GOP dismisses suggestion that State of Union be postponed
By CATHERINE LUCEY, JILL COLVIN and LISA MASCARO
Thursday, January 17
WASHINGTON (AP) — A grand Washington ritual became a potential casualty of the partial government shutdown as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked President Donald Trump to postpone his Jan. 29 State of the Union speech. She cited concerns about whether the hobbled government can provide adequate security, but Republicans cast her move as a ploy to deny Trump the stage.
In a letter to Trump, Pelosi said that with both the Secret Service and the Homeland Security Department entangled in the shutdown, the president should speak to Congress another time or he should deliver the address in writing.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen denied anyone’s safety is compromised, saying Wednesday that both agencies “are fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union.”
Trump did not immediately respond to the request, and the White House, thrown off guard by the move, didn’t immediately offer any official response. But GOP allies accused Pelosi of playing politics, with Republican Rep. Steve Scalise tweeting that Democrats are “only interested in obstructing realDonaldTrump, not governing.”
Pelosi, who issued the customary invitation to Trump weeks ago, hit the president in a vulnerable place, as he delights in taking his message to the public and has been preparing for the address for weeks.
The uncertainty surrounding the speech also underscored the unraveling of ceremonial norms and niceties in Trump’s Washington, with the shutdown in its fourth week, the White House and Democrats in a stalemate and the impasse draining the finances of hundreds of thousands of federal employees.
Pelosi left unclear what would happen if Trump insisted on coming despite the welcome mat being pulled away. It takes a joint resolution of the House and Congress to extend the official invitation and set the stage.
“We’ll have to have a security evaluation, but that would mean diverting resources,” she told reporters when asked how she would respond if Trump still intended to come. “I don’t know how that could happen.”
Trump stayed quiet on the request throughout the day. During an Oval Office visit, Sen. Rand Paul said they discussed the shutdown but the president did not offer any reaction to Pelosi’s suggestion to put off the speech.
Paul suggested on Twitter on Thursday that Trump deliver the address in the Senate, where Republicans hold a majority, which would be an unusual move.
“If Mrs. Pelosi refuses to allow the president to deliver the State of the Union in the House, I propose we move it to the Senate and make it happen!” Paul said.
Pressure on Trump intensified on Wednesday, the 26th day of the shutdown, as lawmakers from both parties scrambled for solutions. At the White House, Trump met a bipartisan group of lawmakers, as well as a group of Republican senators, but progress appeared elusive.
The shutdown, already the longest ever, entered its 27th day Thursday. The previous longest was 21 days in 1995-96, when Bill Clinton was president.
While Trump’s own advisers said the shutdown was proving a greater drag on the economy than expected, Trump showed no signs of backing off a fight that he views as vital for his core supporters.
On Wednesday, Trump signed legislation into law affirming that the roughly 800,000 federal workers who have been going without pay will ultimately be compensated for their lost wages. That was the practice in the past.
As he weighs a response to Pelosi, Trump could not go forward with a State of the Union address in Congress without her blessing. Donald Ritchie, former historian of the Senate, said that anytime a president comes to speak, it must be at the request of Congress. Trump could opt to deliver a speech somewhere else, like the Oval Office, but it would not have the same ritualistic heft.
Democratic leaders did not ask the Secret Service if the agency would be able to secure the State of the Union event before sending the letter, according to a senior Homeland Security official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Pelosi’s office said Congress is already familiar with the percentage of Secret Service and Homeland Security employees who have been furloughed and working without pay.
The Secret Service starts preparing for events like these months in advance.
Lawmakers struggled to find a way out of the shutdown Wednesday. Trump is demanding $5.7 billion to build a wall along the Mexican border that he says is needed on humanitarian and security grounds. But Pelosi is refusing money for the wall she views as ineffective and immoral, and Democrats say they will discuss border security once the government has reopened.
Some expressed little optimism.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has been working on bipartisan strategies, declared glumly: “I am running out of ideas.”
Trump met a bipartisan group of lawmakers Wednesday that included seven Democrats. Two people who attended the White House meeting agreed it was “productive,” but could not say to what extent Trump was listening or moved by the conversation.
The people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the event candidly, said it seemed at some points as if people were talking past each other. Lawmakers talked about the shutdown’s effect on their constituents and advocated for “border security.” Trump and others on-and-off used the term “wall.” It was not clear if progress had been made, by those accounts.
Meanwhile a group of Republican senators headed to the White House later Wednesday.
Many Republicans were unwilling to sign on to a letter led by Graham and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., to reopen the government for three weeks while talks continue. They had been warned off such a strategy by Vice President Mike Pence and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, who told them Trump opposed such a short-term fix, but the senators pressed on anyway, trying to get 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans to join.
While Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she has signed, others said GOP support was lacking.
“They’re a little short on the R side,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., another leader of the effort.
The House and Senate announced they are canceling next week’s planned recess if the shutdown continues, which seemed likely. Some Republicans expressed concerns over the impact of the shutdown and who was getting blamed.
Said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc.:”Right now, are you seeing any pressure on Democrats? I think Republicans are getting the lion’s share of the pressure.”
He added: “The president accepted the blame so people are happy to give it to him.”
For AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. government shutdown: https://apnews.com/GovernmentShutdown
Associated Press writers Chris Rugaber, Darlene Superville, Matthew Daly, Jonathan Lemire, Alan Fram, Colleen Long, Andrew Taylor, Laurie Kellman, Elana Schor and Ken Sweet contributed to this report.
WHAT ABOUT OPEN BORDERS?
By Robert C. Koehler
There are things that go unquestioned in the national discussion. Because this is a country wrapped in fear and self-importance, the basic, unchallenged premise determining how we behave, how we spend our money, is that we need to protect ourselves … from The Enemy.
There’s always an enemy lurking at the core of our fear that is simplistic and human. The “enemy” is not, for instance, global warming, except in an abstract and basically meaningless sense, the defeat of which would require a collective global effort. Nor is the enemy nuclear disaster or accident, which could be addressed by (heaven forbid) disarmament.
Such solutions have enormous complexities, of course, but these complexities are not part of the national conversation, let alone the actions of government. Instead, we choose to arm — that is, to simplify — our fears, via bloated military budgets and, as is now becoming overly apparent in the age of Donald Trump, turning our “border” into a sacred fetish.
“The Secure Fence Act, passed by President George W. Bush’s administration with considerable Democratic support, appropriated billions of dollars to pay for drones, a ‘virtual wall,’ aerostat blimps, radar, helicopters, watchtowers, surveillance balloons, razor ribbon, landfill to block canyons, border berms, adjustable barriers to compensate for shifting dunes, and a lab (located at Texas A&M and run in partnership with Boeing) to test fence prototypes. The number of border agents doubled yet again and the length of border fencing quadrupled.”
This was in 2006, as Greg Grandin points out at TomDispatch, in his “timeline of border fortification.” That was just one step in our national journey toward utter border paranoia. We need drones and helicopters, blimps and surveillance balloons, not to mention razor wire, to protect ourselves from … poor, desperate people fleeing war and poverty on foot, often with their children? They are our enemy?
Who is more desperate, the refugees from the south or the rich guys to the north?
Only because of Donald Trump is this ongoing national paranoia now part of the flow of news. As Trump stomps for his Great Wall, shutting down the government until Congress (the Dems) approve its multi-billion-dollar funding, a tiny, malnourished question may have slipped past the Border Patrol agents.
What about an open border?
This question is the opposite of Trump’s wall and Bush’s Secure Fence Act. It’s the opposite of the Japanese internment camps FDR built during the Big Two, as the U.S. launched the process of creating “illegals” in imaginative new ways (and, as Grandin pointed out, the recycled posts and wire mesh from one of the internment camps were used to build an early border fence in California in 1945).
I realize the idea of open borders is a troubling one. Of course we need to protect our borders! But what does that mean exactly? Does armed paranoia — or for that matter, bureaucratic certainty, mixed with a little racism — equal protection? It certainly doesn’t if you’re one of the people targeted by the racism.
As Gary Younge, writing last fall in The Guardian, confessed: “… borders have always been a tense issue for me. With those in uniform struggling to match the colour of my face to the crest on my passport, how could it be otherwise? To be black and on the move in the West is to be an object of suspicion. The documents are supposed to speak for themselves; but somehow there was always more explaining to do. And these personal objections are intimately connected to a more sweeping philosophical and political opposition.
“Borders exist, by definition, to separate us from others.”
That is to say, borders are psychological as well as physical. How much sense does it make to throw razor wire around a psychological construct, or patrol it with drones? What sort of security are we actually getting for our investment?
According to a 2013 report from the Migration Policy Institute: “The U.S. government spends more on federal immigration enforcement than on all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined, and has allocated nearly $187 billion for immigration enforcement since 1986. In fiscal 2012, the federal government spent nearly $18 billion on immigration enforcement.”
Yet as far as I can tell, we’re less secure than ever. While borders, just as any lines of definition, have a purpose, I fear that purpose is trivialized, mocked and ultimately obliterated by their militarized over protection, which comes at a cost that we pay and a cost that we do not pay.
“Since 1994, more than 7,500 migrants — most of whom are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries — have died trying to cross over deadly terrain,” the American Friends Service Committee notes. “The construction of more walls will only worsen the existing human rights catastrophe. This catastrophe has been exacerbated by the failure of the U.S. to hold CBP and border agents accountable for thousands of documented cases of violence, including at least 50 killings since 20102 — among them U.S. citizens, minors, and Mexican nationals shot while still in Mexico.”
So I repeat: What about open borders?
They won’t come without problems, as critics of this column will be sure to point out. However, if we really moved that way as a nation — if we truly began believing that solutions to the difficulties that envelop Planet Earth begin with openness and compassionate connection — perhaps an unexpected benefit would be that we had embarked on a different sort of journey: one that kept asking us for more openness, more understanding, not more razor wire, rifles and drones.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
Democrats hit Trump EPA nominee on coal lobbying, rollbacks
By ELLEN KNICKMEYER
Thursday, January 17
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday called climate change “a huge issue” but not the “greatest crisis” and drew fire from Democrats at his confirmation hearing over the regulatory rollbacks he’s made in six months as the agency’s acting administrator.
Republicans on the GOP-majority Senate Environment and Public Works Committee mostly had praise for Andrew Wheeler, who has served as the agency’s acting head since Scott Pruitt’s resignation in July amid ethics scandals. The committee chairman, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., called Wheeler “very well-qualified” to take the job.
But Democrats pressed Wheeler about his work as a lobbyist helping an influential coal magnate meet with Trump administration officials before his nomination to the EPA and his moves on deregulation and on what they said was his inattention to the growing dangers of climate change.
“You seem to be consistently doing things that undermine the health and safety of this nation,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., told Wheeler.
Markey asked him why he was pulling back on regulations that proponents say protect human health and the environment.
“I believe we are moving forward” on protections, Wheeler responded.
Wheeler cited changes he had initiated to roll back future mileage standards for cars and autos and to ease Obama-era clampdowns on dirtier-burning coal-fired power plants.
He said EPA staff, whom he did not identify, had concluded that those rollbacks would ultimately lead to health gains. Environmental groups and formal assessments from the EPA and other agencies have contested that, saying the changes would increase pollution and increase harm to people and the climate.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the rollbacks in car mileage standards and toxic mercury emissions under Wheeler were examples of unsafe deregulation and went beyond what industries themselves wanted.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., noted Wheeler had failed to mention climate change in his initial remarks to lawmakers.
“Do you agree that climate change is a global crisis?” Sanders asked, shouting at times.
“I would not call it the greatest crisis,” Wheeler said. “I would call it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally.”
Wheeler told lawmakers that he had yet to read a massive government climate change report released late last year that emphasized man-made climate change was already underway.
Wheeler said he had received one staff briefing so far on the climate change report. The work of the EPA and other government agencies, the report stresses the massive economic toll expected from increasingly severe wildfires, hurricanes and other extreme weather under climate change.
Wheeler said the news media had seized upon “worst-case scenarios” of the climate report.
“You are a former coal industry lobbyist that is sitting here,” Markey responded. “That’s the worst-case scenario, what you are proposing here” for easing Obama-era rules meant to clamp down on climate-changing fossil fuel emissions.
Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and other Republican lawmakers, by contrast, praised Wheeler for a move to remove federal protections for millions of miles of wetlands and waterways and other proposals. Republican lawmakers said the protections had burdened farmers and others.
The grandson of a coal miner, Wheeler worked for the EPA in the 1990s and later as a longtime Republican Senate staffer.
Democrats pressed Wheeler about his lobbying before joining the EPA, saying his work for coal companies should disqualify him from leading an agency that regulates coal.
Wheeler’s lobbying clients included coal magnate Bob Murray, who pushed hard on the Trump administration after the 2016 elections to grant a series of breaks for the sagging domestic coal industry.
Wheeler accompanied Murray to a March 2017 meeting to pitch Murray’s list of desired rule rollbacks and other breaks for coal to Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Wheeler told senators that his main work for Murray had been on health benefits and pensions.
“I did not work on the plan. I do not have a copy of it. I saw it briefly,” Wheeler said, referring to Murray’s wish list.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., displayed a blown-up version of a photo taken of the meeting with Perry, showing Wheeler at Murray’s side.
A second photo showed Murray’s rollback plan in Wheeler’s hands.
Murray had sought some of the coal breaks that the EPA under Wheeler has since acted on. That included Wheeler signing a rule easing federal regulation of toxic coal ash, redoing an Obama rule that pushed electricity providers to move away from dirtier-burning coal plants and targeting an Obama rule limiting emissions of toxic mercury from coal plants.
A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed an ethics complaint Tuesday with the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General alleging that Wheeler’s oversight of those and other rollback proposals at EPA may have violated his government ethics pledge to abstain from regulatory decisions affecting his former lobbying client for at least two years.
EPA spokesman John Konkus called the accusation “baseless” and “wrong” and said Wheeler works with EPA ethics officials and follows their guidance.
Saudi women runaways rebel against system of male control
By AYA BATRAWY
Thursday, January 17
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Another Saudi woman has turned to social media for protection from her father, just days after Canada granted refuge to Rahaf al-Qunun, the 18-year-old Saudi who fled her family.
Identified only as Nojoud al-Mandeel on Twitter, her case differs from that of al-Qunun. She has not fled the kingdom, has not revealed her face and has only made her pleas for help on Twitter in Arabic.
While their circumstances are different, the claims of abuse by the two women mirror those of other female Saudi runaways who have used social media to publicize their escapes.
There has been speculation that al-Qunun’s successful getaway will inspire others to copy her. However, powerful deterrents remain in place. If caught, runaways face possible death at the hands of relatives for purportedly shaming the family.
Saudi women fleeing their families challenge a system that grants men guardianship over women’s lives. This guardianship system starts in the home, where women must obey fathers, husbands and brothers. Outside the home, it is applied to citizens, often referred to as sons and daughters by Saudi rulers who demand obedience.
Hala Aldosari, a Saudi scholar and activist, said the male guardianship system replicates the ruling family’s model of governance, which demands full obedience to the king, who holds absolute power in decision-making.
“This is why the state is keen to maintain the authority of male citizens over women to ensure their allegiance,” she said, adding that this “hierarchical system of domination” necessitates “keeping women in line.”
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who’s introduced social reforms loosening restrictions on women, told The Atlantic that doing away with guardianship laws has to be done in a way that does not harm families and the culture. He said abolishing these laws would create problems for families that don’t want to give freedom to their daughters.
The issue of guardianship is extremely sensitive in the kingdom, where conservative families view what they consider the protection of women as a man’s duty.
More than a dozen women’s rights activists have been detained, many since May, after they campaigned against the guardianship system. Some had also wanted to create alternative shelters for women runaways.
Regardless of their age, women in Saudi Arabia must have the consent of a male relative to obtain a passport, travel or marry. In the past, a travel permit was a paper document issued by the Interior Ministry and signed by a male relative.
Today, Saudi men download a government mobile app that notifies them of a woman’s travel. Through the app, men can grant or deny a woman permission to travel. Some young women who have fled the country had managed to access their father’s phone, change the setting and disable its notifications.
In a statement read to reporters in Canada on Tuesday, al-Qunun said she wants to be independent, travel and make her own decisions.
“I am one of the lucky ones,” she said. “I know there are unlucky women who disappeared after trying to escape or who could not change their reality.”
That’s especially true for women from conservative tribal families, like al-Qunun’s.
Al-Qunun, one of 10 children, posted online that her father, Mohammed Mutliq al-Qunun, is the governor of the city of al-Sulaimi in the hilly hinterland of Ha’il — a province where nearly all women cover their face in black veils and wear loose black robes, or abayas, in public. The family belongs to the influential Shammar tribe, which extends to Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Her father has considerable clout as a prominent town official and member of a powerful tribe.
Al-Qunun, who barricaded herself in an airport hotel room in Thailand last week to avoid deportation, said she was abused by a brother and locked in her room for months for cutting her hair short. She said she would have been killed if sent back to her family.
According to government statistics, at least 577 Saudi women tried to flee their homes inside the country in 2015, though the actual number is likely higher. There are no statistics on attempted or successful escapes abroad.
Shahad al-Mohaimeed, 19, who fled abuse and an ultraconservative family in Saudi Arabia two years ago, said fear is a powerful deterrent.
“When a Saudi girl decides to flee, it means she’s decided to put her life on the line and take a very, very risky step,” said al-Mohaimeed, who now lives in Sweden.
Al-Qunun’s plight on social media drew international attention, helping her short-circuit the typically complex path to asylum. A little more than a week after fleeing Saudi Arabia, she was in Canada, building a new life, posting pictures of wine, bacon and donning a dress above the knees.
Back in Saudi Arabia, the woman identified as Nojoud al-Mandeel posted audio on Twitter on Monday alleging her father had beaten and burnt her “over something trivial”. She posted a video looking onto a neighbor’s gated pool, where she says she jumped from her bedroom window before a friend picked her up and they escaped.
“Don’t tell me to report to police,” she said, explaining that in a previous attempt, police just had her father sign a pledge saying he would not beat her again.
After her story gained some traction online, she was promised attention by a protection hotline in Saudi Arabia for domestic abuse victims. Prosecutors also reportedly began looking into her allegations of abuse, according to Saudi news sites.
She was placed in a domestic abuse shelter, but on Tuesday complained on Twitter about the shelter’s restrictions over her movements.
Al-Mohaimeed said Twitter is where Saudi women can share stories and be heard. She and two other Saudi women took over al-Qunun’s Twitter account, writing messages on her behalf during the height of her pleas last week to avoid deportation.
“I was not born in this world to serve a man,” al-Mohaimeed said. “I was born in this world to fulfill my dreams, achieve my dreams, grow, learn and be independent — to taste life as I hold it in my hands.”
Follow Aya Batrawy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ayaelb .