Senate faces showdown over immigration and ‘Dreamers’

Demonstrators calling for new protections for so-called "Dreamers," undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their immigrant parents, walk through a senate office building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Susan Heavey and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration remained insistent on hardline immigration measures on Thursday as the U.S. Senate prepared to vote on various legislative proposals to protect young “Dreamer” immigrants and to tighten border security.

In a statement overnight, the Department of Homeland Security dismissed what some thought was the bill most likely to win enough bipartisan support to pass the chamber, saying it failed to meet minimum criteria set out by President Donald Trump.

The plan, crafted by a bipartisan group of senators led by moderate Republican Susan Collins, would protect from deportation 1.8 million young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children and who are known as Dreamers.

It also includes a $25 billion fund to strengthen border security and possibly even construct segments of Trump’s long-promised border wall with Mexico.

The immigration issue has become a matter of urgency for lawmakers after Trump in September ordered an Obama-era program that protected Dreamers to end by March 5, telling Congress it should come up with a solution by then.

The Department of Homeland Security blasted the Collins-led plan, saying it destroyed the ability of DHS officers to remove millions of undocumented immigrants from the country, and “is an egregious violation of the four compromise pillars laid out by the President’s immigration reform framework.”

Trump’s four provisions are for any bill to include funds to build the border wall, to end the visa lottery program, to impose curbs on visas for the families of legal immigrants, and to protect Dreamers.

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

A narrower third bill, by Republican John McCain and Democrat Chris Coons, has been dismissed by Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was expected to bring forward all three measures on Thursday to gauge which has enough support to move toward a vote in the Senate ahead of a Friday deadline he has imposed for the legislation.

Despite backing from several Republicans for the Collins-led plan, it was unclear if enough Democrats would get behind it to muster the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate that Republicans control 51-49.

Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine told MSNBC on Thursday he thought lawmakers were “very close” to the 60 votes needed on the Collins-led measure. Republican Senator Marco Rubio told Fox News he was unsure whether any Senate plan would move forward.

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

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he will support only legislation backed by Trump, who has carried his tough law-and-order stance toward immigrants from his 2016 campaign into his administration.

(Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Congress expected to vote on budget to avert government shutdown

People walk by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., February 8, 2018.

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives were expected to vote on a proposed budget deal on Thursday that would avert another government shutdown but that has angered fiscal conservatives who complain it would lead to a $1 trillion deficit.

The plan to keep the government operating and to increase spending over the next two years faced resistance from conservatives in the Republican Party, who favor less spending on domestic government programs. At the same time, many liberal Democrats wanted to withhold their support as leverage to win concessions on immigration policy.

That meant the bill’s passage was not assured in the House and would need some Democratic support. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican who has backed the agreement, said on Thursday he believed the chamber will pass the budget deal.

“I think we will,” Ryan told radio host Hugh Hewitt. “This is a bipartisan bill. It’s going to need bipartisan support. We are going to deliver our share of support.”

Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, called the deal “eye-popping and eyebrow-raising.”

“We took an official position last night to say we can’t support this,” he told CNN on Thursday.

Republicans control both chambers of Congress.

The rare bipartisan deal reached by Senate leaders on Wednesday raises spending on military and domestic programs by almost $300 billion over the next two years.

It would allow for $165 billion in extra defense spending and $131 billion more for non-military programs, including health, infrastructure, disaster relief and efforts to tackle an opioid crisis in the country.

It would stave off a government shutdown before a Thursday night deadline and extend the federal government’s debt ceiling until March 2019, putting off for more than a year the risk of a debt default by the United States.

CONSERVATIVE OPPOSITION

The agreement, backed by Republican President Donald Trump, disappointed conservative House Republicans and outside groups.

“It’s not like Republicans aren’t concerned about disaster relief, or Republicans aren’t concerned about funding community health centers or dealing with the opioid crisis,” U.S. Representative Warren Davidson, a Republican, said in an interview with National Public Radio.

“But when you add them all up, it adds to an awful lot of spending. … It’s not compassionate to bankrupt America.”

Liberal Democrats meanwhile opposed the deal because it does not include an agreement to protect from deportation hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers,” young people brought illegally to the United States as children.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday staged an eight-hour speech on the House floor in support of immigration legislation, including reading letters from Dreamers pleading to be allowed to stay in the United States.

A number of lawmakers who supported the bill acknowledged the deal was not perfect. “It’s not pretty,” Republican U.S. Representative Adam Kinzinger said on CNN.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester said he hoped House Democrats would back the measure. “We don’t want the perfect to get in the road of the good,” he told the cable network.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said many lawmakers believe the defense spending in the bill was essential. “We’re going to get it through because most people will support it,” he told Fox News.

Senate Republicans planned a procedural vote on a stand-alone bill to increase military funding for the rest of the year to demonstrate support for Trump’s promised defense build-up.

Democrats will not support it because it does not contain similar spending increases for non-military programs. But the Senate’s failure to advance the bill will not damage the budget legislation, which is due for a vote later in the day.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News the agreement provides long-term certainty in the budget and funding for Trump priorities including infrastructure and military funding.

Failure to agree on spending led to a partial three-day shutdown of government agencies last month.

(Reporting by Makini Brice, Katanga Johnson, Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell)

As militant threats shift, U.S. Senate revives war authorization debate

Flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, U.S. President Donald Trump meets with members of his cabinet at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 16, 2017.

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers will grill top Trump administration officials on Monday about a new authorization for the use of military force in the campaign against Islamic State and other militant groups, Congress’ most significant step in years toward taking back control of its constitutional right to authorize war.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a hearing on the administration’s view of a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force, known by the acronym AUMF.

Republican and Democratic members of Congress have been arguing for years that Congress ceded too much authority over the deployment of U.S. forces to the White House after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They are also divided over how much control they should exert over the Pentagon. Repeated efforts to write and pass a new AUMF have failed.

“As we face a wide array of threats abroad, it is perhaps more important than ever that we have a sober national conversation about Congress’ constitutional role in authorizing the use of military force,” Republican Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

Under the Constitution, Congress, not the president, has the right to declare war.

Concerns intensified this month after four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger and previously over President Donald Trump’s talk about North Korea and an attack on a airfield in Syria.

“What’s happening in Niger and more broadly in Africa suggests a greater urgency for an AUMF,” Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, a leading advocate for a new authorization, said on Thursday after a classified briefing on Niger.

Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the chamber’s most famous war veteran, had said he might consider issuing a subpoena because the White House had not been forthcoming with details of the Niger attack and threatened to block Trump nominees.

McCain has since said he is pleased with the information he is receiving and would let nominations go ahead.

Congress has not passed an AUMF since the 2002 measure authorizing the Iraq War. But the legal justification for most military action for the past 15 years is the older September 2001 AUMF, for the campaign against al Qaeda and affiliates.

Backers of a new AUMF say the 2001 authorization, which was not limited by time or geography, has let presidents wage war wherever they like, without spelling out any strategy for Congress, or the public. For example, Islamic State did not exist when the 2001 AUMF was passed.

Trump’s fellow Republicans control majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives but there are deep divisions over any possible new authorization within the party, as well as between Republicans and Democrats.

Many Republicans, like McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, do not want a measure exerting too much control over the Pentagon and say military commanders should decide how to fight America’s enemies.

Many Democrats say they want an AUMF that limits why, where and for how long U.S. forces can be sent to fight.

 

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Bill Trott)

 

Republicans’ push to roll back Obamacare faces crucial test

President Donald Trump (C) gathers with Vice President Mike Pence (R) and Congressional Republicans in the Rose Garden of the White House after the House of Representatives approved the American Healthcare Act, to repeal major parts of Obamacare and replace it with the Republican healthcare plan, May 4, 2017.

By Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A seven-year Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare faces a major test this week in the U.S. Senate, where lawmakers will decide whether to move forward and vote on a bill whose details and prospects are uncertain.

The Senate will decide as early as Tuesday whether to begin debating a healthcare bill. But it remained unclear over the weekend which version of the bill the senators would ultimately vote on.

President Donald Trump, after initially suggesting last week that he was fine with letting Obamacare collapse, has urged Republican senators to hash out a deal.

“Republicans have a last chance to do the right thing on Repeal & Replace after years of talking & campaigning on it,” Trump tweeted on Monday.

Republicans view former President Barack Obama’s signature 2010 health law, known as Obamacare, as a government intrusion in the healthcare market. They face pressure to make good on campaign promises to dismantle it.

But the party is divided between moderates, concerned that the Senate bill would eliminate insurance for millions of low-income Americans, and conservatives who want to see even deeper cuts to Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The House in May passed its healthcare bill. Senate Republicans have considered two versions but have been unable to reach consensus after estimates showed they could lead to as many as 22 million fewer Americans being insured. A plan to repeal Obamacare without replacing it also ran aground.

If the Senate approves a motion to begin debating a healthcare bill, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will determine which proposal has the most Republican support and move forward to a vote, Republicans said.

Republicans hold 52 of 100 Senate seats. McConnell can only afford to lose two Republican votes as Democrats are united in opposition.

Senator John Barrasso, a member of the Republican leadership, acknowledged on Sunday that there remained a lack of consensus among Republicans.

“Lots of members have different ideas on how it should be best amended to replace what is really a failing Obama healthcare plan,” Barrasso said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

The Republican effort has also been complicated by the absence of Senator John McCain, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer and is in his home state of Arizona weighing treatment options.

 

(Reporting By Amanda Becker; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Caren Bohan and Nick Zieminski)

 

U.S. Congress passes $618.7 billion annual defense bill

A U.S. Navy crewman directs an F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter jet on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean Sea in a photo released by the US Navy June 3, 2016. U U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a compromise version of an annual defense policy bill on Thursday without controversial provisions such as requiring women to register for the draft or allowing contractors to make religion-based hiring decisions.

Ninety-two senators backed the $618.7 billion National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, and seven opposed it. Because it passed the House of Representatives by a similarly large margin last week, the bill now goes to the White House for President Barack Obama to veto or sign into law.

A White House spokesman told a briefing he did not yet have a position on the bill to report.

The 2016 bill, the last of Obama’s presidency, includes some Republican-backed initiatives with which he has disagreed in the past. It includes a $3.2 billion increase in military spending, when there has been no similar increase in non-defense funding.

The bill also bars closures of military bases, although top Pentagon officials say they have too much capacity, and it blocks planned reductions in active-duty troop numbers.

And it continues policies that bar transfers of prisoners to U.S. soil from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which Obama had hoped to close. While his administration has shipped most inmates from the controversial prison, the Democrat is not expected to accomplish his goal of shuttering it before he leaves office Jan. 20.

Obama’s successor, Republican Donald Trump, wants to keep Guantanamo open, and expand it.

The NDAA passed both chambers in the Republican-led Congress with margins large enough to overcome a veto, and the compromise legislation features many provisions such as a military pay raise and an expansion of a landmark human rights bill, that are extremely popular in Congress. [L1N1E316A]

After months of negotiation, the Senate and House Armed Services committees unveiled a compromise version of the NDAA last month that left out the Russell Amendment, a “religious freedom” measure Democrats said would have let federal contractors discriminate against workers on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, overturning Obama’s executive order.

Some House Republicans said they hoped to revisit that provision after Trump takes office, when they do not have to worry about a veto threat from a Democratic White House.

The bill also excluded a provision that would have required women to register for the military draft, now that Pentagon leaders are moving to allow them into combat.

A provision recommending that the U.S. conducts yearly high-level military exchanges with Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a breakaway province, made it into the final bill.

China’s defense ministry said in a statement on its official microblog on Friday that it was “firmly opposed” to the move, which would “inevitably damage U.S. interests”.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner, and Christian Shepherd and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Richard Chang and Clarence Fernandez)

Senate rejects Obama veto of Saudi Sept 11 bill

A man lays a flower on a monument engraved with names of victims of the September 11th attacks, during a memorial event marking the 15th anniversary

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly rejected on Wednesday President Barack Obama’s veto of legislation allowing relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia’s government.

As voting continued, the count was 87-0 against the veto. The measure next goes to the House of Representatives, which is due to vote later on Wednesday. If two-thirds of House members also support the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act,” it would be the first veto override of Obama’s eight-year presidency.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Editing by Franklin Paul)

Funding to fight Zika virus faces uphill battle in U.S. Senate

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen inside Oxitec

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Funding to battle the Zika virus faces a struggle in the U.S. Senate this week, with Democrats scornful of a Republican proposal they say short-changes the challenge posed by the mosquito-borne virus as well as other health priorities.

The U.S. House of Representatives last week approved the Republican plan providing $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus. But the proposal drew a veto threat from the White House as it falls short of President Barack Obama’s $1.9 billion funding request, and makes $750 million in budget cuts elsewhere.

A Senate procedural vote is expected Tuesday on the Republican plan. But with key minority Senate Democrats opposed, the bill may not clear the procedural hurdle, Senate Democratic aides said. This could delay any action to combat Zika until after next week’s July 4th national holiday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, warned Democrats Monday against opposing the bill, saying that it “represents the last chance we will have to address Zika for weeks.”

Democrats have been urging Republicans for months to agree to more Zika funding, and the Obama administration has already reprogrammed nearly $600 million that had been set aside to fight another virus, Ebola.

But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said Monday that the minority had “no choice” but to oppose the Republican legislation. Among other things, Democrats were unhappy that the proposal would not allow funding to go to private entities such as the women’s healthcare provider Planned Parenthood.

U.S. health officials have concluded that Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size that can lead to severe developmental problems in babies. The World Health Organization has said there is strong scientific consensus that Zika can also cause Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological syndrome that causes temporary paralysis in adults.

The connection between Zika and microcephaly first came to light last fall in Brazil, which has now confirmed more than 1,400 cases of microcephaly that it considers to be related to Zika infections in the mothers.

There have not yet been any cases reported of local transmission of the Zika virus in the continental United States, but there have been more than 1,800 cases of Zika infection reported in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.

Health experts expect local transmission to occur in the continental United States as mosquito season gets underway with warmer weather.

Democrats were upset that $543 million of the $1.1 billion provided by the bill would come from unspent funds set aside for implementing Obamacare in U.S. territories, while $107 million would come from unused funds to fight Ebola.

Another $100 million would come from unused administrative funds at the Department of Health and Human Services.

An earlier bipartisan bill that passed the Senate last month would also have provided $1.1 billion to combat Zika, but without cutting money elsewhere.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Bernard Orr)