Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III suggested to lawmakers on Thursday that he supported changes to the laws that govern how the military handles sexual assault cases, but he declined to endorse a measure by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, that would cut out the military chain of command from other serious felonies.
Mr. Austin’s support for changes around sexual assault cases represents a major shift for military leadership, which has long resisted such changes, but his opposition to Ms. Gillibrand’s proposed changes to the military justice system could set up a potential showdown between a large group of senators and the Pentagon.
“Clearly, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” Mr. Austin said in his opening remarks before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “One assault is too many. The numbers of sexual assaults are still too high, and the confidence in our system is still too low.”
Mr. Austin instead appeared to endorse the recommendations of a panel he appointed to study the issue earlier this year. That panel recommends that independent military lawyers take over the role that commanders currently play in deciding whether to court-martial those accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment or domestic violence.
“The issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Mr. Austin said, “are the problems we are trying to resolve and improve.”
President Biden has endorsed Ms. Gillibrand’s approach, at least for now, and her bill has gained support from at least 70 members of the Senate — including many who voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing it would undermine commanders — and key members in the House.
Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, believes Ms. Gillibrand’s bill goes too far and has been working behind the scenes with Pentagon officials to change it.
“I want to be sure that whatever changes to the U.C.M.J. that I recommend to the president and ultimately to this committee, that they are scoped to the problem we are trying to solve, have a clear way forward on implementation, and ultimately restore the confidence of the force in the system,” Mr. Austin said, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the foundation of the American military legal system. “You have my commitment to that, and also my commitment to working expeditiously as you consider legislative proposals.”
Mr. Austin’s remarks Thursday could set off an intense political battle that will test the power of Ms. Gillibrand among her bipartisan Senate allies including Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, who could be forced to pick sides in determining the measure’s fate, and the White House.
In either event, it seems clear that commanders are all but certain to lose full control over sexual assault prosecutions. “Change is coming to the department,” Mr. Reed said Thursday in reference to the issue.
Ms. Gillibrand and one of her Republican colleagues on the committee, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, an Army veteran, pressed Mr. Austin further on his views of the issue during the hearing. Ms. Gillibrand suggested that keeping other crimes off the table would contribute to racial disparities in court-martial cases, an argument that could be part of a new strategy to appeal to both remaining skeptical members of Congress and Mr. Austin.
But while Mr. Austin took pains to praise Ms. Gillibrand’s work, crediting her “incredible dedication” for any changes that are made, he also made it fairly clear that he did not support the broad nature of her legislation.
“As you know, Senator, I always have an open mind to solving any tough problem,” he said, but added that his commission had been focused only on sexual assault and harassment.
When he was confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Austin made sexual assault one of his first priorities. In February, he appointed the independent commission to examine the issue and give recommendations that he and the service chiefs could consider.
The members of the panel are seeking a new career track in the Defense Department in which judge advocates general — military lawyers — would be specially trained to deal with such cases. This alone would be a major shift in how the military does things. Mr. Austin has said he wants the service chiefs to review the recommendations.
In 2019, the Defense Department found that there were 7,825 reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims, a 3 percent increase from 2018. The conviction rate for cases was unchanged from 2018 to 2019; 7 percent of cases that the command took action on resulted in conviction, the lowest rate since the department began reporting in 2010.
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.
A Senate committee weighed President Biden’s nominations on Thursday to fill two top cyberdefense positions, amid a rising number of ransomware attacks that have shut down critical American businesses, including the nation’s largest meat processor and a major East Coast pipeline company.
Congress last year agreed to create a new national cyber director, a White House position that is supposed to improve defenses and coordinate responses to attacks on both the federal government and the private sector.
The White House tapped Chris Inglis, a former National Security Agency official and a member of the commission that proposed the creation of the position, to become the first national cyber director. The administration also nominated Jen Easterly to lead the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency. Together, the two positions are at the forefront of the nation’s cyberdefenses.
Ransomware attacks go after the weaknesses of companies’ information technology, which must be improved, Mr. Inglis said. But he repeatedly added that the United States must confront countries that give safe harbor to criminal groups conducting the attacks and see that the hackers are brought to justice. Mr. Inglis said his role would be to make sure the administration has a consistent strategy for pushing companies to improve their defenses and for imposing consequences on ransomware groups.
“It will not stop of its own accord; it’s not a fire raging across the prairie that, once it’s consumed the fuel, it will simply stop,” Mr. Inglis said. “We must create resilience and robustness not simply in technology but in people.”
Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, said the Colonial Pipeline attack had shown a lack of accountability for the private sector, particularly for firms that control critical infrastructure. Ms. Easterly replied that voluntary standards were inadequate.
“It’s important that, if there’s a significant cyber incident, that critical infrastructure companies have to notify the federal government,” Ms. Easterly said.
An executive order signed by Mr. Biden last month aimed at improving hacking defenses, required government contractors to report any breach. But lawmakers are looking at broadening reporting requirements through legislation.
Questioned by senators, Mr. Inglis and Ms. Easterly said private companies should not pay ransoms. But Mr. Inglis said it was not a simple yes or no question. The solution, he said, was to improve companies’ defenses, making them harder targets, and removing the sanctuaries that hacking groups enjoy.
“It’s not appropriate to pay ransom,” Mr. Inglis said. “Unfortunately we get into a place where that is the only remedy feasible to save lives or to bring back critical capabilities.”
A jaw-dropping report by ProPublica detailing how America’s richest men avoided paying taxes has intensified interest in Congress, even among some Republicans, in changing the tax code to ensure that people like Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett pay their fair share.
For Republicans, the idea that the tax code should give preferential treatment to investment has been sacrosanct, ostensibly to promote economic growth and innovation that could benefit everyone. But the news this week showed how the treatment of stocks, bonds, real estate and huge loans taken off those assets has sent the tax bills of the richest Americans plummeting.
“My intention as the author of the 2017 tax reform was not that multibillionaires ought to pay no taxes,” said Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, who helped write the law that slashed taxes by more than $1 trillion. “I believe dividends and capital gains should be taxed at a lower rate, but certainly not zero.”
Democrats, especially in the Senate, have been hard at work on a tax package to finance President Biden’s costly domestic agenda, including a major infrastructure plan, climate change measures and the expansion of education and health care benefits. Much of that work — vehemently opposed by Republicans — has been focused on clawing back tax cuts lavished on corporations by the 2017 tax law, President Donald J. Trump’s signature legislative achievement, and on preventing multinational corporations from shifting taxable profits offshore.
The ProPublica report, analyzing a trove of documents detailing the tax bills of household names such as Mr. Bezos, Mr. Buffett, Elon Musk and Michael Bloomberg, showed that the nation’s richest executives paid just a fraction of their wealth in taxes — $13.6 billion in federal income taxes during a time period when their collective net worth increased by $401 billion, according to a tabulation by Forbes.
“Americans knew that billionaires played these kinds of games,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, said on Wednesday. “What was significant yesterday was it was all laid out in stark detail about the most affluent people in America.”
He said he was working on an array of proposals to get at the issue, possibly including a return to some kind of minimum tax, and would soon unveil specific proposals.
“Billionaires are going to have to pay their fair share, every year,” he said.
Representative Ilhan Omar is again at odds with her Democratic colleagues over Israel.
The latest contretemps began on Monday, when Ms. Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, wrote on Twitter about a virtual exchange she had with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.
In the exchange, Ms. Omar pressed for an investigation of human rights abuses both by Israeli security forces and by Hamas. But on Twitter, she seemed to compare Israel and the United States not only to Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the State Department, but also to the Taliban.
“We must have the same level of accountability and justice for all victims of crimes against humanity,” she wrote. “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.”
The analogy prompted outrage from a dozen Jewish Democrats in the House. They issued a statement saying that equating the United States and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban “is as offensive as it is misguided,” and, in congressional parlance usually meant to elicit an apology, they asked her to “clarify her words.”
“Ignoring the differences between democracies governed by the rule of law and contemptible organizations that engage in terrorism at best discredits one’s intended argument and at worst reflects deep-seated prejudice,” they wrote. “The United States and Israel are imperfect and, like all democracies, at times deserving of critique, but false equivalencies give cover to terrorist groups.”
Rather than apologize, Ms. Omar fired off a defiant response on Thursday morning.
“It’s shameful for colleagues who call me when they need my support to now put out a statement asking for ‘clarification’ and not just call,” wrote Ms. Omar, one of two Muslim women in the House, accusing her detractors of bigotry. “The Islamophobic tropes in this statement are offensive. The constant harassment & silencing from the signers of this letter is unbearable.”
The back-and-forth comes as Democrats are desperate for unity as they try to move forward with razor-thin majorities on infrastructure, tax code changes, universal preschool and expanded access to community college.
Threats to push such bills through Congress over Republican opposition using budget rules that bypass filibusters are only real if every Democrat is on board, and a public fight with Ms. Omar’s liberal wing could complicate the effort.
A House Democratic aide familiar with the back-and-forth said Ms. Omar’s anger stemmed from her treatment by the dozen colleagues who publicly upbraided her. She had heard that they were going to publicly call for a clarification of her remarks and reached out to them several times on Wednesday. They did not respond before their public chastisement, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and the House’s only Palestinian American, who has called Israel’s policies “apartheid” and “racist,” defended Ms. Omar on Thursday.
“I am tired of colleagues (both D+R) demonizing @IlhanMN,” she wrote on Twitter. “Their obsession with policing her is sick. She has the courage to call out human rights abuses no matter who is responsible. That’s better than colleagues who look away if it serves their politics.”
The number of migrant children and teenagers arriving alone at the United States border with Mexico decreased last month compared to a month earlier, according to newly released Customs and Border Protection data.
There was a slight increase in the number of border crossings, encounters and apprehensions overall during the same time period, a sign that the record surge of migrants trying to get into the country this spring could be starting to stabilize.
But the problem is far from over for the Biden administration, which is currently trying to safely place more than 16,000 migrant children in government custody with family members living in the United States. The administration on Monday threatened to sue the state of Texas if Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, follows through with his threat to shut down more than 50 shelters in the state where thousands of migrant children have been living.
Mr. Abbott’s action, which was part of a disaster order issued at the end of last month, was seen by many as a deliberate swipe at the Biden administration’s more compassionate posture on immigration compared to the restrictive measures of the Trump administration.
It is typical for the number of migrants traveling to the United States through the southern border to increase during spring months, but this year the turnout has been much higher, with a nearly 50 percent increase in border crossings, encounters and apprehensions in March, April and May compared to a similar surge over the same period in 2019.
Republicans have seized on the surge along the southern border, calling it a crisis — a term the Biden administration has avoided.
Most of the adult migrants who have been arriving at the southern border this year have been barred from entering the country because of a public health rule put in place during the Trump administration, which is responsible for more than 463,000 expulsions on the southern border between January and May of this year.
While the last administration also barred children for public health reasons, the Biden administration has been allowing migrant children to enter the country and stay in shelters overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services until they can be placed with a family member or other sponsor. Since the beginning of the year, more than 65,000 migrant children and teenagers arrived alone on the southern border, with record numbers arriving during the spring months. Nearly 2,900 fewer migrant children arrived alone at the southern border in May compared to a month earlier.
Because of a shortage of shelter space at the federal government’s network of state-licensed facilities earlier this year, migrant children were forced to stay in overcrowded holding cells along the southern border long past the legal limit. Earlier this year, the Biden administration moved to set up about a dozen emergency shelters where the children could stay in Health and Human Services custody until they are placed with a family member or sponsor inside the United States.
Recently, migrant children and teenagers have been staying in H.H.S. custody for an average of 37 days, according to government statistics. Children’s advocates have said ideally a child would not have to stay more than 20 days in a government shelter.
With the world confronting the immediate crisis of a pandemic and the long-term challenge of climate change, President Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Thursday turned for inspiration to another period of peril and deep uncertainty.
After meeting face to face for the first time since Mr. Biden assumed the presidency, they announced a renewal of the Atlantic Charter — the declaration of cooperation that Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid out during World War II.
While the two current stewards of the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States have disagreed on critical issues, on Thursday they stressed the enduring strength of the alliance.
When the original Atlantic Charter was signed on Aug. 14, 1941, the Nazis had conquered much of Europe, Britain stood largely alone and the United States had yet to join the war.
But the symbolic import of the Atlantic Charter declaration had been backed up by the passage of the Lend-Lease Act only a short time earlier, allowing the United States to provide critical military equipment to allies.
Before Mr. Biden and Mr. Johnson signed the new document, a senior United States official called it a “profound statement of purpose” that echoes the 80-year-old charter by underscoring the original declaration: that “the democratic model is the right and the just and the best” one for confronting the world’s challenges.
The official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity before the meeting between the two leaders, said the charter did not envision a new Cold War between great powers, but rather a world whose problems — including climate change, pandemics, technological warfare and economic competition — are complex and often nuanced.
However, at the core of the president’s message during the trip is a central animating theme: The United States and its allies are engaged in an existential struggle between democracy and autocracy.
“I believe we’re in an inflection point in world history,” Mr. Biden said on Wednesday evening in a speech to troops stationed at R.A.F. Mildenhall at the start of his European visit. “A moment where it falls to us to prove that democracies not just endure, but they will excel as we rise to seize enormous opportunities in the new age.”
In what he hopes will be a powerful demonstration that democracies — and not China or Russia — are capable of responding to the world’s crises, Mr. Biden will formally announce that the United States will donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine to 100 poorer nations, a program that officials said would cost $1.5 billion.
By playing a leading role in the effort to vaccinate the world and providing resources to confront the gravest public health challenges, officials said the United States was reclaiming a role it has sought to play since the end of World War II.
Mr. Johnson, who is eager to use the summit as a showcase for a post-Brexit identity branded “Global Britain,” has also outlined ambitious plans to help end the pandemic. In the run up to the summit, Mr. Johnson called on leaders to commit to vaccinating every person in the world against the coronavirus by the end of 2022.
Yet while Mr. Johnson and Mr. Biden may find common ground on key issues including the pandemic, fundamental divisions remain.
Mr. Biden opposed Britain’s drive to leave the European Union, a push that Mr. Johnson helped lead. The American president is also concerned about Northern Ireland, since the Brexit deal has threatened to reignite sectarian tensions in the territory.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland defended on Wednesday recent Justice Department moves upholding Trump-era positions on controversial cases, vowing to continue to adhere to the rule of law regardless of political pressure.
“The essence of the rule of law is what I said when I accepted the nomination for attorney general,” Mr. Garland said at a budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, adding that his goal was to ensure that there would “not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans, that there not be one rule for friends and another for foes.”
Mr. Garland continued: “It is not always easy to apply that rule. Sometimes it means that we have to make a decision about the law that we would never have made and that we strongly disagree with as a matter of policy.”
The Justice Department defended on Monday a legal position taken under the Trump administration in a case involving E. Jean Carroll, a writer who in 2019 publicly accused former President Donald J. Trump of sexually assaulting her 25 years earlier.
Mr. Trump denied the assault in an Oval Office interview and said that he could not have assaulted her because she was not his “type.” After Ms. Carroll sued him over the remarks, the Justice Department argued that Mr. Trump could not be held liable for defamation because he had made the statements as part of his official duties as president.
In the brief filed on Monday with a federal appeals court in New York, Mr. Garland’s Justice Department called Mr. Trump’s remarks “crude and disrespectful,” but said that his administration had correctly argued that he could not be sued over them.
Should the Justice Department prevail, Ms. Carroll’s lawsuit could be dismissed.
The appeal dismayed Democrats, as did another argument by the Justice Department in May when it sought to keep hidden a memo related to Mr. Barr’s determination that Mr. Trump had not illegally obstructed justice in the Russia investigation.
While the department released the first page and a half of the nine-page memo, it argued that the full document must remain out of view because it contained information that was part of the department’s decision-making process, and that such information could be lawfully kept secret.
Mr. Garland said that he was aware of the criticisms, but defended his actions.
“The job of the Justice Department in making decisions of law is not to back any administration, previous or present,” he said.
Former President Donald J. Trump won’t be on the ballot in Virginia, but his political legacy will be. His shadow on the state’s political landscape could have profound implications for the election of a new governor, a contest that figures to be the only major competitive race in the country this fall.
Glenn Youngkin, an affable former private equity executive, is testing whether a Republican can sidestep Mr. Trump without fully rejecting him and still prevail in a state the former president lost by 10 points but where he remains deeply popular with conservative activists.
And in what could be equally revealing, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat seeking to reclaim his old job, is going to determine whether the strategy of linking Republicans to Mr. Trump — a tactic that helped turn Virginia’s suburbs a deeper blue the last four years — is as potent when he’s no longer in the Oval Office, or even on Twitter.
Both questions reflect a larger issue: how strong a tug the country’s polarized and increasingly nationalized politics can have on an off-year state race that’s usually consumed by debates over taxes, transportation, education and the economy.
It’s a real-life political science experiment that is all the richer because it’s taking place in a state that only supported Republicans for president between 1964 and 2008, and where for many years it was the Democrats who had to distance themselves from their national party.
If Republicans are to win back the governorship and reclaim a foothold in this increasingly Democratic state, this would seem to be the year.