With a lower tax bill in sight, Walmart to raise its U.S. minimum wage

FILE PHOTO: A Walmart employee helps a customer navigate a flyer at the store in Broomfield, Colorado November 28, 2014. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Nandita Bose

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Walmart Stores Inc will raise entry-level wages for U.S. hourly employees to $11 an hour in February as it benefits from last month’s major overhaul of the U.S. tax code, the company said on Thursday.

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer and private employer, said it would also offer a one-time cash bonus, based on length of service, of up to $1,000, and expand maternity and parental leave benefits.

The pay increase, Walmart’s third minimum wage increase since 2015, and bonus will benefit more than 1 million U.S. hourly workers, it said.

Walmart’s announcement follows companies like AT&T Inc, Wells Fargo & Co and Boeing Co, which have all promised more pay for workers after the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress passed a tax bill that slashed the corporate tax rate to 21 percent from 35 percent.

President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans have argued that the corporate tax cut, part of the biggest overhaul to the U.S. tax code in 30 years, will benefit workers and lead to more investment by U.S. companies.

Walmart is likely to save billions of dollars from the new tax bill. Retailers, in general, have one of the highest average effective tax rates because a majority of their operations are in the United States.

It will also help the retailer attract workers at a time when the U.S. unemployment rate is low – currently 4.1 percent – and so competition for low wage workers is rising.

Walmart said the new tax law will create “some financial benefit for the company” and that is it is in the early process of assessing additional investments.

“We are in the early stages of assessing the opportunities tax reform creates for us,” President and Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said in a statement. The tax law gives the retailer an opportunity to be more competitive globally and to accelerate investment plans for the United States, he said.

Walmart employs about 2.2 million people globally, with more than 1.5 million in the United States, and had total global revenue of nearly $500 billion last year.

The increase in wages will cost approximately $300 million on top of wage hike plans that had been included in next fiscal year’s plans, the company said.

The hike will also increase the average hourly pay at Walmart for full-time employees to $14.50 from a current $13.85. The payscale for hourly workers will be from $11 to $24.70 per hour, the company said.

The company raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour in 2015. In 2016, it said employees who finished an internal training program would be eligible for $10 an hour. The retailer has spent about $2.7 billion to increase wages over the past few years.

The company is offering a one-time bonus to full and part-time employees based on their length of service, rising to $1000 for employees with 20 years of service. The one-time bonus will amount to $400 million in the current fiscal year and the company will take a one-time charge in the fourth-quarter of the current fiscal year to account for the charge.

Shares of the company were down 0.52 percent at $99.15 in early trade.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Frances Kerry)

California rescuers keep up search for missing in deadly mudslide

A home on Glen Oaks Road damaged by mudslides in Montecito, California, U.S., January 10, 2018. Kenneth Song/Santa Barbara News-Press via REUTERS

By Rollo Ross and Alan Devall

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) – Southern California rescue workers using dogs and scanners searched for eight people feared lost in the wreckage of this week’s deadly mudslides, which struck along the state’s picturesque coastal communities, according to officials.

Seventeen people were confirmed dead after a wall of mud roared down hillsides two days earlier in the scenic area between the Pacific Ocean and the Los Padres National Forest, according to Santa Barbara County authorities. The mudslides destroyed about 100 homes and injured 28 people.

“We have crews out there,” said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “They’ve been working 24 hours a day.”

About 500 rescuers using search dogs, military helicopters, and thermal imaging equipment were on the scene. On Wednesday, dogs helped crews rescue 10 stranded residents, Anderson said. Rescues were partly reflected in the tally of missing, which was revised to eight from 17 on Thursday morning.

Search and rescue efforts have been slow as crews have to navigate through waist-deep mud, fallen trees, boulders and other debris. Teams have completed initial searches of the entire debris field and are about a quarter of the way through a more intensive secondary search of the zone, Anderson said.

“Another tough day in Santa Barbara County as Search and Rescue, Fire and Law Enforcement personnel from across our county and our neighboring counties searched for survivors and evacuated people,” the sheriff’s office said on its Twitter feed late Wednesday night.

The mudslides, triggered by heavy rains early on Tuesday, roared into valleys denuded by historic wildfires that struck the area last month.

In addition to destroying 100 homes, the debris flow from the mudslides has damaged hundreds of other structures, officials said.

Among the damaged properties were historic hotels and the homes of celebrities, including media mogul and actress Oprah Winfrey and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, who both live in the upscale hillside community of Montecito.

DeGeneres said on her talk show on Thursday that the picturesque town of 9,000 is a “tight-knit” community.

“It’s not just a wealthy community, it’s filled with a lot of different types of people from all backgrounds,” she said. “And there are families missing, there are people who are missing family members … it’s catastrophic.”

Last month’s spate of wildfires, including the largest in California history, not only burned away grass and shrubs that held soil in place, but also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

“First we got burned out at our ranch that caught on fire and now we’re flooding, so the last month has been pretty bad,” Charles Stoops said as he stood in front of his house, which was surrounded in mud 3 feet (nearly a meter) deep.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Scott Malone and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by William Maclean and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. immigration operation targets 7-Eleven stores in 17 states

Thomas Homan addresses the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Bernie Woodall

(Reuters) – U.S. immigration agents fanned out to nearly 100 7-Eleven convenience stores nationwide on Wednesday, arresting 21 people suspected of being in the country illegally and giving owners a tight deadline to prove other employees are authorized to work.

The operation was the largest worksite enforcement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, since Republican President Donald Trump took office last January, agency spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said in an email.

“Today’s actions send a strong message to U.S. businesses that hire and employ an illegal workforce: ICE will enforce the law, and if you are found to be breaking the law, you will be held accountable,” ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan said in a statement.

Taking a harder line on illegal immigration, including building a wall at the border with Mexico, was a touchstone for Trump during the 2016 election campaign.

At a White House meeting on Tuesday, Trump urged lawmakers to quickly reach a bipartisan deal on a program for “Dreamers,” people who came to the country illegally as children, before moving on to a comprehensive immigration bill.

“Notices of inspection” were delivered on Wednesday to 98 7-Eleven stores in 17 states and the District of Columbia beginning at 6 a.m. in each local time zone. Owners and managers have three business days to produce documents showing their employees are in the country legally or they could face civil and criminal penalties, ICE said.

The states where the employment audit notices were served were California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington, ICE said.

The company said in an emailed statement that the ICE actions were taken at franchised stores, whose owners and not the company are responsible for making hiring decisions based on compliance with federal, state and local laws. That includes verifying immigration status, 7-Eleven said.

Based in Irving, Texas, 7-Eleven has 60,000 convenience stores in 18 countries, including 8,500 in the United States, according to its website.

The federal operation was a follow-up to the 2013 arrests of nine 7-Eleven franchise owners and managers, ICE said in a statement. Those owners were accused of hiring employees living illegally in the United States and giving them identities stolen from U.S. citizens.

The 21 people who were “administratively arrested” on Wednesday on suspicion of being in the country illegally were given notices to appear in immigration court and could be deported.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)

Trump administration will allow states to test Medicaid work requirements

FILE PHOTO – U.S. President Donald Trump attends the Women in Healthcare panel hosted by Seema Verma (R), Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Yasmeen Abutaleb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Thursday it would allow states to test requiring some Medicaid recipients to work or participate in community activities such as volunteering or jobs training as a condition of eligibility for the government health insurance program for the poor.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued guidance making it easier for states to design and propose test programs that implement such requirements. States must propose such changes through waivers and receive federal approval.

Seema Verma, the agency’s administrator, said the policy guidance came in response to requests from at least 10 states that have proposed requiring some Medicaid recipients to work or participate in activities that may include skills training, education, job search, volunteering or caregiving. Those states include Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, Arizona, Indiana and Utah.

Certain Medicaid populations would be exempt from the rules, including those with disabilities, the elderly, children and pregnant women. Verma also said states would have to make “reasonable modifications” for those battling opioid addiction and other substance use disorders.

“This gives us a pathway to start approving waivers,” Verma said on a call with reporters on Wednesday. “This is about helping those individuals rise out of poverty.”

Under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, former Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement commonly known as Obamacare, 31 states expanded Medicaid to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, adding millions of people to the rolls.

Republicans have repeatedly failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, a top campaign promise of President Donald Trump. Instead, the Trump administration has sought to weaken the program through executive orders and administrative rules.

The Obama administration opposed state efforts to implement work requirements in Medicaid because it could result in fewer people having access to health insurance.

For instance, Kentucky last year proposed work requirements for able-bodied adults to get insurance and establishing new fees for all members based on income. A study found the proposal would reduce the number of residents on Medicaid by nearly 86,000 within five years, saving more than $330 million.

Republicans argue that Medicaid was created to serve the most vulnerable and has become bloated under Obamacare. Verma and other Republicans said implementing work and community engagement requirements could help improve health outcomes by connecting people with jobs and training.

(Reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Peter Cooney)

House urged to cancel vote on NSA spying after Trump tweets

FILE PHOTO: A man is silhouetted near logo of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in this photo illustration taken in Sarajevo March 11, 2015. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

By Dustin Volz

(Reuters) – Senior Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives urged cancellation of a vote set for Thursday on whether to renew the National Security Agency’s warrantless internet surveillance program after President Donald Trump appeared to initially question the merits of the program.

Republican Representative Steve Scalise issued a statement saying the Republican majority had no plans to cancel the vote.

The unusual request from Democrats created confusion on Capitol Hill and cast further doubt on the already uncertain fate of an effort to renew an expiring national security tool.

The vote would be the culmination of a yearslong debate in Congress on the proper scope of U.S. intelligence collection, one fueled by the 2013 disclosures of classified surveillance secrets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The provisions have been the target of privacy advocates who want to limit its impact on Americans.

Trump initially said on Twitter that the surveillance program had been used against him but later said it was needed.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi asked Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, to cancel the vote after Trump’s tweets, a senior aide said.

Some conservative, libertarian-leaning Republicans and liberal Democrats attempted to persuade colleagues to include more privacy protections. But the effort to include a warrant requirement before the NSA or other intelligence agencies could scrutinize communications belonging to Americans whose data is incidentally collected under the program failed on Thursday on that split party lines.

The House then moved to consider the entire legislative package renewing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, that covers the program.

The bill would extend the NSA’s spying program for six years with minimal changes. Most lawmakers expect it to become law if it prevails in the House, although it still would require Senate approval and Trump’s signature.

In a Thursday tweet, Trump contradicted the official White House position and renewed unsubstantiated allegations that the previous administration of Barack Obama improperly surveilled his campaign during the 2016 election.

“This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?” the president said in an early morning post on Twitter.

“WE NEED IT!”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request to clarify Trump’s tweet but he posted a clarification less than two hours later.

“With that being said, I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today’s vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!” Trump tweeted.

Unmasking refers to the largely separate issue of how Americans’ names kept secret in intelligence reports can be revealed.

Asked by Reuters at a conference in New York about Trump’s tweets, Rob Joyce, the top White House cyber official, said there was no confusion within Oval Office about the value of the surveillance program and that there have been no cases of it being used improperly for political purposes.

The White House, U.S. intelligence agencies and Republican leaders in Congress have said they consider the tool indispensable and in need of little or no revision.

Without congressional action, legal support for Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which authorizes the program, will expire next week, although intelligence officials say it could continue through April.

Section 702 allows the NSA to eavesdrop on vast amounts of digital communications from foreigners living outside the United States through U.S. companies such as Facebook Inc <FB.O>, Verizon Communications Inc <VZ.N> and Alphabet Inc’s <GOOGL.O> Google.

The spying program also incidentally scoops up communications of Americans if they communicate with a foreign target living overseas, and can search those messages without a warrant.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Additional reporting by David Shepardson, Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bill Trott)

Trump calls U.S. court system ‘unfair’ after DACA ruling

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Republican members of the Senate about immigration at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday blasted the U.S. court system as “broken and unfair” after a federal judge blocked his move to end the program protecting young immigrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents, commonly known as “Dreamers.”

The Trump administration in September announced it would rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, drawing challenges in multiple federal courts from Democratic state attorneys general, organizations and individuals.

Late on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco ruled that DACA must remain in place while the litigation is resolved.

In a post on Twitter on Wednesday morning, Trump wrote, “It just shows everyone how broken and unfair our Court System is when the opposing side in a case (such as DACA) always runs to the 9th Circuit and almost always wins before being reversed by higher courts.”

It was not immediately clear which court Trump was referring to in his post. Alsup’s court is the District Court for the Northern District of California. Appeals of decisions by that court are commonly handled by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which also reviews appeals of rulings by district courts in the U.S. West, Hawaii and Guam.

Earlier on Wednesday the White House branded the federal judge’s ruling as “outrageous.”

“An issue of this magnitude must go through the normal legislative process,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement. “President Trump is committed to the rule of law, and will work with members of both parties to reach a permanent solution that corrects the unconstitutional actions taken by the last administration.”

Alsup ruled that the federal government did not have to process new applications from people who had never before received protection under the program. However, he ordered the government to continue processing renewal applications from people who had previously been covered.

The ruling could complicate negotiations between Trump and congressional leaders over immigration reform. Sanders called the decision “outrageous, especially in light of the President’s successful bipartisan meeting with House and Senate members at the White House” on immigration reform on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Blake Brittain; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Jonathan Oatis)

South Korea’s Moon says Trump deserves ‘big’ credit for North Korea talks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech during his New Year news conference at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Christine Kim and Soyoung Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in credited U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday for helping to spark the first inter-Korean talks in more than two years, and warned that Pyongyang would face stronger sanctions if provocations continued.

The talks were held on Tuesday on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone, which has divided the two Koreas since 1953, after a prolonged period of tension on the Korean peninsula over the North’s missile and nuclear programs.

North Korea ramped up its missile launches last year and also conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, resulting in some of the strongest international sanctions yet.

The latest sanctions sought to drastically cut the North’s access to refined petroleum imports and earnings from workers abroad. Pyongyang called the steps an “act of war”.

Seoul and Pyongyang agreed at Tuesday’s talks, the first since December 2015, to resolve all problems between them through dialogue and also to revive military consultations so that accidental conflict could be averted.

“I think President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks, I want to show my gratitude,” Moon told reporters at his New Year’s news conference. “It could be a resulting work of the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure.”

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanged threats and insults over the past year, raising fears of a new war on the peninsula. South Korea and the United States are technically still at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

‘BASIC STANCE’

Washington had raised concerns that the overtures by North Korea could drive a wedge between it and Seoul, but Moon said his government did not differ with the United States over how to respond to the threats posed by Pyongyang.

“This initial round of talks is for the improvement of relations between North and South Korea. Our task going forward is to draw North Korea to talks aimed at the denuclearization of the North,” Moon said. “(It’s) our basic stance that will never be given up.”

Moon said he was open to meeting North Korea’s leader at any time to improve bilateral ties, and if the conditions were right and “certain achievements are guaranteed”.

“The purpose of it shouldn’t be talks for the sake of talks,” he said.

However, Pyongyang said it would not discuss its nuclear weapons with Seoul because they were only aimed at the United States, not its “brethren” in South Korea, nor Russia or China, showing that a diplomatic breakthrough remained far off.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said all problems would be resolved through efforts by the Korean people alone.

“If the North and South abandon external forces and cooperate together, we will be able to fully solve all problems to match our people’s needs and our joint prosperity,” it said.

Washington still welcomed Tuesday’s talks as a first step toward solving the North Korean nuclear crisis. The U.S. State Department said it would be interested in joining future talks, with the aim of denuclearizing the North.

The United States, which still has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings. Trump later called them “a good thing” and said he would be willing to speak to Kim.

Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said it was wise of Moon to praise Trump, his sanctions and pressure campaign.

“By doing that, he can help the U.S. build logic for moving toward negotiations and turning around the state of affairs in the future, so when they were ready to talk to the North, they can say the North came out of isolation because the sanctions were effective.”

The United States and Canada are set to host a conference of about 20 foreign ministers on Jan. 16 in Vancouver to discuss North Korea, without the participation of China, Pyongyang’s sole major ally and biggest trade partner.

China would not attend the meeting and is resolutely opposed to it, said foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang.

“It will only create divisions within the international community and harm joint efforts to appropriately resolve the Korean peninsula nuclear issue,” he told a regular briefing on Wednesday.

LARGE OLYMPICS DELEGATION

Pyongyang also said it would send a large delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Washington agreed with Seoul last week to postpone until after the Olympics joint military exercises that Pyongyang denounces as rehearsals for invasion. But it also said the apparent North-South thaw had not altered the U.S. intelligence assessment of the North’s weapons programs.

The United States has also warned that all options, including military, are on the table in dealing with the North.

“We cannot say talks are the sole answer,” Moon said. “If North Korea engages in provocations again or does not show sincerity in resolving this issue, the international community will continue applying strong pressure and sanctions.”

Seoul said on Tuesday it was prepared to offer financial assistance and lift some unilateral sanctions temporarily so North Koreans could attend the Olympics. North Korea said its delegation would include athletes and officials, among others.

However, Moon said on Wednesday South Korea had no plans for now to ease unilateral sanctions against North Korea, or revive economic exchanges that could run foul of United Nations sanctions.

Moon also said his government would continue working toward recovering the honor and dignity of former “comfort women”, a euphemism for those forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels.

But historical issues should be separated from bilateral efforts with Japan to safeguard peace on the Korean peninsula, he added.

“It’s very important we keep a good relationship with Japan,” Moon said.

On Tuesday, South Korea said it would not seek to renegotiate a 2015 deal with Japan despite determining that the pact was insufficient to resolve the divisive issue, and urged Japan for more action to help the women.

 

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL and Michael Martina in BEIJING, Writing by Soyoung Kim, Editing by Paul Tait)

Fifteen confirmed dead in California mudslide, more casualties feared

Parts of a damaged car are entangled in debris after mudslides in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, January 9, 2018. Picture taken January 9, 2018. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Rescue crews using helicopters and dogs searched the hills around wealthy Santa Barbara, California, on Wednesday for people trapped or killed by rain-driven mudslides that left at least 15 people dead in the coastal community.

The area, sandwiched between the ocean and the sprawling Los Padres National Forest, is home to celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, who relish its natural beauty and proximity to sprawling Los Angeles.

But the wooded hillsides that once gave their estates a sense of seclusion were largely denuded by last year’s historic wildfires, setting the stage for the massive slides that slammed into homes, turned highways into raging rivers and swept away vehicles after heavy Tuesday rains.

Houses could be seen surrounded by several feet of mud.

“We’re finding people continuously,” said Yaneris Muniz, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Joint Information Center. “We had a helicopter and several crews out all night, and now that it’s day, we’ll be able to intensify those searches.”

Officials have ordered residents in a large swath of Montecito to stay in their homes so that rescuers can better go about their work.

About 300 people were stranded in a canyon. Local rescue crews, using borrowed helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard, worked to airlift them out, officials said.

The county initially ordered 7,000 residents to evacuate and urged another 23,000 to do so voluntarily, but only 10 to 15 percent complied with mandatory orders, said Amber Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

“We don’t know how many additional people are still trapped,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said on the “CBS This Morning” program. “We know there are some, and we’re still making our way into certain areas of Montecito and the adjacent areas to determine if anyone is still there and still alive.”

Brown likened the devastation wreaked by the mudslides to that seen on the battlefields of World War One.

The mudslides followed an ordeal of fire and water for the area northwest of Los Angeles. A torrential downpour on Tuesday soaked the area, which was left vulnerable after much of its vegetation burned in the state’s largest wildfire last month.

“Mourning the dead in our little town tonight. Praying for the survivors and preparing for whatever may come. #Montecito,” actor Rob Lowe, who lives in the area, wrote on Twitter.

A 14-year-old girl was found alive on Tuesday after firefighters using rescue dogs heard cries for help from what was left of her Montecito home, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“I thought I was dead there for a minute,” the teenager Lauren Cantin, covered in mud, told NBC News after workers spent six hours rescuing her.

Weather forecasts called clear skies on Wednesday, giving emergency workers some relief.

Rescuers worked through the night, searching for victims amid the dozens of homes that were destroyed, and using helicopters to lift more than 50 stranded residents from the mud.

The number of fatalities surpassed the death toll from a California mudslide on Jan. 10, 2005, when 10 people were killed as a hillside gave way in the town of La Conchita, less than 20 miles (30 km) south of the latest disaster.

Last month’s wildfires, including the sprawling 273,400-acre (110,640-hectare) Thomas Fire, which became the largest in California history, left the area vulnerable to mudslides. The fires burned away grass and shrubs that held the soil in place and also baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

Some residents had to flee their homes due to the fires last month and again this week because of the rains.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Jonathan Oatis)

Marijuana taxes and a surplus expected to boost California budget

Customers queue for recreational marijuana outside the MedMen store in West Hollywood, January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Sharon Bernstein and Robin Respaut

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California Governor Jerry Brown will propose his final state budget on Wednesday, setting out a spending blueprint that last year topped $125 billion and marking the first time the state’s coffers will be bolstered from sales taxes on marijuana.

Brown, a Democrat who is leaving office next January after four non-consecutive terms, has positioned the state as a bulwark against the conservative policies of Republican U.S. President Donald Trump. The governor’s proposal is expected to reflect that by funding programs to combat climate change, shore up health care services and other efforts.

The 2018-2019 budget will include anticipated taxes on sales of marijuana, which became legal for recreational use Jan. 1, estimated to eventually reach $1 billion.

The estimated budget surplus of $7.5 billion is a far cry from the $27 billion hole that was projected as Brown took the reins for his third term in January 2011. He had previously served as governor from 1975 to 1983.

State Senator Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco and the chairman of the senate budget committee, is urging the governor to sock away $3.2 billion of that in the state’s rainy day fund and use the rest on education, health care and other needs. The legislature’s majority Democrats will push the governor to fund universal pre-school for all children age four and up and also expand the state’s earned income tax credit for the poor, he said in a telephone interview.

For the current fiscal year, the state budget topped $125 billion in general fund spending and nearing $200 billion when funds from the federal government, bond sales and other sources are considered, state records show. California has the sixth-largest economy in the world and is the most populous U.S. state, spending $53 billion from its general fund budget for K-12 education, $15 billion for state colleges and universities, and $35 billion for health and human services in fiscal year 2017-2018.

Brown, who worries about the state taking a hit in a future recession, is likely to resist some spending proposals in favor of paying down debt. But his choices are expected to reflect his priorities, including efforts to slow climate change, improvements for infrastructure and better funding for education.

The plan is likely to change as lawmakers battle for pet causes and the state’s revenues are recalculated before the next fiscal year begins in July.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Robin Respaut in San Francisco; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Supreme Court divided over Ohio voter purge policy

U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) addresses a rally ahead of arguments in a key voting rights case involving a challenge to the OhioÕs policy of purging infrequent voters from voter registration rolls outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Conservative and liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared at odds on Wednesday in a closely watched voting rights case, differing over whether Ohio’s purging of infrequent voters from its registration rolls — a policy critics say disenfranchises thousands of people — violates federal law.

The nine justices heard about an hour of arguments in Republican-governed Ohio’s appeal of a lower court ruling that found the policy violated a 1993 federal law aimed at making it easier to register to vote.

Conservative justices signaled sympathy to the state’s policy while two liberal justices asked questions indicating skepticism toward it. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority.

“The reason for purging is they want to protect voter rolls,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who often casts the deciding vote in close decisions. “What we’re talking about is the best tools to implement that purpose.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling, due by the end of June, could affect the ability to vote for thousands of people ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections.

States try to maintain accurate voter rolls by removing people who have died or moved away. Ohio is one of seven states, along with Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, that erase infrequent voters from registration lists, according to plaintiffs who sued Ohio in 2016.

They called Ohio’s policy the most aggressive. Registered voters in Ohio who do not vote for two years are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are purged.

Ohio’s policy would have barred more than 7,500 voters from casting a ballot in the November 2016 election had the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals not ruled against the state.

Voting rights has become an important theme before the Supreme Court. In two other cases, the justices are examining whether electoral districts drawn by Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Democratic lawmakers in Maryland were fashioned to entrench the majority party in power in a manner that violated the constitutional rights of voters. That practice is called partisan gerrymandering.

The plaintiffs suing Ohio, represented by liberal advocacy group Demos and the American Civil Liberties Union, said that purging has become a powerful tool for voter suppression. They argued that voting should not be considered a “use it or lose it” right.

Dozens of voting rights activists gathered for a rally outside the courthouse before the arguments, with some holding signs displaying slogans such as “Every vote counts” and “You have no right to take away my right to vote.”

“This is about government trying to choose who should get to vote. We know that’s wrong,” U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, said at the rally.

Democrats have accused Republicans of taking steps at the state level, including laws requiring certain types of government-issued identification, intended to suppress the vote of minorities, poor people and others who generally favor Democratic candidates.

A 2016 Reuters analysis found roughly twice the rate of voter purging in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Ohio’s three largest counties as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs include Larry Harmon, a software engineer and U.S. Navy veteran who was blocked from voting in a state marijuana initiative in 2015, and an advocacy group for the homeless. They said Ohio’s policy ran afoul of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits states from striking registered voters “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.”

Ohio argued that a 2002 U.S. law called the Help America Vote Act contained language that permitted the state to enforce its purge policy. Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted noted that the state’s policy has been in place since the 1990s, under Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

North Korea says it will not discuss nuclear arms in talks with South

Vehicles transporting the South Korean delegation led by Cho Myoung-gyon, Minister of South Korean Unification Ministry, drive past a checkpoint on the Grand Unification Bridge that leads to the truce village of Panmunjom, just south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreans, in Paju, South Korea, January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Christine Kim and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said after its first talks with South Korea in more than two years that it would not discuss its nuclear weapons with Seoul because they were aimed only at the United States, not its “brethren” in South Korea.

In a joint statement after 11 hours of talks North Korea pledged to send a large delegation to next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea but made a “strong complaint” after Seoul proposed talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

Officials from both sides said they agreed to meet again to resolve problems and avert accidental conflict, amid high tension over North Korea’s program to develop nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States, but Pyongyang said disarmament would not be part of the discussions.

“All our weapons including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, nor China and Russia,” Pyongyang’s chief negotiator, Ri Son Gwon, said.

“This is not a matter between North and South Korea, and to bring up this issue would cause negative consequences and risks turning all of today’s good achievement into nothing,” Ri, chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, warned in closing remarks.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have exchanged threats and insults in the past year, raising tensions on the peninsula.

A spokesperson for the White House’s national Security Council said North Korean participation in the Olympics would be “an opportunity for the regime to see the value of ending its international isolation by denuclearizing.”

The White House did not comment on the United States being the only potential target of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

In spite of Ri’s remarks, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it believed inter-Korean ties and a series of steps agreed in the talks on Tuesday could lead to discussion of a “fundamental resolution” of the nuclear issue in the future.

“We will closely coordinate with the United States, China, Japan and other neighbors in this process,” the ministry said in a statement.

It said South Korea had asked North Korea to halt hostile acts that stoke tension and that North had agreed that peace should be guaranteed in the region.

The North-South meeting came after a year of ramped-up North Korean missile launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.

The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings, but Trump later called them “a good thing.”

“At the appropriate time, we’ll get involved,” he said on Saturday.

The United States has led an international campaign to step up sanctions on North Korea to press it to give up its weapons programs.

The U.N. Security Council last month unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea in response to its test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Pyongyang called the sanctions an act of war.

“HIGH HOPES”

Earlier on Tuesday, Seoul said it was prepared to lift some sanctions temporarily so North Koreans could visit South Korea for the Winter Olympics. North Korea said its delegation would include athletes, high-ranking officials, a cheering squad, art performers, reporters and spectators.

South Korea has unilaterally banned several North Korean officials from entry in response to Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests.

Talks will be held soon to work out the details of bringing the North Koreans to the Olympics, the South’s unification ministry said.

Tuesday’s talks, the first between the two Koreas since 2015, were held in the three-storey Peace House on the South Korean side of Panmunjom truce village that lies between North and South.

“We came to this meeting with the thought of giving our brethren, who have high hopes for this dialogue, invaluable results as the first present of the year,” Ri said at the start of the meeting.

Seoul said it proposed reunions of members of families divided between North and South in time for February’s Lunar New Year holiday, but the joint statement made no mention of any agreement on reunions.

North Korea has finished technical work to restore a military hotline with South Korea, Seoul said, with normal communications set to resume on Wednesday.

North Korea cut communications in February 2016, following the South’s decision to shut down a jointly run industrial park in the North.

North Korea responded “positively” to the South’s proposal for athletes from both sides to march together in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, Seoul said.

Athletes of the two sides have not paraded together at an international sports event since the 2007 Asian Winter Games in China.

On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry said it was happy to see talks between North and South Korea and welcomed all positive steps. Russia echoed the sentiment, with a Kremlin spokesman saying: “This is exactly the kind of dialogue that we said was necessary.”

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach said of the North-South agreement on the Pyeongchang games: “These proposals mark a great step forward in the Olympic spirit.”

The IOC would await official proposals on the number and names of athletes from the North and such matters as flag, anthem and ceremonies, he said.

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith in SEOUL and David Brunnstrom, Susan Heavey, Jim Oliphant and Steve Holland in WASHINGTON; Writing by Soyoung Kim; Editing by Andrew Roche and Bill Trott)

Bill Clinton joins calls for release of Reuters journalists in Myanmar

FILE PHOTO: Reuters journalists Wa Lone (L) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are based in Myanmar, pose for a picture at the Reuters office in Yangon, Myanmar December 11, 2017. REUTERS/Antoni Slodkowski/File Photo

By Robert Birsel

YANGON (Reuters) – Calls grew on Tuesday for the release of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar who are facing accusations of breaching the country’s Official Secrets Act, with former U.S. President Bill Clinton urging that they be freed immediately.

The reporters, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, were detained on Dec. 12. They are due to make their second appearance in court in the main city of Yangon on Wednesday.

The two had worked on Reuters coverage of a crisis in the western state of Rakhine, where an estimated 655,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from a military crackdown that followed militant attacks on security forces.

“A free press is critical to a free society – the detention of journalists anywhere is unacceptable. The Reuters journalists being held in Myanmar should be released immediately,” Clinton said in a Twitter post.

Clinton was U.S. president for much of the 1990s when the United States pressed Myanmar’s then military rulers to release democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest.

Suu Kyi won a 2015 election and formed a government in early 2016, although she is barred by the constitution from becoming president. She has made no public comment on the case of the two Reuters reporters. Her spokesman has said the case would be handled according to the law.

The Ministry of Information has cited the police as saying the two reporters were “arrested for possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine State and security forces.”

It said they had “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”.

The Official Secrets Act dates back to 1923, when Myanmar, then known as Burma, was a province of British India. It carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power referred in a post on Twitter to the detention of the two reporters as “an outrage & symptom of a world without credible US leadership”.

Government officials from nations such as the United States, Britain and Canada, as well as top U.N. officials, have called for the release of the reporters.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Katina Adams, reiterated Washington’s deep concern about the prosecution of the journalists.

“We call for their immediate and unconditional release, and for the charges against them to be dropped,” she said. “A free press is vital to Burma’s transition and to becoming a viable democracy, and we want Burma’s democracy to succeed.”

‘INNOCENT OF WRONGDOING’

Reuters President and Editor-In-Chief Stephen J. Adler has called for the immediate release of the reporters.

“As they near their hearing date, it remains entirely clear that they are innocent of any wrongdoing,” Adler said in a statement on Monday.

A group of Myanmar reporters asked the government on Monday for details about the arrest of the two, arguing that the case could have implications for the ability of journalists to do their jobs.

Authorities have blocked most media access to the north of Rakhine State, where Rohingya militant attacks on the security forces on Aug. 25 sparked the military crackdown.

The United Nations has condemned the Myanmar military campaign as ethnic cleansing. Buddhist-majority Myanmar has rejected the accusation.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also called on Myanmar to release the two reporters.

An independent Myanmar media outlet, the Development Media Group, which is based in and focuses on coverage of events in Rakhine State, also called for the release of the pair.

(Writing by Robert Birsel; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Alex Richardson and Alistair Bell)

Trump to order mental health aid to prevent suicide among military veterans

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about North Korea during an opioid-related briefing at Trump’s golf estate in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., August 8, 2017. Picture taken August 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Tuesday was set to sign an executive order that will direct government departments to try to prevent suicide among military veterans by treating mental health problems before they become more serious.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin told reporters on a conference call that Trump wants to address an alarming trend, that of 20 veterans a day taking their own life.

“That is just an unacceptable number and we are focused on doing everything we can to try to prevent these veteran suicides,” Shulkin said.

Trump’s order will direct the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs to develop a plan in 60 days to provide access to mental health treatment and suicide prevention resources for uniformed service members in the first year following military service.

The new order will cost about $200 million year to implement, money that will be diverted from the agencies’ current budget, a senior administration official said.

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by David Gregorio)

Thousands in California flee homes ahead of possible mudslides

Emergency personnel rescue a man from flood waters and debris after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. in this photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department January 9, 2018. Santa Barbara County Fire Department/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Thousands of Southern Californians fled their homes on Monday as a powerful rain storm that could cause flash floods and trigger mudslides soaked steep slopes where a series of intense wildfires burned off vegetation last month.

Heavy downpours that could produce more than 1 inch (2.5 cm) of rain per hour were expected through Tuesday evening, forcing officials to order or advise Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles county residents who live near where wildfires burned to evacuated their homes.

“Recent burn areas will be especially vulnerable where dangerous mud and debris flows are possible,” the National Weather Service said in a statement.

Several December wildfires, included a blaze known as the Thomas Fire which was the largest in the state’s history, burned away vegetation that holds the soil in place and baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

About 30,000 residents were under evacuation orders or advisories on Monday, ABC news reported.

“I’m just tired. I can’t seem to get my life kick-started,” Teri Lebow, whose Montecito, California was damaged by the wildfires, told the Los Angeles Times.

The storm system was expected to produce 4 inches to 7 inches (10 to 18 cm) in the foothills and mountains with 9 inches (23 cm) in isolated areas. Three inches (7 cm) to two feet (61 cm) of snow was also forecast for higher elevations, the National Weather Service said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Judge ends case over standoff in Nevada land dispute

FILE PHOTO: Rancher Cliven Bundy stands near a cattle gate on his 160 acre ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada, U.S., May 3, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

By John L. Smith

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – A federal judge on Monday threw out a criminal case against a Nevada rancher and three other men over a 2014 militia standoff with federal agents, saying prosecutors had repeatedly withheld evidence from the defense.

U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro dismissed the case “with prejudice,” meaning that rancher Cliven Bundy, two of his sons and a militia member will not face another trial. Navarro had declared a mistrial last month.

Navarro’s decision was a rebuke to prosecutors in the politically charged case, which arose from Bundy’s grazing of cattle on federal land without paying fees for two decades. His defiance galvanized right-wing militia groups challenging U.S. government authority over vast tracts of public land.

Bundy emerged from the courthouse to cheers from about 100 supporters and said he still did not recognize federal authority over the land where he grazed his herds.

“They stuck the guns down our throats and that’s definitely not what our Founding Fathers meant to happen in America,” the 71-year-old rancher said, his wife, Carol, at his side.

Navarro told a packed Las Vegas courtroom that prosecutors made “several misrepresentations to the defense and to the court” that amounted to misconduct and prevented a fair trial for Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan and militia member Ryan Payne.

She said more than 1,000 pages of Federal Bureau of Investigation memos were kept from the defense until well past an October deadline. The agency failed in its duty despite years of investigations and two years of trial preparation, she said.

Prosecutors appeared stunned after the judge’s decision, and Bundy family members wept in the spectators’ section.

The 2014 revolt at the heart of the trial was sparked by a court-ordered roundup of Bundy’s cattle by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, after the rancher had refused to pay federal grazing fees.

Hundreds of supporters, many of them armed, rallied at his ranch in a show of force to demand the return of his impounded livestock. Police and federal agents retreated rather than risk bloodshed and no shots were fired.

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said prosecutors had bungled the case and let the Bundys succeed in breaking the law.

“The failure of this case will only embolden this violent and racist anti-government movement that wants to take over our public lands,” he said.

(Reporting by John Smith, Writing by Ian Simpson, Editing by Frank McGurty and Steve Orlofsky)

Exclusive: Trump to call on Pentagon, diplomats to play bigger role on arms sales

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media after the Congressional Republican Leadership retreat at Camp David, Maryland, U.S., January 6, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Mike Stone and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is nearing completion of a new “Buy American” plan that calls for U.S. military attaches and diplomats to help drum up billions of dollars more in business overseas for the American weapons industry, going beyond the assistance they currently provide, U.S. officials said.

President Donald Trump as early as February is expected to announce a “whole of government” effort to ease export rules on purchases by foreign countries of U.S.-made military equipment, from fighter jets and drones to warships and artillery, according to people familiar with the plan.

Trump is seeking to fulfill a 2016 election campaign promise to create jobs in the United States by selling more goods and services abroad to bring down the U.S. trade deficit from a six-year high of $50 billion.

The administration is also under pressure from U.S. defense contractors facing growing competition from foreign rivals such as China and Russia. But any loosening of the restrictions on weapons sales would be in defiance of human rights and arms control advocates who said there was too great a risk of fueling violence in regions such as the Middle East and South Asia or arms being diverted to be used in terrorist attacks.

Besides greater use of a network of military and commercial attaches already stationed at U.S. embassies in foreign capitals, senior officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said another thrust of the plan will be to set in motion a realignment of the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR). It is a central policy governing arms exports since 1976 and has not been fully revamped in more than three decades.

This expanded government effort on behalf of American arms makers, together with looser restrictions on weapons exports and more favorable treatment of sales to non-NATO allies and partners, could bring additional billions of dollars in deals and more jobs, a senior U.S. official said, without providing specifics.

The strategy of having the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department take a more active role in securing foreign arms deals could especially benefit major defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co.

“We want to see those guys, the commercial and military attaches, unfettered to be salesmen for this stuff, to be promoters,” said the senior administration official, who is close to the internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

A State Department official, asked to confirm details of the coming new policy, said the revamped approach “gives our partners a greater capacity to help share the burden of international security, benefits the defense industrial base and will provide more good jobs for American workers.”

The White House and Pentagon declined official comment.

Defense industry officials and lobbyists have privately welcomed what they expect will be a more sales-friendly approach.

It is unclear how deeply the diplomats and military officers overseas will delve into dealmaking and what guidelines will be established, said officials in the administration.

Trump, a Republican, has the legal authority to direct government embassy “security assistance officers,” both military personnel and civilians, to do more to help drive arms sales.

Administration officials see this group, which already has duties such as managing military aid overseas and providing information to foreign governments for buying U.S. arms, as underutilized by previous presidents.

‘BACK SEAT’ FOR HUMAN RIGHTS?

One national security analyst said that easing export restrictions to allow defense contractors to reap greater profits internationally would increase the danger of top-of-the-line U.S. weapons going to governments with poor human rights records or being used by militants.

“This administration has demonstrated from the very beginning that human rights have taken a back seat to economic concerns,” said Rachel Stohl, director of the conventional defense program at the Stimson Center in Washington. “And the short-sightedness of a new arms export policy could have serious long-term implications.”

The administration officials said human rights considerations would remain part of the formula for arms sales decisions. But they said such reviews would now afford greater weight than before to whether a deal would be good for the U.S. economy and strengthen America’s defense industrial base, in which case red tape would be cut accordingly.

Rules to make it easier to sell U.S.-made military drones overseas and compete against fast-growing Chinese and Israeli rivals are also expected to be in the Trump plan, officials said.

Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, also sought to make it easier to sell to America’s most trusted allies but in a more cautious approach that his administration billed as a way to boost American business while keeping strict controls against more dangerous arms proliferation. Foreign weapons sales soared during his tenure, with the United States retaining its position as the world’s top arms supplier.

Shares of the five biggest U.S. defense contractors, including Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon Co, General Dynamics Corp and Northrop Grumman have more than tripled over the last five years and currently trade at or near all-time highs.

Foreign military sales in fiscal 2017, comprising much of Trump’s first year in office and the final months of Obama’s term, climbed to $42 billion, compared to $31 billion in the prior year, according to the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

The Trump administration has already moved forward on several controversial sales. Those include a push for $7 billion in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia despite concerns they have contributed to civilian deaths in the Saudi campaign in Yemen’s civil war and the unblocking of $3 billion in arms to Bahrain, which was also held up by human rights concerns under Obama.

Similar concerns have been raised over the administration’s preparations to make it easier for American gun makers to sell small arms, including assault rifles and ammunition, to foreign buyers.

A draft of the new policy proposals recently finished by inter-agency teams coordinated by Trump’s National Security Council must now be approved by a select group of senior cabinet members before being sent to his desk, the government sources said.

Once Trump announces an extensive framework of the plan, there will be a 60-day public comment period. After that, the administration is expected to unveil further details. Some of the changes are expected to take the form of what is formally known as a presidential “National Security Decision Directive,” two of the sources said.

(Reporting by Mike Stone and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Chris Sanders and Grant McCool)

U.S. offers drillers nearly all offshore waters, but focus is on eastern Gulf

FILE PHOTO: A mooring station for oil tankers can be seen at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Marine Terminal in Valdez, Alaska on August 8, 2008. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Ernest Scheyder and Valerie Volcovici

HOUSTON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed opening up nearly all of America’s offshore waters to oil and gas drilling, but the industry says it is mainly interested in one part of it, now cordoned off by the Pentagon: the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The industry’s focus on an area located near a sprawling network of existing platforms, pipes and ports could ease the path to new reserves, and assuage the drilling opponents near other places offered under the Interior Department’s proposed drilling plan issued last week, like California’s Pacific, the Atlantic and Arctic.

But accessing it would likely require the consent of the U.S. military. The eastern Gulf has been formally off-limits to drilling since 2006 due mainly to the Defense Department’s concerns oil development would interfere with extensive military testing and training exercises in the area.

“The eastern Gulf of Mexico could be very attractive to industry because of the proximity to existing infrastructure in the central and western Gulf of Mexico,” the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents the offshore oil and gas industry, said in a statement.

“Investing in the eastern Gulf could yield results – new jobs, new oil and gas production and increased energy security – quicker than investing in other offshore areas.”

The American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America have also expressed an interest in the eastern Gulf on behalf of its members, and big driller Royal Dutch Shell Plc <RDSa.L> told Reuters in October that “we have appetite and we are interested” in the eastern Gulf.

Trump’s Interior Department has set up an “interagency working group” with the Defense Department to negotiate the issue, according to a Defense Department letter seen by Reuters.

In the letter, sent by Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in September, Shanahan says the Pentagon “supports the development of national domestic energy resources in concert with enabling military operations, training and testing.”

Defense Department spokeswoman Major Carla Gleason said collaboration with Interior on the issue was “a priority.”

Major offshore producers such as Exxon Mobil Corp <XOM.N>, BP Plc <BP.L>, Anadarko Petroleum Corp <APC.N> and ConocoPhillips <COP.N> declined to comment.

Shell welcomed the expanded offshore prospects the Trump administration plans to make available, but has not committed to any new activity, said spokesman Curtis Smith.

A Chevron <CVX.N> spokeswoman, Veronica Flores-Paniagua, said the company is happy with Trump’s move and wants to continue to explore parts of Gulf, and also to better understand the geology of the Atlantic Seaboard.

WEAK AUCTIONS

Other regions offered in the proposed five-year drilling plan unveiled by Trump’s Interior Department last week are unlikely to see much interest, given the ample and relatively cheap opportunities to drill from shale plays on land.

The Arctic is remote and expensive, Pacific states such as California have vowed to block drilling, and other areas also harbor deep opposition from politicians, environmental groups and business interests worried about spills.

Sajjad Alam, an analyst focusing on oil and gas in Moody’s corporate finance group, said the high costs and difficulties in many of the areas offered for lease under the plan are likely to keep them low on an oil company’s priority list.

Recent leasing statistics in the Gulf of Mexico already show soft demand for acreage from the oil industry.

The amount of money per acre that oil companies spent in the Gulf in 2017 was about a third what they spent in 2013 when oil prices were higher, according to a Reuters review of government data. Energy firms bid for less than 1 percent of total U.S. acreage in 2017, compared with 4.5 percent in 2013.

But for oil companies, the option of exploring new areas is nice to have, and one they might exploit if oil prices rise.

“We’d like an opportunity to look at all of the areas (including the Eastern Seaboard and Alaska),” said Tracy Krohn, the chief executive of W&T Offshore Inc <WTI.N>, which currently produces oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I don’t know that we would exclude any areas.”

The API said some of its members could be interested in looking at parts of the mid- and southern-Atlantic too, because of successful wells drilled in similar geology off Brazil, Africa and Canada.

“It would make sense to go out there and run seismic and do some exploratory drilling down the road,” said Erik Milito, API’s director of upstream operations.

(Additional reporting by Liz Hampton, Nichola Groom, Timothy Gardner, and Gary McWilliams; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Simon Webb and Lisa Shumaker)

Three injured in fire atop N.Y.’s Trump Tower, officials say

New York Fire Department crew respond after a fire broke out at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. January 8, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Three people were injured in an early-morning fire at the top of Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, the New York Fire Department said on Monday, as the city’s workday rush began.

U.S. President Donald Trump was in Washington at the time. Trump’s primary residence was in the building before his election victory and inauguration nearly a year ago.

One firefighter was hospitalized with nonlife-threatening injuries, while two people received minor injuries that were treated at the scene, including a building worker whose injury was initially described as serious, the Fire Department said.

Eric Trump, one of the president’s sons, said on Twitter that it was a small electrical fire in the cooling tower on the building’s roof.

“The New York Fire Department was here within minutes and did an incredible job,” said the younger Trump. “The men and women of the #FDNY are true heros and deserve our most sincere thanks and praise!”

The Fire Department said the fire was not inside the building, but on top of it.

“We had flames coming out of the vents. No smoke condition or fire was on the inside,” Manhattan Borough Commander Assistant Chief Roger Sakowich said on Twitter.

The cause of the blaze is being investigated by the city fire marshal, a department spokesman said.

Once the investigation is complete, the results will be released, the spokesman, Firefighter Jim Long, said.

As firefighters battled the blaze, a plume of smoke spewed from the roof of the 68-story structure.

The fire was reported by phone shortly before 7 a.m. EST (noon GMT) on the top floor of the building, and was declared under control about an hour and 15 minutes later, the department said.

Some 84 firefighters and medical crews responded as 26 emergency units with lights flashing converged on the crowded midtown Manhattan location, it added.

In addition to the president’s 66th-floor penthouse, Trump Tower houses the headquarters of the Trump Organization as well as other residences, offices and stores.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Scott Malone and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Treasury secretary asks Congress to lift debt ceiling by Feb. 28: report

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stands with Chairman on the National Economic Advisory Gary Cohn and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross before President Donald Trump celebrated with Congressional Republicans after the U.S. Congress passed sweeping tax overhaul legislation, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has asked Republican leaders in Congress to lift the federal government’s debt ceiling by Feb. 28, Bloomberg News reported on Monday, citing two sources familiar with the talks.

The U.S. Treasury Department will exhaust all of its borrowing options and run dry of cash to pay its bills by late March or early April if Congress does not raise its borrowing authority by then, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said.

(Writing by Susan Heavey)

Trump tweet on nuclear button keeps Kim Jong Un ‘on his toes’: Haley

U.S. President Donald Trump returns to the White House from Camp David, in Washington, U.S., January 7, 2018. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet about having a bigger nuclear button than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s has kept Kim “on his toes” and makes clear the risks of a nuclear standoff, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Sunday.

After Kim asserted that he had a nuclear button at the ready, Trump last week dismissed the taunt by saying in a tweet that the U.S. button at his disposal was bigger and more powerful.

The comment drew criticism, including from former Vice President Joe Biden, who said it caused allies to lose confidence in Washington.

Asked on the ABC program “This Week” whether the president’s tweet was a good idea, Haley said: “I think that (Trump) always has to keep Kim on his toes. It’s very important that we don’t ever let him get so arrogant that he doesn’t realize the reality of what would happen if he started a nuclear war.”

Haley said North Korea should be clear that the United States will not reduce pressure on Kim.

“We’re not going to let them go and dramatize the fact that they have a button right on their desk and they can destroy America,” she said. “We want to always remind them we can destroy you too, so be very cautious and careful with your words and what you do.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

With renewed vigor, U.S. top court scrutinizes curbs on voting

FILE PHOTO: Voters leave a polling station after casting their votes during the U.S. presidential election in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, U.S. on November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk/File Photo

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Government officials across the United States try to maintain accurate voter rolls by removing people who have died or moved away. But a case coming before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday explores whether some states are aggressively purging voter rolls in a way that disenfranchises thousands of voters.

The justices will hear arguments in Republican-governed Ohio’s appeal of a lower court ruling that blocked its policy of erasing from voter registration lists people who do not regularly cast a ballot. Under the policy, such registration is deleted if the person goes six years without either voting or contacting state voting officials.

“Voting is the foundation of our democracy, and it is much too important to treat as a ‘use it or lose it’ right,” said Stuart Naifeh, a voting rights lawyer with liberal advocacy group Demos, which is representing plaintiffs challenging Ohio’s policy along with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Voting rights has been an important theme before the Supreme Court during their nine-month term that began in October, in particular the question of whether actions by state leaders have disenfranchised thousands of voters either by marginalizing their electoral clout or by prohibiting them from voting.

Two other cases could have a big impact on U.S. elections. At issue is whether Republican-drawn electoral districts in Wisconsin and Democratic-drawn districts in Maryland were fashioned to entrench the majority party in power in such an extreme way that they violated the constitutional rights of certain voters. The practice is called partisan gerrymandering.

The conservative-majority court also could take up other voting rights disputes this term including a bid by Texas to revive Republican-drawn electoral districts that were thrown out by a lower court for discriminating against black and Hispanic voters.

Most states periodically cleanse their voter rolls to prevent irregularities, such as someone voting more than once on Election Day. Ohio is one of seven states, along with Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, that purge infrequent voters from registration lists, according to the plaintiffs who sued Ohio in 2016.

“Among those, Ohio is the most aggressive. It has the shortest timeline for removing people for non-voting,” Naifeh said.

‘EFFICIENCY AND INTEGRITY’

Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted noted that the state’s policy has been in place since the 1990s under Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. “Maintaining the integrity of the voter rolls is essential to conducting an election with efficiency and integrity,” Husted said when the court agreed to hear the case last May.

In Ohio, registered voters do not vote for two years are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are purged.

Democrats have accused Republicans of taking steps at the state level, including laws requiring certain types of government-issued identification, intended to suppress the vote of minorities, poor people and others who generally favor Democratic candidates.

A 2016 Reuters analysis found roughly twice the rate of voter purging in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Ohio’s three largest counties as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled in September 2016 that Ohio’s policy ran afoul of a 1993 law that prohibits states from striking registered voters “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.”

Following that ruling, about 7,500 Ohio voters who otherwise would have been barred were able to cast ballots in the November 2016 election, the state said. A total of 5.6 million ballots were cast statewide.

Even as courts have invalidated Republican-drawn electoral districts targeting racial minorities, partisan gerrymandering and purging of voter rolls have emerged as tools to suppress voting, voting rights advocates said.

“What we’re seeing is a real moment as to whether or not we’re going to be a country that makes voting free, fair and accessible, or are we going to put a bunch of barriers in front of the ballot box,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections project at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Other experts called Ohio’s policy reasonable to maintain ballot integrity.

“To suppress is utter nonsense. What we are doing is enforcing the law,” said Bradley Schlozman, who supervised the U.S. Justice Department’s voting section under Republican former President George W. Bush.

“All voting cases now seem to take on this political flavor and each side now ascribes impure and partisan motives to the other. It’s unfortunate,” Schlozman added.

One Ohio man, a Trumbull County truck driver and Army veteran, said in an affidavit supporting the plaintiffs in the lawsuit he was “completely blindsided” after learning he was no longer registered to vote for the 2016 election. The last time he voted, he said, was in 2008. He told a county election board official by email that he is a U.S. citizen born in Ohio and should be reinstated to the rolls.

If not, he suggested also purging his name as a taxpayer.

“We’ll call us square!” the man wrote.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Brutal cold snap stuns U.S. East Coast after blizzard

People push a bus on an icy road in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. this still image taken from a January 4, 2018 social media video. Karen Lyons Clauson/via REUTERS

By Scott Malone and Gina Cherelus

BOSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – A blanket of bone-chilling arctic air covered the U.S. East Coast and Midwest on Saturday, creating dangerous conditions as tens of millions of people struggled to clean up from a blizzard that dumped deep, drifting snow in many areas this week.

Wind chill and freeze warnings stretched from Florida to New England and inland to states to the Upper Midwest, while the National Weather Service warned of freezing rain from Kansas to Ohio.

In some areas, officials warned residents that exposed skin could freeze within minutes. Cities from Houston to Boston have stepped up efforts to bring the homeless to shelters.

The cold snap complicated efforts by crews to clear snow and ice from roadways after a blizzard clobbered the East Coast on Thursday and Friday, forcing hundreds of schools to close and causing commuter rail services to suspend or reduce service.

Cold and snowy weather was blamed for at least 18 deaths in the past few days, including four in North Carolina traffic accidents and three in Texas.

Killington, the famous Vermont ski resort, closed on Saturday even though snow conditions were excellent, saying wind chill on the slopes was at least minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 46 degrees Celsius).

“It’s just too cold to put folks out there,” the resort said on its website.

The brutal cold in parts of the East Coast and Midwest showed no sign of abating this weekend, but a thaw should begin on Monday, said meteorologist Bob Oravec of the National Weather Service’s Maryland-based Weather Prediction Center. Before then, conditions will probably worsen.

“Sunday morning is going to be the coldest morning” in the weeklong stretch of frigid weather, he said.

In many parts of the eastern United States, residents shivered in temperatures of below 0F (minus 18C), Oravec said.

Among the coldest places in the country on Saturday were the small Minnesota towns of Cotton and Embarrass, where the mercury plummeted to minus 39F (minus 39C), Oravec said. But that fell short of a record low for those hamlets in the northeastern corner of the state, where sub-zero temperatures are not unusual in January.

Not so with New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, where a measuring station recorded a record low for this date at 8F (minus 13C), Oravec said.

The airport had closed from Thursday to Friday morning because of whiteout conditions from heavy snow. Some passengers endured more delays on Saturday after the wing of a China Southern plane clipped the tail of a Kuwait Airlines jet on the tarmac.

After shutting down on Tuesday, Charleston International Airport in South Carolina remained closed on Saturday, with runaways still inactive after 5 inches (12.7 cm) of snow.

The East Coast’s first snowstorm of 2018 featured gusts of more than 70 miles per hour (113 km per hour), dumping 22 inches (56 cm) of snow in parts of Maine and 17 inches (43 cm) in parts of Massachusetts before ending on Friday, the National Weather Service said.

The storm was powered by a rapid drop in barometric pressure that some weather forecasters called a bombogenesis, or a “bomb cyclone.”

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Von Ahn)

Trump rejects author’s accusations, calls self ‘stable genius’

An employee of Book Culture book store unloads copies of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by author Michael Wolff inside the store in New York, U.S. January 5, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday rejected an author’s accusations that he is mentally unfit for office and said his track record showed he is “a very stable genius.”

Michael Wolff, who was granted unusually wide access to the White House during much of Trump’s first year, has said in promoting his book that Trump is unfit for the presidency.

Trump, in a series of extraordinary morning posts on Twitter, said his Democratic critics and the U.S. news media were bringing up the “old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence” since they have not been able to bring him down in other ways.

Reagan, a Republican who was the U.S. president from 1981-1989, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994 and died in 2004.

“Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” said Trump, a former reality TV star and developer.

“I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star … to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius … and a very stable genius at that!”

Trump, 71, issued the tweets from the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, where he was meeting Republican congressional leaders and many Cabinet secretaries about their legislative agenda for the year.

Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House,” portrays Trump as unfocused, unprepared and petty while presiding over a chaotic White House.

Trump, answering questions from reporters at Camp David later, called Wolff a “fraud” and said the book is “a complete work of fiction.”

“I think it’s a disgrace,” he said.

Trump said he never granted Wolff an interview for the book and blamed former adviser Steve Bannon, who he called “Sloppy Steve,” for granting Wolff access at the White House.

The tweets were another sign of Trump’s frustration at what he views as unfair treatment by the news media of his presidency amid a federal investigation into whether he or his campaign aides colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign, in which he defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump, asked about a New York Times report that his aides had pressured Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to rescue himself from the Russia investigation, said: “Everything I’ve done has been 100 percent proper.”

Wolff’s book has proved to be another shock to the system for Trump and his top aides, coming just as he starts his second year in office.

Wolff told BBC Radio in an interview broadcast on Saturday that based on his interviews with the people around Trump that he believed the president was unfit for office.

He told NBC News on Friday that White House staff treated Trump like a child.

“The one description that everyone gave, everyone has in common — they all say he is like a child,” Wolff said. “And what they mean by that, he has a need for immediate gratification. It’s all about him.

“This man does not read, does not listen. He’s like a pinball, just shooting off the sides.”

Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera told “Fox and Friends” on Saturday that he had spoken to Trump on Friday and that he was “very, very frustrated” that the issue of his mental fitness was getting traction.

Trump is to undergo the first physical examination of his presidency on Jan. 12. The exam was announced on Dec. 7 after questions arose about Trump’s health when he slurred part of a speech announcing that the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

White House officials and Trump’s high-profile supporters have launched an effort to raise doubts about Wolff’s credibility. White House spokesman Sarah Sanders said earlier in the week that the book includes “mistake after mistake after mistake.”

(Additional reporting by James Oliphant in Camp David, Maryland; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bill Trott)

Intel downplays fears security patch will slow computers

Intel logo is seen behind LED lights in this illustration taken January 5, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illutration

By Stephen Nellis

(Reuters) – Intel Corp <INTC.O> downplayed concerns that software updates to address security vulnerabilities in its computer chips will degrade performance of computers as businesses and consumers scrambled to figure out whether installing the patches would slow their machines.

These flaws are security holes in nearly every computing device that make their data vulnerable to hacking.

The problem surfaced early this week when news broke that researchers were planning to release technical reports on the threats, sending businesses, governments and consumers scrambling to understand the extent of the threat and the cost of fixes. No clear consensus has emerged.

“Intel continues to believe that the performance impact of these updates is highly workload-dependent and, for the average computer user, should not be significant and will be mitigated over time,” the world’s No. 1 chipmaker said in a release.

The release cited comments from Amazon.com Inc <AMZN.O>, Apple Inc <AAPL.O>, Alphabet Inc’s <GOOGL.O> and Microsoft Corp <MSFT.O>, which said that they had seen no significant impact to performance after installing the patches.

They were among a group of firms that quickly patched their technology to mitigate against the threat from one of those vulnerabilities, dubbed Meltdown, which only affects machines running Intel chips.

Major software makers have not issued patches to protect against the second vulnerability, dubbed Spectre, which affects nearly all computer chips made in the last decade. However, Google, Firefox and Microsoft have implemented measures in most web browsers to stop hackers from launching remote attacks using Spectre.

Governments and security experts say they have observed no cyber attacks seeking to exploit either vulnerability, though they expect hackers to attempt to do so as they digest technical data about the security flaws.

One key risk is that hackers will develop code that can infect the personal computers of people visiting malicious websites, said Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer of cyber security firm Veracode.

He advised PC owners to install the security patches to protect against such potential attacks. There is less risk to computer servers at large enterprises, he said, because those systems are not used to surf the web and can only be infected in a Meltdown attack if a hacker has already breached that network.

Microsoft has issued a patch for its Windows operating system, and Apple desktop users with the most recent operating system are protected. Google has said most of its Chromebook laptops are already protected and the rest will be soon.

Apple said it plans to release a patch to its Safari web browser within coming days to protect Mac and iOS users from Spectre.

While third-party browsers from Google and others can protect Mac users from Spectre, all major web browsers for Apple’s iOS devices depend on receiving a patch from Apple. That means hundreds of millions of iPhone and iPad users will be exposed to potential Spectre attacks while browsing the Web until Apple issues its patch.

(Writing by Jim Finkle in Toronto; Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Douglas Busvine in Frankfurt; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

NSA chief to leave, expects successor this month: report

UFILE PHOTO: U.S. National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on foreign cyber threats, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 5, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers has announced plans to retire this spring and has said he expected a successor to be nominated and approved by the U.S. Senate this month, according to a report on Friday.

Rogers, who heads the U.S. Cyber Command, made the announcement to agency staff, a Washington Post reporter said in a post on Twitter. NSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey)

In blizzard’s icy wake, intense cold grips U.S. Northeast

A pedestrian walks through blinding snow across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz

By Scott Malone and Gina Cherelus

BOSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Street crews dug out snow-clogged roads across the U.S. Northeast on Friday after a powerful blizzard, with temperatures set to plunge further during a brutal cold spell that has already killed at least 18 people.

From Baltimore to Caribou, Maine, workers battled to clear snow and ice as wind chills were to forecast to fall as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius) in some areas after sundown, according to the National Weather Service.

In the latest fatality blamed on the frigid weather, a driver slid off an icy road, killing a pedestrian, early on Friday in North Charleston, South Carolina, city officials said.

“THE DANGERS ARE REAL,” the officials warned in a Twitter message. “Huge patches of ice all over the city. Stay at home.”

The fierce cold will reach from New England to the Midwest and down to the Carolinas, forecasters warned, adding that low-temperature records could be broken across the region in the coming days.

In much of New England on Friday, the highs will reach only into the single digits or teens Fahrenheit, with intense wind chills, said Dan Pydynowski, a meteorologist with private forecasting service AccuWeather.

“It can be very dangerous,” Pydynowski said. “Any kind of exposed skin can freeze in a couple of minutes.” Wind chill describes the combined effect of wind and low temperatures on bare skin.

The extreme cold also raised the risk that road salt would not work to melt ice, possibly leaving highway crews to shift over to sanding roads to improve traction, Massachusetts transportation officials said.

Utility companies across the East worked to repair downed power lines as about 31,000 customers remained without electricity early on Friday, down from almost 80,000 the day before. Most of the outages were in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

MULTIPLE FATALITIES

The storm that swept in on Thursday with winds gusts of more than 70 miles per hour (113 km per hour), dumped a foot (30 cm) or more of snow throughout the region, including Boston and parts of New Jersey and Maine, before ending early on Friday.

The harsh conditions were powered by a rapid plunge in barometric pressure that some weather forecasters called a bombogenesis, or a “bomb cyclone.”

The weather has been blamed for at least 18 deaths in the past few days, including four in North Carolina traffic accidents and three in Texas.

Schools in Boston and Baltimore canceled classes on Friday while those in New York were open. Schools in Newark, New Jersey, opened two hours later than normal.

Commuter railways serving New York and Boston’s suburbs reported extensive delays as they worked to repair frozen equipment and clear snow-covered tracks.

Thursday’s storm caused a 3-foot (0.9-metre) tidal surge that flooded the area around Boston’s historic Long Wharf with icy seawater. Firefighters used an inflatable raft to rescue one motorist from a car submerged up to its door handles, Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn told reporters.

Communities outside Boston, including Scituate, also experienced extensive flooding.

New York’s John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports resumed flights on Friday after closing during whiteout conditions the day before. More than 1,200 U.S. flights had been canceled by midday on Friday; the most cancellations were at the three major airports in the New York area and at Boston Logan International Airport.

Nearly 500 members of the National Guard were activated to assist with the emergency response along the East Coast, including 200 in New York state, authorities said.

(Additonal reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Jonathan Allen and Scott DiSavino in New York, and Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Editing by Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump hails potential Korea talks, credits his firm stance

FILE PHOTO – A combination photo shows a Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) handout of Kim Jong Un released on May 10, 2016, and Donald Trump posing for a photo in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA handout via Reuters/File Photo & REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By David Brunnstrom and Christine Kim

WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday called potential talks between North and South Korea “a good thing” and the South Korean presidency said he had agreed there would be no military drills with South Korea during next month’s Winter Olympics.

South Korea’s Presidential Blue House said Trump told South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in in a telephone call that he hoped inter-Korean talks would lead to good results and that he would send a high-level delegation, including members of his family, to the Winter Olympics, which will be held in South Korea.

In a tweet ahead of the South Korean statement, Trump hailed potential talks between North Korea and South Korea as “a good thing” and took credit for any dialogue after Seoul and Pyongyang this week signaled willingness to speak.

“Does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North,” Trump tweeted, adding that “talks are a good thing!”

North Korea has for long denounced U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises as preludes to invasion.

U.S. officials had earlier responded coolly to North Korea’s suggestion of talks with the State Department saying Pyongyang “might be trying to drive a wedge” between Washington and Seoul.

And the head of U.S. forces in South Korea warned on Thursday against raising hopes over North Korea’s peace overture amid a war of words over North Korea’s development of nuclear tipped missiles capable of hitting the United States.

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have exchanged a series of bellicose comments in recent months, raising alarm across the world, with Trump at times dismissing the prospect of a diplomatic solution to a crisis in which both sides have threatened to destroy each other.

In a New Year address, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he was open to dialogue with U.S. ally South Korea and could send a delegation to the Winter Olympics.

Kim also warned that he would push ahead with “mass producing” nuclear warheads in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions and warned that the entire United States was in range of North Korean nuclear missiles and a nuclear button was always on his desk.

Trump responded by mocking Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and saying that his nuclear button was bigger and more powerful and worked.

Seoul answered the North Korean talks overture by proposing high-level talks at a border village next week and on Wednesday, the two Koreas reopened a border hotline that had been closed since February 2016.

The commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), General Vincent Brooks, said the overture was a strategy to divide five countries – the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia – to reach its goal of being accepted as a “nuclear capable” nation, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

“We must keep our expectations at the appropriate level,” he was quoted as saying in an address to a university in Seoul.

“We can’t ignore that reality,” he said, adding it was important for the United States and South Korea to maintain an “ironclad and razor sharp” alliance.

The five countries mentioned by Brooks were involved in years of on-again-off-again “six-party talks” with North Korea aimed at resolving the crisis, negotiations which eventually fizzled when North Korea pulled out.

North Korea says its weapons are necessary to counter U.S. aggression. The United States stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Thursday the security crisis posed by North Korea to Japan was the most perilous since World War Two and he vowed to bolster defenses.

On Tuesday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Washington would not take any talks between North and South Korea seriously if they did not contribute to denuclearizing North Korea.

She also said Washington was hearing reports that Pyongyang might be preparing to fire another missile and warned of even tougher steps in response if it did so.

(Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo and David Brunnstrom and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and Susan Thomas)

Trump push to scale back welfare programs has Republicans on edge

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) as he celebrates with Congressional Republicans after the U.S. Congress passed sweeping tax overhaul legislation, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Emboldened by his victory in the passage of the biggest U.S. tax overhaul in decades, President Donald Trump now wants to rein in social welfare programs even though some Republicans are wary of tackling the volatile issue in a congressional election year.

A White House-led drive to downsize government aid programs such as food stamps and housing subsidies would energize conservative campaign donors whose support Republicans are counting on ahead of the November elections where the party will fight to keep control of Congress.

White House aides say Trump is eager to take on welfare. He has a willing partner in House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, who has long had an interest in the issue.

But some Republicans believe Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is lukewarm on the drive for revising welfare, which might face a difficult sell in the Senate where Republicans hold only a razor-thin 51-49 majority.

Democrats already are attacking Trump for identifying welfare changes as his top 2018 goal, saying they are designed to help pay for tax cuts whose benefits are skewed toward corporations and wealthy individuals and which will add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the debt over 10 years.

Trump has summoned Republican congressional leaders to the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland this weekend to discuss 2018 priorities, including welfare and a planned effort on infrastructure investment.

Conservative House Republicans are especially enthusiastic about a welfare overhaul. Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows and the caucus’ former leader, U.S. Representative Jim Jordan, have discussed it with Trump and are confident the Republican president backs their ideas, such as strengthening work requirements for food stamps.

“He definitely gets it,” Jordan said.

But Republicans may need to tread carefully in seeking to reduce government aid programs that benefit some of Trump’s core supporters in poor, rural regions of the country.

Republican Representative Tom Cole said Congress had a lot on its plate in the early months of 2018, including must-pass budget legislation and he was unsure there would be the time – or political will in the Senate – to pass welfare legislation.

“First things first,” Cole said, adding it might be better to lay the groundwork for debate over the issue than to try enacting changes this year.

Meadows said he believed a welfare overhaul had strong support among Republican lawmakers but that “convincing Mitch McConnell and the Democrats are Herculean tasks.”

Other Republicans and interest groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers think 2018 would be better spent on infrastructure.

TOUGHER THAN TAXES?

Trump’s first major legislative victory – the tax bill – took until the end of 2017. But handing out tax breaks might be far easier than revamping welfare assistance that benefits millions of American families.

Last year, there were more than 42 million people in nearly 21 million U.S. households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits, which are known as food stamps, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

They cost taxpayers about $58 billion.

Trump’s budget proposal last year called for cutting more than $192 billion from SNAP over a decade.

The president also proposed deep cuts to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which last year provided aid to 1.1 million families.

Democratic strategist Doug Thornell said a push on welfare could trigger a political backlash for Republicans from elderly and blue-collar voters in the November congressional elections.

Thornell said it may appeal to Trump’s political base “but few else. And the irony here is that it will be Trump’s base who will feel the brunt of these cuts.”

Robert Doar, a poverty specialist at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute who has been in contact with Trump administration officials about policy ideas, urged an incremental approach.

Although Doar said he did not know what policies the administration would ultimately back, he said Trump could encourage people to get jobs by reducing the length of their qualification for government aid and imposing stricter reviews of their efforts to find work.

He said Congress could pass legislation cutting benefits for people who fail to make enough effort to find jobs or do volunteer work.

Some have argued that food stamp beneficiaries, for example, already include a high rate of people who hold jobs but are unable to make ends meet.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by James Oliphant and Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Powerful snowstorm hits eastern U.S., snarling travel

Ahead of an incoming winter snow storm, a Jet Blue flight waits to take off from Logan International Airport next to the frozen waters of the Atlantic Ocean harbour between Winthrop and Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., January 3, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Scott Malone and Gina Cherelus

BOSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – High winds and heavy snow barreled into the U.S. Northeast on Thursday, closing schools and government offices and disrupting travel as work crews scrambled to clear roads before plummeting temperatures turn snow into treacherous ice.

Thousands of flights were canceled, snow plows and salt trucks were omnipresent on roads and highways, and commuters who braved the storm to head in to their jobs hoped they would be able to make it home safely as the storm intensified later in the day.

Blizzard warnings were in place along the coast from North Carolina to Maine, with the National Weather Service forecasting winds as high as 70 miles per hour (113 km per hour) that may bring down tree limbs and knock out power.

More than a foot (30 cm) of snow was forecast for Boston and coastal areas in northern New England.

The storm is the product of a rapid plunge in barometric pressure that some weather forecasters are referring to as bombogenesis or a “bomb cyclone,” which brings fast heavy snowfall and high winds.

The cold has been blamed for at least nine deaths over the past few days, including two homeless people in Houston.

More than 3,000 airline flights within, into or out of the United States were canceled ahead of the storm’s arrival on Thursday. At New York’s three major airports and Boston’s Logan International, as many as three out of four flights were called off, according to tracking service FlightAware.com.

Passenger train operator Amtrak was running reduced service in the Northeast, while mass-transit systems in major metropolitan areas, including New York and Boston, remained open.

“I have a big meeting today, so I had to go in. If I didn’t, I probably would have stayed home,” said Ann Gillard, 24, as she waited for a subway in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take her into the downtown Boston office where she works as a consultant.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority invested extensively in equipment to remove snow and keep tracks from freezing after extensive disruptions during the winter of 2015, when Boston got about 9 feet (2.74 meters) of snow. But Gillard said her commute typically goes “not that well” in inclement weather.

“My plan is to leave at 4, right after my meeting, and, hopefully, it will be OK,” she said, adding that her backup plan was to “walk home, probably. It’s not that cold, it’ll just be snow.”

‘TREACHEROUS’

Federal government offices planned to delay opening for two hours on Thursday, while state officials in Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts ordered nonessential workers to stay home. In Maine, Governor Paul LePage ordered state offices closed for the day.

“Travel conditions are expected to be treacherous,” LePage said in a statement. “Avoiding unnecessary travel will keep accidents to a minimum and allow state and municipal road crews to safely go about their work.”

The snowstorm brought a break in extreme cold temperatures that have gripped much of the region since Christmas, frozen part of Niagara Falls, played havoc with public works and impeded firefighting in places where temperatures barely broke 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.7 Celsius).

Some 65,000 homes and businesses in the Northeast were without power early on Thursday, though that number was expected to rise as the storm intensifies across the region.

That raised fears that people would be left without power and heat on Friday and during the weekend when temperatures are forecast to drop sharply.

Schools were ordered closed in New York, many parts of New Jersey, Boston and elsewhere throughout the region.

The bombogenesis phenomenon occurs when a storm’s barometric pressure drops 24 millibars in 24 hours. As a result, the accumulation of snow and winds intensifies, which can cause property damage and power outages.

Part of U.S. 13 at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia was closed due to high winds early on Thursday, while state transportation departments throughout the region reported dozens of delays due to deteriorating road conditions.

Late on Wednesday, a baggage car and two sleeper cars on an Amtrak train traveling from Miami to New York, with 311 passengers aboard, derailed as it was slowly backing into a station in Savannah, Georgia. No one was injured, an Amtrak spokesman said.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. places Pakistan on watch list for religious freedom violations

U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department has placed Pakistan on a special watch list for “severe violations of religious freedom,” it said on Thursday, days after the White House said Islamabad would have to do more to combat terrorism to receive U.S. aid.

The State Department also said it had re-designated 10 other nations as “countries of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for having engaged in or tolerated egregious violations of religious freedom.

The re-designated countries were China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They were re-designated on Dec. 22.

“The protection of religious freedom is vital to peace, stability, and prosperity,” the department said in a statement. “These designations are aimed at improving the respect for religious freedom in these countries.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has criticized Pakistan for not doing more to combat terrorism, and his administration has informed members of Congress that it will announce plans to end “security assistance” payments to the country.

Pakistan has said it is already doing a lot to fight militants, and summoned the U.S. ambassador to explain a tweet by Trump that said the United States had been foolish in dispensing aid to Islamabad.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Susan Thomas)

Trump administration to end Obama-era marijuana policy: source

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to board Air Force One for travel to Palm Beach from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., December 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday will rescind a marijuana policy begun under Democratic former President Barack Obama that eased enforcement of federal laws as a growing number of states and localities legalized the drug, a source familiar with the matter said.

The Obama-era policy, outlined in 2013 by then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole, recognized marijuana as a “dangerous drug,” but said the department expected states and localities that authorized various uses of the drug to effectively regulate and police it.

Going forward, federal prosecutors around the country will have deference to enforce U.S. laws on marijuana as they see fit in their own districts, added the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The upcoming policy change by Republican President Donald Trump’s administration comes just days after California formally launched the world’s largest regulated commercial market for recreational marijuana.

Besides California, other states that permit the regulated sale of marijuana for recreational use include Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Nevada. Massachusetts and Maine are on track to follow suit later this year.

The policy being reversed had sought to provide more clarity on how prosecutors would enforce federal laws that ban marijuana in states that have legalized it for medicinal or recreational use. Its rescission could sow confusion and potentially hamper efforts to cultivate local marijuana businesses.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made no secret about his disdain for marijuana. He has said the drug is harmful and should not be legalized. He also described marijuana as a gateway drug for opioid addicts.

A task force created under a February 2017 executive order by Trump and comprised of prosecutors and other law enforcement officials was supposed to study marijuana enforcement, along with many other policy areas, and issue recommendations.

Its recommendations were due in July 2017, but the Justice Department has not made public what the task force determined was appropriate for marijuana.

Marijuana advocates criticized the Trump administration’s move.

“By rescinding the Cole Memo, Jeff Sessions is acting on his warped desire to return America to the failed beliefs of the ‘Just Say No’ and Reefer Madness eras,” said Erik Altieri, the executive director of the pro-marijuana group NORML. “This action flies in the face of sensible public policy and broad public opinion.”

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

North Korea reopens border hotline as Trump boasts of ‘bigger’ nuclear button

South Korean soldiers patrol near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, January 3, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea reopened a long-closed border hotline with South Korea on Wednesday, hours after U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to mock the North’s leader by saying he has a “bigger and more powerful” nuclear button than he does.

The North’s decision to open the border phone line came a day after South Korea proposed high-level discussions amid a tense standoff over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

That followed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year address in which he said he was open to speaking with the South and would consider sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics to be held just across the border in Pyeongchang in February.

U.S. officials said Washington would not take any talks between North and South Korea seriously if they did not contribute to denuclearizing North Korea. A State Department spokeswoman said North Korea “might be trying to drive a wedge of some sort”.

Kim ordered the reopening of the hotline at the truce village of Panmunjom at 0630 GMT on Wednesday, when South Korean officials at the border received a call from the North, the South’s unification ministry said in a text message.

Officials on both sides were checking the line and conducting a conversation for about 20 minutes, the contents of which were not disclosed by the ministry.

That gesture came only hours after Trump, who has mocked Kim as “Little Rocket Man”, again ridiculed the North Korean leader on Twitter.

“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Trump tweeted.

Trump and Kim have exchanged a series of bellicose comments in recent months, raising alarm across the world, with Trump at times dismissing the prospect of a diplomatic solution to a crisis in which North Korea has threatened to destroy the United States.

While appearing to open the door to discussing taking part in the Winter Olympics, Kim also warned that he would push ahead with “mass producing” nuclear warheads in defiance of U.N. sanctions.

His New Year’s Day speech came after a steep increase in missile launches in 2017, as well as the North’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test. Kim, who has vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States, said he had a nuclear button on his desk.

‘SERIOUS AND SINCERE’

The hotline with the South was shut down by North Korea in February 2016 in retaliation against the closing of a border factory town that was jointly operated by the two Koreas.

“We will try to keep close communications with the south Korean side from sincere stand(sic) and honest attitude, true to the intention of our supreme leadership, and deal with the practical matters related to the dispatch of our delegation,” the North’s KCNA news agency quoted Ri Son Gwon, chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, as saying.

The talks would aim to establish formal dialogue about sending a North Korean delegation to the Olympics, Ri said.

South Korean presidential spokesman Yoon Young-chan said the North’s decision to open the hotline had “significant meaning” because it could lead to constant communication.

U.S. officials had voiced scepticism about the possibility of meaningful talks, particularly if they did not take steps towards banning North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warned North Korea against staging another missile test and said Washington was hearing reports that Pyongyang might be preparing to fire another missile.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said both sides should seize the Olympics as an opportunity to improve ties and make concrete efforts toward alleviating tension.

“All relevant sides should grab hold of this positive trend in the Korean peninsula and move in the same direction,” Geng told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

North Korea regularly threatens to destroy South Korea, the United States and Japan, and says its weapons are necessary to counter U.S. aggression. The United States stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

(Additional reporting by Joyce Lee in Seoul, and Philip Wen in Beijing; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Bannon calls Trump Jr. meeting with Russians ‘treasonous’: book

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to chief strategist Steve Bannon during a swearing in ceremony for senior staff at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has called a June 2016 meeting with a group of Russians attended by Donald Trump Jr. and his father’s top campaign officials “treasonous” and “unpatriotic,” according to excerpts of a new book seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

Bannon expressed derision and astonishment over the meeting in Trump Tower in New York in which a Russian lawyer was said to be offering damaging information about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, according to the book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by Michael Wolff.

The meeting arranged by Trump’s son also included Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort. It has become part of a federal investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the election. Trump has denied any such collusion.

“The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor – with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers,” Bannon said in the book in excerpts seen by Reuters.

“Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.”

When an intermediary proposed the meeting, saying the Russians were offering damaging information about Clinton, Trump Jr. responded in an email, “I love it.”

Bannon was incredulous about the meeting shortly after it was revealed, according to the book, concluding sarcastically, “That’s the brain trust they had.”

The book, due out next Tuesday, was based on more than 200 interviews with Trump, senior White House staffers and confidantes conducted by Wolff, a contributing editor for The Hollywood Reporter, according to publisher Henry Holt.

There was no immediate comment from the White House or Bannon on the book details, first reported by the Guardian. The Trump Organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Trump Jr.

Bannon became Trump’s campaign manager in the months before the November 2016 election, but after the Trump Tower meeting, and was chief White House strategist during the turbulent first eight months of Trump’s presidency.

Trump fired Bannon in August, removing a far-right architect of his election victory and a driving force behind his nationalist and anti-globalization agenda.

In the book, Bannon also said he believed the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow will focus on money laundering.

“They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” Bannon was quoted as saying.

Manafort and business associate Rick Gates, who also worked on Trump’s campaign, pleaded not guilty in November to federal charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller including conspiracy to launder money, conspiracy against the United States and failing to register as foreign agents of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government.

(Additional reporting by Jim Oliphant; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Will Dunham)

Rare snow hits U.S. Southeast as Northeast braces for ‘bombogenesis’

A woman stops to photograph the frozen Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain in New York, U.S., January 3, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – A rare winter storm hit the U.S. Southeast on Wednesday, bringing Florida’s capital its first snow in three decades and snarling travel, while New England braced for a “bombogenesis” whopper forecast to bring heavy accumulations on Thursday.

Governors in states from Florida to Virginia warned residents to expect icy roads and unseasonable freezing temperatures. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency in part of the state, while Florida Governor Rick Scott ordered warming shelters opened for residents.

In historic Charleston, South Carolina, the winter storm shuttered carriage horse tour companies on Wednesday, city spokesman Jack O’Toole said. A day earlier, a carriage horse slipped and fell on a patch of ice during a tour.

Residents in nearby Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, on Tuesday headed to grocery stores in droves to stock up on food and supplies at local groceries, according to Nicholas Nichols, an employee at Publix grocery store.

“They did restock last night. They were here until 4 in the morning,” Nichols said.

The wintry mix and low wind chills could cause widespread power outages and leave roads icy, making commuting treacherous for millions of Americans from northern Florida to southern Virginia, the National Weather Service said in a series of warnings.

Some schools and universities in those states were closed on Wednesday in anticipation of the storm. Many flights out of the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia and Tallahassee Airport in Florida were canceled.

The weather service said its Tallahassee office measured a snow and sleet accumulation of 0.1 inch (2.5mm) on its roof early in the day, the first time Florida’s capital has had snow in nearly 30 years.

Two to 3 inches (5-8 cm) of snow were expected in northeastern Florida, coastal Georgia and South Carolina, according to early morning forecasts, said weather service meteorologist Bob Oravec.

Some Florida and Georgia residents shared images on social media of light snow accumulating.

‘BOMBOGENESIS’

The weather service had blizzard warnings in effect from Virginia to Maine, with areas around Boston expected to see about a foot (30 cm) of snow on Thursday. Forecasters warned that snow would fall quickly, at a rate of several inches per hour, during the day, with the storm intensified by the “bombogenesis” effect, according to private forecaster Accuweather.

That effect, also known as a “bomb cyclone,” was first described in a 1980 scientific paper by the late Fred Sanders, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It occurs when a storm’s barometric pressure drops by 24 millibars in 24 hours, greatly strengthening the storm.

Florida Governor Scott said cold weather shelters have either opened or would be opened in 22 of the state’s 67 counties.

Some coastal areas of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia could ultimately receive up to 6 inches (15 cm) of snow and ice, while parts of New England could see 12 to 15 inches (30-38 cm) of snow and wind gusts of 35 miles per hour (55 km per hour) by the end of week, the weather service said.

An arctic air mass will remain entrenched over the eastern two-thirds of the United States through the end of the week, forecasters said. The record-low temperatures were to blame for at least eight deaths in Texas, Wisconsin, West Virginia, North Dakota and Michigan over the past several days, officials said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Jonathan Oatis)

No winner in Mega Millions drawing, jackpot climbs to $418 million

A ticket is seen ahead of the Mega Millions lottery draw which reached a jackpot of $415 Million in Manhattan, New York, U.S., July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

(Reuters) – A jackpot for the Mega Millions lottery climbed to an estimated $418 million, the fourth largest in the game’s history, after no tickets matched all six numbers during Tuesday’s grand prize drawing, lottery officials said.

The numbers drawn on Tuesday were 1, 42, 64, 47, 70 and the Mega Ball was 22.

But lottery players will have another chance to strike it rich on Wednesday when Powerball holds its next drawing for an estimated $440 million prize, with a cash value of $278 million. That amount marks the ninth largest jackpot in the game’s history, according to figures on the Powerball website.

The odds of a single ticket hitting all six numbers in the Powerball are 292 million to one, according to the Multi-State Lottery Association.

No one has hit the Powerball jackpot since Oct. 25, when a player in Louisiana won $191 million jackpot, the game said.

No one has won the Mega Millions jackpot since Oct. 13 when $42 million was shared by winners in Michigan and Rhode Island, the game said on its website.

The estimated $418 million prize, with a cash value of $278 million, will be up for grabs when the next Mega Millions drawing is held on Friday. The odds of hitting the Mega Millions jackpot are 303 million to one, the game said.

The cash value figures of both games are the estimated total if a winner selects one lump-sum payment, rather than the other option of taking annual payments.

Both estimated totals are before any taxes are assessed.

The Mega Millions lottery is offered in 44 U.S. states, the Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Powerball tickets are sold in 44 states, and Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The largest Powerball jackpot was $1.6 billion payout split among winners in California, Florida and Tennessee in January 2016. The largest Mega Millions jackpot of $656 million was won in 2012.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Northeastern U.S. gripped by record cold, snow forecast later in week

Elena Barduniotis from Colorado waits in Times Square ahead of New Year’s celebrations in Manhattan.
REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

By Gina Cherelus and Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A record-shattering arctic freeze kept its grip on the U.S. Northeast on Tuesday, closing schools and affecting travel on the first business day of 2018, and forecasters warned the region could be walloped by snow later in the week.

Boston tied a 100-year-old record on Tuesday when it marked seven consecutive days that the temperature did not top 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.7 degrees Celsius), and people whose work kept them outside struggled to find ways to keep warm.

“I’m here since ’78 and I don’t remember cold weather like this,” Yiannis Galanopoulos, who sells $3 cheese pretzels from a cart in New York’s Times Square, said as he warmed his hands over the glowing charcoals that keep his wares hot.

“But a living is a living,” he said, adding that if the temperature dipped much lower, he might rethink the trip from his home in West New York, New Jersey. “It’s not worth it to take a chance.”

Officials throughout the region urged residents to alert social services if they saw people stuck outside in the cold.

“We want every resident to have shelter and warmth,” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said on Twitter. Bitter cold was blamed for at least four deaths across the United States over the New Year’s holiday weekend.

Frigid weather had gripped much of the country for the past few days, breaking long-standing temperature records in cities from Omaha, Nebraska, to Aberdeen, South Dakota, but the weather was forecast to warm up in the coming days.

However, the higher temperatures were expected to be accompanied by heavy snow in the East Coast by as early as Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.

“New York City will probably expect anywhere from 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) of snow,” said weather service meteorologist Greg Gallina. “The maximum swath will be from southern Rhode Island to the south of Boston and into Maine. Southeast Maine will experience anywhere from 12 to 15 inches (30-38 cm) of snow.”

Gallina added that cities in northern Florida will experience freezing rain and maybe some sleet. Coastal areas in Georgia and South Carolina will start to experience smaller amounts of snow, from as early as late Tuesday.

In Iowa, Massachusetts, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina, school districts canceled or delayed the start of classes as bitterly cold weather, 20 degrees to 30 degrees F (11 to 17 degrees C) below normal, were expected across the eastern half of the United States.

The cold was blamed for the deaths of two men in separate incidents in Milwaukee, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. A homeless man was found dead on a porch in Charleston, West Virginia, while another man was found dead outside a church in Detroit, and police said he may have frozen to death, local news outlets reported.

The cold should ease across most of the country heading into the weekend, Gallina said.

“We’re going to see a steady of warm-ups at the end of the weekend when temperatures become average again across the Great Plains and into the Midwest by Sunday,” he said. “Another cold blast will come in on Monday, but it won’t be as brutal. This warm spell will basically be a short respite from the severely cold weather.”

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. airport immigration computers go down temporarily: agency

Luggages pile up at a carousel at a baggage claims area during a systems outage at Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle, Washington, U.S. in this January 1, 2018 picture obtained from social media. James Stout/via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Immigration desk computers at various airports went down for about two hours on Monday, causing long lines for travelers entering the United States after year-end holidays, according to Customs and Border Protection and posts on social media.

The processing system outage began at about 7:30 p.m. EST and was resolved about 9:30 EST, the customs agency said in a statement. All airports were back on line after wait times for travelers that were longer than usual, it said.

“At this time, there is no indication the service disruption was malicious in nature,” the agency said. It gave no explanation for the disruption and said travelers were processed using alternative procedures.

Travelers entering the United States from overseas posted photos on social media of long lines at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

“No one has been getting past JFK Airport immigration for the last hour. Line is a few 100 deep. Seems like their system did completely go down. Happy New Year!” said Jessica Yang, a program manager at Microsoft, in a Twitter post.

Other airports, including Denver International Airport, also said they were affected. A similar computer outage occurred a year ago.

“Operations returning to normal as @CustomsBorder computer issue resolved. Issue affected other US airports. Thanks for your patience,” Miami International Airport said in a Twitter post.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Paul Tait)

Iran’s leader says enemies have stirred unrest in country

People protest in Tehran, Iran December 30, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media. REUTERS

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran’s supreme leader accused the country’s enemies on Tuesday of stirring unrest, as the death toll from anti-government demonstrations rose to 21.

On the sixth day of protests, riot police were out in force in several cities, footage on social media showed, as security forces struggle to contain the boldest challenge to Iran’s clerical leadership since unrest in 2009.

More than 450 protesters were arrested in the capital in the last three days, Tehran’s deputy provincial governor said, and hundreds of others were detained around the country, with judicial officials saying they would be severely punished.

Nine people were killed in Isfahan province during protests on Monday night, including two members of the security forces, state television said.

Six protesters were killed during an attack on a police station in the town of Qahderijan. The governor of Falavarjan county said the protesters were armed.

In his first reaction to the unrest, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatus to create troubles for the Islamic Republic.”

He did not mention any enemies by name but Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia were behind the riots.

“Saudis will receive Iran’s unexpected response and they know how serious it can be,” Shamkhani was quoted as saying by Tasnim news in an interview with Beirut-based Al Mayadeen TV.

Khamenei said on his website that he would address the nation about the events “when the time is right”.

HARSH PUNISHMENT

The head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, Musa Ghazanfarabadi, said protesters would face harsh punishment.

Detainees would be put on trial soon and the ringleaders could be charged with “moharebeh” — an Islamic term meaning warring against God — which carries the death penalty, Ghazanfarabadi said.

Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Zolfaghari said 90 percent of the detainees were under 25-years-old, showing the younger generation’s frustration at economic hardships and lack of social freedoms.

The demonstrations that broke out last week were initially focused on economic hardships and alleged corruption but turned into political rallies.

Anger was soon directed at the clerical leadership that has been in power since the 1979 revolution, including Ayatollah Khamenei, the ultimate authority in Iran’s system of dual clerical and republican rule.

Iran is an OPEC oil producer and regional power deeply involved in Syria and Iraq as part of a battle for influence with rival Saudi Arabia.

Many Iranians resent the foreign interventions and want their leaders to create jobs at home, where youth unemployment reached 29 percent last year.

President Hassan Rouhani refrained on Monday from accepting responsibility of problems raised by protesters and he blamed his predecessor and also Iran’s long-time adversary, the United States for the government’s shortcomings.

Rouhani, seen as a pragmatist who is at odds with hardliners, said: “People on the streets do not ask for bread and water, but for more freedom,” — implying that the protesters were not targeting his government but the more rigid establishment.

Government spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nobakht told a news conference that both protesters and the security forces should follow the law.

“People have the right to protest but there is a difference between demonstration and riot … Even those who are confronting the rioters should act within the framework of law,” he said.

State television reported that protesters who set ablaze four mosques in villages in Savadkuh County in northern Iran on Monday had been arrested.

REACTIONS

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been tweeting daily in support of the protesters, said on Tuesday: “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime … The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said: “Instead of wasting his time by publishing offensive tweets to other nations, Trump should focus on internal affairs of America.”

A U.S. official told Reuters U.S. intelligence officials think the protesters have little chance of toppling the government.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying external interference was destabilizing the situation and calling it “unacceptable”.

Iran and Russia are the main allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey support rebel groups.

Turkey called for restraint.

“We believe it is necessary to avoid violence and not succumb to provocations,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said, adding that it hoped foreign intervention would be avoided.

(Additional reporting by John Walcott in Washington, Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Robin Pomeroy)

Chief justice orders review of sexual harassment standards in U.S. judiciary

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts speaks at the dedication of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, U.S., September 24, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts said on Sunday he would launch a review in 2018 of how the federal judiciary handles sexual harassment, following the recent resignation of a U.S. appeals court judge amid allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct and comments.

In his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary, Roberts said the judicial branch of government was not immune to incidents of sexual harassment and addressing it would be a new challenge in the coming year.

Allegations of systematic sexual harassment and assault that surfaced against movie producer Harvey Weinstein earlier this year galvanized women to speak out about instances of sexual harassment in the media, government and workplaces across the country.

Earlier this month, renowned San Francisco-based federal appeals judge Alex Kozinski, 67, retired from his lifetime appointment after over a dozen women came forward to accuse him of inappropriate sexual conduct or comments.

In a statement announcing his resignation, Kozinski said that while friends and family had urged him to stay on and defend himself, he could not “be an effective judge and simultaneously fight this battle.” Reuters has not verified any of the accusations.

“The judiciary will begin 2018 by undertaking a careful evaluation of whether its standards of conduct and its procedures for investigating and correcting inappropriate behavior are adequate to ensure an exemplary workplace for every judge and every court employee,” Roberts wrote in his report.

Roberts said he asked the federal judiciary’s director of the administrative office to form a working group to examine the courts’ practices and recommend necessary changes to codes of conduct, employee guidance on reporting misconduct and its own rules for investigating complaints.

“I am sure that the overwhelming number have no tolerance for harassment and share the view that victims must have clear and immediate recourse to effective remedies,” he wrote.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Record-shattering cold reaches into Florida

A person dressed as a polar bear walks on the boardwalk after participating in the Coney Island Polar Bear Club New Year’s Day Plunge on Coney Island Beach in Brooklyn, New York City, New York, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

By Ian Simpson

(Reuters) – Record-shattering arctic cold reached as far south as Florida on Monday with freeze warnings in place from Texas to the Atlantic Coast and the northeastern United States facing another cold wave at the end of the week, forecasters said.

Temperatures were from 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (11 to 17 degrees Celsius) below normal across the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, with only southern Florida untouched by the arctic blast.

“That degree of cold will be with us until tomorrow,” said Brian Hurley, a National Weather Service meteorologist at College Park, Maryland. “Tuesday morning, we’re looking at temperatures with very high probability of record lows.”

Along Alabama’s Gulf Coast, the temperature in the city of Mobile could hit a low of 16F (minus 9C) overnight. Stiff breezes were expected to create dangerously cold wind chills across southeastern Georgia and most of northeastern Florida, the weather service said.

The mass of frigid air pumped south by a dip in the jet stream sent temperatures plunging across the U.S. heartland. Omaha posted a low of minus 20F (minus 29C), breaking a 130-year-old record, and Aberdeen, South Dakota, shattered a record set in 1919 with a temperature of minus 32F (minus 36C).

The cold will be unrelenting across the Middle Atlantic and northeastern United States, with up to two dozen low temperature records expected in those regions over the next day or two, Hurley said.

Although the cold should ease across most of the United States after Tuesday, the northeastern quarter of the country will see a repeat of the current frigid temperatures from Thursday to Friday as another arctic blast hits the area.

“We’re still talking 20 to 30 degrees below normal,” Hurley said. “So, here we go again,”

The private AccuWeather forecaster said the cold snap could combine with a storm brewing off the Bahamas to bring snow and high winds to much of the Eastern Seaboard as it heads north on Wednesday and Thursday.

The only part of the United States spared the deep freeze is the Southwest. Above-normal temperatures and dry weather is expected to continue there, with temperatures in Los Angeles above 70F (21C) for the rest of the week, the weather service said.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

California launches legal sale of cannabis for recreational use

Steve DeAngelo (C) makes the first legal recreational marijuana sale to Henry Wykowski at Harborside, one of California’s largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana sales in Oakland, California, U.S. January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California will launch the world’s largest regulated commercial market for recreational marijuana on Monday, as dozens of newly licensed stores catering to adults who enjoy the drug for its psychoactive effects open for business up and down the state.

It becomes the sixth U.S. state, and by far the most populous, venturing beyond legalized medical marijuana to permit the sale of cannabis products of all types to customers at least 21 years old.

Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Nevada were the first to introduce recreational pot sales on a state-regulated, licensed and taxed basis. Massachusetts and Maine are on track to follow suit later this year.

With California and its 39.5 million residents officially joining the pack, more than one-in-five Americans now live in states where recreational marijuana is legal for purchase, even though cannabis remains classified as an illegal narcotic under U.S. law.

The marijuana market in California alone, which boasts the world’s sixth-largest economy, is valued by most experts at several billion dollars annually and is expected to generate at least a $1 billion a year in tax revenue.

“Adding California to the regulated [recreational] market for cannabis is a really big deal,” said Heather Azzi, a senior attorney for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group working to liberalize marijuana laws.

Uruguay became the first and only country to legalize recreational marijuana sales nationally, permitted through its pharmacies starting in July 2017, but is far smaller in comparison, with a population of just 3.4 million.

Still, most California jurisdictions are sitting out the highly anticipated New Year’s Day inauguration of recreational cannabis sales.

Many, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, will not be ready for days or weeks because of additional red tape required by city and county governments before would-be retailers can obtain their state licenses.

But business will almost certainly be brisk at newly permitted shops ready on Day One. They number about four-dozen outlets across California, according to an authoritative guide to the cannabis market, GreenState, published by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Stores authorized to carry recreational weed were set to go on New Year’s Day in San Diego, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Oakland, Berkeley, Eureka and Desert Hot Springs, among other locales. Hundreds more are expected to open throughout the state as the year progresses.

Many previously operated strictly as medical cannabis dispensaries under a patchwork of local regulations, and will now be licensed by the state for recreational merchandise as well.

Among the very first will be the Oakland-based Harborside dispensary, which has long ranked as the largest U.S. medical marijuana outlet. It planned to opens its doors at 6 a.m. local time on Monday.

Customers in the recreational sector – which state regulators prefer to call the “adult use” market – are only permitted to buy an ounce (28 grams) of raw cannabis or its equivalent at a time.

Medical patients can buy unlimited quantities, but must present a doctor’s note and have purchased a medical ID card.

The stage for Monday’s grand opening was set when voters passed a ballot measure in November 2016, Proposition 64, immediately legalizing personal possession and use of recreational pot by adults 21 and over.

But it has taken California lawmakers and bureaucrats over a year to devise a licensing, regulatory and tax structure for all phases of the commercial distribution chain.

California in 1996 became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use, and more than 30 states have since done likewise.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Kim Coghill)

As U.S. budget fight looms, Republicans flip their fiscal script

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol Dome (L) building is pictured in Washington, DC, U.S. on October 4, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of a conservative Republican faction in the U.S. Congress, who voted this month for a huge expansion of the national debt to pay for tax cuts, called himself a “fiscal conservative” on Sunday and urged budget restraint in 2018.

In keeping with a sharp pivot under way among Republicans, U.S. Representative Mark Meadows, speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” drew a hard line on federal spending, which lawmakers are bracing to do battle over in January.

When they return from the holidays on Wednesday, lawmakers will begin trying to pass a federal budget in a fight likely to be linked to other issues, such as immigration policy, even as the November congressional election campaigns approach in which Republicans will seek to keep control of Congress.

President Donald Trump and his Republicans want a big budget increase in military spending, while Democrats also want proportional increases for non-defense “discretionary” spending on programs that support education, scientific research, infrastructure, public health and environmental protection.

“The (Trump) administration has already been willing to say: ‘We’re going to increase non-defense discretionary spending … by about 7 percent,'” Meadows, chairman of the small but influential House Freedom Caucus, said on the program.

“Now, Democrats are saying that’s not enough, we need to give the government a pay raise of 10 to 11 percent. For a fiscal conservative, I don’t see where the rationale is. … Eventually you run out of other people’s money,” he said.

Meadows was among Republicans who voted in late December for their party’s debt-financed tax overhaul, which is expected to balloon the federal budget deficit and add about $1.5 trillion over 10 years to the $20 trillion national debt.

“It’s interesting to hear Mark talk about fiscal responsibility,” Democratic U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley said on CBS.

Crowley said the Republican tax bill would require the United States to borrow $1.5 trillion, to be paid off by future generations, to finance tax cuts for corporations and the rich.

“This is one of the least … fiscally responsible bills we’ve ever seen passed in the history of the House of Representatives. I think we’re going to be paying for this for many, many years to come,” Crowley said.

Republicans insist the tax package, the biggest U.S. tax overhaul in more than 30 years, will boost the economy and job growth.

‘ENTITLEMENT REFORM’

House Speaker Paul Ryan, who also supported the tax bill, recently went further than Meadows, making clear in a radio interview that welfare or “entitlement reform,” as the party often calls it, would be a top Republican priority in 2018.

In Republican parlance, “entitlement” programs mean food stamps, housing assistance, Medicare and Medicaid health insurance for the elderly, poor and disabled, as well as other programs created by Washington to assist the needy.

Democrats seized on Ryan’s early December remarks, saying they showed Republicans would try to pay for their tax overhaul by seeking spending cuts for social programs.

But the goals of House Republicans may have to take a back seat to the Senate, where the votes of some Democrats will be needed to approve a budget and prevent a government shutdown.

Democrats will use their leverage in the Senate, which Republicans narrowly control, to defend both discretionary non-defense programs and social spending, while tackling the issue of the “Dreamers,” people brought illegally to the country as children.

Trump in September put a March 2018 expiration date on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which protects the young immigrants from deportation and provides them with work permits.

The president has said in recent Twitter messages he wants funding for his proposed Mexican border wall and other immigration law changes in exchange for agreeing to help the Dreamers.

Representative Debbie Dingell told CBS she did not favor linking that issue to other policy objectives, such as wall funding. “We need to do DACA clean,” she said.

On Wednesday, Trump aides will meet with congressional leaders to discuss those issues. That will be followed by a weekend of strategy sessions for Trump and Republican leaders on Jan. 6 and 7, the White House said.

Trump was also scheduled to meet on Sunday with Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott, who wants more emergency aid. The House has passed an $81 billion aid package after hurricanes in Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico, and wildfires in California. The package far exceeded the $44 billion requested by the Trump administration. The Senate has not yet voted on the aid.

(Reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Florida; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Chicago board finds policeman’s fatal shooting of two not justified: newspapers

FILE PHOTO: Janet Cooksey (L), is embraced as she attends the funeral for her son Quintonio LeGrier in Chicago, Illinois, January 9, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Lott/File Photo

(Reuters) – A Chicago city oversight board has found that a policeman was unjustified in fatally shooting a 19-year-old college student and a 55-year-old grandmother about two years ago, newspapers reported on Thursday.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability said no evidence supported the claims of Officer Robert Rialmo, who said student Quintonio LeGrier advanced at officers with a baseball bat in a threatening manner, the Chicago Sun Times and Chicago Tribune reported.

Bettie Jones, a neighbor standing nearby, was accidentally killed by the officer’s gunfire in the December 2015 incident that unfolded in a vestibule of a Chicago home.

LeGrier and Jones were African-Americans and the deaths fueled Chicago’s already intense debate over police use of force against minorities that have sparked protests in a number of cities around the United States.

Officials from the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) were not immediately available for comment.

Joel Brodsky, a lawyer for Rialmo, said the board’s conclusions are “designed to preserve votes for the mayor at the expense of a good police officer who was doing his job.

“COPA’s conclusions, which are unsupported by the facts, are clearly political in nature,” Brodsky said in a statement.

The report said Rialmo’s statements on the bat were “inconsistent and ultimately unreliable,” the Sun-Times said.

The board’s report also concluded that a “reasonable officer” would not have believed he was in danger of death or serious injury, the Tribune said.

The board did not include any recommendations for punishment in its report, the Tribune said.

Both LeGrier’s and Jones’ estates have sued Rialmo and the city for wrongful death.

Rialmo has counter-sued, saying LeGrier attacked him with a baseball bat, forcing him to kill him. Rialmo has also sued the City of Chicago saying he was not properly trained to reduce tensions in heated encounters with mentally ill people.

LeGrier was shot six times, including twice in the back. Jones was hit once in the chest, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office said in autopsy reports.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Richard Chang)

California set for New Year’s buzz with recreational marijuana sales

FILE PHOTO: Marijuana plants for sale are displayed at the California Heritage Market in Los Angeles, California July 11, 2014. REUTERS/David McNew

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California adults not content to ring in the New Year with the traditional fizz of champagne can look forward to celebrating with the buzz of marijuana, purchased for the first time from state-licensed retailers of recreational pot.

Dozens of newly authorized marijuana stores are due to open for business across California on Jan. 1, launching yet another chapter in America’s drug culture and the largest regulated commercial market for cannabis in the United States – one valued at several billion dollars.

The rollout is expected to be gradual and bumpy. The state only began handing out licenses in mid-December, issued on a temporary basis because implementing regulations were still under review.

Newly permitted retailers will rely on a hodge-podge of marijuana producers in the state’s illicit “gray market” to stock their shelves for the next six months, until state-licensed growers can harvest their first crops.

And many jurisdictions, notably Los Angeles and San Francisco, will be closed to business in the recreational pot sector for days or weeks because of additional local approvals applicants must win.

Shops in San Diego, San Jose, the Bay area-towns of Berkeley and Oakland, and Eureka – the heart of Northern California’s cannabis country – are among those ready to go on Day One, said Alex Traverso, a spokesman for the state Cannabis Control Board.

“The market is going to be kind of rough getting started,” said Jordan Lams, chief executive of Moxie, a company based in the Los Angeles suburb of Lynwood that specializes in making cannabis extracts, including oils used in electronic vaporization, or “vape,” devices.

He predicted supply shortages early on.

California led the way in legalizing marijuana for medical purposes in 1996, and more than 30 states have followed suit since then, though cannabis remains classified as an illegal narcotic under U.S. law.

On Monday, California will become the sixth U.S. state, and by far the most populous, to legalize, regulate and tax sales of recreational marijuana – a market catering to consumers wishing to buy the drug for its mind- and mood-altering properties.

MEDICINAL VS. RECREATIONAL

Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Nevada were first in launching recreational pot sales on a state-regulated basis. Massachusetts and Maine are on track to do so in 2018.

With California and its 39.5 million residents joining the fold, more than one in five of Americans will now live in states where recreational marijuana is commercially available to buy in state-licensed stores.

Many among the new recreational pot proprietors previously operated as medical cannabis dispensaries, under a patchwork of local regulations. Some will now be licensed by the state to sell both.

The recreational sector – what state regulators prefer to call the “adult use” market – is considered more lucrative.

“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for,” said Daniel Yi, spokesman for the 7-year-old Los Angeles-area dispensary chain MedMen, which is expanding from a medical business model to serving recreational users as well.

The stage for Monday’s grand opening was set when voters passed a ballot measure in November 2016, Proposition 64, immediately legalizing personal possession and use of recreational pot by adults 21 and over. They could also grow their own.

But it has taken California lawmakers and bureaucrats over a year to devise a licensing, regulatory and tax structure for all phases of the commercial distribution chain.

A key goal of the new regime is to eliminate California’s illicit marijuana production and farms, which account for roughly 60 percent of the nation’s pot supply and are blamed for degrading the environment.

Supporters also point to a hefty new tax revenue source that by most estimates will total $1 billion a year. Both medical and recreational cannabis will be subject to a 15 percent state excise tax, though medical pot will be exempt from regular state sales taxes.

Recreational customers are limited to buying no more than one ounce (28 grams) of raw cannabis or its equivalent at a time, though individuals may grow up to six plants per person.

Investors have expressed an eagerness for a piece of California’s burgeoning legit marijuana market, estimated to be worth $4 billion to $11 billion.

Opponents, however, have argued liberalized marijuana laws carry major public safety risks and make pot more accessible to youngsters.

Analysts expect much of the illicit trade in recreational pot will quickly gravitate to legit retailers as prices come down and reach parity with the illegal market.

An eighth ounce of “fairly good-quality flower,” labeled with such names as “Blue Dream,” “Youth in Asia” and “Super Glue,” will go for about $35, said Yi of MedMen, which plans to wait until Jan. 2 to launch recreational sales in two of its sleek, artisanal shops in West Hollywood and Santa Ana.

Three other MedMen shops within the city of Los Angeles will probably have to wait for at least a few weeks, Yi said.

(Reporting By Steve Gorman, Editing by Ben Klayman and Rosalba O’Brien)

Trump demands border wall, visa changes as part of immigration fix

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters in Washington, U.S., December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he would not consider reinstating an immigration program that protected young people from deportation without a commitment from Democrats to help build a wall on the border with Mexico and end certain immigration programs.

The debate on immigration will be a pivotal issue in Washington in early 2018 ahead of midterm congressional elections in November.

In September, Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected young people from deportation who had been brought to the United States illegally as children, and gave Congress until March to devise a long-term solution.

Democrats have pushed for DACA to continue, but Trump, a Republican, has said that will not happen without the end to various visa programs and the construction of a wall along the southern U.S. border.

“The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc,” Trump posted on Twitter on Friday.

Representatives for Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said they would not negotiate the issue in the media but looked forward to serious talks after lawmakers return to work in Washington early next month.

The Senate is set to resume its work Jan. 3 while the U.S. House of Representatives restarts its session Jan. 8.

Trump promised to build a border wall as a presidential candidate and has continued to press for it publicly.

He has also called for an additional “merit based” assessment for U.S. visa recipients.

(Reporting by Katanga Johnson and Makini Brice; Editing by Susan Heavey and Alistair Bell)

Boy playing with stove caused deadly New York fire, officials say

Fire Department of New York (FDNY) personnel work on the scene of an apartment fire in Bronx in New York, U.S., December 29, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A 3-year-old boy playing with the burners on a kitchen stove started a fire in a New York City apartment building that killed 12 people, including four children, city officials said on Friday.

The child had a history of fiddling with the stove in his family’s first-floor apartment, his mother told officials investigating the deadliest fire in the city since 1990.

A little before 7 p.m. (midnight GMT) on Thursday, the child, who had been left unattended in the kitchen, started screaming as it filled with smoke and fire, Daniel Nigro, the city’s fire department commissioner, told reporters at a news conference.

His mother grabbed him and his younger sibling, running outside to safety and leaving the apartment door open.

“The stairway acted like a chimney,” Nigro said at the Friday news conference. The blaze swept out of the apartment to higher floors of the five-story building, fanned by fresh oxygen each time frightened tenants flung open windows.

“People had very little time to react,” he said. “They couldn’t get back down the stairs. Those that tried perished.”

Children ages 1, 2 and 7 died along with four men and four women, local media reported. A boy, whose age was not known, also died.

Authorities said firefighters rescued 12 people from the building and four people were in the hospital in critical condition. More than 160 firefighters responded to the four-alarm blaze, the first arriving about 3 minutes after emergency calls came in. About 20 people were already on fire escapes, Nigro said.

New York City is going through a bitter cold snap with temperatures in the low-teens Fahrenheit (minus teens Celsius) and high winds.

“Children starting fires is not rare,” Nigro said. He emphasized that young children should not be left unattended, and those fleeing apartment fires should always shut doors behind them once the last person is out.

The building, with 26 apartments, has at least six open building code violations, according to city records. One violation was for a broken smoke detector in an apartment on the first floor, reported in August.

“I know there were concerns raised about the building itself,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told WNYC. “Based on the research we have at this moment, it does not appear there was anything problematic about the building or the fire safety in the building.”

The building is in the Belmont section of the Bronx, a primarily residential, close-knit neighborhood known as the “Little Italy” of the borough, near Fordham University and the Bronx Zoo.

It was the deadliest fire in the city since an arsonist torched a Bronx nightclub in 1990, killing 87 people inside the venue that did not have fire exits, alarms or sprinklers, the New York Times reported.

In 2007, 10 immigrants from Mali, including nine children, died after a space heater caught fire in a Bronx building.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen, Stephanie Kelly and Dan Trotta in New York, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Trump targets Amazon in call for postal service to hike prices

FILE PHOTO: A combination photo shows Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (L) in New York and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. on December 14, 2016 and on December 20, 2017 respectively. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (L) Jonathan Ernst (R)/Files

By Makini Brice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump targeted Amazon<AMZN.O> on Friday in a call for the country’s postal service to raise prices of shipments in order to recoup costs, picking another fight with the online retail giant he has criticized in the past.

“Why is the United States Post Office, which is losing many billions of dollars a year, while charging Amazon and others so little to deliver their packages, making Amazon richer and the Post Office dumber and poorer? Should be charging MUCH MORE!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The U.S. Postal Service, which runs at a big loss, is an independent agency within the federal government and does not receive tax dollars for operating expenses, according to its website. The organization makes up a significant portion of the $1.4 trillion U.S. delivery industry. Other players include United Parcel Service Inc <UPS.N> and Fedex Corp<FDX.N>.

Amazon was founded by Jeff Bezos, who remains the chief executive officer of the retail company. Bezos also owns the Washington Post, a newspaper that Trump has repeatedly railed against in his criticisms of the news media.

In tweets over the past year, Trump has said the “Amazon Washington Post” fabricated stories. He has said Amazon does not pay fair taxes and so hurts other retailers, part of a pattern by the former businessman of periodically turning his ire on big American companies since taking office in January.

Representatives for the White House, the U.S. Postal Service and Amazon were not immediately available for comment.

According to the U.S. Postal Service’s annual report, the agency lost $2.74 billion this year, and its deficit, from when it was spun off into an independent agency in 1971, has ballooned to $61.86 billion. In 2016, the USPS lost $5.59 billion and had a total deficit of $55.98 billion.

The organization had projected to lose $4.2 billion and said in its annual report that the loss this year was lower than expected primarily because of a “$2.2 billion reduction in workers’ compensation liability.”

While the postal service’s revenue for first class mail, marketing mail and periodicals is flat or declining, the revenue from package delivery is up 44 percent since 2014 to $19.5 billion in the 2017 fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, the postal service said.

Amazon has shown interest in the past in shifting into its own delivery service. In 2015, the company spent $11.5 billion on shipping, 46 percent of its total operating expenses that year.

In October, Bloomberg reported that Amazon was testing its own delivery service to move products more quickly out of its overcrowded warehouses and make more of them available for free two-day delivery.

However, Amazon said at the time that it was using the same carrier partners to offer the program as it has used for years, including the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx.

Shares of Amazon were last down 0.62 percent to $1,178.66.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Damon Darlin and Frances Kerry)

U.S., Turkey mutually lift visa restrictions, ending months-long row

General view of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The United States and Turkey lifted all visa restrictions on Thursday after Washington said Ankara had kept to assurances no further U.S. mission staff would be targeted for performing official duties, following detention of two earlier this year.

But Turkey swiftly denied having granted such assurances in the affair that has tested relations since the two local employees of the U.S. consulate in Istanbul were held on suspicion of ties to last year’s failed coup against President Tayyip Erdogan.

The United States suspended visa services at its missions in Turkey in October and Turkey reciprocated. In November, Washington said it was resuming limited services upon getting assurances on the safety of its local staff.

“Based on adherence to these assurances, the Department of State is confident that the security posture has improved sufficiently to allow for the full resumption of visa services in Turkey,” the U.S. Embassy in Ankara said on Thursday.

It said the United States continued to have concerns about the two employees detained.

Turkey, while announcing the end of restrictions on the issue of visas to U.S. citizens, took issue with the U.S. declaration.

“We do not find it right for the United States to claim it had received assurances from Turkey and misinform the U.S. and Turkish publics,” the Turkish Embassy in Washington said in a statement.

Turkey’s lira firmed to 3.78 against the U.S. dollar after the statement, its highest level since Oct. 31, and the main share index BIST100 climbed 2.08 percent to reach its highest closing level ever.

Relations between the two NATO allies have become strained in the last year with Turkey angered by what it sees as the U.S. reluctance to hand over Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the coup attempt in July of 2016.

Turkey was further annoyed by U.S. military support for Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria, considered by Ankara to be an extension of the banned PKK which has waged an insurgency for three decades in southeast Turkey.

More recently, Turkey took a leading role in the United Nations to pass a resolution denouncing a U.S. move to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

(Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Erie, Pennsylvania, buried under record snowfall

Snow hangs from a rooftop after two days of record-breaking snowfall in Erie, Pennsylvania, U.S., December 27, 2017. REUTERS/Robert Frank

By Jon Herskovitz

(Reuters) – A storm that has dumped more than 65 inches (165 cms) of snow this week on Erie, Pennsylvania, is expected to slightly taper off on Wednesday after leaving drifts that buried cars, paralyzed the area and made the county declare an emergency.

But the respite for Erie, a city of about 100,000 in northwest Pennsylvania on the shores of Lake Erie, is expected to be short-lived, with a fresh round of winter storms coming Thursday night predicted to bring as much as 10 inches more snow, forecasters said.

“This is a crippling snow event,” said Zach Sefcovic, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Cleveland.

“They are no strangers to snow in that part of the state, but this much snow in that short a time is just unprecedented,” he said in a telephone interview.

Large parts of the United States were gripped by freezing weather, with an area stretching from Montana to Maine expected to see temperatures below 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-12.2 degrees Celsius) early on Thursday, the National Weather Service said.

The winter blast in Erie was caused by cold Arctic air moving over the lake, which had relatively mild water temperatures, forecasters said.

The storm broke a 59-year-old record for a two-day snowfall in Pennsylvania, topping the 44 inches that fell in 1958. Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper issued a temporary disaster emergency declaration that mobilized resources to help the area.

Pictures of residents on social media showed drifts reaching beyond window-levels in houses and people clearing paths through chest-high accumulations.

“Out of Doritos. Family is arguing. Dogs are getting ornery. It’s been 3 days since my last chicken wing. We are out of whiskey,” wrote Nicole Massari on her Instagram account @theworldaroundnikki, along with a video showing her Pennsylvania home surrounded by snow.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf deployed 21 Pennsylvania National Guard troops along with some all-terrain military vehicles to the region on Tuesday to help residents dig out and transport emergency responders around the area.

Erie resident Brian Sheridan on Wednesday posted a photo on social media showing the top of his mail box peeking out underneath a mound of snow. In a caption, he wrote: “At this point, it just might be easier to put a hold on our mail until spring.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Lisa Maria Garza in Texas; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Andrew Hay)

Trump says ‘disappointed’ China allowing oil into North Korea: tweet

U.S. President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up to reporters as he boards Air Force One for travel to Palm Beach from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., December 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday said he was “very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea” and that such moves would prevent “a friendly solution” to the crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

“Caught RED HANDED – very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea. There will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen!” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.

China earlier on Thursday said there had been no U.N. sanction-breaking oil sales by Chinese ships to North Korea after a South Korea newspaper said Chinese and North Korean vessels had been illicitly linking up at sea to get oil to North Korea.

(Reporting by Susan HeaveyEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)