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)

U.S. Congress advances border security bill without Trump border wall

A visitor walks by the U.S. Capitol on day 32 of a partial government shutdown as it becomes the longest in U.S. history in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress on Thursday aimed to end a dispute over border security with legislation that would ignore President Donald Trump’s request for $5.7 billion (£4.45 billion) to help build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border but avoid a partial government shutdown.

Late on Wednesday, negotiators put the finishing touches on legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, along with a range of other federal agencies.

Racing against a Friday midnight deadline, when operating funds expire for the agencies that employ about 800,000 workers at the DHS, the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice and others, the Senate and House of Representatives aimed to pass the legislation later on Thursday.

That would give Trump time to review the measure and sign it into law before temporary funding for about one-quarter of the government expires.

Failure to do so would shutter many government programs, from national parks maintenance and air traffic controller training programs to the collection and publication of important data for financial markets, for the second time this year.

“This agreement denies funding for President Trump’s border wall and includes several key measures to make our immigration system more humane,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat, said in a statement.

According to congressional aides, the final version of legislation would give the Trump administration $1.37 billion in new money to help build 55 miles (88.5 km) of new physical barriers on the southwest border, far less than what Trump had been demanding.

It is the same level of funding Congress appropriated for border security measures last year, including barriers but not concrete walls.

Since he ran for office in 2016, Trump has been demanding billions of dollars to build a wall on the southwest border, saying “crisis” conditions required a quick response to stop the flow of illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants, largely from Central America.

He originally said Mexico would pay for a 2,000-mile (3,200-km) concrete wall – an idea that Mexico dismissed.

Trump has not yet said whether he would sign the legislation into law if the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Republican-led Senate approve it, even as many of his fellow Republicans in Congress were urging him to do so.

Instead, he said on Wednesday he would hold off on a decision until he examines the final version of legislation.

But Trump, widely blamed for a five-week shutdown that ended in January, said he did not want to see federal agencies close again because of fighting over funds for the wall.

Senator Richard Shelby, the Republican negotiator who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a Twitter post he spoke to Trump later on Wednesday and he was in good spirits. Shelby told Trump the agreement was “a downpayment on his border wall.”

‘NATIONAL EMERGENCY’

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is in regular contact with the White House, said Trump was “inclined to take the deal and move on.”

But Graham also told reporters that Trump would then look elsewhere to find more money to build a border wall and was “very inclined” to declare a national emergency to secure the funds for the project.

Such a move likely would spark a court battle, as it is Congress and not the president that mainly decides how federal funds get spent. Several leading Republicans have cautioned Trump against taking the unilateral action.

Under the bill, the government could hire 75 new immigrant judge teams to help reduce a huge backlog in cases and hundreds of additional border patrol agents.

Hoping to reduce violence and economic distress in Central America that fuels immigrant asylum cases in the United States, the bill also provides $527 million to continue humanitarian assistance to those countries.

The House Appropriations Committee said the bill would set a path for reducing immigrant detention beds to about 40,520 by the end of the fiscal year, down from a current count of approximately 49,060.

Democrats sought reductions, arguing that would force federal agents to focus on apprehending violent criminals and repeat offenders and discourage arrests of undocumented immigrants for minor traffic violations, for example.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, which is run by Republicans, said there were provisions in the bill that could result in an increase in detention beds from last year.

Lowey said the bill would improve medical care and housing of immigrant families in detention and expand a program providing alternatives to detention.

The wide-ranging bill also contains some important domestic initiatives, including a $1.2 billion increase in infrastructure investments for roads, bridges and other ground transport, as well as more for port improvements.

With the 2020 decennial census nearing, the bill provides a $1 billion increase for the nationwide count. Also, federal workers, battered by the record 35-day partial government shutdown that began on Dec. 22 as Trump held out for wall funding, would get a 1.9 percent pay increase if the bill becomes law.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Robert Birsel and Chizu Nomiyama)

Talks collapse on border deal as U.S. government shutdown looms

FILE PHOTO: Construction fencing surrounds part of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S. November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Richard Cowan and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Talks on border security funding collapsed after Democratic and Republican lawmakers clashed over immigrant detention policy as they worked to avert another U.S. government shutdown, a Republican senator said on Sunday.

“The talks are stalled right now,” Republican Senator Richard Shelby told “Fox News Sunday.” He said the impasse was over Democrats’ desire to cap the number of beds in detention facilities for people who enter the country illegally.

Efforts to resolve the dispute over border security funding extended into the weekend as a special congressional negotiating panel aimed to reach a deal by Monday, lawmakers and aides said.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester played down any breakdown in talks. “It is a negotiation. Negotiations seldom go smooth all the way through,” he told the Fox program. Tester, one of 17 negotiators, said he was hopeful a deal could be reached.

But Shelby put the chances of reaching a deal by Monday at 50-50. No further talks were scheduled, a source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The lawmakers hoped to have an agreement by Monday to allow time for the legislation to pass the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and get signed by President Donald Trump by Friday when funding for the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies expires.

Trump agreed on Jan. 25 to end a 35-day partial U.S. government shutdown without getting the $5.7 billion he had demanded from Congress for a wall along the border with Mexico, handing a political victory to Democrats.

Instead, a three-week spending deal was reached with congressional leaders to give lawmakers time to resolve their disagreements about how to address security along the border.

One sticking point has been the Democrats’ demand for funding fewer detention beds for people arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Republicans want to increase the number as part of their drive to speed immigrant deportations.

Since he ran for president in 2016, Trump has pledged to stop the influx of undocumented immigrants by building a wall on the border and crack down on immigrants living in the United States illegally by aggressively conducting more deportations.

‘DESPERATELY NEEDED’

Democrats proposed lowering the cap on detention beds to 35,520 from the current 40,520 in return for giving Republicans some of the money they want for physical barriers, the source familiar with negotiations said.

But Democrats would create a limit within that cap of 16,500 beds at detention facilities for undocumented immigrants apprehended in the interior of the country. The remainder would be at border detention centers.

By having the interior cap, ICE agents would be forced to focus on arresting and deporting serious criminals, not law-abiding immigrants, a House Democratic aide said on Sunday.

Republicans balked at the Democrats’ sub-cap offer, the source said.

Trump weighed in Sunday, saying the Democratic proposal would protect felons. “They are offering very little money for the desperately needed Border Wall & now, out of the blue, want a cap on convicted violent felons to be held in detention!” Trump said on Twitter.

“Claims that this proposal would allow violent criminals to be released are false,” the Democratic aide said.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is close to Trump, warned against limiting beds. “Donald Trump is not going to sign any legislation that reduces the bed spaces. You can take that to the bank,” he said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.”

Lawmakers working on a border deal also have not yet nailed down the amount of money to go for physical barriers along the southern U.S. border, the source said.

While a growing number of Republicans in Congress have made it clear they would not embrace another shutdown, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said he could not rule it out.

“You absolutely cannot,” Mulvaney, who is also Trump’s acting chief of staff, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Is a shutdown entirely off the table? The answer is no.”

Lawmakers, however, were working to avoid it.

On Friday, some of the negotiators said that if Congress could not pass a border security bill by Friday, they would move to pass another stop-gap funding bill to avert a shutdown and allow more time to reach a border deal.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Howard Schneider; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Top U.S. lawmakers to resume border talks, avert shutdown

The personalized gavel of House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY), serving as the Chairwoman of a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers from both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, is seen at the start of their first public negotiating session over the U.S. federal government shutdown and border security on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top four Democratic and Republican negotiators in the U.S. Congress on border security funding plan to meet on Monday in an attempt to reach a deal that would avert another partial government shutdown by a Friday deadline.

House of Representatives Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, a Republican, and two other senior lawmakers will attend the meeting, according to a congressional aide.

Negotiations broke down during the weekend over funding for immigrant detention beds and physical barriers that would be funded along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The lawmakers hope to reach an agreement on Monday to allow time for the legislation to pass the House and Senate and get signed by Republican President Donald Trump by Friday, when funding for the Department of Homeland Security and several other federal agencies expires.

Trump agreed on Jan. 25 to end a 35-day partial U.S. government shutdown without getting the $5.7 billion he had demanded from Congress for a long-promised wall along the border with Mexico. Democrats oppose a wall, calling it ineffective, expensive and immoral.

Instead, a three-week spending deal was reached with congressional leaders to give lawmakers time to resolve their disagreements about how to address border security.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Will Dunham)

Exclusive: Puerto Rico open for tourists despite ‘mixed-bag’ recovery – governor

FILE PHOTO: Governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rossello delivers remarks during a commemorative event organized by the local government a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, in San Juan, Puerto Rico September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello flew to New York this week on a mission: persuade potential tourists that the hurricane-ravaged island was ready for their return.

But Puerto Rico’s recovery from last year’s Hurricane Maria has been a “mixed bag,” Rossello told Reuters on Thursday, acknowledging that the bankrupt U.S. territory, while improving, is far from out of the woods.

Puerto Rico has received only a small fraction of the federal funding it needs to get back on its feet, Rossello said in a 75-minute interview, and getting access to the rest could take more than a decade.

His administration estimates that fixing Puerto Rico fully will require $139 billion, but the federal government has earmarked only about $60 billion to $65 billion for the recovery, he said. Of that, only about $3 billion to $4 billion has actually flowed into the island’s coffers. Obtaining the remainder could take 10 to 11 years, he said, adding that his team is lobbying the U.S. Congress for more money.

Compounding the problem is Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy in U.S. federal court, where it is trying to restructure $120 billion of debt and pension obligations. There are also ongoing spending disputes between the government and a federally appointed fiscal oversight board.

In the year since Hurricane Maria, Rossello has at times been diplomatic regarding the federal government’s response, while at other times – especially lately – adopting a more critical take. He has also been criticized for sticking with an estimated death toll of 64 early-on, when strong evidence suggested it could be higher. A government-commissioned study by researchers at George Washington University eventually pegged the toll at around 3,000.

When asked whether his administration’s messaging strategies have been tied to an effort to maintain good relations with President Donald Trump, Rossello said a “critical part” of the island’s recovery “is making sure the federal government responds to our petitions.”

“So yes, I have opted for a path that involves dialogue, that involves collaboration,” Rossello said, adding that he has not been afraid to be critical.

If Trump does not sign the island’s request to extend the federal government’s 100 percent coverage of repair costs, “I’ll be the first one to fight it,” Rossello said, “and I’ll be the first to point out that action, or lack of action, is one of the main obstacles to our recovery.”

Rossello said Puerto Rico still has as many as 60,000 homes with temporary tarp roofs. It also has hundreds of thousands of informally constructed homes with many owners lacking title to their property.

Rebuilding will require the current ranks of about 45,000 construction workers to grow to 130,000, according to Rossello, who recently signed an executive order increasing the minimum hourly construction wage to $15 despite opposition from the oversight board and the private sector.

POWER SHIFT

The island’s government is still considering initiatives that could make the island’s troubled electricity grid more resilient, Rossello said. Ultimately, the island hopes to generate 40 percent of its electricity from renewables and steer away from fossil fuels. The shift would require a new regulatory policy, approval by the bondholders, and, potentially, investment from outside companies or organizations.

“We have received 10 to 12 unsolicited proposals for generation,” he said, while acknowledging the government has yet to find a private operator for the power utility’s transmission and distribution operations.

But changes at the electric agency known as PREPA, which Rossello called one of the most troubled organizations in modern history, will be gradual. The governor said he is working with a search firm to identify outside board members for the utility, after nearly the entire board quit in an uproar over appointment of a new CEO.

Limited electricity was a major problem for the island’s small business sector, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report on Thursday. A survey of more than 400 businesses with fewer than 500 employees found 77 percent suffered losses as a result of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

ISLAND BECKONS TOURISTS

Meanwhile, Rossello is trying not only to restore tourism, but to expand it in such a way that it incorporates hundreds of square miles of seaside and mountain communities that are largely unvisited. Puerto Rico’s tourism is small compared with other Caribbean locales and tends to be centered in San Juan.

The island’s visitor lodgings hit a 2017 high of 204,025 in July, but fell to just under 30,000 in October following the hurricanes, according to Puerto Rico Tourism Company data.

Convincing tourists to leave the capital, though, will require easier travel. “Puerto Rico should be a multi-port destination,” he said, discussing plans to beef up airport capacity in the south and west of the island.

He emphasized the possibility of capitalizing on Puerto Rico’s near-constant spate of community festivals. “We have flower festivals, orange festivals, plantain festivals, coffee festivals, music festivals.”

Rossello pointed to so-called chinchorreos as a possible draw, events in which Puerto Rican foodies move from one inexpensive eatery to the next.

“A bar crawl for food – that’s the best way to put it,” the governor said, “and the island is small, so you start in one place and you’re on a beachfront, and 15 minutes later you’re in the mountains.”

(Reporting by Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown in New York, Karen Pierog in Chicago and Luis Valentin Ortiz in San Juan; Editing by Daniel Bases and Matthew Lewis)

U.S. spending bill tackles border, election security: source

FILE PHOTO: U.S. border patrol officers are pictured near a prototype for U.S. President Donald Trump's border wall with Mexico, behind the current border fence in this picture taken from the Mexican side of the border in Tijuana, Mexico

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal government spending deal being worked out in the U.S. Congress includes additional funding to boost border security, protect the upcoming elections in November and rebuild aging infrastructure, a source familiar with the negotiations said on Wednesday.

While the source said a final overall spending agreement had not been reached, other Republican and Democratic congressional aides have told Reuters that leaders plan to unveil their agreement on the $1.3 trillion spending bill later on Wednesday.

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Congress have until Friday night to reach a deal before a lapse would force federal agencies to suspend operations. The current plan would provide for government funding through Sept. 30, after a series of short-term funding measures implemented since last fall.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate said on Tuesday they were close to a deal and hoped to complete legislation by Friday as they worked to overcome divisions over several thorny issues such as President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.

So far, the package provides $1.6 billion for some fencing along the U.S. border with Mexico and other technological border security efforts, the source said.

Trump had sought $25 billion for a full wall, but negotiations fell through to provide more money in exchange for protections for “Dreamers,” young adults who were brought illegally into the United States as children.

The spending plan also provides $307 million more than the Trump administration’s request for the FBI to counter Russian cyber attacks, and $380 million for U.S. states to improve their technology before November’s congressional election, according to the source.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia sought to meddle in the 2016 presidential election campaign, and intelligence chiefs said last month that Russia will seek to interfere in the midterm elections this year by using social media to spread propaganda and misleading reports. Russia has denied any interference.

The planned spending measure allocates $10 billion for spending on infrastructure such as highways, airports and railroads. It also includes money for the so-called Gateway rail tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey, the source said.

Trump has threatened to veto the bill if the Gateway project is included. While its funds remain, they are directed through the U.S. Department of Transportation, rather than provided directly, Politico reported.

Additionally, lawmakers’ added $2.8 billion to address opioid addiction, the source said.

One potential stumbling block includes gun-related provisions prompted by a mass shooting at a Florida high school on Feb. 14 that killed 17 students and faculty members. On Tuesday, as another shooting swept over a high school in Maryland, House Speaker Paul Ryan said lawmakers were still discussing a proposal to improve federal background checks for gun purchases.

Another issue tying up negotiations was tax treatment for grain co-ops versus corporate producers, according to Politico.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Bernadette Baum and Frances Kerry)

Congress struggles to meet deadline for government funding bill

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

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress, facing a Friday midnight deadline, toiled on Monday to finish writing a $1.2 trillion bill to fund the federal government through Sept. 30, as several thorny issues lingered, including funding President Donald Trump’s border wall.

A range of other hot-button initiatives was also slowing the unveiling of legislation that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had aimed to make public late on Monday.

Republican lawmakers exiting a private meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan said, for example, that there still was no decision on whether a couple of narrow, gun control-related measures could be inserted into the massive spending bill.

A Feb. 14 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, has given impetus to a bill that would improve background checks for gun sales and another that would spend money to help schools defend themselves against gun violence but without putting new limits on weapons sales.

Republican Representative Mike Simpson, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, noted there was Republican opposition to the gun measures unless other steps such as expanding gun owners’ rights to carry concealed weapons across state lines were also enacted.

Simpson and other lawmakers said they did not know the fate of a move to include around $1.6 billion in funding for the border wall with Mexico, which is opposed by many Democrats and some Republicans.

“Everything that was significant is a work in progress. There is nothing defined” yet, said Republican Representative Mark Meadows, who heads the right-wing House Freedom Caucus.

Talks were expected to go late into the night.

Lawmakers were hoping to pass the “omnibus” spending bill before the start on Saturday of a two-week spring break. Doing so would put an end for six months to the possibility of any more government shutdowns by funding federal agencies for the rest of this fiscal year.

The federal government was forced to close over a weekend in January because of a similar budget battle.

POLARIZING MEASURES BEING SHELVED

With government funding running out at week’s end, several contentious items were tentatively being killed off to help speed passage of a bill that will significantly increase U.S. defense spending as well as many non-defense programs.

Several Republican lawmakers said a move had failed to renew federal subsidies to health insurers, which would help make “Obamacare” more affordable for low-income people.

Attempts to bolster the Affordable Care Act appeared to have collapsed after Republicans insisted on language that would have placed abortion prohibitions on those insurance plans and Democrats refused to go along.

“The speaker (Ryan) just said it wasn’t in there,” Meadows told reporters.

Trump discontinued the subsidy payments last year.

Trump also has threatened to veto the bill if it contains federal payments for constructing a New York-New Jersey railroad tunnel project known as the Gateway Program. Lawmakers said congressional leaders were still arguing over that money.

Three Republican House members told reporters that a separate initiative to impose an internet sales tax also appeared to be doomed.

Simpson, asked whether there were worries that the House and Senate would be unable to approve the spending bill before existing agency funds run out, said: “There’s always worries about that.”

Republican leaders were hoping to hold the House debate and votes on Wednesday, giving the Senate a couple more days to do the same before the Friday deadline. But the House timetable might have to be delayed a day, some aides and lawmakers said.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Hundreds leave homes near dangerously crumbling Puerto Rico dam

Local residents look at the flooded houses close to the dam of the Guajataca lake. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Most people living near a crumbling dam in storm-battered Puerto Rico have been moved to safety, Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Monday, as he urged the U.S. Congress to fund an aid package to avert a humanitarian crisis after Hurricane Maria.

Most of the Caribbean island, a U.S. territory with a population of 3.4 million, is still without electricity five days after Maria swept ashore with ferocious winds and torrential rains, the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico for nearly a century.

There have been growing concerns for some 70,000 people who live in the river valley below the Guajataca Dam in the island’s northwest, where cracks were seen appearing on Friday in the 88-year-old earthen structure.

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Rossello said he was working on the assumption that the dam would collapse. “I’d rather be wrong on that front than doing nothing and having that fail and costing people lives,” he said in an interview with CNN.

“Some of the dam has fallen apart and now we’re making sure that we can assess if the other part is going to fall down as well. … Most of the people in the near vicinity have evacuated.”

It was unclear if the governor was saying that most of the 70,000 valley inhabitants had left the area, or only the several hundred people living in the small towns closest to the dam. About 320 people from those towns have moved to safety, according to local media.

The fear of a potentially catastrophic dam break added to the difficulties facing disaster relief authorities after Maria, which was the second major hurricane to strike Caribbean this month and which killed at least 29 people in the region.

At least 10 of those who died were in Puerto Rico, including several people who drowned or were hit by flying debris, and three elderly sisters who died in a mudslide.

Many structures on the island, including hospitals, remain badly damaged and flooded. Clean drinking water is hard to find in some areas. Very few planes have been able to land or take off from damaged airports.

After Maria caused widespread flooding, the National Weather Service warned of further flash floods in some western parts of the island on Monday as thunderstorms moved in.

The hurricane hit at a time when Puerto Rico was already battling economic crisis. [nL2N1M31LR]

Rossello said on Monday that before the storms struck he had been embarking on an aggressive fiscal agenda that included more than $1.5 billion in cuts.

“This is a game changer,” the governor told CNN. “This is a completely different set of circumstances. This needs to be taken into consideration otherwise there will be a humanitarian crisis.”

In Washington, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan said Congress was working with President Donald Trump’s administration to make sure the necessary assistance reaches Puerto Rico.

“Our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico remain in our prayers as we make sure they have what they need,” Ryan said in a statement.

Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake.

Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake.
REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Maria continued to weaken and would likely be downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm by Tuesday night, the National Hurricane Center said. As of 11 a.m. ET (1500 GMT) on Monday, it was about 315 miles (505 km) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, heading slowly north, the center said.

The storm was unlikely to hit the continental United States directly, but a tropical storm warning was in effect for much of the North Carolina coast. Officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors to Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks, beginning at 5 a.m. ET (0900 GMT) on Monday.

 

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Frances Kerry)

 

Stalled Russia sanctions bill hits North Korean snag in U.S. Congress

The U.S. Capitol building is seen before U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address in front of the U.S. Congress, on Capitol Hill in Washington January 28, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A bill that many lawmakers hoped would send a message to President Donald Trump to keep a strong line against Russia hit a new snag in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday, as Republicans proposed combining it with sanctions on North Korea.

The Russia sanctions bill passed the Senate on June 15 by 98-2, but it has not come up for a vote in the House.

The chamber’s Republican leaders initially said there was a technical problem with how the bill was written, but after the Senate altered the bill to fix it, the measure still did not move.

On Friday, Republicans suggested reworking the legislation to add new sanctions on North Korea. The Russia sanctions measure passed by the Senate is part of a broader bill that also includes new sanctions on Iran.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he wanted the North Korea sanctions added to the bill.

“It would be a very strong statement for all of America to get that sanction bill completed and done, and to the president’s desk,” the Republican lawmaker said in the House as it wrapped up its activity for the week.

Democrats rejected the suggestion as another tactic by Republicans supporting White House objections to the bill.

“This isn’t a serious proposal. It’s the latest delay tactic,” said Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The House passed a new package of sanctions on North Korea in May by 419-1, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Republican, said on Thursday his committee would be taking it up soon.

On Friday, Corker said he would be “more than glad” to consider adding North Korea to the legislation if the House chose to do so.

Engel said there was no point in passing North Korea legislation again.

The Trump administration objects to a provision in the Russia bill that sets up a process for Congress to approve any effort by the president to ease sanctions on Moscow.

Seeking a greater influence in foreign policy, Congress has included provisions in a few recent major bills, starting with Corker’s 2015 legislation forcing congressional review of President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Lawmakers and aides have been negotiating for weeks to try to craft a compromise that would allow the Russia-Iran bill to move forward. On Thursday, they said they thought it could advance soon but on Friday said the North Korea issue made that less likely. [L1N1K42BV]

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. Congress negotiators set spending plan to avert shutdown, bolster defense

The U.S. Capitol Dome is seen before dawn in Washington.

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Negotiators in the U.S. Congress reached a deal late on Sunday on around $1 trillion in federal funding that would avert a government shutdown later this week, while handing President Donald Trump a down payment on his promised military build-up.

The full House of Representatives and Senate must still approve the bipartisan pact, which would be the first major legislation to clear Congress since Trump became president on Jan. 20.

Prompt passage of the legislation was expected this week.

The funds, which should have been locked into place seven months ago with the start of fiscal 2017 on Oct. 1, would pay for an array of federal programs from airport and border security operations to soldiers’ pay, medical research, foreign aid, space exploration, and education.

“The agreement will move the needle forward on conservative priorities and will ensure that the essential functions of the federal government are maintained, said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee.

If it is not enacted by midnight Friday, federal agencies would have to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers and require many others to continue on the job providing law enforcement and other essential operations without pay until the funding dispute in Congress is resolved.

“This agreement is a good agreement for the American people  and takes the threat of a government shutdown off the table,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.

He said the measure would increase federal investments in medical research, education, and infrastructure.

House and Senate appropriators worked into the night to draft the legislation for lawmakers to review.

Republican Representative Jim Jordan, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he and other conservatives likely would not back the measure because it does not fulfill their promises to voters.

“I’m disappointed,” Jordan told CNN. “We’ll see how it plays out this week but I think you’re going to see conservatives have some real concerns with this legislation.”

A senior congressional aide said the Pentagon would win a $12.5 billion increase in defense spending for the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30, with the possibility of an additional $2.5 billion contingent on Trump delivering a plan to Congress for defeating the Islamic State militant group.

Trump had requested $30 billion more in military funds for this year after campaigning hard on a defense build-up during the 2016 election campaign.

NO WALL MONEY

Several other important White House initiatives were rejected by the Republican and Democratic negotiators, including money for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border that Trump has argued is needed to stop illegal immigrants and drugs.

Instead, congressional negotiators settled on $1.5 billion more for border security, including more money for new technology and repairing existing infrastructure, the aide said.

Trump, in excerpts from a CBS News interview to air later on Monday, said a separate infrastructure plan would come within three weeks.

The Trump administration had earlier backed away from a threat to end federal subsidies for low-income people to get health insurance through Obamacare, the program that Trump had pledged to repeal.

Republicans are struggling over a repeal and replacement plan for former President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare law and it was unclear whether they would be able to bring such legislation to the House floor soon.

While Republicans control the House, Senate and White House, Democrats scored other significant victories in the deal.

Puerto Rico would get an emergency injection of $295 million in additional funding for its Medicaid health insurance program for the poor, according to the aide who asked not to be identified. The impoverished island, which is a U.S. territory, is facing a severe Medicaid funding shortfall.

Democrats also fended off potential cuts to women’s healthcare provider Planned Parenthood, while House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi applauded a nearly $2 billion hike in funds for the National Institutes of Health this year.

Coal miners and their families facing the loss of health insurance next month would get a permanent renewal under the spending bill.

While Trump has urged Congress to impose deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, most of its programs would be continued for at least the remainder of this year, according to the aide.

The House is likely to vote first on the package, probably early in the week, and send the measure to the Senate for approval before Friday’s midnight deadline.

If the legislation is enacted by week’s end, Congress would then have to begin focusing on a series of bills to fund the government at the start of the next fiscal year on Oct. 1.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Paul Tait and Chizu Nomiyama)