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US, Russia seek understanding on next steps in Syria

Published: Friday, November 10, 2017 @ 4:07 AM
Updated: Friday, November 10, 2017 @ 4:06 AM

As the Islamic State group nears defeat, the United States and Russia are discussing next steps that could prevent the two military powers from inadvertently clashing in Syria and improve prospects for an end to the country's brutal civil war.

Fears about how the messy array of forces active in Syria may collide have grown as IS loses its last major stronghold and the focus shifts back to Syria's intractable conflict between President Bashar Assad's government and opposition groups. For the U.S. and ally Israel, a key concern is that foreign powers such as Iran will now dominate the country's future.

U.S. officials said an agreement under discussion in recent days would focus on three elements: "deconfliction" between the U.S. and Russian militaries, reducing violence in the civil war and reinvigorating U.N.-led peace talks. The officials weren't authorized to discuss the deliberations and requested anonymity.

Yet it was unclear whether the U.S. and Russia would ultimately reach any understanding.

"Why are you asking me? Ask the Americans," snapped Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after a potential meeting Friday between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was scrapped.

The United States had hoped that if the countries could show significant progress on a major global issue, it could serve as the basis for a meeting between Trump and Putin, who could then discuss and announce it during a summit in Vietnam.

In behind-the-scenes negotiations, the two sides tried to formulate some framework of a deal, two administration officials said. Though North Korea and the Ukraine were discussed, the focus was on a Syria agreement.

"We have been in contact with them, and the view has been if the two leaders are going to meet, is there something sufficiently substantive to talk about that would warrant a formal meeting?" Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday in Beijing.

The Russians told reporters such a meeting was likely and that the time and place were being arranged. But talks stalled. Blaming scheduling conflicts, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the meeting was off just minutes before Air Force One touched down in Vietnam.

Still, the leaders shook hands Friday on the sidelines of the summit, and Sanders said it was possible Trump and Putin could interact in an informal setting. Both Trump and Putin also plan to be in the Philippines later in the week, where it's possible they could cross paths again.

Russia and the U.S. have maintained a "deconfliction" hotline for years to avoid unintended collisions and even potential confrontations as they each operate in Syria's crowded skies. A heavy air campaign by Russia has been credited with shoring up the position of Assad, a close ally of Moscow.

With IS nearing defeat, the U.S. and Russia are losing their common enemy in Syria and will remain in a proxy battle in which Russia backs Assad and the U.S. lends at least rhetorical support to armed opposition groups fighting the government. That has increased the need for close communication between the two powers about where their forces are operating at any given time, officials said.

The agreement also seeks to build on progress in establishing "de-escalation zones" in Syria that have calmed some parts of the country. In July, when Trump held his first meeting with Putin in Germany, the U.S. and Russia announced a deal that included Jordan and established a cease-fire in southwest Syria. The United States has said that cease-fire has largely held and could be replicated elsewhere in the country.

A key U.S. concern, shared by close ally Israel, is the presence of Iranian-backed militias in Syria that have exploited the vacuum of power. The United States and Israel have been seeking ways to prevent forces loyal to Iran — Israel's archenemy — from establishing a permanent presence. One idea hinges on a "buffer zone" along Israel's border with Syria.

Yet U.S. and Russian interests diverge when it comes to Iran's role in Syria. Tehran, like Moscow, has been staunchly backing Assad, as it works to establish a corridor stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon.

A third element of the deal would reaffirm support for the United Nations effort being run out of Geneva to seek a political transition in Syria and resolve the civil war. The United States and Russia have been at odds for years over whether Assad could be allowed to remain in power in a future Syrian government.

The U.N. talks, which have come in fits and starts without yielding significant progress, aren't the only discussions about Syria's future. Russia, Turkey and Iran have been brokering their own process in Astana, Kazakhstan. The U.S. views those talks warily because of Iran's involvement, though they've led to local cease-fire deals that have reduced violence, too.

"We believe that the Geneva process is the right way to go," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday. "Unfortunately, it is a long way off, but we're getting a little bit closer."

The U.S.-Russia deal may also seek to expand the mandate of a joint "monitoring center" established this year in Amman, Jordan, to watch for cease-fire violations and other developments on the ground. It has focused on southwest Syria, where the cease-fire is in place, but could be used to monitor broader stretches of the country.

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Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire in Danang, Vietnam, contributed to this report.

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Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP and Matthew Lee at http://twitter.com/APDiploWriter

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Lawmakers press for more publicity on harassment settlements

Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2018 @ 10:34 PM

The head of the Capitol Hill office which deals with workplace harassment cases said Wednesday that she still does not have the power to reveal the names of lawmakers who used taxpayer dollars to pay legal harassment settlements, drawing sharp rebukes from members of both parties on a House spending panel, as lawmakers in both the House and Senate expressed growing frustration about the matter.

“The transparency issue is revolting,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). “It is absolutely unacceptable that we continue to let members who abuse their employees hide.”

At a hearing of a House Appropriations subcommittee, Susan Grundmann, the head of the Congressional Office of Compliance, said that workplace settlements which involve lawmakers, often include non-disclosure agreements, precluding any publicity.

“Most settlement agreements – in fact all that I have seen – contain non-disclosure clauses in them,” said Grundmann. “Those are not by our doing.”

Pressed sharply by both parties at a hearing where she asked for a nine percent budget increase to help deal with harassment training and case reviews, Grundmann made clear there was no plan to reveal the names of members who had engaged in such settlements in the past.

“No, I think we are prohibited from under the law – in terms of the strict confidentiality that adheres to each one of our processes, and the non-disclosure agreements, we cannot disclose who they are,” Grundmann added.

Grundmann said new reporting standards approved by the House would reveal every six months which offices had some type of legal settlements – and she also said that if a lawmaker agreed to a workplace settlement, taxpayers would pay the bill up front – and then have that member of Congress reimburse Uncle Sam within 90 days.

So far, the House and Senate have not finalized an agreement on legislation to set new standards for transparency on workplace settlements involving lawmaker offices, as one leading Democrat today again demanded action by that chamber.

“The Senate has no more excuses,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Back in Wednesday’s House hearing, lawmakers did not like to hear that while reforms in the House would publicly name the lawmaker and/or a top staffer if they were involved in harassment of other staffers, a Senate reform plan would not be as sweeping.

“So, if a Chief of Staff engages in that conduct, or anyone else that isn’t the member, then their conduct is not disclosed?” Wasserman Schultz asked.

“That’s correct,” replied Grundmann.

“That’s absolutely unacceptable,” the Florida Democrat said.

The hearing came days after the resignation of Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), who had taxpayers foot the bill for an $84,000 settlement with a former office employee – Farenthold had promised to pay that money, but now that he is gone, it seems unlikely to happen.

Meanwhile, Grundmann denied press reports in recent weeks that any personal information about sexual harassment or workplace abuses in Congressional offices was left on unsecured computer servers.

“We have not been hacked. We have never stored our data on an unsecured server,” as Grundmann said their computer precautions had been described by officials as “Fort Knox.”

“Fort Knox doesn’t talk about their cyber security,” she added, offering to brief members in private about the issue

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Did you know Barbara Bush’s grandfather was a founder of the Dayton Rotary Club?

Published: Monday, April 16, 2018 @ 10:02 AM

Former first lady Barbara Bush died on Tuesday, according to a statement from the office of George H.W. Bush.

Former first lady Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday night, had strong family ties to Dayton and southwest Ohio.

Her grandfather Scott Pierce was one of the founders of the Dayton Rotary Club. Her parents, Marvin Pierce and Pauline Robinson, met at Miami University in Oxford.

When the family lived in New York years later, Marvin would bring Barbara on trips to Dayton when he worked for McCall Corporation. He went on to be the president of McCall’s, the publisher of Redbook and McCall’s.

RELATED: Former first lady, presidential mom dies | Photos: Barbara Bush through the yearsGeorge and Barbara Bush had ‘storybook’ 73-year marriage

“When I was four or five years old, my father would take me with him on business trips to Dayton, the site of a McCall plant,” Bush wrote in her memoir.

Marvin was a 1916 graduate of Miami University. He was a standout athlete nicknamed Monk. He played basketball, football, baseball and tennis. He was inducted into the Miami Athletic Hall of Fame in 1972.

In her memoir, Bush wrote about her father saying, “Daddy was really bright and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, while at the same time waiting tables and tending furnaces.”

“Miami is where Daddy fell in love with Mother who was studying to be a teacher.”

Pauline and Marvin were married in 1918 in Union County, Ohio.

George and Barbara Bush wave at their supporters in West Carrollton in August 1988.

Pauline was born in Richwood, Ohio, on April 28, 1896. Her father was Ohio Supreme Court Justice James Edgar Robinson.

Pauline died in a car accident in 1949 in Rye, N.Y. When Marvin who was driving the car lost control. She was 53 years old.

Barbara’s brother, Scott Pierce, also attended Miami University. He is 88 years old.

RELATED: What to know about the former first lady

Bush’s grandparents

Barbara Bush’s grandfather, Scott Pierce, was an insurance salesman for a while in Dayton.

In her memoir, Bush said her grandfather and grandmother “lost all their money in the 1890s, and my grandfather never recovered. He sold insurance in Dayton, Ohio, but the family lived humbly.”

Pierce was among a group of 16 men who formed the Dayton Rotary Club in 1913 and he became the its first president, according to David Williamson, the club’s historian.

Barbara Bush visits Middletown just before the 1988 election.

The story goes that during the Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Scott Pierce’s teenage daughter Charlotte — Bush’s aunt — became separated from her family and had to ride out the flood waters in the attic of another Rotary member. It was several days before her family got word that she was safe.

Rotary International members then came to Dayton’s rescue, making the flood recovery the organization's first ever national relief effort.

“(Scott Pierce) was a big deal in Dayton Rotary,” Williamson said. Words he wrote are presented to each outgoing club president on a plaque to this day.

Bush’s grandmother Mabel Pierce was born in Hamilton County in 1869 and died in Dayton in 1920. Scott Pierce died in Dayton in 1945.

Barbara Bush’s great grandparents, Mabel’s parents, Robert Marvin and Julia Ann Marvin, are buried in Glen Haven Cemetery in Harrison, about 20 miles northwest of Cincinnati.

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Guns, opioids dominate talk at local Washington fly-in

Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2018 @ 3:06 PM
Updated: Wednesday, April 18, 2018 @ 3:24 PM


            U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, said Wednesday an assault weapons ban would have little effect on mass shootings. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF
            Thomas Gnau/Staff
U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, said Wednesday an assault weapons ban would have little effect on mass shootings. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF(Thomas Gnau/Staff)

The Dayton Development Coalition’s annual fly-in to Washington is typically a pretty locally-driven affair — lots of discussion of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Wright Brothers historical sites — but on Wednesday, the conversation briefly veered into a national social issue.

Asked whether he supports outlawing assault rifles, Rep. Warren Davidson, a Troy Republican, delved into a nearly seven-minute response where he argued that banning assault rifles would do very little to reduce a recent spate of mass shootings including a February shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17.

Instead, he argued, people were more likely to be killed by hand-to-hand combat, handguns or blunt objects than rifles. “I’m not in favor of banning them,” he said.

RELATED: Where do Ohio governor candidates stand on guns?

Stepping up to the dais immediately afterward, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, responded quickly. “I just think Congress has not done its job on firearms,” he said, saying that while he believes in the Second Amendment, he thinks Congress is obligated to eliminate loopholes in the gun laws. There is a loophole that requires background checks to purchase guns at gun stores but not at gun shows, a loophole allowing those on the terrorist watch list to buy weapons and a loophole that allows people to modify guns to make them shoot automatically, Brown said.

He said he respects Davidson, but “the NRA pretty much runs this Congress. When it comes to gun safety, we should be passing common sense gun safety laws.”

Their exchange occurred on the final day of the Dayton Development Coalition’s 34th annual fly-in, a three-day event that allows coalition members to come into Washington, D.C., to talk to lawmakers about the community’s needs. With the state’s only active-duty military base, the Dayton VA Medical Center and the Dayton Aviation National Heritage Park, the Dayton region has a particularly acute reason to pay attention to federal issues.

RELATED: Area lawmaker wants to arm students

Multiple lawmakers talked about the opioid epidemic, saying that the epidemic has largely hobbled the available workforce, causing employers to struggle to find qualified workers who can pass a drug test.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, cited research indicating 47 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 55 who are not in the workforce report taking medication on a daily basis. “It means they aren’t even showing up for the drug test,” he said, adding, “Until we get this opioid thing under control, they are not going to be there. They’re literally not looking for work.”

Brown said he’s also focused on the workforce issues connected to the opioid epidemic, and said he’s pushing a bill with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., that would combine various grant programs at the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services to create a six-year pilot project to combine job training and addiction recovery services.

RELATED: Brown wants Public Service Announcements on opioids to run on TV

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said he’s introduced a bill that would restore Medicaid coverage to treat drug addicts who are incarcerated as well as his goal of garnering more federal resources for newborns who are born addicted to opioids.

Turner, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, predicted that there would be no round of base closures this year, but “my guess is sometime around 2020, we’ll see pressure for a BRAC process and our community will be very well-poised for that.” He said Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s biggest challenge will be competing with other services, rather than just fellow Air Force bases; past rounds have largely pitted bases within service branches against one another.

Portman said he’s written a letter to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to urge her to select the base for the F-35 product support integrator office, a project which he said could bring 400 jobs to the base.

“Wright-Patterson is the right place for it,” he said. “Really well-suited for the mission.”

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With switch by Rubio, Flake, Senate clears hurdle for Trump’s pick to head NASA

Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2018 @ 2:18 PM

On hold for months, President Donald Trump’s pick to head NASA was finally given the green light by a pair of GOP Senators, as the Senate voted 50-48 to overcome a possible filibuster, and advance the nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to be the next Administrator of NASA.

A final vote to confirm Bridenstine’s nomination could come as early as Thursday in the full Senate.

The key votes came from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) – Flake initially voted to filibuster Bridenstine, but after an extended wait, returned to change his vote for the final margin of victory.

It wasn’t immediately clear why Flake – and then Rubio – had changed course on the President’s NASA nominee, as Bridenstine supporters had spent months trying to squeeze out a final vote in support of the President’s choice, who faced determined opposition from Democrats.

Before the vote, Rubio’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the decision of the Florida Republican, who had repeatedly rebuffed the calls of fellow GOP lawmakers to support Bridenstine, a more conservative House GOP lawmaker who has not hesitated to make waves during his time on Capitol Hill.

Just before the vote, Bridenstine’s leading Democratic critic in the Senate wasn’t backing away from his stern criticism of the three-term Republican Congressman from Oklahoma.

“The NASA Administrator should be a consummate space professional,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in a speech on the Senate floor.

“That’s what this Senator wants – a space professional – not a politician,” Nelson added.

“Senators on both sides of the aisles have expressed doubts – both publicly and privately to me – about his qualifications for the job,” said Nelson, who was the only Senator to address the matter before the vote on cloture, a procedure to end debate in the Senate.

Since Bridenstine was nominated for NASA Administrator in September, Rubio had sided with Nelson and other Democrats, raising questions about Bridenstine’s ability to run a federal agency in a nonpartisan manner.

But that suddenly changed this week – and GOP leaders quickly moved to take the Bridenstine vote, moving the President a step closer to having his choice in the job as NASA chief.

The procedural vote on Bridenstine’s nomination almost went awry, as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) voted “No,” leaving the vote tied at 49-49.

Ordinarily, the Vice President would be brought in to break the tie, but Vice President Mike Pence was in Florida with President Trump, hosting the Japanese Prime Minister.

After a wait of over a half hour, Flake returned to the floor and voted “Yes,” allowing the Senate to force an end to debate.

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