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House GOP votes to oust Democrat Omar from major committee

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican-led House voted after raucous debate Thursday to oust Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar from the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee, citing her anti-Israel comments, in a dramatic response to Democrats last session booting far-right GOP lawmakers over incendiary remarks.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was able to solidify Republicans to take action against the Somali-born Muslim in the new Congress although some GOP lawmakers had expressed reservations. Removal of lawmakers from House committees was essentially unprecedented until the Democratic ousters two years ago of hard-right Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona.

The 218-211 vote, along party lines, came after a heated, voices-raised debate in which Democrats accused the GOP of going after Omar based on her race. Omar, who has apologized for 2019 remarks widely seen as antisemitic, defended herself on the House floor, asking if anyone was surprised she was being targeted. Democratic colleagues hugged her during the vote.

“My voice will get louder and stronger, and my leadership will be celebrated around the world, as it has been,” Omar said in a closing speech.

House Republicans focused on six statements she has made that “under the totality of the circumstances, disqualify her from serving on the Committee of Foreign Affairs,” said Rep. Michael Guest of Mississippi, the incoming chairman of the House Ethics Committee.

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Pentagon: Chinese spy balloon spotted over Western US

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been spotted over U.S. airspace for a couple days, but the Pentagon decided not to shoot it down due to risks of harm for people on the ground, officials said Thursday. The discovery of the balloon puts a further strain on U.S.-China relations at a time of heightened tensions.

A senior defense official told Pentagon reporters that the U.S. has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and it was flying over sensitive sites to collect information. One of the places the balloon was spotted was Montana, which is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, provided a brief statement on the issue, saying the government continues to track the balloon. He said it is “currently traveling at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and does not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground.”

He said similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years. He added that the U.S. took steps to ensure it did not collect sensitive information.

The defense official said the U.S. has “engaged” Chinese officials through multiple channels and communicated the seriousness of the matter.

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At Nichols’ funeral, Black America’s grief on public display

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The sound of the djembe drums started as a low tremble and grew more distinct as the musicians drew closer to the hundreds gathered inside the Memphis church.

“We love you, Tyre,” the drummers chanted, referring to Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man whose beating by five police officers led to his death and this funeral on the first day of Black History Month.

By the time the procession reached Nichols’ black casket draped in a large white bouquet, the congregation in the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church was on its feet shouting the chant in unison. Some raised clenched fists. Others let out screams of grief. Many grabbed tissues to dab at tears. All of it streamed live on television.

The funeral on Wednesday had all the hallmarks of what’s known as a homegoing service in Black American communities: comforting gospel hymns, remembrances from loved ones and a stirring eulogy from a clergyman.

But in addition to offering an outlet for the private mourning of Nichols’ family and friends, this ritual was also public and political. It was a venue to air the shared grief of Black Americans — and to once again call for leaders to address an epidemic of police violence so that this time might be different.

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Biden’s handwritten notes part of classified docs probe

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is a man who writes down his thoughts. And some of those handwritten musings over his decades of public service are now a part of a special counsel’s investigation into the handling of classified documents.

It isn’t clear yet what the investigators are looking for by taking custody of notes from his time as vice president and his decades in the Senate that were found in his Delaware homes in Rehoboth Beach and Wilmington.

Biden’s attorneys did not say whether the notes were considered to be classified, only that they were removed. But over his 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president, Biden had a front-row seat to a lot of highly sensitive moments in U.S. history, including the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden and unfolding political turmoil in Ukraine.

The special counsel is working to determine how classified information from Biden’s time as senator and vice president came to wind up in his home and former office — and whether any mishandling involved criminal intent or was unintentional. But they’ll also have to determine whether the notes they took are considered personal and therefore belong to Biden, and would then likely be returned to him.

Some of the documents held by Trump also had handwritten notes, according to the FBI. In seeking permission to search Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in August, an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit that some of the documents returned to the National Archives last January contained what appeared to be Trump’s handwriting. The affidavit does not say whether agents believed those notes to discuss classified material.

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Ally claims Bolsonaro plotted coup to block Lula presidency

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — A Brazilian magazine on Thursday released audio of a senator claiming then President Jair Bolsonaro sought help in a plot to annul the October elections and keep himself in power.

In the recording, Sen. Marcos do Val tells the magazine Veja that the idea was discussed when he met with Bolsonaro and lawmaker Daniel Silveira on Dec. 9 at the presidential residence, three weeks before leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was set to take office.

Do Val, who was an ally during Bolsonaro’s four-year term, said the far-right leader gave him the “mission” of recording Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court justice who also heads Brazil’s electoral authority, while trying to get the judge to admit he overstepped his powers under the constitution.

“’I annul the election, Lula isn’t sworn in, I stay in the presidency and arrest Alexandre de Moraes because of his comments,’” do Val quotes Bolsonaro as saying.

Veja released the audio in response to denials the senator issued following the magazine’s report Thursday morning about the purported plot, which had not cited him as its source. Do Val told reporters after the magazine published its story that the plot had been Silveira’s idea and that the former president hadn’t said a word during the meeting.

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Eye drops recalled after US drug-resistant bacteria outbreak

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. health officials said Thursday a company is recalling its over-the-counter eye drops that have been linked to an outbreak of drug-resistant infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week sent a health alert to doctors, saying the outbreak included at least 55 people in 12 states. One died and at least five others had permanent vision loss.

The infections, including some found in blood, urine and lungs, were linked to EzriCare Artificial Tears. Many said they had used the product, which is a lubricant used to treat irritation and dryness.

The eye drops are sold under the name EzriCare and is made in India by Global Pharma Healthcare. The Food and Drug Administration said the company recalled unexpired lots of EzriCare Artificial Tears and another product, Delsam Pharma’s Artificial Tears.

The FDA recommended the recall based on manufacturing problems including lack of testing and proper controls on packaging. The agency also blocked import into the United States.

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First sweeping federal gun crime report in 20 years released

WASHINGTON (AP) — The most expansive federal report in over two decades on guns and crime shows a shrinking turnaround between the time a gun was purchased and when it was recovered from a crime scene, indicating firearms bought legally are more quickly being used in crimes around the country.

It also documents a spike in the use of conversion devices that make a semiautomatic gun fire like a machine gun, along with the growing seizure of so-called ghost guns, privately made firearms that are hard to trace.

The report comes as the nation grapples with a rise in violent crime, particularly from guns.

Much of the data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives report hasn’t been widely available before, and its release is aimed at helping police and policy makers reduce gun violence, said Director Steve Dettelbach. “Information is power,” he said.

The report shows 54% of guns that police recovered in crime scenes in 2021 had been purchased within three years, a double-digit increase since 2019. The quicker turnaround can indicate illegal gun trafficking or a straw purchase — when someone who can legally purchase a gun buys one to sell it to someone who can’t legally possess guns. The increase was driven largely by guns bought less than a year before, it said.

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US to send Ukraine longer-range bombs in latest turnaround

WASHINGTON (AP) — After months of agonizing, the U.S has agreed to send longer-range bombs to Ukraine as it prepares to launch a spring offensive to retake territory Russia captured last year, U.S. officials said Thursday, confirming that the new weapons will have roughly double the range of any other offensive weapon provided by America.

The U.S. will provide ground-launched small diameter bombs as part of a $2.17 billion aid package it is expected to announce Friday, several U.S. officials said. The package also for the first time includes equipment to connect all the different air defense systems Western allies have rushed to the battlefield and integrate them into Ukraine’s own air defenses, to help it better defend against Russia’s missile attacks.

For months, U.S. officials have hesitated to send longer-range systems to Ukraine out of concern that they would be used to target inside Russia, escalating the conflict and drawing the U.S. deeper in. The longer-range bombs are the latest advanced system, such as Abrams tanks and the Patriot missile defense system, that the U.S. has eventually agreed to provide Ukraine after initially saying no. U.S. officials, though, have continued to reject Ukraine’s requests for fighter jets.

Ukrainian leaders have urgently pressed for longer-range munitions, and on Thursday officials said the U.S. will send an undisclosed number of the ground-launched, small diameter bombs, which have a range of about 95 miles (150 kilometers). The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the aid package not yet made public.

To date, the longest-range missile provided by the U.S. is about 50 miles (80 kilometers). The funding in the aid package is for longer-term purchases, so it wasn’t clear Thursday how long it will take to get the bomb to the battlefield in Ukraine.

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Psychedelic churches in US pushing boundaries of religion

HILDALE, Utah (AP) — The tea tasted bitter and earthy, but Lorenzo Gonzales drank it anyway. On that frigid night in remote Utah, he was hoping for a life-changing experience, which is how he found himself inside a tent with two dozen others waiting for the psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca to kick in.

Soon, the gentle sounds of a guitar were drowned out by people vomiting — a common downside of the drug. Some gagged; several threw up in buckets next to them.

Gonzales started howling, sobbing, laughing and repeatedly babbling “wah, wah” like a child. Facilitators from Hummingbird Church placed him face down on the grass, calming him momentarily before he started laughing and crawling on all fours.

“I seen these dark veins come up in this big red light, and then I seen this image of the devil,” Gonzales said later. He had quieted only when his wife, Flor, put her hand on his shoulder and prayed.

His journey to this small town along the Arizona-Utah border is part of a growing global trend of people turning to ayahuasca in search of spiritual enlightenment and an experience they say brings them closer to God than traditional religious services. Many hope the psychedelic tea will heal physical and mental afflictions after conventional medications and therapy failed. Their problems include eating disorders, depression, substance use disorders and PTSD.

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Frustrated Texans endure winter storm with no power, heat

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Thousands of frustrated Texans shivered in homes without power for a second day Thursday, most of them around booming Austin, and fading hopes of a quick fix stirred grim memories of a deadly 2021 blackout after an icy winter storm across the southern U.S.

The freeze has been blamed for at least 10 traffic deaths on slick roads this week in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. And even as Texas finally began thawing Thursday, a new Artic front from Canada was headed toward the northern U.S. and threatening New England with potentially the coldest weather in decades. Wind chills could dive below minus 50 (minus 45 Celsius).

In Austin, city officials compared the damage from fallen trees and iced-over power lines to tornadoes as they came under mounting criticism for slow repairs and shifting timelines to restore power.

“We had hoped to make more progress today,“ said Jackie Sargent, general manager of Austin Energy. ”And that simply has not happened.”

Across Texas, more than 360,000 customers lacked power Thursday, according to PowerOutage.us. The failures were most widespread in Austin, where impatience was rising among 150,000 customers nearly two days after the electricity first went out, which for many also means no heat. Power failures have affected about 30% of customers in the city of nearly a million at any given time since Wednesday.