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Senate to Vote on 9/11 Victims Fund Bill

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  • Comedian Jon Stewart and Sen. Rand Paul took swipes at each other this week amid Paul’s efforts to stall a bill that would reauthorize funding for the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund (VCF).
  • The House passed a version of the bill July 12 after Stewart, a long-time advocate for VCF funding, gave testimony before a House committee that later went viral.
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand brought the bill to the Senate floor for a unanimous consent vote Wednesday
  • But the vote failed when Paul objected and argued that funding should be cut from other areas to offset the funding for VCF.
  • Another vote on the bill is set for early next week. 

Senate Vote Rescheduled

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and comedian Jon Stewart exchanged heated remarks this week after Paul blocked a bill that would reauthorize the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund from passing on Wednesday.

The VCF was originally formed by Congress after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in order to assist the families of people who died or were injured. Funding for the VCF was last reauthorized by Congress in 2015, with funds set to expire December 2020.

However, earlier this year VCF administrator Rupa Bhattacharyya announced that the fund did not have enough money to pay either existing or anticipated claims.

The House voted earlier this month, 402 to 12, to reauthorize the bill through 2092 after comedian and long-time VCF advocate Jon Stewart delivered a powerful testimony during a House committee hearing. 

Despite the overwhelming support in the House, many were concerned about objections from the Senate.

On Wednesday, Sen. Paul prevented the Senate from voting on the reauthorization by unanimous consent. Under Senate rules, any one Senator can purpose that a measure is approved by unanimous consent, but that request can also be rejected by a single Senator.

Paul argued that funding should be cut from other areas to offset the money that would be allocated to the VCF. He also added that he would be proposing an amendment. 

Sen. Mike Lee also placed a procedural hold on the bill.

Jon Stewart Responds

Paul and Lee’s efforts to stall the VCF reauthorization drew the ire of many, including Jon Stewart, who voiced his frustration on Wednesday while speaking to Fox News host Bret Baier.

“It’s absolutely outrageous,” Stewart said. “And you’ll pardon me if I’m not impressed in any way by Rand Paul’s fiscal responsibility virtue signaling.”

“Bret, this is about what kind of society do we have,” he continued. “At some point, we have to stand up for the people who have always stood up for us, and at this moment in time, maybe cannot stand up for themselves, due to their illnesses and their injuries. And what Rand Paul did today on the Senate was outrageous.”

“He is a guy who put us in hundreds of billions of dollars in debt,” he added, noting how Paul voted for President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut.

“And now he’s going to tell us that a billion dollars a year over 10 years is just too much for us to handle?

Rand Paul Responds

Paul responded to Stewart’s retorts while speaking to Fox News host Neil Cavuto Thursday.

“I know Jon Stewart, and Jon Stewart is sometimes funny, sometimes informed, but in this case, he’s neither funny nor informed,” the Senator said, going on to argue that he has spent his whole Senate career “putting forward “pay-fors anytime spending is expanded.”

“So he’s really not informed and his name-calling just sort of exposes him as a left-winger, part of the left-wing mob that really isn’t using his brain and is willing to call people names,” he continued. 

“Its really kind of disgusting, because see he pretended for years when he was on his comedy show to be somebody who could see both sides and see through the B.S. on both sides. Well, now he is the B.S.”

Proposed Amendments 

Both Paul and Lee argued that the reauthorization bill should be passed through an amendment vote and not a unanimous consent vote. 

“Not blocking the 9/11 bill – simply asking for a vote on an amendment to offset the cost,” Paul said in a tweet on Wednesday. 

An amendment proposed by Lee would give the VCF finite funding of $1 billion a year for 10 years, rather than providing indefinite funds through 2094, like the House bill.

“Since 2011, the 9/11 Victims Fund has always had finite authorizations, and by all accounts it has an excellent record avoiding waste and abuse,” Lee said in a statement on Thursday. “These two things are not coincidental. They go together.”

Others argue that the limited terms set out by Lee’s amendment would just set Congress up for another reauthorization debate in 10 years.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who brought the bill to the floor for the unanimous consent vote, the called Lee’s amendment “unbelievably callous.” She also told the Senators “to stop these political games and pass this bill now.”

Paul also proposed an amendment, though it is not immediately clear how it would change the bill, according to reports.

After negotiations, Gillibrand and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) made a joint announcement Thursday saying that the Senate is set to vote on the bill early next week.

They also said that they would oppose both of the amendments put forward by Paul and Lee. Both Senators expect the bill to pass before the Senate leaves for recess in August. 

“Senator Paul may have turned his back on our first responders today, but now we have a filibuster-proof bipartisan support of 73 cosponsors in addition to myself,” Gillibrand said.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Vox) (Fox News)

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New York City Moves to Ban Cashless Businesses

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  • New York City’s Council passed a bill on Thursday that prohibits businesses from going cashless.
  • Supporters argue this approach discriminates against low-income groups, undocumented individuals, and people of color who are less likely to have bank accounts.
  • Meanwhile, opponents of the cashless ban argue it is more convenient for workers to only deal with digital transactions.
  • If New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio approves the bill, businesses will face a fine for refusing to accept cash as payment.  
  • San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New Jersey all approved cashless bans in businesses last year.

Cashless Ban Approved by City Council

New York City’s Council approved a bill on Thursday that bans businesses from going cashless.

The measure was almost unanimously passed and is an effort to decrease discrimination of low-income groups, undocumented individuals, and people of color who are less likely to have bank accounts or access to credit. 

Councilmember Ritchie Torres was the bill’s lead sponsor. 

“We in the City Council have real concerns that an increasingly cashless marketplace could have a real-world discriminatory effect on low-income communities, especially communities of color, that lack access to credit and debit,” Torres said at a press conference right before the bill was passed. 

Just over 11% of households in New York — about 354,000 — do not have a bank account, according to a 2019 report by New York City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection. An additional 21.8% of households are underbanked, meaning they have a bank account but use alternative financial methods for some needs.  

Torres also noted that even those who do have access to bank accounts might still prefer cash because of its familiarity and its nature of allowing more privacy. 

“Whatever your reasons, consumers should have the power to choose their preferred method of payment,” Torres said. 

If the bill is approved by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, restaurants, stores, and other retail outlets will be required to accept cash as payment. If any businesses do refuse hard currency, they will be subject to a fine of $1,000 and $1,500 for each following offense. 

Businesses will have the option of adopting cash conversion machines as long as the machines do not charge any extra fees. In the case that one of these machines is not working, the business must directly accept cash. 

A spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio told The New York Times on Wednesday that he supported “the intent” of the bill, but still planned to go over it.

Cashless Ban Movement

New York City is the latest to pass legislation prohibiting businesses from refusing cash. In 2019, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New Jersey all approved these bans for similar reasons. 

While many are in favor of cashless bans, the idea has received pushback from others. Business owners have argued the method is more convenient for their workers. Leo Kremer, co-founder of the Dos Toros Taqueria chain that runs through New York City, has previously expressed this take. 

“We are only interested in being cashless because it allows us to make our restaurant more seamless,” Kremer said at a hearing on the bill in February.

Kalman Yeger, a councilman from Brooklyn, thought those who voted for the bill were “overreaching.”  

“We are inserting ourselves in the business of business in a way that we don’t have the right to,” Yeger told The New York Times.  

See what others are saying: (ABC) (The New York Times) (Guardian)

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U.S. Announces New Visa Rule Targeting “Birth Tourism”

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  • The Department of State unveiled a new rule aiming to stop pregnant women from coming to the U.S. to give birth so their children get American citizenship.
  • The rule states that this practice — commonly referred to as “birth tourism” — “poses risks to national security.” 
  • The new regulation allows consular officers to deny visas to visitors if they believe they’re traveling to the U.S. for this purpose. 
  • It also requires those traveling to the U.S. for medical purposes to prove to consular officers that they can pay for the treatment they seek.  
  • The changes will go into effect as of Friday, Jan. 24.

Crackdown on Birth Tourism  

The U.S. Department of State announced on Thursday plans to stop pregnant women from entering the country to give birth so their children are granted American citizenship, a practice commonly referred to as “birth tourism.” 

Under the new rule, consular officers can deny visas to visitors if they believe their travel to the country is primarily for this purpose.  

“The Department considers birth tourism an inappropriate basis for the issuance of temporary visitor visas,” the rule states.  

The visas that this new regulation covers are those categorized as “B nonimmigrant visas,” issued for pleasure, medical purposes, or to visit friends or family. 

“This rule reflects a better policy, as birth tourism poses risks to national security,” the Department of State said in the document. “The birth tourism industry is also rife with criminal activity, including international criminal schemes.”

By the law of the 14th Amendment, “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

President Donald Trump has spoken out about his disapproval of this policy before. In the past, he has called it a “magnet for illegal immigration,” and last August he expressed his wish to remove it.

The State Department’s new rule will officially take effect on Friday, Jan. 24. It will only affect those from countries who need a visa to visit the United States. 

Further Changes

In addition to cracking down on birth tourism, the State Department’s new rule also tightens qualifications for those seeking medical treatment in the U.S.

It requires that those seeking a nonimmigrant visa for this reason “must demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the consular officer,” their ability to pay for their sought-after medical services, as well as proof that a medical practitioner has already agreed to help. 

Reactions to the New Rule

After the Department of State’s new rule was made public, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham gave it her nod of approval. 

“It will also defend American taxpayers from having their hard-earned dollars siphoned away to finance the direct and downstream costs associated with birth tourism,” Grisham said in a statement. “The integrity of American citizenship must be protected.”

Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona tweeted a link to The New York Times article on the story and added a simple word of support: “Good.”

Others, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, were not happy about the change.

 “This administration is now targeting pregnant. women.” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “When you single out the most vulnerable, the cruelty is the point.”

See what others are saying: (NPR) (BBC) (Time)

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Supreme Court Hears Landmark Case Regarding Scholarships for Religious Schools

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  • The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a potential landmark case that could allow religious schools to receive publicly-funded scholarships, even if a state’s constitution says they can’t.
  • The case involves a Montana program that was ended after the state realized it was unintentionally being used to aid religious schools using taxpayer money.
  • Opponents argue that the provision, which prohibits public funds from going to religious organizations, is rooted in religious discrimination.

Montana Sparks Lawsuit After Ending Scholarship Program

The Supreme Court of the United States began hearing Wednesday what could potentially be a landmark case concerning the separation of church and state for schools.

Specifically, the Court is considering a case out of Montana that could allow religious schools to receive publicly-funded scholarships, even if a state’s constitution prohibits such a move.

The situation that now sits upon SCOTUS’s doorstep began in 2015 when the Montana state legislature created a tax-credit program for people wanting to donate to a scholarship fund. 

That program allowed people to donate dollar-for-dollar tax credits up to $150.

An organization named Big Sky then capitalized on the program and created a fund to help parents wanting to send their children to private schools; however, there was a catch: 12 of the 13 schools that Big Sky sent money to were religious. In fact, about 70% of private schools in the state are religious schools.

Those donations directly conflict with Montana’s state constitution, which says the state cannot set aside public money for “…any sectarian purpose or to aid any church, school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.”

Such a law is known as a “no-aid” provision. 

Montana later decided to cut the program before eventually being sued on the basis of religious discrimination. One attorney argued that the only reason Montana shut down the program was because it included religious schools. That attorney also argued that the U.S. Constitution mandates equal protection under the law. In other words, Montana must apply the tax-credit program equally between private schools, both religious and nonreligious. 

“Once you have these programs, you have to treat families going to religious schools equal to families going to nonreligious schools,” that attorney, Erica Smith, told NPR.

The case’s lead plaintiff—Kendra Espinoza— had also been vocal about her need for such a program. 

In an interview with The Washington Post, Espinoza said not only did she have to pick up extra jobs but she also “pretty much sold everything in my house that wasn’t tied down” just to afford to send her two daughters to a religious private school. In addition to that, her two daughters took on jobs mowing lawns and cleaning offices to raise money.

Espinoza’s accounts are a far cry from the common stereotype that only rich people send their children to private schools, with Espinoza even directly saying that her family needs assistance to be able to afford private school.

“Baby” Blaine Amendments

While Montana didn’t introduce its tax-credit program until 2015, Espinoza’s case is also rooted in law that dates back to the 1800s. 

In 1875, a politician by the name James G. Blaine introduced a similar “no-aid” amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That ended up failing, but different versions of it were adopted in most states, with Montana passing theirs in 1889.

Most historians have referred to the original proposed amendment as the “Blaine Amendment,” with the later ones being dubbed “baby” Blaine Amendments. Historians also agree that such amendments were only adopted in a bigoted retaliation to the mass immigration of Catholics into the U.S.

Thus, since the law was borne of bigotry against Catholics, Espinoza and her lawyers argued that it violates the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against religion.

On the other hand, the state of Montana disputed the discrimination claim, pointing out that its “no-aid” provision was revised and rewritten in 1972

The state even had all but one of the surviving delegates at that 1972 convention submit a brief discussing how the revised Constitution was debated. According to NPR, one delegate even says that a number of the delegates were also ministers, with many of them speaking “very ardently in favor of public funds not going to religious education.”

That delegate, Mae Nan Ellingson, also argued that the state passed the “no-aid” provision to “protect religious liberty,” saying the state feared that if religious organizations were included, someone in the future might try to attach conditions to the aid. 

The case eventually made its way to the Montana Supreme Court, where the Court ruled the state had not violated religious protections granted by the U.S. Constitution. 

U.S. Supreme Court Takes Up the Case

That decision, however, was then appealed to the SCOTUS, which began hearing arguments Wednesday. 

In its brief, Montana continued to defend its no-aid provision, saying, “The No-Aid Clause does not prohibit any religious practice. Nor does it authorize any discriminatory benefits program. It simply says that Montana will not financially aid religious schools.”

On Espinoza’s side, the Trump Administration and Education Secretary Betsy Devos have backed her. The move is not an unexpected one for Devos, who attended private school herself and later sent her kids to private schools. Devos is also a heavy advocate of “faith-based education.”

With this case now reaching SCOTUS, any decision could have far-reaching effects. Including Montana, 38 states have no-aid provisions. 

If Montana wins, its tax-credit program would remain shut down. It would then continue to be able to keep public money away from religious schools, but religious schools would still be able to receive federal funds.

However, if the state loses, religious schools across the country—regardless of previous state law—might be able to access scholarship funds paid for by taxes. 

Currently, the latter decision appears to be the more likely outcome. In recent years, the Court has become more conservative on church vs. state issues. In 2017, it decided that Missouri couldn’t ban a church school for applying for a state grant that fixes up playgrounds. Since then, the court has only grown more conservative, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the bench.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (Reuters)

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