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Tillerson: Keep Focus on Defeating Islamic State

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Tuesday of the need to remain focused on an “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State group, even though the militants have largely been ousted from the areas the once controlled in Iraq and Syria.

Tillerson spoke at a conference in Kuwait for members of the coalition the United States set up in late 2014 with a multi-prong strategy of countering Islamic State, including through U.S.-led airstrikes and working to cut off the group’s financing and flow of foreign fighters.

“ISIS remains a serious threat to the stability of the region, our homelands and other parts of the globe,” he said, using an acronym for the group.

Tillerson said the militants are no longer in control of 98 percent of the territory they held at their height in 2014 when they declared the establishment of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but that they now pose a different threat.

“In Iraq and Syria, ISIS is attempting to morph into an insurgency. In places like Afghanistan, the Philippines, Libya, West Africa and others it is trying to carve out and secure safe havens,” he said.

Tillerson announced $200 million in new aid to liberated areas of Syria. Later Tuesday, he is taking part in a donor conference aimed at rebuilding areas of Iraq.

Ahead of the meeting, a senior State Department official said “the eyes have to be on the prize” when describing the need to focus on defeating Islamic State, and highlighted recent conflicts in the Afrin area of northern Syria between Turkish forces and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces as a distraction from that goal.

The official, and Tillerson in his Tuesday comments, recognized Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish militants it considers a threat.

“We believe there’s a way to work through, walk through, these problems, and that’s why the secretary is going to Ankara, to have those discussions,” the official told reporters.

Tillerson is on a five-nation trip in the region, which began in Egypt and includes stops in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

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Trump Unveils Infrastructure Plan, But Critics Call It Fantasy

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday unveiled his plan to update American roads, bridges, ports and airports. He wants the congress to authorize $200 billion over the next 10 years for infrastructure renovation, and says individual states and private sector will stimulate another $1.5 to $1.7 trillion in investments. Critics say his plan is unrealistic. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Agency-by-agency Highlights of Trump’s 2019 Budget

Highlights from President Donald Trump’s budget for fiscal year 2019, released Monday.


Trump’s budget for 2019 shows the administration’s concern about the threat from North Korea and its missile program.

The Pentagon is proposing to spend hundreds of millions more in 2019 on missile defense.

The budget calls for increasing the number of strategic missile interceptors from 44 to 64 and boosting other elements of missile defense.

The additional 20 interceptors would be based at Fort Greely, Alaska. Critics question the reliability of the interceptors, arguing that years of testing has yet to prove them to be sufficiently effective against a sophisticated threat.

The Pentagon also would invest more heavily in other missile defense systems, including the ship-based Aegis system and the Army’s Patriot air and missile defense system, both of which are designed to defend against missiles of various ranges short of the intercontinental ballistic missile that is of greatest U.S. concern in the context of North Korea.

Border wall

 The second stage of Trump’s proposed border wall in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley would be 65 miles (104 kilometers) long, costing an average of $24.6 million a mile, according to the president’s 2019 budget.

That matches the amount requested in Trump’s 2018 budget to build or replace 74 miles (118 kilometers) in San Diego and Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings.

Walls currently cover about one-third of the border with Mexico, and the administration wants eventually to spend up to $18 billion to extend the wall to nearly half the border. Trump has insisted Mexico pay for it; Mexico says that’s a non-starter.

The proposal sets aside $782 million to hire 2,000 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, whose responsibilities include making deportation arrests, and 750 more Border Patrol agents toward Trump’s long-term goal of 5,000. The proposal comes even as the administration has been unable to fill vacancies caused by attrition.

The administration also wants to raise capacity at its immigration detention facilities to 52,000 people.

It wants to collect $208 million in fees on “legitimate trade and travel” to pay for investigations into fraud and employers who hire people in the country illegally.

The budget also calls for adding 450 Secret Service agents and support staff to reach 7,600 this year and inch toward a long-term goal of 9,500. It sets aside $6.9 billion for disaster relief.


Trump’s budget proposes major changes to Medicare’s popular prescription benefit, creating winners and losers among the 42 million seniors with drug coverage.

On the plus side for seniors, the budget requires the insurance plans that deliver the prescription benefit to share with beneficiaries a substantial portion of rebates they receive from drug makers.

The budget also eliminates the 5 percent share of costs that an estimated 1 million beneficiaries with very high drug bills now must keep paying when they reach Medicare’s “catastrophic” coverage. Instead seniors would pay nothing once they reach Medicare’s catastrophic coverage level, currently $8,418 in total costs.

But on the minus side, the budget calls for changing the way Medicare accounts for certain discounts that drug makers now provide to seniors with significant drug bills.

That complex change would mean fewer seniors reach catastrophic coverage, and some will end up paying more than they do now.

“It will increase costs for some, while saving money for others,” said Tricia Neuman of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “Overall it could be a wash.”

The budget also makes multiple cuts in different streams of Medicare payments going to hospitals and rehabilitation centers.

Medicare spending totals more than $700 billion a year, and hospitals represent the single biggest category of costs.

Overall, the budget calls for about $500 billion over 10 years in cuts from projected Medicare spending.


School choice advocates will find something to cheer in Trump’s budget.

Fulfilling a campaign promise, he is proposing to put “more decision-making power in the hands of parents and families” in choosing schools for their children with a $1.5 billion investment for the coming year. The budget would expand both private and public school choice.

A new Opportunity Grants program would provide money for states to give scholarships to low-income students to attend private schools, as well as expand charter schools across the nation. Charters are financed by taxpayer dollars but usually run independently of school district requirements.

The budget also calls for increased spending to expand the number of magnet schools that offer specialized instruction usually focused on specific curricula.

Last year, the Trump administration also called for boosting charter and private school funding, but those initiatives didn’t win the approval of Congress.

Among other key components is spending $200 million on STEM education and $43 million to implement school-based opioid abuse prevention strategies.

Overall, the budget calls for a $7.1 billion, a 10.5 percent decrease from 2017. On the chopping block is $5.9 million in teacher preparation and aftercare programs. Last year, proposals for similar cuts were met with harsh criticism from teachers’ unions and educators across the country.

Environmental Protection Agency 

Climate change research is on the Environmental Protection Agency’s chopping block.

Trump’s proposed 2019 budget calls for slashing funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by more than one third, including ending the Climate Change Research and Partnership Programs.

The president’s budget would also make deep cuts to funding for cleaning up the nation’s most polluted sites, even as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said that is one of his top priorities. Trump’s budget would allocate just $762 million for the Hazardous Substance Superfund Account, a reduction of more than 30 percent.

Current spending for Superfund is already down to about half of what it was in the 1990s. Despite the cut, the White House’s budget statement says the administration plans to “accelerate” site cleanups by bringing “more private funding to the table for redevelopment.”

After the president’s budget was developed, Congress reached a bipartisan agreement that would boost non-defense domestic spending for the next fiscal year. In response, Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney filed an addendum that seeks to restore about $724 million to EPA, including additional money for Superfund cleanups and drinking water infrastructure grants.

Still, Trump’s budget calls for cutting programs that fight ocean pollution and raise public awareness about environmental issues and problems. The budget also would eliminate money for the popular Energy Star program, seeking instead to raise “a modest fee” from appliance and electronics manufacturers who seek to label their products as being energy efficient.

Agency staffing would be cut by more than 20 percent from budgeted 2018 levels, from 15,400 full-time positions to 12,250. EPA’s workforce has already shrunk dramatically in Trump’s first year, as career employees left in droves while hiring has largely been frozen. There are currently 14,162 employees at the agency, the lowest staffing levels since the mid-1980s.

Like Trump, Pruitt has expressed doubt about the consensus of climate scientists, including those at his own agency, that man-made carbon emissions are the primary driver of increasing average temperatures observed around the globe. The nation’s top environmental official has instead advocated for the increased production and burning of fossil fuels.


The budget assumes that Congress will repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law, although there’s little evidence that Republican leaders have the appetite for another battle over “Obamacare.”

Repeal of the Affordable Care Act should happen “as soon as possible,” say the budget documents.

The Obama health law would be replaced with legislation modeled after an ill-fated GOP bill whose lead authors were Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said it would leave millions more uninsured.

The budget calls for a program of block grants that states could use to set up their own programs for covering the uninsured.


The Veterans Choice health care program would get a big boost under Trump’s 2019 budget.

The budget proposes an overall increase of $8.7 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, primarily to strengthen medical care for more than 9 million enrolled veterans. A key component is a proposed $11.9 billion to revamp the Veterans Choice program, a Trump campaign priority. The planned expansion would give veterans wider freedom to receive government-paid care from private doctors and MinuteClinics outside the VA system. It has yet to be approved by Congress, however, in part due to disagreement over rising costs and concerns over privatizing VA.

Under the increased budget caps approved by Congress last week, the Trump administration also tacked on an additional $2.4 billion for Choice and other expenses. Lawmakers’ delay in reaching agreement has meant that a larger overhaul of VA Choice isn’t likely to be fully implemented until 2019 or later.

VA Secretary David Shulkin says Choice will help significantly reduce wait times at VA medical centers.

The program was put in place after a 2014 wait-time scandal that was discovered at the Phoenix VA hospital and elsewhere throughout the country. Veterans waited weeks or months for appointments, while phony records covered up the lengthy waits. The program allows veterans to go to private doctors if they endure long waits for VA appointments, but it has suffered extended wait times of its own.


Trump’s budget includes a modest increase of $191 million for what’s known as “overseas contingency operations,” or active war zones like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had argued in the past that the impending resolution of major global conflicts would decrease the need for U.S. spending and allow the Trump administration to significantly reduce what it spends overseas.

Some of the most dramatic proposed cuts affect the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which would see its budget cut by about $126 million, a reduction of nearly half of what it received in the past.


The Interior Department’s proposed $11.7 billion budget includes $1.3 billion to address a growing backlog of projects to maintain and improve roads, bridges, park buildings and other infrastructure. The agency has an estimated $16 billion deferred maintenance backlog, including more than $11 billion for the National Park Service alone.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the nation’s parks and wildlife refuges “are being loved to death” and need significant work to keep pace with an increased number of visitors. The National Mall in Washington, for instance, needs at least $800 million in maintenance, Zinke said.

As part of the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan, officials have proposed an $18 billion public lands infrastructure fund to help pay for repairs and improvements in national parks, wildlife refuges and schools overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education, an Interior agency. The fund, which needs congressional approval, would be paid for in part through a projected 50 percent increase in energy leasing and development on federal lands, part of the administration’s strategy to achieve U.S. “energy dominance” in the global market.

The budget also includes $17.5 million to begin to implement Zinke’s plan to reorganize the department and shift staffers at some agency headquarters, including the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureaus of Land Management and Reclamation, to the West.


The Trump administration is seeking $30.6 billion for the Energy Department, a figure that includes an additional $1.5 billion authorized under a two-year budget deal that Congress approved last week. Much of the additional funding, $1.2 billion, goes to the Office of Science to pay for basic scientific research.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in a statement that the budget request supports the agency’s push to enhance energy security and modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile while boosting funding for cybersecurity and emphasizing the role of the 17 national laboratories that do cutting-edge research on everything from clean energy technologies to supercomputing to nuclear science.

The budget again proposes steep cuts to energy efficiency and renewable-energy programs and calls for eliminating DOE’s loan program and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, DOE’s innovation arm. Members of Congress from both parties support all the programs and are likely to restore much of the funding, although the loan program could face cuts. The Senate approved record funding levels for ARPA-E for the current budget year despite Trump’s plan to dismantle it.

Trump’s budget again proposes $120 million to revive a long-stalled nuclear waste dump at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. The state’s Republican governor and lawmakers from both parties oppose the plan.


The budget proposes deep cuts to funding for rental assistance programs, eliminates community block grants and references future legislation that will implement work requirements for some tenants receiving public assistance.

Trump’s proposal reduces the budget for rental assistance programs by more than 11 percent compared with 2017. It also eliminates funding for the Public Housing Capital Fund, dedicated to supporting public housing complexes, and Community Development Block Grants, which are doled out to cities, counties and communities for development projects.

The budget also requests legislation that would require able-bodied tenants who are receiving federal housing assistance to work.

In a two-year agreement passed last week and signed by the president, Congress included an additional $2 billion earmarked for HUD. That addendum adds $1 billion to “avoid rent increases on elderly and disabled families receiving rental increases.” It also adds another $700 million toward housing vouchers for low-income individuals and families, and $300 million to aide public housing authorities.

Housing advocates say Trump’s proposal is “cruel and unconscionable.”

“President Trump is making clear, in no uncertain terms, his willingness to increase evictions and homelessness for the families who could lose their rental assistance through severe funding cuts, and for the low-income and vulnerable seniors, people with disabilities and families with kids who will be unable to manage having to spend more of their very limited income to cover rent hikes,” National Low Income Housing Coalition president and CEO Diane Yentel said in a statement.



Trump’s 2019 Justice Department budget reiterates the administration’s priorities: fighting the opioid epidemic, fighting violent crime and drug trafficking gangs while providing tough immigration enforcement. It seeks more than $109 million for crime-fighting efforts, including $70 million for a partnership with state and local authorities called Project Safe Neighborhoods that targets gun offenders.

It would also move the tobacco and alcohol-related responsibilities of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives into the Treasury Department, which officials say would eliminate duplicative duties and allow the agency to focus more closely on fighting street crime.

There’s also a request for $13.2 million and 25 new positions to help “modernize” and speed up the ATF’s ability to register restricted weapons, such as machine guns and suppressors, after a steady increase in applications.

The budget also seeks $295 million directed toward the opioid epidemic. That includes a proposed $31.2 million for eight new “heroin enforcement groups” to be sent to hard-hit Drug Enforcement Administration offices. Additional agents would target Mexican drug gangs.

The proposal also seeks $39.8 million for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts and is still experiencing a backlog of immigration cases. That would include 75 new immigration judges and additional attorneys. The administration wants $25 million for a technological boost for that office, which it says still struggles with a “wholly paper-based system that is both cumbersome and inefficient.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team investigating possible Trump campaign ties to Russia is funded separately and not affected by budget requests to Congress.

Food stamps

Trump’s budget proposes massive cuts to the program that provides more than 42 million Americans with food stamps.

The budget also floats the idea of new legislation that would require able-bodied adults to work or participate in a work program in order to receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The president’s budget would reduce the SNAP program by roughly $213 billion over the next ten years.

The budget calls for a $17 billion reduction in 2019, and proposes “a bold new approach” to administering SNAP that will include a combination of traditional food stamps and packages of “100 percent American grown foods provided directly to households.”

Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the proposed cuts to SNAP account for nearly 30 percent of the program.

She said the proposal, if enacted, “would be devastating for the one-in-eight Americans who use SNAP to put food on the table every day.”

“It would reduce benefits and undercut the program’s efficiency and effectiveness,” she said.

International Space Station

The Trump administration wants NASA out of the International Space Station by 2025 and to have private businesses running the place instead.

Under Trump’s 2019 proposed budget, U.S. government funding for the space station would end by 2025. The government would set aside $150 million to encourage commercial development.

Many space experts are expressing concern. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who rocketed into orbit in 1986, said “turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space” makes no sense.

Retired NASA historian and Smithsonian curator Roger Launius notes that any such move will affect all the other countries involved in the space station; Russia is a major player, as are Europe, Japan and Canada. “I suspect this will be a major aspect of any decisions about ISS’s future,” Launius wrote in an email.

NASA has spent close to $100 billion on the orbiting outpost since the 1990s. The first piece was launched in 1998, and the complex was essentially completed with the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011.

Private businesses already have a hand in the project. The end of the shuttle program prompted NASA to turn over supply runs to the commercial sector. SpaceX and Orbital ATK have been making deliveries since 2012, and Sierra Nevada Corp. will begin making shipments with its crewless mini shuttles in a few years.

The arts

Trump’s budget calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, two prominent grant programs founded in the 1960s that Trump proposed ending in last year’s budget. Under his proposal, the NEA and NEH would “begin” shutting down in 2019. Neither organization should be considered “core Federal responsibilities.” Each program currently receives just under $150 million.

Although some conservatives have long complained about the NEA and NEH, the programs have bipartisan support and funding for them was restored by Congress in 2017. Trump is also seeking to shut down other arts and scholarly programs that Congress has backed, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

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Trump’s $4 Trillion Budget Helps Move Deficit Sharply Higher

President Donald Trump is proposing a $4 trillion-plus budget for next year that projects a $1 trillion or so federal deficit and — unlike the plan he released last year — never comes close to promising a balanced federal ledger even after 10 years.

And that’s before last week’s $300 billion budget pact is added this year and next, showering both the Pentagon and domestic agencies with big increases.


The spending spree, along with last year’s tax cuts, has the deficit moving sharply higher with Republicans in control of Washington.


The original plan was for Trump’s new budget to slash domestic agencies even further than last year’s proposal, but instead it will land in Congress three days after he signed a two-year spending agreement that wholly rewrites both last year’s budget and the one to be released Monday.


The 2019 budget was originally designed to double down on last year’s proposals to slash foreign aid, the Environmental Protection Agency, home heating assistance and other nondefense programs funded by Congress each year.


“A lot of presidents’ budgets are ignored. But I would expect this one to be completely irrelevant and totally ignored,” said Jason Furman, a top economic adviser to President Barack Obama. “In fact, Congress passed a law week that basically undid the budget before it was even submitted.”


In a preview of the 2019 budget, the White House on Sunday focused on Trump’s $1.5 trillion plan for the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. He also will ask for a $13 billion increase over two years for opioid prevention, treatment and long-term recovery. A request of $23 billion for border security, including $18 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and money for more detention beds for detained immigrants, is part of the budget, too.


Trump would again spare Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare as he promised during the 2016 campaign. And while his plan would reprise last year’s attempt to scuttle the “Obamacare” health law and sharply cut back the Medicaid program for the elderly, poor and disabled, Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill have signaled there’s no interest in tackling hot-button health issues during an election year.


Instead, the new budget deal and last year’s tax cuts herald the return of trillion dollar-plus deficits. Last year, Trump’s budget predicted a $526 billion budget deficit for the 2019 fiscal year starting Oct. 1; instead, it’s set to easily exceed $1 trillion once the cost of the new spending pact and the tax cuts are added to Congressional Budget Office projections.


Mick Mulvaney, the former tea party congressman who runs the White House budget office, said Sunday that Trump’s new budget, if implemented, would tame the deficit over time.


“The budget does bend the trajectory down, it does move us back towards balance. It does get us away from trillion-dollar deficits,” Mulvaney said on “Fox News Sunday.”


“Just because this deal was signed does not mean the future is written in stone. We do have a chance still to change the trajectory. And that is what the budget will show tomorrow,” he said.


Last year, Trump’s budget projected a slight surplus after a decade, but critics said it relied on an enormous accounting gimmick — double counting a 10-year, $2 trillion surge in revenues from the economic benefits of “tax reform.” Now that tax reform has passed, the math trick can’t be used, and the Trump plan doesn’t come close to balancing.


But critics are likely to say this year’s Trump plan, which promises 3 percent growth, continuing low inflation, and low interest yields on U.S. Treasury bills despite a flood of new borrowing, underestimates the mounting cost of financing the government’s $20 trillion-plus debt.


The White House is putting focus this year on Trump’s long-overdue plan to boost spending on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The plan would put up $200 billion in federal money over the next 10 years to leverage $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending, relying on state and local governments and the private sector to contribute the bulk of the funding.


Critics contend the infrastructure plan will fail to reach its goals without more federal support. Proposals to streamline the permitting process as a way to reduce the cost of projects have already generated opposition from environmental groups.


Presidential budgets tend to reprise many of the same elements year after year. While details aren’t out yet, Trump’s budget is likely to curb crop insurance costs, cut student loan subsidies, reduce pension benefits for federal workers, and cut food stamps, among other proposals.


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National Portrait Gallery Unveils Obama Portraits

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington has unveiled the official portaits of former U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

For his portrait, the former president chose Kehinde Wiley – a Yale University-trained painter famous for his vibrant portraits of African Americans.

WATCH: Obama unveils his portrait

“I want to thank everybody who is here, Michelle and I are so grateful for the friends and family, and former staff and current staff, who have taken the time to be here and honor us in this way and soak in the extraordinary art that we’re seeing here. It means so much to us and I hope you are aware of that. We miss you guys,” Obama told an audience at the museum.

Obama’s portrait features him seated on a chair surrounded by foliage. Wiley said he used the botanicals as a way to chart the path of Obama, particularly noting his use of chrysanthemums, the state flower of Illinois, and flowers native to Kenya.

Wiley is the first African-American to paint an official presidential portrait.

Michelle Obama chose Baltimore-native Amy Sherald, known for focusing on shape and color above realism and themes of social Justice in her work. Mrs. Obama’s portrait shows her seated, wearing a gown with geometric patterns against a plain backdrop.

WATCH: Michelle Obama unveils portrait

“I’m also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who will in years ahead come to this place … and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” Mrs. Obama said.

The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Smithsonian museum group.  It houses a complete collection of U.S. presidential portraits.


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Trump Support Vital as Congress Tackles Immigration Issue

The Senate begins a rare, open-ended debate on immigration and the fate of the “Dreamer” immigrants on Monday, and Republican senators say they’ll introduce President Donald Trump’s plan. Though his proposal has no chance of passage, Trump may be the most influential voice in the conversation.

If the aim is to pass a legislative solution, Trump will be a crucial and, at times, complicating player. His day-to-day turnabouts on the issues have confounded Democrats and Republicans and led some to urge the White House to minimize his role in the debate for fear he’ll say something that undermines the effort.

Yet his ultimate support will be vital if Congress is to overcome election-year pressures against compromise. No Senate deal is likely to see the light of day in the more conservative House without the president’s blessing and promise to sell compromise to his hard-line base.

Watch, VOA’s Michael Bowman reports:

Trump, thus far, has balked on that front.

“The Tuesday Trump versus the Thursday Trump, after the base gets to him,” is how Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a proponent of compromise, describes the president and the impact conservative voters and his hard-right advisers have on him. “I don’t know how far he’ll go, but I do think he’d like to fix it.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., scheduled an initial procedural vote for Monday evening to commence debate. It is expected to succeed easily, and then the Senate will sort through proposals, perhaps for weeks.

Democrats and some Republicans say they want to help the “Dreamers,” young immigrants who have lived in the U.S. illegally since they were children and have only temporarily been protected from deportation by an Obama-era program. Trump has said he wants to aid them and has even proposed a path to citizenship for 1.8 million, but in exchange wants $25 billion for his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall plus significant curbs to legal immigration.

McConnell agreed to the open-ended debate, a Senate rarity in recent years, after Democrats agreed to vote to end a three-day government shutdown they’d forced over the issue. They’d initially demanded a deal toward helping Dreamers, not a simple promise of votes.

To prevail, any plan will need 60 votes, meaning substantial support from both parties is mandatory. Republicans control the chamber 51-49 but GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona has been home for weeks battling brain cancer.

Seven GOP senators said late Sunday that they will introduce Trump’s framework, which they called a reasonable compromise that has White House backing. The group includes Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, John Cornyn of Texas and Iowa’s Charles Grassley.

Democrats adamantly oppose Trump’s plan, particularly its barring of legal immigrants from sponsoring their parents or siblings to live in the U.S. It has no chance of getting the 60 votes needed to survive. The plan will give GOP lawmakers a chance to stake out a position, but it could prove an embarrassment to the White House if some Republicans join Democrats and it’s rejected by a substantial margin.

Another proposal likely to surface, backed by some Republicans and many Democrats, would give Dreamers a chance at citizenship but provide no border security money or legal immigration restrictions. It too would be certain to fail.

Votes are also possible on a compromise by a small bipartisan group led by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. It would provide possible citizenship for hundreds of thousands of Dreamers, $2.7 billion for border security and some changes in legal immigration rules. McCain and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., would offer legal status but not necessarily citizenship, and require tougher border security without promising wall money.

Trump has rejected both proposals.

Some senators have discussed a bare-bones plan to protect Dreamers for a year in exchange for a year’s worth of security money. Flake has said he’s working on a three-year version of that.

“I still think that if we put a good bill to the president, that has the support of 65, 70 members of the Senate, that the president will accept it and the House will like it as well,” Flake told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

Underscoring how hard it’s been for lawmakers to find an immigration compromise, around two dozen moderates from both parties have met for weeks to seek common ground. So have the No. 2 Democratic and GOP House and Senate leaders. Neither group has come forward with a deal.

In January, Trump invited two dozen lawmakers from both parties to the White House in what became a nearly hour-long immigration negotiating session. He asked them to craft a “bill of love” and said he’d sign a solution they’d send him.

At another White House session days later, he told Durbin and Graham he was rejecting their bipartisan offer. He used a profanity to describe African nations and said he’d prefer immigrants from Norway, comments that have soured many Democrats about Trump’s intentions.

Trump made a clamp-down on immigration a staple of his 2016 presidential campaign. As president he has mixed expressions of sympathy for Dreamers with rhetoric that equate immigration with crime and drugs.

Last September he said he was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which lets Dreamers temporarily live and work in the U.S. Trump said President Barack Obama had lacked the legal power to create DACA.

Trump gave Congress until March 5 to somehow replace it, though a federal court has forced him to continue its protections.

The court’s blunting of the deadline has made congressional action even less likely. Lawmakers rarely take difficult votes without a forcing mechanism – particularly in an election year. That has raised the prospect that the Senate debate launching Monday will largely serve to frame a larger fight over the issue on the campaign trail.

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Trump to Unveil $1.5 Trillion Infrastructure Plan

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday is set to unveil his long-awaited plan to tackle the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

The plan aims to turn $200 billion in federal funds into a $1.5 trillion investment for fixing America’s roads, bridges, railways and other infrastructure.

The proposal relies heavily on state and local governments and the private sector to cover the costs for most of the  projects.

“Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments, and where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit,” Trump said at last month’s State of the Union address.

The $200 billion federal funds would come from cuts to existing programs. Of that, half would be spent on an incentive program to match funds from state and local governments.

About $50 billion would go toward rural projects in the form of block grants to states. Another $20 billion would be allocated to “transformative programs” meant for new and innovative projects. An additional $20 billion would go toward expanding loan programs and private activity bonds, and the final $10 billion would go into a “capital financing fund.”

The plan also seeks to shorten the time and expense of getting federal permits to no more than two years. Currently, the process can take five to 10 years.

“President Trump’s infrastructure proposal is a disaster,” said Shelley Poticha of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It fails to offer the investment needed to bring our country into the 21st century. Even worse, his plan includes an unacceptable corporate giveaway by truncating environmental reviews.”


But Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, praised Trump “for providing the leadership we have desperately needed to reclaim our rightful place as a global leader on true 21st-century infrastructure.”

On Monday, Trump will meet with key members of Congress, including heads of relevant committees, to discuss the plan.

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US Senate Prepares to Tackle Immigration Reform

The U.S. Senate begins debate this week on a topic Congress has left unaddressed for decades: immigration reform.

“Yes, it’s going to happen right here — stay tuned,” Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said in a recent floor speech. “Next week could be historic.”

President Donald Trump has consistently framed immigration reform as a security matter, first and foremost.

“Glaring loopholes in our laws have allowed criminals and gang members to break into our country,” Trump said in his weekly address, issued Sunday. “During my State of the Union, I called on Congress to immediately close dangerous loopholes in federal law that have endangered our communities and imposed enormous burdens on U.S. taxpayers.”

Of immediate concern to many lawmakers of both political parties are hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants soon to be at risk of deportation. Some Republicans also want to reshape and restrict legal immigration, which could have a major impact on those aspiring to come to America from around the world.

Trump set the stage for the upcoming debate last year, when he terminated Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program that granted temporary work and study permits to immigrants brought illegally to America as children, and gave Congress a March 5 deadline to address their plight.

“At that point [March 5], 1,000 young people each day, on average, will lose their protection from deportation and their legal right to work in America,” Durbin said.

“I see this as an opportunity for these individuals who have literally grown up in our country to be able to be full participants in our country,” Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma said.

The president has made clear he wants more than a DACA fix.

“We need the [border] wall. We’re going to get the wall,” Trump said at the White House last week. “We’ve identified three priorities for creating a safe, modern and lawful immigration system: securing the border, ending chain migration, and canceling the terrible visa lottery.”

Aside from building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump has proposed lower the number of immigrants America accepts from around the world and prioritizing newcomers with advanced work skills.

Democrats say they are open to a smaller deal, legal status for DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers and beefing up U.S. borders.

“There’s an appetite on both sides and in both chambers to get this done, both helping the Dreamers and border security,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said.

Senior Republican lawmakers say Trump deserves credit for the totality of his immigration proposal.

“President Trump has done something that President Obama never did. He’s offered 1.8 million young adults who are currently DACA recipients and DACA-eligible an opportunity to get on a pathway to American citizenship,” Republican Senator John Cornyn said. “That’s an incredibly generous offer.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has not speculated what, if anything, the chamber might pass.

“While I obviously cannot guarantee any outcome, let alone supermajority support, I can ensure the process is fair to all sides, and that is what I intend to do,” McConnell said last week.

“We’re not going to solve the whole problem in this next week,” Maine independent Senator Angus King warned. “We are not going to solve all of the complicated — and believe me they are complicated — issues.”

McConnell promised an open debate, meaning there is no time limit and senators of both parties can, in theory, offer an unlimited number of proposals for the chamber to consider. Anything the Senate approves would need to pass in the House of Representatives and get Trump’s signature to become law.


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White House: Israel Has Right to Defend Itself

A statement from the White House press secretary Sunday affirmed that “Israel is a staunch ally of the United States, and we support its right to defend itself from the Iranian-backed Syrian and militia forces in southern Syria.”

The statement follows Israel’s attack Saturday on a dozen Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria. Israel conducted the air strikes after anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a raid on Iranian-backed positions in Syria. Earlier Israel said it had shot down an Iranian drone launched from Syria after it entered Israeli territory late Friday.

The White House statement urged “Iran and its allies to cease provocative actions and work toward regional peace.”

US: Israel entitled to protect itself

On Saturday, the U.S. Department of Defense also said that Israel is entitled to protect itself against acts of aggression.

“Israel is our closest security partner in the region and we fully support Israel’s inherent right to defend itself against threats to its territory and its people,” said Pentagon spokesman Adrian Rankine-Galloway, who added the U.S. was not involved in the attack.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he spoke Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I reiterated to him our obligation and right to defend ourselves against attacks from Syrian territory,” he said. “We agreed coordination between our armies would continue,” said Netanyahu, who also discussed the strike with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Syria: New Israeli aggression

Syria’s state media said earlier Saturday Syria is responding to “new Israeli aggression,” following the Israeli raid.

In Saturday’s raid, an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was downed by the Syrian Army with anti-aircraft fire.

The Israeli pilots were able to eject themselves from their aircraft, the IDF said. Israel said one pilot was “severely injured” in the “emergency evacuation,” while another pilot was slightly injured.

Feras Shehabi, a Syrian lawmaker, said Syria’s response to Israel’s assault signals a “major shift in the balance of power in favor of Syria and the axis of resistance.” He said “Israelis must realize they no longer have superiority in the skies or on the ground.”

IDF spokesperson Brigadier General Ronen Manelis said, “Iran is dragging the region into a situation in which it doesn’t know how it will end. We are prepared for a variety of incidents …whoever is responsible for this incident is the one who will pay the price.”

The Syrian attack resulted in air raid sirens being activated in the Golan Heights and Beit She’an, but no casualties were reported.

“The IDF will continue to operate against attempts to infiltrate Israeli airspace and will act with determination to prevent any violations of Israel’s sovereignty,” an IDF spokesperson said Saturday.

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North Korea’s Summit Offer Could Test US-South Korea’s United Nuclear Front

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang could complicate the Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts to pressure the reclusive communist state to abandon its nuclear weapons program, analysts say.

Kim extended the rare invitation to the South Korean leader through his closest confidante: his only sister Kim Yo Jong, who was visiting the South as part of the North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics, according to South Korea’s presidential office on Saturday.

Moon said he wanted to “create the environment for that to be able to happen,” according to the office.

​Dialogue or pressure or both?

The North Korean diplomatic initiative comes amid growing international pressure, led by the United States, aimed at imposing maximum economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime. Former U.S. officials and analysts say the North Korean move could put Moon, who supports Trump’s pressure campaign while pursuing dialogue with the North, at odds with the Trump administration.

“The invitation is a very clever move by Kim Jong Un to drive a big wedge [between Washington and Seoul]. Kim has been masterful at public relations in regard to the summit and playing on feelings for Korean unity,” said Robert Manning, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

In the past, inter-Korean summits often resulted in a substantial economic aid to Pyongyang. If Moon follows in the footsteps of his predecessors, it would hurt the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against the North, according to Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses.

“If it leads to promises of aid, then it would definitely undermine the maximum pressure strategy,” Gause said, referring to the proposed summit between the two Koreas.

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst who is now senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, warned Seoul could violate international sanctions by providing economic aid to Pyongyang.

“Moon should realize that offering economic benefits for symbolic North Korean gestures is not only ineffectual but would themselves risk being violations of U.N. resolutions,” Klingner said.

Balancing act

The Moon government has been engaging in a delicate balancing act between Pyongyang and its longtime ally Washington after Kim Jong Un offered to send a delegation to the Olympics in the South. Moon has accommodated the North’s demands on Olympics participation in hopes of persuading Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table to discuss denuclearization, while trying to allay concern in Washington that the North was using a “charm offensive” to simply ease sanctions and earn time to complete its nuclear weapons program. 

The North’s invitation, Manning said, apparently puts Seoul in a difficult position, where it needs to prove its efforts will bear fruit.

“President Moon must balance his desire for North-South reconciliation with his policy of denuclearization,” Manning said.

Dennis Wilder, a Georgetown University assistant professor, who served as National Security Council senior director for East Asian affairs during the George W. Bush administration, suggested Moon should accept the invitation only if Pyongyang agrees to discuss denuclearization with Washington.

“My own view is that President Moon should only go if there is a strong signal from the North of willingness to engage seriously with the Trump administration,” Wilder said.

Joseph DeTrani, former U.S. special envoy for nuclear talks with North Korea, said Moon should make it clear to Kim that he wants to discuss the nuclear and missile issues at the summit. The former envoy believes Moon should use the meeting as an opportunity to push Kim to accept his predecessor’s promise to denuclearize.

Washington unmoved

The latest North Korean diplomatic overture does not appear to have discouraged Washington from pursuing its strategy of pressure.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who led a U.S. delegation to the Olympic Games, told reporters that he and Moon discussed the South Korean leader’s meeting with Kim Jong Un’s sister, adding he remains confident about Seoul’s support for the pressure strategy.

“There is no daylight between the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the need to continue to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically until they abandon their nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Pence said.

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