Biden announces ‘historic’ deal — but still must win votes

Members of the US House of Representatives on the steps to the House chambers during a vote on October 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images/AFP)
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Updated 29 October 2021
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Biden announces ‘historic’ deal — but still must win votes

  • The revised package has lost some top priorities, frustrating many lawmakers as the president’s ambitions make way for the political realities of the narrowly divided Congress

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he and Democrats in Congress have reached a “historic” framework for his sweeping domestic policy package. But he still needs to lock down votes from key colleagues for what’s now a dramatically scaled-back bill.
Eager to have a deal in hand before his departure late in the day for global summits, Biden made his case privately on Capitol Hill to House Democrats and publicly in a speech at the White House. He’s now pressing for a still-robust package — $1.75 trillion of social services and climate change programs — that the White House believes can pass the 50-50 Senate.
The fast-moving developments put Democrats closer to a hard-fought deal, but battles remain as they press to finish the final draft in the days and weeks ahead.
“Let’s get this done,” Biden exhorted.
“It will fundamentally change the lives of millions of people for the better,” he said about the package, which he badly wanted before the summits to show the world American democracy still works.
Together with a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, Biden claimed the infusion of federal investments would be a domestic achievement modeled on those of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
“I need your votes,” Biden told the lawmakers at the Capitol, according to a person who requested anonymity to discuss the private remarks.
But final votes will not be called for some time. The revised package has lost some top priorities, frustrating many lawmakers as the president’s ambitions make way for the political realities of the narrowly divided Congress.
Paid family leave and efforts to lower prescription drug pricing are now gone entirely from the package, drawing outrage from some lawmakers and advocates.
Still in the mix, a long list of other priorities: free prekindergarten for all youngsters, expanded health care programs — including the launch of a new $35 billion hearing aid benefit for people with Medicare — and $555 billion to tackle climate change.
There’s also a one-year extension of a child care tax credit that was put in place during the COVID-19 rescue and new child care subsidies. An additional $100 billion to bolster the immigration and border processing system could boost the overall package to $1.85 trillion if it clears Senate rules.
One pivotal Democratic holdout, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, said, “I look forward to getting this done.”
However, another, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was less committal: “This is all in the hands of the House right now.”
The two Democrats have almost single-handedly reduced the size and scope of their party’s big vision, and are crucial to sealing the deal.
Republicans remain overwhelmingly opposed, forcing Biden to rely on the Democrats’ narrow majority in Congress with no votes to spare in the Senate and few in the House.
Taking form after months of negotiations, Biden’s emerging bill would still be among the most sweeping of its kind in a generation, modeled on New Deal and Great Society programs. The White House calls it the largest-ever investment in climate change and the biggest improvement to the nation’s health care system in more than a decade.
In his meeting with lawmakers at the Capitol, Biden made clear how important it was to show progress as he headed to the summits.
“We are at an inflection point,” he said. “The rest of the world wonders whether we can function.”
With US elections on the horizon, he said it’s not “hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week.”
At one point, Biden “asked for a spirited, enthusiastic vote on his plan,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.
Twice over the course of the hour-long meeting Democratic lawmakers rose to their feet and started yelling: “Vote, vote, vote,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia.
Biden’s proposal would be paid for by imposing a new 5 percent surtax on income over $10 million a year, and instituting a new 15 percent corporate minimum tax, keeping with his plans to have no new taxes on those earning less than $400,000 a year, officials said. A special “billionaires tax” was not included.
Revenue to help pay for the package would also come from rolling back some of the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts, along with stepped-up enforcement of tax-dodgers by the IRS. Biden has vowed to cover the entire cost of the plan, ensuring it does not pile onto the debt load.
With the framework being converted to a 1,600-page legislative text for review, lawmakers and aides cautioned it had not yet been agreed to.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, the progressive leader, said her caucus endorsed the framework, even as progressive lawmakers worked to delay further action. “We want to see the actual text because we don’t want any confusion and misunderstandings,” she said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Biden asked the House to vote on the related $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which already cleared the Senate but became tangled in deliberations over the broader bill. But Jayapal said she did not hear an urgent request from him, which emboldened progressives to halt the hoped-for Thursday vote.
“When the president gets off that plane we want him to have a vote of confidence from this Congress,” Pelosi told lawmakers, the person at the private meeting said.
But no votes were scheduled. Progressives have been withholding their support for the roads-and-bridges bill as leverage until they have a commitment that Manchin, Sinema and the other senators are ready to vote on Biden’s bigger package.
“Hell no,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, about allowing the smaller infrastructure bill to pass.
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, shared her own story of making “pennies” at low-wage work, struggling to afford child care and wanting to ensure constituents have better.
“We need both bills to ride together. And we don’t have that right now,” Bush said. “I feel a bit bamboozled because this was not what I thought was coming today.”
Instead, Congress approved an extension to Dec. 3 of Sunday’s deadline for routine transportation funds that were at risk of expiring without the infrastructure bill.
The two holdout Democratic senators now hold enormous power, essentially deciding whether Biden will be able to deliver on the Democrats’ major campaign promises.
Sinema has been instrumental in pushing her party off a promise to undo the Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts. And Manchin’s resistance forced serious cutbacks to a clean energy plan, the elimination of paid family leave and the imposition of work requirements for parents receiving the new child care subsidies.
At the same time, progressives achieved one key priority — Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders’ proposal to provide hearing aid benefits for people on Medicare. However, his ideas to also include dental and vision care were left out.
Other expanded health care programs build on the Affordable Care Act by funding subsidies to help people buy insurance policies and coverage in states that declined the Obamacare program.
Overall, the new package also sets up political battles in future years. The enhanced child care tax credit expires alongside next year’s midterm elections, while much of the health care funding will expire in 2025, ensuring a campaign issue ahead of the next presidential election.
 


US Congress passes Ukraine, Israel foreign aid bill

Updated 9 sec ago
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US Congress passes Ukraine, Israel foreign aid bill

  • Israel has killed more than 34,000 civilians in the Palestinian enclave

WASHINGTON: A sweeping foreign aid package easily passed the US Congress late on Tuesday after months of delay, clearing the way for fresh Ukraine funding amid advances from Russia’s invasion force and Kyiv’s shortages of military supplies.
The Senate approved by 79 to 18 four bills passed by the House of Representatives on Saturday, after House Republican leaders abruptly switched course last week and allowed a vote on the $95 billion in mostly military aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan and US partners in the Indo-Pacific.
The four bills were combined into one package in the Senate.

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 12, 2023. (AFP)

The largest provides $61 billion in critically needed funding for Ukraine; a second provides $26 billion for Israel and humanitarian aid for civilians in conflict zones around the world, and a third mandates $8.12 billion to “counter communist China” in the Indo-Pacific.
A fourth, which the House added to the package last week, includes a potential ban on the Chinese-controlled social media app TikTok, measures for the transfer of seized Russian assets to Ukraine and new sanctions on Iran.
Biden has promised to sign the measure into law as soon as it reaches his desk, and his administration is already preparing a $1 billion military aid package for Ukraine, the first to be sourced from the bill, two US officials told Reuters.
The Senate’s Democratic and Republican leaders predicted that Congress had turned the corner in putting Russian President Vladimir Putin and other foreign adversaries on notice that Washington will continue supporting Ukraine and other foreign partners.
“This is an inflection point in history. Western democracy perhaps faced its greatest threat since the end of the Cold War,” Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in the Senate.
The aid package could be the last approved for Ukraine until after elections in November when the White House, House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for grabs.
Much of the opposition to the security assistance in both the House and Senate has come from Republicans with close ties to former US President Donald Trump, a Ukraine aid skeptic who has stressed “America First” policies as he seeks a second term.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a strong advocate for assisting Ukraine, expressed regret about the delay, largely due to hard-line Republicans’ objections to adding more to the $113 billion Washington had authorized for Kyiv since Russia began its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
“I think we’ve turned the corner on the isolationist movement,” McConnell told a news conference.
Some of the Ukraine money — $10 billion in economic support — comes in the form of a loan, which Trump had suggested. But the bill lets the president forgive the loan starting in 2026.

HUMANITARIAN CONCERNS
The influx of weapons should improve Kyiv’s chances of averting a major breakthrough in the east by Russian invaders, although it would have been more helpful if the aid had come closer to when Biden requested it last year, analysts said.
It was not immediately clear how the money for Israel would affect the conflict in Gaza. Israel already receives billions of dollars in annual US security assistance, but it more recently has faced its first direct aerial attack by Iran.
Aid supporters hope the humanitarian assistance will help Palestinians in Gaza, which has been devastated by Israel’s campaign against Hamas to retaliate for Oct. 7 attacks that killed 1,200 people.
Gaza health authorities say the campaign has led to the deaths of more than 34,000 civilians in the Palestinian enclave.
It was the second time this year that the Democratic-led Senate passed security aid for Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific. The last bill, more than two months ago, garnered 70 percent support in the 100-member chamber from Republicans and Democrats. But leaders of the Republican-controlled House would not allow a vote on the foreign aid until last week.
The legislation’s progress has been closely watched by industry, with US defense firms up for major contracts to supply equipment for Ukraine and other US partners.
Experts expect the supplemental spending to boost the order backlog of RTX Corp. along with other major companies that receive government contracts, such as Lockheed Martin , General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman.
The House passed the Ukraine funding by 311-112, with all “no” votes coming from Republicans, many of whom were bitterly opposed to further assistance for Kyiv. Only 101 Republicans voted for it, forcing Speaker Mike Johnson to rely on Democratic support and prompting calls for his ouster as House leader.
However, the House left Washington for a week-long recess, without triggering a vote to remove Johnson.

 


NASA chief asks nations to work together on climate change

Updated 31 min 32 sec ago
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NASA chief asks nations to work together on climate change

  • Solutions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions that rapidly warm the planet and drive the climate crisis already exist, but require unprecedented changes at a new scale and pace

MEXICO CITY: NASA is hoping that nations will work together more closely in the future on topics such as climate change, including greenhouse gas emissions, the space agency’s head, Bill Nelson, said on Tuesday.
Solutions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions that rapidly warm the planet and drive the climate crisis already exist, but require unprecedented changes at a new scale and pace.
“This is something that nations can work on together because the information is there,” Nelson said in Mexico City when asked about how to address greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s important that we act on it.”
Satellites have emerged as powerful tools for scientists around the world to study climate change but also, increasingly, pinpoint the origin of greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane leaks, that would otherwise have gone undetected.
Nelson added that satellites were constantly collecting data about climate and NASA was looking to make this data accessible, and educate people on how to use it.
Methane, the main component of natural gas, is the second-largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide. Scientists can now pinpoint the origin of large methane leaks using data gathered by satellites.
It is a much more potent driver of global warming in the short term than carbon dioxide because it traps more heat in the atmosphere, ton for ton.
“The types of concerns that we have are global,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “It’s very important to recognize that not any one country can solve that problem alone.”
Earlier in the day, Nelson and Melroy, who are both astronauts, met with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and lawmakers to discuss how the countries can work together.


Canadian police charge 2 former UN employees with conspiracy to sell military equipment in Libya

A Toronto police vehicle is parked in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 24 April 2024
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Canadian police charge 2 former UN employees with conspiracy to sell military equipment in Libya

  • Poirier said Mhaouek, a Canadian citizen, was arrested Tuesday morning at his home in the Montreal suburb of Ste-Catherine, Que., and was scheduled to appear in a Montreal court later in the day

MONTREAL: Two former United Nations employees in Montreal have been charged with participating in a conspiracy to sell Chinese-made drones and other military equipment in Libya, Canadian police said Tuesday.
RCMP spokesman Sgt. Charles Poirier said the alleged offenses occurred between 2018 and 2021, when the two men were working at the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency headquartered in Montreal.
Police identified the two men as Fathi Ben Ahmed Mhaouek, 61, and Mahmud Mohamed Elsuwaye Sayeh, 37. Poirer said they violated UN sanctions related to the Libyan civil war. The sanctions have the force of law in Canada by way of federal regulation.
“What we found is that through some shell companies, they attempted to sell this Chinese military equipment to Libya, which is a direct violation of the regulation,” Poirier said, adding that the military equipment included large drones that can carry multiple missiles.
Poirier said the regulation prohibits anyone in Canada from supplying military equipment to any of the factions that were fighting in the Libyan civil war, or helping to finance those groups. The alleged conspiracy, he said, would have benefited one of the two main factions in the conflict, which ended in 2020.
“The second part of this scheme was to export Libyan oil to China,” Poirier said. “So at the time, the oil fields were under the control of Gen. Khalifa Haftar and the plan was to sell millions of drums of crude oil to China without anyone knowing about it.”
Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army fought against Libya’s UN-backed government and held much of the country’s east during the civil war; he continues to be a powerful figure in that region.
Poirier said Mhaouek, a Canadian citizen, was arrested Tuesday morning at his home in the Montreal suburb of Ste-Catherine, Que., and was scheduled to appear in a Montreal court later in the day.
Mhaouek’s alleged accomplice remains on the run. An Interpol red notice — an alert sent to police around the world — and a Canada-wide warrant have been issued for Sayeh’s arrest.
Poirier said investigators have no indication that military equipment or crude oil ever reached their alleged final destinations, but he said if they had, the two co-conspirators stood to gain several million dollars in commissions.
“The theory behind the motivation is primarily financial,” he said. However, it would have also benefited China by allowing it to covertly support Haftar’s faction and by giving the country prime access to Libyan oil.
Poirier said the investigation began in 2022 after the RCMP received what he described as “credible intelligence.”
Both men had diplomatic immunity due to their work with the UN Their immunity had to be waived by ICAO before the two men could be charged.
The UN organization, which sets international aviation standards, has been collaborating with the police investigation.
“There’s no indication that ICAO was aware of the conspiracy until they were approached by us,” Poirier said.
Police don’t know where Sayeh, a Libyan national, may be.
“He could be in Libya, but with the level of influence and the networking that these men had working at ICAO, he could be anywhere,” Poirier said.
The UN’s civil aviation agency said in an emailed statement that it is committed to upholding Canadian laws, UN standards and its own ethics code.
“ICAO is fully cooperating with the RCMP investigation of the individuals involved in the complaint, who left the organization a number of years ago,” the agency said. “ICAO strongly condemns any actions of individuals that are inconsistent with the organization’s values.”

 


Rights concerns, costs undermine Turkiye-EU migrant deal, say auditors

Updated 24 April 2024
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Rights concerns, costs undermine Turkiye-EU migrant deal, say auditors

  • EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has launched an inquiry into human rights guarantees under the bloc’s new migration deal with Tunisia

BRUSSELS: Turkiye’s poor human rights record and economic factors are undermining the effectiveness of the European Union’s migration deal with Ankara, EU auditors said on Wednesday.
Under the 2016 deal, Ankara agreed to take back migrants who had crossed from its territory to Europe in return for EU aid to help fund more than four million refugees on Turkish soil.
The EU, which faces elections in June for the European Parliament in which illegal migration promises to be a big issue, has sealed agreements similar to the Turkiye scheme with Tunisia, Egypt, Mauritania and others.
In their report, the EU auditors raised concerns about the ability of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate projects, as envisaged under the 6 billion euro ($6.4 billion) deal, given Turkiye’s authoritarian turn since a failed coup in 2016 and its crackdown on dissent.
“The operating situation of NGOs has continuously deteriorated since 2015 and has been exacerbated in the context of the unsuccessful... coup in Turkiye, where NGOs subsequently were targeted through various legislation,” it said.
The European Court of Auditors (ECA) report also cited the difficulty of managing the EU aid in the context of Turkiye’s economic downturn and Ankara’s “backsliding on the rule of law and fundamental rights.”
The report said the European Commission, the EU’s executive, had failed to provide an adequate analysis of costs and that it was unclear what would happen once the aid ended.
“The facility is beneficial for refugees and host communities but we would still like to see improvements in terms of demonstrating impact, ensuring sustainability, and value for money,” said Bettina Jakobsen, who led the ECA report.
Rights groups and some politicians have long accused the EU of neglecting human rights in its drive to curb illegal migration.
“This leads to the EU focusing less on issues that should be of relevance such as the neglect of human rights,” said Florian Trauner, a professor at the Brussels School of Governance.
EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has launched an inquiry into human rights guarantees under the bloc’s new migration deal with Tunisia.


US, Russia set for a showdown at UN over nuclear weapons in space

Updated 24 April 2024
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US, Russia set for a showdown at UN over nuclear weapons in space

  • The White House says Russia has not yet deployed such a weapon.

UNITED NATIONS/WASHINGTON: The United States and Russia are set to face off over nuclear weapons in space on Wednesday at the United Nations Security Council, which is due to vote on a US-drafted resolution calling on countries to prevent an arms race in outer space.
Russia is expected to block the draft resolution, said some diplomats. The US move comes after it accused Moscow of developing an anti-satellite nuclear weapon to put in space, an allegation that Russia’s defense minister has flatly denied.
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Japan’s UN Ambassador Yamazaki Kazuyuki said in a joint statement on Friday that they have been negotiating with Security Council members on the draft text for six weeks.
The text affirms the obligation of states to comply with the Outer Space Treaty and calls on countries “to contribute actively to the objective of the peaceful use of outer space and of the prevention of an arms race in outer space.”
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bars signatories – including Russia and the United States – from placing “in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.”
Russia and China are planning to first put an amendment to a vote in the council. The amendment echoes a 2008 proposal by the pair for a treaty banning “any weapons in outer space” and threats “or use of force against outer space objects.”
The amendment is not expected to be adopted, said diplomats. The amendment and the draft resolution each require at least nine votes in favor and no vetoes by Russia, China, the United States, Britain or France to be adopted.
“Without our amendment, based on the General Assembly resolution adopted in December 2023, the text tabled by the US will be unbalanced, harmful and politicized,” deputy Russian UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy told Reuters, adding that it would also undermine the Outer Space Treaty legal regime.
Polyanskiy said “all questions relating to this sphere should be considered by the full membership of States Parties to this Treaty and not by the UN Security Council members only.”
US intelligence officials, according to three people familiar with their findings, believe the Russian capability to be a space-based nuclear bomb whose electromagnetic radiation if detonated would disable vast networks of satellites.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby has said Russia has not yet deployed such a weapon.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in February that Russia was against the deployment of nuclear weapons in space.
Governments have increasingly viewed satellites in Earth’s orbit as crucial assets that enable an array of military capabilities on Earth, with space-based communications and satellite-connected drones in the war in Ukraine serving as recent examples of the outsized role of space in modern warfare.
Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine in February 2022.