Sign of progress, Biden digs in to strike deal on $3.5T plan

WASHINGTON (AP) — Pressure mounting but with signs of progress, President Joe Biden will hunker down at the White House to try to strike a deal and win over two holdout Democratic senators whose support is needed for his potentially historic $3.5 trillion government overhaul.

With Republicans solidly opposed and no Democratic votes to spare, Biden canceled a Wednesday trip to Chicago that was to focus on COVID-19 vaccinations so he could dig in for another day of intense negotiations with lawmakers ahead of crucial votes.

The stakes are as high as ever as Biden and his party try to accomplish a giant legislative lift, promising a vast rewrite of the nation's balance sheet with an oh-so-slim majority in Congress. His idea is to essentially raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy and use that money to expand government health care, education and other programs — an impact that would be felt across countless American lives.

As if that wasn't enough, Biden's focus is gaining traction at the same time Congress courts a crisis. Republicans refuse to approve routine legislation to keep the government funded past Thursday's fiscal yearend and raise the nation's debt limit to avoid a dangerous default on borrowing. More votes are expected Wednesday and are likely to at least temporarily head off a catastrophe.

With Biden and his party reaching for what would be a signature policy accomplishment, there is a "strong sense" that progress is being made, said an administration official who requested anonymity to discuss the private talks.

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The AP Interview: Ethiopia crisis 'stain on our conscience'

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The crisis in Ethiopia is a "stain on our conscience," the United Nations humanitarian chief said, as children and others starve to death in the Tigray region under what the U.N. has called a de facto government blockade of food, medical supplies and fuel. 

In an interview with The Associated Press Tuesday, Martin Griffiths issued one of the most sharply worded criticisms yet of the world's worst hunger crisis in a decade after nearly a year of war. Memories of the 1980s famine in Ethiopia, which killed some 1 million people and whose images shocked the world, are vivid in his mind, "and we fervently hope is not happening at present," he said. 

"That's what keeps people awake at night," Griffiths said, "is worrying about whether that's what is in prospect, and in prospect soon." 

He described a landscape of deprivation inside Tigray, where the malnutrition rate is now over 22 percent — "roughly the same as we saw in Somalia in 2011 at the start of the Somali famine," which killed more than a quarter-million people. 

The war in Ethiopia began last November on the brink of harvest in Tigray, and the U.N. has said at least half of the coming harvest will fail. Witnesses have said Ethiopian and allied forces destroyed or looted food sources.

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Ex-diplomat Kishida wins Japan party vote, to become new PM

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida won the governing party leadership election on Wednesday and is set to become the next prime minister, facing the imminent task of addressing a pandemic-hit economy and ensuring a strong alliance with Washington to counter growing regional security risks. 

Kishida replaces outgoing party leader Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is stepping down after serving only one year since taking office last September.

As new leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Kishida is certain to be elected the next prime minister on Monday in parliament, where his party and its coalition partner control both houses.

In his victory speech, Kishida vowed to tackle Japan's "national crises" including COVID-19, the economy battered by the pandemic and the declining population and birthrate, while pursuing "important issues related to Japan's future" through a vision of "a free and open Indo-Pacific" that counters China's assertiveness in the region.

Kishida beat popular vaccinations minister Taro Kono in a runoff after finishing only one vote ahead of him in the first round where none of the four candidates, including two women, was able to win a majority. 

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North Korea says hypersonic missile made 1st test flight

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Wednesday it successfully tested a new hypersonic missile it implied was being developed as nuclear capable, as it continues to expand its military capabilities and pressure Washington and Seoul over long-stalled negotiations over its nuclear weapons.

The missile test early Tuesday was North Korea's third round of launches this month and took place shortly before North Korea's U.N. envoy accused the United States of hostility and demanded the Biden administration permanently end joint military exercises with South Korea and the deployment of strategic assets in the region. 

A photo published in North Korea's state media showed a missile mounted with a finned, cone-shaped payload soaring into the air amid bright orange flames. The official Korean Central News Agency said the missile during its first flight test met key technical requirements, including launch stability and the maneuverability and flight characteristics of the "detached hypersonic gliding warhead." 

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff assessed the missile to be at an early stage of development and said North Korea would need "considerable time" to be able to deploy it operationally. 

The North's announcement came a day after the South Korean and Japanese militaries said they detected North Korea firing a missile into its eastern sea. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the launch highlighted "the destabilizing impact of (North Korea's) illicit weapons program."

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The AP Interview: Capitol Police chief sees rising threats

WASHINGTON (AP) — The newly installed chief of the U.S. Capitol Police says the force, still struggling six months after an insurrection that left its officers battled, bloodied and bruised, "cannot afford to be complacent." The risk to lawmakers is higher than ever. And the threat from lone-wolf attackers is only growing. 

In an interview with The Associated Press, J. Thomas Manger said his force is seeing a historically high number of threats against lawmakers, thousands more than just a few years ago. He predicts authorities will respond to close to 9,000 threats against members of Congress in 2021 — more than 4,100 had been reported from January to March. 

"We have never had the level of threats against members of Congress that we're seeing today," Manger said. "Clearly, we've got a bigger job in terms of the protection aspect of our responsibilities, we've got a bigger job than we used to."

Manger touted changes that have been made in intelligence gathering after the department was widely criticized for being woefully underprepared to fend off a mob of insurrectionists in January. Officials had compiled intelligence showing white supremacists and other extremists were likely to assemble in Washington on Jan. 6 and that violent disruptions were possible. Police officers were brutally beaten in the insurrection. Five people died.

The events of that day have redefined how the U.S. Capitol police and other law enforcement agencies in Washington approach security. Extreme measures put into place two weeks ago for a rally in support of those jailed in the riot aren't a one-off, they might be the new normal. Propelled by former President Donald Trump, the awakening of domestic extremist groups and the continued volatility around the 2020 election have changed the calculus. 

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Biden caught between allies and critics on border policy

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is caught between a hard place and an even harder one when it comes to immigration. 

Biden embraced major progressive policy goals on the issue after he won the Democratic nomination, and he has begun enacting some. But his administration has been forced to confront unusually high numbers of migrants trying to enter the country along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the federal response has inflamed both critics and allies.

Much of the anger is centered on the administration's immigration point person, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. 

"Getting hit from both sides in the matter of immigration is no surprise," Mayorkas said on NBC last weekend. "We are in the epicenter of the country's divide, regrettably."

The result is that immigration has become an early and unwanted distraction for an administration that would rather focus on the pandemic, the economy and other policy priorities. 

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Zimbabwe's vaccine mandates squeeze some of world's poorest

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — For months, Acholo Jani was told to get a COVID-19 vaccination because it might save his life. He hesitated, fearful of potential side effects. But the moment he was told it would save his job, Jani got in line.

The 43-year-old mechanic's employer is among many in Zimbabwe mandating shots for their staff, including the government, which is requiring the vaccine for its 500,000 employees. That sets the southern African nation apart from nearly every other on the continent, where the most immediate challenge is still simply acquiring enough doses.

Zimbabwe, by contrast, says it has ample supply for now, mostly purchased from China, but that hesitancy is holding back its campaign — a problem that has also troubled other African countries, partly driven by a general distrust of authorities. But Zimbabwe's strategy is raising worrying rights questions.

Critics say that, unlike in richer countries that have made use of mandates, Zimbabwe's rollout isn't up to the task. Vaccination centers sometimes run out of supply, and poor urban townships and rural areas have often been starved of doses in recent months.

What's more, they say, it's cruel to put at risk the livelihoods of people who are some of the world's most vulnerable and already suffering during the pandemic.

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North African migrants, adrift, tell of last-minute rescue

ABOARD GEO BARENTS (AP) — The small fiberglass boat had begun to take on water not long after the engine stopped working. Its six passengers started bailing it out, not knowing how long they could keep the sea at bay.

Waleed, a Tunisian man who, along with five others, was hoping to cross the Mediterranean for a better life in Europe, estimates they removed water from the boat for roughly five hours.

"We were so desperate," he said. 

Then, at first daylight on Sept. 20, the crew of a rescue vessel spotted them through binoculars. They saw Waleed and the others waving and directing a laser light at them.

The migrants were a few miles away from the Geo Barents, a rescue vessel operated by the charity Doctors Without Borders. It had been patrolling the Central Mediterranean off conflict-wracked Libya since earlier that month. A team from the charity, known by its French acronym MSF, was immediately dispatched.

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US says ivory-billed woodpecker, 22 other species extinct

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Death's come knocking a last time for the splendid ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 more birds, fish and other species: The U.S. government is declaring them extinct.

It's a rare move for wildlife officials to give up hope on a plant or animal, but government scientists say they've exhausted efforts to find these 23. And they warn climate change, on top of other pressures, could make such disappearances more common as a warming planet adds to the dangers facing imperiled plants and wildlife. 

The ivory-billed woodpecker was perhaps the best known species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday will announce is extinct. It went out stubbornly and with fanfare, making unconfirmed appearances in recent decades that ignited a frenzy of ultimately fruitless searches in the swamps of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

Others such as the flat pigtoe, a freshwater mussel in the southeastern U.S., were identified in the wild only a few times and never seen again, meaning by the time they got a name they were fading from existence.

"When I see one of those really rare ones, it's always in the back of my mind that I might be the last one to see this animal again," said Anthony "Andy" Ford, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Tennessee who specializes in freshwater mussels.

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Lava from La Palma eruption reaches the Atlantic

LOS LLANOS DE ARIDANE, Canary Islands (AP) — Lava from a volcano on Spain's Canary Islands has reached the sea after 10 days of wiping out hundreds of homes and causing the evacuation of thousands of residents.

Columns of steam that experts had warned could contain toxic gases shot upward when the bright red molten rock tumbled into the Atlantic Ocean at 11 p.m. on Tuesday.

The area had been evacuated for several days as authorities waited for the lava to traverse the 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) to the water. Its erratic flows and changes in the terrain had slowed its progress. Authorities established a security perimeter of 3.5 kilometers (2.1 miles) and asked residents in the wider area to remain indoors with windows shut to avoid breathing in gases.

Lava flows from the Sept. 19 eruption on La Palma have destroyed at least 589 buildings, mostly homes on the island's southwestern side that were caught on a slope below the volcano.

No deaths or serious injuries have been reported, thanks to the prompt evacuations of over 6,000 people in the first hours after last week's eruption.

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