Speaking on the floor, McConnell scoffed at the Democratic leaders’ demands for Republicans to raise the price ceiling of their negotiations to $2 trillion from $1 trillion.
“The Speaker’s latest spin is that it is some heroic sacrifice to lower her demand from a made-up $3.5 trillion marker that was never going to become law to an equally made up $2.5 trillion marker,” McConnell said, referring to a mammoth Democratic package that the House passed in May. “That’s not negotiating. That’s throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.”
McConnell added Thursday afternoon that he still hopes “we’ll have some kind of bipartisan agreement here sometime in the coming weeks.”
The vitriol between Republicans and Democrats has been on full display as the two party leaders traded insults, even as they acknowledged the dire economic and health crises straining the nation.
Congress has been under intense pressure to deliver a deal, but has already blown past the deadlines for key programs such as the federal $600 weekly benefit for out-of-work Americans and the small-business grant known as the Paycheck Protection Program. Federal protections for renters facing eviction has also expired.
The impasse over those programs — and more — led President Donald Trump over the weekend to issue executive actions in an attempt to circumvent Congress. The executive actions attempt to provide additional unemployment benefits to workers, defer payroll tax payment, extend the moratorium on most federal student loan payments until the end of the year and direct agencies to review how they can prevent evictions.
But Trump’s political move, in the face of mounting backlash over his response to the virus, will likely have a much different policy reality. Democrats have called the move blatantly unconstitutional, and it’s unclear what effect the orders will have without congressional backing.
The next looming deadline in Washington is several weeks away — the Sept. 30 funding deadline, and lawmakers are already speculating that the coronavirus negotiations could be dragged into that battle.
That would mean negotiations that began in earnest at the end of July could bleed into late September, with the American economy possibly hanging in the balance. And the pressure will only grow as millions of children begin the school year — whether in-person, remote or a hybrid — with many school districts increasingly desperate for help.
Pelosi has said the next package cannot wait six more weeks, and she does not want to tie the $1 trillion-plus relief talks to an already contentious government funding battle.
“We can’t wait until Sept. 30,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday. “Because people will die.”
It’s unclear whether a looming government shutdown is enough to break the impasse, with Republicans and Democrats each sticking to their corners and Congress already proving that it’s willing to shut down federal agencies over a prolonged political battle.
Instead, many Republicans and Democrats believe the sheer force of the virus itself — which has now killed more than 160,000 Americans and ravaged the U.S. economy — will force their party leaders’ hand.
The U.S. economy has also shown little sign of improvement despite the lifting of lockdowns across large swaths of the country: The Labor Department reported Thursday that 963,000 people filed for unemployment benefits last week, the first time weekly claims fell below 1 million since March, though it is still at historic levels. The unemployment rate in July was 10.2 percent.
The only thing that the two parties can agree on, it seems, is that there is no agreement.
“Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is working on that, but so far it’s a stalemate,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Thursday on CNBC. “No question.”
Max Cohen contributed to this report.
Nicola Sturgeon Has Banned Household Mixing In Scotland And Claimed English Measures Do Not Go Far Enough
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Nicola Sturgeon has announced a ban on households mixing in Scotland, claiming experts say the restrictions introduced in England by Boris Johnson do not go far enough.
The first minister said the Scottish government’s top experts had warned the curbs announced by the Prime Minister on Tuesday would not make a big enough impact on Covid-19 transmission rates.
“The advice given to the Cabinet by the chief medical officer and the national clinical director is that this on its own will not be sufficient to bring the R number down,” she told the Scottish parliament.
“They stress that we must act, not just quickly and decisively, but also on a scale significant enough to have an impact on the spread of the virus, and they advise that we must take account of the fact that household interaction is a key driver of transmission.”
Mr Johnson has imposed a 10pm curfew on the hospitality industry from midnight on Thursday, as well as a legal requirement for those working in the sector, and in retail, to wear masks.
The PM stopped short of preventing different households from socialising with each other outside of local lockdown areas, but said people should work from home wherever possible.
Mrs Sturgeon said she planned to impose similar restrictions on pubs, bars and restaurants but would also go further.
“To that end, we intend as Northern Ireland did yesterday to also introduce nationwide additional restrictions on household gatherings, similar to those already in place in the west of Scotland,” she added.
Earlier in the Commons, Mr Johnson claimed the four nations of the UK were following “similar” restriction plans, despite Northern Ireland announcing on Monday that it would ban socialising between households.
This applies in places like pubs and restaurants as well as in people’s homes.
In Wales, people are not allowed to mix indoors with people outside their own household or support bubble, and meetings or gatherings indoors even within an extended household is limited to six people.
Reports suggest insiders were worried about the prospect of Mrs Sturgeon diverging and implementing a “circuit-breaker” of stricter measures – leaving the actions of Mr Johnson’s government further exposed should they fail.
Some members of the prime minister’s frontbench – including Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Priti Patel – are believed to have lobbied for lighter intervention, while other cabinet ministers were in favour of a more drastic approach.
Mr Johnson told MPs: “I want to stress that this is by no means a return to the full lockdown of March. We’re not issuing a genuine instruction to stay at home, we will ensure that schools, colleges and universities stay open.”
He added: “We will continue to act against local flare ups, working alongside councils and strengthening measures where necessary.”
Pakistan fire: Two to hang for Karachi garment factory inferno
A court in Karachi has sentenced two men to death for arson after finding them guilty of starting Pakistan’s deadliest industrial fire, which killed some 260 people in 2012.
The men were found to have set a garment factory ablaze because its owners had not paid extortion money.
They were affiliated with the MQM party, which was in power in the city at the time, the court said.
Hundreds were trapped inside the building which had no fire exits.
Prosecutors took evidence from more than 400 witnesses. The investigation into the fire called it an act of organised terrorism.
Many of the victims were charred beyond recognition. Others died or broke bones trying to jump to safety.
What happened in the fire?
The blaze at the Ali Enterprises factory in the Baldia town area of the commercial capital began in the afternoon of 11 September 2012 and raged for 15 hours. Some 40 firefighting vehicles attended.
More than 24 hours after the inferno began rescuers were still battling to reach the dead and injured inside. In all, about 500 workers had been inside the factory when the fire broke out.
Many workers jumped from the upper floors. Others could not because of metal grilles on the windows. Survivors said doorways and stairs were stuffed with stacks of finished garments.
Officials said the factory was crammed with combustible materials, including piles of clothes and chemicals.
People trapped inside the building frantically rang their friends and relatives as flames engulfed it.
Outside, crowds of shouting and sobbing relatives gathered for news as rescuers pulled out body after body.
In its verdict, the court in Karachi said 264 people had been killed in the fire, and 60 injured.
What has been the reaction to the verdicts?
Some relatives told BBC Urdu’s Riaz Sohail they felt justice had been only half done – as the factory owners, Arshad and Shahid Bhaila, had not also been held responsible for the loss of life.
The brothers were initially arrested but later released on bail after which they moved abroad. They were questioned by investigators via video link from Dubai .
“Why didn’t the owners order the factory closed, knowing that the MQM’s extortionists had the freedom and the capacity to do what they did?” asked Saeeda Bibi, who lost her 18-year-old son Ayan in the inferno.
Ayan had been her only child – he was planning to quit his job but was waiting for his final salary payment which had been delayed.
Ms Bibi also wanted to know what had happened to a 90m rupee compensation package that was promised to those affected but she said had not materialised.
Faisal Ahmad, the father of another 18-year-old killed in the fire, said when he reached the factory on the day of the blaze, its exit was locked.
“I asked the manager to unlock the door but he didn’t do it. Had he kept it open, some lives may have been saved.”
How was arson proved?
The fire in Baldia was initially thought to have been an accident. Pakistan is prone to industrial disasters, often as a result of poor construction, or lax safety standards and enforcement.
The subsequent discovery that it was an arson attack provided an insight into the grim nexus between political workers and serious criminality in the city, reports the BBC’s Secunder Kermani in Islamabad.
The investigation report said the sum demanded for “protection” was 200m Pakistani rupees ($1.2m). In September 2019, one of the factory owners confirmed this in his witness statement to the court.
Explaining why he thought the fire was not accidental, he said it first broke out in the basement, and then on the upper floor while nothing happened on the mezzanine floor in between.
After early investigations focused on whether or not the owners had been negligent, a key witness told officials members of the city’s powerful Muttahida Qaumi Movement had been trying to extort money from the factory – and were behind the fire.
The MQM’s current leadership denies any involvement with the fire. It is now part of Pakistan’s governing coalition, having split into factions in 2017.
No date has been set for the hanging of Abdul Rehman, also known as Bhola, and his associate Zubair Charya, the men who were sentenced to death. They have the right to appeal.
Bhola was the MQM’s official responsible for the Baldia area, the court heard. In a 2016 statement to the magistrate, he admitted asking Charya to set the factory on fire on the orders of a more senior MQM figure, who is still being sought by police.
Bhola was arrested with Interpol’s help, while Charya escaped to Saudi Arabia and was arrested when he flew back to Karachi some years ago later.
In addition to the two death sentences handed down, the court gave four factory guards life in jail after finding them complicit in the crime.
Four others were acquitted, including the then-provincial minister for industries, Rauf Siddiqui, an MQM member. All the defendants had denied the charges against them.
Lebanon: In political turmoil and economic collapse, it could now be overwhelmed by Covid-19
In addition to a growing financial crisis, healthcare professionals are warning that Lebanon’s fragile medical sector could soon be overwhelmed, leaving the country at risk of a rapidly rising death toll from Covid-19.
Around 10% of those testing for the virus are Covid-positive, a figure that health professionals describe as “alarmingly high.” The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that governments maintain a positivity rate of below 5% before moving to relax social distancing measures.
“I am extremely worried. On which pathway are we headed?” said Dr. Firass Abiad, manager of Beirut’s Rafik Hariri University Hospital, the main public hospital treating patients of the pandemic.
“When we have this sharp rise in the number of cases the first worry of any public health official is whether this rise can overwhelm the healthcare system,” he said. “This is the periphery we are moving into.”
Caretaker Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmy criticized the proposal, arguing that the Lebanese people should not be “toyed” with by repeated lockdowns. Any decision on proposed new restrictions has been deferred to a national coronavirus committee.
Flouting social distancing measures
Lebanon, which previously recorded some of the world’s lowest coronavirus numbers, has seen a rapid spread of the pandemic since Beirut reopened its airport in July.
The spread became rampant after an explosion at the country’s main port on August 4 laid waste to several neighborhoods in Beirut, killing nearly 200 people and injuring more than 6,000 others.
When the virus was first detected in the capital in March, a strict and proactive lockdown successfully slowed its spread — but tipped the country’s already teetering economy over the edge, causing its currency to tank and poverty rates to soar.
Left reeling from the economic downturn, many in Lebanon chalked the virus up to a “government conspiracy” and “heresy.”
The blast that shook Beirut this summer added to feelings of mistrust towards the Lebanese government, prompting many to flout social distancing guidelines.
But as the virus infects more people across the country — including in Tripoli, which has seen some of the highest case numbers in Lebanon — many are taking a pause.
“I’ll close my shop because that’s what we need,” said Beirut shop-owner Ali Jaber.
“Better for us to eat za’atar [spice mixture] and oil for lunch than to die in hospital corridors,” he said. “We’re in the abyss.”
Poverty rates in Lebanon have soared to over 50%, according to the World Bank. The country’s currency has lost over 70% of its value and people’s life savings are locked up in banks that have imposed discretionary capital controls since late 2019.
Describing the country’s political stalemate at a press conference on Monday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun warned that the country may “go to hell.”
But healthcare workers are urging the government to focus on boosting the healthcare sector, despite the maelstrom of other crises it faces.
“It would be a disaster if hospitals and the ministry of health do not impose rules for all hospitals to accept coronavirus patients and to increase their beds,” said Aline Zakhem, assistant professor of clinical medicine and an infectious diseases specialist at the American University of Beirut’s Medical Center.
“Many people are going to die because they don’t have access to healthcare,” she said. “There’s going to be whole floors, if not whole hospitals dedicated to Covid.”
Meanwhile, the shelves of shops, previously flush with goods, are emptying out, and shopowners are bracing for more uncertainty in the weeks to come.
“I’ve never seen days like this in my life,” said coffee shop owner Mohammad Saab. “My customers aren’t showing up anymore. Are they scared of coronavirus? It’s all so strange.”
CNN’s Ghazi Balkiz in Beirut contributed to this report.
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