U.S. lawmakers challenge Facebook over Libra cryptocurrency plan

FILE PHOTO: Representations of virtual currency are displayed in front of the Libra logo in this illustration picture, June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

By Pete Schroeder and Anna Irrera

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers quizzed Facebook on Wednesday over its planned cryptocurrency, after a bruising first bout a day earlier when senators from both parties condemned the project, saying the company had not shown it could be trusted.

The social media company is fighting to get Washington on its side after it shocked regulators and lawmakers with its announcement on June 18 that it was hoping to launch a new digital coin called Libra in 2020.

It has faced criticism from policymakers and financial watchdogs at home and abroad who fear widespread adoption of the digital currency by Facebook’s 2.38 billion users could upend the financial system.

“I have serious concerns with Facebook’s plans to create a digital currency and digital wallet,” Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the Democrat-controlled House Financial Services Committee, said in her opening remarks.

“If Facebook’s plan comes into fruition, the company and its partners will yield immense economic power that could destabilize currencies.”

Lawmakers are questioning David Marcus, the Facebook executive overseeing the project, who was grilled by the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday over the possible risks posed by Libra to data privacy, consumer protection and money laundering controls.

The hearing in Congress was proving to be even more tense on Wednesday.

The panel has already circulated draft legislation that could kill the project by banning Facebook and other tech firms from entering the financial services space.

Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney pushed Marcus to commit to a Libra pilot program with one million users overseen by U.S. financial regulators, including the Federal Reserve.

“I don’t think you should launch Libra at all,” Maloney said. “At the very least you should agree to do this small pilot program.”

Marcus, who was president of PayPal from 2012 to 2014, did not commit to a pilot but tried to assuage lawmakers by pledging not to begin issuing Libra until regulatory concerns had been addressed.

“We will take the time to get this right,” Marcus said.

He said the company had unveiled the project at an early stage in order to get feedback from all stakeholders.

Representatives on both sides of the aisle asked how the company will ensure sufficient consumer protection and prevent the cryptocurrency from being used for illegal activities such as money laundering or terrorist financing.

“I’m concerned a 2020 launch date represents deep insensitivities about how Libra could impact U.S. financial security, the global financial system, the privacy of people across the globe, criminal activity and international human rights,” said Republican Representative Ann Wagner.

Facebook has been on the defense amid a backlash over mishandling user data and not doing enough to prevent Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder and Anna Irrera; editing by Cynthia Osterman, Bernadette Baum and Susan Thomas)

U.S. lawmakers say Boeing 737 MAX 8 grounded for at least ‘weeks’

FILE PHOTO: Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are parked at a Boeing production facility in Renton, Washington, U.S., March 11, 2019. REUTERS/David Ryder

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers said after a briefing with the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday that Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 planes will remain grounded for “weeks” at a minimum until a software upgrade could be tested and installed in all of the planes.

FAA Administrator Dan Elwell told reporters on Wednesday the software update will be ready within a couple of months after regulators around the world grounded the plane following a second fatal crash in the 737 MAX 8 since October.

The FAA said Monday it planned to require the upgrade it termed “design changes” by April. An FAA spokesman confirmed Thursday that the FAA will not unground the airplanes until the software patch is approved and installed.

Boeing and the FAA did not immediately comment. Representative Rick Larsen said after the briefing the software upgrade would take a few weeks to complete and installing on all aircraft would take “at least through April.” He said additional training would also have to take place.

Representative Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the software upgrade will result in the airplanes behaving more like older versions of the 737.

The upgrade will revise an automated protection system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS, which come under scrutiny in October’s fatal Lion Air crash in Indonesia.

“After the pilot has tried to correct, the MCAS is going to not keep repeating itself, which is what it does now. It keeps triggering automatically and the pilot has to do it again,” DeFazio said unless it is manually disengaged by the pilot. “It will essentially shut itself off.”

The upgrade will address if there is a disagreement between sensors, DeFazio said.

Lawmakers noted that there have been no confirmed incidents in 50,000 North America flights with the 737 MAX 8 and questioned if training by carriers abroad was an issue.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Nick Zieminski)

U.S. border security talks progressing: negotiators

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) arrives for a meeting with U.S. House-Senate conferees to receive a closed briefing from U.S. Border Patrol career professionals, who discuss "the challenges they face protecting the U.S.-Mexico border" at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., February 6, 2019. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers negotiating a deal with President Donald Trump on border security funding on Thursday said progress was being made, with Democratic Senator Jon Tester raising the possibility of a successful conclusion to talks as soon as Friday.

Speaking to reporters, Tester said it was “entirely possible we could have a deal in a timely manner, which could be tomorrow but certainly by the weekend.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, who met earlier on Thursday at the White House with Trump, told reporters the 17 Senate and House of Representatives negotiators were on “a positive trajectory”.

Shelby, a Republican, would not provide any details on a possible deal but said the situation had improved now that there was a better understanding of what Trump would support.

Trump spoke to reporters in the White House Oval Office and when asked about a potential compromise, said, “There could be.”

The lawmakers are up against a Feb. 15 deadline for ending an impasse over Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion this year to help build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that he says is needed to deal with a crisis of illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants.

Democrats have long said that a border wall would be ineffective and instead have fought for other means for improving security on the southern border.

Funding for several federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, will expire on Feb. 15. If no border security deal is reached by then, these agencies could go back into the partial shutdown mode that plagued them for 35 days beginning last Dec. 22.

That episode ended when Trump and Congress agreed to temporary funding to give more time to talk about border security.

Negotiators have discussed a mix of tools, such as more law enforcement agents, procuring more high-tech devices to repel illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants from entering the United States and additional physical barriers.

But Trump has continued to insist on a wall, although it was unclear what his definition of that was. There already are more than 600 miles of vehicular and pedestrian barriers along the 2,000-mile (3,200 km) border.

Meanwhile, some liberal House Democrats and immigration advocacy groups gathered outside the Capitol to demand funding cuts to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is in charge of enforcing immigration law in the interior of the country, including deporting undocumented immigrants.

“An agency like ICE, which repeatedly and systematically violates human rights, does not deserve a dime,” said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

She said Trump was seeking billions of dollars to “continue to militarize and weaponize a force that has zero accountability.”

While immigrant groups and some Democrats have criticized ICE’s tactics as heavy-handed, Trump has praised the agency’s work in protecting the United States from what he calls dangerous criminals.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell in Washington; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper; Editing by James Dalgleish)

U.S. lawmakers request info from insulin makers on rising prices

FILE PHOTO: Insulin supplies are pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Yasmeen Abutaleb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two powerful U.S. lawmakers sent letters to the three leading insulin manufacturers on Wednesday requesting information on why its cost has skyrocketed in recent years and how much the companies profit from the life-sustaining diabetes treatment.

Democratic Representatives Frank Pallone and Diana DeGette, the chairman and a top-ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, respectively, wrote to the heads of Eli Lilly and Co, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi, the long-time leading manufacturers of insulin. The drugmakers have all raised the price of insulin at similar rates over the last several years.

“Despite the fact that it has been available for decades, prices for insulin have skyrocketed in recent years, putting it out of reach for many patients,” the lawmakers wrote.

“As one of the few manufacturers of insulin in the United States, your company is well-suited to shed light on these issues and offer potential solutions,” the letter to the three companies said.

The committee has not set a date for a hearing, a spokesman for DeGette said. It has the power to subpoena the drugmakers if they do not answer the committee’s request.

The annual cost of insulin for treating a type 1 diabetes patient in the United States nearly doubled from 2012 to 2016 to $5,705 from $2,864, according to a recent study.

The lawmakers’ letters come amid intensifying scrutiny from Congress over the high cost of prescription drugs for U.S. consumers. Both the House Oversight Committee and Senate Finance Committee held hearings on prescription drug prices on Tuesday, with a focus on insulin.

Sanofi confirmed receipt of the letter and said it would work with the committee on its request. Neither Novo nor Lilly immediately responded to requests for comment.

High prescription drug costs have consistently polled as a top voter concern and have been a top priority of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican.

U.S. prescription drug prices are far higher than in other developed nations that either directly or indirectly control medicine costs.

Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings earlier this month wrote to 12 pharmaceutical companies asking for detailed information on their pricing practices, including the makers of insulin.

About 1.2 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, requiring daily insulin. Type 2 diabetes, which affects nearly 30 million Americans, according to the American Diabetes Association, is treated with a variety of other medicines. But those patients may also eventually become dependent on insulin.

(Reporting By Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Dollar adds to gains as Fed’s Powell nods to ‘gradual’ rate hikes

FILE PHOTO: A security guard walks past a montage of U.S. $100 dollar bills outside a currency exchange bureau in Kenya's capital Nairobi, July 23, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya/File Photo

By Saqib Iqbal Ahmed

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The dollar added to gains against a basket of major currencies on Tuesday after Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told U.S. lawmakers the central bank would stick with gradual interest rate increases despite the added stimulus of tax cuts and government spending.

Powell pledged to “strike a balance” between the risk of an overheating economy and the need to keep growth on track. His congressional testimony was his first public appearance since being sworn in as chairman earlier this month.

Powell is scheduled to present his remarks to a U.S. House of Representatives committee at a hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT), followed by questions from lawmakers.

Brad Bechtel, managing director FX at Jefferies, in New York, said Powell’s comments were generally positive for the dollar.

“He is hawkish in the context of being very upbeat on the economy but willing to go at a moderate pace to normalize policy,” Bechtel said.

The dollar index, which measures the greenback against a basket of six other major currencies, was up 0.26 percent at 90.089.

Some of the headwinds the U.S. economy faced in previous years have turned into tailwinds, Powell said, noting recent fiscal policy shifts and the global economic recovery.

“That’s sort of a big statement if you think about it,” said Bechtel.

“He’s kind of dialed it up just a notch from where (Powell’s predecessor, Janet) Yellen was,” Bechtel said.

The Fed is expected to approve its first rate increase of 2018 at its next policy meeting in March, when it will also provide fresh economic projections and Powell will hold his first news conference. Fed policymakers anticipate three rate increases this year.

“From a 10,000-foot view, Powell’s prepared remarks are common-sense,” said Guy LeBas, chief fixed income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia.

“It’s more interesting to see that the market is interpreting the comments as somewhat hawkish, and that’s more informative about the trading bias right now than about the Fed’s actually likely policy path.”

The dollar was up 0.19 percent against the Japanese yen at 107.11 yen.

The euro was down 0.26 percent against the dollar at 1.2284.

Italians vote in a national election on Sunday, while the leading political parties in Germany will decide on a coalition deal that could secure Angela Merkel a fourth term as chancellor.

There was not a whole lot of fear in the market about the outcome of the Italian election, Bechtel said.

“There is a lot of folks looking at hedges but not a huge amount of activity in that space. Kind of an ambivalence toward the election this weekend, which is interesting,” said Bechtel.

(Reporting by Saqib Iqbal Ahmed; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

White House sees good chance of long-term budget deal

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 6, 2018.

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers are expected to unveil “a good, bipartisan deal” on Wednesday that would raise current limits on federal spending for two years, the White House said, as Congress seeks to end fights over spending that have plagued Washington for months.

Higher defense spending expected in the agreement would allow President Donald Trump to make good on his campaign promise for a U.S. military build-up, although the White House is still concerned about non-defense spending levels, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told MSNBC.

But Nancy Pelosi, the House of Representatives’ Democratic leader, said she would not support such a deal, aimed at lifting some limits on government spending for two years, unless Republican Speaker Paul Ryan promised to advance legislation on immigration. Trump’s fellow Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

Over the past several months, congressional leaders have been negotiating a deal that would raise spending caps for the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, and the next one for both defense and non-defense programs.

A broad budget deal could ease the brinkmanship over spending that roils Washington so regularly that financial markets barely flinch anymore at the threat of a government shutdown.

“There’s some things that you give and take in a negotiation like this, and so I think this will be a good, bipartisan deal but we’re more excited about the defense spending,” Short said.

Aside from the planned longer-term deal, lawmakers were also trying to reach agreement by Thursday to avoid a shutdown and fund the government until March 23.

“We expect the government is not going to shut down this week,” Short said.

In a further sign of Congress’ inability to get basic work done, the House on Tuesday had to approve another stopgap bill to keep the federal government from shutting down.

Stopgap measures are needed when Congress fails to approve spending on time for a full fiscal year, something it has done only four of the past 40 years, according to congressional researchers.

The Senate was expected to take up the House stopgap legislation as Congress raced to get a finished bill for Trump to sign into law before government funding runs out on Thursday.

If that fails, the U.S. government would experience its second shutdown this year, after a partisan standoff over U.S. immigration policy led to a three-day partial shutdown last month.

Immigration again emerged as a possible point of contention in budget talks when Democrat Pelosi said she would oppose a two-year deal unless the Republican Ryan promised to advance legislation to protect hundreds of thousands of young adult immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” brought to the United States illegally as children.

Republicans are eager to keep spending and immigration separate. But 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.

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

On Tuesday, top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said the emerging Senate two-year deal would increase funding for domestic programs like drug treatment and broadband infrastructure that Democrats want, as well as a military spending increase sought by Republicans.

“We’re making progress,” Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic minority whip, told MSNBC on Wednesday.

Congress must also raise the federal debt ceiling or face defaulting on the government’s bills, and several Republican lawmakers said the matter would be part of Senate budget talks. The U.S. Treasury is expected to run out of borrowing options by late March.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. lawmakers release sample of Russian-bought Facebook ads

An aide puts out examples of Facebook pages, as executives appear before the House Intelligence Committee to answer questions related to Russian use of social media to influence U.S. elections, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 1, 2017.

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers released a batch of Russian-bought Facebook Inc ads on Wednesday that showcased politically charged content allegedly spread on social media by Moscow ahead of the 2016 U.S. election.

Some of the ads criticized candidates, while others sought to organize or promote simultaneous rallies for opposite sides of divisive issues. The sample posted on a House committee website pulled from the roughly 3,000 ads Facebook provided to congressional investigators last month.

Tech companies recently acknowledged that Russia-based content on U.S. politics and social issues like gun rights, immigration, religion and race had spread on their platforms before and after the election.

Some of the ads sampled specifically dealt with the U.S. election and were critical of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. One from an account called “Army of Jesus” said Clinton was supported by evil forces.

“Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is,” the post read. It added that Republican candidate Donald Trump was “an honest man” who “cares deeply for this country.”

Other ads appeared to be aimed at setting up clashes over hot-button issues.

One ad from a group calling itself “Heart of Texas” promoted a rally in Houston on May 21, 2016 to “Stop Islamization” in the U.S. state. Another ad from a separate Facebook page promoted a pro-Islam rally at the same time and venue.

The Russian government has denied any attempts to sway the 2016 election, in which U.S. President Donald Trump defeated Clinton.

The ads were released at a U.S. House Intelligence Committee hearing, where lawyers from Facebook, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google testified about Russian influence on their networks.

It was the second straight day the companies attempted to ward off criticism from lawmakers that they were slow to respond to Russian abuse.

Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, again came under the most scrutiny from lawmakers, who expressed frustration with the company because of its role in targeted marketing.

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch told the committee that 16 million Americans may have been exposed to Russian information on Facebook’s picture-sharing service Instagram beginning in October 2016. The election was on Nov. 8.

An additional four million may have seen such material on Instagram before October, though that data was less complete, Stretch said.

Twitter Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch and Google Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker are sworn in before the House Intelligence Committee to answer questions related to Russian use of social media to influence U.S. elections, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 1, 2017.

Twitter Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch and Google Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker are sworn in before the House Intelligence Committee to answer questions related to Russian use of social media to influence U.S. elections, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., November 1, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

‘YOU FAILED’

The Instagram figures were in addition to the 126 million Americans who may have seen Russian-backed political content on Facebook over a two-year period, a number the company disclosed earlier this week.

The companies’ visit to Washington this week reflected shifting political fortunes for the U.S. tech industry, which after decades of relatively little regulatory scrutiny is now on the defensive on a range of policy issues.

“In the past election, you failed,” said Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who normally is considered a strong ally of Silicon Valley.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the campaign, including through social media, to try to influence the vote in favor of Trump.

A U.S. Justice Department special counsel and several congressional panels are investigating Russian meddling and any potential collusion by Trump’s campaign.

Trump has said there was no collusion with Moscow ahead of the election.

Democrats and Republicans both said in Wednesday’s Senate intelligence hearing that the tech companies need to do more to police against foreign government abuse on their platforms.

Some Republicans, however, sought to distance that scrutiny from questions about the legitimacy of Trump’s election victory.

Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the panel, said it was impossible to measure the impact or know the motivation of the Russian operation to spread political material on social media.

Any conclusions that Trump benefited from Russia, perhaps in a decisive way, to win the White House ignored the complexity of the issue, Burr said.

“I’m here to tell you this story does not simplify that easily,” he said.

A combination of social media posts, which were provided to the House Intelligence Committee during a hearing on Russian use of social media to influence U.S. 2016 presidential elections, is seen after their release in Washington, D.C. U.S. November 1, 2017.

A combination of social media posts, which were provided to the House Intelligence Committee during a hearing on Russian use of social media to influence U.S. 2016 presidential elections, is seen after their release in Washington, D.C. U.S. November 1, 2017. Social Media/Handout via REUTERS

‘UNDERESTIMATING’ THE PROBLEM

Some Republicans also sought to portray the amount of Russian content as miniscule compared to the total amount of political material online.

The campaigns of Trump and Clinton spent a combined $81 million on Facebook ads, Stretch said, compared to about $46,000 in ad buys from the Internet Research Agency, a suspected Russian troll farm.

Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the panel, said he was disappointed the companies appeared be confining reviews to information linked to the Internet Research Agency, and suggested there could have been far more undetected Russian content.

Some senators criticized the companies for sending lawyers, not chief executives, to testify.

“If we go through this exercise again, we would appreciate seeing the top people who are making the decision,” said Senator Angus King, an independent.

 

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Additional reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Frances Kerry and Meredith Mazzilli)