At least 18 killed in Baghdad explosion: source

People react at the site of a car bomb attack in Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Wissm al-Okili

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Huda Majeed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – At least 18 people were killed and over 90 wounded in an explosion in Baghdad’s Sadr City district on Wednesday, an Iraqi police source said.

Photos from the scene showed a destroyed car and building as well as weeping relatives of victims.

An interior ministry spokesman said in a brief statement the blast was the result of the detonation of an ammunitions cache and that security forces had opened an investigation.

The ammunition had been stored in a mosque and the explosion happened during its transfer into a car parked nearby, the police source said.

Earlier, state television cited a ministry spokesman describing the explosion as “a terrorist aggression on civilians,” which had caused “martyrs and wounded”.

Authorities did not offer an explanation of the discrepancies between the two statements, neither of which gave casualty figures.

Sadr City is a stronghold of nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose political bloc won a May 12 parliamentary election. Parliament ordered a national recount of votes on Wednesday.

In May, two homemade bombs targeted the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party, which is part of Sadr’s bloc.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Huda Majeed; Editing by Andrew Roche and Peter Cooney)

Ireland quietly comes to terms with dramatic change after abortion vote

Messages are left at a memorial to Savita Halappanava a day after an Abortion Referendum to liberalise abortion laws was passed by popular vote, in Dublin, Ireland May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

By Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Irish people paid homage on Sunday to an Indian immigrant woman whose death inspired a historic vote to repeal Ireland’s strict abortion laws while the Catholic Church rued the outcome saying it showed indifference to its teachings.

In a referendum on Friday, the once deeply Catholic nation voted to scrap a prohibition on abortion by a margin of two-to-one, a landslide victory that astonished campaigners as citizens of every age and background demanded the change they had spent decades fighting for.

The vote overturns a law which, for decades, has forced over 3,000 women to travel to Britain each year for terminations that they could not legally have in their own country. “Yes” campaigners had argued that with pills now being bought illegally online abortion was already a reality in Ireland.

Hundreds of people on Sunday continued to leave flowers and candles at a large mural in Dublin of Savita Halappanaar, the 31-year-old Indian whose death in 2012 from a septic miscarriage after being refused a termination spurred lawmakers into action.

Katy Gaffney, a 24-year-old baker who traveled home to Dublin from Berlin to vote, stood silently in front of the makeshift memorial crying.

Messages are left at a memorial to Savita Halappanava a day after an Abortion Referendum to liberalise abortion laws was passed by popular vote, in Dublin, Ireland May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Messages are left at a memorial to Savita Halappanava a day after an Abortion Referendum to liberalise abortion laws was passed by popular vote, in Dublin, Ireland May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

“I am relieved but devastated that it had to come to this,” she said.

Others, many with tears in their eyes, pinned messages to the wall. One read: “I’m so sorry this happened to you before the country woke up. My vote was for you.” Another: “I’m sorry we let you down. It won’t be in vain.”

“It’s not a high. It’s more of a relief,” said Lynda Cosgrave, a 35-year-old legal associate, wearing the black sweatshirt with ‘Repeal’ in white that become the symbol of the youthful “Yes” campaign.

“I thought when I came in last night it would be jubilant, but it was a bit down. It’s a bit sad. I don’t think we ever thought it would actually happen.”

The campaign was defined by women publicly sharing their painful experiences of going abroad for procedures, a key reason why all but one of Ireland’s 40 constituencies voted “Yes”.

The government of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who campaigned to repeal the laws, will begin drafting legislation in the coming week to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy by the end of the year.

Many lawmakers who campaigned for a “No” vote said they would not try to block the bill.

NEW MILESTONE

The outcome was a new milestone on a path of change for the country of 4.8 million which only legalized divorce by a tiny majority in 1995 before becoming the first in the world to adopt gay marriage by popular vote three years ago.

With the vote making newspaper frontpages across the world, French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter that “Ireland has once again made history.” He called the vote an essential symbol for women’s freedom.

In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May faces a showdown with ministers and lawmakers in her Conservative party after refusing to back reform of highly restrictive abortion laws in the British province of Northern Ireland which has a 500 km (312 mile) land border with Ireland.

Ireland’s push to liberalize its laws is in contrast to another traditionally Catholic European country, Poland, where the ruling conservative party and still powerful church are seeking to ban most abortions.

In Ireland though, the once all-powerful Catholic Church, which has seen its public influence collapse since the 1980s after a string of child sex abuse scandals, took a back seat throughout the referendum campaign.

In churches across the country on Sunday there was only regret at the outcome.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin told parishioners that the church had to “renew its commitment to support life.”

“Many will see the results of Friday’s referendum as an indication that the Catholic Church in Ireland is regarded today by many with indifference and as having a marginal role in the formation of Irish culture,” Martin said in a homily published by the Archdiocese of Dublin.

Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick called the result “deeply regrettable and chilling for those of us who voted ‘No’.” He asked those attending mass to pray for healing in Irish society.

Calling on colleagues to move quickly on legislation, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone reminded lawmakers that Irish women would still have to travel across the water to Britain for terminations until they acted.

“Women are leaving the country today,” she told national broadcaster RTE. “We have to be aware of that and have that sense of urgency in order to legislate as soon as possible.”

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Ireland ends abortion ban as ‘quiet revolution’ transforms country

Observers watch as votes are tallied folowing yesterday's referendum on liberalizing abortion law, in Dublin, Ireland, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

By Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland’s prime minister on Saturday hailed the culmination of “a quiet revolution” in what was once one of Europe’s most socially conservative countries after a landslide referendum vote to liberalize highly restrictive laws on abortion.

Voters in the once deeply Catholic nation backed the change by two-to-one, a far higher margin than any opinion poll in the run up to the vote had predicted, and allows the government to bring in legislation by the end of the year.

“It’s incredible. For all the years and years and years we’ve been trying to look after women and not been able to look after women, this means everything,” said Mary Higgins, obstetrician and Together For Yes campaigner.

For decades, the law forced over 3,000 women to travel to Britain each year for terminations and “Yes” campaigners argued that with others now ordering pills illegally online, abortion was already a reality in Ireland.

The campaign was defined by women publicly sharing their painful experiences of leaving the country for procedures, a key reason why all but one of Ireland’s 40 constituencies voted “Yes”.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who campaigned to repeal the laws, had called the vote a once-in-a-generation chance and voters responded by turning out in droves. A turnout of 64 percent was one of the highest for a referendum.

“Today is an historic day for Ireland. A quiet revolution has taken place,” Varadkar, who became Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister last year, said in a speech after the vote.

“Everyone deserves a second chance. This is Ireland’s second chance to treat everyone equally and with compassion and respect. We have voted to look reality in the eye and we did not blink.”

The outcome is a new milestone on a path of change for a country which only legalized divorce by a razor thin majority in 1995 before becoming the first in the world to adopt gay marriage by popular vote three years ago.

The once-mighty Catholic Church took a back seat throughout the campaign.

ASTONISHING MARGIN

Anti-abortion activists conceded defeat early on Saturday as their opponents expressed astonishment at the scale of their victory. Lawmakers who campaigned for a “No” vote said they would not seek to block the government’s plans to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

“What Irish voters did yesterday is a tragedy of historic proportions,” the Save The 8th group said. “However, a wrong does not become a right simply because a majority support it.”

Voters were asked to scrap the constitutional amendment, which gives an unborn child and its mother equal rights to life. The consequent prohibition on abortion was partly lifted in 2013 for cases where the mother’s life was in danger.

The country’s largest newspaper, the Irish Independent, described the result as “a massive moment in Ireland’s social history”.

Activists react at the count centre as votes are tallied folowing yesterday's referendum on liberalizing abortion law, in Dublin, Ireland, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Activists react at the count centre as votes are tallied folowing yesterday’s referendum on liberalizing abortion law, in Dublin, Ireland, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Campaigners for change, wearing “Repeal” jumpers and “Yes” badges, gathered at count centers, many in tears and hugging each other. Others sang songs in the sunshine outside the main Dublin results center as they awaited the official result.

The large crowd cheered Varadkar as he took to the stage to thank them for “trusting women and respecting their choices”.

Reform in Ireland also raised the prospect that women in Northern Ireland, where abortion is still illegal, may start traveling south of the border.

“The outcome of the referendum is an extremely worrying development for the protection of the unborn child in Northern Ireland,” said Jim Wells, a member of Northern Ireland’s socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party.

MIDDLE GROUND

No social issue had divided Ireland’s 4.8 million people as sharply as abortion, which was pushed up the political agenda by the death in 2012 of a 31-year-old Indian immigrant from a septic miscarriage after she was refused a termination.

Campaigners left flowers and candles at a large mural of the woman, Savita Halappanavar, in central Dublin. Her parents in India were quoted by the Irish Times newspaper as thanking their “brothers and sisters” in Ireland and requesting the new law be called “Savita’s law”.

Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said he believed a middle ground of around 40 percent of voters had decided en masse to allow women and doctors rather than lawmakers and lawyers to decide whether a termination was justified.

“For him, it’s a different Ireland that we’re moving onto,” said Colm O’Riain, a 44-year-old teacher referring to his son Ruarai, born 14 weeks premature in November who was in his arms.

“It’s an Ireland that is more tolerant, more inclusive and where he can be whatever he wants without fear of recrimination.”

(Additional reporting by Graham Fahy and Emily Roe in Dublin; Amanda Ferguson in Belfast and Michael Holden in London; Editing by Alison Williams and Richard Balmforth)

Church and religion take back seat as a secular Ireland votes on abortion

Pro-Life campaigner Vicky Wall holds a poster ahead of a 25th May referendum on abortion law, in Wicklow, Ireland, May 8, 2018. Picture taken May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

By Conor Humphries and Emily G Roe

NENAGH/CORK, Ireland (Reuters) – Three decades after Ireland introduced one of the world’s only constitutional bans on abortion, the Church that was so pivotal in securing the law’s passage finds itself a minor player in the now mainly secular battle to repeal it.

A vote on May 25 on whether to scrap the 1983 ban is the latest referendum to gauge just how much has changed in Ireland, once one of Europe’s most socially conservative and staunchly Catholic countries.

Polls suggest the repeal camp is in the lead but the vote is much closer than three years ago when Ireland became the first country to back gay marriage in a national referendum. The one-in-five who are undecided are likely to decide the outcome, both sides say.

As in the gay marriage case, the role of the Catholic Church this time is tricky: some feel the Church should be out in front robustly defending one of its core teachings. Others worry moralizing by celibate priests may prove counter-productive.

“The priests in a way are damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” leading anti-abortion activist Vicky Wall said as she campaigned in central Ireland against repeal.

The leaflets she distributed around the rural market town of Nenagh mentioned religion just once, to address concerns that campaigners in favor of the ban were imposing their beliefs on the country.

“Not true. You don’t have to be from any faith tradition to agree that human life should be protected… The right to life is first and foremost a human rights issue,” it read.

Religion was front and center when Ireland voted to ban abortion in a 1983 referendum described by columnist Gene Kerrigan as part of a “moral civil war” between conservative Catholics and progressive liberals for the country’s future.

The eighth amendment to enshrine the equal right to life of mother and her unborn child was proposed by a coalition of Catholic groups who feared Ireland would follow the United States and United Kingdom into expanding access to abortion.

Protestant churches felt the wording was too rigid, but it passed by a margin of two to one.

The result showed the depth of Catholic influence in Ireland. But it also consolidated opposition when the implications of the ban became clear in a series of legal cases just as clerical abuse scandals rocked trust in the Church.

Ireland was transfixed by the 1992 case of a 14-year-old rape victim barred from leaving the country by judicial order after she told the police she was planning to get an abortion. The injunction was lifted by the Supreme Court on the grounds her life was deemed at risk by suicide.

A referendum later that year enshrined the right of women to travel for an abortion, legalizing a stream of more than 3,000 women who go to Britain every year for terminations.

In 2012 a 31-year-old Indian immigrant died from a septic miscarriage after being refused an abortion that might have saved her life.

The ensuing outcry led to legislation the next year to allow abortion when a woman’s life is in danger and, combined with criticism from the United Nations and European Court of Human Rights, helped build political pressure for a referendum to repeal the ban.

CHURCH BATTLE

With just over two weeks to go before the vote, the Church has only recently begun to get involved, putting up posters at a few churches and allowing some anti-abortion campaigners to speak from the pulpit during Mass.

The small interventions have caused a rare public split.

The liberal Association of Catholic Priests, which represents more than 1,000 priests in Ireland, called the sermons “inappropriate and insensitive” and said that they would be regarded by some as “an abuse of the Eucharist.”

“As leadership of an association made up of men who are unmarried and without children of our own, we are not best placed to be in any way dogmatic on this issue,” it said.

Pastoral letters from some of the country’s 25 bishops have used increasingly emotive language in defense of the ban in recent days, however.

“We must not be naive about what is at issue in this Referendum. It is a great struggle between light and dark, between life and death,” Bishop of Cloyne William Crean said in his letter. “I invite you to CHOOSE LIFE!”

Campaigners on both sides say they are generally avoiding religion because they are afraid to alienate undecided voters and because it’s just not as relevant as it once was.

Seventy-eight percent of Irish people identified as Catholic in the 2016 census, down from 92 percent in 1991; 10 percent said they had no religion and 3 percent were Protestant. But a survey by national broadcaster RTE in 2006 showed Mass attendance had dropped to 48 percent from 81 percent since 1990. In 2011 the Dublin diocese said as few as 18 percent of Catholics in the capital went to Mass every week.

“I think telling voters to vote a particular way because God wants them to was never likely to be a winner for either campaign on either side,” said John McGuirk, spokesman for the Save the 8th umbrella group.

He described the campaign as a “much more secular battle” than 1983. While religious iconography featured in one recent national anti-abortion rally, campaigners are focusing on the science of how the fetus develops in the stages of pregnancy.

Yes campaigners, outfitted in the black sweatshirts with ‘Repeal’ in white that have become their symbol, talk about women’s rights and the medical dangers they say are created by the ban.

“It’s about the fact that … women don’t get a say in what they do with their bodies under the eighth amendment,” said 22-year-old Fay Carrol, a chef from Dublin who lives in Cork.

Others argue that since abortion is a reality for Irish women – by traveling or by ordering pills online – it should be acknowledged and integrated safely into the health care system.

“To require women to be dying to access termination of pregnancy… to demand that women who were raped carry their pregnancy to term, these are unacceptable risks and unacceptable situations,” said Rhona Mahony, Master of Dublin’s Holles Street Maternity Hospital.

Even without the Church’s active involvement, some Yes campaigners are concerned that the conservatism linked to Ireland’s Catholic tradition still guides many voters’ views.

“People are struggling with that legacy of centuries of Catholic Church teaching,” said veteran women’s rights campaigner Ailbhe Smyth. “I think this is, and will be, a very tight referendum.”

(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Soros donation to halt Brexit causes storm in Britain

Business magnate George Soros arrives to speak at the Open Russia Club in London, Britain June 20, 2016.

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – News that billionaire financier George Soros is a backer of a campaign group seeking to keep Britain in the EU added fire to Britain’s Brexit debate on Thursday, with supporters of quitting the bloc accusing opponents of plotting a “coup”.

The Best of Britain campaign group confirmed it had received 400,000 pounds from Soros. Soros, best known in Britain for earning billions betting against the pound in the early 1990s, is the target of a hostile media campaign by the nationalist government in his native Hungary and a hate figure for rightwing campaigners in eastern Europe and the United States.

Best of Britain said it had obeyed all rules on political funding in accepting the donation from Soros.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s office repeated its long-standing position that the decision to leave the EU in 2019 after a vote in 2016 was final and would not be reversed. It also defended the right of campaign groups to accept donations.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper, which first reported Soros’s involvement, said the 87-year-old former hedge fund manager was backing a “secret plot” to stop Brexit. The article was written by Nick Timothy, a former chief of staff to May.

Mark Malloch-Brown, a former British diplomat who is chair of the Best for Britain campaign group, said the group had never hidden its aims, which include staying in the EU.

“George Soros’s foundations have along with a number of other major donors also made significant contributions to our work,” Malloch-Brown said in a statement, confirming Soros had contributed 400,000 pounds through his charitable foundations.

May’s spokesman said: “There are many political and campaign groups in this country, that’s entirely right and as you would expect in a democracy.”

“The prime minister’s position on this matter is clear, the country voted to leave the European Union, that’s what we are going to deliver and there won’t be a second referendum.”

BREXIT REVERSED?

In the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum, 51.9 percent, or 17.4 million people, voted to leave the EU while 48.1 percent, or 16.1 million people, voted to stay. Both sides accepted large donations from wealthy individuals.

Ever since the shock vote, supporters of EU membership have been exploring an array of different legal and political methods to prevent what they see as the biggest mistake in post-World War Two British history.

Brexiteers say such efforts threaten political stability as they go against the democratic will of 17.4 million people. They have vowed to fight any attempt to stop Brexit.

“The new Soros-led coalition is planning a coup in Britain, against the democratic will of the people,” Richard Tice, who chairs the Leave Means Leave campaign group, told Reuters. “They have been outed and will be defeated.”

May, whose government and party is divided over Brexit, has just eight months to strike a deal with the EU on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal.

Opponents of Brexit hope to focus their efforts on blocking British parliamentary approval for the exit deal, a step that if successful could sink May’s premiership. There is, though, little sign so far of a change in opinion among voters, and the supporters of EU membership lack a popular leader who could unite the disparate groups opposed to Brexit.

Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage say public opposition to Brexit from the likes of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Goldman Sachs Group Inc <GS.N> Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein are unlikely to sway British public opinion.

With no deal, Britain would face a disorderly Brexit that many investors fear would imperil Britain’s $2.7 trillion economy, disrupt trade across the world’s biggest trading bloc and undermine London’s position as the only financial centre to rival New York.

($1 = 0.7209 pounds)

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff)

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)

Catalan election to return hung parliament: poll

Catalan election to return hung parliament: poll

By Sonya Dowsett

MADRID (Reuters) – An election in Catalonia will fail to conclusively resolve a political crisis over an independence drive in the region, the final surveys before the Dec. 21 vote showed on Friday.

The ballot will result in a hung parliament, a Metroscopia poll showed, with parties favoring unity with Spain tipped to gain a maximum of 62 seats and pro-secession factions 63, both short of a majority in the region’s 135-seat legislature.

Spain’s worst political crisis since its transition to democracy four decades ago erupted in October, when Madrid cracked down on an independence referendum it had declared illegal and took control of the wealthy northeastern region.

The standoff has bitterly divided society, led to a business exodus and tarnished Spain’s rosy economic prospects, with the central bank on Friday blaming events in Catalonia for a cut in its growth forecasts for 2018 and 2019.

Both the Metroscopia poll, published in El Pais, and a second survey in another newspaper, La Razon, predicted a record turnout for a Catalan election.

But the vote looks likely to trigger weeks of haggling between different parties to try to form a government.

Former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is campaigning from Brussels, where he moved shortly after he was fired by Madrid following a unilateral declaration of independence by the region.

With Friday the last day polls were permitted before the ballot, the El Pais survey – which questioned 3,300 people in Catalonia between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13 – showed his party winning 22 seats.

Pro-unity party Ciudadanos, which has backed the minority central government of Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP) in parliamentary votes, will win most seats, closely followed by pro-independence ERC.

But at a maximum of 36 for Ciudadanos and 33 for ERC, both fall far short of the 68 seats needed for a majority.

The survey’s inconclusive split between pro-unity and pro-independence parties would leave the regional offshoot of left-wing party Podemos, which supports unity but wants a referendum on independence, as potential kingmaker.

Further muddying the waters, its leader Xavier Domenech favors a left-wing alliance across parties that both back and reject independence.

The La Razon poll, which surveyed 1,000 Catalans also between Dec. 4 and Dec. 13, showed parties in favor of independence winning 66 seats and unity supporters 60, leaving the Catalan Podemos arm with nine.

(Editing by Paul Day and John Stonestreet)

Federal Communications Commission set to reverse net neutrality rules

Federal Communications Commission set to reverse net neutrality rules

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to rescind net neutrality rules championed by Democratic former President Barack Obama that barred the blocking or slowing of internet traffic.

The 2015 rules barred broadband providers from blocking or slowing access to content or charging consumers more for certain content. They were intended to ensure a free and open internet, give consumers equal access to web content and prevent broadband service providers from favoring their own content. Chairman Ajit Pai proposes allowing those practices as long as they are disclosed.

Internet service providers clashed with Democrats and celebrities like “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill ahead of a vote this week as the battle over net neutrality stretched from Hollywood to Washington.

Protesters including some members of Congress are expected to rally outside the FCC in Washington before the vote.

Pai’s proposal marks a victory for big internet service providers such as AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc that opposed the rules and gives them sweeping powers to decide what web content consumers can get. It is a setback for Google parent Alphabet Inc and Facebook Inc, which had urged Pai not to rescind the rules.

Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who heads a trade group representing major cable companies and broadcasters, told reporters that internet providers would not block content because it would not make economic sense and consumers would not stand for it.

“They make a lot of money on an open internet,” Powell said, adding it is “much more profitable” than a closed system. “This is not a pledge of good-heartedness, it’s a pledge in the shareholders’ interest.”

A University of Maryland poll released this week found that more than 80 percent of respondents opposed the proposal. The survey of 1,077 registered voters was conducted online by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland from Dec. 6-8.

Democrats have said the absence of rules would be unacceptable and that they would work to overturn the proposal if it is approved. Advocates of the net neutrality rules also plan a legal challenge.

Pai’s proposal is “like letting the bullies develop their own playground rules,” said Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Many Republicans back Pai’s proposal but want Congress to write net neutrality rules. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the FCC would “return the internet to a consumer-driven marketplace free of innovation-stifling regulations.”

A group of nearly 20 state attorneys general asked the FCC to delay the vote until the issue of fake comments is addressed.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chris Sanders and Lisa Shumaker)

Democrats win bitter Virginia governor’s race in setback for Trump

Democrats win bitter Virginia governor's race in setback for Trump

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrat Ralph Northam won a bitter race for Virginia governor on Tuesday, dealing a setback to President Donald Trump with a decisive victory over a Republican who had adopted some of the president’s combative tactics and issues.

Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, overcame a barrage of attack ads by Republican Ed Gillespie that hit the soft-spoken Democrat on divisive issues such as immigration, gang crime and Confederate statues.

Trump, who endorsed Gillespie but did not campaign with him, had taken a break from his Asia trip to send tweets and record messages on Tuesday supporting the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

But after the outcome, Trump quickly distanced himself from Gillespie.

“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Trump tweeted. “With the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!”

At his victory party, Northam told supporters the sweeping Democratic win in Virginia sent a message to the country.

“Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry, and to end the politics that have torn this country apart,” Northam said.

The Virginia race highlighted a slate of state and local elections that also included a governor’s race in New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy, a former investment banker and ambassador to Germany, defeated Republican Kim Guadagno for the right to succeed Republican Chris Christie.

Murphy had promised to be a check on Trump in Democratic-leaning New Jersey. Guadagno, the lieutenant governor, was hampered by her association with the unpopular Christie.

BOOST FOR DEMOCRATS

Murphy’s win and the Northam victory in Virginia, a state Democrat Hillary Clinton won by 5 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election, provided a much-needed boost for national Democrats who were desperate to turn grassroots resistance to Trump into election victories.

Democrats had already lost four special congressional elections earlier this year.

But a strong turnout in the Democratic-leaning northern Virginia suburbs of Washington helped propel Northam, who in the end won relatively easily. With nearly all precincts reporting, he led by a 53 percent to 45 percent margin.

Exit polls in Virginia showed that one-third of the voters went to the polls to oppose Trump, and only 17 percent went to support him.

Democrats also swept the other top statewide Virginia races, winning the offices of lieutenant governor and attorney general, and gained seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. Democrat Danica Roem beat a long-time Republican incumbent to become the first transgender person to win a state legislative race.

“This is a comprehensive political victory from statehouse to courthouse. Thank you Donald Trump!” Democratic U.S. Representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia told Northam’s supporters at a victory party in northern Virginia.

In Virginia, Democrats had worried that if Gillespie won, Republicans would see it as a green light to emphasize divisive cultural issues in their campaigns for next year’s elections, when all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 of the U.S. Senate’s 100 seats come up for election. Republicans now control both chambers.

Gillespie, speaking to crestfallen supporters in Richmond, Virginia, said he had run a “very policy-focused campaign.”

But voters in Arlington County – a suburban Democratic stronghold bordering Washington – said national politics were important to their votes.

“Trump talks about draining the swamp, but Gillespie kind of is the swamp,” said Nick Peacemaker, who works in marketing and considered himself a Republican until Trump won the party’s presidential nomination.

Peacemaker said Gillespie seemed to shift closer to Trump’s policies after securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

In local races across the country, Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York and Marty Walsh in Boston both easily won re-election. Voters were also picking mayors in Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle and Charlotte, North Carolina.

(Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Gary Robertson; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Peter Cooney and Himani Sarkar)

Maine governor will not expand Medicaid, ignoring voters

Maine governor will not expand Medicaid, ignoring voters

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Maine Republican Governor Paul LePage said on Wednesday he will not expand the state’s Medicaid program under Obamacare, ignoring a ballot initiative widely backed by voters, calling it “ruinous” for the state’s budget.

Maine looked set to become the first state in the nation to expand Medicaid by popular vote.

About 60 percent of voters in Maine approved the ballot proposal in Tuesday’s election, according to the Bangor Daily News newspaper.

Republicans in Washington have failed several times to pass legislation that would dismantle former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law.

LePage said he will not implement the expansion until it is fully funded by the Maine legislature.

“Credit agencies are predicting that this fiscally irresponsible Medicaid expansion will be ruinous to Maine’s budget,” LePage said in a statement. “I will not support increasing taxes on Maine families, raiding the rainy day fund or reducing services to our elderly or disabled.”

LePage said a previous Medicaid expansion in Maine in 2002 had created $750 million in debt to hospitals and took resources away from vulnerable people.

Maine has been prominent in the nation’s healthcare debate. U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, helped block her party’s efforts to repeal Obamacare. Collins did not immediately respond to a request for comment on LePage’s decision.

Maine voters were asked to approve or reject a plan to provide healthcare coverage under Medicaid for adults under age 65 with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which in 2017 is about $16,000 for a single person and about $22,000 for a family of two.

If implemented, about 70,000 additional state residents would be eligible for the Medicaid program, local media reported, in addition to the roughly 268,000 people who are currently eligible.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jeffrey Benkoe)