US Senate passes funding bill in bid to end shutdown

Funding authority for most federal agencies expired on Thursday night without any intervening action by Congress. (Reuters)
Updated 09 February 2018
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US Senate passes funding bill in bid to end shutdown

WASHINGTON: The US Senate passed a critical stopgap spending bill early Friday as congressional leaders scrambled to minimize the effects of a government shutdown that began after an hours-long delay forced Congress to miss a midnight deadline.
The bipartisan measure, which passed 71 to 28 in the dead of night, was now headed to the House of Representatives for what is expected to be another pre-dawn Friday vote.
If it passes the House, and President Donald Trump signs the bill into law, it would restrict the nation’s second government shutdown in three weeks to just a matter of hours.
Federal operations were brought to a halt early Friday after Senator Rand Paul, a conservative in Trump’s own Republican Party, blocked a vote on a spending deal before a midnight deadline for extending government funding.
Trump’s administration was already preparing for a halt in operations.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget “is currently preparing for a lapse in appropriations,” an OMB official said on condition of anonymity late Thursday, calling on lawmakers to get the measure to Trump’s desk “without delay.”
The bill, which includes a far-reaching deal that increases spending limits for the next two years and raises the federal debt ceiling until March 2019, would break the cycle of government funding crises in time for what is set to be a bruising campaign for November’s mid-term elections.
The rebellion that simmered among Republicans and Democrats over the budget agreement boiled over when a determined Paul brought the Senate’s work to a halt.
Moving legislation swiftly through the upper chamber of Congress requires consent by all 100 members, but Paul objected.
The Kentucky Republican took the floor to blast the increase in federal spending limits, and in particular the fiscal irresponsibility of his own party.
“I can’t in all good honesty and all good faith just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits,” Paul said.
“If you’re against president (Barack) Obama’s deficits, but you’re for the Republican deficits, isn’t that the very definition of hypocrisy?” he boomed, adding that he wants his fellow lawmakers “to feel uncomfortable” over the impasse.
But top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer warned that the delay put lawmakers “in risky territory.”
A McConnell lieutenant, Senator John Cornyn, also fumed about Paul’s gambit.
“I don’t know why we are basically burning time here,” an exasperated Cornyn said. “We are in an emergency situation.”
But Paul refused to yield and allow an early vote, forcing a shutdown while highlighting his policy priorities about excessive government spending.
“I think this has been a very useful debate,” Paul said shortly before the vote.
The bill headed to the House, but its fate there is far from certain.
Fiscal conservatives in the lower chamber may join with Paul in balking at adding billions of dollars to the national debt two months after passing a $1.5 trillion tax cut package.
And liberal stalwarts including top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi were also in revolt because the deal does nothing to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement welcoming the Senate’s passage of the measure.
“Now it’s time for the House to do its job,” Ryan said.
The temporary spending bill under consideration incorporates the major budget deal reached between Senate leaders on both sides of the political aisle.
That agreement includes a $300 billion increase to both military and non-military spending limits for this year and 2019, and raises the debt until March 1 next year.
It also provides a massive $90 billion disaster relief package and funding to address the nationwide opioid abuse crisis.
Democrats have sought to link the federal funding debate to a permanent solution for hundreds of thousands of “Dreamer” immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
Dreamers were shielded from deportation under the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But Trump ended the program last September, setting March 5 as a deadline for resolving the issue.
The White House’s current proposal — one that would put 1.8 million immigrants on a path to citizenship, but also boost border security, and dramatically curtail legal immigration — has been panned by Democrats.
Several bipartisan efforts have stalled.


South Korea dismantles guard posts with dynamite, excavators

Updated 15 November 2018
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South Korea dismantles guard posts with dynamite, excavators

  • Last week the two Koreas finished withdrawing troops and firearms from some of the guard posts along their border before dismantling them
  • The Koreas each agreed to dismantle or disarm 11 of their guard posts by the end of this month

CHEORWON, South Korea: South Korea exploded a front-line guard post Thursday, sending plumes of thick, black smoke into the sky above the border with North Korea, in the most dramatic scene to date in the rivals’ efforts to reduce animosities that sparked last year’s fears of war.
Last week the two Koreas finished withdrawing troops and firearms from some of the guard posts along their border before dismantling them. The steps are part of agreements signed in September during a meeting between their leaders in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.
On Thursday, South Korea’s military invited a group of journalists to watch the destruction of a guard post with dynamite in the central border area of Cheorwon. The journalists were asked to stay hundreds of meters (yards) away as black smoke enveloped the hilly border area. They later watched soldiers and other workers bulldoze another guard post.
While most of the South Korean guard posts are being destroyed with construction equipment for environmental and safety reasons, dynamite was used for the first structure because of its location on a high hill where it was difficult employ excavators, the Defense Ministry said.
North Korea is demolishing its guard posts with explosives, according to South Korean media.
The guard posts are inside the 248-kilometer (155-mile)-long, 4-kilometer (2.5-mile)-wide border called the Demilitarized Zone. Unlike its name, it’s the world’s most heavily fortified border with an estimated 2 million land mines planted in and near the zone. The area has been the site of violence and bloodshed since the 1945 division of the Korean Peninsula, and civilians need special government approval to enter the zone.
The Koreas each agreed to dismantle or disarm 11 of their guard posts by the end of this month before jointly verifying the destruction next month. South Korea had about 60 posts inside the DMZ guarded by layers of barbed wire and manned by troops with machine guns. North Korea was estimated to have 160 such front-line posts.
Under the September agreements, the Koreas are also disarming the shared border village of Panmunjom and clearing mines from another DMZ area where they plan their first-ever joint searches for Korean War dead. They’ve also halted live-fire exercises along the border.
The deals are among a set of steps they have taken since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reached out to Seoul and Washington early this year with a vague commitment to nuclear disarmament. The fast-improving inter-Korean ties have raised worries among many in South Korea and the United States as global diplomacy on the North’s nuclear weapons program has produced little recent progress.