COVID battle lines harden ahead of Senate vote: The Note

The fight over the COVID relief bill emphasizes the close divide in the Senate.

The TAKE with Rick Klein

The day the Senate moved toward approving the first and biggest priority of the Biden presidency was a day Washington spent debating the relative merits of Neanderthals.

That marked a distraction from another sideshow: GOP stalling tactics that left the Senate clerks reading every word of the massive $1.9 trillion bill that Democrats are seeking to pass in the days to come.

Now things are moving again, but with partisan lines drawn more distinctly than when similar topics came up for debate in the previous presidency. The White House is holding out hope for, at most, one Republican -- Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski -- to support the COVID package when it comes to a final vote.

It's a reflection of the reality of narrow Democratic control of Washington.

The Republican strategy carries considerable risk, in terms of both politics and public health. As for Biden, he stands close to getting something close to the package he wants, just not the way he might have designed to get it.

The RUNDOWN with Alisa Wiersema

Neanderthals have been extinct for about 40,000 years, yet their evolutionary legacy is reemerging as a hot topic in the politics of this millennium's worst pandemic crisis.

Earlier this week, Biden voiced his disapproval of the decisions of Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi to lift their states' mask mandates and allow for businesses to fully reopen despite ongoing warnings from health officials.

"The last thing we need is the Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything's fine, take off your mask, forget it. It still matters. ... It's critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science," Biden said on Wednesday.

The following day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the phrase reflected the president's "frustration and exasperation" which he intends to convey directly to the governors the next time he speaks with them. However, Psaki did not directly indicate whether the White House is concerned that loosening restrictions among states would affect the president's "normalcy timeline."

Predictably, the Neanderthal comments did not sit well with either Texas Gov. Greg Abbott nor Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves. Reeves equated the reference to Hillary Clinton's infamous "deplorables" comment during the 2016 election and Abbott attempted to recast the description at Biden himself by criticizing the president's immigration policy and baselessly alleging that his administration is "importing COVID into our country."

In the meantime, at least one Republican is attempting to rebrand the phrase to her party's political advantage. "Neanderthals are hunter-gatherers, they're protectors of their family, they're resilient, they're resourceful, they tend to their own. So, I think Joe Biden needs to rethink what he is saying about the states that are choosing to move away from these mask mandates," Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn said Thursday on Fox Business.

The TIP with Kendall Karson

Republicans continue to seize on reopening schools as a battle cry, as the party seeks to redirect attention away from internal feuds and onto Democrats' perceived missteps.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee once again leaned into that debate, releasing a national survey that highlights a "winning message" of "open the damn schools."

With more than a year and a half before the midterm elections and vaccine distribution underway, the debate over restrictions on in-person learning is unlikely to endure through Election Day, but it shows a concerted effort on the part of Republicans to return to the issues. While bashing Democrats' coronavirus relief bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday, "The real tragedy here is not Senate process, it's how ill-suited this bill is to what Americans need right now," before specifically calling out, "no policies to get schools reopened right away."

But standing in the way is one Republican who doesn't want to move on: former President Donald Trump. He tore into his own party in a statement Thursday, blaming McConnell and other GOP leaders in Georgia for the twin losses that cost Republicans their Senate majority.


ABC News' "Start Here" podcast. Friday morning's episode features ABC News' Trish Turner, who explains where things stand as the Senate takes up the COVID relief bill. ABC News' Victor Oquendo explains why Jackson, Mississippi, is still without running water two weeks after the winter storms. And ABC News Foreign correspondent James Longman breaks down the latest royal family drama concerning Prince Harry and Megan Markle.

FiveThirtyEight Politics' podcast. Republicans in Georgia's House of Representatives passed a package of voting laws Monday that includes limiting Sunday voting to one Sunday during the state's three weeks of early voting. If the measure becomes law, it could limit "souls to the polls" initiatives that encourage Black Americans to vote in conjunction with church attendance. About 30% of Georgia voters are Black, but in 2020 they made up about 37% of Sunday votes, according to data from Fair Fight Action, a group founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.


  • The Senate reconvenes at 9 a.m. to continue consideration of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill.
  • President Joe Biden and the Vice President Kamala Harris receive the president's daily brief at 9:50 a.m. They have lunch together at 12:15 p.m. and then at 2:15 p.m., they receive an economic briefing with the Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. The president participates in a roundtable on the American Rescue Plan at 3:15 p.m. the president and vice president receive a COVID-19 briefing at 5:30 p.m.
  • The White House COVID-19 Response Team and public health officials hold a briefing at 11 a.m.
  • White House press secretary Jen Psaki holds a briefing at 12:30 p.m.
  • Sunday on ABC's "This Week": Co-Anchor Martha Raddatz goes one-on-one with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Plus, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., joins "This Week" Sunday and the Powerhouse Roundtable debates all the week's politics with ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl, ABC News Chief National Correspondent Byron Pitts, ABC News Correspondent Karen Travers and "Punchbowl News" CEO and Founder Anna Palmer.
  • Download the ABC News app and select "The Note" as an item of interest to receive the day's sharpest political analysis.

    The Note is a daily ABC News feature that highlights the key political moments of the day ahead. Please check back Monday for the latest.