Ukraine, Israel aid package gains Biden’s support as US House Speaker Johnson fights to keep his job

US House Speaker Mike Johnson arrives to discuss his proposal of sending crucial bipartisan support to aid Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan after weeks of inaction on Capitol Hill on April 17, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo)
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Updated 18 April 2024
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Ukraine, Israel aid package gains Biden’s support as US House Speaker Johnson fights to keep his job

  • Aid package to provide $61 billion for Ukraine, $26 billion for Israel and $8 billion to allies in the Indo-Pacific
  • Republican hardliners have moved to oust Johnson, but are expected to fail without support from Democrats

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden said Wednesday he strongly supports a proposal from Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson to provide aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, sending crucial bipartisan support to the precarious effort to approve $95 billion in funding for the US allies this week.

Before potential weekend voting, Johnson was facing a choice between potentially losing his job and aiding Ukraine. He notified lawmakers earlier Wednesday that he would forge ahead despite growing anger from his right flank. Shortly after Johnson released the aid proposals, the Democratic president offered his emphatic support for the package.
“The House must pass the package this week, and the Senate should quickly follow,” Biden said. “I will sign this into law immediately to send a message to the world: We stand with our friends, and we won’t let Iran or Russia succeed.”
After agonizing for days over how to proceed on the package, Johnson pushed ahead on a plan to hold votes on three funding packages — to provide about $61 billion for Ukraine, $26 billion for Israel and $8 billion to allies in the Indo-Pacific — as well as several other foreign policy proposals in a fourth bill. The plan roughly matches the amounts that the Senate has already approved.
The bulk of the money for Ukraine would go to purchasing weapons and ammunitions from US defense manufacturers. Johnson is also proposing that $9 billion of economic assistance for Kyiv be structured as forgivable loans, along with greater oversight on military aid, but the decision to support Ukraine at all has angered populist conservatives in the House and given new energy to a threat to remove him from the speaker’s office.
Casting himself as a “Reagan Republican,” Johnson told reporters, “Look, history judges us for what we do. This is a critical time right now.”
The votes on the package are expected Saturday evening, Johnson said. But he faces a treacherous path to get there.
The speaker needs Democratic support on the procedural maneuvers to advance his complex plan of holding separate votes on each part of the aid package. Johnson is trying to squeeze the aid through the House’s political divisions on foreign policy by forming unique voting blocs for each issue, then sewing the package back together.
Under the plan, the House would also vote on bill that is a raft of foreign policy proposals. It includes legislation to allow the US to seize frozen Russian central bank assets to rebuild Ukraine; to place sanctions on Iran, Russia, China and criminal organizations that traffic fentanyl; and to potentially ban the video app TikTok if its China-based owner doesn’t sell its stake within a year.
House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said he planned to gather Democrats for a meeting Thursday morning to discuss the package “as a caucus, as a family, as a team.”
“Our topline commitment is iron-clad,” he told reporters. “We are going to make sure we stand by our democratic allies in Ukraine, in Israel, in the Indo-Pacific and make sure we secure the humanitarian assistance necessary to surge into Gaza and other theaters of war throughout the world.”
The House proposal keeps intact roughly $9 billion in humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza and other conflict zones. However, progressive Democrats are opposed to providing Israel with money that could be used for its campaign into Gaza that has killed thousands of civilians.
“If they condition the offensive portion of the aid, that would be a conversation, but I can’t vote for more aid to go into Gaza and continue to kill people,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Meanwhile, the threat to oust Johnson from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican of Georgia, gained steam this week. One other Republican, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, said he was joining Greene and called for Johnson to resign. Other GOP lawmakers have openly defied Johnson’s leadership.
“I want someone that will actually pursue a Republican agenda and knows how to walk in the room and negotiate and not get tossed around the room like some kind of party toy,” Greene said. But she added that she would not move on the motion to vacate Johnson as speaker before the vote on foreign aid.
In an effort to satisfy conservatives, Johnson offered to hold a separate vote on a border security bill, but conservatives rejected that as insufficient. Rep. Chip Roy of Texas called the strategy a “complete failure.”
“We’re going to borrow money that we don’t have — not to defend America, but to defend other nations. We’re going to do nothing to secure our border,” said Rep. Bob Good, the chair of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus.
With the speaker fighting for his job, his office went into overdrive trumpeting the support rolling in from Republican governors and conservative and religious leaders for keeping Johnson in office.
“Enough is enough,” said Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on social media. He said “instead of bickering among themselves” the House Republicans should do their “job and vote on the important issues facing our nation.”
At the same time, the speaker’s office was tidying up after Johnson said on Fox News that he and Trump were “100 percent united” on the big agenda items, when in fact the Republican presidential nominee, who had just hosted the House leader in a show of support, opposes much overseas aid as well as a separate national security surveillance bill.
Johnson told CNN on Wednesday that he thought Trump, if elected president, would be “strong enough that he could enter the world stage to broker a peace deal” between Ukraine and Russia.
Yet Johnson’s push to pass the foreign aid comes as alarm grows in Washington at the deteriorating situation in Ukraine. Johnson, delaying an excruciating process, had waited for over two months to bring up the measure since the Senate passed it in February.
“Ukraine is on the verge of collapsing,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In a hearing on Wednesday, Pentagon leaders testified that Ukraine and Israel both desperately need military weapons.
“We’re already seeing things on the battlefield begin to shift a bit in Russia’s favor,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The House’s version of the aid bill pushes the Biden administration to provide long-range ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems) to Ukraine, which could be used to target Russian supply lines.
The US has resisted sending those weapons out of concerns Moscow would consider them escalatory, since they could reach deeper into Russia and Russian-held territory. The House legislation would also allow the president to decline to send the ATACMS if it is against national security interests, but Congress would have to be notified.
Still, there was acknowledgement in Washington that Johnson could soon be out as speaker — a job he has held less than five months since Rep. Kevin McCarthy was ousted from the office.
Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, said this week that if Johnson is ousted, he would “be known in history as the man who did the right thing even though it cost him a job.”

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India’s new government will be spoilt for choice with $25 billion extra in kitty

Updated 8 sec ago
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India’s new government will be spoilt for choice with $25 billion extra in kitty

  • Indian central bank has announced record 2.11 trillion rupees dividend transfer to government, more than double New Delhi’s and street estimates
  • Surplus fund can help the new government bring down fiscal deficit by 0.3 percent of GDP or increase spending on infrastructure or “populist” stimulus

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI: India’s incoming government will be greeted with a $25 billion cheque from the central bank, giving it the option to either boost spending or narrow the fiscal deficit quicker, both of which will be cheered by investors.
On Wednesday, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced a record 2.11 trillion rupees dividend transfer to the government, more than double New Delhi’s and street estimates, leading to a decline in bond yields and a rise in equity markets.
The surplus fund can help the new government, which will take charge after the current elections, bring down its fiscal deficit by 0.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or increase spending on infrastructure or “populist” stimulus, Citi Research’s Samiran Chakraborty said.
“The bond markets would likely hope that the government follows the deficit reduction route, while the equity markets would likely prefer the government taking the expenditure increase one,” said Chakraborty.
During the election campaigns, the opposition Congress promised annual cash handouts of 100,000 rupees ($1,202.07) to poor women and unemployed youth. The party’s star campaigner Rahul Gandhi also promised debt waiver for farmers.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has avoided promising any new major welfare measures.
“Despite higher revenue from the RBI dividend, we doubt the government would opt for more populist expenditure in its budget, if the government is BJP-led,” said Shreya Sodhani, an economist at Barclays.
“The current government has not shown a disposition toward populist spending even in an election year.”
The BJP-led government resisted the temptation of spending trillions of rupees on schemes for the poor in its last budget before the election while raising spending on infrastructure to 11.11 trillion rupees, more than three time the sum spent in 2019.
QUICKER FISCAL CONSOLIDATION
The new government will likely present the final budget in July, leaving the administration with only eight months to spend funds allocated to them.
Government spending has been slow so far in the year, with the start of elections from April. Tax collections, meanwhile, have been strong due to buoyancy in the economy.
India collected a record 2.10 trillion rupees in goods and services taxes in April, the first month of the financial year, ensuring the government is on track to meet its planned fiscal goal of 5.1 percent of GDP this year.
This could mean the government will lean toward using the bumper dividend for fiscal consolidation.
There is scope for a slight reduction in the targeted fiscal deficit for the current year, said Ashima Goyal, a professor and an external member of the country’s monetary policy committee, who expects the government to comfortably achieve the targeted fiscal deficit of 4.5 percent by 2025/26.
India’s fiscal deficit ballooned to 9.2 percent during the pandemic but the government has steadily brought this down.
But bringing down the deficit by 130 basis points from 5.8 percent in 2023/24 was seen as challenging and dependent on one-off revenue from either privatization or auction of telecom spectrum.
($1 = 83.1900 Indian rupees)


Armenia returns four border villages to Azerbaijan

Updated 47 min 12 sec ago
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Armenia returns four border villages to Azerbaijan

YEREVAN: Armenia has returned to Azerbaijan four border villages it had seized decades ago, officials in Yerevan and Baku confirmed Friday, in a key step toward normalizing ties between the historic rivals.
The two ex-Soviet countries in the Caucasus fought two wars in the 1990s and in 2020 for control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan recaptured it last year in a lightning offensive, ending three decades of Armenian separatist rule and prompting more than 100,000 locals to flee into Armenia.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had agreed in March to return the four abandoned villages seized by his country in the 1990s, as part of efforts to secure a lasting peace agreement between the countries.
On May 16, they agreed on the demarcation of 12.7 kilometers (almost seven miles) of their border that returned the villages of Baghanis Ayrum, Ashaghi Askipara, Kheyrimli and GhizilHajjili to Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s security service confirmed Friday that its border guards had “officially” taken up new positions reflecting the border deal and ceded the villages to Azerbaijan’s control.
Azerbaijan’s Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev meanwhile announced that his country’s border guards had taken control of the four settlements.
Armenian residents of nearby settlements say the move could cut them off from the rest of the country and accuse Pashinyan of unilaterally giving away territory without any guarantees in return.
The premier’s move has sparked weeks of anti-government protests in Armenia, with thousands of demonstrators led by charismatic cleric Bagrat Galstanyan demanding Pashinyan’s resignation.
A fresh anti-government protest is scheduled for Sunday.
Pashinyan last week described the deal as a “very important milestone for further strengthening Armenia’s sovereignty and independence.”
The territory is of strategic importance for landlocked Armenia because it controls sections of a vital highway to Georgia.


EU’s Borrell says recognizing Palestine is not a gift to Hamas

Updated 24 May 2024
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EU’s Borrell says recognizing Palestine is not a gift to Hamas

MADRID: European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Friday said that recognizing a Palestinian state was not a gift to Hamas.
Ireland, Norway and Spain said on Wednesday they would recognize a Palestinian state on May 28, to help secure a halt to Israel’s Gaza offensive after the Hamas attack on Oct.7 and revive peace talks that stalled a decade ago.
“Recognizing the Palestinian state is not a gift to Hamas, quite the contrary,” he said. “The Palestinian authority is not Hamas, on the contrary they are deeply confronted.”
He added the EU already talked, financed and met the Palestinian authority.
“Every time someone makes the decision to support a Palestinian state, ... the reaction of Israel is to transform it in an antisemitic attack,” he added.


Philippines opens coast guard post after China build-up

Updated 24 May 2024
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Philippines opens coast guard post after China build-up

  • China and the Philippines are enduring a bitter diplomatic dispute over rival claims to parts of the South China Sea
  • Coastguard says the post will be used to gather data

MANILLA: The Philippines said Friday it had opened a coast guard post in the country’s far north to boost security following China’s “military build-up” near Taiwan over the past two years.
The outpost “shall gather essential maritime data and intelligence, enabling the (Philippine Coast Guard) to respond effectively to threats such as illicit trade, trafficking, piracy, and foreign intrusions,” National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano said in a statement.
“In 2022, the area around Itbayat witnessed a military build-up as China responded to political developments between Taiwan and the United States,” Ano said, announcing the opening of the station on the Philippines’ northernmost inhabited island.
“Securing peace, stability, and freedom of navigation along the Luzon Strait is crucial for ensuring Philippine national security and economic prosperity,” he added.
Itbayat is located around 150 kilometers (93 miles) south of Taiwan’s south coast.
China and the Philippines are enduring a bitter diplomatic dispute over rival claims to parts of the South China Sea.
China has built artificial islands and military installations in waters close to the Philippines.
China’s efforts to enforce its claims have in recent years including water cannon attacks by China Coast Guard vessels that damaged Philippine government boats and injured several crew members.
Itbayat is just outside the area designated by a vaguely defined map of dashes that China uses to claim most of the South China Sea.
Ano made no reference to war games that China began on Thursday in which it encircled Taiwan with warplanes and naval vessels.


Russia says Daesh behind deadly Moscow concert hall attack

Updated 24 May 2024
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Russia says Daesh behind deadly Moscow concert hall attack

Moscow: Russia on Friday admitted for the first time that Daesh coordinated the deadly concert hall attack in Moscow in March.
“In the course of the investigation... it has been established that the preparations, the financing, the attack, and the retreat of the terrorists were coordinated via the Internet by members of Khorasan Province (IS-K),” a branch of Daesh active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of FSB, was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.

At least sixty people have been killed after gunmen stormed a concert hall near Moscow in March, one of the deadliest attacks on Russia in decades.

Gunmen opened fire at a rock concert leaving dead and wounded before a major fire spread through the theater, Moscow’s mayor and Russian news agencies reported.

Putin has called the attack back in March as “a bloody, barbaric terrorist act” and said Russian authorities captured the four suspects as they were trying to escape to Ukraine through a “window” prepared for them on the Ukrainian side of the border.


Russian media broadcast videos that apparently showed the detention and interrogation of the suspects, including one who told the cameras he was approached by an unidentified assistant to an Islamic preacher via a messaging app and paid to take part in the raid.


Putin didn’t mention Daesh, known as Daesh in Arabic, in his speech to the nation, and Kyiv accused him and other Russian politicians of falsely linking Ukraine to the assault to stoke fervor for Russia’s fight in Ukraine, which recently entered its third year.


US intelligence officials said they had confirmed the Daesh affiliate’s claim.
“ISIS bears sole responsibility for this attack. There was no Ukrainian involvement whatsoever,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
 The US shared information with Russia in early March about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow, and issued a public warning to Americans in Russia, Watson said.


The raid was a major embarrassment for the Russian leader and happened just days after he cemented his grip on the country for another six years in a vote that followed the harshest crackdown on dissent since the Soviet times.
Some commentators on Russian social media questioned how authorities, who have relentlessly suppressed any opposition activities and muzzled independent media, failed to prevent the attack despite the US warnings.


Daesh, which fought against Russia during its intervention in the Syrian civil war, has long targeted Russia. In a statement posted by the group’s Aamaq news agency, the Daesh Afghanistan affiliate said that it had attacked a large gathering of “Christians” in Krasnogorsk.