US Senate passes $1.9tn relief bill


US Senate passes $1.9tn relief bill

The Senate-approved bill will have to go back to the House for another vote, before it is sent to Biden’s desk.

The evenly split US Senate has narrowly passed a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill after a marathon overnight session, with lawmakers voting along party lines.

After a session that lasted more than 24 hours, the upper chamber on Saturday approved the bill, called the ‘American Rescue Plan’, by a vote of 50 to 49, with Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, missing the vote, reports Xinhua news agency.

The so-called “vote-a-rama”, a long series of amendments votes, initially began on Friday morning, and was delayed for hours as Democrats struggled to convince Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, a moderate, to support their provision on unemployment benefits.

After a lengthy negotiation, Manchin and Senate Democrats finally reached a deal, allowing the “vote-a-rama” to resume shortly before midnight.

A motion to adjourn until Saturday morning proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell narrowly failed.

The amended bill includes a $300 weekly federal unemployment benefit through September, instead of the $400 in the House-approved package.

It also added a provision to make the first $10,200 of unemployment payments tax-free for households with incomes of less than $150,000.

The $1.9-trillion measure, a major legislation for President Joe Biden, also includes a new round of up to $1,400 of direct payments for Americans, $350 billion for state and local governments, support for hard-hit small businesses, as well as funding to directly combat the pandemic.

Senators voted through the night and until midday on a series of amendments, most of which by Republicans, who called the bill partisan and too expensive, and proposed to slash spending.

Democrats, who highlighted the urgency to fight the pandemic and support businesses and families, voted down dozens of Republican amendments.

Earlier on Friday, a group of Democratic senators, including Manchin, joined Senate Republicans in voting against Bernie Sanders’ proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to 15 dollars per hour.

Senate parliamentarian ruled last week that an increase to the federal minimum wage violates the budget reconciliation process and cannot be included in the relief bill.

Last week, Republican Senator Ron Johnson objected to waiving the reading of the legislation, insisting that the entire 628-page bill be read out loud, a process that took nearly 11 hours.

“If they’re going to add nearly $2T to the national debt at least we should know what’s in the bill,” Johnson said on Twitter, calling it a Democratic wish list after listening to the reading.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, however, said the ‘American Rescue Plan’ is one of the most popular bills in decades, calling it a bold Covid-19 relief for people across the country.

“The American Rescue Plan will deliver more help to more people than anything the federal government’s done in decades. This bill is broader, deeper, more comprehensive in helping working people and lifting people out of poverty,” said Schumer.

McConnell, meanwhile, said in a statement that instead of working together to fight Covid-19, Democrats decided to “exploit this crisis” by jamming through unrelated liberal policies they couldn’t pass honestly.

Noting that Congress passed five pandemic rescue packages totalling $4 trillion in a bipartisan way last year, McConnell said Democrats pushed through the major legislation on “razor-thin and purely partisan majorities in both chambers”.

Most legislation requires 60 votes in the Senate to advance, but Democrats in early February moved to pass a procedural step in both chambers, allowing them to push through the big relief bill with only a simple majority in the Senate, which means they could pass the bill without Republican support.

Republicans criticised the Democrats’ use of the budget reconciliation process, calling it a “partisan” move.

Biden, however, said what Republicans proposed is “either to do nothing or not enough”.

“If I have to choose between getting help right now to Americans who are hurting so badly, and being bogged down in a monthly negotiation or compromising on a bill that’s up to the crisis, it’s an easy choice.”

The Senate-approved bill will have to go back to the House for another vote, before it is sent to Biden’s desk.

Democrats have been rushing to get the new relief bill approved in Congress, as federal unemployment benefits are set to expire in mid-March.




Nepal SC annuls unification of NCP factions


Nepal SC annuls unification of NCP factions

The bench has said that the new party cannot be registered with the Election Commission when it already has a party registered with a similar name.

In a surprise and unexpected decision, Nepal’s Supreme Court on Sunday annulled the unification of the ruling Nepal Communist Party’s factions and paved the way for them to be divided into two separate parties.

Passing a verdict on legitimacy of Nepal Communist Party challenged by veteran Communist leader Rishiram Kattel in 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the original Nepal Communist Party or NCP is headed by Kattel and not Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli or the faction led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal or ‘Prachanda’. The Supreme Court decided to award the Nepal Communist Party leadership to Kattel.

The Supreme Court’s decision has pushed Nepal’s ruling party into a state of confusion and disarray.

Quashing the Election Commission’s decision to award the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) leadership to Oli and Dahal, the top court has said the then CPN-UML and then CPN (Maoist Centre) would return to the pre-merger stage and if they were to merge, they should apply to the Election Commission as per the Political Parties Act. Oli’s CPN-UML and Dahal’s CPN (Maoist Centre) had announced their merger in May 2018.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling came beyond our expectations,” Prachanda said adding that “we cannot comment on it without going through the detailed text of the verdict.” The Prachanda-led faction also held an emergency meeting after the verdict.

But the Oli faction is happy with the verdict. Oli’s CPN-UML was the largest party in 2017 election. Later it merged with Prachanda-led CPN (Maoist Centre) and formed the Nepal Communist Party in 2018 and became the largest party in the Parliament with almost two-third seats.

“We respect the verdict, we believe in the independence of the judiciary,” party secretary general and Finance Minister, Bishnu Poudel said.

Both Oli and Prachanda factions are functioning as two parties though they have not technically split after Prime Minister Oli dissolved the House on December 20 and declared snap polls. Oli’s decision has created a furor and opposition inside the ruling party.

The Prachanda-led faction has already claimed legitimacy with the Elections Commission saying it has a majority of the central committee members. But the Election Commission could not take a decision on the party split because Oli is also claiming the same.

Kattel had challenged the Election Commission’s decision to register Nepal Communist Party (NCP) under Oli and Dahal in May 2018.

The bench has said that the new party cannot be registered with the Election Commission when it already has a party registered with a similar name.

The decision came just hours before the scheduled meeting of the House of Representatives where the two factions of the Nepal Communist Party are battling to show their majority.




Pakistan suffers losses worth $38bn due to FATF grey listing


Pakistan suffers losses worth $38bn due to FATF grey listing

The report findings come at a time when Pakistan’s progress on actions taken to comply with FATF’s global standards to curb money laundering and terror financing, are going to be reviewed at the plenary meeting of the FATF in Paris.

At a time when Pakistan’s progress on countering terror-financing and money laundering is being scrutinised at the Plenary meeting of the global watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a report has highlighted that Pakistan has suffered losses worth billions due to being placed in the FATF’s grey list thrice since 2008.

The findings were shared in a research paper published by an independent think tank named Tabadlab, titled “Bearing the cost of global politics – the impact of FATF grey-listing on Pakistan’s economy”.

The research paper revealed that “grey listing event spanned from 2008 to 2019, which may have been one of the reasons why the country’s cumulative GDP losses towered up to at least $38 billion”.

“Data suggested that Pakistan’s removal from the grey list of the FATF has at times led to revival of the economy, as evident from an increase in the level of GDP for the years 2017 and 2018,” argued the author of the research paper.

“A large portion of the $38 billion losses can be attributed to reduction in household and government consumption expenditure,” the report added.

“One of the mechanisms by which FATF grey-listing can adversely affect the economy is through increased skepticism surrounding the economy’s future outlook. This will most likely lead to a decline in local investment, exports and inward foreign direct investment,” the report maintained.

The report findings come at a time when Pakistan’s progress on actions taken to comply with FATF’s global standards to curb money laundering and terror financing, are going to be reviewed at the plenary meeting of the FATF in Paris.

Experts believe that chances of Pakistan’s exit from the grey list are grim as anti-money laundering and terror financing laws in the country are not fully compliant with global standards.

Government sources maintain that “Pakistan’s progress on at least three out of six remaining action points need more work,” adding that nothing could be said till a formal announcement by the FATF is not announced.

Pakistan has been struggling to comply with the FATF action plan as the country has failed to implement anti-terrorism and money laundering laws, leading to its inclusion in the FATF grey list in 2018 for the third time since the year 2008.

Pakistan’s inadequate controls to deter terror financing and money laundering, continue to be a point that has kept the country under check of the global watchdog and incurred major economic losses.

Pakistan has put the blame on the US-India nexus for its placement on the grey list.




Global Covid cases top 112.5 mn: Johns Hopkins


Global Covid cases top 112.5 mn: Johns Hopkins

Brazil currently accounts for the second highest number of Covid-19 fatalities at 249,957, followed by Mexico 182,815 on the third place and India 156,567 on the fourth.

The total number of global Covid-19 cases has topped 112.5 million, while the deaths have surged to more than 2.49 million, according to the Johns Hopkins University.

In its latest update on Thursday morning, the University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) revealed that the current global caseload and death toll stood at 112,534,393 and 2,497,023 respectively.

The US is the worst-hit country with the world’s highest number of cases and deaths at 28,334,797 and 505,803 respectively, according to the CSSE.

India comes in second place in terms of cases at 11,030,176.

The other countries with more than a million confirmed coronavirus cases are Brazil (10,324,463), the UK (4,156,703), Russia (4,153,735), France (3,721,061), Spain (3,170,644), Italy (2,848,564), Turkey (2,665,194), Germany (2,416,037), Colombia (2,237,542), Argentina (2,085,411), Mexico (2,060,908), Poland (1,661,109), Iran (1,598,875), South Africa (1,507,448), Ukraine (1,364,861), Indonesia (1,306,141), Peru (1,293,497), Czech Republic (1,184,352) and the Netherlands (1,083,686), the CSSE figures showed.

Brazil currently accounts for the second highest number of Covid-19 fatalities at 249,957, followed by Mexico 182,815 on the third place and India 156,567 on the fourth.

Meanwhile, the nations with a death toll above 20,000 are the UK (121,979), Italy (96,666), France (85,473), Russia (83,044), Germany (68,936), Spain (68,468), Iran (59,736), Colombia (59,260), Argentina (51,650), South Africa (49,523), Peru (45,487), Poland (42,808), Indonesia (35,254), Turkey (28,285), Ukraine (26,847), Belgium (21,988) and Canada (21,810).




Kim Jong-un convenes meeting to discuss discipline among Army officials


Kim Jong-un convenes meeting to discuss discipline among Army officials

Several major commanding officers were dismissed or appointed at the meeting, reflecting an apparent generational change in the organisation.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has presided over a Central Military Commission meeting to discuss the discipline among the military officials and stricter control over the younger officers, state media reported on Thursday.

At the expanded military commission meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party on Wednesday, Kim stressed on the importance of establishing “revolutionary moral discipline” particularly among the younger generation in the Army, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

“To establish the revolutionary moral discipline within the KPA is not just a technical issue, but a fatal issue related to the existence of the KPA and success or failure in the army building and military activities,” Kim said, referring to the People’s Army, Yonhap reported.

Kim also called for intensified education and control to ensure that the commanding officers of the “new generation have the proper political consciousness and moral point of view.”

The meeting also saw a discussion of “a series of shortcomings revealed in the military and political activities and moral life of KPA commanding officers.”

Kim’s criticism appears aimed at tightening discipline among military officers amid challenges from global sanctions and the country’s prolonged fight against the global pandemic.

Several major commanding officers were dismissed or appointed at the meeting, reflecting an apparent generational change in the organisation.

Kim Song-gi was appointed as the Commander of the North’s Navy, while Kim Chung-il was appointed the Commander of the Aviation Force.

The tile of the Vice Marshal was also conferred on Defence Minister Kim Jong-gwan and Kwon Yong-jin, Director of the General Political Bureau of the North Korean Army.




Zuckerberg, Pichai, Dorsey to face US misinformation hearing


Zuckerberg, Pichai, Dorsey to face US misinformation hearing

Set for March 25, the hearing will grill the tech CEOs on misinformation and disinformation plaguing online platforms.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will face a new US House hearing next month on the spread of misinformation on their platforms.

Set for March 25, the hearing will grill the tech CEOs on misinformation and disinformation plaguing online platforms.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. announced on Thursday that the Communications and Technology Subcommittee and the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee will hold this joint hearing online.


 
“Whether it be falsehoods about the Covid-19 vaccine or debunked claims of election fraud, these online platforms have allowed misinformation to spread, intensifying national crises with real-life, grim consequences for public health and safety,” Pallone said in a statement on Thursday.

“This hearing will continue the Committee’s work of holding online platforms accountable for the growing rise of misinformation and disinformation,” Pallone added.

Dorsey and Zuckerberg previously appeared before the US Congress in November, for the Senate Judiciary’s hearing on moderation and misinformation labelling.

This will be the first hearing by the tech giants after the Capital Chaos on January 6 and various actions the companies took in the wake of the attack.

“For far too long, big tech has failed to acknowledge the role they’ve played in fomenting and elevating blatantly false information to its online audiences,” the House Energy and Commerce Committee said.

“Industry self-regulation has failed. We must begin the work of changing incentives driving social media companies to allow and even promote misinformation and disinformation,” the committee noted.

The tech platforms are facing intense scrutiny over the spread of fake news, hate speech and misinformation on their platforms for quite some time and have not bene able to satisfy the governments worldwide with their answers.




SAARC virtual meet: India invites Pakistan to Covid-19 workshop


SAARC virtual meet: India invites Pakistan to Covid-19 workshop

India is hosting the workshop with other South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC ) countries.

India has invited Pakistan to join a health secretary-level meet virtually on Thursday to discuss the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

India is hosting the workshop with other South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC ) countries.

The virtual workshop will discuss issues like the management of Covid-19, response to the pandemic and exchange of best practices amid the pandemic.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a video conference of the SAARC Heads of State on March 15, 2020, had proposed a Coronavirus Emergency Fund for the region.

This emergency fund was set up in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. The initiative seeks to mitigate the risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic in the South Asian region with India contributing USD10 million to it.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal for the coronavirus emergency fund received extensive support from the SAARC members, sans Pakistan.

India is at the forefront in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and has gifted covid vaccines to countries including Bangladesh with 20 lakhs doses, Myanmar with 17 lakhs doses, Nepal with 10 lakhs, Bhutan with 1.5 lakhs, the Maldives with 1 lakh, Mauritius with 1 lakh, Seychelles with 50000, Sri Lanka with 5 lakhs and Afghanistan with 5 lakhs among others.

SAARC groups together Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The last time that the leaders of SAARC nations had shared a platform was in November 2014 when Nepal hosted a SAARC leaders’ summit.

About SAARC

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded in Dhaka on 8 December 1985 while its secretariat is based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The SAARC is the regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of states in South Asia.

Its member states are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The SAARC comprises 3% of the world’s area, 21% of the world’s population and 4.21% (US$3.67 trillion) of the global economy, as of 2019.




Jeff Bezos regains world’s richest person title as Elon Musk loses $4.6 billion


Jeff Bezos regains world’s richest person title as Elon Musk loses $4.6 billion

The electric automaker’s shares slipped 2.4 per cent, erasing $4.6 billion from its CEO’s fortune and removing him from the top spot of the Index.

Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos has regained his position as world’s richest person on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index ranking after Tesla shares plunged, resulting in a slight erosion in Elon Musk’s wealth.

On Tuesday, the electric automaker’s shares slipped 2.4 per cent, erasing $4.6 billion from its CEO’s fortune and removing him from the top spot of the Index.

Bezos returned as the world’s richest man with a net worth of $191.2 billion.

Last month, Musk became the world’s richest person, as his net worth crossed $185 billion after Tesla’s share price increased. He took the top spot from Bezos, who had held it since 2017.

Tesla has surged in value this year, and hit a market value of $700 billion last month, making the electric car maker worth more than Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai, GM and Ford combined.

Musk’s net worth increased by more than $150 billion and Tesla’s share price surged a massive 743 per cent last year.

Tesla last week announced it has invested $1.5 billion in the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. The announcement led to a surge in the price of one Bitcoin, that has even surpassed $50,000 per coin.

In its announcement, Tesla had said that it will also “begin accepting Bitcoin as a form of payment for our products in the near future.”

Prior to this, Musk led to a surge in Dogecoin prices with his tweet earlier this month.




2 massive blasts hit Yemen’s Marib amid escalating violence


2 massive blasts hit Yemen’s Marib amid escalating violence

Earlier in the day, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths expressed concern over renewed attacks.

Two massive explosions struck Yemen’s Marib, as violence has continued in the government-controlled oil-rich northeastern city, a government official said.

“Two massive explosions caused by ballistic missiles fired by the Houthi rebels against the densely populated city of Marib, with no casualties,” the official told Xinhua news agency on Tuesday.

The two Houthi-fired ballistic missiles landed on an empty area near a government facility in Marib, he added.

For the third consecutive day, the southern and western areas of Marib are witnessing non-stop battles, leaving dozens from the two-warring sides dead and injured.

“Nearly 30 soldiers were critically injured in today’s fighting and are receiving treatment at the medical centre,” sources at Marib’s public hospital said.

In the past two days, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels intensified their military operations and carried out a large offensive against the city controlled by the Yemeni government.

Earlier in the day, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths expressed concern over renewed attacks.

“Extremely concerned about the resumption of hostilities in the governorate of Marib by Ansar Allah (Houthi rebel group), especially at a time of renewed diplomatic momentum to end the war in Yemen and resume the political process,” Griffiths tweeted.

“A negotiated political settlement that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people is the only sustainable solution to end this conflict,” the UN envoy noted.

Yemen has been mired in a civil war since late 2014, when the Houthi militia seized control over several northern provinces and forced the internationally-recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi out of the capital Sanaa.




Sweden to introduce tighter rules on public transportation


Sweden to introduce tighter rules on public transportation

Sweden has so far recorded a total of 596,174 Covid-19 cases and 12,188 deaths.

Swedish authorities have announced restrictions on the number of passengers on trains and buses, out of fear that the Covid-19 pandemic might worsen after a slow and steady downward trend since the week before Christmas.

“It seems that the measures we had in place had a dampening effect, but it is worrying that the declining trend has stopped,” state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said in a press conference on Tuesday.

Tegnell added that he expected “a difficult Covid-19 situation for a large part of this winter”, reports Xinhua news agency.

“For a while, it was quite similar across the various regions, with all moving more or less downwards. Now it’s a bit up and down in different places,” the state epidemiologist further said.

To slow down the spread of Covid-19, the government wants tighter restrictions on public-transport journeys, according to Minister for Infrastructure Tomas Eneroth.

“We propose an amendment to the Restriction Ordinance that anyone who organises long-distance traffic by bus or train must ensure that the number of passengers does not at any time exceed half of the vehicle’s seats for journeys exceeding 150 km,” Eneroth said.

The government plans to put the new rules in place from Feburary 14 until the end of May, he added.

Sweden has so far recorded a total of 596,174 Covid-19 cases and 12,188 deaths.




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