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US Senate Appears Near Temporary Truce in Debt-Ceiling Standoff

The U.S. Senate appeared near to a temporary deal to avert a federal debt default in the next two weeks, after Democrats said Wednesday that they might accept a Republican proposal to defuse the partisan standoff that threatens the broader economy.

Democrats called off an early-afternoon vote after the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, floated a plan that would buy more time to resolve the issue. McConnell proposed that his party would allow an extension of the federal debt ceiling into December.

Without congressional action to raise the $28.4 trillion debt limit, the Treasury Department has forecast that it will run out of ways to meet all its obligations by October 18. The Bipartisan Policy Center said Wednesday that unemployment insurance payments, salaries for millions of federal employees and medical insurance payments could be delayed without a debt-ceiling hike.

No official acceptance yet 

Several Democrats said they would accept the Republican offer. “We intend to take this temporary victory,” Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin said on CNN.

But without a statement from Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, it was not clear whether that was the party’s official stance, and the White House did not commit to the idea. The White House has yet to receive a formal offer, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Still, Democrats would have to address the issue again in December, just as federal funding is due to expire. That could complicate their efforts to pass two massive spending bills that make up much of Biden’s domestic agenda.

Republicans said Democrats could use the intervening weeks to pass a longer debt-ceiling extension through a complex process called reconciliation, which Democrats have dismissed as too cumbersome and risky. McConnell said Republicans would make concessions to help speed the process up.

Republicans had been expected to block the bill that was up for a vote Wednesday, which suspended the debt limit until December 2022, after the midterm elections that will determine which party controls Congress for the next two years.

Dangers of default

Analysts say a default could upend the global financial system and cause millions of lost jobs.

Even a close call would likely be damaging. A 2011 debt ceiling dispute that Congress resolved two days before the borrowing limit was due to be reached caused stocks to tumble and prompted a first-ever credit downgrade for U.S. debt.

Moody’s Investors Service said on Tuesday that it expected Washington would ultimately raise the debt limit, however, and U.S. stock indexes rose on Wednesday as investors grew more optimistic that Congress could reach a deal.

A more telling indication of investor relief was evident in the U.S. Treasury market, which would be directly affected by a U.S. default. Rates on one-month Treasury bills — the securities most likely to be impaired by a failure of the government to pay interest or principal on the debt immediately after the deadline — dropped sharply, an indication that investors were again willing to buy them.

Democrats had considered other options to resolve the standoff.

Biden said Tuesday that Democrats might weaken a long-standing rule, known as the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to advance most legislation in the 100-seat Senate. But that notion seemed to fade on Wednesday, as a key centrist Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin, said he would not support it.

US High Court Asks Why Guantanamo Detainee Cannot Testify

U.S. Supreme Court justices Wednesday questioned why the U.S. government will not let a suspected high-ranking al-Qaida figure held at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba testify about his torture at the hands of the CIA.

Three of the nine justices pressed U.S. Acting Solicitor General Brian Fletcher on the subject as the court heard oral arguments in the government’s bid to prevent two former CIA contractors from being questioned in a criminal investigation in Poland examining the treatment of detainee Abu Zubaydah.

Zubaydah, a Palestinian man captured in 2002 in Pakistan and held by the United States since then without charges, repeatedly underwent waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning widely considered torture.

While the justices in general seemed skeptical that Zubaydah’s lawyers could overcome the government’s national security arguments, some raised the option of Zubaydah testifying himself as an alternative.

‘Off-ramp’

“Why not make the witness available?” asked Justice Neil Gorsuch, referring to Zubaydah. “What is the government’s objection to the witness testifying to his own treatment and not requiring any admission from the government of any kind?”

Zubaydah’s testimony, Gorsuch said, would provide an “off-ramp … that would obviate the need for any of this.” Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor seemed to agree, with Breyer questioning why Zubaydah remains at Guantanamo.

“I don’t understand why he is still there,” Breyer said. “We want a clear answer,” Sotomayor added.

Fletcher would not commit on whether Zubaydah could testify but said he could report back to the justices. Zubaydah’s lawyers have said he is not permitted to testify under the conditions of his Guantanamo confinement.

The government is appealing a lower-court ruling that Central Intelligence Agency contractors James Elmer Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen could be subpoenaed under a U.S. law that lets federal courts enforce a request for testimony or other evidence for a foreign legal proceeding.

Poland is believed to be the location of a “black site” where the CIA used harsh interrogation techniques against Zubaydah.

Zubaydah, now 50, has spent 15 years at Guantanamo and is one of 39 detainees still held there. He lost an eye and underwent waterboarding 83 times in a single month while held by the CIA, U.S. government documents showed.

He was “an associate and longtime terrorist ally of Osama bin Laden,” the leader of the al-Qaida Islamist militant group killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan in 2011, a Justice Department filing said.

The justices have turned away multiple cases brought by Guantanamo detainees challenging their confinement. Zubaydah’s own case has been pending in lower courts for 14 years.

Zubaydah’s lawyers want Mitchell and Jessen to testify and provide documents in the criminal investigation in Poland. The U.S. government has asserted what is known as the “state-secrets privilege” to prevent them from being questioned, saying it would jeopardize national security.

Not a secret

Zubaydah lawyer David Klein said the fact that there was a “black site” in Poland is widely known, not a state secret. Mitchell and Jessen could testify about what they saw and heard without mentioning the location, according to Zubaydah’s lawyers. The government disputes that assertion.

Chief Justice John Roberts appeared sympathetic to the government’s position, noting that if the United States confirms facts that implicate Poland’s government, “that would be a breach of faith with our allies.”

Justice Samuel Alito said the entire point of Zubaydah’s request is to confirm that the torture occurred in Poland. “That’s what this all boils down to,” he said.

The U.S. government has disclosed that Zubaydah was held overseas and interrogated using “enhanced interrogation techniques” but has not revealed locations. The European Court of Human Rights determined that Zubaydah was held in Poland in 2002 and 2003.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2019 that Mitchell and Jessen could be subpoenaed. The Supreme Court’s ruling is due by the end of June.

Details of CIA activities were confirmed in a 2014 U.S. Senate report that concluded that the interrogation techniques were more brutal than originally disclosed and that the agency misled the White House and public about its torture of detainees captured overseas after al-Qaida’s September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Americans Being Warned of Deadly Fake Medication

Americans are being warned to beware of potentially deadly fake prescription pills that are laced with the powerful opioid fentanyl and the highly addictive stimulant methamphetamine. The counterfeit tablets are linked to a wave of drug overdoses killing unsuspecting users.

In its first warning in six years, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said international and domestic criminal networks were mass-producing fake pills and falsely marketing them as legitimate prescription medication.

“Counterfeit pills that contain these dangerous and extremely addictive drugs are more lethal and more accessible than ever before,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram at a news conference in Washington.

The notification was issued last week after the DEA announced it had seized more than 1.8 million fake pills during a two-month undercover operation and had arrested more than 810 people. In a statement, the agency said it had confiscated more than 9.5 million potentially lethal pills in the last year.

“Illicit fentanyl was responsible for nearly three-quarters of the more than 93,000 fatal drug overdoses in the United States in 2020,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. Health officials report fentanyl was responsible for nearly 70,000 of the overdose deaths.

Powerful pills

U.S. law enforcement investigators say the majority of counterfeit medication found in America is being made in labs in Mexico using chemicals imported from China. The DEA believes Chinese traffickers have switched from primarily manufacturing finished fentanyl to exporting precursors of the synthetic opioid to Mexican cartels, which then manufacture illicit fentanyl. U.S. officials are now seeking greater cooperation from Mexican law enforcement agencies to disrupt trafficking in the country.

DEA laboratory testing revealed that two out of five fentanyl-laced fake pills seized contained a potentially deadly dose of just 2 milligrams. Fentanyl can be 100 times more powerful than morphine. Drug researchers say a deadly dose of fentanyl is small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil.

“The fake pills seized were capable of killing more than 700,000 people,” Milgram noted, adding that law enforcement agencies have sought to shut down criminal distribution networks selling tablets that look exactly like name-brand prescription medications. “We are alerting the public to this danger so that people have the information they need to protect themselves and their children.”

The DEA alert said medications prescribed by doctors and dispensed by licensed pharmacists were safe, but pills acquired by other avenues were potentially deadly.

Decades of death 

Since 1999, more than 500,000 Americans have died of opioid overdoses, both prescription and nonprescription. Deaths rose in nearly all states, with the highest increases in California, Kentucky, Vermont, South Carolina and West Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The more than 9.5 million fake tablets seized this year represented 430% more than the number seized in 2019. The DEA also confiscated ingredients used to make tens of millions of pills, including more than 4,000 kilograms of methamphetamine.

“The pervasiveness of these illicit drugs, and the fatal overdoses that too often result, is a problem that cuts across America from small towns to big cities and everything in between,” said Monaco.

The most common counterfeit pills are being made to look identical to prescription medications such as Oxycontin, Xanax, Vicodin or stimulants like amphetamines. Investigators say the fake medications are widely available and sold on social media platforms as well as on the streets.

“The illicit drug supply introduces even greater uncertainty about what people are taking, and that contributes to overdoses.” Dr. Caleb Alexander, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, told VOA. “If someone combines fentanyl with heroin or methamphetamine or another illicit product, it can be deadly.”

What Is a Filibuster?

What do U.S. senators do when they want to delay a vote? They fillibuster. VOA explains how this delay tactic works.