Historic $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill passes U.S. House, Trump signs into law

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order on immigration policy in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday approved a $2.2 trillion aid package – the largest in history – to help cope with the economic downturn inflicted by the intensifying coronavirus pandemic, and President Donald Trump quickly signed it into law.

The massive bill passed the Senate and House of Representatives nearly unanimously. The rare bipartisan action underscored how seriously Republican and Democratic lawmakers are taking the global pandemic that has killed more than 1,500 Americans and shaken the nation’s medical system.

“Our nation faces an economic and health emergency of historic proportions due to the coronavirus pandemic, the worst pandemic in over 100 years,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the close of a three-hour debate before the lower chamber approved the bill. “Whatever we do next, right now we’re going to pass this legislation.”

The massive bill also rushes billions of dollars to medical providers on the front lines of the outbreak.

But the bipartisan spirit seemed to end at the White House. Neither Pelosi nor Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer was invited to Trump’s all-Republican signing ceremony for the bill, aides said.

Their Republican counterparts, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, did attend, along with three Republican House members.

“This will deliver urgently needed relief to our nation’s families, workers and businesses,” Trump said. “I really think in a fairly short period of time … we’ll be stronger than ever.”

In an statement about signing the bill, Trump rejected aspects of a provision in the law setting up an inspector general to audit some loans and investments.

Asked about the statement, Pelosi told MSNBC: “Congress will exercise its oversight and we will have our panel … appointed by the House, in real time to make sure we know where those funds are being expended.”

She called Trump a “dangerous president” who had chosen to ignore the threat of the coronavirus.

“Our next thrust will be about recovery and how we can create good-paying jobs so that we can take the country into the future in a very strong way,” Pelosi said.

The Democratic-led House approved the package on a voice vote, turning back a procedural challenge from Republican Representative Thomas Massie, who had sought to force a formal, recorded vote.

To keep Massie’s gambit from delaying the bill’s passage, hundreds of lawmakers from both parties returned to Washington despite the risk of contracting coronavirus. For many, that meant long drives or overnight flights.

One member who spent hours in a car was Republican Representative Greg Pence, the brother of Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump has put in charge of efforts to handle the coronavirus crisis.

Pence drove the nearly 600 miles (966 km) from his home state, Indiana, to Washington on Thursday. “We can’t afford to wait another minute,” he said on Twitter.

‘THIRD-RATE GRANDSTANDER’

Massie wrote on Twitter that he thought the bill contained too much extraneous spending and gave too much power to the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank. His fellow lawmakers overruled his request for a recorded vote.

Trump attacked Massie on Twitter, calling him a “third rate Grandstander” and saying he should be thrown out of the Republican party. “He just wants the publicity,” wrote the president, who last week began pushing for urgent action on coronavirus after long downplaying the risk.

Democratic and Republican leaders had asked members to return to Washington to ensure there would be enough present to head off Massie’s gambit. The session was held under special rules to limit the spread of the disease among members.

At least five members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than two dozen have self-quarantined to limit its spread.

The Senate, which approved the bill in a unanimous vote late on Wednesday, has adjourned and is not scheduled to return to Washington until April 20.

Democratic and Republican House leaders appeared together at a news conference at the Capitol to celebrate the bill’s passage – an unusual event for a chamber that is normally sharply divided along partisan lines.

“The virus is here. We did not ask for it, we did not invite it. We did not choose it. But with the passing of the bill you will see that we will fight it together, and we will win together,” McCarthy said.

He did not say whether Massie would face any disciplinary measures from the party.

The rescue package is the largest fiscal relief measure ever passed by Congress.

The $2.2 trillion measure includes $500 billion to help hard-hit industries and $290 billion for payments of up to $3,000 to millions of families.

It will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

The number of coronavirus cases in the United States exceeded 100,000 on Friday, according to a Reuters tally, the most of any country.

Adding to the misery, the Labor Department reported the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits surged to 3.28 million, the highest level ever.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Lisa Lambert, Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Daniel Wallis and Stephen Coates)

U.S. Senate nears passage of $8.3 billion coronavirus funding as concerns mount

By Richard Cowan and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday was poised to pass an $8.3 billion bill aimed at controlling the spread of the coronavirus and help develop vaccines, as some of the Trump administration’s top health officials briefed members of the House of Representatives on the crisis.

A Senate vote would follow House passage of the legislation on Wednesday, 415-2.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said of the emergency funding bill, “It’s a serious agreement to meet a serious challenge and today we will send it to President Trump’s desk.”

Trump is expected to sign the bill into law upon final approval by Congress.

Action by Congress comes as U.S. deaths related to coronavirus infections rose to 11 on Wednesday and new cases were identified on both coasts – around New York City and Los Angeles.

The money to fight coronavirus includes over $3 billion for research and development of vaccines, test kits and medical treatments. Another $2.2 billion would aid public health activities on prevention, preparedness and response to outbreaks.

Washington would dedicate $1.25 billion in coming weeks and months to help international efforts aimed at reining in the virus, which was first detected late last year in China and has since spread around the globe.

Thursday’s briefing by U.S. health officials in the Capitol came a day after Vice President Mike Pence held separate meetings with House Democrats and Republicans to discuss plans for responding to any coronavirus outbreak.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were among those taking questions from House members on Thursday.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, who chairs a House panel that oversees federal spending on health programs, said she did not get satisfactory answers from officials about access to testing and diagnostics and how to help people who do not get paid sick days through their jobs or who have no health insurance.

Republican Representative Tom Cole, however, gave an upbeat assessment. “We’re still behind the curve there, but the sense is we’ll be moving pretty quickly and able to catch up.” He was referring to the growing number of tests that will be manufactured and could total around 1 million by next week.

The funding bill moving through Congress also would provide for low-interest federal loans to businesses affected by a coronavirus outbreak.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Plant a trillion trees: Republicans offer fossil-friendly climate fix

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican lawmakers on Wednesday will propose legislation setting a goal for the United States to plant a trillion trees by 2050 to fight global warming, a plan intended to address climate change by sucking carbon out of the air instead of by cutting emissions.

The proposed legislation reflects an acknowledgement in the Republican party of rising voter demand for action on climate change, even as it seeks to preserve the economic benefits of an historic drilling boom that has made the United States the world’s biggest oil and gas producer.

President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly cast doubt on the science of climate change, had expressed support for the idea of a massive tree-planting campaign during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.

“I’m working on legislation that would do just this: plant 1 trillion trees by 2050, with the goal of sequestering carbon and incentivizing the use of wood products,” said Arkansas Congressman Bruce Westerman, a member of the House natural resources committee, which is expected to unveil the bill.

Other elements of the plan, which will be released in additional bills over the coming weeks, will focus on sequestering carbon from power plants, recycling plastics and boosting “clean” energy, including natural gas and nuclear, according to congressional staff.

Democrats, including all the top presidential hopefuls in this year’s election, have made proposals for a rapid shift away from fossil fuels to help the United States and other countries avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Environmentalists argue that focusing on planting trees while ignoring emission cuts from fossil fuels is counterproductive. An overwhelming majority of scientists believe emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are the main driver of climate change.

“Planting trees is good of course, but it is nowhere near enough of what is needed, and it cannot replace real mitigation and rewilding nature,” Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg said in Davos last month.

Nature-based carbon removal measures like tree planting have gained traction globally. Last July, for example, Ethiopia set a world record by planting over 350 million trees in 12 hours as part of a green campaign by Prime Minister Aiby Ahmed.

James Mulligan, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute, said mass tree planting could reduce 180 million–360 million tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2040 if implemented correctly.

“Funding is key,” he said, adding that the program needs a “smart governance system.”

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Dan Grebler)

UK to pass law to stop early release of terrorists by February 27: government source

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain plans to pass emergency legislation by Feb. 27 to prevent convicted terrorists automatically being released from prison half-way through their sentence, a government source said on Wednesday.

Justice minister Robert Buckland announced plans for the law earlier this week after an Islamist attacker stabbed two people in London on Sunday. Sudesh Amman had been released from prison half-way through his term on Jan. 23, despite still being considered a risk by authorities.

He was shot dead by police officers who had placed him under covert surveillance.

The new emergency law will be introduced to parliament on Tuesday next week.

“If the legislation is passed by Feb. 27 we can prevent the automatic release of any further terrorist suspects who might pose a threat to the public,” the source said.

“This is emergency legislation which we believe is vital for protecting the public … We cannot continue to be in a position where the state has no power to block the release of terrorists who continue to pose a threat.”

Neil Basu, the country’s top counter-terrorism police officer, welcomed the move to keep the most dangerous offenders locked up for longer but said it was only part of the solution. More had to be done to prevent people becoming radicalized in the first place, he said.

“With 3000 or so subjects of interest currently on our radar and many convicted terrorists soon due to be released from prison, we simply cannot watch all of them, all the time.”

“Early intervention … is absolutely key. We need families, friends, colleagues and local communities to recognize that early intervention is not ruining someone’s life but saving it, and potentially that of others, too,” he said in a statement.

The government has said the legislation will apply to those already in prison, prompting predictions from some opponents that it could be challenged in the courts for breaching human rights law.

“What we are proposing in this emergency legislation is not to retrospectively alter offenders’ sentences as they were imposed by the court,” the government source said.

“This is in relation to release arrangements which are part of the administration of a sentence and it would be our position that you can change those without being considered to breach an offender’s human rights.”

London police chief Cressida Dick said if there were to be changes to sentencing, when offenders were released they needed to be freed on “strong license conditions”.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Dick said there was no evidence at this stage that it was “directed or enabled by anyone else”.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; editing by Michael Holden, Stephen Addison and Hugh Lawson)

Thousands defy ban on protests against Indian citizenship law

By Devjyot Ghoshal and Shilpa Jamkhandikar

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) – Hundreds of Indians held for defying a ban on demonstrating against a disputed new citizenship law continued protests in police detention on Thursday, and authorities shut down the internet for hours to help enforce bans on public gatherings.

Public anger and staunch opposition from political parties over the new legislation widely considered to be discriminatory toward Muslims has flared across the country.

Marches and rallies organized by college students, academicians, minority Muslim groups and opposition parties against the law passed by the Hindu nationalist government persisted despite legal moves to stifle them.

In the financial capital Mumbai, more than 5,000 protesters gathered on Thursday evening, forcing the police to impose traffic restrictions.

Haroon Patel, an Indian citizen who lives in London, joined the protest in Mumbai, calling the new law the first step toward dictatorship. “We have to save the country,” said Patel.

Supporters of the bill also took to the streets in the major western state of Gujarat. “The fault lines are defined – either one supports the law or stands against (it)…Indians have to decide and protest,” said Rupak Doshi, who organized a large rally in support of the law in Gujarat’s main city Ahmedabad.

Police detained hundreds of people in Delhi and the southern city of Bengaluru on Thursday and shut down the internet in some districts as protests entered a second week over a law that critics say undermines India’s secular constitution.

Yogi Adityanath, a senior leader of Modi’s party and Uttar Pradesh state chief minister, accused many protesters of indulging in violence. “People are allowed to protest, but no one is allowed to break the law,” said Adityanath.

In the eastern state of Bihar, a senior police official said more than 200 protesters detained in a police campus in Patna were chanting slogans against the law, but they would not be silenced by force.

FLIGHTS CANCELED

Dozens of airline flights out of Delhi were canceled due to a lack of staff who were held up by traffic disruptions caused by protesters, and a number of Delhi metro stations closed.

A senior home ministry official said maintaining law and order was a state responsibility but reserve forces were ready to provide immediate assistance.

Rights group Amnesty International has asked federal and state governments to stop the crackdown on peaceful protests against what it called a “discriminatory” citizenship law.

Defying the bans, protesters held rallies at Delhi’s historic Red Fort and a town hall in Bengaluru, but police rounded up people in the vanguard of those demonstrations as they tried to get underway.

In Bengaluru, Ramchandra Guha, a respected historian and intellectual, was taken away by police along with several other professors, according to an aide. “I am protesting non-violently, but look, they are stopping us,” said Guha.

Police said they had detained around 200 people in the city, where protest organizers said thousands attended four demonstrations on Thursday.

PM MODI UNMOVED

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dug his heels in over the law that lays out a path for people from minority religions in neighboring Muslim states – Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan – who settled in India before 2015 to obtain Indian citizenship.

Opponents of the law say the exclusion of Muslims betrays a deep-seated bias against the community, which makes up 14% of India’s population, and that the law is the latest move by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to marginalize them.

Discontent with Modi’s government has burst into the open after a series of moves seen as advancing a Hindu-first agenda in a country that has long celebrated its diversity and secular constitution.

Internet and text messaging services were suspended by government order in parts of Delhi on Thursday, mobile carriers said, widening a communications clampdown in restive areas stretching from disputed Kashmir to the northeast.

The outage affecting services provided by Vodafone Idea VODA.NS and Bharti Airtel BRTI.NS resumed around 1 p.m. (0730 GMT) after a four-hour interruption, they said.

(Additional reporting by Chandini Monappa and Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Bengaluru, Neha Dasgupta, Aditi Shah in New Delhi, Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow, Zarir Hussain in Guwahati, Rupam Jain in Mumbai, Amit Dave in Ahmedabad Writing by Aftab Ahmed, Sanjeev Miglani and Rupam Jain; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)

U.S.-China trade deal ‘stalled because of Hong Kong legislation’: Axios

(Reuters) – A trade deal between United States and China was now “stalled because of Hong Kong legislation”, news website Axios reported on Sunday, citing a source close to U.S. President Donald Trump’s negotiating team.

The deal was stalled also because time was needed to allow Chinese President Xi Jinping’s domestic politics to calm, the report added, citing the unnamed source.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that legislation signed by Trump on Wednesday backing protesters in Hong Kong was a serious interference in Chinese affairs.

(Reporting by Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Editing by Sam Holmes)

Suspend Hong Kong status in event of China crackdown: U.S. commission

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress should enact legislation that would suspend the special economic status Hong Kong enjoys under U.S. law should China deploy forces to crush protests in the territory, a congressional advisory body said on Thursday.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), which is tasked with monitoring the national security implications of U.S. relations with Beijing, issued the call in its annual report among a series of tough proposals reflecting a “markedly more confrontational” relationship.

It said that, with Beijing seeking to build a “world class” military and warning of its willingness to take military action to defend its interests, Washington “must plan for worst-case scenarios, while trying to achieve the best ones.”

A push in the U.S. Congress for legislation to support pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and pressure China to refrain from a violent crackdown has faced obstacles, raising questions about whether it will ever become law.

The House of Representatives unanimously passed Hong Kong human rights legislation last month, including a bill that would place Hong Kong’s special treatment under tighter scrutiny.

A Senate committee approved a similar measure in September but it has yet to be scheduled for a vote by the full body and the White House has not said whether President Donald Trump would sign or veto such a bill.

The commission’s recommendations go further, calling for legislation to suspend Hong Kong’s special status if China “deploys People’s Liberation Army or People’s Armed Police forces to engage in armed intervention in Hong Kong.”

It also urged Congress to direct the State Department to develop specific benchmarks to measure the “high degree of autonomy” the territory is meant to enjoy from Beijing.

Two senior senators began a process on Thursday aimed at quickly passing the Senate bill, amid a surge in violence following months of protests in Hong Kong.

Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Marco Rubio, another Republican who is a senior member of the panel, want to pass the bill by unanimous voice vote, but it remains unclear when that might happen.

On Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province but which Washington is bound to help defend, the USCC called for a Pentagon study to form the basis of a 15-year plan of action to deter any attempt by Beijing to absorb the island by force.

It also called for legislation to direct the administration to increase military exchanges and training with Taiwan.

“Just as nations sought freedom from the iron grip of the Soviet system, we are bearing witness to aspirations in both Hong Kong and Taiwan which require our reconsideration of the commitments we made under the one-country, two-systems model,” USCC vice chair, Robin Cleveland, said in introducing the report.

The commission highlighted the deepening ties between China and Russia, and said Congress should seek an intelligence assessment of the effect this could have on the United States and its allies and on how to respond.

USCC recommendations are nonbinding but have become increasingly influential with policy makers. Its prescriptions are routinely denounced by Beijing. China’s Washington embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report focused closely on Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s bid to tighten his and the Communist Party’s grip on power and argued he should be referred to as “general secretary” of that party, rather than by the “unearned title of ‘President.'”

The USCC said U.S.-China relations had deteriorated “significantly” in the past year, during which time both sides imposed retaliatory tariffs in a damaging trade war and Beijing stepped up efforts to promote itself as a global leader able to project military power beyond the Indo-Pacific, as well as into space.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Addtional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Paul Tait and Jonathan Oatis)

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)

Hong Kong braces for new mass protests against planned extraditions to China

Hong Kong braced for strikes, transport go-slows and another mass demonstration in protest against a proposed extradition law that would allow people to be sent to China for trial, as the Chinese-ruled city's leader vowed defiance.

By Clare Jim and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong braced for strikes, transport go-slows and another mass demonstration in protest against a proposed extradition law that would allow people to be sent to China for trial, as the Chinese-ruled city’s leader vowed defiance.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she would push ahead with the bill despite deep concerns across vast swaths of the Asian financial hub that triggered its biggest political demonstration since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

In a rare move, prominent business leaders warned that pushing through the extradition law could undermine investor confidence in Hong Kong and erode its competitive advantages.

The extradition bill, which has generated unusually broad opposition at home and abroad, is due for a second round of debate on Wednesday in the city’s 70-seat Legislative Council. The legislature is controlled by a pro-Beijing majority.

An online petition has called for 50,000 people to surround the legislature building at 10 p.m. (1400 GMT) on Tuesday and remain until Wednesday.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China under a “one-country, two-systems” formula, with guarantees that its autonomy and freedoms, including an independent justice system, would be protected.

But many accuse China of extensive meddling, denying democratic reforms, interfering with local elections and the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

Sunday’s protests plunged Hong Kong into political crisis, just as months of pro-democracy “Occupy” demonstrations did in 2014, heaping pressure on Lam’s administration and her official backers in Beijing.

She warned against any “radical actions”, following clashes in the early hours of Monday between some protesters and police after Sunday’s otherwise peaceful march.

Police erected metal barriers to secure the council building as a small number of protesters started to gather on Tuesday evening despite torrential rain and thunderstorm warnings. Police conducted random ID checks at train stations.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo urged people to join the rally and encouraged businesses to strike “for a day, or two, or probably for one whole week”.

Nearly 2,000 mostly small retail shops, including restaurants, grocery, book and coffee shops, have announced plans to strike, according to an online survey, a rare move in the staunchly capitalist economy.

Eaton HK Hotel, which is owned by Langham Hospitality Investments and operated by Great Eagle Holdings, said it respected workers’ “political stances” and would allow them to rally.

The student union of several higher education institutions and the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union urged people to strike on Wednesday. Nearly 4,000 teachers said they would rally.

Human rights groups have repeatedly cited the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems accessing lawyers in China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party, as reasons why the Hong Kong bill should not proceed.

“When the fugitive extradition bill is passed, Hong Kong will become a ‘useless Hong Kong'” said Jimmy Sham, convenor of Civil Human Rights Front. “We will be deep in a place where foreign investors are afraid to invest and tourists are afraid to go. Once the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ (it) will become nothing.”

The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong called on the government not to pass the bill “hurriedly” and urged all Christians to pray for the former colony.

A staff union affiliated to a pro-democracy labor group under the New World First Bus Company called on its members to drive at the speed of 20-25 kmh (12-15 mph) to show their opposition to the proposed law.

A Facebook post called on people to enjoy a picnic next to government offices on Wednesday, describing the area as “among the best picnic sites”. The post has attracted close to 10,000 responses from people promising to attend.

Beijing-based consultancy Gavecal said some bankers in Hong Kong were reporting that many mainland clients were shifting their accounts to Singapore, fearing they could come under scrutiny in the financial hub.

“MISSTEPS COULD BE COSTLY”

Many residents of the financial center, both expatriate and local, are increasingly unnerved by Beijing’s tightening grip over the city.

China’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that Hong Kong matters are purely a Chinese internal affair and China demands the United States stops interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs.

The comments came after Washington said on Monday it was gravely concerned about the proposed law and warned that such a move could jeopardize the special status Washington affords Hong Kong.

Prominent business figures urged the government to tread cautiously to protect Hong Kong’s competitiveness.

“The integrity and independence of (Hong Kong’s) legal system are absolutely central to Hong Kong’s future,” said Fred Hu, founder and chairman of China-based private equity firm, Primavera Capital Group.

Activist investor David Webb, in a post on Lam’s Facebook page, urged her to send the bill to the Law Reform Commission for further study.

“If you press ahead and bulldoze the bill through LegCo, then you will probably get the legislation passed, but at huge political cost and damage to the international credibility of HK for due process when reforming its legislation,” Webb said.

(Additional reporting by Kane Wu, James Pomfret, Greg Torode, Anne Marie Roantree, Felix Tam and Vimvam Tong; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Credit reporting agencies face pressure from skeptical U.S. Congress

FILE PHOTO: The logo and trading information for Credit reporting company Equifax Inc. are displayed on a screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The nation’s major credit reporting agencies faced renewed scrutiny from Congress on Tuesday, as lawmakers consider legislation overhauling the industry.

Top executives from the three major credit reporting agencies – Equifax Inc, Experian Plc and TransUnion had to defend their business models before skeptical lawmakers who appeared eager to order changes to the sector following Equifax’s massive data breach, disclosed in 2017.

“Our nation’s consumer credit reporting system is broken,” said Representative Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee. “I’m troubled to the point where I do think that we need to start thinking about how we reimagine it and rebuild it from the ground … We will be introducing legislation.”

Waters has a draft bill that would limit the reach of such credit reports, shorten the time adverse information remains on consumers’ records, and make it easier for consumers to dispute errors on their reports.

Several Democrats made clear they were dissatisfied with the current state of the country’s credit reporting, arguing consumers lack control over their own data.

The panel’s top Republican, Representative Patrick McHenry, agreed the industry was in need of a makeover. However, he emphasized a desire to see more companies compete with the three largest agencies.

“What I see here is an oligopoly,” he told executives. “I don’t see that vibrant competition which is needed for these agencies to actually help consumers.”

The massive data breach disclosed by Equifax in 2017, where a cyber attack exposed the personal data of roughly 148 million people, has driven calls from Washington for changes to the industry.

Legislation beefing up protections around consumer data is seen by analysts and lobbyists to be a rare area of common ground in the current Congress, where Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate.

Waters’ Senate counterpart, Banking Chairman Mike Crapo, has said legislation addressing the collection and protection of personal data is one of his top priorities this year. He is currently soliciting input on how consumers could retain more control over their personal information.

For their part, credit reporting agency executives told lawmakers they were working to address consumer concerns and bolster their cybersecurity to guard against future breaches.

“Consumers trust and expect that their credit reports contain the most accurate and complete data possible, and lenders rely on that information to help millions of consumers obtain the right loans at the right time,” said Equifax CEO Mark Begor in prepared testimony.

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)