wake of the 2020 election, according to the the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. The bill at hand would make Election Day a federal holiday, expand early voting and mail-in-voting, and give the federal government greater oversight over state elections.

Schumer has proposal to reverting to a talking filibuster on the issue would allow Democrats to subvert GOP obstruction to make way for the bill's final passage.

Under a talking filibuster, senators are required to "hold the floor" during debate, testing their stamina as they stand and speak to block bills. Once a party runs out of steam, the chamber would then pass the bill that was filibustered by a simple majority. So, in theory, Harris, as president of the Senate, would serve as a tie-breaking vote for Democrats to pass the once-filibustered bill.

But both Manchin and Sinema have repeatedly made clear their opposition to changing the filibuster rule even in order to pass voting rights, although they say they support the underlying legislation.

"I don't know how you break a rule to make a rule," Manchin told reporters Tuesday, shooting down the proposed talking filibuster.

Manchin defended his decision to vote against changing Senate rules in a floor speech Wednesday evening that he said aimed to "rebut what I believe is a great misleading of the American people" by Senate Democrats.

"Eliminating the filibuster would be the easy way out. It was not meant to be easy," Manchin said. "I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country not to divide our country. We are called the United States, not the divided states, and putting politics and party aside is what we are supposed to do."

Manchin made another plea for bipartisan cooperation and said he believes election reform could be achieved in a bipartisan fashion if members worked at it.

"I don't know what happened to the good old days but I can tell you they're not here now," Manchin said.

The West Virginia lawmaker said he respects that many Democrats have migrated in their stance on the filibuster and asked for respect in his steadfast opposition.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., however, laid into Manchin and Sinema Wednesday evening.

"I do not understand why two Democrats who presumably understand the importance of the Freedom to Vote Act, and as I understand it, will vote for the Freedom to Vote Act, are not prepared to change the rules so that that bill could actually become law. That I do not understand," he said. "If you think this bill makes sense and if you're worried about the future of American democracy and if you are prepared to vote for the bill, then why are you wasting everybody's time and not voting for the rule change that allows us to pass the bill? You know, it's like inviting somebody to lunch and putting out a great spread and saying you can't eat."

Generally, senators rarely occupy the chamber while debate is open and only those wishing to speak deliver remarks to a largely empty room -- but that was not the case for the high-stakes showdown Wednesday.

Among those who spoke was Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who warned Democrats that they're embarking on a "slippery slope" in attempting to carve out an exception to the filibuster to pass a piece of legislation.

"They'll soon find themselves rueing the day their party broke the Senate," he said. "The next Republican-controlled Senate can make the 2017 tax cuts permanent, ensure that blue state millionaires are required to pay their fair share of federal taxes," he went on, listing GOP platforms including implementing a 20-week ban on abortion and establishing concealed carry of firearms nationwide.

Both parties have supported filibuster carveouts in the past decade for judicial nominees -- first under then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who lowered the threshold for judicial nominees to 51 votes to make way for then-President Barack Obama's nominees in 2013. McConnell, as Senate majority leader in 2017, also used the so-called "nuclear option" to confirm then-President Donald Trump's first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

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Supreme Court paves way for Trump White House document review by Jan. 6 committee

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court on Wednesday denied former President Donald Trump's request for a stay of a lower court mandate that hundreds of pages of his presidential records from Jan. 6 be turned over to the congressional committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The vote was 8-1. Justice Clarence Thomas would have granted the application.

In November, an appeals court put a temporary pause on the records handover after Trump sued the committee and the National Archives, asserting executive privilege over a broad swath of documents identified as relevant to the Jan. 6 probe into Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the subsequent attack on the Capitol.

Among the records being sought by the committee were White House notes and call and visitor logs from on and around Jan. 6.

"The decision of the court below substantially expands congressional power," Trump's attorneys told the Supreme Court in their petition for review. "The Constitution, this Court’s precedent, and the Presidential Records Act prevent two politically-aligned branches of government from wielding unfettered power to undermine the Presidency and our Republic. This Court should grant certiorari to ensure unlawful exercises of congressional power are checked by both reason and law."

In the court's decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that "the questions whether and in what circumstances a former President may obtain a court order preventing disclosure of privileged records from his tenure in office, in the face of a determination by the incumbent President to waive the privilege, are unprecedented and raise serious and substantial concerns."

"The Court of Appeals, however, had no occasion to decide these questions because it analyzed and rejected President Trump’s privilege claims 'under any of the tests [he] advocated,' without regard to his status as a former President," Roberts wrote.

In the lawsuit, Trump's attorney Jesse Binnall argued the committee "has decided to harass President Trump ... by sending an illegal, unfounded, and overbroad records request to the Archivist of the United States" and accused President Joe Biden of engaging in "a political ploy to accommodate his partisan allies" by refusing to block the release of Trump's records to the Jan. 6 committee.

Instead, Biden ordered the National Archives to release records Trump had sought to classify as privileged communications.

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Biden holds rare solo news conference ahead of 1-year mark in office

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(WASHINGTON) -- On the eve of the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, President Joe Biden held a formal news conference at the White House Wednesday, answering reporter questions on his handling of the pandemic, the economy and legislative agenda, characterizing the country as unified -- but not as much as it could be -- and raised eyebrows by saying Russia was likely to invade Ukraine.

"It's been a year of challenges, but it's also many years of enormous progress," Biden said to begin, ticking through his administration's successes before fielding questions from reporters.

With Biden facing the limits of what he can accomplish with an evenly-divided Senate, unable to get either his signature social spending package or major voting rights reform through Congress in recent weeks, and with the pandemic still raging well into its second, his approval rating in polls has hit an all-time low. A Jan. 12 Quinnipiac poll found his approval rating to be 33%, a 3-point drop from November.

Questioned at one point on the falling numbers indicating Americans are unhappy with his job performance, Biden replied bluntly, "I don't believe the polls."

The president touted wins over the last year to kick off the news conference, including administering more than 200 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and hitting record-low unemployment rates in many states.

"Should we have done more testing earlier? Yes," Biden said in his opening remarks. "But we're doing more now. We've gone from zero at-home tests a year ago to 375 million tests on the market just this month."

He said the bottom line on COVID-19 is the country is "in a better place than we've been and have been thus far" and reiterated his position not to go back to lockdowns and school closures.

"Some people may call what's happening now a new normal. I call it a job not yet finished," Biden said with confidence. "We're moving toward a time that COVID-19 won't disrupt our daily lives or COVID-19 won't be a crisis, but something to protect against and a threat. Look, we're not there yet. We will get there."

The first question to Biden was on whether he believes he overpromised to the American public what his administration could achieve in office one year in.

"Look, I didn't overpromise," a defensive Biden replied. "I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen. The fact of the matter is that we're in a situation where we have made enormous progress."

Then, he acknowledged a weakness.

"One thing I haven't been able to do so far, is get my Republican friends to get in the game of making things better in this country," Biden said. "I did not anticipate that there'd be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn't get anything done."

In an answer to ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Mary Bruce, Biden said, at first, there's no need to scale back his agenda despite the appearance that Democrats aren't getting their priorities through -- before conceding he'd be willing to break up policy items in order to pass provisions that do have bipartisan support.

"I'm not trying to -- I'm not asking for castles in the sky," Biden replied. "I'm asking for practical things the American people have been asking for for a long time, a long time. And I think we can get it done."

Biden told Bruce, "I'm confident we can get pieces -- big chunks of the Build Back Better law signed into law" -- appearing to back breaking up the landmark legislation publicly for the first time.

Asked later on to follow up on whether he would split up Democrats' proposed expansion to the social safety net, Biden said, "It's clear to me we're going to have to, probably, break it up."

"I'm not going to negotiate myself as to what should and shouldn't be in it, but I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now, and come back and fight for the rest later," he added. The massive package includes items from free universal pre-K to paid federal family and medical leave.

"But I also think we will be able to get significant pieces of legislation -- if we don't get it all now -- to build to get it so that we get a big chunk of the John Lewis legislation (John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act) as well as the fair elections act (For the People Act)," Biden said.

On foreign policy, Biden said for the first publicly that he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely invade Ukraine -- but warned that he would "pay a serious and dear price for it."

However, in a couple of answers on Ukraine, NATO, and Russia, Biden all but admitted NATO is not united on how to respond and seemed to draw a red line short of an all-out invasion for a unified Western response -- potentially giving Putin space for something less than troops crossing the border, but still highly destabilizing for Ukraine.

While Biden said he still believed Putin still did not want "any full blown-war," Biden said he believes Putin will "test" the United States as significantly as he could.

Speaking to his personal performance, Biden outlined three things he would do differently in his second year in office. He said he intended to get out of Washington more often to meet with Americans face to face, welcome "more advice from outside experts" for constructive criticism and become "deeply involved in these off-year elections" as the midterms approach.

Questioned later on 2024 ambitions, Biden said Vice President Kamala Harris would be his running mate.

He closed the nearly two-hour press conference by acknowledging it's the first time he's been in this role, while he's been in Washington for more than five decades, and that he needs to change his approach.

"And one of the things that I do think that has been made clear to me speaking of polling, is the public doesn't want me to be the President Senator. They want me to be the President and let senators be senators. And so, if I've made -- I’ve made any mistakes, I'm sure. If I made a mistake, I'm used to negotiating to get things done, and I've been in the past relatively successful in the United States Senate, even as vice president. And I think that role as president is a different role," he said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, one day earlier, set up a preemptive defense for the president, telling reporters, "You don't get everything done in the first year."

"But what we feel good about ... is that coming into an incredibly difficult circumstance, fighting a pandemic, an economic a massive economic downturn, as a result, an administration that was prior to us that did not effectively deal with a lot of these crises, that there's been a lot of progress made," she added.

"We need to build on that. The work is not done, the job is not done, and we are certainly not conveying it is, so our objective and I think what you'll hear the president talk about tomorrow is how to build on the foundation we laid in the first year, Psaki said.

White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield cited the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law, the American Rescue Plan, and a major, bipartisan infrastructure package as two achievements Biden will highlight in an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Wednesday. But she also acknowledged the president can do more on other issues.

"He has been laser-focused on taming COVID and growing the economy. He would be the first to say we're not where we need to be on those," Bedingfield said.

Wednesday's session marks just the second time Biden has held a solo formal press conference at the White House. The first such news conference was held March 25, 2021.

Since then, he held five news conferences on foreign trips, and three in partnership with other foreign leaders at the White House, for a total of nine news conferences. While Biden often answers questions shouted by the press at other events, his tally of formal news conferences is the lowest for any president since Ronald Reagan, according to data from University of California Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project.

ABC News' Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

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Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor, Gorsuch dispute having COVID mask flap

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(WASHINGTON) -- Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not ask her colleague and seatmate on the bench, Justice Neil Gorsuch, to wear a mask during the omicron surge, according to a rare joint statement issued Wednesday.

The justices, addressing swirling media reports of discord, insist they remain "warm colleagues and friends" despite recent headlines suggesting Gorsuch had defied a request to mask up, forcing Sotomayor, who, because of her diabetes and her age -- 67 -- is at heightened risk of COVID, to retreat to her chambers.

"Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false. While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends," they said in a rare joint statement.

Since early January, Sotomayor has not joined her colleagues for any in person proceedings or private meetings due to health concerns. At the same time, her peers began wearing masks while together -- with one notable exception: Gorsuch.

NPR's Nina Totenberg reported Tuesday, citing an unnamed source, that Chief Justice John Roberts had encouraged his colleagues "in some form" to mask up during omicron. She indicated that Gorsuch defied that request.

Fox News' Shannon Bream reports, citing a separate unnamed source, that's not true and that no request went out from Roberts and that Sotomayor never asked Gorsuch herself.

Roberts later out his own statement, saying, "I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other Justice to wear a mask on the bench."

He indicated he will have no further comment.

All the justices are boosted and tested daily before meeting together, per the court.

From October through December, all nine justices convened on the bench together -- and only Sotomayor wore a mask at that time. She sat next to a maskless Gorsuch and Justice Stephen Breyer, among others.

In January, when they reconvened, most justices started wearing masks -- with sole exception being Gorsuch. Sotomayor started dialing in from chambers.

The implication has been the appearance that Sotomayor is not comfortable sitting next to unmasked Gorsuch -- with whom she's been friendly and appeared with jointly in virtual events.

Her chambers has not specified the reason for her remote participation.

Everyone else in the courtroom who's not a justice must be masked and must be tested, per court rules.

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