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)

Republicans want census data on citizenship for redistricting

FILE PHOTO: A community activist holds a sign in Chinese and English at an event to mark the one-year-out launch of the 2020 Census efforts in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

By Nick Brown

NEW YORK (Reuters) – John Murante, a conservative Nebraska senator, last year introduced a bill to prevent non-citizens from being counted when the state redraws its voting maps.

He said the effort aimed to ensure each election district contained similar numbers of voters, but opponents argued it intended to undermine the political power of immigrant communities.

Murante’s bill died after its critics pointed out a lack of granular data on where the state’s non-citizens live.

That data may soon be available.

The Trump administration believes its proposed question about citizenship on the 2020 Census will help states that want to draw citizens-only voting districts in the next round of redistricting by providing the first comprehensive data on non-citizens in about 70 years, according to a Reuters review of court and federal register documents and interviews with more than a dozen state lawmakers.

Such a change would provide a new opportunity for Republican-controlled states – those most likely to adopt citizens-only redistricting – to redraw their voting maps in a way that could help their party win more state-level elections.

Currently, state and federal voting districts are drawn to be roughly equal in population, regardless of how many residents can legally vote. That means tallies for district-drawing purposes include non-citizens, such as green-card holders and undocumented immigrants.

Democrats and immigrant rights activists say this system ensures elected leaders represent everyone in their district who depends on public services such as schools and trash pickup, regardless of voting eligibility.

Republicans argue that districts should be the same size so each vote carries the same weight. If one district has far fewer eligible voters than another, each vote there has more influence on election outcomes.

That’s a problem for Republicans because the eligible voters in immigrant-heavy districts tend to support Democrats.

Trump administration officials have been considering the merits of citizens-only redistricting since 2017 – well before announcing their intention in March 2018 to add the citizenship question to the decennial survey, according to court documents filed as part of litigation over the citizenship question.

And in December, the Census Bureau issued a notice in the Federal Register saying that if any states “indicate a need for … citizenship data” to use in redistricting, it would “make a design change” to provide it.

Republican lawmakers in Texas, Arizona, Missouri and Nebraska told Reuters they would consider making use of the citizenship data if it became available.

The tactic is prohibited at the federal level by past U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have interpreted the U.S. Constitution as requiring that U.S. House districts be based on total population. But the court, in a 2016 case known as Evenwel v. Abbott, left the door open for state-level districts to use other metrics.

The Commerce Department, which includes the Census Bureau, declined to comment on whether redistricting was part of the motivation for proposing the citizenship question.

James Whitehorne, the chief of the Census Bureau’s Redistricting & Voting Rights Office, called the federal register notice routine. “We’re supposed to provide states with what they identify as needing,” he said.

U.S. voting districts are drawn at the state level, most often by state legislators, giving the party in power control over how the lines are redrawn.

While both Republicans and Democrats frame the debate over citizen-only districts around fairness, demographic experts point out that both sides have a lot at stake politically.

Data from the nonpartisan APM Research Lab showed that 95 of the 100 U.S. congressional districts with the highest foreign-born populations are represented by Democrats. Similar data for state-level seats was not available.

Redrawing such districts with citizen-only populations would give Republicans a better shot by expanding the districts into more conservative areas, said Albert Kauffman, a professor at St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio who has studied redistricting and opposes excluding non-citizens.

In Texas, a citizens-only map could strip Latino voters of majorities in two or three state senate seats and six or seven state representative seats, Kauffman said, pointing out that Hispanic voters traditionally lean left.

“Democrats know they would probably lose seats at every level,” Kauffman said.

SUPREME CHALLENGE

Immigrant rights activists and Democratic-led cities and states have sued the Trump administration to prevent it from asking census respondents about their citizenship, and the Supreme Court will decide by June if the question can remain.

Opponents argue the administration aims to use the question to intimidate immigrants out of responding to the census, which would cost their communities political representation and a share of about $800 billion in annual federal aid allocated based on population.

The administration disputes that. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said his decision to add the question was aimed at getting the Justice Department the comprehensive citizenship data it needs to better enforce Voting Rights Act provisions that protect minorities from discrimination.

Ross has not publicly commented on how citizenship data might be used in redistricting. But Census records, as well as emails released during the litigation over the citizenship question, showed he was thinking about citizens-only redistricting well before he announced plans to add the question.

In April of 2017, at the behest of former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Ross spoke with former Kansas Secretary of State and noted immigration hawk Kris Kobach, according to the emails. One topic of discussion was “the problem that aliens … are still counted for congressional apportionment,” according to a subsequent email from Kobach to Ross describing their conversation.

The following month, Ross asked Commerce Senior Policy Advisor David Langdon to look into whether non-citizens, including illegal immigrants, are included in voting maps, according to Langdon’s deposition in the litigation over the citizenship question.

Kobach and Langdon did not respond to requests for comment.

ATTRACTING INTEREST

A handful of states will likely request the census data on citizenship if the question survives its legal challenges, state lawmakers and a Republican strategist told Reuters.

Lawmakers and state officials from Arizona, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas said in interviews they are considering citizen-only districts. Republicans in Tennessee also voiced support for citizens-only redistricting in court papers filed in the Evenwel Supreme Court case. Reuters reached out to several of the Tennessee lawmakers who signed the court brief, but all declined to comment.

Missouri Representative Dean Plocher, a Republican who sponsored unsuccessful legislation last year to base Missouri’s voting districts on citizen population, said the effort is aimed solely at equalizing the power of all votes in the state. He said he hadn’t considered how such changes might affect his party’s chances in elections.

Nebraska’s Murante – the former senator behind his state’s failed citizens-only redistricting bill and now the state’s treasurer – said he supports citizens-only maps because the state’s constitution requires that “aliens” be excluded from voting districts.

Immigrant rights activists counter that citizens-only districts could be forced to expand in ways that weaken the political influence of immigrant communities.

The effect could be particularly pronounced in places such as south Texas, where immigrants make up more than a quarter of the population, said Juan Hinojosa, a Democratic state senator.

Hinojosa’s district includes areas known as colonias — informal communities of poor, largely Hispanic families. Citizen-only redistricting would make it more likely that anti-immigration Republicans would win elections in the border region, Hinojosa said.

The question of how to count non-citizens in voting districts may end up at the Supreme Court, said Kel Seliger, a Republican Texas state senator, who told Reuters that lawmakers there would explore citizen-only maps.

“You’ve got be careful,” he said, “that the Republican bias doesn’t get us on the wrong side of the Constitution.”

(Reporting by Nick Brown; Editing by Richard Valdmanis, Brian Thevenot and Paul Thomasch)

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)

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)

U.S. government shutdown enters its 26th day as talks paralyzed

FILE PHOTO: Following a weekend snowstorm, the dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen in the distance as a jogger stops to photograph the Washington Monument in Washington U.S., January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday is expected to sign legislation providing 800,000 federal employees with back pay when the partial government shutdown ends, even through a conclusion to the impasse remains no where in sight.

As the shutdown stretches into its 26th day, Trump is also scheduled to meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers at 11:30 a.m..

Whether the meeting is related to the shutdown was not immediately clear, however. Neither the White House nor lawmakers’ offices immediately responded to a request for details.

The shutdown began on Dec. 22, after Trump insisted he would not sign legislation funding a quarter of government agencies unless it included more than $5 billion for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

The wall was a signature campaign promise of his before the 2016 presidential election. Trump said at the time Mexico would pay for it but has since reversed himself, denying that he ever said Mexico would directly foot the bill for the wall.

On Wednesday, Trump continued to blame Democrats for the standoff and trumpet his support of the wall, writing in a post on Twitter that wall projects around the world “have all been recognized as close to 100% successful. Stop the crime at our Southern Border!”

It was not immediately clear what wall projects he was referring to.

His tweets appear unlikely to move Democrats, who have controlled the House of Representatives since Jan. 3. Trump also needs the support of at least some Democrats in the Senate to pass funding legislation.

Senate Democrats have planned an event on the steps of the Capitol intended to highlight the havoc of the shutdown is wreaking, as 800,000 federal workers are furloughed – meaning they are forced to stay home, or work without pay – and contractors do not receive payments.

Economists have estimated that each week the shutdown continues will shave off 0.1 percent of economic growth.

More than half of Americans blame Trump for the government shutdown, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. A separate poll found the shutdown has affected four in 10 Americans, far beyond the 800,000 federal employees directly feeling the impact of the funding lapses.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

House Republicans move to reprimand King over white supremacy comments

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives moved on Monday to strip congressman Steve King of his committee assignments after the Iowa Republican gave a media interview in which he questioned why white supremacy is considered offensive.

The decision by the House Republican Steering Committee to remove King from his posts on the Judiciary, Agriculture and Small Business committees must be ratified by the full caucus of House Republicans.

The move comes as several House Democrats filed censure motions against King after he told the New York Times in an interview published last week: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization – how did that language become offensive?”

King, who has a history of making statements that critics have condemned as racist, said in a statement that his comments in the Times interview were “completely mischaracterized” and the committee’s decision was “a political decision that ignores the truth.”

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement that King’s remarks were “beneath the dignity” of the party and the country.

“Let us hope and pray earnestly that this action will lead to greater reflection and ultimately change on his part,” McCarthy said.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, called on King to resign. King was first elected to Congress in 2002 and won re-election in November with just over 50 percent of the vote, sharply lower than the 61.2 percent he polled in 2016.

The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said in a statement: “If he doesn’t understand why ‘white supremacy’ is offensive, he should find another line of work.”

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. government shutdown drags into fourth week amid stalemate

Travelers wait in a security line at Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., January 13, 2019. REUTERS/David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A partial government shutdown entered its 24th day on Monday as talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats remained stalled even as some of Trump’s fellow Republicans called on the president to cut a deal and strains mounted nationwide.

Trump appeared unmoved to act, however, retweeting criticism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer that urged the top Democratic leaders to negotiate with him over funding for his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I’ve been waiting all weekend. Democrats must get to work now. Border must be secured!” Trump wrote in an early morning tweet on Monday.

Democrats have rejected Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for the border wall in addition to other border funds but have said they would support $1.3 billion to bolster border security in other ways, including beefing up the number of Border Patrol agents and increasing surveillance.

About one-quarter of the U.S. government shut down last month as Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress as well as the White House. In December Trump said he would take responsibility for the shutdown but has since shifted the blame to Democrats. A growing proportion of Americans blame Trump for the closures, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found.

He now must win concessions from the Democrats, who took over the U.S. House of Representatives this month following November’s elections. He also must win over enough Senate Democrats to secure the 60 votes needed to pass funding legislation there.

The stress from the shutdown became more visible as 800,000 federal employees across the United States missed their first paychecks on Friday. The cut government services also affected travelers as a jump in unscheduled absences among federal airport security screeners forced partial closures of airports in Houston and Miami.

National parks also remain shuttered, food and drug inspections have been curtailed and key economic data is on hold, among other impacts. Federal courts are set to run out of money on Friday.

ADDRESS TO FARMERS

Later on Monday, Trump is scheduled to address a New Orleans gathering of farmers, a key bloc of Trump supporters who have been hit by the shutdown as federal loan and farm aid applications have stalled and key farming and crop data has been delayed.

Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, who last week had called on Trump to declare a national emergency as a way to get money to build his wall, on Sunday urged the president to instead reopen the government for a short period of time in an effort to restart talks before taking such action.

Declaring a national emergency over immigration issues is fiercely opposed by Democrats and remains unpopular with some Republicans. It also would likely face an immediate legal challenge.

Pelosi called on the Republican-led Senate to vote on several bills passed earlier this month by the House to fund affected departments that do not include money for Trump’s wall. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not take up any legislation that does not have Trump’s support.

Representatives for Schumer could not be immediately reached for comment on Monday.

Both the Senate and the House were scheduled to reconvene on Monday afternoon, despite a weekend winter storm shuttered much of the Washington area and it remained unclear what, if any, steps lawmakers might take to address the lapsed funding measures for affected agencies.

Senator Chris Coons on Monday reiterated fellow Democrats’ call for Trump to reopen the government while negotiations over the wall and immigration continue.

He acknowledged efforts by Graham and other Republicans to forge a temporary solution but said Trump has been unpredictable even among fellow conservatives with ever-shifting positions.

“Every time they make progress, the president throws cold water on it,” Coons told CNN in an interview.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Bill Trott)