Washington, Jan 23 (AP/UNB) — Senate leaders on Tuesday agreed to hold votes this week on dueling proposals to reopen shuttered federal agencies, forcing a political reckoning for senators grappling with the longest shutdown in U.S. history: Side with President Donald Trump or vote to temporarily end the shutdown and keep negotiating.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. set up the two showdown votes for Thursday, a day before some 800,000 federal workers are due to miss a second paycheck. One vote will be on his own measure, which reflects Trump's offer to trade border wall funding for temporary protections for some immigrants. It was quickly rejected by Democrats. The second vote is set for a bill approved by the Democratic-controlled House reopening government through Feb. 8, with no wall money, to give bargainers time to talk.
Both measures are expected fall short of the 60 votes need to pass, leaving little hope they represent the clear path out of the mess. But the plan represents the first test of Senate Republicans' resolve behind Trump's insistence that agencies remain closed until Congress approves $5.7 billion to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. For Democrats, the votes will show whether there are any cracks in the so-far unified rejection of Trump's demand.
Democrats on Tuesday ridiculed McConnell's bill, which included temporarily extended protections for "Dreamer" immigrants, but also harsh new curbs on Central Americans seeking safe haven in the U.S.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the GOP plan's immigration proposals were "even more radical" than their past positions. "The president's proposal is just wrapping paper on the same partisan package and hostage taking tactics," offering to temporarily restore programs Trump himself tried to end in exchange for wall funding, Schumer said.
McConnell accused Democrats of preferring "political combat with the president" to resolving the 32-day partial federal shutdown. He said Democrats were prepared to abandon federal workers, migrants and all Americans "just to extend this run of political theater so they can look like champions of the so-called resistance" against Trump.
The confrontational tone underscored that there remained no clear end in sight to the closure. Amid cascading tales of civil servants facing increasingly dire financial tribulations from the longest federal shutdown in history, the Senate chaplain nudged his flock.
"As hundreds of thousands of federal workers brace for another painful payday, remind our lawmakers they can ease the pain," Chaplain Barry Black intoned as the Senate convened.
The upcoming vote on the Democratic plan marked a departure for McConnell, who had vowed to allow no votes on shutdown measures unless Trump would sign them.
The White House views its latest offer as a test of whether Democratic leaders can hold their members together in opposition, said a person familiar with White House thinking who was not authorized to speak publicly. The administration also wants to show they are willing to negotiate, hoping it will push more blame onto Democrats, who are opposing negotiations until the government reopens. Public polls show Trump is taking the brunt of the blame from voters so far.
"How long are they going to continue to be obstructionists and not solve the problem and not reopen the government?" White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of Democrats.
One freshman, Democrat Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia, a state that's home to many federal workers, was circulating a draft letter Tuesday urging Pelosi to propose a deal that would reopen the government and then consider border security legislation — including holding votes on Trump's demand for wall money — by the end of February. A similar effort was under way last week by a bipartisan group of senators.
As the stalemate grinded on, Alaska Airlines said the closure would cause at least a three-week delay in its plan to start new passenger flights from Everett, Washington. Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, said the shutdown could slow home sales by 1 percent in coming months. And a restaurant in Red Bank, New Jersey, owned by musician Jon Bon Jovi joined the list of establishments serving free meals to furloughed federal workers.
McConnell's bill largely reflects the proposal Trump described to the nation in a brief address Saturday. It would reopen federal agencies, revamp immigration laws and provide $5.7 billion to start building his prized border wall with Mexico — a project Democrats consider an ineffective, wasteful monument to a ridiculous Trump campaign promise.
Republicans posted the 1,301-page measure online late Monday. Its details provoked Democrats, particularly immigration provisions Trump hadn't mentioned during his speech.
The measure would provide a three-year extension of protections against deportation for 700,000 people covered by the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Democrats want far more to be protected — Trump last year proposed extending the safeguards to 1.8 million people, including many who'd not yet applied — and want the program's coverage for so-called "Dreamers" to be permanent.
Trump has tried terminating the Obama-era DACA program, which shields people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, but has been blocked so far by federal judges.
The GOP bill would revive, for three years, protections for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua who fled natural disasters or violence in their countries. Trump has ended that Temporary Protected Status program for those and several other countries.
Republicans estimated the proposal would let 325,000 people remain in the U.S. But the GOP proposal contains new curbs, providing those protections only to those who are already in the U.S. legally and who earn at least 125 percent of the federal poverty limit.
The bill would also, for the first time, require minors seeking asylum from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to process their applications at facilities the State Department is to establish in several Central American countries. Other new conditions include a limit of 15,000 of these minors who could be granted asylum. Currently, many asylum seekers apply as they're entering the U.S. and can remain here as judges decide their request, which can take several years.
As a sweetener, the Republican measure also contains $12.7 billion for regions hit by hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters. The Democratic bill also includes the disaster aid.
One White House official said Trump was open to counter-offers from Democrats. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said Trump was also willing to use his proposed temporary extensions for "Dreamers" as a way to seek long-term deal.
The official said Trump would be willing to seek at least permanent legal status for "Dreamers," but probably not a path to citizenship.
Democrats have refused to negotiate until Trump reopens the government. Trump is worried Democrats won't agree to a wall compromise if he relents, while Democrats say Trump would use the shutdown tactic again if it works.
"If we hold the employees hostage now, they're hostage forever," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters.
Jerusalem, Jan 22 (AP/UNB) — Tens of thousands of Palestinians are no longer getting food aid or basic health services from America, U.S.-funded infrastructure projects have been halted, and an innovative peace-building program in Jerusalem is scaling back its activities.
The Trump administration's decision last year to cut more than $200 million in development aid to the Palestinians is forcing NGOs to slash programs and lay off staff as the effects ripple through a community that has spent more than two decades promoting peace in the Middle East.
The U.S. government's development agency, USAID, has provided more than $5.5 billion to the Palestinians since 1994 for infrastructure, health, education, governance and humanitarian aid programs, all intended to underpin the eventual creation of an independent state.
Much of that aid is channeled through international NGOs, which were abruptly informed of the cuts last summer and have been scrambling to keep their programs alive.
President Donald Trump says the USAID cuts are aimed at pressuring the Palestinians to return to peace talks, but Palestinian officials say the move has further poisoned relations after the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital last year. The aid groups, many of which have little or no connection to the Palestinian Authority, say the cuts hurt the most vulnerable Palestinians and those most committed to peace with Israel.
"If you want to maintain the idea of the peace process, you have to maintain the people who would be part of the peace process," said Lana Abu Hijleh, the local director for Global Communities, an international NGO active in the Palestinian territories since 1995.
Before the aid cuts were announced, it provided food aid — branded as a gift from the American people — to more than 180,000 Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza on behalf of the World Food Program. USAID had planned to contribute $19 million a year for the next five years to continue the project but pulled out in August.
Global Communities can now only provide aid to 90,000 people through March, and Abu Hijleh had to lay off around 30 staff, including in Gaza, where unemployment exceeds 50 percent.
"It really hurts, because you're talking about the most basic level of assistance," she said. The average family receives a monthly voucher worth around $130.
Sadeqa Nasser, a woman living in Gaza's Jebaliya refugee camp, used her voucher to support her disabled husband, their six children and four grandchildren.
She says her sons each bring in less than $5 a day from odd jobs. "They cannot afford to buy food for their families, so I help them out," she said.
Since the aid was cut off, she's been able to qualify for welfare payments from the Palestinian Authority, which itself relies heavily on foreign aid. "Without it we would go hungry," she said.
Funding has also been cut for a five-year, $50 million program run by a coalition of NGOs to provide health services, including clinical breast cancer treatment for some 16,000 women and treatment for some 700 children suffering from chronic diseases.
Infrastructure projects, including desperately needed water treatment facilities in the blockaded Gaza Strip, have also been put on hold.
Anera, which has carried out development projects in the Middle East for more than 50 years, said it was forced to halt five infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Gaza before completion and cancel three more in Gaza that were pending funding approval. It says the projects would have benefited more than 100,000 people.
The NGOs are reaching out to other donors, but USAID is one of the biggest sources of funding for a global aid community overwhelmed by conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
The Trump administration has also cut off funding for peace-building initiatives involving Palestinians — even residents of east Jerusalem, which Israel considers to be part of its capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, to be the capital of their future state.
Kids4Peace, a group founded by Israeli and Palestinian families in Jerusalem in 2002, brings Jewish, Christian and Muslim teenagers together for seminars and summer camps where they can share their experiences and learn more about one another.
The group's organizers acknowledge the longstanding criticism of such initiatives — that campfires and singalongs won't bring peace to the Middle East, especially after a decade of diplomatic paralysis and little hope for resuming meaningful negotiations.
But they say that with a $1.5 million USAID grant in 2016 they tripled the number of annual participants to around 70 and revamped programs. USAID takes a hands-on approach, requiring regular audits and demanding concrete accomplishments.
Participants now take part in a Youth Action Program in which they plan and execute projects in their communities. One group is campaigning for Arabic subtitles in Jerusalem cinemas. Another set up a community garden in a tense neighborhood where Jews and Arabs had rarely interacted.
Kids4Peace was a finalist for another $1.5 million grant this year, but that has been indefinitely postponed because of the funding cuts. It will continue to run programs with the help of private donors, but its growth prospects are in doubt.
"We see the trend lines moving in a negative direction, in terms of more hostile attitudes toward the other, less interaction between Israelis and Palestinians, more resistance to peace negotiations," said the Rev. Josh Thomas, executive director of Kids4Peace International. "We see that as a need for greater investment rather than less."
Trump also halted aid to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, which provides basic services to more than 5 million Palestinians across the Middle East, but UNRWA was able to narrow the funding gap with aid pledges from other countries.
Palestinian officials say they won't bow to pressure.
"We don't want their money, we don't want anything to do with America," said Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "If (Trump) thinks he can put pressure on us through his money, it won't work."
Critics of the policy fear that cutting off aid will further diminish Washington's ability to manage a conflict that remains highly combustible.
"When America vacates the Middle East space, we do so at our own risk and we do it to the benefit of our adversaries," said Dave Harden, a former USAID mission director in the West Bank and Gaza.
Washington, Jan 22 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump's proposal to break through the budget deadlock appeared to be gaining little traction Monday, as another missed paycheck loomed for hundreds of thousands of workers and the partial federal shutdown stretched into its fifth week.
Despite the fanfare of the president's announcement and the rush to release the legislative package late Monday, voting in Congress was not expected to unfold until later in the week. Even then it seemed doubtful that the 1,300-page "End The Shutdown And Secure The Border Act" released by Senate Republicans had any chance of passing swiftly. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority but would need Democrats to reach the usual 60-vote threshold for bills to advance. Not a single Democrat publicly expressed support for the deal in the 48 hours since Trump announced it.
Details released late Monday highlight the centerpiece of Trump's offer: $5.7 billion to build the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border alongside temporary protection from deportation for some immigrants. The package would re-open the shuttered parts of government and boost some spending. To try to draw more bipartisan support, it adds $12.7 billion in supplemental funding for regions hit by hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer's office reiterated earlier Monday that Democrats are unwilling to negotiate any border security funding until Trump re-opens the government.
"Nothing has changed with the latest Republican offer," said Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman. "President Trump and Senate Republicans are still saying: 'Support my plan or the government stays shut.' That isn't a compromise or a negotiation — it's simply more hostage taking."
While the House and Senate are scheduled to be back in session Tuesday, no votes have been scheduled so far on Trump's plan. And senators, who will be given 24-hour notice ahead of voting, have yet to be recalled to Washington.
McConnell spokesman David Popp said Monday that the GOP leader "will move" to vote on consideration of the president's proposal "this week."
Trump, who on Sunday lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accusing her of acting "irrationally," continued to single her out on Twitter.
"If Nancy Pelosi thinks that Walls are 'immoral,' why isn't she requesting that we take down all of the existing Walls between the U.S. and Mexico," he wrote Monday. "Let millions of unchecked 'strangers' just flow into the U.S."
House Democrats this week are pushing ahead with voting on their own legislation to re-open the government and add $1 billion for border security —including 75 more immigration judges and infrastructure improvements — but no funding for the wall.
Trump later tweeted: "Democrats are kidding themselves (they don't really believe it!) if they say you can stop Crime, Drugs, Human Trafficking and Caravans without a Wall or Steel Barrier. Stop playing games and give America the Security it deserves. A Humanitarian Crisis!"
Meanwhile, the impact of the shutdown — the longest ever — continued to ripple across the nation as it stretched into its 31st day.
The Transportation Security Administration said the percentage of its airport screeners missing work hit 10 percent on Sunday — up from 3.1 percent on the comparable Sunday a year ago.
The screeners, who have been working without pay, have been citing financial hardship as the reason they can't report to work. Even so, the agency said it screened 1.78 million passengers Sunday with only 6.9 percent having to wait 15 minutes or longer to get through security.
The shutdown had also threatened to disrupt plans for an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day service at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the civil rights leader was co-pastor with his father from 1960 until his assassination in 1968. The site is run by the National Park Service and had been closed. But a grant from Delta Air Lines is keeping the church and associated sites, including the home where King was born, open through Feb. 3.
Trump on Saturday offered to extend temporary protections for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and those fleeing disaster zones for three years in exchange for $5.7 billion for his border wall. Democrats said the proposal for a three-year extension didn't go nearly far enough, and that Trump was using as leverage programs that he had targeted. Meanwhile, some on the right, including conservative commentator Ann Coulter, accused Trump of offering "amnesty."
"No, Amnesty is not a part of my offer," Trump tweeted Sunday, in response. He noted that he'd offered temporary protections for the immigrants in question, but added: "Amnesty will be used only on a much bigger deal, whether on immigration or something else."
That statement led some to suggest that Trump might be open to including a potential pathway to citizenship for the young "Dreamer" immigrants in a future proposal to end the standoff.
Asked in an interview on "Fox News Sunday" whether Trump's Saturday proposal represented a "final offer," Vice President Mike Pence said the White House was willing to negotiate.
"Well, of course," Pence said. "The legislative process is a negotiation."
Santa Fe, Jan 22 (AP/UNB) — A second person died from injuries sustained in an avalanche last week at a northern New Mexico ski resort, relatives and a hospital official said Monday.
The deceased skier was identified by family as 22-year-old Corey Borg-Massanari of Vail, Colorado, who had moved to Colorado from Minnesota to attend college and worked for an outdoor equipment company and as a zipline tour guide in the summer.
Borg-Massanari was one of two people pulled from the snow after the avalanche Thursday at Taos Ski Valley. He died Monday at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, where he had been transported after the avalanche and treated for unspecified injuries, according to spokeswoman Alex Sanchez.
The other victim, identified as 26-year-old Matthew Zonghetti of Massachusetts, was pronounced dead shortly after the avalanche.
The avalanche struck a stretch of expert skiing terrain on the upper mountain known as the K3 chute. The resort planned an investigation to determine what triggered the avalanche.
Taos Ski Resort personnel have said the avalanche within ski-area boundaries took place despite a series of precautions earlier the day that included the detonation of explosives to trigger any potential snow-slides before skiers could take to the slopes.
Caracas, Jan 22 (AP/UNB) — Venezuela plunged deeper into turmoil Monday as security forces put down a pre-dawn uprising by national guardsmen that triggered violent street protests, and the Supreme Court moved to undercut the opposition-controlled congress' defiant new leadership.
Socialist party chief Diosdado Cabello said 27 guardsmen were arrested and more could be detained as the investigation unfolds.
The mutiny struck at a time when opposition leaders have regained momentum in their efforts to oust President Nicolas Maduro. They have called for a nationwide demonstration Wednesday, urging Venezuelans — especially members of the armed forces — to abandon Maduro.
The uprising triggered protests in a poor neighborhood just a few miles (kilometers) from Venezuela's presidential palace. It was dispersed with tear gas as residents set fire to a barricade of trash and chanted demands that Maduro leave power.
The military said in a statement said that it had recovered all the weapons and captured those involved in what it described as "treasonous" acts motivated by "obscure interests tied to the far right."
It said at around 2:50 a.m. (06:50 GMT), a small group of guardsmen took captive a captain in charge of a police station in western Caracas and then moved across the capital in two military trucks to the poor neighborhood of Petare, where they stole a cache of weapons from another outpost.
Officials said 25 soldiers were quickly caught at the National Guard outpost 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the Miraflores presidential palace, and two more arrests were made at another location.
A few hours earlier, a group of heavily armed national guardsmen published a series of videos on social media saying they won't recognize Maduro's government, which has come under increasing domestic and international pressure over a newly begun second term that the opposition-controlled congress and many nations consider illegitimate.
In one of the videos, a man identifying himself as 3rd Sgt. Alexander Bandres Figueroa, addressing the "people of Venezuela," urges his compatriots to take to the streets to show support for their rebellion.
"You asked to take to the streets to defend the constitution, well here we are," he said in a video shot at night in which several heavily armed men and a national guard truck can be seen in the background.
"You wanted us to light the fuse, so we did. We need your support," he added.
At daybreak in the adjacent neighborhood of Cotiza, a group of shirtless young men, some with their faces covered, built a barricade across the street with a burning car, heavy sewer grates and a large chunk of concrete.
An angry group of women shouted that they have lived for too long without running water and tear gas fired by security forces choked their children.
"Freedom! Freedom!" they chanted. "Maduro has to go!"
"We must defend our homeland," Maria Fernanda Rodriguez, a 36-year-old manicurist, told The Associated Press, her eyes welling from the tear gas.
Hours later, the government-stacked Supreme Court said it was throwing out recent measures by the National Assembly that declared Maduro's presidency illegitimate, deepening a standoff with the opposition-controlled legislature.
The justices ruled that the new leadership of congress itself is invalid, and urged the country's chief prosecutor to investigate whether congressional leaders acted criminally in openly defying the nation's constitution.
Juan Guaido, a 35-year-old newly seated as president of congress, appealed to the military, urging them to demand Maduro abandon power in a nationwide protests Wednesday — a historic date commemorating the end of Venezuela's military dictatorship in 1958.
We are not asking you to mount a coup. We are not asking you to shoot," Guaido said in a video circulated on social media. "On the contrary, we are asking you not to shoot at us, but rather to defend together with us the right of our people to be heard."
Late Monday, Colombian TV played a video showing a group of unidentified men claiming to be soldiers who are friends of Venezuela's armed forces holed up in Colombia, saying they are responding to Guaido by preparing an advance into Venezuela to help restore democracy.
The video shown on NTN-TV in Bogota shows roughly two dozen men wearing combat fatigues, but unarmed. The Associated Press could not independently verify where the soldiers were located or their identities.
Dozens of foreign governments have refused to recognize Maduro's second term, some saying they are ready to recognize Guaido as interim president until fair elections can be held.
In addition, the Trump administration is weighing tougher financial sanctions on Venezuela, while a dozen mostly conservative Latin American and Caribbean governments said they will block officials from Maduro's government from entering their countries and take steps to freeze assets that are the byproduct of corruption
While discontent among Venezuelans is rising amid widespread food shortages and hyperinflation, Maduro is believed to have the loyalty of his top military command. In the past, troops have easily put down small uprisings.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said on Twitter that those responsible for the incident would be punished with the full force of the law.
Maduro was the target of an apparent assassination attempt Aug. 4 when two drones armed with explosives detonated near him as he spoke at a military parade. Officials have jailed dozens of suspects, including an opposition lawmaker.
In June 2017, rogue police officer Oscar Perez stole a helicopter and flew it over the capital, launching grenades at the Supreme Court building. He and several comrades died in a gunbattle with police after months on the lam.
Cabello, Venezuela's powerful socialist party leader, said the opposition demonstration expected Wednesday doesn't worry him, because the government will flood the streets with its own loyal supporters.
"It's the right that stirs up violence — not us," Cabello said. "How many marches do we hold here every week without a single act of violence?"