Massive U.S. defense policy bill passes without strict China measures

U.S. Army soldiers carry a large U.S. flag as they march in the Veterans Day parade on 5th Avenue in New York November 11, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate passed a $716 billion defense policy bill on Wednesday, backing President Donald Trump’s call for a bigger, stronger military and sidestepping a potential battle with the White House over technology from major Chinese firms.

The Senate voted 87-10 for the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act or NDAA. The annual act authorizes U.S. military spending but is used as a vehicle for a broad range of policy matters as it has passed annually for more than 50 years.

Since it cleared the House of Representatives last week, the bill now goes to Trump, who is expected to sign it into law.

While the measure puts controls on U.S. government contracts with China’s ZTE Corp and Huawei Technologies Co Ltd because of national security concerns, the restrictions are weaker than in earlier versions of the bill.

This angered some lawmakers, who wanted to reinstate tough sanctions on ZTE to punish the company for illegally shipping products to Iran and North Korea.

In another action largely targeting China, the NDAA strengthens the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews proposed foreign investments to weigh whether they threaten national security.

Lawmakers from both parties have been at odds with the Republican Trump over his decision to lift his earlier ban on U.S. companies selling to ZTE, allowing China’s second-largest telecommunications equipment maker to resume business.

But with his fellow Republicans controlling both the Senate and House, provisions of the NDAA intended to strike back at Beijing and opposed by the White House were softened before Congress’ final votes on the bill.

Separately, the NDAA authorizes spending $7.6 billion for 77 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, made by Lockheed Martin Corp.

And it would prohibit delivery of the advanced aircraft to fellow NATO member Turkey at least until after the production of report, another measure that was stricter in earlier versions of the bill.

U.S. officials have warned Ankara that a Russian missile defense system Turkey plans to buy cannot be integrated into the NATO air and missile defense system. They are also unhappy about Turkey’s detention of an American pastor.

The fiscal 2019 NDAA was named to honor McCain, the Armed Services Committee chairman, war hero, long-time senator and former Republican presidential nominee, who has been undergoing treatment for brain cancer.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by James Dalgleish and David Gregorio)

Battle for control of U.S. Congress advances in seven states

FILE PHOTO: A woman wears a sticker in multiple languages after voting in the primary election at a polling station in Venice, Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 5, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A bitterly personal matchup in New York between a convicted felon seeking to reclaim his congressional seat from a former prosecutor is among dozens of key races in seven U.S. states on Tuesday, as voters pick candidates for November elections that will determine control of Congress.

Voters in Colorado, Maryland, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Mississippi will also select competitors for the Nov. 6 elections, when Democrats will seek to wrest control of Congress from U.S. President Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

Democrats need to flip 23 of 435 seats to gain control of the House of Representatives, which would stymie much of Trump’s agenda while opening up new avenues of investigation into his administration. They would have to net two seats to take the Senate, but face longer odds there, according to analysts.

Residents of New York City’s Staten Island borough will decide whether to give Republican Michael Grimm, fresh off a prison term for tax fraud, a chance to return to his old seat in Congress, three years after he resigned following his guilty plea.

The race has seen the candidates trade personal insults and accusations of lying, with Trump’s presence looming above it all.

Grimm, a bombastic former FBI agent known for once threatening to toss a television reporter off a balcony, has attacked incumbent Republican Representative Dan Donovan, the borough’s former district attorney, for not sufficiently supporting Trump.

Donovan, who earned Trump’s endorsement in May, has responded by calling attention to Grimm’s criminal conviction.

The district is considered within reach for Democrats in November.

“They should have a reality show: ‘The Real Candidates of Staten Island,'” said Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “It’s nasty, it’s personal – and it’s enjoyable to watch.”

DEMOCRATIC BATTLES

Voters in upstate New York will pick among seven Democrats in one of this year’s most expensive House campaigns. Republican first-term incumbent John Faso is considered vulnerable in November, and his potential challengers have collectively raised more than $7 million.

In Colorado, an establishment-backed Democrat and a liberal insurgent are vying to take on incumbent Republican Representative Mike Coffman, whose district favored Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.

Jason Crow, an Iraq war veteran backed by the national party, is facing Levi Tillemann, who was endorsed by Our Revolution, a group born out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid. Tillemann earned attention this month with an anti-gun violence video in which he blasted himself in the face with pepper spray.

South Carolina’s Republican contest for governor is the latest test of Trump’s sway among party voters. The president campaigned on Monday alongside Governor Henry McMaster, who is in a tight nominating battle with businessman John Warren. The winner is likely to prevail in November.

Voters will also pick Senate candidates in states including Utah and Maryland. Analysts say Democrats face a steep climb trying to take that chamber, as they are defending seats in states like Indiana, Montana and North Dakota that supported Trump two years ago.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is expected to earn his party’s Senate nomination in Utah, while Chelsea Manning, who served seven years in military prison for leaking classified data, is a long shot in Maryland’s Democratic nominating contest against incumbent Senator Ben Cardin.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

Trump says would back both House immigration bills as separation crisis grows

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks briefly to the news media after leaving a closed House Republican Conference meeting with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Sarah N. Lynch and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump told Republican lawmakers on Tuesday he would back either of the immigration bills making their way through the House of Representatives, as the outcry grew over his administration’s separation of immigrant parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Representative Mark Meadows said Trump told Republican members of the House at a meeting on Capitol Hill that they needed to get something done on immigration “right away.”

In the meeting, Trump said separating families was “certainly not an attractive thing and does look bad,” added Representative Tom Cole.

Congressional Republicans have been scrambling to craft legislation as videos of youngsters in cages and an audiotape of wailing children have sparked anger at home from groups ranging from clergy to influential business leaders, as well as condemnation abroad.

A Reuters/Ipsos national opinion poll released on Tuesday showed fewer than one in three American adults supporting the policy. The June 16-19 poll found that 28 percent of people polled supported the policy, while 57 percent opposed it and the remaining 15 percent said they did not know.

Trump, who has made a tough stance on immigration a centerpiece of his presidency, has staunchly defended his administration’s actions. He has cast blame for the family separations on Democrats, although his fellow Republicans control both chambers in Congress and his own administration implemented the current policy of strict adherence to immigration laws.

The president has sought to link an end to the family separations to passage of a wider bill on immigration, which would include funding for his long-sought border wall with Mexico, prompting Democrats to accuse him of using children as hostages.

“In his remarks, he endorsed both House immigration bills that build the wall, close legal loopholes, cancel the visa lottery, curb chain migration, and solve the border crisis and family separation issue by allowing for family detention and removal,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said of Trump.

An unidentified person yelled an obscenity at the president before he entered the meeting.

Earlier on Tuesday, the president tried again to blame Democrats for what he called “loopholes” in the law that require families detained for entering the country illegally either to be separated or released.

“These are crippling loopholes that cause family separation, which we don’t want,” he said in remarks to the National Federation of Independent Business, adding he wanted Congress to give him the legal authority to detain and deport families together.

A U.S. border patrol truck drives along the border fence with Mexico and pass the Christo Rey Statue on Mt. Chirsto in Sunland Park, New Mexico, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

A U.S. border patrol truck drives along the border fence with Mexico and pass the Christo Rey Statue on Mt. Chirsto in Sunland Park, New Mexico, U.S. June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

BILL WOULD PREVENT SOME SEPARATIONS

House Republicans were working on a revised draft of one version of an immigration overhaul that would prevent family separations in some cases for those attempting an illegal border crossing for the first time, according to a House Republican aide.

The draft bill was seen just days ago as unlikely to pass, but has gained support in the House, and it was unclear whether the new language about preventing family separations would improve its chances for passage.

Both Republican bills under discussion, which have been blasted by Democrats and immigration advocacy groups, would fund the border wall and reduce legal migration, in part by denying visas for some relatives of U.S. residents and citizens who are living abroad, sometimes referred to as “chain migration.”

The more conservative bill from Representative Bob Goodlatte would also deny “Dreamers,” immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children, the chance of future citizenship.

Several hundred protesters marched in New York City, chanting “Keep families together!”

Anne Heaney, 74, a retired teacher, held a sign that read, “Children do not belong in cages. Maybe Trump and Pence do.”

In Washington, activists stood next to a table occupied by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjien Nielsen in a Mexican restaurant, voicing criticism of the administration’s policy, according to video obtained by Reuters.

Two top U.S. business groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, decried the separation policy on Tuesday and called for its immediate cessation.

“My heart goes out to the impacted families,” said JPMorgan Chase & Co Chief Executive Jamie Dimon, who chairs the Business Roundtable, in a memo to the bank’s employees. “Fixing these issues will clearly boost the economy,” he added.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook described the separation of children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border as “inhumane” and promised to be a “constructive voice” in seeking to end the issue, the Irish Times newspaper reported.

Microsoft Corp CEO Satya Nadella called the policy cruel and abusive in an email to employees that was posted on Linkedin.com. He also said the company is not working on any projects with the U.S. government related to separating children from their families at the border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said on Tuesday that 2,342 children had been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border between May 5 and June 9.

The separations began after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April that all immigrants apprehended while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally should be criminally prosecuted.

Parents who are referred by border agents for prosecution are held in federal jails, while their children are moved into border shelter facilities under the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a Department of Health and Human Services agency.

LEGISLATIVE POSSIBILITIES

A number of Republican senators called on Trump on Tuesday to allow families to stay together if they had crossed the border illegally, and Senate leaders said their chamber could have legislation to address the family separations matter in a matter of days.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: “We hope to reach out to the Democrats and see if we can get a result, which means making a law and not just get into some kind of sparring back and forth that leads to no conclusion,” he said.

Top Democrats contended that Trump could change the policy with the stroke of a pen.

“The president is trying set this trap in the public mind that somehow there is a law requiring him to do this and Congress can undo it,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, who visited a detention center in Brownsville, Texas, over the weekend. “We know this is a problem that was manufactured six weeks ago, and we’re seeing the awful results today.”

Decrying “internment camps,” Democrats and their supporters disrupted a U.S. congressional hearing on Tuesday about an FBI probe.

With the sound of a young child crying in the background, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, broke from traditional protocol and started reading from a statement, saying: “These children are not animals.” His Republican colleagues tried to shout over him: “Out of order!”

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Amanda Becker, Tim Ahmann, Makini Brice, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert in Washington, Alice Popovici in New York, Richard Lough in Paris and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Dan Burns; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney)

U.S. ‘net neutrality’ rules will end on June 11 -FCC

FILE PHOTO: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) logo is seen before the FCC Net Neutrality hearing in Washington, U.S., February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Communications Commission said in a notice on Thursday that landmark 2015 U.S. open-internet rules will cease on June 11, and new rules handing providers power over what content consumers can access will take effect.

The FCC in December repealed the Obama-era “net neutrality” rules, allowing internet providers to block or slow websites as long as they disclose the practice. The FCC said the new rules will take effect on June 11.

A group of states and others have sued to try to block the new rules from taking effect. The revised rules were a win for internet service providers like AT&T  and Comcast Corp & CMCSA but are opposed by internet firms like Facebook Inc  and Alphabet Inc.

“The agency failed to listen to the American public and gave short shrift to their deeply held belief that internet openness should remain the law of the land,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said Thursday. “The FCC is on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American people.”

The U.S. Senate is set to vote as early as next week on whether to reject the FCC repeal of the net neutrality rules – but that effort faces an uphill battle.

Proponents currently have the backing of 47 Democrats and two independents who caucus with Democrats, as well as Republican Senator Susan Collins. With the prolonged absence of Republican Senator John McCain due to illness, proponents believe they will win on a 50-49 vote.

Senator Ed Markey said it was “likely” the vote will take place in the middle of next week. On Wednesday, senators officially filed a petition to force a net neutrality vote and 10 hours of floor debate under the Congressional Review Act.

Following the FCC announcement, Markey wrote on Twitter, “the Senate must act NOW and pass my resolution to save the internet as we know it.”

The FCC voted 3-2 to reverse Obama-era rules barring service providers from blocking, slowing access to or charging more for certain online content.

Once they take effect, the new FCC rules would give internet service providers sweeping powers to change how consumers access the internet but include new transparency requirements that require them to disclose any changes to consumers.

If the Senate approves the measure, it would not likely pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. If the legislation were to pass the House, President Donald Trump would be expected to veto it.

In February, a coalition of 22 state attorneys general refiled legal challenges intended to block the Trump administration’s repeal of net neutrality.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has often said he is confident the agency’s order will be upheld.

Democrats have said they believe the issue would be key in November’s midterm congressional elections, especially among younger internet-savvy voters.

Republicans have said the FCC repeal would eliminate heavy-handed government regulations, encourage investment and return the internet to pre-2015 rules.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump’s CIA pick promises no more harsh interrogation program

Acting CIA Director Gina Haspel is sworn in prior to testifying at her Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Patricia Zengerle and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the CIA promised lawmakers on Wednesday she would never resume a program of harsh interrogations, often denounced as torture, that has been the major issue complicating her confirmation.

Gina Haspel, currently the spy agency’s acting director, also told her Senate confirmation hearing she would not carry out any order from Trump that she found morally objectionable.

“My moral compass is strong. I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it,” Haspel told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Haspel also faced questions during the hearing about her role in the use of harsh interrogation methods during former President George W. Bush’s administration, as well as the destruction of videotapes documenting the questioning.

“Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program,” Haspel testified.

Haspel said U.S. law now clearly prohibits such interrogation methods, and “I fully support the detainee treatment required by law.”

Public questioning of Haspel on issues such as the effectiveness of the interrogations, CIA drone strikes and agency “renditions” of suspected militants to third countries may be limited because the operations remain classified.

“CIA has learned some tough lessons, especially when asked to tackle missions that fall outside our expertise,” Haspel said, explaining that in retrospect the agency was not prepared to conduct the detention and interrogation program employed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants.

Haspel needs 51 votes to be confirmed as the first woman director of the CIA in the 100-seat Senate, where Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a 51-49 majority. The agency’s former deputy director, she would succeed Mike Pompeo, a Republican former congressman confirmed last month as secretary of state.

Haspel already has the strong support of many Republicans. As he opened the hearing, the panel’s Republican chairman, Richard Burr, praised Haspel.

“I believe your intellectual rigor, honorable service and outstanding judgment make you a natural fit to lead the CIA,” he said, urging that the hearing not be made “a trial about a long-shuttered program.”

But Haspel could face a difficult time being confirmed. At least one Republican, Senator Rand Paul, has said he opposes her, and others have said they will wait to see how she does at Wednesday’s hearing.

No Democrat has yet expressed support for Haspel.

‘MORALLY QUESTIONABLE BEHAVIOR’

Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, said his vote on Haspel’s confirmation will largely depend on how she expresses her current views on the harsh techniques and a 2005 decision to destroy tapes of interrogations.

“We must hear how you would react if the president asks you to carry out some morally questionable behavior that might seem to violate a law or treaty,” Warner said in his opening statement.

Warner also said he would want Haspel’s commitment to cooperate in investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump has called those investigations a “witch hunt.”

Before the hearing, a small group of protesters started shouting, “Say no to torture.” They were forcibly removed by the Capitol police.

Haspel described what she called the complex challenges her agency must confront, including terrorist groups, a nuclear threat against the continental United States by North Korea, “destabilizing Iranian adventurism,” China’s ambitions on the global stage and “an aggressive and sometimes brutal Russia.”

An undercover officer for most of her more than 30-year career, Haspel in 2002 served as CIA station chief in Thailand, where the agency ran one of the secret prisons where suspected al Qaeda extremists were interrogated using procedures that included waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

A 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee investigation concluded that harsh intelligence methods during Bush’s presidency were “not an effective way of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.”

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by John Walcott, James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. Senate advances bill to penalize websites for sex trafficking

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018. REUTERS/ Leah Millis

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted 94-2 on Monday to advance legislation to make it easier to penalize operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, setting up final passage of a bill as soon as Tuesday that would chip away at a bedrock legal shield for the technology industry.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the legislation overwhelmingly last month. It is expected to be sent to and signed by President Donald Trump later this week.

The bill’s expected passage marks one of the most concrete actions in recent years from the U.S. Congress to tighten regulation of internet firms, which have drawn scrutiny from lawmakers in both parties over the past year because of an array of concerns regarding the size and influence of their platforms.

The Senate vote to limit debate on the sex trafficking legislation came as Facebook endured withering scrutiny over its data protection practices after reports that political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica harvested the private data on more than 50 million Facebook users through inappropriate means.

Several major internet companies, including Facebook and Alphabet’s Google, have been reluctant in the past to support any congressional effort to dent what is known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a decades-old law that protects them from liability for the activities of their users.

But facing political pressure, the internet industry slowly warmed to a proposal that began to gain traction in the Senate last year.

The legislation is a result of years of law enforcement lobbying for a crackdown on the online classified site backpage.com, which is used for sex advertising.

It would make it easier for states and sex-trafficking victims to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep exploitative material off their platforms.

Some critics have warned that the measure would weaken Section 230 in a way that would only serve to help established internet giants, which possess larger resources to police their content, and not adequately address the problem.

Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden cast the only no votes.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Peter Cooney)

School safety bill passes House, no action on gun control

Students from Gonzaga College High School in Washington, DC, hold up signs with the names of those killed in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting during a protest for stricter gun control during a walkout by students at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Lisa Lambert and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives approved spending more money on metal detectors, locks and other school security measures on Wednesday, but took no steps to tighten gun control laws a month after a Florida high school shooting that killed 17 people.

While students marched nationwide for change on one of America’s most vexing social issues, lawmakers voted 407-10 for legislation to spend $50 million to $75 million per year from 2019 through 2028 on school security and safety training.

 

People supporting gun control attend a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing about legislative proposals to improve school safety in the wake of the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

People supporting gun control attend a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing about legislative proposals to improve school safety in the wake of the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

No parallel measure was pending in the Senate, where a somewhat more ambitious bill was being debated, but prospects for meaningful gun control reforms in Congress remained remote in the face of stiff resistance from gun industry lobbyists.

“This bill, on its own, is not the kind of meaningful congressional action needed to address this crisis of gun violence,” Representative Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, said in a statement.

“This must be a first step and it must be followed by a serious effort to pass legislation that expands background checks and bans military-style assault weapons,” he said.

It was not yet clear when the Senate would take up the House bill, which would not become law without Senate approval.

President Donald Trump applauded the House bill, the White House said, though it falls far short of broader gun control legislation he talked about shortly after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The measure would not allow any of the funding to be used for arming teachers or other school personnel. The White House said the bill would be improved by lifting that restriction.

Since the Parkland massacre, student protesters have successfully lobbied for tighter gun controls in Florida. Hundreds of them gathered outside the Capitol to urge Congress to take action on placing new limits on firearms and gun sales.

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) listens to testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing about legislative proposals to improve school safety in the wake of the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) listens to testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing about legislative proposals to improve school safety in the wake of the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

In the Senate is a bill to strengthen existing background checks of gun purchasers. It enjoys broad bipartisan support but has not been scheduled for debate.

Congressional aides said discussions were underway about folding the school safety and background check bills into a government funding bill that lawmakers want to pass by March 23.

Eleven organizations, including some gun control and law enforcement groups, wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer urging passage this month of the background checks bill.

Since the Florida shooting, the Republican-led Congress and the Trump administration have considered measures to curb gun violence while trying to avoid crossing the powerful National Rifle Association lobby group, or threatening the right to bear arms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.

Neither the House nor Senate bills address many of the gun control initiatives backed by students, teachers and families of shooting victims at the Florida school.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Katherine Posada, a teacher at the school, recounted the horror she experienced the day of the shooting and urged Congress to ban assault-style weapons like the AR-15 rifle used by Nikolas Cruz, who has been charged in the murders.

“Some of the victims were shot through doors, or even through walls – a knife can’t do that,” Posada said. “How many innocent lives could have been saved if these weapons of war weren’t so readily available?”

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Lisa Lambert, David Alexander and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Tom Brown)

U.S. House passes bill to help schools combat gun violence

People supporting gun control attend a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing about legislative proposals to improve school safety in the wake of the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Lisa Lambert and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed legislation to help schools and local law enforcement prevent gun violence, one month after the mass shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 people.

The House passed the bill by a vote of 407-10, sending it to the Senate for consideration.

Earlier on Wednesday, the White House announced President Donald Trump’s support of the bill, which is far short of the broader gun control legislation he talked about shortly after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Since that massacre, student protesters have successfully lobbied for tighter gun controls in Florida. Hundreds of them gathered outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to take their argument to a Congress that has long resisted placing new limits on firearms and gun sales.

The House-passed bill would authorize federal grants, totaling $50 million a year, to fund training, anonymous reporting systems, threat assessments, intervention teams and school and police coordination.

The measure, however, would not allow any of the funding to be used for arming teachers or other school personnel. The White House said the legislation would be improved by lifting that restriction.

“The best way to keep our students and teachers safe is to give them the tools and the training to recognize the warning signs to prevent violence from ever entering our school grounds, and this bill aims to do just that,” said Republican Representative John Rutherford of Florida, a former sheriff who sponsored the school safety bill.

It was not yet clear when the Senate would take up the House-passed bill.

Already awaiting action in the Senate is a bill to strengthen existing background checks of gun purchasers. It enjoys broad bipartisan support but has not been scheduled for debate.

Congressional aides said there were ongoing discussions about possibly folding the school safety and background check bills into a massive government funding bill that Congress aims to pass by March 23.

Eleven organizations, including some gun control and law enforcement groups, on Wednesday sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer urging passage this month of the background checks bill.

Neither the House nor Senate bills address many of the gun control initiatives backed by students, teachers and families of shooting victims at the Florida school.

In emotional testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Katherine Posada, a teacher at the school, recounted the horror she experienced the day of the shooting and urged Congress to ban assault-style weapons like the AR-15 rifle used by Nikolas Cruz, who has been charged in the murders.

“Some of the victims were shot through doors, or even through walls – a knife can’t do that,” Posada said. “How many innocent lives could have been saved if these weapons of war weren’t so readily available?”

Since the Florida shooting, the Republican-led Congress and Trump’s administration have considered a variety of measures to curb gun violence while trying to avoid upsetting the powerful National Rifle Association lobby group or threatening the right to bear arms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.

Protesters with signs targeting the NRA and advocating an assault rifle ban filled the hearing room in the Senate on Wednesday and occasionally applauded as some Democrats on the panel spoke about enacting stricter gun laws.

Meanwhile, the No. 2 official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation told lawmakers in testimony Wednesday that his agency dropped the ball by mishandling several tips about Cruz before the shooting, and said reforms were underway.

“The FBI could have and should have done more to investigate the information it was provided prior to the shooting,” Acting Deputy Director David Bowdich said.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Lisa Lambert, David Alexander and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Tom Brown and Jonathan Oatis)

White House rejects bipartisan Senate immigration plan

Activists and DACA recipients march up Broadway during the start of their 'Walk to Stay Home,' a five-day 250-mile walk from New York to Washington D.C., to demand that Congress pass a Clean Dream Act, in Manhattan, New York, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House stuck to its hard-line immigration approach on Thursday and said advisers would recommend that President Donald Trump veto a bipartisan U.S. Senate proposal to protect young “Dreamer” immigrants and tighten border security.

The plan, which would protect from deportation 1.8 million young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children, would weaken border security and undercut existing immigration law, spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

“Preventing enforcement with respect to people who entered our country illegally before a date that is in the future would produce a flood of new illegal immigration in the coming months,” she said.

The proposal, which had been considered perhaps the most likely to succeed in the Senate, also includes a $25 billion fund to strengthen border security and possibly even build segments of Trump’s long-promised border wall with Mexico.

White House opposition to the bipartisan plan appeared to focus on a provision that would direct the Department of Homeland Security to focus enforcement efforts on undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, are a threat to national security or arrived in the United States after June 30, 2018.

The Senate is debating at least four immigration measures as lawmakers race to resolve the status of Dreamers, who were protected under an Obama-era program. Trump has ordered that program to end by March 5, telling Congress it should come up with an alternative plan by then.

The Department of Homeland Security also opposed the bipartisan plan led by Republican Senator Susan Collins, saying it would prevent DHS officers from being able to remove millions of undocumented immigrants from the country, and “is an egregious violation of the four compromise pillars laid out by the President’s immigration reform framework.”

Trump has said any immigration bill must include funds to build the border wall, end the visa lottery program, impose curbs on visas for the families of legal immigrants and protect Dreamers.

The Republican president has backed a measure by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley that embraces his wish list but is unlikely to win support from enough Democrats in the closely divided chamber.

A narrower third bill focusing just on Dreamers and border security, by Republican John McCain and Democrat Chris Coons, has been dismissed by Trump. A fourth measure, which is not expected to pass, focuses on punishing “sanctuary cities” that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said votes on the four measures would be held possibly on Thursday or at least Friday morning, ahead of a self-imposed Senate deadline of the end of the week.

‘BITTER PILLS’

The bipartisan Collins bill got a slight boost earlier on Thursday when an influential group that advocates for immigrants, America’s Voice, gave its reluctant support to the measure.

The group opposes provisions allowing the construction of a border wall and moves to limit legal immigration, but said in a statement, “We believe the chance to provide a permanent solution for Dreamers calls us to swallow these bitter pills.”

Despite backing from several Republicans for the Collins-led plan, it was unclear whether it would muster the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate, controlled 51-49 by Republicans.

A senior Senate Republican aide said the White House veto threat would “scuttle” some Republican support for the bipartisan bill. The prospect of all bills failing could even discourage some Republicans from voting for the Trump-backed plan, the aide said.

Trump is anxious to start on the border wall, which he made a central part of his 2016 election campaign and which Democrats have long opposed. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the wall would be “an enormous waste of money,” but both parties had to bend.

“We have to rise above our differences, admit that no one will get everything they want and accept painful compromises,” Schumer said.

In September, Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to protect Dreamers from deportation and offer them work permits. Although the protections are due to start expiring on March 5, federal judges have blocked that from taking effect amid ongoing litigation.

Even if one of the Senate measures passes, it must still win over the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a larger majority and are pushing a more conservative proposal that is more closely in line with Trump’s framework.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Makini Brice; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Senate leaders in a rare display of bipartisanship, reach $300 billion federal spending deal

U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham speaks to reporters outside the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. February 7, 2018.

By Richard Cowan and Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. congressional leaders, in a rare display of bipartisanship, on Wednesday reached a two-year budget deal to raise government spending by almost $300 billion, attempting to curb Washington’s fiscal policy squabbling but also widening the federal deficit.

The agreement, announced by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives, would lift caps on defense funding and some domestic spending. It also would postpone a reckoning with the federal debt limit.

Along with President Donald Trump’s tax cuts that were approved by Congress in December, the new round of spending would further add to the bulging deficit and may face resistance in the House from Democrats as well as Republican fiscal hawks.

“This bill is the product of extensive negotiations among congressional leaders and the White House,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said on the Senate floor.

The plan will need to be passed in the House and the Senate, both controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, before it can be sent to the White House for the president to sign into law.

House Democrats have warned they will not back the deal unless Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan promises to advance separate legislation on immigration policy.

Chuck Schumer, leader of the Senate Democrats, touted the deal, saying, “It should break the long cycle of spending crises that have snarled this Congress and hampered our middle class.”

The defense spending increase in it should allow Trump to make good on his campaign promise for a military build-up.

The White House said the deal includes an extension, until March 2019, of the government’s debt ceiling. The Treasury Department has been warning that without an extension in borrowing authority from Congress, the government would run out of borrowing options in the first half of next month, risking an unprecedented debt default.

The agreement also funds disaster relief, infrastructure and programs addressing opioid abuse, the Senate leaders said.

DEFICIT INCREASE

White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said the deal would increase spending by “just shy” of $300 billion.

A senior congressional aide said this amount of additional spending would not be offset by any spending cuts or new tax revenue, meaning an increase in the federal deficit.

“This really is the moment where it has become clear that despite record levels of debt and approaching trillion dollar deficits, Congress has stopped caring about what they’re doing to the fiscal health of the country,” said Maya MacGuineas, head of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a group that advocates for long-term fixes to Washington’s debt problems.

Aside from the budget deal, lawmakers were also trying to reach agreement by Thursday to avoid a government shutdown and fund the government until March 23. If that fails, the U.S. government would suffer its second shutdown this year, after a partisan standoff over immigration policy led to a three-day partial shutdown last month.

In financial markets, yields on benchmark 10-year notes rose on news of the budget deal, on expectations of higher growth and potentially greater Treasury supply.

A large uptick in issuance is expected after Congress raises the debt ceiling, which along with higher inflation expectations has weighed on bonds in the past week.

A congressional source familiar with the agreement said it would increase non-defense spending by $131 billion and include $20 billion for infrastructure spending. It also would extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for 10 years instead of the current six, the source added.

Passage of the plan would ease the brinkmanship over spending that roils Washington so regularly that financial markets barely flinch at the threat of a government shutdown.

Immigration again emerged as a possible point of contention. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who helped negotiate the accord, nevertheless said she would oppose it unless Ryan promises to advance legislation to protect hundreds of thousands of young adult immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” brought to the United States illegally as children.

January’s shutdown came after Democrats sought to have a spending bill include protections for the Dreamers that Trump has rescinded effective in March.

Republicans are eager to keep spending and immigration separate. Trump threatened on Tuesday to upend budget talks by saying he would welcome a government shutdown if Congress were not able to agree to changes in immigration law that he said would prevent criminals from entering the country.

(Additional reporting by David Morgan, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington and April Joyner in New York; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Will Dunham)