Amtrak restores long-distance routes after funding from Congress

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. passenger railroad Amtrak said it had restored daily service on Monday for long-distance routes that serve the East Coast and the Gulf Coast after receiving new emergency funding from Congress.

Amtrak, which received about $2 billion from Congress in the year before the coronavirus pandemic, has been awarded $3.7 billion in emergency funding since March 2020. The routes include New York to New Orleans, Savannah and Miami.

The $1.7 billion awarded in March required Amtrak to restore daily service to 12 long distance routes that were reduced in October to three times per week due to the pandemic, and for the railroad to recall more than 1,200 furloughed employees. Other West Coast routes have already been restored.

On Friday, Amtrak said it was restored traditional dining service starting in late June on some long-distance routes.

Amtrak says ridership is rising and said around the Memorial Day holiday, ridership exceeded 50% of pre-pandemic levels.

In its last budget year that ended Sept. 30, Amtrak said operating revenue fell 32% to $2.3 billion over 2019 levels.

In April, Amtrak asked Congress for $5.4 billion in the budget year starting Oct. 1.

U.S. President Joe Biden has called for $80 billion in new spending on high-speed rail projects.

Amtrak asked for $3.88 billion for “base needs” and to address the impact of COVID-19 and $1.55 billion in additional U.S. funding needed to address Northeast Corridor infrastructure projects and begin advancing new corridor routes across the country.

The Biden administration’s April 9 budget called for $2.7 billion for Amtrak, a 35% jump over pre-COVID levels.

Amtrak wants to expand across the United States and by 2035 add up to 39 new corridor routes and up to 166 cities. It hopes to serve 20 million additional people annually.

Mass transit systems also suffered as Americans took billions of fewer trips last year, but ridership is increasing. Congress in March awarded mass transit systems another $30.5 billion in emergency assistance after giving them $39 billion previously.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Marguerita Choy)

U.S. spike in domestic terrorism ‘keeps me up at night,’ attorney general says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asked Congress on Tuesday to provide more funding for investigating and prosecuting domestic terrorism, saying it poses an “accelerating” threat that keeps him up at night.

Garland, who had served as a federal appellate judge and federal prosecutor before President Joe Biden nominated him to lead the Justice Department, was testifying about the department’s budget request for the 2022 fiscal year.

“We have a growing fear of domestic violent extremism and domestic terrorism,” Garland told a U.S. House of Representatives budgeting subcommittee. “Both of those keep me up at night.”

He did not name specific violent groups, but members of the far-right Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are among the more than 400 people arrested for the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by former President Donald Trump’s supporters.

The hearing marked Garland’s first appearance before Congress since being confirmed as the nation’s top law enforcement officer in March.

He told the House panel that the lethality of weapons available to both foreign and domestic terrorists has increased, and that the Justice Department is “putting its resources into defending the country with respect to both”.

“We have an emerging and accelerating threat,” Garland said.

He highlighted in his opening remarks that the Justice Department is requesting $85 million in additional funding from Congress to bolster its efforts to combat domestic terrorism.

Garland said the department is also seeking a “historic investment” of $1 billion in its Office of Violence Against Women, and that the budget proposal includes a $232 million increase in funding to help combat gun violence.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Scott Malone and Mark Heinrich)

Big Tech CEOs told ‘time for self-regulation is over’ by U.S. lawmakers

By Diane Bartz and Elizabeth Culliford

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared before Congress on Thursday to answer questions about extremism and misinformation on their services in their first appearances since rioters assaulted the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Facebook Inc Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg; Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Google parent Alphabet Inc; and Twitter Inc CEO Jack Dorsey are testifying before the joint hearing by two subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Lawmakers began the hearing by criticizing the social media platforms for their role in the riot and in the spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, as well as concerns about children’s mental health.

“You failed to meaningfully change after your platform has played a role in fomenting insurrection and abetting the spread of the virus and trampling American civil liberties,” said Democratic Representative Frank Pallone, chair of the Energy and Commerce committee.

“Your business model itself has become the problem and the time for self-regulation is over. It’s time we legislate to hold you accountable,” he added.

Some lawmakers are calling for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields online platforms from liability over user content, to be scrapped or rejigged. There are several pieces of legislation from Democrats to reform Section 230 that are doing the rounds in Congress, though progress has been slow. Several Republican lawmakers have also been pushing separately to scrap the law entirely.

In written testimony released on Wednesday, Facebook argued that Section 230 should be redone to allow companies immunity from liability for what users put on their platforms only if they follow best practices for removing damaging material.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg said polarization in the country was not the fault of social media: “I believe that the division we see today is primarily the result of a political and media environment that drives Americans apart.”

Republicans on the panel also criticized the tech giants for what they see as efforts to stifle conservative voices.

Former President Donald Trump was banned by Twitter over inciting violence around Jan. 6, while Facebook has asked its independent oversight board to rule on whether to bar him permanently. He is still suspended from YouTube.

The three CEOs have all appeared in front of Congress before, with Facebook’s Zuckerberg clocking up seven appearances since 2018.

Lawmakers’ scrutiny of misinformation on major online platforms intensified after U.S. intelligence agencies said Russia used them to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz in Washington and Elizabeth Culliford in New York; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. senators offer bill to rein in Biden war powers after Syria strike

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. senators introduced bipartisan legislation on Wednesday to repeal decades-old authorizations for the use of military force used to justify years of attacks in the Middle East, an effort to shift back the authority to declare war to Congress from the White House.

The measure, led by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and Republican Senator Todd Young, would repeal 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq, citing the “strong partnership” between Washington and the government in Baghdad.

Under the Constitution, Congress, not the president, has the right to authorize war.

But those AUMFs – and a third one, from 2001, for the fight against al Qaeda – have been used to justify strikes by both Democratic and Republican presidents since they were passed. They have been criticized as allowing “forever wars” that have kept U.S. forces fighting overseas for decades.

The bill’s introduction came a week after Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration carried out air strikes against facilities belonging to Iranian-backed militia in Syria that renewed questions about whether a president should be able to conduct such actions without congressional approval.

Tensions have been rising with Iran, after strikes in the region blamed on Tehran.

“Last week’s airstrikes in Syria show that the Executive Branch, regardless of party, will continue to stretch its war powers,” Kaine said in a statement.

Members of Congress from both parties have sought repeatedly to repeal the AUMFs in recent years, but efforts have fallen short.

The other sponsors of the new measure include Democratic Senators Tammy Duckworth, Chris Coons and Dick Durbin, as well as Republican Senators Mike Lee, Chuck Grassley and Rand Paul.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Democrats roll out Biden immigration bill without Republican backers

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats will on Thursday formally introduce President Joe Biden’s sweeping immigration bill in Congress, a measure that would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, but the proposal faces long odds to passage.

The bill would greatly increase both family-based and employment-based legal immigration and allow certain previously deported immigrants to apply to return for humanitarian reasons. Key elements of the bill were first unveiled in January.

The legislation, which is expected to be hundreds of pages long, takes an aggressive pro-immigration approach. It has not received public support from Republicans, making it unlikely that it will be enacted.

Democrats hold a majority in the House of Representatives, but the Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. Democrats would need to win over 10 Senate Republicans to avoid a “filibuster,” a procedural hurdle that can delay or block legislation from coming to a vote.

“We know the path forward will demand negotiations with others, but we are not going to make concessions out of the gate,” Senator Robert Menendez, who will be the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said on a call with reporters. “We will never win an argument that we don’t have the courage to make.”

Menendez said he had spoken with some Republican senators who are interested in parts of the legislation, but declined to name the lawmakers. Democrats would consider any avenue to accomplish immigration reform, including using a procedural move to pass a bill in the Senate with only 51 votes, he added.

Democrats are simultaneously pushing ahead with several smaller-scale immigration bills, including a measure that would offer a path to citizenship to so-called “Dreamer” immigrants living in the United States illegally after entering as children.

“I salute the president for putting forth the legislation that he did,” House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday during a separate news conference. “There are others that want to do piecemeal and that may be a good approach, too.”

Some Republican senators have already expressed opposition to major provisions of the Biden bill.

The criticism was echoed on Thursday by Heritage Action, the political wing of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“This latest move would only further harm American workers already struggling from our health and economic national crises caused by the ongoing pandemic and our government’s response,” said Jessica Anderson, the organization’s executive director.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin, Aurora Ellis and Howard Goller)

U.S. Senate passes budget plan to advance Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID aid package

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden’s drive to enact a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid bill gained momentum on Friday as the U.S. Senate narrowly approved a budget blueprint allowing Democrats to push the legislation through Congress in coming weeks with or without Republican support.

At the end of about 15 hours of debate and votes on dozens of amendments, the Senate found itself in a 50-50 partisan deadlock over passage of the budget plan. That deadlock was broken by Vice President Kamala Harris, whose “yes” vote provided the win for Democrats.

This was a “giant first step” toward passing the kind of comprehensive coronavirus aid bill that Biden has put at the top of his legislative agenda, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Shortly before the final vote, Democrats flexed their muscles by offering an amendment reversing three earlier votes that Republicans had won.

Those had used the coronavirus aid battle to voice support for the Canada-to-United States Keystone XL pipeline that Biden has blocked and support for hydraulic fracking to extract underground oil and natural gas.

Also overturned was a Republican amendment barring coronavirus aid to immigrants living in the United States illegally.

With Democrat Harris presiding, she broke a 50-50 tie to overturn those Republican victories.

It marked the first time Harris, in her role as president of the Senate, cast a tie-breaking vote after being sworn in as Biden’s vice president on Jan. 20.

Before finishing its work, the Senate approved a series of amendments to the budget outline, which had already passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday. As a result, the House must now vote again to accept the Senate’s changes, which could occur as early as Friday.

For example, the Senate added a measure calling for increased funding for rural hospitals whose resources are strained by the pandemic.

Senate Democrats and the Biden administration have said they want comprehensive legislation to move quickly to address a pandemic that has killed more than 450,000 Americans and left millions jobless.

They want to spend the $1.9 trillion to speed COVID-19 vaccines throughout the nation. Other funds would extend special unemployment benefits that will expire at the end of March and make direct payments to people to help them pay bills and stimulate the economy.

They also want to send money to state and local governments dealing with the worst health crisis in decades.

But as the hours wore on and dozens of amendments were offered, exhausted senators mainly spent the night disposing of Republican ideas, such as ending all U.S. foreign aid and prohibiting Congress from expanding the U.S. Supreme Court beyond its current nine justices.

RANGE OF ISSUES

Senators voted on issues ranging from immigration and abortion to energy and taxes. But none of the approved amendments will carry the force of law in a budget blueprint and mainly are guidelines for developing the actual coronavirus aid bill in coming weeks.

More importantly, the budget plan unlocks a legislative tool called reconciliation that is designed to let Democrats approve Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal by a simple majority.

Most legislation must get at least 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to advance. But the chamber is divided 50-50 and Republicans oppose the Democratic president’s proposal. Reconciliation would allow the Senate’s 48 Democrats and two independents who align with them to approve the relief package, with a tie-breaking vote from Harris.

Republicans have countered the budget plan with proposals that would be less than one-third the cost. While their plan dovetails with the Democrats’ in some respects, Biden has deemed it as too anemic to put the country back on its feet after a year of suffering through the pandemic.

A group of 10 Republican senators who met with Biden at the White House on Monday sent him a letter on Thursday saying that significant amounts of money already appropriated by Congress have not yet been spent.

Last year, Congress passed emergency bills totaling around $4 trillion to deal with the health and economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus.

In early voting on Thursday, senators delivered a message to the Biden administration that direct payments should be tailored to those who need the money the most, as it voted 99-1 to recommend that high-income earners not qualify for a new round of government checks that could amount to $1,400 for individuals.

Senators did not specify income limits. But an earlier round of direct payments placed thresholds of $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for married couples before the money would start scaling down.

“The decent compassionate thing is for us to target the relief to our neighbors who are struggling every day to get by” during the coronavirus pandemic, said Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, author of the proposal.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Democrats in Congress to begin drive to force Trump from office after Capitol violence

By Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional Democrats begin their drive to force President Donald Trump from office this week, with a House vote on articles of impeachment expected as early as Wednesday that could make him the only president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.

“It is important that we act, and it is important that we act in a very serious and deliberative manner,” Representative Jim McGovern, chairman of the Rules Committee, told CNN on Monday. “We expect this up on the floor on Wednesday. And I expect that it will pass.”

Thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol last week, scattering lawmakers who were certifying Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory, in a harrowing assault on the center of American democracy that left five dead.

The violence came after Trump urged supporters to march on the Capitol at a rally where he repeated that his election defeat was illegitimate. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, many of her fellow Democrats and a handful of Republicans say Trump should not be trusted to serve out his term.

“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi wrote to fellow House Democrats on Sunday.

Dozens of people who attacked police officers, stole computers and smashed windows at the Capitol have been arrested for their role in the violence, and officials have opened 25 domestic terrorism investigations.

Trump acknowledged that a new administration would take office on Jan. 20 in a video statement after the attack but has not appeared in public. Twitter and Facebook have suspended his accounts, citing the risk of him inciting violence.

When the House convenes at 11 a.m. (1600 GMT) on Monday, lawmakers will bring up a resolution asking Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the never-used 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which allows the vice president and the Cabinet to remove a president deemed unfit to do the job. A recorded vote is expected on Tuesday.

McGovern said he expected Republican lawmakers to object to the request to invoke the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove Trump. In that case, he said, his committee will provide a rule to bring that legislation to the House for a vote and, 24 hours later, the committee will then bring another resolution to deal with impeachment.

“What this president did is unconscionable, and he needs to be held to account,” McGovern said.

Pence was in the Capitol along with his family when Trump’s supporters attacked, and he and Trump are currently not on speaking terms. But Republicans have shown little interest in invoking the 25th Amendment. Pence’s office did not respond to questions about the issue. A source said last week he was opposed to the idea.

POSSIBLE INSURRECTION CHARGE

If Pence does not act, Pelosi said the House could vote to impeach Trump on a single charge of insurrection. Aides to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who voted against recognizing Biden’s victory, did not respond to a request for comment.

House Democrats impeached Trump in December 2019 for pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden, but the Republican-controlled Senate voted not to convict him.

Democrats’ latest effort to force Trump out also faces long odds of success without bipartisan support. Only four Republican lawmakers have so far said publicly that Trump should not serve out the remaining nine days in his term.

The lawmakers who drafted the impeachment charge say they have locked in the support of at least 200 of the chamber’s 222 Democrats, indicating strong odds of passage. Biden has so far not weighed in on impeachment, saying it is a matter for Congress.

Even if the House impeaches Trump for a second time, the Senate would not take up the charges until Jan. 19 at the earliest.

An impeachment trial would tie up the Senate during Biden’s first weeks in office, preventing the new president from installing Cabinet secretaries and acting on priorities like coronavirus relief.

Representative Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, suggested his chamber could avoid that problem by waiting several months to send the impeachment charge over to the Senate.

A conviction could lead to Trump being barred from running for president again in 2024.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Cornwell, Steve Holland and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Chizu Nomiyama)

After months of inaction, U.S. Congress approves $892 billion COVID-19 relief package

By Richard Cowan and Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress on Monday approved an $892 billion coronavirus aid package, throwing a lifeline to the nation’s pandemic-battered economy after months of inaction, while also keeping the federal government funded.

President Donald Trump is expected to sign the package into law.

Following days of furious negotiation, both legislative chambers worked deep into the night to pass the bill – worth about $2.3 trillion including spending for the rest of the fiscal year – with the House of Representatives first approving it and the Senate following suit several hours later in a bipartisan 92-6 vote.

The virus relief bill includes $600 payments to most Americans as well as additional payments to the millions of people thrown out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, just as a larger round of benefits is due to expire on Saturday.

The stimulus package, the first congressionally approved aid since April, comes as the pandemic is accelerating in the United States, infecting more than 214,000 people every day and slowing the economic recovery. More than 317,000 Americans have died.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said she supported the virus relief bill even though it did not include the direct aid for state and local governments that Democrats had sought.  The bill, she said, “doesn’t go all the way but it takes us down the path.”

Republican Representative Hal Rogers, who also supported the package, said “it reflects a fair compromise.”

At 5,593 pages, the wide-ranging bill that also spends $1.4 trillion on an array of federal programs through the end of the fiscal year in September, is likely to be the final major piece of legislation for the 116th Congress that expires on Jan. 3. Congress included a measure continuing current levels of government spending for seven days, ensuring no interruption to federal operations.

MCCONNELL CLAIMS VICTORY

It has a net cost of roughly $350 billion for coronavirus relief, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, adding that more than $500 billion in funding comes from unspent money Congress had authorized.

Both Democrats and Republicans claimed victory but McConnell argued that the final bill came close to what Democrats rejected months ago as insufficient.

The measure ended up far less than the $3 trillion called for in a bill that passed the Democratic-controlled House in May, which the Republican-controlled Senate ignored.

“Compare the shape of this major agreement with the shape of what I proposed all the way back in late July. Yes, some fine details are different,” McConnell said in a statement after the vote. “There is no doubt this new agreement contains input from our Democratic colleagues. It is bipartisan. But these matters could have been settled long ago.”

A months-long impasse on relief that played in the background of the U.S. presidential election was broken after a group of centrist lawmakers from both parties put forward a proposal that served as a framework for the final bill.

Even so, the bill was so unwieldy that it caused congressional computers to malfunction. It includes a hodgepodge of tax breaks and other proposals that failed to pass on their own, including two new Smithsonian museums and limits on surprise medical billing.

The legislation also renews a small-business lending program by about $284 billion and steers money to schools, airlines, transit systems and vaccine distribution.

PUBLIC COMPANIES EXCLUDED

The small-business loan and grant program, known as the Paycheck Protection Program, would exclude publicly traded companies from eligibility.

State and local governments, which are struggling to pay for the distribution of newly approved COVID-19 vaccines, would receive $8.75 billion from Washington, with $300 million of that targeted at vaccinations in minority and high-risk populations.

The deal, worked out in a rare weekend session of Congress, omits the thorniest sticking points, which included Republicans’ desire for a liability shield to protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits as well as Democrats’ request for a large outlay of money for cash-strapped state and local governments.

If signed into law, the bill would be the second-largest stimulus package in U.S. history, behind the roughly $2 trillion aid bill passed in March. Experts said that money played a critical role as social-distancing measures shuttered wide swaths of the economy.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Andy Sullivan in Washington; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Lisa Lambert in Washington; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Scott Malone, Matthew Lewis and Peter Cooney)

U.S. House begins debate on $900 billion coronavirus package as funding deadline looms

By Richard Cowan and Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday began debate on a $900 billion coronavirus aid package meant to stimulate a pandemic-hit economy, which the leaders of both chambers of Congress aimed to pass in a marathon session.

The White House-backed bill includes $600 payments to most Americans as well as additional payments to the millions of people thrown out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, just as a larger round of benefits is due to expire on Saturday.

The House of Representatives is expected to vote sometime Monday evening.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at the Capitol that passage of the legislation in the Senate will “probably be late but we’re going to finish tonight.”

At 5,593 pages, the wide-ranging bill that also spends $1.4 trillion on an array of federal programs through next September, is likely to be the final major piece of legislation for the 116th Congress that expires on Jan. 3.

It has a net cost of roughly $350 billion for coronavirus relief, McConnell said, adding that more than $500 billion in funding comes from unspent money Congress had authorized.

The package, the first Congress-approved aid since March, comes as the pandemic is accelerating in the United States, infecting more than 214,000 people every day and slowing the economic recovery. More than 317,000 Americans have died.

The bill would be the second-largest stimulus package in U.S. history, behind only the $2.3 trillion aid bill passed this spring. Economists say that money played a critical role at a time when social-distancing measures shuttered wide swaths of the world’s largest economy.

The new bill reprises many of the key pillars of the earlier package, with some modifications. Small-business aid would be expanded to struggling news outlets and TV stations, while theaters and live-music venues would get dedicated support.

Unemployed workers would get an extra $300 per week through March, down from the $600 increase in the earlier bill. An eviction ban, due to expire at the end of the year, will be extended through January.

Lawmakers set aside issues that had frozen negotiations for months, including liability protections sought by Republicans and state and local government aid sought by Democrats. A last-minute dispute over emergency-lending programs administered by Federal Reserve was also resolved.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Over 1.1 million ballots cast in early voting for Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -More than 1.1 million Georgians have voted in twin U.S. Senate runoff elections that will determine which party controls that chamber of Congress, state data showed on Friday.

The surge in turnout after four days of early in-person voting, and about four weeks of mail-in voting, showed that voter participation in the two races is on pace to rival the records set in the November presidential contest.

State data published on Friday showed the number of accepted ballots was just below the level seen at the same point in early voting for November’s election.

Voting in the Senate runoffs, which are taking place because no candidate won 50% support on Nov. 3, ends on Jan. 5.

Biden’s razor-thin victory in Georgia last month amid record-high turnout underscored the Southern state’s transformation from Republican stronghold to one of the country’s most competitive political battlegrounds.

A record 159 million people nationwide voted in November, up from 138 million in the November 2016 elections, according to data compiled by Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. He estimated that nearly 67% of U.S. eligible voters voted last month, the highest share since 1900.

Signs of high turnout in January’s Senate contests in Georgia point to another squeaker, analysts said.

“This is going to be a really close election,” said McDonald, who is tracking early voting in Georgia.

He said comparing current turnout with the November cycle is tricky. It was possible that voters have crowded the polls to be done with voting ahead of the December holidays.

“It does seem to me like we’re in for a higher turnout election than is typical for a runoff,” McDonald said.

DEMOCRATS NEED SWEEP

Democrats need to win both contests to achieve a 50-50 split in the Senate. Even one Democratic loss would allow Republicans to keep a razor-thin majority.

The runoffs pit Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff against Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively. Perdue won more votes than Ossoff in November, while Warnock won more than Loeffler in a 20-candidate field that also included Republican Congressman Doug Collins. Loeffler and Collins together drew nearly 46% of the vote.

Ballots accepted through Thursday were only just below the 1.2 million that were cast at the same point in the November election, when turnout eventually totaled about 5 million votes.

Roughly 2 million votes were cast in the last runoff for a Senate seat in Georgia, when Republican Saxby Chambliss defeated Democrat Jim Martin in 2008. Nearly 4 million Georgians voted in the 2018 congressional midterm elections.

Republicans have often performed better in low-turnout elections. But voters in both parties appear energized by the stakes in the January contest and each party has poured resources into Georgia ahead of the vote.

Biden returned to the campaign trail on Tuesday to stump for Warnock and Ossoff in Georgia, and Harris will campaign for the Democrats there on Monday. Trump has also campaigned in Georgia for Perdue and Loeffler, as will his daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump on Monday.

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Scott Malone, Mark Heinrich, Rosalba O’Brien and Dan Grebler)