Biden announces ‘historic’ deal — but still must win votes

Members of the US House of Representatives on the steps to the House chambers during a vote on October 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images/AFP)
Members of the US House of Representatives on the steps to the House chambers during a vote on October 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images/AFP)
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Updated 29 October 2021

Biden announces ‘historic’ deal — but still must win votes

Biden announces ‘historic’ deal — but still must win votes
  • The revised package has lost some top priorities, frustrating many lawmakers as the president’s ambitions make way for the political realities of the narrowly divided Congress

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he and Democrats in Congress have reached a “historic” framework for his sweeping domestic policy package. But he still needs to lock down votes from key colleagues for what’s now a dramatically scaled-back bill.
Eager to have a deal in hand before his departure late in the day for global summits, Biden made his case privately on Capitol Hill to House Democrats and publicly in a speech at the White House. He’s now pressing for a still-robust package — $1.75 trillion of social services and climate change programs — that the White House believes can pass the 50-50 Senate.
The fast-moving developments put Democrats closer to a hard-fought deal, but battles remain as they press to finish the final draft in the days and weeks ahead.
“Let’s get this done,” Biden exhorted.
“It will fundamentally change the lives of millions of people for the better,” he said about the package, which he badly wanted before the summits to show the world American democracy still works.
Together with a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, Biden claimed the infusion of federal investments would be a domestic achievement modeled on those of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
“I need your votes,” Biden told the lawmakers at the Capitol, according to a person who requested anonymity to discuss the private remarks.
But final votes will not be called for some time. The revised package has lost some top priorities, frustrating many lawmakers as the president’s ambitions make way for the political realities of the narrowly divided Congress.
Paid family leave and efforts to lower prescription drug pricing are now gone entirely from the package, drawing outrage from some lawmakers and advocates.
Still in the mix, a long list of other priorities: free prekindergarten for all youngsters, expanded health care programs — including the launch of a new $35 billion hearing aid benefit for people with Medicare — and $555 billion to tackle climate change.
There’s also a one-year extension of a child care tax credit that was put in place during the COVID-19 rescue and new child care subsidies. An additional $100 billion to bolster the immigration and border processing system could boost the overall package to $1.85 trillion if it clears Senate rules.
One pivotal Democratic holdout, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, said, “I look forward to getting this done.”
However, another, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, was less committal: “This is all in the hands of the House right now.”
The two Democrats have almost single-handedly reduced the size and scope of their party’s big vision, and are crucial to sealing the deal.
Republicans remain overwhelmingly opposed, forcing Biden to rely on the Democrats’ narrow majority in Congress with no votes to spare in the Senate and few in the House.
Taking form after months of negotiations, Biden’s emerging bill would still be among the most sweeping of its kind in a generation, modeled on New Deal and Great Society programs. The White House calls it the largest-ever investment in climate change and the biggest improvement to the nation’s health care system in more than a decade.
In his meeting with lawmakers at the Capitol, Biden made clear how important it was to show progress as he headed to the summits.
“We are at an inflection point,” he said. “The rest of the world wonders whether we can function.”
With US elections on the horizon, he said it’s not “hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week.”
At one point, Biden “asked for a spirited, enthusiastic vote on his plan,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.
Twice over the course of the hour-long meeting Democratic lawmakers rose to their feet and started yelling: “Vote, vote, vote,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia.
Biden’s proposal would be paid for by imposing a new 5 percent surtax on income over $10 million a year, and instituting a new 15 percent corporate minimum tax, keeping with his plans to have no new taxes on those earning less than $400,000 a year, officials said. A special “billionaires tax” was not included.
Revenue to help pay for the package would also come from rolling back some of the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts, along with stepped-up enforcement of tax-dodgers by the IRS. Biden has vowed to cover the entire cost of the plan, ensuring it does not pile onto the debt load.
With the framework being converted to a 1,600-page legislative text for review, lawmakers and aides cautioned it had not yet been agreed to.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, the progressive leader, said her caucus endorsed the framework, even as progressive lawmakers worked to delay further action. “We want to see the actual text because we don’t want any confusion and misunderstandings,” she said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Biden asked the House to vote on the related $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which already cleared the Senate but became tangled in deliberations over the broader bill. But Jayapal said she did not hear an urgent request from him, which emboldened progressives to halt the hoped-for Thursday vote.
“When the president gets off that plane we want him to have a vote of confidence from this Congress,” Pelosi told lawmakers, the person at the private meeting said.
But no votes were scheduled. Progressives have been withholding their support for the roads-and-bridges bill as leverage until they have a commitment that Manchin, Sinema and the other senators are ready to vote on Biden’s bigger package.
“Hell no,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, about allowing the smaller infrastructure bill to pass.
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, shared her own story of making “pennies” at low-wage work, struggling to afford child care and wanting to ensure constituents have better.
“We need both bills to ride together. And we don’t have that right now,” Bush said. “I feel a bit bamboozled because this was not what I thought was coming today.”
Instead, Congress approved an extension to Dec. 3 of Sunday’s deadline for routine transportation funds that were at risk of expiring without the infrastructure bill.
The two holdout Democratic senators now hold enormous power, essentially deciding whether Biden will be able to deliver on the Democrats’ major campaign promises.
Sinema has been instrumental in pushing her party off a promise to undo the Republicans’ 2017 tax cuts. And Manchin’s resistance forced serious cutbacks to a clean energy plan, the elimination of paid family leave and the imposition of work requirements for parents receiving the new child care subsidies.
At the same time, progressives achieved one key priority — Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders’ proposal to provide hearing aid benefits for people on Medicare. However, his ideas to also include dental and vision care were left out.
Other expanded health care programs build on the Affordable Care Act by funding subsidies to help people buy insurance policies and coverage in states that declined the Obamacare program.
Overall, the new package also sets up political battles in future years. The enhanced child care tax credit expires alongside next year’s midterm elections, while much of the health care funding will expire in 2025, ensuring a campaign issue ahead of the next presidential election.
 


Soldiers mutiny in Burkina Faso, govt dismisses talk of coup

Soldiers mutiny in Burkina Faso, govt dismisses talk of coup
Updated 23 January 2022

Soldiers mutiny in Burkina Faso, govt dismisses talk of coup

Soldiers mutiny in Burkina Faso, govt dismisses talk of coup
  • Mutineers demand resignations of top security officials

OUAGADOUGOU: Sustained gunfire rang out from military camps in Burkina Faso on Sunday as mutinying soldiers demanded more support for their fight against Islamist militants and protesters ransacked the headquarters of President Roch Kabore’s political party.

The government called for calm, denying speculation on social media that the army had seized power or detained Kabore.

A spokesperson for the mutineers said they were demanding “appropriate” resources and training for the army in its fight against militants linked to Al-Qaeda and Daesh and the resignation of the army and intelligence chiefs.

Frustration in the West African gold-producing country has grown in recent months over deteriorating security.

The deaths of 49 military police in a militant attack in November prompted violent street protests calling for Kabore to step down.

Protesters in the streets of the capital Ouagadougou on Sunday urged the soldiers to go further, chanting “Free the country!”

The mutiny underlines the threat posed by growing insurgencies across West Africa’s Sahel region, a semi-arid strip of land beneath the Sahara Desert.

The militants have seized control of swathes of territory across Burkina Faso and its neighbors, Mali and Niger.

Heavy gunfire was first heard on Sunday at Ouagadougou’s Sangoule Lamizana camp, which houses a prison whose inmates include soldiers involved in a failed 2015 coup attempt.

Hundreds of people later came out in support of the mutineers.

At the Lamizana camp, where a crowd of about 100 sang the national anthem and chanted, the soldiers responded by firing into the air. It was not clear if this was meant to show support for the demonstrators or to disperse them.

In downtown Ouagadougou, near the Place de la Nation, police fired teargas to disperse around 300 protesters. Soldiers also fired into the air at an air base close to Ouagadougou International Airport.

The US Embassy also reported gunfire at three other military bases in Ouagadougou and at bases in the northern towns of Kaya and Ouahigouya.


Elephant deaths lift lid on Sri Lanka waste problem

Elephant deaths lift lid on Sri Lanka waste problem
Updated 23 January 2022

Elephant deaths lift lid on Sri Lanka waste problem

Elephant deaths lift lid on Sri Lanka waste problem
  • Open garbage dumps a growing hazard for wildlife — and humans, too

COLOMBO: Disturbing images of a herd of elephants grazing in a garbage pit in Ampara, in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, have been making the rounds ever since media reports suggested that many had died after ingesting plastic waste. 

The reports estimate at least 20 of the elephants that fed on the open dump had died in the past eight years.

While conservationists question the findings, saying ingestion of plastic is not directly linked to the animals’ deaths, the issue reveals a broader problem: Sri Lanka’s poorly regulated garbage disposal.

The island generates about 7,000 tons of solid waste a day, most of which lands in unchecked open dumps. Landfill sites, banned in many countries, are often close to forest cover or water sources, and wild animals have begun to see them as sources of food.

“About 75 percent of the garbage dumps in the country are open dumps,” Pubudu Weerarathne, director of the Species Conservation Center at the University of Colombo, told Arab News.

“Animals get used to the taste of human food and begin to look for it more.”

He added: “In the case of elephants, this leads to raids and more conflict with humans. And then, of course, there is the more direct impact on their health as a result of ingesting waste.”

But it is not plastic waste that proves lethal for elephants, which are protected by their simple digestive systems. Cattle and deer often die a painful death as polythene stays in their bodies, leading to bowel obstruction.

The body of a wild elephant lies in an open landfill in Pallakkadu village in Ampara district, about 210 kilometers east of the capital Colombo, Sri Lanka.  (AP)

“Elephants are what we call ‘hindgut fermenters,’” Prof. Prithiviraj Fernando, an expert in research relating to elephants and human-elephant conflict, told Arab News.

“Their digestive systems are less complex than that of ruminants like cattle. As a result, plastics and polythene don’t get stuck in the digestive system, but pass through.”

Even though plastic waste is not the immediate cause of elephant deaths, landfills are no less hazardous for the animals. Some die from poisoning after eating fermented organic matter.

Dr. Tharaka Prasad, wildlife health director at the Department of Wildlife Conservation, said the process through which bacteria break down food refuse makes it dangerous for animals.

“Anaerobic digestion causes excretion of toxins into the food environment, which in turn can lead to a collapse of bowel movement, consequently causing partial paralysis of the gut, ending in death,” he said.

But the greatest danger for the animals comes as they encroach human settlements while feeding on landfills.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • In 2019, Sri Lanka recorded 407 elephant deaths due to conflict with humans — the highest in the world.
  • Most of Sri Lanka’s 7,000 tons of solid waste generated everyday lands in unchecked open dumps.

“More elephants die as a result of gunshot wounds, or hakka patas,” U.L. Taufeek, deputy director for elephants at the wildlife department, said, referring to small, improvised explosive devices in the shape of firecrackers that people use to scare animals away from villages.

There are about 5,000 elephants in the country, and the animals are a symbol of national and cultural pride. The Sri Lankan elephant, a subspecies of the Asian elephant, is classified as endangered.

Killing elephants is prohibited, but their deaths due to human-elephant conflict are commonplace. In 2019, 407 such deaths were reported in Sri Lanka — the highest rate in the world.

Elephants are not the only victims of ineffective waste management policies. In 2017, a landslide at the Meethotamulla dump in the capital Colombo killed 19 people.

Toxic landfill fires and pollution from the same dump, as well as in other parts of the country, have for years troubled local communities, with residents complaining of health complications.

“We have a huge waste management issue in this country,” Dr. Ajantha Perera, an environmentalist and campaigner for recycling, told Arab News.

The activist and academic, who contested the 2019 presidential election on the promise of addressing the country’s mounting garbage issue, said that national action plans and waste management policies have been in place for years.

“But until there is political will, there will be no change.”


Armenian president quits over lack of influence in ‘difficult times’

Armenian president quits over lack of influence in ‘difficult times’
Updated 23 January 2022

Armenian president quits over lack of influence in ‘difficult times’

Armenian president quits over lack of influence in ‘difficult times’
  • “This is not an emotionally-driven decision and it comes from a specific logic,” Sarkisian said
  • His role is largely ceremonial and executive power rests primarily with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan

YEREVAN: Armenian President Armen Sarkisian announced Sunday that he is resigning his largely symbolic position, citing the inability of his office to influence policy during times of national crisis.
“This is not an emotionally-driven decision and it comes from a specific logic,” Sarkisian said in a statement on his official website.
“The president does not have the necessary tools to influence the important processes of foreign and domestic policy in difficult times for the people and the country,” he said.
Sarkisian was at the center of a domestic political crisis last year that erupted in the wake of a war between Armenia and its long-standing rival Azerbaijan for control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
His role is largely ceremonial and executive power rests primarily with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
Sarkisian and Pashinyan had disagreed over a decision to remove the chief of the military’s general staff in the wake of the war and amid protests that brought thousands onto the streets of the Caucasus nation.
“I hope that eventually the constitutional changes will be implemented and the next president and presidential administration will be able to operate in a more balanced environment,” the statement added.
Sarkisian was born in 1953 in the capital Yerevan. He served as prime minister between 1996-1997, according to an official biography, before being elected president in March 2018.
Armenia’s economy has struggled since the Soviet collapse and money sent home by Armenians abroad has aided the construction of schools, churches and other infrastructure projects, including in Nagorno-Karabakh.


UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists

UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists
Updated 23 January 2022

UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists

UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists
  • Alex Chalk QC calls for “no hierarchy” in tackling militants after resentencing of neo-Nazi
  • UK police warn far-right radicalization on the rise, taking up more resources and higher proportion of live investigations

LONDON: The UK’s solicitor general has called for far-right and Islamist extremists to be punished equally, saying there should be “no hierarchy” when it comes to dealing with terrorists.

Alex Chalk QC was speaking after the Court of Appeal in London overturned an “unduly lenient” sentence handed down to a convicted neo-Nazi, Ben John, who as part of his punishment had been told to read novels by 18th-century writers, including Jane Austen, instead of extremist material. John was resentenced to two years in prison.

The solicitor general argued for the 22-year-old to receive a harsher sentence, telling the Independent: “Those who reach for terrorism to advance their warped worldview, whether that’s extreme right-wing terrorism or Islamist terrorism, or whether it’s anarchic terrorism, need to understand that the authorities will intervene and they should expect a robust penalty.”

UK police arrest twice as many people for suspected involvement in far-right activity as they do people of Asian ethnicity. 

In December 2021, Dean Haydon, the UK’s senior national coordinator for counterterrorism policing, told the Independent the far-right makes up around 13 percent of live terror cases.

Since March 2017, authorities have stopped 12 far-right plots, in addition to 18 planned by Islamists.

John was part of an increasing number of cases where police intervene early before attacks or escalation can be planned. He was convicted of possessing a document containing instructions on how to make explosives.

The far-right extremist previously had been referred to the UK’s counter-extremist Prevent program twice, but was found to have white supremacist, antisemitic and satanic material, including propaganda from the neo-Nazi terrorist groups National Action and Atomwaffen Division.

Chalk told the Independent: “We thought that, given all the circumstances — the nature of the terrorism manual he was in possession of, plus the failure to respond to respond to efforts to de-radicalize him through Prevent — meant that a suspended sentence didn’t meet the justice of the case and was insufficient to protect the public.”

He added: “Possession of these materials is not a minor offense, it’s a serious offense and rightly so. The point is that if somebody harbors an extremist mindset then those materials, if ready to hand, can be the very tool they need to perpetrate the atrocity. That’s why it’s so serious — it’s that unholy alliance of the terrorist manual and the warped worldview that can lead to really significant and dangerous outcomes. That’s why we make no apology for taking a robust approach.”

At John’s first trial, he was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence, and Judge Timothy Spencer QC asked him: “Have you ever read Dickens? Austen? Well, start now. Start with ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Shakespeare? Try ‘Twelfth Night.’ Dickens, start with ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and, if you have time, think about Hardy and think about Trollope.”

At the subsequent resentencing, Lord Justice Holroyde said the issue with the original sentence was not the instruction to read works of British literature in place of radicalizing material, but that the original suspended sentence was unlawful, and should have been custodial. 

“It was certainly a very lenient sentence, but we are not persuaded that in the circumstances in this case, the length of the term of imprisonment was itself unduly lenient. It is because the term was unlawful that we conclude it was unduly lenient,” he said.

Nick Lowles, CEO of pressure group Hope Not Hate, welcomed the new sentence.

“While prison often fails to rehabilitate and isn’t always the answer, (Spencer’s) baffling suggestion that Ben John read classic literature reduced the serious offenses he committed to a parody. The far right represents the fastest-growing threat of violence in Britain today.”


Daesh ‘Beatle’ on trial demands strict jury screening

Daesh ‘Beatle’ on trial demands strict jury screening
Updated 23 January 2022

Daesh ‘Beatle’ on trial demands strict jury screening

Daesh ‘Beatle’ on trial demands strict jury screening
  • El Shafee Elsheikh facing life imprisonment over kidnapping, beheading of hostages
  • He also wants victims of terrorism banned from the jury in his trial

LONDON: A UK terrorist and member of the so-called Daesh group “The Beatles” facing trial in the US has demanded that anti-Muslim jurors and US service members be screened out of the legal process.

El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, also wants victims of terrorism banned from the jury in his trial.

He was charged with eight counts linked to the kidnapping and beheading in Syria of Western hostages, including four Americans and two UK aid workers.

His case — one of the highest-profile Daesh cases in the world — has been postponed until March due to the pandemic.

The four-man terror group was fronted by Mohammed Emwazi, 27, also known as Jihadi John. He was killed by a US drone strike in Syria in 2015.

Elsheikh’s lawyers are using questioning to screen out jurors.

One question asks: “Have you, a close member of your family, or close friend had any experience which would cause you to be biased against a defendant who is Muslim, Syrian, Kurd, or a person of Arab descent?”

Another asks: “Have you or a close member of your family ever served in a combat or militarized zone in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or other areas overseas?”

If found guilty, Elsheikh will likely face life imprisonment in ADX Florence, a Colorado maximum security prison which also houses Abu Hamza, a radical imam from London.

Alexanda Kotey, 38, another member of “The Beatles,” has pleaded guilty to the same charges.