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COVID-19 bill must drop minimum wage hike, arbiter decides

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate parliamentarian dealt a potentially lethal blow Thursday to Democrats’ drive to hike the minimum wage, deciding that the cherished progressive goal must fall from a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill the party is trying to speed through Congress, Senate Democratic aides said.

The finding by Elizabeth MacDonough, the chamber’s nonpartisan arbiter of its rules, means Democrats face an overwhelmingly uphill battle to boost the minimum wage this year because of solid Republican opposition. Their proposal would raise the federal minimum gradually to $15 hourly by 2025, well above the $7.25 floor in place since 2009.

President Joe Biden was “disappointed” in the outcome but respected the parliamentarian’s ruling, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. The Senate has a long tradition of obeying the parliamentarian’s decisions with few exceptions, a history that is revered by traditionalists like Biden, a 36-year Senate veteran.

“He will work with leaders in Congress to determine the best path forward because no one in this country should work full time and live in poverty,” Psaki said.

Democrats are pushing the massive coronavirus relief measure through Congress under special rules that will let them avoid a Senate filibuster by Republicans, a tactic that Democrats would need an unattainable 60 votes to defeat.

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US bombs facilities in Syria used by Iran-backed militia

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States launched airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups. The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition troops.

The airstrike was the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist. Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen U.S. military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend U.S. troops in Iraq.

“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington. Speaking shortly after the airstrikes, he added, “We’re confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes,” referring to a Feb. 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a U.S. service member and other coalition personnel.

Austin said he recommended the action to Biden.

“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”

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Olympics gymnastics coach kills himself after being charged

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A former U.S. Olympics gymnastics coach with ties to disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar killed himself Thursday, hours after being charged with turning his Michigan gym into a hub of human trafficking by coercing girls to train and then abusing them.

John Geddert faced 24 charges that could have carried years in prison had he been convicted. He was supposed to appear in an Eaton County court, near Lansing, but his body was found at a rest area along Interstate 96, according to state police.

“This is a tragic end to a tragic story for everyone involved,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said.

Nessel earlier announced that Geddert was charged with a bushel of crimes, including sexual assault, human trafficking and running a criminal enterprise. The charges were the latest fallout from the sexual abuse scandal involving Nassar, a former Michigan State University sports doctor now in prison.

Geddert, 63, wasn’t arrested and transported to court. Rather, Nessel’s office allowed him to show up on his own.

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House votes to expand legal safeguards for LGBTQ people

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Democratic-led House passed a bill Thursday that would enshrine LGBTQ protections in the nation’s labor and civil rights laws, a top priority of President Joe Biden, though the legislation faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

The bill passed by a vote of 224-206 with three Republicans joining Democrats in voting yes.

The Equality Act amends existing civil rights law to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identification as protected characteristics. The protections would extend to employment, housing, loan applications, education, public accommodations and other areas. Supporters say the law before the House on Thursday is long overdue and would ensure that every person is treated equally under the law.

“The LGBT community has waited long enough,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who is gay and the bill’s lead sponsor. “The time has come to extend the blessings of liberty and equality to all of Americans regardless of who they are and who they love.”

Republicans broadly opposed the legislation. They echoed concerns from religious groups and social conservatives who worry the bill would force people to take actions that contradict their religious beliefs. They warned that faith-based adoption agencies seeking to place children with a married mother and father could be forced to close, or that private schools would have to hire staff whose conduct violates tenets of the school’s faith.

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EXPLAINER: What were the warnings before the Capitol riot?

Capitol Police leadership had plenty of intelligence warning that armed extremists were planning to target the Capitol over President Donald Trump’s election loss, according to new testimony Thursday. But their rank-and-file officers were still left exposed against armed rioters who came within steps of lawmakers.

In an appearance before a House subcommittee, acting Chief Yogananda Pittman said none of the warnings forecast the mass attack that actually took place.

Both Democrats and Republicans took issue with that, saying the intelligence sounded both specific and credible.

“I cannot get past a glaring discrepancy between intelligence received and preparation,” Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., said during Thursday’s hearing before the House Appropriations Committee.

Pittman became acting chief when her predecessor, Steven Sund, resigned in the wake of the insurrection. At the time of the attack, she was serving as assistant chief for protective and intelligence services.

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As hospital numbers fall, fatigued staff get relief at last

MISSION, Kan. (AP) — When COVID-19 patients inundated St. Louis hospitals, respiratory therapists arriving for yet another grueling shift with a dwindling supply of ventilators would often glance at their assignments and cry, heading into the locker room to collect themselves.

“They were like, ‘Man, another 12 hours of this slog of these on-the-verge-of-death patients who could go at any moment.’ And just knowing that they had to take care of them with that kind of stress in the back of their head,’” recalled Joe Kowalczyk, a respiratory therapist who sometimes works in a supervisory role.

Now the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S. has dropped by 80,000 in six weeks, and 17% of the nation’s adult population has gotten at least one dose of a vaccine, providing some relief to front-line workers like Kowalczyk. On his most recent shift at Mercy Hospital St. Louis, there were only about 20 coronavirus patients, down from as many as 100 at the peak of the winter surge.

“It is so weird to look back on it,” he said. “Everyone was hitting their wit’s end definitely toward the end just because we had been doing it for so long at the end of year.”

The U.S. has seen a dramatic turnaround since December and January, when hospitals were teeming with patients after holiday gatherings and pandemic fatigue caused a surge in cases and deaths. Health officials acknowledge the improvement but point out that hospitalizations are still at about the same level as earlier peaks in April and July and right before the crisis worsened in November. Deaths are still persistently high, though much lower than the peak in early January, when they sometimes exceeded 4,000 per day.

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New coronavirus variant in New York spurs caution, concern

NEW YORK (AP) — Another mutated version of the coronavirus has popped up in New York City, and experts reacted to the the news with a mixture of caution and concern.

The new variant first appeared in the New York area in late November, and has since cropped up in neighboring states, according to researchers at the California Institute of Technology, one of two teams to share their work this week.

But how problematic the variant may be isn’t known yet. Viruses are constantly mutating — or making typos in their genetic code — as they spread and make copies of themselves.

“Most are not of particular concern,” said Francois Balloux, director of the University College London’s Genetics Institute.

However, he added, “Noticing them early, flagging them, raising concern is useful.”

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Amnesty report describes Axum massacre in Ethiopia’s Tigray

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Soldiers from Eritrea systematically killed “many hundreds” of people, the large majority men, in a massacre in late November in the Ethiopian city of Axum, Amnesty International says in a new report, echoing the findings of an Associated Press story last week and citing more than 40 witnesses.

Crucially, the head of the government-established Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele. says the Amnesty findings “should be taken very seriously.” The commission’s own preliminary findings “indicate the killing of an as yet unknown number of civilians by Eritrean soldiers” in Axum, its statement said.

The Amnesty report on what might be the deadliest massacre of Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict describes the soldiers gunning down civilians as they fled, lining up men and shooting them in the back, rounding up “hundreds, if not thousands” of men for beatings and refusing to allow those grieving to bury the dead.

Over a period of about 24 hours, “Eritrean soldiers deliberately shot civilians on the street and carried out systematic house-to-house searches, extrajudicially executing men and boys,” the report released early Friday says. “The massacre was carried out in retaliation for an earlier attack by a small number of local militiamen, joined by local residents armed with sticks and stones.”

The “mass execution” of Axum civilians by Eritrean troops may amount to crimes against humanity, the report says, and it calls for a United Nations-led international investigation and full access to Tigray for human rights groups, journalists and humanitarian workers. The region has been largely cut off since fighting began in early November.

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Brazil death toll tops 250,000, virus still running rampant

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s COVID-19 death toll, which surpassed 250,000 on Thursday, is the world’s second-highest for the same reason its second wave has yet to fade: Prevention was never made a priority, experts say.

Since the pandemic’s start, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro scoffed at the “little flu” and lambasted local leaders for imposing restrictions on activity; he said the economy must keep humming along to prevent worse hardship.

Even when he approved pandemic welfare payments for the poor, they weren’t announced as a means to keep people home. And Brazilians remain out and about as vaccination has started up — but rollout has proven far slower than was anticipated.

“Brazil simply didn’t have a response plan. We’ve been through this for the last year and still we don’t have a clear plan, a national plan,” Miguel Lago, executive director of Brazil’s Institute for Health Policy Studies, which advises public health officials, told the Associated Press. “There’s no plan, at all. And the same applies to vaccination.”

Whereas other countries’ daily cases and deaths have fallen, Latin America’s largest nation is parked on an elevated plateau — a grim repeat of mid-2020. In each of the last five weeks, Brazil has averaged more than 1,000 daily deaths. Official data showed a confirmed death toll total of 251,498 on Thursday.

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Mr. Potato Head drops the mister, sort of

NEW YORK (AP) — Is it Mr. Potato Head or not?

Hasbro created confusion Thursday when it announced that it would drop the “Mr.” from the brand’s name in order to be more inclusive and so all could feel “welcome in the Potato Head world.” It also said it would sell a new playset this fall without the Mr. and Mrs. designations that will let kids create their own type of potato families, including two moms or two dads.

But in a tweet later that afternoon, Hasbro clarified that while the brand is changing, the actual Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head characters will still live on and be sold in stores. In a picture posted on Twitter, the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” names are less prominently displayed at the bottom of the box, instead of the top.

“While it was announced today that the POTATO HEAD brand name & logo are dropping the ‘MR.’ I yam proud to confirm that MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD aren’t going anywhere and will remain MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD,” the company tweeted.

The tweet came after news of the brand name change exploded on Twitter, with people asking if Barbie will change her name next. “I think Hasbro needs to drop the “Bro” and just be “Has,’” another person tweeted.