Puerto Rico’s new governor is challenged in court: newspaper

FILE PHOTO: Pedro Pierluisi holds a news conference after swearing in as Governor of Puerto Rico in San Juan, Puerto Rico August 2, 2019. REUTERS/Gabriella N. Baez/File Photo

(Reuters) – The legitimacy of Puerto Rico’s newly-installed governor has been challenged in court, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday, adding further drama to who will lead the U.S. territory after weeks of protests.

Pedro Pierluisi, the handpicked successor to disgraced former governor Ricardo Rossello, was sworn in on Friday.

Pierluisi, 60, said his term might be short as the island’s Senate still had to ratify his position.

That vote was expected to happen on Wednesday.

But late on Sunday, Puerto Rico Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz sued Pierluisi in a San Juan court, claiming he usurped the office by ignoring a constitutional requirement for the Senate to vote to confirm him, the Journal reported.

Pierluisi, a lawyer who formerly advised the despised, federally-created board supervising Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy, was sworn in even though his appointment had not yet gone before the Senate for a vote.

The lawsuit asks the court to strip him of the title and stop him performing any acts as governor, the Journal reported.

Reuters could not confirm the lawsuit, nor reach Pierluisi or Schatz for comment early on Monday.

At his first news conference as governor last week, Pierluisi acknowledged that Puerto Rico’s Senate was still to meet to vote on whether to confirm his position.

Schatz has previously said that installing Pierluisi before the vote was “unethical and illegal.”

But Pierluisi had countered: “The Senate will have its say and by the end of Wednesday we’ll know whether I am ratified.”.

If he is not ratified then the second in line, the secretary of justice of Puerto Rico, will take over the governorship, he said.

Rossello, a 40-year-old, first-term governor, had tapped Pierluisi as secretary of state, a position putting him first in line as successor.

The island’s leading newspaper El Nuevo Dia subsequently reported that Schatz had rescheduled the session to vote on the appointment for Monday.

Pierluisi’s statement capped a week of political chaos in Puerto Rico after Rossello said he would resign over offensive chat messages that drew around a third of the island’s 3.2 million people to the streets in protest.

The chats between Rossello and top aides took aim at female politicians and gay celebrities like Ricky Martin, and poked fun at ordinary Puerto Ricans.

The publication of the messages unleashed anger building for years in Puerto Rico over the island’s painful bankruptcy process, ineffective hurricane recovery efforts and corruption scandals linked to a string of past governors, including Rossello’s father.

Until an appointment was confirmed by both chambers, Schatz and other senators said the next in line for governor, under law, was Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Senate’s McConnell: ‘Case closed’ on Mueller probe, but top Democrat sees ‘cover-up

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a question from reporters next to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as he arrives for a closed Senate Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday sought to slam the door on further investigations of President Donald Trump by declaring “case closed” after a two-year probe of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections, even as House Democrats’ war with the White House intensified.

McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Congress, delivered a stinging rebuke of Democrats seeking additional information on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report that found no evidence Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia.

(Graphic: https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-TRUMP-RUSSIA/010091HX27V/report.pdf)

“The special counsel’s finding is clear. Case closed,” McConnell declared.

Meanwhile, battles between the White House and congressional Democrats over documents and testimony related to the Mueller investigation deepened on Tuesday.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone informed the House Judiciary Committee in a letter that ex-White House Counsel Don McGahn does not have the legal right to comply with a House of Representatives subpoena and disclose documents related to Mueller’s investigation.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, when asked by ABC News whether McGahn would comply with the subpoena, said, “I don’t anticipate that that takes place.”

McConnell accused Democrats of being in an “absolute meltdown” and refusing “to accept the bottom line conclusion” that Mueller’s “exhaustive” report found no collusion with Russia.

Since the public release of the report last month, House and Senate Republicans have defended the president and called for an end to congressional investigations.

Mueller detailed extensive contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. His 448-page report also outlined 11 instances in which the president tried to impede the special counsel’s investigation, but avoided a conclusion on whether or not Trump obstructed justice.

Speaking on the Senate floor after McConnell, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer fired back, calling Trump a “lawless president” and accusing the Senate Republican leader of wanting to bury any congressional investigations.

“Of course he wants to move on. He wants to cover up,” Schumer said of McConnell.

Schumer likened McConnell’s move to President Richard Nixon, who was under investigation by Congress before resigning from office in 1974 in the face of impeachment and likely conviction.

“It’s sort of like Richard Nixon saying let’s move on at the height of the investigation of his wrongdoing,” Schumer said.

While McConnell urged an end to the fight over the Mueller report, he acknowledged that was unlikely. Democrats hold a majority in the House, while Republicans control the Senate.

“Would we finally be able to move on from partisan paralysis and breathless conspiracy theorizing? Or would we remain consumed by unhinged partisanship,” McConnell said, adding, “Regrettably, the answer is pretty obvious.”

House Democrats prepared to meet with Justice Department officials on Tuesday over Attorney General William Barr’s failure to release the full unredacted Mueller report as they prepared to cite him for contempt.

The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a Wednesday vote on a contempt citation for Barr, who missed a second deadline to give lawmakers the full report and failed to appear at a hearing before the panel last week.

The full House would then vote on the rebuke.

A contempt citation against McGahn or other administration officials could lead to a civil case, raising the possibility of fines and even imprisonment for failure to comply.

The Judiciary Committee is among several House panels investigating Trump and his administration on various matters, including the Russia probe and Trump’s personal and business tax returns.

The administration is stonewalling congressional investigators while the president, who has denied any wrongdoing, vowed to fight all congressional subpoenas.

On Monday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin turned down the House Ways and Means Committee’s request for Trump’s tax returns, teeing up a likely legal battle.

Democratic lawmakers want Mueller to testify before Congress, something Trump has balked at although Barr has said he would not object.

If lawmakers decide that Trump obstructed justice by seeking to impede Mueller, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler could move to impeachment proceedings against the president.

If the House goes down the impeachment route, at least some Republican support would be needed for a Senate conviction.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Tim Ahmann and Steve Holland; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Maine Senate rejects ending religious exemptions for vaccinations

FILE PHOTO: An illustration provides a 3D graphical representation of a spherical-shaped, measles virus particle studded with glycoprotein tubercles in this handout image obtained by Reuters April 9, 2019. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

An effort to end all non-medical exemptions for childhood vaccinations in Maine was in limbo on Thursday after the state Senate voted to amend it to allow parents to keep opting out on religious grounds.

The bill had passed the Democratic-controlled state House of Representatives last month, making Maine one of at least seven states considering ending non-medical exemptions amid the worst outbreak of measles in the United States in 25 years.

In a close vote, 18 lawmakers in the Democratic-led state Senate supported an amendment to the House bill to retain the religious exemption that exists in state law, while 17 voted against. The senators approved ending exemptions for children whose parents oppose vaccination for “philosophical reasons.”

Several senators who had trained and worked as doctors argued at length ahead of the vote to allow an exemption only if a healthcare provider deemed it medically necessary. Others noted no major U.S. religion opposes vaccinations.

Senator Linda Sanborn, a Democrat who has practiced family medicine, said the bill was to prevent “an impending disaster” in a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. Five percent of Maine’s kindergarten students have non-medical exemptions from vaccination, compared with a national average of 2 percent.

She said other fatal diseases could follow the fate of smallpox, which was globally eradicated through vaccination efforts, adding: “It takes a community caring about not just ourselves but our neighbors to make this happen.”

Senate Republicans, including Scott Cyrway, opposed the bill as government overreach into the private sphere.

“We’re forcing someone to do something when we don’t really have to,” Cyrway said.

In neighboring Vermont, lawmakers voted in 2015 to remove philosophical exemptions while leaving in place religious ones. As a result, more parents sought and received those exemptions – 3.9 percent in 2017, up from 0.9 percent in 2015, according to the state’s Department of Health.

In Maine, the amended bill will go back to the House, which can vote either to accept or reject the amendment. If both chambers cannot agree, the bill dies.

A spokeswoman for the House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

There have been no measles cases in Maine since 2007, but officials have worried about recent outbreaks of whooping cough, another childhood disease for which there is a mandatory vaccination.

Only three states have outlawed any non-medical exemptions for vaccinations – California, Mississippi and West Virginia.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

U.S. House to vote to reinstate net neutrality rules in April

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives will vote in April on a bill to reinstate landmark net neutrality rules repealed by the Federal Communications Commission under U.S. President Donald Trump.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a letter to colleagues on Thursday seen by Reuters that lawmakers will vote on the bill dubbed the “Save the Internet Act” during the week of April 8.

The bill mirrors an effort last year to reverse the FCC’s December 2017 order that repealed rules approved in 2015 that barred providers from blocking or slowing internet content or offering paid “fast lanes.”

The reversal of net neutrality rules was a win for internet providers like Comcast Corp, AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications Inc, but opposed by content and social media companies like Facebook Inc, Amazon.com Inc and Alphabet Inc.

The bill would repeal the order introduced by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, bar the FCC from reinstating it or substantially similar order and reinstate the 2015 net neutrality order. Republicans oppose reinstating the 2015 rules that grant the FCC sweeping authority to oversee the conduct of internet providers.

The Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, voted in May 2018 to reinstate the rules, but the House did not take up the issue before Congress adjourned last year. The White House opposes reinstating the net neutrality rules and it is not clear that proponents will be able to force a vote in the Senate.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Brown)

Senate votes to terminate Trump national emergency

U.S. President Donald Trump walks down the U.S Capitol steps with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) after they both attended the 37th annual Friends of Ireland luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday joined the House of Representatives in passing legislation that would defy President Donald Trump by terminating the national emergency on the southern border that he declared on Feb. 15.

Trump has vowed a veto – an act he has not yet taken as president. But enough Republicans in Congress are expected to block any veto override attempt. A two-thirds vote of the House and Senate are needed overturn a presidential veto.

The Senate voted 59-41 to end the emergency.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Lisa Lambert)

U.S. Democrats unveil legislation to reinstate net neutrality rules

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats in Congress unveiled a bill on Wednesday to reinstate net neutrality rules repealed by the Federal Communications Commission under U.S. President Donald Trump, the latest salvo in a more than decade-long battle over how to regulate internet traffic.

The bill mirrors an effort last year to reverse the FCC’s December 2017 order repealing landmark rules approved in 2015 that barred internet providers from blocking or slowing content or offering paid “fast lanes.”

“It is a fight that we can win,” said Senator Ed Markey, a bill sponsor, at a Capitol Hill news conference. “We are on the right side of history. We will not give up.”

He said the bill, dubbed the “Save the Internet Act,” will protect consumers from higher prices, blocked websites or slower internet speeds.

The reversal of net neutrality rules was a win for internet providers like Comcast Corp, AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications Inc, but opposed by content and social media companies like Facebook Inc, Amazon.com Inc and Alphabet Inc.

The bill would repeal the order introduced by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, bar the FCC from reinstating it or a substantially similar order and reinstate the 2015 net neutrality order, a fact sheet said.

Pai said in a statement that the 2017 rule “has proven wrong the many hysterical predictions of doom … most notably the fantasy that market-based regulation would bring about ‘the end of the Internet as we know it.’”

He suggested that the main thing the internet needs to be saved from is “heavy-handed regulation from the 1930s” that would treat it as a public utility.

Markey said the bill has the support of nearly all Democrats, and a companion bill will be introduced in the House of Representatives on Friday. Democrats say they expect the House will vote on the bill in the next few months.

Republicans oppose reinstating the 2015 rules that grant the FCC sweeping authority to oversee the conduct of internet providers.

House Republicans Greg Walden, Bob Latta and Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in a statement that both parties believe “a free and open internet is fundamental to our society.”

“All sides want a permanent solution,” they said.

Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, said the FCC ignored the will of the American people in repealing the rules.

The Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, voted in May 2018 to reinstate the rules, but the House did not take up the issue before Congress adjourned last year.

A U.S. federal appeals court last month held lengthy oral arguments in a legal challenge to the FCC’s decision. That court upheld the Obama internet rules in 2016.

In its 2017 decision, the Republican-led FCC voted 3-2 along party lines. The agency gave providers sweeping power to recast how users access the internet but said they must disclose changes in internet access.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Meredith Mazzilli)

Congress on verge of rejecting Trump’s border emergency

Construction workers in the U.S. work on a new section of the border fence as seen from Tijuana, Mexico February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress was on the verge of issuing a sharp rebuke to President Donald Trump over his declaration of an emergency at the border with Mexico, with a top Republican predicting the Senate would approve a resolution to reject it.

Already approved by the House of Representatives, the resolution to terminate the declaration has sufficient support in the Senate to be passed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Monday.

McConnell predicted that Trump would veto the resolution once it lands on his desk, however. McConnell also said that that there would not be enough votes in Congress to override the veto.

That would leave the emergency declaration – an effort to circumvent Congress to get funding for a proposed border wall – in effect, sending it to the courts for a legal battle between the White House and Democrats.

An internal debate over the issue will continue in the Senate on Tuesday, with a vote expected before the end of next week. While the outcome of the Senate vote remained uncertain, McConnell’s remarks pointed strongly toward passage.

A vote by the Republican-controlled Senate to block Trump’s declaration would be a huge embarrassment for him. In more than two years in office, he has failed to persuade Congress to fund his wall, even when both chambers were controlled by his fellow Republicans.

Trump declared a national emergency on Feb. 15 after he failed to convince Congress to give him the $5.7 billion he wanted for to build the wall. Emergency powers would allow him to divert money from other accounts already approved by Congress toward the wall, he said.

Trump says the wall is needed to curb illegal immigration and crime; Democrats say it would be too costly and ineffective.

Democrats protest that the president’s emergency intrudes on the constitutional power of Congress over government spending. The Democratic-majority House voted last week to revoke Trump’s declaration, sending the issue to the Senate.

McConnell was speaking on Monday in Kentucky after fellow Republican Senator Rand Paul said he would vote to reject the emergency.

“What is clear in the Senate is that there will be enough votes to pass the resolution of disapproval, which will then be vetoed by the president and then in all likelihood the veto will be upheld in the House,” McConnell said.

Overriding the president’s veto requires a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate, and since the resolution originated in the House the first attempt at override would presumably be in that chamber.

Paul joined Republican senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Thom Tillis in saying they would vote to block the president’s declaration. The list of defectors could grow, as other Senate Republicans have expressed concerns.

Passage in the Senate would send a message about “executive overreach” by the White House, Collins said on Monday.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson said he hoped the Senate would pass its own resolution, instead of the House-passed measure. It was unclear whether the House measure could be amended; McConnell said Republicans are studying this.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Sonya Hepinstall)

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)

Shutdown costs pegged at $3 billion as U.S. government reopens

Commuters walk from the Federal Triangle Metro station after the U.S. government reopened with about 800,000 federal workers returning after a 35-day shutdown in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By David Morgan and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. economy was expected to lose $3 billion from the partial federal government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s demand for border wall funding, congressional researchers said on Monday as 800,000 federal employees returned to work after a 35-day unpaid furlough.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said the cost of the shutdown will make the U.S. economy 0.02 percent smaller than expected in 2019. More significant effects will be felt by individual businesses and workers, particularly those who went without pay.

Overall, the U.S. economy lost about $11 billion during the five-week period, CBO said. However, CBO expects $8 billion to be recovered as the government reopens and employees receive back pay.

The longest shutdown in U.S. history ended on Friday when Trump and Congress agreed to temporary government funding – without money for his wall – as the effects of the shutdown intensified across the country.

Republican Trump had demanded that legislation to fund the government contain $5.7 billion for his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He says it is necessary to stop illegal immigration, human trafficking and drug smuggling, while Democrats call it costly, inefficient and immoral.

A committee of lawmakers from both major parties holds their first open meeting on Wednesday as they try to negotiate a compromise on border security before the Feb. 15 deadline.

The CBO estimated the shutdown reduced gross domestic product in the last quarter of 2018 by $3 billion.

It said that in the first quarter of 2019, the level of real GDP is estimated to be $8 billion lower than it would have been, citing “an effect reflecting both the five-week partial shutdown and the resumption in economic activity once funding resumed.”

Trump said he would be willing to shut down the government again if lawmakers do not reach a deal he finds acceptable on border security. On Sunday, he expressed skepticism such a deal could be made, putting the odds at 50-50.

Trump has also said he might declare a national emergency to get money for the border wall. Democrats would likely challenge that in court.

The CBO report serves as a stark warning to Trump against another shutdown, said U.S. Representative John Yarmuth, the Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee.

“The CBO confirms that the Trump shutdown had a debilitating effect on our entire economy, and if it were to resume in three weeks, millions of Americans would again share the pain of the 800,000 workers who spent the past month without a paycheck,” he said.

Most employees should be paid by Thursday for back pay, which one study estimated at $6 billion for all those furloughed. Contractors and businesses that relied on federal workers’ business, however, face huge losses, although some lawmakers are pushing legislation to pay contractors back as well.

Federal workers poured off of commuter buses and subway escalators on a block of downtown Washington on Monday. Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai greeted employees in the lobby, while the Securities and Exchange Commission offered doughnuts, fruit and coffee.

“I’m ready to go. I’m rested and I’m ready. I’m energized,” Gary Hardy, a manager in the Employee Assistance Program at the Department of Homeland Security.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was reviewing five weeks of auto safety recalls that had been submitted by automakers but has not yet begun posting them publicly. The Federal Aviation Administration said it would assess and prioritize immediate post-shutdown needs.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by David Shepardson, Mana Rabiee and Susan Heavey; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Grant McCool)

U.S. bill seeks to give Americans more control over online data

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to reporters before a series of votes on legislation ending U.S. military support for the war in Yemen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senator Marco Rubio introduced a bill on Wednesday aimed at giving Americans more control over information that online companies like Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google collect on their location, financial data, job history or biometric data like fingerprints.

Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the tech giants and others over data breaches, a lack of online privacy options and concern about political bias.

Congress has been expected to pass some sort of online privacy bill to pre-empt a stringent law passed by California.

Rubio’s bill, which would pre-empt the California law if passed by Congress, would require consumer protection regulator the Federal Trade Commission to draw up rules for companies to follow that are based on the Privacy Act of 1974, with a goal of having them in place within 18 months of the Republican senator’s bill becoming law.

The bill won early praise from Marc Rotenberg, president of the independent Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Senator Rubio has put forward a very good proposal to address growing concerns about privacy protection. The federal Privacy Act is also the right starting point,” he said.

The 1974 measure requires government agencies to give public notice of what records they keep, prohibits most disclosures of records unless the person gives written consent and gives people a way to fix inaccurate records.

Three lawmakers on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – Republicans John Thune and Jerry Moran and Democrat Richard Blumenthal – talked about potential privacy legislation last year.

The Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology proposed a bill in December that strictly limits the collection of biometric and location information and calls for punishment by fines.

In November, Intel Corp began seeking public comment on a bill it drafted that would shield companies from fines if they attest to the FTC that they have strong data protection measures.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)