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Biden, Democrats hit gas on push for $15 minimum wage

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By — Kevin Freking, Associated Press

— The Democratic push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour has emerged as an early flashpoint in the fight for a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, testing President Joe Biden’s ability to bridge Washington’s partisan divides as he pursues his first major legislative victory.

Biden called for a $15 hourly minimum wage during his campaign and has followed through by hitching it to a measure that, among other things, calls for $1,400 stimulus checks and $130 billion to help schools reopen. Biden argues that anyone who holds a full-time job shouldn’t live in poverty, echoing progressives in the Democratic Party who are fully on board with the effort.

“With the economic divide, I mean, I want to see a $15 minimum wage. It should actually be $20,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.

Some Republicans support exploring an increase but are uneasy with $15 an hour. They warn that such an increase could lead to job losses in an economy that has nearly 10 million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic began. Moderates such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rep. Tom Reed of New York are urging Biden to split off the minimum wage hike from COVID-19 talks and deal with it separately.

“The more you throw into this bucket of COVID relief that’s not really related to the crisis, the more you risk the credibility with the American people that you’re really sincere about the crisis,” Reed said. Including the wage increase, Murkowski said, “complicates politically an initiative that we should all be working together to address.”

The resistance from moderates has left Democrats with a stark choice: Wait and build bipartisan support for an increase or move ahead with little to no GOP backing, potentially as part of a package that can pass the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote. Democratic leaders appear to be moving toward the latter option, with no guarantee of success. Even if raising the wage can get past procedural challenges, passage will require the support from every Democrat in the 50-50 Senate, which could be a tall order.

Leading the charge is Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who unveiled $15 wage legislation this week with the backing of 37 Senate Democrats. His bill would gradually raise the wage to $15 over a period of five years. The federal minimum is $7.25 and has not been raised since 2009.

Sanders, the incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee, said it was fine with him if Republicans were not prepared to “come on board.” He said the government needed to pump money into the economy to make sure “people are not working on starvation wages.”

Democrats are moving toward using a tool that allows certain budget-related items to bypass the Senate filibuster — a hurdle requiring 60 votes — and pass with a simple majority. Sanders is confident that a minimum wage increase fits within the allowed criteria for what is referred to in Washington lingo as budget reconciliation, though the Senate parliamentarian has final say on what qualifies.

“As you will recall, my Republican colleagues used reconciliation to give almost $2 trillion in tax breaks to the rich and large corporations in the midst of massive income inequality. They used reconciliation to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act and throw 32 million people off the health care they had. They used reconciliation to allow for drilling in the Arctic wilderness,” Sanders said. “You know what? I think we can use reconciliation to protect the needs of working families.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the Senate as early as next week will begin taking the first steps toward getting the COVID-19 relief bill passed through the budget reconciliation process. The goal would be passage by March.

The latest sign that a $15 minimum wage is popular with voters came in November, when more than 60% of voters in conservative-leaning Florida approved an amendment to the state’s Constitution that will raise the minimum wage there from $8.56 an hour to $15 an hour by 2026.

The House passed legislation to gradually increase the minimum wage in the last Congress, but it went nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate. Opponents argue that a large increase in the minimum wage would lead many employers to cut the number of workers they have on their payrolls.

A 2019 study from the Congressional Budget Office projected that an increase to $15 an hour would boost the wages of 17 million Americans. An additional 10 million workers making more than $15 an hour would see a boost as well. However, about 1.3 million workers would lose their jobs.

“There’s no question that raising the minimum wage, especially to $15, will put some small businesses out of business and will cost a lot of low-wage workers their jobs,” said Neil Bradley, the chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Bradley said there should be a separate debate on the minimum wage, and while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes $15 an hour, “we’re open to a reasonable increase in the minimum wage and that ought to be a topic of discussion. But, you know, including that in the COVID package just imperils the whole thing.”

Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, said that increasing the minimum wage would benefit many of the people who have been working on the front lines of the pandemic. That’s why she supports including it in the COVID-19 relief package.

“They’ve been called essential, but they all believe they’ve been treated as expendable or sacrificial because they don’t earn enough to be able to put food on the table and keep themselves and their families safe and healthy,” Henry said.

Henry says nursing home workers, janitors, security guards and home health workers are among the union’s 2 million members.

“The real way to appreciate this work is to raise the minimum wage to $15,” she said.

Most states also have minimum wage laws. Employees generally are entitled to the higher of the two minimum wages. Currently, 29 states and Washington, D.C., have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

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US Resumes Diplomatic Activities in Ukraine, Appoints Bridget Brink as Ambassador

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during an unannounced trip to Kyiv on Sunday that US diplomats would return to Ukraine this week, a senior State Department official said, characterizing the move as a strong message of solidarity from the United States.

Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to the Ukrainian capital, where they met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials, making them the highest-level US officials to have traveled to the country since the Russian invasion began in late February.
While in Kyiv, Blinken and Austin met with Zelensky, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov and Interior Minister Denys Monastrysky for an extended, roughly 90-minute bilateral meeting, the senior State Department official said.
Zelensky had announced on Saturday that Blinken and Austin would visit Kyiv, and the White House declined to comment at the time.
Blinken also relayed that US President Joe Biden would nominate Bridget Brink as US ambassador to Ukraine, according to the senior State Department official. The post that has been without a confirmed ambassador since Marie Yovanovitch was recalled in May 2019. Brink is the current US ambassador to Slovakia.
Blinken and Austin discussed the Biden administration’s intention to provide $713 million in additional foreign military financing to help Ukraine transition to NATO-capable systems, according to the senior State Department official and a senior Defense Department official, as well as deliveries of recent US military assistance to Ukraine and the ongoing training for Ukrainian soldiers.
Both officials briefed press who traveled to the region shortly before Blinken and Austin were due to arrive in Kyiv; the traveling US press corps did not travel with the secretaries to the Ukrainian capital.
They also discussed efforts at diplomacy the Ukrainians are undertaking with the Russians, the senior State Department official said.
In the background briefing, the officials made clear that the US military would still not be involved directly in the war.
“The President has been very clear there will be no US troops fighting in Ukraine and that includes the skies over Ukraine,” the defense official said, adding, “This visit does not portend actual involvement by US forces.”
While officials hailed the trip as a testament to the US commitment to Ukraine, they have also faced questions about why Biden did not make the trip himself.
“The President of the United States is somewhat singular, in terms of what travel would require. So it goes well beyond what a Cabinet secretary would or what virtually any other world leader would require,” the State Department official noted.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the country earlier this month. Top officials from the EU and the Baltics have also visited Zelensky in Kyiv.
As part of the resumed US diplomatic presence in Ukraine, diplomats will “start with day trips into the Lviv” and “will graduate to potentially other parts of the country and ultimately, to resume presence in Kyiv,” the senior State Department official said.
Blinken and Austin’s visit came as the first tranche of about 50 Ukrainians will complete artillery training in a country outside Ukraine, the defense official said. Another tranche of about 50 Ukrainians will also begin training soon, the defense official said.
“The first tranche of artillery training is complete,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Sunday who traveled to the region with the secretaries in a briefing in Poland. “We train soldiers that will go back, and their colleagues will be able to follow and be all in on systems.”
Some of the howitzers included in the most recent military assistance package for Ukraine are already in the country, the defense official said. The howitzers are expected to be effective at this stage of the war as it’s shifted to the Donbas, where the terrain is suited to “long range” weaponry, Kirby said.
Kirby noted the speed with which the military assistance shipments has arrived in Ukraine and said that the decision for how to deploy the assistance is up to the Ukrainians.
“It’s not taking more than 24 to 48 hours depending on what’s being shipped and the availability of ground transportation to get it into Ukraine,” Kirby said. “As we’ve said before, when (the assistance is) transferred to Ukrainian hands, it’s Ukrainian property, and we are not dictating to them how fast they get it to the front line or what units get them.”
Military officials described to reporters the ongoing concern among NATO countries about the threat that Russia poses to them.
“Not just here in Poland, I think many of the countries are concerned about Russia’s next steps,” said Lt. Gen. John Stephen Kolasheski, the commanding general of V Corps in Poland. “And are very pleased to have the US military here working side by side — helping them develop their capabilities and capacity. … I think they are recognizing that Russia is currently and will be a threat in the future.”

(TM & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc.)

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Zambia’s Hakainde Hichilema sworn in as President in rare victory for an African opposition leader

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Zambia’s newly-elected president, Hakainde Hichilema, has been sworn into office after pulling off a stunning rare victory for an African opposition leader.

Hichilema was inaugurated Tuesday morning at a ceremony attended by leaders such as Tanzania President Samia Suluhu Hassan and Malawi leader Lazarus Chakwera.

Zambia’s second female Vice President Mutale Nalumango was also sworn in during the ceremony.

Hichilema defeated outgoing President Edgar Lungu in a landslide by almost one million votes in his sixth attempt at becoming ruler of Zambia.

It was a stunning turnaround for the politician known as HH — Hichilema spent several months in prison in 2017 for what were widely seen as politically motivated treason charges. The charges were dropped under intense international pressure.

After initially indicating he may challenge the result, Lungu addressed the nation following the elections, saying: “Based on the revelations issued at final results, I will comply with the constitutional provisions for a peaceful transition of power.

Despite conceding defeat early, Lungu was booed by some of the crowd as he made his way to the stage at the packed Heroes stadium in the capital Lusaka to hand over power.

Hichilema called Tuesday “a new dawn in Zambia,” in a tweet ahead of the ceremony. “As I sit here in our vehicle being driven to Heroes Stadium, I see the love, the joy and the jubilation as people line the streets on our way. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. I love you all so much,” he added.

An example for Africa

Opposition leaders from other African countries were also invited to the event.

Nelson Chamisa, opposition leader in Zimbabwe, told CNN: “This is a significant and fantastic for what is possible for the future of Africa. Zambia is an inspiration to stubborn laggards in democracy. Strong institutions are key for effective power transfer and smooth transitions,” he said in a statement when asked about the significance of today’s inauguration.

Chamisa added that Zambia is an excellent example to be emulated on the continent.

“Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular needs leaders not rulers, strong institutions – not strong men. Leaders must lead and leave, serve and go. Zimbabwe must be free and Democratic. Freedom can be delayed but never denied,” he said when asked what the message for Zimbabwe is.

It is the third time that power has shifted peacefully from a ruling party to the opposition since the southern African country’s independence from Britain in 1964.

There was a huge turnout of mostly young people, some who came dressed in their academic robes to protest lack of employment post graduation.

Joseph Kalimbwe, a youth representative of Hichilema’s UPND party told CNN

Young people gave us the vote. Four million young people between the ages of 18 to 24 registered to vote. It was a huge turnout and it was very personal to them. They want to ensure the mistakes of their parents were corrected. They have voted for our leader on basis he has better policies and ideas and can strengthen our state institutions.”

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Zambia’s Opposition Leader Hichilema Wins Presidential Election At 6th Attempt

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Business tycoon and opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was declared winner of Zambia’s hotly contested presidential election, defeating incumbent Edgar Lungu.

With 155 of 156 constituencies reporting, official results on Monday showed Hichilema had secured 2,810,757 votes against Lungu’s 1,814,201.

“I therefore declare the said Hakainde Hichilema to be president-elect of the Republic of Zambia,” electoral commission chairman Justice Esau Chulu said in a televised address.

The significant win sparked celebrations on the streets after an election marred by sporadic violence.

Hichilema, a former chief executive officer at an accounting firm before he entered politics, faces a daunting task turning around the economic fortunes of one of the world’s poorest countries.

Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from the capital Lusaka, said many of the voters were young people.

“They say this was a protest vote, a protest for hope and a protest for change,” she said.

The election marked the sixth time Hichilema had run for the top job and the third time he had challenged 64-year-old incumbent Lungu.

In 2016, he narrowly lost to Lungu by about 100,000 votes.

Lungu, who has been in office for six years, faced the electorate amid growing resentment about the rising cost of living and crackdowns on dissent in the southern African country.

Hichilema enjoyed the backing of 10 opposition parties at Thursday’s vote under the banner of his United Party for National Development (UPND), the largest opposition in Zambia.

Lungu began crying foul before a winner was declared, claiming the election was neither free nor fair due to incidents of violence reported in what are traditionally Hichilema’s stronghold.

In a statement issued through the president’s office, he alleged that his party’s polling agents were attacked and chased from voting stations.

Officials from Hichilema’s UPND party dismissed Lungu’s statement as emanating from people “trying to throw out the entire election just to cling on to their jobs”.

In terms of the law, if Lungu wants to settle a dispute or nullify elections, he must approach the Constitutional Court within seven days to lodge a complaint after a winner is announced.

International election observers have commended the transparent and peaceful organisation of the polls, but condemned the restrictions on freedom of assembly and movement during the election campaign.

Security forces blocked Hichilema from campaigning in several areas citing breaches of coronavirus measures and a public order act.

Turnout at the polls was estimated at just more than 70 percent.

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