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Lawmakers’ lists of questions outnumber U.S. government answers about a Chinese spy balloon and a trio of mysterious aerial objects shot down between Alaska and the Great Lakes over the weekend.

That situation became untenable by Monday as howls from frustrated lawmakers grew louder, so federal officials this morning plan a classified briefing for senators despite concessions that significant information about the vaguely described objects detected above Alaska, Canada and Michigan is unclear. Debris from the objects shot down by fighter jets over remote, frigid terrain and over Lake Huron has yet to be retrieved, according to officials.

The White House says President Biden and the North American Aeronautic Defense Command (NORAD) scrambled fighter jets to shoot down the unexplained objects because they posed a potential threat to civilian aircraft, although such detection appeared to be a new experience for NORAD. 

Reuters: U.S. still stumped by latest flying objects as friction with China grows. 

Even the wreckage of the Chinese surveillance balloon, downed by a Sidewinder missile over shallow water off the coast of South Carolina 10 days ago, is taking the Navy and Coast Guard weeks to retrieve, let alone assess to help determine what Beijing wanted with data gathered over the continental United States by a floating 10-story orb. The balloon and its protruding electronics were initially detected by the United States on Jan. 28.

Senators will receive a separate classified briefing about China on Wednesday (The Hill).

In the absence of answers, there will be an abundance of assessment. The Biden administration on Monday announced the formation of an interagency task force “to study the broader policy implications for detection, analysis and disposition of unidentified aerial objects that pose either safety or security risks,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at a White House press briefing (NBC News).

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed some of his colleagues when he went to the Senate floor to complain.

“What in the world is going on? Has the Biden administration just dialed the sensitivity of our radars all the way up? If so, what are the objects that we are just now noticing for the very first time?” the senator said. “Are they benign science projects and wayward weather balloons or something more nefarious that we’ve somehow been missing all this time?” (The Hill).

“President Biden owes the American people some answers,” McConnell continued. “What are we shooting down? Where do they come from? Whether they are hostile or not, is there coherent guidance about when to shoot them down? … How did we get into a position where the greatest nation in the world doesn’t know what is traversing our own airspace?”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conceded on Monday that the United States could not “definitively assess” the purpose, capabilities or origins of the aerial objects (The Hill).

One was initially described by a Canadian official on Saturday as cylindrical and about the size of a small automobile. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) over the weekend said the White House told him that all three objects were “balloons.” The object spotted over Lake Huron was described as octagon-shaped and may have fallen after a missile strike to land on the Canadian side of the lake. U.S. officials said the flight pattern of the three objects was justification to blow them out of the sky.

“We don’t know if they were actually collecting intelligence, but because of the route that they took, out of an abundance of caution, we want to make sure that we have the ability to examine what these things are and potentially what they were doing,” Austin told reporters after landing in Brussels on Monday.

The White House may not know what the objects are, but it has ruled out alien invaders. “There is no — again, no — indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

▪ The Hill: What we know and don’t know aboutthe objects shot down by the U.S. military.

▪ Bloomberg News: Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese diplomat Wang Xi may meet this week during a Munich conference. Blinken canceled this month’s planned meeting in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping in protest over the Chinese spy balloon publicly detected when it moved over Montana at high altitude.

▪ The Hill: The White House denied China’s assertion on Monday that more than 10 U.S. surveillance balloons moved across that country since the beginning of 2022. “Just absolutely not true,” Kirby told MSNBC.

During an exclusive interview with The Hill’s Niall Stanage, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who says he is mulling a 2024 GOP presidential campaign, criticized Biden for his reaction to the Chinese balloon that traversed the country.

“The whole world saw a slow-moving balloon transiting Montana, Kansas, South Carolina — and the United States of America did nothing,” said Pompeo, a former member of Congress from Kansas.

Tracking the balloon for days delivered “an enormous geopolitical advantage” for China, the former CIA director contended. “I can’t imagine that the risk of some falling debris over a place like Montana exceeded the risk of global shame.”

Related Articles

▪ The Hill: Former Trump administration national security adviser John Bolton to receive a Wednesday briefing about previous incursions by spy balloons. 

▪ The Atlantic: China’s balloon-size blunder is a huge opportunity.

▪ The Hill: A Georgia judge on Monday ordered limited release from a grand jury report of information related to former President Trump and alleged 2020 election interference. 

▪ The Hill: A lawyer who represents Trump said his client used an empty folder marked classified to block blue light from a telephone in his bedroom at night. 

LEADING THE DAY

➤ CONGRESS 

The anticipated GOP impeachment case against Alejandro Mayorkas would remove the Homeland Security secretary largely based on a law that gives him broad discretion over how to meet a near impossible standard at the border, The Hill’s Rebecca Beitsch and Rafael Bernal report. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed during a failed Bush-era effort to move a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and in the fallout, House Republicans rushed to show they were taking action on border security. 

Now, Republicans argue that Mayorkas has been ineffective in managing what they see as a crisis at the southern border. 

“He has taken an oath, a constitutional oath, to obey the laws of the United States and protect us,” said Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Texas), who this year filed the first articles of impeachment against Mayorkas. “In 2006, the Secure Fence Act was passed which requires the Department of Homeland Security Secretary to maintain the operational control of the southern border. He has clearly not done that.”

House Republicans are officially relaunching their investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic by calling for testimony and information from Anthony Fauci and other current and former Biden administration officials. The 12-member coronavirus response subcommittee is charged with examining the origins of the pandemic, including federal funding of what’s known as gain-of-function research, or research that enhances a virus’s ability to cause an infection in order to predict pandemics and develop cures. The examination of this research is central to the claim the virus originated from a lab in Wuhan, China, that was potentially backed by funding from the U.S. government. Last year, Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee released a report concluding the pandemic began with a virus that escaped from the Wuhan lab.

Aside from Fauci’s testimony, the lawmakers are seeking phone records, official calendars and other communications from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases regarding the Wuhan Institute of Virology and any federal grants to EcoHealth Alliance (The Hill).

Lawmakers on Monday removed from his position the U.S. architect of the Capitol “at the president’s direction.” The move comes after calls for J. Brett Blanton to resign or be removed from office following the October release of an inspector general report alleging a litany of ethical breaches, including misusing a government vehicle and allegedly impersonating a law enforcement officer.

The president’s move comes just hours after Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called for Blanton to step down or be removed by Biden. Only the president has the authority to fire the Architect of the Capitol. Blanton was nominated by Trump to a 10-year term, and was confirmed by the Senate in December 2019 (Roll Call and The Hill).

“After being given the opportunity to respond to numerous allegations of legal, ethical, and administrative violations, and failing to directly respond, the President has removed Mr. Brett Blanton from his position — a decision I firmly stand behind,” House Administration Committee ranking member Joseph Morelle (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Monday. “President Biden did the right thing and heeded my call for action. I look forward to working with my colleagues to begin a search for a new Architect immediately.” 

▪ The New York Times: GOP legislative agenda hits snags amid party divisions.

▪ The Washington Post: Congress could block additional weapons and aid to Ukraine, the U.S. has warned Kyiv while encouraging progress at the one-year mark of the war against Russia. “‘As long as it takes’ pertains to the amount of conflict,” an official told the Post, referring to Biden’s much-quoted U.S. assurances. “It doesn’t pertain to the amount of assistance.”

IN FOCUS/SHARP TAKES

➤ INTERNATIONAL

Thousands of rescue operations are still underway across Turkey and Syria as workers race against the clock in their search for survivors, one week after a pair of devastating earthquakes tore through the region, killing more than 37,000. Humanitarian groups say the delay in aid has severely hampered rescuers’ abilities to pull people out of the rubble alive; even now, Syrians are waiting for the kind of heavy machinery and specialized tools available on the Turkish side of the border.

Hundreds of thousands of people in both countries are injured or homeless, with many living in makeshift tents or in their cars; meanwhile, there are growing reports of looting and insecurity in some of the hardest-hit areas (The Washington Post). Rescuers in Turkey pulled several children alive from collapsed buildings on Monday, but hopes of many more survivors were fading and criticism of the authorities grew (Reuters).

The New York Times: Some structures promoted as being built to modern seismic codes did not withstand the quake in Turkey. One upscale tower that fell may have had a design flaw, engineers said.

The eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut endured heavy artillery fire on Monday as a major new Russian offensive began, days before the first anniversary of Moscow’s invasion. Ukrainian defenders, who have already held out for months, were braced for new ground attacks, local military officials said. Bakhmut is a prime objective for Russian President Vladimir Putin; its capture would give Russia a new foothold in the Donetsk region and a rare victory after several months of setbacks.

“The reality is we have seen the start (of a Russian offensive) already because we see now what Russia does now — President Putin does now — is to send thousands and thousands more troops, accepting a very high rate of casualty,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters (Reuters).

▪ The New York Times: The order for aid groups to leave Bakhmut could be a prelude to Ukrainian withdrawal.

▪ The Wall Street Journal: Ukraine faces painful choice as Russia tightens chokehold on Bakhmut.

▪ The Washington Post: Russians abandon wartime Russia in historic exodus.

▪ Reuters: The United States tells its citizens: Leave Russia immediately.

A battle over the future of Israel’s judiciary grew more fraught on Monday as roughly 100,000 protesters from across the country filled the streets outside parliament in Jerusalem. The demonstrators gathered to oppose a sweeping judicial overhaul proposed by Israel’s new government — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in the country’s history. The changes would reduce the Supreme Court’s ability to revoke laws passed in parliament and give the government greater influence over who gets to be a judge (The New York Times). Israeli lawmakers, meanwhile, traded insults on Monday over the plans as the president warned the country was on the brink of “constitutional collapse” (Reuters).

The Hill: Report finds LBQ women face discrimination, violence in countries around the world.

⛷️Overall World Cup winners Mikaela Shiffrin, Federica Brignone and Aleksander Aamodt Kilde are among nearly 200 athletes from multiple disciplines who have signed a letter addressed to the International Ski and Snowboard Federation demanding action over climate change. Warm weather and a lack of snow wiped out nearly a month of racing at the start of this season, with preseason training on melting European glaciers heading toward extinction and the impact of climate change on the schedule being seen even in January (ABC News). 

“We are already experiencing the effects of climate change in our everyday lives and our profession,” the athletes said in the letter. “The public opinion about skiing is shifting towards unjustifiability. … We need progressive organizational action. We are aware of the current sustainability efforts of FIS and rate them as insufficient.”

➤ STATE WATCH

Biden referenced the U.S. housing affordability crisis briefly during his State of the Union speech a week ago, leaving some industry leaders and advocates grousing about a missed opening to lay out a comprehensive housing plan and address fair housing practices. As The Hill’s Adam Barnes and Sylvan Lane report, the U.S. is short at least 1 million homes amid one of the most volatile housing markets in more than a decade. And since the beginning of the pandemic both rents and home purchase prices have soared. 

▪ The Hill: These cities have the fastest-growing home prices.

▪ Markets Insider: U.S. home prices are heading for a further drop this year even though mortgages are getting cheaper, a housing market expert says.

▪ The Hill: Consumer price index calculation to be revised for January price data.

In the District, “The Ethel,” a permanent supportive apartment option for the homeless, located in Southeast Washington, is named after Ethel Kennedy, 94, and was dedicated at a Monday event with Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) (WUSA9). 

The Hill: States that have disclosure requirements for fracking have higher water quality, according to a new report that studied impacts in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.  

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, were cleared to return home Friday following the massive chemical spill that followed a train derailment. But questions swirled over the weekend around the root causes of the accident, the continued threat to land and water, and the arrest of a journalist by authorities (NPR and NBC News).

▪ Fox News: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for “direct action” and a congressional inquiry following the recent Ohio train derailment. Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance (R) said Monday that “many questions remain.”

▪ The Cincinnati Enquirer: East Palestine residents seek medical care after Ohio train derailment.

▪ WBNS: Ohio train derailment prompts water utility to take precautions.

▪ CBS News: Video shows sparks and flames well before Ohio train derailment.

OPINION

■ Nikki Haley has a great future behind her, by Stuart Stevens, opinion contributor, The New York Times. https://nyti.ms/3E31ZgJ

■ Beyond political gridlock: A congressional road map for 2023, by Kelly Veney Darnell and Michele Nellenbach, opinion contributors, The Hill. https://bit.ly/3E4qYAr 

WHERE AND WHEN

💗 Happy Valentine’s Day!

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The House will convene for a pro forma session at 10 a.m.

The Senate meets at 10 a.m. 

The president and Vice President Harris will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 10:30 a.m. Biden will be the keynote speaker at 1:15 p.m. at a conference of the National Association of Counties in Washington and then return to the White House. 

The Secretary of State at 1:30 p.m. will meet with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the State Department.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will speak to the National Association of Counties conference at 9:50 a.m.

Economic indicators: The Bureau of Labor Statistics at 8:30 a.m. will report on January’s consumer price index and real earnings in January. The Hill’s ​​Riley Gutiérrez McDermid dissects five oddities measured as part of the price index, from olives to sewing machines.

White House turnstile: Biden is poised to name Federal Reserve Vice Chair Lael Brainard as director of the White House National Economic Council, to succeed Brian Deese, who is departing (The Wall Street Journal).

The White House daily press briefing is scheduled at 2:30 p.m.

ELSEWHERE

➤ TECH

The race is on among tech companies to roll out generative artificial intelligence tools as Microsoft and Google forge ahead to release new tools to the public, writes The Hill’s Rebecca Klar. The battle is raising concerns about how potential flaws in the tech, and blindspots in regulation, heighten existing issues about the spread of misinformation, bias in results and the use of Americans’ personal data by tech companies. 

The labor market looks rock solid, with an unemployment rate at its lowest level in 50 years and a downward trend for layoffs. But there’s one glaring exception — the tech industry. Nearly every major tech company has announced layoffs in the last few months, which is exactly the opposite of how things played out over the last decade, when the sector was a bright spot in an otherwise sluggish job market. So what’s going on? Bloomberg News has answers.

▪ CBS News: “AI can be a friend or a foe”: As we become more reliant on artificial intelligence, focus should be on balance, expert says.

▪ Business Insider: The artificial intelligence war has Wall Street in a frenzy over Google, Microsoft and anything related to bots.

▪ Reuters: Silicon Valley layoffs are a boon for tech-hungry farm equipment makers.

▪ TechCrunch: Here are the tech industry’s 2023 Super Bowl commercials, with noticeably less crypto.

➤ HEALTH & PANDEMIC 

Weekend news: The Centers for Disease and Prevention says an outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria across 12 states has caused one death and five cases of blindness. According to the CDC, 56 patients were infected with pseudomonas aeruginosa, likely from using a brand of contaminated artificial tears (WFLA).

“Patients reported over 10 different brands of artificial tears and some patients used multiple brands,” the CDC warned. “EzriCare Artificial Tears, a preservative-free, over-the-counter product packaged in multidose bottles, was the brand most commonly reported. This was the only common artificial tears product identified across the four healthcare facility clusters.”

A woman in Florida filed a lawsuit late Thursday against the maker of EzriCare artificial tears and Walmart after suffering a bacterial infection that she said was caused by the eyedrops (NBC News).

⚠️ In a separate report, the CDC says nearly 3 in 5 teenage girls reported feeling persistent sadness in 2021, double the rate of boys, and 1 in 3 girls seriously considered attempting suicide, according to data released Monday. The findings also showed high levels of violence, depression and suicidal thoughts among lesbian, gay and bisexual youth, of which more than 1 in 5 of these students reported attempting suicide in the year before the survey. The rates of sadness are the highest reported in a decade, reflecting a long-brewing national tragedy only made worse by the isolation and stress of the pandemic.

“I think there’s really no question what this data is telling us,” Kathleen Ethier, head of the CDC’s Adolescent and School Health Program, told The New York Times. “Young people are telling us that they are in crisis.”

▪ The Washington Post: Capitalizing on the pandemic explosion in telehealth and therapy apps that collect details of your mental health needs, data brokers are packaging that information for resale, a new study finds. There’s no law stopping them.

▪ Vox: The number of people without health insurance just hit a new low — but the expiration of a pandemic policy could erase those gains.

▪ The Atlantic: The future of long COVID-19.

Information about the availability of COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots can be found at Vaccines.gov.

Total U.S. coronavirus deaths reported as of this morning, according to Johns Hopkins University (trackers all vary slightly): 1,114,546. Current U.S. COVID-19 deaths are 3,171 for the week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The CDC shifted its tally of available data from daily to weekly, now reported on Fridays.)

THE CLOSER

And finally … 💘 It’s Valentine’s Day! On a Hallmark day associated with sweet amore, The New York Times asks the burning question: Did Valentine’s Day start as a Roman party or to celebrate an execution? 

Regardless of its origin, the holiday lives on, and CBS News estimates Americans will spend nearly $26 billion on Valentine’s Day this year, up from $23.9 billion last year, to communicate affection, passion, appreciation and obligation using cards, blossoms and that satisfying obsession known as chocolate — plus treats for four-legged furry Valentines beloved by humans everywhere. 

💐 Modern floriography can be traced back to the 19th century, when the etiquette standards of the day meant that flowers were sent to communicate messages that could not be said aloud. Sending a bouquet of roses is a traditional way of saying “I love you,” but you can choose a varied bunch of blooms to tell your Valentine something more specific. USA Today has a primer on flower meanings (and it’s not too late to buy a bouquet today). Questions linger over latest objects shot down in US EPA pressed to go stricter on air pollution limit

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