Senate Democrats strike US jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Democrat who wanted to trim President Joe Biden's showpiece $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill of excess fat. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)
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Updated 06 March 2021

Senate Democrats strike US jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight

  • Joe Biden's overall bill is aimed at battling the killer pandemic
  • It also aims to nurse the staggered economy back to health

WASHINGTON: Senate leaders and moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin struck a deal late Friday over emergency jobless benefits, breaking a nine-hour logjam that had stalled the party’s showpiece $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide, seemed to clear the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes and, eventually, approval of the sweeping legislation.
The overall bill, President Joe Biden’s foremost legislative priority, is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health. It would provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans and money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry and subsidies for health insurance.
The Senate next faced votes on a pile of amendments that were likely to last overnight, mostly on Republican proposals virtually certain to fail but designed to force Democrats to cast politically awkward votes.
More significantly, the jobless benefits agreement suggested it was just a matter of time until the Senate passes the bill. That would ship it back to the House, which was expected to give it final congressional approval and whisk it to Biden for his signature.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden supports the compromise on jobless payments.
The day’s lengthy standoff underscored the headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years — and the tensions between progressives and centrists — as they try moving their agenda through the Congress with their slender majorities.
Manchin is probably the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, and a kingmaker in a 50-50 Senate that leaves his party without a vote to spare. With Democrats also clinging to a mere 10-vote House edge, the party needs his vote but can’t tilt too far center without losing progressive support.
Aiding unemployed Americans is a top Democratic priority. But it’s also an issue that drives a wedge between progressives seeking to help jobless constituents cope with the bleak economy and Manchin and other moderates who have wanted to trim some of the bill’s costs.
Biden noted Friday’s jobs report showing that employers added 379,000 workers — an unexpectedly strong showing. That’s still small compared to the 10 million fewer jobs since the pandemic struck a year ago.
“Without a rescue plan, these gains are going to slow,” Biden said. “We can’t afford one step forward and two steps backwards. We need to beat the virus, provide essential relief, and build an inclusive recovery.”
The overall bill faces a solid wall of GOP opposition, and Republicans used the unemployment impasse to accuse Biden of refusing to seek compromise with them.
“You could pick up the phone and end this right now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Biden.
But in an encouraging sign for Biden, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70% of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a noteworthy 44% of Republicans.
The House approved a relief bill last weekend that included $400 weekly jobless benefits — on top of regular state payments — through August. Manchin was hoping to reduce those costs, asserting that level of payment would discourage people from returning to work, a rationale most Democrats and many economists reject.
As the day began, Democrats asserted they’d reached a compromise between party moderates and progressives extending emergency jobless benefits at $300 weekly into early October.
That plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, also included tax reductions on some unemployment benefits. Without that, many Americans abruptly tossed out of jobs would face unexpected tax bills.
But by midday, lawmakers said Manchin was ready to support a less generous Republican version. That led to hours of talks involving White House aides, top Senate Democrats and Manchin as the party tried finding a way to salvage its unemployment aid package.
The compromise announced Friday night would provide $300 weekly, with the final check paid on Sept. 6, and includes the tax break on benefits.
Before the unemployment benefits drama began, senators voted 58-42 to kill a top progressive priority, a gradual increase in the current $7.25 hourly minimum wage to $15 over five years.
Eight Democrats voted against that proposal, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and other progressives vowing to continue the effort in coming months will face a difficult fight.
That vote began shortly after 11 a.m. EST and by 9 p.m. had not been formally gaveled to a close, as Senate work ground to a halt amid the unemployment benefit negotiations.
Republicans say the overall relief bill is a liberal spend-fest that ignores that growing numbers of vaccinations and signs of a stirring economy suggest that the twin crises are easing.
“Our country is already set for a roaring recovery,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, in part citing an unexpectedly strong report on job creation. “Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.”
Democrats reject that, citing the job losses and numerous people still struggling to buy food and pay rent.
“If you just look at a big number you say, ‘Oh, everything’s getting a little better,’” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “It’s not for the lower half of America. It’s not.”
Friday’s gridlock over unemployment benefits gridlock wasn’t the first delay on the relief package. On Thursday Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, forced the chamber’s clerks to read aloud the entire 628-page relief bill, an exhausting task that took staffers 10 hours and 44 minutes and ended shortly after 2 a.m. EST.
Democrats made a host of other late changes to the bill, designed to nail down support. They ranged from extra money for food programs and federal subsidies for health care for workers who lose jobs to funds for rural health care and language assuring minimum amounts of money for smaller states.
In another late bargain that satisfied moderates, Biden and Senate Democrats agreed Wednesday to make some higher earners ineligible for the direct checks to individuals.


Taliban to boycott peace talks until all foreign troops exit Afghanistan

Updated 15 April 2021

Taliban to boycott peace talks until all foreign troops exit Afghanistan

  • Biden’s new dateline also throws into doubt the future of US-backed talks in Turkey on April 24

KABUL: The Taliban on Wednesday said they would no longer participate in peace talks for Afghanistan until all US-led troops withdrew from the country, amid reports that President Joe Biden was expected to delay the May 1 deadline by four months. 

“This is our stance: until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland, the Islamic Emirate (the name of the Taliban’s government) will not participate in any conference that shall make a decision on Afghanistan,” Dr. Mohammad Naeem, the group’s Qatar-based spokesman, told Arab News on Wednesday. 

According to a plan disclosed by US officials on Tuesday, Biden is expected to withdraw remaining troops by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that sparked Washington’s longest conflict in history — instead of May 1, as agreed upon by the Trump administration and the Taliban in a controversial deal more than a year ago. 

Since assuming office, Biden has said he would review the Qatar accord, saying in recent weeks that it would be “a tough move” to abide by the May 1 deadline. 

As per the agreement, the Taliban halted attacks on US-led troops but increased strikes on Afghan government forces who rely on the US for air and intelligence support, and financial and logistical resources. 

The Taliban had also warned Washington of consequences if it decided to extend the deadline for withdrawal.

In recent months, President Ashraf Ghani’s government urged Biden to withdraw troops on a condition-based agreement but not before the Taliban agreed to a ceasefire. 

Ghani’s spokesmen were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Wednesday. 

However, Waheed Omar, an adviser for Ghani, tweeted on Wednesday that Biden is expected to talk to the Afghan president “in the near future to officially share details of the new withdrawal plan.” 

He added: “Until then, we will not comment on the details.”

In another tweet, he said: “We will respect any decision taken by the US government with regards to their troops. ANSDF (Afghan National Security Defense Forces) has been defending our people with high morale the past two years and have recently conducted close to 98 percent of operations independently.”

He added: “They are fully capable of doing that in the future.”

However, during an open session on Wednesday, the head of the Afghan parliament raised alarm about the country’s future after the departure of American troops. 

“With the current situation, the conditions for the withdrawal of foreign troops are not fair,” Mir Rahman Rahmani said. 

“The withdrawal of foreign forces in the current situation would worsen the situation and will lead to a civil war,” he added. 

On Wednesday, NATO officials meeting in Brussels said the alliance was also likely to withdraw its soldiers from Afghanistan, according to media reports. 

Biden’s new dateline also throws into doubt the future of US-backed talks in Turkey on April 24, which several observers said could be one of the final international efforts to broker peace between the insurgent group and the Afghan government. 

Proposed by Washington, Turkey was expected to host the intra-Afghan talks to prevent a total collapse of the US-sponsored negotiations which began in Doha in September last year, but this plan failed to materialize. 

Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan government-appointed negotiator for the intra-Afghan talks in Qatar last year, said that Washington “needs to work with the Taliban to attend Turkey’s conference. 

She told Arab News that: “The Taliban need to get engaged in the negotiations to pave the way for the withdrawal; meaningful negotiations will pave the way for the withdrawal.”

Ahmad Samin, a former adviser for the World Bank, agreed and said that Afghanistan is “heading to a crisis in the face of a total collapse of talks as the Taliban will endeavor to seize power again.”

He told Arab News: “The Biden administration is frustrated with the Afghan government, which is too corrupt, and the majority of American people want to end the endless Afghan war.”

Samin added: “The Taliban are taking advantage of the situation. I believe the Taliban are not interested in power sharing, and they will try to go for full victory, which will result in catastrophic internal conflict. Everything regarding Afghanistan’s future is uncertain, and no one knows what will happen.”

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Climate change mitigation: What Saudi Arabia and Japan can learn from one another

Updated 15 April 2021

Climate change mitigation: What Saudi Arabia and Japan can learn from one another

  • Both countries have launched bold initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and prioritize renewables
  • Saudi Aramco recently shipped “blue” ammonia to Japan in a demonstration of clean energy cooperation

DUBAI / BOGOTA: Late last year, Yoshihide Suga, the prime minister of Japan, unveiled a major policy shift, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero and realize a carbon-neutral society by 2050.

As Saudi Arabia launches its own ambitious environmental initiatives, experts say the two countries have much to learn from one another as both the Kingdom and Japan remain heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

Japan is the world’s fifth-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, making timely steps towards renewable energy use and cuts in fossil fuel imports imperative for the country to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth, says Japan's PM Yoshihide Suga. (AFP)

“Responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth,” Suga said in his first policy address to parliament. “We need to change our thinking to the view that taking assertive measures against climate change will lead to changes in industrial structure and the economy that will bring about great growth.”

Building on Suga’s speech, Japan presented its “Green Growth Strategy in line with Carbon Neutrality in 2050” in December, setting out an industrial policy that marries economic growth with environmental protection.

As part of his plan, Japan will energize research and development in solar cells and battery technology, promote carbon recycling, and expand digitalization of the economy. Infrastructure projects, including vast offshore wind farms, are already in the pipeline.

“Achieving the aim of carbon-neutrality by 2050 will require Japan to substantially accelerate the deployment of low-carbon technologies, address regulatory and institutional barriers, and further enhance competition in its energy markets,” the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its March 2021 country report.

Suga’s carbon-cutting plans could be as trailblazing for East Asia as Saudi Arabia’s environmental initiatives, unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on March 27, could prove for West Asia.

The Saudi Green Initiative calls for regional cooperation to tackle environmental challenges and includes plans to generate 50 percent of the Kingdom’s electricity using renewables by 2030 and to eliminate more than 130 million tons of carbon emissions. The Middle East Green Initiative likewise sets out to reduce carbon emissions by 60 percent across the region.

There are also plans to plant 10 billion trees in the Kingdom and restore 40 million hectares of degraded land, while across the wider region there are plans for 50 billion trees and the restoration of 200 million hectares of degraded land.

These initiatives are designed to work in tandem with Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s commitment to diversifying its economy away from oil, empowering its citizenry and opening up to global visitors and investors.

Koichiro Tanaka, a professor at Tokyo’s Keio University and a former managing director at the Institute of Energy Economics in Japan, said Saudi Arabia’s regional approach in mitigating climate change is unique.

“This is the reason why numerous countries from South Asia to West Asia have voiced their support and expressed willingness to join the initiative,” he told Arab News, adding: “If there is room for a country like Japan to cooperate and collaborate, it should definitely benefit both parties in its effort to address climate change.”

Japan’s transitional experience could prove instructive for other economies, both advanced and developing, eager to cut their own emissions.

Roland Kaeppner, executive director of hydrogen and green fuels at NEOM — Saudi Arabia’s forthcoming smart-city project — believes Japan’s biggest challenge now is adapting its highly developed economy and embedded legacy infrastructure to meet its low-carbon commitments.

“All developed and developing economies need to be able to meet their nation’s energy needs while combating climate change,” he told Arab News.

“Since nuclear has dropped out of the energy mix in Japan, it has exacerbated the problem and increased reliance on energy imports. However, they have developed clear road maps to change the mix and meet environmental targets.”

An aerial view shows the quake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant in the Japanese town of Futaba, Fukushima prefecture on March 12, 2011. (JIJI Press photo via AFP)

Japan suspended its nuclear reactors in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster pending a safety review. As a result, Japan’s already heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels ballooned further.

In 2019, fossil fuels accounted for 88 percent of Japan’s total primary energy supply — the sixth-highest share among IEA countries.

Although there remains widespread public mistrust of nuclear power, the Japanese government sees its reactors as a realistic means of meeting its carbon-neutral goals. It now intends to raise the share of its power sourced from nuclear to between 20 and 22 percent by 2030.

Kaeppner said one way Japan hopes to clean up its legacy infrastructure is through decarbonization of its coal-fired plants using clean ammonia as a fuel additive. It also has a detailed hydrogen strategy, which the NEOM experts considers one of the world’s most advanced.

Indeed, hydrogen is expected to play a central role in Japan’s clean energy transition. By 2030, Japan aims to have 800,000 fuel cell vehicles, more than 5 million residential fuel cells and to establish an international hydrogen supply chain, according to the IEA.

FASTFACTS

  • In Oct. 2020, Japan said it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero and become a decarbonized society by 2050.
  • In Dec. 2020, Japan unveiled a Green Growth Strategy in line with Carbon Neutrality in 2050.
  • The Green Growth Strategy identifies 14 sectors with high-growth potential toward the 2050 targets.

It is also experimenting with large-scale power generation based on hydrogen — all of which will provide valuable lessons for the international energy community.

“Japan’s willingness to embrace innovation while pursuing its targets is probably at the heart of creating a strong renewable energy mix, which can be seen by their ambitious strategic hydrogen road map,” Kaeppner said.

Saudi Arabia is well placed to serve these new demands. Saudi Aramco has already shipped 40 metric tons of “blue” ammonia to Japan in a widely commended demonstration of clean energy cooperation.

Blue ammonia, created from the byproducts of current fossil fuel production and usage, is 18 percent hydrogen, making it a viable alternative energy source. In fact, hydrogen power is a key facet of the NEOM project.

“NEOM goes one step further in creating a market which is completely carbon-free and is at the core of NEOM’s approach to build on a 100 percent sustainable supply chain,” Kaeppner said.

Japan’s transition will be a long slog, no matter the level of interest shown by politicians, the private sector, and civil society, said Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder and managing director of UAE-based green social enterprise Goumbook.

This handout picture taken April 8, 2020 shows a tulip field managed by Sakura City, Chiba Prefecture. (Photo by Handout / Sakura City / AFP) 

“Japanese corporations lead the world in green technologies, such as hybrid automobiles, while both citizens and the state have endeavored to clean up polluted skies and waterways, reduce greenhouse emissions and adopt the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle,” she told Arab News.

And yet, Japan has a long history of deforestation, industrial pollution, rampant consumerism, wasteful state infrastructure projects, controversial stances on whaling and, of course, a heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels.

“Like many nations, Japan struggles to balance economic growth and environmental protection,” Abella said. “Unlike many nations, however, it has the affluence and motivation to develop green policies, technologies and practices.”

She added that “an over-supply of energy, a lack of strategic direction from policymakers, the economic effects of COVID-19, and continued dependence on fossil fuels” could pose challenges for other countries.

Still, Japan, with its ambitious government targets, political stability and solid regulatory and legal framework, is a model undoubtedly worthy of emulation.

__________

Twitter: @CalineMalek

Twitter: @RobertPEdwards

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London mosque provides iftar meals to key workers, needy during Ramadan

Updated 14 April 2021

London mosque provides iftar meals to key workers, needy during Ramadan

  • Hosting iftar in the mosque will be impossible during Ramadan 2021 due to coronavirus restrictions
  • The iftar initiative is funded through donations and each meal costs £3 ($4.12)

LONDON: London’s busiest mosque will provide thousands of iftar meals to those in need and NHS workers at a local hospital this Ramadan. 
Every year, the East London Mosque & London Muslim Center hosts hundreds of people at sunset during the holy month of Ramadan for iftar. 
However, this will be impossible during Ramadan 2021 due to coronavirus restrictions, and instead the mosque will distribute iftar meals to front-line workers at the nearby Royal London Hospital and local people in need.
“One of the big things we do at the mosque every year is feed several hundred people who come and have iftar. However, government guidelines currently permit religious institutions to open for prayer only and therefore we can’t host the iftar,” Khizar Mohammad, the mosque’s media and communications manager, said.  
The iftar initiative is funded through donations and each meal costs £3 ($4.12).  
“We have an appeal every year and anyone who wants to feed the hungry will donate,” Mohammad said.
“Feeding people in Islam is a highly encouraged good deed whether it is your guest or the poor and needy. Many people donate to the iftar campaign and it is funded by them.”
Due to the large number of donations in 2020 and the mosque’s closure amid the national lockdown, the campaign funded iftar meals in Bangladesh as well.
“We had a lot of donations last year which enabled us to feed more people — not just locally but also internationally,” Mohammad added.
The meals vary, but there is always a meat and vegetarian option, and fruit, dates and a bottle of water or juice are included. 
“We like to mix the menu up because we have regular recipients who are from not so fortunate backgrounds and we don’t want to give them the same meal for 30 days in a row. Biryani is always on the menu at some point due to its popularity,” Mohammad said.
The mosque has been providing meals to front-line workers on a weekly basis during the pandemic.
“The Royal London Hospital is close by and we have been providing staff with meals throughout the lockdown as a gesture of thanks. During Ramadan, these meals will become daily rather than weekly,” Mohammad said.
“We usually load the meals up into our van, drive two minutes down the road, and give them to a member of staff at the hospital who will then take them to the right department.” 
The mosque also provides about 200 people in the London borough of Tower Hamlets with groceries, cooked meals and hygiene packs when needed. 
Those who find themselves in financial hardship during the pandemic can ask for an iftar meal from the mosque as part of the campaign.  
“As for providing meals to the vulnerable and those in need in the local area, they will usually phone in and request them. We have a list of around 200 people whom we provide with groceries, cooked meals or hygiene packs. People regardless of their faith can request to be added to the list or to have Ramadan iftars sent to them. Alternatively, they can collect the items themselves if that is more convenient,” Mohammad said.  
“If we raise enough money, we will also fund iftar in other countries that are less fortunate such as Yemen,” he added.


NATO forces will leave together from Afghanistan, Blinken says

Updated 14 April 2021

NATO forces will leave together from Afghanistan, Blinken says

  • NATO foreign and defense ministers will discuss their plans later on Wednesday via video conference

BRUSSELS: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that it was time for NATO allies to withdraw from Afghanistan and that the alliance would work on an adaptation phase, after Washington announced plans to end America’s longest war after two decades.
“I am here to work closely with our allies, with the (NATO) secretary-general, on the principle that we have established from the start: In together, adapt together and out together,” Blinken said in a televised statement at NATO headquarters.
NATO foreign and defense ministers will discuss their plans later on Wednesday via video conference.


Russia seeking to ‘provoke’ in Ukraine conflict: Germany

Updated 14 April 2021

Russia seeking to ‘provoke’ in Ukraine conflict: Germany

  • The growing Russian presence at the Ukrainian border has caused concern in the West in recent days

BERLIN: Germany on Wednesday accused Russia of seeking provocation with its troop build-up along the border with Ukraine.
“My impression is that the Russian side is trying everything to provoke a reaction,” German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told ARD public television.
“Together with Ukraine, we won’t be drawn into this game,” she added.
The growing Russian presence at the Ukrainian border has caused concern in the West in recent days, with the United States saying that troop levels are at their highest since 2014, when war first broke out with Moscow-backed separatists.
Moscow has said it sent troops to its western borders for combat drills because of “threats” from transatlantic alliance NATO.
But Kramp-Karrenbauer voiced doubt at Moscow’s claim.
“If it is a maneuver like the Russian side says, there are international procedures through which one can create transparency and trust,” she said, adding that Germany was monitoring developments very closely.
Ukraine has so far reacted in a “sober” manner, said the minister, stressing that NATO stands by Kiev’s side.
“We are committed to Ukraine, that is very clear,” she said.
At the same time, she said, it is also clear that Moscow “is just waiting for a move, so to speak, from NATO, to have a pretext to continue its actions.”