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Biden plans big bipartisan bill signing; Republican backers face threats

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The White House is planning a big ceremony on Monday for President Joe Biden’s signing of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill Monday with Republican lawmakers, amid a toxic political climate in the United States.

Officials are considering holding the event on the expansive White House South Lawn, where the presidential helicopter lands, to accommodate a large crowd invited to celebrate one of the president’s biggest legislative achievements to date, a person familiar with the planning said.

The White House said Biden will be joined by lawmakers who helped write the legislation and “a diverse group of leaders who fought for its passage across the country, ranging from governors and mayors of both parties to labor union and business leaders.”

The bill was written largely by a core bipartisan group of 10 Senate lawmakers, led by Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Senator Rob Portman. The House of Representatives passed the measure last week with the aid of 13 Republicans.

It is expected to create jobs across the country by giving out billions of dollars to state and local governments to fix crumbling bridges and roads, and expanding broadband internet access to million of Americans.

But it was unclear how many Republican lawmakers would attend the ceremony. Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who helped co-author the legislation, are planning to attend, according to aides.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell does not plan to attend the White House ceremony, saying in an interview this week that he has “other things I’ve got to do.” But he made clear his unflinching support for the legislation.

“This bill was basically written in the Senate by a bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats – all the House did last week was simply take up the Senate bill and pass it. This bill was crafted in the Senate, 19 Republicans voted for it, I was one of them, I think it was good for the country and I’m glad it passed,” he told WHAS Radio in Louisville, Kentucky.

HARASSMENT ARREST

The bill was crafted as a bipartisan achievement for Biden, who had campaigned as a centrist Democrat, and the moderate Republicans who helped write it.

But it became a partisan lightning rod, with Republicans complaining that House Democrats delayed its passage to ensure party support for Biden’s $1.75 trillion social policy and climate change legislation, which Republicans reject.

The 13 Republicans who broke ranks with their party and ignored the instructions of their leaders to support the measure have been targeted by former President Donald Trump and some of their own colleagues.

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Trump loyalist, called them “traitors” for giving Biden a political victory in a vote that was opposed by enough House Democrats to sink the measure.

Many of those Republicans have received death threats against themselves and family members.

Police in New York state’s Nassau County said on Friday they had arrested a man and charged him with aggravated harassment for making an alleged death threat to Republican Representative Andrew Garbarino, who voted for the bill.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a staunch Trump ally, was censured by a county Republican Party for supporting the bill.

Biden plans a victory lap after the signing ceremony. He will visit a bridge in Woodstock, New Hampshire, on Tuesday to promote the bill as well as a General Motors electric vehicle facility in Detroit on Wednesday.

 

(Reporting By Steve Holland and David Morgan; Editing by Heather Timmons and Jonathan Oatis)

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Putin says Russia will follow up fast after Ukraine call with Biden

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Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would send ideas to Washington within a week to follow up his talks with U.S. President Joe Biden on the Ukraine crisis.

Neither side spoke of a breakthrough after the two-hour video call but they agreed to keep talking about what the Kremlin called “this complex confrontational situation”.

“We agreed we will continue this discussion and we’ll do it in a substantive way. We will exchange our ideas in the very near future. Russia will draw up its ideas literally in the coming days, within a week we will give this to the U.S. side to consider,” Putin told reporters.

The two leaders used Tuesday’s call to set out their opposing positions on Ukraine, which says it is braced for a possible invasion by tens of thousands of Russian troops close to its border.

Biden warned Putin that the West would impose “strong economic and other measures” on Moscow if it invaded, while Putin demanded guarantees that NATO would not expand eastward.

In his first public comments since the conversation, Putin said it was “provocative” to pose the question of whether Russia planned to attack Ukraine, and once again accused Kyiv and NATO of threatening Russia’s security.

“We cannot fail to be concerned about the prospect of Ukraine’s possible admission to NATO, because this will undoubtedly be followed by the deployment there of military contingents, bases and weapons that threaten us,” he said.

It would be “criminal inaction” on Russia’s part not to respond, he said.

“We are working on the assumption that our concerns, at least this time, will be heard.”

FIGHTER JETS

Russia, Ukraine and NATO have all stepped up military exercises as tensions have mounted in the past month.

Russian military aircraft were scrambled on Wednesday to escort French Rafale and Mirage fighter jets flying over the Black Sea, RIA news agency quoted the defence ministry as saying.

Russia’s foreign ministry said it had handed a note of protest to the U.S. embassy over “dangerous” flights of U.S. and NATO military planes near Russia’s borders.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy welcomed Biden’s “personal role” in trying to attain peace in eastern Ukraine, where Ukraine says more than 14,000 people have been killed in seven years of fighting with Russian-backed separatists.

Zelenskiy said he hoped Ukraine and Russia could agree a new ceasefire and prisoner exchanges when their representatives held talks on the conflict in Ukraine’s easterly Donbass region on Wednesday.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Reuters the talks between Biden and Putin had served the purpose of “deterrence and de-escalation”.

A Russian foreign ministry official was quoted as saying the United States might be included for the first time in a group of countries working to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

RIA quoted the official, Oleg Krasnitsky, as saying there was no reason why the United States should not join the so-called Normandy grouping – comprising Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany – that has tried but so far failed to end the war.

“A lot depends on the position of Washington in settling the Ukrainian conflict. In principle, if the U.S. is really ready to make a contribution, we’ve always been open to America exercising its influence on Kyiv,” he was quoted as saying.

The remarks appeared to indicate that Moscow was open to an offer by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week for Washington to facilitate talks on the fighting.

In eastern Ukraine, some residents were sceptical that the Biden-Putin call would make any difference.

“We have been living in war for many years. And it is terrible that we got used to it. I don’t know what will happen next. We’ll see,” said a 55-year-old teacher who gave his name as Vladislav.

Alexander Pipchenko, 52, said: “It was pointless. It’s been going on for eight years already. In my opinion, it will not bear any fruit.”

 

(Additional reporting by Dmitry Antonov, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Natalia Zinets, Matthias Williams, Sergei Kirichenko and Margaryta Chornokondratenko; writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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Politics & Mardi Gras — together again – Daily Advertiser

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The campaign trail that leads to the Governor’s Mansion has many pitstops, including but not limited to the annual Washington Mardi Gras celebration. 

Candidates have long sported tights alongside other parading Krewe members and navigated the packed confines of the 65th Parish bar. They often bring their teams as well to help spread the word, whether that means hanging branded beads from hotel doorknobs or simply ensuring the right people — like donors — get the right tickets to the right events.

Next month, however, the tradition will be slightly altered. With new COVID-19 rules being enforced by the Mystick Krewe of Louisianians and families and businesses back home still rebuilding after two years of hurricanes, some of the potential candidates for governor are either skipping the expensive shindig or adjusting their plans.

The decision-making process of each of the potential candidates offers us an early preview of who these politicos are, how they think and, most importantly, what their campaigns might look like. No one has officially announced for the big 2023 contest, but that will change sooner rather than later.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has yet to meet a vaccine rule he likes, has no plans to attend Washington Mardi Gras right now. That’s going to be an adjustment for some diehard conservatives who look forward to attending Landry’s annual fundraisers at the Trump Hotel.

Landry’s decision mirrors that of Congressman Clay Higgins, who said he opposes the “oppressive mandates” and new vaccine and testing protocols approved by the Mystick Krewe. Higgins, who is not expected to be a candidate for governor, said the event’s leadership “has apparently determined that free Americans are unable to be trusted with their own medical decisions.”

Over the years, newspapers have been critical of Washington Mardi Gras, since the event jams special interests, lavish spending and elected officials underneath one roof for what now seems like an entire week, rather than a weekend. In other words, some good government folks question the ethics involved in such a swanky party. Higgins’ decision to boycott, though, had The Advocate’s editorial team singing another tune. In an “Our Views” editorial, the paper suggested Higgins’ snub was ”unhinged from reality” and “we dare to say that the party will be a lot more fun without him.”

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser is also skipping Washington Mardi Gras next month. “I gave up my box and decided not to attend after Hurricane Ida,” said Nungesser. “I can’t go up there for that while we’re still trying to rebuild across the coast. I’m working with groups that are still serving meals right now.”

Nungesser added, “My job is to promote Louisiana and to get people to come here, and everyone at Washington Mardi Gras is already from here. Now, I did go to New York last week for our float in the Thanksgiving parade to promote Louisiana. That was different. That was work.”

State Sen. Rick Ward of Maringouin and state Rep. Richard Nelson of Mandeville, who are also considering a run in 2023, said in interviews they plan to be in Washington for the January event, but will probably skip the posh events organized by the Krewe. They both described it as a personal choice, not a political one. 

Then there’s Treasurer John Schroder, whose own passion for Mardi Gras is rivaled only by the likes of Krewe legends like late U.S. Sen. Russel Long. He’s a longtime member of Endymion and set a goal for himself — even before elected office — to eventually ride with every parading krewe in Louisiana. So it comes as no surprise that Schroder is planning to attend. “For now,” he added.

He’s not the only one. According to Senior Krewe Lieutenant Tyron Picard, tickets for the various functions and rooms at the Washington Hilton are sold out. The annual gathering kicks off Jan. 27 at the Washington Hilton.

[Full disclosure: If you’re planning to attend, I will see you there.]

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‘Good politics, not too great epidemiology’: Ottawa’s new COVID-19 travel rules are a mess, experts say – Toronto Star

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OTTAWA—As COVID-19 cases tick upward around the globe and evidence mounts of the Omicron variant’s rapid spread, frustration is rising over the federal government’s attempts to keep the virus outside Canada’s borders.

Since Ottawa imposed its most recent travel ban — along with new testing and quarantine rules — confusion has plagued passengers in airports at home and abroad.

Travellers stuck overseas and those about to depart have descended on Facebook groups, begging for clarity over which rules they’re required to follow, amid questions about why tough new restrictions have been imposed on some countries but not others.

On Twitter, airlines have repeatedly deferred to the federal government when faced with flustered customers looking for help.

The federal government, in turn, keeps pointing to its website, which contains incomplete information.

Even cabinet ministers couldn’t seem to nail down their message: on Monday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters Canada was trying to “buy” itself more time to learn about Omicron, while Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told CBC Radio the following morning that the country was working quickly on its approach.

The scramble has an echo of the early days of the pandemic — something experts say could have worrisome consequences nearly two years into the crisis.

“We’re at this point where people are already fed up and fatigued. Even some of the basic measures that we’ve asked for people to do — like masking in indoor settings, trying to reduce social contacts — it’s very hard to keep that up at this point,” said Dr. Susy Hota, medical director for infection prevention and control at Toronto’s University Health Network.

“If you lose people’s attention because one issue becomes really confusing, and the communications aren’t clear … we lose those same people for other things that are important to communicate during the emergence of a new variant.”

Much of the confusion began last week, when Ottawa banned foreign nationals who had recently travelled through 10 African countries from entering Canada.

The decision to bar some travellers but not others makes little sense given the rapid nature of Omicron’s spread, said Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and a former project manager with the World Health Organization.

“Border closures are also great politics, because it puts the emphasis that this threat is from outside of the country and puts the blame on others, as opposed to putting blame on a country’s public health response to the challenge,” Hoffman told the Star.

His assessment of the strategy? “Good politics, not too great epidemiology.”

Canadians trying to leave those 10 countries were suddenly required to have a negative result from a molecular test for COVID-19 — and to have the test done in a third country — before they arrived back at home.

“That doesn’t seem to be a reasonable policy. Why can’t they have a PCR test where they’re at?” said Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“If they’re coming here and if they’re coming from a country with a lot of Omicron, then they could be tested here.”

(Travellers departing from South Africa got a slight reprieve on Saturday, with a temporary exemption that allows them to get tested there instead of in a third country. Health Canada told the Star that the exemption will be extended or revoked based on domestic and international epidemiology.)

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Alghabra rationalized the move as creating a “cushion” between travellers’ departures and their arrivals in Canada, to ensure a more accurate test result.

But even for travellers entering Canada from countries that aren’t on the banned list (aside from the United States), the rules can still be nebulous.

The Public Health Agency of Canada’s arrival plans for vaccinated and unvaccinated travellers — which include an arrival test, differing periods of quarantine, and followup tests — are not yet fully operational.

“The government is steadily increasing the number of fully vaccinated travellers being tested to reach fully 100 per cent operational capacity in the coming weeks,” Health Canada noted in an emailed statement.

Travellers are still not fully clear on where they obtain tests, how many must be completed and how long they are meant to quarantine, which all depends on where they’re coming from and their vaccination status.

What’s more, the government of Canada’s travel webpage notes that anyone who can show proof of a positive result from a COVID-19 test conducted between 14 and 180 days prior to departure is exempt from any arrival testing. But Health Canada contradicted that in its statement to the Star, saying that travellers arriving from the banned countries must undergo the testing — even if they’ve previously tested positive.

“We’re seeing some early evidence that out of South Africa that reinfections can occur more frequently with Omicron — two to three times more frequently than we’ve seen with other variants,” Hota said.

“Just because you’ve had a prior infection doesn’t mean that you are completely immune to an Omicron infection,” she said, adding that at the very least, those passengers should be asked to isolate given that testing recovered people can sometimes yield unreliable results.

Banerji says governments have been dealt a tricky task in coming up with new rules — and having to implement them.

“I think it’s challenging for any government to make policies with so much uncertainty and a lot of unknowns. I would say that it’s really important … to stick to the evidence and the science rather than an emotional response.”

RP

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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