Factbox: Six members of U.S. Congress diagnosed with coronavirus

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – At least six members of the U.S. Congress have announced that they have contracted the novel coronavirus, and more than 30 others are or were self-quarantining in hopes of limiting the spread of the pandemic.

Now that Congress has passed a $2.2 trillion economic relief bill, and President Donald Trump has signed it into law, neither the House of Representatives nor Senate is now due back in Washington before April 20 at the earliest.

An estimated 230 House members returned to Washington to pass the relief package on Friday, despite the health risks of traveling and gathering at the Capitol, after Republican Representative Thomas Massie said he would block an effort to pass it without at least half of the House’s 430 members present.

Here is a look at some of the lawmakers affected by the virus:

WHO HAS THE VIRUS?

Representative Nydia Velazquez

Velazquez, a Democrat from New York, announced in a statement on Monday that she had been diagnosed with a presumed case of coronavirus, although she had not been tested, after developing symptoms of the ailment on Sunday.

Velazquez was among the House members who returned to the Capitol on Friday.

Representative Mike Kelly

Kelly, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said on Friday he had tested positive for the coronavirus at a drive-through testing site.

Kelly said in a statement he had started experiencing mild flu-like symptoms, and his doctor ordered the coronavirus test.

Representative Joe Cunningham

Cunningham, a Democrat from South Carolina, said on Friday he had tested positive for the coronavirus, although his symptoms had already begun to improve.

Cunningham had been in self-quarantine since March 19 after learning he had been in contact with another member of Congress who had tested positive.

Senator Rand Paul

The Kentucky Republican said on March 22 that he had tested positive and was in quarantine. He said he was asymptomatic and feeling fine and was tested out of an abundance of caution. He had been in the Senate and using the gym there in the days before he received his positive result.

Representative Mario Diaz-Balart

The Florida Republican said on March 18 that he tested positive after developing symptoms on March 14. That was less than 24 hours after he and more than 400 other members of the House of Representatives crowded into the chamber to pass an earlier coronavirus aid package.

Representative Ben McAdams

The Utah Democrat said on March 18 that he had the virus, also having developed symptoms on March 14. In a statement March 24, McAdams said he had been in the hospital and doctors were monitoring his occasional need for oxygen.

He has since been released from the hospital.

WHO IS SELF-QUARANTINED?

At least six of the 100 senators have self-quarantined because of exposure to Paul or others who tested positive for coronavirus. They are Republicans Cory Gardner, Lindsey Graham, Rick Scott and Ted Cruz. All have returned to public life.

More than two dozen House members have self-quarantined, some after exposure to Diaz-Balart or McAdams, and others after contacts with constituents or staffers who tested positive. Not all are still in isolation.

The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Thune, missed the March 25 Senate vote on the $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill after feeling ill and flying home to South Dakota. He later announced that a coronavirus test had come back negative.

 

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell, Patricia Zengerle and Jan Wolfe; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Nick Zieminski)

McConnell, Pelosi, Mnuchin see deal soon on $2 trillion U.S. coronavirus aid

By David Morgan and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior Democrats and Republicans said on Tuesday they were close to reaching a deal on a $2 trillion coronavirus economic stimulus package, raising hopes that the U.S. Congress could soon act to try to limit the economic fallout from the pandemic.

“At last, I believe, we’re on the five-yard line,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, using a football analogy meaning close to scoring, as the chamber opened its session on Tuesday morning.

“We are very close,” added McConnell, the top Republican in Congress.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said the two sides had agreed to more oversight provisions of a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit businesses, resolving a key sticking point.

“I think there is a real optimism that we could get something done in the next few hours,” Pelosi told CNBC.

Steven Mnuchin, President Donald Trump’s treasury secretary, told reporters that lawmakers hope to have a draft ready within the next two to three hours. He confirmed the changes to the industry fund. “There’s better oversight,” Mnuchin said.

Democrats have twice blocked attempts to advance the bill, saying it did not provide enough money for states and hospitals, lacked sufficient aid for unemployed Americans and did not include adequate supervision of a massive fund to aid big businesses.

Those concerns appear to have been addressed.

“I’m very optimistic that there will be a deal announced this morning,” Democratic Senator Chris Coons said on MSNBC.

Wall Street jumped at the open on Tuesday as signs that Washington was nearing a deal on the rescue package gave a shot of optimism to markets reeling under the biggest selloff since the global financial crisis more than a decade ago.

Trump’s administration has launched a major push for action to try to blunt the economic impact of the pandemic and steep stock market decline, after he spent weeks dismissing the risks.

As talks concluded late on Monday, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the two sides were nearing an agreement and he expected that the legislation would be voted upon on Tuesday.

‘ALL OF THE NONSENSE’

Republicans, Democrats and top Trump aides had negotiated for days over the package, which would be the third and largest passed to address the crisis if it is backed by both the Republican-majority Senate and Democratic-majority House and signed by the Republican president.

“Congress must approve the deal, without all of the nonsense, today. The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 550 people in the United States and sickened more than 43,800, shuttered thousands of businesses, thrown millions out of work and led state governors to order about 100 million people – nearly a third of the nation’s population – to stay at home.

Pelosi has introduced her own $2.5 trillion counterproposal that also includes $4 billion that would allow states to conduct the November presidential and congressional elections by mail.

That legislation would likely be irrelevant if a bipartisan deal is forged in the Senate.

While details of the emerging bipartisan bill were not available, it is expected to provide financial aid for Americans out of work because of the virus and help for struggling industries such as airlines.

Republicans normally hold a slim 53-47 majority in the Senate, meaning they need Democratic support to garner the 60 votes required to advance most legislation.

But the coronavirus has affected their ranks, giving Democrats even more leverage. Republican Senator Rand Paul has tested positive for coronavirus and four other Republicans are also unable to vote because they were exposed to Paul or others with the virus.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Lisa Lambert and Susan Heavey; Writing by Andy Sullivan and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Scott Malone, David Gregorio and Will Dunham)

U.S. lawmakers hit snag over vaccine costs in bill to battle coronavirus

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress and President Donald Trump neared agreement on Tuesday on legislation to battle the spreading coronavirus with as much as $9 billion, but a dispute over the cost of vaccines held up a deal, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate hoped to resolve the dispute and approve the emergency legislation by the end of this week.

A source close to the negotiations, who asked not to be identified, said that two issues must first be resolved: Democrats insist that the spending bill contain language stating that any coronavirus vaccine be priced at a “fair and reasonable” level. Democrats also want the government to help pay for vaccines to help those who might not be able to afford them.

Republican aides were not immediately available for comment.

Trump said the measure would appropriate about $8.5 billion – far above the $2.5 billion he initially requested last month. And House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, noting that the measure was still being written in Congress, said it could inject “$8 or $9 billion” into the U.S. economy.

Depending on when Republicans and Democrats settle their dispute, the bill could be debated by the full House on Wednesday or Thursday. Once passed by the House, the Senate is expected to attempt to act promptly.

The legislation is one part of a multipronged approach emerging from Washington following multiple deaths in Washington state this week from illnesses caused by the highly contagious coronavirus.

Earlier on Tuesday the Federal Reserve cut interest rates by a half percentage point to a target range of 1.00% to 1.25% in an attempt to cushion the economy against the impact of the virus, which could slow consumer spending and disrupt business activities.

U.S. health officials have been ramping up the government’s ability to do more testing of patients suspected of having been infected by the new coronavirus, which was first detected in China late last year.

There also are efforts by pharmaceutical companies and Washington to speed the development of a vaccine for the coronavirus.

While details were still not available, the House’s emergency spending could contain money to help state and local governments respond to local health emergencies and possibly provide interest-free loans for small businesses affected by an outbreak, Democratic lawmakers said.

On Wednesday, the top four leaders of the House and Senate are scheduled to be briefed by Capitol officials on responses to the coronavirus and the possible impact on day-to-day operations of Congress.

A senior House Democratic aide said there have been no discussions of limiting tourism in the Capitol complex or shutting public galleries for viewing House and Senate debates.

Last Friday, House lawmakers were advised to develop alternative work arrangements for aides if the virus becomes widespread.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan, Jeff Mason and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Fed says risks to economy easing, but calls out coronavirus in report to Congress

By Howard Schneider and Lindsay Dunsmuir

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A “moderately” expanding U.S. economy was slowed last year by a manufacturing slump and weak global growth, but key risks have receded and the likelihood of recession has declined, the U.S. Federal Reserve reported in its latest monetary policy report to the U.S. Congress.

“Downside risks to the U.S. outlook seem to have receded in the latter part of the year, as the conflicts over trade policy diminished somewhat, economic growth abroad showed signs of stabilizing, and financial conditions eased,” the Fed said, noting that the U.S. job market and consumer spending remained strong.

“The likelihood of a recession occurring over the next year has fallen noticeably in recent months.”

Among the risks the Fed did note: the fallout from the spreading outbreak of coronavirus in China, “elevated” asset values, and near-record levels of low-grade corporate debt that the Fed fears could become a problem in an economic downturn.

Overall, however, the Fed saw risks to a more than decade long U.S. recovery easing following its three interest rate cuts in 2019, and evidence that “the global slowdown in manufacturing and trade appears to be at an end, and consumer spending and services activity around the world continue to hold up.”

It cautioned that “the recent emergence of the coronavirus, however, could lead to disruptions in China that spill over to the rest of the global economy.”

By law the Fed twice a year prepares a formal report for the U.S. Congress on the state of the economy and monetary policy.

Much of its amounts to a review of recent events. The new document repeats the Fed’s assessment that the current level of the federal funds rate, in a range of between 1.5% and 1.75% was “appropriate” to keep the recovery track.

It also reviewed the spike in the federal funds rate last fall and the steps the Fed has taken to relieve funding pressures, repeating it considers the measures technical and not a change in monetary policy.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell will present the report at two public hearings next week, and some Democratic U.S. senators have already posed in writing a series of questions challenging the Fed’s actions in those short-term funding markets.

The document did include a separate section analyzing how a slump in manufacturing last year impacted economic growth overall, after concern a downturn in that sector might pull the United States into a recession.

The Fed concluded that the slowdown in factory output, which also meant less business for parts and services suppliers, cut overall growth in gross domestic product between 0.2 and 0.5 percentage points.

That falls “well short” of the threshold associated with past recessions, the Fed said.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider and Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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

By David Brunnstrom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump impeachment effort passes first test in split U.S. Congress

Trump impeachment effort passes first test in split U.S. Congress
By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A deeply divided U.S. House of Representatives took a major step in the effort to impeach President Donald Trump on Thursday when lawmakers approved rules for the next stage, including public hearings, in the Democratic-led inquiry into Trump’s attempt to have Ukraine investigate a domestic political rival.

In the first formal test of support for the impeachment investigation, the Democratic-controlled House voted almost entirely along party lines – 232 to 196 – to move the probe forward in Congress.

The vote demonstrated unity among Democrats who accuse Trump of abusing his office and jeopardizing national security for personal political gain. But they did not pick up a single Republican vote.

“It’s a sad day. No one comes to Congress to impeach a president,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said before the vote.

Televised public hearings featuring U.S. officials testifying in Congress about alleged wrongdoing by Trump could crowd out other issues like the economy and immigration as voters turn their minds to the November 2020 presidential election.

That might damage Trump but some of his supporters say the impeachment drive could actually boost his re-election chances by showing him at loggerheads with Washington-based political foes.

Republicans accused Democrats of using impeachment to overturn the results of his 2016 victory.

“The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!” Trump wrote on Twitter after the vote.

The probe focuses on a July 25 telephone call in which Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymr Zelenskiy, to investigate Trump’s Democratic political rival Joe Biden, a former U.S. vice president, and his son Hunter, who had served as a director for Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

Biden is a leading candidate in the Democratic presidential nomination race to face Trump in the November 2020 election. He and his son have denied any wrongdoing.

Trump has also denied wrongdoing. Republicans have largely stuck by him, blasting the effort as a partisan exercise that has given them little input.

REPUBLICAN PUSHBACK

“The country next year will be deciding who our president is going to be. It should not be Nancy Pelosi and a small group of people that she selects that get to determine who is going to be our president,” said Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican.

Just two Democrats – Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey – voted against the measure. Both represent districts where Trump won in the 2016 election. Other Democrats from Trump-leaning districts, such as Jared Golden of Maine, voted yes.

If the House eventually votes to impeach Trump, that would set up a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate. Trump would not be removed from office unless votes to convict him by a two-thirds margin, something that looks unlikely as congressional Republicans have been reluctant to move against the president.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler declined say when public hearings would start but they are expected to begin in the next few weeks.

The U.S. Constitution gives the House broad authority to set ground rules for an impeachment inquiry and Democrats say they are following House rules on investigations. They have promised to hold public hearings on the case against Trump.

Lawmakers leading the inquiry heard closed-door testimony from Tim Morrison, the top Russia specialist on Trump’s National Security Council. Morrison resigned from his position on Wednesday, a senior administration official said.

Members of the three committees conducting the investigation expect Morrison to fill in more of the details about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. Morrison listened in on the July 25 phone call and said the call “could have been better,” according to acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor.

Committee members have asked a far more prominent player, former national security adviser John Bolton, to appear next week. Others have testified that Bolton was alarmed by a White House effort to pressure Zelenskiy. Bolton’s lawyer has said he was not willing to testify unless a subpoena is issued.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Alistair Bell)

Trump says Congress would act if top court rejects ‘Dreamers’

By Susan Heavey and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday said the U.S. Congress could step in to protect the immigrants known as “Dreamers” if the Supreme Court endorses his plan to end a program protecting hundreds of thousands of these young adults who were brought into the country illegally as children.

“Republicans and Democrats will have a deal to let them stay in our country, in very short order,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on Nov. 12 over Trump’s 2017 plan to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama in 2012. The immigrants protected under the program often are called “Dreamers.”

Trump and Congress have been unable to agree on legislation that would protect the “Dreamers,” with deep differences between the president’s fellow Republicans and Democratic lawmakers. The failure of Congress to pass a bipartisan immigration package is what prompted Obama to create DACA.

The DACA program currently shields about 700,000 immigrants, mostly Hispanic young adults, from deportation and provides them work permits, though not a path to citizenship.

Trump’s move to rescind DACA was blocked by lower courts.

A ruling by the Supreme Court is due by the end of June.

Trump said on Twitter that if the Supreme Court upholds DACA – which is not the legal question in the case before the justices – it would give the president “extraordinary powers.”

The Trump administration has argued that Obama exceeded his constitutional powers when he bypassed Congress and created DACA.

Trump himself has sought to exercise broad presidential powers over immigration, including his travel ban on people entering the United States from several Muslim-majority countries. The Supreme Court upheld that policy in 2018, recognizing wide presidential authority in this area. Trump bypassed Congress in imposing the travel ban.

The legal question before the Supreme Court is whether Trump’s administration properly followed a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act in the president’s plan to end DACA. The Supreme Court does not have to decide whether the DACA program itself was lawful.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Alison Williams and Will Dunham)

U.S. Congress to advance ‘Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy’ bill

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. congressional committees are due to start voting next week on legislation supporting human rights in Hong Kong, with measures under consideration including annual reviews of the Chinese territory’s special economic status and the imposition of sanctions on those who undermine its autonomy.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a news conference on Wednesday with House members – Republicans and her fellow Democrats – as well as Joshua Wong, Denise Ho and other Hong Kong democracy activists to back the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019.”

The activists have spent much of this week in Washington making their case for U.S. support, including testifying at a congressional hearing on Tuesday.

“Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate enthusiastically support this legislation,” Pelosi said. “We stand with … all who are fighting for a peaceful, hopeful future.”

Leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said the committee was due to mark up – debate and vote on – the bill next week. It is expected to pass, which would send it for a vote by the full House.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said that committee was also working on its version of the legislation, hoping to hold its markup next week.

The bill’s text will not be final until it passes both houses of Congress, and it must be signed by President Donald Trump to become law.

The current version of the House bill calls for annual evaluations of whether Hong Kong still meets the conditions – including remaining autonomous – of the 1992 U.S. law granting it special economic status.

It also would require the Trump administration to identify and sanction anyone responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Republican Representative Chris Smith, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, told the news conference.

Trump has sent some mixed signals on the Hong Kong protests. In early August, he caused alarm among those sympathetic to the movement by describing the street demonstrations as riots.

Trump has since called on China to end the discord in a humanitarian way and said a crackdown could make his efforts to end a damaging trade war “very hard.”

Some industry groups worry that the legislation could threat then delicate trade talks. Backers rejected that concern.

“We cannot let commercial interests drive our policy,” Pelosi said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Tom Brown)

Israel bars visit by U.S. Democratic lawmakers

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) holds a news conference to discuss legislation creating "a federal grant program to help local governments invest in waste reduction initiatives", at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., July 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert/File Photo

By Rami Ayyub and Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israel will bar a visit by two of its sharpest critics in the U.S. Congress, Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who planned to tour the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the country’s deputy foreign minister said on Thursday.

“The decision has been made, the decision is not to allow them to enter,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told Israel’s Reshet Bet Radio.

U.S. President Donald Trump had earlier urged Israel on Thursday not to allow the visit by Tlaib and Omar, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and members of the Democratic party’s progressive wing.

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) questions Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on "Trump Administration's Child Separation Policy" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) questions Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on “Trump Administration’s Child Separation Policy” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

The pair have voiced support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Under Israeli law, backers of the BDS movement can be denied entry to Israel.

Trump has vented in recent months against Omar, Tlaib and two other Democratic congresswomen of color, accusing them of hostility to Israel in what has widely been seen as a drumming up of Republican votes for his 2020 reelection bid.

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit,” he tweeted on Thursday. “They are a disgrace!”

No date had been formally announced for the congresswomen’s trip, but sources familiar with the planned visit said it could begin at the weekend.

Israel’s ambassador in the United States, Ron Dermer, said last month Tlaib and Omar would be let in, out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Political commentators said a reversal of Israel’s original intention to approve the legislators’ entry likely stemmed from a desire to mirror Trump’s hard line against them.

An Israeli official said earlier on Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior members of his cabinet held consultations on Wednesday on a “final decision” about the visit.

Denying entry to elected U.S. officials could further strain relations between Netanyahu, who has highlighted his close ties with Trump in his current re-election campaign, and the Democratic leadership in Congress.

HOLY SITE

A planned tour by the two lawmakers of the holy compound in Jerusalem that houses al-Aqsa mosque, and which is revered by Jews as the site of two biblical Jewish temples, turned into an issue of contention, according to sources familiar with preparations for the visit.

The flashpoint site is in an area of Jerusalem that Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

An official in Israel’s internal security ministry said any visit by Tlaib and Omar to the complex, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount, would require Israeli security protection.

Violence erupted there on Sunday between Israeli police and Palestinians amid tensions over visits by Jewish pilgrims on a day when the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av overlapped.

Tlaib, 43, who was born in the United States, draws her roots to the Palestinian village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa in the West Bank. Her grandmother and extended family live in the village.

Omar, who immigrated to the United States from Somalia as a child, represents Minnesota’s fifth congressional district.

In February, Omar, 37, apologized after Democratic leaders condemned remarks she made about the pro-Israel lobby in the United States as using anti-Semitic stereotypes.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Makini Brice in Washington; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Frances Kerry)

NATO chief cites Russia threat in address to U.S. Congress

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 3, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization warned the U.S. Congress on Wednesday of the threat posed by “a more assertive Russia” to the alliance, including its violations of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

“NATO has no intention of deploying land-based nuclear missiles in Europe,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “But NATO will always take the necessary steps to provide credible and effective deterrence.”

Stoltenberg also used his speech to give a ringing defense of “the most successful alliance in history,” which has often been derided by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Members of Congress, who greeted Stoltenberg with repeated cheers and standing ovations, said they viewed his address to the joint meeting of the House of Representatives and Senate as a chance to reaffirm the American committee to the NATO alliance.

Stoltenberg was the first Norwegian ever accorded the rare honor of such an address.

“NATO has been good for Europe, but NATO has also been good for the United States,” Stoltenberg said.

Stoltenberg met on Tuesday with Trump, who said his pressure on NATO nations to pay more for their defense is leading to tens of billions of dollars more in contributions, but the allies may need to boost their budgets even more. [L1N21K15D]

Stoltenberg said NATO member countries are “adding billions” in defense spending.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)