After Delays, Ground Broken for Thailand-China Railway Project

Construction of a long-awaited Thai-Chinese railway line that will link Thailand, Laos and China officially began on Thursday with a ground-breaking ceremony in the northeastern Thai province of Nakhon Ratchasima.

The first phase of the project, a 250-km (155 mile) high-speed rail line linking Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima, is expected to be operational in 2021.

The full line is expected to stretch 873 km (542 miles), linking Thailand and Laos at the northeastern Thai city of Nong Khai.

It is part of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure drive, which aims to build a modern-day “Silk Road” connecting China to economies in Southeast and Central Asia by land and the Middle East and Europe by sea.

But the Thailand project, which began in 2014 with formal talks, has been beset by delays, including disagreements over the design and funding as well as technical assistance.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Thursday presided over a ceremony to begin construction of the first, 3.5-km section of the railway.

“Thailand is developing in every aspect to become the center of connectivity… and this route is to connect to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to China, India and further to other countries,” Prayuth said in a speech.

Completion of the first section is expected to take six months, according to the transport ministry.

In September, Thailand signed two contracts worth $157 million with Chinese state enterprises covering the engineering design of the project and the hiring of Chinese technical advisers.

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With Shutdown Clock Ticking, GOP Struggles for Spending Deal

With a shutdown clock ticking toward a deadline Friday night at midnight, House Republican leaders struggled Wednesday to unite the GOP rank and file behind a must-pass spending bill.

Although a major obstacle evaporated after key GOP senators dropped a demand to add health insurance subsidies for the poor, a number of defense hawks offered resistance to a plan by GOP leaders to punt a guns-versus-butter battle with Democrats into the new year.

There’s still plenty of time to avert a politically debilitating government shutdown, which would detract from the party’s success this week in muscling through its landmark tax bill.

Some lawmakers from hurricane-hit states also worried that an $81 billion disaster aid bill was at risk of getting left behind in the rush to exit Washington for the holidays.

Lawmakers said the GOP vote-counting team would assess support for the plan and GOP leaders would set a course of action from there.

Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican, said “there’s no specific direction right now” about the path forward. He spoke after an hourlong closed-door meeting of Republicans in the Capitol basement.

An earlier plan favored by pro-Pentagon members of the influential Armed Services Committee would have combined the stopgap funding bill with a $658 billion Pentagon funding measure. But the idea is a nonstarter with the Senate, especially Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.

Disaster aid

Meanwhile, an $81 billion disaster aid bill faced a potential separate vote of its own, but it was at risk of languishing because of opposition among some conservatives over its cost. Senate action on that bill, a priority of the Texas and Florida delegations, wouldn’t come until next year anyway.

Democrats oppose the GOP endgame agenda because their priorities on immigration and funding for domestic programs aren’t being addressed. Their opposition means Republicans need to find unity among themselves, which once again is proving difficult. In such situations, congressional leaders often turn to lowest common denominator solutions, which in this case would mean a stopgap measure that’s mostly free of add-ons.

“The number of options is collapsing down,” said Representative Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican. “I have faith that at the last possible moment, to paraphrase Churchill, when we have no other choice, we’ll do what we need to do.”

Regardless of how the crisis of the moment will be solved, most of the items on Capitol Hill’s list of unfinished business are going to be pushed into next year.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that there’s a government shutdown,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Fox News Channel’s Special Report with Bret Baier on Wednesday. “I think that the right thing to do is let’s get a short-term funding [agreement] and we’ll deal with these issues in January.”

The upcoming short-term measure would fund the government through January 19, giving lawmakers time to work out their leftover business.

Hopes for a bipartisan budget deal to sharply increase spending for both the Pentagon and domestic agencies appeared dead for the year, and Democrats were rebuffed in their demands for protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Republican Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Susan Collins of Maine announced Wednesday that they would not seek to add the insurance subsidies, which are designed to stabilize the Affordable Care Act’s markets. The tax bill repeals requirement that individuals purchase insurance.

Trying to combine the health measure with the spending bill was a demand of Collins when President Donald Trump and Senate GOP leaders secured her vote for the tax bill.

House Republicans weren’t part of that deal, and with the tax vote over, it became plain that Senate leaders were not able to deliver for her.

Programs for vets, children

Lawmakers said a short-term, $2.1 billion fix for an expiring program that pays for veterans to seek care outside the Department of Veterans Affairs system would be added to the package. So would a short-term “patch” to make sure the states facing shortfalls from the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which pays for health care for 9 million children from low-income families, won’t have to purge children from the program.

The fate of the $81 billion House disaster aid measure, now likely to see a separate vote, appears unclear. Conservatives are upset with the price tag of the plan, which also contains billions of dollars for California wildfire recovery. Democrats are pressing for more help for Puerto Rico, and California Representative Kevin McCarthy, the No. 2 Republican in the House, signaled a willingness for at least some accommodation to win Democratic votes.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California told fellow Democrats in an emailed update that GOP leaders aren’t yielding on a Democratic demand that nondefense spending increases match the budget boost for the Pentagon.

“Unless we see a respect for our values and priorities, we continue to urge a strong NO” on the temporary funding bill, Pelosi said.

Democrats such as Schumer pressed for a two- or three-week temporary spending bill that would send a number of unresolved issues — including disaster aid — into the new year. Schumer appears to believe that shifting as many issues as possible into next year will increase his leverage on immigration and the budget.

Also in the mix is an expiring overseas wiretapping program aimed at tracking terrorists. It has bipartisan backing, but stout conservatives and some liberals oppose it. McCarthy said the program might just be extended for a few weeks, but libertarian-minded lawmakers opposed a plan by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan to add it to the stopgap measure.

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Key US Senator: Trump Firing of Mueller Could Provoke ‘Constitutional Crisis’

The top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, responding to escalating Republican attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller, said  Wednesday that if President Donald Trump fired Mueller, the action would have “the potential to provoke a constitutional crisis.”

WATCH: Virginia’s Warner on Potential Constitutional Crisis

Speaking on the Senate floor, Virginia Senator Mark Warner denounced attacks on Mueller’s impartiality and said the special counsel’s investigation of ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia must be “able to go on unimpeded.”

Russia denies that it meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and Trump has denied any collusion.

While Trump’s political allies have increased their criticism of Mueller, the president said Sunday that he was not considering firing him.

Republican lawmakers have seized on anti-Trump texts by a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who was involved in the Russia investigation as evidence of bias in Mueller’s team.

Mueller removed the agent from his team after the texts came to light.

Republicans on several House of Representatives committees also have announced their own probes into long-standing political grievances, including the FBI’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.

“Over the last several weeks, a growing chorus of irresponsible voices have called for President Trump to shut down special counsel Mueller’s investigation,” said Warner, who is vice chairman of the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee.

“Firing Mr. Mueller or any other of the top brass involved in this investigation would not only call into question this administration’s commitment to the truth, but also to our most basic concept of rule of law,” Warner said. “It also has the potential to provoke a constitutional crisis.”

“In the United States of America, no one, no one is above the law, not even the president,” the senator said.

WATCH: Warner on Consequences of Mueller Removal

“Congress must make clear to the president that firing the special counsel or interfering with his investigation by issuing pardons of essential witnesses is unacceptable and would have immediate and significant consequences.”

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US Senator Al Franken to Step Down in Early January

Democratic Senator Al Franken will leave office on Jan.  2, a spokesman for the Minnesota lawmaker said Wednesday. 

Franken announced his plans to resign earlier this month in the wake of several sexual harassment allegations, but did not announce a date.

He said earlier Wednesday that he would deliver a series of speeches on the Senate floor before he leaves the chamber.

Replacement named

Franken will be replaced by Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith, also a Democrat.

The demise of Franken’s Washington tenure unfolded over the past few weeks. It was touched off by claims made by a Los Angeles radio host and former model, Leeann Tweeden. She accused Franken of forcibly kissing her when they both were on a 2006 tour to entertain U.S. troops in the Middle East.

Tweeden posted a picture of a smiling Franken holding his hands over her breasts while she was sleeping on a return flight to the United States.

Franken apologized to Tweeden, but soon after other women also accused the one-time television and film comedian of unwanted advances. 

He variously apologized, said the incidents did not occur or said he remembered the encounters differently. But as the allegations mounted, dozens of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate demanded that he resign.

Defiant speech 

Franken announced his resignation in a defiant speech on the Senate floor earlier this month, saying it was ironic that he was quitting even as President Donald Trump remains in office after more than a dozen women accused Trump during his 2016 campaign of unwanted sexual advances.

Trump, a Republican, says none of the accusations against him is true, but he is facing new calls from Democratic lawmakers to answer the specific allegations. Six senators, all Democrats, have called for his resignation.

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Senators, White House Working on DACA Deal

White House staff members met with a group of senators Tuesday to talk about the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has benefited hundreds of thousands of undocumented youths.

The result of the private meeting, first reported by Politico, was a pledge by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to present a list of border security and immigration policy changes to be included in any legislative fix to help DACA recipients. Sources told Politico that Kelly could return with a new list of demands within days. 

According to people who attended the meeting, the new plan may come in January, and it would allow nearly 800,000 DACA immigrants, who were brought illegally to the United States as minors, to continue to work and study in the country.

Politico said a half-dozen senators have been working to come up with a bipartisan solution on DACA. They were prompted by President Donald Trump’s announcement in September that the DACA program would end. It is set to expire March 5, and work permits that have not been renewed will begin to be phased out at that time.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said senators could not reach an agreement until they knew what the Trump administration was inclined to sign.

“We couldn’t finish this product, this bill, until we knew where the administration was. … And that’s why this meeting was so important,” Flake told Politico after the meeting with Kelly.

Also on Wednesday, Trump renewed his immigration priorities. 

At a Cabinet meeting, the president vowed to end the diversity visa program, known as the the green card lottery, and cut family-based immigration, which critics call chain migration. He also called on Congress to fund his proposed border wall.

“When we take people that are lottery — [other countries] are not putting their best people in the lottery. It’s common sense. … They put their worst people into the lottery. And that’s what we get, in many cases. So that’s not going to be happening anymore. We’re going to end it,” Trump said. 

No near-term DACA solution

Lawmakers in both parties said Tuesday that Congress was not expected to resolve the DACA issue before next year.

Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, also attended the meeting and said the closer officials get to the March deadline “the more nervous I get, not to mention the way these young people feel. I’m sorry that it’s taken this long.

“Our belief is that if this matter is not resolved this week … that we have another chance to finally come up with a bipartisan package of things to include” by mid-January, Durbin said.

Meanwhile, DACA recipients opened Dream Act Central, a tent space on Washington’s National Mall that is serving as headquarters for a final push to urge Congress to pass legislation replacing the DACA program.

A large-screen television at the site, which faces Capitol Hill, shows stories of young undocumented immigrants, known informally as Dreamers. The term is based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, that would have provided residence and employment protections for young immigrants similar to those in DACA.

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EU Court Rules Uber Should be Regulated Like Taxi Service

The European Court of Justice ruled Wednesday that ride-hailing company Uber should be regulated like a taxi service instead of a technology firm, a decision that limits its business operations in Europe.

The decision was handed down in response to a complaint from a Barcelona taxi drivers association, which tried to prevent Uber from expanding into the Spanish city. The drivers maintained that Uber drivers should be subject to authorizations and license requirements and accused the company of engaging in unfair competition.

The San Francisco-based Uber contends it should be regulated as an information services provider because it is based on a mobile application that links passengers to drivers.

The European Union’s highest court said services provided by Uber and similar companies are “inherently linked to a transport service” and therefore must be classified as “a service in the field of transport” under EU law.

The decision will impact ride-hailing companies in the 28-nation EU, where national governments can now regulate them as transportation services.

Uber attempted to downplay the decision, saying it only affects its operations in four countries and that it will move forward with plans to expand in Europe. But the company was previously forced to abandon its peer-to-peer service in several EU countries that connect freelance drivers with riders.

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US Senate Approves Tax Overhaul

The U.S. Senate voted late Tuesday to overhaul America’s tax system, putting President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans one perfunctory vote away from scoring a major legislative victory and fulfilling a campaign promise.

All 51 Senate Republicans present voted in favor of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, while all 48 Democrats opposed it.

“We stand today on the precipice of the most sweeping change to our tax system in over 30 years,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican. “This is a historic moment.”

“Today the Republican Party officially turns its back on America’s middle class,” said the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Oregon‘s Ron Wyden. “This vote will not be forgotten.”

The bill permanently slashes corporate taxes, temporarily cuts taxes paid by American wage and salary earners, caps popular tax deductions, and hikes the U.S. national debt by at least $1 trillion over a decade.

WATCH: Congress vote on tax bill

The Republican-led House of Representatives approved the bill earlier in the day on a party-line vote. It must go back to the House later Wednesday for one final vote to correct several technical matters before it can be sent to the White House for Trump’s signature.

Republicans argued tax cuts will rev up the U.S. economy and make American businesses more competitive at home and abroad.

“Countries around the globe are getting the message loud and clear that America is committed to leading in the 21st century,” South Dakota Senator John Thune said.” We’re committed to leading when it comes to innovation and growth. We’re committed to leading when it comes to ensuring that American companies can stay here and compete and keep jobs here against foreign competition.”

“Our tax code has hampered job creation, wage growth, investment in the United States, and has chased American companies to foreign shores. I don’t know how it could be more harmful,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah said. “The bill before us will address these problems and help us turn the ship around.”

Democrats slammed the bill as mortgaging America’s future at home and abroad in order to pad the pockets of the wealthy.

“There are going to be incentives for big multinational corporations to ship jobs overseas, and with that you get more factory towns going dark,” Wyden said.

“We are challenged by 16 years of war, which we have made no attempt to pay for, and [with this bill] we are putting our national security behind benefits for the wealthiest Americans,” the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said.

The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center concluded the bill would cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans next year, but average cuts for top earners would greatly exceed reductions for people earning less.

The legislation also partially repeals former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, eliminating the requirement that Americans purchase health care insurance. As a result, some 13 million fewer Americans would be insured over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Some Democrats noted that the president, a real estate mogul, could benefit greatly from certain provisions in the bill. Trump has insisted the change in tax law would cost him money.

Before the Senate vote, some Democrats acknowledged they were all but powerless to stop majority Republicans.

“The majority has the votes and there is not much Democrats can do to stop it,” New York Representative Louise Slaughter said.

Republicans were unapologetic in anticipation of victory.

“We do come to Washington to cut taxes and let people keep more of their hard-earned money,” Wyoming Senator John Barrasso said. “And we’re doing that today.”

Public opinion polls consistently show more Americans oppose than back the bill. Several Republican lawmakers have blamed the news media, saying reporters misrepresented the tax bill and downplayed its potential benefits.

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Displaced by Mining, Peru Villagers Spurn Shiny New Town

This remote town in Peru’s southern Andes was supposed to serve as a model for how companies can help communities uprooted by mining.

Named Nueva Fuerabamba, it was built to house around 1,600 people who gave up their village and farmland to make room for a massive, open-pit copper mine.

The new hamlet boasts paved streets and tidy houses with electricity and indoor plumbing, once luxuries to the indigenous Quechua-speaking people who now call this place home.

The mine’s operator, MMG Ltd, the Melbourne-based unit of state-owned China Minmetals Corp, threw in jobs and enough cash so that some villagers no longer work.

But the high-profile deal has not brought the harmony sought by villagers or MMG, a testament to the difficulty in averting mining disputes in this mineral-rich nation.

Resource battles are common in Latin America, but tensions are particularly high in Peru, the world’s No. 2 producer of copper, zinc and silver. Peasant farmers have revolted against an industry that many see as damaging their land and livelihoods while denying them a fair share of the wealth.

Peru is home to 167 social conflicts, most related to mining, according to the national ombudsman’s office, whose mission includes defusing hostilities.

Nueva Fuerabamba was the centerpiece of one of the most generous mining settlements ever negotiated in Peru. But three years after moving in, many transplants are struggling amid their suburban-style conveniences, Reuters interviews with two dozen residents showed.

Many miss their old lives growing potatoes and raising livestock. Some have squandered their cash settlements. Idleness and isolation have dulled the spirits of a people whose ancestors were feared cattle rustlers.

“It is like we are trapped in a jail, in a cage where little animals are kept,” said Cipriano Lima, 43, a former farmer.

Meanwhile, the mine, known as Las Bambas, has remained a magnet for discontent. Clashes between demonstrators and authorities in 2015 and 2016 left four area men dead.

Nueva Fuerabamba residents have blocked copper transport roads to press for more financial help from MMG.

The company acknowledged the transition has been difficult for some villagers, but said most have benefited from improved housing, healthcare and education.

“Nueva Fuerabamba has experienced significant positive change,” Troy Hey, MMG’s executive general manager of stakeholder relations, said in an email to Reuters. MMG said it spent “hundreds of millions” on the relocation effort.

Mining is the driver of Peru’s economy, which has averaged 5.5 percent annual growth over the past decade. Still, pitched conflicts have derailed billions of dollars worth of investment in recent years, including projects by Newmont Mining and Southern Copper.

To defuse opposition, President Pablo Kuczynski has vowed to boost social services in rural highland areas, where nearly half of residents live in poverty.

But moving from conflict to cooperation is not easy after centuries of mistrust. Relocations are particularly fraught, according to Camilo Leon, a mining resettlement specialist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.

Subsistence farmers have struggled to adapt to the loss of their traditions and the “very urban, very organized” layout of planned towns, Leon said.

“It is generally a shock for rural communities,” Leon said.

At least six proposed mines have required relocations in Peru in the past decade, Leon said. Later this month, Peru will tender a $2-billion copper project, Michiquillay, which would require moving yet another village.

‘Everything is Money’

MMG inherited the Nueva Fuerabamba project when it bought Las Bambas from Switzerland’s Glencore Plc in 2014 for $7 billion.

Under terms of a deal struck in 2009 and reviewed by Reuters, villagers voted to trade their existing homes and farmland for houses in a new community. Heads of each household, about 500 in all, were promised mining jobs. University scholarships would be given to their children. Residents were to receive new land for farming and grazing, albeit in a parcel four hours away by car.

Cash was an added sweetener. Villagers say each household got 400,000 soles ($120,000), which amounts to a lifetime’s earnings for a minimum-wage worker in Peru.

MMG declined to confirm the payments, saying its agreements are confidential.

Built into a hillside 15 miles from the Las Bambas mine, Nueva Fuerabamba was the product of extensive community input, MMG said. Amenities include a hospital, soccer fields and a cement bull ring for festivals.

But some residents say the deal has not been the windfall they hoped. Their new two-and-three story houses, made of drywall, are drafty and appear flimsy compared to their old thatched-roof adobe cottages heated by wood-fired stoves, some said.

Many no longer plant crops or tend livestock because their replacement plots are too far away. Jobs provided by MMG mostly involve maintaining the town because most residents lack the skills to work in a modern mine.

Many villagers spent their settlements unwisely, said community president Alfonso Vargas. “Some invested in businesses but others did not. They went drinking,” he said.

Now basics like water, food and fuel – once wrested from the land – must be paid for.

“Everything is money,” Margot Portilla, 20, said as she cooked rice on a gas stove in her sister-in-law’s bright-yellow home. “Before we could make a fire for cooking with cow dung. Now we have to buy gas.”

Ghost Town

Some residents said they have benefited from the move.

The new town is cleaner than the old village, said Betsabe Mendoza, 25. She invested her settlement in a metalworking business in a bigger town.

Portilla, the young mom, says her younger sisters are getting a better education than she did.

Still, the streets of Nueva Fuerabamba were virtually deserted on a recent weekday. Vargas, the community leader, said many residents have returned to the countryside or sought work elsewhere.

Alcoholism, fueled by idle time and settlement money, is on the rise, he said.

Some villagers have committed suicide. Over the 12 months through July, four residents killed themselves by taking farming chemicals, according to the provincial district attorney’s office. It could not provide data on suicides in the old village of Fuerabamba.

MMG, citing an “independent” study done prior to the relocation, said the community previously suffered from high rates of domestic violence, alcoholism, illiteracy and poverty.

While the company considers the new town a success, it acknowledged the transition has not been easy for all.

“Connection to land, livelihood restoration and simple adaptation to new living conditions remain a challenge,” MMG said.

Nueva Fuerabamba residents continue pressuring the company for additional assistance. Demands include more jobs and deeds to their houses, which have yet to be delivered because of bureaucratic delays, said Godofredo Huamani, the community’s lawyer.

MMG said it stays apace of community needs through town hall meetings and has representatives on hand to field complaints.

While villagers fret about the future, many cling to the past. Flora Huamani, 39, a mother of four girls, recalled how women used to get together to weave wool from their own sheep into the embroidered black dresses they wear.

“Those were our traditions,” said Huamani from a bench in her walled front yard. “Now our tradition is meeting after meeting after meeting” to discuss the community’s problems.

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