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Fate of Supreme Court Nominee Rests With a Divided Senate

The U.S. Senate remains divided over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh has denied an allegation by Christine Blasey Ford that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers in the 1980s. Ford and Democrats are seeking an FBI investigation into the alleged assault before she would testify at the Senate Judiciary Committee, while President Donald Trump and Republicans are so far resisting. More on the battle over Kavanaugh’s nomination from VOA national correspondent Jim Malone.

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Lawmaker: US Senate, Staff Targeted by State-Backed Hackers

Foreign government hackers continue to target the personal email accounts of U.S. senators and their aides – and the Senate’s security office has refused to defend them, a lawmaker says.

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said in a Wednesday letter to Senate leaders that his office discovered that “at least one major technology company” has warned an unspecified number of senators and aides that their personal email accounts were “targeted by foreign government hackers.” Similar methods were employed by Russian military agents who leaked the contents of private email inboxes to influence the 2016 elections.

Wyden did not specify the timing of the notifications, but a Senate staffer said they occurred “in the last few weeks or months.” The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

But the senator said the Office of the Sergeant at Arms , which oversees Senate security, informed legislators and staffers that it has no authority to help secure personal, rather than official, accounts. 

“This must change,” Wyden wrote in the letter. “The November election grows ever closer, Russia continues its attacks on our democracy, and the Senate simply does not have the luxury of further delays.” A spokeswoman for the security office said it would have no comment.

Wyden has proposed legislation that would allow the security office to offer digital protection for personal accounts and devices, the same way it does with official ones. His letter did not provide additional details of the attempts to pry into the lawmakers’ digital lives, including whether lawmakers of both parties are still being targeted.

Google and Microsoft, which offer popular private email accounts, declined to comment.

The Wyden letter cites previous Associated Press reporting on the Russian hacking group known as Fancy Bear and how it targeted the personal accounts of congressional aides between 2015 and 2016. The group’s prolific cyberspying targeted the Gmail accounts of current and former Senate staffers, including Robert Zarate, now national security adviser to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Jason Thielman, chief of staff to Montana Sen. Steve Daines, the AP found.

The same group also spent the second half of 2017 laying digital traps intended to look like portals where Senate officials enter their work email credentials, the Tokyo-based cybersecurity firm TrendMicro has reported.

Microsoft seized some of those traps, and in September 2017 apparently thwarted an attempt to steal login credentials of a policy aide to Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill , the Daily Beast discovered in July. Last month, Microsoft made news again when it seized several internet domains linked to Fancy Bear , including two apparently aimed at conservative think tanks in Washington.

Such incidents “only scratch the surface” of advanced cyberthreats faced by U.S. officials in the administration and Congress, according to Thomas Rid, a cybersecurity expert at Johns Hopkins University. Rid made the statement in a letter to Wyden last week .

“The personal accounts of senators and their staff are high-value, low-hanging targets,” Rid wrote. “No rules, no regulations, no funding streams, no mandatory training, no systematic security support is available to secure these resources.” 

Attempts to breach such accounts were a major feature of the yearlong AP investigation into Fancy Bear that identified hundreds of senior officials and politicians – including former secretaries of state, top generals and intelligence chiefs – whose Gmail accounts were targeted. 

The Kremlin is by no means the only source of worry, said Matt Tait, a University of Texas cybersecurity fellow and former British intelligence official. 

“There are lots of countries that are interested in what legislators are thinking, what they’re doing, how to influence them, and it’s not just for purposes of dumping their information online,” Tait said.

In an April 12 letter released by Wyden’s office, Adm. Michael Rogers – then director of the National Security Agency – acknowledged that personal accounts of senior government officials “remain prime targets for exploitation” and said that officials at the NSA and Department for Homeland Security were discussing ways to better protect them. The NSA and DHS declined to offer further details.

Guarding personal accounts is a complex, many-layered challenge.

Rid believes tech companies have a sudden responsibility to nudge high-profile political targets into better digital hygiene. He said he did not believe much as been done, although Facebook announced a pilot program Monday to help political campaigns protect their accounts, including monitoring for potential hacking threats for those that sign up.

Boosting protection in the Senate could begin with the distribution of small chip-based security devices such as the YubiKey, which are already used in many secure corporate and government environments, Tait said. Such keys supplement passwords to authenticate legitimate users, potentially frustrating distant hackers.

Cybersecurity experts also recommend them for high-value cyber-espionage targets including human rights workers and journalists. 

“In an ideal world, the Sergeant at Arms could just have a pile of YubiKeys,” said Tait. “When legislators or staff come in they can (get) a quick cybersecurity briefing and pick up a couple of these for their personal accounts and their official accounts.” 

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State Department Meeting With Congress on Refugee Cap

The U.S. State Department says it is scheduling meetings with members of Congress, after the country’s top diplomat this week proposed a record-low cap on refugees coming to the United States in the next year.

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday told reporters the “proposed” cap would be 30,000 refugees for Fiscal Year 2019, lawmakers and refugee advocates swiftly criticized the announcement.

What Pompeo did not explain — and it took the State Department a day to clarify in a news conference with the agency’s chief spokesperson Heather Nauert — is that Pompeo’s announcement was a proposal included in an annual report submitted to Congress, not the final number.

A State Department spokesperson told VOA on Wednesday that the agency sent the report, with the proposed refugee ceiling, to Congress on Sept. 17, the same day as Pompeo’s announcement.

“We are working to schedule an in person consultation with Members and a briefing for their staffs as soon as possible,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement to VOA.

The report is created by the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of the president.

Every year, the president sets the so-called “ceiling” on refugees — the maximum number that will be allowed in over the 12-month period starting Oct. 1 — by a “presidential determination.” Part of the process is a consultation with Congress before the figure can be finalized.

The president has until the end of the month to make the presidential determination on the refugee ceiling. The full report is expected to be made public in the coming days, the State Department spokesperson added.

If the president sticks to the 30,000-refugee cap for FY2019, it will be the lowest ceiling on record since the U.S. refugee program began in the early 1980s.

The decision will come after a series of Trump administration decisions that have whittled down the program, citing unproven national security concerns.

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Trump Rips Attorney General Over Russia Probe, Other Issues

U.S. President Donald Trump launched an array of attacks Wednesday on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, disparaging Sessions’ performance as the country’s top law enforcement official.

“I’m disappointed in the attorney general for many reasons,” Trump told reporters at the White House. His remark came hours after a television interview with HillTV aired in which Trump declared, “I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad.”

Trump for more than a year has railed against Sessions, the first senator to declare his support for then-candidate Trump in 2016. Trump continues to vent his anger at Sessions for removing himself from oversight of the long-running investigation of Russia links to Trump’s campaign and whether, as president, Trump obstructed justice by trying to thwart the probe.

Sessions has said that he was required by Justice Department dictates to recuse himself from overseeing the probe because he staunchly backed Trump’s campaign and also had two contacts in 2016, when he was a senator from Alabama, with Russia’s then-ambassador to Washington. Oversight of the Russia probe then fell to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who in turn, over Trump’s objections, appointed Robert Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as special counsel to head the investigation.

Mueller has now won several convictions of top Trump aides and continues to investigate Trump’s campaign and his actions as president.

In the television interview, Trump attacked Sessions on a range of issues. The Justice Department, which Sessions heads, declined to comment. But Sessions, after another Trump attack on him last month, pushed back, saying, “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”

‘We’ll see how it goes’

Even though Sessions has proved to be a hardline foe of illegal immigration into the U.S., Trump said, “I’m not happy at the border, I’m not happy with numerous things, not just” Sessions’s removal of himself from oversight of the Russia investigation.

Trump suggested he did not foresee what would happen when he named Sessions as attorney general.

“I’m so sad over Jeff Sessions because he came to me. He was the first senator that endorsed me. And he wanted to be attorney general, and I didn’t see it,” he said.

“And then he went through the nominating process and he did very poorly,” Trump recalled. “I mean, he was mixed up and confused, and people that worked with him for, you know, a long time in the Senate were not nice to him, but he was giving very confusing answers. Answers that should have been easily answered. And that was a rough time for him.”

Despite his frequent complaints about Sessions, Trump has refrained from firing him, warned by Republican lawmakers that Trump would have great difficulty winning Senate confirmation for any replacement who did not pledge to allow Mueller to complete the Russia probe, an investigation that Trump derides on almost a daily basis.

Some Republican lawmakers have said they might be open to Trump replacing Sessions after the November 6 national congressional elections.

One Republican lawmaker who talks frequently with Trump, Senator Lindsey Graham, said recently, “The president’s entitled to having an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that is qualified for the job, and I think there will come a time sooner rather than later where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice. Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn’t have the confidence of the president.”

Trump recently said Sessions was safe in his job until after the elections.

In the television interview, he said, “We’ll see what happens. A lot of people have asked me to [fire him]. And I guess I study history, and I say I just want to leave things alone, but it was very unfair what he did.”

“And my worst enemies, I mean, people that, you know, are on the other side of me in a lot of ways, including politically, have said that was a very unfair thing he did,” Trump said.

“We’ll see how it goes with Jeff,” Trump concluded. “I’m very disappointed in Jeff. Very disappointed.”

 

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Trump: ‘Hard for Me to Imagine’ Kavanaugh Assaulted Teen in 1982

U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that “it’s very hard for me to imagine” that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a teenage girl 36 years ago when both were in high school, an alleged attack the woman says left her fearful for her life.

Trump said he hopes Kavanaugh’s accuser, California psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford, testifies at a hearing next Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering Kavanaugh’s nomination for a life-time seat on the country’s highest court.

“I really want to see her, to see what she has to say,” Trump said of Ford, now 51. The U.S. leader said it “would be unfortunate” if she does not appear.

Ford’s lawyers late Tuesday called for an FBI probe of her claims before she testifies, but Trump and Republicans that control the Senate panel say an FBI investigation is unnecessary. Kavanaugh, who says he will appear at the Senate panel’s hearing, has adamantly denied knowledge of the purported 1982 party at a suburban Washington home and said he has never attacked any woman.

Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House as he headed to North Carolina to view vast flood damage from Hurricane Florence, praised the 53-year-old Kavanaugh as “an extraordinary man.” But Trump said “it’s really up to the Senate” to decide how to proceed with the confirmation process.

Meanwhile, Anita Hill, the law professor at the center of lurid 1991 confirmation hearings involving Clarence Thomas as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, supported Ford’s call for an FBI investigation of her claims.

Hill told ABC’s “Good Morning America” show, “The American public really is expecting something more. They want to know that the Senate takes this seriously.”

Hill, now a law professor at Brandeis University, said Republican leaders are in an unnecessary rush to confirm Kavanaugh.

“Either they don’t take this seriously,” she said, “or … they just want to get it over. I’m not sure which is in play. Maybe they’re not concerned, or maybe they don’t know how to handle this kind of situation.”

The specter of Hill’s allegations 27 years ago that Thomas often sexually harassed her when they both worked for a federal government agency hangs heavy over the current Kavanaugh confirmation proceedings.

 Hill’s accusations were largely dismissed then by the all-male Senate committee, but many American women sympathized with her claims against Thomas, saying they resonated with their own experiences in the workplace. Thomas was confirmed on a narrow Senate vote and remains a conservative stalwart on the court to this day.

The chairman of the Senate panel, Republican Senator Charles Grassley, said, “The invitation for Monday still stands” for both Ford and Kavanaugh to testify.

“Dr. Ford’s testimony would reflect her personal knowledge and memory of events,” Grassley said. “Nothing the FBI or any other investigator does would have any bearing on what Dr. Ford tells the committee, so there is no reason for any further delay.”

Republican lawmakers are trying to win Senate confirmation for Kavanaugh ahead of the court’s start of a new term on October 1, or if not by then, ahead of the November 6 nationwide congressional elections, to show Republican voters they have made good on campaign promises to place conservative judges like Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.

Ford’s lawyers told Grassley in a letter late Tuesday that some of the senators on the committee “appear to have made up their minds” and believe Kavanaugh.

“A full investigation by law enforcement officials will ensure that the crucial facts and witnesses in this matter are assessed in a nonpartisan manner and that the committee is fully informed before conducting any hearing or making any decisions,” the letter said.

Death threats

The lawyers also said Ford has become the subject of death threats and harassment, and expressed fears that the committee planned to have her “relive this traumatic and harrowing incident” while testifying at the same table as Kavanaugh and in front of national television cameras.

“Nobody should be subject to threats and intimidation, and Dr. Ford is no exception,” Grassley said in a statement later Tuesday.

The Republican senator said there were no plans to have Ford and Kavanaugh appear at the same time, and that the committee had offered her the opportunity to appear before a private hearing.

Ford alleged in a Washington Post interview that Kavanaugh groped her at the house party when she was 15 and he was 17. 

She said Kavanaugh, “stumbling drunk,” threw her down on a bed, grinding his body against hers and trying to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she was wearing over it. Ford said when she tried to scream, he put his hand over her mouth.

She said she feared Kavanaugh might inadvertently kill her before she managed to flee.

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Woman Accusing Judge Kavanaugh of Sexual Assault Wants FBI Probe

Lawyers for the woman who is accusing U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault more than 30 years ago says she wants the FBI to investigate her allegation before she testifies publicly.

Kavanaugh denies the charge and will apparently tell his side of the story before the Senate Judiciary Committee next Monday. 

His accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, has also been invited to testify. 

But Ford’s lawyers say in a letter to Committee Chairman, Republican Chuck Grassley, that some of the senators on the committee “appear to have made up their minds” and believe Kavanaugh.

“A full investigation by law enforcement officials will ensure that the crucial facts and witnesses in this matter are assessed in a nonpartisan manner and that the committee is fully informed before conducting any hearing or making any decisions,” the letter states.

President Donald Trump gave Kavanaugh a ringing new endorsement Tuesday, saying he felt “so badly” that Kavanaugh is facing scrutiny over allegations that he assaulted a teenage girl when both were in high school.

“This is not a man that deserves this,” Trump said. “I feel terrible for his family.”

The president assailed California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein for not disclosing the allegations when she first learned of them in July. He accused Democrats of being “lousy politicians, but good obstructionists” in their efforts to derail Kavanaugh’s confirmation to a lifetime appointment on the country’s highest court.

Ford, a California psychology professor, told The Washington Post Kavanaugh groped her at a suburban Washington house party when she was 15 and he was 17. 

She said Kavanaugh, “stumbling drunk,” threw her down on a bed, grinding his body against hers and trying to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she was wearing over it. Ford said when she tried to scream, he put his hand over her mouth.

She said she feared Kavanaugh might inadvertently kill her before she managed to flee.

Some Democratic lawmakers have also called for an FBI investigation. The agency conducted background checks six times over the years on Kavanaugh.

But Trump said ahead of his news conference, “I don’t think the FBI should be involved because they don’t want to be involved.” He said senators hearing Ford’s accusations, if she testifies, “will open it up and they will do a very good job” considering Ford’s allegations and Kavanaugh’s denial.

Grassley said the panel plans to call only two witnesses, Ford and Kavanaugh, and not another man, Mark Judge, whom Ford says was in the same bedroom during the alleged attack.

Grassley’s omission of Judge, who has denied an attack occurred, and other possible witnesses, drew the ire of Feinstein, the top Democrat on the judiciary panel that is considering Kavanaugh’s nomination and held four days of testimony earlier this month, including hours of questioning of Kavanaugh. 

“It’s impossible to take this process seriously,” Feinstein said.

“What about other witnesses like Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge?” Feinstein said. “What about individuals who were previously told about this incident? What about experts who can speak to the effects of this kind of trauma on a victim? This is another attempt by Republicans to rush this nomination and not fully vet Judge Kavanaugh.”

The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, raised doubts about Ford’s account of the alleged three-decade-old incident, saying, “The problem is Dr. Ford can’t remember when it was, where it was, or how it came to be.” 

Republicans, some of whom see the allegations as a stalling tactic by Democrats to thwart Kavanaugh’s confirmation, have been pushing to confirm him before November’s midterm elections, when they could lose their 51-49 majority control of the Senate.

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Will Strong Economy Sway Voters at the Polls?

Throughout West Acres, North Dakota’s largest shopping mall in Fargo, help wanted signs fill storefront windows.

“It’s a very competitive market,” said Brad Ruhro, owner of Legacy Toys, a family-owned chain of toys stores with a location at West Acres. Ruhro said that as a toy store owner, it’s easy for him to tell when the economy is perking up.

“We’re seeing a continual uptick in customers,” he said. “When the economy’s not so great, they’re buying the necessities — food, supplies that they need to survive. When the economy’s doing better, they’re able to spend more on entertainment and fun.”

​Economic growth

North Dakota has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the country’s economic growth. Unemployment in the state is a mere 2.6 percent — tied with Iowa for the second lowest in the country, after Hawaii with 2.1 percent. North Dakota residents have received the highest average tax cut of any state in the nation — 10.8 percent or $2,170 a year. A Gallup poll released in early 2018 showed that North Dakota residents tied for first with Wyoming residents for economic confidence scores throughout 2017. 

But the realities of economic challenges can complicate voter decisions at the ballot box. 

Shopping at West Acres Mall with his wife and daughter for what he described as “just the basics,” Michael Norby said he didn’t vote for a Democrat or a Republican in the 2016 election.

A college student and a full-time warehouse worker at the local Pepsi factory, Norby said he is the kind of voter who makes decisions on candidates based on how he thinks they can benefit him on income taxes and minimum wage.

“I don’t feel it’s going up fast enough for people to go out and spend, spend, spend,” he said of the economy.

Norby did not vote for Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in 2012 but said he is considering her this time around.

Heitkamp and her opponent, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, are locked in one of the tightest Senate races in the country. Trump carried North Dakota by 36 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 and has endorsed Cramer over Heitkamp. 

Brad Ross, a laid-off truck driver, felt differently about the economy than Norby, even though he is paying his bills by taking temporary cleaning and office jobs.

Ross didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election, but he likes the way Trump is handling the economy so much that he said he would vote for him now.

“I think he’s taken some pretty good strides in straightening things out, like bringing our jobs back here where they belong,” he said. Despite his admiration for Trump, Ross said that he will vote to re-elect Heitkamp to the Senate because she is “tough.”

Republican message

Throughout the country, congressional Republicans like Cramer are attempting to succeed at the polls on Trump’s promise to build a strong economy, pursue an America-first approach to jobs, and spur economic growth with the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act.

Record stock market surges and a four-year high growth rate of 4.2 percent reinforce the president’s case that the U.S. economy is surging.

“We’re the optimists in this country,” Cramer told a group of campaign volunteers marching in a parade in this tiny North Dakota town late last month. “We’re the people that see America as a land of opportunity,” he said. “Not the land of doom and gloom.”

Yet that’s a message Democrats are attempting to counter in a bid to win control of the House of Representatives and maybe even the Senate in the looming midterm elections.They argue that the economic growth fueled by the tax cuts has largely favored corporations and wealthier Americans, while providing lower- and middle-class voters with little in additional take-home pay or savings. Moreover, the Republicans’ message of economic prosperity is getting lost in the controversy over Trump’s immigration and trade policies, his legal woes and media reports of chaos in the White House.

Heitkamp told VOA that positive, large-scale economic numbers should be celebrated.

“But if you get down into the weeds and look at county by county, state by state, the numbers can be quite different,” she said.

Larger-scale economic gains can be difficult for many voters to feel in their daily lives as they look for ways to stretch their paychecks to cover rising living costs.

Inflation-adjusted wages remain flat or slightly lower than a year ago, according to some analyses. That leaves diminished purchasing power to pay the rent or mortgage, put food on the table, and cover rising health care costs. 

Voters heading to the polls this November will have to decide which party’s take on the economy best describes the state of their pocketbook. 

Concern about tariffs

In rural North Dakota, where the economy is dependent on farming, Trump’s tariffs on economic competitors could play a large role in voters’ decisions. 

Earlier this year, China imposed retaliatory tariffs on a range of American farm products as part of an escalating trade war begun by Trump in an attempt to gain U.S. access to Chinese markets and change unfavorable Chinese intellectual property laws. 

The soybean harvest in North Dakota falls just a few weeks before the Nov. 6 elections. If Trump’s negotiations with trading partners don’t come through in time and prevent North Dakota farmers from shipping their crops to their usual trading partner, China, votes could shift away from Republicans.

“This whole tariff situation. It’s a very scary situation right now,” said Mary Lee Nielson, owner of the Quilted Ceiling, a craft store in Valley City, North Dakota. “I can see where a lot of farmers don’t want to spend their money.”

Nielson said the store has had steady business in the 14 years she has owned it with her husband. She says farm families from all over North Dakota visit her store in Valley City, a town of about 6,500 people.

Nielson, a mother of three, also co-owns a farm. She said her family would take a double hit unless there is a resolution to Trump’s showdown with trading partners that include China and Canada.

“Back off on tariffs,” Nielson said of what she wants to see next from Trump. “Don’t hold farmers hostage over something that’s not a farming problem.”

Nielson said Heitkamp’s support for farming communities had earned her vote in the upcoming election.

“We have an economy in this country where the urban depends on the rural economy,” Heitkamp told Nielson and other Valley City farmers and small-business owners at an economic roundtable.

Cramer told VOA he hears farmers’ concerns about tariffs and has reminded them the president is negotiating better deals.

“What I tell them is, good news is coming,” Cramer said. “We push the administration on a regular basis. The president himself said to me, ‘If you push for a fast solution, it’ll be good, but it won’t be as good as it could be.’ ”

Tax cut impact

Concerns about tariffs are just one part of the bigger economic picture, Cramer said, adding the need to fill 30,000 job openings in the state is “stark” while pointing to the popularity of the 2017 tax cuts bill with voters.

“The $1 trillion tax cut that was passed was huge in this area,” Stan Stein, a Cramer supporter and former North Dakota state Republican chairman, said. “I think it was probably $1,500 to $2,000 in everyone’s pocket in North Dakota on average.”

The bill also has a ripple effect, said Kevin Black, president of Creedence Energy, a family-owned chemical, gas and oil company.

“More people eager to invest in this industry and our area and as a result we see a multiplier force across the economy,” Black said. 

But nationwide, only 16 percent of voters said they strongly support the tax plan, according to a June 2018 Economist/YouGov poll. That could be due in part to the small impact on paychecks, Brookings Institution economic analyst Vanessa Williamson said.

“At the very bottom level, this tax cut will not have changed your income much at all,” Williamson said. “Even at the middle level, maybe making $60,000 a year, you’re maybe seeing an extra $20 a week and it just declines from there. So for most Americans it would be very difficult to see.”

Back in Kindred, voter Brady Mitchell watched Cramer march in the parade but wasn’t swayed by his economic arguments. Mitchell voted for Heitkamp last time around and said he was still deciding how to vote this time.

“It all goes to day care or mortgage or out the window anyway,” he said of his family’s economic situation. “So no, I haven’t seen enough of a difference.”

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Will Strong Economy Sway Voters in November Midterms?

President Donald Trump says the U.S. economy is the “envy of the world.” And with the unemployment rate at an 18-year low, Republicans are counting on the improving U.S. economy to make their case with voters in crucial midterm elections in November. VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson traveled to North Dakota to see if the president’s economic policies and congressional Republicans’ tax cuts will make a difference with voters.

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GOP, Dems Unite Behind Senate Bill Fighting Addictive Drugs

Republicans and Democrats joined forces to speed legislation combating the misuse of opioids and other addictive drugs toward Senate passage Monday, a rare campaign-season show of unity against a growing and deadly health care crisis. 

The measure takes wide aim at the problem, including increasing scrutiny of arriving international mail that may include illegal drugs and making it easier for the National Institutes of Health to approve research on finding nonaddictive painkillers and for pharmaceutical companies to conduct that research. The Food and Drug Administration would be allowed to require drug makers to package smaller quantities of drugs like opioids and there would be new federal grants for treatment centers, training emergency workers and research on prevention methods.

Lawmakers’ focus on combating opioids comes amid alarming increases in drug overdose deaths, with the government estimating more than 72,000 of them last year. That figure has grown annually and is double the 36,000 who died in 2008.

Besides the sheer numbers, Congress has been drawn to the problem because of its broad impact on Republican, Democratic and swing states alike.

California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania each had more than 4,000 people die from drug overdoses in 2016, while seven other states each lost more than 2,000 people from drugs, according to the most recent figures available. The states with the highest death rates per resident include West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire, along with the District of Columbia.

West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin and Florida’s Sen. Bill Nelson, both Democrats, are among those facing competitive re-election races in November’s midterm elections. Republicans are trying to deflect a Democratic effort to capture Senate control. 

Money for much of the federal spending the legislation envisions would have to be provided in separate spending bills.

The House approved its own drug misuse legislation this summer. Congressional leaders hope the two chambers will produce compromise legislation and send it to President Donald Trump for his signature by year’s end.

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As Midterms Near, Trump Gambles on his Hardline Trade Policy

Farmers worry about falling crop prices and lost sales overseas. Manufacturers fear rising costs and new foreign taxes on their exports. American allies overseas are furious.

 

By any conventional gauge, President Donald Trump’s uncompromising stance toward tariffs and the pain they’ve begun to cause U.S. individuals and companies so close to midterm elections would seem politically reckless. Yet Trump appears to be betting that his combative actions will soon benefit the country and prove a political winner.

 

Ditching decades of U.S. trade policy that he says swindled America and robbed its workers, Trump insists he can save U.S. jobs and factories by abandoning or rewriting trade deals, slapping taxes on imports and waging a brutal tariff war with China, America’s biggest trading partner.

 

“Prior presidents in both political parties have never really moved to try to help and protect the American economy and its workforce, its farmers, its manufacturing workers, in a way of creating a level playing field,” Larry Kudlow, the top White House economic adviser, told reporters last week. “They give it lip service, and then they back off. This president has no intention of backing off. None. Zero.”

 

Trump’s apparent belief is that he and congressional Republicans can rely on the unswerving support of core GOP voters — even in rural areas that have been economically hurt by his trade disputes — and maybe succeed in delivering better trade deals before Election Day. Still, as an insurance policy against failure, the administration is providing $12 billion in farm aid to soothe trade-war wounds in rural America.

 

All told, it’s a high-risk political gamble.

 

“It’s still unclear ultimately how the issue plays in November,” said Nathan Gonzales, publisher of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter.

 

The U.S. and China have imposed import taxes on $50 billion worth of each other’s products in a rumble over American allegations that Beijing uses predatory tactics to acquire foreign trade secrets and to try to overtake America’s global supremacy in high technology. Over the weekend, news reports indicated that the administration is set to announce tariffs on $200 billion more in Chinese imports — a step that that would significantly escalate the trade war between the world’s two largest economies. Beijing has said it would swiftly retaliate against additional U.S. tariffs.

Caught in the crossfire are U.S. soybean farmers, a prime target of Beijing’s retaliatory tariffs, whose exports to China account for about 60 percent of their overseas sales. These tariffs make U.S. soybeans prohibitively expensive in China. That means lost sales for American farmers.

 

Separately Trump has enraged U.S. allies like Canada and the European Union by declaring their steel and aluminum a threat to America’s national security as justification for slapping taxes on them.

 

On yet another trade front, the president would raise the stakes considerably if he carries out a threat to tax $340 billion in imported cars, trucks and auto parts — action that would raise prices for vehicles Americans buy.

 

What’s more, Trump has threatened to kick Canada out of a North American trade bloc if it doesn’t cave in to pressure to open its dairy market, among other things.

 

Trump is running into resistance in pockets across the country. American farmers who rely on exports are facing retaliation from U.S. trading partners, which depresses export sales and prices of agricultural commodities. Manufacturers that buy steel and aluminum are being hurt by higher prices and supply shortages resulting from the tariffs on imported metals.

 

Corporations fear that Trump’s drive to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement will disrupt the supply chains that they’ve spent the past 24 years building across the United States, Canada and Mexico. If the trade war with China further escalates, consumers would face higher prices at the mall and online. The affected imports would range from handbags, luggage and textiles to a range of consumer electronics, including the Apple Watch and adapters, cables and chargers.

 

On the basis of public opinion surveys, at least, the president’s approach poses political risks. A poll released Aug. 24 by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 61 percent of Americans disapproved of the president’s handling of trade negotiations.

 

“The Trump administration has handed Democrats in the midterms at least a talking point, not just with farmers but with consumers,” said Mickey Kantor, the top American trade negotiator under President Bill Clinton.

 

Missouri’s embattled Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, is trying to link her Republican challenger, Trump ally Josh Hawley, to a nail manufacturing plant that says it might have to close because the Trump steel tariffs have driven up its costs.

Likewise in North Dakota, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is running ads tying her Republican challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer, to Trump’s “reckless trade war.”

 

Besides unveiling $12 billion in aid to farmers hurt by the conflicts, Trump is seeking to reach trade deals to show that his brass-knuckles approach will succeed in the end. He has said he expects to sign a deal with South Korea later this month during the United Nations General Assembly. Earlier this month, he announced an agreement with Mexico to replace NAFTA — a move intended to pressure Canada to embrace a new North American accord on terms favorable to the United States.

 

Plans are underway for a delegation from China to resume trade discussions with the Trump team as early as this week. In addition, Trump says his team has started trade discussions with Japan and has received interest from India.

 

For the president, the bet is that America’s trading partners will capitulate promptly to his demands, rather than delay negotiations in the hope that Democrats will take control of the House and possibly the Senate and leave the president in a weaker bargaining position.

 

“There is some pressure to get results,” said Philip Levy, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a White House economist under President George W. Bush. “They need to do something where they can say, `Hey, this different approach actually works.'”

 

Trump is also relying on the loyalty of his supporters in rural America. He has called farmers “patriots” who are willing to absorb economic pain in the short run to buy time for him to negotiate trade deals more advantageous to the United States.

 

Approval for Trump’s performance is still running at 53 percent in rural areas, compared with 39 percent overall, according to an NPR/Marist poll released last week. Even if they’re worried about the trade disputes, many rural Americans support Trump’s stands on social issues such as immigration — a sign that the president may have enough political leeway to drive forward with his hard line on trade.

 

“Trump,” said chief global strategist Greg Valliere of Horizon Investments, “has a lot of Teflon in the farm belt.”

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