Congress clashes over border funding as migrant emergency continues

Asylum seekers waiting in hopes of being let through the nearby U.S. port of entry line up for a meal provided by volunteers at a makeshift migrant camp by the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

(Reuters) – The U.S. House and Senate will try to resolve their conflicting versions of an emergency funding bill on Thursday to address worsening humanitarian conditions for migrant children and families on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed by an overwhelming 84-8 vote a $4.6 billion spending bill on Wednesday. The Democratic-led House of Representatives on Tuesday night tied more strings to its approval of the money, setting standards for health and nutrition of migrants in custody after reports they lacked necessities such as soap and diapers.

A photo of drowned migrants, and reports of horrendous conditions for detained children have spurred efforts to craft compromise legislation to send to U.S. President Donald Trump before Congress breaks this week for the U.S. Independence Day holiday.

Whether Trump will sign a deal is uncertain as he continues to push for spending on the kind of border security some Democratic adversaries blame for migrant deaths.

Trump has made cracking down on immigration a centerpiece of his administration but officials are saying they will soon run out of money for border agencies. Border crossings hit their highest level in more than a decade in May, straining resources and creating chaotic scenes at overcrowded border patrol facilities.

The need for funding has become more urgent as attorneys last week called attention to more than 300 children detained in squalid conditions at a border patrol facility in Clint, Texas.

Reporters given a short tour of the facility on Wednesday were told by Station Chief Matthew Harris that it currently has 117 children in custody, but that a month and a half ago the number peaked at almost 700 children.

Harris said the facility was designed to hold people in custody for eight to ten hours. He said the average stay now was six to ten days, with teenage mothers staying up to two weeks, and some medical cases more than a month in the hospital.

Some older teenage girls could be seen talking and laughing, while others wore distraught looks. Some teenage boys played soccer while small children sat on the floor with blankets.

Trump has made building a wall along the southern border a key goal of his administration, but government officials say they need money to keep migrant housing facilities open past month end.

Border crossings hit their highest monthly level since 2006 in May, with more than 60% of migrants either children or families, mostly from Central America.

Lawyers and human rights workers said they found sick and hungry children when they visited the border patrol facility in Clint, Texas earlier this month.

“Many had been detained for weeks, one even up to a month in really horrific conditions,” said Clara Long, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The conditions of unaccompanied children crossing the border has become a key issue in the 2020 presidential race. During a debate on Wednesday night, many of the Democratic candidates called for an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws and about 12 of them are set to visit a Florida facility this week.

A photo of a Salvadoran father and his toddler daughter who drowned attempting to cross the Rio Grande added urgency on both sides of the aisle to reach a funding deal.

Trump criticized the House bill on Wednesday, telling Fox Business Network he wanted more money for “protection” from the drug traffickers and other criminals he says are taking advantage of the family surge to slip into the country.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan in Washington; Additional reporting by Omar Younis in Los Angeles and Julio-Cesar Chavez in El Paso, Texas; Writing by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Lisa Shumaker and Chizu Nomiyama)

Senate rejects House-backed version of border aid bill

FILE PHOTO: The U.S.-Mexico border is seen near Lukeville, Pima County, Arizona, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Wednesday rejected a bill approved a day earlier by the House of Representatives that would have provided $4.5 billion to address a surge in migration at the U.S. border with Mexico, while setting new standards for the care of migrants taken into custody.

Last month, President Donald Trump requested aid for programs to house, feed, transport and oversee a surge of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States.

But he had vowed to veto the House legislation. White House officials had said the bill would hamper the Trump administration’s border enforcement efforts.

The Senate was set to move to a separate vote on its own border aid bill after defeating the House measure.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Tim Ahmann)

U.S. House fails to pass disaster aid bill; second attempt likely next month

FILE PHOTO: Tom Geisler surveys damaged to his farm, following flooding in Winslow, outside Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Humeyra Pamuk/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday failed to pass a $19.1 billion disaster aid bill supported by President Donald Trump, but is expected to try again early next month.

Following Senate passage of the legislation on Thursday by a vote of 85-8, House leaders had hoped to win quick, unanimous approval of the bill and send it to Trump for his expected signature.

FILE PHOTO: Flood damage is shown in this earial photo in Percival, Iowa, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Flood damage is shown in this earial photo in Percival, Iowa, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek/File Photo

But since the House did not go through regular, more time-consuming procedures, it needed the consent of all of its current 432 members to approve the bill.

For months, lawmakers have been haggling behind the scenes over the disaster aid bill in response to hurricanes in the southeastern U.S., severe flooding in the Midwest, devastating wildfires in California and other events.

The $19.1 billion in the bill is intended to help farmers cover their crop losses and rebuild infrastructure hit by disasters, including repairs to U.S. military bases.

Representative Chip Roy, a first-term Republican, objected to holding the vote, citing concerns that the legislation did not include $4.5 billion Trump had requested to deal with a surge of Central American immigrants on the southwestern border.

Roy also complained that the cost of the bill was not offset by savings to other government programs.

“This is a $19-billion bill that is not paid for when we are racking up $100 million of debt per hour,” Roy complained.

Congress regularly approves “emergency” disaster aid bills without any cuts to other programs, despite objections from some conservative lawmakers.

When the House returns from a week-long Memorial Day recess it is expected to bring the legislation back to the House floor for likely passage.

Friday’s action played out in a nearly empty House chamber as most of its members have left Washington for a week-long Memorial Day holiday recess.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Nick Zieminski)

U.S. senators say Saudi crown prince has gone ‘full gangster’

Retired four-star Army General John Abizaid testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing to be U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Retired Army General John Abizaid, U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia, defended the U.S.-Saudi relationship on Wednesday as lawmakers accused the kingdom of a litany of misdeeds and criticized its crown prince as going “full gangster.”

Senators at Abizaid’s confirmation hearing, Trump’s fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, condemned the kingdom’s conduct in the civil war in Yemen, heavy-handed diplomacy and rights abuses including torturing women’s rights activists and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Abizaid called for accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, and support for human rights, but repeatedly stressed the importance of Washington-Riyadh ties.

Despite increasing tension between the two countries, the United States has not had an ambassador there since Trump became president in January 2017.

“In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Abizaid told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is in our interests to make sure that the relationship is sound.”

Abizaid, a retired four-star Army general, led U.S. Central Command during the Iraq war. Expected to easily win Senate confirmation, he was praised by senators from both parties at the hearing.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Riyadh government, was killed at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in October. His death fueled simmering discontent in Washington over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and heavy civilian casualties in Yemen’s civil war, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The House of Representatives has passed a war powers resolution that would end all U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, but Abizaid said the Trump administration believes strongly that U.S. support should continue.

“Doing so bolsters the self-defense capabilities of our partners and reduces the risk of harm to civilians,” Abizaid said.

‘FULL GANGSTER’

The measure passed the Senate last year, but must go through the chamber again this year to be sent to the White House, where Trump is expected to issue a veto. However, its support in Congress is considered a strong rebuke of Riyadh.

Lawmakers have been strongly critical of Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince. Some blame him for Khashoggi’s killing and other human rights abuses.

Eleven suspects have been indicted in Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder, and last month a top Saudi official rejected accusations that the crown prince ordered the killing.

Republican Senator Jim Risch, the committee’s chairman, said Washington needed to send a strong message to Saudi Arabia about actions that he said are complicating the relationship.

“It’s going to have to be addressed by the Saudis and by the Crown Prince,” Risch said.

“The Crown Prince has launched Saudi Arabia into a devastating war in Yemen, isolated Qatar, threatening Gulf cooperation and coordination against threats from Iran and regional terrorist groups, detained and tortured members of his own family and effectively hoodwinked and intimidated the Lebanese prime minister,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s top Democrat.

As Abizaid’s hearing continued, at least two Republicans said bin Salman had gone “full gangster.”

One, Republican Marco Rubio, cited a long list of actions including the imprisonment of women’s rights activists and the 2017 detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.

Abizaid said in prepared remarks that the Islamic State militant group has been “nearly vanquished on the ground,” but remains a “potent threat” to the United States and its allies.

While contradicted by some U.S. military and intelligence officials, Trump has declared that Islamic State has been driven out of all its territory since announcing in December that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. He claimed that U.S.-led forces had succeeded in their mission to defeat the militant group.

Since then, Trump has decided to leave hundreds of U.S. troops in the country over the longer run.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Trump asks U.S. Congress to prohibit late-term abortion

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures during his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump called for curbs on late-term abortion in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, citing controversies over the issue in New York and Virginia.

Using emotive language, Trump waded into what has long been a divisive issue in American politics, even though the procedure was legalized in a Supreme Court ruling more than 40 years ago.

“To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb,” Trump said.

“Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life. Let us reaffirm a fundamental truth: all children – born and unborn – are made in the holy image of God,” he said.

The issue of whether a fetus feels pain has been raised frequently in recent years by abortion opponents pushing for more restrictions in state legislatures. Medical opinion on the issue is not conclusive.

With the confirmation last year of Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, conservatives now have a 5-4 edge on the nation’s highest court, raising fears among abortion rights supporters that the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling could be weakened or overturned.

Currently, laws governing late-term abortions vary state by state.

Trump criticized a New York law enacted last month that provides strong abortion rights protections, including late-term abortions when the mother’s health is endangered.

In his speech, he said lawmakers in the state “cheered with delight” at the law “that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.”

The Republican president also seized on a controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, repeating Republicans’ accusations that Northam, a Democrat, advocated infanticide when he defended a bill that would have lifted restrictions on later-term abortions.

Northam has said his comments were misinterpreted. “Extrapolating otherwise is bad faith,” his spokeswoman, Ofirah Yheskel, said last week.

The embattled Virginia governor is facing a separate controversy over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook, but has resisted calls to resign.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. lawmakers search for remedies as government shutdown rolls on

At the end of a stormy day, the setting sun breaks through the clouds to illuminate the White House in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate, after rejecting two shutdown-ending bills, was searching for a way to end a government closure entering its 35th day and threatening the economy, as hundreds of thousands of federal workers missed a second paycheck on Friday.

Republican President Donald Trump was dug in at the White House, continuing to insist on funding for a wall he wants to build on the U.S.-Mexico border, while the Democratic-led House of Representatives, which opposes the wall, had left Washington for the weekend.

On Thursday, a bill backed by Trump to end the shutdown by including $5.7 billion he wants for the wall and a separate bill supported by Democrats to reopen shuttered agencies without such funding did not get the votes required to advance in the 100-member Senate.

Afterward, a bipartisan group of lawmakers said they were introducing an amendment in the Senate to temporarily reopen the roughly one-quarter of the federal government affected by the longest shutdown in U.S. history. Senator Ben Cardin, one of the Democratic co-sponsors, said he did not think it contained any wall funding.

Trump said on Thursday that if Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer reached an agreement to end the shutdown, he would support it.

The president also said, however, that a deal was “not going to work” unless it included “a wall or a barrier.” He said one suggestion was “a pro-rated down payment for the wall.”

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said a temporary measure to reopen shuttered government departments and agencies must have “a large down payment on the wall.”

A spokesman for Schumer said on Thursday night that Senate Democrats “have made clear to Leader McConnell and Republicans that they will not support funding for the wall, pro-rated or otherwise.”

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters the possibility of legislation that includes a large down payment on a wall, “is not a reasonable agreement.”

McConnell told reporters on Thursday night: We’re still talking. At least we’re talking. I think that’s better than it was before.”

The Senate was scheduled to work on Friday, but it was unclear whether it might take any action on ending the shutdown.

CNN reported on Thursday that the White House was preparing an emergency declaration that Trump could issue to circumvent Congress if lawmakers do not fund his wall.

Asked about the report, a White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Nothing is off the table, but we still believe the best path forward is working with Congress on a solution to the humanitarian and national security crisis at the southern border.”

An emergency declaration would almost certainly be swiftly challenged on constitutional grounds by Democrats.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney)

Senate plans votes to end shutdown, but solution still far off

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 and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican-led U.S. Senate planned votes on Thursday for competing proposals to end the partial government shutdown – both of which were likely to fail – as lawmakers and the White House sniped at each other over how to break their monthlong impasse.

Just hours before the Senate was scheduled to vote, there were signs that lawmakers might consider new ideas for ending the 34-day shutdown, which was triggered by Trump’s demand for money to fund his long-promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The shutdown has left hundreds of thousands of government workers furloughed or working without pay.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, told reporters that she was willing to meet face-to-face with Republican President Donald Trump to discuss the issue.

Her comment came one day after she announced that Trump’s State of the Union speech in the House chamber, scheduled for Tuesday, would not occur until the shutdown ended, despite the president’s plans to come. Trump, who considered giving the speech at another venue, conceded late on Wednesday and said he would deliver the speech in the House in the “near future.”

Trump wants $5.7 billion for the border barrier, opposed by Democrats, as part of any legislation to fund about a quarter of the federal government.

The longest such shutdown in U.S. history has left 800,000 federal workers, as well as private contractors, without pay and struggling to make ends meet, with the effects on government services and the economy reverberating nationwide.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday urged furloughed federal workers to seek loans to pay their bills while adding in a CNBC interview that he couldn’t understand why they were having trouble getting by.

Pelosi denounced the comments.

“Is this the, ‘Let them eat cake’ kind of attitude or ‘Call your father for money?’ or ‘This is character building for you?'” Pelosi asked at a news conference.

She said she did not understand why Ross would make the comment “as hundreds of thousands of men and women are about to miss a second paycheck tomorrow.”

Trump had a response for Pelosi as well.

“Nancy just said she ‘just doesn’t understand why?’ Very simply, without a Wall it all doesn’t work. Our Country has a chance to greatly reduce Crime, Human Trafficking, Gangs and Drugs. Should have been done for decades. We will not Cave!” he said in a tweet.

VOTES PROCEED

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell planned a vote on Thursday afternoon on a Democratic proposal to fund the government for three weeks that does not include wall funding.

Its prospects looked dim in the Republican-majority Senate, although at least one conservative senator reportedly plans to back it. The Democratic-controlled House has passed similar bills but Trump has rejected legislation that does not include the wall funding.

McConnell has previously said he would not consider legislation that Trump did not support. The fact that he is willing to allow a vote suggests he may be trying to persuade lawmakers of both parties to compromise.

Republican Senator Cory Gardner intends to vote for the bill, the Denver Post said, citing the lawmaker’s spokesman. Gardner’s representatives could not be reached for immediately for comment.

McConnell also planned to hold a vote on a separate bill that includes wall funding and a temporary extension of protections for “Dreamers,” hundreds of thousands of people brought to the United States illegally as children, to reflect an offer Trump made on Saturday.

Democrats have dismissed Trump’s offer, saying they would not negotiate on border security before reopening the government and would not trade a temporary extension of the immigrants’ protections in return for a permanent border wall they have called ineffective, costly and immoral.

McConnell’s calculation may be that if both bills fail, Republicans and Democrats would be convinced to seek a deal.

One possibility emerged on Wednesday when House Democratic leaders floated the idea of giving Trump most or all of the money he seeks for security along the Mexican border but that could not be used to build a wall.

Representative James Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, said Democrats could fulfill Trump’s request for $5.7 billion for border security with technological tools such as drones, X-rays and sensors, as well as more border patrol agents.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll last week found more than half of Americans blamed Trump for the shutdown even as he has sought to shift blame to Democrats after saying last month he would be “proud” to close the government for border security.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Roberta Rampton; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Bill Trott)

Trump-backed criminal justice bill heads for votes in Senate

FILE PHOTO: Jail cells are seen in the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit at the Rikers Island Correctional facility in New York March 12, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Monday prepared to vote this week on bipartisan criminal justice legislation supported by President Donald Trump, although critics were forcing debate on a series of changes before allowing a decision on passage.

The “First Step Act” would ease the way for certain prison inmates to win early release to halfway houses or home confinement. It also would create programs to reduce recidivism and protect first-time non-violent offenders from harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted that a “number” of senators still had problems with the bill.

But in a procedural move on Monday evening, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to advance the measure, clearing the way for debate on amendments before a possible vote on passage later in the week.

Even with Senate passage, the House of Representatives would still have to act in the waning days of this Congress before it could be sent to Trump for signing into law.

Conservative senators already have won some changes to the bill, paring back the discretion judges would have to sentence felons with criminal histories beneath mandatory minimums.

At the end of 2016, according to U.S. Justice Department figures, nearly 2.2 million people were incarcerated in prisons or local jails.

That makes the United States the world leader in prison population, according to private estimates.

Republican senators Tom Cotton and John Kennedy were pushing for approval of three amendments that would further tighten requirements.

They address excluding child molesters and other violent felons from early release, notifying victims before offenders are let out early and a measure to track the effectiveness of anti-recidivism programs, according to Senate aides.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Senators see votes next week to send message to Saudi over Khashoggi death

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, Britain, Sept. 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. senators said on Thursday they expect to vote next week on efforts to make clear to Saudi Arabia there is strong concern in Washington about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey, despite President Donald Trump’s calls for continued close ties to Riyadh.

Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans have joined Democrats in blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s death and backing legislation that could respond by, among other things, ending U.S. support for Saudi-led war effort in Yemen and suspending weapons sales to the kingdom.

A group of Republican and Democratic senators met on Thursday morning to discuss how to move ahead, saying afterward they were working to come up with a compromise that could eventually become law.

Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he hoped to hold a hearing early next week on legislation that included a broad range of efforts to clamp down on Riyadh, including new sanctions and an end to military sales.

He also said he expected a vote in the Senate next week on a war powers resolution to stop U.S. support for the war in Yemen, which has produced one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.

Last week, 14 Republicans, who hold a slim majority in the Senate and rarely break from the president, defied Trump’s wishes and voted with Democrats in favor of moving ahead with the war powers resolution.

“We had a very good meeting,” Corker told reporters after the session, which was also attended by Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Todd Young and Democrats Bob Menendez and Chris Murphy.

Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters after the meeting that the senators were working on a compromise.

Graham, a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia who is close to Trump, introduced a bipartisan Senate resolution on Thursday intended to hold the Saudi crown prince “accountable” for contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, a blockade of Qatar, the jailing of dissidents and Khashoggi’s death.

Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

CIA chief Haspel to brief Senate leaders on Khashoggi’s death

FILE PHOTO: New CIA Director Gina Haspel speaks after being sworn in during ceremonies at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, U.S. May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – CIA Director Gina Haspel will give a closed briefing to leaders of several U.S. Senate committees on Tuesday on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to two sources familiar with the planned meeting.

Some lawmakers were angry Haspel did not participate in a Senate briefing by Trump administration officials last week on Khashoggi’s death at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The CIA has assessed that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that Haspel would conduct a briefing.

At last week’s briefing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said there was no hard evidence the crown prince was behind the killing and urged senators not to downgrade ties with Saudi Arabia over the incident.

Haspel will brief the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Appropriations committees, the source said, adding that the Senate Intelligence Committee already had been briefed by the CIA chief.

A Senate source said Senate leaders would also participate in the briefing, which is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. ET.

The CIA had no immediate comment.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball, additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Writing by Eric Beech; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Howard Goller and Bill Berkrot)