Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate leaders and moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin struck a deal late Friday over emergency jobless benefits, breaking a logjam that had stalled the party’s showpiece $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide, seemed to clear the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes and, eventually, approval of the sweeping legislation.
The overall bill, President Joe Biden’s foremost legislative priority, is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health. It would provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans and money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry and subsidies for health insurance.
The Senate next faced votes on a pile of amendments that were likely to last overnight, mostly on Republican proposals virtually certain to fail but designed to force Democrats to cast politically awkward votes.
More significantly, the jobless benefits agreement suggested it was just a matter of time until the Senate passes the bill. That would ship it back to the House, which was expected to give it final congressional approval and whisk it to Biden for his signature.
Pope urges Iraq to embrace its Christians on historic visit
BAGHDAD (AP) — Pope Francis opened the first-ever papal visit to Iraq on Friday with a plea for the country to protect its centuries-old diversity, urging Muslims to embrace their Christian neighbours as a precious resource and asking the embattled Christian community — “though small like a mustard seed” — to persevere.
Francis brushed aside the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns to resume his globe-trotting papacy after a yearlong hiatus spent under COVID-19 lockdown in Vatican City. His primary aim over the weekend is to encourage Iraq’s dwindling Christian population, which was violently persecuted by the Islamic State group and still faces discrimination by the Muslim majority, to stay and help rebuild the country devastated by wars and strife.
“Only if we learn to look beyond our differences and see each other as members of the same human family,” Francis told Iraqi authorities in his welcoming address, “will we be able to begin an effective process of rebuilding and leave to future generations a better, more just and more humane world.”
The 84-year-old pope donned a facemask during the flight from Rome and throughout all his protocol visits, as did his hosts. But the masks came off when the leaders sat down to talk, and social distancing and other health measures appeared lax at the airport and on the streets of Baghdad, despite the country’s worsening COVID-19 outbreak.
The government is eager to show off the relative stability it has achieved after the defeat of the IS “caliphate.” Nonetheless, security measures were tight.
Officers maced, trampled: Docs expose depth of Jan. 6 chaos
Two firefighters loaned to Washington for the day were the only medics on the Capitol steps Jan. 6, trying to triage injured officers as they watched the angry mob swell and attack police working to protect Congress.
Law enforcement agents were “being pulled into the crowd and trampled, assaulted with scaffolding materials, and/or bear maced by protesters,” wrote Arlington County firefighter Taylor Blunt in an after-action memo. Some couldn’t walk, and had to be dragged to safety.
Even the attackers sought medical help, and Blunt and his colleague Nathan Waterfall treated those who were passing out or had been hit. But some “feigned illness to remain behind police lines,” Blunt wrote.
The memo is one of hundreds of emails, texts, photos and documents obtained by The Associated Press. Taken together, the materials shed new light on the sprawling patchwork of law enforcement agencies that tried to stop the siege and the lack of co-ordination and inadequate planning that stymied their efforts.
The AP obtained the materials through 35 Freedom of Information Act requests to law enforcement agencies that responded to the Capitol insurrection.
EXPLAINER: 5 key takeaways from the February jobs report
WASHINGTON (AP) — America’s job market delivered a burst of strength in February. It lifted hopes that the rollout of viral vaccines, the distribution of federal aid and the increasing willingness and ability of consumers to go out and spend will invigorate the economy as the weather warms up.
Employers added 379,000 jobs, the government said Friday, the most since October and far surpassing economists’ predictions. The unemployment rate, which dipped to 6.2%, has now dropped nearly every month since it peaked at 14.8% in April of last year after the pandemic erupted in the United States and inflicted breathtaking job losses.
Shut down for much of last year, the economy has been gradually reopening as more people are vaccinated and fewer are being infected. The number of confirmed new coronavirus cases has dropped to an average below 60,000 a day from nearly 250,000 in early January, according to Johns Hopkins University.
A government aid package late last year also delivered $600 checks to most adults, coming on top of an even bigger economic rescue last spring. President Joe Biden is seeking to give households yet another boost with a $1.9 trillion relief package that would add benefits for the unemployed and send $1,400 to most families.
“Improving health conditions, expanding vaccine distribution and generous fiscal stimulus will form a powerful cocktail that lifts real (economic) growth to 7% in 2021,’’ reversing last year’s 3.5% drop, Gregory Daco and Lydia Boussour of Oxford Economics said in a research note. They expect the economy to add an average of roughly 580,000 jobs a month this year.
Biden White House: message discipline, no news conference
WASHINGTON (AP) — No news conference. No Oval Office address. No primetime speech to a joint session of Congress.
President Joe Biden is the first executive in four decades to reach this point in his term without holding a formal question and answer session. It reflects a White House media strategy meant both to reserve major media set-pieces for the celebration of a legislative victory and to limit unforced errors from a historically gaffe-prone politician.
Biden has opted to take questions about as often as most of his recent predecessors, but he tends to field just one or two informal inquiries at a time, usually in a hurried setting at the end of an event.
In a sharp contrast with the previous administration, the White House is exerting extreme message discipline, empowering staff to speak but doing so with caution. Recalling both Biden’s largely leak-free campaign and the buttoned-up Obama administration, the new White House team has carefully managed the president’s appearances, trying to lower the temperature from Donald Trump’s Washington and to save a big media moment to mark what could soon be a signature accomplishment: passage of the COVID-19 bill.
The message control may serve the president’s purposes but it denies the media opportunities to directly press Biden on major policy issues and to engage in the kind of back-and-forth that can draw out information and thoughts that go beyond the administration’s curated talking points.
Protesters defy Myanmar security forces as UN action urged
YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Demonstrators defied growing violence by Myanmar security forces and staged more anti-coup rallies Friday, while the U.N. special envoy for the country called for urgent Security Council action, saying about 50 peaceful protesters were killed and scores were injured in the military’s worst crackdowns this week.
The escalation of violence has put pressure on the world community to act to restrain the junta, which seized power on Feb. 1 by ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Large protests against military rule have occurred daily in many cities and towns. Security forces escalated their crackdown with greater use of lethal force and mass arrests. At least 18 protesters were shot and killed Sunday and 38 on Wednesday, according to the U.N. Human Rights Office. More than 1,000 have been arrested, the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said.
Protests continued in the biggest cities of Yangon and Mandalay and elsewhere Friday. They were met again with force by police, and gunfire was heard. In Mandalay, Zaw Myo was fatally shot as the 26-year-old and other residents sought to protect a march by a group of engineers.
U.N. special envoy Christine Schraner Burgener said in her briefing to a closed Security Council meeting that council unity and “robust” action are critical “in pushing for a stop to the violence and the restoration of Myanmar’s democratic institutions.”
Study finds mask mandates, dining out influence virus spread
NEW YORK (AP) — A new national study adds strong evidence that mask mandates can slow the spread of the coronavirus, and that allowing dining at restaurants can increase cases and deaths.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the study Friday.
“All of this is very consistent,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing on Friday. “You have decreases in cases and deaths when you wear masks, and you have increases in cases and deaths when you have in-person restaurant dining.”
The study was released just as some states are rescinding mask mandates and restaurant limits. Earlier this week, Texas became the biggest state to lift its mask rule, joining a movement by many governors to loosen COVID-19 restrictions despite pleas from health officials.
“It’s a solid piece of work that makes the case quite strongly that in-person dining is one of the more important things that needs to be handled if you’re going to control the pandemic,” said William Hanage, a Harvard University expert on disease dynamics who was not involved in the study.
Israel postpones drive to vaccinate Palestinian workers
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Friday postponed plans to vaccinate Palestinians who work inside the country and its West Bank settlements until further notice.
COGAT, the Israeli military agency co-ordinating day-to-day affairs with the Palestinian Authority, attributed the postponement to “administrative delays,” adding that a new start date for the campaign would be determined later.
The vaccination program was supposed to begin on Sunday at West Bank crossings into Israel and at Israeli industrial zones.
Such inoculations could have assuaged criticism of Israel for not sharing significant amounts of its vaccine stockpiles with Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank and those in the Gaza Strip — even as Israel succeeded in launching one of the fastest vaccine rollouts in the world.
Israel had also announced plans to share surplus vaccines with far-flung allies in Africa, Europe and Latin America, but the decision was frozen by legal questions. On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with leaders of Denmark and Austria said the three nations would join forces in the fight against COVID-19 with an investment in research and roll-out of vaccines.
NASA’s new Mars rover hits dusty red road, 1st trip 21 feet
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s newest Mars rover hit the dusty red road this week, putting 21 feet on the odometer in its first test drive.
The Perseverance rover ventured from its landing position Thursday, two weeks after setting down on the red planet to seek signs of past life.
The roundabout, back and forth drive lasted just 33 minutes and went so well that more driving was on tap Friday and Saturday for the the six-wheeled rover.
“This is really the start of our journey here,” said Rich Rieber, the NASA engineer who plotted the route. “This is going to be like the Odyssey, adventures along the way, hopefully no Cyclops, and I’m sure there will be stories aplenty written about it.”
In its first drive, Perseverance went forward 13 feet (4 metres), took a 150-degree left turn, then backed up 8 feet (2.5 metres). During a news conference Friday, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, shared photos of its tracks over and around small rocks.
New York cinemas reopen, brightening outlook for theatres
NEW YORK (AP) — After growing cobwebs for nearly a year, movie theatres in New York City reopen Friday, returning film titles to Manhattan marquees that had for the last 12 months instead read messages like “Wear a mask” and “We’ll be back soon.”
Shortly after noon at the Angelika Film Center on Houston Street, Holly Stillman was already feeling emotional coming out of the first New York showing of Lee Isaac Chung’s tender family drama “Minari.” “My mask is drenched,” she said.
But she was equally overwhelmed by being back in a cinema. Though Stillman feared the experience would be too restrictive because of COVID-19 protocols, she instead found it euphoric.
“It was just you and the movie screen,” said Stillman. “It was wonderful to smell the popcorn as soon as I got into the theatre — even though I don’t eat popcorn.”
Less than half of movie theatres are open nationwide, but reopenings are quickening. Theaters in many other areas reopened last summer around the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” but that attempted comeback fizzled. Throughout, theatres remained shut in the five boroughs. For a year almost to the date, one of the world’s foremost movie capitals stayed dark.
The Associated Press