Senate to vote on Republican coronavirus aid bill opposed by Democrats

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate was set to vote on Thursday on a Republican bill providing around $300 billion in new coronavirus aid, far below the $3 trillion Democrats insist is needed to stimulate an ailing economy and help people struggling through the pandemic.

In what could be the final vote on coronavirus relief in Congress before the Nov. 3 presidential and congressional elections, Republicans and Democrats appeared to be deadlocked over the next steps in responding to a virus that has killed more than 190,000 people in the United States and nearly 900,000 globally.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fails, as expected, to get the 60 votes needed in the 100-member chamber to advance his latest bill, lawmakers will likely focus on wrapping up other work within the next couple weeks so they can return to their home states to campaign for re-election in November.

Earlier this year, Congress quickly passed four major bills providing about $3 trillion to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill in May that would provide another $3 trillion in aid. But gridlock has since prevailed.

Some Republican senators expressed doubts on Wednesday that a compromise coronavirus bill would emerge quickly if McConnell’s latest “skinny” bill is rejected on Thursday in the Republican-controlled chamber.

“There’s always some possibility,” said Senator Richard Shelby, adding: “Unless something really broke through, it’s not going to happen.”

The Republican bill would renew a federal unemployment benefit, but at a lower level than Democrats sought. It also would set new protections for businesses against liability lawsuits during the pandemic, which Democrats have labeled a “poison pill.”

An array of other initiatives, including aid to state and local governments, a second round of direct federal payments to households and bailouts for U.S. airlines during the economic downturn were not addressed in the Republican bill and could be considered in a possible post-election session of Congress.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

Congress faces coronavirus, government funding battles as summer recess ends

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress faces a tight deadline to avoid a government shutdown as lawmakers begin returning to Washington next week, complicated by bitter conflicts between Republicans and Democrats over the next package of coronavirus aid.

The Republican-led Senate is due back on Tuesday, while the Democratic-led House of Representatives plans to hold votes on bills starting the following week.

With congressional elections on Nov. 3, both chambers have very few days left to finish work as lawmakers plan to campaign in their home states for much of October.

The federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, so they will have to scurry to reach a deal on legislation funding government programs and averting a partial shutdown that could be especially damaging to lawmakers facing re-election in November.

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany expressed optimism that agreement will be reached in a timely way.

Congress is widely expected to pass a temporary measure mainly funding the government at current levels, leaving budget decisions for after Election Day.

But the issue is complicated by rancor over how best to address the coronavirus, especially amid the yawning federal budget deficit.

On Wednesday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the fiscal 2020 deficit would hit $3.3 trillion, or 16% of gross domestic product, fueled by emergency pandemic aid already enacted into law.

More than $3 trillion in coronavirus relief was enacted earlier this year. But the Republican-led Senate left town last month without taking up another $3 trillion aid package the House passed in May or an alternative.

The two parties are sharply divided, but there are also disputes among Trump’s fellow Republicans. Many of the Senate’s 53 Republicans are on record opposing additional federal coronavirus relief, and most of the others want to pass a far smaller bill than the House’s.

One senior Senate Republican aide said disagreement among Republicans was so great that it was not clear whether a smaller, partisan bill could come up for a vote. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has said he opposes a so-called “skinny” coronavirus bill and his party could block one from passing.

Alternatively, lawmakers could tuck coronavirus relief into the must-do government funding bill. Provisions could include extra unemployment benefits to replace the $600-per-week payments that expired in July, measures to prevent evictions or aid for schools or local governments.

But a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Reuters that Democrats want a “clean” government-funding bill. That usually means a measure without controversial add-ons.

Republican President Donald Trump is running for re-election, and one- third of the 100-member Senate and all 435 House seats are up for grabs when voters head to the polls on Nov. 3.

A government shutdown just before the elections, as the coronavirus pandemic continues, could be particularly damaging to Republican prospects since they control the White House and Senate.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Mnuchin to testify Sept. 1 before House coronavirus panel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will face lawmakers’ questions over stalled coronavirus aid negotiations between the Trump administration and Congress next week when he testifies before a House of Representatives panel, lawmakers said on Wednesday.

The Sept. 1 hearing “will examine the urgent need for additional economic relief for children, workers, and families and the Administration’s implementation of key stimulus programs,” the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said in a statement.

The hearing will be Mnuchin’s first congressional testimony since talks on a new round of $1 trillion to $3 trillion in federal coronavirus aid collapsed in early August.

No intensive talks between Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer have taken place since then.

President Donald Trump subsequently signed an executive order partially extending supplemental unemployment benefits and deferring payment of some payroll taxes, but implementation details are unclear.

The focus of congressional action also shifted to the U.S. Postal Service, with House Democrats last Saturday passing a $25 billion funding bill aimed at thwarting planned service cuts and ensuring delivery of mail-in ballots for the November election. Republicans have declared the measure dead.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Lawder; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)

Factbox: Coronavirus in U.S. Congress: 17 members have tested or been presumed positive

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – At least 17 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate – nine Republicans and seven Democrats – have tested positive or are presumed to have had COVID-19, with Senator Bill Cassidy becoming the latest on Thursday.

Here is a look at lawmakers affected by the virus:

RESIDENT COMMISSIONER JENNIFFER GONZALEZ COLON

Gonzalez, resident commissioner of Puerto Rico and the U.S. territory’s sole representative in Congress, said that she tested positive for COVID-19 on Facebook, days after accompanying federal officials on a visit to Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical industry.

SENATOR BILL CASSIDY

Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, decided to self-quarantine for 14 days and contact those with whom he may have had contact after testing positive for the virus, according to a statement released by his office on Aug. 20.

“I am strictly following the direction of our medical experts and strongly encourage others to do the same,” the 62-year-old senator, himself a physician, said in the statement.

REPRESENTATIVE RODNEY DAVIS

Davis, an Illinois Republican, said in a statement on Aug. 5 that he tested positive for the novel coronavirus after running a fever.

“If you’re out in public, use social distancing, and when you can’t social distance, please wear a mask,” Davis, 50, said in the statement.

REPRESENTATIVE RAUL GRIJALVA

Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, tested positive for the coronavirus and went into isolation, he said in a statement on Aug. 1.

Grijalva expressed frustration with the reluctance of some Republican lawmakers to wear masks, which can slow the spread of the coronavirus.

REPRESENTATIVE LOUIE GOHMERT

The Texas Republican, 66, a staunch conservative, said on July 29 he tested positive in a prescreening at the White House but did not have any symptoms.

“It’s really ironic, because a lot of people have made a big deal out of my not wearing a mask a lot. But in the last week or two, I have worn a mask more than I have in the whole last four months.”

REPRESENTATIVE MORGAN GRIFFITH

The Virginia Republican, 62, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said in mid-July that he had tested positive. His office said he did not have significant symptoms.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM RICE

The South Carolina Republican, 62, said on Facebook in mid-June that he, his wife and son had all tested positive for the coronavirus but all were “on the mend.”

SENATOR TIM KAINE

The Virginia Democrat and former vice presidential candidate, 62, said in mid-May that he and his wife had tested positive for coronavirus antibodies.

SENATOR BOB CASEY

Casey, 60, a Pennsylvania Democrat, tested positive for coronavirus antibodies in May, but pledged to keep wearing a mask.

REPRESENTATIVE NEAL DUNN

The Florida Republican, 67, a former surgeon, said in April that he had gone to the emergency room after not feeling well and later tested positive for the coronavirus.

REPRESENTATIVE JOE CUNNINGHAM

A Democrat from South Carolina, Cunningham, 38, said on March 27 he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE KELLY

Kelly, 72, a Republican from Pennsylvania, tested positive for the coronavirus in late March at a drive-through testing site. He told an interviewer that it took him about a month to recover and that he lost 30 pounds (14 kg).

SENATOR RAND PAUL

The Kentucky Republican, 57, said on March 22 that he had tested positive and was in quarantine, but was feeling fine. After he returned to work, Paul still did not wear a mask and said it was because he believed he was immune.

REPRESENTATIVE MARIO DIAZ-BALART

The Florida Republican, 58, tested positive in mid-March, saying the symptoms “pretty much hit me like a ton of bricks.” After his health improved, Diaz-Balart said he would participate in a plasma donation program to help people with serious or life-threatening infections of COVID-19.

REPRESENTATIVE BEN MCADAMS

The Utah Democrat also caught the virus in March. He was hospitalized and needed oxygen. After his release, he warned others to take the virus seriously. “I’m young, I’m 45 years old, I’m healthy, I exercise every day, and it hit me really hard,” he told ABC.

REPRESENTATIVE NYDIA VELAZQUEZ

Velazquez, 67, a Democrat from New York, said in March that she had been diagnosed with a presumed case of the coronavirus, although she had not been tested.

REPRESENTATIVE SETH MOULTON

The Massachusetts Democrat, 41, said in March that he and his wife were in self-quarantine after experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms. The congressman said they did not, however, qualify for testing.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)

Pelosi: Democrats willing to cut COVID-19 bill in half to get a deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Tuesday that Democrats in Congress are willing to cut their coronavirus relief bill in half to get an agreement on new legislation with the White House and Republicans.

“We have to try to come to that agreement now,” Pelosi said in an online interview with Politico. “We’re willing to cut our bill in half to meet the needs right now. We’ll take it up again in January. We’ll see them again in January. But for now, we can cut the bill in half.”

But her remarks did not signal a new position for Democrats, according to a senior aide.

The Democratic-led House passed legislation with over $3 trillion in relief in May. This month, Democrats offered to reduce that sum by $1 trillion, but the White House rejected it.

The two sides remain about $2 trillion apart, with wide gaps on funding for schools, aid to state and local governments, and enhanced unemployment benefits.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Chris Reese and Chizu Nomiyama)

Hopes for fresh round of U.S. coronavirus relief fade as Congress goes home

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The prospects for a deal in the U.S. Congress to help Americans suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic dimmed on Friday, with the Senate and House of Representatives in recess and no fresh talks scheduled with President Donald Trump’s negotiators.

After a week that the leaders of the Democratic and the Republican parties spent blaming each other for a breakdown in talks, lawmakers were not due to reconvene until next month, though the leaders of both parties said they could recall their members with 24 hours notice if a deal emerged.

The two sides formally remained about $2 trillion apart, with wide gaps on funding for schools, aid to state and local governments, and unemployment pay. Trump on Thursday added that he opposed any money to help the U.S. Postal Service handle an expected flood of mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 elections, though he later said he would not veto a bill that included it.

An impasse over $600-a-week in enhanced unemployment benefits, which expired on July 31, kept financial markets on edge as the Commerce Department reported weaker-than-expected July retail sales growth due to the effects of the spiraling pandemic and the cessation of the enhanced unemployment payments.

The unemployment payments had helped the U.S. economy by buttressing consumer spending, according to Federal Reserve officials and economists. Trump tried to act alone on Saturday with a memorandum proposing an additional $300 per week in unemployment, though economists questioned the effectiveness of the limited measure.

Meanwhile, the number of U.S. coronavirus infections approached 5.3 million on Friday, with deaths topping 167,000.

U.S. share prices dropped earlier this week when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi disclosed there were no coronavirus talks scheduled. Stocks also weakened on Friday on July retail sales data.

But House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Friday contended that investors are looking for “surgical” action on coronavirus aid rather than the comprehensive approach sought by Democrats with the $3 trillion-plus Heroes Act the House passed in May.

“If we went forward with what the Democrats asked for in that $3 trillion? I believe the market would drop hard because it would put greater debt on all taxpayers,” McCarthy told CNBC.

Democrats offered to reduce their proposal by $1 trillion during negotiations with White House officials last week. The White House rejected the offer.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll published early this week found that Americans blame both parties for the inaction.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

White House, Democrats show no sign of budging on U.S. coronavirus aid

By Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A breakdown in talks between the White House and top Democrats in Congress over how to help tens of millions of Americans suffering in the coronavirus pandemic entered a fifth day on Wednesday, with neither side ready to resume negotiations.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said there may be no deal to reach with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, with more than 5.16 million COVID-19 cases in the United States.

Pelosi described the two sides as “miles apart” with a “chasm” between them.

The global pandemic has taken a particularly heavy toll on the United States, where it has killed more than 164,000 people, more than any other country, and made tens of millions of workers jobless, who have now seen a further hit after $600 per week in additional federal unemployment benefits expired last month.

Congress has already approved about $3 trillion in assistance for families, hospitals, healthcare workers, state and local governments, vaccine research and testing.

Talks on a new package broke down last Friday after Democrats offered to reduce their demand for more than $3 trillion in additional aid by about $1 trillion, if the White House agreed to come up by a similar amount from an initial $1 trillion Republican proposal.

Sticking points include the size of an extended unemployment benefit, aid to state and local governments, money for schools to reopen and other issues.

Asked if deal was still possible, Mnuchin told Fox Business Network: “I can’t speculate. If the Democrats are willing to be reasonable, there’s a compromise. If the Democrats are focused on politics and don’t want to do anything that’s going to succeed for the president, there won’t be a deal.”

But Pelosi reiterated Democratic calls for the White House to “meet in the middle.”

“Until they’re ready to do that, it’s no use sitting in a room and letting them tell us that states should go bankrupt,” she told MSNBC. “As a practical matter, they’re going to have to come to the table.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who did not join any of the negotiating sessions, blamed Pelosi and Schumer for the ongoing impasse.

“Republicans wanted to reach agreement on all these issues where we could find common ground and fight over the last few issues later.” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

“But the speaker and the Democratic leader say nothing can move unless very one of these unrelated far-left items tags along.”

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday found that Americans divide blame pretty evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey; Writing by David Morgan; Editing by Toby Chopra, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump signs coronavirus relief orders after talks with Congress break down

By Jeff Mason

BEDMINSTER, N.J. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump signed executive orders on Saturday partly restoring enhanced unemployment payments to the tens of millions of Americans who lost jobs in the coronavirus pandemic, as the United States marked a grim milestone of 5 million cases.

Negotiations broke down this week between the White House and top Democrats in Congress over how best to help Americans cope with the heavy human and economic toll of the crisis, which has killed more than 160,000 people across the country.

Trump said the orders would provide an extra $400 per week in unemployment payments, less than the $600 per week passed earlier in the crisis. Some of the measures were likely to face legal challenges, as the U.S. Constitution gives Congress authority over federal spending.

“This is the money they need, this is the money they want, this gives them an incentive to go back to work,” the Republican president said of the lower payments. He said 25% of it would be paid by states, whose budgets have been hard hit by the crisis.

Republicans have argued that higher payments were a disincentive for unemployed Americans to try to return to work, though economists, including Federal Reserve officials, disputed that assertion.

Trump’s move to take relief measures out of the hands of Congress drew immediate criticism from some Democrats.

“Donald Trump is trying to distract from his failure to extend the $600 federal boost for 30 million unemployed workers by issuing illegal executive orders,” said Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “This scheme is a classic Donald Trump con: playacting at leadership while robbing people of the support they desperately need.”

The Democratic-majority House of Representatives passed a coronavirus support package in May which the Republican-led Senate ignored.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called the orders a “series of half-baked measures” and accused Trump of putting Social Security “at grave risk” by delaying the collection of payroll taxes that pay for the program.

Trump also said he was suspending collection of payroll taxes, which pay for Social Security and other federal programs, an idea that he has repeatedly raised but has been rejected by both parties in Congress. He said the suspension would apply to people making less than $100,000 per year.

His orders would also stop evictions from rental housing that has federal financial backing and extend zero percent interest on federally financed student loans.

Trump initially played down the disease’s threat and has drawn criticism for inconsistent messages on public health steps such as social distancing and masks.

He spoke to reporters on Saturday at his New Jersey golf club, in a room that featured a crowd of cheering supporters.

FAR APART

Nearly two weeks of talks between White House officials and congressional Democrats ended on Friday with the two sides still about $2 trillion apart.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had pushed to extend the enhanced unemployment payments, which expired at the end of July, at the previous rate of $600 as well as to provide more financial support for city and state governments battered by the crisis.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Friday offered to reduce the $3.4 trillion coronavirus aid package that the House passed in May by nearly a third if Republicans would agree to more than double their $1 trillion counteroffer.

White House negotiators Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows rejected the offer.

The $1 trillion package that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled late last month ran into immediate opposition from his own party, with as many as 20 of the Senate’s 53 Republicans expected to oppose it.

Trump did not rule out a return to negotiations with Congress.

“I’m not saying they’re not going to come back and negotiate,” he said on Saturday. “Hopefully, we can do something with them at a later date.”

Democrats have already warned that such executive orders are legally dubious and would likely be challenged in court, but a court fight could take months.

Trump has managed to sidestep Congress on spending before, declaring a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border to shift billions of dollars from the defense budget to pay for a wall he promised during his 2016 election campaign.

Congress passed legislation to stop him, but there were too few votes in the Republican-controlled Senate to override his veto – a scenario that would likely play out again with less than 90 days to go before the Nov. 3 presidential election.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason, additional reporting by Raphael Satter, Brad Brooks, and Rich McKay; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Diane Craft, Daniel Wallis, Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

Explainer: Trump wants to bypass U.S. coronavirus aid talks with executive order. Can he?

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With congressional Democrats and White House negotiators so far unable to agree on a deal to salve the heavy economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump has threatened to bypass Congress with an executive order.

Some of his proposals exceed his legal authority and would face immediate legal challenges, though in at least one case House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the nation’s top Democrat, told him to just go ahead.

WHAT DOES TRUMP WANT TO DO?

Trump said on Twitter he is considering executive orders to continue expanded unemployment benefits, reinstate a moratorium on evictions, cut payroll taxes and continue a suspension of student loan repayments amid a health crisis that has killed nearly 160,000 Americans.

He and administration officials negotiating with Congress have not provided specifics.

CAN HE DO IT?

The Constitution puts control of federal spending in the hands of Congress, not the president, so Trump does not have the legal authority to issue executive orders determining how money should be spent on coronavirus.

Democrats said executive orders would prompt a court fight, but legal action could take months.

Trump has sidestepped Congress on spending before. In 2019, he declared a national emergency at the border with Mexico to shift billions of dollars from the Pentagon budget to help pay for a promised wall that was the cornerstone of his 2016 election campaign.

Congress passed legislation to stop him, but there were too few votes in the Republican-controlled Senate to override his veto.

“There has to be a political will to do that and there has to be a priority given by members of Congress to assert their institutional interests,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. “And that just isn’t there right now.”

WOULD DEMOCRATS OR REPUBLICANS OBJECT?

The $600 per week enhanced unemployment benefit in the massive “Cares Act” passed in March has been a major sticking point in negotiations. Democrats want to continue the federal payment, which expired on July 24, to the tens of millions who have lost their jobs in the crisis and have rejected a short-term extension. Trump’s fellow Republicans have argued that is too high a payment, contending it is a disincentive to work.

The moratorium on evictions was less contentious, and could be covered by reprogramming money that Congress has already approved for housing that has not been spent. Pelosi on Thursday said an order extending the moratorium “would be a good thing.”

Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike reject cutting the payroll tax, which is collected from both employers and employees to fund Social Security and Medicare. A cut would disproportionately benefit Americans with high salaries, and threaten funding for the popular programs for retirees. It also only benefits people still getting paychecks, not those who have lost their jobs.

The parties are closer together on student loans. Democrats included a 12-month extension of the student loan payment suspension in a relief bill the House passed in May. Republican senators did not include student loan relief in the proposal they unveiled in July. However, there is a Republican plan in Congress to extend the suspension for three months.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone and Nick Zieminski)

Exclusive: Taiwan in talks to make first purchase of sophisticated U.S. drones – sources

FILE PHOTO: Flags of Taiwan and U.S. are placed for a meeting between U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce speaks and with Su Chia-chyuan, President of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, Taiwan March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Mike Stone

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is negotiating the sale of at least four of its large sophisticated aerial drones to Taiwan for the first time, according to six U.S. sources familiar with the negotiations, in a deal that is likely to ratchet up tensions with China.

The SeaGuardian surveillance drones have a range of 6,000 nautical miles (11,100 km), far greater than the 160-mile range of Taiwan’s current fleet of drones.

While the sale of the unmanned aerial vehicles has been tacitly authorized by the State Department, two of the people said, it is not known whether the U.S. officials have approved exporting the drones with weapons attached, one of them said.

The deal has to be approved by members of Congress who may receive formal notification as soon as next month, two of the people said. Congress could choose to block a final agreement.

It would be the first drone sale after President Donald Trump’s administration moved ahead with its plan to sell more drones to more countries by reinterpreting an international arms control agreement called the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

While Taiwan’s military is well-trained and well-equipped with mostly U.S.-made hardware, China has a huge numerical superiority and is adding advanced equipment of its own.

Taiwan submitted its request to buy armed drones early this year, one of the people familiar with the talks said. The United States last week sent Taiwan the pricing and availability data for the deal, a key step that denotes official approval to advance the sale. It is, however, non-binding and could be reversed.

A deal for the four drones, ground stations, spares, training and support could be worth around $600 million using previous sales as a guide. There could also be options for additional units in the future, one of the people said.

The island is bolstering its defenses in the face of what it sees as increasingly threatening moves by Beijing, such as regular Chinese air force and naval exercises near Taiwan

Relations between Beijing and Washington – already at their lowest point in decades over accusations of spying, a trade war, the coronavirus and Hong Kong – could fray more if the deal gets the final go-ahead from U.S. officials. The Pentagon has said arms sales to Taiwan will continue, and the Trump administration has kept a steady pace of Navy warships passing through the Taiwan Strait.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory, and Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring the self-ruled island under its control. Beijing has denounced the Trump administration’s increased support for Taiwan.

China’s sophisticated air defenses could likely shoot down a handful of drones, according to Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, a Washington think tank. But she still expects “China to scream about even the smallest arms sale that the U.S. makes to Taiwan because any sale challenges the ‘One China’ principle.”

“They get particularly agitated if they think it’s an offensive capability,” she said, adding that she expected the Trump administration to be less cautious than its predecessors.

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States did not respond to a request for comment.

“As a matter of policy we do not comment on or confirm proposed defense sales or transfers until they have been formally notified to Congress,” a State Department spokesman said.

ONLY FOR FEW U.S. ALLIES

The U.S. has been eager to sell Taiwan tanks and fighter jets, but the deal to sell drones would be notable since only a few close allies – including Britain, Italy, Australia, Japan and South Korea – have been allowed to purchase the largest U.S.-made drones.

Currently, the Taiwanese government has a fleet of 26 Albatross drones made by Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, a quasi-defense ministry research agency, that can fly 160 nautical miles (300 km), or 80 before returning to base, according to records kept by the Bard Center for the Study of the Drone.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc’s SeaGuardian has an airframe that can handle carrying weapons – but only if contractually allowed by the U.S. government.

The United States has sold France unarmed MQ-9 Reapers which are similar to SeaGuardian’s, and later gave permission to arm them.

Last year, the United States approved a potential sale to Taiwan of 108 General Dynamics Corp M1A2 Abrams tanks worth around $2 billion as well as anti-tank and anti-aircraft munitions. A separate sale of 66 Lockheed Martin-made fighter jets also made it through the State Department’s process.

In recent weeks, China said it will sanction Lockheed Martin Co for involvement in the latest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.

(Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington, D.C. ; Editing by Mary Milliken and Edward Tobin)