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GOP-Controlled Statehouses Test Legal Limits of Abortion

Republicans who control a majority of the nation’s statehouses are considering a wide range of abortion legislation that could test the government’s legal ability to restrict a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.

The Mississippi House passed a bill Friday that would make the state the only one to ban all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. In Missouri, lawmakers heard testimony earlier in the week on a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks.

The Ohio House is expected to consider bills, already passed in the Senate, that would prohibit the most common type of procedure used to end pregnancies after 13 weeks and require that fetal remains be buried or cremated.

​Crucial question

Abortion is a perennial hot button issue in statehouses across the country. Republican-controlled states have passed hundreds of bills since 2011 restricting access to the procedure while Democratic-led states have taken steps in the other direction.

The early weeks of this year’s state legislative sessions have seen a flurry of activity around the issue. It comes as activists on both sides say they expect the U.S. Supreme Court to soon consider a question that remains unclear: How far can states go in restricting abortion in the interest of preserving and promoting fetal life?

The state bills debated since the start of the year “are all tests designed to see how far government power to legislate on behalf of a fetus can reach,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, who has been tracking legislation as the senior legal analyst for Rewire, a website that promotes views supporting abortion rights.

She said the outcome will determine whether states can legally ban abortion after a specific time period and outlaw specific medical procedures. Advocates for abortion rights say those strategies undermine the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling that women have the right to terminate pregnancies until a fetus is viable.

​Women speak out

In Utah, critics have warned that a pending bill to prevent doctors from performing abortions on the basis of a Down syndrome diagnosis is unconstitutional. But its co-sponsor, Republican state Sen. Curt Bramble, said he is willing to defend the bill in court because its goal is to protect unborn children.

“There are times if the Supreme Court got it wrong, it is appropriate to push back,” said Bramble, an accountant from Provo.

The anti-abortion bills have drawn opposition from women who say they have made the excruciating choice to terminate a pregnancy, often after discovering serious fetal abnormalities.

“A 20-week abortion ban sounds OK, but if that gets passed, what’s next — 18 weeks, 15 weeks? At what point does it make abortion truly illegal?” said Robin Utz of St. Louis, 38, who submitted testimony this week against the Missouri bill. “It’s terrifying and it’s willfully ignorant.”

Utz recounted terminating her pregnancy in its 21st week in November 2016, after learning her daughter would be born with a fatal kidney disease if she survived birth. She said doctors told her that dilation and evacuation, the most common abortion procedure in the second trimester, was the safest way to terminate the pregnancy.

Court challenges underway

Undeterred by such stories, the National Right to Life Committee and its allies have been pushing for state laws that ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and outlaw dilation and evacuation. Supporters of both measures argue that fetuses are capable of feeling pain after 20 weeks and call the procedure “dismemberment abortion.”

Several court challenges to both types of laws are underway, with federal appeals courts considering the “dismemberment abortion” bans approved last year in Texas and Arkansas. The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the first-in-the-nation ban passed in that state three years ago.

Ingrid Duran, director of state legislation at the National Right to Life Committee, said the model state laws drafted by her group are aimed at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote who wrote the court’s 2007 opinion upholding a federal ban on a procedure critics call partial-birth abortion.

She said the court could use similar reasoning to prohibit dilation and evacuation and noted it has never considered whether states have an interest in protecting fetuses from pain.

“We did draft these laws with the bigger picture in mind,” Duran said.

Texas ruling shifts focus

The shifted focus comes after the court dealt the anti-abortion movement a blow in 2016 by ruling that strict Texas regulations on abortion clinics and doctors were an undue burden on abortion access and unconstitutional.

Anti-abortion groups hope President Donald Trump will be able to nominate one or more justices to the Supreme Court following last year’s confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, potentially making the court more conservative on the issue for decades to come.

In the meantime, some of them are cautioning their allies not to go too far.

Duran said the proposed 15-week ban in Mississippi, which now goes to the state Senate, caught her by surprise. She noted that prior state laws banning abortion after 12 weeks or once a heartbeat was detected have been found unconstitutional.

In South Carolina this past week, state senators tabled a bill that would have banned most abortions to give lawmakers more time to study the consequences. Also last week, a legislative committee in Tennessee amended a bill to remove language that would have outlawed abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which is usually around six weeks. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Micah Van Huss, said he would be back.

“I will not stop fighting for the lives of babies until abortion is abolished in this state,” he said.

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Climate Change Skeptic Out as Trump Nominee for Environmental Job

The White House late Saturday confirmed plans to withdraw the nomination of a climate change skeptic with ties to the fossil fuel industry to serve as President Donald Trump’s top environmental adviser.

 

Kathleen Hartnett White was announced last October as Trump’s choice to chair the Council on Environmental Quality. She had served under former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now Trump’s energy secretary, for six years on a commission overseeing the state environmental agency.

 

But White’s nomination languished in the Senate, and was among a batch of nominations the Senate sent back to the White House at the end of 2017 when Congress closed up for the year. Trump resubmitted White’s nomination in January.

 

Pollution defended

White, who is not a scientist, has compared the work of mainstream climate scientists to “the dogmatic claims of ideologues and clerics.” In a contentious Senate hearing last November, she defended past statements that particulate pollution released by burning fuels is not harmful unless one were to suck on a car’s tailpipe.

Critics of White’s nomination to head the council pointed to her praise of fossil fuels as having improved living conditions around the world and helping to end slavery. She has called carbon dioxide not a pollutant but “a necessary nutrient for plant life.” 

 

During Perry’s tenure as governor of Texas, White often was critical of what she called the Obama administration’s “imperial EPA,” the Environmental Protection Agency, and she opposed stricter limits on air and water pollution.

White was a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that received funding from Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Chevron and other fossil-fuels companies. White could not immediately be reached late Saturday for comment.

Nomination withdrawn

The Washington Post first reported late Saturday on plans by the White House to pull White’s nomination, citing two administration officials who had been briefed on the matter but spoke on condition of anonymity because the White House has not formally announced its decision.

 

A White House official later confirmed the Post report. The official was not authorized to discuss personnel decisions by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

 

Trump himself has called climate change a hoax and has laid the groundwork for withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accords. 

Other top Trump administration officials who question the scientific consensus that carbon released in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is the primary driver of global warming include Perry, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

 

U.S. Senator Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said it was “abundantly clear very early on” that heading the Council on Environmental Quality wasn’t the right job for White. Carper called withdrawing White’s nomination “the right thing to do” and urged the Trump administration to nominate a “thoughtful environmental and public health champion to lead this critical office in the federal government.”

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Democrat Calls Nunes Memo ‘Flawed’; Trump Says It ‘Vindicates’ Him

A controversial memo alleging FBI investigators abused their powers in the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is “embarrassingly flawed,” the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee said Saturday.

The memo released by the House Intelligence Committee “is a disgrace,” Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler said in a response to the document that has obsessed the U.S. political world this week. “House Republicans should be ashamed.”

Nadler’s six-page memo, addressed to his Democratic colleagues and obtained by television news networks, said the document — known as “the Nunes memo,” produced by House Republican Devin Nunes, chairman of the Intelligence Committee — “is deliberately misleading and deeply wrong on the law.”

The memo, released to the public Friday, alleges that the FBI overstepped its authority in obtaining a surveillance warrant for an aide to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The Nunes memo says the FBI relied heavily on a dossier of information assembled by Christopher Steele, a Russia expert and former British spy, for the campaign of Trump rival Hillary Clinton, via the law firm Perkins Cole and the research firm Fusion GPS.

The release of the memo intensified the battle between Trump and his Republican allies in Congress on one side and Democrats and top FBI officials on the other about whether the probe into Russian interference in the presidential election was affected by political bias on the part of investigators.

In his rebuttal, Nadler said the Republicans failed to show that the FBI relied substantially or solely on the dossier in question. Further, he said, “the Nunes memo does not provide a single shred of evidence that any aspect of the Steele dossier is false or inaccurate in any way.”

New Trump tweets

Joining the furor Saturday evening, President Trump, who is spending the weekend at his Florida golf resort, tweeted quotes of an editorial that appeared a day earlier in the Wall Street Journal. It said, in part, “The four page memo released Friday reports the disturbing fact [misquote in tweet; WSJ said “reports disturbing facts”] about how the FBI and FISA [in WSJ, “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” was spelled out] appear to have been used to influence the 2016 election and its aftermath.”

Trump did not quote a later paragraph in the editorial, in which the Wall Street Journal called for the release of the Democratic rebuttal to the Nunes memo.

“Democrats are howling that the memo, produced by Republican staff, is misleading and leaves out essential details,” the Journal said. “By all means let’s see that, too. President Trump should declassify it promptly.” The editorial also called for release of a referral for criminal investigation of the dossier’s author.

Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted that the disputed Republican memo “totally vindicates” him, despite a contrary view by most Democrats.

“This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe,” the president tweeted Saturday morning. “But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on. Their [sic] was no Collusion and there was no Obstruction (the word now used because, after one year of looking endlessly and finding NOTHING, collusion is dead). This is an American disgrace!”

Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted back at the president, saying, “Quite the opposite, Mr. President. The most important fact disclosed in this otherwise shoddy memo was that FBI investigation began July 2016 with your advisor, Papadopoulos, who was secretly discussing stolen Clinton emails with the Russians.”

A significant part of the document focuses on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants that permitted FBI surveillance of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, a businessman with interests in Russia.

There had been concerns about Page’s alleged contacts with Russian intelligence agents.

The memo asserts that the dossier was an “essential part” of the FISA application on Page.

​FBI, DOJ response

After the memo’s release, the FBI on Friday re-issued its statement from earlier this week, saying the agency “takes seriously its obligations to the FISA Court and its compliance with procedures overseen by career professionals.”

The FBI noted it was given “limited opportunity” to review the document before lawmakers voted to release it.

“As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the agency said.

Rep. Nunes issued a statement Friday expressing hope that the actions of Intelligence Committee Republicans would “shine a light” on what he called “this alarming series of events.”

“The committee has discovered serious violations of the public trust, and the American people have a right to know when officials in crucial institutions are abusing their authority for political purposes,” Nunes said. “Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies exist to defend the American people, not to be exploited to target one group on behalf of another.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions weighed in on the memo’s release Friday, saying, he has “great confidence in the men and women of this Department (of Justice). But no department is perfect.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray told agency employees Friday that he stood with them after the release of the memo.

“I stand by our shared determination to do our work independently and by the book,” Wray said in a statement to 35,000 FBI staff members.

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Tillerson Visits Argentina to Talk Conservation, Economics

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Latin American tour took him Saturday to Argentina, where he talked with officials about conservation and diplomacy.

Traveling from Mexico City after meeting with the Mexican president and other senior officials on Friday, Tillerson arrived in Bariloche, a lakeside resort town in Argentina’s Nahuel Huapi National Park.

Local news reports said Tillerson met with park rangers to discuss progress made in joint U.S.-Argentine projects on science and conservation issues. He also met with a student selected for the U.S. Fulbright scholarship program.

Tillerson was scheduled to visit the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, to meet with his counterpart, Jorge Faurie.

On Monday, Tillerson is set to meet with Argentina President Mauricio Macri to discuss regional issues, including upcoming elections and the political crisis in Venezuela.

Before his visit, Tillerson told reporters that he hoped other countries would follow Argentina’s lead on making economic reforms and generating growth.

On Friday in Mexico, Tillerson said that immigrants bring “enormous value” to the U.S., but added the U.S. government lacked “good discipline” in regulating who enters the country to live.

‘Out of normal order’

After meeting in Mexico City with Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, Tillerson told reporters the U.S. had put “many mechanisms in place” over the years to control immigration, but had “never gone back to clean this up.”

“Let’s make sure we have systems in place where we understand who’s coming into the country,” Tillerson said. He said immigration in the U.S. had “gotten out of normal order,” which is why President Donald Trump is pushing Congress to “fix these defects that have risen over the years.”

The Mexican government has repeatedly expressed opposition to Trump’s proposals to curb illegal immigration and have Mexico pay for a reinforced border wall.

Differences over the issue did not preclude Videgaray from praising the U.S. He said the Mexican government’s relationship with the Trump administration was “closer” than it was under former President Barack Obama’s administration. Videgaray acknowledged the two countries “do have some differences” but said “we are working closely and we are about results.”

Tillerson later held a closed-door meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto during a time when relations have also been strained by U.S. threats to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

NAFTA, which Trump alleges costs American jobs, was discussed at the trilateral meeting, along with energy development and drug interdiction.

Tillerson’s travels through Latin America will also take him to Peru and Colombia, with a final stop in Jamaica on February 7.

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Former Utah Monument Lands Open to Claims, but No Land Rush in Sight

The window opened Friday for oil, gas, uranium and coal companies to make requests or stake claims to lands that were cut from two sprawling Utah national monuments by President Trump in December, but there doesn’t appear to be a rush to seize the opportunities.

For anyone interested in the uranium on the lands stripped from the Bears Ears National Monument, all they need to do is stake a few corner posts in the ground, pay a $212 initial fee and send paperwork to the federal government under a law first created in 1872 that harkens back to the days of the Wild West.

They can then keep rights to the hard minerals, including gold and silver, as long as they pay an annual fee of $155.

It was unclear if anyone was doing that Friday.

​Inquiries, but no claims yet

The Bureau of Land Management declined repeated requests for information about how they’re handling the lands and how many requests and claims came in.

The agency says it must comply with a complex web of other laws and management plans.

Steve Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said he was told by the BLM Friday afternoon that inquiries were made but no claims sent in.

He said other conservation groups that have sued to block the downsized monument boundaries are watching closely to ensure no lands are disturbed in the short-term, hoping a judge will side with them and return the monuments to the original boundaries.

Two of the largest uranium companies in the U.S., Ur-Energy Inc. and Energy Fuels Resources Inc., said they have no plans to mine there. The price of uranium, which has fallen to about $22 per pound, down from more than $100 in the mid-2000s, would “discourage any investment in new claims,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association.

Colorado-based Energy Fuels asked for a reduction of Bears Ears last year in a public comment, but spokesman Curtis Moore said in a statement that the company has higher priorities elsewhere. He noted the lands were open to claims for 150 years before President Barack Obama creating the national monument in 2016.

“There probably isn’t any land available for staking that would be of much interest to anyone,” Moore said.

Coal in Grand Staircase-Escalante

In Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, part of a major coal reserve that a company was preparing to mine before President Bill Clinton protected the lands in 1996, has been made available again but it appears unlikely any company will immediately jump at the chance this time.

Out-of-state demand for Utah’s coal had led to a drop in coal production to about 14 million tons in 2017, down from about 27 million tons in the mid-2000s, said Michael Vanden Berg, energy and mineral program manager at the Utah Geological Survey.

“If a new mine were to open, it would be competing with existing mines in Utah for limited demand,” Vanden Berg said.

Popovich called it “doubtful given market conditions and other factors” that companies interested in coal would put in a lease request.

Vanden Berg noted that a potential coal port in Oakland, California, could open up an Asian market and that technology could be developed to change market forces.

Oil and gas potential

There’s some potential for oil and gas at Grand Staircase, Vanden Berg said. But Kathleen Sgamma, president of an oil and gas industry group called Western Energy Alliance, said heavy oil shale in the area would require an intensive mining operation that doesn’t make sense in today’s market.

“There’s no fracking trucks at the border waiting to rush in,” Sgamma said.

President Trump downsized the Bears Ears National Monument by about 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half. It earned him cheers from Republican leaders in Utah who lobbied him to undo protections by Democratic presidents that they considered overly broad.

Bears Ears, created nearly a year ago, will be reduced to 315 square miles (815.85 square kilometers). Grand Staircase-Escalante will be reduced from nearly 3,000 square miles (7,770 square kilometers) to 1,569 square miles (4,063.71 square kilometers).

Conservation groups called it the largest elimination of protected land in American history.

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Britain Buys Into China’s ‘One Belt’ Initiative, but Washington Offers Warning

Britain has made clear its desire to be part of China’s so-called ‘One Belt One Road Initiative’ — a cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s vision to boost Chinese investment and influence across Asia, Europe and Africa. There are, however, concerns over the financial and humanitarian costs of the vast infrastructure projects being undertaken. As Henry Ridgwell reports, the United States has issued a blunt warning over what it sees as the dangers of being tied to China’s huge investment projects.

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Trump and Republicans Hail Release of Classified Memo on Russia Probe

Congressional Republicans released a classified memo related to the Russia investigation Friday after President Donald Trump decided that the document should be available to the general public. The memo from Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee alleges U.S. law enforcement officials including the FBI abused their authority in seeking to put a Trump campaign associate under surveillance for possible ties to Russia. The release of the memo has set off yet another political firestorm over the Russia probe in Washington, as we hear from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone.

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