Biden, Dems prevail as Senate OKs $1.9T virus relief bill
WASHINGTON (AP) — An exhausted Senate narrowly approved a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Saturday as President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies notched a victory they called crucial for hoisting the country out of the pandemic and economic doldrums.
After labouring all night on a mountain of amendments — nearly all from Republicans and rejected — bleary-eyed senators approved the sprawling package on a 50-49 party-line vote. That sets up final congressional approval by the House next week so lawmakers can whisk it to Biden for his signature.
The huge measure — its cost is nearly one-tenth the size of the entire U.S. economy — is Biden’s biggest early priority. It stands as his formula for addressing the deadly virus and a limping economy, twin crises that have afflicted the country for a year.
“This nation has suffered too much for much too long,” Biden told reporters at the White House after the vote. “And everything in this package is designed to relieve the suffering and to meet the most urgent needs of the nation, and put us in a better position to prevail.”
Saturday’s vote was also a crucial political moment for Biden and Democrats, who need nothing short of party unanimity in a 50-50 Senate they run with Vice-President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote. They hold a slim 10-vote House edge.
‘We can do big things,’ Schumer says as Senate approves aid
WASHINGTON (AP) — Tensions were raw ahead of midnight as Republican leader Mitch McConnell rose in the Senate for the purpose of publicly ridiculing Majority Leader Chuck Schumer over the daylong delay as Democrats argued among themselves over the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package.
But 12 hours later, it was Schumer, D-N.Y., reveling in the last word, an unabashedly upbeat “help is on the way” to Americans suffering through the pandemic and lockdowns as the Senate prepared to approve the massive package without a single GOP vote.
Senate passage of the sweeping relief bill Saturday puts President Joe Biden’s top priority closer to becoming law, poised to unleash billion for vaccines, $1,400 direct payments and other aid, and shows Schumer, in his first big test as majority leader, can unify the ever-so-slim Democratic majority and deliver the votes.
“Lessons learned: If we have unity, we can do big things,” Schumer told The Associated Press in an interview after the vote.
The outcome “gives us optimism about doing more big things in the future — because it worked,” he said.
Escalating violence ups pressure for Myanmar sanctions
BANGKOK (AP) — The escalation of violence in Myanmar as authorities crack down on protests against the Feb. 1 coup is raising pressure for more sanctions against the junta, even as countries struggle over how to best sway military leaders inured to global condemnation.
The challenge is made doubly difficult by fears of harming ordinary citizens who were already suffering from an economic slump worsened by the pandemic but are braving risks of arrest and injury to voice outrage over the military takeover. Still, activists and experts say there are ways to ramp up pressure on the regime, especially by cutting off sources of funding and access to the tools of repression.
The U.N. special envoy on Friday urged the Security Council to act to quell junta violence that this week killed about 50 demonstrators and injured scores more.
“There is an urgency for collective action,” Christine Schraner Burgener told the meeting. “How much more can we allow the Myanmar military to get away with?”
Co-ordinated U.N. action is difficult, however, since permanent Security Council members China and Russia would almost certainly veto it. Myanmar’s neighbours, its biggest trading partners and sources of investment, are likewise reluctant to resort to sanctions.
Pope, top Iraq Shiite cleric deliver message of coexistence
PLAINS OF UR, Iraq (AP) — Pope Francis walked through a narrow alley in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf for a historic meeting with the country’s top Shiite cleric Saturday, and together they delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence in a country still reeling from back-to-back conflicts over the past decade.
In a gesture both simple and profound, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani welcomed Francis into his spartan home. The 90-year-old cleric, one of the most eminent among Shiites worldwide, afterward said Christians should live in peace in Iraq and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis. The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defence of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history,
Later in the day, the pope attended a gathering of Iraqi religious leaders in the deserts near a symbol of the country’s ancient past — the 6,000-year-old ziggurat in the Plains of Ur, also the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The joint appearance by figures from across Iraq’s sectarian spectrum was almost unheard-of, given their communities’ often bitter divisions.
Together, the day’s events gave symbolic and practical punch to the central message of Francis’ visit, calling for Iraq to embrace its diversity. It is a message he hopes can preserve the place of the thinning Christian population in the tapestry. At a Mass the pope celebrated later in Baghdad, emotional worshippers sang hymns, ululated and shouted “Viva la Papa!,” or “Long live the pope” — a rare public moment of joy among a population weighed down by turmoil, economic woes and the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, his message faces a tough sell in a country where every community has been traumatized by sectarian bloodshed and discrimination and where politicians have tied their power to sectarian interests.
Europe staggers as infectious variants power virus surge
MILAN (AP) — The virus swept through a nursery school and an adjacent elementary school in the Milan suburb of Bollate with amazing speed. In a matter of just days, 45 children and 14 staff members had tested positive.
Genetic analysis confirmed what officials already suspected: The highly contagious coronavirus variant first identified in England was racing through the community, a densely packed city of nearly 40,000 with a chemical plant and a Pirelli bicycle tire factory a 15-minute drive from the heart of Milan.
“This demonstrates that the virus has a sort of intelligence. … We can put up all the barriers in the world and imagine that they work, but in the end, it adapts and penetrates them,’’ lamented Bollate Mayor Francesco Vassallo.
Bollate was the first city in Lombardy, the northern region that has been the epicenter in each of Italy’s three surges, to be sealed off from neighbours because of virus variants that the World Health Organization says are powering another uptick in infections across Europe. The variants also include versions first identified in South Africa and Brazil.
Europe recorded 1 million new COVID-19 cases last week, an increase of 9% from the previous week and a reversal that ended a six-week decline in new infections, WHO said Thursday.
Dozens rally before ex-officer put on trial in Floyd’s death
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Dozens of people gathered in front of the Minnesota governor’s mansion on Saturday to demand accountability for police officers, days before a former Minneapolis officer is scheduled to go on trial in the death of George Floyd.
Many of the roughly 150 people who demonstrated in Minnesota were family members of others who died during police encounters. Similar protests were being organized in cities around the country in advance of the trial of Derek Chauvin.
Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck while Floyd was held face-down on the ground in handcuffs, saying he couldn’t breathe. Body-camera video time stamps provided by prosecutors show Chauvin held his position for about nine minutes, even after Floyd stopped moving. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter and jury selection in his trial begins Monday.
Saturday’s protest in Minnesota was organized by Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, a coalition of families who lost loved ones in police confrontations. The Star Tribune reports that speakers said that in light of Floyd’s death, they want other fatal police encounters reopened and examined.
Biden getting 1st shot at making mark on federal judiciary
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden has two seats to fill on the influential appeals court in the nation’s capital that regularly feeds judges to the Supreme Court.
They are among the roughly 10% of federal judgeships that are or will soon be open, giving Biden his first chance to make his mark on the American judiciary.
Barring an improbable expansion of the Supreme Court, Biden won’t be able to do anything about the high court’s entrenched conservative majority any time soon. Justice Clarence Thomas, at 72, is the oldest of the court’s conservatives and the three appointees of former President Donald Trump, ranging in age from 49 to 56, are expected to be on the bench for decades.
Democrats traditionally have not made the judiciary a focus, but that is changing after four years of Trump and the vast changes he made. Biden’s appointments are also the only concrete moves he has right now to affect the judiciary at large, though there is talk about expanding the number of judges on lower courts.
The nearly 90 seats that Biden can fill, which give their occupants life tenure after Senate confirmation, are fewer than former Trump inherited four years ago. That’s because Republicans who controlled the Senate in the final two years of the Obama White House confirmed relatively few judges.
S Korea, US scale back drills over virus, N Korea diplomacy
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The South Korean and U.S. militaries are scaling back their annual exercises this month due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to support diplomacy focusing on North Korea’s nuclear program, officials said Sunday.
Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the allies decided to start the nine-day drills on Monday after reviewing factors like the status of the pandemic and diplomatic efforts to achieve denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula.
It said the drills are defensive in nature and are mostly tabletop exercises and simulations that won’t involve field training.
Last year, the allies cancelled their springtime drills after some of their troops were infected with the coronavirus. In recent years, the countries have also suspended or downsized many of their regular training to create more space for the now-stalled U.S.-led diplomatic drive to convince North Korea to denuclearize in return for economic and political incentives.
U.S.-South Korea drills have been a major source of animosities on the peninsula, with North Korea viewing them as invasion rehearsals and responding with its own weapons tests. In January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged the U.S. to withdraw its hostile policy and South Korea to end drills with the U.S., warning the fate of their relations with North Korea depends on how they behave.
Highlights of the $1.9T COVID bill nearing final passage
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate approved a sweeping pandemic relief package over Republican opposition on Saturday, moving President Joe Biden closer to a milestone political victory that would provide $1,400 checks for most American and direct billions of dollars to schools, state and local governments, and businesses.
The bill cleared by a party-line vote of 50-49 after a marathon overnight voting session and now heads back to the House for final passage, which could come early next week.
Democrats said their “American Rescue Plan” would help the country defeat the virus and nurse the economy back to health. Republicans criticized the $1.9 trillion package as more expensive than necessary. The measure follows five earlier virus bills totalling about $4 trillion that Congress has enacted since last spring.
A look at some highlights of the legislation:
AID TO THE UNEMPLOYED
Pandemic forces route change, other precautions for Iditarod
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Travelling across the rugged, unforgiving and roadless Alaska terrain is already hard enough, but whatever comforts mushers previously had in the world’s most famous sled dog race will be cast aside this year due to the pandemic.
In years past, mushers would stop in any number of 24 villages that serve as checkpoints, where they could get a hot meal, maybe a shower and sleep — albeit “cheek to jowl” — in a warm building before getting back to the nearly 1,000-mile (1,609-kilometre) Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. When the race starts Sunday north of Anchorage, they will spend the next week or so mostly camping in tents outside towns, and the only source of warmth — for comfort or to heat up frozen food and water — will come from their camp cookers.
“It’s a little bit old school,” said Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach.
This year’s Iditarod will be marked by pandemic precautions, a route change, no spectators, the smallest field of competitors in decades, the return of one former champion and the swan song of a fan favourite, all against the backdrop of pressure on the race and sponsors by an animal rights group.
The most noticeable change this year will be no spectators. The fan-friendly ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage, which draws thousands of people, has been cancelled, and the actual start in Willow of the race is being moved to a boat dock 7 miles (11 kilometres) out to help cutdown on fans who would normally attend the race start just off a main highway. Urbach is encouraging fans to watch the race start and finish live on TV or on the Internet.
The Associated Press