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Reporting on Serbian Leader’s Links to Criminal Groups Raises Questions for US

In early May, The New York Times Magazine published an in-depth story about Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic with details about his alleged connections with a criminal group that is being prosecuted for a range of crimes including drug trafficking and murder.

The story drew broad attention internationally, not just in the Balkans where local investigative outlets have reported many of the same allegations, which Vucic denies.

The State Department declined to comment on the merit of the allegations in the story, however at least one high-ranking State Department official shared the story on social media. And the allegations were raised last month during a congressional hearing about the Western Balkans.

Outside analysts though have been vocal.

“It’s a shocking and horrific story that the highest levels of government are so intertwined with criminal enterprises. I think we have seen this in enough other nations that it is a growing concern, the conflation between authoritarian governments and criminal networks,” Gary Kalman, executive director of Transparency International USA, told VOA’s Serbian Service.

“It’s terrible. It’s too bad,” said Susan Rose-Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale University, who co-authored the book “Corruption and Government.” She told VOA that connections between people in political power and organized crime create an extreme version of political corruption.

The Times story reported that the connections between police and the criminal group, led by a soccer hooligan Veljko Belivuk, nicknamed Trouble, were well documented. The story also claimed “there is little doubt that Belivuk and his gang are in prison because Europol cracked the code” of the phone-messaging app through which they communicated.

Author Robert Worth reported that Belivuk testified in court that “his gang had been organized ‘for the need and by the order of Aleksandar Vucic.'” He added that the group, among others, used to intimidate political rivals and prevent fans at soccer games from chanting against Vucic.

Worth also wrote that he is skeptical that Vucic was unaware of all the groups did since Vucic “now exercises near-total control over almost every aspect of public life” in Serbia.

International context

Vucic has been in politics since the 1990s. He served as information minister to Slobodan Milosevic, where he led a crackdown on the press, and he publicly voiced support for Serbian war criminals.

His Serbian Progressive Party has now been in power for more than 10 years, during which he was also a prime minister.

Vucic’s spokespeople declined Worth’s requests for comments, but in an interview for pro-government Happy TV in Serbia, Vucic said that the “preposterous New York Times story was ordered” and that he understands it as a message during the dialogue about normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, which Serbia has never recognized.

“I know how they do it,” said Vucic for Happy TV. “You know, CIA sets you up, CIA watches you, if you don’t behave well and don’t listen, this is only the beginning.”

It has become common practice in past years that Serbian authorities denote any criticism as treason, conspiracy against the country or a plot to overthrow the government.

Both Worth and The New York Times denied such allegations.

VOA interviewees noted that the most significant aspect of the story was the fact that it was published in English, in a reputable outlet with a great number of readers.

“It is an exposé of Aleksandar Vucic and his government. And it put it in an international context, given that it’s The New York Times,” Tanya Domi, professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, told VOA. “Everybody is reading this.”

Is Serbia a reliable partner for the United States?

“Is this reporting credible?” Senator Bob Menendez asked the State Department’s counselor Derek Chollet during a May hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about U.S. policy toward the Western Balkans, referencing the Times story.

“We believe it is. I can’t speak to the specifics of the article, but there is absolutely a lot of corruption,” replied Chollet, with Gabriel Escobar, State Department deputy assistant secretary, sitting next to him.

“So what are the real prospects for a reliable partner in Serbia with that background?” Menendez asked.

“We’re doing this with eyes open, but we are holding Vucic to account and his colleagues to account for their corruption, for their behavior and activity,” said Chollet, noting that corruption is a major issue in the whole region.

But in an interview for VOA’s Bosnian Service, Kurt Bassuener, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, pointed out that the U.S. has not sanctioned any Vucic administration official for corruption as it has done in some neighboring countries.

“They essentially dodged it,” Bassuener said of State Department officials. “They didn’t deal with any of the substance. And I think that’s emblematic of the overarching policy, which is pacification toward the region.”

Domi believes the United States and the West are pursuing the idea that Serbia is “a stabilizing force in the region.” But if the goal of such foreign policy toward the Western Balkans is to draw Serbia closer to the West and further from Russia, Domi says there is no proof such a strategy works.

Serbia is one of the rare European countries that has not introduced sanctions against Russia, and there is a strong pro-Russian sentiment in the country.

Transparency International’s Kalman said Washington’s strategy with Serbia could shift in the future.

“I think there is a possibility that the U.S., given sort of Serbia’s role and where it sits in the world, that they might put some pressure on to try and improve things in Serbia,” he said.

“How far they push and whether or not they are concerned that the Serbian government will start an alliance with countries and interests that the U.S. counter to their national security, and so then they back up. I don’t know the answer to that question,” Kalman said.

Trump Indicted Over Handling of Classified Documents

In a stunning development, a federal grand jury in Florida indicted former U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday over his retention of sensitive government documents after he left the White House.

The Justice Department informed Trump that he had been indicted and asked him to make his first court appearance in Miami on Tuesday, the former president confirmed on his social media platform.

“The corrupt Biden Administration has informed my attorneys that I have been Indicted, seemingly over the Boxes Hoax,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform, apparently alluding to boxes of documents seized by the FBI from his Florida estate last August.

The indictment remains under seal, but seven news outlets, citing sources familiar with the case, said it contains several criminal charges.

In a request for a search warrant for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last year, the FBI listed three statutes that may have been breached.

The first is part of the Espionage Act and prohibits the unauthorized transmission or retention of “national defense information” such as classified government documents.

Another statute concerns obstruction of a federal investigation by destroying, altering and falsifying records.

Violations of the two statutes are punishable by as much as 10 to 20 years in prison.

The indictment makes Trump the first former president to be charged in federal court. He is facing separate charges in New York state of falsifying business records to hide a hush money payment to an adult film star in 2016. He has pleaded not guilty in that case.

Evan Corcoran, an attorney for Trump, did not immediately respond to a VOA request for comment.

The Justice Department had been investigating Trump since early last year after learning from the National Archives that the former president stashed hundreds of sensitive government documents at his Florida resort and thwarted government efforts to retrieve them.

The FBI search of Mar-a-Lago last August led to the discovery of more than 100 classified documents.

In all, prosecutors have retrieved more than 300 classified government documents from Trump bearing various classification markings, including “top secret/sensitive compartmented information,” the highest level of classification.

The investigation was led through most of last year by the Justice Department. But Trump’s announcement in November that he was running for president prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to appoint Jack Smith, a former career Justice Department prosecutor, as special counsel.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the documents, calling the investigation a witch hunt designed to sabotage his bid for reelection.

He also claimed that he had a standing order to declassify all documents taken from the Oval Office to the White House residence.

But prosecutors have reportedly obtained a 2021 audio recording in which Trump acknowledged that he had retained a classified Pentagon document, which contradicts his claim that he had declassified all documents.

The indictment can’t prevent Trump from forging ahead with his presidential campaign.

In fact, former federal prosecutor John Malcolm noted, there are no laws that would stop him from running, even if he is convicted.

“There have been people who have run for office from prison cells,” Malcolm said.

In 2002, former Representative Jim Traficant ran for his old congressional seat while serving a prison sentence for corruption.

Trump’s Lawyers Notified That Former President Is Target of Classified Documents Probe

Federal prosecutors have notified former U.S. President Donald Trump’s attorneys that he is the target of an investigation into his handling of classified materials, a person familiar with the matter said on Wednesday, adding to his legal troubles as he campaigns for the White House in 2024. 

The Justice Department typically notifies people when they become targets of an investigation to give them an opportunity to present their own evidence before a grand jury. The notification does not necessarily mean Trump will be charged.  

News of the notification to Trump’s legal team surfaced just two days after his attorneys met with Justice Department officials to discuss the case.  

The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Trump’s attorneys in the documents case could not be reached for comment. 

Trump’s legal team was notified on Monday, the person said. Although there are some signs that the documents investigation is coming to a close, the timing of when a person is told they are a target cannot necessarily be used as a predictor of when charges might be brought, said David Schoen, an attorney who represented Trump ally Steve Bannon during his criminal trial on contempt of Congress charges. 

“Sometimes they are issued at the beginning of a long investigation and sometimes at the conclusion of an investigation,” he said. 

Trump, the front-runner in the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has repeatedly described the multiple investigations as politically motivated.  

A federal grand jury has been investigating Trump’s retention of classified materials after leaving the White House in 2021. 

A second criminal investigation is looking into alleged efforts by Trump and his allies to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden.

A spokesperson for Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is leading the probes, declined to comment. 

Thousands of documents 

Investigators in August 2022 seized roughly 13,000 documents from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. One hundred of these were marked as classified, even though one of Trump’s lawyers had previously said that all records with classified markings had been returned.  

Trump has defended his retention of documents, suggesting that he declassified them while he was president. However, Trump has not provided evidence of this, and his attorneys have not made that argument in court filings. 

Trump handed over 15 boxes of records in January 2022, a year after leaving office, but federal officials came to believe he had not returned all the documents.  

The Justice Department issued Trump a grand jury subpoena in May 2022 asking him to return any other records bearing classified markings, and top officials traveled to Mar-a-Lago to retrieve the materials. 

Trump’s attorneys turned over 38 pages marked as classified to FBI and Justice Department officials and showed them a storage room at Mar-a-Lago but did not permit the agents to open any of the boxes. 

One of Trump’s lawyers also signed a document attesting that all records with classified markings had been returned to the government, a claim later proven false after the FBI searched his home.  

Trump’s legal woes are growing.  

A jury in federal court in Manhattan in May decided in a civil lawsuit that Trump must pay $5 million in damages for sexually abusing former Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll and then defaming her by branding her a liar. 

Trump also faces a criminal investigation by a county prosecutor in Georgia relating to his efforts to undo his 2020 election loss in that state. 

Trump’s legal woes are growing.  

Former VP Pence Takes Aim at Trump for Republican Nomination

Several challengers this week have jumped into the race to try to thwart former U.S. president Donald Trump from capturing the Republican Party’s presidential nomination for a third consecutive time. Most notable among the new entrants: Trump’s longtime vice president, Mike Pence. VOA’s chief national correspondent Steve Herman at the White House explains Pence wasted no time doing what he previously hesitated to — forcefully criticize his former boss’ conduct in office.

Reuters/Ipsos: Biden’s Approval Rating at 41%, Americans Concerned About Economy

U.S. President Joe Biden’s public approval was at 41% in recent days, close to the lowest level of his presidency but little changed following a tense negotiation with congressional Republicans over the federal government’s debt, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed.

The four-day poll, which ended on Monday, showed a marginal increase in Biden’s popularity from last month, when 40% of respondents said they approved of his performance since taking office in January 2021. The poll has a margin of error of three percentage points. 

The economy remained the top concern, amid high rates of inflation and a push by central bankers to tame prices by raising interest rates, which has made mortgages and car loans costlier.

Democrat Biden reached a deal last week with U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the top elected Republican official, to suspend a limit on federal borrowing following weeks of talks. The deal averted the financial disaster that would have unfolded if the government were forced to stop paying all its bills.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll showed only 27% of Americans approve of how McCarthy is handling his job.

Some 56% of the poll’s respondents supported sending more U.S. weapons and financial aid to Ukraine in its war against invading Russian forces, about the same share as in a February poll.

But that backing is not evenly distributed across the two political parties. Some 73% of Democrats said they backed more aid, compared to 44% of Republicans.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll gathered responses from 1,056 adults, using a nationally representative sample. 

Nigerian-Born Political Newcomer Becomes Colorado City Mayor

After a history-making victory, Nigerian immigrant Yemi Mobolade was sworn in on June 6 as mayor of Colorado Springs, the second-largest city in the western U.S. state of Colorado.

Colorado Governor Jered Polis said he is inspired by Mobolade’s story.

“Somebody who has dedicated his life to making Colorado Springs and America a better place, whose story we can all identify with, who came here, who started businesses,” Polis said at the inauguration ceremony.

Mobolade moved to the U.S. 27 years ago as a student and became a U.S. citizen in 2017. He started a family, opened two restaurants and a church, and then won election in this traditionally conservative city as its first elected Black leader.

“I wake up every morning and I think it’s a dream, and then I realize, no, this really happened,” Mobolade said.

 

But what earned him the trust of many residents, some said, is his stint as the small business development manager for Colorado Springs from 2019 to 2022.

Some residents told VOA that Mobolade’s electoral victory sends a message that their state is welcoming to people from all walks of life.

“Colorado Springs is lavishly hospitable,” Michael Lipede told VOA. “If the natives of Colorado have not received us with an open heart, there is no way we will accomplish all we have accomplished,” said Lipede, a lead pastor at Redeemed Christian Church of God Living Faith Sanctuary in Colorado Springs.

In a city of nearly 500,000 people that is more than 75% White, residents found hope in the fact that so many voters were willing to support someone from a different background.

“Coloradans … don’t believe in ethnicity, they believe in competence and capacity and capability, and they found out that Mr. Yemi has it all.” Olawale Akinremi, a Colorado Springs resident told VOA.

“I feel hopeful about today. I love our new mayor, Yemi Mobolade. He is a man of strength, faith, character, and courage. And we are so fortunate to have him leading our city,” Cindy Aubrey, Colorado Springs resident said.

Another resident, Nkechi Onyejekwe said “I think it is something that is very amazing to celebrate and I think it is something very timely as well,” she told VOA, adding that “Colorado Springs has a very diverse population and I think that their legislative bodies should also reflect that.”

Ami Bajah-Onyejekwe, a Pueblo Colorado resident said it is important for people to see someone they can look up to in positions of leadership. “Just by seeing someone who looks like you, who has similar background to yours and see where that person has reached, and the goals they have achieved,” she said, “gives hope and says, ‘I can do it as well.’”

Mobolade has pledged to be a leader for all of Colorado City’s increasingly diverse population.

“I think today matters for a lot of young black kids because it tells them that the sky’s the limit, that they too can step into the arena and lead,” he said.

This story originated in VOA’s Hausa Service.

Biden Delivers Oval Office Remarks on US Avoiding Default

President Joe Biden delivered remarks Friday evening on the Fiscal Responsibility Act, bipartisan legislation achieved following weeks of tough negotiations that suspends the government’s debt limit and avoids a potentially disastrous default. For the first time Biden spoke from the Oval Office, signifying the occasion’s importance. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report.

US Senate Approves Debt Ceiling Deal 

The U.S. Senate voted Thursday night 63-36 in support of a measure that will allow the United States to continue to pay its bills. The U.S. had been on track to run out of cash in four days. The bipartisan legislation now goes to President Joe Biden for his signature.

“Tonight, senators from both parties voted to protect the hard-earned economic progress we have made and prevent a first –ever default by the United States,” Biden said in a statement.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted Wednesday night, with wide support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike, to allow the government to continue to borrow more money over the next year-and-a-half to meet its financial obligations, exceeding the current $31.4 trillion debt limit.

The legislation does not set a new monetary cap, but the borrowing authority would extend to Jan. 2, 2025, two months past next year’s presidential election.

In addition, the legislation calls for maintaining most federal spending at the current level in the fiscal year starting in October, with a 1% increase in the following 12 months.

“The responsible thing for America is to pass it,” one Senate leader, Democrat Dick Durbin, had told reporters.

Both Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, supported suspension of the debt limit and called for swift passage of the legislation.

Schumer told the Senate, “Time is a luxury the Senate does not have if we want to prevent default. There is no good reason — none — to bring this process down to the wire. … I hope we see nothing even approaching brinksmanship. The country cannot afford that now.”

The House approved the legislation on a 314-117 vote despite objections by far-right Republican lawmakers who said it did not go far enough to cut spending and from Democratic progressives who said it trimmed too much.

Seventy-one lawmakers from the majority Republican party in the House voted against the bill, as did 46 Democrats.

In a statement following Wednesday’s vote, Biden celebrated the agreement as a “bipartisan compromise.”

“It protects key priorities and accomplishments from the past two years, including historic investments that are creating good jobs across the country,” Biden said. “And, it honors my commitment to safeguard Americans’ health care and protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid [pensions and health care insurance for older Americans and welfare payments for impoverished people]. It protects critical programs that millions of hardworking families, students, and veterans count on.”

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who negotiated the deal with Biden, told reporters that getting the bill passed “wasn’t an easy fight.” He emphasized the budget savings and criticized Democrats who wanted to separate the debate about future government spending from the need to suspend the debt limit so current financial obligations could be met.

“We put the citizens of America first and we didn’t do it by taking the easy way,” McCarthy said. “We didn’t do it by the ways that people did in the past by just lifting [the debt ceiling]. We decided you had to spend less and we achieved that goal.”

McCarthy said he intends to follow Wednesday’s action with more efforts to cut federal spending.

The measure does not raise taxes, nor will it stop the national debt total from continuing to increase, perhaps by another $3 trillion or more over the next year-and-a-half until the next expiration of the debt limit.

Other pieces of the legislation include a reduction in the number of new agents hired by the country’s tax collection agency, a requirement that states return $30 billion in unspent coronavirus pandemic assistance to the federal government and extending from 50 to 54 the upper age bracket for those required to work in order to receive food aid.

Former New Jersey Governor Christie Expected to Join Republican Presidential Race

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is expected to launch a Republican presidential campaign next week in New Hampshire.

Christie, who also ran in 2016, is planning to make the announcement at a town hall Tuesday evening at Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics, according to a person familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to confirm Christie’s plans.

The timing, which was first reported by Axios, comes after several longtime Christie advisers started a super political action committee to support his expected candidacy.

The Associated Press had previously reported that Christie was expected to enter the race “imminently.”

Christie critical of Trump

Christie has cast himself as the only potential candidate willing to aggressively take on former President Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the nomination. Christie, a former federal prosecutor, was a longtime friend and adviser to Trump, but broke with Trump over his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election. Christie has since emerged as a leading and vocal critic of the former president.

Christie, who is currently polling at the bottom of the pack, dropped out of the 2016 presidential race a day after finishing sixth in New Hampshire’s primary.

In addition to Trump, Christie would be joining a GOP field that includes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, and biotech entrepreneur and “anti-woke” activist Vivek Ramaswamy.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum is expected to announce his candidacy on June 7, according to two GOP operatives. And former Vice President Mike Pence is also expected to launch a campaign soon.

‘I’m not a paid assassin’

Allies believe that Christie, who has been working as an ABC News analyst, has a unique ability to communicate. They say his candidacy could help prevent a repeat of 2016, when Trump’s rivals largely refrained from directly attacking the New York businessman, wrongly assuming he would implode on his own.

Christie has also said repeatedly that he will not run if he does not see a path to victory. “I’m not a paid assassin,” he recently told Politico.

While Christie is expected to spend much of his time in early-voting New Hampshire, as he did in 2016, advisers believe the path to the nomination runs through Trump, and they envision an unconventional, national campaign for Christie with a focus on garnering media attention and directly engaging with Trump.

Here’s What’s In, What’s Out of the Debt Limit Bill to Avert US Default

President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have been working the phones in an intense push to sell Congress on the 99-page bill that would suspend the nation’s debt limit through 2025 to avoid a federal default while limiting government spending.

The Democratic president and Republican speaker have to win their respective parties’ support for the plan in time to avert a default that would shake the global economy. On Tuesday, lawmakers will begin scrutinizing and debating the legislation, which also includes provisions to fund medical care for veterans, change work requirements for some recipients of government aid, and streamline environmental reviews for controversial pipelines and other energy projects.

The modest deal gives both men wins to tout, with Biden protecting major parts of his agenda from Republican cuts and McCarthy scoring several conservative spending caps and changes to government programs.

McCarthy has pledged that the House will vote on the legislation Wednesday, giving the Senate time to consider it before June 5, the date when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the United States could default on its debt obligations if lawmakers did not act in time.

But passage of the bill could be a heavy lift. A growing number of hard-line conservatives have already expressed early concerns that the compromise does not cut future deficits enough, while Democrats have been worried about proposed changes to work requirements in programs such as food stamps.

With the details of the deal now released, here’s what’s in and out:

Two-year debt limit, suspension, spending limits

The agreement would keep non-defense spending roughly flat in the 2024 fiscal year and increase it by 1% the following year, as well as suspend the debt limit until January 2025 — past the next presidential election.

For the next fiscal year, the bill matches Biden’s proposed defense budget of $886 billion and allots $704 billion for non-defense spending.

The bill also requires Congress to approve 12 annual spending bills or face a snapback to spending limits from the previous year, which would mean a 1% cut.

The legislation aims to limit federal budget growth to 1% for the next six years, but that provision would not be enforceable starting in 2025.

Overall, the White House estimates that the plan would reduce government spending by at least $1 trillion, but official calculations have not yet been released.

Aid for veterans

The agreement would fully fund medical care for veterans at the levels included in Biden’s proposed 2024 budget blueprint, including a fund dedicated to veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances or environmental hazards. Biden sought $20.3 billion for the toxic exposure fund in his budget.

Unspent COVID-19 money

The agreement would rescind about $30 billion in unspent coronavirus relief money that Congress approved through previous bills. It claws back unobligated money from dozens of federal programs that received aid during the pandemic, including rental assistance, small business loans, and broadband for rural areas.

The legislation protects pandemic funding for veterans’ medical care, housing assistance, the Indian Health Service, and some $5 billion for a program focused on rapidly developing the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

IRS funding

Republicans targeted money that the IRS was allotted last year to crack down on tax fraud. The bill bites into some IRS funding, rescinding $1.4 billion.

The White House has said that the deal also includes an agreement to take $20 billion from the IRS over the next two years and use that money for other non-defense programs.

Work requirements

The agreement would expand work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps — a longtime Republican priority. But the changes are pared down from the House-passed debt ceiling bill.

Work requirements already exist for most able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49. The bill would phase in higher age limits, bringing the maximum age to 54 by 2025. But the provision expires, bringing the maximum age back down to age 49 five years later, in 2030.

Democrats also won some new expanded benefits for veterans, homeless people and young people aging out of foster care. That would also expire in 2030, according to the agreement.

The agreement also would make it slightly harder for states to waive work requirements for SNAP for certain individuals. Current law allows states to issue some exemptions to the work rules on a discretionary basis, but limits how many people can be exempted. The agreement would lower the number of exemptions that a state can issue and curb states’ ability to carry over the number of exemptions they can hand out from month to month.

The agreement would also make changes to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, which gives cash aid to families with children. While not going as far as the House bill had proposed, the deal would make adjustments to a credit that allows states to require fewer recipients to work, updating and readjusting the credit to make it harder for states to avoid.

Speeding up energy projects

The deal puts in place changes in the National Environmental Policy Act for the first time in nearly four decades that would designate “a single lead agency” to develop and schedule environmental reviews in hopes of streamlining the process. It also simplifies some of the requirements for environmental reviews, including placing length limitations on environmental assessments and impact statements.

Agencies will be given one year to complete environmental reviews, and projects that are deemed to have complex impacts on the environment will need to be reviewed within two years.

The bill also gives special treatment to the Mountain Valley Pipeline — a West Virginia natural gas pipeline championed by Senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito — by approving all its outstanding permit requests.

Student loans

Republicans have long sought to reel back the Biden administration’s efforts to provide student loan relief and aid to millions of borrowers during the coronavirus pandemic. While the GOP proposal to rescind the White House’s plan to waive $10,000 to $20,000 in debt for nearly all borrowers failed to make it into the package, Biden agreed to put an end to the pause on student loan repayment.

The pause in student loan repayments would end in the final days of August.

The fate of Biden’s broader student loan relief, meanwhile, will be decided at the Supreme Court, which is dominated 6-3 by its conservative wing. During oral arguments in the case, several of the justices expressed deep skepticism about the legality of Biden’s plan. A decision is expected before the end of June.

What’s left out?

House Republicans passed legislation last month that would have created new work requirements for some Medicaid recipients, but that was left out of the final agreement. The idea faced stiff opposition from the White House and congressional Democrats, who said it would lead to fewer people able to afford food or health care without actually increasing the number of people in the workforce.

Also absent from the final deal is the GOP proposal to repeal many of the clean energy tax credits Democrats passed in party-line votes last year to boost the production and consumption of clean energy. McCarthy and Republicans have argued that the tax breaks “distort the market and waste taxpayer money.”

The White House has defended the tax credits as resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars in private-sector investments, creating thousands of manufacturing jobs in the U.S.

Debt-Ceiling Deal: What’s In and What’s Out of the Agreement to Avert US Default

U.S. President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have reached an agreement in principle on legislation to increase the nation’s borrowing authority and avoid a default.

Negotiators are now racing to finalize the bill’s text. McCarthy said the House will vote on the legislation on Wednesday, giving the Senate time to consider it ahead of the June 5 deadline to avoid a possible default.

While many details are unknown, both sides will be able to point to some victories. But some conservatives expressed early concerns that the deal doesn’t cut future deficits enough, while Democrats have been worried about proposed changes to work requirements in programs such as food stamps.

A look at what’s in and out of the deal, based on what’s known so far:

Two-year debt increase, spending limits

The agreement would keep non-defense spending roughly flat in the 2024 fiscal year and increase it by 1% the following year, as well as provide for a two-year debt-limit increase — past the next presidential election in 2024. That’s according to a source familiar with the deal who provided details on the condition of anonymity.

Veterans care

The agreement will fully fund medical care for veterans at the levels included in Biden’s proposed 2024 budget blueprint, including for a fund dedicated to veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances or environmental hazards. Biden sought $20.3 billion for the toxic exposure fund in his budget.

Work requirements

Republicans had proposed boosting work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents in certain government assistance programs. They said it would bring more people into the workforce, who would then pay taxes and help shore up key entitlement programs, namely Social Security and Medicare.

Democrats had roundly criticized the proposed changes, saying they would lead to fewer people able to afford food or health care without actually increasing job participation.

House Republicans had passed legislation that would create new work requirements for some Medicaid recipients, but that was left out of the final agreement.

However, the agreement would expand some work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. The agreement would raise the age for existing work requirements from 49 to 54, similar to the Republican proposal, but those changes would expire in 2030. And the White House said it would at the same time reduce the number of vulnerable people at all ages who are subject to the requirements

Speeding up energy projects

The deal puts in place changes in the National Environmental Policy Act that will designate “a single lead agency” to develop environmental reviews, in hopes of streamlining the process.

What was left out

Republicans had sought to repeal Biden’s efforts to waive $10,000 to $20,000 in debt for nearly all borrowers who took out student loans. But the provision was a nonstarter for Democrats. The budget agreement keeps Biden’s student loan relief in place, though the Supreme Court will have the ultimate say on the matter.

The Supreme Court is dominated 6-3 by conservatives, and those justices’ questions in oral arguments showed skepticism about the legality of Biden’s student loans plan. A decision is expected before the end of June.

No Signs of Progress From White House or Republicans in ‘Tough’ Debt Ceiling Talks

Representatives of U.S. President Joe Biden and congressional Republicans ended another round of debt ceiling talks on Tuesday with no signs of progress as the deadline to raise the government’s $31.4 trillion borrowing limit or risk default ticked closer.

The two parties remain deeply divided about how to rein in the federal deficit, with Democrats arguing wealthy Americans and businesses should pay more taxes while Republicans want spending cuts.

White House negotiators Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and senior White House adviser Steve Ricchetti met with their Republican counterparts for about two hours. They left without making substantive comments to the media.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that the federal government could no longer have enough money to pay all its bills as soon as June 1, which would cause a default that would hammer the U.S. economy and push borrowing costs higher.

The two sides still disagree on spending, and it was not clear when talks would resume, said Republican Representative Patrick McHenry, who chairs the House Finance Committee.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre called the talks “incredibly tough.”

“Both sides have to understand that they’re not going to get everything that they want,” Jean-Pierre said at a briefing. “And what we’re trying to get to is a budget that is reasonable, that is bipartisan, that Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate will be able to vote on and agree on.”

Global markets on edge

The lack of clear progress continued to weigh on Wall Street with U.S. stocks sharply lower on Tuesday and global markets on edge.

Democrats want to freeze spending for the 2024 fiscal year that begins in October at the levels adopted in 2023, arguing that would represent a spending cut because agency budgets won’t match inflation. The idea was rejected by Republicans, who want spending cuts.

Biden wants to cut the deficit by raising taxes on the wealthy and closing tax loopholes for the oil and pharmaceutical industries. McCarthy said he will not approve tax increases.

McCarthy told reporters on Monday that he expected to talk with Biden daily at least by telephone.

If and when Biden and McCarthy reach a deal, they will still need to sell it to their caucuses in Congress. It could easily take a week to pass a deal through the House and Senate, which would both need to approve the bill before Biden could sign it into law.

‘Why is June 1 the drop dead?’

Hard-line Republicans and progressive Democrats both voiced anger at the idea of compromise.

Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the 101-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, said “the vast majority” of the group’s members would oppose any deal that included spending cuts or new work requirements for federal benefit programs for low-income Americans, both of which are major Republican demands.

Some hard-line members of the Republican House Freedom Caucus on Tuesday said they were skeptical of how firm the June 1 deadline is. Treasury has said the U.S. could run short of cash as soon as June 1, or perhaps in the days following.

“Secretary Yellen needs to not only testify, but in writing, she needs to justify her dates that she’s given. Why is June 1 the drop dead?” Republican Representative Ralph Norman said.

Democrat Representative Hakeem Jeffries — the top Democrat in the House — dismissed that skepticism as unfounded.

“The June 1 date is a real one. Secretary Yellen continues to make that clear,” Jeffries told reporters.

Unless Congress raises the debt ceiling and allows the federal government to borrow money to pay its bills, the United States could default on its obligations, potentially tipping the nation into recession and plunging global financial markets into chaos.

Any deal to raise the limit must pass both chambers of Congress, and therefore hinges on bipartisan support. McCarthy’s Republicans control the House 222-213, while Biden’s Democrats hold the Senate 51-49.

Despite the gridlock, the two sides have found some common ground on several areas, including permit reform that will help energy projects move forward.

On Monday, McCarthy said including some permitting reforms in the debt deal would not solve all of the related issues and that talks on further reforms could continue later, declining to address transmission for renewable energy.

The two sides are also discussing clawing back unused COVID-19 relief funds and imposing stricter work requirements on two popular public benefit programs aimed at helping Americans out of poverty.

South Carolina Republicans Hear Pitches From 2024 Candidates, Reelect State Party Chairman

South Carolina Republicans on Saturday selected Drew McKissick as their chairman for a fourth term at a convention where some of the party’s 2024 presidential hopefuls made pitches to voters in the first-in-the-South primary state. 

McKissick has led the party since 2017 in a state where Republicans hold all statewide-elected positions, all but one U.S. House seat, and control of both legislative chambers. He defeated three challengers. Party officials said in a release that under McKissick’s leadership, “more Republicans than ever before” had won elections. 

Neither of South Carolina’s presidential contenders, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Senator Tim Scott, attended the gathering in Lexington, a suburb of Columbia, the capital. 

Scott, who entered the race Friday, sent a video that was played for delegates, and a political action committee that backs him sponsored a breakfast for them. 

“The GOP, the great opportunity party, is in fact the dominant party in our great state, because of people just like you,” said Scott. He encouraged activists to come to his formal campaign launch event Monday in North Charleston so they could be “a part of South Carolina — and hopefully American — history.” 

If elected, Scott would be the first Black Republican president. 

Haley, a former governor who kicked off her campaign in February, did not appear in person or via video. She did get a mention from the rostrum when a McKissick rival noted that Haley had resigned as governor before the end of her second term to join the Trump administration as U.N. envoy. 

Several Republicans in race

The Republican Party’s 2024 field is expanding, with Scott, Haley, former President Donald Trump and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson already running. Another hopeful, entrepreneur and “anti-woke” activist Vivek Ramaswamy was the sole candidate to address the convention in person. 

In a video, Trump said that “now is the time to complete our mission and finish what we started” and “evict Joe Biden from the White House.” A video from Never Back Down, a super political action committee supporting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis as he prepares to enter the race, showcased DeSantis’ background, including his military service and ongoing disputes with the Walt Disney Co., saying the governor has “refused to let Disney push us around.” 

This past week, Disney announced it was scrapping plans to build a new campus in central Florida and relocate 2,000 employees from Southern California to work in digital technology, finance and product development. The decision followed a year of attacks from DeSantis and the Florida Legislature because the company opposed a state law that bans classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades. Disney filed a First Amendment lawsuit against DeSantis and other officials last month. 

Top stop

Given its prominent status on the nomination calendar, South Carolina for months has drawn a number of Republican presidential contenders. 

Trump visited in January to roll out his South Carolina leadership team, which includes Governor Henry McMaster and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham. DeSantis made his debut trip last month, drawing hundreds to two events. Former Vice President Mike Pence has come numerous times to a state where support from white evangelical Christians is critical. 

Trump’s support in the state has remained high since his South Carolina primary victory helped propel him to the 2016 nomination. But Tyler J. Corn, who heads up the Greater Spartanburg Young Republicans, said he’s somewhat dubious that those who say they support the former president will vote for him when it comes time to do so next year. 

“I think there’s a lot of people that realistically say they love Donald Trump who probably end up voting for Ron DeSantis, because I think a lot of [them] believe that he’s a proven winner, and the president, they’re a little bit more concerned about that,” Corn said on the sidelines of the convention. “I’ve even heard people say, ‘Well I love Donald Trump, I just don’t love the way he always says things.’ And I haven’t heard that complaint with Ron DeSantis yet.”  

Head of Taiwanese Legislature Talks Self-Defense in Washington

The head of Taiwan’s legislature visited Washington this week, where he met with top U.S. lawmakers and told audiences that the Taiwanese people are determined to defend themselves should Beijing try to invade.

During a time when the island is under greater political and military pressure from Beijing, You Si-Kun, head of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, met with members of the House committee focused on China, as well as with former Speaker Nancy Pelosi who said they discussed security and democracy.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul said the two discussed “opportunities to work toward a tax agreement and expediting military sales to Taiwan.” The United States is expected to move forward soon with sending $500 million worth of weapons aid to Taiwan.

A will to defend itself

Speaking at a Hudson Institute event, You emphasized how the will to defend itself is a part of Taiwan’s DNA and that the country will unite across political party lines should it be invaded.

“Support from friendly nations is critical, given China’s size,” You told VOA in an interview Tuesday. “But the Taiwanese people can be counted on to do everything they can to fight the invaders and preserve their freedom and way of life.”

To make his point, You referenced when Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Qing court in 1895, which resulted in Japanese occupation of Taiwan that lasted 50 years, until the end of World War II.

You recalled how it took Japanese forces more than five months to pacify the island after it was officially ceded to Tokyo, at a time when Taiwan had no official government, no armed forces, and no international support.

In the decades since, Taiwan has seen waves of migration from mainland China as well as the rise of a democratic government, which You says have strengthened the island’s collective sense of self-defense.

Sunflower protests

He recalled the Sunflower protests in 2014, when Taiwanese youths came out in huge numbers to protest a trade deal between Taiwan and mainland China that they feared would disadvantage Taiwan economically and politically.

“It wasn’t just youths whose ancestors had been in Taiwan for multiple generations that came out to protest, but across the board,” said You.

That solidarity, he said, will happen again should Beijing decide to invade Taiwan, he said, “even while we [people from different political parties] have our disagreements in peacetime.”

China’s intense military maneuvers in and around Taiwan’s airspace and maritime territory in recent months could have at least two aims, You told VOA.

One is to intimidate the population and pin the tension on the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in hopes of directing votes toward candidates portrayed as “peace-loving,” he said. “They could also be rehearsing their armed forces, ships and aircraft, especially since they have not fought in an active war for decades,” You added as the second aim.

Before the delegation returned to Taiwan, You and the other legislators also met with Enes Kantor Freedom, the Turkish-American basketball star-turned-advocate of freedom for people not only in his birth country, but around the world, including Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan.

US Debt Limit Talks Halted Again Amid ‘Real Differences’

Debt limit talks halted again late Friday at the U.S. Capitol shortly after resuming, another sudden turn of events after negotiations had come to an abrupt standstill earlier in the day when Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said it was time to “pause” negotiations, and a White House official acknowledged there are “real differences.”

Top Republican negotiators for McCarthy exited the brief meeting shortly after talks restarted Friday evening. They said there were no further negotiations planned for Friday and they were uncertain on next steps. But a top White House adviser to President Joe Biden said they were hopeful for a resolution. The negotiators are racing to strike a budget deal to resolve the standoff.

“We reengaged, had a very, very candid discussion, talking about where we are, talking about where things need to be, what’s reasonably acceptable,” said Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., a top McCarthy ally leading the talks for his side.

As the White House team left the nighttime session, counselor to the president Steve Ricchetti, who is leading talks for the Democrats, said he was hopeful for an outcome. “We’re going to keep working,” he said.

Biden’s administration is reaching for a deal with Republicans led by McCarthy as the nation careens toward a potentially catastrophic debt default if the government fails to increase the borrowing limit, now at $31 trillion, to keep paying the nation’s bills.

Earlier in the day, McCarthy said resolution to the standoff is “easy,” if only Biden’s team would agree to some spending cuts Republicans are demanding.

The biggest impasse was over the fiscal 2024 top-line budget amount, according to a person briefed on the talks and granted anonymity to discuss them. Democrats staunchly oppose the steep reductions Republicans have put on the table as potentially harmful to Americans.

“We’ve got to get movement by the White House, and we don’t have any movement yet,” McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters at the Capitol. “So, yeah, we’ve got to pause.”

The White House official, who was granted anonymity to talk about the private discussions, had said at that time there are “real differences” between the parties on the budget issues and further “talks will be difficult.”

Wall Street turned lower as negotiations came to a sudden halt, raising worries that the country could edge closer to risking a highly damaging default on U.S. government debt.

The president, who has been in Japan attending the Group of Seven summit, had no immediate comment. Biden had already planned to cut short the rest of his trip, and he is expected to return to Washington on Sunday.

Negotiators met Friday for a third day behind closed doors at the Capitol with hopes of settling on an agreement this weekend before possible House votes next week. They face a looming deadline as soon as June 1, when the Treasury Department has said it will run out of cash to pay the government’s incurred debt.

McCarthy faces pressures from his hard-right flank to cut the strongest deal possible for Republicans, and he risks a threat to his leadership as speaker if he fails to deliver. Many House Republicans are unlikely to accept any deal with the White House.

The internal political dynamics confronting the embattled McCarthy leaves the Democrats skeptical of giving away too much to the Republicans and driving off the Democratic support they will need to pass any compromise through Congress.

Markets had been rising this week on hopes of a deal. But that shifted abruptly Friday after negotiators ended late morning an hour after they had begun.

The S&P 500 went from a gain of 0.3% to a loss of 0.1% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average went from a gain of 117 points to a loss of about 90 points.

As Republicans demand spending cuts and policy changes, Biden is facing increased pushback from Democrats, particularly progressives, who argue the reductions will fall too heavily on domestic programs that Americans rely on.

Some Democrats want Biden to invoke his authority under the 14th amendment to raise the debt ceiling on his own, an idea that raises legal questions and that the president has so far said he is not inclined to consider.

US Supreme Court Lets Illinois Keep Ban on Sale of Some Semiautomatic Guns for Now

The U.S. Supreme Court said Wednesday that Illinois can, for now, keep in place a new law that bars the sale of certain semiautomatic guns and large-capacity magazines.

The high court denied an emergency request from people challenging the law, which bans so-called assault weapons. The law’s opponents had asked the court to put the law on hold while a court challenge continues. The court did not comment and no justice publicly dissented.

The high court’s action comes at a time when gun violence has been heavily in the news. Since the beginning of the year, 115 people have died in 22 mass killings — an average of one mass killing a week, according to a database maintained by The Associated Press and USA Today in a partnership with Northeastern University. The database counts killings involving four or more fatalities, not including the perpetrator. Just recently, on May 6, a man armed with an AR-15 style rifle and other firearms fatally shot eight people, including three children, at a mall in the Dallas, Texas, area.

Law enacted this year

The case before the Supreme Court involves an Illinois state law enacted in January. The legislation bans the sale of a series of guns including the AR-15 and AK-47. The law also bars the sale of magazines that have more than 15 rounds of ammunition for handguns and more than 10 rounds of ammunition for a long gun.

People who legally owned the now-barred guns and magazines ahead of the law’s enactment can continue to keep them. The guns, however, must be registered with law enforcement.

Nine other states and the District of Columbia have gun bans similar to the one in Illinois, according to the gun control group Brady, which tracks the legislation. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey and New York also require registration of guns purchased prior to the law while four other states — Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts and Washington — do not.

Shooting inspired legislation

The Illinois legislation was driven largely by the killing of seven people at a Fourth of July parade last year in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. The shooter was armed with an AR-15 rifle and 30-round magazines.

A federal trial court in February declined to put the law on hold. A federal appeals court also declined to put the law on hold while the case continues.

The case also involves a separate so-called assault weapon bans passed by the city of Naperville.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority last year handed gun rights activists a major victory, ruling that Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense. But the decision left open whether restrictions states might impose would be constitutional.

US Debt Ceiling Looms Over Biden’s Foreign Trips

The threat of the United States defaulting on its obligations looms over the upcoming G-7 summit in Japan that President Joe Biden is scheduled to attend before continuing to a summit with the so-called Quad leaders in Australia and one with Pacific Island leaders in Papua New Guinea. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has the story.