Congress approves $900B COVID-19 relief bill, sending to Trump

By ANDREW TAYLOR

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package Monday night that would finally deliver long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Lawmakers tacked on a $1.4 trillion catchall spending bill and thousands of pages of other end-of-session business in a massive bundle of bipartisan legislation as Capitol Hill prepared to close the books on the year. The bill goes to President Donald Trump for his signature, which is expected in the coming days.

The relief package, unveiled Monday afternoon, sped through the House and Senate in a matter of hours. The Senate cleared the massive package by a 92-6 vote after the House approved the COVID-19 package by another lopsided vote, 359-53. The six Republican senators voting against the bill were Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rick Scott of Florida, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas.

The tallies were a bipartisan coda to months of partisanship and politicking as lawmakers wrangled over the relief question, a logjam that broke after President-elect Joe Biden urged his party to accept a compromise with top Republicans that is smaller than many Democrats would have liked.

The bill combines coronavirus-fighting funds with financial relief for individuals and businesses. It would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants, and theaters and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.

The 5,593-page legislation — by far the longest bill ever — came together Sunday after months of battling, posturing and postelection negotiating that reined in a number of Democratic demands as the end of the congressional session approached. Biden was eager for a deal to deliver long-awaited help to suffering people and a boost to the economy, even though it was less than half the size that Democrats wanted in the fall.

“This deal is not everything I want — not by a long shot,” said Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a longstanding voice in the party’s old-school liberal wing. “The choice before us is simple. It’s about whether we help families or not. It’s about whether we help small businesses and restaurants or not. It’s about whether we boost (food stamp) benefits and strengthen anti-hunger programs or not. And whether we help those dealing with a job loss or not. To me, this is not a tough call.”

The Senate, meanwhile, was also on track to pass a one-week stopgap spending bill to avert a partial government shutdown at midnight and give Trump time to sign the sweeping legislation.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a key negotiator, said on CNBC Monday morning that the direct payments would begin arriving in bank accounts next week.

Democrats promised more aid to come once Biden takes office, but Republicans were signaling a wait-and-see approach.

The measure would fund the government through September, wrapping a year’s worth of action on annual spending bills into a single package that never saw Senate committee or floor debate.

The legislation followed a tortured path. Democrats played hardball up until Election Day, amid accusations that they wanted to deny Trump a victory that might help him prevail. Democrats denied that, but their demands indeed became more realistic after Trump’s loss and as Biden made it clear that half a loaf was better than none.

The final bill bore ample resemblance to a $1 trillion package put together by Senate Republican leaders in July, a proposal that at the time was scoffed at by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as way too little.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took a victory lap after blocking far more ambitious legislation from reaching the Senate floor. He said the pragmatic approach of Biden was key.

“The president-elect suggesting that we needed to do something now was helpful in moving both Pelosi and Schumer into a better place,” McConnell told The Associated Press. “My view about what comes next is let’s take a look at it. Happy to evaluate that based upon the needs that we confront in February and March.”

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, D-Calif., came to the Senate to cast her vote for the bill. “The American people need relief and I want to be able to do what I can to help them,” she said.

On direct payments, the bill provides $600 to individuals making up to $75,000 per year and $1,200 to couples making up to $150,000, with payments phased out for higher incomes. An additional $600 payment will be made per dependent child, similar to the last round of relief payments in the spring.

“I expect we’ll get the money out by the beginning of next week — $2,400 for a family of four,” Mnuchin said. “So much needed relief just in time for the holidays.”

The $300 per week bonus jobless benefit was half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the $1.8 billion CARES Act in March. That more generous benefit and would be limited to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks. The direct $600 stimulus payment was also half the March payment.

The CARES Act was credited with keeping the economy from falling off a cliff during widespread lockdowns in the spring, but Republicans controlling the Senate cited debt concerns in pushing against Democratic demands.

“Anyone who thinks this bill is enough hasn’t heard the desperation in the voices of their constituents, has not looked into the eyes of the small-business owner on the brink of ruin,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, a lifelong New Yorker who pushed hard for money helping his city’s transit systems, renters, theaters and restaurants.

Progress came after a bipartisan group of pragmatists and moderates devised a $908 billion plan that built a middle-ground position that the top four leaders of Congress — the GOP and Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate — used as the basis for their talks. The lawmakers urged leaders on both sides to back off of hardline positions.

“At times we felt like we were in the wilderness because people on all sides of the aisle didn’t want to give, in order to give the other side a win,” said freshman Rep. Elssa Slotkin, D-Mich. “And it was gross to watch, frankly.”

Republicans were most intent on reviving the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion, which would cover a second round of PPP grants to especially hard-hit businesses. Democrats won set-asides for low-income and minority communities.

The sweeping bill also contains $25 billion in rental assistance, $15 billion for theaters and other live venues, $82 billion for local schools, colleges and universities, and $10 billion for child care.

The governmentwide appropriations bill was likely to provide a last $1.4 billion installment for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall as a condition of winning his signature. The Pentagon would receive $696 billion. Democrats and Senate Republicans prevailed in a bid to use bookkeeping maneuvers to squeeze $12.5 billion more for domestic programs into the legislation.

The bill was an engine to carry much of Capitol Hill’s unfinished business, including an almost 400-page water resources bill that targets $10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environmental and coastal protection projects. Another addition would extend a batch of soon-to-expire tax breaks, such as one for craft brewers, wineries and distillers.

It also would carry numerous clean-energy provisions sought by Democrats with fossil fuel incentives favored by Republicans, $7 billion to increase access to broadband, $4 billion to help other nations vaccinate their people, $14 billion for cash-starved transit systems, $1 billion for Amtrak and $2 billion for airports and concessionaires. Food stamp benefits would temporarily be increased by 15%.

The Senate Historical Office said the previous record for the length of legislation was the 2,847-page tax reform bill of 1986 — about one-half the size of Monday’s behemoth.

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Trump calls for bipartisanship, draws a hard line on immigration

By JULIE PACE and CATHERINE LUCEY

WASHINGTON — Face to face with emboldened Democrats, President Donald Trump called on Washington to cast aside “revenge, resistance and retribution” and end “ridiculous partisan investigations” in a State of the Union address delivered at a vulnerable moment for his presidency.

Trump appealed Tuesday night for bipartisanship but refused to yield on the hard-line immigration policies that have infuriated Democrats and forced the recent government shutdown. He renewed his call for a border wall and cast illegal immigration as a threat to Americans’ safety and economic security.

Trump accepted no blame for his role in cultivating the rancorous atmosphere in the nation’s capital, and he didn’t outline a clear path for collaborating with Democrats who are eager to block his agenda. Their opposition was on vivid display as Democratic congresswomen in the audience formed a sea of white in a nod to early 20th-century suffragettes.

Trump is staring down a two-year stretch that will determine whether he is re-elected or leaves office in defeat. His speech sought to shore up Republican support that had eroded slightly during the recent government shutdown and previewed a fresh defense against Democrats as they ready a round of investigations into every aspect of his administration.

“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he declared. Lawmakers in the cavernous House chamber sat largely silent.

Looming over the president’s address was a fast-approaching Feb. 15 deadline to fund the government and avoid another shutdown. Democrats have refused to acquiesce to his demands for a border wall, and Republicans are increasingly unwilling to shut down the government to help him fulfill his signature campaign pledge. Nor does the GOP support the president’s plan to declare a national emergency if Congress won’t fund the wall.

Wary of publicly highlighting those intraparty divisions, Trump made no mention of an emergency declaration in his remarks. He did offer a lengthy defense of his call for a border wall, declaring: “I will build it.” But he delivered no ultimatums about what it would take for him to sign legislation to keep the government open.

“I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country,” he said, painting a dark and foreboding picture of the risks posed to Americans by illegal immigration.

The 72-year-old Trump harkened back to moments of American greatness, celebrating the moon landing as astronaut Buzz Aldrin looked on from the audience and heralding the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. He led the House chamber in singing happy birthday to a Holocaust survivor sitting with first lady Melania Trump.

“Together, we represent the most extraordinary nation in all of history. What will we do with this moment? How will we be remembered?” Trump said.

The president ticked through a litany of issues with crossover appeal, including boosting infrastructure, lowering prescription drug costs and combating childhood cancer. But he also appealed to his political base, both with his harsh rhetoric on immigration and a call for Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the “late-term abortion of children.”

Trump devoted much of his speech to foreign policy, another area where Republicans have increasingly distanced themselves from the White House. He announced details of a second meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, outlining a Feb. 27-28 summit in Vietnam.

Trump and Kim’s first summit garnered only a vaguely worded commitment by the North to denuclearize. But the president said his outreach to Pyongyang had made the U.S. safer.

“If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” he said.

As he condemned political turmoil in Venezuela, Trump declared that “America will never be a socialist country” — a remark that may also have been targeted at high-profile Democrats who identify as socialists.

The president was surrounded by symbols of his emboldened political opposition. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was praised by Democrats for her hard-line negotiating during the shutdown, sat behind Trump as he spoke. And several senators running for president were also in the audience, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Another Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, delivered the party’s response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become America’s first black female governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for U.S. Senate from Georgia.

Speaking from Atlanta, Abrams calls the shutdown a political stunt that “defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values.”

Trump’s address amounted to an opening argument for his re-election campaign. Polls show he has work to do, with his approval rating falling to just 34 percent after the shutdown, according to a recent survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

One bright spot for the president has been the economy, which has added jobs for 100 straight months.

“The only thing that can stop it,” he said, “are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations” — an apparent swipe at the special counsel investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign, as well as the upcoming congressional investigations.

The diverse Democratic caucus, which includes a bevy of women, sat silently for much of Trump’s speech. But they leapt to their feet when he noted there are “more women in the workforce than ever before.”

The increase is due to population growth — and not something Trump can credit to any of his policies.

The president also defended his decisions to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan over the opposition from national security officials and many Republican lawmakers.

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said, adding that the U.S. is working with allies to “destroy the remnants” of the Islamic State group and that he has “accelerated” efforts to reach a settlement in Afghanistan.

IS militants have lost territory since Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was pulling U.S. forces out, but military officials warn the fighters could regroup within six months to a year of the Americans leaving. Several leading GOP lawmakers have sharply criticized his plans to withdraw from Syria, as well as from Afghanistan.

Trump’s guests for the speech included Alice Marie Johnson, a woman whose life sentence for drug offenses was commuted by the president, and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who has been bullied over his last name. They sat with Mrs. Trump during the address.

 

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Cal State Fullerton’s Chelsea Reynolds: Online culture suffers when we censor personal ad forums

By Chelsea Reynolds

You’ve probably heard of Craigslist. It’s that buy-and-sell-it website where your kid scored his first apartment. Maybe you’ve used it to find a concert ticket or sell a couch. Or maybe you’ve scrolled through the Missed Connections sections searching for love on your lunch break. I certainly have.

Chelsea Reynolds is an assistant professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton, where she teaches courses in journalism and digital media. (Photo courtesy of Cal State Fullerton)
Chelsea Reynolds is an assistant professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton, where she teaches courses in journalism and digital media. (Photo courtesy of Cal State Fullerton)

But a seedier side of the classifieds ad site has made headlines in recent weeks. Alongside posts for free kittens and lawn services are countless solicitations for casual sex and sex work.

Or at least there were until March. That’s when Craigslist shuttered its personal ads sections in preemptive reaction to two new anti-sex trafficking bills, best known to the public by their hashtags #SESTA and #FOSTA.

On April 11, President Trump signed those bills into law, with catastrophic impacts for personal ad websites and internet civil liberties.

What is SESTA-FOSTA?

Lawmakers promoted the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) as deterrents to child sex trafficking. Specifically, the bills were designed to bring down Backpage.com, a personal ad site similar to Craigslist that has been linked with the exploitation of children.

In principle, SESTA-FOSTA might seem like a good idea. But as written, the language in the bills actually targeted online “prostitution” — a far broader concept than child sex trafficking.

Although online criminal activity has never been protected by law, SESTA-FOSTA removes civil and criminal protections for websites that facilitate prostitution. The logic goes like this: If law enforcement prosecutes web service providers for knowingly allowing prostitution, then sites like Backpage and Craigslist will surveil their own platforms more deliberately, and fewer traffickers will pimp out children on the internet.

But, of course, few things in law are so simple.

In order to enforce sex trafficking accountability standards, Congress makes an exception to the longstanding protections for website operators found in section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act. Section 230 was the credo that guaranteed a censorship-free cyberspace: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” it states.

Historically, websites have not been held responsible for the content posted by their users. If someone makes a bomb threat on Facebook, that’s illegal. But Facebook would not likely be the party at fault. This has been a crucial variable in the business formulas for social media, online porn, blogging, and — yes — personal ad sites.

This year, it all changes.

Now web service providers can be held legally liable for any content construed as “prostitution” that occurs on their websites, which could set a precedent for all sorts of government surveillance that challenges the very core of internet culture. More importantly, SESTA-FOSTA encourages self-surveillance of sexual content. It stifles free speech.

As a scholar of sexuality and media, I am very concerned about the implications of SESTA-FOSTA.

Collateral damage

SESTA-FOSTA has created a choking effect in online discourse, moving sex traffickers into the digital shadows, preventing consenting adult sex workers from screening their clients online and eliminating important gathering spaces for sexual “outsiders.” So far, more than 40 websites have closed themselves down in reaction to the law.

First, online sex trafficking will continue to exist under SESTA-FOSTA. It will bubble up in less-visible corners of the internet, such as the dark web, where cryptocurrencies are traded for sex and drugs. Making mainstream websites like Craigslist and Backpage responsible for sex trafficking doesn’t eliminate sex trafficking. It just moves it further underground.

Second, SESTA-FOSTA makes no distinction between consensual sex work (e.g. adult escorts, live cammers, masseuses, sugar babies) and human trafficking (e.g. sex slavery, child prostitution, illegal immigration blackmail). That’s because the law is written to punish websites that catalyze “prostitution.” For the consenting women, men and transgender folks who provide sexual services for their rent money, the new law may be a matter of life and death.

Sex workers have long used the internet to screen their clients. Adult personal ad sites have provided a digital safety net for the often at-risk people who do sex work. And sex workers can operate independently online, sidestepping predatory pimps.

Without internet services, sex workers may be forced into back alleys and adult clubs, compromising their ability to choose non-violent, STI-free and HIV-negative clients. SESTA-FOSTA’s effects are felt along lines of race, gender, sexuality and social class. The new law fails to acknowledge its harm to already-marginalized groups.

Third, sexual personal ad sites aren’t just used for sex trafficking. Many communities have been impacted by the Craigslist and Backpage shutdowns — not just the “pimps and prostitutes” that politicians and journalists have painted as perpetrators of online sex crimes.

While completing my Ph.D. in mass communication at the University of Minnesota, my dissertation, “Casual Encounters: Constructing Sexual Deviance About Craigslist.org” examined this phenomenon.

In my research, I analyzed hundreds of Craigslist ads for casual sex posted in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City during the past 15 years. Most of those posts were made by everyday folks hoping to explore their sexual fantasies. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were gay men and transgender women, but also LGBTQ young adults, polyamorous and BDSM kink communities, older adults, and ordinary Joes seeking sexual encounters and conversation partners.

Although sex workers do use personal ad sites to identify and screen clients, the majority of people on Craigslist are curious adults exploring their sexualities. Law enforcement and the mainstream press have sensationalized online sex forums as the red light districts of the internet.

Selective censorship

Until last month, Craigslist had hosted online posts for romantic, sexual, casual and platonic relationships for nearly two decades. (Craigslist launched in 1995 as a San Francisco-area events listserv and went national in 2000.)

So it’s not surprising that SESTA-FOSTA wasn’t the first assault against online personals culture. Craigslist and Backpage have weathered multiple crusades against sex trafficking and sex work. In 2008-09, Craigslist bowed under national law enforcement pressure and removed its Erotic Services and Adult Services forums from the site. And starting in 2011, sex trafficking lawsuits pelted both websites.

Back then, Craigslist was a symbol of the libertarian internet. A “censored” bar replaced their sex forums — a political statement that was covered in newspapers across the country. The sex forums went live again after self-surveillance measures were put in place to prevent trafficking.

But today, Craigslist and Backpage have less opportunity for resistance.

As citizens, we should be concerned about the pressure SESTA-FOSTA puts on these websites. We’ve already seen the law’s effects reach beyond sexual personal ad forums. Adult content has been pulled from Google accounts, Twitter has begun “shadow banning” accounts with erotic undertones, and Instagram has taken away users’ posting privileges. Dozens of websites have removed their personal ad sections as a form of self-preservation.

Based on an arbitrary moral standard, SESTA-FOSTA threatens the free speech of LGBTQ people, kink communities and independent, adult sex workers in the name of child safety. It sets a precedent for content-specific digital censorship and encourages self-surveillance among sexual outgroups. It should be a major concern for proponents of the First Amendment.

First they came for the personal ad websites.

What online communities are next?

Chelsea Reynolds is an assistant professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton, where she teaches courses in journalism and digital media. Her research focuses on mass-mediated stigma against sexual minority communities. The author wishes to thank Christopher R. Terry, University of Minnesota assistant professor, for his feedback on this column.

 

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Mail-in primary ballots arrive this week; here’s what’s happening

Primary election day is June 5 in California and local communities. But balloting actually begins May 7 — this Monday. That’s the start of voting by mail.

For people who have avoided thinking about politics for as long as they could, time’s up. Here’s a refresher about what’s at stake in the next month.

In this election between presidential elections, voters here will begin to decide who leads California, with primaries to select the two candidates to advance to the Nov. 6 general elections in races for governor, seven other statewide offices, every Assembly seat and half of the state Senate, and the state Board of Equalization. They’ll also begin to choose California’s representatives in Washington, D.C., with a U.S. Senate seat and all U.S. House seats in play. And they’ll start to select who’ll hold many municipal offices and judgeships.

Some themes will be pervasive.

The #MeToo movement, which hangs over several races for the state Legislature in Los Angeles County, has brought out a record number of women candidates, hoping to increase their numbers in Sacramento and Washington. Also, young voters — many who registered during pro gun control marches related to the Parkland shooting — are expected to turn out in higher numbers than usual, even as 84-year-old U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein seeks her sixth six-year term. And the partisan battle for control of the U.S. House, with Democrats targeting at least a half-dozen Republican-held seats in California, could energize voters of all stripes.

Donald Trump isn’t on any ballot — or you could say he’s on almost every ballot as Democratic candidates play up their opposition to the president whose record-low approval percentages nationally are even lower in California’s major cities.

“A lot of them [the elections] are about Trump, and the divisions that are so raw in this country among people who follow politics,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles. “This doesn’t mean we’ll get record [voter] turnout, but there is a heightened sense that these elections matter.”

These are the contests likely to get the most attention in the weeks before election day:

GOVERNOR: Jerry Brown, now 80, is leaving office because of term limits. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, another Democrat, has led the polls. It was long assumed the race would boil down to Newsom and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, a battle of former San Francisco and L.A. mayors. But some polls show Villaraigosa fighting for the second spot in the top-two primary against Democrat John Chiang and Republicans John Cox and Travis Allen.

CONGRESS: Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives to seize the majority and take control from Republicans. The districts they’re targeting include seven in California where voters in ’16 elected GOP representatives even as they picked Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump for president. Five of those districts are in Southern California, including two in Orange County where incumbent Republicans (Dana Rohrabacher and Mimi Walters) are hoping to keep the seats, and two others in the county where long-time GOP representatives (Darrell Issa and Ed Royce) are retiring, and one in northern L.A. county where Republican Steve Knight hopes to keep the seat.

STATE LEGISLATURE: Sexual harassment scandals in state government hang over several races for the Legislature, all involving Democrat-controlled districts in L.A. County. Special elections will fill out the terms of Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, assemblymen from the San Fernando Valley who resigned after multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. (The race for Dababneh’s seat includes 19-year-old Republican Justin Clark, who could become the youngest known legislator in California history.) A special-election primary will fill out the term of Tony Mendoza, a senator from Artesia who resigned after being accused of sexual harassment, only to remain on the ballot for the special election.  Also, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, is running for re-election while on voluntary, paid leave during an investigation of sexual harassment charges against her.

Potentially confusing for many voters is this: The special elections to fill out remaining terms of resigning legislators occur on the same day as the primaries in the regular elections for the next full term of those same legislative offices.

In another unusual state legislative contest, Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, faces a recall election. Republicans started the recall drive after Newman voted in favor of California’s gas-tax increase.

State legislative election results in November will determine if Democrats regain their hold on two-thirds of the Assembly and Senate. Democrats currently are one seat short in each house of the two-thirds “supermajority” that would allow them to, among other things, pass tax increases without Republican members’ votes.

Voters have until May 21 to register to vote and until May 29 to request vote-by-mail ballots (see the sample ballot that comes in the mail). For those who have already requested mail-in ballots or have arranged for permanent vote-by-mail status, the ballots will be sent out starting May 7; so many Californians could fill out their votes in the next few days.

Mail-in ballots must be postmarked by June 5 and arrive at county election offices by June 8 to be counted.

The percentage of votes cast by mail in Californians has grown steadily in the past 50 years from the low single digits — back when, ostensibly, only people traveling out of town used what was known as “absentee voting.” The past six state election primaries have all seen more than half of the votes cast by mail, including 69.4 percent in the 2014 primary.

Southern Californians can get more information about voting from election officials in Los Angeles County at 800-815-2666 and www.lavote.net/home/voting-elections, Orange County at 714-567-7600 and ocvote.com, Riverside County at 951-486-7200 and voteinfo.net, and San Bernardino County at 800-881-VOTE and sbcountyelections.com.

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