GOP ready to block elections bill in Senate showdown

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Democrats' expansive elections and voting bill is all but certain to be rejected in a key test vote in the Senate, providing a dramatic example of Republicans' use of the filibuster to block legislation and forcing hard questions for Democrats over next steps.

The far-reaching proposal, at nearly 900 pages, is viewed by backers as the civil rights issue of the era, legislation that is suddenly of the highest priority after the 2020 election as states impose restrictive new laws that could make it more difficult to vote. In the evenly split Senate, Republicans are united in opposition, seeing the bill as federal overreach and denying Democrats the 60 votes that would be needed to overcome the filibuster and begin debate.

"Are you afraid to debate?" Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday ahead of the vote. "We're about to find out."

Months in the making, Tuesday's showdown over the For the People Act, as it is called, is hardly the end of the road but the start of long campaign ahead. President Joe Biden has vowed what the White House calls the "fight of his presidency" over ensuring Americans' access to the polls. At stake is not only election rules that make it easier to vote but also Democrats' own ability to confront the limits of bipartisanship and decide whether or not the filibuster rules should change.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell blasted the legislation ahead of the debate as a "disastrous proposal" that will get "no quarter" in the Senate. 

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Iran's election unsettles Biden's hope for a nuclear deal

WASHINGTON (AP) — Biden administration officials are insisting that the election of a hard-liner as Iran's president won't affect prospects for reviving the faltering 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. But there are already signs that their goal of locking in a deal just got tougher.

Optimism that a deal was imminent faded as the latest talks ended Sunday without tangible indications of significant progress. And on Monday, in his first public comments since the vote, incoming Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi rejected a key Biden goal of expanding on the nuclear deal if negotiators are able to salvage the old one. 

At the same time, Raisi is likely to raise the Iran's demands for sanctions relief in return for Iranian compliance with the deal, as he himself is already subject to U.S. human rights penalties.

"I don't envy the Biden team," said Karim Sadjapour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has advised multiple U.S. administrations on Iran. "I think the administration now has a heightened sense of urgency to revise the deal before Raisi and a new hard-line team is inaugurated."

President Joe Biden and his team have made a U.S. to return to the deal one of their top foreign policy priorities. The deal was one of President Barack Obama's signature achievements, one that aides now serving in the Biden administration had helped negotiate and that Donald Trump repudiated and tried to dismantle as president. 

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Judge tosses most claims over clearing protesters in DC park

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal judge has dismissed a majority of the claims filed by activists and civil liberties groups who accused the Trump administration of violating the civil rights of protesters who were forcefully removed by police using chemical agents from a park near the White House before then-President Donald Trump walked to a nearby church to take a photo.

U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich said Monday the claims in the suit, which alleged that Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr had conspired to violate the rights of protesters last June, were speculative and it was premature for the court to conclude whether the actions of law enforcement officers were justified.

Friedrich dismissed the claims against Barr and other federal officials, including the acting U.S. Park Police chief, Gregory Monahan, finding there wasn't sufficient evidence to prove there was any agreement or plan to violate the rights of the protesters. The judge also said the law gives them immunity in civil litigation.

In a 51-page decision, the judge did allow the claims against the Metropolitan Police Department and the Arlington Police Department — their officers were involved in clearing the park — to proceed. 

The lawsuit stemmed from one of the most high-profile moments of the Trump presidency, when federal and local law enforcement officials aggressively forced a group of largely peaceful protesters back from Lafayette Square outside of the White House, firing smoke bombs and pepper balls into the crowd to disperse the group. Officers were seen shoving protesters and journalists as they pushed the crowd back.

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Watchdog: Nursing home deaths up 32 percent in 2020 amid pandemic

WASHINGTON (AP) — Deaths among Medicare patients in nursing homes soared by 32 percent last year, with two devastating spikes eight months apart, a government watchdog reported Tuesday in the most comprehensive look yet at the ravages of COVID-19 among its most vulnerable victims. 

The report from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services found that about 4 in 10 Medicare recipients in nursing homes had or likely had COVID-19 in 2020, and that deaths overall jumped by 169,291 from the previous year, before the coronavirus appeared.

"We knew this was going to be bad, but I don't think even those of us who work in this area thought it was going to be this bad," said Harvard health policy professor David Grabowski, a nationally recognized expert on long-term care, who reviewed the report for The Associated Press.

"This was not individuals who were going to die anyway," Grabowski added. "We are talking about a really big number of excess deaths."

Investigators used a generally accepted method of estimating "excess" deaths in a group of people after a calamitous event. It did not involve examining individual death certificates of Medicare patients but comparing overall deaths among those in nursing homes to levels recorded the previous year. The technique was used to estimate deaths in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and in New York City after the first coronavirus surge last spring. It does not attribute a cause of death but is seen as a barometer of impact.

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Duterte threatens to arrest Filipinos who refuse vaccination

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine president has threatened to order the arrest of Filipinos who refuse COVID-19 vaccination and told them to leave the country if they would not cooperate with the efforts to contain the pandemic.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who is known for his public outbursts and brash rhetoric, said in televised remarks Monday night that he has become exasperated with people who refuse to get immunized then help spread the coronavirus.

"Don't get me wrong. There is a crisis being faced in this country. There is a national emergency. If you don't want to get vaccinated, I'll have you arrested and I'll inject the vaccine in your butt," Duterte said.

"If you will not agree to be vaccinated, leave the Philippines. Go to India if you want or somewhere, to America," he said, adding he would order village leaders to compile a list of defiant residents.

A human rights lawyer, Edre Olalia, raised concerns over Duterte's threat, saying the president could not order the arrest of anybody who has not clearly committed any crime.

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Kim sister derides US official, dismisses chances for talks

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dismissed prospects for an early resumption of diplomacy with the United States, saying Tuesday that U.S. expectations of talks would "plunge them into a greater disappointment."

Kim Yo Jong's blunt statement indicates that the diplomatic impasse over North Korea's nuclear program is likely to continue unless the North suffers greater pandemic-related economic difficulties and needs urgent outside assistance, some experts said.

Hope for a restart of nuclear talks flared briefly after Kim Jong Un said last week that his country must be ready for both dialogue and confrontation, though more for confrontation. U.S. National Security adviser Jake Sullivan called Kim's comments an "interesting signal."

On Tuesday, Kim Yo Jong derided Sullivan's response.

"It seems that the U.S. may interpret the situation in such a way as to seek a comfort for itself," the official Korean Central News Agency quoted her as saying. "The expectation, which they chose to harbor the wrong way, would plunge them into a greater disappointment."

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Palestinians, settlers clash in tense Jerusalem neighborhood

JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinians and Jewish settlers hurled stones, chairs and fireworks at each other overnight in a tense Jerusalem neighborhood where settler groups are trying to evict several Palestinian families, officials said Tuesday.

The threatened evictions fueled protests and clashes in the runup to last month's 11-day Gaza war and pose a test for Israel's new governing coalition, which includes three pro-settler parties but is hoping to sideline the Palestinian issue to avoid internal divisions.

Israeli police and border officials said they arrested four suspects in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. It was unclear who started the brawl. One woman was reportedly injured when she was hit in the back by a stone, police said.

The Red Crescent emergency service said its crews treated 20 Palestinians, including 16 suffering from pepper spray and tear gas and others wounded by rubber-coated bullets. Two other people were wounded, including an elderly man who was hit in the head, it said. 

The Red Crescent said settlers threw stones at one of its ambulances and Israeli forces sprayed skunk water on a second ambulance belonging to the service. 

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Newly sanctified Tunisian cemetery for migrants filling fast

ZARZIS, Tunisia (AP) — Most of the headstones have dates but no names. Row after row of palest white, practically gleaming in the Mediterranean sun. 

The cemetery in Zarzis is nearly exactly as Rachid Koraïchi pictured it when he sketched his vision of the "Garden of Africa" that would be the final resting place for hundreds of anonymous men, women and children whose bodies have washed up on the shores of this coastal Tunisian city in recent years. 

For him, it was a duty "to make a burial ground, one with presence and intelligence, so that one day the families, the fathers, the mothers, the tribes and the countries know that their children are in a heavenly place, the first step to heaven," Koraïchi told The Associated Press.

Zarzis is a port city where migrants bound for Europe frequently wind up after their boats go astray in the Mediterranean's uncertain currents. One of its cemeteries is already filled with those who died trying to make the crossing. Zarzis residents refused to bury migrants in the local Muslim cemeteries. 

So Koraïchi decided that the newly dead needed their own burial ground and he bought a plot of land in honor of his brother, who himself drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to migrate to Europe. "They died in the same waters, they died in the same sea and were taken by the same salt," he said.

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Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib on Monday became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. 

Nassib, who is entering his sixth NFL season and second with the Raiders, announced the news on Instagram, saying he wasn't doing it for the attention but because he felt representation and visibility were important.

"I just wanted to take a quick moment to say that I'm gay," Nassib said in his video message from his home in West Chester, Pennsylvania. "I've been meaning to do this for a while now, but I finally feel comfortable enough to get it off my chest.

"I really have the best life. I got the best family, friends and job a guy can ask for. I'm a pretty private person, so I hope you guys know that I'm really not doing this for attention. I just think that representation and visibility are so important."

Nassib added in a written message that followed the video that he "agonized over this moment for the last 15 years" and only recently decided to go public with his sexuality after receiving the support of family and friends.

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Australia fights UN downgrade of Great Barrier Reef health

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia said Tuesday it will fight against plans to downgrade the Great Barrier Reef's World Heritage status due to climate change, while environmentalists have applauded the U.N. World Heritage Committee's proposal.

The committee said in a draft report on Monday that "there is no possible doubt" that the network of colorful corals off Australia's northeast coast was "facing ascertained danger."

The report recommends that the world's most extensive coral reef ecosystem be added to UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger, which includes 53 sites, when the World Heritage Committee considers the question in China in July.

The listing could shake Australians' confidence in their government's ability to care for the natural wonder and create a role for UNESCO headquarters in devising so-called "corrective measures," which would likely include tougher action to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.

Any downgrade of the reef's World Heritage status could reduce tourism revenue that the natural wonder generates for Australia because fewer tourists would be attracted to a degraded environment and dead coral.

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