U.S. Senate backs massive defense bill, despite Trump veto threat

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Friday threw its weight behind the annual National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, a $740 billion bill setting policy for the Department of Defense, passing the bill with a margin large enough to overcome President Donald Trump’s promised veto.

The Republican-controlled Senate backed the bill by 84 to 13, more than the two-thirds majority needed in the 100-member chamber to override a veto.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives backed the NDAA by 335 to 78 earlier this week, also more than the two-thirds majority needed.

Backers hope strong bipartisan support will prompt Trump to reconsider his threat to veto the annual bill, which sets policy for the U.S. military and has become law for 59 straight years.

The White House said earlier on Friday that Trump’s position had not changed. The president will have 10 days – minus Sundays – to issue a veto, sign it or allow it to become law without his signature.

Trump has threatened to veto the fiscal 2021 NDAA because of a provision to remove the names of Confederate generals from military bases.

He also objects because it does not repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects technology companies like Alphabet Inc’s Google, Twitter Inc and Facebook Inc from liability for what appears on their platforms, although that is not related to the military.

Trump also objects to some provisions in the legislation that could slow plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Germany.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Franklin Paul, Jonathan Oatis and Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. Senate passes, sends to Trump, one-week extension of government funding

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Friday unanimously approved a one-week extension of federal funding to avoid a government shutdown this weekend and to provide more time for separate negotiations on COVID-19 relief and an overarching spending bill.

With the Senate’s vote the measure now goes to President Donald Trump for signing into law.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and David Morgan)

Senate blocks confirmation of Trump Fed nominee Shelton

(Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Tuesday blocked President Donald Trump’s nomination of Judy Shelton to the board of the Federal Reserve, making her the latest in a string of failed nominees to the central bank.

Trump’s Republican Party has a 53-47 majority in the current Senate, but several were absent, including two who were quarantining due to exposure to COVID-19, and others joined Democrats in voting ‘no’ in the so-called cloture vote.

The vote was 47 to 50 with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voting ‘no’ to preserve the option to reconsider later.

Shelton, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign who has argued the nation would be better off returning to the gold standard, as recently as 2017 criticized the Fed’s power over money and financial markets as “quite unhealthy.” During her Senate confirmation process, she called the Fed’s bond-buying and zero rates in the last crisis “extreme.”

Her views on interest rates have moved in lockstep with Trump’s. She lambasted easy money before Trump’s presidency, but supported it after he took office, and has expressed skepticism over the Fed’s need to set policy independently from the president and Congress.

Other Trump Fed nominees that failed to be confirmed included former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who later died of COVID-19.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu; writing by Ann Saphir; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Edward Tobin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump says he has fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday that he had “terminated” Defense Secretary Mark Esper, appearing to use his final months in office after his Nov. 3 election defeat to settle scores within his administration.

Trump, who publicly split with Esper in recent months over a range of issues, said on Twitter that Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will become acting secretary of defense. The Senate would be highly unlikely to confirm any new nominee before Trump leaves office in January.

“Mark Esper has been terminated,” Trump said on Twitter. “I am pleased to announce that Christopher C. Miller, the highly respected Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (unanimously confirmed by the Senate), will be Acting Secretary of Defense, effective immediately.”

The Pentagon had no immediate comment.

Esper had long been preparing for the prospect of his resignation or dismissal following the Nov. 3 election, particularly if Trump were to win a second term in office, sources said.

Trump has steadfastly refused to acknowledge his election loss.

Esper angered Trump particularly by opposing Trump’s threat to use active duty troops to suppress street protests over racial injustice in the United States during the summer.

Esper also disagreed with Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the NATO alliance, sources said.

(Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Susan Heavey; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. Senate kills $300 billion coronavirus aid bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday killed a $300 billion coronavirus aid bill written by Senate Republican leadership, as Democrats blocked the measure on a procedural vote.

The Senate voted 52-47 to advance the bill, short of the 60 votes needed to continue debate on the measure.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

Senate to vote on Republican coronavirus aid bill opposed by Democrats

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate was set to vote on Thursday on a Republican bill providing around $300 billion in new coronavirus aid, far below the $3 trillion Democrats insist is needed to stimulate an ailing economy and help people struggling through the pandemic.

In what could be the final vote on coronavirus relief in Congress before the Nov. 3 presidential and congressional elections, Republicans and Democrats appeared to be deadlocked over the next steps in responding to a virus that has killed more than 190,000 people in the United States and nearly 900,000 globally.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fails, as expected, to get the 60 votes needed in the 100-member chamber to advance his latest bill, lawmakers will likely focus on wrapping up other work within the next couple weeks so they can return to their home states to campaign for re-election in November.

Earlier this year, Congress quickly passed four major bills providing about $3 trillion to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill in May that would provide another $3 trillion in aid. But gridlock has since prevailed.

Some Republican senators expressed doubts on Wednesday that a compromise coronavirus bill would emerge quickly if McConnell’s latest “skinny” bill is rejected on Thursday in the Republican-controlled chamber.

“There’s always some possibility,” said Senator Richard Shelby, adding: “Unless something really broke through, it’s not going to happen.”

The Republican bill would renew a federal unemployment benefit, but at a lower level than Democrats sought. It also would set new protections for businesses against liability lawsuits during the pandemic, which Democrats have labeled a “poison pill.”

An array of other initiatives, including aid to state and local governments, a second round of direct federal payments to households and bailouts for U.S. airlines during the economic downturn were not addressed in the Republican bill and could be considered in a possible post-election session of Congress.

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

Senate to vote on COVID-19 aid as soon as this week: McConnell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican-led U.S. Senate will introduce a new proposal on coronavirus relief legislation on Tuesday and could schedule a vote as soon as this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

He said the new proposal would target “some of the very most urgent healthcare, education, and economic issues.”

“It does not contain every idea our party likes. I am confident Democrats will feel the same. Yet Republicans believe the many serious differences between our two parties should not stand in the way of agreeing where we can agree and making law that helps our nation,” McConnell’s statement said.

Earlier, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said he was hopeful there would be another round of federal COVID-19 stimulus funding before the Nov. 3 presidential election, but signaled no breakthrough in talks with congressional Democrats.

Interviewed on Fox Business Network, Meadows said he hoped legislation put forward by Senate Republicans would provide a basis for a future agreement with Democratic lawmakers and that negotiations were ongoing.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Howard Goller)

Hopes for fresh round of U.S. coronavirus relief fade as Congress goes home

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The prospects for a deal in the U.S. Congress to help Americans suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic dimmed on Friday, with the Senate and House of Representatives in recess and no fresh talks scheduled with President Donald Trump’s negotiators.

After a week that the leaders of the Democratic and the Republican parties spent blaming each other for a breakdown in talks, lawmakers were not due to reconvene until next month, though the leaders of both parties said they could recall their members with 24 hours notice if a deal emerged.

The two sides formally remained about $2 trillion apart, with wide gaps on funding for schools, aid to state and local governments, and unemployment pay. Trump on Thursday added that he opposed any money to help the U.S. Postal Service handle an expected flood of mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 elections, though he later said he would not veto a bill that included it.

An impasse over $600-a-week in enhanced unemployment benefits, which expired on July 31, kept financial markets on edge as the Commerce Department reported weaker-than-expected July retail sales growth due to the effects of the spiraling pandemic and the cessation of the enhanced unemployment payments.

The unemployment payments had helped the U.S. economy by buttressing consumer spending, according to Federal Reserve officials and economists. Trump tried to act alone on Saturday with a memorandum proposing an additional $300 per week in unemployment, though economists questioned the effectiveness of the limited measure.

Meanwhile, the number of U.S. coronavirus infections approached 5.3 million on Friday, with deaths topping 167,000.

U.S. share prices dropped earlier this week when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi disclosed there were no coronavirus talks scheduled. Stocks also weakened on Friday on July retail sales data.

But House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Friday contended that investors are looking for “surgical” action on coronavirus aid rather than the comprehensive approach sought by Democrats with the $3 trillion-plus Heroes Act the House passed in May.

“If we went forward with what the Democrats asked for in that $3 trillion? I believe the market would drop hard because it would put greater debt on all taxpayers,” McCarthy told CNBC.

Democrats offered to reduce their proposal by $1 trillion during negotiations with White House officials last week. The White House rejected the offer.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll published early this week found that Americans blame both parties for the inaction.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. House bill targets banks amid fears over China law for Hong Kong

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Wednesday that would penalize banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement Beijing’s draconian new national security law imposed on the former British colony of Hong Kong.

China responded by saying the United States should stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and warned that it would “resolutely and forcefully resist”.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that protected its freedoms, including an independent legal system, and wide-ranging autonomy. But China on Tuesday introduced sweeping national security legislation for the city, condemned by the United States, Britain and other Western countries.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab reprimanded HSBC and other banks on Wednesday for supporting the new law, saying the rights of Hong Kong should not be sacrificed for bankers’ bonuses.

Senior British and U.S. politicians criticized HSBC and Standard Chartered last month after the banks backed the new law.

The law punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, will see mainland security agencies in Hong Kong for the first time and allows extradition to the mainland for trial.

The House measure passed unanimously, reflecting concern in Washington over the erosion the autonomy that allowed Hong Kong to thrive as China’s freest city and an international financial center.

The U.S. Senate passed similar legislation last week, but under congressional rules the bill must return to the Senate and be passed there before being sent to the White House for President Donald Trump to sign into law or veto.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an unusual appearance at a committee hearing on the situation in Hong Kong to say the security law marked the death of the “one country, two systems” principle.

“The law is a brutal, sweeping crackdown against the people of Hong Kong, intended to destroy the freedoms they were promised,” she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing on Thursday the United States “must stop advancing the bill, let alone sign it or implement” it.

“Otherwise China will resolutely and forcefully resist,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the security law was an affront to all nations and Washington would continue to implement Trump’s directive to end the territory’s special status.

The United States has already begun eliminating Hong Kong’s special status, halting defense exports and restricting the territory’s access to high-technology products.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Huizhong Wu in Beijing; Editing by Sandra Maler, David Gregorio and Nick Macfie)