U.S. House takes aim at loose gun-sale checks; passes second bill

By Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved a second bill in as many days to toughen background checks for gun purchases, but both bills were likely to face opposition from the Republican-controlled Senate and the White House.

The bills are the first major gun control measures approved in Congress in many years. They are an early move to address gun violence by Democrats after capturing majority control of the House in the November 2018 congressional midterm elections.

The Senate remains controlled by Republicans, many of whom are closely allied with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun-rights voters, who fiercely defend what they see as their constitutional right to own firearms.

While Republican President Donald Trump has said he supports stronger background checks, he has thus far toed the party line on gun control legislation, leaving Washington deadlocked on how to address frequent mass shootings in the United States.

From 2009 to 2017, there were at least 173 shootings in which four or more people were killed, with at least 1,001 total deaths, according to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.

Thursday’s background check bill would extend the number of days government authorities have to complete a background check before a gun sale. It passed by a 228-198 House vote.

Wednesday’s bill would expand background checks to include firearm purchases at gun shows and over the internet. It was approved 240-190. Both votes were largely along party lines.

The White House said on Monday that Trump’s advisers would recommend the president veto both pieces of legislation if they reached his desk because the first would impose “burdensome requirements” and the second “burdensome delays.”

The current background check process allows a gun purchase to proceed after three days, even if a background check has not been completed, said Democratic Representative James Clyburn from South Carolina, who sponsored Thursday’s bill.

He said that process resulted in 4,800 gun sales in 2017 to individuals with criminal records, a history of mental illness and other disqualifying circumstances.

“FBI analysis of the current background check system shows that 3 business days isn’t enough time to decide if someone shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun,” Clyburn said on Twitter.

His bill aims to close what Democrats call the “Charleston loophole” in the background check law by extending the window to complete a check to 10 days. They say the loophole allowed Dylann Roof to purchase the gun he used to kill nine people at a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015.

Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, where the background check bills originated, on Thursday called them “misguided” and said “my constitutional rights could be deferred indefinitely.”

(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Susan Thomas)

House set to reject Trump’s border wall emergency declaration

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), flanked by Representative Joaquin Castro (D-TX) (L) and House Democrats hold a news conference about their proposed resolution to terminate U.S. President Trump's Emergency Declaration on the southern border with Mexico, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 25, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives was poised on Tuesday to vote for terminating President Donald Trump’s proclaimed national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, a first step toward what could be a stinging rejection of his proposed border wall.

If the Democratic-controlled House approves a resolution ending the president’s emergency, as expected, the measure would go to the Republican-controlled Senate where its chances of passage were slimmer, but seemed to be improving.

Trump has vowed to issue a veto, which would be the first of his presidency, against any resolution approved by both chambers targeting the emergency that he single-handedly declared on Feb. 15 as a way to fund his wall by circumventing Congress.

Overriding such a veto in Congress would require two-thirds majorities in both chambers, making it highly unlikely, said lawmakers.

“When you see the vote today, there will be nowhere near the votes to override a veto,” U.S. Representative Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

The battle in Congress is the latest chapter in a long-running war between Trump and Democrats over border security, immigration policy and the “great, great wall” that Trump has pledged to build since becoming a presidential candidate.

He originally promised that Mexico would pay for it, but after Mexico refused, he asked U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill for the project, which Democrats call unneeded and ineffective.

In his first two years in office, Trump’s Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, which under the U.S. Constitution holds the national purse strings, but lawmakers failed to provide the funding Trump wanted for his border barrier.

When Congress, with the House now controlled by Democrats, refused in recent weeks to provide the money he wants, Trump declared an emergency and vowed to divert funds toward the wall from accounts already committed by Congress for other purposes.

That set up a test of the constitutional separation of powers between Congress and the presidency that will likely lead to a court challenge after lawmakers deal with the resolution.

A coalition of 16 U.S. states led by California has already sued Trump and top members of his administration in an attempt to block his emergency declaration.

Writing on Twitter on Monday, Trump, who says the wall is needed to stop illegal immigration and drugs, warned Republicans not to “fall into the Democrats ‘trap’ of Open Borders and Crime!”

Republican Representative Justin Amash is co-sponsoring the resolution in the House, along with more than 230 House Democrats, and Amash is urging his colleagues to support it.

“The same congressional Republicans who joined me in blasting Pres. Obama’s executive overreach now cry out for a king to usurp legislative powers,” Amash wrote on Twitter.

“If your faithfulness to the Constitution depends on which party controls the White House, then you are not faithful to it,” he wrote over the weekend.

The White House was working to limit Republican support for the measure, especially in the Senate. Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to attend a Senate Republican luncheon on Tuesday, where the resolution was expected to be a key topic.

Republican Senator Thom Tillis, in an opinion article published in the Washington Post, said he backed Trump on border security, but would vote for the resolution because he “cannot justify providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress.”

At least two other Republican senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, have said they will likely support the measure, too. For it to pass the Senate, at least one more Republican vote would be needed, assuming all Democrats and two independents back it.

Trump declared the emergency after Congress declined his request for $5.7 billion to help build the wall.

Congress this month appropriated $1.37 billion for building border barriers following a battle with Trump, which included a 35-day partial government shutdown – the longest in U.S. history – when agency funding lapsed on Dec. 22.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan; editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Jonathan Oatis)

House Republicans move to reprimand King over white supremacy comments

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives moved on Monday to strip congressman Steve King of his committee assignments after the Iowa Republican gave a media interview in which he questioned why white supremacy is considered offensive.

The decision by the House Republican Steering Committee to remove King from his posts on the Judiciary, Agriculture and Small Business committees must be ratified by the full caucus of House Republicans.

The move comes as several House Democrats filed censure motions against King after he told the New York Times in an interview published last week: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization – how did that language become offensive?”

King, who has a history of making statements that critics have condemned as racist, said in a statement that his comments in the Times interview were “completely mischaracterized” and the committee’s decision was “a political decision that ignores the truth.”

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement that King’s remarks were “beneath the dignity” of the party and the country.

“Let us hope and pray earnestly that this action will lead to greater reflection and ultimately change on his part,” McCarthy said.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, called on King to resign. King was first elected to Congress in 2002 and won re-election in November with just over 50 percent of the vote, sharply lower than the 61.2 percent he polled in 2016.

The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said in a statement: “If he doesn’t understand why ‘white supremacy’ is offensive, he should find another line of work.”

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Democrats to push shutdown halt that Trump unlikely to accept

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 2, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Ginger Gibson and Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In their first action in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats plan to adopt a bill on Thursday to end a federal shutdown without funding a Mexican border wall, trying to firmly fasten blame for the 13-day-old closure on President Donald Trump and his Republicans.

Passage of the bill by the new Democratic majority was expected to occur shortly after Nancy Pelosi is elected speaker of the House, returning the liberal from San Francisco to one of Washington’s most powerful posts for a second time.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday his chamber, still in Republican hands, would not vote on the legislation, calling it a “political sideshow” and “total nonstarter.”

“We’re asking the president to open up government,” Pelosi told reporters outside the White House on Wednesday after another unproductive meeting with Trump on the matter. “We have given the Republicans a chance to take yes for an answer.”

The Democrats’ shutdown-halting bill closely resembles one that won overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, which Democratic leaders say will put the onus on Republicans to accept it or clearly own the shutdown.

Trump’s demand for $5 billion in funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border triggered the shutdown affecting about a quarter of the federal government and 800,000 federal workers.

McConnell said previously that Senate Republicans would not approve a spending measure Trump does not support. The Senate leader has been largely absent from discussions over the shutdown, deferring to the White House after Trump surprised him by rejecting his prior attempts to keep the government open without funding the wall.

The House proposal, which would fund most of the government through September and provide another month to negotiate wall funding, will more likely be a starting point for further negotiations in the new divided government.

Congressional leaders said they would return to the White House on Friday to resume talks with Trump, a sign that the government is likely to remain closed for the rest of the week.

Funding for about a quarter of the federal government expired on Dec. 22, closing “non-essential” operations at agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, Energy and Commerce.

National parks have closed campgrounds for fear that toilets will overflow. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are working without pay. The immigration courts, already overburdened, are largely shuttered.

While the first 12 days of the shutdown crept by quietly during the holiday season, Thursday will mark the changing of power in the House, in which the Democrats won a majority of seats in November’s elections, and a new dynamic, with Pelosi again central to moving any legislation through Congress.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson and Amanda Becker; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney)

U.S. officials warn Congress on 2018 election hacking threats

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen speaks to reporters after she, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats briefed members of the U.S. House of Representatives on election security at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior Trump administration officials warned Congress on Tuesday of ongoing efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2018 midterm congressional elections as the federal government prepares to hand out $380 million in election security funding to states.

At a briefing attended by about 40 or 50 members of the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives, the heads of FBI, Homeland Security Department and the director of National Intelligence said states and cities overseeing elections need to be prepared for threats.

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters she agreed Russia was trying to influence the 2018 elections.

“We see them continuing to conduct foreign influence campaigns,” Nielsen said, but added there is no evidence of Russia targeting specific races.

Nielsen said DHS is watching other countries that have the capability to influence U.S. elections, including China and Iran. “We need to be prepared,” she said.

Chris Krebs, a senior DHS cyber security official, told Reuters that the administration was sending states guidance on how to spend the $380 million approved by Congress in March to help safeguard U.S. voting systems from cyber attacks. The funds are expected to be distributed later this week.

DHS is assisting 48 states with election security. It handed out a chart at the briefing to members that said states need to have auditable systems, spend time on planning, training and drills and they should “consider investing in full system architecture reviews.”

Representative Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said after the briefing that members are concerned that “not only Russia but possibly other foreign adversaries are now going to start looking at how they can meddle in the midterm elections and we need to be prepared. We were caught off guard last time.”

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian leadership at a very high level was involved in the attempt to interfere in the U.S. election in order to boost President Donald Trump’s candidacy.

Russia has denied interfering in U.S. elections.

Several Democrats after the briefing expressed concern that the federal government was not doing enough to safeguard elections.

“It is clear that our government must do more and whatever possible to secure our elections from foreign interference. The integrity of our democracy is at stake,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.

UNPRECEDENTED, COORDINATED

A May 8 U.S. Senate report said that in 2016 “cyber actors affiliated with the Russian Government conducted an unprecedented, coordinated cyber campaign against state election infrastructure.” Russian actors “scanned databases for vulnerabilities, attempted intrusions, and in a small number of cases successfully penetrated a voter registration database.”

The report said in a small number of states, “these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data.”

Krebs said on Tuesday that DHS wanted states to “increase awareness” and have a “layered defense.”

If a voter’s information was missing, for example, they could request a provisional ballot. “If we do detect something, we can overcome it,” he said.

During the 2016 campaign, hackers stole emails from the personal account of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and from the Democratic National Committee, and they were used to embarrass Clinton.

Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, said members of Congress need to be aware of cyber risks. “We need to focus on it, make it a priority,” he said.

DHS said in March it is prioritizing election cyber security above all other critical infrastructure it protects.

The agency has said that 21 states had experienced initial probing of their systems from Russian hackers in 2016 and that a small number of networks were compromised, but that there remains no evidence any votes were actually altered.

Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told reporters the federal government should quickly alert states if they learn of election system hacking.

He also wants a “real-time communications channel” between the intelligence community and technology companies in order to assure that internet firms are notified if evidence emerges that Russia is creating fake Facebook Inc <FB.O> pages or taking other actions to influence the elections.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Bill Berkrot)

Turkey says it will retaliate if U.S. halts weapons sales

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will retaliate if the United States enacts a proposed law that would halt weapons sales to the country, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday.

Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives released details on Friday of a $717 billion annual defense policy bill, including a measure to temporarily halt weapons sales to Turkey.

In an interview with broadcaster CNN Turk, Cavusoglu said the measures in the bill were wrong, illogical and not fitting between the NATO allies.

“If the United States imposes sanctions on us or takes such a step, Turkey will absolutely retaliate,” Cavusoglu said. “What needs to be done is the U.S. needs to let go of this.”

The proposed U.S. National Defense Authorization Act, which is several steps from becoming law, would ask the Defense Department to provide Congress with a report on the relationship between the United States and Turkey, and would block the sale of major defense equipment until the report was complete.

Turkey plans to buy more than 100 of Lockheed Martin’s <LMT.N> F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, and is also in talks with Washington over the purchase of Patriot missiles.

Turkey signed an agreement with Russia in December to buy S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries as part of Ankara’s plans to boost its defense capabilities amid threats from Kurdish and Islamist militants at home and conflicts across its borders in Syria and Iraq.

The move to buy S-400s, which are incompatible with the NATO systems, has unnerved NATO member countries, which are already wary of Moscow’s military presence in the Middle East, prompting NATO officials to warn Turkey of unspecified consequences.

Cavusoglu dismissed the warnings, saying Turkey’s relations and agreements with Russia were not an alternative to its ties with the West and accused the United States of trying to control Turkey’s actions.

“Turkey is not a country under your orders, it is an independent country… Speaking to such a country from above, dictating what it can and cannot buy, is not a correct approach and does not fit our alliance,” he said.

Relations between Ankara and Washington have been strained over a host of issues in recent months, including U.S. policy in Syria and a number of legal cases against Turkish and U.S. nationals being held in the two countries.

Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Cavusoglu that the United States was seriously concerned over Ankara’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 missile batteries.

Cavusoglu said he would visit the United States next week to meet Pompeo, but added a specific date had not been set yet.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Adrian Croft)

Push for ‘Dreamer’ immigration bill gains steam in U.S. House of Representatives

Activists and DACA recipients march up Broadway during the start of their 'Walk to Stay Home,' a five-day 250-mile walk from New York to Washington D.C., to demand that Congress pass a Clean Dream Act, in Manhattan, New York, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday urged Speaker Paul Ryan to schedule debate on bills to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation, in a move aimed at reviving a push that sputtered in the Senate in February.

Backers said they had 240 House members on board so far pushing for debate of four different bills to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Republican President Donald Trump ended on March 5.

Under the House members’ plan, the measure with the most votes would win and be sent to the Senate. November’s congressional elections could contribute to an already difficult path, however.

The bill many lawmakers think is most popular was written by Republican Will Hurd and Democrat Peter Aguilar. It would protect “Dreamer” immigrants from deportation and strengthen border security, although not with a Southwest border wall Trump wants.

DACA, established in 2012 by Democratic then-President Barack Obama, protected illegal immigrants brought into the United States by their parents when they were children. Around 800,000 “Dreamers” have participated.

With Trump’s action, their legal status is in limbo pending the outcome of court battles.

Trump has urged Congress to write legislation giving these immigrants permanent protections, but he has failed to reach a compromise with Congress.

“It is time to have a full debate for the American public and have the entire country decide what border security should look like, what a permanent fix for Dreamers should look like,” said Republican Representative Jeff Denham, who represents a central California district with a large Hispanic population.

In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton beat Trump in his district, leading to speculation that Denham, like Republicans in similar areas, could face a tough re-election.

At least 218 votes are needed in the 435-member House to pass legislation. With five vacancies, slightly fewer are necessary.

But there are difficulties, even with the 240 votes supporting this latest immigration push.

Only 50 of the House’s 237 Republicans are behind the effort so far, with nearly all 190 Democrats on board.

That presents political problems for Ryan and his leadership team, which bridles at passing legislation not backed by a majority of fellow Republicans.

Representative Linda Sanchez, a member of House Democratic leadership, told reporters that a bill to take care of Dreamers could pass the House if Ryan allowed it, but that opponents were blocking a debate.

“One hundred of the most conservative members in that (Republican) caucus are making policy for the rest of the United States,” Sanchez said.

(Reporting By Richard Cowan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

House to debate bill to reduce violence in schools

American flags fly on National Mall with U.S. Capitol on background as high-wind weather conditions continue in Washington, U.S. March 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives next week will debate bipartisan legislation aimed at preventing school violence following the Feb. 14 shooting at a Florida high school that ended with 17 deaths, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Tuesday.

McCarthy did not outline any other legislation the House might consider, which gun control groups are pushing, such as raising the age for purchasing semi-automatic rifles or banning them altogether.

The House already has passed a bill, which is pending in the Senate, to tighten government background checks on gun buyers. But it included a controversial provision to greatly expand the ability of people to carry concealed weapons anywhere in the United States, which is not likely to pass the Senate.

(Reporting By Richard Cowan)

U.S. House passes bill to penalize websites for sex trafficking US

FILE PHOTO - The U.S. Capitol Building is lit at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed legislation to make it easier to penalize operators of websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, chipping away at a bedrock legal shield for the technology industry.

The bill’s passage marks one of the most concrete actions in recent years from the U.S. Congress to tighten regulation of internet firms, which have drawn heavy scrutiny from lawmakers in both parties over the past year due to an array of concerns regarding the size and influence of their platforms.

The House passed the measure 388-25. It still needs to pass the U.S. Senate, where similar legislation has already gained substantial support, and then be signed by President Donald Trump before it can become law.

Speaker Paul Ryan, in a statement before the vote, said the bill would help “put an end to modern-day slavery here in the United States.”

The White House issued a statement generally supportive of the bill, but said the administration “remains concerned” about certain provisions that it hopes can be resolved in the final legislation.

Several major internet companies, including Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook Inc, had been reluctant to support any congressional effort to dent what is known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a decades-old law that protects them from liability for the activities of their users.

But facing political pressure, the internet industry slowly warmed to a proposal that gained traction in the Senate last year, and eventually endorsed it after it gained sizeable bipartisan support.

Republican Senator Rob Portman, a chief architect of the Senate proposal, said in a statement he supported the House’s similar version and called on the Senate to quickly pass it.

The legislation is a result of years of law-enforcement lobbying for a crackdown on the online classified site backpage.com, which is used for sex advertising.

It would make it easier for states and sex-trafficking victims to sue social media networks, advertisers and others that fail to keep exploitative material off their platforms.

Some critics warned that the House measure would weaken Section 230 in a way that would only serve to further help established internet giants, who possess larger resources to police their content, and not adequately address the problem.

“This bill will only prop up the entrenched players who are rapidly losing the public’s trust,” Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, an original author of Section 230, said. “The failure to understand the technological side effects of this bill – specifically that it will become harder to expose sex-traffickers, while hamstringing innovation – will be something that this Congress will regret.”

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; editing by Sandra Maler and Lisa Shumaker)

House to vote to renew NSA’s internet surveillance program

An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone in Berlin, June 7, 2013.

By Dustin Volz

(Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote on Thursday on whether to renew the National Security Agency’s warrantless internet surveillance program, which has been the target of privacy advocates who want to limit its impact on Americans.

The vote is the culmination of a yearslong debate in Congress on the proper scope of U.S. intelligence collection, one fueled by the 2013 disclosures of classified surveillance secrets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The bill would extend the NSA’s spying program for six years with minimal changes. Most lawmakers expect it to become law if it prevails in the House, although it still would require Senate approval and President Donald Trump’s signature.

Trump appeared on Thursday to initially question the merits of the program, contradicting the official White House position and renewing unsubstantiated allegations that the previous administration of Barack Obama improperly surveilled his campaign during the 2016 election.

“This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?” the president said in an early morning post on Twitter.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request to clarify Trump’s tweet but he posted a clarification less than two hours later.

“With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!” Trump tweeted.

Unmasking refers to the largely separate issue of how Americans’ names kept secret in intelligence reports can be revealed.

Asked by a Reuters reporter at a conference in New York about Trump’s tweets, Rob Joyce, the top White House cyber official, said there was no confusion within Oval Office about the value of the surveillance program and that there have been no cases of it being used improperly for political purposes.

Some conservative, libertarian-leaning Republicans and liberal Democrats were attempting to persuade colleagues to include more privacy protections. Those would include requiring a warrant before the NSA or other intelligence agencies could scrutinize communications belonging to Americans whose data is incidentally collected under the program.

The White House, U.S. intelligence agencies and Republican leaders in Congress have said they consider the tool indispensable and in need of little or no revision.

Without congressional action, legal support for Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes the program, will expire next week, although intelligence officials say it could continue through April.

Section 702 allows the NSA to eavesdrop on vast amounts of digital communications from foreigners living outside the United States through U.S. companies such as Facebook Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google.

The spying program also incidentally scoops up communications of Americans if they communicate with a foreign target living overseas, and can search those messages without a warrant.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bill Trott)