U.S. House Democrats advance abortion rights bill, Senate passage unlikely

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives advanced a bill on Tuesday that would protect the right to abortion and annul some new restrictions passed by Republican-controlled state governments.

If the “Women’s Health Protection Act” passes the Democratic-controlled House, it is unlikely to succeed in the 100-member Senate, where Republicans also are a minority but hold enough votes to prevent it from reaching the 60-vote threshold to pass most legislation.

Democrats sent the bill to the full House after a law took effect in Texas early this month that almost completely bans abortion in the state.

The right to abortion was established in the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but abortion-rights advocates fear it could be overturned when the court, now with a 6-3 conservative majority, hears Mississippi’s bid to overturn that decision.

“Action is both urgent and necessary,” said Representative Norma Torres during a hearing of the House Rules Committee, which voted 9-4 along party lines to advance the legislation to the full House.

Republicans attacked the legislation, arguing that it would expand access to abortions beyond the intent of Roe v. Wade.

“It’s the fiercest assault on the unborn since Roe was decided,” said Representative Tom Cole, the senior House Rules panel Republican. He added that the Democrats’ bill “would pre-empt any state law that seeks to protect (unborn) life.”

While a majority of Americans for many years have supported at least some forms of abortion, it is one of the most divisive issues in American society.

A mid-June Reuters/Ipsos survey found that 52% of adults said abortion should be legal in “most” or “all” cases, while 36% said it should be illegal.

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

Sullivan wins re-election in Alaska, giving Republicans 50 seats in Senate: Edison Research

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska won re-election, Edison Research projected on Wednesday, leaving control of the Senate to be determined in January by two runoff elections in Georgia.

Sullivan, 55, defeated Al Gross, an independent who ran as a Democrat in an election that some political analysts had seen as a potential opportunity for Democrats to capture a Republican seat.

Coming a day after Republican Senator Thom Tillis won re-election in North Carolina, Sullivan’s victory confirms that Democratic hopes of winning a majority of seats, and with it the power to support Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda, will come down to two Georgia elections scheduled for Jan. 5.

With Biden’s White House victory, Democrats need to pick up three Republican Senate seats to hold 50 Senate seats, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris wielding the tie-breaking vote.

Biden has surpassed the 270 Electoral College votes needed to defeat Republican incumbent President Donald Trump.

Democrats won Republican seats in Arizona and Colorado in last week’s election. But they lost a seat in Alabama, reducing their gain to a single seat.

In Georgia, Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler face challenges from Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively.

(Reporting by Mohammad Zargham and Susan Heavey; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

U.S. Supreme Court may not have final say in presidential election, despite Trump threat

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – While President Donald Trump has promised to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on a presidential race that is still too close to call, the nation’s top judicial body may not be the final arbiter in this election, legal experts said.

Election law experts said it is doubtful that courts would entertain a bid by Trump to stop the counting of ballots that were received before or on Election Day, or that any dispute a court might handle would change the trajectory of the race in closely fought states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

With vote-counting still underway in many states in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Trump made an appearance at the White House and declared victory against Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

“This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop,” he said.

The Republican president did not provide any evidence to back up his claim of fraud or detail what litigation he would pursue at the Supreme Court.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the election still hung in the balance. A handful of closely contested states could decide the outcome in the coming hours or days, as a large number of mail-in ballots cast amid the coronavirus pandemic appears to have drawn out the process.

However, legal experts said that while there could be objections to particular ballots or voting and counting procedures, it was unclear if such disputes would determine the final outcome.

Ned Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University, said on Twitter that the Supreme Court “would be involved only if there were votes of questionable validity that would make a difference, which might not be the case.”

Both Republicans and Democrats have amassed armies of lawyers ready to go to the mat in a close race. Biden’s team includes Marc Elias, a top election attorney at the firm Perkins Coie, and former Solicitors General Donald Verrilli and Walter Dellinger. Trump’s lawyers include Matt Morgan, the president’s campaign general counsel, Supreme Court litigator William Consovoy, and Justin Clark, senior counsel to the campaign.

Benjamin Ginsberg, a longtime Republican election lawyer, said on CNN that any attempt to toss out legally cast votes would likely “be viewed by any court including the Supreme Court as just a massive disenfranchisement that would be frowned upon.” Ginsberg represented George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000 when the Supreme Court ended a recount in Bush’s favor against Democrat Al Gore.

Trump attorney Jenna Ellis on Wednesday defended Trump’s bid to challenge the vote count and evaluate his legal options. “If we have to go through these legal challenges, that’s not unprecedented,” Ellis told Fox Business Network in an interview. “He wants to make sure that the election is not stolen.”

Bringing a case to federal court immediately was one possibility, she added, without giving further details. “We have all legal options on the table.”

The case closest to being resolved by the Supreme Court is an appeal currently pending before the justices in which Republicans are challenging a September ruling by Pennsylvania’s top court allowing mail-in ballots that were postmarked by Election Day and received up to three days later to be counted.

The Supreme Court previously declined to fast-track an appeal by Republicans. But three conservative justices left open the possibility of taking up the case again after Election Day.

Even if the court were to take up the case and rule for Republicans, it may not determine the final vote in Pennsylvania, as the case only concerns mail-in ballots received after Nov. 3.

In a separate Pennsylvania case filed in federal court in Philadelphia, Republicans have accused officials in suburban Montgomery County of illegally counting mail-in ballots early and also giving voters who submitted defective ballots a chance to re-vote.

If Biden secures 270 electoral votes without needing Pennsylvania, the likelihood of a legal fight in that state diminishes in any case, legal experts said.

And any challenge would also need to make its way through the usual court hierarchy.

“I think the Court would summarily turn away any effort by the President or his campaign to short-circuit the ordinary legal process,” said Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

“Even Bush v. Gore went through the Florida state courts first.”

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York, Lawrence Hurley in Washington, Karen Freifeld in New York and Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Rosalba O’Brien)

White House, Democrats remain far from deal on fresh round of COVID-19 aid

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cautioned on Thursday that Democrats and the Trump administration remain far from agreement on COVID-19 relief in several key areas, saying the two sides were locked in debate over both dollars and values.

Congressional Democrats led by Pelosi have proposed a $2.2 trillion package to respond to a pandemic that has killed more than 207,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work. Republican President Donald Trump’s negotiating team has suggested a $1.6 trillion response, and the White House on Thursday dismissed Democrats’ offer as not serious.

As lawmakers prepared to leave Washington for the remaining weeks of the 2020 presidential and congressional campaign, Pelosi was to speak again to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin by phone at 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT), a source familiar with the situation said. They were expected to try to bridge divisions over aid to state and local governments, Democratic demands for a child tax credit and stronger worker safety, healthcare and small businesses.

“We not only have a dollars debate, we have a values debate. Still, I’m optimistic,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference.

That public confidence belied Pelosi’s message to fellow Democrats in a Thursday call. She told colleagues “I don’t see a deal happening right now,” a Democratic leadership aide said, confirming an earlier Politico report.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany dismissed the Democratic proposal as “not a serious offer.”

Pelosi said of the White House proposal on Bloomberg TV: “This isn’t half a loaf. What they’re offering is the heel of the loaf.”

A bipartisan deal has been long delayed by disagreements over Democratic demands for aid to state and local governments and Republican insistence for a provision protecting businesses and schools from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Republican Senator Mike Braun told CNBC on Thursday that a deal worth over $1.6 trillion could be rejected by one-third to one-half of Senate Republicans. That would still allow a bill to pass with support from Democrats.

Pelosi and Mnuchin met for 90 minutes in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday and each emerged pledging to continue discussions.

Mnuchin raised hopes of an agreement by telling reporters that the discussions had made “a lot of progress in a lot of areas.”

Lawmakers and securities analysts viewed talks as a last-gasp effort to secure relief ahead of the Nov. 3 election for tens of millions of Americans and business including U.S. airlines, which have begun furloughing over 32,000 workers.

The Trump administration has proposed a $20 billion extension in aid for the battered airline industry, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters late on Wednesday. The extension would run for six months.

Mnuchin said separately that a deal would also include direct payments to American individuals and families.

Pressure for a deal has been mounting on the White House and Congress, from the devastating effects of a coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 7.2 million people in the United States.

The House of Representatives was expected to vote on its $2.2 trillion Democratic package, a day after initial plans for action were delayed to give more time for a deal to come together.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who has not participated directly in the negotiations, said on Wednesday that the House bill’s spending total was too high.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chicacu, Daphne Psaledakis and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Scott Malone, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

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)

Exclusive: Harris could help Biden with women, young voters, maybe some Republicans too – Reuters/Ipsos poll

By Chris Kahn

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Nearly nine out of 10 Democrats approve of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris as their party’s vice presidential nominee, and she is more popular than presidential candidate Joe Biden among women, young voters and some Republicans, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.

The Aug. 11-12 public opinion survey also found that 60% of Americans, including 87% of Democrats and 37% of Republicans, considered the selection of Harris – the first Black woman and Asian American nominated for vice presidency – to be a “major milestone” for the United States.

The U.S. Senator from California is viewed about as favorably or better than Biden in most major demographic groups, the poll showed, highlighting her potential to help the former vice president expand his support in November’s election.

Harris, 55, is the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants and made her own bid for the White House. She was a former prosecutor and state attorney general in California, and became only the second Black female U.S. senator in history when elected in 2016.

The poll showed Biden’s lead over Republican President Donald Trump was effectively unchanged after he announced his running mate choice, increasing by 1 percentage point among all Americans to an 8-point advantage – well within the poll’s credibility interval – when compared with a similar poll that ran on Monday and Tuesday.

Forty-six percent of U.S. adults said they would vote for a Biden/Harris ticket, while 38% would vote for Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. A similar poll that ran on Monday and Tuesday showed that 44% would vote for Biden while 37% would back Trump.

The latest poll also found that 56% of Americans have a favorable impression of Harris, which is about the same as the number who favor Biden. Forty-two percent of U.S. adults say they have a favorable view of Trump and 47% said the same of Pence.

Among women, 60% said they have a favorable view of Harris, compared with 53% who felt the same way about Biden. Women are the dominant force in American elections: they make up a bigger proportion of the U.S. electorate than men, and a surge in support for Democrats among white, college-educated women helped the party retake the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.

Biden already has an advantage over Trump among women overall, but he has not improved his standing among black women in recent months, while white women without college degrees still largely favor Trump.

EDGE WITH REPUBLICANS

In addition, about 25% of Republicans said they had a favorable view of Harris and approve of her choice as Biden’s running mate. Only about 20% of Republicans said they have a similarly favorable view of Biden.

In a close election, peeling off even a small number of voters from the Republican Party could make a difference to the Democrats, political analysts said.

Harris also is a little more popular among American adults who are younger than 35 years old: 62% said they view Harris favorably, while 60% said the same of Biden.

Public opinion could change and Trump’s re-election campaign sharpens its criticism of the Democratic challengers. Within minutes of Biden’s announcement on Tuesday, Trump had called Harris “nasty,” “horrible” and “disrespectful,” while his campaign painted her as an extremist who would yank the moderate Biden to the left.

In choosing Harris, Biden heeded calls from Black leaders and activists to choose a woman of color as a running mate and avoid a repeat of 2016, when the first decline of Black voter turnout in 20 years helped Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton. Black Americans – and Black women particularly – are the most loyal Democratic constituencies.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online, in English, throughout the United States. It gathered responses from 1,000 adults, including 389 Republicans and 419 Democrats. It has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of about 3 percentage points.

(Reporting by Chris Kahn, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Grant McCool)

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)

Unofficial Hong Kong vote sees new generation take over battle for democracy

By Jessie Pang and Yanni Chow

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A younger, more defiant generation of Hong Kong democrats has secured the most votes in unofficial primary elections in the Chinese-ruled city, setting the stage for a battle with pro-Beijing politicians for control of the city’s legislature.

The success of young contenders in the primaries organized by the pro-democracy camp on the weekend to pick candidates for a Sept. 6 election for a 70-seat city assembly comes amid widespread resentment of a national security law that Beijing imposed last month.

Beijing denounced the vote as illegal and warned it may have violated the new security law, which has raised fears for the freedoms that have underpinned Hong Kong’s open society and success as a financial hub.

Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong won in his district, but he has been disqualified from previous elections and could face similar hurdles this time.

Wong warned against any sweeping disqualification of candidates when he held a news conference with 15 other young politicians who won in their districts.

“If the government cracks down on us and disqualifies all the candidates who joined the primaries, it will cause more outrage in the international community and encourage more people to vote for the pro-democratic camp in September,” Wong said.

The 16 – all but one under 30 and dressed in black T-shirts – are part of a so-called localist or resistance camp, which outshone the cohort of traditional democrats, which had secured 12 candidate slots as of Wednesday afternoon.

Full results are expected later in the day.

The localists – a term for those who do not see themselves as Chinese and focus on saving the former British colony’s freedoms – tend to be more assertive than traditional democrats.

The localists talk of resistance and saving democracy but they do not all have the same vision for Hong Kong’s future. Some dream of independence – anathema for Beijing – but do not speak of it openly, which would see them fall foul of the new security law and face up to life in prison.

Their performance in the primaries reflects frustration, especially among younger voters, with Hong Kong’s more moderate, traditional pro-democracy politicians.

“Localism has become the mainstream,” said localist candidate Henry Wong. “We will resist against the tyranny.”

The new security law punishes what Beijing broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison and sees Chinese intelligence agents operating officially in the city for the first time.

Critics fear it will crush wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, while supporters say it will bring stability after a year of often violent anti-government protests.

‘DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND’

The law has already had a chilling effect on many aspects of life.

Earlier on Wednesday, former democracy lawmaker Au Nok-hin said he was pulling out as an organizer of the weekend vote amid accusations from Beijing that it was illegal.

“Withdrawal is the only choice … (to) protect myself and others,” Au said in a Facebook post.

A spokesman for Beijing’s top office in the city, the Hong Kong Liaison Office, said the pro-democracy camp’s bid for a legislative majority was an attempt to carry out a “color revolution,” referring to uprisings in other parts of the world.

In comments that critics said were aimed at instilling fear, the Liaison Office as well as Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, have all said the primaries could violate the national security law.

Benny Tai, another organizer of the pro-democracy polls, was defiant.

“For those who do not recognize democracy, or do not agree with democratic values, it is difficult to understand the meaning of the primary election,” Tai said.

Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested the vice chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, Lo Kin-hei, on charges of unlawful assembly related to a protest in November.

The political tension in Hong Kong has alarmed the business community while the new law has raised concern in countries that support the “one country, two systems” formula of government meant to safeguard its freedoms.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered an end to Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to punish China for what he called “oppressive actions” against the city.

China said it would impose retaliatory sanctions on U.S. individuals and entities after Trump signed a law penalizing banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement the new law.

In an interview with state agency Xinhua, Chief Executive Lam said U.S. sanctions won’t hurt Hong Kong and in time, concern about the security law would prove unfounded.

In another blow to the city’s standing, the New York Times said it would shift part of its Hong Kong office to Seoul, as worries grow that the security law will curb media and other freedoms.

(Additional reporting by Aleksander Solum; Writing by Farah Master, Anne Marie Roantree and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Trump backs work incentives as part of next stimulus bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he supports another coronavirus stimulus bill but wants it to include incentives for Americans to go back to work, setting up a clash with Democrats in Congress over jobless benefits.

“We want to create a very great incentive to work. So, we’re working on that and I’m sure we’ll all come together,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network.

The remarks indicate the Trump administration will oppose an effort by Democrats in Congress to renew a $600 supplement to weekly jobless benefits set to expire at the end of July that was contained in earlier coronavirus relief legislation.

Many Republicans have argued that the supplemental benefit encourages workers to remain unemployed and they would prefer to provide a benefit for workers returning to the job.

Trump said the structure of the last round of financial aid to struggling Americans created a disincentive for people to return to work.

“It was an incentive, not to go to work. You’d make more money if you don’t go to work – that’s not what the country is all about,” Trump said in the interview. “And people didn’t want that. They wanted to go to work, but it didn’t make sense because they make more money if they didn’t.”

Administration officials have said they will calibrate their response in terms of further stimulus based on economic data set to roll in over the next couple of weeks. Negotiations over another relief bill are not expected to pick up until Congress returns from a break for the July 4 Independence Day holiday.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. Democrats push to extend $600 weekly coronavirus unemployment benefit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats in the U.S. Senate, impatient with the pace of Republicans’ consideration of additional aid related to the coronavirus pandemic, on Wednesday proposed long-term extensions to a temporary unemployment insurance program.

The $600-per-week payments to laid-off workers, which began at the end of March and are set to expire on July 31, would be extended until jobless rates in individual states fell below 11%.

On June 5 the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 13.3%.

Under the Democrats’ legislation, these federally backed benefits would fall by $100 for every percentage-point decrease in a state’s unemployment rate, until joblessness falls below 6%.

The proposal comes as 33 million people in the United States are either receiving unemployment benefits or awaiting approval, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said.

While many workers have been returning to their jobs after states loosened self-quarantine steps in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a significant increase in hospitalizations in several states has since caused some governors to rein in those actions.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said he supports continuing expanded unemployment insurance benefits during the pandemic but said the size of the $600-per-week payments have discouraged some workers from returning to their jobs.

McConnell has ignored a $3 trillion coronavirus aid bill passed by the House of Representatives in May, saying he wanted to first gauge the state of the hobbled U.S. economy before acting on a bill at the end of this month.

But even Republicans wanted to take some action sooner. Late on Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved a Democratic bill to extend an expiring $660 billion small business emergency loan program through Aug. 8.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)