House passes bill to raise federal minimum wage to $15 an hour

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol building is seen through flowers in Washington, U.S., April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by October 2025, a big win for workers and labor groups, even as it remained unlikely the bill would pass a Republican-controlled Senate.

The move comes at a time when the $15 minimum wage fight, first started by fast-food workers in New York in 2012, has been gaining momentum around the country with several states and large private-sector employers that hire entry-level workers.

Cities and states including Seattle, San Francisco, New York state, California, Arkansas and Missouri have raised their minimum wage. Over the past year, employers like Amazon.com Inc and Costco Wholesale Corp have raised their base wages to $15 an hour while others like Target Corp have committed to going up to that level by the end of 2020.

Even some opposed to the move like fast-food chain operator McDonald’s Corp said recently it would no longer fight proposals to raise the federal minimum wage.

The country’s largest private-sector employer Walmart Inc, which pays $11 in base wages to its employees, recently said it supports raising the federal minimum wage, calling it “too low.”

The Democratic-majority House approved the legislation titled Raise the Wage Act, in a mostly partisan vote of 231-199. Only three Republicans voted for it, while six Democrats opposed it.

The bill increases entry-level wages for millions of American workers from the current $7.25 an hour – about $15,000 a year for someone working 40 hours a week, or about $10,000 less than the federal poverty level for a family of four. It has remained unchanged since 2009.

Many Republicans and business groups have argued that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would hurt jobs, forcing businesses to hire fewer people and replacing jobs with automation. Several Republican lawmakers cited a report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office last week, which estimated the move will boost wages for 17 million workers but at the same time, 1.3 million workers would lose their jobs.

U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell said he would not take up the House’s minimum wage bill.

“We don’t need to lose jobs, we don’t have enough jobs now,” he told Fox Business Network in an interview on Thursday. “This would depress the economy at a time of economic boom. We’re not going to be doing that in the Senate.”

McConnell’s opposition to the bill makes its passage more symbolic in nature. However, it delivers a long-sought victory to liberals and allows Democratic presidential hopefuls to attract more working-class Americans with a promise to tackle growing economic inequality in the country, a key campaign issue for many candidates.

“This is a historic day,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, adding this is about 33 million people in the country getting a raise. “No one can live in dignity with a $7.25 an hour wage. Can you?,” she said.

Others like U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said a pay raise for American workers is long overdue. “We’ve now had the longest period without a minimum wage increase,” he said.

Several moderate Democrats, especially those who represent districts carried by President Donald Trump and were concerned about job losses, were assured by an amendment that would require a study of the effects of the bill a few years in, leaving room to make adjustments if more jobs are lost than expected.

Unions and labor groups, who brought the $15 minimum wage bill onto the national stage, see the passage of the bill as a key step towards building support among voters in Republican-dominated states and districts.

For retail workers like Cyndi Murray, a 19-year Walmart worker who is also a leader with labor group United For Respect, this is a big step forward in making companies, who pay below $15 an hour, pay higher wages.

“Walmart, the largest private employer in the country, pays so low that many employees depend on food stamps to survive,” she said. “They won’t change unless they’re forced to. That’s why the Raise the Wage Act has our full support.”

Walmart has said it pays an average of $17.50 an hour to its hourly employees, including benefits.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose; additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey in Washington; editing by Bernadette Baum and Diane Craft)

U.S. lawmakers challenge Facebook over Libra cryptocurrency plan

FILE PHOTO: Representations of virtual currency are displayed in front of the Libra logo in this illustration picture, June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

By Pete Schroeder and Anna Irrera

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers quizzed Facebook on Wednesday over its planned cryptocurrency, after a bruising first bout a day earlier when senators from both parties condemned the project, saying the company had not shown it could be trusted.

The social media company is fighting to get Washington on its side after it shocked regulators and lawmakers with its announcement on June 18 that it was hoping to launch a new digital coin called Libra in 2020.

It has faced criticism from policymakers and financial watchdogs at home and abroad who fear widespread adoption of the digital currency by Facebook’s 2.38 billion users could upend the financial system.

“I have serious concerns with Facebook’s plans to create a digital currency and digital wallet,” Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the Democrat-controlled House Financial Services Committee, said in her opening remarks.

“If Facebook’s plan comes into fruition, the company and its partners will yield immense economic power that could destabilize currencies.”

Lawmakers are questioning David Marcus, the Facebook executive overseeing the project, who was grilled by the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday over the possible risks posed by Libra to data privacy, consumer protection and money laundering controls.

The hearing in Congress was proving to be even more tense on Wednesday.

The panel has already circulated draft legislation that could kill the project by banning Facebook and other tech firms from entering the financial services space.

Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney pushed Marcus to commit to a Libra pilot program with one million users overseen by U.S. financial regulators, including the Federal Reserve.

“I don’t think you should launch Libra at all,” Maloney said. “At the very least you should agree to do this small pilot program.”

Marcus, who was president of PayPal from 2012 to 2014, did not commit to a pilot but tried to assuage lawmakers by pledging not to begin issuing Libra until regulatory concerns had been addressed.

“We will take the time to get this right,” Marcus said.

He said the company had unveiled the project at an early stage in order to get feedback from all stakeholders.

Representatives on both sides of the aisle asked how the company will ensure sufficient consumer protection and prevent the cryptocurrency from being used for illegal activities such as money laundering or terrorist financing.

“I’m concerned a 2020 launch date represents deep insensitivities about how Libra could impact U.S. financial security, the global financial system, the privacy of people across the globe, criminal activity and international human rights,” said Republican Representative Ann Wagner.

Facebook has been on the defense amid a backlash over mishandling user data and not doing enough to prevent Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder and Anna Irrera; editing by Cynthia Osterman, Bernadette Baum and Susan Thomas)

The Deciders: Meet the voters defining America’s politics

John Lenges, 65, a resident of Pinellas County, who changed parties to vote Republican in 2016, and his sister Jeanne Coffin talk at the conclusion of U.S. President Donald Trump's re-election campaign kick off rally in Orlando, Florida, U.S., June 18, 2019. I'd like to give him at least another four years." Before Trump announced his presidential bid, Lenges was a Democrat. He mostly tuned out politics and had never voted for a Republican president. "It was a wakeup call," he said. "Our country needed a turn." Lenges' framed ticket to Trump's inauguration hangs on a home office wall once dedicated to NASCAR. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Letitia Stein

(Reuters) – A retiree worried about his granddaughter’s future in Pinellas County, Florida. A factory worker in Racine County, Wisconsin, who doubts politicians will improve her life as a single mother.

A Boy Scout leader willing to cross party lines to revive his blue-collar town in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. A gay, Latino college student in Maricopa County, Arizona, preparing to cast his first presidential ballot.

These voters live in some of the most competitive counties in America’s presidential battleground states, places set to play an outsized role in the 2020 presidential election. All four counties were decided by four percentage points or less in 2016 and ultimately won by Donald Trump.

Trump’s path to a second term will test an electoral map he realigned. He must hold the strong support of the white, working-class voters who helped him capture Florida and Pennsylvania.

He will aim to build on his narrow victory in Wisconsin, which saw a decline in turnout among predominately Democratic black voters. And he is fighting to keep the onetime Republican stronghold of Arizona in his column as population shifts have put the state in play for Democrats.

Reuters will report from four critical counties in these states through the election for a better understanding of the people and places defining the presidential race.

The series starts with the stories of four people whose voting decisions – often driven by personal experiences, they said, rather than by party affiliation – continue to upend politics as usual.

JOHN LENGES IN PINELLAS COUNTY, FLORIDA: “I’D LIKE TO GIVE HIM AT LEAST ANOTHER FOUR YEARS.”

John Lenges held four fingers in the air, cheering as a Florida crowd chanted “four more years” at this month’s opening rally for Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.

Four years earlier, when Trump announced his presidential bid, Lenges was a Democrat. He mostly tuned out politics. He had never voted for a Republican president. Trump was different – a businessman and political outsider.

“It was a wakeup call,” said Lenges, 65, a retired maintenance supervisor. “Our country needed a turn.”

Lenges worries about his granddaughter’s future as he hears daily news reports of violence. He hates seeing the removal of statues honoring Confederate soldiers who fought in the U.S. Civil War, saying it trashes history.

Trump may not solve every problem, Lenges said, “but I think he’s a start.”

Friends called him crazy when he started waving handmade Trump signs around Pinellas County, where retirees, suburbanites and urban hipsters share sugar-sand beaches, and the electorate swings between the two major political parties in presidential contests.

He collects Trump memorabilia. His framed ticket to Trump’s inauguration hangs on a home office wall once dedicated to auto racing.

Lenges joined the Democratic Party when his father’s job as an assistant fire chief in Indiana depended on the party’s patronage. He remained loyal after moving to Florida and throughout his years raising his two sons to appreciate American eagles, motorcycles and the proper technique for skinning hogs.

To support Trump, Lenges became a Republican. He continues to root for the president’s agenda. On a recent vacation to the Grand Canyon, he added a day to visit the U.S.-Mexico border and the wall Trump has vowed to finish.

Posing for a photo, Lenges held a poster that read: “The silent majority stands with Trump.”

STACY BAUGH IN RACINE COUNTY, WISCONSIN: “IT’S GOING TO TAKE A LOT OF THOUGHT AND A LOT OF PERSUASION THIS TIME.”

Stacy Baugh would like a president attuned to the goals she sketched out in a planner in the three-bedroom apartment she shares with her cousin and their six children.

She wants job options. Ones that pay a wage she can live on, not the $13 per hour she has been earning on a hot factory line making air fresheners. She wants better schools for her children. She wants steady employment for their father despite his criminal record.

In 2016, she did not trust Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton to deliver. So the 31-year-old Democrat skipped the presidential contest even as she cast her ballot in other races.

“Either one of them in office, there wouldn’t have been any change,” Baugh said. “So why?”

Baugh was part of an unexpected drop-off in Democratic votes in heavily African-American wards of Racine, the beleaguered Rust Best city where she is raising her four young children.

Black, bisexual and too often broke, she knows the statistics on discrimination that have some experts calling her region one of the nation’s worst for African-Americans. She has nightmares about her two sons ending up in a place like the youth prison built on a shuttered factory site near her home.

Baugh is behind on her rent. She is focused on paying her bills, interviewing for jobs, securing daycare. For now, she says, these priorities leave little time to parse the policy positions of two dozen Democrats vying to oppose Trump.

Looking for a career path, she plans to complete an information technology support program. She attended a jobs training boot camp promising decent pay at the Foxconn technology plant under construction nearby. Those jobs have not materialized, she says, leaving her to question Trump’s plan to revive American manufacturing.

Baugh cannot see herself supporting Trump in next year’s election, calling his language and actions “classless.”

An activist with get-out-the-vote groups that advocate for workers, she had more faith in politics when Barack Obama was elected America’s first black president. He disappointed her by not pardoning more non-violent offenders.

She feared worse from Clinton in 2016 given the harsh criminal sentencing law signed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

In 2020, she hopes to go door-to-door rallying votes for a Democrat she can believe in.

“I always go with the candidate who reaches me and touches me the most,” Baugh said. “But then nothing changes.”

KURT ZUHLKE IN NORTHAMPTON COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA: “TRUMP LOOKS LIKE HE’S HOLDING HIS OWN.”

Kurt Zuhlke keeps an open mind about presidential politics.

He gave Obama two chances to make good on his promise to bring hope and change to America. When neither reached Zuhlke’s small town in Pennsylvania, the businessman switched allegiances to Trump.

“I wanted to throw the wrench into the gears and make sure that everybody realized that something is really wrong in this country,” Zuhlke said.

He remains inclined to vote for Trump again, describing the 2020 Democratic candidates as “too old” or “too socialist.”

A Boy Scout leader, Zuhlke, 63, wishes the president would tone down his brash comments. But he gives Trump high marks for his willingness to upset the ways of Washington. He is pleased with Trump’s touch on a national economy seeing unemployment at 50-year lows. And he admires how Trump has executed his pledges to reduce industry regulations.

He wants to see people employed and making things again in Northampton County’s Slate Belt, a swath of white, working-class towns that never recovered from the demise of slate quarries and textile mills.

When Zuhlke moved here three decades ago, local Italian immigrant families welcomed him and his young family at their Sunday spaghetti dinners. “Everybody knew everybody and took care of everybody,” he said. “Not anymore.”

Zuhlke, a Republican, has come to view Washington politicians from both parties as “ambulance chasers” who have lost touch with his community. In 2016, he said, Clinton epitomized that conceit when she called Trump’s supporters an offensive “basket of deplorables.”

Zuhlke respects the value of hard work. At age 13, he started cutting lawns. As a young adult, he washed dishes and sold insurance. He quit college upon learning he made more money than his economics professor.

He built a family-owned company into a global supplier of produce containers. He employs nine people locally, and has no interest in getting too big to keep up his golf game.

A sign with Zuhlke’s name is taped to a bunk bed in the cabin for Boy Scout Troop 36, where he volunteers as a way to guide the next generation. He said he will keep voting for those who offer the strong representation his community needs.

“I can go either way,” Zuhlke said. “I wanted somebody in there that could shake things up.”

ALEXIS RODRIGUEZ IN MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA: “I FEEL EMPOWERED.”

When he casts his first presidential ballot next year, Alexis Rodriguez will be thinking about his Mexican mother, who works two custodial shifts a day without a vote in the country she has called home for decades.

Rodriguez was too young to participate in 2016. Now 19, he came of age politically as Trump’s conservative presidency seemed to take aim at his identities as young, gay and Latino.

“It scares me to this day, just knowing that I may be under attack,” he said.

Rodriguez has never known a home beyond Phoenix, the diverse anchor of Maricopa County and population center of historically Republican Arizona. Democratic expectations for the state are rising alongside the new homes and condos remaking its desert landscape.

In 2016, Trump won Maricopa by the smallest margins of any Republican presidential candidate in years. Voters at the same time ousted their longtime sheriff, Joe Arpaio, whose anti-immigration rhetoric became a national platform for Trump.

Rodriguez, then in high school, joined classroom political discussions. He became an intern at Promise Arizona, a local nonprofit, where he helped immigrants apply for citizenship and voting rights.

Last year, he registered to vote as a Democrat, drawn to the party’s inclusive message, and cast his first ballot in the midterm congressional elections.

Emboldened by his “I voted” sticker, Rodriguez came home and rallied his older brothers to the polls, filling the household car with voters who had skipped the 2016 election. Their votes helped narrowly elect Kyrsten Sinema, a bisexual woman, as the first Arizona Democrat to win a U.S. Senate contest in three decades.

Rodriguez has now finished his freshman year studying social justice and human rights at Arizona State University, the first in his family to go to college.

On election night, he wants to watch the results arrive at home with his father, a Mexican-American veteran who shares his son’s enthusiasm for voting.

“We’re going to make sure that this country is for us,” he said. “Our voice matters.”

(Additional reporting by Grant Smith, Chris Kahn and Brian Snyder; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Paul Thomasch)

Barr defends Trump before release of special counsel’s Russia report

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Thursday offered a spirited defense of President Donald Trump ahead of the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, but revealed that it detailed 10 episodes of potential obstruction of justice by the president.

Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, gave a news conference at the Justice Department as he sought to shape the narrative on a watershed day in Trump’s tumultuous presidency.

Barr is one of a handful of people to have seen the report before its release later on Thursday. He emphasized that Mueller did not conclude there was collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

The attorney general previously said Mueller had not exonerated Trump on the question of whether the president had committed the crime of obstruction of justice by trying to impede the Russia inquiry.

At the news conference, Barr said the report details “ten episodes” involving Trump and “discusses potential legal theories for connecting these actions to elements of an obstruction offense.” Barr said he concluded Trump had not committed obstruction of justice.

Barr said he and Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel in May 2017, “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories and felt that some of the episodes examined did not amount to obstruction as a matter of law.”

“Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation,” Barr said.

The prospect of the Democratic-led House of Representatives beginning an impeachment process to remove Trump from office receded with the release of Mueller’s initial findings last month.

Some House Democrats had spoken of launching impeachment proceedings against Trump in Congress but top Democrats have been notably cautious. Any such effort would be unlikely to be successful because Trump fellow Republicans controls the Senate, which would decide the president’s fate.

The report’s disclosure, with portions expected to be blacked out by Barr to protect some sensitive information, is certain to launch a new political fight in Congress and on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, as Trump seeks re-election in a deeply divided country.

BARR DEFENDS TRUMP

“President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates,” Barr said.

“At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion,” added Barr.

Moments after Barr concluded his news conference, Trump posted an image of himself on Twitter surrounded by fog with the words: “No collusion. No obstruction. For the haters and the radical left Democrats – GAME OVER.”

Barr said Trump’s personal lawyers “were given the opportunity to read a final version of the redacted report before it was publicly released,” a revelation certain to infuriate congressional Democrats.

“The Russian government sought to interfere in our election process but thanks to the special counsel’s thorough investigation, we now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign,” Barr said.

The report promises to provide new details about some of the biggest questions in the investigation, including the extent and nature of his campaign’s interactions with Russia and actions Trump may have taken to hinder the inquiry including his 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Mueller submitted the report to Barr on March 22. Two days later, Barr told lawmakers the inquiry did not establish that Trump’s 2016 campaign team engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia and that Mueller had not reached a formal conclusion on obstruction of justice.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, flanked by Edward O'Callaghan, Acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General (L) and Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, speaks at a news conference to discuss Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, in Washington, U.S., April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, flanked by Edward O’Callaghan, Acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General (L) and Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, speaks at a news conference to discuss Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, in Washington, U.S., April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Barr seemed to offer cover for Trump’s actions by saying the report acknowledges that “there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”

Justice Department regulations give Barr broad authority to decide how much of the report to make public.

“That’s the bottom line. After nearly two years of investigations, thousands of subpoenas, hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the special counsel confirmed that the Russian government-sponsored efforts to illegally interfere in the 2016 presidential election but did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those efforts,” Barr said.

The release of the report may deepen an already bitter partisan rift between Trump’s fellow Republicans, most of whom have rallied around the president, and his Democratic critics, who will have to decide how hard to go after Trump as they prepare congressional investigations of his administration.

Wall Street took Barr’s comments in stride, with the S&P 500 holding slight gains during the news conference then slipping into negative territory after it ended.

Democrats were furious that Barr held a news conference on the report before it was provided to Congress.

Copies of the report will be delivered to Congress between 11 a.m. and noon (1500-1600 GMT), a senior Justice Department official said. The delay in seeing the report sparked Democratic complaints that Barr wanted to shape the public’s views during his news conference before others had a chance to draw their own conclusions.

Barr said “significant portions” of the report could have been kept secret because of a legal doctrine called executive privilege that lets the president withhold information about executive branch deliberations from other branches of government, but were not redacted.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Doina Chiacu, Andy Sullivan, Jan Wolfe, Nathan Layne, Karen Freifeld and Makini Brice; Writing by John Whitesides and Will Dunham, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Trump vetoes lawmakers’ measure against border wall

U.S. President Donald Trump signs a veto of the congressional measure to end his emergency declaration to get funds to build a border wallas sheriffs look on with Attorney General William Barr and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Friday vetoed a measure to terminate his emergency declaration to fund a border wall, striking back at Republican and Democratic lawmakers who opposed the controversial move with the first veto of his presidency.

While Congress is unlikely to muster the votes to override the veto, the rebuke from some members of his own party left Trump politically wounded, at least temporarily, as immigration and his planned wall along the U.S. southern border become a flashpoint again in the 2020 presidential campaign.

The bipartisan vote in the Senate on Thursday approving the measure was a slap at Trump over his decision to circumvent Congress and take money already designated for other programs to pay for a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Twelve of Trump’s fellow Republicans joined Democrats to pass the measure to end the emergency declaration.

Trump called the resolution reckless and said he was proud to veto it.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up his veto of the congressional resolution to end his emergency declaration to get funds to build a border wall after signing it in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up his veto of the congressional resolution to end his emergency declaration to get funds to build a border wall after signing it in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“As President, the protection of the nation is my highest duty. Yesterday, Congress passed a dangerous resolution that if signed into law would put countless Americans in danger, very grave danger,” he said, sitting behind his desk in the Oval Office. “Congress has the freedom to pass this resolution, and I have the duty to veto it.”

Trump expressed pride in the Republicans who did not vote to support the resolution and said later that he had sympathy for those who defied him, adding they did what they had to do. The White House had lobbied heavily for Republicans to back Trump, despite concerns among some about executive overreach and precedent-setting action that a future Democratic president could copy on policies that Republicans oppose.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said the action the president had taken was legal.

The emergency declaration is being challenged in court as an unconstitutional usurpation of Congress’ power of the purse.

Trump was flanked by border officials and people whose family members were killed by someone who was in the United States illegally.

The president has said he wants a wall to prevent immigrants from crossing into the United States illegally. Democrats deny there is an emergency at the border, saying border crossings are at a four-decade low.

Trump thanked Republican senators who voted for his declaration in a Twitter post earlier on Friday. “Watch, when you get back to your State, they will LOVE you more than ever before!” he said.

The president made a border wall a central promise of his 2016 campaign for the White House. He initially insisted that Mexico would pay for the wall but it has declined to do so. Last year, Trump forced a government shutdown over an impasse with Congress over funding for the barrier.

When a deal to prevent another shutdown did not give him the funding he requested, Trump declared a national emergency, redirecting funds that were allocated for other projects to build the barrier instead.

(Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Dan Grebler)

U.S. House takes aim at loose gun-sale checks; passes second bill

By Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved a second bill in as many days to toughen background checks for gun purchases, but both bills were likely to face opposition from the Republican-controlled Senate and the White House.

The bills are the first major gun control measures approved in Congress in many years. They are an early move to address gun violence by Democrats after capturing majority control of the House in the November 2018 congressional midterm elections.

The Senate remains controlled by Republicans, many of whom are closely allied with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun-rights voters, who fiercely defend what they see as their constitutional right to own firearms.

While Republican President Donald Trump has said he supports stronger background checks, he has thus far toed the party line on gun control legislation, leaving Washington deadlocked on how to address frequent mass shootings in the United States.

From 2009 to 2017, there were at least 173 shootings in which four or more people were killed, with at least 1,001 total deaths, according to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.

Thursday’s background check bill would extend the number of days government authorities have to complete a background check before a gun sale. It passed by a 228-198 House vote.

Wednesday’s bill would expand background checks to include firearm purchases at gun shows and over the internet. It was approved 240-190. Both votes were largely along party lines.

The White House said on Monday that Trump’s advisers would recommend the president veto both pieces of legislation if they reached his desk because the first would impose “burdensome requirements” and the second “burdensome delays.”

The current background check process allows a gun purchase to proceed after three days, even if a background check has not been completed, said Democratic Representative James Clyburn from South Carolina, who sponsored Thursday’s bill.

He said that process resulted in 4,800 gun sales in 2017 to individuals with criminal records, a history of mental illness and other disqualifying circumstances.

“FBI analysis of the current background check system shows that 3 business days isn’t enough time to decide if someone shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun,” Clyburn said on Twitter.

His bill aims to close what Democrats call the “Charleston loophole” in the background check law by extending the window to complete a check to 10 days. They say the loophole allowed Dylann Roof to purchase the gun he used to kill nine people at a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015.

Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, where the background check bills originated, on Thursday called them “misguided” and said “my constitutional rights could be deferred indefinitely.”

(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Susan Thomas)

Trump says he’ll declare emergency on U.S.-Mexico border

A U.S. Border Patrol agent listens from the front row as President Donald Trump declares a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border during remarks about border security in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Roberta Rampton and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Friday announced he would declare a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, a move Democrats vowed to challenge as an unconstitutional attempt to fund his promised border wall without approval from Congress.

“I’m going to be signing a national emergency,” Trump said from the Rose Garden of the White House.

“We have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people, and it’s unacceptable,” he said.

The president said he would sign the authorizing paperwork later in the day in the Oval Office.

Trump was also expected on Friday to sign a bipartisan government spending bill approved by Congress on Thursday that would prevent another partial federal government shutdown by funding several agencies that otherwise would have closed on Saturday morning.

The bill, which contains no money for his wall, is a defeat for Trump in Congress, where his demand for $5.7 billion in barrier funding yielded no results, other than a record-long, 35-day December-January partial government shutdown that damaged the U.S. economy and his opinion poll numbers.

Reorienting his wall-funding quest toward a legally uncertain strategy based on declaring a national emergency could plunge Trump into a lengthy battle with Democrats – and divide his fellow Republicans.

Fifteen Democrats in the Republican-controlled Senate introduced legislation on Thursday to prevent the transfer of funds from accounts Trump likely would target to pay for his wall.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, swiftly responded to Trump’s declaration.

“The president’s actions clearly violate the Congress’s exclusive power of the purse, which our Founders enshrined in the Constitution,” they said in a statement. “The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities in the Congress, in the courts, and in the public, using every remedy available.”

The president acknowledged that his order would face a lengthy legal challenge. “We’ll win in the Supreme Court,” Trump said.

Trump has argued the wall is needed to curb illegal immigrants and illicit drugs streaming across the southern border despite statistics that show illegal immigration there is at a 20-year low and that many drug shipments are likely smuggled through legal ports of entry.

At Friday’s White House event, a half-dozen women holding poster-sized pictures of family members killed by illegal immigrants preceded Trump into the Rose Garden. He cited their presence in announcing the emergency declaration.

A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration had found nearly $7 billion to reallocate to the wall, including $600 million from a Treasury Department forfeiture fund, $2.5 billion from a Defense Department drug interdiction fund and $3.5 billion from a military construction budget.

Trump on Friday estimated the order could free up as much as $8 billion to construct the wall.

The funds would cover just part of the estimated $23 billion cost of the wall promised by Trump along the nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-km) border with Mexico.

The Senate Democrats’ bill also would stop Trump from using appropriated money to acquire lands to build the wall unless specifically authorized by Congress.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Roberta Rampton Morgan; additional reporting by David Morgan, Steve Holland, Susan Cornwell, Makini Brice and Eric Beech; Writing by James Oliphant, Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Jonathan Oatis)

Shares surge to 2-month high, dollar climbs ahead of Trump speech

FILE PHOTO - Visitors look at an electronic stock quotation board at the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) in Tokyo, Japan, October 1, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Lewis Krauskopf

NEW YORK (Reuters) – World stocks raced to a fresh two-month high on Tuesday to keep up their fast start to 2019 while the U.S. dollar strengthened for a fourth straight session as investors awaited President Trump’s annual State of the Union speech later in the day.

With European shares posting strong gains and Wall Street opening solidly higher, MSCI’s gauge of stocks across the globe gained 0.60 percent, rising for a sixth straight session as it hit a two-month high.

Trump was due to give his address at 2100 ET (0200 GMT), with investors awaiting indications of progress in U.S.-China trade talks and watching for signs of tensions with Democrats following a 35-day partial federal government shutdown.

The Federal Reserve’s dovish recent statement on interest rate policy, along with optimism over U.S.-China tensions, has fueled recent risk appetite, even as estimates for U.S. corporate earnings have been falling.

“Despite the State of the Union tonight, investors seem increasingly certain that we are going to avoid any escalation of the trade tensions with China and avoid another government shutdown,” said Jeffrey Kleintop, chief global investment strategist at Charles Schwab in Boston.

“Investors are viewing policy considerations offsetting falling earnings expectations,” Kleintop said.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 168.25 points, or 0.67 percent, to 25,407.62, the S&P 500 gained 11.94 points, or 0.44 percent, to 2,736.81 and the Nasdaq Composite added 55.71 points, or 0.76 percent, to 7,403.24.

Shares of Esta Lauder Cos and Ralph Lauren reacted favorably to the companies’ respective quarterly reports.

Fourth-quarter earnings for companies on the benchmark S&P 500 index were on track to have climbed 15.4 percent, but profit in the first quarter is now expected to rise by only 0.5 percent, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

The pan-European STOXX 600 index rose 1.33 percent, as BP shares jumped after its earnings report.

The dollar index, which measures the greenback against a basket of currencies, rose 0.22 percent, up for a fourth straight session, with the euro down 0.24 percent to $1.1408.

Continued recovery in investors’ appetite for risk-taking exerted pressure on safe-haven currencies, dragging the Swiss franc to an 11-week low against the dollar.

U.S. Treasury yields fell as investors started to price in the Fed’s dovish interest rate outlook amid an uncertain global economic outlook.

“Yields are consolidating around levels that are more consistent with the new position at the Fed which is … it is effectively on hold at least in the next six months,” said John Herrmann, rates strategist at MUFG Securities in New York.

Benchmark U.S. 10-year notes last rose 7/32 in price to yield 2.6983 percent, from 2.724 percent late Monday.

U.S. crude fell 0.24 percent to $54.43 per barrel and Brent was last at $62.60, up 0.14 percent on the day.

(Additional reporting by Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss and Saqib Iqbal Ahmed in New York, Marc Jones in London; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Senator Sanders to ask why drug, once free, now costs $375k

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a news conference on Yemen resolution on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas .

By Yasmeen Abutaleb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders plans to send a letter to Catalyst Pharmaceuticals on Monday asking it to justify its decision to charge $375,000 annually for a medication that for years has been available to patients for free.

The drug, Firdapse, is used to treat Lambert-Eaton Myasthenic Syndrome (LEMS), a rare neuromuscular disorder, according to the letter, made available to Reuters by the senator’s office. The disorder affects about one in 100,000 people in the United States.

The government is intensifying its scrutiny of the pharmaceutical industry and rising prescription drug prices, a top voter concern and a priority of President Donald Trump’s administration.

Both the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, controlled by Republicans, have begun holding hearings this year on the rising costs of medicines. Sanders is an independent who usually votes with Democrats.

In the letter dated Feb. 4, Sanders asked Catalyst to lay out the financial and non-financial factors that led the company to set the list price at $375,000, and say how many patients would suffer or die as a result of the price and how much it was paying to purchase or produce the drug.

For years, patients have been able to get Firdapse for free from Jacobus Pharmaceuticals, a small New Jersey-based drug company, which offered it through a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) program called “compassionate use.”

The program allows patients with rare diseases and conditions access to experimental drugs outside of a clinical trial when there is no viable alternative. 

Florida-based Catalyst received FDA approval of Firdapse in November, along with exclusive rights to market the medication for several years. The company, which bought rights to the drug from a company called BioMarin in 2012, develops and commercializes drugs for rare diseases.

In December, Catalyst announced it would price Firdapse at $375,000 a year. 

“Catalyst’s decision to set the annual list price at $375,000 is not only a blatant fleecing of American taxpayers, but is also an immoral exploitation of patients who need this medication,” Sanders wrote in his letter.

Sanders joins other U.S. lawmakers in investigating the pricing practices of pharmaceutical companies this year.

Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, in January, wrote to 12 pharmaceutical firms asking for detailed information on how they set drug prices. 

Democratic Representatives Frank Pallone and Diana DeGette wrote to the heads of Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi, the long-time leading manufacturers of insulin, requesting information on why the drug’s price has skyrocketed in recent years.

(Reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Trump says may declare an emergency for wall as little headway in talks

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting to "discuss fighting human trafficking on the southern border" in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 1, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Friday he might declare a national emergency to obtain funding to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico because it did not appear Democrats were moving toward a deal that would provide the money.

“We’re not getting anywhere with them,” Trump said during an event at the White House.

“I think there’s a good chance that we’ll have to do that,” he added, referring to the possibility of an emergency declaration that could allow him to use funds that Congress has approved for other purposes.

His comments came a day after Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, told reporters, “There’s not going to be any wall money” in legislation to fund border security for the rest of this year.

Pelosi said funding for more ports of entry or additional border security technology was open for negotiation. She added that the 17 House and Senate negotiators working on legislation to fund homeland security for the year should decide the components of the nation’s border security.

Democratic negotiators unveiled a detailed opening position containing no money for any type of additional physical barriers on the border to control the flow of undocumented immigrants and illegal drugs. Previously they had supported $1.3 billion for new fencing and improvements to existing barriers.

Trump has said he has to have a wall for border security.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by Tim Ahmann)