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Democrats move to go it alone on Biden’s COVID-19 aid plan | US & Canada News

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Democrats take first step to fast-track Biden’s $1.9 trillion package in the face of Republican opposition to price tag.

Democrats in the United States Senate on Tuesday took the first step toward fast-tracking President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid bill without Republican support.

The Senate voted along party lines, with Democrats edging out Republicans 50-49, to open debate on a fiscal 2021 budget resolution with coronavirus aid spending instructions.

Using this strategy unlocks a legislative tool Democrats need to enact Biden’s package in the face of Republican opposition to its steep price tag.

Biden told Democratic senators during an online luncheon meeting on Tuesday that a counter-proposal offered last night by Republicans was inadequate, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters.

The US president had met at the White House on February 1 with 10 centrist Republican senators to discuss their proposal for a scaled-back, $618bn plan.

Biden “told Senate Republicans that the $600bn that they proposed was way too small”, Schumer said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat who sets the US Senate legislative agenda, has cited calls by economists for more federal stimulus to help the US economy [Al Drago/Reuters]

The US has recorded more than 446,000 coronavirus-related deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, the highest total in the world, and the pandemic has left millions of American families reeling.

Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said on Tuesday that the Republican proposal fell far short in a number of areas, including funding to reopen schools.

Republicans called for spending $20bn on schools, compared with Biden’s proposal for $170bn. “We think that’s what it’s going to take to reach people,” Bernstein told CNN.

Senate evenly divided

Biden’s package faces a potential Republican roadblock in the 100-member Senate, which is divided 50-50, but requires a 60-vote threshold to pass most legislation.

The budget resolution, if approved by the House of Representatives and Senate, would activate a legislative tool called reconciliation, allowing for Senate passage with 51 votes that would include 48 Democrats, two independents who caucus with them, and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Republican Senator Patrick Toomey was absent for the vote. His office said he was delayed by bad weather. Toomey’s absence meant that Harris was not needed to cast her first tie-breaking vote on Tuesday.

If the measure passes both chambers it would mark the first time congressional Democrats use the maneuver to flex their legislative muscle since winning razor-thin control of the Senate in two runoff elections last month in Georgia. They already controlled the House.

The House was expected to take a procedural vote on the budget resolution during votes scheduled for Tuesday evening.

Schumer insisted he would prefer the COVID-19 aid effort be bipartisan, even though the budget process being used provides the legislative means for his fellow Democrats to move ahead without Republicans if need be.

But Republicans view the reconciliation strategy as a partisan gambit that undermines Biden’s call for unity in the aftermath of a January 6 Capitol riot by supporters of then-President Donald Trump which left five people dead.

“We passed five bipartisan COVID packages,” said Senator Todd Young, a Republican. “It’s not a good signal that he is adopting a take-it-or-leave-it approach right after his president delivers an inaugural address based on unity.”

“We’re off to a totally partisan start,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell also said.

While expressing an openness to work with Republicans, the White House said Biden firmly supports the Democratic approach.

“He supports the efforts by Leader Schumer and Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi to move this package forward,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a news conference.

Partisan politics may also slow Biden’s COVID-19 agenda as the Senate moves toward a February 9 impeachment trial of Trump, charged with inciting insurrection in relation to the attack on the Capitol last month.



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Colombia launches ‘elite force’ to target rebels, drug gangs | Crime News

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The new unit consisting of 7,000 personnel will be deployed to border with Venezuela and to drug trafficking hotspots.

Colombia on Friday launched a new military unit to target coca crops and cocaine production, illicit mining, and the illegal armed groups who use such activities for financial gain.

Colombia’s decision to launch the unit, known as CONAT in its Spanish initials, came while the country was preparing to restart aerial spraying of coca crops with the herbicide glyphosate – possibly starting at the end of March – depending on the government receiving approval from the Constitutional Court.

“The unit was born to hit, repress, and break down the structures of drug trafficking and transnational threats linked to illegal mining, the trafficking of wildlife and people, and – of course – any transnational form of terrorism,” President Ivan Duque said at a military base in Tolemaida.

Colombia, considered the world’s leading producer of cocaine, suspended aerial spraying of glyphosate in 2015 following warnings by the World Health Organization that the chemical was potentially damaging to health and the environment.

The new unit will be deployed to zones such as the Catatumbo region on the border with Venezuela, as well as the provinces of Cauca and Putamayo [Courtesy Colombian Presidency/Handout via Reuters]

The new unit, consisting of 7,000 personnel, will be deployed to zones such as the Catatumbo region on the border with Venezuela, as well as the provinces of Cauca and Putamayo, Defence Minister Diego Molano said.

Colombia has faced constant pressure from the United States, a major destination for cocaine, to reduce the size of crops of coca, the drug’s chief ingredient.

During 2019, coca crops covered some 154,000 hectares (380,000 acres) in Colombia, with a potential to produce 1,137 tonnes of cocaine, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. There are no figures available for 2020.

The armed forces eradicated 321,240 acres (130,000 hectares) of coca last year, according to the government, and seized 500 tonnes of cocaine.

Drug trafficking has long driven Colombia’s internal armed conflict, which has left more than 260,000 dead and millions displaced.

During his address, surrounded by helicopters, tanks and hundreds of soldiers, Duque also said the force would pursue “without qualms” members of the ELN – the last active rebel group in Colombia, as well as drug gangs and ex-FARC rebels who have abandoned the terms of a 2016 peace deal, he said.

“Soldiers, it is a morally necessary, morally correct battle … Let’s go for the defence of Colombia!” he said.

Surrounded by helicopters, tanks and hundreds of soldiers, President Ivan Duque also said the force would pursue ‘without qualms’ members of the ELN and ex-FARC rebels [Courtesy Colombian Presidency/Handout via Reuters]

When he first announced the creation of the elite force earlier this month, he said many of its targets “are protected in Venezuela” though he did not mention direct military action in the neighbouring country. On Friday, Duque did not mention Venezuela.

But his statement prompted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to pledge to “respond forcefully”.

From Caracas, he said the country’s security forces should “clean the barrels of our rifles to answer them at any level we need to answer if Ivan Duque dares violate the sovereignty of Venezuela.”

Colombia and dozens of other countries recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, prompting Venezuela to break off diplomatic ties with its neighbour in 2019.

Colombia has repeatedly accused Venezuela of providing refuge to leftist armed groups, a charge Caracas has denied.



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