Hawaii lawmakers take aim at vacation rentals after wildfire amplifies housing crisis

HONOLULU — A single mother of two, Amy Chadwick spent years scrimping and saving to buy a house in the town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui. But after a devastating fire leveled Lahaina in August and reduced Chadwick’s home to white dust, the cheapest rental she could find for her family and dogs cost $10,000 a month.

Chadwick, a fine-dining server, moved to Florida where she could stretch her homeowners insurance dollars. She’s worried Maui’s exorbitant rental prices, driven in part by vacation rentals that hog a limited housing supply, will hollow out her tight-knit town.

Most people in Lahaina work for hotels, restaurants and tour companies and can’t afford $5,000 to $10,000 a month in rent, she said.

“You’re pushing out an entire community of service industry people. So no one’s going to be able to support the tourism that you’re putting ahead of your community,” Chadwick said by phone from her new home in Satellite Beach on Florida’s Space Coast. “Nothing good is going to come of it unless they take a serious stance, putting their foot down and really regulating these short-term rentals.”

The August 8 wildfire killed 101 people and destroyed housing for 6,200 families, amplifying Maui’s already acute housing shortage and laying bare the enormous presence of vacation rentals in Lahaina. It reminded lawmakers that short-term rentals are an issue across Hawaii, prompting them to consider bills that would give counties the authority to phase them out.

Gov. Josh Green got so frustrated he blurted an expletive during a recent news conference.

“This fire uncovered a clear truth, which is we have too many short-term rentals owned by too many individuals on the mainland and it is b———t,” Green said. “And our people deserve housing, here.”

Vacation rentals are a popular alternative to hotels for those seeking kitchens, lower costs and opportunities to sample everyday island life. Supporters say they boost tourism, the state’s biggest employer. Critics revile them for inflating housing costs, upending neighborhoods and contributing to the forces pushing locals and Native Hawaiians to leave Hawaii for less expensive states.

This migration has become a major concern in Lahaina. The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, a nonprofit, estimates at least 1,500 households — or a quarter of those who lost their homes — have left since the August wildfire.

The blaze burned single family homes and apartments in and around downtown, which is the core of Lahaina’s residential housing. An analysis by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization found a relatively low 7.5% of units there were vacation rentals as of February 2023.

Lahaina neighborhoods spared by the fire have a much higher ratio of vacation rentals: About half the housing in Napili, about 11 kilometers north of the burn zone, is short-term rentals.

Napili is where Chadwick thought she found a place to buy when she first went house hunting in 2016. But a Canadian woman secured it with a cash offer and turned it into a vacation rental.

Also outside the burn zone are dozens of short-term rental condominium buildings erected decades ago on land zoned for apartments.

In 1992, Maui County explicitly allowed owners in these buildings to rent units for less than 180 days at a time even without short-term rental permits. Since November, activists have occupied the beach in front of Lahaina’s biggest hotels to push the mayor or governor to use their emergency powers to revoke this exemption.

Money is a powerful incentive for owners to rent to travelers: a 2016 report prepared for the state found a Honolulu vacation rental generates 3.5 times the revenue of a long-term rental.

State Rep. Luke Evslin, the Housing Committee chair, said Maui and Kauai counties have suffered net losses of residential housing in recent years thanks to a paucity of new construction and the conversion of so many homes to short-term rentals.

“Every alarm bell we have should be ringing when we’re literally going backwards in our goal to provide more housing in Hawaii,” he said.

In his own Kauai district, Evslin sees people leaving, becoming homeless or working three jobs to stay afloat.

The Democrat was one of 47 House members who co-sponsored one version of legislation that would allow short-term rentals to be phased out. One objective is to give counties more power after a U.S. judge in 2022 ruled Honolulu violated state law when it attempted to prohibit rentals for less than 90 days. Evslin said that decision left Hawaii’s counties with limited tools, such as property taxes, to control vacation rentals.

Lawmakers also considered trying to boost Hawaii’s housing supply by forcing counties to allow more houses to be built on individual lots. But they watered down the measure after local officials said they were already exploring the idea.

Short-term rental owners said a phase-out would violate their property rights and take their property without compensation, potentially pushing them into foreclosure. Some predicted legal challenges.

Alicia Humiston, president of the Rentals by Owner Awareness Association, said some areas in West Maui were designed for travelers and therefore lack schools and other infrastructure families need.

“This area in West Maui that is sort of like this resort apartment zone — that’s all north of Lahaina — it was never built to be local living,” Humiston said.

One housing advocate argues that just because a community allowed vacation rentals decades ago doesn’t mean it still needs to now.

“We are not living in the 1990s or in the 1970s,” said Sterling Higa, executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future. Counties “should have the authority to look at existing laws and reform them as necessary to provide for the public good.”

Courtney Lazo, a real estate agent who is part of Lahaina Strong, the group occupying Kaanapali Beach, said tourists can stay in her hometown now but many locals can’t.

“How do you expect a community to recover and heal and move forward when the people who make Lahaina, Lahaina, aren’t even there anymore?” she said at a recent news conference as her voice quivered. “They’re moving away.”

Once foreign aid bill signed, this is how US can rush weapons to Ukraine

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon could get weapons moving to Ukraine within days once Congress passes a long-delayed aid bill. That’s because it has a network of storage sites in the U.S. and Europe that hold the ammunition and air defense components that Kyiv desperately needs.

Moving fast is critical, CIA Director Bill Burns said this past week, warning that without additional aid from the U.S., Ukraine could lose the war to Russia by the end of this year.

“We would like very much to be able to rush the security assistance in the volumes we think they need to be able to be successful,” Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said.

The House approved $61 billion in funding for the war-torn country Saturday. It still needs to clear the Senate and President Joe Biden’s signature.

Once that happens, “we have a very robust logistics network that enables us to move material very quickly,” Ryder told reporters this past week. “We can move within days.”

Ready to go

The Pentagon has had supplies ready to go for months but hasn’t moved them because it is out of money. It has spent the funding Congress previously provided to support Ukraine, sending more than $44 billion worth of weapons, maintenance, training and spare parts since Russia’s February 2022 invasion.

By December, the Pentagon was $10 billion in the hole, because it is going to cost more now to replace the systems it sent to the battlefield in Ukraine.

As a result, the Pentagon’s frequent aid packages for Ukraine dried up because there had been no guarantee that Congress would pass the additional funding needed to replenish the weapons the U.S. has been sending to Ukraine.

The lag in weapons deliveries has forced Ukrainian troops to spend months rationing their dwindling supply of munitions.

How US can quickly move weapons

When an aid package for Ukraine is announced, the weapons are either provided through presidential drawdown authority, which allows the military to immediately pull from its stockpiles, or through security assistance, which funds longer-term contracts with the defense industry to obtain the systems.

The presidential drawdown authority, or PDA, as it’s known, has allowed the military to send billions of dollars’ worth of ammunition, air defense missile launchers, tanks, vehicles and other equipment to Ukraine.

“In the past, we’ve seen weapons transferred via presidential drawdown authority arrive within a matter of days,” said Brad Bowman, director at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies center on military and political power.

Those stocks are pulled from bases or storage facilities in the U.S. or from European sites where the U.S. has surged weapons to cut down on the amount of time it will take to deliver them once the funding is approved.

Storage in US

The military has massive weapons storage facilities in the U.S. for millions of rounds of munitions of all sizes that would be ready to use in case of war.

For example, the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in Oklahoma sprawls across more than 16,000 hectares connected by rail and has a mission to surge as many as 435 shipping containers — each able to carry 15 tons worth of munitions — if ordered by the president.

The facility is also a major storage site for one of the most used munitions on Ukraine’s battlefield, 155 mm howitzer rounds.

The demand by Ukraine for that particular shell has put pressure on U.S. stockpiles and pushed the military to see where else it could get them. As a result, tens of thousands of 155 mm rounds have been shipped back from South Korea to McAlester to be retrofitted for Ukraine.

Storage in Europe

According to a U.S. military official, the U.S. would be able to send certain munitions “almost immediately” to Ukraine because storehouses exist in Europe.

Among the weapons that could go very quickly are the 155 mm rounds and other artillery, along with some air defense munitions. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss preparations not yet made public.

A host of sites across Germany, Poland and other European allies also are helping Ukraine maintain and train on systems sent to the front. For example, Germany set up a maintenance hub for Kyiv’s Leopard 2 tank fleet in Poland, near the Ukrainian border.

The nearby maintenance hubs hasten the turnaround time to get needed repairs done on the Western systems. 

Taiwan to discuss with US how to use new funding

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan’s defense ministry said Sunday it will discuss with the United States how to use funding for the island included in a $95 billion legislative package mostly providing security assistance to Ukraine and Israel. 

The United States is Taiwan’s most important international supporter and arms supplier despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties. 

Democratically governed Taiwan has faced increased military pressure from China, which views the island as its own territory. Taiwan’s government rejects those claims. 

The defense ministry expressed thanks to the U.S. House of Representatives for passing the package on Saturday, saying it demonstrated the “rock solid” U.S. support for Taiwan. 

The ministry added it “will coordinate the relevant budget uses with the United States through existing exchange mechanisms and work hard to strengthen combat readiness capabilities to ensure national security and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” 

Taiwan has since 2022 complained of delays in deliveries of U.S. weapons such as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, as manufacturers focused on supplying Ukraine to help the country battle invading Russian forces. 

Underscoring the pressure Taiwan faces from China, the ministry said Sunday morning that during the previous 24 hours 14 Chinese military aircraft had crossed the sensitive median line of the Taiwan Strait. 

The median line once served as an unofficial border between the two sides, which neither military crossed. But China’s air force now regularly sends aircraft over it. China says it does not recognize the line’s existence. 

On Saturday, Taiwan’s defense ministry said China had again carried out “joint combat readiness patrols” with Chinese warships and warplanes around Taiwan. 

China’s defense ministry did not answer calls seeking comment outside of office hours Sunday. 

The island’s armed forces are dwarfed by those of China’s, especially the navy and air force. 

US ponders trade status upgrade for Vietnam despite some opposition

Washington — U.S. officials are considering a request from Vietnam to be removed from a list of “nonmarket” economies, a step that would foster improved diplomatic relations with a potential ally in Asia but would anger some U.S. lawmakers and manufacturing firms.

The Southeast Asian country is on the list of 12 nations identified by the U.S. as nonmarket economies, which also includes China and Russia because of strong state intervention in their economies.  

Analysts believe Hanoi is hoping for a decision before the November U.S. election, which could mean a return to power of Donald Trump, who during his previous term as president threatened to boost tariffs on Vietnam because of its large trade surplus with the United States.

Under the Trump administration, the Department of Treasury also put Vietnam on a list of currency manipulators, which can lead to being excluded from U.S. government procurement contracts or other remedial actions. The Treasury, under the Biden administration, removed Vietnam from this list.

On the eve of President Joe Biden’s September visit to Hanoi, where he and Vietnamese Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong elevated the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

Vietnam formally asked U.S. Department of Commerce to remove it from the list of nonmarket economies on the grounds that it had made economic reforms in recent years.  

The Biden administration subsequently initiated a review of Vietnam’s nonmarket economy (NME) status. The Department of Commerce is to issue a final decision by July 26, 270 days after initiating the review.  

“Receiving market economy status is the highest diplomatic priority of the Vietnamese leadership this year, especially after last fall’s double upgrade in diplomatic relations,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at National War College where he focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues.

He told VOA Vietnamese that the Vietnamese “are really linking the implementation of the joint vision statement to receiving that status.”

The U.S. is Vietnam’s most important export market with two-way trade totaling more than $125 billion in 2023, according to U.S. Census data. But Washington has initiated more trade defense investigations with Vietnam than with any other country, mainly anti-dumping investigations. Vietnam recorded 58 cases subject to trade remedies of the U.S. as of August 2023, in which 26 were anti-dumping, according to the Vietnam Trade Office in the U.S.

Vietnam has engaged a lobbying firm in Washington to help it win congressional support for a status upgrade. A Foreign Agents Registration Act’s statement filed to the U.S. Department of Justice shows that Washington-based Steptoe is assisting the Vietnamese Ministry of Industry and Trade and supporting the Vietnamese government in “obtaining market economy status in antidumping proceedings.”

“I understand why Vietnamese are lobbying,” said Murray Hiebert, a senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“One reason is U.S.-Vietnam relations have come so far, and to hold the non-market [status] is a little bit disingenuous because most of the countries that have this status are countries like China, Russia, North Korea, who are not so friendly with the United States. So I think [the U.S. recognition of Vietnam as a market economy] would be a sign that relations have improved.”

US election key

Both Abuza and Hiebert believe that Vietnam is pushing hard to secure the upgrade before the November U.S. election that could bring Trump back into office.

“Trump began an investigation of Vietnam’s dumping just before the end of his administration. He may again start that process,” said Hiebert, who was senior director for Southeast Asia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before joining CSIS.

But Vietnam’s campaign faces opposition from within the U.S.

More than 30 U.S. lawmakers in January sent joint letters to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo urging the Biden administration not to grant market economy status to Vietnam. They argued that Vietnam did not meet the procedural requirements for a change of status and that granting Hanoi’s wish would be “a serious mistake.”

The U.S. designated Vietnam as a nonmarket economy in 2002 during an anti-dumping investigation into Vietnamese catfish exports. Over the past 21 years, the U.S. has imposed anti-dumping duties on many Vietnamese exports, including agricultural and industrial products.

In a request sent to Raimondo to initiate a changed circumstances review, the Vietnamese Ministry of Industry and Trade said that over the past 20 years, the economy of Vietnam “has been through dramatic developments and reforms.” It said 72 countries recognize Vietnam as a market economy, notably the U.K., Canada, Australia and Japan.

‘Unfairly traded Chinese goods’

U.S. manufacturing groups have expressed opposition to Vietnam’s request, arguing that Vietnam continues to operate as a nonmarket economy. In comments sent to Raimondo, the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AMM) said that Vietnam “cannot reasonably be understood to demonstrate the characteristics of a market economy.”

“There’s still heavy intervention by the governing Communist Party [of Vietnam],” said Scott Paul, president of AMM. “There’s a lot of indication that China may be using Vietnam as a platform to also export to the U.S., which is obviously concerning to firms here,” he said.

In a letter dated January 28, eight senators wrote “Granting Vietnam market economy status before it addresses its clear nonmarket behavior and the severe deficiencies in its labor law will worsen ongoing trade distortions, erode the U.S. manufacturing base, threaten American workers and industries, and reinforce Vietnam’s role as a conduit for goods produced in China with forced labor.”  

Many Chinese products have been found to be disguised or labeled as “Made in Vietnam” to avoid U.S. tariffs since Trump launched a trade war with China in 2018. Vietnam has promised to crack down on the practice.

Abuza pointed out what he called a contradiction in U.S. policy.

“Vietnam is too important to the United States economically in terms of trade and foreign direct investment, and we cannot look to Vietnam for supply chain diversification out of China if it doesn’t have market economy status.”

Hiebert said the U.S. “should do this and get moving” as Vietnam is “one of the U.S.’ best friends in Asia and Southeast Asia and help stand up to China.”

Tennessee Volkswagen employees vote to join United Auto Workers union

Chattanooga, Tennessee — Employees at a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted to join the United Auto Workers union Friday in a historic first test of the UAW’s renewed effort to organize nonunion factories.

The union wound up getting 2,628 votes, or 73% of the ballots cast, compared with only 985 who voted no in an election run by the National Labor Relations Board.

Both sides have five business days to file objections to the election, the NLRB said. If there are none, the election will be certified, and VW and the union must “begin bargaining in good faith.”

President Joe Biden, who backed the UAW and won its endorsement, said the union’s win follows major union gains across the country including actors, port workers, Teamsters members, writers and health care workers.

Twice in recent years, workers at the Chattanooga plant have rejected union membership in plantwide votes. Most recently, they handed the UAW a narrow defeat in 2019 as federal prosecutors were breaking up a bribery-and-embezzlement scandal at the union.

But this time, they voted convincingly for the UAW, which is operating under new leadership directly elected by members for the first time and basking in a successful confrontation with Detroit’s major automakers.

The union’s new president, Shawn Fain, was elected on a platform of cleaning up after the scandal and turning more confrontational with automakers. An emboldened Fain, backed by Biden, led the union in a series of strikes last fall against Detroit’s automakers that resulted in lucrative new contracts.

Next up for a union vote are workers at Mercedes factories near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who will vote on UAW representation in May.

Fain said he was not surprised by the size of the union’s win Friday after the two previous losses.

“This gives workers everywhere else the indication that it’s OK,” Fain said. “All we’ve heard for years is we can’t win here, you can’t do this in the South, and you can.”

Worker Vicky Holloway of Chattanooga was among dozens of cheering workers celebrating at an electrical workers union hall near the VW plant. She said the overwhelming vote for the union came this time because her colleagues realized they could have better benefits and a voice in the workplace.

“Right now, we have no say,” said Holloway, who has worked at the plant for 13 years. “It’s like our opinions don’t matter.”

In a statement, Volkswagen thanked workers for voting and said 83.5% of the 4,300 production workers cast ballots in the election.

Six Southern governors, including Tennessee’s Bill Lee, warned the workers in a joint statement this week that joining the UAW could cost them their jobs and threaten the region’s economic progress.

But the overwhelming win is a warning to nonunion manufacturers, said Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who studies the union.

“This is going to send a powerful message to all of those companies that the UAW is knocking at the door, and if they want to remain nonunion, they’ve got to step up their game,” Masters said.

Shortly after the Detroit contracts were ratified, Volkswagen and other nonunion companies handed their workers big pay raises.

Last fall, Volkswagen raised production worker pay by 11%, lifting top base wages to $32.40 per hour, or just over $67,000 per year. VW said its pay exceeds the median household income for the Chattanooga area, which was $54,480 last May, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

But under the UAW contracts, top production workers at GM, for instance, now earn $36 an hour, or about $75,000 a year excluding benefits and profit sharing. By the end of the contract in 2028, top-scale GM workers would make over $89,000.

Blinken returns to China next week amid ongoing tensions, with no breakthrough expected

State Department — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to China April 24 through 26 for talks with senior officials in Shanghai and Beijing.

Blinken’s second trip to China comes as the United States warns it against enabling Russia in its war on Ukraine, with Chinese firms directly supplying critical components for Russia’s defense industrial base.

Other pressing matters on the agenda include counternarcotics, bolstering military-to-military communication, establishing talks on artificial intelligence risks and safety, and exploring ways to strengthen people-to-people ties, according to the State Department.

A senior State Department official said in a briefing Friday the U.S. is “realistic and clear eyed about the prospects of breakthroughs” on any of the issues on the agenda. Some analysts said they do not anticipate any major advances to emerge from the talks.

China aiding Russia in Ukraine war

In a joint statement this week, foreign ministers from the G7 leading industrialized nations urged China to stop transferring dual-use materials and weapons components that Russia is using to advance its military production.

U.S. officials said those materials include significant quantities of microelectronics, unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missile technology, and nitrocellulose, which Russia uses to make propellants for weapons.

“China can’t have it both ways” — helping Russia and keeping good relations with Europe, Blinken told reporters at a press conference in Capri, Italy, Friday.

A senior State Department official told VOA during a virtual briefing Friday that the United States is “prepared to take steps” when necessary, against Chinese firms that “severely undermine security in both Ukraine and Europe.”

The United States may sanction Chinese banks that facilitate the transfer of these materials, according to analysts. Washington has sanctioned Chinese individuals and companies that provide material support to Russia, and is enlisting European allies for similar measures.

“In contrast to the United States, the European Union has not really sanctioned Chinese individuals or companies to the same degree,” Kelly Grieco, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, told VOA.

Grieco said the U.S. is working with other G7 members to garner more support from European nations to take similar actions.

Beijing dismissed what Chinese officials labeled as Washington’s attempt to “smear” or “attack the normal relations between China and Russia.”  

China maintains it regulates the export of dual-use materials to Russia in accordance with laws.  The U.S. “should not harm the legitimate rights and interests of China and Chinese companies,” Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, said during a recent briefing.

Taiwan

Blinken’s visit to China is scheduled just weeks before the inauguration of Taiwan’s president-elect Lai Ching-te on May 20.

The U.S. is sending an unofficial delegation to attend his inauguration, which includes former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Laura Rosenberger, who chairs the American Institute in Taiwan. 

Blinken will underscore America’s enduring interest in preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. 

“During this important and sensitive time leading up to the May 20 inauguration, all countries will contribute to peace and stability, avoid taking provocative actions that may raise tensions and demonstrate restraint. That will be our message going forward,” the senior State Department official said.

Counternarcotics

Fentanyl is the leading cause of death of Americans between the ages of 18 to 49.

China remains the primary source of fentanyl-related substances trafficked through international mail and express consignment operations, serving as the main source for all fentanyl-related substances entering the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“It’s in China’s interest to cooperate in reducing and ending the flow of chemical precursors to the United States,” the State Department official said. 

He added that the U.S. delegation traveling to China next week will “get down to detailed implementation” of the agreement reached in November 2023 to restart cooperation, particularly focusing on “concrete progress” between the law enforcement agencies of the two countries to curb the flow of these chemical precursors.

Some analysts said the extent and durability of the cooperation is yet to be seen.

“China sees counternarcotics and more broadly international law enforcement cooperation as strategic tools that it can leverage to achieve other objectives,” wrote Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

“Even though China’s current goal is to reduce tensions, China’s drug cooperation is vulnerable to new crises in the bilateral relationship,” she added.

Blinken’s visit to China is the latest in a flurry of high-level diplomacy aimed at stabilizing China-U.S. relations.  It follows Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s recent trip to Guangzhou, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Munich in February, and U.S. President Joe Biden’s talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Woodside, California, in November.

China said it welcomes the top U.S. diplomat’s visit soon.

US House passes aid package for Ukraine, Israel after months of struggle

Washington — The House is pushing swiftly through a series of votes in a rare Saturday session to approve $95 billion in foreign aid for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies, Democrats and Republicans joining together after a grueling monthslong fight over renewed American support for repelling Russia’s invasion.

With overwhelming support, the House approved the Ukraine portion, a $61 billion aid package, in a strong showing of American backing as lawmakers race to deliver a fresh round of U.S. support to the war-torn ally. Some lawmakers cheered, waiving blue-and-yellow flags of Ukraine.

The $26 billion package aiding Israel and providing humanitarian relief to citizens of Gaza also easily cleared. Each segment of the aid package faced an up-or-down vote.

A national security bill that includes a provision forcing sale of the popular platform TikTok was quickly approved, as was another supporting Indo-Pacific allies.

The unusual process is allowing unique coalitions to form around the bills, pushing them forward. The whole package will go to the Senate, where passage in the coming days is nearly assured. President Joe Biden has promised to sign it immediately.

“The eyes of the world are upon us, and history will judge what we do here and now,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The weekend scene presented a striking display of congressional action after months of dysfunction and stalemate fueled by Republicans, who hold the majority but are deeply split over foreign aid, particularly for Ukraine as it fights Russia’s invasion. Speaker Mike Johnson, putting his job on the line, is relying on Democratic support to ensure the military and humanitarian package is approved, and help flows to the U.S. allies.

The morning opened with a somber and serious debate and unusual sense of purpose, Republican and Democratic leaders united to urge swift passage that would ensure the United States supports its allies and remains a leader on the world stage. The House’s visitor galleries were crowded with onlookers.

Passage through the House would clear away the biggest hurdle to Biden’s funding request, first made in October as Ukraine’s military supplies began to run low. The GOP-controlled House, skeptical of U.S. support for Ukraine, struggled for months over what to do, first demanding that any assistance be tied to policy changes at the U.S.-Mexico border, only to immediately reject a bipartisan Senate offer along those very lines.

Reaching an endgame has been an excruciating lift for Johnson that has tested both his resolve and his support among Republicans, with a small but growing number now openly urging his removal from the speaker’s office. Yet congressional leaders cast the votes as a turning point in history — an urgent sacrifice as U.S. allies are beleaguered by wars and threats from continental Europe to the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific.

“The only thing that has kept terrorists and tyrants at bay is the perception of a strong America, that we would stand strong,” Johnson said this week. “This is a very important message that we are going to send the world.”

Opponents, particularly the hard-right Republicans from Johnson’s majority, argued that the U.S. should focus on the home front, addressing domestic border security and the nation’s rising debt load, and they warned against spending more money, which largely flows to American defense manufacturers, to produce weaponry used overseas.

Still, Congress has seen a stream of world leaders visit in recent months, from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, all but pleading with lawmakers to approve the aid. Globally, the delay left many questioning America’s commitment to its allies.

At stake has also been one of Biden’s top foreign policy priorities — halting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advance in Europe. After engaging in quiet talks with Johnson, the president quickly endorsed Johnson’s plan this week, paving the way for Democrats to give their rare support to clear the procedural hurdles needed for a final vote.

“We have a responsibility, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans to defend democracy wherever it is at risk,” the House Democratic leader, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, said during the debate.

While aid for Ukraine will likely win a majority in both parties, a significant number of progressive Democrats are expected to vote against the bill aiding Israel as they demand an end to the bombardment of Gaza that has killed thousands of civilians.

At the same time, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has loomed large over the fight, weighing in from afar via social media statements and direct phone calls with lawmakers as he tilts the GOP to a more isolationist stance with his “America First” brand of politics.

Ukraine’s defense once enjoyed robust, bipartisan support in Congress, but as the war enters its third year, a bulk of Republicans oppose further aid. Trump ally Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., offered an amendment to zero out the money, but it was rejected.

At one point, Trump’s opposition essentially doomed the bipartisan Senate proposal on border security. This past week, Trump also issued a social media post that questioned why European nations were not giving more money to Ukraine, though he spared Johnson from criticism and said Ukraine’s survival was important.

Still, the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus has derided the legislation as the “America Last” foreign wars package and urged lawmakers to defy Republican leadership and oppose it because the bills do not include border security measures.

Johnson’s hold on the speaker’s gavel has also grown more tenuous in recent days as three Republicans, led by Greene, supported a “motion to vacate” that can lead to a vote on removing the speaker. Egged on by far-right personalities, she is also being joined by a growing number of lawmakers including Reps. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who is urging Johnson to voluntarily step aside, and Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.

The speaker’s office has been working furiously to drum up support for the bill, as well as for Johnson, R-La.

The package includes several Republican priorities that Democrats endorse, or at least are willing to accept. Those include proposals that allow the U.S. to seize frozen Russian central bank assets to rebuild Ukraine; impose sanctions on Iran, Russia, China and criminal organizations that traffic fentanyl; and legislation to require the China-based owner of the popular video app TikTok to sell its stake within a year or face a ban in the United States.

Still, the all-out push to get the bills through Congress is a reflection not only of politics, but realities on the ground in Ukraine. Top lawmakers on national security committees, who are privy to classified briefings, have grown gravely concerned about the situation in recent weeks. Russia has increasingly used satellite-guided gliding bombs — which allow planes to drop them from a safe distance — to pummel Ukrainian forces beset by a shortage of troops and ammunition.

US presidential contenders differ on who’s better for economy

The U.S. economy is always a major factor in the presidential campaign because the president plays a key role in setting and shaping trade and economic policies. VOA’s Senior Washington Correspondent Carolyn Presutti reports on how the economy is doing and the difference between how the two presidential contenders would handle it. Camera: Mike Burke

Senate passes reauthorization of key US surveillance program after midnight deadline

WASHINGTON — After its midnight deadline, the Senate voted early Saturday to reauthorize a key U.S. surveillance law after divisions over whether the FBI should be restricted from using the program to search for Americans’ data nearly forced the statute to lapse.

The legislation approved 60-34 with bipartisan support would extend for two years the program known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to become law. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden “will swiftly sign the bill.”

“In the nick of time, we are reauthorizing FISA right before it expires at midnight,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said when voting on final passage began 15 minutes before the deadline. “All day long, we persisted, and we persisted in trying to reach a breakthrough and in the end, we have succeeded.”

U.S. officials have said the surveillance tool, first authorized in 2008 and renewed several times since then, is crucial in disrupting terror attacks, cyber intrusions, and foreign espionage and has also produced intelligence that the U.S. has relied on for specific operations, such as the 2022 killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

“If you miss a key piece of intelligence, you may miss some event overseas or put troops in harm’s way,” Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. “You may miss a plot to harm the country here, domestically, or somewhere else. So, in this particular case, there’s real-life implications.”

The proposal would renew the program, which permits the U.S. government to collect without a warrant the communications of non-Americans located outside the country to gather foreign intelligence. The reauthorization faced a long and bumpy road to final passage Friday after months of clashes between privacy advocates and national security hawks pushed consideration of the legislation to the brink of expiration.

Though the spy program was technically set to expire at midnight, the Biden administration had said it expected its authority to collect intelligence to remain operational for at least another year, thanks to an opinion earlier this month from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which receives surveillance applications.

Still, officials had said that court approval shouldn’t be a substitute for congressional authorization, especially since communications companies could cease cooperation with the government if the program is allowed to lapse.

House before the law was set to expire, U.S. officials were already scrambling after two major U.S. communication providers said they would stop complying with orders through the surveillance program, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

Attorney General Merrick Garland praised the reauthorization and reiterated how “indispensable” the tool is to the Justice Department.

“This reauthorization of Section 702 gives the United States the authority to continue to collect foreign intelligence information about non-U.S. persons located outside the United States, while at the same time codifying important reforms the Justice Department has adopted to ensure the protection of Americans’ privacy and civil liberties,” Garland said in a statement Saturday.

But despite the Biden administration’s urging and classified briefings to senators this week on the crucial role they say the spy program plays in protecting national security, a group of progressive and conservative lawmakers who were agitating for further changes had refused to accept the version of the bill the House sent over last week.

The lawmakers had demanded that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer allow votes on amendments to the legislation that would seek to address what they see as civil liberty loopholes in the bill. In the end, Schumer was able to cut a deal that would allow critics to receive floor votes on their amendments in exchange for speeding up the process for passage.

The six amendments ultimately failed to garner the necessary support on the floor to be included in the final passage.

One of the major changes detractors had proposed centered on restricting the FBI’s access to information about Americans through the program. Though the surveillance tool only targets non-Americans in other countries, it also collects communications of Americans when they are in contact with those targeted foreigners. Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, had been pushing a proposal that would require U.S. officials to get a warrant before accessing American communications.

“If the government wants to spy on my private communications or the private communications of any American, they should be required to get approval from a judge, just as our Founding Fathers intended in writing the Constitution,” Durbin said.

In the past year, U.S. officials have revealed a series of abuses and mistakes by FBI analysts in improperly querying the intelligence repository for information about Americans or others in the U.S., including a member of Congress and participants in the racial justice protests of 2020 and the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

But members on both the House and Senate intelligence committees as well as the Justice Department warned requiring a warrant would severely handicap officials from quickly responding to imminent national security threats.

“I think that is a risk that we cannot afford to take with the vast array of challenges our nation faces around the world,” Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Friday.

 

Man who set himself on fire outside Trump trial dies of injuries, police say

NEW YORK — A man who doused himself in an accelerant and set himself on fire outside the courthouse where former President Donald Trump is on trial has died, police said. 

The New York City Police Department told The Associated Press early Saturday that the man was declared dead by staff at an area hospital.

The man was in Collect Pond Park around 1:30 p.m. Friday when he took out pamphlets espousing conspiracy theories, tossed them around, then doused himself in an accelerant and set himself on fire, officials and witnesses said.

A large number of police officers were nearby when it happened. Some officers and bystanders rushed to the aid of the man, who was hospitalized in critical condition.

The man, who police said had traveled from Florida to New York in the last few days, hadn’t breached any security checkpoints to get into the park. 

The park outside the courthouse has been a gathering spot for protesters, journalists and gawkers throughout Trump’s trial, which began with jury selection Monday. 

Through Friday, the streets and sidewalks in the area around the courthouse were generally wide open and crowds have been small and largely orderly. 

Authorities said they were also reviewing the security protocols, including whether to restrict access to the park. The side street where Trump enters and leaves the building is off limits.

“We may have to shut this area down,” New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry said at a news conference outside the courthouse, adding that officials would discuss the security plan soon.

US beach aims to disrupt Black students’ spring bash after ’23 chaos

TYBEE ISLAND, Georgia — Thousands of Black college students expected this weekend for an annual spring bash at the largest public beach in the U.S. state of Georgia will be greeted by dozens of extra police officers and barricades closing off neighborhood streets. While the beach will remain open, officials are blocking access to nearby parking.

Tybee Island east of Savannah has grappled with the April beach party known as Orange Crush since students at Savannah State University, a historically Black school, started it more than 30 years ago. Residents regularly groused about loud music, trash littering the sand and revelers urinating in yards.

Those complaints boiled over into fear and outrage a year ago when weekend crowds of up to 48,000 people daily overwhelmed the 4.8-kilometer island. That left a small police force scrambling to handle a flood of emergency calls reporting gunfire, drug overdoses, traffic jams and fistfights.

Mayor Brian West, elected last fall by Tybee Island’s 3,100 residents, said roadblocks and added police aren’t just for limiting crowds. He hopes the crackdown will drive Orange Crush away for good.

“This has to stop. We can’t have this crowd anymore,” West said. “My goal is to end it.”

Critics say local officials are overreacting and appear to be singling out Black visitors to a Southern beach that only white people could use until 1963. They note Tybee Island attracts vast crowds for the Fourth of July and other summer weekends when visitors are largely white, as are 92% of the island’s residents.

“Our weekends are packed with people all season, but when Orange Crush comes, they shut down the parking, bring extra police and act like they have to take charge,” said Julia Pearce, one of the island’s few Black residents and leader of a group called the Tybee MLK Human Rights Organization. She added: “They believe Black folks to be criminals.”

During the week, workers placed metal barricades to block off parking meters and residential streets along the main road parallel to the beach. Two large parking lots near a popular pier are being closed. And Tybee Island’s roughly two dozen police officers will be augmented by about 100 sheriff’s deputies, Georgia state troopers and other officers.

Security plans were influenced by tactics used last month to reduce crowds and violence at spring break in Miami Beach, which was observed by Tybee Island’s police chief.

Officials insist they’re acting to avoid a repeat of last year’s Orange Crush party, which they say became a public safety crisis with crowds at least double their typical size.

“To me, it has nothing to do with race,” said West, who believes city officials previously haven’t taken a stronger stand against Orange Crush because they feared being called racist. “We can’t let that be a reason to let our citizens be unsafe and so we’re not.”

Tybee Island police reported 26 total arrests during Orange Crush last year. Charges included one armed robbery with a firearm, four counts of fighting in public and five DUIs. Two officers reported being pelted with bottles, and two women told police they were beaten and robbed of a purse.

On a gridlocked highway about a mile off the island, someone fired a gun into a car and injured one person. Officials blamed the shooting on road rage.

Orange Crush’s supporters and detractors alike say it’s not college students causing the worst problems.

Joshua Miller, a 22-year-old Savannah State University senior who plans to attend this weekend, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the crackdown was at least partly motivated by race.

“I don’t know what they have in store,” Miller said. “I’m not going down there with any ill intent. I’m just going out there to have fun.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson was one of the Black students from Savannah State who helped launch Orange Crush in 1988. The university dropped involvement in the 1990s, and Johnson said that over time the celebration “got off the rails.” But he also told reporters he’s concerned about “over-representation of police” at the beach party.

At Nickie’s 1971 Bar & Grill near the beach, general manager Sean Ensign said many neighboring shops and eateries will close for Orange Crush though his will stay open, selling to-go food orders like last year. But with nearby parking spaces closed, Ensign said his profits might take a hit, “possibly a few thousand dollars.”

It’s not the first time Tybee Island has targeted the Black beach party. In 2017, the city council banned alcohol and amplified music on the beach only during Orange Crush weekend. A discrimination complaint to the U.S. Justice Department resulted in city officials signing a non-binding agreement to impose uniform rules for large events.

West says Orange Crush is different because it’s promoted on social media by people who haven’t obtained permits. A new state law lets local governments recoup public safety expenses from organizers of unpermitted events.

In February, Britain Wigfall was denied an permit for space on the island for food trucks during Orange Crush. The mayor said Wigfall has continued to promote events on the island.

Wigfall, 30, said he’s promoting a concert this weekend in Savannah, but nothing on Tybee Island involving Orange Crush.

“I don’t control it,” Wigfall said. “Nobody controls the date that people go down there.”

How a Louisiana speed trap could be a constitutional crisis

New Orleans — Texas nurse Nick Nwoye had never heard of Fenton, Louisiana, before their police pulled him over. It’s how a lot of people first learn about the town.

“I was driving home to Houston a few years ago and had to pass through Fenton,” he told VOA. “The moment I saw the speed limit had changed from 65 mph to 50 mph [105 kph to 80 kph], I began to slow down. But it was too late.”

Nwoye says a police car was waiting behind a tree. The officer turned on his lights and pulled him over.

“He said I was driving 77 mph in a 50-mph zone [124 kph in an 80-kph zone], and there’s no way I was,” Nwoye explained. “The officer had this big smile on his face like, ‘I got you,’ as if this was a game the police played.”

Deciding to challenge the ticket, Nwoye called the town’s court to speak to the judge. That’s when he realized how difficult it would be to appeal the Louisiana fine.

“You know who the judge was?” he asked, exasperated. “It was the mayor. The mayor was his own town’s court judge. So on one hand, he’s deciding whether or not I should have to pay, and on the other hand he’s incentivized to have me pay because this is the money he needs to run Fenton.”

“He told me there was nothing he could do,” Nwoye scoffed. “But why would he want to do anything other than have me pay the town?”

Small town, big revenue

Located in western Louisiana, about an hour drive from the Texas border, Fenton’s 226 residents have a city hall, a gas station, a library, a grain elevator, a Baptist church, a public housing complex and a Dollar General store.

For such a small place, Fenton finds itself regularly in the news.

At first glance, its notoriety might appear to come from being a “speed trap town” — an area near a municipality in which the speed limit drops suddenly and drastically. Police officers wait for drivers to miss the speed change or fail to slow down in time and then pounce, writing them a costly ticket.

When those tickets are paid, the revenue can be substantial. In Fenton, for example, the 12 months ending in June 2022 brought $1.3 million to the town’s coffers from traffic violations. By comparison, that is about the same as Louisiana’s third-largest city, Shreveport.

While speed traps are not illegal, some legal experts caution that a quirk in the judicial system used in small Louisiana towns unfairly disadvantages those seeking to challenge their fines.

‘Write more tickets’

“They have a real racket going on in Fenton,” says Bo Powell, a retiree from Monroe, Louisiana, who was pulled over in Fenton in 2014.

The non-profit investigative journalism group ProPublica obtained and published a recording of Fenton Mayor Eddie Alfred, Jr. telling police officers last September that they needed to write more tickets or there would be layoffs in town government.

“Our main income is traffic tickets, and they ain’t getting written,” said the mayor in the recording. “We need to write more traffic tickets.”

“It’s like the whole village is a crime family,” Powell tells VOA. “Everyone in that courtroom — the mayor, the clerk, the police officer — is paid for by these tickets. How is this legal?”

But a “Mayor’s Court,” as it’s called, is legal in the states of Louisiana and Ohio.

Mayor’s Court

Bobby King is city attorney for Walker, Louisiana. He helps train mayors on their responsibilities in Mayor’s Courts, which have jurisdiction over municipal ordinance violations including traffic fines, but not over felonies or juvenile offenses.

“Mayor’s Courts are important for helping with managing a crowded docket of cases, and for providing a more economical option to smaller towns that can’t afford to pay for a judge and a city court,” King told VOA. “But the potential for bias due to revenue generation is definitely a valid concern.”

A just way forward

Mayor’s Courts were more common before a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a driver in Monroeville, Ohio, was denied a fair trial because the mayor who ruled against him was responsible for both law enforcement and generating municipal revenue.

“However, that case wasn’t a blanket ruling saying all Mayor’s Courts are unconstitutional,” explained Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, which litigates for civil rights in criminal justice. “The ruling said that the law must consider whether ‘the mayor’s executive responsibilities for village finances might make him partisan to maintain the high level of contribution from the Mayor’s Court.’”

Louisiana and Ohio concluded that a mayor could be an impartial judge. For Ohio, where one out of every six traffic tickets are issued in jurisdictions governed by a Mayor’s Court, a federal judge ruled in 1995 that a mayor could be considered biased if at least 10% of the town’s revenue came from its Mayor’s Court.

Louisiana’s Judicial College recommends that Mayor’s Courts exceeding that 10% threshold should hire a magistrate.

“It’s still a Mayor’s Court,” says King, “but having someone else oversee cases could help ensure impartiality and fairness in the judicial process.”

Foley says it’s not a question of “whether there’s a percentage of overall revenue before a Mayor’s Court becomes unconstitutional.”

“Rather, these kinds of courts just shouldn’t exist,” says Foley. “The financial conflicts of interest are too great. A Mayor’s Court is largely unaccountable to anyone, and they lack the safeguards we should expect in criminal proceedings.”

The Mayor’s Court in Fenton generates more than 90% of town revenue. After some resistance, Mayor Alfred agreed in December to appoint a magistrate to his court.

“But why does a town of 226 people require its own court anyway?” asks Joanna Weiss, co-executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “The conflict is present in the existence of the court itself. The court, a key government function meant to protect everyone’s rights and responsibilities, is instead being used to meet a budget.”

US to withdraw its troops from Niger, source says

washington — The United States will withdraw its troops from Niger, a source familiar with the matter said late on Friday, adding that an agreement was reached between U.S Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Niger’s leadership. 

As of last year, there were a little more than 1,000 U.S. troops in Niger, where the U.S. military operated out of two bases, including a drone base known as Air Base 201 near Agadez in central Niger at a cost of more than $100 million. 

Since 2018, the base has been used to target Islamic State militants and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, an al-Qaida affiliate, in the Sahel region.  

Last year, Niger’s army seized power in a coup. Until the coup, Niger had remained a key security partner of the United States and France.  

But the new authorities in Niger joined juntas in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso in ending military deals with one-time Western allies like Washington and Paris, quitting the regional political and economic bloc ECOWAS, and fostering closer ties with Russia. 

In the coming days, there will be conversations about how that drawdown of troops will look, the source told Reuters, asking not to identified. 

The source said there would still be diplomatic and economic relationships between the U.S. and Niger despite this step. 

Earlier Friday, The New York Times reported that more than 1,000 American military personnel will leave Niger in coming months. 

Last month, Niger’s ruling junta said it revoked with immediate effect a military accord that allowed military personnel and civilian staff from the U.S. Department of Defense on its soil. 

The Pentagon had said thereafter it was seeking clarification about the way ahead. It added that the U.S. government had “direct and frank” conversations in Niger ahead of the junta’s announcement and was continuing to communicate with Niger’s ruling military council. 

Hundreds took to the streets of Niger’s capital last week to demand the departure of U.S. troops after the ruling junta further shifted its strategy by ending the military accord with the United States and welcoming Russian military instructors. 

Eight coups in West and Central Africa over four years, including in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, have prompted growing concerns over democratic backsliding in the region. 

Man sets self on fire outside New York court where Trump trial underway

new york — A man set himself on fire on Friday outside the New York courthouse where Donald Trump’s historic hush-money trial was taking place as jury selection wrapped up, but officials said he did not appear to have been targeting Trump.

The man burned for several minutes in full view of television cameras that were set up outside the courthouse, where the first-ever criminal trial of a former U.S. president is being held.

“I see a totally charred human being,” a CNN reporter said on the air.

Officials said the man survived and was in critical condition at a local hospital.

Witnesses said the man pulled pamphlets out of a backpack and threw them in the air before he doused himself with a liquid and set himself on fire. One of those pamphlets included references to “evil billionaires” but portions that were visible to a Reuters witness did not mention Trump.

The New York Police Department said the man, who they identified as Max Azzarello of St. Augustine, Florida, did not appear to be targeting Trump or others involved in the trial.

“Right now, we are labeling him as sort of a conspiracy theorist, and we are going from there,” Tarik Sheppard, a deputy commissioner with the police department, said at a news conference.

In an online manifesto, a man using that name said he set himself on fire and apologized to friends, witnesses and first responders. The post warns of “an apocalyptic fascist coup” and criticizes cryptocurrency and U.S. politicians, but it does not single out Trump in particular.

Witnesses said they were disturbed by his actions.

“He was on fire for quite a while,” one witness, who declined to give his name, told reporters. “It was pretty horrifying.”

The smell of smoke lingered in the plaza shortly after the incident, according to a Reuters witness, and a police officer sprayed a fire extinguisher on the ground. A smoldering backpack and a gas can were visible.

The downtown Manhattan courthouse, heavily guarded by police, drew a throng of protesters and onlookers on Monday, the trial’s first day, though crowds have dwindled since then.

The shocking development came shortly after jury selection for the trial was completed, clearing the way for prosecutors and defense attorneys to make opening statements next week in a case stemming from hush money paid to a porn star.

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