The Senate has approved a bill imposing a new union contract on tens of thousands of rail workers and prohibiting them from going on strike. Just 15 senators voted against the legislation Thursday. It requires some 60,000 freight rail workers who’d previously rejected tentative union contracts to keep working — or face termination. Senators rejected an amendment to extend bargaining by another 60 days. Another measure, which would have added seven paid sick days, failed to break a filibuster after 42 Republican senators and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin opposed it. Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders spoke from the Senate floor ahead of Thursday’s vote.
Sen. Bernie Sanders: “And yet, today in that industry, workers who do difficult and dangerous work have zero paid sick days. Zero. You get sick, you get a mark against you. Couple of marks, you get fired. This cannot and must not happen in America in 2022.”
All 435 House congressmembers and 100 senators are entitled to unlimited paid sick leave. President Biden, who pledged as a candidate to be the “most pro-union president” in U.S. history, has promised to sign the unpopular deal into law.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case challenging President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan. On Thursday, the court said it would allow decisions by lower courts blocking debt relief to stand while the case proceeds. Oral arguments are scheduled for February. Biden’s plan calls for the cancellation of up to $20,000 in student debt for tens of millions of borrowers. In a statement, the Student Borrower Protection Center said, “Once again, the credibility of the Supreme Court rests on its ability to recognize what we all know to be true: Canceling student debt is legal and necessary to secure the financial futures of 40 million Americans.”
President Biden welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron to the White House Thursday evening for the first state dinner of Biden’s presidency. The formal state visit came after Macron met Biden in the Oval Office, where they discussed trade policy and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a joint press conference after their meeting, President Macron said he planned to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming days. Biden said he would be ready to meet with Putin, but only if certain conditions were met.
President Joe Biden: “Bombing nurseries, hospitals, children’s homes — it’s sick, what he’s doing. But the fact of the matter is, I have no immediate plans to contact Mr. Putin. … I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if in fact there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war. He hasn’t done that yet.”
This comes as the Pentagon considers plans to send long-range missiles to Ukraine, including a proposal from Boeing to supply ground-launched small diameter bombs. Meanwhile, The Intercept reports the Biden administration is considering giving Kyiv one of the premier U.S. weapons of the war on terror: the Gray Eagle drone, the successor to the widely used Predator.
In Israel, incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sealed a coalition deal with the ultranationalist Religious Zionism party, bringing Netanyahu closer to securing his new extremist government. Under the deal, the Religious Zionism party will take control of Israel’s Finance Ministry and will oversee the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
In related news, Israel’s incoming national security minister, far-right Itamar Ben-Gvir, received a warm welcome Thursday at an event hosted by the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates. Ben-Gvir was previously convicted of racist incitement against Arabs and supporting a terrorist group.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is facing mounting calls to resign and could face impeachment, after an independent investigation found he may have broken anti-corruption laws. The case involves the alleged theft of millions of dollars from Ramaphosa’s private game farm, which he is accused of covering up and then stashing some of the cash in a leather sofa. Ramaphosa maintains he reported the theft and that the money found in the sofa was actually from the sale of buffaloes from his farm. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is meeting today to discuss Ramaphosa’s fate.
In Guatemala, the prominent investigative newspaper El Periódico has shut down its print edition after months of attacks and harassment from the right-wing government of President Alejandro Giammattei. The paper’s president and founder, José Rubén Zamora, remains in pretrial detention after he was arrested in July, accused of money laundering and extortion — charges denounced by human rights and press freedom groups as political retaliation over exposés of government corruption. El Periódico was founded in 1996. It’s unclear how it will survive with just an online edition and a reduced staff. In a final editorial column written from his prison cell, Zamora said, “It has been 30 years of struggle against corruption and impunity, against governmental abuses and terrorism, in favor of freedom, transparency, and accountability.”
A new Amnesty International report confirms Colombian police targeted women and LGBTQ people with sexual harassment, torture and forced nudity as part of a nationwide crackdown on protests in 2021 against the right-wing government of former President Iván Duque. Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard said not a single police officer has been brought to justice over hundreds of gender-based human rights violations.
Agnès Callamard: “Not one sentencing for the entire violations committed during the 2021 protests, not just the sexual violence but also the excessive use of force, people or young people who have lost an eye, those who have lost their life — you know, around 80, 90, 100, the numbers varies — the disappearances and people who have been tortured.”
President Biden has asked the Democratic National Committee to dramatically reorder the presidential primary calendar by making South Carolina the first state to host a primary, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire. Georgia, and then Michigan, would follow. Biden said, “We must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process.” Biden also said caucuses should no longer be allowed as part of the nominating process. The proposal was immediately rebuked by Democratic Party leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire, long accustomed to hosting the first contests of the primary calendar. A decision by the DNC rules committee could be delivered this weekend.
In a major blow for former President Trump, a federal appeals court halted the review by a special master of documents seized from his Mar-a-Lago estate. The Justice Department will be able to fully resume its investigation into Trump’s mishandling of classified materials. The three-judge court panel said, “We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so.”