Washington, Dec 18 (AP/UNB) — The fight over President Donald Trump's $5 billion wall funds has deepened, threatening a partial government shutdown in a standoff that has become increasingly common in Washington.
It wasn't always like this, with Congress and the White House at a crisis over government funding. The House and Senate used to pass annual appropriation bills, and the president signed them into law. But in recent years the shutdown scenario has become so routine that it raises the question: Have shutdowns as a negotiating tool lost their punch?
Monday brought few signs of progress. A partial shutdown that could occur at midnight Friday risks disrupting government operations and leaving hundreds of thousands of federal employees furloughed or working without pay over the holiday season. Costs would be likely in the billions of dollars.
Trump was meeting with his team and getting regular updates, said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Trump was also tweeting Monday to keep up the pressure.
Exiting a Senate Republican leadership meeting late Monday, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said, "It looks like it probably is going to have to build for a few days here before there's a solution."
The president is insisting on $5 billion for the wall along the southern border with Mexico, but he does not have the votes from the Republican-led Congress to support it. Democrats are offering to continue funding at current levels, $1.3 billion, not for the wall but for fencing and other border security.
It's unclear how many House Republicans, with just a few weeks left in the majority before relinquishing power to House Democrats, will even show up midweek for possible votes. Speaker Paul Ryan's office had no update. Many Republicans say it's up to Trump and Democrats to cut a deal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump talk most days, but the senator's spokesman would not confirm if they spoke Monday about a plan. McConnell opened the chamber hoping for a "bipartisan collaborative spirit" that would enable Congress to finish its work.
"We need to make a substantial investment in the integrity of our border," McConnell said. "And we need to close out the year's appropriation process."
Meanwhile more than 800,000 government workers are preparing for the uncertainty ahead.
The dispute could affect nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice, as well as national parks and forests.
About half the workers would be forced to continue working without immediate pay. Others would be sent home. Congress often approves their pay retroactively, even if they were ordered to stay home.
"Our members are asking how they are supposed to pay for rent, food, and gas if they are required to work without a paycheck," said a statement from J. David Cox, Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the large federal worker union. "The holiday season makes these inquiries especially heart-wrenching."
Many agencies, including the Pentagon and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services, are already funded for the year and will continue to operate as usual, regardless of whether Congress and the president reach agreement this week.
Congress already approved funding this year for about 75 percent of the government's discretionary account for the budget year that began Oct. 1.
The U.S. Postal Service, busy delivering packages for the holiday season, wouldn't be affected by any government shutdown because it's an independent agency.
Trump said last week he would be "proud" to have a shutdown to get Congress to approve a $5 billion down payment to fulfill his campaign promise to build a border wall.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised that Mexico would pay for the wall. Mexico has refused.
Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, in a meeting last week at the White House, suggested keeping funding at its current level, $1.3 billion, for improved fencing. Trump had neither accepted nor rejected the Democrats' offer, telling them he would take a look.
Schumer said Monday he had yet to hear from Trump. Speaking on the Senate floor, Schumer warned that "going along with the Trump shutdown is a futile act" because House Democrats would quickly approve government funding in January.
"President Trump still doesn't have a plan to keep the government open," Schumer said Monday. "No treat or temper tantrum will get the president his wall."
One option for lawmakers would be to provide stopgap funding for a few weeks, until the new Congress convenes Jan. 3, when Pelosi is poised to become House speaker.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, who is in line to become the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, suggested a stopgap bill could be one way to resolve the issue or a longer-term bill that includes money for border security.
GOP leaders, though, were frustrated as the clock ticked away. Leaving the weekly leadership meeting, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said any planning was a "very closely held thing. That's why we should never let this happen. We should pass the bills the way we're supposed to pass them."
Washington, Dec 18 (AP/UNB) — Russia's sweeping political disinformation campaign on U.S. social media was more far-reaching than originally thought, with troll farms working to discourage black voters and "blur the lines between reality and fiction" to help elect Donald Trump in 2016, according to reports released Monday by the Senate intelligence committee.
And the campaign didn't end with Trump's ascent to the White House. Troll farms are still working to stoke racial and political passions in America at a time of high political discord.
The two studies are the most comprehensive picture yet of the Russian interference campaigns on American social media. They add to the portrait investigators have been building since 2017 on Russia's influence — though Trump has equivocated on whether the interference actually happened.
Facebook, Google and Twitter declined to comment on the specifics of the reports.
The reports were compiled by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge and by the Computational Propaganda Research Project, a study by researchers at the University of Oxford and Graphika, a social media analysis firm.
The Oxford report details how Russians broke down their messages to different groups, including discouraging black voters from going to the polls and stoking anger on the right.
"These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African-American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead," the researchers wrote.
At the same time, "Messaging to conservative and right-wing voters sought to do three things: repeat patriotic and anti-immigrant slogans; elicit outrage with posts about liberal appeasement of 'others' at the expense of US citizens, and encourage them to vote for Trump."
The report from New Knowledge says there are still some live accounts tied to the original Internet Research Agency, which was named in an indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller in February for an expansive social media campaign intended to influence the 2016 presidential election. Some of the accounts have a presence on smaller platforms as the major companies have tried to clean up after the Russian activity was discovered.
"With at least some of the Russian government's goals achieved in the face of little diplomatic or other pushback, it appears likely that the United States will continue to face Russian interference for the foreseeable future," the researchers wrote.
The New Knowledge report says that none of the social media companies turned over complete data sets to Congress and some of them "may have misrepresented or evaded" in testimony about the interference by either intentionally or unintentionally downplaying the scope of the problem.
The Senate panel has been investigating Russian interference on social media and beyond for almost two years. Intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr said in a statement that the data shows how aggressively Russia tried to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology and erode trust in institutions.
"Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped," said Burr, a North Carolina Republican.
One major takeaway from both studies is the breadth of Russian interference that appeared on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook and was not frequently mentioned when its parent company testified on Capitol Hill. The study says that as attention was focused on Facebook and Twitter in 2017, the Russians shifted much of their activity to Instagram.
The New Knowledge study says that there were 187 million engagements with users on Instagram, while there were 77 million on Facebook.
"Instagram was a significant front in the IRA's influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in congressional testimony," the researchers wrote. They added that "our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis."
The Russian activity went far beyond the three tech companies that provided information, reaching many smaller sites as well. The New Knowledge report details sophisticated attempts to infiltrate internet games, browser extensions and music apps. The Russians even used social media to encourage users of the game Pokemon Go — which was at peak popularity in the months before the 2016 presidential election — to use politically divisive usernames, for example.
The report discusses even more unconventional ways that the Russian accounts attempted to connect with Americans and recruit assets, such as merchandise with certain messages, specific follower requests, job offers and even help lines that could encourage people to unknowingly disclose sensitive information to Russia that could later be used against them.
The Russians' attempts to influence Americans on social media first became widely public in the fall of 2017. Several months later, Mueller's indictment laid out a vast, organized Russian effort to sway political opinion. While the social media companies had already detailed some of the efforts, the indictment tied actual people to the operation and named 13 Russians responsible.
Also notable is the study's finding that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was favorably treated in posts aimed at both left-leaning and right-leaning users. The New Knowledge report says there were a number of posts expressing support for Assange and Wikileaks, including several in October 2016 just before WikiLeaks released hacked emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign.
The Oxford study notes that peaks in Internet Research Agency advertising and organic activity — or posts, shares and comments by users — often corresponded with important dates on the U.S. calendar, crises and international events.
The researchers from Oxford said that organic postings were much more far reaching than advertisements, despite Facebook's sole focus on ads when the company first announced it had been compromised in 2017.
Other findings in the studies:
— During the week of the presidential election, posts directed to right-leaning users aimed to generate anger and suspicion and hinted at voter fraud, while posts targeted to African-Americans largely ignored mentions of the election until the last minute.
— Establishment figures of both parties, especially Clinton, were universally panned. Even a tag targeted to feminists criticized Clinton and promoted her primary opponent, independent Bernie Sanders;
— Several posts promoted the Russian agenda in Syria and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
— IRA's posts focused on the United States started on Twitter as far back as 2013, and eventually evolved into the multi-platform strategy.
— Russian activity on Twitter was less organized around themes like race or partisanship but more driven by local and current events and made use of occasional pop culture references.
— Facebook posts linked to the IRA "reveal a nuanced and deep knowledge of American culture, media, and influencers in each community the IRA targeted." Certain memes appeared on pages targeted to younger people but not older people. "The IRA was fluent in American trolling culture," the researchers say.
Paris, Dec 16 (AP/UNB) — A protest movement that has brought the French into the streets for five Saturdays in a row in a major challenge to President Emmanuel Macron lost momentum in its latest nationwide outcry, but the smaller crowds pushed fervently for one of their expanding demands, a citizen's referendum to help define policy.
The most resonant call Saturday was a leap from the demand for relief from fuel tax hikes that gave birth to the protest in mid-November by rank-and-file French wearing yellow safety vests to slow vehicles at the traffic circles that dot France's countryside.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced in a tweet the death of an eighth person since the start of the protests, implying it occurred at a traffic circle, some of which have been manned day and night by protesters.
"Traffic circles must be freed and the security of all must again become the rule," he said, in a new effort to tamp down a movement that appears to be losing momentum.
The government put 69,000 security forces into the streets and called for calm after the last two Saturdays of major violence, including vandalization of the outside and inside of the Arc de Triomphe, which cradles the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
"Protesting is a right. So let's know how to exercise it," the French government tweeted.
Some 8,000 police, with 14 armored vehicles and water cannons, were out anew in Paris to guard against property destruction and looting that marred the two previous protests.
They fired rounds of tear gas into crowds on the famed Champs-Elysees, where chic shops and restaurants were boarded up, and at dusk turned water on protesters bundled against frigid weather to disperse them.
Police said 115 people were taken into custody in Paris, most for banding together to commit acts of violence. Seven people were slightly injured. Police in riot gear were seen tackling one protester and dragging him off the Champs-Elysees.
Police estimate Paris protesters numbered 3,000 maximum — less than half the number a week ago — and the sharp downturn in violence was reflected in demonstrations across the country.
But the smaller crowds were fervent — and more demanding, with signs carried high or scrawled on the backs of vests calling for a referendum system that would let citizens directly impose national policies.
Among the yellow vests on the Champs-Elysees was Francis Queruel, a 70-year-old retiree from the small town of Goussainville, about 35 miles (60 kilometers) southwest of Paris, who said he was angered by "the violence of money," whereby the rich thrive and the rest are squeezed.
"There are 9 million poor in France and people who work but have no money at the end of the month to eat," said Queruel. While he said he has a good pension at 3,600 euros a month, he complained it's not indexed to the cost of living. Above all, Queruel worries for his grown children and the French who can't make ends meet.
"When you're hungry, it's terrible," said Queruel. "People were silent for a long time and now it's the eruption of a volcano," he said.
Pricillia Ludosky, one of several figures credited with helping trigger the movement, spoke to hundreds of people filling the square at the Paris Opera house and denounced "colossal fiscal oppression ... while a small elite constantly escapes paying taxes."
Without any clear leadership, the yellow vest movement has attracted a wide range of disgruntled people across France's political spectrum, including political parties trying to win new backers.
On Monday, Macron, whose popularity is plummeting, offered a package of measures in a bid to placate protesters, including a 100-euro monthly increase to the minimum wage. However, he refused to reinstate a wealth tax he slashed at the start of his presidency, a move that enforced a perception that he is the "president of the rich."
Lionel Fraisse, 63, a retired worker for the state agency that runs Metros and suburban trains, said the measures were simply "to put the people to sleep."
Fraisse, who arrived from the Essonne region south of Paris with former colleagues, said what he wants most is for Macron "to validate his legitimacy" with a referendum.
Until then, "the movement must lose neither its vigor nor its legitimacy," he said.
Brussels, Dec 14 (AP/UNB) - British Prime Minister Theresa May launched a rescue mission for her ailing Brexit deal Friday, after the European Union rebuffed her request to sweeten the divorce agreement so she can win over hostile lawmakers at home.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels showed little appetite to resolve May's Brexit impasse for her, saying the U.K. Parliament must make up its mind. The choice was either back the Brexit agreement or send Britain tumbling out of the bloc in March without a deal and into unknown economic chaos.
"There is one accord, the only one possible," French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters at the end of a two-day summit. He said it was "the British parliament's time" to decide whether to accept or reject it.
The Brexit gridlock has left Britain's future looking like a high-stakes gamble with a dizzyingly wide range of possible outcomes. There could be an orderly or a disorderly Brexit. May's Conservative government could fall and an early election be held. Britain could make a last-minute request to the EU to give it more time and not leave the bloc on March 29. Some people are even pressing for the U.K. to hold a second referendum on Britain's EU membership.
So many possibilities, so little time.
May came to the EU summit seeking legally binding changes to the agreement, which is opposed by a majority of British lawmakers.
But the 27 other EU leaders offered only reassurances. They said they would seek to move swiftly on forging a new trade deal after Britain leaves the bloc, and promised that a legally binding insurance policy to keep the Irish border open would only be used temporarily.
They rejected British pressure to put a fixed end date on the border guarantee, and refused to re-negotiate the Brexit agreement, a 585-page legal text settling issues including the size of Britain's divorce bill and the future rights of Europeans living in Britain and Britons living in the EU. It also includes a document laying out the two sides' hopes for future relations, which isn't legally binding.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker accused Britain of failing to give detailed proposals on Brexit, saying it was "up to the British government to tell us exactly what they want."
May was filmed speaking sternly to Juncker as leaders arrived at Friday morning's session of the summit. She said they had had a "robust" exchange.
Nonetheless, May told reporters in Brussels that she welcomed the EU's reassuring words — and that, as formal conclusions of an EU summit, they "have legal status."
"There is work still to do. And we will be holding talks in coming days about how to obtain the further assurances that the U.K. Parliament needs in order to be able to approve the deal," May said.
European Council President Donald Tusk, however, said no talks with Britain were scheduled.
"I have no mandate to organize any further negotiations," Tusk told reporters. "But of course, we will stay here in Brussels, and I am always at Prime Minister Theresa May's disposal."
But May's against-the-odds optimism contrasted with a pessimistic tone from many on the EU side. EU leaders expressed deep doubts that May could live up to her side of their Brexit agreement and vowed to step up preparations for a potentially-catastrophic "no-deal" scenario for Britain's departure.
"We are going to be sure to prepare for all hypotheses, including the hypothesis of a 'no deal," said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who expressed a "gigantic doubt" that May could get her Brexit deal passed by British lawmakers.
But there was also sympathy for a leader who has endured the toughest week of her career.
Juncker said May was "a good friend, and I am admiring her, because this is a woman of great courage doing her job in the best way possible."
May canceled a Brexit vote in the U.K. Parliament this week after it became clear that lawmakers would resoundingly reject the Brexit deal she concluded with the EU last month. Anger at that postponement helped trigger a no-confidence vote in May from members of her own Conservative Party. She won, but was left weakened after more than a third of her lawmakers rebelled.
Still, May insists she will secure enough changes to get Parliament's approval in a vote before Jan. 21. May says failure to support her deal could lead to a "no-deal" Brexit, which officials warn could bring economic recession, gridlock at U.K. ports and shortages of essential goods.
The problem is that May's deal is loathed both by pro-Brexit lawmakers, who think it keeps Britain bound too closely to the bloc, and pro-Europeans, who see it as inferior to staying in the EU.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the EU's refusal to renegotiate meant May's Brexit plan was "dead in the water." But Labour not yet triggered a no-confidence vote in May's government.
Many in the EU feel the problem lies with Britain's divided Parliament, which largely dislikes May's deal but doesn't agree on a better option. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said the problem was not Britain's leader.
"We know what Theresa May wants, and she wants to have the possible deal passing Westminster, but the problem is the MPs in London," he said.
Brussels, Dec. 14 (Xinhua/UNB) -- European Union (EU) leaders Thursday made it clear to British Prime Minister Theresa May that renegotiation on the Brexit agreement is a non-starter.
European leaders were gathering in Brussels for a customary two-day summit. High on the agenda were Brexit, multi-annual budget and migration.
"The (European) Union stands by this agreement and intends to proceed with its ratification. It is not open for renegotiation," European Council President Donald Tusk said at a midnight press conference following marathon closed-door talks.
Standing by Tusk's side, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker echoed, saying: "We can add some clarifications, as Donald was explaining to what has been read upon, but (there) will be no renegotiations."
The summit came on the heels of May surviving a non-confidence vote among her own Conservative MPs, many of whom bristled at May's move to defer a vote on her Brexit deal in parliament.
The major hurdle against parliamentary approval is the issue of the so-called backstop, or the border on the Island of Ireland, which has been a sticking point in the painful Britain-EU negotiations on how Britain will leave the regional bloc in March next year.
The storm on the other side of the British Channel was under EU's radar. In an apparent move to assuage concerns of the British parliament, the EU leaders underlined that "the backstop is intended as an insurance policy to prevent hard border on the island of Ireland and ensure the integrity of the Single Market."