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The speaker, too, sounded downbeat Thursday when she left the door open for late-December negotiations: “We have to have a bill and we cannot go home without it,” Nancy Pelosi told reporters. ”But we can’t go before the package is ready and the votes are there.”

“We’ve been here after Christmas, you know,” she added. Meanwhile, it was unclear if the government might shut down briefly this weekend amid Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) resistance to a defense bill.

It’s still two weeks before Christmas, plenty of time in congressional parlance to roll together a $1.4 trillion year-end spending bill with hundreds of billions more in Covid aid. Maybe, somehow the bipartisan group finds success and bridges partisan chasms on money for local governments and shielding businesses from litigation. Or perhaps party leaders come out of their shells and cobble together a deal at the last moment.

Congressional aides in both parties said leadership staffers have been talking all along, even though it’s been a week since Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have talked — their first meaningful conversation on the issue in weeks — and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and McConnell have had no recent specific conversation about coronavirus. Pelosi herself bristled at Republicans who hoped she’d talk to McConnell: “Tell them to go meet with McConnell,” she quipped.

Top lawmakers can’t even agree on where to start negotiations, much less how to finish them. Pelosi and Schumer continue to promote the bipartisan Senate talks but senior Republicans have coalesced around the White House’s $916 billion bill.

On Wednesday, McConnell’s staff informed House and Senate leadership staffers that the bipartisan group’s attempts to marry $160 billion in state and local aid and a temporary liability shield — major sticking points in the ongoing talks — probably won’t fly with most of the GOP, according to a senior Democrat familiar with the discussion.

It marked a major blow to ongoing bipartisan discussions. And Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a leader of those talks, suggested Congress may need to punt disagreements on liability and local government aid until next year.

And lawmakers in both parties continue to squabble internally about what they should and shouldn’t accept in a deal.

On a call with a group of House Democrats on Thursday, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) pressed leaders to bar President Donald Trump’s name from appearing on any direct payment checks. Several top Democrats pushed back, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) who said: “Steve, we gotta have the votes in the Senate,” according to several sources on the call.

People are getting impatient: Some House Democrats have privately suggested they attach the bipartisan proposal to the omnibus next week even if Republicans don’t agree, effectively jamming the Senate just before the government funding deadline.

“People love to blame the Democrats, but right now, the White House and the Senate are on different pages on what they’re calling for,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a swing-district Democrat who’s been critical of her party’s strategy on Covid relief. “There’s blame to go around.”

“We tried everything that had any remote possibility of success. We tried having Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin do the negotiating,” countered Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “Many of the Democrats screamed, ‘Well McConnell needs to be involved. Now McConnell is involved and they’re still upset.”

Others are just ready for party leaders to cut the posturing and negotiate.

“What you make of it is you’re probably not going to get a deal until people get together,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “The people who should be doing the negotiation are Mitch and Chuck.”

The most movement in recent days has been among the bipartisan senators trying to cut a $908 billion deal. A congressional aide said the group has reached agreement on distributing the money for local governments using a “needs based formula” and is “moving forward” on liability.

But they still hadn’t produced legislative text by Thursday afternoon, struggling to resolve Democratic opposition to liability reform or the broader Republican resistance to $160 billion for local governments. Another issue has popped up recently: a disagreement over funding for private schools, said a person familiar with the discussions.

And the exasperation is palpable, even within that bipartisan group that’s been privately working for weeks to force their leadership to a compromise.

“People are certainly going to assume [that] government is broken,” said Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), who has been part of those bipartisan talks and was defeated in a GOP primary battle earlier this year. “There’s a frustration and an anger in the electorate that’s starting to ripple through the United States. It’s time for us to do something to get off our damn asses.”

Democrats have latched onto the bipartisan talks as the only way out of the impasse. And they say McConnell has refused to get in the room for bipartisan negotiations, whether it’s with Mnuchin and Pelosi, Schumer or rank-and-file senators.

“Schumer’s been begging to negotiate with McConnell for half a year. I just think this bipartisan proposal is our only realistic train,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), referring to repeated entreaties from the minority leader. “At some point I have to believe what I see from McConnell and everything I’ve seen thus far makes it look like he’s trying to go home with nothing happening.”

Republicans believe it’s unrealistic to think a Senate “gang” can force a solution to such a complicated political quagmire. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said McConnell’s arguments of dropping liability reform and state and local is the only way forward: “If they’re not going to do what we really want, then we’re not going to do what they really want.”

Many House Democrats — who passed an initial $3 trillion Covid stimulus package back in May — are in disbelief that their leaders have fought almost exactly the same fight for eight months. The last time Congress approved any substantial relief was in April.

“This chamber has passed a lot of Covid packages, none of them seem to get through,” said Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), whose district has a nearly one-in-three coronavirus positivity rate. “We’ve been waiting months and months for something. I’m of the opinion that something is better than nothing.”

Before the bipartisan lawmakers pressed their $908 billion plan, Pelosi negotiated with Mnuchin on and off for months to no avail. The two made one last attempt at a deal in October but those talks, like all the others, fell apart just before the election. There was some hope that a deal would come together quickly after Nov. 3.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said he remembers campaigning for Biden in the late fall and confidently telling supporters that Congress would approve some form of stimulus. He now concedes that in hindsight, that sentiment was “stupid.”

The senior Missouri Democrat, whose family spent time in public housing growing up, is flummoxed by the lack of urgency as unemployment aid and eviction protections are set to expire at month’s end.

“Maybe we don’t have enough people in here who have ever been poor,” he said.

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)

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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers


Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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