Senate passes, sends Trump stopgap federal funding to November 21

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would extend federal funding through Nov. 21 and avert partial agency shutdowns when existing authorization expires on Oct. 1.

The Senate signed off by a vote of 82 to 15 on legislation that was approved by the House of Representatives on Sept. 19, sending it to President Donald Trump for signing into law.

The legislation is needed because Congress and the Trump administration so far have failed to agree on the one-dozen bills that would fund most government activities in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

One of the biggest disagreements is over Trump’s demand for $12 billion in fiscal 2020 to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which most Democrats and some Republicans oppose.

A central promise of Trump’s presidency has been the construction of a wall to repel immigrants, many from Central America, from crossing into the United States.

In the face of congressional opposition, Trump early this year declared a national emergency, which he said allowed him to divert appropriated money from other programs to the border wall. On Wednesday, the Senate voted to end that emergency declaration, a move Trump likely would veto if the House of Representatives takes the same step.

There are also unresolved disagreements over funding for immigrant detention centers, public health facilities and other issues.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Planned Parenthood sues to block U.S. rule that may limit abortions

FILE PHOTO: A sign is pictured at the entrance to a Planned Parenthood building in New York August 31, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Planned Parenthood and other nonprofits offering family planning services sued the Trump administration on Tuesday to block a new federal rule letting healthcare workers refuse abortions and other services because of religious or moral objections.

The two lawsuits filed in Manhattan federal court said enforcing the “conscience” rule would encourage discrimination against women, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people by curbing access to legal healthcare procedures, including life-saving treatments.

They also said the rule, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services and scheduled to take effect on July 22, would impose heavy costs on healthcare providers dependent on federal funding, which they could lose by refusing to comply.

The plaintiffs also include Planned Parenthood of Northern New England Inc, the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association and Public Health Solutions Inc. The American Civil Liberties Union represents the latter two nonprofits.

“Trust is the cornerstone of the physician-patient relationship,” Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. “No one should have to worry if they will get the right care or information because of their providers’ personal beliefs.”

HHS pledged to defend the rule vigorously. Planned Parenthood said the rule might affect more than 613,000 hospitals, health clinics, doctors’ offices and nonprofits.

The lawsuits escalate the legal battles over a rule announced on May 2 by Republican President Donald Trump, who has made expanding religious liberty a priority, in a Rose Garden speech marking the National Day of Prayer.

They were filed after California, New York, New York City, Chicago and 20 other mostly Democratic-controlled or Democratic-leaning states and municipalities sued the government on May 21 over the rule. San Francisco filed its own lawsuit on May 2.

HHS has said the rule protects the rights of workers who might oppose particular procedures, such as sterilizations and assisted suicides.

It has also said the rule requires compliance with roughly 25 federal laws protecting conscience and religious rights, some of which date back decades.

Roger Severino, director of HHS’ Office for Civil Rights, on Tuesday repeated his May 21 statement that the rule “gives life and enforcement tools” to those laws.

The cases are Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc et al v Azar et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 19-05433; and National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association et al v Azar et al in the same court, No. 19-05435.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown and Richard Chang)

Exclusive: Puerto Rico open for tourists despite ‘mixed-bag’ recovery – governor

FILE PHOTO: Governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rossello delivers remarks during a commemorative event organized by the local government a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello flew to New York this week on a mission: persuade potential tourists that the hurricane-ravaged island was ready for their return.

But Puerto Rico’s recovery from last year’s Hurricane Maria has been a “mixed bag,” Rossello told Reuters on Thursday, acknowledging that the bankrupt U.S. territory, while improving, is far from out of the woods.

Puerto Rico has received only a small fraction of the federal funding it needs to get back on its feet, Rossello said in a 75-minute interview, and getting access to the rest could take more than a decade.

His administration estimates that fixing Puerto Rico fully will require $139 billion, but the federal government has earmarked only about $60 billion to $65 billion for the recovery, he said. Of that, only about $3 billion to $4 billion has actually flowed into the island’s coffers. Obtaining the remainder could take 10 to 11 years, he said, adding that his team is lobbying the U.S. Congress for more money.

Compounding the problem is Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy in U.S. federal court, where it is trying to restructure $120 billion of debt and pension obligations. There are also ongoing spending disputes between the government and a federally appointed fiscal oversight board.

In the year since Hurricane Maria, Rossello has at times been diplomatic regarding the federal government’s response, while at other times – especially lately – adopting a more critical take. He has also been criticized for sticking with an estimated death toll of 64 early-on, when strong evidence suggested it could be higher. A government-commissioned study by researchers at George Washington University eventually pegged the toll at around 3,000.

When asked whether his administration’s messaging strategies have been tied to an effort to maintain good relations with President Donald Trump, Rossello said a “critical part” of the island’s recovery “is making sure the federal government responds to our petitions.”

“So yes, I have opted for a path that involves dialogue, that involves collaboration,” Rossello said, adding that he has not been afraid to be critical.

If Trump does not sign the island’s request to extend the federal government’s 100 percent coverage of repair costs, “I’ll be the first one to fight it,” Rossello said, “and I’ll be the first to point out that action, or lack of action, is one of the main obstacles to our recovery.”

Rossello said Puerto Rico still has as many as 60,000 homes with temporary tarp roofs. It also has hundreds of thousands of informally constructed homes with many owners lacking title to their property.

Rebuilding will require the current ranks of about 45,000 construction workers to grow to 130,000, according to Rossello, who recently signed an executive order increasing the minimum hourly construction wage to $15 despite opposition from the oversight board and the private sector.

POWER SHIFT

The island’s government is still considering initiatives that could make the island’s troubled electricity grid more resilient, Rossello said. Ultimately, the island hopes to generate 40 percent of its electricity from renewables and steer away from fossil fuels. The shift would require a new regulatory policy, approval by the bondholders, and, potentially, investment from outside companies or organizations.

“We have received 10 to 12 unsolicited proposals for generation,” he said, while acknowledging the government has yet to find a private operator for the power utility’s transmission and distribution operations.

But changes at the electric agency known as PREPA, which Rossello called one of the most troubled organizations in modern history, will be gradual. The governor said he is working with a search firm to identify outside board members for the utility, after nearly the entire board quit in an uproar over appointment of a new CEO.

Limited electricity was a major problem for the island’s small business sector, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report on Thursday. A survey of more than 400 businesses with fewer than 500 employees found 77 percent suffered losses as a result of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

ISLAND BECKONS TOURISTS

Meanwhile, Rossello is trying not only to restore tourism, but to expand it in such a way that it incorporates hundreds of square miles of seaside and mountain communities that are largely unvisited. Puerto Rico’s tourism is small compared with other Caribbean locales and tends to be centered in San Juan.

The island’s visitor lodgings hit a 2017 high of 204,025 in July, but fell to just under 30,000 in October following the hurricanes, according to Puerto Rico Tourism Company data.

Convincing tourists to leave the capital, though, will require easier travel. “Puerto Rico should be a multi-port destination,” he said, discussing plans to beef up airport capacity in the south and west of the island.

He emphasized the possibility of capitalizing on Puerto Rico’s near-constant spate of community festivals. “We have flower festivals, orange festivals, plantain festivals, coffee festivals, music festivals.”

Rossello pointed to so-called chinchorreos as a possible draw, events in which Puerto Rican foodies move from one inexpensive eatery to the next.

“A bar crawl for food – that’s the best way to put it,” the governor said, “and the island is small, so you start in one place and you’re on a beachfront, and 15 minutes later you’re in the mountains.”

(Reporting by Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown in New York, Karen Pierog in Chicago and Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan; Editing by Daniel Bases and Matthew Lewis)

U.S. Congress negotiators set spending plan to avert shutdown, bolster defense

The U.S. Capitol Dome is seen before dawn in Washington.

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Negotiators in the U.S. Congress reached a deal late on Sunday on around $1 trillion in federal funding that would avert a government shutdown later this week, while handing President Donald Trump a down payment on his promised military build-up.

The full House of Representatives and Senate must still approve the bipartisan pact, which would be the first major legislation to clear Congress since Trump became president on Jan. 20.

Prompt passage of the legislation was expected this week.

The funds, which should have been locked into place seven months ago with the start of fiscal 2017 on Oct. 1, would pay for an array of federal programs from airport and border security operations to soldiers’ pay, medical research, foreign aid, space exploration, and education.

“The agreement will move the needle forward on conservative priorities and will ensure that the essential functions of the federal government are maintained, said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.

If it is not enacted by midnight Friday, federal agencies would have to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers and require many others to continue on the job providing law enforcement and other essential operations without pay until the funding dispute in Congress is resolved.

“This agreement is a good agreement for the American people  and takes the threat of a government shutdown off the table,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.

He said the measure would increase federal investments in medical research, education, and infrastructure.

House and Senate appropriators worked into the night to draft the legislation for lawmakers to review.

Republican Representative Jim Jordan, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he and other conservatives likely would not back the measure because it does not fulfill their promises to voters.

“I’m disappointed,” Jordan told CNN. “We’ll see how it plays out this week but I think you’re going to see conservatives have some real concerns with this legislation.”

A senior congressional aide said the Pentagon would win a $12.5 billion increase in defense spending for the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30, with the possibility of an additional $2.5 billion contingent on Trump delivering a plan to Congress for defeating the Islamic State militant group.

Trump had requested $30 billion more in military funds for this year after campaigning hard on a defense build-up during the 2016 election campaign.

NO WALL MONEY

Several other important White House initiatives were rejected by the Republican and Democratic negotiators, including money for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border that Trump has argued is needed to stop illegal immigrants and drugs.

Instead, congressional negotiators settled on $1.5 billion more for border security, including more money for new technology and repairing existing infrastructure, the aide said.

Trump, in excerpts from a CBS News interview to air later on Monday, said a separate infrastructure plan would come within three weeks.

The Trump administration had earlier backed away from a threat to end federal subsidies for low-income people to get health insurance through Obamacare, the program that Trump had pledged to repeal.

Republicans are struggling over a repeal and replacement plan for former President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare law and it was unclear whether they would be able to bring such legislation to the House floor soon.

While Republicans control the House, Senate and White House, Democrats scored other significant victories in the deal.

Puerto Rico would get an emergency injection of $295 million in additional funding for its Medicaid health insurance program for the poor, according to the aide who asked not to be identified. The impoverished island, which is a U.S. territory, is facing a severe Medicaid funding shortfall.

Democrats also fended off potential cuts to women’s healthcare provider Planned Parenthood, while House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi applauded a nearly $2 billion hike in funds for the National Institutes of Health this year.

Coal miners and their families facing the loss of health insurance next month would get a permanent renewal under the spending bill.

While Trump has urged Congress to impose deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, most of its programs would be continued for at least the remainder of this year, according to the aide.

The House is likely to vote first on the package, probably early in the week, and send the measure to the Senate for approval before Friday’s midnight deadline.

If the legislation is enacted by week’s end, Congress would then have to begin focusing on a series of bills to fund the government at the start of the next fiscal year on Oct. 1.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Paul Tait and Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. attorney general pushes to stop suing local police

A bitterly divided Senate confirmed Republican Senator Jeff Sessions as the next attorney general of the United States. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Julia Edwards Ainsley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Tuesday that the federal government should stop spending money to sue local police departments, signaling a sharp departure from the previous administration’s policy toward law enforcement exhibiting patterns of racism or excessive force.

In his speech to the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington, Sessions said the Justice Department should instead use its resources to help police figure out the best way to fight crime.

He announced the formation of a Justice Department task force to look at deficiencies in current practices to combat crime and propose new legislation.

The Justice Department is still weighing whether it should impose reforms on the Chicago Police Department, which was the subject of a critical report by the Obama administration.

Sessions said violent crime had risen since 2014, although it is down almost half since the early 1990s.

Federal Bureau of Investigation crime statistics for 2015, the latest year for which complete data is available, showed violent crimes increased 3.9 percent from 2014, while property crimes declined by 2.6 percent. The rise in violent crime came after two years of decreases, not decades of declines as Sessions suggested.

The Obama administration began several investigations into police departments that it said were unfairly targeting minorities and using excessive force. Videos of such incidents shared online have sparked protests in cities from Baltimore to Ferguson, Missouri.

The address to the attorneys general, who are responsible for prosecuting state-level crimes, signaled that the Trump administration would commit itself to supporting police rather than questioning their practices.

“To confront the challenge of rising crime, we must rely heavily on local law enforcement to lead the way,” Sessions said in prepared remarks. “And they must know they have our steadfast support.”

(Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

Trump threatens U.C. Berkeley after protests stop far-right speech

A worker surveys the damage to a vandalized Starbucks after a student protest turned violent at UC Berkeley during a demonstration over right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, who was forced to cancel his talk, in Berkeley, California.

By David Ingram

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump threatened on Thursday to cut funding to the University of California at Berkeley after protesters smashed windows and set fires at the liberal-leaning school, forcing the cancellation of an appearance by a far-right Breitbart News editor.

“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?” Trump wrote on Twitter at 6:13 a.m. EST (1113 GMT). He did not elaborate.

Representatives for the university, which has 38,000 students and a long history of activism, could not immediately be reached for comment outside of the school’s business hours.

Like other major U.S. research universities, Berkeley depends on federal agencies for scientific grants and other support. It was not immediately clear, however, what action Trump could take without authorization from Congress, or without risking legal action.

Trump’s chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon, previously headed Breitbart News.

Hours before Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos was to give a speech at Berkeley’s student union on Wednesday, hundreds of protesters clashed with police at the campus.

Demonstrators tossed metal barricades and rocks through the building’s windows and set a generator on fire near the entrance, footage from news outlets showed. Police ordered the crowds to disperse, and the school was put on lockdown.

“We shut down the event,” one protester told CNN. “It was great. Mission accomplished.”

In a statement, the university blamed about 150 “masked agitators” for the violence during the otherwise mostly peaceful demonstration by about 1,500 people.

The school “is proud of its history and legacy as home of the free speech movement” in the 1960s, the statement said.

Many of the protesters voiced opposition to Trump, CNN reported. The president’s executive orders and proposed policies, including his suspension of the U.S. refugee program and temporary ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, have triggered largely peaceful demonstrations by tens of thousands of people across the United States.

Yiannopoulos, whose Twitter account was suspended last year after he was accused of participating in the online harassment of a black actor, told Fox News he was rushed to safety by his security guards and police after protesters began throwing rocks.

“Obviously it’s a liberal campus so they hate any libertarians or conservatives who dare to express an opinion on their campuses,” he said. “They particularly don’t like me.”

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Lisa Von Ahn)

U.S. lawmakers seek compromise on Zika virus funding

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers sought on Wednesday to break a logjam over $1.1 billion in funding to combat the Zika virus, with the Senate possibly considering legislation as soon as next week, even as one congressman toted a jar full of mosquitoes to the House floor to condemn congressional inaction.

“Can you imagine the fears and anxieties if the mosquitoes were not in this jar?” Florida Republican David Jolly told his colleagues as he brandished the container holding about 100 of the insects in the House of Representatives chamber.

“Members of Congress would run down the hall to the physician’s office to be tested,” added Jolly, whose state is the first in the nation with local transmission of the mosquito-borne virus that has spread through the Americas.

The potential Senate Zika measure could advance as part of a broader legislative effort to temporarily keep federal agencies operating in the 2017 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Republicans and Democrats huddled separately in closed meetings in both the Senate and House to see if they could reach a compromise during a 19-day work session this month, before lawmakers break for a recess in the weeks before the Nov. 8 U.S. election. Lawmakers returned to work this week after a seven-week summer recess.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters he was in talks with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.

“We’re looking for a way forward. And I’m hopeful and optimistic that we’ll be able to do that,” McConnell, a Republican, said of both a temporary agency funding bill and Zika money.

In February, President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve $1.9 billion in emergency funds to deal with the Zika virus, which can cause severe birth defects when pregnant women become infected.

Since then, both parties have backed $1.1 billion as the funding figure. But fights over side issues related to abortion and Obama’s signature healthcare law have bitterly divided the two parties.

One of the biggest controversies involves Democrats’ opposition to language, backed by Republicans, that they say would prevent Zika funds for abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, mainly in Puerto Rico.

The Miami Herald on Tuesday quoted Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who chairs a Senate panel overseeing healthcare funding, suggesting the Planned Parenthood language might have to be dropped in order to reach a deal.

Aides to both senators declined to confirm or deny the accuracy of the quotes.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, asked by Reuters whether she thought Planned Parenthood funding restrictions should be eliminated from Zika legislation, said: “That would be my preference.”

Still, some Republicans were resisting a deal that would abandon the Planned Parenthood language in the Zika bill.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Will Dunham)