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Iraq is in crisis as Sunni militants seize more towns and now set their sights on the capital Baghdad. In the past few days, al-Qaeda-linked rebels have seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, as well as Tikrit and Dhuluiya. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds have seized control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk. The Sunni militants now control a territory that stretches from the eastern edge of Aleppo, Syria, to Fallujah in western Iraq and now the northern city of Mosul. Their advance has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, displacing some 500,000 people in Mosul alone. Mosul fell in part because U.S.-trained Iraqi forces abandoned their posts. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has reportedly urged the U.S. to carry out airstrikes in recent months, but the Obama administration has declined the request so far. We’ll have more on the crisis in Iraq after headlines.
The U.S. has resumed its drone war in Pakistan after a nearly six-month pause. At least 14 people have been killed in a pair of strikes since Wednesday. It’s the first known U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since December. The strikes come days after Taliban fighters stormed the Karachi airport, leaving 36 dead, including the 10 attackers. The resumption of U.S. drone attacks could signal the Pakistani government is moving toward an offensive on the Taliban. Pakistan had asked the U.S. to pause the drone war when it opened peace talks with the Taliban last year.
An Egyptian court has sentenced one of the country’s most prominent pro-democracy activists to 15 years in prison. Alaa Abd El-Fattah was found guilty of illegal protest and attacking a police officer for a rally against a draconian protest law last year. Twenty-four other defendants in the case received the same 15-year sentence. Since they were tried in absentia, they are entitled to a retrial. It’s the first conviction of a prominent activist since former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took office as president on Sunday. We’ll have more on this story later in the broadcast.
Republican Eric Cantor has announced he will step down as House majority leader following his historic primary loss in Virginia. Cantor became the first House majority leader to ever lose a primary when he fell to tea party challenger David Brat. The day after his loss, Cantor held a news conference to announce his resignation.
Rep. Eric Cantor: “While I intend to serve out my term as a member of Congress from the 7th District of Virginia, effective July 31 I will be stepping down as majority leader. It is with great humility that I do so, knowing the tremendous honor it has been to hold this position.”
David Brat ran on a staunch anti-immigrant platform, but some analysts say Cantor was done in by a voter backlash against his insider politics and close Wall Street ties.
Eric Cantor’s departure creates a major power vacuum in the Republican leadership, with a wide-open race for the House majority position. On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner and Congressmember Paul Ryan spoke to reporters about Cantor’s defeat.
House Speaker John Boehner: “Eric Cantor is good friend of mine, and he’s been a very good leader for our party. He’s got some decisions to make, but I’m sure that he and his family will come to the right decision.”
Rep. Paul Ryan: “We’ll get through this, like we get through everything. I think it’s unfortunate that he lost. We are very disappointed in the outcome, and it’s premature to speculate beyond that right now.”
Reporter: “What’s going to happen now that he’s stepping down?”
Rep. Paul Ryan: “Well, we’ll have a race, I think.”
Reporter: “Are you going to be a candidate?”
Rep. Paul Ryan: “No, I won’t.”
Cantor had been expected to replace Boehner as House speaker next year. But there are now reports Boehner intends to remain in the position with Cantor no longer vying to take his place.
In one of his first interviews since his upset victory over Cantor, David Brat refused to tell MSNBC whether he supports a federal minimum wage.
Chuck Todd: “Should there be a minimum wage, in your opinion?”
David Brat: “I don’t have a well-crafted response on that one.”
Brat is an economics professor at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College, a small liberal arts school. His Democratic opponent is Jack Trammell, who happens to be a professor there, as well.
Senate Republicans have blocked a measure that would have let an estimated 40 million students refinance their loans at lower interest rates. The bill would have been funded by closing a tax loophole for millionaires and ensuring a minimum tax rate on their income of 30 percent. But just three Senate Republicans joined with the Democratic majority, not enough to overcome a Republican filibuster. After the vote, the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, blasted Republicans for protecting millionaire tax breaks. Warren vowed to continue the fight.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren: “Today is a really good day for billionaires. For the 40 million people dealing with student loan debt, it wasn’t such a good day. This raises the fundamental question: Who does Washington work for? Does it work for those who can hire armies of lobbyists to make sure that every single loophole in the tax code is protected for them? Or does it work for young people who are trying to get started in life? … We’re not giving up. After all, we did get bipartisan support today, and we still have 40 million Americans out there who are trying to deal with $1.2 trillion in student loan debt.”
The nation’s $1.2 trillion in student loans exceeds all other forms of consumer debt, except for home mortgages. This year’s graduate class is the most indebted in U.S. history, with borrowers owing an average of $33,000.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel came before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday to defend the deal that traded American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl for five members of the Taliban. Hagel said Bergdahl’s worsening condition in captivity forced the administration to act.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: “As the opportunity to obtain Sergeant Bergdahl’s release became clearer, we grew increasingly concerned that any delay or any leaks could derail the deal and further endanger Sergeant Bergdahl. We were told by the Qataris that a leak, any kind of leak, would end the negotiation for Bergdahl’s release. We also knew that he would be extremely vulnerable during any movement, and our military personnel conducting the hand-off would be exposed to the possible ambush or other deadly scenarios in very dangerous territory that we did not control. The president’s decision to move forward with the transfer of these detainees was a tough call. I supported it. I stand by it.”
According to the Pentagon, Bergdahl has claimed Taliban captors tortured him and kept him in a cage for weeks and possibly months after he tried to escape.
The Senate has approved a measure that would help ease healthcare delays for military veterans. The bill would increase access to private care and free up the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand medical services. Lawmakers will reconcile differences with a House measure approved this week before sending a final bill to President Obama. The VA has come under scrutiny after it emerged health clinics in Arizona and Colorado used elaborate schemes to hide records of patients who waited too long for care, causing dozens of deaths. Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee, FBI Director James Comey confirmed the launching of a criminal probe into the VA’s conduct.
FBI Director James Comey: “We will follow it wherever the facts take us. The Phoenix office is where we’ve opened it, because that was the primary locus of the original allegations. We’re working with the VA IG, and we’ll follow it wherever the facts take us.”
A coalition of immigration and civil rights groups has filed a complaint alleging “widespread and systematic” abuse of migrant children by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Organizations including the National Immigrant Justice Center and the ACLU say they’re acting on behalf of over 100 unaccompanied children mistreated by border agents after crossing into the United States. According to the groups, the vast majority of children were fleeing violence in their home countries. The alleged mistreatment has taken on new urgency with a recent surge of unaccompanied migrant children held in U.S. custody. Over 1,000 children are reportedly being detained at a single warehouse in Arizona in substandard conditions.
New York City has settled a lawsuit over the false arrest of more than a dozen Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011. The city will pay $583,000 to plaintiffs detained after officers surrounded them and refused to let them disperse. Plaintiff Jennifer Peat called the settlement a victory for the right to protest.
Jennifer Peat: “Public speech, the right to dissent, these are core values that are important to our democracy, and I hope that this settlement will lead those in power and the NYPD to better respect out First Amendment rights.”
The settlement is New York’s largest to date in an Occupy-related civil rights case.