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Castro teases potential presidential bid

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro is making no secret about his flirtations with a 2020 presidential bid, telling MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Thursday that he's "very likely, likely, whatever terms you want to use" running for the Democratic nomination. 

"The season is almost upon us, it's no secret, people see out there that you will probably have a whole bunch of folks who are running in 2020," he said. 

"The voters are going to want to see a whole bunch of folks up there with new ideas, different experiences and feel like everybody's voice was heard. Afterward, the Democratic nominee in 2020 will be stronger because of that." 

Castro has had a quick rise through politics, jumping form the San Antonio Mayor's office in 2014 to become the HUD Secretary under President Obama. At just 44 years old, the Stanford and Harvard educated Texan has been seen as one of the party's next generation of political leaders. 

He's made it clear that he's eyeing 2020—traveling to key early-voting states, penning a book, launching a political organization and hitting the TV circuit to telegraph his intentions. 

But Castro lacks the national political experience of many other Democrats looking at the field, and will likely be jockeying with more than a dozen candidates looking to win the party's nomination. 

He's said he'll make a decision on running sometime before the end of this year. 

Cruz received a special ‘welcome back’ message in Senate gym

Sen. Ted Cruz’s colleagues had a little fun at the Texas Republican’s expense when he returned to Washington this week following his infamous trip to Cancun.

When senators arrived at the Senate gym on Wednesday morning, they found that one of them had taped memes on the lockers welcoming Cruz home and showing him in the short-sleeve polo shirt, jeans and Texas-flag mask that he had at the airport, according to two people familiar with the prank. “Bienvenido de Nuevo, Ted!” was the “welcome back” message typed at the top of the color printouts, one of which was viewed by NBC News.

The rendering featured a manipulated photo of Cruz from his well-documented trip to Mexico, dragging his luggage across an arctic landscape while holding a tropical cocktail garnished with a slice of fruit in his other hand. He is shown walking toward an image of a masked Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. with his arms crossed and wearing striped, knitted gloves — a pose famously captured during January’s inauguration.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, carries his luggage at the Cancun International Airport before boarding his plane back to the U.S., in Cancun, Mexico on Feb. 18, 2021.via Reuters

The memes were taken down sometime Wednesday, according to the people familiar with them.

It's unclear whether Cruz saw the memes and a spokesperson for the senator did not respond to a request for comment.

The Senate gym is only used by current and former senators. The Senate Rules Committee hadn’t received a complaint about the prank, according to a committee aide.

Cruz has been widely mocked on social media — and criticized in his home state — for hopping on a plane last week to Cancun for a family trip while millions of Texans were without water and power in frigid temperatures. He returned to Texas after the controversy erupted and said the trip was a “mistake.” 

Mike Memoli contributed to this report.

Meet the Republican senator who's voted against every Biden nominee so far

WASHINGTON — Just one Republican senator has voted against each of President Biden's Cabinet nominees so far: Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley. 

And Hawley's "nay" voting record on each of the 10 nominees who have had a vote is particularly visible given how bipartisan the majority of the confirmations have been. 

Hawley was just one of:

  • Two senators who voted against Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's confirmation
  • Seven senators who voted against Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
  • Seven senators who voted against VA Secretary Denis McDonough
  • 10 senators who voted against the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines 
  • 13 senators who voted against Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg 
  • 15 senators who voted against Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen 

Biden's four other confirmed Cabinet members (Secretary of State Antony Blinken, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm) were all confirmed with closer margins. 

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks at the confirmation hearing for Judge Merrick Garland, nominee to be Attorney General, on Feb. 22, 2021.Drew Angerer / AP

Hawley may be one of many Republicans eyeing a potential 2024 presidential bid. He told NBC News' Frank Thorp and Garrett Haake that he didn't have a strategy of opposition. 

"I just I hope that he will nominate folks and pursue policies that will be good for working Americans and good for the middle of the country," Hawley said. "So, that's my only test."

Hawley said he was undecided on how he'd vote on Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland.

New York Democratic Senator and former presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand boasted of having “the best voting record against Trump nominees of anyone else running for president” on the trail in 2019. She voted against 20 of 22 nominations for former President Trump's original Cabinet. She casted the only "no" vote against former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.  

Five other Democratic senators voted against at least 80 percent of Trump’s original Cabinet nominees, and four of those senators also sought the Democratic presidential nomination: Sens., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, Cory Booker, D-N.J., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and now-Vice President Kamala Harris.  

Several of Biden's Cabinet nominees are still awaiting a vote: 

  • Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland
  • HHS nominee Xavier Becerra 
  • Interior nominee Deb Haaland 
  • Education nominee Miguel Cardona
  • Commerce nominee Gina Raimondo
  • Labor nominee Marty Walsh
  • HUD nominee Marcia Fudge
  • EPA nominee Michael Regan
  • SBA nominee Isabel Guzman
  • U.S. Trade Representative nominee Katherine Tai 

And of course embattled OMB Director nominee Neera Tanden. 

Virginia Republicans decide on drive-up convention to pick 2021 statewide nominees

WASHINGTON — The Republican Party of Virginia on Tuesday night approved a plan to nominate its gubernatorial candidate by a convention – instead of a primary – in what’s shaping up to be the marquee general-election race of 2021,

The convention will take place on May 8 at conservative Liberty University, whereby convention delegates will drive up and cast their pick for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general under ranked-choice voting

By contrast, Democrats will be selecting their nominee at the ballot box, through a statewide primary contest on June 8. 

This drive-up GOP convention at Liberty University is the same process that took down then-incumbent Congressman Denver Riggleman, R-Va., who lost the GOP nomination last year to conservative Bob Good; Good ended up winning the general election and now represents Virginia’s 5th Congressional District. 

But this time around, the conventional wisdom is that this convention process is a bad outcome for the most controversial GOP candidate in the field: state Sen. Amanda Chase. 

Chase denounced the process after its approval, arguing relying on a process that relies on people driving from all over the state to Lynchburg will disenfranchises voters. 

“I would like the VA GOP State Central Committee to answer a question. 1,962,430 voters voted for President Trump in Virginia. How are you going to accommodate these people who will want to cast a vote for our statewide candidates?” she tweeted

The assumption in this multi-candidate GOP field — which not only includes Chase, but also House Delegate Kirk Cox, businessman Pete Snyder and former Carlyle Group executive Glenn Youngkim — is that the percentage of the field a candidate needs to win could be as low as 25 or 30 percent. That could leave the door open for someone like Chase if the rest of the field splits the vote. 

But it will likely be more difficult for Chase to win a process where she’ll need more than 50 percent, even at a convention at Liberty University, where the former university president has been a stalwart backer of former President Donald Trump and has hired a handful of Trump allies in recent months. 

But the convention process also has a downside for Republicans trying to win back the governor’s mansion: It encourages less participation. And since Virginia is an open-primary state – where primary voters can request either a Democratic or Republican ballot – the only option that primary voters will have on June 8 is on the Democratic side.

Perdue opts out of 2022 Senate race after runoff loss

WASHINGTON — Former Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., announced Tuesday he will not join the field for the 2022 Senate race in the state — a surprising move coming a week after he publicly signaled he was considering a run. 

Perdue told supporters in an email that he and his wife, Bonnie, "have decided that we will not enter the race for the United States Senate in Georgia in 2022." He called the decision "personal," not "political," and said he plans to "do everything" to help the eventual Republican nominee defeat Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., in the fall. 

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks at a campaign event in Milton, Ga., on Dec. 21, 2020.Al Drabo / Reuters file

There were two runoff elections for Georgia's Senate seats in January because Georgia election law mandates runoffs between the top-two vote-getters if no candidate wins a majority of the vote on Election Day. Perdue lost his runoff to now-Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., by just over 1 percentage point in January. 

That race was for a full term, so Ossoff is not on the ballot in 2022. But Warnock, who defeated then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., by 2 percentage points, is on the ballot, because his race was a special election to fill the remainder of the term of former Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who retired in 2019.

On top of Democrats winning both Georgia Senate seats, President Joe Biden won the state narrowly during the presidential election. All of those races saw record-breaking turnout

Perdue declared in his statement that the 2020 election cycle proved that "Georgia is not a blue state" and "the more Georgians that vote, the better Republicans do."

"These two current liberal US Senators do not represent the values of a majority of Georgians," he said. 

Perdue had been publicly weighing a 2022 bid, filing paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to kickstart a potential candidacy and tweeting last week to confirm he was considering another campaign. 

While Perdue is passing on a bid this cycle, Loeffler continues to float a comeback bid against Warnock. She told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she's starting a group to mobilize Republican voters in Georgia and that a possible Senate bid is "certainly on the table." 

Manchin undecided on supporting Deb Haaland for Interior

WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is undecided on whether he'll support Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland, Manchin's spokesperson Sam Runyon told NBC News. 

Haaland, a Democratic congresswoman representing New Mexico, would be the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency and will testify before Manchin's committee on Tuesday. Haaland has been a fierce public lands defender, and has been critical of fossil fuel energy development on those lands. 

Manchin “hasn’t made a decision on Haaland yet. He’s looking forward to her hearing tomorrow,” Runyon said.

Manchin's support will be critical for Haaland's nomination, as Democrats can't afford to lose any one of their members' votes before needing Republican Senators to confirm a Cabinet nominee. Manchin flexed his political muscle in the nomination process when he announced he wouldn't support Neera Tanden to be Office of Management and Budget director, likely sinking her nomination. 

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., speaks in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 19, 2020.Joshua Roberts / Getty Images

When Haaland testifies on Tuesday, in addition to Manchin, she will also face a committee stacked with western-state Republicans who strongly support energy development. At least two Committee members, Sens. John Barasso, R-Wyo., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., have expressed reservations about Haaland. 

After Barrasso spoke with Haaland on the phone, Barrasso said, "energy development on our nation’s public lands is essential to Wyoming’s economy and America’s global energy dominance. The United States is a world energy powerhouse. We need to act like one.”

And Daines called Haaland “radical” and pointed to her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and her support of the Green New Deal as likely reasons to oppose her. Daines also threatened to try and block her confirmation.

Senate Parliamentarian to decide if $15 minimum wage can be in Covid-19 relief

WASHINGTON — The Senate Parliamentarian, who officially advises the Senate on Senate rules, could determine as early as Tuesday if a minimum wage hike could be included in the Covid-19 bill, according to a senior Democratic aide. 

The decision by the parliamentarian could come before the House of Representatives completes its work on the $1.9 trillion plan which currently includes an incremental increase to the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next four years. 

If the parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, rules that a minimum wage measure can be included in the budget package, Democrats would just need 50 votes with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Budget Committee has repeatedly expressed optimism that the minimum wage would satisfy the budgetary requirements for inclusion. 

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., participates in a meeting of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Feb. 10, 2021.Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP file

If she rules that it is acceptable, Democrats will still have to work to ensure all 50 Democrats are on board. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have come out against raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. 

If MacDonough rules that the minimum wage hike isn't germane to the Covid-19 package, Democrats will need to find a new way to get this priority through an evenly-split Senate. Democrats are aiming to pass the Covid-19 relief bill through budget reconciliation to avoid a 60-vote threshold in the Senate. But that would require all 50 Senate Democrats voting together. 

MacDonough will need to determine if a federal minimum wage hike will meet the specific parameters of a budget reconciliation, including if the wage hike has to have significant budgetary impact.  

Update: A meeting with the Senate parliamentarian is now slated for Wednesday, two Democratic aides tell NBC News. 

This meeting will consist of Republican and Democratic staff who will present their cases to the parliamentarian as to why the minimum wage should or should not be allowed to be included in the Covid-19 budget reconciliation bill. 

A decision could come as early as Wednesday night, one of the aides said.

Town Hall Project merges with Indivisible as progressive groups chart path after Trump presidency

The Town Hall Project, a progressive group that sprung up after the 2016 election to track members of Congress’ public forums, is folding into Indivisible, one of the prominent so-called “resistance” groups that emerged to oppose former President Donald Trump’s agenda. 

The Town Hall Project filled a simple, but valuable niche of crowdsourcing and publicizing information on lawmakers' local town halls so constituents — and journalists — could attend to ask questions and push lawmakers in the interest of transparency and accountability. 

That mission was upended by the pandemic, but the group has continued to track virtual town halls and host their own, while also starting an offshoot to aggregate local mutual aid groups.

The merger, which includes the group's town hall database and a small handful of staff, comes at an inflection point for the liberal activism that flourished in opposition to Trump, now that Democrats control Washington.

“The moment is obviously different, not just because of who’s in the White House and controlling Congress, but the work is different. It was pretty straightforward in 2017,” said Nathan Williams, the founder of the Town Hall Project. “Now we're at a moment where there is a really broad assault on democratic institutions to try to really remove the possibility of accountability and representative democracy.”

Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden speaks during a town hall at the Proulx Community Center in Franklin, N.H.Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images file

Indivisible has made what they call "democracy reform" — voting rights, anti-gerrymandering efforts, filibuster reform and more  — their new raison d'etre, especially after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which they say fits well with the Town Hall Project.

“The Town Hall Project's work of focusing on how constituents can directly put pressure on their elected representatives are directly aligned with what we’re trying to do,” said Ezra Levin, an Indivisible co-founder. "(Some lawmakers) don't really care about what national progressives say, they don't care about what the national media really says, but they do care what their constituents say.”

Ivanka Trump won't run against Rubio in 2022 Senate race

WASHINGTON — Ivanka Trump, former President Donald Trump's eldest daughter, called Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio a few weeks ago to offer her support for Rubio’s re-election, multiple aides confirm to NBC News. 

Trump informed Rubio that she was behind his campaign and will not run for Florida's Senate seat in 2022, which would have pit her against Rubio in a GOP primary. The two had a “great talk,” an aide for Senator Rubio adds.

A person close to Ivanka Trump confirmed the conversation and told NBC News that Ms. Trump was never considering a Senate run in Florida.

In a statement provided to NBC News, Trump said that Rubio is a “good personal friend and I know he will continue to drive meaningful progress on issues we both care deeply about.”

There was also discussion on the call of holding a joint event to highlight Rubio and Ivanka Trump’s push to expand the Child Tax Credit, a Rubio spokesperson added. 

The New York Times first reported the news. 

Ivanka Trump listens to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speak during a news conference in Washington on Oct. 25, 2017.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP file

Asked about the potential for Ivanka Trump to enter the race, here’s what Sen. Rubio told Fox News' Chris Wallace on Jan. 24th: 

“When you decide to run for re- election in a state like Florida, you have to be prepared for its competitive race. You run it like a competitive race. So that's what I'm preparing to run, a very competitive race against the tough opponent.”

“I like Ivanka. We've worked very well together on issues," Rubio added. "Look, anybody can decide to run if they want to. I mean I'm not entitled to anything and so forth. I've got to earn my way forward.”

Trump previously worked as an executive at the Trump Organization, her father's business, before joining him in the White House as a senior adviser. 

Job guarantee resolution joins a growing list of progressive proposals

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., is introducing a resolution Thursday calling for a federal job guarantee, seeking to actualize an idea from Franklin Delano Roosevelt 77 years after it was proposed.

The 16-page resolution states that "it is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Federal job guarantee," in order to "finally eliminate the moral and economic scourge of involuntary unemployment."

The idea is the latest in a flurry of proposals from the new Democratic-led Congress that paints a portrait of a party embracing its more economically liberal roots and throwing caution to the wind after decades of moderating its platform in response to a series of defeats in the 1980s.

Biden to mark anniversary of initial coronavirus shutdowns next month

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden plans to mark the one-year anniversary of the country’s initial coronavirus shutdown by addressing Americans next month, according to two White House officials.

The occasion will allow the president to reflect on the difficulties the country has endured since March 11, 2020, the day that the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic, the NBA canceled its season and Dr. Anthony Fauci told Congress the Covid-19 outbreak in the U.S. — then at roughly 1,000 cases — would get worse, officials said.

While Biden intends to give a significant nod to the sacrifices Americans have made, he also would outline how he sees the path forward, officials said. 

“He’ll acknowledge how far we’ve come,” one White House official said. Officials said plans are for him to do so on March 11 or close to that date.

As of Wednesday the number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. was nearing 28 million and the number of deaths caused by the pandemic is more than 490,000. Some 55 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine also have been administered in the U.S., with Biden promising this week that all Americans eligible to receive it should be able to do so by the end of July. 

White House officials said they are discussing specifically what Biden might do to mark the one-year anniversary of shutting down the country, including whether it’s simply a speech or a broader event and if it’s held in Washington our elsewhere in the country.

Biden, a month into his presidency, is making his first official travel outside of Washington this week with a trip to Wisconsin on Tuesday and one to Michigan planned for Thursday.

During a CNN town hall in Milwaukee Tuesday night, he telegraphed his vision for when life may return to some semblance of normal for the country.

“By next Christmas I think we'll be in a very different circumstance, God willing, than we are today,” Biden said. “A year from now I think that there will be significantly fewer people having to be socially distanced, have to wear a mask, but we don't know. So I don't want to over promise anything here."

A new 'Medicare X' bill looks like Biden's public option plan

WASHINGTON — Teeing up what’s likely to be a major Democratic policy priority this year, two Democratic senators have unveiled the latest edition of their bill to create a government-run health plan — popularly known as a public option — to compete with private insurance and put pressure on health care providers to lower prices.  

Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. and Tim Kaine, D-Va. released their new “Medicare X” bill on Wednesday, which would create a public option plan to be sold alongside private plans on the Affordable Care Act's marketplaces. Health care providers who accept Medicare or Medicaid plans would also have to accept “Medicare X."

While versions of this bill have been introduced before, the senators emphasized that their latest proposal tracks closely to what President Biden promised during his 2020 campaign. 

“We think what we’re introducing is the closest match to the Biden campaign,” Kaine said in a Zoom call with reporters. 

The senators also said they crafted their plan to be passed through budget reconciliation — meaning they only need to get a simple majority of senators to approve the proposal (or all 50 Democratic senators and Vice President Kamala Harris' vote).

And in addition to consulting with the White House, Kaine and Bennet said they spoke with key Senate votes like Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.. and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“If it’s a blend of this proposal and others, we think that that’s great,” Kaine said. “We’re not going to mourn another bill passing.”

There's wide Democratic support for a public option but there’s also a wide range of proposals, some of which are functionally close to single-payer Medicare for All and others that would fill more narrow gaps in the current system. 

Bennet and Kaine's bill falls in the latter category. It would initially be available only in places with few private insurance options, then gradually open up to everyone on the ACA exchanges. Medicare X would reimburse health care providers at up to 150 percent of Medicare rates depending on local costs. 

Biden also ran on a relatively narrow, if more vaguely defined, public option proposal. Kaine and Bennet noted that their bill reflects Biden's 2020 policy papers by capping premiums at 8.5 percent of income. It would also cover people whose incomes are too high to qualify for Medicaid, but too low to qualify for subsidized insurance. In line with Biden’s campaign promises, the new Medicare X plans would also come with no-cost primary care services.  

Biden’s 8.5 percent income cap on ACA plans is included in his Covid-19 bill being debated in the House, but it would last for only two years.  

While a public option has broad support within the party, this proposal is likely to face pushback from progressives who want a public option that more aggressively supplants private plans.

“These issues were litigated fiercely in the last presidential campaign in both the primary and the general election and the place where Biden started the race and ended up is essentially where Tim and I are,” Bennet said.