Washington, Jan 23 (AP/UNB) — The Trump administration can go ahead with its plan to restrict military service by transgender men and women while court challenges continue, the Supreme Court said Tuesday.
The high court split 5-4 in allowing the plan to take effect, with the court's five conservatives greenlighting it and its four liberal members saying they would not have. The order from the court was brief and procedural, with no elaboration from the justices.
The court's decision clears the way for the Pentagon to bar enlistment by people who have undergone a gender transition. It will also allow the administration to require that military personnel serve as members of their biological gender unless they began a gender transition under less restrictive Obama administration rules.
The Trump administration has sought for more than a year to change the Obama-era rules and had urged the justices to take up cases about its transgender troop policy immediately, but the court declined for now.
Those cases will continue to move through lower courts and could eventually reach the Supreme Court again. The fact that five justices were willing to allow the policy to take effect for now, however, makes it more likely the Trump administration's policy will ultimately be upheld.
Both the Justice and Defense departments released statements saying they were pleased by the Supreme Court's action. The Pentagon said its policy on transgender troops is based on professional military judgment and necessary to "ensure the most lethal and combat effective fighting force." Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said lower court rulings had forced the military to "maintain a prior policy that poses a risk to military effectiveness and lethality."
Before beginning to implement its policy the administration is expected to need to make a procedural filing in one case in Maryland challenging the plan. That request could be made this week.
Groups that sued over the Trump administration's policy said they ultimately hoped to win their lawsuits over the policy. Jennifer Levi, an attorney for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, said in a statement that the "Trump administration's cruel obsession with ridding our military of dedicated and capable service members because they happen to be transgender defies reason and cannot survive legal review."
Until a few years ago service members could be discharged from the military for being transgender. That changed under the Obama administration. The military announced in 2016 that transgender people already serving in the military would be allowed to serve openly. And the military set July 1, 2017, as the date when transgender individuals would be allowed to enlist.
But after President Donald Trump took office, the administration delayed the enlistment date, saying the issue needed further study. And in late July 2017 the president tweeted that the government would not allow "Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military." He later directed the military to return to its policy before the Obama administration changes.
Groups representing transgender individuals sued, and the Trump administration lost early rounds in those cases, with courts issuing nationwide injunctions barring the administration from altering course. The Supreme Court put those injunctions on hold Tuesday, allowing the Trump administration's policy to take effect.
The Trump administration's revised policy on transgender troops dates to March 2018. The policy generally bars transgender people from serving unless they do so "in their biological sex" and do not seek to undergo a gender transition. But it has an exception for transgender troops who relied on the Obama-era rules to begin the process of changing their gender.
Those individuals, who have been diagnosed with "gender dysphoria," a discomfort with their birth gender, can continue to serve after transitioning. The military has said that over 900 men and women had received that diagnosis. A 2016 survey estimated that about 1 percent of active duty service members, about 9,000 men and women, identify as transgender.
Caracas, Jan 23 (AP/UNB) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has ordered a close review of the country's relationship with the United States in answer to stinging condemnation from the Trump administration.
Vice President Mike Pence sent a videotaped message to Venezuelans calling Maduro a dictator who maintains power by jailing dissident voices. The video was released Tuesday, a day before the opposition holds nationwide demonstrations calling for the removal of Maduro.
Maduro spoke hours later on state TV, saying Pence hit a 200-year low in relations between the two countries by authorizing a coup.
The U.S. maintains an embassy in Caracas, but the two countries haven't exchanged ambassadors in nearly a decade.
A once-wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is in a deepening crisis after two decades of socialist rule that has led to shortages of food and medicine.
The leader of the Organization of American States is praising a decision by Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly to stay in the regional group.
Secretary General Luis Almagro on Tuesday said he welcomed a decision by legislators to name new assembly leader Gustavo Tarre Briceno as a special representative to the bloc.
Venezuela's government announced its withdrawal from the OAS in 2017 after member states began raising questions about the leadership of socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
Almagro has been one of Maduro's fiercest critics and has already recognized Guaido as Venezuela's interim president.
Venezuela's pro-government Supreme Court declared Monday that the National Assembly's leadership is illegitimate and nullified its recent decisions.
Guaido has re-energized the nation's opposition movement and is calling for mass protests across the country Wednesday.
Some of the Republican members of Florida's congressional delegation are urging President Donald Trump to recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuela's new interim president.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says that "I think now is the moment and leadership can really, really make a difference for the people of Venezuela."
DeSantis was joined at the White House on Tuesday by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. They exited their meeting with Trump urging him to apply pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Scott says socialism in Venezuela has left it without food, gas and medicine and notes that millions of people have left the country.
Venezuelan opposition leaders are calling for nationwide protests Wednesday. The once-wealthy oil nation is sliding into a deepening political and economic crisis.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence says Venezuelans have the "unwavering support" of the United States in their effort to restore democracy to their country.
In a video message released Tuesday, Pence called Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro a "dictator with no legitimate claim to power."
The vice president says the U.S. joins other "freedom-loving" nations in recognizing the popularly elected National Assembly as the "last vestige of democracy" in Venezuela. He says he supports the decision by National Assembly president and opposition leader Juan Guaido to declare Maduro a "usurper" and call for the creation of a transitional government.
Anti-Maduro demonstrations are expected nationwide on Wednesday.
Pence says the American people will be with Venezuelans until democracy is restored.
Foreign ministers of five European countries say they want the European Union to take an active role in international mediation they deem necessary in Venezuela, where the opposition is readying for a new round of anti-government protests on Wednesday.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the foreign affairs ministers of Spain, France, Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands are urging EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to intensify contacts to establish "as soon as possible" a so-called "Group of International Contact."
"It's crucially important for Europe to have a significant presence in such Group of Contact in order to promote adequately our common interests," the statement says.
Venezuela plunged deeper into turmoil Monday as security forces put down a pre-dawn uprising by National Guardsmen that triggered violent street protests.
Working class neighborhoods in Venezuela's capital are sifting through charred rubble and smoldering trash after violence erupted a day earlier.
Local merchant Carmen Martinez said Tuesday her neighbors in Caracas took to the streets because they were fed up with rising costs and a lack of basic goods.
Isolated protests broke out after officials arrested more than two dozen National Guardsmen who mounted an uprising against President Nicolas Maduro.
Drivers in one neighborhood veered around an overturned trash bin in the middle of a busy street. Security forces left behind dozens of empty tear gas canisters fired to subdue angry residents.
Student Jesus Veroes says he's saddened by a clash with police in his neighborhood that left an important cultural center a burned ruin.
Large demonstrations nationwide are expected Wednesday.
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."